A Man Named Bill (by Wrangler)

Synopsis:  Just who is Bill?

Category:  Bonanza”
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  22,147


 

Note from author: This story is dedicated to my two little sisters, Carol and Leesa. For some strange reason they still want to read this stuff from old Wrangler! This one’s for you, kids.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”  –William Shakespeare

 

“He’s starting to come around. Get me a glass of water.” Doctor Hiram Green called over to his nurse. The woman poured from the pitcher on the side table and brought the glass over and handed it to the doctor.

The young man, who had been unconscious for days, slowly opened his eyes. He had a searing pain that shot from the back of his skull and up over his head. He grimaced at the light from the lamp at the side of his bed.

“Now, you just take it easy. You’ve been out for awhile and I know you must have one heck of a headache to contend with right now.” Hiram instructed as the young man pulled himself to a sitting position propped up by the pillows, which he leaned back on. He reached for the glass and slowly sipped at it. “I am Doctor Green, and this is my nurse Sarah Crain. She has spent four days tending to you while I came and went back and forth between my ranch and this office.”

“Thank you. Thank you both.” The man muttered and winced as the pain increased.

“You will be needing a couple more days of care before you leave here. I can see you are still hurting pretty bad. I want to ask you a few questions before I give you any more medication.”

“I have a few questions too. Like where am I?” The young man seemed a bit agitated.

“You are in the town of Miller’s Crossing. A couple of ranch hands from the Triple B ranch found you and brought you here. You have a pretty nasty crack in your head. I got you stitched up, but you have been out of it ever since they found you. We didn’t find any identification on you, what is your name?” The doctor asked as he set the glass back down and stared into the troubled eyes of his patient.

“I—-I don’t know. I don’t know who I am.” The man said and a tremble took over his voice. “What is wrong with me? I can’t remember anything?”

Doctor Green gazed over at his nurse and shook his head. He had warned Sarah that a head injury like they had been tending could result in many bad side effects. At first he had been worried that his patient might suffer from blindness due to the fierce blow he had taken. He had mentioned amnesia as well in their earlier discussions, and was not happy to learn that he had been correct in his previous diagnosis. “Settle down. You have to remain calm. You should be glad that you are still alive. If they hadn’t brought you to me when they did, you would have died out there in the woods.”

“But why don’t I know who I am? Why can’t I remember anything?”

“Your injury has obviously caused some form of amnesia.”

“What is that anyway? How about spelling it out for me. I know nothing of medical terms.” The young man lurched forward in the bed, with panic on his face.

“It’s something that happens, usually due to a blunt trauma to the head. There are other things that can cause it as well. Now, sometimes, as the wound heals internally, you may start to have visions of past events show up in random order. There are cases where it all comes back to a patient all at once. And, unfortunately, due to the level of damage, a patient may never recover his memory.”

The injured man fell back against the pillows due to both exhaustion and fright. “No-one knows who I am? There wasn’t anything on me to give a name or anything?” He asked.

“I’m afraid not. So, for now, let’s try to see if something sounds familiar okay?” Doctor Green gave a compassionate smile and saw his patient start to relax a little. “I’ll call out some names, you tell me if one seems familiar.”

The patient closed his eyes and nodded for the doctor to continue.

“Steven? Michael? Jonah? William?” he called out to his patient. The young man just shook his head discouraged. “Pete? Sam? Harry? Matthew?” The doctor continued with the same results.

“How about Tim?” The nurse asked and the patient shook his head. “You look kinda like a Tim to me.” She smiled and thought more. “Tom? Ben? James?” She called out.

“Nothing. Nothing sounds familiar.” The patient sighed. “So, I guess I just don’t have a name.” He said defeated.

“Not so fast there.” The doctor patted his patient’s arm. “No giving up around here! Once you get to know me you will understand that I have no use for quitters. How about I give you a name to use–just in the meantime?”

“Okay with me.” The patient gave in to the idea, not wanting to feel like someone who didn’t exist at all.

“Well, I knew a man in medical school. A fine man, by the way. He even looked a little like you. His name was Bill Carson. What do you think?”

“Bill.” The patient spoke the word and sighed. “Guess it’s as good a name as any other. Okay, guess I’ll be Bill Carson for awhile.”

“Fine–so, Bill, let’s get you something for that headache shall we?” Doctor Green smiled and poured some powder into the glass of water.

“Doc—I don’t have any money. I guess all I have are the clothes I was wearing. I can’t pay you for what you have already done for me.”

“And just who asked you?” Doctor Green replied and handed Bill the drink. “I have a boy just about your age. If something like this ever happened to him I would sure hope someone would take care of him.”

“Thanks–to both of you. It is a bit scary to not know who I am or what happened to me. I am just glad there are good people in this world like both of you. But, I will pay you back. Just as soon as I can,” Bill responded adamantly. He then drank the contents of his glass and started to drift back off again.

“You get some rest, Bill. Tomorrow we will get some food into you.” The doctor whispered as his patient went back under. He pulled up the covers on him and turned towards his nurse. “I think he will be all right by himself for the rest of the night. You need to get on home before Jim has a fit. He is a good husband, but even Jim has his limits. I’m sure he has missed having you at home the last few days.”

“I’ll head on home. Don’t worry, Hiram, all I have to do is fix Jim a good dinner and he will be content. He knows this is my job.” Sarah pulled her coat around her shoulders and then looked back towards Bill. “I sure do feel sorry for that boy. Not knowing who he is or where he’s from must be awful. And he probably has some kin somewhere worried about him too.”

“One problem at a time, Sarah. He’s gonna heal fine. As for his memory–well–it’s up to the man upstairs. My skills can only do so much. He does seem like a decent young man. We’ll do what we can for him.” Hiram walked Sarah to the door.

“Another lost soul that you have taken in, Doc. You have sure had your share of them over the years.” Sarah smiled fondly at her employer and friend.

“Lost souls and lost animals–they always end up coming around me and I have never had the heart to chase any of them away!” Hiram laughed and Sarah walked out of the office.

*****

The next morning Bill was a bit more alert as he sat up in the bed and looked around. He wanted to get dressed, feeling odd just laying around in his long-johns. His clothes were no-where to be seen. Before Bill could get up to check the room more thoroughly, in walked Doctor Green.

“I hope you weren’t planning to get up just yet, Bill.” He called out as he walked closer to his patient. “You need at least another day in bed before I will feel comfortable with you moving around. That head injury is nothing to play around with.”

“I was looking for my clothes–I did have clothes on when you found me didn’t I?”

Hiram laughed and replied, “Of course you had clothes! I took them home to have my wife wash them. I also brought you a change of clothes for the meantime. I told you that I have a son about your size.”

“Can I at least get dressed then? I feel funny laying around in my underwear.”

“Something tells me that you must have been a hard person to keep down in the past, Bill. I tell you what, you need to eat some breakfast and then I’ll bring in some clothes for you–but with the stipulation that you still stay in bed today. Deal?”

Bill smiled at his benefactor and nodded. “Deal.” He replied.

“How’s your head? Any better?” Hiram asked checking the back of his patient’s injury.

“Not quite as bad. Nothing like it was yesterday at least.” Bill responded and also winced from the doctor’s probe of his skull.

“That’s good, it seems as you are healing just fine. And any memories yet?” Hiram asked settling back in his chair.

“I remember talking to you and the nurse yesterday–but that’s it.”

“Well, like I told you, you have a good chance of recalling things in time. Now let’s get you some breakfast.” The doctor stood and walked to the door. “I’ll be right back.”

“I ain’t going nowhere.” Bill cracked a smile with his statement and settled back again.

*****

“How is Bill doing?” Nurse Sarah asked as she walked into the outer office later that day.

Hiram turned from his desk and put down the medical book he had been reading. “Doing fine, Sarah. He has had breakfast and lunch and is back there getting dressed now.”

“Dressed? He’s not leaving already is he?” She asked looking a bit worried at the thought.

“No, I told him not until tomorrow anyway. I get the opinion that he doesn’t like staying in bed–nor doctors for that matter. He seems a bit stubborn too. Not really a bad trait.”

“You can say that because you are also stubborn!” Sarah exclaimed and Hiram laughed at how true her statement had been.

*****

Bill pulled on the black trousers, which the doctor had provided. They fit just fine and Bill was satisfied. He them buttoned up the red flannel shirt and rolled up the cuffs. It also fit very well. Bill was determined to thank the doctor’s son for the loan when he got the chance. Just as he had promised Doctor Green, Bill sat back down on the bed and pushed himself back on the pillows. He closed his eyes and hoped to at least catch a fleeting memory or two, but saw nothing. He wondered why someone would crack him over the head and leave him out in the woods to die. Bill wondered if maybe he, himself, was a fugitive from the law. That thought made his heart race. He surely had at least fallen into the wrong company or wouldn’t have been in the shape he now was.

“Looks like the clothes fit real nicely.” Sarah said as she walked into the room. She noticed also that the young man before her was extremely handsome. Though he appeared to be either in his late teens or very early twenties, Sarah was sure there must be a young lady who was waiting on his return.

“Yeah–thanks. Can you stay awhile, Nurse?” Bill asked softly, he was lonesome and also afraid.

“Yes–and you can just call me Sarah.” She smiled and sat down next to the bed.

“You know I feel pretty awful about sponging off the doctor like this. I mean he has put me up and doctored me–just as you have. And here I have nothing to repay him. He even gave me his own son’s clothes. I’m sure he doesn’t make a whole lot of money doctoring folks anyway. I feel like I am taking advantage of him.” Bill remarked earnestly feeling loaded down with debts to pay.

“Well, firstly, the doctor does whatever he wants to do. And I am sure he doesn’t feel like you owe him anything at this point, Bill. Unlike most doctors, Hiram owns a working ranch that is more than enough to subsidize any acts of kindness he decides are worthy. He meant it when he said that if his son was hurt like you were that he would hope someone would take him in. Now, you stop worrying about all of this and just get better.”

“But–even still–I don’t know what I’m gonna do when I leave here.” Bill answered his frustration mounting. “I can’t go home–since I have no clue as to where home is. And I don’t rightly know what I do for a living so how can I get a job? And I have no clue where I can stay as I have no money.”

Before Sarah could answer the doctor walked in. He had heard through the doorway Bill’s quandary over what he was going to do next, and could also see that the unknowing was causing more stress on his patient. “I have all those questions answered, Bill. And the last thing your body needs is to be stressed out with the worry I can hear in your tone of voice.” Hiram walked over and sat next to his nurse.

“I can’t ask for no more charity, Doc.” Bill protested.

“Now you just hear me out before you go turning down any suggestions.” Hiram countered and saw the young man ease back against the pillows.

“Okay.” Bill replied.

“Sarah told you I have a ranch. I always have chores that need to be done. I think in a few days you can start doing some light duty. I have just spoken to two of my neighbors as well. They both said they would be glad to have you help out at their places as well. So, looks like your income problems are soon to be over. As far as where you can stay, it just so happens that I have a place on my property that you can use for as long as you like. Now, it’s not much. Little more than a two room shack, but it will keep you out of the elements as well as giving you some privacy. Now what do you say?”

Bill looked back and forth between his two care-givers and tears welled up in his eyes. So relieved that at least he had something concrete in mind for the future, that it allayed some of the fears. “I’d say yes.” Bill nodded. “And I’d also say thank you as well. But, you have to let me work off some of my debt–that’s the only way I could accept your generous offer.”

“Fine, Bill. You pay me in installments but first you need to get yourself all set up in your new life. I think you will find this a nice place to live. Between Sarah and myself we can introduce you to everyone in these parts. I think you will fit in nicely.”

“Can I really build a new life, Doc? When I know nothing of what I was before?” Bill asked intent on an answer.

“Yes, you can. It won’t be easy at first, but I think you will do fine. Then, as time passes perhaps you will start to remember. If that happens I will do everything in my power to help you get back home. No matter where home is.”

“If the rest of this town is anything like the two of you—I know I will be happy here. I know I’ve said it before–but thank you. Thank you for all of your kindness.” Bill’s eyes welled up again with tears.

“Now, Young Man, you need your rest. Come on, Sarah. Let’s let Bill get in a little nap shall we?”

“I’ll see you later, Bill.” Sarah’s warm smile brightened her face. “And just remember everything is going to be just fine.”

Bill returned Sarah’s smile and then the nurse and the doctor left the room.

*****

Bill walked around his new home and was very pleased. It was a two-room shack just as the doctor had said. But, the place was warm and dry and had a separate back room with two bunks in it. There was a large pot-bellied stove in the center of the main room, which would provide both warmth and a place to cook his food.

“Well?” Hiram asked noticing the pleasure on his patient’s face.

“This is great, Doc! Just great.” Bill answered and walked back over to him.

Hiram reached for a box he had brought in and put it up on the table. “My wife sent you all the basic essentials. Flour, sugar, coffee. Oh, and there’s some cured ham in here and some cans of beans. Just enough to get you by for a little while. Oh, and my son Vince sent you another change of clothes. They are hand me downs, but still in good condition. The clothes you were wearing when they found you are in here too, all washed and ironed.”

“That’s really kind of your wife–oh and your son. I want to thank them.”

“My wife, Linda, wants you to come over on Sunday for dinner. And she told me not to take no for an answer either. If you think I am stubborn and bossy–you haven’t seen anything until you get to know her!” Hiram laughed.

“You have a good family, Doc. But, I am still going to pay you back, just as soon as I can. When can I start working?”

“Well, if you think you are up to it–first thing you need to do is get you up some firewood. The night’s are cold around here. There’s a few logs over to the side of the shack you can cut. I left an axe out there for you. Then, how about you come over to my place next Monday and Vince can show you around.”

“First–when is Sunday? I sure don’t want to miss that dinner.” Bill grinned.

“Oh–sorry I forgot you have been out of it for awhile. Day after tomorrow. I’ll come and fetch you and take you home. We have some extra horses, I will get one saddled and ready for you and you can ride it back that night.”

“You have seen to everything haven’t you?”

“One more thing, Bill,” Hiram said turning deadly serious. He walked over to the door. Reaching behind a cabinet he pulled out a shotgun. “This is loaded and you will find some extra shells in one of these drawers. Now, for the most part we are a pretty peaceful town with lots of great folks. But, since you were attacked and we don’t know if whoever did it is anywhere around–well, I think you need something just in case.”

Bill nodded his understanding. “I have thought about that too. I hope whoever did it and left me for dead high-tailed it away. But, it’s nice to know I can defend myself. I sure do thank you—”

Hiram broke in, “Boy, you have thanked me about a million times already. Now, don’t think no more about it. Guess I need to go. I’ll be back on Sunday to get you. Now don’t over do cutting that wood–you hear?”

“I won’t.” Bill nodded and followed the doctor to the door. “See you Sunday and–”

“Don’t say it!” Hiram exclaimed knowing he was about to be thanked yet another time. Bill laughed and waved goodbye as the doctor got into his carriage and sent the horses on their way.

Bill walked behind the shack and picked up the axe the doctor had set out for him. He weighed it in his left hand. Bill closed his eyes and tried to remember having used an axe before. He came up without a memory, but as he chopped into the log he knew he had done it before. With the precision of a logger, Bill made quick work of it. He soon had enough firewood for the night. Bundling it up in his arms, Bill was satisfied with what he had accomplished. He headed into his new home to get a fire started in the stove.

*****

“Hey, Doc!” came the call from across the street.  Hiram stopped his progression into his office and turned towards the voice. The caller walked over to where the doctor stood and shook his hand.

Hiram smiled up at the tall lad. At over six feet tall, the young man towered over the doctor. His smile was bright and charming. Hiram knew that it had been that very smile which had lured his daughter Elizabeth to fall in love with the man before him. Keith Statham, the young man who would soon be a member of the Green family.

“Keith, I thought you were still away on that business trip? When did you get back?”

“Just this morning. I’ve already been to see Beth.” He grinned a little sheepishly. He still was not exactly sure of how the doctor actually felt about the two of them getting married. Hiram had not protested two months earlier when his youngest child had brandished the engagement ring. But, he had informed the two lovers that there was nothing wrong with a long engagement.

“Well, I know she is in a good mood then.” Hiram nodded thinking of the way the girl’s whole personality changed when Keith was around. “How was your trip?”

“I made some great contacts. It won’t be long before I can open my own business. You know I want the very best for Beth.”

“That’s where we agree. Elizabeth is a fine sweet girl. She deserves to be happy. And, since it looks like she will be with you, I am counting on you taking good care of her.”

“I will, Sir. Hey–Beth says there was some trouble out this way. Said that you have been doctoring a patient who was bushwhacked.” Keith took a seat on the porch of the Doctor’s office building. Hiram sat down next to him.

“Yeah, a young man was cracked over the head and left to die out in the woods behind Myer’s Ridge. He’s just now getting settled in that old cabin on our ranch. He seems like a fine man.”

“Beth said he doesn’t remember anything. He doesn’t even know who he is. That’s kinda strange isn’t it–I mean not to remember anything?”

“It happens, called amnesia.” Hiram nodded.

“Will he ever get better?”

“You seem awfully concerned about someone you never met!” The doctor laughed at the intensity on Keith’s face.

“Well, guess it’s selfish on my part. Anyone who comes in contact with Beth is my business now. You don’t even know if the guy was running from the law or anything. You think it’s safe to have him on your property?”

“The boy needs someone to care about him. Now wouldn’t you expect someone to take care of you if something awful like this happened to you? And Vince—he is no older than my own son. Keith, I know you love my daughter, but you have to think about others too. Bill is harmless. I intend to make sure he starts a new life here.”

“Bill? How’d he get that name?”

“It fits him.” Hiram stated and stood up. “I have some business to attend to. I will see you tomorrow for dinner–and at that time you will meet Bill. I hope you will do all you can to make him feel comfortable.” Hiram spoke, and in his tone came a bit of a warning.

“Sure! If you say he’s okay I believe you. See you tomorrow.” Keith smiled to show he had accepted the thought of Bill staying. He didn’t want to get on his future father-in-laws bad side anyway.

“See you tomorrow.” Hiram said and turned into his office.

*****

Bill sat on the porch of his new home and sipped at his coffee. He had chopped wood all day and his body ached. Looking forward to meeting the doctor’s family the following day, Bill smiled at the thought. He wanted to be around people, and he was finding it a bit lonely out by himself at the cabin. He had spent his first night tossing from nightmares. Each time he awoke he could not remember anything of his dream. It was as frustrating as not remembering who he was.

Hearing a horse approaching, and not wanting to take any chances, Bill reached inside the cabin and grabbed the rifle. He then sat back down on the porch and waited for the rider to come into view.

“That’s far enough!” Bill shouted out at the rider as he came up into the yard. Pointing the shotgun at his visitor he looked him over. “Who are you?” Bill asked still not dropping down his weapon.

“My name is Keith—Keith Statham. I just came out to welcome you. Doc told me he gave you this cabin to stay in. I’m his daughter Beth’s fiancé.”

Bill lowered his shotgun and grinned a bit embarrassed at Keith. “I’m sorry. I don’t know many people yet. Guess I’m a bit jumpy. You want to come in for some coffee?”

“I can only stay a minute–heading over to see my girl.” Keith said as he dismounted. He held out his hand and Bill accepted it. “Bill isn’t it?” Keith asked.

“Yeah, Bill Carson. But, I guess since you are seeing the Doc’s daughter you know all about me, right?” Bill asked as the two young men sat down on the porch.

“I know some. Doc says you have no memory of who you are or what you were doing before you came here. Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Bill stated flatly. A bit upset to be addressing his problem.

“You haven’t remembered anything?” Keith continued.

“No!” Bill shouted and stood up. Looking down at Keith’s reaction, Bill regretted his anger. “Sorry–this is all still new to me. I didn’t mean to yell at you. It’s just the fact that most likely I will never know who I was—that bothers me more than anything else.”

Keith stood and patted Bill’s arm, showing him there were no hard feelings for his previous outburst. “Well, you don’t need to worry. You’ll have friends here. Doc and his wife are the best–so is his son Vince. And, I’ll help you any way I can.”

“Thanks.” Bill nodded and smiled to show his gratitude. “Sure you don’t want any coffee? I got plenty.”

“No–maybe next time, Bill. Beth won’t appreciate it if I am late. You know women! I’ll see you tomorrow at Doc’s for dinner.” Keith replied and mounted his horse.

“Thanks for coming by. See you tomorrow.” Bill said and Keith turned his horse around and galloped out of the yard.

A blinding pain shot through Bill the instant that Keith had left. He fell back down on the porch grabbing his head with his hands. Closing his eyes he tried to fight off the nausea that accompanied the headache. Bright colors flashed in his brain and faint sounds, as though mumbled conversations were being said by unknown speakers.

Bill struggled back into the cabin and collapsed on a bunk in the back room. This was the worst headache he had ever had. The fierceness of it scared him. But, wondering what had brought it on scared him even more.

*****

Hoss Cartwright sat in the living room of the Ponderosa. The fireplace filled the large room with warmth and a bright glow. He wished he felt that warm inside, but he didn’t. Staring over for the hundredth time at his father, he could tell that the white-haired man was ignoring him. He knew what Hoss wanted to talk about, but had done his very best to side step his middle son’s worry.

“It ain’t like him.” Hoss finally stated and noticed the frown that took over his father’s face.

“We’ve talked about this for days now, Hoss. You know your little brother. That youngster has never been on time in his entire life. This is no exception. Now, let’s just let it go.”

“I should have gone with him to make that deal.” Hoss continued and Ben tossed down the book he held in his hands.

“He’s twenty years old. You and Adam were going off by yourselves to handle business long before either of you were twenty. I wanted to give the boy some responsibility.” Ben defended what he had later regretted his decision to send his youngest off alone.

“He’s packing five thousand dollars with him, Pa. And he should have been back a week ago. Don’t sit there and pretend with me that you are not worried. I know you haven’t been sleeping and you have been a bear to live with for days.” Hoss insisted, now standing.

“Yes, I am worried, just as I always worry about the three of you. Joseph probably decided on his own that he would take a couple of extra days. He has done that before. Sometimes I think he wants me to worry. He gets some kind of pleasure in it.” Ben replied, both anger and hurt in his tone of voice.

“I think something has happened to him. With Adam still in St. Louis, I think I should go on and try to find him.”

Ben approached the huge man before him. The middle child with the strength of ten men but a heart so easily broken, that was Hoss. He could not change his nature, no more than he could change the nature of the disobedient youngest son. Putting his arm around Hoss’ shoulder, Ben’s voice took on a gentler characteristic. “Give him one more day. I half expect him to come through that door any moment. If he’s not back by tomorrow night, well, then I give you my permission to be worried. And then we will start looking for him. I’ll personally find that wayward boy of mine and drag him back here by his ears!”

Hoss’ face lit up and he grinned at the thought of his father dragging his little brother back home. Hoss nodded, giving up just for the evening. “Okay, Pa.”

“I’m going to bed. Looks to me like you could use some sleep too.”

“I’ll be up in a little while. Goodnight.” Hoss looked into his father’s chestnut eyes and could still read the worry in them.

“Goodnight, Son. And thank you.”

“For what?” Hoss asked bewildered.

“Oh–for a lot of things. Mostly for being the “good” son, I wish some of that would rub off on that little brother of yours!”

“Now, Pa–you know he’s ornery as a caged tiger, but that’s just Joe. He’s a good son too.” Hoss argued the point, always being the staunchest supporter of the green-eyed boy.

“Maybe. But, I should have kept that tiger caged it looks like. He’ll be back tomorrow, and he’s gonna get one hell of a talking to.” Ben smiled and headed up the stairs.

*****

Ben sat down on the bottom of Joe’s bed and sighed. He wished he could be angry at all that Joe was putting both of the other members of the family through. He couldn’t. Ben would even give up on the stern lecture he had promised to give his son if he would just come back safely. Ben stared over at the nightstand and could see the picture of Joe’s mother. It almost seemed as though Marie was looking right at him.

“He’s your son.” Ben spoke as though the woman was right there next to him. “As wild and as irresistible as you, Marie. I can just see him now, walking in here as though he had done nothing wrong. Joseph will turn that smile on me and set off that string of laughter and I will be putty in his hands. He knows it too, and sure takes advantage of it! I wish you were still here, Darling. I am sure with a Mother’s touch he might just calm down a bit. But, then maybe not; you never did. It was one of the reasons I loved you too.” Ben stood and opened the door. Shooting over one final glance toward the empty bed, his heart grew heavy. “It’s time to come home, Joseph.” He whispered and closed the door

*****

Doctor Green tied his carriage to his front hitching post and looked over at his patient. He could sense that Bill was a bit apprehensive in meeting the doctor’s family. Hiram patted Bill on the shoulder and smiled over at the young man.

“Rest assured that no-one inside bites.” The doctor laughed and Bill loosened his facial expression somewhat.

“I just don’t know what to say–I mean if the conversation turns to me.”

“Bill, I have already told everyone in my family what happened to you, you have nothing to worry about. Now let’s get inside before Linda gets mad. Believe me you wouldn’t want to keep that woman waiting!”

Vince was first to the door and smiled warmly at their guest. He immediately thrust out his hand and introduced himself. “I’m Vince, glad to meet you Bill!”

“Yeah–glad to meet you too! I think you have been the benefactor of all the clothes I have been wearing. Thanks.”

Hiram, Vince and Bill walked over to the large formal dining room. Bill took in the elegant dining table and the fine china that had been laid out. Surveying the room and the people who stood around the table, Bill finally felt at ease. The house was full of warmth and smiling faces.

“Hello, Bill.” came a woman’s soft voice from around the kitchen. In walked Linda Green. She was a stunning woman in her early forties. Her long blonde hair was pushed softly to the top of her head and ringlets of curls fell loosely around her face. Bill smiled over at her and was the first one to pull out her chair for her to sit down next to Hiram.

“Very pleased to meet you.” Bill answered and then took the seat offered him. Looking to his left he saw what he believed to be a much younger version of Linda Green. It was her daughter Elizabeth. Seated next to her was her fiancé Keith, who Bill had met the previous day.

“This is our daughter Elizabeth.” Hiram announced and Bill nodded toward the young lady.

“Nice to meet you, Bill. Oh–and you have already met Keith right?”

“Yes, ma’am—nice to meet you Elizabeth.”

“I sure hope you are hungry, Bill. Ma’s been cooking all day.” Vince grinned at the feast that was before them all.

“I have to admit I am kinda hungry.” Bill answered and the family started passing the platters around the table.

Dinner was pleasant and the conversations were purposely geared to stay away from the subject of Bill’s accident and memory loss. Bill felt right at home with the Green family, and after dinner he and Vince went outside to look after the livestock and to pick out a horse that Bill could use.

“Those are some fine horses, Vince. Any one of them would be fine for me. Your father said I could start working with you tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it. I want to start to pay your family back for all that you have done for me.”

“Well, I will be glad to have you with me, Bill. I can sure use the help. There’s a half of a mile of fencing that needs repair and I wasn’t keen on having to do that myself.” Vince pointed over to the porch and the two young men sat down.

“You are lucky to have such a nice family, Vince.” Bill commented, thinking of his own lack of any kinship.

“Bill—you mind if I talk about what happened to you? I know my father said we shouldn’t bring it up–but since we are gonna be working together and all–well I thought you could confide in me.”

“I guess I don’t mind talking to you about it. For some reason I feel like I’ve known you before–or somebody like you. You are easy going and I can tell you don’t just want to gossip–like some folks would.”

“Well, folks do say I am kinda mild-mannered. Guess I am, never been one for fighting and all that nonsense. I just was thinking about the guy who did this to you. It bothers me that he would leave you for dead. I guess I have been worried about whether he stuck around to see if you were.”

“Yeah–that thought has bothered me, too. I ain’t got no idea what the guy looked like–so he would have one heck of an advantage over me at this point.” Bill frowned at the thought of how vulnerable he now was.

Vince reached over and patted Bill on the arm to show his friendship. “Well, you aren’t really alone now. You have got my whole family on your side. We’re a tight knit bunch and we don’t let anything happen to our friends.”

“Believe me, knowing that has really helped. Guess I need to go in and thank your folks and then get back to my place.”

“I’ll ride along with you. And I’ll come out in the morning to lead you over to where we will be working.”

“Thanks.” Bill stood and shook Vince’s hand again. “It’s good to have friends.”

*****

Once Bill had left the Green’s house accompanied by Vince, Elizabeth and Keith sat out front on the porch swing and talked privately.

“So—what do you think of Bill? You have been awfully quiet all evening.” The young woman started.

“Oh–he’s okay I guess. Your father thinks so at least. I have just had my mind on a whole lot of things.”

“Oh—like what?” She smiled and leaned closer and kissed Keith’s cheek.

“I have gotten the backers I needed to open our shop in town. So, I figured that we need to set a wedding date.”

“That was fast! How did you get the funds so quickly?”

“That was the purpose of my trip you remember? Anyway, they have given me the money to start the mercantile. I figured it would be up and running by the end of the month. So, what do you say we get married right after the store opens?” Keith asked excitedly staring into Beth’s soft blue eyes.

“Well, we have to tell my parents. If they are okay with it then you know I am!”

“Let’s do it now!” He announced springing to his feet.

Elizabeth laughed at her fiancé’s enthusiasm. She stood and reached for his hand and led him to the front door to spring their news on her parents.

*****

Ben Cartwright stood at his large desk in his study and looked over several telegraphs that he had received. His son, Joseph, was now three weeks late in getting home after his sale of horses and the father was distraught. Along with his son, Hoss, Ben had journeyed to Salt Flats where Joe had completed his transaction and had received the five thousand dollars in payment. Backtracking had brought no new clues as to the young man’s whereabouts. The next course of action had been to send numerous telegraphs to surrounding areas with a complete description of Joseph Cartwright. No positive telegraphs had come in.

“Hey–Pa!” Hoss called as he came in the front door. He rounded the corner and faced his father. “I just sent another twenty telegraphs out. I also talked with Roy. He said there have been no reported killings anywhere close to where Joe was last seen. So, at least that is good news.”

Ben sank down wearily in his leather chair and folded his hands to rest his forehead on them. “No-one has seen Joe–or Cochise. It’s like he totally disappeared.” He said exasperated.

“C’mon, Pa–maybe the latest ones we sent will give us some news. I told Cleve that I would stop by later tonight. Let’s you and me go into town and have some dinner and then go and see if anything has come in?”

Ben simply nodded. Food had become and afterthought of late. And he could see that even Hoss had lost weight in his worry over his little brother. Ben sent off a silent prayer that somehow they would get some news about Joe.

*****

Bill had grown very fond of Vince Green. The two young men worked together as a team well. They had spent two weeks repairing fence line on the Green ranch and were now busying themselves with a string of horses that needed to be broken to saddle. Vince sat on the corral and watched in awe at Bill’s easiness up in the saddle. He had broken more horses than anyone and seemed to enjoy the challenge of it immensely. When Bill had finished with the last horse of the day he strode triumphantly over to Vince smiling.

“Whew–that was the toughest nag yet!” Bill laughed and dusted off his chaps.

“I tell you, Bill, no matter who you were before—you obviously were a top hand somewhere. I never seen such gentling of a horse! You are amazing!” Vince hopped down from his perch and slapped Bill’s back.

“Hey–works done–what say we go into town for a couple of beers?”

“Ah—another thing I like about you!” Vince grinned. “Okay by me–but I buy the first round–as you have made my job around here so much easier these past three weeks. My pa is sure happy, and when he’s happy–the whole ranch is happy!”

“Well, at least I am starting to get caught up with some of the debt I owe. Let’s go get that beer!” Bill followed Vince over to their horses and they made their way to town.

*****

“I thought you should see this first,”  Sheriff Ben Creighton said handing Hiram a telegraph. “It just come in from over Virginia City way.”

Hiram pulled his eyeglasses out of his pocket and put them on. He read the telegraph and then looked up at the sheriff. “It sure does sound like Bill, that’s for sure. I bet that family has been frantic looking for him.”

“You want me to write for them to come fetch him?”

“No, let me do it. I want them to see me before they go and see if Bill is in fact Joe Cartwright. They will need to handle this delicately if he is. It will take a bit of explaining on my part.” Hiram nodded and tucked the telegraph inside his coat.

“You gonna mention this to Bill?”

“No—not to anyone right now. Let me get the Cartwrights here and then we will handle it.”

“Well, Doc, whatever you think is best. Go ahead and write your response and I will take it over to the telegraphers.” The sheriff said and sat down to wait for the message. Hiram drew out a piece of paper and tried his best to relate what he knew to the family.

*****

Ben strode briskly into the ranch house with the telegraph still clutched in his trembling hands. He saw Hoss coming down the staircase and called over to him.

“We finally have something!”

Hoss reached the bottom landing and his father handed him over the telegraph. Taking only a moment’s time to read it, Hoss looked up with confusion written on his face.

“Miller’s Crossing? I never even heard of the place! And why does this doctor fellow insist we come to see him before going to see Joe?”

Ben shook his head and shrugged his shoulder helplessly. “He says Joe suffered some kind of head injury–but yet he says he is all right. I haven’t got a clue. All I know is that Joseph is out there and he needs us.”

“From the directions it sounds like it’s about a four day ride.” Hoss remarked concerned.

“Three–if we leave right now! I have already had Hank start to get our gear together. I am going upstairs to get a few things. You go and do the same and we will leave.” Ben insisted and he started up the stairs followed closely behind by his son. There were still so many questions to be answered, and a long journey ahead of them both. None of that mattered at present; the only thing that concerned both men was the fact that Joe was alive.

*****

Hiram had kept his secret to himself for days. Every time he looked at Bill his heart raced with the thought that the boy might be meeting his family any day. As a doctor, Hiram knew that keeping it from his patient for the time being was the best for him, but as someone who had grown fond of the lad, it was a difficult thing to do. The night before the Cartwright family made it into town, Hiram had made it a point to stop by Bill’s place to check on him. He wanted to test his emotional waters a bit.

Bill was surprised to see the doctor, but glad to have the company. He led the man into the cabin and they both sat down at the small table in the main room. Bill offered coffee to the doctor, which he accepted gratefully.

“So, what brings you out here, Doc?” Bill asked as he leaned back in his chair and sipped his drink.

“Oh, hadn’t got a chance to talk to you alone lately. Seems like every time I see you that you are with Vince.” Hiram smiled.

“Your son has turned in to a great friend. We make a good team if I do say so myself.”

“Well, there’s no doubt about it–you two together are unbeatable. I know Vince has grown very fond of you as well. With his sister about to get married, I think he is a little lonely–feels kinda left out. That’s why I am so glad that the two of you struck it off so well.”

“Okay—-” Bill paused and looked past the doctor’s warm smile and read concern in his eyes. “There’s something else isn’t there? What’s on your mind?”

Hiram laughed at Bill’s question, knowing that he was never good at hiding facts. “I just wanted to see how you were feeling that’s all. Have the headaches gone away completely yet?”

“I still get them–but fewer. I still have some nightmares–but they don’t tell me anything if that’s what you are getting at.” Bill replied with frustration lining his words.

“Then, you still have had nothing in the way of a memory yet?”

Bill shook his head and sighed deeply. He felt in his heart that his past would always remain a secret. “No–nothing, Doc. I guess it will never happen. Been more than a month already.”

Hiram reached over and patted Bill’s shoulder in a show of sympathy. “Now don’t say that. I am sure that eventually it will all come flooding back. Now don’t you dare start giving up on the idea–you hear?”

“Okay–if you say so.” Bill nodded and broke into a brief smile.

Hiram stood to leave. “I have to be going–I’ll see you later.”

Bill walked the doctor to the door and said, “Thanks for coming by–and thanks for caring about me.”

“Again with the thanks?” Hiram laughed and shook his head with feigned anger. “No thanks needed.” And with that the doctor clapped Bill on the back and headed outside to his carriage. His thoughts were on how the young man would react once the Cartwright family made their appearance.

*****

Ben and Hoss tied their mounts up in front of the doctor’s office. Stepping onto the porch they both breathed deeply preparing themselves emotionally for what might come next. Three days on the trail had lent themselves to worry about the condition they would eventually find Joe to be in. Ben pulled open the office door and the bell jingled to announce their presence.

Hiram walked in from the back room, his hands filled with medical supplies. Looking up at the two men he knew in an instant that they were Bill’s family. He could see the intensity on their worry creased faces and could also see the love behind the questioning eyes.

“I’m Ben Cartwright–this is my son, Hoss.” Ben began and held out his hand to the doctor.

Hiram put the supplies on the shelf and accepted both Ben and Hoss’ gesture. “Hiram Green, nice to meet you both. Lets sit down–I know you have been on the road awhile.”

The three men took seats and Ben was quick to cut right in on his questioning. “Joseph—here is a picture of Joseph–” Ben stammered and withdrew a photograph he had brought along with him. He handed it over to the doctor and saw Hiram nod after checking it out.

“That’s Bill all right.”

“Bill?” Hoss and Ben asked in unison.

“I’m sorry–let me explain. I’ll tell you all I know and then you can ask me anything.”

Hiram saw the two men before him try their best to ease back into their chairs to hear his explanation though he could sense the urgency they both felt.

“Your Joe was bushwhacked and left for dead not far from town. Some folks found the lad and brought him to me. He suffered a very bad blow to the back of his head–very bad indeed. He was out for days—for awhile I wasn’t at all sure he would survive. He does however have a very strong will to live. And also a very hard head! When he came around we learned that he had lost all of his memory due to both the physical and mental trauma he suffered. That is why he took on the name Bill–Bill Carson in fact. He remembers nothing–not even the assault.”

“Amnesia?” Ben asked, his voice showing strain in its tone.

“Exactly. He has also suffered from some pretty severe headaches–but they seem to be waning a bit. I set him up in a little cabin on my ranch. He only had the clothes on his back when we found him–no wallet–nothing to identify him. He has been working with my son on our place and seems to be doing well.”

“When can we see him?” Hoss now showed his impatience with the whole event.

“This is why I needed to see the both of you. I think we need to break this in slowly to the boy. He may not remember you.”

“What? Surely once he sees us—-”Ben trailed off.

“Mr. Cartwright—I don’t think it is advisable to just ride up to Bill–I mean Joe–sorry–and say hi–we are your family! It may cause more trauma.”

“What are you suggesting then?”

“I have given it a great deal of thought. Let’s ease on into this. Let’s see if Joe will remember on his own. I thought the two of you could go and stay with him for a few days. It might be something that happens right away–that he remembers–or it may take time. That way you will be around him in case he does remember. You can gauge how he is and yet he will not be the wiser for it.”

“I don’t know if I can do this, Pa,” Hoss whispered shaking his head. “Pretend that he ain’t my little brother? I don’t think I am that good of an actor.”

“We will do whatever is best for Joseph.” Ben insisted, fighting back his own doubts.

“I thought you two could tell him that I sent you—that you are only going to be around for a week or so and wanted to stay somewhere instead of the hotel. Once he hears I said it, he will welcome you I am sure.”

“You mean you aren’t coming along?” Ben asked confused.

“I think that you two riding up by yourselves may have an affect on him–maybe a good affect. Let’s just see how it goes, okay? You can both follow me to my carriage and I will take you out there–but leave right before we get to the cabin.” Hiram said and grabbed his hat and coat.

“We want to thank you for all that you have done for Joseph.” Ben replied also standing now.

“You are the thank you-est bunch of folks I ever met!” Hiram laughed and led the way for the Cartwrights.

*****

From a short distance from the cabin, Hiram and the two Cartwrights could see Joe outside on the front porch stacking firewood. He could not see them from where he was, which was the doctor’s idea.

“There you go! Now–you just come and get me if you have any problems or if anything goes wrong with Bill—I mean Joe. Darn, it’s hard to get use to his real name! I will come out for a visit tomorrow to check on the progress.’

“Is it okay to tell him our real names?” Hoss asked.

“I see nothing wrong with that–but remember–call him Bill for right now. Unless he remembers you right off. See you both tomorrow. Good luck!” Hiram smiled and turned his carriage back towards town.

Bill mopped his perspiring brow as he reached for the last of the wood he had been stacking by the front door. It was then he could hear riders approaching. Reaching inside the door, he pulled out his shotgun and turned toward the two men coming into sight.

“That’s far enough!” Bill shouted aiming the gun.

“Wait there young fellow!” Ben called, resisting the urge to call the boy by name and run and take him into his arms. “We come in peace!”

“I never seen either of you before in town–what are you doing out here?” Bill was suspicious; he never let his guard down. He knew there was someone out there who had wanted him dead before, and was never sure who it was and would not take chances.

“My name is Ben Cartwright—this is my son, Hoss.” Ben replied and held out hope that the name would register in his son’s brain.

“Cartwright?” Bill asked.

“Yes.” Hoss replied hopefully.

“Never heard of you. So what are you doing out here?”

“Hiram sent us—he’s an old friend. He said we could stay here with you for a few days–that is if it is okay with you?”

Bill frowned but there was something in the white-haired man’s eyes that was soft and comforting. There was something in the smile of the big man on the huge black horse that seemed the same way. Finally putting down his rifle he signaled for the two men to dismount.

“My name is Bill—Bill Carson.” Bill announced and reached out to shake the two stranger’s hands.

“Nice to meet you—-Bill.” Hoss nodded still biting his tongue.

“Yes–very nice to meet you.” Ben said also and felt the warmth of his son’s palm for the first time in more than a month. Joseph looked the same, having not been treated badly or showing any signs of physical hurt. But, the recognition was not there. Ben had held out hope that Joe would know instantly that he was amongst family. Ben had to swallow hard to keep the name Joseph from coming out.

“The cabin ain’t much. How come you don’t want to stay at the hotel?”

“My son Hoss here just detests hotels. And since we are waiting to see my other son, thought we would take Hiram up on the offer to stay here. Now don’t worry about it, we don’t have many needs. Just a place on the floor and a place to stable the horses.”

“Well—-Hoss was it?” Bill asked and his brother nodded. “I guess you and I can see to the horses. I got me a corral built—you and I can go feed and water them while your father gets settled. Looks like the two of you have had a long ride.”

“Thank you.” Ben said, and still resisted the pat to the shoulder.

Hoss and his brother took the horses around back and got them bedded down for the night and brought all the saddlebags and bedrolls into the cabin.

“Let me guess—” Bill said as he and Hoss entered the main room. “They call you Hoss cause you are so big, right?”

“Yeah—kinda a nickname I reckon.” Hoss smiled at how at ease Bill was starting to be around him.

‘Well, you both can have the room in the back. There’s two bunks in there. I’ll sleep out here by the fire tonight.” Bill said and turned toward the stove where his pot of stew was starting to boil. He stirred the food and looked back towards the Cartwrights. “I am no chef–but you are welcome to the stew I made.”

“That stew sounds mighty good right now and we would be glad to sleep out here, Bill. Hate to put you out of your own bed.” Ben chimed in.

“No–it’s okay. I’d rather sleep out here. Now you two want to eat or not?”

“I ain’t never turned down a meal so far, and don’t think I will now!” Hoss laughed.

“Yeah—somehow I figured that.” Bill smiled and set out the bowls.

As the three men sat and ate their meal, Bill couldn’t help but notice a glance here and there shot his way by both of the other men. In one way it made him uneasy, in another way it made him feel good. He had started to get the opinion of the Cartwrights that they were good people. They seemed like a loving father and son. Bill wished he had that kind of family and it showed on his face now and then.

“So how long you folks staying?” Bill asked between bites of stew.

“We are waiting for my youngest son to arrive in town. Actually he is a little late in arriving already. But, he should be here by the end of the week.” Ben answered and watched Bill’s eyes to detect anything familiar.

“Oh–what’s his name?”

“Joseph—-” Ben let out a little too quickly, hoping that just the way he had said it would spur on some latent memory locked in his son’s head.

Bill clutched his head in pain and dropped his head down on the table. The headache was back, and this time had come on suddenly and with great pain. Ben jumped to his feet and walked over to the boy. He dropped his hand down on his shoulder, still trying his best to not reveal his identity. “Bill—are you okay?” He asked and Bill just shook his head back and forth in reply. “Can we get you anything?” Ben continued.

“No—just leave me be. It’ll be gone in a minute.” Bill whispered still showing the severity of pain on his face.

Ben and Hoss glanced at each other and fought to control their normal instincts to take over the situation. After close to ten minutes the headache subsided and Bill lifted his head off of his arms and sat back in the chair.

“Damn—that was the worst one ever.” Bill admitted and reached for his coffee cup. He looked across at the other men and could see the strangest expressions on their faces. They wore the look of pure concern–almost a deep caring that went beyond mere friendship. “Hey—sorry I scared you two. These things come and go. I guess the doctor filled you in on me, right?”

“Yes–yes he told us. You want to talk about it?” Ben asked calmly.

“Not nothing to talk about. I just have no memories is all? Guess I’ll just have to live with it.”

“But, what about family?” Hoss broke in and saw Ben give him a warning look. “I mean–well you think you have family somewhere out there looking for you?”

Bill shook his head wearily. “I figured that at first–but when no-one showed up I guessed that there wasn’t anyone who missed me. Guess I haven’t got any family or they would’ve come by now.”

“Maybe they just don’t know where to find you, Bill.” Ben broke in, trying to stop Hoss from telling the boy the truth. He could read it on his middle son’s face that he was about to call the boy Little Joe and the show would be over.

“I think I’ll go check on the horses one last time.” Hoss said knowing that he had to leave to prevent what he wanted to do. Bill watched him leave and then turned back towards Ben.

“He seems nice–you both do. You look like the kind of family that really sticks together. I just guess I was an orphan or something–have no kin out there.” Bill sat back and broke into a smile, his hazel eyes suddenly twinkling. ‘Unless I was a rotten son and my father just decided not to find me anyway. Yeah–I could see that.” Bill laughed at the thought.

“I don’t quite see that in you, Bill. Trust me–as a father–I bet you right now your kin are out there somewhere worried about you and trying to bring you back.”

“Yeah–well maybe–but they sure are taking their time about it!” Joe stood and started to remove the dinner plates. Ben was quick to assist his son and walked over to the counter with him.

“I’ve got it fine–you go on and sit down, Mr. Cartwright.” Bill said and poured water into the small sink.

Ben stood there still unable to take his eyes off of his youngest son. This whole charade was getting harder by the minute. He wanted so much to tell the boy that his family was indeed worried about him and would move heaven and earth to bring him back home. The terrible thought was dawning on the troubled father that even bringing his son home might not bring him back in mind and recognition of who he really was.

*****

Ben and Hoss retired shortly after dinner was done. Joe had insisted on spreading his bedroll on the floor in front of the pot-bellied stove relinquishing the two bunks for the other two men. Reluctantly, Hoss and his father settled into the other room and were soon fast asleep, the emotions of the day taking over quickly.

One particular similarity existed between both Bill and his hidden former self; nightmares. It had started off slowly, with tossing and turning and mumbling terrified protests to himself. That escalated to loud violent screams and it instantly made Ben jump up in his bunk. Even the deep slumbering Hoss had heard his brother’s panic-filled shouts into the darkness. Ben signaled his middle son that he would handle it and hurriedly walked toward the door to their room and out into the main room of the cabin.

Ben wondered as he kneeled down alongside the thrashing figure on the floor how he would pull this one off without revealing the many times he had brought Joe out of nightmares in his youth. He knew he would have to be careful not to use the exact same measures as he had in the past. He could not grab the young man up in his arms and soothe him as a father. Yes, this would be the toughest part of the charade so far.

“Bill—Bill you are having a nightmare–” Ben whispered and simply reached for the boy’s right arm. When the thrashing and calling out continued, Ben shook the arm a little hoping to rouse his son without scaring him.

Joe bolted up from the floor. From the dim light of the stove, Ben could read the panic on the face of his son.

“No!” Joe screamed and then suddenly became aware of the man at his side. After he caught his breath and his heart started to beat a little less rapidly, Joe sat upright, embarrassment spreading across his face. “Mr. Cartwright—-I’m sorry—sorry I woke you.” He apologized.

Ben sat down on the floor opposite his son and gave a patient smile. “No apology needed, Bill. And you might as well call me Ben.” He replied and removed his hand from Joe’s arm, because he had to.

“Ben—well—I am sorry. I am afraid this happens quite a bit here lately.”

“Have you told the doctor about it?”

“Naw—seemed like a stupid thing to mention.” Joe explained and dropped his head down a bit.

“You know I have had some experiences with nightmares in the past. In fact, that son I told you I have been waiting for? He has them all the time. I usually tell him it’s best to talk about them, and sometimes it makes them go away.” Ben spoke in a gentle whisper and could see that Joe was starting to feel more at ease around him. To the worried father, that was one small accomplishment for the day.

“Nothing I dream makes any sense. It’s just a bunch of jumbled up pictures that come and go so quickly I can’t even remember exactly what they are. All I know is that they terrify me.” Joe replied sullenly shaking his head discouraged.

“Nothing? You can’t remember anything?” Ben asked again.

“Uh uh—-it might be about the person who shot me–for all I know. I guess that is what bothers me most. The not knowing of who wants me dead–who would leave me out in the woods to die. Whoever it was took away all my past–so I guess in a way–whoever I was is dead.”

Ben reached for Joe’s shoulder and touched it with his hand briefly and withdrew it just as fast. “Doc said you still have a good chance of getting your memory back, Bill. Whoever you were is still in there–and he’s probably trying to get out. It’s probably why your nightmares are so vivid.”

“Maybe—-” Joe nodded and then looked up into the man’s soft brown eyes. He was surprised at the amount of compassion he found to be in them. He wondered why the man would care so much—he was all but a stranger to him. “I’m okay now–really. You go on back to bed. I think I’ll just sit here till I fall back to sleep.”

Ben nodded. He would have stayed right there alongside his son, as in the past, letting the boy’s head rest on his own strong shoulder until sleep overtook him. But, he couldn’t this night. Ben stood and turned back for his room. “Goodnight—–Bill.” Ben said before closing his door.

*****

Ben sat up stiffly in his bunk the next morning. He shot a quick glance over at Hoss, who he could see was already up and sitting with a perplexed look on his face.

“How long you been up?” Ben asked as he pulled on his boots.

“Awhile–just sitting here thinking.” Hoss replied, still with a far away look in his eyes.

“A bit tougher than we thought–isn’t it?” Ben asked knowing what the tender hearted son of his was pondering.

“Why can’t we just go in there and tell Joe who he is and take him back home? Once he is there–I’m sure we can get him to remember!”

“Hoss–the doctor wants us to take this slowly. It’s only been a day—let’s give it a little longer and see what happens.”

“That nightmare was something fierce wasn’t it? I don’t remember Joe ever yelling quite that bad in the past.”

Ben stood and shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “It was bad all right—and even worse–I couldn’t really help him. I am after all a stranger.”

Hoss walked over to his father and put his arm around his shoulder for support. “Never a stranger—somehow–some way–Joe will realize it, Pa.”

“Are you ready for another go of it?” Ben asked forcing a smile.

Hoss nodded and the two of them walked into the other room.

Joe had already been up for awhile. He had re-stoked the stove and made a quick breakfast of ham and biscuits and was just putting it on the table when his guests appeared.

“It’s not much–reckon I need to get some more supplies today.” Joe mentioned and passed the coffee pot over to Ben.

“We are going into town today—to see if my son has found his way back. You don’t worry about any supplies–it’s the least we can do.” Ben said taking a seat at the table next to Hoss.

“Thanks. I’ve got to be heading out. I have some horses to break over at Doc’s today. I won’t be back until dark I guess.” Joe said and set down his coffee cup and grabbed his coat.

“Bill–” Hoss started as he looked over at his brother. “You aren’t wearing a gun. Don’t you think you should have one? I mean—with all that happened.”

“Payday is the end of the week—I’ll be going out to get one then. Seems like whoever left me out in that woods helped himself to all I had–including my horse and my gun.”

“Is it safe going around like that?” Ben asked, trying his best not to sound like the worried father that he was.

“I’m not going that far—” Bill replied and opened the door. He turned back around and smiled at the two men. “See you both later.”

“See you, Bill.” Hoss nodded and watched his brother leave.

*****

Hiram saw several patients in his office that morning, and just as he readied to leave to check on the Cartwrights, the two oldest members appeared coming in his front door.

“Ben–Hoss–well how did it go?” Hiram asked as they walked in taking seats opposite him.

“He didn’t recognize us.” Hoss said chock full of disappointment.

“Sorry to hear that. How is he doing today?”

“He had a pretty bad headache last night—and one heck of a nightmare later on. He said he’s been having a lot of them. Today he seemed fine when he went off to work.” Ben answered.

“I imagine the headaches are due to the trauma to his head—along with some memories that are fighting their way out.”

“What do you want us to do now?”

“Well, Hoss. I still think it’s too soon to reveal who you are to your brother. Let’s just see what happens the next couple of days.”

“I don’t suppose there would be anything wrong with telling him all about our ranch–do you? Maybe that will jog a memory loose?” Ben asked hopefully.

“Maybe. But, be careful. He’s a bright young man–he may just catch on to what you are trying to do.”

“I wish he would!” Hoss sounded off, his impatience showing as he stood back up.

“One day at a time right now.” Hiram warned and saw both of the other men nod reluctantly. “Let me know if you need me.”

“We will—thank you again, Hiram.” Ben smiled and shook the man’s hand before leaving.

*****

Joe smelled a wonderful aroma as he tied his horse up to the front hitching post at the cabin that evening. He followed the scent into the house and saw that his two guests had prepared a rather fancy meal for his return.

“Something sure smells awfully good!” Joe smiled as he walked over to the stove.

“My pa is a pretty good cook believe it or not.” Hoss smiled as he set the last dish on the table. “Why don’t you wash up–we have it all ready for you.”

“Well, whatever it is–it will be a treat. I told you both I can’t cook worth a darn.” Joe said and washed his hands off at the sink. He then joined the other two men at the table.

“Would you mind if I said grace?” Ben asked Joe.

“Fine by me.” Joe said and bowed his head.

“Dear Lord–we thank thee for the gifts at this table and for the people who surround it. Please watch over the family represented here—and help Bill find his family as well. Amen.”

Joe looked up, a bit touched by the words his guest had spoken. “This roast looks as good as the one Linda made two weeks ago!” Joe said eagerly cutting in to the meat.

“Oh? Who’s Linda?” Hoss asked as he took a bite of his supper.

Joe looked up perplexed at the question. He remembered both men telling him that they were old friends of Hiram’s. If they were–surely they would know his wife! Joe set down his fork and stared over at Hoss. “I thought you said you were an old friend of Hiram’s?”

“We are.” Ben answered, wondering why Joe was looking suspiciously at his brother.

“Then why don’t you know Hiram’s wife’s name?” Joe asked raising his eyebrows.

Ben looked over at Hoss and they exchanged confused glances, trying to come up with a good explanation for Hoss’ obvious slip of the tongue. “Hoss is awful with names I am afraid. Of course we know Linda Green.”

“Yeah, then what’s their two son’s names?” Joe asked and looked back over at the two.

“They only have one son and his name is Vince,” Hoss countered. He remembered learning that much from Hiram when they had talked on their first visit.

“And a daughter named Elizabeth–now are you satisfied, Bill?” Ben smiled and Joe looked a little embarrassed at his questioning.

“Sorry—didn’t mean to sound suspicious—but I told you I get jumpy sometimes.”

“That’s understandable.” Hoss nodded and then reached over and pulled over a package that was leaned against the wall next to the table. “To show there ain’t no hard feelings—we bought you something.” Hoss grinned and handed it over to his brother. He felt it might change the uneasiness in the room at the moment.

Joe set down his fork and accepted the gift. Opening the box he found a holster and a six-shooter. “I can’t take this!” He exclaimed, noting how expensive the gift was.

“We want you to have it. Just our way of saying thank you for allowing us to stay for a few days.” Ben insisted.

Joe stood, excited at the present and strapped the weapon on. He adjusted it and then looked up suddenly. He looked from one man’s face to the other and his eyebrows narrowed, confusion spreading over his whole demeanor.

“What’s wrong, Bill?” Ben asked noticing the abrupt change in the young man’s attitude.

“How did you know that I was left handed?”

Ben again sought out Hoss’ eyes for an answer to that question and could tell Hoss was having trouble with the question as well.

“I never told neither one of you I was left handed.” Joe continued becoming more rigid in stature, his guard up once more.

“There’s a simple answer to that, Bill,” Ben called out trying to sound at ease. “My son–the one I talked to you about last night? He is left handed–and well watching you eat yesterday–I just noticed that you were a southpaw too. It’s easy to spot when you have one in your own family.”

“Yeah–that brother of mine–I always have to sit at the other side of him so he doesn’t hit me every time he picks up his fork to eat.” Hoss laughed, doing his best to carry on the save his father had served up.

Joe looked over at both men and thoroughly observed their faces. He then had a strong urge to get into his hidden supply of whiskey in the cabinet by the door. Turning his back on them both, Joe reached for the bottle on the bottom shelf and uncorked it.

Ben stood up as Joe spun back around. “What’s wrong, Bill? What’s bothering you?’

Joe took several long pulls on the whiskey and then looked up at the silver- haired man standing in front of him. He looked over at the huge man at the table. Joe’s throat tightened, as he tried to get the words out that he wanted to say. Finally, with a deep tremble to them as they came forth, Joe replied, “your son—your son is late returning from a trip—-” He started and saw how Ben looked down at Hoss all too quickly and then back up.

“Yes—-” Ben answered, still not knowing what was happening in his son’s mind.

“Your son–that same son who is late from returning from his trip—is the same son that you said is prone to nightmares—” Joe trailed off again, and this time Ben only nodded his answer. He could see that Joe’s eyes were going glassy on him, and it wasn’t due to the alcohol but was caused by something he was feeling inside of himself.

“Your son—he hasn’t returned—and he has nightmares—-and he just happens to be left-handed—” Joe stopped once more and took another long drink from the whiskey bottle he clutched tightly in both hands.

“Yes?” Ben questioned and saw a tear leave Joe’s right eye and drift down his cheek followed by another out of his other eye.

“Your son is late returning—he has nightmares–is left-handed—-am I—am I–your son?’ Joe asked and deep down somewhere, not in his mind but in his heart he almost had his answer already.

Hoss stood next to his father waiting to hear his reply. Ben walked closer to Bill and reached out his right hand and put it to Bill’s left cheek. “Yes, you are my son.” Ben whispered choking up on the words.

Instead of falling into his father’s arms, as was hoped for by both of his family members, Joe withdrew and moved up against the wall his mouth opened but nothing coming out right away. Ben gave him time to take in the information and kept his distance for the time being.

“Why!” Joe shouted and raised his hand in gesture. “Why the big masquerade? Was this a sick game you’ve been playing with me all this time!”

“No—nothing like that—-” Hoss tried to soothe his brother and to calm his nerves. “The doctor told us we shouldn’t come out and just tell you–he hoped somehow you might remember.”

“We weren’t trying to hurt you–really we weren’t.” Ben apologized quietly.

“I don’t know you!” Joe yelled as the tears still fell uncontrollably from his eyes. He was now distraught over the fact he had not recognized his own family. He was so sure that someday he would run into someone from his past and his memories would all come flooding out. Now that hope was gone. He knew if he couldn’t recognize his own father and brother he would never regain what he had lost.

“Give it time, Joseph.” Ben answered.

Joe grabbed his head and reeled in pain, a headache blasting his skull. Ben was quick to help him into a chair and Hoss gathered around him for support.

“It’s gonna be all right–I promise you.”  Hoss whispered as he squeezed his brother’s shoulder for support.

“But I don’t know you.” Joe repeated but this time the words were spoken not in a shout but in a whisper filled with sadness. Ben pulled up the chair next to his youngest son and let his hand rest on the boy’s arm, this time leaving it there and refusing to let go.

“You are Joseph Francis Cartwright. You are my third and youngest son. And you have been greatly missed by all of those who love you.” Ben spoke calmly but firmly. “There is nothing that we wouldn’t do for you–nothing in this world. We came here to find you and take you home. It was harder than you will ever know for us to pretend we were strangers. We didn’t do it to deceive you–or play some kind of game with you. We were just doing what the doctor thought best.”

Joe finally brought his head off of his arms and looked into the eyes of his father. He wished so badly that he could remember the man who obviously cared for him, and the brother who still held onto his shoulder. “My name is Joe.” He whispered more to himself than to the other two men.

“Your name is Joe.” Ben nodded and a smile rose on his face being able to say the name again at long last.

“What has happened to me? Where was I going? What was I doing? Why did someone leave me to die?” The questions came pouring out.

“Let’s get some coffee in to you and I will explain it all,” Ben said and removed the whiskey bottle from the table. He brought the coffee pot back over and poured three cups and passed them around. Hoss pulled the other chair over so he could also be close to his brother.

Joe took a long drink to calm his frayed nerves and looked back at Ben waiting for the answers that he needed to try and put the pieces of his life together.

“Well, to start with, we own a ranch just outside of Virginia City and we raise cattle and horses. As to where you were going and why, we had sold the army a large string of horses. You were delivering the last of them and were to receive payment for the sale.” Ben paused as he watched the information registering in Joe’s brain.

“Then I had money on me?” Joe asked, understanding now why he might have been waylaid by his attacker.

“Five thousand dollars.” Hoss answered and noticed Joe’s mouth dropping open at his remark.

“Five thousand dollars! I lost five thousand dollars?”

Ben put his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder and shook his head. “You didn’t lose anything. You were robbed–by someone who obviously followed you.”

“The fact of the matter is that I was responsible for that money, and now it’s gone.”

“You are all that matters to us, no amount of money could replace you.” Ben insisted firmly.

“So, someone followed me–then they stole the money and left me for dead. And it took you all what–more than a month to find me?”

“It wasn’t because we weren’t trying, Little Brother. Pa and me went all the way to Salt Flats and tried to retrace your steps, without any luck. It wasn’t until the sheriff in Miller’s Crossing got our telegraph that we learned you were here.”

“I’ve got to get that money back to you.” Joe stated adamantly and stood from the table.

Ben followed suit and forced his son’s face to stare into his eyes. “No you don’t! For all we know whoever did it is miles away now. The money makes no difference. We just want you home and safe.”

“Look, Mr. Cartwright—I lost the money–regardless how it happened–now I owe it to you to get it back!”

“I am your father.” Ben returned, his heart aching that Joe could not see it, nor comprehend the love that went with the title.

Joe looked down at the floor. He had witnessed the sadness that the older man wore. “I’m sorry—-this is all so much for me to take in. I can’t go home with you until I find out who did this to me. I can’t go anywhere until I get that money back to you.”

Hoss moved over to the other Cartwrights to try his best to ease the tenseness in the room. “We have plenty of money, Joe. That five thousand would not make or break us. Let’s go home–maybe once you are back in your normal surroundings some of your past will come back to you.”

“Hoss is right, Joseph–please come home!” Ben pulled the boy’s chin up and stared again into the troubled green depths of his eyes.

“Give me a couple of days—let me get use to it all.” Joe paused and read the defeat on both of the other men’s faces. “I thought that once I met someone from my past that I would remember everything–and now that it didn’t happen I am afraid I may never be who I was. If I came to your home with you I wouldn’t be the same person that I was before—could you all accept that?”

“You may not know who you are–maybe you will find out, maybe not. But, Joseph, you are forgetting that WE know who you are! That is enough for us. No-one expects anything of you right now–other than to know that we are your family and that we love you.”

“Okay, Mr. Cartwright, if you will give me a couple of days to get use to the idea–then I will return to your ranch with you both.” Joe conceded finally accepting the two men in front of him would not give up on their plans.

Hoss smiled and squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “We’ll give you the time you need, Joe. But, could you do me a personal favor?” He asked and Joe looked into the blueness of the big man’s bright eyes.

“What’s the favor?”

“This man here–” Hoss pointed over to Ben. “He is my father—he is your father—could you call him “pa”? If you keep calling him Mr. Cartwright, I might have to start being all formal myself.” Hoss made his point without making his brother uncomfortable. Hoss could see the angst on his father’s face every time Joe had called him “Mr. Cartwright” and he knew that Ben was having difficulty saying anything about it himself.

“I guess–” Joe said and looked over at the silver-haired man. “If it makes you feel better.”

“Thanks.” Ben nodded toward the young man.

“Well, I’m kinda tired–it’s been a long day–a very long day.” Joe stammered trying to make a subtle suggestion that he wanted some peace and quiet to mull everything over by himself.

“How about you take that bunk tonight, Joe? I would be glad to stay out here tonight.”

“Naw–Hoss–think I’d like to just sleep in front of the stove again. You both go to bed–I’ll clean up the dishes.”

Ben looked over at Hoss. Hoss was giving the sign to his father that they should do as Joe asked to give him a little time alone to adjust. Ben decided that in this case, his middle son was right. “We’ll let you get some rest, Joseph.” Ben agreed and stopped short. He wanted to reach over and pull Joe towards him, to see if the boy could draw some of the strength of his father into himself. Though Joe’s memory had not allowed his father to return, Ben hoped that Joe’s heart would remember on its own. Not wanting to make the boy uncomfortable, Ben settled for a quick pat to Joe’s arm.

“Goodnight, Hoss–goodnight—Pa” Joe called over to them as they walked to their room. Both the other Cartwrights smiled at Joe’s attempt to fit in and acknowledge his father by calling him “pa”.

“Goodnight, Son.” Ben answered and followed Hoss into the back room.

*****

It took a long while for Joe to fall asleep that night. He laid on his bedroll watching the flames dance through the thin vents on the door of the stove. There was so much to mull over now. Joe knew the two strangers in the next room had suddenly become his family. He could tell by the affection that had been displayed, that they did indeed care about him. But, Joe wondered if he would ever be able to return that affection. He prayed that he would awaken to the return of his memory, just as he had prayed every night since he had awakened in Hiram’s office more than a month prior. With that Joe’s final thought, he slowly drifted off to sleep.

Ben was the first man up the next morning and he crept quietly into the next room. Looking down at the sleeping young man by the stove, he smiled contentedly. There had been no nightmares the previous night, and Ben could only think of that as a good sign. As Joe started to stir on the floor his eyes focused on the man staring down at him now.

“You slept straight through last night.” Ben commented as Joe sat up stiffly.

“Yeah—first time that I can remember doing that.” Joe replied and pulled himself to standing.

“I’ll fix some coffee.” Ben smiled and made his way over to the sink. Joe’s eyes followed him. He noted the man’s height and weight and facial features. They were nothing like his own. He also thought on the other man now. Hoss looked nothing like him either.

Ben could feel the stare, and turning back to the stove with the filled coffee pot he met Joe’s eyes. “You thinking on something, Joseph?”

“Well—-I guess—I was just thinking about the fact that I look nothing like you or your other son.”

Ben laughed, it was not the first time he had heard the boy make that statement. “You look like your mother. In fact, all my sons look like their mothers.”

“Mothers?” Joe asked surprised. “Hoss and I have different mothers?”

Ben set the coffee pot on the stove and walked over to the table and pointed for his son to join him. Joe sat down opposite the man and waited.

“Now I mentioned briefly last night that you are my third and youngest son. Your oldest brother is named Adam. He is in St. Louis presently but should be returning soon. I sent him a telegraph that you were missing. Anyway–his mother’s name was Elizabeth. I married her in New England and she died right after Adam was born.” Ben stopped to give Joe time to take in this information. “I brought Adam out west to start a new life. On the way I met up with Hoss’ mother. Her name was Inger. She died before we made it to Nevada. Hoss was just a baby.”

“I’m sorry—” Joe broke in. “I hate to make you talk about this–it sounds awfully sad.”

Ben reached over and put his hand over his son’s hand. “No, you need to know this. I started a ranch–we named it the Ponderosa.” Ben waited to see if that name would register on his son’s face. It didn’t. “On a trip to New Orleans I met your mother. Her name was Marie. I married her and we started our life on that new ranch with Hoss and Adam.”

“Is she still alive?” Joe had to ask.

“No, Son. Marie had a fall–a very bad fall from her horse. You were just a little boy at the time–just five years old.” Ben saw how Joe dropped his head and had hoped that the memory of Marie might come forth.

“You have had a lot of tragedies, Mr. Cartwright.” Joe nodded and saw Ben look at him peculiar.

“What happened to “pa”?” Ben asked quietly.

“Sorry—I’m still trying to get use to this.” Joe apologized, a bit embarrassed.

“Anyway—as I was saying at the start of this little history lesson–all my sons favor their mothers. And I consider that a blessing!” Ben laughed and heard a chuckle from behind him. He turned to see Hoss standing there. He had listened to his father’s rendition of the Cartwright family’s history.

“Well, my ma wasn’t over six foot–but Pa says that I got her eyes and her hair color!” Hoss grinned.

“You do that!” Ben smiled back at Hoss as he took a seat next to them both. “And Adam has Elizabeth’s dark hair and eyes. And you, Joseph, have your mother’s curls and brilliant green eyes.”

“Well, that explains that.” Joe nodded satisfied.

“Hey–what did you think? You think we were really strangers pretending we were family?” Hoss asked and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

“No—but you have to admit–we don’t look much like kin.”

Ben stood and grabbed the coffee cups and brought over the steaming pot to fill the cups for his sons. “I never really thought about that, Joseph! You boys all have your differences, but you have some great similarities as well. You will see once we are home.”

“I promised Vince I would help him get the hay loaded in their barn today. I still owe the Green’s for all they’ve done for me.” Joe said as he accepted his coffee from Ben.

“Pa and me was thinking last night about that. You go on and do what you need to these next couple of days. Meanwhile we are gonna check around.”

“Check around?” Joe asked. “For what?”

“We are going to see if we can come up with any leads as to who robbed you.”

“We don’t have much to go on.” Joe replied discouraged by the lack of clues.

“We are gonna talk to the men from the Triple B who found you that day. Also check out if anyone around town has recently come into some money. It’s a slim chance, but since you need some time here before you can go home–it beats just sitting here.” Ben said and saw Joe nod gratefully.

“Thanks–for doing this–it’s something I do need. I better get going.” Joe stood and strapped on his new gun belt. After adjusting it and throwing on his coat he looked at the other two men. “Listen—you both be careful. Whoever did this to me is a killer.”

“We’ll be careful.” Hoss replied as Joe opened the door.

“See you later!” Joe gave a quick smile and left the cabin.

*****

Hiram walked into his house later that same afternoon, he had some good news to tell his wife and wanted to be the first to let her know.

“Your are home early!” Linda smiled and planted a kiss on her husband’s cheek.

“I know, Darling, and I can’t stay very long. But, I have some news to tell you! Let’s sit down.” He said and they moved to the love seat in the parlor.

“What is it?”

“I spoke to the Cartwrights. They told Joe who they were last night.”

“But–you told me you didn’t want them to!” Linda interrupted.

“Well, the boy pretty much figured it out anyway. I am very hopeful that he will regain his memory soon. Ben said he had a peaceful sleep last night and no sign of headaches this morning. I can only take that as a positive sign.”

“I am so happy, Hiram! He is such a good kid. Vince has grown so attached to him, though; he will hate to see him leave.”

“Well, Ben did say they are going to stay for awhile longer. Who knows? Maybe Joe will even regain his memory before he leaves here!” Hiram smiled and hugged his wife close to him.

“I would love to see that! You saved that boy’s life. You can be very proud of yourself, Doctor Green!” Linda kissed her husband again.

“You keep kissing me like that and I will miss my appointments later today. Now how about fixing the old doctor some lunch?” Hiram grinned taking her hand.

“It just so happens I have something all ready for you! I always know when you are coming home early.” Linda led Hiram into the other room.

During the conversation, neither Linda nor Hiram noticed that Keith Statham stood in the alcove listening to all that they had said. He bent down and adjusted the tie to his holster and checked his gun to make sure it was fully loaded. Then, quietly he made his way outside.

*****

Ben Cartwright shook the bank manager’s hand and stepped out of the building. The information he had received made his blood go cold. He had an urgency to get to Hoss who had gone over to the Triple B to talk with the ranch hands who had originally found Joe. Hurriedly swinging himself up into the saddle, Ben turned Buck to the east and off to get his middle son.

Hoss leaned heavily upon the corral gate talking to the two men who had rescued his little brother. Looking across the field he spotted a dust cloud coming closer. It wasn’t long before he spotted his father’s mount and knew there had to be trouble for Ben to be riding in so rapidly.

Not taking the time to dismount, Ben called over to his son, “Hoss–we have to get over to Hiram’s place right now!”

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss asked walking over to get his horse.

“Let’s ride–I’ll fill you in on the way over there!” Ben called over, urgency in his tone of voice.

Hoss swung into his saddle and turned his horse away from the Triple B. He had no idea what the problem was, but could tell that it must have something to do with Joe.

*****

Joe mopped his brow and looked down at Vince from his perch up in the hayloft. “I’ll finish stacking these–why don’t you go get the next wagon, Vince?”

“Gee, Bill, I was hoping you’d get tired enough to take a break before I go and get the next load!” Vince smiled and leaned against the wall in the barn.

Joe sat down and let his legs dangle over the edge of the loft. “You called me Bill again.” Joe laughed.

“Oh–sorry–boy, this is hard to get straight in my head. One minute you are my friend named Bill and the next minute you are someone named Joe!” Vince teased his friend.

“Hey–if you think it’s hard on YOU–imagine how I feel! It’s not easy being two people you know.”

“Yeah–I reckon it was a shock to you.”

“Now—let’s get the haying done–then I promised you a couple of beers, remember?”

“Okay—a bribe is a bribe but I’ll take it! It’ll take me about a half an hour to bring the next load in from the pasture.”

“Take your time–it will take me at least that long to finish up here.”

Vince walked out of the barn and over to the wagon. He sent the team out of the yard to get the next shipment of hay.

Joe went to work stacking the hay in the loft, oblivious to the figure that stole quietly into the barn and up the ladder. It was only when he heard the clicking sound that he turned around. He then saw Keith holding a gun pointed directly at him.

“Keith? What’s going on?” Joe asked bewildered.

“You and I are going for a little ride. Now you move down that ladder or I will shoot you here.” He spat out venomously.

“Why?” Joe asked.

“Move!” Keith shouted pointing the gun at Joe’s abdomen.

Joe decided not to argue with the gun, instinct telling him that the man was serious. He slowly came down the ladder watching as Keith came down as well, careful to keep his gun in front of him and pointed at his victim.

“The horses are out back–you pull anything and I will shoot you right here.”

“You could at least tell me why you want me dead.” Joe muttered walking towards the back door of the barn.

“I wanted you dead a month ago–but seems like you didn’t cooperate.” Keith answered as he got closer to Joe’s back with his weapon.

It was then that Joe realized what the other man was saying. When that realization hit him, Joe knew that he was at last facing the man who had bushwhacked him. The anger took control of Joe’s senses and he spun around knocking the gun from Keith’s hand. Keith tried to retrieve his weapon but Joe jumped on top of him and the fight began. The two men rolled across the barn’s floor with fists flying. Keith managed to glance a blow to the side of Joe’s head and he fell back. Keith tried again for the gun but Joe was quickly to his feet and kicked it away and then sent a punch that knocked the other man against one of the stalls. Joe dove at him again and Keith threw a clod of dirt in his eyes, temporarily blinding him. Falling to his knees, Joe felt a kick to his back, which sent him sprawling onto the floor. Keith was able to make it his gun and as he leveled it to send a bullet towards Joe, the sound of a gun blast filled the air.

Joe looked up and saw Ben Cartwright standing in the doorway, gun drawn and smoking. He turned to see Keith laid out on the ground. Then there were shouts as Hiram and Linda made their way into the barn along with Hoss. Hiram bent down to check on Keith. The bullet had found it’s target, but had not killed the man.

“Joseph!” Ben called out and hurried to his son’s side, gathering the boy into his arms.

“That was a close one.” Joe said wryly.

Ben inspected Joe’s injuries and was relieved to see there were only several cuts and bruises detectable.

“What in the devil is going on?” Hiram called out as he checked Keith’s bullet wound to his shoulder.

“Keith is the one who bushwhacked me.” Joe started as his father helped him to standing. “But–how did you know?” he asked Ben.

“I did some checking in town. There was only one new depositor recently. Keith Statham. And his deposit was five thousand dollars.”

“If you had died then I would have had it all! Damn you!” Keith cursed biting back the pain from his wound.

“How could you do this? How could you do this to all of us?” Linda cried thinking of what the news would do to her daughter.

“I wanted Beth to have the best of everything.” Keith explained.

“Nothing bought with blood money ever lasts,” Hiram replied and helped the man stand. “I’ll patch you up–then it’s off to jail. I’m just glad we found out before my daughter ruined her life by marrying you!”

“I’ll help watch him for you, Doc.” Hoss said and assisted Hiram out of the barn with Keith.

Ben turned his attention back towards his youngest son. “You all right?”

“Yeah—I am thanks to you—Pa.” Joe smiled at the man before him.

“Let’s get you back to the cabin and clean you up.”

“Can’t. I still have to get that haying done.” Joe insisted.

“I don’t think so.” Ben said and put his arm around his son and turned him toward the door. “You will learn, Young Man, that you get that stubborn streak from your father—-and mine runs a whole lot deeper than yours.”

Joe frowned at the man’s statement but decided he wasn’t really in any shape to argue with him either. Reluctantly, Joe walked over to get his horse.

*****

Rinsing his face off in the basin in the back room, Joe winced at his facial cuts. His right eye was already partially swollen shut and the pain from that was second only to his bruised and aching ribcage.

“Come over here.” Ben insisted and reached for Joe’s arm to assist him with the move over to the bunk. Easing his way to sitting Joe looked up at the other man. Ben held in his hands a bottle of some kind of tonic. Joe admitted to himself that he would much rather have something to be taken internally, like whiskey.

Ben sat next to his son and dabbed some of the antiseptic on a cloth and began applying it to some of the facial cuts before him. Joe winced at the stinging that was caused by the man’s medicine. “I know is smarts a bit, Son–but it will help.” Ben stated and continued to patiently tend the injuries.

“You look like you’ve had some experience tending these kinds of things.” Joe replied.

Ben chuckled and stared into the hazel eyes, which still held no recognition of the young man’s past and numerous ailments or mishaps. “I sure have. Your brothers have had their share of injuries, but actually I’ve spent much more time patching you up, Joseph.”

“Accident prone?” Joe asked and Ben set down the towel.

“That would be an understatement.” Ben smiled and stood. “I want you to rest awhile. You’ve had quite a day.”

“Can’t believe it was Keith all along. I’ve spent so much time around him and all of the Green family—I never would have thought it was him. Why do you think he decided to kill me today?”

“He obviously heard about you learning who you are. He might have been worried that your memory would be back along with the knowledge that he was the one who had robbed you.”

“Well–I sure am glad that you and Hoss showed up.”

Ben reached down and touched Joe’s face tenderly. “So am I. Now–no more talking–you get some rest.” Ben turned to leave the room.

“It’s too early to go to sleep—” Joe complained as he tried to sit up, but rethought the move after a stabbing pain hit the right side of his chest.

“Rest–now that’s an order!” Ben commanded and closed the door.

*****

Hoss didn’t make it back to the cabin until much later that night. Ben sat at the table sipping his coffee. Joe had slept all afternoon, and was still out when Ben had last checked on him. Hoss unstrapped his gunbelt and took a seat at the table. Ben was quick to offer his son some coffee, which the other son accepted gratefully.

“Want some supper? I have soup on the stove.”

“Naw, Pa. I grabbed something in town. Me and Doc got old Keith locked up tight at the jail. Once all was said and done that no good son of a gun spilled his guts!”

“He confessed to it all?” Ben asked surprised at the thought.

“Yeah, told the sheriff all about it. Oh–and he sold Cochise and Joe’s gear. Still had the paper work in with his things at his place. Hiram sent one of his hands over to Downyville to get them for Joe.”

“That’s wonderful!” Ben exclaimed, so pleased with the good news. Cochise had become almost like one of the family, and Ben knew of the strong bond, which his youngest held with the animal. He hoped that somehow Joe would remember the horse.

“How’s Little Joe?”

“Banged up a bit–but he will be fine. I checked him over pretty good. Got some bruised ribs, but nothing is broken.”

“You think he will come home now? I mean he has his answers–and he was so worried about the money and now we’ve found it. Since Keith confessed there won’t be no trial–”Hoss went on with making his case on why they were free to go back to the Ponderosa now.

“I’ll ask him if he’s ready when he gets up.” Ben nodded.

“I guess I am ready,” came Joe’s quiet voice from behind the other two men. He slowly walked over to the table and took a seat. “You are right, Hoss, I have my answers–at least to what happened to me now.”

“You’ll get more answers once we get home.” Hoss smiled at his little brother, relieved that the boy had agreed to come home.

“I still don’t know if I will ever be the person you both remember.”

Ben reached across the table and put his hand over the young man’s right hand. “You will. You just come home and take it easy. Nobody will put any demands on you to remember.”

“What if I never get my memories of you all back? What if I never get my memories of ME back?” Joe asked, fear displaying all over his face.

“Then we’ll make new ones.” Ben answered, and the words came out with love in them.

*****

Joe rode the pinto with his newfound family at his side. He thought about his sad farewell to the Green family. He knew that they felt awful about Keith, but they had assured Joe that it was better to have found out about his evil ways before he had married their daughter. Joe thought on his friendship with Vince. He knew he would miss the other young man, but had promised to visit him and his family once he got his memory back. ****if ever***Joe thought to himself as he looked down at his mount. His father had gone through great pains to tell him all about the special relationship he had with Cochise. Hoss had even shown his brother some of the tricks that they related that Joe had taught the pony. Joe did feel at ease on his horse, though the memories of the animal would not come.

Four days later, Ben raised his hand to signal his two sons to come to a halt. In front of them stretched out the vast Lake Tahoe. Ben had chosen this spot carefully, hoping and praying to jog a single memory loose in his youngest son’s mind. Down through the dense pines, just beyond sight, stood a monument built for Joe’s mother. It was Marie Cartwright’s grave.

Joe breathed in deeply the cool lake air. He closed his eyes and as he did, Ben and Hoss shared and anxious glance back and forth at each other. Then the hazel eyes reopened and they both could tell that no memory of his mother existed in Joe.

“It’s a beautiful place.” Joe nodded and looked over at the two men. He had learned enough about them over the past week to be able to spot disappointment in their eyes. “Okay–what is it?”

“Whatcha mean, Little Brother?” Hoss asked sheepishly.

“This place—it means something to the both of you–I mean other than the fact that it is a great view. So, what is it?” Joe persisted.

Ben dismounted and pointed for Joe to do the same. Joe followed his father down the well-worn path that went through the pines and stopped short at a prominent over-look of the lake. It was then that he saw the headstone bearing his mother’s name.

“My mother.” Joe whispered as he approached the grave.

“Yes.” Ben nodded sadly as he brushed the fallen leaves off of the granite headstone.

“Guess I should remember this place, huh?”

“You’ve been here many times, Joseph. Times with me–times by yourself when you have felt troubled.”

“I’m sorry—sorry I don’t remember.” Joe remorsefully addressed his father.

Ben put his arm across Joe’s shoulder and pulled him closer. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Someday–someday you will remember. I am very sure.”

“How far to the house?” Joe changed the subject, wanting to leave the sad location.

“Not far—guess we better go.” Ben turned once more to cast a fleeting glance towards Marie’s grave. ***help our boy****He prayed as they returned to the horses.

*****

Joe settled down under the heavy quilt on his bed. He snuggled deeper, feeling the bed conforming to his weary body. It was warm and comfortable here in the room that the Cartwrights had told him was indeed his. Joe’s eyes circled the room falling on every picture, every piece of furniture, taking it all in. He gave a long tired sigh. Nothing was familiar even here. Joe thought back on his first evening in his new home. He had felt funny, as the Chinese cook had greeted him at the door with a long spiel in his foreign tongue and a quick hug. Still remembering the hurt on the Oriental’s face when he had not gotten his normal expected greeting back. Joe tried, he really did. He had been told on the trip back all about Hop Sing. This was a man who was really part of the Cartwright family. Hop Sing, Joe had been told, had raised him from infancy and had been a very important part of his life. Joe remembered none of that, and felt guilty because of it.

Then there had been the grand tour of the house, and so many stories of things that had happened in the past that it had made Joe’s head swim with all the information being thrust upon him. He still fought the intense headache that he had carried since he walked inside the large ranch house. Joe decided not to let the others know about it, as they would surely worry and perhaps even summon a doctor to tend to it.

Just as he was about to close his eyes, Joe saw the door to his room push open and then noticed the dimly lit lantern making its way into the room carried by his father.

“Just checking—I was a bit worried about you.” Ben confessed moving over to the chair next to his son’s bed and easing his way into it.

“I’m okay.” Joe whispered.

“It’s a bit much, Joseph—all of what we’ve told you this past week. I don’t want you to feel over-whelmed by it all.”

“It’s hard to remember all of it–that’s for sure. Like learning everything–twenty years worth all over again.”

“Forgive our zeal—we are just so happy to have you back home. Sometimes we forget how new this is for you.” Ben reached over and touched Joe’s shoulder sympathetically.

“I understand.” Joe returned quietly trying to hide his continuing headache.

Ben could pick up on the pain, he knew his son that well. “How long you been hurting?”

“Huh?”

“Your head–it’s hurting.” Ben countered.

“A couple of hours is all. I just need some sleep is all.”

“If it’s not better by morning, we need to get the doctor here to check on you.”

“You worry too much.” Joe protested his father’s mounting concern.

“Yes–and I always will.” Ben chuckled and stood up once more. “Now you get some sleep. I am just down the hall–remember?”

“Two doors down–across the hall. Yes, I remember that much from the tour.”

“Goodnight, Son–welcome home.” Ben smiled and turned out of the room.

*****

Hoss Cartwright was a picture of misery as he stood in front of the fireplace in the living room. He felt as though he was at his wit’s end. It had been two weeks since they had brought Joe back to the ranch. Two weeks worth of explaining everything to his little brother. It was starting to get a bit depressing, as Joe had still remembered nothing. Hoss had shared so many stories with his brother, stories of what they had done together throughout the years. But, Joe was not like the little brother he had grown up with. The changes would probably have made anyone in their right mind happy, but not Hoss.

Gone was the happy-go-lucky wild Little Joe. Gone was the boy who delighted in aggravating his brothers. Gone was the oft’ time lazy young man who slept late and partied way into the night. In his place, was a calm and reverent young man who never raised his voice, never did anything to raise the ire of his father. The “old” Joe was replaced by someone who might look as he had, but that was where all resemblance had stopped.

“So, then, what you are upset about is the fact that your brother is respectful, obedient and dependable?” Ben’s eyes questioned his tender-hearted son. “As I recall, that is what you and Adam use to hope for him to be like!”

“It ain’t that, Pa! Not that I mind and all–it’s just not Little Joe! He looks like him–but he is like the perfect brother—and perfect son!”

“What do you want me to do about it, Hoss? Go up there and tell him to start acting like his old self? He doesn’t remember his old self!” Ben stood now and squared off with his middle boy. He, too, was having some difficulty adjusting to the new and improved Joe Cartwright, but had not voiced his opinions. Ben was afraid to voice what he was feeling in his heart.

“Maybe we should tell him what he was like!” Hoss said exasperated. “All’s we’ve talked about is the good things in his life–none of the bad. Maybe he thinks this is how he was?”

“You want me to tell him all of the bad things he’s done in the past? You want me to tell him all the awful things that have happened to him in his short lifetime?”

“Pa—it’s not just the good things that makes us what we are–you have said that before haven’t you? It’s the bad things that makes us tough, too.” Hoss tried to get his point across.

“Okay–so I tell Joseph the bad things in his life and he will suddenly turn into the boy we all know and love! You think it’s that easy?”

“Heck, I don’t know any more. I am just saying that we should not paint this picture of the perfect son or brother. None of us are perfect; it ain’t fair to let him think he was.”

Ben turned toward the stairs and Hoss grabbed his father’s arm, not giving up on his suggestions. “Well?”

Ben looked into the intent and purposeful blue eyes. He could see that Hoss was hurting. The bond he had shared with his baby brother was a strong one and he wanted that back. “I’ll think on it.” Ben nodded and continued up the stairs.

Ben had waited and mulled over his conversation with Hoss. Days passed, with Ben keeping a watchful eye on both of his sons. Joe was doing his best to impress them all with his work, that was easy enough to spot right off. Ben felt a stab of remorse. He, too, missed the irascible young man with the many excuses to get out of work, and the ready-made alibis to get out of trouble.

By the end of the week, Ben had had enough with the whole situation and decided it was time to talk with Joe. Waiting until Hoss had turned in for the evening, Ben stopped Joe before he, too, had turned for the stairs.

“I’d like to talk with you, Joseph–if you don’t mind?”

“Sure, Pa. Anything wrong?” He asked and moved over to the settee. Ben settled into his chair by the fireplace and stared over at the young man. He fought to put the words into his head. Ben wasn’t sure how to tackle the situation.

“You’ve been working mighty hard lately, Joseph. I was just worried that you are perhaps over-doing a little.” Ben started.

Joe’s eyes questioned his father’s statement. “I’m just doing my job. Am I doing something wrong?”

“No, of course not! As a matter of fact, you are doing everything right.”

“Then, I don’t understand. I am just trying to be the son you want me to be. I am keeping up with everyone else.”

“You don’t have to try so hard.” Ben replied softly, still fighting for the right words to convey his thoughts.

“I am just trying to be your son. You know it’s kind of hard being the perfect Joe Cartwright—I don’t even know the guy.” Joe retorted wryly.

“Perfect Joe Cartwright? Who would he be?” Ben raised his eyebrows in gesture.

“Huh?” Joe was surprised by Ben’s remarks.

“The Joe Cartwright I knew–the one I raised–was far from perfect. But, then, since he was MY son that was expected.” Ben now wore a smile on his face.

“Oh—so I am doing better than the original Joe? What do you want me to do? You want me to goof off? Want me to rob a bank or something?”

“Yes to the goofing off, no to the robbing of the bank.” Ben teased and noticed how Joe was deeply confused at the moment. “It’s our fault–Hoss’ and mine–” Ben started and moved to sit down next to Joe on the settee. “We told you all of these wonderful stories about you–we made you think that you use to be perfect. I guess you were trying to match that picture.”

“So—you want to tell me some bad stuff now?”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Well, how about telling me some medium bad. I think I could wait on the really bad stuff awhile. Tell me what I am like–or rather what I use to be like.” Joe said his curiosity now peaked in anticipation.

“Okay–well, you never liked to get up in the morning. You liked to sneak out of the house and stay out late. You were a hard worker–that is when you wanted to be. But, you did more than your share of goofing off! You had a bad temper, not always, but when angered you were a force to be reckoned with!”

“I don’t think I like me.”

“Oh–you weren’t all that bad–really you just had your moments.”

“I’m not sure now why the heck you wanted me back to tell you the truth.”

“Because you kept us on our toes. Because you taught us all a thing or two along the way. And because you are my son and I love you.” Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder affectionately.

“Tell me something I did–you know so I can get an idea of what you want from me.”

“I’ll tell you a little story. Let me see your left hand a minute.”

“Huh?” Joe asked confused and Ben reached over and drew Joe’s left hand close to him.

“You see this scar on your thumb?” Ben pointed to a still visible line that ran up the outside of Joe’s left thumb.

“What about it? How did I get it?” Joe looked at the mark and then back up into Ben’s reflective brown eyes.

“You were just six years old. One day you got into Hoss’ things and got out his penknife. Now let me tell you, you had already been warned about this many times. You had been forbidden to use a knife. But, that did not stop you, no sir!” Ben stood up and walked over to the staircase. “Come here.” He called and Joe joined him at the bottom step.

“Now you decided that you would put your initials right here on this banister for posterity. Look down at the base.” Ben said and they both kneeled down. There on the inside of the post were the distinct carvings of the letters j and c. “A stunt that caused you to cut through that thumb of yours!”

“Ouch.” Joe replied looking down at how deep the scar must have been to still be so visible fourteen years later.

“Now you did not fess up right away. No, you told me several wild stories before your brother Adam noticed the wood carving and Hoss noticed that his knife was missing.”

“Oh–so my brothers ratted me out, huh?” Joe was now amused at the thought.

“You wouldn’t be laughing if you still remembered the tanning that you got from me!” Ben assured Joe and they both stood back up. “That is just one story. Believe me there are lots more of them. Want to hear more?” Ben asked smiling at the way Joe was still staring down at his thumb and the scar it carried.

“I kinda get the picture already. Tell me this–if you had to add up the good things and bad things I did–which would be greater?”

“I’ll have to think on that.” Ben stated deep in thought and saw the way Joe looked now. He seemed a bit upset at the remark. Ben decided to lighten his son’s burden and reached over and touched his arm. “I’m only kidding, Joseph. The joy you have brought me over the years far outweighs the sadness.”

Joe sighed and closed his eyes. It was then that the headache hit and he fell to the stairs clutching his head. Ben knelt next to him and drew him close. “Joseph? Are you okay?”

“It’s bad—real bad.” Joe whispered.

“We need to get the doctor.” Ben insisted, noticing the way his son’s face had gone as white as a sheet.

“No—no doctor. Just help me to my room. I just need to lie down.”

Ben wrapped his arm around Joe and helped him up the flight of stairs and down the hallway into his room. Once Joe was in bed, Ben pushed back the hair on his forehead and worried. “Please let me get the doctor, Joseph. I can tell you are in pain.”

“Worst one I ever had.” Joe bit his lip and tried to catch his breath. “Just let me get some sleep. I promise that in the morning if it’s not better I will see the doctor.”

“I still think—” Ben started but Joe cut him off.

“Please?” Joe’s eyes begged to have his way.

Ben pushed back the curls on his son’s forehead again and shook his head in defeat. “You close those eyes. I’m gonna sit right here until you dose off.”

“I’ll be fine.” Joe whispered and closed his eyes.

Ben watched and waited. He felt he should seek Doctor Martin for assurance that his son would be all right. Vowing to summon the man in the morning, Ben sank back into the chair and waited. It wasn’t long before Joe fell into a deep sleep. Ben reached over and pulled the covers up around the boy. Peace had fallen on Joe’s face and he did not appear to be in any further pain. Ben sat there for several hours, until he was sure that his son would have a restful slumber. He left the room a little after midnight, with a promise to himself that his son would be seeing the doctor the next day.

*****

Shortly before daybreak came the loud ear-piercing shouts emanating out of Joe’s bedroom. Ben sprang to his feet and hurried out of his room and across the hall. Upon entering his son’s room, Ben saw the young man sitting up in bed, still screaming at the top of his lungs.

Rushing to Joe’s aid Ben was quickly across the room and pulled Joe into his strong arms. He could feel the rapid warm breath against his own neck and the moisture of the boy’s perspiring forehead as it pressed against his cheek.

“Joseph–it’s just a nightmare–c’mon–snap out of it.” Ben whispered as he brushed his hand through the hair on the back of his son’s head.

“Oh–Pa–it was awful–just awful!” Joe sobbed as he came back around. He could feel his body shake even though he was still encased in the loving arms of his father.

“Shush now—shh— it was just a dream. Everything’s gonna be fine–just fine.” Ben rocked Joe to try and calm his persistent fear.

Joe pulled back enough so that he could look into his father’s eyes. Feeling the tears as they coursed down out of his eyes and tracked down his face, Joe fought to convey his dream to his father. “Pa—it scared me so bad–so bad.”

“What was it, Son? Do you remember this time?” Ben whispered calmly.

“I couldn’t find you! I couldn’t find my way home. I was so scared–I kept trying to find you but you kept disappearing. It was like you were out of focus, the harder I tried to get to you the faster you faded away. It was scarier than that dream I use to have about Eagle’s Nest!”

Ben’s eyes went wild; they intensified and opened wide with what Joe had revealed. “Eagle’s Nest?” He asked and saw Joe nod his response. “Who told you about Eagle’s Nest?”

“Huh?” Joe did not understand his father’s question.

“Joe–” Ben started and then looked real hard at the boy. He did not see that far away look in his eyes that had been there since he was first seen at the cabin. “What is my birthdate?”

“Huh?” Joe asked again. “Why, Pa?”

“Just tell me.” Ben insisted, starting to shake a little bit himself with anticipation over his son’s answer.

“February twelfth—-why?”

“What was the name of your first pony?” Ben continued with his questioning, hope rising in his chest for the first time in weeks.

“Paint—why are you asking me this stuff? You trying to get my mind off this nightmare?”

“One more question—just answer me one more. You had an imaginary friend when you were little, what was his name?”

“Gosh, Pa! This is embarrassing—if this is how you bring me out of nightmares now–I don’t think I will call out for you anymore!” Joe protested.

“His name.” Ben persisted.

“Sammy—gee you are really making me pay for waking you up!”

“Oh, Joseph! You’re back!” Ben exclaimed joyously and hugged the boy to him.

Joe could not understand the intensity that there was in his father’s remark nor his embrace. When Ben finally eased up on him, Joe looked back up. “What happened, Pa? Where was I?”

“That dream you had–it was no dream. You have been gone a long time–but none of that matters right now. All that matters is that you are back.” Ben kissed Joe’s forehead softly and let the boy settle back down in the bed. He saw how Joe’s face still held confusion on it and Ben grinned as he pulled the covers back up around him. “I’ll explain everything in the morning. Hoss is gonna be so happy to have his little brother back home!”

Joe scrunched back into the pillow, his fatigue taking back over. “Okay–Pa–tell me about it when I get up. But promise me when you tell Hoss —-” Joe paused and looked at Ben with a peculiar grin on his face. “Leave out the part where you asked me about Sammy, okay?”

Ben laughed and left the room. He knew he wouldn’t be going back to sleep now. He felt too good to go back to bed. A new day would soon be starting, a very wonderful new day at that.

Epilogue:

Hoss was more than thrilled to have his little brother back, the way he had always been before. Joe did not skip a beat getting back to his normal routine. He slept late, skipped out before the haying had been done and was the first to the bathhouse before dinner. All the irritating habits of one Joe Cartwright were more than welcomed by his family now. They were so happy to see the bright eyes and the scheming facial expressions worn proudly by the young man that they all loved so much. Joe had always been a very interesting mixture of joy and mischief and would continue to be just as irritatingly irresistible as he had been all his life.

Ben and Hoss stepped in from the kitchen with the evening coffee. Sitting down, the two men noticed Joe standing by the staircase, an impish look entertaining the young man’s face. Watching carefully as Ben set down the coffee pot and took his seat in his chair, Joe waited for his opportunity. When Ben lifted his newspaper up to his lap in preparation to read, something flew across the room and landed on top of it. Ben looked over at Joe as he lifted up the object; a pocketknife.

“I didn’t cut myself this time, Pa.” Joe grinned over at him. “Goodnight, Pa, goodnight, Big Brother.” Joe said and hurried up the stairs.

Ben and Hoss exchanged glances, and finally Ben caught on to what Joe had said. He stood and walked over to the staircase and looked down at where the initials j and c were still visible. Joe watched from around the corner at the top of the stairs.

“Now—Pa–you don’t think I’d do something that stupid again do you?” Joe’s voice came down the stairs.

“No–of course not.” Ben replied, and as he turned his vision caught on the other banister post. There, directly opposite from where, at the age of six Joe had emblazoned his initials, was a clearly new carving. Ben bent down and read the new carving, “j c 4 ever”.

“Joseph!” Ben’s voice resounded through the entire house. The only reply was the distinct laughter of one Joseph Francis Cartwright. He was definitely back

*****End*****

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