The Child (by Blueyes)

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


Morning rose with the sound of birds chirping and the breeze singing through the grasses. Jessica rolled over and stretched, looking longingly out the window. As she laid there, she could hear the sounds of her brothers busy on the chores and her Pa in the kitchen preparing breakfast. Normally this would be her job, but her expanding belly was causing her to have trouble getting around. She laid there dreading the moment that she would have to get up and face the task her Pa had decided on. Sighing deeply, she sat up and began to dress.

*****

“Little Joe, did ya ask Susie to the dance tomorrow night?” Hoss asked as he sat the pitchfork down.

“Yes little brother, is she the…ah… filly of choice this week?” Adam asked, trying to suppress the grin that tugged at his lips.

“Ain’t none of your business who I take to the dance,” Joe snapped back.

“I think we hit a nerve, Hoss.”

“Yeah, what’s wrong, big shorty? Did she turn ya down?” Hoss laughed.

“Bout time you two learn that no lady turns me down,” Joe added while pointing to his chest. “I just haven’t decided if I want to take her or someone else.”

“SHE TURNED HIM DOWN” both brothers said in unison looking at each other.

“Awe shut up!”

The brothers were brought out of their banter by the sound of a buckboard stopping in the yard. Walking out of the barn they saw an older man around Ben’s age, two men in their early twenties and a young girl around fifteen that was obviously with child.

“Wonder who they are?” Adam asked.

“I ain’t never seen them before,” Hoss answered.

Joe stood silently between his brothers. He knew who they were. He had met the man and his sons at the saloon a few months back. He could remember talking with the girl. He wasn’t sure why, but he had a real bad feeling about all of this.

“HEY!” Adam said louder as he shook Joe’s shoulder, bringing him from his thoughts.

“Huh….What?”

“Never mind.” Adam replied shaking his head.

Adam and Hoss walked over as Ben came out to meet the strangers.

“Can we help you?” Adam asked.

“Is this him?” Jeb Miller asked his daughter.

“No Papa.” she said dropping her head.

“My name’s Jeb Miller. These is my sons Colt and Cord, and my girl Jessica,”

Ben extended his hand to the man, “I’m Ben Cartwright and these are my sons, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. What can…”

“Which one is Little Joe? ” Jeb interrupted, not excepting Ben’s hand.

Joe walked up and stood beside his father. Naturally they were flanked by both brothers.

“This the one, girl?”

“Yes Papa.” Jessica answered stealing a glance at Little Joe.

“OK boys, git the kid in the wagon.”

As Colt and Cord began to dismount, they were stopped as Adam called, “I wouldn’t get off those horses.” with his gun pointed at the young men.

“Just what is the meaning of this?” Ben demanded placing a protective arm around Little Joe’s shoulders.

“That young’un of yours done went and took advantage of my little girl. That there kid she’s carrying is his.” Jeb said pointing an accusing finger at Joe.

Ben tightened his grip on his son. “Mr. Miller, I can assure you that none of my boys would ever take advantage of a woman like you are saying. They have been raised better than that.”

“Well, that one has got ya fooled. He’s wilder than a buck. I done seen him in town, drunk, playing cards and hanging all over those painted women.” Jeb exclaimed.

“Mr. Miller, I would appreciate it if you would leave this ranch. We have nothing else to say for now.” Ben said. He wanted to have a chance to talk to his son and find out what he knew about the situation. There was obviously something. Joe hadn’t even offered to defend himself.

“Cartwright, we’ll leave for now. I can see that you want to talk to the boy, but I’m telling you, we’ll be back and then I want to know what he’s gonna do about this.” Jeb said as he climbed back on the buckboard, and left.

As the family rounded the barn, three sets of eyes fell on the youngest Cartwright, who stood with his head down.

“Well, little brother, just what have you been up too?” Adam asked crossing his arms across his chest.

“Adam!” Ben said as he walked around in front of Joe. “Joseph, in the house, we need to talk.”

“Yes sir.” Joe answered and made his way to the house, followed by his family.

Ben walked over and sat on the low table in front of Joe, placing his hand on his son’s knee. “Joseph, do you know this girl?”

Joe sat with his head down. “Yes sir.”

“Look at me son, this is important.” Joe looked up into his fathers eyes. “Did you do anything with this girl?”

“I don’t think so.” He answered in almost a whisper.

“You don’t think so? What do you mean, you don’t think so?!” Ben bellowed. “I want some answers and I want them now!” he demanded grabbing Joe by the arms and pulling him roughly from the chair.

“PA” Adam said as he made his way to his father’s side. “Easy, let the kid tell us what happened so we can help him.”

“Yeah, Pa, just give him a chance.” Hoss added as he eased himself between his father and brother.

“Ok, explain Joseph.” Ben said as he sat down on the hearth and laid his head in his hands.

“Ah… I do know Jessica. I met her and her family a few months back. You were out of town.”

“I remember.”

“Well, me and Mitch and some others…..um… snuck out and met at the saloon.” Joe said chancing a glance at his father. Seeing his angry, disappointed eyes, he again dropped his head. “We were drinking and I remember seeing the Millers there. Jessica came in to get them and we got to talking.”

“Is talking all you did?”

“It’s all I remember. I woke up in the barn and snuck back in.”

“Joseph, I want to ask you an important question and I want the truth. Have you ever…”

“No… I haven’t Pa.” he answered, quickly biting his bottom lip.

Ben, relieved that his fifteen year old son was still unwise in those ways, stood and walked to the study.

Joe looked up at his brothers. Hoss just shook his head, but when his eyes locked with Adam’s he could have sworn he saw smoke. He knew that Adam would be mad because he was the one that had been left in charge while their Pa had been away. “I’m sorry Adam.” he whispered.

“Why is it that you can’t just do as you’re told? I told you that you couldn’t go met them that night. See if you had just listened none of this would be happening.” Adam said as he stood towering over his youngest brother.

“I know.”

“Joseph, Adam, there will be time for this discussion later. Right now, we have to figure out what we’re going to do about this situation.” Ben snapped as he joined them.

“Fine, but I want to handle that discussion; after all, he was in my care at the time.” Adam stated hotly.

“I have no problem with that.” Ben agreed.

“Pa, when you think that baby is going come?” Hoss asked.

“My guess is probably no more that a couple of months. Why?”

“Well, that trip of yours was what about six months ago?” Hoss added.

“Yes, of course. Depending on when the baby is born, the times might not add up. Right now, that may be the only chance we have at proving Joe is not the father.”

“What if he is?” Adam asked.

“Then we’ll figure something out.” Ben said looking down at his son.

“Like what Pa, the kid is only fifteen, he can’t be a father. He’s not mature enough to handle that. He can’t even keep himself out of trouble,” Adam snapped.

“I won’t have a choice in the matter Adam. If it’s mine, I have to take responsibility for it.” Joe said without looking up into the faces of his family.

“Look Joe, I really don’t think that you would do something like this. I mean, you haven’t had any experience, and the fact that you were drunk. I don’t think you could have if you wanted to.” Adam said with a smile tugging at his lips.

“Well, we can’t sit here all day thinking about this. You all go on to work. Joe, you stay with Adam today, just in case they decide to try something. I don’t want you alone until this is settled.”

“Can’t I stay with Hoss instead?” Joe asked catching the sneer on his eldest brother’s face.

“No. You go with Adam. Besides, I think that he has something to discuss with you. Am I right son?”

“Never been righter Pa.” Adam said grabbing Joe’s arm and leading him out the door followed by Hoss.

Ben sat down at his desk and picked up the picture of Marie. ‘How do we solve this one, my love? He is so young. This can’t be true. Not my baby.’

Adam and Joe rode for nearly and hour before reaching the fence line in question. Dismounting and tethering their horses, Adam walked over and confronted Joe. Joe stood with his head down until he heard the sound of Adams belt being pulled loose from his trousers.

“A…Adam, that was a long time ago. Come on please don’t do this.” Joe begged as he backed away from Adam’s advances. Adam doubled the belt and continued to walk toward his brother until Joe bumped into a fallen tree and sat back roughly on it. Joe looked up at his brother and could see that it was no use in trying to talk him out of what ever he had in mind. Once again he dropped his head.

“Boy, look at me!” Joe complied. “You made me look very bad today in front of Pa. I can’t believe that you could be so careless. Now I want your complete attention, do I have it?”

“Uh huh.”

“I want you to understand that this is the last time that I will ever let this pass. I want nothing more right now than to throw you across that tree and wail the tar out of you. The only reason that I’m not is because now we have a much bigger problem, but if you ever, ever sneak out again, whether Pa’s home or not. I will make good on this promise. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Perfectly, Adam.”

“Fine, then let’s get to that fence.”

Joe, not hesitating when Adam allowed him to go, stood and walked past his brother. Adam couldn’t resist taking his belt and landed one whack as hard as he dared to Joe’s backside. After the shock, Joe turned to see him fastening his belt with a very satisfied look on his face.

*****

“Pa, ya think those Cartwrights believed us?” Colt asked as he assisted his father in putting the team away.

“What with the kids reputation, and the fact he was so drunk that night. I don’t see how they can deny it. Why ole man Cartwright will be abeggin’ me to take some of that money from him to clear that kid’s name.”

“What about sis. You gonna let her keep that little’un?”

“Don’t see why not. After all it is a Cartwright.” Jeb added laughing. “Now you two get on to town and start spreading the news.”

Jessica sat listening to the conversation between her father and brothers. She hated doing this. She had loved Little Joe since the first day they had met. He had taken up for her in school while she was allowed to attend. After her mother had died, her Pa had taken her out to work at home. She wasn’t sure if Joe even remembered her from then. They had only been eight at the time. As she put her hand to her stomach and felt the life inside her, she softly said. ‘I’m so sorry, Little Joe. Please forgive me.”

*****

After supper as Joe sat on the settee staring into the fire, Adam and Hoss walked over to Ben and sat down.

“Pa, can ah… Hoss and I take Joe with us to town tonight?”

“I don’t…”

“Pa, come on, the kid will be sixteen in a couple of months. We’ll take care of him, won’t let him out of our sights.” Adam added.

“Yeah, come on Pa, the kid ain’t been himself at all today. He’s real worried.” Hoss added.

“He ought to be worried. So you two think that I should award his bad behavior with a trip to a saloon. Have you forgotten that a trip like that is what got him into this mess to start with?”

“No, not a trip like this. Last time he snuck out; this time he will be supervised. Look Pa the kid needs a break. Won’t let him have but, say. three?” Adam knew his father would only allow Little Joe two beers and thought this would cause Ben to slip up and agree.

“Two, and only beer.” Ben said then realized what he had agreed to. Once again that oldest boy had worked his charms on him. “And he wonders where Joe gets it!”

“Now look Joe, you stay with one of us at all times. Pa said that you could have two beers and that was all. I’ll buy you your first one and Hoss will buy you the next. Don’t even try to finagle another one out of us. Clear?” Adam said as the brothers tied their horses to the rail in front of the saloon.

“I got it Adam. Thanks for bringing me.”

“No problem kid, glad ya here.” Hoss said putting his arm around his brother and steering him into the saloon.

“Three beers, Sam.” Adam said as he walked up to the bar.

“How ya doing, Adam. That Little Joe with ya?”

“Yep, finally got Pa to let him come with us. Say, do me a favor, I’m buying the kid one and then Hoss is. Pa’s rule was only two beers. Don’t let him talk ya into another.”

“You got it Adam, but from what I’ve heard of your brother, it takes more than a couple to get him drunk.”

“Just what have you heard Sam?”

“Only that he goes to The Bucket of Blood quite often and has won several of the drinking contests.”

“He better hope that Pa don’t hear about it. He won’t be back in town til he’s thirty.” Adam commented as he gathered the beers and walked over to join his brothers.

Sitting the beers in front of them, Adam looked at Joe and shook his head and smiled.

“What?” Joe questioned.

“How?”

“How what, older brother?” Joe asked taking a sip.

“How is it that you have been able to sneak out enough to gain a reputation in drinking contests?”

“Just lucky I guess.” Joe smiled is most innocent smile.

“Well, little brother, you just keep in mind that little discussion we had this morning. I won’t hesitate on carrying through with it.”

Joe swallowed hard and shook his head. He had no doubt that Adam would follow through.

“Well, looky here, Colt. It’s that little Cartwright brat.” Cord bellowed from across the saloon.

Adam looked around and saw who was yelling and placed his hand over Joe’s arm. He could feel the tension that ran through the boy’s body.

“What’s a matter, kid? You think you’re man enough to sit in here and drink, and you seemed to have been man enough to make a little’un. Now, you gonna be man enough to take care of that kid?”

All eyes fell on the Cartwrights. As Cord and Colt were walking over to the table they were sitting at, the brothers heard the hissing of comments being made by the other customers.

“Take it easy Joe.” Adam warned. Joe nodded.

“Say, you two better keep a tight reign on the kid, don’t want him out here making another one.”

“Look, why don’t you leave the kid alone. Nothing has been settled yet.” Adam said sitting his beer back on the table.

“We’ll leave him alone when he admits to what he done to our sister.” Colt said walking around the table to stand behind Joe.

“COLT, CORD” Jeb yelled from the door. Walking over to join them he said, “I dun told ya’ll not to bother those people. The kid will pay for what he’s dun. But I ain’t having the two of you locked up for fighting with them. Now git.”

Colt and Cord slowly walked over to the door and waited for their Pa. “You Cartwrights understand one thing. The only reason I stopped them was ’cause your family has so much pull in this town. You two need to take that brat on home to his daddy. But I guess this says a lot about that Pa of yours. If one of mine had done something like this he’d be drinking that beer standing.”

“Now you see hear, Miller, ain’t nothing been proved, so you just let ‘em be.” Hoss added.

“What’s the matter, kid? Gotta have your brothers take up for you?”

By now Joe had had more than he could take. He stood up knocking his chair to the floor. “Look Mr. Miller, I know your daughter, but I didn’t do what you say I did. Now I’d appreciate it if you would leave me alone.”

Grabbing Joe by the arm, Jeb turned him around and glared in his face. “Why you little upstart, I got a good mind to thrash you myself.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Adam said standing up. He and Hoss stood on either side of Joe.

“Your hide’s safe for now boy. But watch yourself; they can’t be with you all the time.” Jeb stated and left with his sons.

*****

“So that’s about it, Pa.” Adam said sitting on the hearth.

“We have got to get to the bottom of this. I will not have one of my son’s threatened.”

“I ain’t scared of him Pa.” Joe said sounding more confident that he felt.

“Joseph, I know that you believe that but I think it would be best if you stayed with one of us at all times.” Ben said.

“I’ll go along with that off the ranch. But there ain’t no need to worry here.”

“YOU will be with one of us all of the time, including the ranch young man.”

“But Pa…”

“No buts, you will do as I say or I can lock you in your room.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Try me.”

“You better nail his window down too,” Adam said smugly.

“Ok, ok. I’ll stay with one of you.”

“Now that this is settled, let’s get to bed. We have church in the morning.”

The four Cartwrights rode into Virginia City to attend church services, tethering their horses they walked into the crowd. Joe could sense the people watching him as he walked with his family. Adam put his arm around his shoulder and smiled at him.

“Has a lot of nerve, it you ask me,” one lady in the crowd said.

“I agree. Always knew that one would cause Ben trouble.” another said.

“Needs a good thrashing, if you ask me,” came the voice of a man.

Looking around at the sound, Ben spotted Jeb Miller with his family. Putting his hand on Joe’s back he led his sons into the church.

The service wasn’t the long one that normally happened every Sunday. It was hot and muggy outside with the threat of rain. Joe wanted it over quickly. He needed out of there. He wanted to jump on Cochise and ride until his head cleared. Startled out of his thought by his father’s gentle nudge, he stood and walked out with his family. None of them felt like talking to anyone, as they made their way to the horses.

“That’s right Cartwright, get that brat of yours back on that ranch and don’t let him back in town. Who knows whose daughter is next?” Jeb yelled.

“Miller, I’ll thank you to keep your comments to yourself and leave my son alone.” Ben stated as he mounted Buck.

“Better watch that young’un.” Jeb turned to the crowd and announced.

Joe turned Cochise around and took off at a run. Seeing this Adam jumped on Sport and took off after him.

Adam caught up with Joe at the lake. Grabbing Cochise’s bridle he pulled her to a stop. Joe slid from the horses back and walked over to the small beach. Sitting on the sand he pulled his knees up and laid his head down. Adam watched as the boys shoulders started trembling. Sighing he walked over and sat beside him.

“Want to talk about it?”

“Adam, what am I gonna do? I mean…what if it is mine?”

“Joe, I really don’t think it is, but if it turns out that way, then we’ll handle it. You know we’ll be behind you.”

“I don’t wanna be a father, Adam.” Joe said as tears ran down his cheeks.

Adam pulled him into his arms and rubbed his back. “Shhh, buddy. It’s going to be alright. We’ll fix this some way.”

Ben and Hoss sat on the hill and watched the compassionate scene. They too were wondering what would come of this.

“The kids really upset about this, Pa.”

“I know, but I don’t know what to do about it. I just can’t believe that it could be true.”

“I’m sure it ain’t. He’s just a kid.”

“Hoss, he’s fifteen, that’s old enough. I just hope it’s not true.”

“Me too. Now if it was Adam, that would be different.” Hoss said with a smile.

“He certainly has the touch, doesn’t he?” Ben commented as he watched his oldest holding his youngest.

“He always did, especially where that young’un was concerned.

“Let’s go, I know that Adam will watch out for him.” Ben said as he and Hoss turned their horses and headed home.

*****

Several days passed without incident and life was starting to take on a sense of normalcy. Saturday arrived and the boys finished their work early in order to get ready for the dance. Adam was using the surrey to pick up Mary Ann, Hoss was being picked up by Bessie Sue, and Joe was meeting Susie at the dance. All was going well at the dance with the boys enjoying themselves. Joe spent time with Mitch, taking turns dancing with each other’s girls, and sneaking some punch.

“Hey Joe, you and Susie wanna go out for some air?” Mitch asked as he and Sally stopped by them on the dance floor.

Looking around, Joe said, “I ain’t suppose to get outta Pa’s sight tonight. He’s worried about something happening.”

“We’ll just go out to the porch. What could happen out there?” Mitch said.

“Yeah, come on Little Joe, it’s hot in here. Please?” Susie asked with a pout that Joe couldn’t refuse.

“Shall we?” he asked offering her his arm.

The four friends walked out onto the porch and sat in the cool night air. They sat and talked for several minutes not knowing that they were being watched. Colt and Cord Miller stood at the edge of the building watching them waiting for the right time to approach.

Ben had been talking with Paul Martin and Roy Coffee when he noticed that he hadn’t seen Little Joe in a while. After looking around the room and not seeing him he became worried and decided to look for him.

“Roy, Paul if you will excuse me, I need to find Joseph. I told him not to leave this room, but I don’t see him.”

“I’ll help you Ben. You haven’t seen the Millers’ around have you?” Roy asked.

“No, I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean anything.” Ben said as he walked over to his two oldest sons. “Have either of you seen your brother lately?”

“No sir. Let me guess, he’s wandered off. Crazy kid! Just can’t listen.” Adam said.

Not seeing Joe on the dance floor or at the punch, they decided to go outside for a look. They hadn’t made it out the door before hearing the unmistakable giggle of the youngest Cartwright.

“JOSEPH!” Ben bellowed, causing all four of the youngsters to jump.

“Yes…Pa?” he asked innocently.

“Don’t play innocent with me, young man. You were told not to leave the dance.”

Ben said with his hands on his hips.

“I…I didn’t. This is as far as we’ve been, honest.”

“You were not to leave the room alone, and don’t say you weren’t alone.”

“Sorry Pa.”

“You have two choices, stay inside with us or we’ll go home.”

“I’ll stay inside, promise.”

The Miller boys watched as they all went back inside. “Let’s go tell Pa. It ain’t gonna be easy to get that kid alone.” Cord said pulling his brother by the arm.

“Pa, we thought we had the kid, but they watching him like a hawk.” Colt told his father over breakfast.

“Well, they can’t watch him all the time. We just have to wait until the right time and then grab him.”

“Pa, what cha gonna do to Little Joe?” Jessica asked. She was tired of this game and wanted it over. She was afraid of her Pa and what he might do to Little Joe. “You told me you wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Ain’t gonna hurt him much. The kids got a smart mouth on him, besides he needs to pay a little so that Pa of his will pay a lot.”

“They won’t let him go anywhere alone. May have to take care of one of them before we can.” Cord added.

“So, maybe we outta just go in there and show them we mean business.” Jeb said with a smug grin. “He don’t wanna seem to ‘fess up to it so maybe we ought to beat a confession out of him, in front of the old man and his brothers.”

“You mean go out to that ranch of theirs and teach the kid a lesson?” Colt asked.

“That’s just what I mean. We’ll go tonight.”

*****

“Adam, how many strays did you two round up today? Ben asked as he and his sons sat down to supper.

“Around twenty, I’d say. Wouldn’t you, Joe?”

“Sounds about right. Pass the potatoes, please,” Joe answered.

“Short shanks, did you see that string of horses over by Buckhorn Meadow?”

“Sure did, there’s some really nice ones there.”

Their conversation was cut short by a knock at the door. Hop Sing scurried out of the kitchen and went to answer it. “What you want?”

“The kid, that’s what.” Jeb Miller stated as he and his sons pushed their way past the housekeeper and entered the house, with guns drawn.

“What’s the meaning of this, Miller?” Ben yelled as he stood.

“We aim to teach that boy of yours some manners, and to get the truth out of him. Now you just sit down there. Hate ta have ta shoot ya.”

“Get out of my house and leave my son alone.”

“We’ll leave him alone as soon as he admits to takin’ advantage of my girl. Tie ‘em up boys.”

Colt tied their arms behind their backs and led them one at a time to the great room where he made them sit and tied their ankles together. With Adam seated in his blue chair, Ben in his red chair, and Hoss on the settee, they turned their attention on Little Joe.

“Miller, I’m warning you, don’t hurt my son.”

“Awe, don’t worry Mr. Cartwright, we don’t aim to do him no permanent harm. But I will get the truth outta the boy. Tie him up boys, just like I told ya.” Miller ordered.

Colt grabbed Joe and pulled him over to the stairs, and pushed his face roughly against the spindles. Taking the rope Cord secured both his wrists.

“What ya gonna do mister?” Hoss growled as he tugged against his rope.

“I dun said all along what that kid needs is a good thrashing. Seeing as how ya’ll don’t intend on doin’ it. Then I will.” Jeb said walking over and ripping Joe’s shirt from his back.

Joe began to fight against his bonds to the point his wrists were bleeding. Colt stood watching the boy as he struggled. He could see the tears threaten in the emerald green eyes. Laughing he looked at Joe and said, “Been there kid, you got a right to be scared. Pa, don’t hold back when swinging the strap.”

“Now Colt, why ya scaring the kid. Pa might not be too hard on him. Then again, I guess ya right; he has got cause to be scared.” Cord laughed.

“Miller, this isn’t going to solve anything. Little Joe has been dealt with over this by me. You have no right.” Adam said glaring at the man.

“By you? Why you, you ain’t his Pa, are ya?”

“No, I’m his brother, but he was in my care when he snuck out.”

“Well, he was sitting and walking just fine, so I would think that you didn’t do a good enough job of it. B’sides, that’s his Pa’s job, not a young’un like you.”

“Then, let me do it.” Ben said. His hopes were that if Miller would allow him to do it he could keep Joe’s back from being battered causing permanent scars.

“Why you wanna do it now?” Miller asked.

“He’s my boy. It’s my place, not yours.”

“Ok… but keep in mind that my boys have a gun pointed at these other two of yours so don’t try anythin’.” Jeb said motioning for Colt to release Ben.

Joe was able to turn enough to catch eye contact with Adam. Seeing the fear that lay behind the bright eyes of his baby brother, he managed a smile and a wink. Little Joe knew what his Pa had in mind. He knew the thought was to at least save his back and to keep the beating from being so severe. No matter how hard this was on him, he knew that it was going to be even harder on his father. Pa hated giving him a tannin’ when he deserved one, he could only imagine how his father was feeling now.

Colt pulled Ben roughly to the stairs where Joe was tied. Ben walked over and put his arm around his son. “Are you ok?”

“Been better Pa”, Joe said with a nervous laugh.

“I know son… I’m sorry about this.”

“It’s ok, Pa. I know why ya doing it.”

“I love you, boy.”

“I love you too, Pa.”

“Enough of the touching display. Now let’s get on with it.” Jeb said walking over so that he could witness the event.

Ben started unbuckling his belt when he heard Jeb say, “Leave ya belt on; you’re gonna use this.” he finished and handed Ben a razor strap.

“I’d rather use my belt thank you.” Ben said again pulling at it again. He was stopped at the sound of a gun being cocked. Turning, he saw that Jeb had aimed his rifle at Joe.

“Now, you can do as I say and have the kid alive or I can go on and kill him now.”

Ben reached out and took the strap from Colt. “Alright, I’ll use it, just don’t hurt him.”

Looking up, Ben locked eyes with Little Joe’s tear filled ones. His heart broke at the sight of his son tied up and scared. He silently mouthed, “I love you.”

Joe nodded and tried to give his Pa a smile, and returned the thought. “I love you too, Pa.” turning his head to face the stairs he braced himself for the onslaught of lashes to begin.

Ben steeled himself before raising the strap and delivering the first of many lashes. He tried to be as easy as he possibly could get away with. He could see the enjoyment in the eyes of their captors. He had seen Hoss and Adam turn away and drop their heads. The sound that Little Joe made every time the strap came in contact with his backside rang in his ears. Joe had been brave and not made a sound with the first eight or nine lashes, but after that he had no choice. After about the twentieth lash, Ben stopped and rolled the strap up.

“Why ya stopping?” Jeb questioned.

“The boys had enough.” Ben said turning anger filled eyes on Miller.

“We’ll see.” he answered. He walked over and pulled Joes’ face around to meet his. “What about it boy, you ready to admit to what ya did?”

“Go to hell.” Joe whispered.

Jeb pulled his hand back and slapped Joe hard across the mouth, leaving a trace of blood on his lips. “Boy, I aim to teach you some manners yet.” he snarled as he took the strap away from Ben.

“NO!” Ben yelled. “Please let me talk to him a minute.”

“Make it quick. He’s got another three lashes coming to him for that mouth of his, no matter what.”

Ben walked over and took Joe’s face in his hands. Wiping away the blood with his thumb he smiled and softly said, “Joseph, listen to me, please just tell him you did it. You can’t take much more of this.”

“I can’t Pa. I don’t think I did.” Joe cried.

“I know son, but, I’m telling you to. Now mind me Joseph, and do as I say.”

“Yes sir.” Joe said. As much as he wanted to fight this, he was all out of fight. He could only imagine how bad it could have been.

“Miller, Joe has something to say.” Ben said squeezing his sons shoulder to give him the support to see him through his ‘confession’.

“What about it, boy?”

“The…baby is….mine.” Joe admitted in a whisper.

“That’s more like it. Cord, if you’ll see to Mr. Cartwright here, me and the kid have a little unfinished business to see to.”

“You said you’d leave him alone if he confessed to this.” Ben said struggling against Cord.

“And I will, but he still has a lesson to learn.” Miller said as he began to repeatedly delivered lashes across Joe’s backside. “The only reason I ain’t whipping your back is you was wise enough to admit to it.” Jeb continued to whip Joe until the boy was no longer able to stay conscious. After seeing that his victim has succumbed to darkness, Miller stopped the attack.

“Boys, let’s go. The next time we see each other Cartwright, that kid had better made up his mind. I want to know if he’s gonna marry my little girl or at least take care of the baby.” With that said the Millers’ left the men behind tied.

“Has anybody been able to get the ropes loose?” Ben asked. He so wanted to go to his child and hold him in his arms. He knew that at the moment Joe was in no pain, but once he came around he would be.

“Just about got mine, Pa.” Hoss grunted pulling with all his might. “Got it.” he said and made his way to his Pa and untied him then on to Adam. The three men easily untied Little Joe and placed him on his bed. Being careful to lay him on his stomach, they slowly took his boots and pants off. Luckily his back had been spared, but his bottom and upper legs were covered in bruises and welts, some of which were bleeding.

Wincing, Adam looked at his Pa, “I don’t care what the kid done, he didn’t deserve a whipping like this.”

“I know, son. And to think, I did a lot of this.” Ben said as a knot formed in his throat.

“Pa, you did this for him. Can you imagine what Miller would have done to him, if you hadn’t?”

“Your right, but it still doesn’t help much.”

“Hears the salve Pa,” Hoss said as he entered the bedroom and saw for the first time the damage that had been done to his baby brother. “I’ll kill ‘em Pa.”

“No son, that wouldn’t help anyone right now. We have to figure out something else.”

“Want me to go get Roy, or Paul Pa?” Adam asked.

“Send a hand to town to get them. I doubt that Roy can do anything about this though.”

“Why’s that, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“He was within his rights to whip Joe since he admitted to it.”

“Ain’t right,” Hoss said shaking his head.

Ben took the salve and began to carefully apply it to the welts. In doing so Joe moaned softly. “Pa?”

“Yes son, Pa’s here. You just lay still, Paul’s on his way.”

“It hurts, Papa… please make it stop.”

“Oh baby, Papa wishes he could.” Ben said brushing the curls from Joes’ face.

Adam and Hoss paced around the room listening to their little brother’s cries. While Hoss was fighting back his own tears, Adam was getting madder by the moment.

At the sound of a buggy pulling up in the yard, Ben went to see Paul in. Adam took Ben’s place at his brother’s side. Seeing the pain on his face, Adam leaned close and promised, “I swear to you little buddy, they won’t get away with this.”

Dr. Paul Martin descended the stairs almost an hour later to the waiting faces of the remaining Cartwrights. A knock at the door revealed Sheriff Roy Coffee. Paul waited until all were seated before he told of the boy’s condition.

“Paul, how is he?” Ben asked.

“He’s sleeping now. I gave him a pain powder; he should sleep through the night. His wounds are bad but nothing that won’t heal. He’s going to be a very uncomfortable boy for several days. I don’t think he’s going to want to sit to often, but he’ll be fine.”

“Thank God.” Ben said laying his head in his hands.

“Ben, I havta ask, just what happened here. And who did that ta Little Joe?” Roy asked as he joined the men after taking a look at the boy and his wounds. He couldn’t help but smile at the fact of how embarrassed Little Joe would have been if he had been awake.

“Jeb Miller and his sons came in here with guns and tied us up and then tied Joe to the stairs.” Adam explained.

“I did most of it, Roy.” Ben admitted softly.

“YOU?! But why? Ben, I’ve seen ya tan the hide off’n that young’un, but you ain’t never done nothing like that.” Roy exclaimed.

“Roy, Pa did it for Joe.” Hoss said quickly.

“Ben, please tell us what happened.” Paul said, worried that he might have to give his oldest friend a sedative, to calm his shaking.

“Miller…came here to get Joe to admit that he was the father of the girl’s baby. He decided that he’d beat it out of him with us watching. They tied him up and ripped his shirt off. He was holding a razor strap. I didn’t want Joe to go through that, so I convinced him to let me do it. He agreed, so I thought that I could at least not hit him as hard and keep it to only his backside, not his back. Once I stopped he wasn’t satisfied, he was going to whip him more, so I made Joe admit to it. I thought it would be the best way to stop all of this. After Joe admitted it, Miller grabbed the strap and hit him over and over til he passed out. Then they left,” Ben said as the day’s event caught up with him.

“Ben, you know there ain’t much I can do, since Joe admitted to it.”

“I know; I don’t really care as long as Joseph is alright,” Ben conceded.

“Pa?” came the soft sound from the bed. The sound was barely enough to wake the sleeping man sitting in the chair next to his bed.

“No, little buddy, it’s Adam.” he answered lightly stroking his brothers cheek. “How do you feel?”

“Like I got the tannin’ of my life.” Joe said with the slightest of grins.

“Well, you kind of did. Are you hurting much?” Adam asked pleased to hear the attempt for humor from the boy.

“Do ya remember the worst tannin Pa ever gave ya?”

“Yeah.”

“Multiply that by a thousand.”

“Oh Little Joe, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I just wished that we could have done something to stop them.”

“I’m sorry you all had ta watch.”

“Don’t think about that, now. I’m going to give you one of the powders that Paul left for you.” Adam said as he moved to stand.

“Paul? You mean that Doc Martin came out here?” Joe asked as a slight blush crept up his cheeks.

Seeing his brother obvious embarrassment, he turned to hide the smile that tugged at his lips. “Yeah, Pa had him come and check you out. Then Roy had to make a report.”

Groaning over the fact that in his drug induced state two of the family’s closes friend has walked into his room and inspected his backside, Joe pulled the pillow over his head.

“Aw, now come on, kid. Paul has seen your butt lots of times and Roy has seen it on a few occasions when you were over Pa’s knee. Shoot you’ve been in that state over Roy’s knee as well.” Adam laughed.

“So!” came the muffled voice from under the pillow.

“What’s this all about?” Ben asked with a smile as he walked into the bedroom. He has overheard part of the conversation and his heart filled with love as he listened to his sons.

“Little brother has had a sudden case of modesty. Seems he don’t like the fact that everyone is checking out his backside.” Adam said as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh and he won’t take his medicine.”

“Joseph, take your medicine, son.” he said as he watched Joe uncover his head.

“Yes sir.” he said, complying to his fathers wishes.

Ben walked over and sat down on the side of the bed and stroked Joe’s back gently. “How are you feeling this morning, young man?”

“I’ll be alright Pa, don’t worry about me.” Joe said putting up a brave front.

“Paul says you’ll be up in a few days. But until he checks you over, you have to stay in bed.”

“Checks me over? Pa I don’t want him looking at me.” Joe said quickly looking at his father then to his brother.

“Now Joseph, Paul is your doctor. There is nothing wrong with him looking at you.” Ben said patting his son on the shoulder. “Son, I’m sorry. I hated having to do this to you, but…”

“It’s alright Pa. I know why you did it. Thanks to you at least my back isn’t hurting.”

“Thank you for understanding. I’ve tanned your hide on many occasions in the past, and probably will a several more times in the future, but I would never hurt you like this son.”

“I know Pa. I just wished I hadn’t admitted to doing that.”

“Joseph, just because you admitted to it, doesn’t change the fact that none of us believe that you are that child’s father.”

“Yeah, but now he can tell everyone that I admitted to it. Everyone will think it’s true.”

“Try not to worry about that right now, and get some rest. We’ll work something out.” Ben said as he gently pulled the covers up around Joe’s shoulders and tucked him in.

*****

A month had passed by and Jessica thought that maybe her father had forgotten about the plan to get money from the Cartwrights, and to belittle Joe to all that know and love him. Early one morning, as she awoke she was startled by sharp pains. Not understanding what was happening to her she began to cry and call for her Pa.

“What is it child?” Jeb called as he entered the room. Finding his daughter still in the bed he asked, “What’s wrong with ya girl?”

“OH PAPA! I don’t know! I think the baby’s coming.”

Jeb ran out of the room and called for his sons, “Make the wagon ready.”

“Where we going, Pa?” Colt asked.

“Gotta take ya sister to the doctor; the kid’s coming. Cord, Colt go on over and tell that Cartwright kid that he’d better get on into town, his kids on the way.”

“What if he won’t come?” Colt added tightening up the cinch on his horse.

“If he refuses, tell him that we will make sure that everyone knows he has abandoned his own kid. With a name like they got, they won’t have a choice.”

*****

Joe’s recovery went fairly well and within a month he was up and around. He was on light duty, but still he was pleased with not being confined to the bed. Still having some trouble sitting he was able to ride his horse to do ranch chores but he was left to do the yard chores instead so Pa could keep an eye on him.

Breakfast was going on with its usual banter and talk about the days work, when a knock came at the door. Adam got up and answered it finding the Miller brothers standing there.

“What do you two want? Hasn’t your father caused us enough trouble?” Adam stated.

“Pa sent us to get the boy. He’s taking Jessie to town; the kids coming.” Cord said looking around to see if he saw Joe.

“Pa, they say the baby’s coming; they want Joe to go into town.”

Ben looked at his son and saw him grow pale. Putting his hand on his arm he said, “Little Joe, do you want to go?”

“I…I don’t know.” he mumbled.

“Look kid, if’n ya don’t, we’ll make sure that everyone knows that ya turnin’ your back on your own.”

“Joe will be there, but we’ll bring him. You two get on out of here.” Ben said squeezing Joe’s shoulders. He could swear the boy looked about ready to faint.

“Pa? Can me and Adam go too?”

“Pa, please let them.” Joe begged.

“Of course, we’ll all go. Get ready.” Ben said. Not long afterward the four left for Virginia City.

The mood in the office of Dr. Martin, was tense, to say the least. On one side of the room, the Millers sat and waited for the outcome. Jeb Miller watched the young boy on the other side of the room. He truly hated the boy and his family. He knew that Jessica was in love with him and that made him believe that the child she carried was his, even though Jessica would not tell him for sure. Colt and Cord sat along side their father listening to the sounds of their sister fighting to bring a new life into the world. They too knew of the love she felt for the boy, and could only assume that the child was his. They agreed with the fact that Joe should take responsibility for his actions, but didn’t agree with their Pa trying to get money from the family. But he was their Pa, so they had to go along with what he wanted.

On the other side of the room. The Cartwrights sat along side each other and waited. Joe sat between Ben and Adam with Hoss close by. Sitting with his head down and biting his lip, Joe dared not to look at any of the men across from him. The memory of his torture was too fresh in his mind.

An hour past, when the room was ripped open by an ear piercing scream that brought Joe to his feet. Standing, Ben laid his hand on the back of Joe’s neck and caressed.

“What’s a matter kid, can’t take it? Well you listen good; you’re the cause of that pain.” Jeb said getting to his feet.

“Leave the boy alone, Miller.” Adam said calmly.

The argument was halted when the door to the back room opened and Paul Martin walked out.

“How is the girl, Paul?” Ben asked, as the men gathered around.

“She had a hard time of it. The baby was breech.”

“She’ll be alright?” Jeb asked.

“I’m sorry sir, but there was too much damage. Joe, she wants to see you.”

Joe nodded and looked up at Ben. Receiving a nod Joe walked past Paul and his nurse to enter the room.

‘How can this be happening? This girl is dying and I don’t even know her. How could I have done this?’ Joe asked himself as he walked over to the bed in which she laid. Looking down on her she looked so young. Joe quietly sat down to watch her sleep.

“Little Joe?” Jessica said softly.

“I’m here.”

“I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

“For what?”

“Joe, I’ve loved you since we were eight, and you pulled my pigtails at school.”

Joe thought back to the time when he was eight and then it came to him. He did know this girl. “JESSIE?”

“Yeah, Little Joe. Please promise me something?” she said. Jessica could feel her life slipping away. She wanted so much more for the child than what she had all her life. She knew that the baby wouldn’t be loved by her father and brothers.

“What, Jessie?”

“Please take care of my baby. I want him to have a loving home and a good family. I know he can have these with you.”

“Jessie….. is he mine?”

“I won’t say, Joe. Please just love him and raise him. PLEASE?” she begged as a tear fell down her cheek.

Joe brushed the tear away with his finger and leaned over and kissed her forehead. Whispering he said, “I’ll make sure he has all the love in the world.”

As Jessica nodded her head and smiled the baby whimpered. “Joe, I want to hold him one more time. Please bring him to me.”

Carefully Joe gathered the infant and laid him in his mother’s arms. Kissing the child’s soft cheek, she looked at Joe and said, “His name, I was gonna call him….. Christopher Dakota….” then Jessica took her last breath.

Joe removed the baby from its mother’s arms and cradled it to his chest. Looking down into the trusting eyes, he vowed. “I promise you, pal, I’ll work something out.”

Joe steadied himself and walked into the outer office carrying the babe in his arms. Seeing the look on Joe’s face, Ben quickly walked over and guided him to a seat.

“Mr. Miller, Jessie’s gone. The baby is a boy; would you like to see him?” Joe quietly asked.

“NO. I don’t want nothin’ to do with that whelp. It’s yours; you keep it.”

“Now see here, Miller…” Ben started, but was cut off by Joe.

“No Pa, if he don’t want to see the baby, that’s fine. He’s better off without them.” Joe said.

“Joseph?”

“Dr. Martin, can we leave now?” Joe asked as he watched the Millers stomp out of the office.

“I see no reason why not, son. Are you sure you want to take the baby with you?”

“Yes sir, and his name is Christopher Dakota.” Joe said as the baby grabbed his finger.

“Look Joe, I don’t think you should do this.” Adam said, looking at his little brother holding the newborn.

“What am I supposed to do, Adam? Jessie died having this baby. He could be mine. She wouldn’t tell me, I asked her. She begged me to see that he was loved and took care of. She didn’t want her father to have him.”

“Let’s get on home, we’ll figure this out then.” Ben said. He didn’t want this to be true, but Joe had a point. Unless someone came forward, there was no way to prove the child wasn’t Joes’.

Hoss walked over and pulled the blankets back and looked into the sweet face of the one that was the center of all the turmoil. “Can I hold ‘em Joe?”

Joe smiled at his brother and handed the baby to him. “Sure ya can. Now Dakota, you be good for your uncle Hoss.” Joe added and watched the big man smile.

“Looky here, Pa, ain’t he something?” Hoss said.

“Yeah, he sure is. Poor little thing. It’s not your fault, is it, sweetheart?” Ben said as he rubbed the little hand.

Adam, seeing that this was the only way for now, walked up and looked over Joe’s shoulder. Pushing his hat back, he stated, “Well, I think he needs a little black hat.”

“You hear your Uncle Adam. You can’t even roll over and already he’s wantin’ to put a hat on ya.” Hoss cooed to the child as they slowly exited the office.

Paul sat in awe at this incredible family he was lucky enough to call his friends.

“I guess we better rent a buggy.” Ben said, watching Adam and Joe mounting their horses.

“We don’t need a buggy, Pa. Hand him up here Hoss.” Joe stated.

“Joseph, you can’t take him home on that horse.”

“Sure I can, Cooch is real gentle.” Joe said taking the baby in his right arm. Gathering the reigns in his left hand he urged his horse along slowly.

Shaking his head, Ben turned to Adam, “Son, will you stop at the store and get some things for the baby, while Hoss and I see your brother home?”

“Sure Pa.” he answered as he turned his horse the opposite direction.

Walking into Cass’ store, Adam spotted his friend Mary Beth. He was kind of uneasy about buying things for a baby; after all it had been a while since he had bought the same things for Little Joe.

“Hello Adam.” Beth said strolling up to him.

“Beth, it’s so nice to see you.”

“How is your family?”

“Fine. I was wondering if you would mind helping me out?”

“Of course, what is it?”

“Well, I…um…need to pick up some things for a baby, and I don’t really know what all I need.”

“A baby? Do you have company staying at the house?” she asked. Beth had heard the rumors, but felt uncomfortable asking Adam about them.

“I’m sure that you have heard the stories about Joe.” Adam said looking into her eyes.

“Well, yes, but I didn’t want to bring them up.” Beth said dropping her head.

“The baby was born this morning and Joe has taken him home.”

“Adam? Is the child his?”

“I really don’t think so, but we have no way of proving it. The girl died shortly after and her family doesn’t want him. So Joe took him for now.”

“Then we need to get some things, come on.” Beth said pulling Adam toward the baby clothes.

After securing the package containing several shirts, blankets, diapers, bottles, two bonnets, and a couple of small stuffed animals, Adam mounted his horse and headed home.

As the Cartwrights entered the yard, they noticed all the hands that had just returned for lunch watching them. Ben dismounted and took Dakota from Joe’s arms to allow him also to dismount. Retrieving the boy from Ben, Joe was surrounded by the hands. They were all interested in seeing the possible latest addition to the Cartwright family.

“What is it, Little Joe?” Charlie, the ranch foreman, asked as he peeked into the blankets.

“A boy. His name is Dakota.” Joe said proudly. Joe was having trouble figuring out his emotions. He held a distinct sense of pride, holding the infant. But then again, he didn’t want to get to close to what might not be his.

“He’s a fine looking boy, Joe.” Hank said, patting him on the shoulder.

“Come on son, we need to get him inside. It’s getting cold out here.”

“Yes sir. Hoss can you take care of Cooch for me, please?”

“Sure, little brother. See ya in a few, Dak.” Hoss said taking the reigns.

Ben and Little Joe walked into the house where they were met by Hop Sing. He came over and peered into the blankets and smiled. Looking into the frightened eyes of the boy holding the child, he said, “Baby holding baby.” Shaking his head he went back to the kitchen.

Joe looked over his shoulder at his father and saw the worried look on his face. Knowing that the look was that of concern, Joe smiled at him and said, “What else could I have done, Pa?”

“You did the only thing you could have. I’m proud of you for not running from this. But, we need to see if we can find out anything else. It wouldn’t be fair to you or the child to keep him here if he’s not yours.”

“I know that Pa, but I just couldn’t leave him not knowing. He’s so alone.”

Ben put his arm around his child and led him to the settee. Sitting beside Joe, Ben watched as his son caressed the child’s arm. It amazed him to see how much Joe had taken to the baby. He feared that when the father was found, Joe would have trouble letting go. As sweet as the picture before him was, he hoped that the father would surface soon.

“Pa? Is my cradle still in the attic?”

“Yes, somewhere.”

“I’d like to put it in my room so I can hear him if he wakes up.”

“There is no ‘if’ about it. He will wake up often during the night. Can you handle that?”

“I’ll get used to it. I wish Adam would get back with the clothes.” Joe said, then moving his hand and making a disgusted look with his face he added, “And the diapers.”

Laughing, Ben said, “I think we can find something to use for a diaper until he gets here.”

*****

Joe spent much of the week at home with Dakota. His father and brothers did what they could to help him and be supportive, but Joe knew nothing of caring for an infant. His moods were changing and he was feeling confined. He wanted nothing more than to go out and jump on Cochise and ride for hours. But Dakota had to come first. After a week, Ben discovered Joe sleeping on the settee with Dakota lying on his chest. Ben stood and watched his child holding the child believed to be his. It was on this night that Ben decided that Joe was too young to completely give up his life for a child that MIGHT be his. Lifting the child into his arms he walked over to the cradle that sat in front of the fireplace and laid him down, covering him with the tiny blanket. Walking back to his baby, he covered him with a blanket and kissed his forehead.

Joe awoke with a start. Hearing the sounds of his family at the breakfast table, he jumped up. “Where’s Dakota?”

“Relax, little brother, I have him.” Adam said as he turned and looked at the frightened expression on the boys face.

Joe walked over to the table and fell into his chair. “I’m sorry Adam, I didn’t hear him. Want me to take him?” Joe asked yawning and running his hands across his face.

“No he’s fine. It’s ok,” Adam assured him, rocking the infant.

“Joseph, I want you to go to bed, and stay there today.” Ben ordered.

“Pa, I can’t do that. Who’s gonna look after him?”

“Son, I sent one of the hands over to get Mrs. Jackson. I’ve asked her to move in and help out for a while, until we can figure out what to do.”

Joe wanted to protest, the child was his responsibility, and he should be the one to take care of him. But sleep claimed him as he sat leaned back in the chair at the table. Ben looked at him and shook his head. “Hoss, can you get him upstairs?”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

Joe slept until the following morning. It had been a long time since he had enjoyed such a restful sleep. Stretching, he got up and dressed himself. Seeing that it was still early, he made his way downstairs and started on his chores. Joe thought back on the weeks and realized that his brothers had been doing his chores for him so that he could keep his attentions on Dakota. With a smile on his face he completed his and his brother’s chores.

Opening the front door he entered to find Mrs. Jackson trying to calm the baby. He had begun to cry uncontrollably. Rushing to her side he asked, “What’s wrong with Dak?”

“Oh Joseph, I don’t know; he won’t quite crying, and I’ve tried everything.” she said bouncing the baby.

“Let me try.” Joe said taking the baby from her and cuddling him to his chest. “Now, there, what’s wrong pal.” Joe cooed.

The baby quieted instantly with Joe’s touch and voice. Smiling at him, Mrs. Jackson commented. “Joseph Cartwright, you have spoiled that child.”

“What’s going on down here?” Ben questioned, as he, Adam and Hoss came down to join them in the great room.

“Your son here has spoiled this baby. He won’t quiet down for me.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll get used to it. Joe has done most of the caring for him since we brought him here.” Ben said as he squeezed his son’s shoulder.

Six months had past and everyone had finally fallen into a routine. Mrs. Jackson would tend to Dak while Joe and his family were tending to the ranch, then at night Joe would relieve her and care for the infant. All of the family had grown to love and care for the child and would take turns feeding and changing him. The bond between Joe and Dak became stronger by the day. He couldn’t imagine his life with out the child.

“Pa, I’m worried about Joe.” Adam said one night after everyone else was in bed.

“Why, son? I mean he hasn’t been in trouble lately and he seems alright.”

“That’s just it, Pa. Joe hasn’t snuck out, or been in any kind of trouble lately. He stays right here on the ranch and does nothing but work and take care of Dak.”

“I would think that would please you.” Ben said with the hint of a smile playing on his lips. He knew what Adam was getting at and he too agreed that Joe seemed to have given up everything for this child.

“Pa, Hoss and I were thinking that maybe we’d take him with us tomorrow night when we go to town, that is if you don’t mind babysitting?” Adam said with a grin of his own.

“I think I can manage. And I think that would be good for him. Just don’t let him have more than a couple of beers.”

“I’ll try to keep and eye on him.”

“Adam, I mean it. TWO beers only.”

“OK.”

“I’m holding you to that. You will be the one in trouble if he comes home drunk, young man.”

“Only two. Yes sir.”

*****

Breakfast the next morning found the Cartwrights seated and enjoying a meal of ham and eggs. Joe had brought down his old high chair and had Dak seated beside him. Alternating between himself and Dak, he began to eat.

“Come on Dak, open up and take a bite for me, please.” Joe said hoping to get the finicky little boy to eat.

“Joe, maybe he’d like some biscuit instead.” Hoss said.

“I don’t understand why he don’t wanna eat?”

“Sounds like someone else I know,” Adam quipped, referring to Joes’ own eating habits.

“I wasn’t ever that bad, was I?” Joe asked with a grin.

“Worse.” Hoss exclaimed. “I ain’t sure how ya even lived!”

“I probably didn’t eat much, since you ate it all.” Joe said playfully and laughed.

Dak watched as the others laughed and talked. Hearing Joe’s unmistakable giggle, he giggled too, causing the others to laugh even harder. Before breakfast was over, Adam winked at Hoss then looked at his youngest brother. ‘No one can say that kid don’t take care of his responsibilities. His or not he has given his all to that baby.’

“Joe, listen, this is Saturday and Hoss and I are going into town tonight, and we want you to go with us. Our treat.”

Joe looked at Ben, for approval.

“Yes son, I said you could go. But young man, you only get two beers. Understood?”

“Thanks, but I can’t leave Dak.” Joe said, disappointment evident on his face.

“Sure ya can, short shanks, Pa’s gonna keep him for ya.” Hoss added.

“Pa, ya sure ya know what cha gettin’ into?” Joe asked.

Laughing, Ben shook his head and said, “Who do you think took care of the three of you?’

“Sorry Pa, I forgot.”

Adam and Hoss stood in the great room waiting on their brother to come down to leave. They had planned on leaving earlier but Joe had insisted on giving Dak his bath. Finally, after waiting for a half hour, Joe made his way down carrying Dak. The baby was smiling and laughing at the funny faces that Joe was making.

“Come on Joe, let’s get a move on. It’s going to be time to come home before we even leave.” Adam joked. He tried to act stern, but failed; he couldn’t help but to be proud of his baby brother.

“I’m ready, just gotta hand squirt over to Pa.” Joe said walking over to Ben and handing the squirming little boy to him. Kissing him on the head, he smiled and said, “Bye, bye, Dak. See ya in the morning.”

As he turned and walked away the child started crying and holding his arms out for Joe to take him. Joe looked devastated as he hesitated at the door. Adam and Hoss watched the emotions play on his face.

“Joe, come on; he’ll be alright soon as you’re out of sight.” Adam said as he tried to guide him out the door.

“I don’t know, Adam; maybe he’s sick.”

“No, he’s spoiled, and it’s your fault. You used to do the same thing when you were little and Pa’d get out of your sight.”

“Adam’s right, Little Joe. Go on and don’t worry about him; he’ll be fine,” Ben stated as he fought to maintain a hold on the now screaming child.

“Kay, Bye, Pa.”

“Bye, Little Joe.”

Outside, Adam could tell that Joe hadn’t been completely convinced about leaving and knew they wouldn’t have a good time unless he could prove it to him. Pulling Joe over to the window, he said, “Watch.”

Joe looked in the window with his brothers and watched as Ben sat down and held the child. As he soothed him and rubbed his back, Dak looked up and smiled at Ben and played with his vest ties. Completely content, he drifted off to sleep. Adam slapped Joe on the back and smiled, and received one in return.

The boys stopped in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon and hitched their horses. Walking in, they found a table and sat down. The place was packed with miners and cowboys. There was a poker game going on at one of the tables and all of the girls were milling about. Jane, one of the girls that waited on the Cartwrights regularly came over and sat down.

“What you fellas need?” she asked.

“How about bringing us three beers, Janie.” Adam said with a little wink. A wink from Adam was all it took for Jane, to do his bidding. Adam was one of her favorite customers, whether it was a drink or an occasional trip upstairs. She figured that a drink would have to do, seeing as how he had Little Joe with him.

“Coming right up.”

The night progressed and the brothers fell into the normal routine and playful banter. It wasn’t long until they were all feeling good from the alcohol. Adam realized that Joe was a little more than tipsy. Looking his little brother in the eye, he asked, “Joseph, just how many of those have you had?”

“Dunno.” Joe slurred.

“Boy, you know what you just did?”

“Drunk a few beers?”

“Yes and you also lied to me, Hoss and Pa. Pa made me promise that you would only have two, or I’d be the one in trouble.

“Awe come on older brother, it’s been months since I even had a beer. Besides what are ya so worried about? Ain’t likely Pa’d tan ya at your age.” Joe laughed thinking of the image of his eldest brother over Pa’s knee.

“Maybe not, but he still has his ways, now no more after that one.”

Joe just gave him a smile and a wink.

*****

Time past and the day for Dak’s first birthday was fast approaching. Ben had decided to give a party to mark the event for the child that had won his heart. He and the rest of the family had accepted the child as one of their own. No one had claimed him or even been in contact with them concerning the child. Dak had been crawling for a few months and keeping them all on their toes, especially Joe.

The family sat in the great room one Sunday afternoon watching as Dak pulled himself up using Ben’s pants legs. Joe smiled as Dak turned loose and clapped his little hands before sitting down. Dak watched as Joe walked toward the dining room; pulling himself back up, he softly said, “Doe.”

The others all looked at each other and grinned. Joe walked over and knelt in front of the child. “What did you say, buddy?”

Dak held his arms out for Joe to take him and said proudly, “Doe!” Joe picked him up and hugged him tightly.

“Joe, I think it’s time that you started teaching him what to call all of us including yourself.” Adam commented.

“But what if he’s not mine?”

“Adam’s right, son. It’s been a year nearly; I think it’s time to make some decisions. If your going to be responsible for him than he needs to be taught before he starts calling me Pa,” Ben added.

Dak was listening as the conversation took place, not knowing what was being said, until the word ‘Pa’ was said. He had heard the others calling the older one that and figured that he should also. Looking over at Ben, he said, “Pa”, then giggled.

“No Dak,” Joe said then pointed at Ben and said, “Grandpa.”

Dak looked over at Ben and then back at Joe and said, “Pa.”

“No, grandpa.”

“Pa!”

“Grandpa.”

“Pa!” Dak shouted and hit Joe on the chest with his little fist.

Joe stood stunned for a moment then popped him on his little hand. “Don’t hit me, Dak; that’s a no-no.”

Dak looked up at Joe with his big green eyes filling with tears and broke Joe’s heart. He cuddled him to his chest and kissed him on top of his head. “Papa loves you, Dak.” He whispered.

Adam, Hoss and Ben exchanged smiles as Dak laid is head on Joe’s shoulder and softly said, “Papa” then drifted off to sleep.

*****

“A-um” Dak said proudly.

“Hey little buddy, what are you doing down here alone?” questioned Adam picking the baby up in his arms. “Where’s your Papa?”

“Papa, mean.” Dak said with a pout, crossing his little arms.

Adam stifled a laugh, “Why you say that?” he asked as he heard Joe upstairs call out for the baby.

“Down here Joe.” Adam called.

Joe bounded down the stairs two at a time. “Dak, where were you?” he said angrily.

“Settle down, Little Joe, what did he do?”

“He keeps sneaking off and hiding from me.”

“He says you’re a mean Papa.” Adam said with a smirk.

“That’s ’cause I popped his little bottom last time, and he knows I will again,” Joe said reaching for Dak.

“Look, you’re going out; take a ride. I’ll watch him.”

“Maybe you’re right. Sure ya don’t mind?”

“Not at all. We’ll go look at the horses.” Adam said causing Dak to clap his little hands and smile.

Joe rubbed his back, “Dak, I’ll be back in a little while, you be good for Uncle Adam. BYE BYE.”

“BYE BYE, Papa.” Dak said waving his little hand.

Ben, Adam and Hoss sat together watching Dak playing with his toys in the floor waiting on supper and Joe to return. Dak picked up the wooden horse that was painted like Cochise that Joe had given him. “Papa horsie.”

“That’s right, baby; that your Papa’s horsie,” Ben said smiling at the child. Ben was almost convinced that the child had to be Joes. He was small like Joe and had the same mischievous green eyes and curly chestnut hair.

“Wonder who that is?” Hoss said walking to the door as someone knocked.

Hoss opened the door to find Cord Miller standing on the other side. “What do ya want?” Hoss asked with a frown.

“I’d like to speak with Little Joe if it’s alright.” Cord said holding his hat in his hands.

“Who is it Hoss?” Ben asked walking up beside his son. “Miller”

“I’m sorry to bother you sir, but I need to talk with Little Joe. This isn’t a trick, I’m alone.”

“Little Joe isn’t here right now, what do you want with him?

“It’s about Jessie’s baby.” Cord said, then smiled at the sight of the child in Adams arms. “That him?”

“Yes, that’s Dak.”

“Do you know when Joe will be back sir?”

“No,” Ben said as they all heard the sound of an approaching horse.

Joe rounded the corner of the barn as they all stood watching. Dak started clapping his hands, “PAPA! Ride horsie!”

Joe, not spotting Cord. called out, “Bring him here, Adam, before he starts yelling his little head off.”

Adam pushed past Cord and handed Dak up to Joe on Cochise. Joe rode in circles in the yard for few minutes before noticing Cord standing on the porch.

Stopping the horse, Joe asked, “What’s he doing here?’

“Hoss, why don’t you take Dak to see the horses.”

“Sure, Pa. Come on, little one.”

Joe dismounted and walked over to face Cord. “Little Joe I need…..” was all he got out of his mouth before Joe landed his fist to Cords jaw, knocking him flat in the dirt.

Ben grabbed Joe “STOP IT. Right now!”

“What ya doing here?” Joe asked pulling free from his father.

“I need to talk with you about the baby.” Cord said staggering to his feet.

“What about my son?”

“Can we talk?”

Joe nodded and walked into the house, followed by Ben, Adam and Cord. “Ok, now what?”

“Little Joe, first I want to tell you that I’m sorry for what my family put you and your family through. I never wanted any part of it, nor did Jessie.”

“Then why?”

“Pa. He was a very convincing man. You did what he said, or get the hell beat out of you, as you found out.”

“Even Jessie?”

“Yeah.”

“So, how come you’re here?” Joe asked, fearing what the man would tell him.

“Pa and Colt were killed a few months back. I wasn’t with them at the time, but they tried holding up a bank, and got shot. See I got married about six months ago and had gone my own way. Sara, my wife is over at the old cabin waiting on me.”

“Are you moving back to the area?” Adam asked.

“Already have. The reason I’m here is the baby.”

“His name is Dak. What about him.”

“Joe, Jessie left a letter behind at the cabin. We didn’t find it until Sara and I arrived here. The letter is addressed to you. I think she meant to mail it after we left. But since she died, it stayed under her pillow until now.” Cord said, pulling the letter from his pocket. “Joe ,she left me one also. She says this here letter will tell you what you want to know. If Dak is yours, Sara and I would like to see him; we want to be in his life, if he’s not yours we want to raise him.”

Joe took the letter in his shaking hand. Looking from Adam to Ben, he slowly opened the letter to the information he thought he’d never have. Closing it again, he looked at Ben, “Pa, please read it, I can’t.”

Ben took the letter and slowly began to read. Joe sat with his head down. He couldn’t think of possibly losing the child. Ben finished and waited for Joe to look up at him. Joe raised his head and looked into his fathers chocolate eyes. “Pa?” He asked in a shaky voice.

“I’m sorry Joe, Dak isn’t yours. She didn’t know who. Jessie was raped.” Ben said as he watched Joe’s chin begin to quiver.

Joe looked over at Adam and saw that he too had tears forming. “NO! I WON’T GIVE MY SON UP!” Joe yelled and ran out the door taking Dak from Hoss. Mounting Cochise with the child he rode out of the yard.

“Joe!” Hoss called as Ben and Adam ran out of the house. “Pa, what in tarnation is wrong with that boy. He’s got Dak with him.”

“Hoss, Dak isn’t Joe’s son.”

“Oh no Pa, that’s gonna kill the kid.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I had no idea how attached Joe was to the baby. I want him to know that he can see him any time he wants. He’ll always be welcome.”

“I’ll tell him, but I doubt he’ll come. It’ll be too hard on him.”

“I understand that, but Dak will miss him.”

“Then why don’t ya leave well enough alone?” Hoss asked.

“Sara can’t have kids. Dak is our only chance to have a child. I can’t pass that up. Besides, he’s all we have left of Jessie.” Cord said as he mounted his horse. “Tell Little Joe, that I’m sorry, but I’ll pick the child up on Sunday afternoon.” then he rode away.

*****

Joe rode up to the lake and dismounted. Carrying Dak, he walked over to his mother’s grave. “Oh God, mama, it’s happened. They’re gonna take my baby away. I don’t know if I can take that or not. I love him so much,” Joe said looking at the sleeping baby in his arms. Laying the child on the soft grass, he laid down beside him and cried.

Joe stayed at the graveside for hours. He watched as Dak played by the water and picked flowers. He watched him smile and giggle at a butterfly that flittered by his little head. Dak walked over to Joe and noticed the tears that freely fell from his handsome face. “Papa cry?”

“It’s ok, baby. Papa’s alright.” Joe said lifting the child in his arms. “Let’s ride home.”

“Ride horsie!” Dak squealed.

*****

“Pa, ya want me to go looking for him?” Hoss asked.

Ben paced in front of the massive fireplace worrying, “No, it’s already dark; you’d never be able to find him.”

“Surely he wouldn’t run off.” Adam said walking in from the kitchen.

“I don’t think so, but he was awful hurt by all of this. Dak is to him, what the three of you are to me and I couldn’t stand losing one of you.

Joe handed the lead to his horse to Charlie asking him to put the horse away for the night. Holding on to Dak he opened the door and saw the looks on his family’s faces.

Ben took in the sight of his youngest son, with his sad eyes red from the tears he’d shed. The lost look on the boys face broke his father’s heart. Joe looked into his father’s eyes while holding onto Dak for dear life. “Pa.” he said softly, then cried as Ben took the both of them in his arms.

“Oh Joseph, I wish I could keep this from happening to you.” Ben said. He was hurting for his son and knew that he couldn’t stop what was going to happen.

“Pa, please don’t let them take him away from me. I don’t care that he ain’t mine. In my heart he is.” Joe begged.

Adam came over to his brother and put his arms out. “Can I hold him Joe, he’s crying, he doesn’t understand what’s wrong with you?”

Joe looked up and saw the emotions that laid masked in his brother’s face. Pulling Dak around, he looked into the little face and saw how upset he had made the baby, “Thanks. Go to Uncle Adam, baby.” he said kissing the child.

Adam took Dak and went to where Hoss was sitting and joined him on the hearth.

“Joseph, let’s sit down. We have to talk this through.” Ben said guiding his son to the settee.

“Pa, what can we do? I don’t wanna lose him.” Joe said near hysterics.

“Son, you have to calm down, your scaring Dak. He doesn’t understand what’s wrong with you. Son, I’m afraid there may not be anything we can do. We have no blood claim on the child, Miller and his wife do.” Ben said.

“So we ain’t even going to try?” Joe asked.

“Pa, can’t we talk with Hiram, see if he has any suggestions.” Adam stated.

“Please Pa? Joe begged.

“Ok, you and I will ride into town and see him in the morning. Maybe he’ll know of something we can do.” Ben agreed patting Joe on the back.

“Thanks Pa. It’s getting late, I better get squirt to bed.” Joe said standing.

“Joe, can I put him to bed tonight?” Adam asked. He wanted some special time with the child that had won his heart.

“Sure Adam. I understand. I think I’ll go out and see to Cochise.” Joe had always talked his problems over with his horse and the horse, some would say, understood the boy. Right now he needed his friend.

*****

“So Hiram, that’s about it. Is there anything Joe can do to keep Dak?” Ben asked of the family lawyer.

“Ben, there is nothing that Joe can do because he’s underage. He’s only sixteen. Now that didn’t matter when it was assumed that the child was his. But now that we know he’s not and he has family, even if we went to court, the judge would give Miller custody.”

“What if I was to agree to being the child’s’ guardian, until the day Joe turns twenty one?” Ben asked.

“Your still not blood kin to the child. Ben I wish there was something I could tell you would work, but for the life of me there isn’t. I’m sorry.”

“Well, then I just won’t worry about fighting for him. They can’t take him if they can’t find him.” Joe said calmly.

“Now listen, young man, if you do something that crazy, they’ll have the law looking for you. You’ll have to run until the child is of age. Do you really want to be away from your family for that long?” Hiram asked.

“No, but I will if I have to. I don’t wanna lose my son.”

“He’s not your son.”

“I have taken care of Dak for the last sixteen months. I have done everything a Pa does for his child, and you tell me he’s not my son? Well you’re wrong,” Joe said putting his black hat on and walking out the door.

“Ben, I’m sorry. Don’t let him ruin his life over this. I think the world of that boy. I know he’s hurting, but some things can’t be changed.”

“Thank you, Hiram, I won’t. I will not lose my son, even if I have to lock him in his room.” Ben stated as he went to join his son.

Ben walked outside the lawyer’s office and saw Little Joe leaning on his horse. Walking over to him he laid his hand on Joes’ shoulder, “Joseph…”

“I don’t wanna hear it, Pa. I ain’t gonna lose him. I meant what I said.” Joe yelled.

Ben grabbed Joe by the upper arm and turned him around, “Now you listen to me young man. You will not take off with that child. I will not lose you over this. I love Dak just as much as you do, son, but this is not the right thing to do and you know that.” Ben said firmly.

“Pa, I can’t bear the thought of  …” Joe said then stopped before allowing the tears to fall.

“We’ll get through this together…you, me, Adam and Hoss. We’ll be there for you. You don’t have to face this alone. You know Cord said that he wanted you to be a part of Dak’s life, and that you were welcome anytime.”

“No, not for a while, it’ll only confuse him.” Joe said as he resigned to the fact that no matter what he wanted, he had no chance to keep the child as his own.

*****

Ben had sent Hoss out to the Miller’s farm to let them know that he wanted them to come over each day to spend time with Dak. His biggest fear was the fact that the baby didn’t know them. Joe made it a point of leaving right after lunch each day so as to not run into the Millers.

“See ya’ll at supper.” Joe said walking to the door.

“Joseph, I’d like for you to stay today. You need to be here a couple of times while the Millers are.”

“WHY? So I can watch them slowly steal Dak away? NO thanks Pa, I won’t make it easier on them.” Joe said jerking the door open. To his surprise, there stood the Millers.

“Little Joe, I’m glad you’re still here. Sara wanted to meet you.” Cord said.

“Ma’am.” Joe stated tipping his hat, then started to walk past them.

“Papa,” called a sleepy little boy rubbing his eyes.

Joe and Cord both turned to the little boy. Dak stood unmoved; he didn’t know who to go to. He knew Joe as Papa, but Sara and Cord had been calling Cord Papa to the little boy all week. His confusion was evident on his little face as he started to cry. Adam walked over and picked him up and carried him to the study. Joe turned to Ben, “That’s why I haven’t been staying, he’s confused enough. My being here only makes it worse.” then he left.

“I can’t watch them take him away. I wanna go up to the lake before they get here. It’ll be easier on Dak.” Joe said as he packed up all the little clothes and toys that belonged to the baby.

“Don’t you want to say good bye to him?”

“I will, but before I leave.”

“Ok son, do what you think is right. I understand.”

“No Pa, you don’t.” Joe stated softly pulling the covers up around Dak.

Joe laid awake most of the night, watching the child sleeping. Many tears fell during the night as he imagined his life without the boy. Many smile tugged at his lips thinking on all of the fun times they had shared. Softly caressing the child’s hair, Joe finally slipped off to sleep. Morning came all too soon as Dak snuggled against Joe’s shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. “Mornin’, Papa.”

“Mornin’, baby.” Joe said opening his eyes and peering into the bright green eyes.

“Ride, Papa?’

“No sweetie, not right now. Let’s go get some breakfast.” Joe said sitting up. After dressing himself, he dressed Dak in his Sunday outfit. He knew that the Millers would be there in a few hours and he didn’t have much time left.

Ben, Adam and Hoss watched as Joe walked down the stairs and placed Dak in his highchair. They could see that Joe hadn’t slept much and the anger and sadness that played on his face. Breakfast was eaten in silence, for the most part.

“After breakfast, I’m gonna take Dak out to the lake for a little while. I’ll have him back before dinner. That’ll give each of you time with him. After dinner, I’m leaving for awhile. Please don’t come after me. I promise I’ll be home before dark.” Joe said wiping Dak’s mouth. “Come on baby, let’s go for a ride.”

“Ride horsie, Papa?”

“Yeah, baby.”

His family watched as Joe walked out of the house. Ben turned to Adam and Hoss, “I hate to ask this of you, but…”

“We already planned on following him. I don’t think he’ll bolt with Dak, but the kid is so hurt and scared.” Adam said standing.

“Thanks, boys,” Ben said softly as he walked into the study.

Adam and Hoss walked out in time to see Joe sit Dak on Cochise and mount behind him. Joe looked at his brothers, then turned his horse and rode out of the yard.

“Let’s get going,” Adam said as he took in the tear filled eyes of his largest brother.

“Yeah. Poor kid,” Hoss commented.

*****

Joe walked down to the small beach that they enjoyed so much and sat down on a big rock. Sitting Dak in his lap facing him, he looked into the child’s smiling eyes. His heart breaking he began, “Baby, I want you to listen to me, ok?”

“Yes Papa.”

“Dak, I’m not your Papa. I wish with all my heart that I was. I love you so much.”

“Love ya Papa.”

“No Dak, I’m Joe, not Papa. Cord is your Papa, now. Do you understand?”

“No, Papa.” Dak said with tears rolling down his face.

Joe hugged the child to his chest and cried. “Oh God, why? WHY?!!” They stayed hugged to each other for several minutes before Joe pulled Dak up and looked into his face and smiled. “Hey buddy, you’ll have a mama, now. You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

The little boy nodded and smiled back at Joe. He could tell that the child had no idea what was happening; he was just too young to know. Tickling the baby, Joe said, “Let’s go and have some fun. We don’t have much time left, before we have to get back.”

Adam and Hoss had watched the scene from behind the bushes. They felt bad about spying on their little brother, but they were more worried he would act in haste and destroy the rest of his life. Tears fell from both brothers as they watched Little Joe playing with ‘his son’.

Lunch finished, Joe stood and picked Dak up. Smiling, he said, “I gotta go now, I love ya, Dak.” and hugged him tight.

“Love ya Papa.” Dak said laying his head on Joe’s shoulder.

“Adam, please?” Joe said trying his best not to cry again. Handing the baby over to his brother, Joe bolted out the door.

Dak watched as Joe ran from the house. “Bye bye, Papa.” he said and placed his thumb in his mouth.

Dak had spent most of the afternoon playing with Ben, Adam and Hoss. It wasn’t long until they heard the sound of a buggy approaching. Ben walked over to the door to allow the Miller to enter. He watched as they ran to the child. He had no doubt that Dak was loved, but his heart went out to his youngest and all the heartbreak the boy was feeling. He too, along with the other boys, loved the little scamp.

“Mr. Cartwright, is Little Joe here?” Cord asked.

“No, he couldn’t. He spent the morning with Dak and said his good byes.”

“I was hoping to talk to him. Please ask him to come by. We really do want him in Dak’s life.”

“I will.” Ben said hugging the child and handing him to Adam.

“Love you little buddy. You be good.”

“Love ya, A-um.”

Adam handed the child to Hoss. “Be good young’un. I love ya.”

“Love ya, Hoth.” Dak knew something was going on but couldn’t figure it out. He liked these people who called themselves Mama and Papa, but he wanted his Papa. He looked all around the room for Joe. Tears slipping down his little cheeks he called, “Papa?!”

Cord walked around and held his arms out to the distraught child, “Come on, son; let’s go home,” he said softly.

“NO! Want my Papa.” Dak cried.

“You’d better just take him and go, before I leave with him,” Adam said. It was breaking his heart to see the baby so upset. The boy was crying his little heart out and he knew that somewhere out there another boy was doing the same.

Cord pulled Dak from Hoss’ arms and walked outside. As Ben placed the bags in the buggy, Charlie appeared from the barn leading a small pinto pony, no more than a year old. “Mr. Miller, Little Joe, ask me to give this here pony to you for the boy. Pony’s name is Cooch. He also wanted me to give this here letter to ya.”

Adam tied the pony to the buggy and smiled at Hoss. The pony was almost identical to Cochise, which Dak couldn’t pronounce. He always called Joe’s beloved horse Cooch, which was the nickname Joe had given him. Dak looked around the buggy and said “Cooch,” causing the ponies ears to flicker forward.

Cord opened the letter and read it as the family stood close by.

 

Dear Cord and Sara,

I couldn’t stand to watch Dak leave, so I have already said my goodbyes to him. Please take good care of him. I love him more than anything in the world, mine or not. I won’t come to see him for a couple of months. We both need time to adjust. Please remember that if you ever need anything for him, all you have to do is ask. He will always be in my heart. I’d give my life for that boy.

I hope you don’t mind the gift I got for him. The pony has a special something that caught my eye. I want Dak to have him. If this is a problem then leave the pony here, don’t get rid of him. I think he and Dak will form a special bond that will last a lifetime. He won’t be ready to be broken to saddle until next year. Maybe by then I’ll be able to come by and I’ll break him for Dak.

By the way, his full name is Christopher Dakota Cartwright Miller. It would mean a lot to me if he could keep the Cartwright name as a part of his.

Take care of my special boy,

Little Joe

 

Cord folded the note and handed it to Sara. “Put this in Dak’s keepsakes. I won’t to show it to him when he’s older.” Turning to Ben, “I want ya to tell Little Joe that everything he asked in the letter is fine with us. Good bye.”

The Cartwrights stood watching the family as they pulled out of the yard, then with heavy hearts they walked back into the house. They all stayed close to home that day in the event Joe should need them.

Joe sat atop Cochise and watched as the Millers rode out of the yard. He had watched the way everything had happened. He knew in his head that it was the right thing to do, but his heart still cried out to the little boy that had changed his life forever.

***The End***

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