The Promise (by Wrangler)

Summary:   Part 1 of a trilogy.   A promise made long ago helps Joe return to the father and family he loves.

Note from author: This story is dedicated to all the readers who have been so supportive with what I do as a writer. Special recognition goes to Deb, who cracked the whip with this one as it was written. Thanks, Partner, for not letting me settle, and for forcing numerous rewrites! If this goes over well, you will get a part of the credit. However, if it doesn’t, guess who I’ll blame? 🙂 

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  30,714


 

The day is done, and the darkness falls from the wings of Night, As a feather is wafted downward, from an eagle in his flight. I see the lights of the village, gleam through the rain and the mist. And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me, that my soul cannot resist. A feeling of sadness and longing, that is not akin to pain. And resembles sorrow only, as the mist resembles the rain

From “The Day Is Done” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

Ben Cartwright listened as the two sets of boots creaked upwards to the second floor. Had he even told his two sons goodnight? Ben could not remember. He did remember the attempt Hoss had made to lighten his spirits, and the way his middle son looked when it hadn’t worked. But, then nothing worked anymore. Then there was Adam, and his stoic try for control of the situation. Ben knew that his oldest must have honed those skills over the years of watching his father’s performances. Yes, in his day Ben was as tough as they came. He had weathered tragedy after tragedy and had bounced back like the fighter that he was.

Ben sighed and shifted in his red leather chair in front of the massive fireplace. Adam would have to take on that role, possibly forever now. Hoss would fill in where he could to help his older brother. Team of two now, where before it had been three. Somehow the two remaining Cartwright brothers would keep the large Ponderosa ranch running, if for no other reason than for the sake of the man who had built it. A man who now felt old and incapable of making important decisions concerning the ranch he loved.

Had it been the Ponderosa that he truly loved all these years? Ben asked himself as he stared into the flames that shot higher as he reached over and tossed in another stick of firewood. No, it had always been the dream. Just the dream of giving his sons a place of their own. A place where they could thrive and raise future generations in the clean fresh air and beautiful countryside that was the Ponderosa. But, the dream was meant for all three of his sons. Now, part of that dream was gone, and it changed the whole idea, the whole concept of a life’s worth of work.

Looking toward the staircase, Ben knew it was just about time to see his nightly specter. So many nights he had waited and the haunting images never failed to arrive to remind the bereaved father of the boy who was no more.

Oh, Joseph, Ben whispered to himself and then could see the boy at the bottom landing staring over at him. Why was it always the ten year old Joe that came to haunt his thoughts? Ben did not know. The boy he had waved goodbye to was twenty-two years old, but the memories that existed of him now were those of a small child.

“Pa? Can I come down a second?” came the call of the forlorn ten year old.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in your room, young man?” came the voice of a much younger Ben as well.

“I can’t sleep when you are mad at me, Pa. Please? Can I come down and talk to you?” The hazel eyes reflected the fullness of tears in them and it was a losing battle to keep the appearance of anger now. Ben knew he was no match for the child who was at times the image of his late mother. Those brilliant eyes, those flowing brown curls, they were a gift that the woman had left him to remember her by.

“Well, all right…” Ben paused and set his book down on the arm of his chair and waved the boy over. Joe took a few precarious steps toward his father, knowing he had been very disobedient and would have to try his best to make up for his wayward behavior somehow. “Why don’t you have your slippers on, boy? It’s cold on that floor–haven’t I told you a hundred times–” Ben broke off from the lecture when he saw that the tears on his child’s face were coursing down faster. He supposed the lecture over the slippers could just wait for later. “Okay, what is it you want to say?”

Joe stood in front of his father and shifted his weight from foot to foot trying to get his words out. Ben did have to stifle a grin over the fact that the boy looked simply adorable trying to come up with a story to get himself off the hook. “I know I was bad–” Joe started and looked toward the bare wood floor embarrassed. “I just don’t like you being mad at me.”

“Well, now, Joseph–do you know why I was mad at you? Were you listening when I punished you?” Ben had to turn on the stern look now. He had been very worried about his son, and he wanted it to show.

“Yes, Sir.” Joe nodded and fidgeted with his nightshirt.

“And why was it that I was mad?” Ben continued.

“‘Cause I didn’t tell you where I was—and you all had to go looking for me. And, that made you mad.”

“You worried me half to death—you know where you are supposed to meet your brothers after you get out of school. And no-one had seen you–we had no idea what had happened to you!” Ben’s anger over the situation was back in full force again. “We didn’t find you until dark–you know what could have happened to you if we hadn’t found you? You weren’t even wearing your coat! You could have frozen to death before we found you.”

“But, Johnny said…” Joe started and Ben cut him off.

“I don’t want to hear again about what Johnny said! Like is not his father gave him a good tanning tonight too!”

“But, we wasn’t gonna be gone long–just enough to look for that secret fishing spot he heard about—honest!”

“Joseph!” Ben warned, and this time he narrowed his eyebrows to make his point known. He did not want to hear any more excuses.

“Okay, Pa—I won’t do it no more…”

“Any more,” Ben corrected.

“I won’t do it anymore. But, will you forgive me? I can’t sleep; it scares me when you are mad at me.” Joe looked sadly into his father’s eyes now and brought his own point home.

Ben frowned and tried to read the boy’s face. Joseph did have a way of playing him at times, and he wanted to be sure that the boy wasn’t just trying to get off the hook with his sad eyes. “Scares you? Why?” Ben asked confused at what the boy had said.

“‘Cause it makes me think you don’t love me anymore.”

That did it! Ben was now putty in the little boy’s tiny hands. Here he was standing before him, looking like half street urchin and half angel. Ben could not take the tears any longer, and had decided that at least “this” time, Joe was telling the truth.

“Just because I am angry with you does not mean I don’t love you. You need to remember that, Joseph. I was angry because I was scared to death about what had happened to you. If I didn’t love you I sure wouldn’t have worried so much. Look at my hair–go on look!” Ben leaned forward so that Joe could see the patches of white that mixed in with the black hairs on his head. “You gave me at least another hundred white hairs just today! By the time you are Adam’s age, if this keeps up, I will be totally white headed!”

“Oh, Pa…” Joe grinned shyly and ran his tiny fingers through Ben’s hair, giving it a brief ruffling before commenting. “You’ll never have all white hair.”

“Now, I think you need to go to bed–tomorrow is a school day you know?” Ben had to break into a smile now. He saw his little boy was feeling much better and it warmed his heart.

“Can I stay down here just for a little while?” The little eyes sparkling along with his request.

Ben sighed and settled back in his chair. “Climb up here. But, just until I finish this chapter and then it’s off to bed with you!”

Joe grinned and pulled himself up into his father’s chair. Ben could feel the bony knee plant itself on his thigh and he had to settle the boy over to one side so they would both be comfortable. Joe smiled to himself as he took in the scent of his father’s pipe tobacco. It mixed in a fragrance with the bay rum cologne that the man wore, and to Joe it was the smell that was totally his pa.

“Whatcha reading?” Joe asked looking at the back of his father’s book.

“No talking,” Ben answered and tried to find the page where he had last left off.

“I bet it’s a better book than that old teacher is making me read!” Joe continued.

“Joseph…” Ben warned.

“Okay, I won’t talk no more.”

“Any more,” Ben corrected and smiled.

“Any more,” Joe replied and settled his head down into the crick of his father’s neck just between the top of his shoulder and the base of his chin. “Pa?”

“Yes?” Ben asked exasperated now.

“I promise—I promise that I will never go away and make you worry,” Joe whispered and closed his eyes.

Ben sighed at what his little boy had said, and hoped it was a promise that he would keep. He could feel the warm breath on his neck and it wasn’t long before the boy stopped wiggling and was fast asleep, safe and secure in his father’s embrace. Ben’s head dropped so that his chin now rested on the little boy’s mass of curls. The scent was there, the scent of Marie. Ben could still recall, five years after her death the fragrance she carried. So, many mornings, lingering in bed with the woman held tightly in his arms, Ben’s face had snuggled up to the woman’s pillow. Their son carried that same fragrance in his hair. An intermingling of both Marie and Ben Cartwright, Joe was a constant reminder of the love that they had shared. Caressing the boy’s curly brown locks, Ben set the book aside. How could he ever stay mad at the child who held his heart? Ben stood, lifting the child into his strong protective arms. It was time to put his boy to bed. Slowly he climbed the stairs with Joe heading up to the little boy’s bedroom. Then, Ben would slide the boy under the heavy comforter and plant a gentle kiss on his forehead before leaving.

I promise—I promise that I will never go away and make you worry. The words shook Ben from his spectral encounter. When he looked back over at the fireplace he could feel the coolness of tears as they washed his face. It was just like always, the remembrance had ended, the sights, sounds, and smells of his memory were fading fast away.

“Oh, Joseph…” Ben cried and reached over to the coffee table. There, in the small tin container, sat the nitroglycerin tablets that Doctor Martin had ordered for him. Ben opened the lid and put one of the bitter pills under his tongue. Leaning back in his chair, Ben waited for the pain to subside. It didn’t. No matter what the doctor had said, Ben’s ailment had little to do with the actual functioning of his heart. It was only the large void that his son’s death had left that was the problem. Ben knew this even if medical science differed with his own diagnosis. Nothing would ever fill the huge gap that Joseph’s death had left.

Ben looked toward the stairs again. All images of the past had gone back to wherever they kept themselves when others were around. He knew that only he was prisoner to the ghosts that haunted the house nightly. And, though they always left the father sadder than before, they were the one thing that Ben lived for. Just to see his little boy, vision of the past or not.

Pulling himself up from his chair, Ben drew his hand up to his chest and waited for the pain to leave. The pill may have accomplished its medical purpose, but it had done nothing to stop the pangs of his broken heart. He knew he had to go on. Yes, there had been many tragedies he had survived in the past! Burying three wives, and still living long enough to raise three fine sons, Ben was tough all right. But, it was hard to be the father to the older two that he had been prior to Joe’s untimely death. He would try, try for them. But, deep in his troubled heart and soul he longed to be with his little boy.

*****

Another breakfast, with the same menu as the one the day before. Hop Sing had just come back earlier in the week from a lengthy trip to San Francisco. Joe’s death had thrown the Chinaman into such a deep depression that Doctor Martin had prescribed a visit for him to be with his family. Though he had more than a dozen cousins along the Barbary Coast, in his heart, Hop Sing had always viewed the Cartwrights as his real family. And Little Joe was more like a son to the man. He knew it would take more than a visit with relatives to shake his emotional turmoil, but Hop Sing worried about what his own absence would do to the remaining Cartwrights and had headed home.

“Mr. Hoss, you lose too much weight, you no eat, Hop Sing go back to San Francisco and no come back!” The cook threatened after noticing the way the middle son’s face was now sunken in. A true sign that the man had not been eating.

“Shucks, Hop Sing, I been eating,” Hoss lied. “And besides Joe always teased me about being fat remember?”

That was the word that sent Hop Sing back into his kitchen. He had to hide the tears which had automatically fallen at the mention of Joe’s name. Hop Sing made sure to rattle pots and pans to make his family think he had gone back to his work. They all knew better.

Adam stared over at his father. The man had not touched his food. Kicking Hoss under the table to signal him what was going on, Adam tried to get his attention. Hoss looked up at his brother, a frown on his face. Why did he always have to kick him anyway?

“Pa, we wuz going into town later–wondering if you would come along?” Hoss started.

“Pa?” Hoss called again after a moment’s pause with no reply from his father.

“Huh?” Ben looked up from his plate. “What were you saying, Hoss?”

“We are going into Virginia City–wondered if you would come along?”

Ben took a sip of his coffee as he tried to think of another excuse. He had come up with so many recently. He did not want to go into town. In fact, Ben didn’t want to do anything. Just getting up and getting dress seemed almost an insurmountable chore of late.

“Not this time, son. But, you boys go on ahead. It’s Saturday and you both deserve some time off.”

“Pa…it’s Tuesday,” Adam interjected.

“Really?” Ben asked, confused. “Well, just the same you boys go on without me.” Ben stood and headed into his study with what remained of his coffee.

“I’ll talk to him, Hoss. You go get the horses ready,” Adam whispered and Hoss stood and headed for the door. His gait was slow and his heart was in his stomach, or at least that’s how it felt. He needed his father, wanted to spend some time with him. Now it didn’t look like that would be happening no matter what Adam had said. Hoss left the house and walked slowly towards the barn.

*****

“It’s been six months!” Adam’s voice was raised, not out of anger, but to get his father’s attention. “C’mon, Pa, we have to get on with life. You know Joe wouldn’t have wanted you to grieve this way!”

“I don’t want to talk about Joseph,” Ben returned angrily.

“Oh you don’t? No, I guess you don’t–not to us anyway. You would rather sit around here thinking about the kid all day. Mourning and pining away for him.”

“That’s enough!” Ben shouted jumping to his feet. He couldn’t believe his oldest son could be so callous in his words. “I loved him—and it doesn’t matter if it’s been six months or six years—I am always going to grieve for him!”

“I loved him too, Pa,” Adam replied sadly, his voice low and with a riveting pain to it. “So did Hoss, and Hop Sing for that matter. But, he’s gone. Life is for the living, not the dead.”

“I thought you were going to town.”

“See, you changed the subject! Just like you have all these months! How can I get through to you, Pa? We have a ranch to run, and I don’t want to run it without you. There are contracts to be signed…”

Ben cut his son off. “This ranch was meant for you boys; it’s time you took over. I’m having Benton draw up the Power of Attorney papers so that you can sign anything that needs my signature.”

“So, then that’s it, huh? You just gonna lie down and wait to die? You want to join Joe, is that right?”

“Stop it!” Ben shouted, trying to fight back the tears.

“Pa, you had THREE sons! Now you have TWO! Hoss and I know how much you loved Joe–he was always the baby–always the favorite–but we need you too!”

Ben stared into Adam’s dark eyes and felt the pangs of guilt for the first time. Had he made his other two sons feel this way? Did they really think that Joseph had been the favorite son? Had it been that apparent? And worst of all, how to hide the truth of it now?

“I loved all of you the same,” Ben protested. “But, your brother still needed me; he was so young. Only twenty-two.”

“Yes, he needed you–no denying that! But, he would have needed you even if he was sixty! Just like Hoss and I need you now.”

Ben sank back down into his leather chair behind the desk. He put his head in his hands and tried his best to understand what his son needed from him.

“Pa, I know you haven’t been keeping up with any of this but I gotta tell you–Hoss is having a hard time of it. He needs you. Hell, I need you and I am the oldest! But, this Saturday is his birthday. He didn’t want me to say anything to you about it. But, you know if you don’t come out of this grief stage soon, I don’t know what’s gonna happen to him.”

“His birthday? This Saturday?” Ben looked up in disbelief.

“Yes. It’s the twenty-sixth.”

“And I didn’t even know it.” Ben shook his head full of remorse. “Adam, that gives us four days—I’ll talk to Hop Sing, You tell some of the town’s folks. We will have a party for him, this Saturday. I don’t want the boy thinking I don’t care.”

Adam smiled and let his hand fall on his father’s shoulder. “We both know that you care, Pa. It’s just time that you showed us a little, okay?”

“I’ll meet you both in town. Just give me a couple of hours. Let’s meet at the International House at four, how’s that?”

“Thanks, Pa.” Adam sighed, relieved that his talk had finally broken the ice with Ben. “I’ll go tell Hoss. See you there.” Adam hurried outside to give his brother the encouraging word.

*****

Ben tied Buck to the choke-cherry bush and stared off toward the view of Lake Tahoe. He closed his eyes and let the breeze kiss his face. A fine mist fueled by a gust of wind danced on his visage. He imagined it was the moisture from Marie’s kisses and stood there taking them in. There was a storm front pushing through the mountains and churning the deep waters of the lake. The mounting clouds changed the water to a much darker blue, and signaled a rain squall would be heading onto shore soon.

Ben stepped down the worn path to the two graves. He had always assumed that he would be resting in the grave next to Marie, not his youngest son. Kneeling down between the two markers Ben looked from one to the other and fought his tears once more.

It had been a mere formality, putting Joe’s marker there next to his mother’s large granite headstone. There hadn’t really been much to bury. Shreds of clothing, coated with the boy’s blood, and that lock of hair. Oh, God, the lock of hair! Ben bowed his head to force away the scene which had attacked his mind. No, he couldn’t think about it, not again!

Oh, Joseph. Ben reached for the stone marker and wept. Why? God, why my little boy? And with those words echoing in his mind, Ben went back to the images of what had happened to his youngest son and why there was a grave which bore his name.

*****

Joe tossed his baggage up to the stagecoach driver and turned to say goodbye to his family. He gave Hoss a quick jab in the ribs playfully and shook Adam’s outstretched hand.

“Don’t get in no trouble, Little Brother,” Hoss warned the boy.

“Yeah, and don’t forget to be back in time for a change. Pa gave you two weeks not two months,” Adam chided his brother, but there was a hint of amusement in his eyes and Joe knew the teasing had been good natured.

“Yeah, well, I just might find something in Salt Lake that amuses me–and not come back at all!” Joe winked over to his two brothers and then felt a pull at his elbow.

“Come here just a second,” Ben called and pulled his son over in front of the stage line office and away from the other passengers who had started to board the stagecoach.

When the two of them had some privacy, Joe grinned up at his father and put his hand on Ben’s arm. “Now, Pa, I’m a big boy–you aren’t gonna give me that little lecture are you?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about, Joseph,” Ben protested, but knew exactly what the boy was referring to.

 “Oh, you know? The one you give me whether I am going away for a day or a month! You are going to tell me to be careful and to wire you when I get there…”

Ben cut Joe’s rendition to the quick. “All right! All right! So, I am over-protective–is that such a crime?”

Joe’s hazel eyes reflected the love he felt for his father as he shook his head and laughed. “No, Pa. And, don’t tell those two…” Joe dropped his voice to a whisper when he pointed over at Hoss and Adam. “But, I would be hurt if you didn’t give me that lecture. Lets me know you still care.”

Ben gave his son a quick hug and grinned. “Now you be careful, Joseph, and be sure to wire me just as soon as you get there.”

“I will, Pa. Don’t worry.” Joe nodded as he broke from the embrace.

Ben stared over at his youngest before he turned to head for the stage. Joe still had his hat in his hands and it was the first time that Ben had caught a view of the young man’s hair. He reached over and tugged at the hair that fell over Joe’s collar. “Joseph Cartwright! I thought I told you to get a haircut before you left? This is the longest your hair has ever been! Honestly, you look like a cheap…”

“I know I know!” Joe laughed and donned his hat to cover his locks. “A cheap river boat gambler! I’m gonna get a haircut as soon as I get to Salt Lake City, Pa. I just didn’t have time yesterday.”

“You’d better, young man,” Ben replied insistently.

“All aboard! Let’s get out of here. We have a lot of miles before our first stop!” the driver called down to his last passenger.

“See you in two weeks, Pa.” Joe smiled and started for the steps. Climbing up and inside the stagecoach, Joe took a window seat and waved out at his family.

“See you in two weeks, son. And you’d better have a hair cut by then!” Ben called as the stage pulled away. The three remaining Cartwrights waved goodbye to the boy and the stagecoach disappeared when it rounded the end of town.

*****

Ben tried again to shake himself from the awful details of the tragedy which had taken his son’s life, but could not. Cursing himself for the remark he had made to the boy about getting his hair cut, Ben’s eyes teared up again. Of all the things to say to you, Joseph! If only I had known that it was going to be the last time I’d see you—there’s so much I would have told you. Ben closed his eyes again as the story continued to play in his mind, the story of Joe’s death.

Adam had been in Virginia City the afternoon that the wire had come. The wire that informed the sheriff of the disaster which had befallen the Overland Stage Line, and the stagecoach which had left three days prior for Salt Lake City. Roy saw the eldest Cartwright boy coming down the sidewalk and his heart raced. How in the hell could he tell Adam that Joe was dead? And even worse, how would anyone be able to break the news to Ben Cartwright?

Adam sat in the chair in the sheriff’s office. He had been waved in by Roy, and had wondered what the problem was. Now, staring down at the telegraph, Adam knew all too well why Roy had insisted that he take a seat before reading it.

“Are they sure? Sure there were no survivors, Roy?” Adam asked, his voice sounding strained with emotion.

“I sent me a wire right after I got that one. I wanted to be sure before I said anything. Adam, there weren’t no survivors. Those renegades killed all the passengers, the driver, and set the whole stage on fire before they left. I just ain’t got the words to tell you how sorry I am.” Roy’s voice fell to a whisper, trying to keep from breaking down.

Adam covered his face with his hands and leaned over to the desk. “What am I gonna tell Pa? You know how he feels about Little Joe! You know as well as I do that this will kill him!”

“I think we need to bring Doc with us. We’ll ride back to the Ponderosa with you. Maybe I can help with Hoss while Doc helps your Pa. I’ll go get my coat,” Roy answered with a reassuring pat to the young man’s arm.

“Oh, Joe—why did it have to be you?” Adam whispered to himself and tried to fight off the tears which had already formed in his eyes. Somehow he would have to stay strong. He knew he had to be there for both his father and his brother Hoss. Adam made a promise to himself that he would later go off by himself and allow the emotion to pour out. But, that would not be until he had seen to it that the others were okay.

Ben pulled open the ranch house door and was surprised to see Adam back from town so early. But, when he caught the sight of Roy and Doctor Martin pulling up in the yard, he knew something was wrong. Slowly the three men walked to the front door, and Ben noticed that none of them had looked into his eyes.

“What is it?” Ben asked, dreading the answer.

“Where’s Hoss?” Adam demanded as he tossed his hat on the credenza. He knew that he would need to tell both of them together.

“In the kitchen, why? What is it? Somebody better say something and say something real quick!” Ben was now angry. The foreboding on his eldest son’s face was starting to scare him already.

“Hoss!” Adam shouted and his brother was quick to turn the corner coming in from the kitchen.

“Hey—Adam–what are you doing back so soon?” Hoss asked sipping at the coffee he had just helped himself to.

“I need you and Pa to sit down–come on.” Adam pointed toward the living room. Reluctantly and with two faces full of questions, Ben and Hoss took seats by the fireplace.

“Doc? Why are you here?” Hoss asked staring over at the man. He could see the lines of worry the man carried as he stared over at Ben.

“What’s happened?” This time Ben asked in a low hushed voice. He was starting to get the feeling that it concerned Joe. “Is it Joseph?”

Adam looked back between Doc and Roy and then over at his father and brother. “Yes, Pa. It’s Joe. Pa–Hoss–there’s been an accident…” Adam began, but saw his father leap to his feet before he could continue.

“NO! Not Joseph! I don’t want to hear this!” Ben was screaming now. He saw the looks on both Roy and Doc’s faces. He knew it was not something as simple as an injury–Joe had to be dead and Ben did not want to hear the words. As if preventing them from being said would stop the truth. As long as they didn’t tell him, then his boy was still alive.

“Pa—I’m sorry—so sorry…” Adam continued.

“You ain’t saying he’s dead?” Hoss jumped up from his chair in disbelief.

“I’m sorry–so sorry–but yes–Joe is dead.” Adam answered and a deafening hush fell over the room. It was about that time that Ben had reached for his heart and struggled to make his way back to his chair. The pain was incredible! Doctor Martin was afraid of that very thing, and he hurried over next to his friend, medical bag in hand.

“Ben—Ben–let me help you,” Paul insisted and felt for his pulse. It was beating too rapidly for Paul to keep count of it.

“Not my boy…” Ben choked out and dropped his head down into his hands.

“Little Joe? Adam—are you sure? Maybe there’s some kind of mistake–you know–maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe…” Hoss started to grasp for answers that would have a different outcome. He could not think of his baby brother as being dead. The boy with the laughter, the boy whose face could light up an entire room with its glow. No, there had to be a mistake, plain and simple, Hoss would accept no other answer.

“Hoss—-I wish it weren’t true.” Roy jumped in to help relieve Adam of his awful duty. “There just plain was no survivors. Apache Indians—near as anyone can figure–they trapped the stage. They never seen them coming until it was too late.”

Paul reached into his bag and pulled out some tablets and signaled Adam to bring in some water for his father. It took a great deal of coaxing by the doctor, but finally Ben swallowed the medication. “Let’s help your father to his room. He will be out cold in a couple of minutes.” Paul called over to the man’s two sons. Sandwiching their father between them, Hoss and Adam walked slowly up the stairs. Ben’s body was limp and his gaze far away already. And it hadn’t been due to the pills either. All he could think about was his son, his youngest son, and the thought that he was gone.

Hoss retreated to the barn after having helped to settle his father in his bed. He resisted the attempts by the other men to sit and talk about the tragedy. Hoss needed to be alone. He walked over to the stall which housed his little brother’s horse; Cochise. Stepping into the stall with the animal Hoss began brushing and talking to it. The horse seemed to know that something had happened to its master. Pawing madly at the ground with its front right hoof, Cochise voiced in her own way her sorrow. This did not surprise the big man standing there with tears flowing from his eyes. Joe had always sworn that the animal was part human, this was yet another way that the horse proved his assumption to be correct. Promising to always take care of the animal, Hoss patted the pinto and turned for the house. He knew that his older brother needed a shoulder now.

Adam woke from a troubled sleep that night, long after both Roy and Paul had left the ranch. He had a strong urge to check on his father, even though the doctor had told him that Ben would probably sleep straight through until morning. The medication he had given the bereaved father had been very potent. Still dressed in his clothes, Adam pulled on his boots and headed out into the hall. He made it to Ben’s bedroom and noticed the door was open. Peering into the room, Adam saw that the bed was empty. Now he knew where he would find his father.

Ben sat on the end of his youngest son’s bed, holding on to the boy’s robe. The sight of his father devastated his eldest son. He had no idea what he could do or say for the man. There were no words. There was nothing that would take the pain away this time. Slowly easing his way back out into the hallway, Adam decided to leave Ben alone with his grief. He knew he would not be able to go back to sleep, so Adam headed down the stairs. He needed a drink. It was almost too much for him now, having to be the strong member of the family.

“Mr. Adam?” Hop Sing called from across the living room. Adam turned and shot a look over at the cook. He was surprised to find him still awake and just standing there in front of the fireplace.

“Hop Sing? What’s the matter? You can’t sleep either?” Adam whispered drawing near to him.

Hop Sing pointed to the incense on the hearth that he was burning. The scent was of sage. “Sending prayers for Little Joe for ancestors to help him into the next world.” Hop Sing explained sadly. Adam could still see the redness around the Oriental’s eyes. He knew that Joe’s death had hit him extremely hard, and obviously this was how he chose to deal with it. Adam reached for another stick of incense and lit it from the flames of the fireplace and set it in the holder next to the one that Hop Sing had lit.

“Okay–Joe–hope the next world is kinder to you than this one was.” Adam whispered and then it finally hit him. His baby brother, the brunt of a lot of his anger and yet the one he always thought the most charming, was dead. He closed his eyes and could almost see Joe’s smiling face and hear his protests to get out of a day’s work. It wasn’t until then that the tears came, and with their onslaught came a lifetime of regret. There had always been a part of Adam that had resented the boy with the winning smile who had been the apple of their father’s eye since the day of his birth. Was it resentment? Was it jealousy? Or was it envy, that he would never hold the place in their father’s heart which belonged only to Joe? No matter what it was, it had never prevented the oldest son from loving the young man he continually referred to as “the kid”, much to Joe’s chagrin. He wished now that he had not let himself feel that way towards the boy. If he had been able to refrain from the young man’s charm then he wouldn’t feel so empty now. Adam felt Hop Sing’s loving hand on his shoulder.

“You cry now Mr. Adam, no one here but Hop Sing, it safe,” the cook whispered and sat down next to the eldest son. Adam covered his face in his hands and Hop Sing reached over and pulled him closer. He kept his arm draped over the bereaved brother’s shoulder as Adam finally let his emotion out. It had been a long day of holding up everyone else.

*****

And so it had been on that first dreadful day. But, with the second day brought even more anguish as the two remaining brothers listened to their father’s request. Ben sat in his robe, at his desk in the study. His appearance was that of an old man. The tears had made his eyes puffy and glassy looking. Now, after a long night of sorrow, he looked bereft. Looking up into the faces of his two sons Ben choked back emotion to tell them what he needed from them.

“I want the two of you to go and bring the boy back,” Ben started.

Adam exchanged worried glances with Hoss and sighed. He had worried that this was what the request would be, when their father had called them over to the study. “Pa—from what the telegraph said…” Adam began but Ben cut him off sharply.

“I know what it said! Bring me back something to bury. I need proof that Joseph is…” Ben trailed off and put his hands back up to his face. He could not believe the words that he was saying. How could this be real?

Hoss walked around the desk and his large hand fell upon Ben’s shoulder. “We’ll do the best we can, Pa. I’ll go and get the horses ready. Adam…” Hoss turned and shot a hard look at his brother. “Adam, you get the provisions ready. We need to get out there as soon as we can.” Hoss was adamant in his statement and his brother read the intensity in his eyes. Hoss had already fought with his older brother that morning about the subject which his father had addressed. He, too, needed proof that the boy was truly gone. Adam had tried to explain that it would be an awful scene, just like Roy had said. But, Hoss did not care, and obviously Ben didn’t either. There could be no closure, no letting go, unless the family had absolute proof of Joe’s demise.

“Okay, Hoss,” Adam conceded and walked away. He dreaded what would happen when they got there. From the telegraph he had been warned of the terrible way all of the passengers had died. Adam wondered if Hoss was strong enough to handle it. He knew Ben wasn’t.

*****

The journey to Elko had taken a little more than three days. Both Cartwrights checked first with the sheriff of the town, who had been expecting their arrival. Roy had taken the time to telegraph the man that the next of kin would be arriving and had asked Sheriff Hawkins to be as kind as he could. The sheriff understood the meaning of Roy’s message. He had already dealt with the other relatives of the disaster. Sheriff Hawkins would choose his words as delicately as he could, just as his old friend and former school-mate Roy Coffee had asked.

“Been expecting you both,” the sheriff said as he looked up into the faces of his two visitors. They looked very exhausted and had trail dust coating their clothes from the long ride.

“Sheriff Hawkins–my name is Adam Cartwright–this is my brother Hoss.”

“Sorry to meet you both under these circumstances. Do you want to freshen up at the hotel before going on out there?” He asked trying not to say the words “death site”.

“No, we’d just as soon go there now–if you don’t mind.” Adam nodded and saw his brother take a deep breath at the thought of where they were heading to.

“It’s a couple miles to the east–let me grab my coat and I’ll take you there.”

*****

There was little left of the Overland stage coach. It’s burned out remains looked eerily like an animal carcass, almost completely gutted other than remnants of its metal framing. Hoss dismounted first and walked around the area his heart in his throat. Adam was next, and after tying his horse to some scrub brush, surveyed the desolate area.

“The Apaches poured coal oil all over the area–there just wasn’t much left to identify. That fire burnt awfully hot,” Sheriff Hawkins continued to pick and choose his words.

“Were you able to identify anyone?” Adam finally choked out.

“No–I’m so sorry. The fire–it–well…” The sheriff stopped again. How could he tell the family members the hideous truth?

“Say it. We have to know,” Adam insisted forcing his gaze on the lawman.

“The bodies—they were all kinda fused together–one mass–the heat of the fire—charred beyond recognition. The Indians must have thrown them all in the coach after they were killed and then set it all on fire. Looks like they pillaged and then…” He choked for a moment and when he started back up again, his voice was an unsteady whisper. “Near as we could tell, they were all scalped.”

Adam swallowed hard and then heard Hoss gasp and saw him kneeling down just on the other side of the burnt stagecoach. He hurried over to him and saw the big man holding something to his chest. He kneeled next to his brother and that was when he caught sight of the small piece of green corduroy material which was clutched in Hoss’ hands. Adam saw that the remnant was heavily coated in blood. He put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and could feel Hoss shake. He was crying. “He’s gone,” Hoss cried. “He’s really gone.”

Adam stood and looked back over at the sheriff. “Is there anything else? Anything at all that you found? My father requested that we bring something back to bury.”

Sheriff Hawkins bit at his bottom lip, there was one more thing he could show the two men, but he wasn’t sure if they could handle it. He stared over at the intense brown eyes that were pleading for something to show his father. Deciding he had to ask, Sheriff Hawkins reached inside his coat pocket and walked closer to the two Cartwrights.

“I have shown this to all of the other families. No-one could identify it. I hate to even show this to you two. But, we found this just outside this area, over towards the way they probably headed out, the Indians that is. One of them must have dropped it.”

Adam’s eyes fell on the small leather pouch. It had designs he had seen before, all distinctly having been made by Indians. He reached for the pouch and slowly pulled the draw-string open. Inside was a four inch clump of hair, the ends coated with dried blood. Adam closed his eyes as he held the lock of what he knew was Little Joe’s hair. There was no denying it. The color, the curl of it, all were without a doubt Joe Cartwright’s. Hoss had thought up to that point that nothing could be as awful as having found the piece of his brother’s jacket. He was wrong. Hoss saw the hair that little more than a week ago had graced the head of his baby brother. He convulsed with tears and grief and whispered two words. “Oh, God!”

Sheriff Hawkins knew at that moment that he had finally found the owner of the little memento that the savage had left. He could see the devastation on the two young men’s faces. This had been the worst tragedy that the sheriff had witnessed in almost thirty years as a lawman. He could not think of one thing that could be said to help the bereaved men before him. He moved in closer and just dropped a hand down on each of their shoulders and waited for them to gather themselves before riding back to town.

*****

Hoss and Adam had only stayed in Elko just that one night. The horses needed the rest, even though they both knew there would be no sleeping for them. They sat in the saloon until closing trying to drown the thoughts and the sights of the day’s events. Feeling only numbness, Adam and Hoss had gone back to the hotel and waited for morning.

Four days later when they rode up to the ranch house they spied Doctor Martin’s buggy parked out front. Both men thought the same thing, and it made their hearts stop. Had something happened to their father? They quickly dismounted and met the doctor as he closed the front door heading for his carriage.

“Doc? Is Pa okay?” Hoss asked nervously.

“Well, he is still hanging in there. I gave him some tablets for his heart. He’s been having some pain–could be angina. How did it go?”

“He’s gone,” Hoss replied and in saying that, Paul reached over and put his hand on the big man’s shoulder for comfort.

“I’m sorry.” Paul wasn’t sure what to say. He looked at the two horses and knew there had not been a body brought back with them. Paul knew how hard that would be for them all, nothing to bury.

“Doc–I am worried about telling Pa the news we have. Do you think you could stay awhile longer?” Adam looked toward the house and dreaded what they had to tell Ben.

“Sure–let’s go on in. The sooner your father accepts it the better he will be. He has to get to the acceptance part or he will grieve himself to death.” Paul followed the two Cartwright brothers back into the ranch house.

*****

Ben saw the look on the faces as they came through the front door. The smallest part of hope died in that moment. He knew his sons well. They really didn’t have to say it; he could sense the results of their journey to Elko. Ben sat back down in his chair and said nothing. He waited for his boys to tell him the bad news.

Hoss and Adam had argued all the way home. There was a harsh difference between the two of them regarding what they would tell their father about Joe’s death. Hoss thought that they should spare the man the sight of the lock of hair. Adam felt that it was the only thing that would make their father face up to the death of this youngest son. Now, as Adam stood before Ben, he wasn’t sure that he could do it. He looked toward Hoss for help, but he was not offering any. Hoss sank into the chair opposite his father as Paul sat down on the settee.

“Pa—Joe is dead. There is no doubt about it now. We couldn’t bring back a body. It was just as they had said originally, the fire had destroyed the remains of all of the passengers. I’m sorry.”

Ben looked up at his eldest and could see that he was holding back information. Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was years of watching all of his sons, but no matter what it was, Ben knew there was more to the story. “You found something–tell me,” Ben said coldly and looked back and forth between Hoss and Adam. They could not fight his penetrating brown eyes which demanded an answer.

Hoss handed his father the small piece of jacket that he had found. Ben examined it and sighed. Yes, it was Joseph’s. But, there was something else, something that was making Adam stand there holding his breath. “What else? What are you not telling me?” Ben demanded.

“Pa–it’s just best if you don’t know–if you don’t see it.” Adam tried his best to spare his father the anguish and pain.

“Let me see it,” Ben stated blankly. He had to know the truth.

Adam reached inside his jacket and pulled out the leather pouch. Before handing it to his father, he wanted to warn him. “Pa–it’s…” He stopped as he saw Ben close his eyes. Somehow he had figured it out just looking at the pouch, though Adam did not know how.

“It’s his hair,” Ben whispered and took the pouch from his son. He stood, turning his back on the three men in the room and pulled open the drawstring. Inside were the brown curls. There was the reminder of his little boy. And hadn’t the last thing he had said to the boy been the order to get a haircut? “Oh, Joseph…” Ben whispered and clutched the clump of hair to his breast. Then, the world stopped, and from that point on had started to spin in reverse. There was no longer a future in Ben’s mind. All that was left was the past, and the life he had spent as the father of three sons. It was only there, in the past, that Joe would ever exist now.

*****

Ben let go of his son’s marker and wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve. He could not believe it could still hurt this bad. Just as bad as the day he had held Joe’s hair in his hand and wept standing there in the living room at the ranch. Maybe it would never stop hurting? Just as Ben was about to get off his knees and stand up, he heard the voice again. “I promise—I promise that I will never go away and make you worry.” He looked up, and there, standing next to Marie’s headstone was the ten year old Joe with a smile on his face. “Joseph?” Ben called astonished to see his boy there in broad daylight. “I promise, Pa,” came the voice as Joe’s image disappeared into the surrounding scenery.

Ben stood and brushed the knees of his pants off. He had decided that either he was starting to go crazy or that his grief had caused the images to appear in the manner that they had. But, the truth was that he really didn’t care. He had seen his little boy, whether mental image or ghostly specter it made no difference. “I’ll be back.” Ben whispered, addressing the two graves before him. Walking back down the path and over to Buck, it was only then that the rain sprinkled down from the clouds which had been waiting for his visit to end. The dampness on his face was not from the sky, it had been generated from his broken heart. Mounting his horse, Ben turned for Virginia City. He had made his own promise that he would meet Adam and Hoss, and he had to keep it this time.

*****

Ben left Buck at the livery stable, knowing he would be in town for awhile. He headed down the sidewalk which would lead to the International Hotel. Passing the medical office of Doctor Paul Martin, Ben heard his name being called and he stopped.

“Ben!” Paul greeted his friend and shook his hand. “I was going to come out to the Ponderosa later to see you. You know you didn’t make it to your appointment last week and I was getting worried.”

“I’m fine—didn’t think I needed to come in, Paul,” Ben argued the point.

“Well–you just step inside and let me be the judge of that, okay?” Paul persisted.

“I would, but, I have to meet the boys over at the hotel.” Ben fought for a good alibi.

“It’ll keep, now come on in here.” Paul grabbed the man’s elbow and led him into the building. Ben reluctantly took a seat in the examining room. “Undo those top buttons and let me have a listen to that heart.”

“Paul…” Ben started, but could tell that his old friend would not take no for an answer this time. Ben loosened the top couple of buttons to his shirt and Paul moved in closer with his stethoscope. Next he felt the man’s pulse and then frowned.

“You’ve lost more weight, Ben. I told you last month you needed to take better care of yourself but apparently you didn’t listen. Your heart still sounds a bit weak to me. Have you been taking many pills?”

Ben buttoned-up his shirt and sighed from all of what the doctor had said. “I have been eating. As for the pills—whenever the pain is bad I take them. Now am I free to go?”

Paul pulled a chair up and stared over at his friend and patient. He had to somehow get through to the man or Ben would probably follow his son to the grave. “Ben, I was thinking of something the other day. Something that I had clear forgotten.”

“What?”

“Do you remember when Joe came down with scarlet fever? I think he was about nineteen at the time.”

“He was seventeen,” Ben corrected and then closed his eyes and thought on it. “Why do you bring this up, Paul?”

“The other night I was laying in bed thinking about it for some reason, and I suddenly remembered something Joe had told me. Guess it’s been nagging at my brain for months now. Do you remember how you and I took turns watching the boy for days? We did everything we could do to get that fever to break. We almost lost him along the way.”

Ben sighed again; he wondered why the doctor was making him remember all of it now. Of all the things to be thinking about, a time when he had almost lost Joseph! Had Paul gone mad? Was this some strange way to make him face the fact that they had been fortunate not to have lost the boy five years earlier or what? “Of course I remember,” Ben replied sadly.

“The night his fever finally broke, I was the one with him. I don’t think I will ever forget it. It had been one of the worst bouts of the fever I had ever tended in my career.”

“Why are you bringing this up–I’d just as soon not remember…” Ben stood from the table and Paul reached over and grabbed his arm.

“Sit down, Ben. This is important and I need you to listen,” Paul shot back, and Ben could tell the man was indeed serious in his request. Reluctantly, Ben sat down again. “Thank you.” Paul nodded and this time he stood. “Joe told me something back then, which only came back to me the other night. He was very worried that he wasn’t going to survive. No matter how much I tried to reassure him, he insisted I make him a promise.”

“What promise?” Ben was curious at last, Paul could see it on his face.

“He made me promise that if anything ever happened to him that I would take care of you. He was so worried that if he died that you would be too sad to go on.”

Ben choked back tears and replied, “He was right.”

“Ben, you have to go on. And since I did make Joe that promise, I am going to make sure that you do. It’s time to let the boy rest in peace. You know you will be seeing him again. Just don’t rush to do it.” Paul’s words came off full of compassion and worry.

“I’m trying–I’m in town today to meet the boys. Adam had to remind me that Hoss’ birthday is this Saturday. I’ve told Adam to arrange a party for him.”

“Good, Ben. That’s a very good first step. Now what about your health? How can I keep the promise I made to Joe if you don’t take care of yourself?”

“I’ll try to do better.” Ben nodded.

“Do you need more nitroglycerin tablets?”

“No, not just yet.”

“Well, you let me know. And I expect to see you back here in two weeks for another check up. Will you promise me that you won’t stand me up again?”

Ben stood and patted Paul on the shoulder in agreement. In the man’s compassionate eyes he saw the one person who had saved his son so many times in the past. He owed most of Joe’s twenty-two years to Doctor Martin. Joseph knew that of all people, Ben would listen to Paul. That had to be why Joe had made the doctor promise to take care of his father if he should die.

“I’ll show up. Now, you will come out for Hoss’ party Saturday?” Ben forced a smile.

“I wouldn’t miss it. See you then.” Paul grinned as he led Ben out to the main room. Ben waved goodbye and then headed back down to the hotel to meet Hoss and Adam.

*****

Saturday night couldn’t have turned out better for Hoss’ party. The sky was clear, and a full moon greeted the guests as they pulled up to the ranch house. Hop Sing had come alive with all the preparations that had to be done to make Hoss’ birthday memorable. There were brightly colored Chinese lanterns adorning the porch and entry-way leading to the front door. Once inside, the guests were amazed to see how much had been done for the celebration. Balloons filled the room and bouquets of wild flowers, along with a huge banner wishing the birthday boy a very happy birthday. Having worked diligently to assure a wonderful party, Hop Sing felt happy for the first time in six months.

The crowd was lively, as was the music, which was provided by local musicians. Of course, Adam got into the spirit and had led many songs with his singing voice and guitar. The furniture had been pushed back in order to provide a dance floor, which had been full of dancers most of the night.

Ben watched from over by his desk as he poured his guests glasses of punch. There was Hoss dancing with the new girl in town. He could tell that his son was already becoming smitten with the beautiful blonde. Over by the dining room stood Adam, conversing with a young lady who ran the mercantile. Both of his sons seemed to be having a wonderful time. The food, provided by Hop Sing, was extravagant and plentiful. Nothing had been spared to make the night special for the middle son. There was only one thing missing. That peculiar laughter and the smiling hazel eyes which loved a party, no matter the occasion. Ben sighed and fought again the memory of his youngest son. He had to tonight. This night was for Hoss, and also Adam for that matter. Ben knew he had to prove to them that he loved them too. He had been so full of grief he had not allowed himself to think of the needs of the surviving sons. Ben knew that it was wrong and he wanted to make up for it. He would try to keep his mind on the two of them for the time being.

“Ladies and Gentlemen—I’d like to propose a toast,” Ben called after the music had died down. The guests all lifted their glasses in preparation for their host’s words. Ben looked over at Hoss, who now stood next to Adam across the room. “A toast to my son, Hoss. Happy birthday, and many, many more. You and your brother Adam mean the world to me—and I love you both very much.” Ben said the words which almost broke up the entire room. Everyone knew how special this night was. It was the first party on the Ponderosa since Joe had died. The father’s words sent women into their purses for their hankies. Hoss and Adam nodded and smiled over to their father and their eyes lit up the room with the thought of what the man had just said.

*****

Half-way across the country, the full moon shone just as brightly as it had over the Ponderosa ranch. Looking up at it from the breeze way at the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, Father Michael Donahue smiled. He had been making his final rounds of the evening and everything was peaceful and unusually quiet. As he opened the door to the parish quarters, he spied the young man who was just finishing his evening chores.

“Laddie,” The priest’s Irish brogue coming through in the word, summoned the young man’s attention. “It’s a wee bit late to be mopping the floors, don’t you think? It’s time you were getting yourself ready for slumber.”

The young man set his mop against the back of the closet door in response to the priest’s suggestion. He did not respond verbally, he never uttered a sound. But, then Father Mike, as he was known, had come to expect that from the lad.

“Come on then–time for bed. Let’s have a prayer and then it’s off with you.” Father Mike waved the boy over to the small candle-lit alter in the front of the main quarters. The young man kneeled next to the priest and made the sign of the cross with his right hand. He had gotten use to the ritual, and knew it was now time to bow his head and listen to Father Mike’s prayer.

“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, we thank thee for the blessings of this day and pray you look over all those that reside amidst these hallowed walls. Grant us, your servants, a restful slumber and a new day filled with joy. In Christ’s name we ask these blessings, amen.” The priest and the boy crossed themselves once more and then stood and blew out the candles.

“I hope you’ll be having a peaceful slumber this night, Laddie.” Father Mike smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder affectionately. He saw in the dull green eyes the same blank stare he was accustomed to seeing. Father Mike had prayed for the young man for months, hoping somehow that he could break down the barrier which prevented the boy from speaking. There was no telling what key would unlock the door to the young man’s mind.

Father Mike watched as the young man, whom he fondly referred to as “Laddie” walked into the next room to turn in for the evening. He had taken the boy to see a doctor, but that had turned out to be pointless. The physician had given up on the lad, and told the priest that perhaps an asylum was the best place to house the young man, not the parish. Father Michael would have no such thing! Though the main purpose of St. Joseph’s Home for Boys was to house the young orphans of the area, he could not see turning away this young man. Granted he was older than was allowed by the rules of the diocese, Father Michael had pleaded and won his case with the bishop. He had pointed out that to turn away a lost soul such as Laddie was against the moral fiber of the Church. Father Michael also insisted that the young man could be of service helping with odds and ends around the parish office. It seemed an even trade, some chores for a place to call home. The young man was of even temperament and posed no risk to either the other young men or the Sisters of St. Joseph, so he was allowed to stay permanently.

Father Mike, the name he himself preferred over the more formal Father Michael, waited until the young man was asleep and then looked in on him. The boy was in much better shape than he had been when he had been brought to the parish months prior. Back then the young man looked in failing health. His clothes nothing more than rags, and his hair falling long in parts and almost missing in patches elsewhere. There had also been the scarring to the boy’s shoulder which showed a recent injury which had freshly been healed. The elderly couple who had brought him to Father Mike had told of their finding the boy in the high desert between Nevada and Utah Territory. He was lost and in a somewhat catatonic state when they had lifted him into their covered wagon and brought the boy with them east to Missouri. They knew that they could not care for the young man, as they themselves had traveled cross-country to live out their lives with relatives in St. Louis. Father Mike had taken the boy, cleaned him up, and had him seen by the parish doctor. From that point on the priest felt responsible for him. Now, staring down at Laddie, Father Mike’s heart still ached for the him. He wondered if the boy would ever find his way back in mind and in spirit.

“God bless you, Laddie,” Father Mike whispered and left the room, closing the door behind him.

*****

Two days later, Ben had decided to take Hoss up on the offer to accompany him to the site of the new railroad spur. He had purposely avoided dealing with business issues, and it had been Adam’s own business savvy which had brought about the contract to allow the rail-line to cross the northern section of the Ponderosa. It would prove to be a lucrative venture for the Cartwrights. There was the large sum given to them by the railroad for permission to travel across their property, as well as the fact that the Cartwrights had out-bid all others for the contract to provide timber for the railroad ties that would be needed for the tracks.

Now Ben felt a bit guilty for having saddled Adam with all of the responsibility for months, and he decided to go out and see how the spur was coming. Hoss was anxious to show his father what he had also accomplished in running the timber camp and seeing to it that the ties were being cut and delivered on time. Adam had work to be done elsewhere but promised to meet the both of them later for dinner in Virginia City.

Ben walked with Hoss into the barn to saddle the horses. As he stood next to Buck, his eyes glanced over to the next stall and noticed the pinto standing there. A pain shot through Ben’s chest at the way the animal looked so forlorn.

“Hoss? When was the last time someone exercised Cochise?”

“Fletcher took her out a few days ago, Pa.” Hoss turned to answer and watched his father walk over to his brother’s horse.

“Looks like she could use some attention,” Ben muttered and patted the pinto’s neck. “Yeah–you miss him too, don’t you?” Ben asked and Cochise seemed to answer by pawing the ground anxiously. “I’ll ride her,”   Ben called over to Hoss and reached for the saddle blanket.

Hoss grinned over at his father. Cochise was a one man horse. Always had been, always would be. But, Hoss was happy to see his father saddling the animal. He felt it would be good for both man and horse to get out for awhile. Once Chub and Cochise were saddled, the two men led them out of the barn and then mounted up.

“Just don’t pull back on the reins too much, Pa. Remember Joe taught her to stand on her back two legs!” Hoss called over as they started out of the yard.

“Yes, I remember.” Ben smiled, and this time the thought of his youngest son did not come with a deep sadness. It came with amusement. Ben could still remember seeing the boy clinging to his horse when Cochise decided to do her trick a time or two without warning. “Let’s go.” Ben nodded and they galloped out of the yard.

*****

Back at the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, Father Mike heard a knocking at his study door.

“Come in,” he called out, still wading through paper work on his desk. Looking up, the priest saw one of the newer boys of the orphanage approaching apprehensively.

“Jacob? You needn’t be frightened boy. Now what is it that you’ve come about?”

“Well, Father—two things really. First, Sister Sarah told me to tell you that the man from the newspaper is here…” The boy stopped and then looked down at the floor a hint of embarrassment coating his cheeks with redness.

Father Mike stood from his desk smiling. “Oh, that is wonderful I’ll be speaking to him right away.” The man said but then noticed that there was something else on the lad’s mind. “What is it my boy? You’ve a face laden with trouble. Tell Father Mike.”

“But—you need to go see that man…” Jacob started.

“Ah now, it’s you that is me business at this time. Sure’n you know that, Jacob! Now, what is it–I ask you again?”

“Stephen–he told me something–something about that man…”

“What man?”

“You know the one that helps you around here?”

“Oh, you mean Laddie? Now what was it that Stephen said?”

“He said—well–he said that he was a crazy man. That he couldn’t talk or nothing ‘cause he was out of his mind.”

Father Mike frowned and shook his head. It wasn’t the first time that someone had started a rumor about the young man who could not speak for himself. Reaching down, the priest patted Jacob’s head. “Now that would be a lie. And I will be talking to Stephen my own self about it. You know why we don’t like lies, don’t you?”

“Yes, Father, it is a sin,” Jacob nodded adamantly.

“Aye you are very right there ‘tis a bad thing to do. Now as for Laddie–we would never want to hurt the feelings of someone who happened to have an illness now would we?”

“No, Father. Is that what’s wrong–is he ill?”

“Yes, Jacob, the boy is ill. Some illnesses you can’t see but they are there. Now you’ve nothing to worry about with Laddie. He is as gentle as they come. Now come walk with me and we will meet with that newspaper man.” Father Mike held out his hand and walked down the corridor with the small boy, who was relieved to have heard the truth from the priest.

*****

The reporter sat in the lobby of the main building and waited to interview Father Michael Donahue for the St. Louis Times. He had worked his way up from copy boy to chief reporter in the five years since taking the position with the city’s best known newspaper. His boss, Charles Harrigan was a staunch supporter of the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys and he felt it was about time to run a more in depth article on the home to drum up more funds for the charity.

Ernest Duffy was the best at turning the written word and that was why the assignment had gone to him. Still in his early thirties, he was more experienced than most local reporters. He had graduated from a prominent college in Boston and then had spent the next three years touring the world. Ernest had a wealth of knowledge, especially the kind of knowledge that counted in the creation of a good newspaper article. He knew how to read people and was a stickler for details.

“Nice to meet you, Father!” Ernest smiled as he stood and shook the other man’s hand.

“Pleasure would be all mine.” Father Mike nodded, his Irish eyes twinkling at the reporter. He had more charisma than anyone that the reporter had interviewed recently and with the priest’s smile came a peace over Ernest.

“I’ve heard a lot about this place, Father. You and the Sisters have done a remarkable job from what my boss tells me.”

“Oh, and how is Charlie these days?”

“Charlie?” Ernest laughed. “Well, he’s a bit more formal with me; I don’t even get to call him by his first name, let alone Charlie! But, he is well. He sends you his love.”

“Aye, a fine man! Very fine indeed. Now, how about I give you a walk through the place and we can talk as we see what all we do here? It would be much better to have you see the lads who live here and what we do for them than to sit somewhere and listen to me trying to explain it.”

“That would be great.” Ernest pulled out his notepad and pencil and walked down the hall with the priest to start his grand tour.

*****

By the time that Ernest had finished the tour of the orphanage, he was very impressed indeed. He had already written ten pages of notes for his article by the time they stopped at the parish quarters. Father Mike had insisted that the reporter stay for some tea before heading back to the newspaper office. The priest set the kettle on the stove and ushered the reporter over to the small table in the kitchen.

“Who’s that?” Ernest asked as the door opened and the young man appeared with his arms full of firewood. The man pushed the door closed with his foot and began filling the wood box that sat in front of the main room’s fireplace.

Father Mike turned and looked towards the fireplace. “Oh that? That would be Laddie.” The priest said smiling warmly.

“He looks older than the other boys. Didn’t you tell me that normally the boys stay until they are around eight-teen? He looks a tad older from here.” Ernest asked as he looked across the room and watched the young man still hard at work.

“Laddie is not one of the boys.” Father Mike lowered his voice and moved in closer to the reporter to explain. “He’s a sad case, I am afraid. He was found by a couple heading out here from the west. The boy had nothing on him, no identification, nothing. Worse thing, I am afraid the boy has suffered some kind of trauma. He can’t speak. Oh, he can follow orders and do menial chores around here. But, I’m afraid if we didn’t take the lad in then he would have fallen victim to the same kinds of things that others with this type of illness have. The doctor even suggested an asylum, but I can’t see that for the boy.”

“Sounds like a sad case, you are right.” Ernest nodded.

When the kettle whistled, the young man stopped what he was doing with the firewood and hurried to the stove. He poured the boiling water into the teapot and brought it and the two cups over to the two men at the table.

“Why thank you, Laddie.” Father Mike patted the boy’s arm.

It was at that moment, when Ernest looked up at the mute young man to thank him for the tea, that life for everyone suddenly changed. The reporter’s mouth dropped when he caught sight of the boy’s hair and eyes and facial features.

“What is it? What’s the trouble?” Father Mike asked noticing the reporter’s expression.

“Father…” Ernest began. “Father, do you believe in miracles?”

Father Mike laughed at the question. “Sure’n that would be my line of work you know!”

“Well, Father, here’s another one for you.”

“What?”

“I know this boy.” Ernest replied and looked directly at the priest now. “This boy is Joseph Cartwright. I know his family. They live out west—in Nevada.”

Father Mike looked just as astonished as the reporter now. “Are you sure, man?”

“He is either Joe Cartwright or his identical twin I tell you!”

The young man stood there with the same blank look on his face. He had no idea what the significance was in the way the two men in front of him stared at him now. He was too far secluded inside himself to realize that the reporter would now be the one to reunite him with his family.

*****

Adam walked out of law office. It had been a long afternoon of going over contracts and talking with his attorney, Benton Hill, about new business ventures. Adam peered down the street towards the saloon. That was where he decided he needed to go. He was starting to get a bit of a headache from handling all of the duties which use to be primarily his father’s job. A beer or two would help his head and his mood, or so Adam thought as he headed toward the Silver Dollar.

Before Adam could order his drink, he heard his name called and turned from the bar to see a young boy coming through the swinging doors.

“Mr. Cartwright! I was told to bring you down to the telegraph office and quick!” The boy called out of breath.

“What’s wrong, Billy, what’s your Pa want?” Adam asked bending down to look into the boy’s eyes.

“Don’t know for sure–he just said for me to find you in a hurry. I seen you walking in here when I was down at the other end of town. C’mon!” He rattled on and grabbed Adam’s hand and tried to pull the man along.

“Okay–okay. Sam–hold that beer for me–I’ll be back!” Adam called to the bartender as he hurried out of the saloon with the boy.

*****

Pete Olson stood at the door to the telegrapher’s office watching for his son and Adam Cartwright. He didn’t ever remember feeling so excited about a telegraph in all of his twenty some years as a telegrapher. Finally, Billy and Adam came into view and Pete waved them both inside the building.

“Billy–you run on home,” Pete said and the little boy frowned in response. He wanted to know what all of the excitement was about. “Go on, son.” Pete called one more time, and with a more stern tone. Billy headed out of the office closing the door.

“Pete? What is it? Billy was about out of breath when he found me. Some kind of trouble?”

“Sit down, Adam.” Pete pointed to the chair next to the counter. Adam sat and stared up at the man and waited to be filled in. “First, I have to ask you—do you know anyone named Ernest Duffy?”

Adam looked confused for a minute and then his mouth broke into a grin. “Sure I know Duffy! Yeah–he and I went to college together! He’s a very old and very dear friend of mine–but why do you ask?”

Pete sighed deeply and fell into the next chair with relief spreading over him. “Then this isn’t a joke of some kind! Sorry, I had to know before showing you; I didn’t want to upset you if this was someone’s idea of sick humor.”

“Huh?”

“Here—read this.” Pete handed Adam the telegraph that he had received just twenty minutes earlier.

Adam’s right hand started to quiver as he read the wording of the telegraph. He read it once, twice, and finally on the third time he looked over at Pete. “This can’t be–it just can’t be…” he whispered to prevent the total lack of control in his voice.

“That’s what I thought at first too. But, it’s for real, Adam. He spells it out, all about Joe. I don’t know how this could be real either but he swears it’s either Joe or his identical twin. The wire said he will be sitting there in the telegrapher’s office in St. Louis until he hears back from you. Now what do you want me to send him?”

“It says Joe is at this home for boys? That a couple picked him up in the desert close to Utah—that Joe had no identification. And—that Joe can’t speak. We need to make sure this is Joe first of all! I don’t want to get my hopes up—or anyone else’s for that matter until we are dead sure about this. Hand me that paper.”

Pete handed Adam what he needed to write his message to his friend who was standing by in St. Louis. When Adam was finished, Pete immediately began sending the wire.

The wire read: confirm this is Joe  stop  thought he was dead from Indian attack months ago  stop  two things to check Duffy  stop  Joe has large scar on left thumb  stop   and would have been missing very large patch of hair  stop  please confirm  stop  will be waiting for answer  stop  your friend Adam

While the two men in Virginia City waited, Pete opened his bottom drawer and took out a well hidden bottle of whiskey. “I don’t know about you, Adam, but my nerves are shot. Think I need a drink.”

“Got another glass?” Adam nodded over at the man. He felt as though his heart was in his throat at the time. Minutes seemed like hours as they sat there waiting for Mr. Duffy’s reply.

When the reply came, it read:  will be back shortly  stop  going to check Joe’s thumb and story about hair  stop  wait there  stop   Duffy

And so they waited. By the time that the answer arrived next, both men had drank a fair amount of whiskey and neither of them was as nervous as they had been originally. The sound of the telegraph key as it made contact with the metal jolted them from their conversation. Pete wrote the message, frantically keeping up with the signal.

That message read: confirmed scar on left thumb   stop   priest also confirms large patch of hair missing upon arrival   stop   this is Joe Cartwright   stop   advise   stop   Duffy.

Adam read along over Pete’s shoulder and his eyes welled with tears. His baby brother was really and truly alive. Pete had to push a tear aside as well. The emotion of the moment was immense. Adam drew a shaky hand across the sheet of paper and wrote his response.

Adam’s telegraph read: Duffy you have just done me the greatest favor in my life  stop   since Joe needs supervision would you travel here with him  stop   all expenses and then some will be paid by me  stop  I owe you big time for this  stop  advise  stop   Adam

Pete sent the telegraph and there was almost an immediate reply this time. The new one read:  will send wire with travel arrangements tomorrow  stop   will accompany Joe no problem  stop   boss will approve time off in trade for great story  stop  looking forward to Hop Sing’s cooking  stop  wish I could be there when you tell your family Joe is alive   stop  should make first train out tomorrow which puts us arriving two and a half weeks  stop  will wire before departure  stop  your friend Duffy

Adam read the last message and folded it with the other ones and placed them in his pocket. Looking up at Pete he said, “How much I owe you for a whole day’s work?”

Pete winked and patted Adam’s shoulder as he stood to leave. “No charge–this is the best day I’ve had in an awfully long time. I wish I could see your Pa’s face! Hoss too! You going home to tell them now?”

Adam walked with Pete out of the building and spied his father and brother’s horses down at the saloon. “I think I will be telling them sooner than that.” He smiled and pointed. “This is going to be very strange.” Adam shook his head and turned pensive. He remembered so vividly being the one who had told the two men about Joe’s demise. Now, he would be doing the exact opposite. “Think I need to get Doc in on this–just in case. See you later, Pete–and thanks!” Adam shook the telegrapher’s hand and hurried down the sidewalk to find Doctor Martin.

*****

Doctor Martin read each of the telegraphs after he had heard Adam’s lengthy explanation of what was going on. His face broke into a smile by the time he got to the last one that Ernest had sent. “I should have known…” Doc grinned over at Adam. “I should have known that after everything else Joe had gone through in his life that somehow he would end up a survivor.”

“Yeah–I once told Hoss that I thought Joe had to be part cat–he sure has used all of his nine lives by now, that’s for sure. Now–see what I mean? How do I tell this to Pa and Hoss? I am afraid. You told me how weak Pa’s heart is now.”

Doctor Martin stood from his chair and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “If anything, this will help his heart more than any pills I could ever give him. Why don’t you go and bring them both over here. Just as a precaution.”

“I’ll be right back,” Adam replied and headed out of the doctor’s office. He walked down C Street and crossed over to the Silver Dollar Saloon.

“There he is now!” Hoss said to his father and pointed as Adam made his way in the doors. “I just told Pa that you were gonna get two more minutes and we wuz gonna go eat supper without you.”

“We have a little detour before the International House. I’ll explain in a minute. Let’s go,” Adam said with a hint of mystery in his tone of voice.

“Is something wrong?” Ben asked as he walked with his two sons out of the saloon.

“No, Pa. Nothing’s wrong–just the opposite.”

“Let me get the horses.” Hoss stepped down off the sidewalk and headed toward the hitching post.

“Never mind the horses, Hoss. I am positive we will be back here soon. Just leave them.” Adam called to him trying to fight the smile that was starting to spread across his face.

*****

By the time that the three Cartwrights were all assembled in the office of Doctor Martin, Hoss and Ben were more than curious as to why they had been taken there by Adam.

“Okay—enough with secrets already! Now why are we here?” Ben asked getting a bit perturbed looking back and forth between Paul and Adam.

“Ben, what we are about to tell you is going to change everything. We just want to be sure that you are going to handle the news all right. Hoss–this may come as a shock to you–I know it did me,” Paul began.

“What is it?” Ben and Hoss asked in unison.

Paul stared over at Adam and gave him a nod. Adam drew from his pocket the telegraphs to show his family as he had earlier shown Paul. “You are going to think this is not real, Pa. But, I can promise you that it is. These telegraphs will confirm it all,” Adam said and handed the papers to his father.

“Confirm what?” Ben asked again, looking to his eldest before reading the telegraphs.

“Confirm that Joe is alive,” Adam finally broke the news.

“What?” Ben whispered this time. His hands began to shake with the statement his son had made. He could also feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest. A million thoughts flew through his mind, none of them sticking there long enough to make any sense of the news.

“He’s alive—and he is in St. Louis.”

“How?” Hoss was now looking over his father’s shoulder as Ben read each telegraph slowly, taking in all of the information. With each telegraph that he finished, Ben would hand it over to Hoss for him to see.

“Duffy? Isn’t this the friend of yours who stayed with us that last summer you were in college?” Ben asked, stopping in the middle of reading and shooting over a glance at Adam.

“Sure is! That’s how he knew it was Joe. And, like it says in the first telegraph Joe can’t talk–and had no identification on him–so without Duffy running into him, we might never had known this.”

“That’s a miracle!” Hoss exclaimed and read over the first telegraph again. “It says Joe is kinda–what’s that word?” Hoss pointed with his finger and showed it to Adam.

“Catatonic—the doctor who saw him in St. Louis told the priest Joe was catatonic. It means he can’t communicate. It usually follows some kind of trauma–isn’t that right, Doc?”

“Yes–now as to the degree of it–that remains to be seen. We’ll all know more once Joe arrives.”

Ben handed the last telegraph to Hoss and let his head drop into his hands. Then the tears started. For six months the devastated father had cried tears of loss, but now they had been replaced by tears of joy. Hoss and Adam gathered around their father, and just as they had supported him when there had been awful news, they gathered around him with the best news imaginable.

“It doesn’t matter–nothing matters—Joseph is alive—and he’s coming home. No matter what his condition, no matter what he has been through–my son is alive,” Ben whispered and then wiped his eyes and looked up at the other three men.

“You’re right, Ben. No matter what condition Joe’s in, we will handle it. Just like we always have. Now I think a bit of a celebration is called for! That is, if you are all right, Ben?”

Ben stood, a bit shaky at first, but then his face lit up and he replied, “I have never felt better in my entire life. Dinner and drinks are on me–let’s go!”

The three Cartwrights and Doctor Martin headed down to the International House for a celebration dinner, which was followed up with another visit to the Silver Dollar Saloon, just as Adam had predicted.

*****

Ben Cartwright had just about worn a trench in the road in front of the Overland Stage Line office with his worried pacing. It was very common for the stage to be late, but this day Ben had hoped that for once it would arrive right on schedule. There had been three long weeks of waiting for Joe and Adam’s friend Ernest Duffy to make their way to Virginia City. The trip had involved carriage, train and now stagecoach, and had encompassed over eight-teen hundred miles.

Ben stared yet again at his pocket watch and sighed. Casting a glance over to Hoss and Adam Ben smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He could see they were just as anxious to see their little brother as he was. Ben looked over to the posting board with arrival and departure times displayed in chalk. He frowned to see the noon arrival time still written there. It was half-past one already. Shaken from his frustration, Ben heard his two sons yell loudly. The stage was just coming down the street.

Two passengers disembarked before Ernest Duffy stepped down and came into view.

“Ben! Adam–Hoss!” The man called out and started shaking the outstretched hands. Turning back to the stage he yelled up into it. “C’mon, Joe–it’s okay–c’mon out.”

Slowly the form appeared at the door to the stage. Joe was dressed in a plain white shirt, black pants, and regular dress shoes. As the three Cartwrights stared up at him, they all noticed his hair had been cut extremely short, and was almost straight. It was so short that the curls were all gone. Other than that, as Joe stepped down and turned back around, he looked like the same Joe Cartwright who had left on a stage some seven months earlier. Adam was first to greet Joe, as he could tell that his father was mentally taking in the boy who now stood in front of him.

“Glad to have you back, Little Brother–we sure have missed you,” Adam said and patted Joe on the back lightly. He could see that there was no change to the boy’s facial expression.

“Yeah–hey there, Short Shanks—I sure have missed you, boy!” Hoss put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. He still stood there as rigid as before. Hoss had been warned about his little brother’s condition so he accepted the fact that he would not get a response.

It was then that the two oldest sons and Ernest stepped back to allow Ben to welcome Joe. The elated father did not focus on the face which wore a blank stare. He did not look at the dullness that was in the usually brilliant hazel eyes. He just saw his son, his youngest, the missing piece of his heart. He drew the young man into an embrace and did not care how many stares were focused on them both at the time. Closing his eyes, Ben’s mind flashed back to the first time. The first time that he had ever held his youngest son.

Ben could still see Marie laying there in the bed, exhausted, and yet smiling so proud that she had given her husband another son. Ben remembered hearing the baby, screaming at the top of his lungs and could still hear Marie’s laughter as she commented on the strength the tiny baby possessed. It was only when she had handed Joe to Ben that he had stopped crying. Ben remembered staring down at the tiny infant, so dwarfed by his own huge hands. He brought the child towards his chest trying to prevent the arms and legs from protesting the way they had been earlier. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see you, Joseph,” he had called down to the baby. Ben’s soothing voice had settled the child so much that Joe did not cry again the whole time Ben held him in his arms.

Ben’s arms continued to embrace his son, and it was just as powerful a moment as it had been some twenty-two years earlier. The joyous father felt as though God had given him the gift of Joe’s life twice, and both times he had welcomed the boy tenderly into the world. “I’ve been waiting a long time to see you, Joseph,” Ben whispered and hugged his son tighter. “Welcome home.”

There had been no reaction to his father either, Joe’s body remained just as unresponsive as it had been earlier, despite the emotional welcome by his family. Ben finally eased Joe from his tight hold and stared into his eyes again. “Everything is going to be fine, Joseph–just fine.” Ben commented and took the boy’s arm and led him over to the buckboard. Hoss and Adam followed carrying the luggage that Duffy had brought and set it into the wagon.

“Pa, Duffy and I will be home shortly–I owe him a few drinks first.” Adam smiled and put his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “That is if you and Hoss have it okay?”

“Yes, Adam—we have it just fine. You two go and do some celebrating. Ernest—I just really don’t know how to thank you…” Ben trailed off looking over at Joe, who now sat in the wagon next to him.

“It’s been my pleasure—I’ll fill Adam in on everything and then you and I can talk later. Joe can understand you–he just can’t respond. Just go slow with him. He is a bit weary from the trip I think,” Ernest explained and then walked over and put his hand on Joe’s hand. “Joe–you are back with you family now–just like I told you! Now, you just take it easy, okay? I’ll be home to see you soon.” Everyone looked as the reporter spoke to Joe. They could tell that the man had formed a strong bond with the boy during his trip west.

“We’ll take good care of him.” Hoss nodded and patted the reporter’s shoulder and walked around the wagon to mount his horse.

“We’ll see you two later.” Ben nodded over to Adam and Duffy. Then he put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and whispered. “Let’s go home, son.”

*****

The scenery heading back to the ranch was met with Joe’s stark lack of emotion. Ben and Hoss kept their eyes on Joe as well as the road before them. They had both been told not to get their hopes up about the boy’s chance for an immediate recovery, but still they had hoped that there would be something which would strike a nerve and make Joe come alive in spirit. Ben kept on talking, just as though his son were keeping up with the long conversation. Doctor Martin had earlier tried to explain to Ben the difference between being in a catatonic state and amnesia. He assured Ben that Joe did know who he was, as well as who his family were. Unlike amnesia which depletes those kinds of memories. Paul had likened Joe’s condition to being trapped in a room and not being able to get out. But, Paul was just going on all that he had been told about the boy’s condition, and hoped to further check him out once Joe was home and settled.

“Well, here we are now.” Ben smiled as they pulled up in front of the ranch house. He stepped down and walked around to Joe’s side. “Come on, son. Let’s go inside shall we?”

Joe got down from the buckboard and Hoss came to his aid. “I got your gear right here, Joe. How about we go and get you settled in your room? I bet you are plumb worn out by the long trip out here.” Hoss took his brother by the elbow and led him into the house.

Hop Sing had heard the wagon as it had approached the yard. Waiting as patiently as he could stand to, he stood just inside the door to greet the Cartwrights. When the door pulled open he finally got the chance to see Little Joe. It was a sight that made the Oriental man’s heart soar.

“Little Joe! Hop Sing so happy to see you–so happy!” He called out and gave the young man a brief hug. Unlike the past, the man did not feel the boy’s arms around him, showing his mutual affection for the man who had helped to raise him. There was no real response, and when Hop Sing pulled back, he felt sad to see the blank stare that the boy still wore.

Ben noticed Hop Sing was upset. “Joe is kinda tired, Hop Sing. Hoss was just going to take him to his room.” Ben patted the cook on the shoulder and gave him an understanding look.

“Hop Sing has fine supper later–Little Joe go get rest.”

Hoss led Joe up to his room. He stopped in the hallway on the second floor and hoped that Joe would instinctively enter his bedroom by himself. It hadn’t worked. When Hoss had stopped, between Joe and Ben’s bedrooms, Joe also stopped and waited for the big man.

“Here you go,” Hoss said, giving up on his little test, and opened Joe’s bedroom door. Joe walked in and moved over to the bed and sat down. He did not look around the room or show in anyway how glad he was to be back home. “Why don’t you try to get in a little nap before dinner, Joe? We’ll all be downstairs if you need anything. Okay?” Hoss asked and then frowned. He should have known better than to ask his brother a question. Joe could not answer and Hoss had been told that before.

Joe laid back on the bed and closed his eyes. Hoss walked over to the door and called to his brother before leaving the room. “It sure is good to have you home, little brother. I sure have missed you! We all have.”

*****

“How did he do?” Ben asked as he spotted Hoss coming down the stairs.

Hoss moved over to sit next to his father. “He’s laying down, Pa. I ain’t even for sure he knows he’s back home or not.”

“Hoss—let’s not get discouraged, okay? Joe is home, that’s all that matters right now.”

Hoss smiled and nodded his head. “I know you’re right, Pa. I guess I just thought…well…”

“I know–I thought so too,” Ben read his son’s expression. “But, it’s not going to be as simple as him walking into his home to bring the boy around. Joe went through some kind of awful trauma. Just think of it! He was the only survivor—and we don’t even know how that happened. He was obviously wounded—-and someone cut that hank of hair off him! Who knows what horrors his mind is still holding? Somehow we will break through. One step at a time for now.”

Hoss nodded again. His father was right, they were so extremely lucky to have the young man home and safe. That had to be the main thought for the day. Everything else could wait.

*****

Adam and Duffy made it back to the ranch a few hours after Joe had gone up to his room to rest. The two of them sat in the living room with Hoss and Ben. For hours they spoke of what had happened in St. Louis with Joe. Duffy filled them all in on what Father Mike had done for the boy and all that had happened since the fateful day that he had sent the telegraph to Adam. The three Cartwrights took the information in, each amazed that Joe had ended up in the boy’s home and that by luck or fate Duffy had gone there to do the article on the home.

When Hop Sing came in to announce that it was time to eat, Ben stood and decided that he would be the one to bring Joe down for supper. He climbed the stairs and walked down the hallway to his son’s room. He was surprised when he opened the door that Joe was not in bed. Ben walked into the room and it was then that he spotted Joe sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. He was leaned forward with his head resting on his knees, his arms clinging tightly to his legs. As the worried father approached, he couldn’t help thinking that the boy looked alone and afraid. But what could he be afraid of? Ben did not understand. If Paul had been right, Joe should know now that he was home. If that was truly the case then what could it be that was frightening him so badly? Was his mind still caught on the horrors that he had endured at the hands of the Indians so many months ago? Ben shook his head not knowing any of the answers to his own questions.

*****

Ben knelt down next to his son and let his hand fall to the boy’s shoulder. “Joseph? What is it, son? You’re home now—you have nothing to be afraid of. You are with your family and nothing is going to hurt you again,” Ben whispered trying to calm Joe. There was no response again; Joe did not even show any sign that he had heard his father’s message. He still clung to his legs and had not raised his head from his knees. Ben gently lifted the boy’s head with his two hands and gazed into the hazel eyes. “Oh, Joseph, I know that you know I am here–I know that you can hear me right now. I just wish you could tell me what is hurting you so much. But, there is time for all of that. We don’t have to rush anything, okay? For so many months I thought that I had lost you—that you were dead. Right now I am just so happy that I have you here with me! We will get through this–you will get better. I honestly believe that. So, you just rest easy. You are back with your family, and everything is going to be fine.” Ben stopped, he could feel the tears that were leaving his own eyes, and he knew that if he had been able to get through to his youngest son, that the boy would be crying too. “I love you, Joseph, and I’m so glad you are here and safe.” Ben pulled Joe forward and hugged him again. The mass of curls were not there, Ben noticed as his chin fell to the top of the boy’s head. But, the scent, the scent that was that of his little boy was definitely there. Ben allowed himself a moment to again hold his son and then decided it was time to bring him down for dinner. Clearing the emotion from his throat, Ben coughed.

“Hop Sing has made quite a dinner for you, son. All of your favorites. Now, how about coming downstairs with your father?” Ben stood and reached his hand down for Joe to take.

There was a moment’s hesitation, but then Joe’s hand came up and grasped onto his father’s. Ben pulled him to standing and they walked out of the room.

*****

The day after Joe arrived home, Doctor Paul Martin came out to the ranch house to examine him. Paul had asked the family members to give him some time alone with the young man and they reluctantly waited for the two of them down in the living room. There were mixed emotions in the house that day as each of Joe’s brothers as well as his father wondered if he would ever be as he was before.

“I left him up in his room,” Paul stated as he settled down in the big over-stuffed chair facing Ben. “He’s resting. The trip has worn him out I think.”

“Well?” Ben asked nervously watching the doctor’s eyes to see what he could read in them.

“Well, it is much like Duffy told us in his telegraph.” Paul stopped and nodded over to the reporter. “And, I am very glad that you came with Joe. He is in no condition to be going anywhere by himself. But, that’s obvious to us all now.”

“Is there anything you can do, Doc?” Hoss jumped into the conversation, his worry over his brother evident in his facial expression.

“Hoss, I feel I am a little out of my field in this one to tell you the truth. Whatever happened out there with that stagecoach has left such a trauma in Joe’s mind that I am not sure if anyone can unlock it. What about Harold, Ben? Have you written him yet?”

Ben stood and nodded. He had already sent word to Doctor Harold Peele, his brother-in-law and prominent physician in San Francisco. “Of course I wrote him when we discovered that Joe was alive. I also wrote him about the symptoms that Duffy told us about. I guess I will have to send another telegraph now. We’ve all been kinda hoping that being home would jolt Joseph out of this.” Ben replied distress apparent in his voice.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen like that, Ben. I wish it were that simple. Let’s sit tight and see what Harold has to say. He goes to the all the best medical symposiums each year, if there’s anything new out there he will know about it.”

“Other than that, Doc, is Joe okay?” Adam asked now. “Duffy said that Joe originally had a shoulder wound.”

“I checked that out. There’s a bit of a scar under his shoulder blade but it didn’t do any lasting damage, thank goodness. He’s in pretty good shape, really, considering all that the boy’s gone through. We are all just very fortunate that Joe was taken to a good place in St. Louis. If he had been left alone, in his mental condition, who knows what would have happened to him?”

“Yeah, Father Mike said that the physician he brought Joe to wanted to put him in an asylum.” Duffy answered.

“If that had happened, we might never have known he was alive,” Ben said and shuddered at the thought of it all. “Well, I’ll write Harold and we’ll just sit tight until we hear back from him. Meantime Joe is home and safe. We’ll all just have to keep an eye on him. Right, Boys?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss smiled.

“He won’t go anywhere without one of us with him, don’t worry.” Adam nodded.

“I sure would love to stick around and find out how all of this comes out, Ben, but I do need to get back to St. Louis. I want you all to promise me you will keep me updated with Joe’s progress. It’s gonna make for one heck of a story once he recovers,” Duffy said and stood to go up to his room and pack.

“I was hoping you could stay a little while longer, Duffy.” Adam frowned and walked over to his friend.

“I’d sure like to but you know it’s quite a long journey back. I will make it a point to come back and see you all once I get some time off from the paper, okay?”

“I really don’t know how we will ever be able to thank you. We owe you so much already,” Ben called over to Duffy.

“Are you kidding? When I write this story I’ll probably get a raise–maybe even a promotion. The public loves this kind of thing. Boy reunited with family and all. But, I can’t write it until I get that happy ending. So, you all wire me as soon as Joe is well. I gotta go pack.” Duffy smiled and headed for the stairs.

“Well, Hoss and I are taking you out for dinner and drinks tonight,” Adam called to the man.

“I wouldn’t miss it.” Duffy laughed and walked up to his room.

*****

The following day the Cartwrights bid a fond adieu to their friend Ernest Duffy as he headed out by stagecoach returning back to St. Louis. Ben had insisted on paying his fare and then some for all that he had done for them. Ben also had given Duffy an envelope which contained a long heartfelt thank you letter to be given to Father Mike. Included with the thank-you was a very large donation to the home for boys from the Cartwright family.

Ben drove the buckboard home with Joe at his side again. He continued to talk to his son just as if the boy were completely lucid. There still was no response in the way Joe stared straight ahead. There was no change in Joe’s posture as his father rattled on plans for the ranch and for his sons. Ben took a brief detour, another last- ditch effort to pull the boy back into the world he had left months earlier. When the wagon came to a halt at the familiar over-look right above Lake Tahoe, Ben paused and shot another glance over at his boy.

“Why don’t we step down and stretch our legs, Joseph?” Ben smiled and jumped down from the buckboard. Joe was slower to follow his father’s lead, but he did finally step down and walk over to the side of the wagon.

Ben waited and held his breath. How many times had he come to this place with his youngest son? So many times, good times and bad. Ben watched as the dull hazel eyes stared off into nothingness. He wondered what could be going on in his son’s mind. What vision so awful that it had locked everything else out? Joe could not see anything else in his mind but the tragic events which had taken place seven months earlier, and yet he could do simple everyday things without a problem. Ben just could not comprehend it all. He fought the urge to scream Joe’s name so loudly that it would echo off the mountains surrounding the lake and reverberate in the boy’s mind shocking him back into reality.

“Joseph?” Ben called and drew closer to the boy. “You know where we are, don’t you?” He asked and put his hand tenderly under his son’s chin and forced his gaze into Joe’s eyes. “Show me—please–show me that you know. Somehow fight whatever it is that is keeping you from me. Joseph, please!” Ben’s voice pleaded with his son, and still no response came. No response in the eyes that stared blankly back at him nor in the boy’s rigid stature. After a few tense moments where Ben prayed for a miracle, he finally gave up on his plea. “Let’s get on back home, son.” Ben whispered in defeat of the situation and turned for the buckboard. Stepping back up into the wagon Ben noticed that Joe had not turned back with him. The boy stood in the same spot where he had been. “Joseph? Let’s go home.” Ben called again. But, this time, instead of blindly obeying his father and returning to the buckboard, Joe started to walk down the path in front of him. Ben’s heart rose in his chest, and for the first time he felt a glimmer of hope for his son’s recovery. He jumped out of the wagon and followed Joe. Twenty yards down the path stood Marie Cartwright’s headstone. Ben watched from a distance as Joe made his way over to it. He did not kneel; he did not even take off his hat. There were no tears from Joe’s eyes, as was usual upon seeing his mother’s grave, but, just standing there in front of it he was giving his father what he had asked for. This was the sign. This was the small signal to his father that Joe Cartwright still existed somewhere in the depths of his troubled mind. Ben approached his son, tears falling from his own eyes. He knew it was only a meager triumph, but one that meant there was still hope. The elated father pulled his son into his arms and wept tears of joy. “Oh, Joseph—-I knew you could do it. And I’m not giving up on you, not ever. Someday soon you are going to look at me and smile and laugh and you will be just as you were. I know it. I feel it in my heart.”

Somewhere, just as far into its recesses as the human mind can reach back, came his father’s words. Joe could hear and feel them like the distant sound of thunder from an approaching storm. He wanted to respond. He wanted to call out his father’s name and break through the shackles which encompassed his troubled mind. Joe wanted to be able to return his father’s embrace, to cling as tightly to his father as the man was clinging to him at the moment. His mind would not allow it. Holding him back, like so many heavy quilts weighing a small child down in bed, the terror of his ordeal would not let him move. The real Joe Cartwright was in there, under all of that, and though he could not show it to the man who loved him more than life, deep inside his mind Joe was crying.

*****

The first week passed by quickly, with all the Cartwrights trying their best to get use to Joe’s condition and what they could and could not expect from him. Though it was very trying at times, they kept reminding each other of the fact that they were so very lucky to have the boy back with them at all, regardless of his condition. Ben looked each day for another sign that his son was still there, though trapped in his mind. Unfortunately there had been no other signal from Joe, not since the day they had both stood at Marie’s grave. Ben tried little tricks to test his son. One day he walked with him into the barn and told him to get a bridle for Cochise. There were three bridles hanging on the wooden peg mounted on the wall in the barn. Ben knew that there was one that Joe knew Cochise favored above the others. Holding his breath, the anxious father waited to see which one his son would choose. Sadly it was not the one Ben had hoped for. Joe had just grabbed the first one he came to and brought it over to the horse. This did not stop his father. Ben was determined that somehow he would hit on something which would prove again that Joe knew who he was and where he was and that he was trying to come out of his emotional prison.

One afternoon Ben looked across from his desk in the study and saw how Joe just stared blankly into the flames of the fireplace. He sighed, wanting to find something for the boy to do but was having trouble. Both Adam and Hoss were up at the new spur line and he had more than enough book work to keep himself occupied for the entire day. That just left Joe. The other two boys were far too busy to contend with keeping an eye on their little brother. Hoss promised to take his brother into town the next day to make up for not being with him much that week.

Ben stood and decided it was time for another test. He began piling up papers on his desk and then called over to his son. “Joseph? Could you please come over here? I need help.” At first there was no response, but when Ben called out once more, Joe stood from his position on the coffee table and approached his father. “I need to get everything off my desk. Hop Sing has been pestering me for a month now that it needs a good waxing. Will you help me?” Ben grabbed a stack of papers and carried them over to the smaller table by the staircase. “I have to get everything off. How about bringing me over the pictures? Bring them one at a time so you don’t accidently scratch the glass—bring me your mother’s picture first please.” Ben called over and then waited.

Joe looked down at the three framed pictures. Elizabeth and Inger were on each end and Marie’s picture was in the middle. Joe’s hand fell on Marie’s picture as Ben watched expectantly from across the room. Pulling the framed portrait up to his chest, Joe held it there and closed his eyes. Ben could tell that there was something going on in his son’s mind as he watched in anticipation. “Bring it over here, son,” Ben called to the boy again.

Joe slowly crossed the room, still clinging tightly to the picture of his mother. There was just the slightest flicker of recognition in the boy’s eyes as Ben reached for the picture. But, then that faint light in Joe’s eyes disappeared as soon as the picture left his hands. Ben was beginning to wonder if perhaps somehow the memory of Marie might lead Joe back to him. The boy had recognized the fact that they were at her grave before. And he had just that moment shown his father a spark of recognition and emotion as he had stood holding his mother’s picture. “She was beautiful wasn’t she?” Ben asked his son as he held up her picture so the boy could view it again. Joe’s eyes showed nothing in them this time. “She loved you very much, Joseph.” Ben continued, hoping for some kind of opening, some small crevice that would show the way into his son’s thoughts. Joe turned from his father and walked back over to the desk. He lifted up Inger’s picture this time, and just as before, held it tightly to his chest. Ben’s heart sank. Joe had the same appearance carrying over the picture of his brother’s mother this time. He had obviously read far too much into the earlier incident. Joe was just as far buried in his thoughts as he had been since the day he had pulled up in the stage with Duffy. Ben sighed to himself. He wanted his son back so badly that he felt he was now reading things in everything the boy did.

“I’ll go get the polish,” Ben said quietly and walked off towards the kitchen. When Ben was totally out of sight, Joe reached over and pulled his mother’s picture back off the table. Clutching it once more to his chest, Joe took the picture with him as he headed up the stairs and into his bedroom.

Ben was surprised when he entered the living room again to find Joe gone. He had not heard the front door so he knew Joe must have gone up the stairs. He decided to finish the task of polishing his desk when all of a sudden he noticed the missing picture. It took him by surprise at first, but then it lifted his spirits. Ben decided he had been correct in his earlier assumption that Joe’s bond with his mother was still there, in spite of the fact that the boy could not verbalize it to anyone. He figured it was best to give his son a little time to see if the boy would come down on his own. Ben went on with the task of polishing his desk, even though it really didn’t need it and had only been used as a ruse.

Ben waited as long as he could. Joe had not come back downstairs and it had been over an hour. He decided he had better check on his son to be sure that he was okay. Ben climbed the stairs and walked down the long hallway which led to Joe’s bedroom. He walked into the room and could tell that his son was fast asleep on his bed. Ben moved closer and saw that the boy still clung to the picture of his mother. Laying on his left side, Joe had his right arm around the picture, still holding the image to his chest. The sight just about broke Ben’s heart. Settling down on the side of the bed, Ben softly combed through the boy’s hair with his fingers. The curls were just now starting to return in the form of small ringlets due to the warmth of the bedroom. It was eerie to see Marie’s face staring over at him as he fought back his fears concerning the boy he loved so dearly. Marie’s smile, Joe’s curls, closing his eyes Ben remembered listening to the laughter of them both as the mother and son would play together. Though their boy was only five years old when his mother had died, his bond was so strong with the woman that Ben believed he could see her face when he stared into Joe’s hazel eyes. Or at least he use to. Now those same eyes were like a long dark tunnel leading nowhere. It seemed so odd to him. Joe was lost to him forever one moment, and now he had the living breathing boy laying there in his bed. Though he could feel the texture of his hair and his skin and all the physical things he had come to know as his Joseph, there was still the mind that had not come back to join all the rest of him.

As Ben bowed his head in prayer, clasping his hand around his son’s right shoulder he felt guilty for asking any more of God. God had brought him back his boy, could he ask for more? Could he ask that the boy be made whole again? Would that be too much? Would it make God think he was not grateful? Please Heavenly Father, if it is your will, not mine, please bring me back Joseph. The Joseph I knew, the Joseph I love. But, if it is not your will, please help me to accept it, and make the best life I can for this boy. Amen. Ben looked back over at the picture of Marie and she seemed to be smiling even brighter than before. He smiled in return, knowing the woman was somehow there in spirit. Ben stood from the bed and leaned over and placed a soft kiss on his son’s brow. “Rest, Joseph. Your mother is here with you now.” Ben walked quietly out of the room closing the door behind him.

The next day nothing was said to Joe about the picture incident. He never brought it back downstairs, nor did his father ask for it. As far as Ben was concerned, if having his mother’s picture there with him in some way helped Joe, then that was where it belonged for the time being. Hoss did as promised that morning and drove into Virginia City with his little brother. He had already been told by his father to keep a very close eye on Joe and Hoss had assured Ben that he would.

Stopping first at the lumber yard, Hoss and Joe loaded up the framing that Adam had ordered for the cabin up at the timber camp. Adam had made that decision himself, to turn the rather ramshackle old line shack into better quarters for the men he had handpicked to stay up there around the clock. The glass had already been brought to the camp for the new windows and all that was left to complete the job was the framing that had just been made by the local carpenter. Once completing that job, Hoss and Joe drove the buckboard down to the mercantile to pick up the supplies that Hop Sing had ordered.

“C’mon, Joe, let’s go in and see if Mr. Johnson has them ready for us,” Hoss said as he jumped down from the wagon. Joe followed his brother into the store. While Hoss waited in line to be served Joe stood off to the side and out of the way. Moments later, just as Hoss had finally moved up to the counter, a man approached Joe. Hoss was too busy talking to the store owner to notice what was going on.

“Five passengers, a driver, and all dead except you!” the man spat out at Joe. “You want to tell me why my wife and child are dead and yet you are alive? You are a Jonah that’s what you are, Cartwright! A Jonah!” The man was now yelling as people turned to stare. Hoss pushed his way through the crowd trying to make it over to his brother. He made it, but a few seconds too late. The irate man shoved Joe out onto the sidewalk. He was so upset over his own loss that he did not notice the fact that Joe was in the state that he was in. Joe stepped back as the man advanced again, and this time his attacker shoved him off the sidewalk and onto the street. Joe fell on his back and the man dove on top of him, his fists flying. “You should have died with the rest of them!” The man yelled as he beat on the young man relentlessly. It never even dawned on him that the boy was not fighting back, not even lifting his arms to block the punches which were being thrown at him.

It was at that very moment that the man felt himself being lifted high in the air. Hoss Cartwright grabbed the man with one massive hand, lifting him up and then hurling him over to the steps of the mercantile. He turned back and went for the man again. Hoss was just about to land a punch which probably would have killed the other man when he stopped. He knew the man, his name was Frank Keller. The man has lost his wife and little girl in the attack on the stagecoach. “Keller–it’s only ‘cause I feel sorry for you that I don’t mop the whole street with you. I am right sorry about your wife and young’n but my brother has suffered more than you will ever know,” Hoss spoke out, still fighting his rage. “Don’t let me hear you or anyone else calling my brother a Jonah–nor anything else like that. This boy has gone through enough. Or couldn’t you tell by the way he never even defended himself against you?”

Frank Keller stood shakily as he watched Hoss Cartwright walk back over to his little brother. He decided that no matter how he felt about Joe Cartwright, he needed to leave before Hoss changed his mind and got even with him. Frank hurried down the sidewalk.

“Joe? Are you hurt, boy?” Hoss asked as he carefully lifted him up into his arms. Joe was pretty battered around the face and Hoss was more than worried now. He hurried down the street and over to the doctor’s office.

Paul had seen the crowd dispersing and when he had asked a passerby what was going on, he only remembered hearing the name Joe Cartwright and then looked up to see Hoss carrying the boy over to him. “Bring him in here,” Paul insisted and opened the door to his office. Hoss carried Joe to the examining table and laid him there.

“That damn Frank Keller–jumped Joe when I wasn’t looking. Got in a couple of good licks before I pulled him off him too,” Hoss explained as he helped Paul remove his brother’s shirt. The doctor felt around the rib cage for signs of any breaks. He looked up at Joe and the boy was still staring blankly, as though nothing had happened.

“Nothing’s broken—that’s good,” Paul said and then started to clean the cuts on Joe’s face. His right eyebrow had a good sized gash over it. It wasn’t deep enough to need stitches but was bleeding good just the same. It looked like Joe would have a black eye by the time he made it home and his lip was split too. “For only getting a couple licks in, Frank sure did a lot of damage,” Paul commented as he dabbed some ointment on Joe’s wounds and put a bandage over his eyebrow.

“That’s ‘cause Joe never hit back–never even tried to block the punches either, Doc! It was just awful to see him like that. Back when he was…” Hoss stopped himself. He had almost said “back when he was normal”, but knew he would upset his little brother if he ever realized how he felt about him now. Paul caught on to what Hoss was trying to say and reached over and patted Hoss’ arm.

“I know, Hoss.” Paul nodded and then continued doctoring his patient. “Someday–someday we will have Joe back like he was. Isn’t that right, Joe?” Paul asked and did not get a response as usual.

“Pa is gonna absolutely kill me, Doc! The last thing he said to me was to watch out for Joe. Now look at the kid!”

“No he won’t. You did the best you could, son. You had no idea that Frank was gonna show up and do this! Your Pa knows you wouldn’t have let it happen. If you hadn’t responded so fast–well –Joe would be in lots worse shape. You have any trouble with Ben and you can just tell him to talk to me.” Paul winked at Hoss and the big man finally settled down. “Now–why don’t we let Joe rest for a little while? You go and do whatever you need to and swing by and pick him up on your way out.”

“Are you sure? Sure you don’t mind?”

“Of course not–you know it’s been mighty quiet around here for months. Now that Joe is back, looks like I’ll have my hands as full as always.” Paul laughed and then turned and smiled at Joe. “But, then, you have always been my favorite patient, Joe.” He said and reached for a pillow to put under Joe’s head. “You close those eyes and rest, young man, Hoss will be back soon to fetch you.” Paul grabbed Hoss’ arm and led him out of the room. “Now you go and grab yourself a beer and settle down–doctor’s orders. Then, you can get your chores done and come get Joe.”

Hoss walked back to the door and paused. He shot Paul a worried look. “Doc–Frank Keller–he said that Joe was a Jonah. You don’t reckon that’s how others think of him do you?”

Paul shook his head. “No, I don’t. There’s a whole lot of folks in this town who are elated that your brother survived. Frank’s had a terrible loss, now I’m not saying that it was justified to hurt Joe like that. But, I am saying that Frank is so upset he isn’t thinking rationally.”

“Guess you’re right.” Hoss nodded, starting to feel a little better with what the doctor had said. “I’ll be back soon. Thanks, Doc.” Hoss patted the man on the back and walked out.

*****

The buckboard pulled up in front of the ranch house to unload supplies for the kitchen and store house. Hoss shot a weak look at his little brother. Joe’s right eye was swollen half shut and was, as the doctor had warned, black and blue. Joe’s lip was puffy and still crusted with left-over blood from that wound. Hoss had dreaded telling his father all the way home. When he heard his name called, Hoss was relieved that it was Adam and not his father who was walking towards him.

“Hey–how…” Adam stopped when he saw Joe’s face. “Holy Moses! What the hell happened to the kid?” Adam started inspecting Joe’s face.

“We wuz in the mercantile and Frank Keller jumped Joe before I could get to him. Got in some punches before I could pull him off Joe. And Joe—well, he didn’t even hit back or nothing, he just laid there in the road and took it. He wouldn’t have looked near as bad if he could’ve defended himself.” Hoss tried to explain.

“Wait till Pa sees this.” Adam frowned. “You want me to tell him?” He asked feeling sorry for his brother Hoss.

“Naw–I gotta do it–but can you stay out here with Joe for a minute while I tell him? Once Pa gets a load of this face of his, there won’t be any way to calm him down.”

Adam smiled; Hoss was right in his assumption. “Sure, I’ll stay out here with Joe. “

Hoss made his way into the ranch house and as soon as he closed the front door Ben came around the corner from the kitchen to greet him. “How did it go, son?” Ben smiled, but then the smile faded when he read Hoss’ face. “What’s wrong, Hoss?”

“Well, Pa–I’ve got good news and bad news,” Hoss began.

“Okay–let’s have the good news I guess.” Ben frowned waiting for the information.

“Here.” Hoss tried for a grin, which lost its effect thinking of what he had to tell his father next. “It’s a letter from Uncle Harold. Maybe there’s some good news–you reckon?”

Ben looked at it but decided not to open it just yet. “Hopefully it will be good news–but before I read it, you had better tell me the bad news. And–but the way–where is your little brother?”

“Um–Pa that is kinda the bad news. You see—there was a little problem in town.”

“What! Out with it! Where’s Joseph? Is he okay?” Ben fired his series of questions like a Gatling gun directed right at Hoss’ heart.

“He’s gonna be okay—Pa–honest–Doc says…” Hoss started again but was cut off.

“Doc says? He is at the doctors?” Ben was now yelling.

“No–he’s right outside here. This guy–you know him–Frank Keller? He jumped Joe while I was in the mercantile. I ran right after him but Frank got in a couple of punches before I could pull him off of Joe.”

Ben opened the front door and could see both Adam standing by the buckboard and Joe sitting there in it. He rushed outside. “Oh, Joseph!” Ben exclaimed checking out his face.

“Oh–the kid’s had worse than this, Pa. Don’t worry.” Adam tried to down-play the incident for Hoss’ sake.

“WHY?” Ben exploded and looked back towards Hoss. “Why would Keller do this?”

“He’s out of his mind–Pa he lost his wife and daughter–for some reason he blamed Joe for living through it. He called him a Jonah. I was gonna thrash him good for hurting Joe–but I just couldn’t do it. But, I told him he’d better stay away from him and not be calling him names.”

Ben took a deep breath. He slowly let it out. At that moment he really wasn’t sure who he felt sorrier for, Hoss or Joe. He knew that Hoss would never put his brother in harm’s way, and that the story had happened exactly as his son had told him it did. Ben walked over to Hoss and put his hand on his shoulder and pulled him close for a moment. “It’s okay, boy. You did the best you could. It’s not your fault. Okay?”

“Thanks, Pa.” Hoss nodded, so glad that his father understood him that well to know he was aching just standing there looking at his injured little brother. He was glad that Ben cared for his feelings as well and had taken the time to comfort him for a minute before turning back towards Little Joe.

“Well, Joseph. I bet Frank looks a mite worse than you do.” Ben tried to sound upbeat.

“Pa…” Hoss called quietly moving over to his father. He felt Ben needed to know the truth. “Pa–Joe didn’t hit back. Fact of the matter is, he didn’t even block any of the punches. That’s why even though I got to him right away, he’s so banged up.”

Ben stared at his youngest son and his mouth fell open at the thought of what Hoss had just conveyed. The whole idea of Joe just laying there being beaten and not even trying to defend himself paralyzed his father with fear. Joe could have been killed! “Oh–Joseph.” Ben sighed and helped him out of the buckboard. “Let’s get you to your room.” Ben whispered and threw his arm around Joe’s waist and led him into the house. Adam and Hoss watched the scene and they were overcome with sadness for both Joe and their father.

*****

Ben rinsed the washcloth out again and set it over Joe’s right eye. He had already helped his son out of his clothes and into a nightshirt, trying to get him in bed and settled. Ben pulled back the corner of the bandage that Paul had placed over Joe’s right eyebrow. He frowned when he saw the deep laceration. “He really did a job on you, didn’t he?” Ben asked and pushed the corner of the bandage back in place. “I just don’t know what we’re going to do, son. We’ve got to do something to bring you back before anything else happens to you.” Ben said and then remembered the letter that Hoss had handed him was in his vest pocket. He turned the wick up on Joe’s light and ripped the envelope and pulled the letter out of it. “This is from your Uncle Harold. Let’s see what it has to say shall we?” Ben asked again, knowing there would be no response but trying to make Joe still feel like a part of what was going on. “Dear Ben, I was very pleased to hear that Joseph was back home and safe. I am distressed however with the reports I’ve gotten from both you and Doctor Martin. I am now trying to get in touch with a physician I met at the last convention in Boston. He has made some progress with cases such as Joseph’s by using some form of hypnosis. I know that sounds a bit peculiar, as most folks just think of hypnosis as being a parlor trick, but I can assure you it has been used medically in the past as well. I will wire you just as soon as I hear back from this doctor. I am going to try my best to convince him to go to Virginia City to try and help Joseph. I feel that the boy has been traveling enough lately and needs to stay put for awhile. As soon as I hear something I will let you know. Please give my love to all, but especially my nephew Joseph. Your Brother, Harold.” Ben finished reading the letter and sat there awhile thinking of all that it said. Of course he had heard of hypnosis, and had even seen it done; though it was at a carnival. Could something like that bring Joe back? Ben shook his head. It seemed a bit far-fetched to him, and yet he knew how much Harold loved his nephew and would do anything in the world for the boy. It wouldn’t be the first time he had put his faith in Harold and probably wouldn’t be the last time either. Ben decided to wait as patiently as possible for Harold to get hold of the doctor who was Joe’s only hope at the present time.

“Joseph, I don’t know anymore how much you can really understand. I don’t know if you heard anything that Frank Keller said out there in that street today, but if you did, I want you to forget it. Hoss said he called you a Jonah. You must not believe that. He was only saying that because of his own grief. I know that what happened out there to you–and to the rest of those poor folks from the stage was awful, but there was nothing you could do. If that is what is keeping you from coming back, don’t let it.” Ben ran his fingers gently across his son’s battered face and shook his head disheartened. “If you could just talk to me—just tell me what you feel what you are thinking–then maybe I could help you.” Ben stopped when he saw Joe’s eyes close. He was sure that the boy was hurting but he couldn’t tell anyone about the pain, no more than he could tell his family about the pain he felt in his mind. Ben reached over to the night stand where the picture of Marie still sat. He lifted it up and placed it between Joe’s hands. “You get some rest, son. Hop Sing is heating you up some broth. I’ll bring it up in a little while.” Ben stood and rinsed the washcloth one more time and settled it back over his son’s bruised eye. He then walked to the door, but right before he left he saw Joe grab the picture and turn onto his left side, just as he had before. Marie’s picture was now hugged close to her son’s chest.

*****

Joe Cartwright’s dream state was identical to his conscious state. There were jumbled and chaotic scenes of both the past and the present which swirled in a random fashion. The blazing sight of the stagecoach stood in the forefront of his thoughts and he could still hear the languishing cries of the other passengers as they each met their death at the hands of the savages. Joe lay on the ground floundering in his attempt to come to their aid and save them. Pinning him there was the paralysis of both pain and fear that he could not conquer. Beyond that was the familiar sound of his father’s voice telling him to come to him. Joe fought to move, to stand, to call out but could not. He blinked back both the tears and blood that fell into his eyes blinding him once more. Amidst all of these horrible and disjointed scenes came the calm vision of Joe’s mother. She looked down at her son and touched his cheek. Joe felt the warmth of her hand and struggled to call out to her but his voice no longer existed. As swiftly as she had appeared to him, she vanished and the flames around him grew more fierce. They spread like a thick orange wave crashing down on the stagecoach, all the other passengers, and then advanced towards Joe. He begged to be set free of the bonds which kept him alive but to no avail. The screams died down, the flames leapt around his body, but Joe never felt the heat. Then there was the excruciating pain again, this time it cut through his shoulder, and he screamed. The sound of his terror never made it out of his throat, instead it echoed only in his mind, blasting his skull with its intensity.

Suddenly there was a brief flash of light and he stared face to face with the Indian. The native spoke in Joe’s own language and assured the injured man that he was about to be spared. Then the Indian smiled and pulled out his knife and sent it towards Joe’s head. Squeezing his eyes shut so tightly that his last tears were shoved out of them, Joe waited to take Death’s hand and be done with it all. That was when the sound of Ben Cartwright’s voice could be heard again. Joe’s eyes flashed open and he could see his father’s hand shooting out from the flames that engulfed the remnants of what had been the Overland Stage. Joe lifted his left hand from off the ground but could not reach that of his father’s. He tried to call out to his pa, but words would still not come forth, they remained trapped in his mind. Joe watched as his father stepped out of the flames and came closer. Ben reached down and tenderly ran his fingers through Joe’s hair as he had done so many times in the boy’s lifetime. The serenity of that instant was shattered when all of a sudden Ben jumped to his feet holding in his hand the hank of curly hair. His scream shattered the moment into a million fragments of time. My son is dead! Joe could not move, could not talk, could not tell his father that he was still alive. Ben stepped back through the flames and disappeared into the shadows leaving his son there on the ground.

I’m alive! I’m alive, Pa! I just can’t get to you. Help me, don’t leave! Joe’s pleas could be heard by no-one other than himself.

And so it was, and so it continued. Each day, each waking or sleeping moment of Joe’s life was just a replay of the same scenario. He could hear what everyone was saying, he could see them there in front of him. But, no matter what, he could not get off the ground, he was still pinned there at the site of the horrible attack. No matter how loud he shouted to his family that he was still alive it never shot through the flames to be heard by them. No matter how many tears he cried in his confused mind, they never made their way out of his eyes so the others could see that he was really there. Though he now lay in his own bed, in his own room of his own house, Joe’s mind remained hundreds of miles away next to the burnt out remains of the stagecoach. It stayed there along with his muffled cries for help, begging for someone to come and bring him back home.

*****

The message had come that the Cartwrights had all been waiting to receive. Harold had sent word that he had gotten in touch with Doctor Andrew Wentworth who happened to be heading to San Francisco for a series of lectures. It had taken a little gentle persuasion by Dr. Peele, but the other doctor had at last agreed to make a stopover in Virginia City to examine Joe. A little over two weeks after he had received Harold’s request, Dr. Wentworth arrived in Virginia City.

Ben had made all the arrangements regarding the physician’s stay. He had seen to securing reservations at the International House and made sure that he had booked the most elegant suite for the doctor. Ben saw to all of the Dr. Wentworth’s creature comforts before he had arrived. It was a bright and unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon when the stage carrying the noted physician pulled down the dusty main street. Fortunately, the stagecoach had been on schedule for a change. Ben met the doctor in front of the Overland Stage depot and welcomed him warmly. Dr. Wentworth looked over his new surroundings. While he was checking out the mountain range in the distance, Ben Cartwright was checking out the doctor. The man appeared to be in his early sixties, and was very formally dressed. His suite was dark and elegantly tailored and Ben thought the man was surely more comfortable in less rural towns than Virginia City. Harold had filled his brother-in-law in about the specifics about the doctor he had sent to see to his nephew, so Ben knew basically what to expect from the man. It really didn’t matter anyway. The physician had come a great distance to examine Joe and Ben was extremely thankful that he had agreed to do so. It was very apparent that the doctor’s long journey had worn him out. Ben could see it in his eyes that the doctor would need some time to rest up before he could examine Joe. He led Dr. Wentworth to the hotel and made sure he was comfortable before leaving him to get some badly needed rest before dinner. They made plans to meet at the dining room of the hotel around six that night and then they would discuss Joe’s case.

*****

“That was very enjoyable, Mr. Cartwright,” Dr. Wentworth stated as the two men walked back into the doctor’s suite later that evening. “I am rather amazed to find that sort of cuisine way out here in the west.”

“Yes, we are quite proud of both this hotel and the restaurant. It is one of the best you will find this side of California. I’m pleased that you enjoyed your dinner.” Ben nodded and sat across from the man in the main room of the suite.

“I am rather rushed I am afraid—I only have enough time to stay until Monday. I have appointments in San Francisco that I can’t cancel.”

“I understand—and I just can’t thank you enough for rerouting your trip for us.”

“Let’s get right to brass tacks now shall we? I am not all that sure what Doctor Peele has told you about my treatment for the type of illness which your son has.”

“Well, he did say that you use hypnosis.”

“And, you know about it? Or do you just think it is mumbo jumbo of some kind?” Dr. Wentworth asked bluntly and watched for Ben’s reaction.

Ben shifted a bit nervously on the settee and then stared into the other man’s eyes. “I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of it actually. Of course I have seen it done at carnivals and such.”

“That would not really be hypnosis, Mr. Cartwright. Actually those who use some of the techniques for entertainment purposes have really given this type of therapy a bad name I am afraid.”

“Please call me Ben, Doctor.” Ben smiled over at the man who was starting to ease back and look much more relaxed which also had an effect on Ben. “So, will you explain it to me?”

“Okay–Ben…” Dr. Wentworth nodded towards the man. “Hypnosis actually goes back hundreds of years–even more according to some records. If I told you everything I have learned I am afraid we would be here for hours. Suffice to say it is a way of relaxing the conscious mind enough to allow the subconscious mind to free itself of unwanted thoughts. Doctor Peele mentioned some of the facts about your son to me in his lengthy telegraphs. He was apparently the only survivor of an attack by Indians, is that right?”

“Yes, five others died; my son sustained some injuries but made it out somehow. He was picked up walking in the desert and taken with the family who found him to St. Louis. He was left at a home for boys there and taken care of by a Catholic priest. He has not uttered a word since he was found. That’s been more than seven months ago now.”

“So, it is the trauma of the events of the attack which is most likely preventing your son from speaking. The catatonic state he apparently is in may not be as severe as we are all assuming it is. We just have to break through that wall he has put up.”

“So, you think you can help Joseph? You think through hypnosis you can bring him back?”

Dr. Wentworth leaned forward and stared into Ben’s hopeful eyes. “Ben, I can’t possibly guarantee that this will work. I do have a high success rate over the years but it greatly depends on the subject and the severity of the illness. I do have to caution you, there is the chance that it could make things worse for your son.”

“Worse?” Ben asked surprised by the statement. “How could it make things worse? The boy doesn’t talk, doesn’t show emotion. I don’t know how it could be any worse?”

“If it were to send him further into his own mind, it could very well make it worse. You have to know about this possibility before we go ahead with it.”

“I really don’t see where we have any other options at this point, Doctor.”

“There is always the chance that your son will snap out of it himself.”

“After seven months?” Ben questioned grimly.

“It could happen. Now, of course there is a good chance that this will work. Naturally, that’s why I’ve come here.” Dr. Wentworth smiled now to try and ease Ben’s mind. “But, when we get your son to face up to what happened he will actually relive all the horrors of what he saw. It’s going to be a very grueling experience for him, not to mention those around him.”

“Joseph would not like to live this way. If he were here he would say to do whatever it takes to bring him back to the way he was before. You have my permission to do whatever you think best in this regard. I understand the risks and accept them.” Ben stated adamantly.

“Very well then, Ben. Now, I need to know all about your son. So, I am going to pour us both a drink of brandy and then you can tell me all that there is to know about your Joseph.” Dr. Wentworth stood and walked over to the cabinet off to the corner of the room which had been generously supplied with the finest brandy the hotel offered. He poured two brandy glasses and handed one to the nervous father and then sat back down. “Now tell me what the boy is like. I need to know so that I can best get through to him when I put him under.”

Ben closed his eyes for a minute focusing on the way Joe had been before the accident. He could still see Joe’s smiling face and hear his laughter. Memories flooded Ben’s mind of the boy he loved so dearly. “Joseph is my third and youngest son…” Ben started and then broke into a grin. “It’s almost impossible for me to describe that boy of mine. He is almost a contradiction of himself. He is strong-willed, quick tempered, and has an aversion to following directions. On the other hand he has a gentle side, the side he keeps most hidden. I am one of the few people he has ever shown that other side to. It’s almost as though Joseph has been waging a battle in his mind for all his twenty-two years. He’s constantly trying for total independence, shunning assistance and suggestions along the way. But, in times of crisis he lends way to that softer side. It’s even hard for me, his own father, to believe that so much turmoil can exist in a boy with such a tender heart. Though the boy is stubborn beyond all reasoning, he generally turns to me in a time of crisis. Joseph’s mother died when he was five years old, the boy was very attached to Marie, my third wife. I think that was when it happened, when he realized that his mother was not coming back, that he developed an even stronger bond with me. He was always terrified as a child when I would leave on a business trip! He was so afraid I wouldn’t come back, that I would leave him like his mother had. Even now, after all of these years, I can see an insecurity in his eyes when I go away. Well, that is, I use to see it in his eyes–before this tragedy.” Ben stopped momentarily and noticed that the doctor was taking notes.

“Don’t mind me, Ben. I like to write down all the facts; it helps me decide what to do when we have Joe under hypnosis. Now continue,” the man urged Ben further in his explanation.

“Naturally, as the father of three young men, I’d like to think they were all close to me. And, they are, each in their own way. But, there’s always been something just a little different about Joseph. I learned a long time ago how easy it is to wound his soul. I’ve often wondered over the years why it seems that Joe is still so easily injured by words. There have been times, in the past, where I have really had to watch what I’ve said to the boy, it’s so easy to damage him inadvertently. A stranger would probably think that I am making all of this up, by the way. To a stranger I am sure Joseph would seem brash, egotistical and arrogant. I guess that is the picture that Joe paints for everyone who doesn’t take the time to get to know him. He has a quick smile and a contagious laughter which is why most folks don’t catch upon the deeper side of the boy. Behind those bright hazel eyes there exists a hurt that never totally disappears. Joe’s appearance and attitude are little more than a shell which he uses to protect the fact that his heart is extremely fragile. Joseph has always been the biggest defender of the under-dog, I think it is largely due to the fact he, himself, feels that way at times. What he sees happening to others affects him deeply. He has the uncanny ability to feel the pain others are experiencing. I am sure that factor is a large part of what is haunting him so now. He probably witnessed the deaths of those other passengers and is suffering the trauma of it.” Ben paused a few minutes thinking of how awful it must have been for Joe out there amongst the carnage of the stagecoach attack. Gathering his thoughts he continued. “You would never know looking at his handsome face and bright eyes that there exists such a sentimental soul underneath it all. Joseph has always been a very good actor. He hides the truth from everyone except me. Sometimes I honestly feel I know the boy more than he knows himself.” Ben stopped again and smiled embarrassed, he felt he had rambled a bit too long about his son. “I think I got carried away,” Ben apologized.

“Not at all, Ben. This is exactly what I need in order to help Joseph. I could tell as I watched you speak of him that you have a very strong attachment to the boy. He must be very special to you.” Dr. Wentworth said and set down his paper and pencil.

“I have three sons, as I told you. They are all special to me.” Ben had to catch himself again. It was becoming all too apparent his feelings towards Joe seemed very partial.

“Do you think you have to apologize for having special feelings towards one child? There is not anything wrong with it, Ben. I know you must love your other sons as strongly. But, this is your youngest, and we all have a special attachment to the baby of the family. I have five children myself, all wonderful young adults. But, I will tell you that my youngest child, Andrea, is closest to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t love her other brothers and sisters, though. It just means that the bond is perhaps a tad stronger with her than with the others. That doesn’t make me feel bad, nor should your apparent feelings for Joseph make you feel bad.”

Ben sighed. It felt so good to hear these things explained by another father, as well as a doctor. He had always harbored a bit of guilt for being so attached to his youngest. Now, he had just heard the very same thing admitted by Dr. Wentworth. It made him breathe much easier.

“Perhaps it is just that, the fact that Joseph is my last child. He is also the most demonstrative, though he rarely shows that side of him in front of his brothers.”

“I think I have a good knowledge of your son now, Ben. I’ll do everything I can do to help him. I would prefer to treat Joseph in familiar surroundings; it usually makes it easier for the patient. Why don’t you come here around noon tomorrow and then we can go back to your ranch and see how it goes?”

“That would be just fine, just fine!” Ben replied and stood up. Dr. Wentworth walked Ben to the door and shook his hand.

“I’ll see you at noon then.” The doctor nodded and Ben left the room and headed back to the ranch.

*****

Assembled in the living room of the Ponderosa ranch house the next afternoon along with Ben Cartwright, were his two sons Hoss and Adam, the family caretaker Hop Sing and doctors Paul Martin and Andrew Wentworth. It was at Dr. Wentworth’s insistence that Ben had swung by Paul’s office to bring him along for the hypnosis session. On the trip out to the ranch both doctors had conferred with each other as to the subject’s condition. Joe sat up in his room alone, purposely left there while the others downstairs prepared for his treatment.

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have complete silence in this room while Joseph is going through hypnosis. Any interruption could end the session and it may be too difficult to get him back under,” Dr. Wentworth cautioned as he opened up his medical bag. When he pulled out a metronome all eyes looked strangely towards the doctor.

“What’s that for? Isn’t that used for music or something?” Hoss was the first to venture his surprise.

“Yes, it is a metronome, usually it is meant to keep the tempo when playing music. However I use it to help put my patients under hypnosis. It is a slow and tedious process, so I advise anyone who can’t keep still long to leave now.”

“We’ll all do as you asked.” Ben nodded and gave a cautionary glance over to his sons.

“I believe we are all ready then, Ben, if your other sons will have a seat then you may go and bring down Joseph.”

“I’ll be right back,” Ben replied and headed up the staircase.

*****

Ben walked down the stairs with Joe at his side. He cast a look over at the people assembled and ready in the living room. Hoss and Adam were seated more towards the dining room and Dr. Martin was in a chair by the fireplace. Dr. Wentworth looked over at Joe as Ben moved him over to the settee.

“Joseph, this is Dr. Wentworth he’s come a long way to help you,” Ben addressed his son, though he still was as always. Joe stared blankly toward the doctor.

“You can take a seat now, Ben.” The doctor pointed across from where Paul was seated and Ben did as instructed leaving his son on the settee.

“Joseph, I want you to stretch out on the sofa. I want you to get very, very comfortable,” Dr. Wentworth said in a deep calming voice. Joe let his head rest on the arm of the settee and drew his legs out in front of him so that he was laying on his back. “Very good. Now I want you to try and focus on this.” He held up the metronome in front of Joe’s face and then slowly placed it to the side on the coffee table. “Do not take your eyes off of it,” the doctor explained. Joe looked towards the table and the object on top of it, but his eyes still seemed directed into nothingness.

Dr. Wentworth then started the metronome into movement. It went slowly and rhythmically back and forth making a tick-tock sound loud enough for everyone in the room to hear it. The doctor then pulled up the small stool which had been brought in for him and sat down between Joe and the coffee table but not blocking the view of the instrument.

“I want you to continue to watch the metronome, Joseph. Do not take your eyes off it. Now I am going to start counting, I want you to listen to my voice and only my voice. We are going to take you back, way back, back to where your mind is holding onto you. We are going to free you of the images that have you locked in. Now remember, listen to only my voice,” the doctor continued to talk in a slow deep voice as he counted back from one hundred. By the time he had reached the number ten, he noticed Joe’s eyes had closed. “Ten, feeling more tired, nine, unable to keep your eyes opened. Eight feeling light headed, as if you are no longer attached to your earthly body. Seven aware of your surroundings but feeling at peace. Six, completely relaxed now. Five, all cares are gone you feel as though you are floating above this room. Four, your memory clearer than it ever has been. Three, relaxed still, aware of those around you, memory clear. Two, feeling totally peaceful, nothing holding you back. One, you are completely under now.” Dr. Wentworth cast a glance around the room. All eyes were on him and quite a few mouths were open in amazement.

“Joseph, you can hear me now. I am in the conscious state you have shunned, but, now you are going to come back to us. Before you can let yourself move into this state you must release those memories which hold you back. Back—go back to the day of the incident. You are in the stagecoach heading east to Salt Lake City. You look around the inside of the stage, what are you seeing? Tell me who is sitting next to you.”

In the living room at that moment you could have heard a pin drop as everyone breathlessly waited and prayed that they would at last hear Joe’s voice. Slowly, and with a slight weak tremble to it, Joe’s first words came forth.

“Sandra–Sandra is sitting next to me. We’ve been talking–talking for most of the afternoon. Her mother is tired, I told her I would sit with her daughter so she could get some sleep,”  Joe began and if he had been able to open his eyes at that moment he would have seen tears filling the eyes of all his family members along with Dr. Martin.

“Very good, Joseph, very good. Now what is her mother’s name and who else is on the stage?”

“Mrs. Keller—her first name is Karen I think—then there are the two businessmen, I think they are brothers. I only know them both as Ken and Tim, they are going to Salt Lake to buy property or so they said.”

“Anyone else, Joseph? Look around you.”

“Just the driver, his name’s Sam. I’ve ridden with him before. He lives in Carson City.”

“So, you have been watching Sandra all afternoon so her mother could sleep right? What have the two of you been doing to pass the time?”

“She had some cards–some kid’s kinds of cards. I played some with her. The rest of the time we looked out the window at the scenery. She talks a lot, I listen. That’s how kids are.”

“Very good, Joseph. Now, we have to go further into the day.”

“NO!” Joe yelled insistently and his head shook back and forth violently.

“Joseph—we have to–it’s the only way to bring you home. You want to come home don’t you?”

“Everyone’s dead,” Joe sobbed and tears fell out of his closed eyes. “They’re all dead,” he repeated sadly.

“How did they die? Tell me what happened. If you tell me what happened they can move on. You are keeping them there at that site. You want them to go on don’t you? You want them to be able to go on to Heaven don’t you?” Dr. Wentworth was trying to use some of the information that Ben had offered him the previous day. He had told the doctor that Joe had great compassion for people. Dr. Wentworth reasoned that if Joe thought he would be helping the victims that he would do everything he could to remember what had happened. The doctor decided to make Joe think that the victims would never be able to move from their earthly graves and enter Heaven unless he was able to let them go.

“But, they’re all dead,” Joe repeated still crying.

“If you tell me how it all happened, they will be set free. Now tell me.”

“The stage was making good time…” Joe started in a low whisper. Ben instinctively moved his body closer to his son. He was so afraid that what would now be revealed might back-fire and send Joe further into his mind. But, Ben knew that it had to be done. The risk had to be taken to see if Joe could be helped. He figured it had already worked in a way as he had finally heard his son’s voice for the first time in so many months. “It was just starting to get dark; we had about twenty miles to go to the next stop over at Bishop’s Creek. That’s when I heard the sound.”

“What sound was it, Joseph?”

“The sound of war cries—I knew it was Indians. I looked out of the window and saw them coming. Looked like about thirty of them heading right at us. Sandra started to cry and I told her it would be all right…” Joe stopped and the tears started back up, his grief becoming overwhelming. “Oh, God! I told her it would be all right! NO–no—it wasn’t it wasn’t all right.”

“Joseph, you have to continue, you have to set them free. Now tell me what happened next.”

“I pushed her over to her mother. Then I checked my gun—I looked over at the two businessmen and they looked scared. I asked if they had guns and they said they didn’t. Then I started to climb out of the window. I knew Sam would need help with the team.”

“Go on, Joseph–what happened then?”

“I just got both of my feet planted on the window opening–I was hanging from the luggage rack and trying to pull myself up. That’s when Sam lost control and the stagecoach broke from the team and rolled. I was tossed off. I landed about twenty yards away.”

“Go on, Joseph–you are going to be helping these folks if you continue.”

“I was knocked out—hit my head—next thing I knew I was hearing the screams. Oh, God, the screams! I tried to get up but I couldn’t move at first. Then, when I started to feel my body again, I heard an Indian walking towards me and I stopped moving. He knelt down and picked up my head off the ground. I tried to pretend I was dead but he could tell I was still breathing. All the time I was listening to the screams—the passengers were being massacred! Then the Indian said something to me and I opened my eyes. I knew this Indian.”

“Who was he, Joseph?”

“His name was Lone Eagle,” Joe whispered. All of the other Cartwrights in the room looked at each other as they realized Joe had amazingly met up with someone that all of them knew. “He said he would not kill me, but that he would have to pretend he had in order to keep the other ones from me. He also said that no matter what he did to me that I could not scream or move–or they would know that he hadn’t killed me. Lone Eagle said that when they left they would be heading west and I needed to head the other way. He said that if he saw me again he would have to kill me. Then he told me again not to move.” Joe stopped and swallowed hard. Everyone could tell that the story was getting more difficult for the boy to convey.

“Come on, Joseph, you are almost through–you have almost freed those poor souls. Tell me what happened next,” Dr. Wentworth persisted.

“I was laying with my head on my arms as he spoke to me. I could see the glimmer from the metal of his knife when he lifted it up. I knew he had to pretend he had killed me, so I braced myself for what he was going to do. That’s when he sent the knife down through my shoulder.”

Joe had stopped again and the doctor looked around at the faces in the room. They were totally aghast over what the boy had just revealed. It was starting to dawn on them all that one of the reasons that the boy had maintained his silence so long was due to what he had just conveyed. Joe had obviously gone through far worse than any of them had ever imagined.

“You are doing very good, Joseph–very good. Now tell me what happened next.”

“I bit right through my jacket and my shirt and drew blood on my arm–just to keep from screaming out. It hurt so bad–so bad! But, I knew the others would kill me. Lone Eagle reminded me that my family had spared his life many years ago. He said he had to repay the debt. I could not understand how his people could murder innocent passengers and yet worry about honor. But, he said that the debt was now paid. The last thing he did was cut a big chunk of my hair out—he got it right down to the root–it hurt too–but not near as bad as my shoulder. He dipped the ends of my hair into the blood from my shoulder to make it look like he had scalped me–then he ran off to join the others. I wanted to get up, to run over to the stage so I could help the others. I thought that just maybe someone was still alive. That’s when the screaming stopped. It was too late; the Indians had killed them all and had started to ride away. I tried again, tried to pull myself to my feet–I had to try to get to them–just to be sure- I had to try–I made it to my knees and then–well– I guess that’s when I passed out. When I came to it was pitch black—all but the stage.”

“Tell me about the stage, Joseph.”

“The fire—the fire was blazing high above the stage. I staggered to my feet and started over to it. I could feel the back of my shoulder bleeding but it didn’t matter at the time. I just wanted to find someone alive. Just someone–just one person–anyone…” Joe convulsed into tears again reliving the horrible scene before him now. “I could see the blood all over the ground–pieces of hair—but the bodies—the bodies were all inside the stage—I couldn’t open the door–it was on fire. Oh, Sandra! Oh my God! I told her she would be all right–but she was dead!” Joe stopped again and his tears fell faster.

“You are almost there, Joseph, almost there. Just tell me what happened next–you have almost freed them all.”

“I wanted to die with them–I didn’t want to live. The five of them all dead–only me alive! It wasn’t fair–it wasn’t right! I laid on the ground just wanting God to take me too. I didn’t care if the Indians came back. Nothing mattered. I gave up.”

“You didn’t give up, Joseph. You might think you did but you didn’t. Something made you get up from there. Something made you start walking through the desert. Tell me what you did next.”

“When I woke up it was morning–the fire was gone—I was all alone–everyone was dead. I pulled off my jacket to check my wound. I closed my eyes and still could hear the screams. I thought I would go mad.”

“But, you didn’t go mad, Joseph! You started walking didn’t you?”

“Yes–I started walking,” Joe whispered barely audible.

“Why? What kept you going, Joseph?”

“I promised my father…” Joe trailed off as tears fell again from his eyes.

“Promised your father what?” The doctor asked.

Ben held his breath wondering if he was about to hear the one thing that would finally tie everything up for him in his own mind.

“I promised my father that I would never go away and make him worry,” Joe answered.

Ben drew his hands up to his face to hide the tears. This was what the ten year old Joe had been trying to tell him all along! This was the reason that his twenty-two year old son had struggled to survive. It was that promise, made long ago sitting on his father’s lap. Joe had been determined to keep it and return to his pa.

“You promised your father you would never go away and make him worry, is that right, Joseph?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Joseph, you have been away for a long time and your father has been very worried about you. So, don’t you think it’s about time that you came home now?”

“I can’t go home—they all died—they died and I lived.”

“You have helped them to move on to a better place. They belong to Heaven now, Joseph, don’t you understand? They belong there, and you belong back with your father. He’s been waiting for you for a long time. You wouldn’t want to make him worry any more would you?”

“I promised I wouldn’t make him worry,” Joe replied.

Dr. Wentworth looked around the room and nodded toward all of audience. He was signaling to them that he was about ready to try and bring Joe back to the present and hopefully he would be as he had been before.

“Joseph, I am going to bring you back to your father and your brothers right now. You are needed there with them. You will remember all we spoke of, but you will also remember that the passengers who died are in a much better place when you wake up. Now we are going to count again–starting from ten this time. Ten, you are still relaxed and feel as though you are floating. Nine, you are starting to feel your body again as you come back into it slowly. Eight, you feel the weight of your legs and arms. Seven, you can feel your back as it’s lying on the sofa. Six, the weight of your head can be felt now, resting on the arm of the sofa. Five, your breathing is smooth and calm. Four, you are still relaxed but starting to hear other sounds around you. Three, you feel your entire body now as you start to become more aware of your breathing and are becoming even more alert. Two, your eyes are slowly starting to open, you know where you are, you know all of those who are in the room with you. On the count of one you will be awake and alert. You will be able to talk and comprehend everything that has been said and what everyone says to you from this point forward.” Dr. Wentworth waved Ben forward, readying for Joe’s return to consciousness. “One, you are awake and alert and you open your eyes to see your father here in front of you.” The doctor moved back giving up his place to Ben.

Joe’s eyes shot open and he faced his father now. Ben could tell right away that the far away stare which had been in his son’s eyes was gone. Joe shot a look around the room at everyone and then turned his attention back on his father.

“Oh, Pa!” Joe cried and reached for his father. Ben breathed a deep sigh of relief as he held his son tightly in his arms. Tears streamed down the faces of both father and son, so thankful to be reunited. “It was awful, Pa–it was awful!” Joe sobbed remembering his whole ordeal.

Dr. Wentworth and his colleague Dr. Martin waved Hoss and Adam over by Hop Sing who stood at the kitchen door now wiping his eyes. They all decided to give Ben and Joe a couple of minutes alone.

“They were all killed, Pa–and there wasn’t anything I could do about it,” Joe explained emotionally.

“That’s just it, son–there wasn’t anything you could do about it,” Ben whispered stroking his son’s hair gently. “It wasn’t in your control.”

“Sandra–she was just a kid, Pa—why did I live and she died? Why me?” Joe fought for a reason, an answer to his question.

“Joseph, I don’t have the answer for you–I wish I did. Right now I am just so grateful to have you here—to be able to hold you–to be able to hear you. It’s been so long.”

Joe pushed himself back a little, still not totally letting himself out of his father’s protective arms. “I’m sorry, Pa. I promised never to go away and make you worry—-but I couldn’t help it–not this time.”

Ben’s smile lit up the room. Joe’s words were spoken exactly like the ten year old who had haunted his thoughts and vision for months. He was so full of joy to have his boy back that nothing else really mattered. There wasn’t anything that the two of them together couldn’t somehow conquer.

“You remembered your promise, Joseph–and that’s what brought you home. And, that’s all that matters right now. Whatever else that you need to work through we’ll work through together. I love you so much, son.”

Joe leaned in towards his father and pressed his face up against his sturdy shoulder. “I love you too, Pa,” he whispered and allowed himself to feel safe and protected from all he had endured. Joe had escaped his subconscious Hell, but would the real world welcome him back as warmly as his father had? Or would he always be a reminder of the tragedy which had taken the lives of the other five passengers? Would others, besides Frank Keller, think of Joe as a Jonah?

*****END*****

Story continued in:   Part Two–(The Jonah)

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