The Return (by Blueyes)

Summary:
Caategory:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,000


The early May morning was sunny and bright with the smell of pine sifting through the windows. The aroma of bacon, eggs and biscuits floated up the stairs waking the family to start a new day. The three elder Cartwrights sat at the table discussing the days work while the youngest listened, hoping he could convince his father to allow him to skip school to help. But Ben was having none of that, the boys education was by far more important.

“Bye Pa!” twelve-year-old Little Joe Cartwright called out as he left early Friday morning for school. He was excited that morning knowing it was the last day before vacation, his mind racing on what all he could do over the summer. His brothers Adam and Hoss had already left for work hurrying to finish what had to be done in time for the camping trip the family had planned that weekend.

“Bye son, be careful and remember, straight home so you can finish up before the trip.” Ben waved as his youngest left the yard. He had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach that something wasn’t right. The father had no way of knowing his son wouldn’t return home.

*****

Mrs. Jones and the class studied the last of their subjects and finished up all the cleaning by noon. Dismissing the students to the schoolyard for refreshments she had brought for the special occasion, she joined them in games and watched as the group played in the sun. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the three men as they rode past the small schoolhouse. She saw the way they watched the children and a chill ran up her spine. She had a bad feeling about them, something didn’t seem right. The day wore on and Abigail had forgotten about the men, with her attention focused on the children. All and all the day went well until the chant of ‘FIGHT’ broke out, bringing her attention to the two young boys at the side of the building rolling around in the dirt. Making her way through the crowd, she noticed it was Lucas Tatum and Little Joe. “Stop it this instant boys!” she yelled.

The boys paid no attention to the teacher as she called to them. Getting to his feet, the younger and smaller of the two stood with his feet apart and his fist balled up. Get up, Tatum, and fight. I’m tired of all the name calling,” Joe yelled as he wiped his sleeve across his bloody nose, the bruise under his eye already forming.

Lucas stood and lunged at Joe who buried his right fist into the pit of the boys stomach, then followed up with an upper cut to his chin, leaving the boy sprawled out on the ground.

Joe stood the victor astride the boy, looking down on his opponent. “You gonna leave me alone now, or do I gotta pound ya some more?” he asked with a crooked little grin tugging at his lips.

“You win Cartwright, I’ll leave ya alone.” Lucas said staggering up.

“That’s fine, but I don’t aim to leave either of you alone over this. Boys, since it’s the last day of school, I won’t punish you, but you will each have a note to take home.” Miss Jones stated staring down at the boys before walking away.

“Great” Joe said turning to Mitch and Seth. “I hope I can lose it on the way home.” Joe added giggling.

*****

None of the boys or their teacher were aware of the men that lurked in the bushes watching the boys fight. Ned Tucker, the leader of the band of outlaws had been in the area to recruit a new member for their gang. It had been only a month earlier that one of his men had been killed in an attempted bank robbery. The boy had not only been fifteen, but was also his only child. The hurt was still very fresh and compounded by the fact that he would never be able to visit the boy’s grave, for he had died on the streets of the town. Closing his eyes he could see the face of the boy and his heart cried out for him. His intention that day was to find just another man, until he witnessed the boys in the schoolyard.

“What cha thinkin’, boss?” Stump asked, watching his boss staring into the yard.

“That kid over there, you see him?”

“Which one?”

“The small one that won the fight. Look at him.”

“Gall dangit boss, that kid looks just like…” Stump began but stopped.

“I know. I want that kid. He will take David’s place.”

“But he’s only a little scamp, ain’t big as a minute.”

“Kids got spunk, looks like a fiery little cuss. After a little training he’ll do just fine. Let’s get him now. It’s a good ways to the sheriff’s office; we’ll be long gone before they can get after us.” Tucker stated as he watched the teacher calling the children back inside to gather their things.

*****

All the children entered the schoolhouse and began gathering their belongings and were saying their goodbyes to one another when the front door to the school was kicked in. At the same time Ned Tucker entered through the back way. Seeing the guns drawn, the smaller children began to cry and grab hold of their teachers’ skirt, as the older ones stood surrounding them. They watched as the three men walked up to the group. Tucker stopped in front of Miss Jones and looked her in the eyes. They were all wearing neckscarfs over their faces to hide their identities, but the almost black eyes of Tucker spoke volumes for the young teacher. She feared for the lives of her students as well as herself.

Swallowing hard she spoke calmly, “What do you men want?”

“Only one thing.” Tucker stated softly.

“Please don’t hurt the children.”

“Ma’am, we have no intentions of hurting anyone. We have only one purpose in mind. Once it is completed, we will leave. Keep in mind that you are to keep the kids here for half an hour before going to the sheriff. One of my men will be watching, you go before then and someone will be killed. Understand?”

“Yes.”

Tucker walked past the teacher and stood in front of the little boy that left him speechless. He noticed the bright green eyes that were ablaze with anger, the left one sporting the now recognizable bruise. The boy showed no fear, just disgust with the men. The curly chestnut hair and the small build only added to his desire to have the boy with him, for he was the image of his dead son. Grasping the boys chin in his hand, he tilted it up to look into his eyes. “Nice shiner, what’s your name kid?” he asked.

“What’s it to ya? If you know what’s best for ya, ya’ll get outta here and leave us alone,” Joe snapped, once again his small hands forming fists.

Smiling, he turned to Stump. “What did I tell ya?”

“You’re right, boss, just like him.”

Turning his attention back to Little Joe, he smiled and shook his head. The smile leaving his rugged face he drew back and slapped the boy bringing blood to the corner of his mouth. “Now that kinda back talk won’t do. I’ll ask ya one more time, and if ya don’t answer me this time, I’ll have ta get rough with one of ya friends.”

Joe looked up at his teacher and saw the tears that filled her eyes as she was being detained by another member of the gang. At her nod and then a glance at Mitch who was also being held, he said, “Little Joe.”

“That’s better. Now Little Joe, you’re coming with us and I don’t want any fight out of ya or you’ll get the same as before or worse, understand?”

“My Pa and brothers won’t let ya get away with this,” Joe stated, calmly staring straight into the man’s eyes.

“Kid, ya got spunk, and I like that, but ya better get used to the fact that from now on I’m the only Pa ya got.” Tucker said picking Joe up and slinging him over his shoulder. “Grab the kid’s stuff and come on.”

Joe began to beat on the man’s back and kicking with his legs, frantically trying to free himself from Tuckers’ clutches. Tucker, tiring of the battle, swatted Joe on his bottom three times as hard as he could. “Now settle down, young’un, before I embarrass you in front of your friends.” Shocked by the man’s actions, Joe stopped fighting and turned his tear-filled eyes at his friends. Mitch and Seth along with the others fought back the tears that began to fall.

With that said and a reminder of not leaving the building for a half hour, Stump gathered Joe’s jacket and hat and the men left with their prisoner.

Outside, the men walked over to their horses and mounted with Joe in front of Tucker. Joe, hearing Cochise whinny, turned to look at the man behind him, “Mister, can I have my horse?” Joe figured that it would be easier for his family to find him if his flashy horse was along.

Looking down into the boys eyes and seeing the hope that lay there he nodded. “Which one is yours, son?”

“The pinto.”

“Stump, get the pinto, leave the kids saddle and stuff; I’ll get him more that ain’t so flashy.”

“Sure, boss,” Stump said grabbing the reins of the now nervous horse. Cochise sensed the tension in the air. He could tell that his young master was upset, so he began to prance around and paw at the air. “Boss, this horse is crazy; I can’t do anything with him.”

“Let me hold him. He’s just worried about me,” Joe asked. Receiving a nod from his captors, he whistled and Cochise walked over and nudged him on the leg. Joe gathered the rope and tied it around the saddle horn of Tucker’s horse as the group left toward the hills.

*****

Abigail sat and watched as the clock ticked slowly by, wishing that she could turn the hands forward and hurry help for youngster that had been taken. Finally the half hour had passed. She whirled around still trying to quiet the distraught youngsters. “Mitch, you and Seth get down to the sheriffs office and tell him what happened and get him over here.” Hold on Little Joe, she thought to herself.

“Yes ma’am,” they said as they tore out the door and headed down Main Street. Ben, Adam and Hoss had stopped by the sheriff’s office to talk to Roy Coffee until time for school to let out. They had decided to surprise Little Joe and meet him after school to buy some things they needed for the trip. They all sat inside enjoying each others company as the door was flung open and two tired and very winded boys ran inside.

“SHERIFF!!…. Come…. quick.” Mitch got out between gasps for breath.

“Mitch, Seth, just calm down. What’s going on? Is someone hurt?” Ben asked grabbing Mitch by the shoulders and looking into the tear filled eyes.

“Oh… Mr. Cartwright, they took Little Joe!” Mitch cried, “We gotta get back to the school!”

“Please hurry; they’ve been gone for a long time already.” Seth added, while Adam held onto the boy.

“Who, Seth, who has Joe?”

“I don’t know who they are; they was wearing neckscarfs over their faces. There was three of them inside, don’t know about outside.” Seth stated, now starting to calm down in Adam’s arms.

“Did they hurt him, Mitch?” Ben asked as a lump formed in his throat.

“One of them slapped him ’cause he wouldn’t tell his name.” Mitch said. “Then he swatted him on the backside for fighting him. He hit him pretty hard, Joe was almost crying.”

Releasing the boys, Ben turned to Roy, “Let’s get to the school.”

Ben, Roy and the boys arrived at the school and entered finding Miss Jones still trying to calm the children. Seeing the men enter, all her reserve broke and the tears fell. Ben rushed to her side and gently helped her sit. “Shh, Abigail. Please tell us what happened.” Ben cooed.

“Oh Ben, it was awful. There were three of them, and they took Joseph. I’m so sorry, I couldn’t stop them.” she cried.

“Abigail, there was nothing you could do. Please try to remember what they looked like.” Adam added placing his hand on her shoulder.

“Adam, they wore scarves over their faces. But the leader was a big man, built like you. The other two were smaller, but not by much.”

“Did they hurt Little Joe, ma’am?” Roy questioned.

“The leader slapped him once, and popped his bottom a few times… Ben, Joseph, told him that his Pa and brothers would kill them for hitting him, and that’s when…”

“When what?” Hoss asked.

“When he told Little Joe that from now on he was his Pa. Ben they stole him, not kidnapped him for ransom. They have no intention on contacting you.”

*****

The gang rode hard the rest of the day and into the night. They had only stopped long enough to rest the horses and eat a quick cold meal. Joe had fought against the man that held him on the horse to the point that he was spanked again then tied while they rested. He was tired and scared and wanted his pa. He felt that the men wouldn’t kill him, but he wasn’t sure as to why he had been taken.

The path the gang had taken led into the rocky hills that surrounded Virginia City. Even Hoss couldn’t pick up the trail once it led there. At a loss for what to do next, the weary men made camp for the night.

“Pa, you don’t think they’ll hurt Little Joe do ya?” Hoss asked.

“From what Miss Jones said, I don’t think so, if he’ll just watch his temper.” Ben answered.

“Can ya believe short shanks talked to those men like that?” Hoss chuckled. The temper of the boy never ceased to amaze him.

“I can; kid’s got too much grit for his own good,” Adam added. “Roy, you have any idea who these men are?”

“Not fer sure, but I did I word that the Tucker gang was in the area, and I know for a fact that his son was killed in a bank robbery a couple of months ago.”

“What’s that gotta do with him taking Little Joe?” Hoss questioned. “He’s just a little kid.”

“Maybe he took Joe to replace his son.” Adam said.

“That’s my thinking, heard tell the kid looked a lot like Little Joe, just a couple of years older.” Roy added.

“Well, he’s in for one hell of a fight if he thinks he’s taking my son for his.” Ben vowed.

The men settled in for a restless night sleep, hoping the morning would reveal a trace of the youngest member of the family.

*****

Tucker pushed the men and their horses through the night, determined that he would put as much distance between them and the posse he was sure was looking for the boy. He had sent one of the men to set his plan into action. He was to happen upon the body of a child that matched the boy’s description and clothing and report it to the local law. He hoped it would lead the family to believe the child was dead. The body would be found on the western border of the state while the gang made their way east to Texas. Looking down at the youngster who had fallen asleep against his chest, he remembered all the times he had held David in the same manner.

Joe was dreaming as he slept in his captor’s arms. Bad men were taking him away from his family. He could see his Pa fading in the distance. “Pa?” he softly mumbled.

“Shh… easy son, Pa’s got ya.” Tucker said laying his chin atop the curly head.

Opening his eyes, Joe quickly remembered where he was and turned to look at the man holding him in the saddle. Seeing the gentle smile on the man’s face, Joe looked him square in the eye. “You ain’t my Pa. I wanna go home.”

“Listen kid, I know this ain’t easy on ya, but ya might as well get used to it. You ain’t gonna go anywhere. From now on, you’re my son, and I want cha calling me Pa. Understand?”

“I ain’t gonna call ya Pa. MY Pa and brothers will come after me. They’ll kill ya for this.” Joe said glaring at the man.

“Tell me about ‘em kid.” Tucker asked, wanting to know what kind of family Little Joe came from. It was obvious that the youngster loved his family deeply.

“Why should I?” Joe asked crossing his arms over his chest. He wanted nothing to do with these men that had taken him from the only world he had ever known.

“Cause you can do as I say, or I’ll tan ya hide,” Tucker stated stopping his horse and looking down at Little Joe. “Now, what’ll it be?”

“You can’t do that to me, you ain’t my Pa,” Joe said, the shock and doubt evident in his voice.

“As I have already told ya, as of yesterday I am, and you know that I will after the spankings from today. But if you don’t cooperate with me, I can make it worse, by using the belt on ya.”

Joe, not sure if the man was serious of not, knew he could be riding for quiet a ways and didn’t want to take the chance of doing it in more pain than he already was in from the distance they had covered so far. After all he had slapped him and spanked him. “My Pa’s Ben Cartwright, and my brothers are Adam and Hoss. We live on the Ponderosa.”

“So I done gone and got myself a rich kid. Don’t matter, though; a bullet will stop the rich as quick as the poor.”

“You ain’t gonna kill them, are you! Please don’t hurt them.” Joe yelled.

“As long as they don’t try to interfere with me, and you mind what your told, no. Now, it’s late, you try to go back to sleep. We’ll talk again tomorrow.” Tucker said pulling the bedroll up around Joe best he could, leaning the boy back against him.

Joe laid back with his mind racing. Why did this man want him? He couldn’t understand what was happening. One minute the man was talking about killing his family, and the next he was tucking him in like his Pa would do. The thoughts were too much for the child as he finally gave into a deep sleep.

Joe awoke in a cabin he didn’t recognize. He felt confident that he was no longer anywhere close to home. Having no idea how long he had slept, he sat up he found his ankle was shackled to the cot on which he laid. Looking around the room he spotted the men sitting at the table eating. Joe scooted around trying to get comfortable causing the bed to squeak.

“So, you’re finally awake. Are you hungry son?” Tucker asked walking over to the cot, and ruffling the boy’s hair.

Joe jerked his head away not wanting the man to touch him, he totally disgusted him and wished his Pa would hurry up and rescue him. But his stomach was empty and he was very thirsty. Nodding, he accepted the cup of water offered to him. “Stump, bring Joey something to eat.”

“Sure boss.” Stump said getting up and walking to the stove and filling a plate with stew.

“My name ain’t Joey; it’s Little Joe.” The boy stated hotly.

“Watch the tone kid. I won’t put up with it.” Tucker stated calmly.

“Get my name right, I won’t put up with that.” Joe threw back at the man.

Hearing the laughs of his gang angered Tucker. Before Joe could react to his advances, Tucker jerked him up by the arms and held him at eye level. Getting his temper in check he turned the boy over slightly and delivered five hard swats to his little bottom then sat him back on the bed and sat beside him. He turned Joe to face him. “Look son, if this is gonna work out without anyone getting hurt, you have to watch how ya talk to me. Your name is now Joey Tucker and I’m your Pa, Ned Tucker. I want you to quit all this foolishness and accept how things are.”

“I won’t, I want my Pa,” Joe said with tears forming.

Tucker sighed deeply. “You have your Pa right here. The sooner you accept it the better. This is the last time I’ll listen to any of your smart mouth. The next time earns you a tannin’, understand?” Tucker said calmly.

“I don’t care if ya tan me everyday, I won’t call ya Pa!”

“Then let’s approach this in a different way, you do as I say or I’ll kill your former family. How’s that?” Tucker stated rubbing his chin with his left hand.

“You wouldn’t. I… I…wanna go home. Please let me go.”

“I would, and you are home. Now tell me your name or I’ll send Tex to see your family tonight.”

Joe knew that the man meant business. He knew they would kill his family if he didn’t cooperate. Swallowing hard, he looked into the man’s eyes and quietly said, “Joey Tucker, sir.”

“Not sir. Remember what I told ya.”

“Joey Tucker…..Pa.” The words stuck in the little boy’s throat. He felt sick at his stomach, feeling as if he had betrayed his family, mostly his Pa, but he was willing to do anything the man said if it kept his family safe. He resigned himself to play along until he could find a chance to escape.

*****

Ben and the boys had spent the following six months searching for Little Joe without a trace of him to be found. They had been to every town within two hundred miles and found nothing. Newspaper ads and flyers had been made, and a description of the youngster sent to every city. It was as if the boy had disappeared without a trace. The weary men slowly made there way back home, heartbroken. The thought of walking into the house and never again hearing the sounds of the little boy’s giggles was too much to handle. Stopping by the lake, the men dismounted beside Maries’ grave. Adam and Hoss watched as there father finally broke down. All the searching and hoping had finally taken a hold on the man as he fell to his knees and wept to his wife. The boys sat on each side of the man as tears of their own fell. They had arrived back only to find that Roy Coffee had received a wire that the body of a child Joe’s age had been found close to the west border of Nevada. The child was unable to be identified due to the trauma he had suffered, but had the same eyes and hair as Little Joe, and the clothes he wore had matched the ones the boy had worn the day he went missing. It was believed in all likelihood the child was Ben’s son. They had no idea at the time that Tucker and his gang had staged the whole incident and in truth, there was not a body found at all, for Tex has been unable to bring himself to kill a child. He had created an empty grave, telling the sheriff he had to bury the child immediately.

“We have to have a service for your little brother. Adam, can you talk to the reverend tomorrow and set it up for Friday?”

“Yes sir.” Adam said trying his hardest to compose himself, for his father and brother’s sake. What he really wanted to do was to break down himself and beg for Marie’s forgiveness. He felt guilty for not being there to keep the boy safe like he had promised he would. The thoughts of his baby brother haunted him, his eyes always full of mischief, the giggle that was nothing short of infectious. All the excuses he used to wheedle himself out of trouble. Closing his eyes to the pain one lone tear made its way down his face.

“Hoss, can you see to the stone? I want something real nice for him, maybe with a horse on it. After all, he always ran as fast and free as the wild horses he loved to sit and watch.”

“Sure Pa,” Hoss whispered. He too was thinking of the boy he loved so much. The way he was always getting them into some sort of trouble, or all the pranks he had played on him and Adam. The way he always smiled when he was up to something.

Life wouldn’t be the same and each of them knew it. Putting off the arrival home as long as possible the three men slowly made the final leg of their journey to carry on with an emptiness that could never be filled.

*****

The past six months had also brought a lot of changes for Little Joe. After an attempt to escape he had found that everything Tucker had promised had come true. The men had dragged him back to Tucker where he received the worst tanning he had ever experienced and had listened as the man had given the order to kill his family. The boy had become a mental wreck and slipped into a deep depression not speaking for several weeks. Once he was able to shake the effects from what he believed had happened he resigned himself to be the boy Tucker wanted. He felt as if he had no one else left in the world to go to, and Tucker had taken on the role as his father. The child now believed himself to be Joey Tucker, Ned Tucker’s son. He had no memory of his former life as the son of Ben Cartwright.

Tucker had spent the past several months teaching the boy how to shoot a Colt .44, which Joey now wore low on his hip. At thirteen Joey could out shoot, and out ride any of the other men. Although, Tucker had taught the boy all about how to hold up banks and stagecoaches, he was much like any other father in the aspects of drinking and other vices.

“Everybody, listen up. There is a stagecoach coming through here tomorrow. It’s gonna be carrying gold. We need to leave at dawn to get set up and ready.” Tucker said to his gang.

“I get to go this time, Pa?” Joey questioned, lighting a cigarette.

Tucker watched as the boy took a long draw. Walking over to his son, he grabbed the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it down. “Don’t let me catch you with another one. You ain’t too old to get a lickin'”

Joey ran his fingers through his now shoulder length hair and replaced his black hat. His green eyes shown bright against the black clothes he wore. “What about it Pa, can I go?”

“I don’t know if your ready yet, son.”

“Awe, come on boss, let the kid come with us. He’s as good a shot as the rest of us. We’ll all watch out for him.” Stump said patting Joey on the back, causing him to flash a big smile at the man.

“Ok, but you stay beside me at all times. You obey everything you’re told, or so help me…”

“I got it, Pa, quit worrying.” Joey said as he walked away from the group.

Ned stood watching as the boy walked away. “Stop worrying so, the kids gonna be fine.” Tex said reading his bosses thoughts.

*****

“Alright, everyone out of the coach.” Tucker called as the driver sat with his hands raised.

All of the passengers exited the stage and stood in a line in front of the gang.

“You, throw down the box, NOW, if ya wanna live. The rest of you empty your pockets and hand it all to this young man.” Tucker added motioning to Joey to retrieve all of the items from the passengers.

Joey walked down the line and took the items from the shaking hands. Placing the sack on his saddle horn he vaulted onto Cochise and returned to his father’s side.

After Tex had the contents of the strongbox secured Tucker turned back to the people and informed them to lie on their stomachs and not move for at least half and hour. The gang raced off to their camp with their new found fortune in tact.

*****

“You did good, Joey, real good. I’m proud of you son.” Tucker said patting the boy on the back.

“Thanks Pa, told ya I was ready.” Joey said proudly. He had mentally blocked out all of his past life with his family and now considered himself one of the members of the gang. That day had marked the first of many stagecoach robberies and bank holdups he would be involved in. Ben Cartwright’s youngest had become a wanted man, an outlaw.

“Now, don’t go getting to cocky on me there, young’un. I still run this outfit.” Ned said laughing and catching the boy in a headlock.

As the months past, the gang pulled several more robberies all over Texas. They had been able to gather a large fortune and gain control of a town called Jasper. All of the citizens were scared of the man and his gang. They had no choice but to pay the man protection money and give into his every demand. They knew that the boy was the image of his father, in the aspects of his greed and hostile nature. Everything the boy wanted he got, being spoiled by Tucker. Joey was now a dangerous adversary with a gun at the age of fifteen. He had proved himself in many gunfights against cowhands and saddletramps that tried him. For all his bad traits, he for some reason wouldn’t go against anyone unless he was called out first. Something in his nature wouldn’t allow him to instigate the fights.

Ned stood watching the boy as he practiced his quickdraw. Looking on with pride, he was brought around by the sound of his friend talking to him.

“Boss?” Stump said touching Ned on the arm.

“Sorry Stump, would ya just look at him. I knew he was the right one the first time I laid eyes on him. It’s like looking at David.” Tucker said with pride.

“Can’t argue with ya there. Kids a natural with everything we taught him.” Stump said matching the pride his boss had. He considered the boy like his own, and was known to Joey as uncle Stump. “Boss, we may have trouble.”

Turning to face the man, “Why, what’s wrong?”

Stump pulled the flyer out of his pocket and handed it to the man. Tucker opened the paper and looked at the picture. The paper read:

MISSING

Little Joe Cartwright

taken from the schoolhouse by a gang of outlaws

age: 12

hair: curly brown

eyes: hazel green

reward of 50,000 offered to anyone responsible for the

return of the boy to his family unharmed.

Contact: Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, or

the family: Ben, Adam or Hoss Cartwright

of the Ponderosa, Nevada Territory.

Tucker refolded the paper and placed it in his pocket. “Where did ya get this?”

“In town today. A bunch of people had it looking at it. I took it away from them, but I think they know it’s Joey.”

“Hey Pa, watch this.” Joey called smiling at his father.

Tucker turned and smiled at the boy as he watched him throw a coin in the air and shoot a hole clean through the center. “That’s terrific, son. Keep right on practicing.”

“Sure Pa.”

Turning back to Stump he said, “I want you to check the telegraph office in the morning and make sure no one has sent a wire to his family. Then post one of the men there to be sure it don’t happen.

“You got it. Ned. I just hope we ain’t too late. I sure would hate for anything to happen to the boy.”

“Don’t worry about that. I will not lose the boy, now. He’s my son and they’ll have to kill me before they get him.” Tucker said turning to join Joey at the coral urging the boy on in his practice. For all the evil vile things the man had done in the past as well as all he was involved in now, he loved the boy with all his being.

*****

“Come on Mike, let’s get this telegraph sent before any of Tuckers men catch us.” Tom Watson said looking nervously out the window. He had recognized Joey as being the boy on the flyer and wanted to inform his family. He held no love for the boy, but at the same time, if it was him, then his family needed to know. Maybe, removing the boy would rid the town of the father.

“Tom, it’s the middle of the night, they ain’t likely to be anywhere around here, now settle down and tell me what you want said.”

The men finished and quietly left the office and no one was the wiser to the fact the sheriff had been notified. The following morning one of the gang members was stationed at the office to assure no message was sent and life continued on as normal with only two men knowing the truth.

*****

“Sheriff Coffee. I think you better read this,” Bill said waving the telegraph under Roy’s nose.

“Just hold ya horses there Bill, let me have it,” Roy said taking the paper and reading the contents. “Bill, not a word of this to anyone just yet. Clem, ya handle things here, I have to go out and see Ben and the boys. They done found Little Joe.”

“Sure Roy, I won’t say a thing,” Bill replied.

“Where?” Clem asked excitedly.

“Jasper, Texas,” Roy said walking out the door.

Ben and his sons were eating breakfast and talking over the day’s schedule. The past couple of years had been hard ones for the family. There had been birthdays missed and Christmas’ gone unnoticed. Grief had almost destroyed Ben and the ranch had been put in jeopardy, but finally within the last few months the family had pulled themselves together and were carrying on as close to normal as possible.

Roy Coffee didn’t bother knocking on the door of the ranch house. Opening the door, he entered calling, “BEN, BOYS!”

“Roy, what is it. What’s wrong?” Ben asked as the three got up to join the lawman in the great room.

“Ben, I got this telegraph this morning from Jasper, Texas. Seems the banker there, Mr. Watson, recognized a boy he thinks is Little Joe.”

“What?” Ben asked in disbelief taking the message in a shaking hand. Opening it he read aloud:

TO ROY COFFEE, VIRGINIA CITY NEVADA TERRITORY. STOP. FOUND BOY BELIEVED TO BE MISSING CARTWRIGHT BOY. STOP. BRING FAMILY. STOP. MET ME ONE DAY WEST OF JASPER. STOP. EXPLAIN THEN. STOP. TOM WATSON. ALL STOP.

Adam grabbed his father’s arm to keep the man from collapsing. “Roy, why is this man wanting us to meet him outside of town?”

“I did some checking and the town is controlled by the Tucker gang. Nothing goes on without his approval or his son’s. Maybe that’s why. Can you be ready to leave in an hour?” Roy asked.

“Less than.” Ben stated coming back to reality. His son, his baby was alive.

“Pa, keep in mind it might not be him. That flyer was sent out when he was twelve. He’s fifteen now.”

“I have to believe it’s him. Let’s go get your brother.”

*****

The four riders made the week long journey to the outskirts of Jasper City. Making their way through the rocks they were starting to believe the man wasn’t going to met them, when a rider appeared from behind a large boulder.

“Are you Sheriff Coffee?” Watson asked.

“Yes and these are the Cartwrights, Ben, Adam and Hoss. Are you Mr. Watson?’

“Call me Tom,” he stated extending his hand to the men. “Let’s sit and talk. If the boy is your son, than you need to be prepared for what you see.”

“What do you mean? Has he been hurt?”

“Mr. Cartwright, you have to understand that the boy has spent the past two and a half years with a band of outlaws. Ned Tucker don’t think twice about putting a bullet in someone. His only weakness is the boy. He gives the kid anything he wants and lets him have full run of the town. I hate to put it this way sir, but the kid is down right mean and ornery.”

“Are you saying the boy is a member of the gang, and not a prisoner?” Adam asked in disbelief.

“That ain’t possible; short shanks wouldn’t do that kinda thing.” Hoss added, his anger rising at the man.

“Look, Ned Tucker calls the kid his son and he calls him Pa. But that kid is the one in the flyer. He’s changed, but there is something about the boy that makes me know it’s him.”

“So, why ya helping us?” Hoss asked.

“I’m a father too, and I can only imagine what you three must be going through. Besides, maybe this way we can get Tucker out of our town.”

“Where are they?” Ben asked.

“Out at the ranch Tucker owns. It’s a front for all the robberies his gang commits and for the protection money we all have to pay. I’ll lead you around the back of it and we’ll watch. Once you get a look at the boy, then maybe you’ll be able to tell.”

“Has the kid been involved in the robberies?” Adam asked.

“Yes, and he’s the one that collects the protection money. He comes to town once a month with one of Tucker’s goons and takes the money. If someone don’t have it, the other man holds that person for the kid to knock around, as a warning.” Watson stated, taking in the looks on all the men’s faces.

“Let’s go.” Ben said mounting his horse. “One more thing, what kind of horse does this boy ride?”

“Black and white pinto. Oh and the kid goes by Joey Tucker.”

With that said, the men rode to the backside of the ranch and quietly took up positions where they could watch and listen for any evidence of the missing boy.

“Pa, look, there in the corral; it’s Cooch. Joe is here.” Hoss said with a smile.

”Boys, I hope your right, but keep in mind that they could have stolen Joe’s horse.” Ben said, his own hope building that the boy had finally been found.

They watched as the ranch became active with hands leaving out to do the days work. Finally an older man walked out the door and sat on the porch. “That’s Tucker.” Watson pointed out.”

Soon, he was joined by Stump and Tex. “Where’s Joey?” Stump asked. “Thought he was going with us today.”

“No, he’s not allowed out of the yard after last night.” Ned stated hotly.

“Awe come on boss, he’s a boy and they’re gonna do things like that.” Tex added.

“He knows how I feel about him sneaking out and drinking. He’s not old enough for that yet.”

“Ok, well see ya in a while then.” Stump said as the men left.

*****

“Sounds like little brother, don’t it?” Hoss said with a smile.

“Yeah, and Tucker sounds like Pa on the subject too.” Adam added. The men stopped when the door opened again and the boy in question walked out. The well built young man walked onto the porch and stood in front of his father with his head down. His chestnut hair was down onto shoulders and his black clothes fit his frame perfectly. He wore his left handed gun low on his hip incased in a black holster and held his black hat in his hands twisting it nervously. There was no denying the stance and posture to be that of the youngest Cartwright.

“Pa, look at him. It is the kid.” Adam said relief evident on his handsome face.

“Yes, it’s my son, but he has the look of a gunslinger. What has that man done to him?” Ben asked as he took in the scene in front of him. “Oh dear God, I hope he hasn’t done anything that can’t be fixed.”

*****

“I’m very disappointed in you, Joey. You snuck out of this house and went into town alone and then to top that you got drunk. You know how I feel about that. We’ve been through it a thousand times. When are you ever gonna learn?” Tucker said standing up in front of the boy.

“I’m sorry Pa, I just wasn’t thinking.”

“Well, I’m gonna give ya something to think about. You don’t leave this yard for the next week. Now, let’s take a walk to the barn.”

Joey’s head shot up and looked at his father. “Pa, please don’t. I promise I won’t ever do it again.”

“I’m glad to hear it, let’s go.” He added taking the boy by the arm and leading him to the barn.

Ben watched as the boy was led into the barn and each of the men listened to the sounds of the belt coming in contact with him. After several minutes Tucker exited the barn and went into the house. A few minutes later Joey walked out of the barn and up to the porch where he stopped, leaning on the rail, his face buried in his arms.

Jaws and fists clenched, Ben vowed, “I’ll kill the bastard for laying a hand on my son.”

“Pa, we have to figure a way to get him out of there. We have to be ready for anything, including the fact that Joe might not want to leave.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” snapped Ben turning to his oldest son.

“Pa, calm down. We don’t know what the kids been through, or if he’ll even know who we are.”

“Adam’s right, Pa. I mean look at him. The kid acts like he’s at home, not being held hostage” Hoss added.

Sighing deeply, Ben looked back toward the boy that stood leaned against the porch rail. “I guess you’re right. He could run right now, but he hasn’t.”

“Don’t worry Pa, one way or the other, he’s coming home.” Adam said watching the downcast face of the baby brother he hadn’t seen in over two years.

*****

Ned Tucker walked out and closed the front door behind him. He stopped and looked at Joey as he stood with his head down beside the porch rail. A smile crossed his lips and he walked over to where the boy stood.

Ben and the posse watched as the man approached the boy, fully prepared to stop the man from harming the youngster a second time. What they saw amazed them.

Ned placed his hand on the back of Joeys’ neck and pulled the boy into a hug, rubbing his back. After a few minutes

He tilted the boys head back and looked into his eyes. “Joey, do you have any idea how hard that was on me? I don’t like tanning you, but I will if you disobey me, understand? There are just too many people out there that would like nothing better that to hurt me, and the best way to do that would be to harm you.”

“Yes Pa. I am sorry,” Joey said fighting the tears.

“It’s all over now,” Ned said smiling at the boy. “Come on and show me how you’re doing with your practicing. The two walked over to the side of the yard in front of the men.

“Did ya see that Pa?” Hoss asked confused.

“Yes I did. That man really thinks he’s Joe’s Pa.” Ben said as a knot caught in his throat.

“Look Pa.” Adam said bringing his attention back to Joe.

The men sat in silence and watched as Ned picked up a tin can and tossed into the air, while Joey did a quickdraw and shot it three times before it hit the ground. “Good. Now try this.” Tucker said pulling out a coin and tossing it up. Once again Joey hit it dead center. They continued to watch in awe of how the boy could shoot. He never missed his target in any of the tests Tucker sat up for him.

“Joey, I have to go into town for a little while. I want you to finish up in the barn while I’m gone. We’ll go for a ride when I get back.”

“Sure Pa. See ya.” Joey said reloading his gun, then twirling it before replacing it in his holster.

*****

“What now, Ben?” Roy asked.

“There doesn’t seem to be anyone else here, except Joe, so why don’t we go on and take him. Once we have him safe we’ll take the others.”

“Sounds good.”

“Pa, why don’t I ride down there and see if he knows us? I can say I’m looking for work,” Adam suggested.

“Alright. It might startle him if we all went. If he knows you, bring him with you. If not, come back and we’ll all go.”

“Wish me luck,” Adam said mounting his horse.

*****

Joey laid down the pitchfork hearing the sound of a horse entering the yard. He eased open the barn door and looked at the man sitting atop the big chestnut. For a moment a slight feeling crossed him, thinking that he had seen the man before. Shrugging it off as nothing he stepped out and closed the door.

Adam looked into the eyes of his little brother for the first time since the day he was kidnapped. He wanted nothing more than to jump from his horse and hug the boy, but restrained himself for it was obvious the boy didn’t know who he was.

“Can I help ya, mister?” Joey asked walking over to the man, who had dismounted.

“Yeah, name’s Adam, and I’m looking for work.”

“Sorry mister, we ain’t hiring.”

“Are you the boss?”

“Nope, that’d be my Pa, Ned Tucker. Name’s Joey,” Joe said watching the stranger carefully.

“Well, if you’re sure, guess I’ll be leaving.” Adam said mounting.

“Just what kinda work ya interested in?” Joey asked grabbing Sports bridle.

“Anything that pays good.”

“Tell ya what, come back in say four hours, Pa and the others should be back by then. Right now, I’m the only one here.”

“Sure thing, little buddy…” Adam stopped.

“What did ya call me?”

“Little buddy. You remind me a lot of my kid brother. He went missing a couple years ago. He’s around your age.”

“See ya later?”

“For sure,” Adam said walking Sport out of the yard.

*****

“Well Adam?” Ben asked though he knew the answer.

“Pa, the kid has no idea who I am or who he is. We’ll just have to go in and take him.”

“Ben, it might be better if I go in and arrest him. I can get his gun that way and lead him up here. If we startle the boy, he might draw on us,” Roy suggested.

“You might be right. Let’s give it a try.”

*****

Roy rode into the yard and walked up to Little Joe. Looking at the boy, Roy could see the dislike he had for lawmen. With his gun pulled. “Joey Tucker, I have a warrant for your arrest. Drop the gun, boy.”

“For what?”

“Theft, now drop the gun,” Roy added more forcibly.

Joey pulled his gun out and tossed it at Roy’s feet. Roy then pulled his hands behind his back and tied them firmly. Seeing that Joey had saddled Cochise for a ride, he led the boy over and helped him mount. Leading Cochise behind him, Roy left the yard and headed for the camp the men had set up.

After a short ride, Roy entered the camp with his prisoner. Joey took in all the faces that surrounded him. “My Pa ain’t gonna like this, sheriff; you just signed your death certificate, you know that don’t ya?” Joey smirked.

“Be quiet, son,” Roy said calmly.

“I ain’t gotta do anything,” Joey said slinging his leg over his horses neck and sliding down to stand beside the sheriff. Seeing Adam standing beside the tree, he shook his head. “Guess this means ya don’t need that job, huh?”

“Guess not,” Adam said looking at his brother.

Ben walked over and stood in front of his youngest and took in the sight of him. He hadn’t expected to ever see the boy again, and now here he was. “Joe, do you remember any of us?”

“Name’s Joey, not Joe, old man. Why should I?” Joe asked looking at the man in front of him. Once again the thought that he should know them crossed his mind.

“You’re my son, that’s why,” Ben said as Joe’s words cut him to the very core.

Smiling, Joe looked from one to the other of them, finally bringing his attention back to Ben, “What kind a game ya playin’, mister? Look, the best thing any of you could do is turn me loose. If my Pa comes home and I ain’t there, he’ll come lookin’ for me and he’ll kill all of you.”

‘I know this a shock to you, but you were stolen from us when you were only twelve. You were at school when they took you. We looked for you for a long time, but it was like you disappeared,” Ben said placing his hands on the youngster’s shoulders.

Joe glanced down at the man’s hands and looked back into his eyes. “You’re full of shit, old man,” he said jerking away.

Adam and Hoss stood in shock at the words the boy said to their Pa. Adam could see the tears that formed in his chocolate eyes as Ben turned his back to the boy. Walking over and standing in front of his brother, Adam looked into the anger filled green eyes. He knew the boy had no idea that any of what they were saying was true, but at the same time he was furious with him for hurting Ben. “Look kid, I know you’re having trouble understanding all of this, but that isn’t any reason to be rude to Pa.” Adam stood closer to Joe and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, pulling him within inches. “Now, we will not have anymore smart mouth out of you, understood?”

“Takes a big man to threaten a man that’s tied up,” Joe said with a slight smile.

Hoss caught Adam’s arm, seeing that his older brother had lost all patience with Joe. “Come on Adam, we don’t have enough time for this right now. We have to get ready.”

“You’re right; we’ll take this up when we get back. Right now we have to finish this,” Adam said pulling his little brother over to a tree and sitting him down. Ben turned to see Adam tying the hands of his youngest around the tree.

“Adam?”

“I’m sorry, Pa, but we can’t trust him to stay here or be quiet. I’ll untie him just as soon as were through,” Adam said securing the gag in Little Joe’s mouth. The cool November wind gusted across the boy causing him to shiver. This action brought Adam to realize that the boy wasn’t wearing a coat. He rushed over and removed his bedroll and covered Joe, tucking it around his shoulders.

The uncertain feelings caused the boy to stare at the men. He felt something he couldn’t place. The kindness of the older man and the large one, and even in the anger of the other one. Shrugging it off his thoughts turned to his Pa and the men.

*****

Ned, Stump and Tex entered the yard laughing and joking with each other. The posse hid in the nearby brush waiting for the right opportunity to capture them. It was their hopes to take them in alive, especially Tucker. There were too many questions running through their minds that only he could answer.

“JOEY!” Tucker called not seeing the boy in the barn.

“What’s wrong boss? Where’s the kid?” Stump asked.

“He’s gone, again. That does it. I thought for sure after that trip to the barn this morning he’d think better of sneaking off again.” Tucker snapped stomping from the barn.

“Maybe’s he’s in the house, Ned.” Tex added.

“NO, his horse is gone. I went easy on him last time, after this he won’t sit a week!”

“DROP YOUR GUNS!” Roy Coffee called as the posse walked out with their guns drawn. Ned looked around as the lawmen approached, seeing there was no way to escape at the time he dropped his gun and raised his hands as did Stump and Tex.

Roy, Adam and Hoss each subdued the men and tied them to their saddle horns. “Let’s go, Tucker.”

“Just why are ya doin’ this? We haven’t done anything.” Ned questioned.

“Kidnapping for one, not to mention all the other things you’re guilty of.” Adam said staring at the man.

“Who we s’posed to have took?” Stump asked.

“My little brother, Joe.” Adam stated seeing the shocked expressions on the faces of the men.

*****

Ben had stayed behind with Joe while the others went to arrest the remaining members of the gang. He had hoped to talk with the boy and maybe show him how much he had been missed and was loved. Watching as the boy shifted against the tree his heart broke to know how uncomfortable Little Joe was. He wanted to take him in his arms and hold him, but knew it wouldn’t be accepted. Walking over to join his son, he noticed the hate that lay so close to the surface. Ben eased himself down against the same tree and looked at the boy. “Are you thirsty?” Joe stared off into the distance and didn’t acknowledge his father. Shaking his head, he reached around behind the boys head and released the knot in the gag, removing it from his mouth. Opening the canteen, he tipped it up to his son’s lips, allowing the cool liquid to flow into his mouth. Joe took a couple of long swallows. Filling his mouth a third time he waited until Ben had removed the canteen, then spit the water into the man’s face, with a smile.

It took all of Bens’ restraints to keep his anger in check. He wanted at that moment nothing more than to turn the boy across his knee. Taking a long deep breath, Ben stood and turned his back on his son. Composing himself and wiping the water from his face, Ben turned back to face the boy. “Joseph, if it weren’t for everything you’d been through, you’d get the tanning of your life for that. But under the circumstances, I will let it slide this time. But you have been warned, and if you do anything like that again, I will follow through with my promise. Understand?”

Joe looked up at Ben and smiled. “Look mister, I don’t know who ya think ya are, or who ya claim to be, but you ain’t gonna do a damn thing to me. It could get ya killed if’n ya ain’t careful.”

“I don’t claim to be anyone; I AM your father, Ben Cartwright. You will listen to me and mind what I tell you. Also, I will not listen to anymore of that vulgar mouth. And as far as me worrying about being killed, I’m not. By now the sheriff and your brothers should already have the gang arrested.”

“If they survived it,” Joe smirked.

Ben whirled around and stared at his youngest son as the boy giggled at what he had said, the thoughts that the boy could feel that way over his brothers, sent chills up his spine. The thoughts that they had been too late to rescue the boy entered his head. What if he was never the same again? What if they couldn’t get through to him? Ben glanced over his shoulders at the sound of the horses entering the camp.

Tom Watson saw the anger flash across the man’s face and reached out to grab his arm. “Don’t do it, Ben, not now. Think of your son; right now, the boy thinks Tucker is his pa, and if you beat the man, he might never forgive you.”

Ben, seeing the logic of the man’s advice, nodded his head.

Joe, for the first time, saw Tom Watson standing with Ben. “Watson, ya really messed up this time. You know Pa don’t like things like this. Gonna be a shame when that fancy new house of yours burns down,” he said crossing his legs at the ankle, smiling.

Ben heard the laughs from the gang as they were being tied to trees close to Joe. “JOSEPH, that is enough.”

Joe looked up at Ben and laughed. Looking over at Tucker, “Pa, ya alright?”

“Yeah son, just fine. Don’t pay them no mind; we’ll take care of them soon,” he added

“Pa?”

“Yeah?”

“You didn’t steal me from them, did ya?” Joe asked. He felt something he couldn’t explain.

“No. It’s like I said to ya before: you were hurt and couldn’t remember anything about your past. You are my son and never forget it.” Tucker said hoping that the boy would continue to believe the lie.

Adam overhearing the conversation walked over to where his father and Hoss were seated and sat down. “Pa, I think we ought to move Little Joe away from the others.”

“Why, what’s going on?”

“Tucker is over there reassuring the kid he didn’t steal him, that he’d only lost his memory after an accident or illness one.”

“I agree; Joseph doesn’t need to be around them anymore than possible. Hoss, why don’t you move him over here with us. I hate to have to tie him, but after this morning we don’t have a choice,” Ben said sadly.

“What happened this morning?” Adam asked.

Ben informed them of the incident with the water and what all had been said. The tears that formed in the older mans eyes gave away all the hurt he held in his heart. The anger built inside Adam toward Tucker and his men for what they had put his family through.

“Don’t worry Pa, once we get him home and away from them, it’ll be alright,” Hoss added patting his fathers shoulder. “We’ll get through to him.”

*****

Joe watched as the largest of the three walked over and stood in front of him. As large and strong as the man looked, Joe found himself feeling a certain ease around the man. Where most would be frightened by his presence, he wasn’t.

Hoss knelt down and took his knife from its sheath. “Come on, short shanks, you’re comin’ over here with us.”

“What did ya call me?” Joe asked, looking into the crystal blue eyes of his brother.

Cutting the ropes from the tree, he took hold of the boys arm and helped him stand. “I called ya short shanks. It’s a nickname I gave ya cause ya so much shorter than me.”

“Look, I done told ya, I ain’t ya little brother. I’m sorry he’s missin’ but I ain’t him,” Joe said trying to get his point across to the big man.

“You are, ya just can’t remember.”

Joe was tired of playing this game with the men. He looked around and waited until he and Hoss were headed to the fire, then made a run for it. Running as fast as he could, he didn’t turn around, for fear of falling. He could hear the sounds of Tucker and the others urging him to run, and also the sound of the posse behind him as he ducked into the woods. After running for a while, he stopped and listened, before running out of the woods on the other side. Figuring he had run far enough and not hearing anything, he slowed to a walk.

Adam stopped his horse behind a clump of trees at the edge of the clearing watching the boy slowly walking across to him. He waited until the boy had just passed before grabbing him and hauling him up on Sport. “Put me down; you ain’t got no right to do this to me!” Joe yelled as he lay across Adam’s saddle.

“I got every right. You’re my little brother and I’ve already lost over two years with you, and I don’t aim to loose anymore,” Adam confessed holding onto the squirming youth.

“Listen asshole, I ain’t gonna tell ya again I ain’t…OWW!” Joe hollered. Adam had lost all patience with the boy. He had tried so hard, but he wouldn’t let the insult go without taking full advantage of the target in front of him. “What did ya hit me for? My Pa ain’t gonna like you hitting me.”

“Our Pa would have swatted your rear end just like I did if he had heard that comment you made. I’d watch that mouth of yours if I was you,” Adam advised.

“Yeah, well, ya ain’t me. I’ll do what the hell I want…Oww! Stop hittin’ me.”

“I’ll stop swatting you when you stop talking like that,” Adam stated with a smirk.

“Let me up!”

“Nope, not til we get back to camp. I kinda like seeing you like this. I missed you, Little Joe.”

*****

Roy pointed at Adam as he rode into the camp, and couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of Little Joe laying face down across his eldest brother’s saddle. Ben and Hoss joined in the laughter as they watched Adam give his baby brother another swat. The journey back had involved many cuss words from Joe and just as many swats from big brother in return.

“Hoss, stop laughing and take him over by the fire and tie him up,” Adam commanded.

Reaching up and lifting the boy off the horse Hoss turned him to face him. “Now, little brother, are ya gonna act right or do I gotta turn ya back over to Adam?”

Looking from Hoss to Ben to Adam, Little Joe dropped his head and allowed himself to be lead over to the fire and tied up to the tree.

Ben and Roy watched as Hoss lead the boy off before Ben, turning to Adam, asked, “Just what happened out there?”

“Pa, that kid has really learned a lot of new words he shouldn’t be using. Every time he said one, I swatted his backside. The more he said the harder I swatted.” Adam stated walking over to join his brothers at the fire.

Ben shook his head and smiled. “Some things never change.”

“Ben, the boy will be fine; he has all of you to see to that,” Roy said smiling at his oldest friend.

“HEY!” Tucker yelled watching the scene unfolding in front of him. He was furious that Adam had laid a hand on Joey.

“What is it Tucker?” Roy questioned.

“I wanna know why ya got my kid over there, and why ya lettin that bastard hit him?”

“Look Tucker, he isn’t your son, he’s mine. And as for Adam, he has the right, given by me, to discipline his little brother in my absence,” Ben said.

“Joey, don’t let them do this. They’re lying to ya. You’re my son, not his!”

“Shut up Tucker,” Roy added.

“Don’t worry, Pa; I don’t believe them,” Joe called back across the camp.

“Joseph, please don’t believe what Tucker says, you’re my son and their brother,” Ben said indicating Adam and Hoss with a wave of his hand.

“Ya’ll ain’t nothin’ to me. You hear me, old man. So why don’t ya just shut ya da…” Joe started but quickly stopped when Adam stood and towered over the boy. Swallowing hard, he dropped his head.

“Glad to see you learned something today. Now, I think you owe Pa an apology,” Adam said.

“I don’t owe him anything,” Joe said through clenched teeth.

Adam grabbed Joe and hefted him to his feet. Staring into the boys eyes he added, “Would you like to apologize to Pa, or shall I continue what we started this evening on the trail?”

Seeing the determination in the man’s eyes Joe quickly said, “But I didn’t cuss him, so you won’t, will ya?”

“Oh yes I will, just try me.”

Joe looked into his brothers eyes and saw that he meant what he said, softly he said, “I’m sorry.”

Adam sighed. “Not to me, Little Joe, to Pa.” Turning the boy to face his father, Adam stood holding onto him.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Joe said quietly.

“Joe, look at me. I know this must be really hard on you, but you need to trust us. I accept your apology, son,” Ben said pushing the hair from the boy’s forehead.

Reluctantly Joe allowed the man to show his affection. Something in the way the man touched him felt familiar, felt good. But the confusion in the boy took over, causing him to pull away. Adam helped him to sit by the fire and made sure his restraints were tight enough to ward off another escape attempt, but not tight enough to cause too much discomfort. Once he felt sure the boy was settled for the night he covered him up and made his bedroll beside him.

“You ain’t gotta babysit me; ain’t like I’m gonna go anywhere.”

“That isn’t the reason; I just wanted to spend a little time with you, is all.”

“Why, so ya can beat me some more?”

“Little Joe, I didn’t beat you and you know it. All I did is swatted your backside for you. What you got this morning in the barn sounded more like a beating to me,” Adam said glancing at his little brother.

“My Pa didn’t beat me. I messed up and he tanned me for it. He’d never do anything to hurt me.”

“What happened to cause you to lose your memory?” Adam asked hoping to get the boy to open up to him.

“Pa said I fell out of the loft and hit my head. I was out of it for about three weeks, then I didn’t remember anything.” Joe said. He couldn’t understand what he was feeling for these people. He wanted to stay mad at the man that sat beside him, but for some reason he couldn’t. Joe glanced over at Tucker, the man said he was his Pa, but so did this other man, Ben Cartwright. Why would they both say that? Adam could see the confusion in the youngster’s eyes. Reaching over he laid his hand on the boys arm causing him to jump. “I didn’t mean to startle you, what were you thinking about?”

“Nothin'”

“You know, you can talk to me if you want to. I’ll be glad to listen,” Adam said with a smile.

Joe sat for awhile thinking. Looking up at Adam he said, “Why are ya’ll doin’ this. I mean, I know that Pa ain’t been the most law abiding man, hell, neither have I, but still, why ya want to take me away from him?”

“Joe, I know you don’t believe me, but you are my little brother. You were kidnapped by these men on the last day of school two years ago. We were told about a boy that was found dead at the border of Nevada. He looked like you and everyone thought it was you. Joe, we’ve looked all over for you,” Adam said watching as the boy took in every word he said.

“Why would he lie to me? He’s treated me like his son. He’s done everything for me. How can you expect me to turn my back on him just because ya’ll say so?”

“Joe, those men are on there way to prison. Do you understand that?” Adam asked.

“Maybe, we’ll see.” Joe said. After several minutes of silence he added, “What’ll happen to me if they do?”

“You’ll go home with us, regardless. You’re going home, little brother.”

“This is my home, Adam. Why can’t any of ya’ll understand that?”

Adam looked into the pleading eyes of the young man next to him. He could see the uncertainty that troubled the boy. The talk they had helped him to understand how the boy felt. Joe had no memories of anything before his accident; all he had known was of his life with Tucker. “Little Joe, were leaving tomorrow to head back to Virginia City. Tucker and his men will be locked up in town to wait on the circuit judge. Will you please just give it a chance, us a chance to prove to you who you really are. Everyone in town knows you and your friends have really missed having you around.”

“Friends?”

“Yeah, Mitch Devlin, Seth Pruitt and several pretty little ladies.” Adam said with a grin.

Joe blushed a little and for the first time, grinned. “Now I could see how any lady would like me.” The smile fading, he added, “If it was true, but it’s not. Now, I gotta get some sleep.”

*****

Ben awoke before the others in camp the next morning. Adding wood to the fire he started the coffee and looked around to check on everyone. He saw Hoss sitting on the logs in front of the gang keeping watch. Adam was still rolled up in his blanket sleeping soundly, next to him was Joseph. Ben watched as the boy tossed and turned lost in the depths of a nightmare. Slowly he walked over and pulled the blanket up around the boy and tucked it in. Turning to leave, he was stopped by the sounds of his youngest saying ‘NO!’ Ben knelt beside the boy and pulled him into his arms, rubbing his back. “SHH… It’s alright now, son. You’re just dreaming. Come on son, wake up.”

Joe opened his eyes slowly and looked into the kind face of the man claiming to be his father. “What?”

“You were dreaming. Are you alright now?” Ben asked rubbing his thumb down the side of the boys face.

“Turn me loose. I don’t need anyone to hold me like a baby,” Joe said wrestling free of his fathers’ grip.

Ben looked hurt, but conceded that he wouldn’t push the boy. “If you’re sure.” then walked away.

Adam sat up and looked at his father’s retreating back, then to the boy beside him. “Was that necessary?”

“What?” Joe asked making himself more comfortable.

“You didn’t have to hurt him like that. He loves you more than his own life.” Adam said pulling his blanket from the ground and rolling it up. “Try thinking about someone other than yourself, kid,” he added walking off.

*****

Joe sat thinking about the dream he had that had brought the man to his side. He could vaguely remember being inside a small room with other kids. He could see a woman, and could remember saying to someone that his Pa and brothers would kill them for this. He could remember being slapped and spanked, but by who? His mind wouldn’t let him see who his attackers were. The dream left him more confused that before, and he felt a little bad about snapping at the older man, but he’d been so disturbed by the dream that he hadn’t thought about his actions.

“You alright, Pa?” Adam asked walking up to the man sitting by the fire.

“Yes son, I’m fine. I guess I just startled him a little.”

“That was no excuse to be so rude. Pa, I want to be the one to lead Little Joe back. We started talking a little last night, and maybe I can get through to him. I think he’s either wondering about the situation, or is starting to remember things one. Anyway, after yesterday, he knows how far he can push me without going to far.”

“Ok son, that’s fine. But I want him to be kept away from the others.”

”I agree. When are we leaving?”

“Shortly, I want to talk to Tucker, maybe I can convince him to tell the boy the truth.”

“It’s worth a try, but I think your best bet would be one of the other men. They might talk if we promise them a lesser jail sentence.”

“Maybe, we’ll see, why don’t you go and get your little brother and bring him over for breakfast,” Ben said smiling at his eldest.

“Sure Pa,” Adam said standing.

*****

Joe watched as Adam walked back to where he was tied. He looked up at the man claiming to be his brother and watched as the man took out his knife. Adam knelt down in front of the boy and looked him in the eye. “Little buddy, I’m going to untie you and then we’re going to go and eat breakfast. Do NOT even think of trying to run off again, if you do you will be a very sorry young man. Understand?”

“I understand. I won’t run again; besides, I’m kinda hungry,” Joe said with a slight smile.

“Good,” Adam said cutting the ropes and helping the boy to his feet.

Joe rubbed his wrists, then walked in front of Adam to the fire and sat down. He looked up at Ben as he handed him a plate with bacon and beans. “Thanks.”

“You’re very welcome Joseph,” Ben said then smiled at Adam when the boy began to eat.

Ben informed Hoss and Roy to tie a rope around the chests of the others and to undo there hands so they could eat. Taking the plates over to them, he sat in front of them. Looking at Tucker, he asked, “So what’s it going to take to get you to tell the boy the truth?”

“I don’t know what cha mean Cartwright,” Tucker said between mouthfuls.

“The hell you don’t. You stole that boy from his family and somehow convinced the boy he was yours. It’s time you tell him the truth;he need to know.”

“That kid knows what he needs to know. He is my kid, and I won’t tell him any different. Now leave me alone.”

Ben stood over Tucker and looked him in the eyes, “Tucker, if it weren’t for that boy over there, I’d kill you.”

“Nope, you ain’t that kind. Now leave me be and send my kid over here.”

“You’ll never have him again,” Ben said as he walked away.

*****

The men readied their mounts and prepared for the long trip to Virginia City. Tom Watson had left the group the night before to return to the town of Jasper and inform the people they had their town back. Hoss had taken control of Tex, Roy had Tucker, Ben with Stump and finally Adam with Little Joe. Ben had hoped to have a talk with Stump, for he had seen the way the man looked at the boy. He felt as if he really cared for Joe.

“So, are you going to go to prison for the rest of your life for this man? You know, I could probably get you a lesser sentence if you’d do something for me,” Ben said looking over to Stump.

“I can’t; he’d kill me,” Stump said. He really wanted to tell the boy the truth; he could see how badly the whole thing was affecting him.

“I can promise you he won’t get near you; maybe we can work it out where you don’t go to prison at all,” Ben said hopefully.

“I’ll think about it, but you have to promise me, no jail, before I’ll say anything to the kid. I really do love that boy, and I don’t wanna see him hurt.”

“I’ll see what I can do soon as we get back to Virginia City.”

*****

Joe rode along silently beside Adam for several hours before asking, “How much farther do we have to go today?”

“We’ll stop before long for dinner then travel until dark. Why you tired? Pa’d stop now if you are.”

“No, I’m not tired, just a little saddle sore. Got a pretty good wallop.”

“You asked for it.” Adam smugged. “Want to tell me about that dream you had?”

“Why should I?” Joe asked, he really wanted to tell someone, he couldn’t make heads or tails out of it and he was really starting to wonder as to what it had meant.

“Might make you feel better. I don’t mind listening.”

Joe looked at his brother and could see the concern in his eyes. Slowly he let out a breath and began, “I was in a small room, there was a woman there, and other kids, some were crying. I can remember telling someone that my Pa and brothers would kill them. I can remember being slapped and spanked. Then I woke up. Don’t make much sense does it?”

Adam choked back the lump in his throat and turned to his baby brother, “It makes more sense than you think. The small room was the schoolhouse. The woman was your teacher, Miss Jones. The men you said that to were Tucker and his men. Joe, he slapped and spanked you before he took you because you were fighting him.” Finished he looked into the questioning eyes of his little brother. He could see the turmoil that lay under the hard surface the boy put forward.

“Why should I believe you? You could just be saying that. How do I know it wasn’t you and your family that did those things to me?”

“Little Joe, once we get home, I hope that you will see the truth. I want you to come back to us. We’ve missed you so much.”

*****

The rest of the journey home had ups and downs but all in all went rather smooth, Joe had tested his limits with Adam and quickly realized where the line was drawn. He had butted heads with Hoss and Roy and shown little or no respect to Ben. He had at one point taken a swing at his Pa, causing Adam to want to thrash him good. Ben on the other hand, had restrained his eldest and asked him to be patient.

Entering the city limits of their home town, Ben noticed all of the family’s friends standing around waiting on their arrival. Ben saw the anxious look on Little Joe’s face as the people stared at the young man that had returned in the boys place. The posse made their way to the jail and slowly dismounted. Clem came out to meet his friends and noticed the ropes that restrained the youngster. “We’ll fill ya in later.” Roy said, taking the prisoners inside. Ben, Hoss and Adam escorted the youngest member of the family inside and sat him the chair.

“Ain’t cha gonna lock me up too sheriff?” Joe asked, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. Taking a long draw he leaned back and propped his feet on the desk.

“Nope, Little Joe, I’m turning you over to your Pa. He’ll see to it ya don’t get inta anymore trouble.”

“Hard for him to do locked up like that,” Joe smirked.

The men turned to the sound of the door opening and saw Seth and Mitch standing there. “Come on in, boys; look who’s home.” Ben said. He hoped that the sight of the boys might jar Joe’s memory.

“Little Joe, we thought we’d never see ya again. Thought ya was dead. I’m glad ya back,” Mitch said laying his hand on his friends shoulder.

Joe shrugged off the hand on his shoulder and stood. Taking another long draw he blew the smoke into the other boy’s faces and smirked. “Just who the hell are you two, wimps?”

The hurt faces of his friends didn’t go unnoticed by Adam. Walking over to his brother he jerked the cigarette out of his hand and threw it out the window. “What did we discuss about your language and being rude? These are your two best friends. I expect you to treat them better than that. If not, we can take this up in private.”

Joe looked at the boys and smiled. “Sorry, been a long ride. I don’t know who you are.” What he did know was he didn’t want on Adam’s bad side for a while to come.

“Oh that’s alright Little Joe, we understand. I’m Seth and this is Mitch.”

Joe nodded to them and returned to his seat placing his feet back on the desk. Seeing this Adam walked over and shoved his feet to the floor. “We don’t put our feet on the furniture, so you don’t either.”

“Whatever you say.” Joe stated, looking over at the boys that stood beside the open window talking. “So what do ya’ll do around here for fun?”

“Just hang out, go fishing, hunting, that kinda stuff,” Seth answered.

“Got any good saloons around?”

“Yeah, but none of us is allowed in them,” Mitch added.

“Maybe your not, but I been hanging around them for a couple of years now. Nothing like a good cold beer and a poker game.”

“You, young man, will not be indulging in either one; you’re not old enough.” Ben stated as they all entered the room and overheard the discussion.

“JOEY!” Tucker called.

“Yeah Pa?”

“I don’t wanna hear about you being in a saloon, you hear me?”

Little Joe stood and walked to the door that separated the office from the cells and leaned against the frame. “And just what are ya gonna do to stop me? Ain’t like you’ll be able to take me to the barn again any time soon,” Joe said with an evil smile tugging at his lips.

“No, but I sure can,” Ben said standing in front of his son with his hands on his hips.

“Sure, old man,” Joe said walking away. Ben was at the end of his endurance. Before he thought he had landed a hard swat to the backside of his youngest. Joe turned and looked at his father with stunned look. This man wasn’t going to be a pushover as he thought.

“Now that I have your attention, we need to get a few things straight around here. You don’t make the rules, you follow them.” Ben said walking toward his mislead son, causing him to back away. “Furthermore, you will not refer to me in that manner anymore. If you don’t feel comfortable calling me Pa, then you will at least say sir to me. You will not go into a saloon alone, you will not leave the yard of the ranch alone until you have come to terms with what has happened. Do I make myself clear?” Ben asked. By this time the boy was standing against the door of the office with his father only inches away from him.

“Y-Yes sir.” Joe said not believing the change in this man. He had gained some respect for the man calling himself his Pa.

“Now, I want you to be aware of the consequences should you try me on this. You will be either restricted or have extra chores or both, and if I think the crime is bad enough, you will receive a tanning. Understand?”

Joe swallowed hard and flinched at the last comment, before answering, “Yes sir.”

Ben smiled at the boy and turned to his other two sons and saw the laughter in their eyes. “Shall we take this young man home?”

“Yes, Pa, I think we had better.” Adam said walking past his father and taking his baby brother by the arm.

Hoss watched as Adam and Little Joe walked outside. Turning to his Pa he looked at the man. “Pa, I think ya might have convinced the boy a little just then.”

“If not, I will. I meant what I said Hoss, and I expect you and Adam to help me with him. You can’t baby him too much, not and help him. Can I count on you?”

“Of course you can Pa, but it will be hard to tell on him if he messes up.”

“I know, but you have to, for Joseph,” Ben added as he led his biggest son outside to join the others.

Mitch and Seth walked out onto the porch of the office and watched their best friend mount up. Ben noticed the downcast faces of the boys and smiled at them. “Boys, why don’t both of you come out tomorrow and take Little Joe fishing. I’m sure I can let Hoss off work to go along.”

“Sounds good, Mr. Cartwright. We’ll be there around one. See ya then Joe.”

“Sure,” Joe said. He couldn’t think of a more boring way to spend the day.

*****

The ride home was a long one for Little Joe; he noticed that Cochise kept picking up his pace and Joe had to pull him in several times. Adam watched as the boy rubbed the horses neck, “What is it boy? What’s wrong?”

“He’s ready to finally get home. He’s missed his stall and his stablemates,” Adam said watching the boy for anything showing he was remembering his home.

“Say Adam, what got into the old…Mr. Cartwright back there?” Joe questioned shifting in the saddle. His backside still stung a little from the swat he’s received.

“He finally slipped back in the Pa mode with you. He’s been afraid to say much to you, but you finally pushed him to far today,” Adam said with a crooked little smile. He had been glad to see his father take control of the boy again.

“Was he serious?” Joe asked, hoping it was only a front.

“I sure wouldn’t try him on it. I know how hard he swings a belt. You would too, if you could just remember.”

*****

After about an hour the men rode into the courtyard of the Ponderosa and dismounted. Joe waited for a minute watching the hands that had gathered to welcome him home. He slowly slid from the horses back and stood beside Adam. Hoss took the horses and led them into the barn. “He gets clean water and extra oats,” Joe called to Hoss.

“I know that little brother. You have always done that.” Hoss said with a smile.

“Joe, come here,” Ben said as he stood in front of the hands. “Men, Joe has had a memory loss. He doesn’t know anyone.”

Joe walked over and stood beside his Pa while he introduced each of the men to him. Hop Sing had also joined the group and heard the news of number three son. He bowed to him and welcomed him back, longing to hug him tight.

“Come on little buddy, let’s get you settled in your room before time for supper. Hop Sing has made all your favorites tonight,” Adam said leaning against Hoss who had just joined them.

“My favorites? Mind telling me what they are, so I can enjoy them?” Joe answered sarcastically before turning to walk to the house. Adam and Hoss followed him inside with Ben bringing up the rear. Joe stopped inside the great room and looked around. He was amazed at the size of the house and all the nice things that were sitting everywhere. His love of guns took him to the rifle case. Lifting one of the guns out, he leveled it at the stairs, slowly bringing it around toward his family. After a second he dropped it to his side and smiled. “Nice guns.” Replacing it he walked over to his father’s desk. The three elder Cartwrights exchanged glances then followed him. “So, who are the ladies?”

Ben walked around to stand beside his son. He pointed to the first photo, “This is Adam’s mother, Elizabeth.” Then to the next, “Hoss’ mother, Inger.” Picking up the last photo, he said, “This is your mother, Marie. She died when you were almost five.”

“What about the others?”

“They’re also gone.”

Looking to the shelf behind the desk he spotted another frame. Picking it up he saw a picture of Ben, Adam, Hoss and a young boy. Ben looked over his shoulder at the picture. “That was taken almost a month before you were stolen.”

“Joe, does anything look familiar to you?” Adam asked. He could see the doubt in the boys face.

Composing himself quickly, for now he was unsure about what he believed, he sat the photo down and faced his brother. “Nope, why should it; ain’t never been here.”

“Let’s get you upstairs, so you can get settled in, short shanks,” Hoss said walking toward the stairs with Joe following.

Adam waited until he heard the door shut upstairs before approaching his father. “So did you have any luck with Stump?”

“Maybe; he said he’d tell Little Joe the truth if he didn’t get any jail time.”

“You think he would? Or for that matter, do you think the kid would believe him?”

“I don’t know, but we have to try. I’ll go into town tomorrow and see what I can do.”

*****

Three days past since Ben had spoken to his lawyer Hiram Miller. He was waiting to hear whether or not the deal could be worked out for Stump. Joe hadn’t been what would be called difficult, but then again not helpful either. More like distant and quiet. Not what they remembered of the young boy that had been taken from them. Every offer to get involved in family time or activities had been a struggle most of which they didn’t win. Adam had taken him to town and purchased him a whole new set of clothes. Several for every day and one for Sunday.

Joe had been somewhat bored with his new lifestyle. Although Tucker hadn’t allowed him access to the saloons, he had always been able to sneak out and go, only getting caught a handful of times, each of which earned him punishment. He had tried to talk Hoss into a quick beer earlier that day when they went in for supplies, but he had refused saying Pa’d have his hide and Joe’s too if he were to take the boy in the saloon. Feeling Adam was too stuffy to ask he made his mind up to just sneak out and go on his own. Once everyone was in bed he made his way downstairs and buckled on the gunbelt he had been told he wasn’t allowed to wear in town and eased out the door to the barn. Carefully he led Cochise out of the yard and vaulted into the saddle.

An hour later Little Joe hitched his horse in front of the saloon and walked up to the bar. “Give me a beer,” he said looking around, for who he wasn’t sure, for he couldn’t remember any of these people.

“Little Joe, your Pa know your in here?” Sam asked sitting the beer in front of the boy.

“Hard for him to know anything being locked up.”

“Does Ben know?”

“None of his business.”

“Hey, would you looky here, it’s that little Cartwright brat. What are ya doin’ here kid, lookin’ for someone to steal from or shoot?” called Lucas Tatum. He and Joe had been enemies since the first day of school.

“Look pal, I don’t know who you are so the best thing you can do is leave me alone,” Joe said calmly still standing at the bar with his back to the other boy.

“Aw, come off it Little Joe, this whole act your putting on may convince some but I ain’t falling for it. You’re still the same little spoiled rich kid, and I aim to kick your ass like I used too,” Tatum boasted, which brought a round of laughs from the others.

Slowly Joe turned around and faced the larger boy. Taking the last swig of his beer and placing the glass back on the bar, he let out a sigh. “Well, what are ya waiting for? I’m here and I, so if you think you can kick my ass, start kicking,” he added holding his arms out to his side.

Lucas lunged at Joe who moved causing the boy to fall into the bar. “Sure you don’t want to rethink this, fella?” Joe asked.

“Not on your life, kid,” Tatum called as he plowed into Joe causing both of them to tumble to the floor. They rolled around for a few minutes before Joe ended up on top pounding at the boys face. The fight continued for several minutes with Joe beating the other bloody and almost to unconsciousness. No one noticed when Roy Coffee walked in and fired his gun.

The sound stopped everyone except Joe. Roy grabbed the boy by the collar and pulled him off Tatum. Seeing the damage that had been done, he told the others to take Tatum to Doc Martin. Turning to see Joe downing another beer, he walked over to the bar and grabbed the boys arm, “Let’s go Little Joe.”

“Go where?”

“Over to the jail.”

“Why, he started it, not me. I gave him every chance to drop this but he wouldn’t,” Joe said pulling his arm free.

“Oh, I know that; that ain’t the reason. I’m taking you in because you’re not supposed to be in a saloon alone. Your Pa’s gonna have a fit when he gets here.”

*****

Roy led Joe into the office and made him sit in a chair. He didn’t want to put the boy in back with Tucker unless he had to. Clem looked up as they entered and shook his head.

“Clem, ride out and tell Ben to come get his boy. I’m quite sure he doesn’t know he’s gone,” Roy said.

Clem stood and went to put on his hat when the door opened and Ben, Adam and Hoss walked in. They stopped short and looked at the boy who was stretched out in the chair with his eyes closed. Walking over in front of the boy, Ben placed his hands on his hips. “JOSEPH!” he yelled causing the young boy to jump and his brothers to attempt to hide their amusement. “Stand up.”

Joe stood up and looked into Ben’s eyes. What he saw there was hurt, disappointment, and lots of anger. “Yes sir?”

“What in tarnation are you doing here? You were told not to leave the ranch or the yard, for that matter alone.”

“Got bored. Needed a drink,” Joe said trying to push passed his Pa. Ben grabbed his arm and made him sit back down.

“You just sit there. Roy, what happened?”

“Little Joe beat the tar outta Lucas Tatum and broke up the saloon. Now Tatum started it but Joe is responsible for half the cost at the saloon.”

Ben cut his eyes around and looked at Joe, who was inspecting his knuckles. “How much?”

“Hundred dollars.”

“WHAT!”

“That’s what Sam said, so if ya wanna take the boy home, you’ll have ta pay it.”

Ben reached in his pocket and withdrew the money and handed it to Roy. “Thank you Roy, for not locking him up.”

“Ben, you need to keep him on the ranch until this is over. He don’t need to be in town alone.”

“He’s not allowed to be here alone and he knows it. Don’t worry, after I’m through with him he won’t want to go anywhere for a while,” Ben said looking at the now worried eyes of the young man.

“I know you’ll take care of it, Ben; take the boy home.”

Ben grabbed Joe by the arm and led him out to his horse. “Get on that horse and get home and back to bed. We’ll discuss this in the morning.”

Joe watched as the man mounted his horse and started for home. Adam walked by him and quietly said, “I’d get on that horse and get home if I was you. Don’t make him ask you again; he don’t like that.”

*****

Morning came all too early for the family, after the trouble in town. Breakfast was eaten in silence for the most part aside for work assignments. Joe had been told to accompany Adam and Hoss to do the fencing. As the boys got up to leave Ben called, “Joseph, I need to speak with you for a minute. Adam you and Hoss get the horses ready and wait outside for your brother.”

“Yes sir,” they both said, then left, closing the door behind them.

“Joseph, go and get your gun and belt.”

“Why?”

“Bring them to me, now.”

Joe walked over to the door and picked up his gun belt and carried it to Ben.

“I’m locking these away for now; you’ll get them back when I feel you’re ready for them.” Ben said placing them inside the safe and closing the door.

“You can’t do that, those are mine!” Joe yelled.

“Boy, listen to me, you will lower your voice to me and I can do that, because I’m your father. Now, you disobeyed me by leaving the ranch, going into town alone, into a saloon alone, and carrying your gun. What do you think I should do about this?”

“Nothing, I can do as I please. I’m a man, not a kid.”

“That’s where you’re wrong; you are not a man, you are only fifteen. There is only one thing I can think of to prove to you that you will do what is asked of you,” Ben said removing his belt.

“You ain’t gonna hit me?”

“No, but I am going to give you a tanning you won’t forget for a while. You have to learn to follow orders. Now, bend over and grab the desk.”

Joe stood still and stared at Ben. He has no intention on doing as the man said.

“Joseph, you can do this on your own or I can do it for you, in which case it will only be worse. Which will it be?”

Joe thought for a minute then conceded that Ben would carry through so he walked over and placed his hands on the desk, where Ben placed six lashes across his backside. Ben could see that the boys was fighting to hold back the tears, and laid his hand on the boys back. Joe shrugged it off and walked out the door and carefully mounted his horse.

Adam and Hoss exchanged looks as their brother eased himself down in the saddle. Adam moved his horse up to Cochise and glanced at Little Joe. “You alright?”

“What do you care?”

“You know, kid, if you’d give us a chance you might see how much we do care. Let’s get to work,” Adam said urging his horse on.

“Come on big shorty, let’s go. Don’t let Adam get to ya; he comes across a little stuffy, but he does care. So do I,” Hoss said patting the boy on the back then followed Adam out of the yard.

Joe watched them for a minute before urging his horse to follow. He had so many thought and emotions running through him that he didn’t know what to think anymore. He was mad at Ben, but at the same time he could understand why the man had done what he did. He didn’t know how to react to his brothers, they were likable but he couldn’t allow himself to get close to them. He wasn’t their brother, or was he? Pushing the thoughts out of his head, he made his way to work.

*****

Ben sat at his desk in his study working on the ledgers and thinking about the encounter that morning with is youngest. He had hated punishing the boy but knew he had to remain firm. His biggest fear was losing his son again, this time possibly to the law. Moments later a knock at the door brought him from his thoughts. Answering the door he greeted his lawyer, Hiram Miller.

“Come on in Hiram. It’s good to see you.”

“Ben, I have some news on what we had spoke about, are you alone?”

“Yes, the boys are all out working. So, what did the judge say?”

“He’s willing to allow it only because it’s you asking. Actually Stump Mitchell should hang or at least spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“So he understood our dilemma?”

“Yes, he understood it was the only way to convince the boy. So, what we’ll do is bring him out here and let him talk to Little Joe. Then he’ll get a stage ticket to anywhere he wants. When do you want to do this?”

“This evening alright?”

“Fine, I’ll have Roy bring him out here along with myself. There has to be witnesses.”

“Thank you Hiram; we’ll see you around seven?”

“Good Ben, see you then,” The man said shaking hands.

Ben watched as the lawyer left. His thoughts turned to his youngest son and how all of this would affect the boy. He could only hope that it would be a welcome thing to the youngster once he got used to his old life.

*****

After supper was finished, Ben asked Joe for a game of checkers, in which the younger man accepted. He had said he was turning in early, but Ben knew the lawyer and others would be arriving shortly and Joe had to be present at the meeting. He had started once to let the boy know what was happening but decided against it. Adam and Hoss had been told and were hoping that finally this whole mess could be cleared up and Little Joe could once more be the little brother they missed so badly.

A knock at the door, announcing the arrival of the men, brought Adam out of his book. He walked over and opened the door allowing the men to enter. Joe watched as Roy and Hiram walked in followed by the man Joe thought of as an uncle.

“Uncle Stump!” Joe said with a smile as he hurried over to the man.

“Hey there Joey,” he said pulling the boy into a hug. “You been good?”

“Good enough, I guess.”

“Didn’t sound that way last night. In the saloon drinking and fighting again?”

“Yes sir,” Joe said dropping his head.

Stump lifted the boys chin and looked into his eyes, “Been punished for it?”

“Yes sir.”

“I said on it then. Come on son, we have to talk,” Stump said leading the boy to the settee and sitting beside him.

“Are the others out?”

“No son, Mr. Cartwright, here was kind enough to arrange for me to have all charges dropped against me in exchange for telling you the truth about everything.”

“What do ya mean, the truth?”

“Joe, Tucker ain’t your Pa. Mr. Cartwright here is. Everything they told ya is right. We stole you from the school a couple of years ago.”

“That can’t be, I mean, I’ve seen pictures of me as a kid. I don’t believe you!”

“Joey, listen to me. The pictures you saw are of David, Tuckers’ son. The two of you could be twins. The only difference is he’s three years older than you.”

“Then where is he and why didn’t Tucker tell me?”

“He’s dead. He was killed pulling a job about a month before we took you. See, Tuck saw you fighting with a bigger boy that day and that plus the way you looked, made him want to take you for his own.”

“But how come I can’t remember any of this?”

“One day, about five months after taking you, you ran off and when we caught you and took you back, Tucker tanned you so bad you couldn’t get out of bed for two days, then he told Tex to kill your family, in front of you. You went into a shock or something, and when you came out of it, you didn’t remember any of it.”

“But, he loves me; he told me so and look at all the things he’s done for me. How could someone like that be as cruel as you’re sayin’. Why are ya lying to me? What are they doin’, payin’ ya for sayin’ all of this?” Joe said standing and walking over to the fireplace.

Stump walked over and turned the boy to face him. “Joey, have I ever lied to you before? Haven’t I always taken care of you? Why, I’ve even saved your butt several times to keep you out of trouble with Tuck. Now haven’t I?”

Joe looked into the face of the man in front of him and saw the honesty and compassion there. “Yes.”

Stump reached into his pocket and removed a locket and laid it in Joe’s hand. “I found this in your jacket pocket the day we arrived at the hideout. I kept it incase the day ever came that you needed to know the truth.”

Joe opened the locket and saw the pictures inside. On one side was a photo of his mother Marie and on the other was the same photo of him, his Pa and his brothers. Closing it he looked up at Stump with tears in his eyes, “He lied to me. All this time of calling him Pa, and all we did, oh god, all the things I did. I’m sorry I thought you were lying.”

Stump pulled the boy into a hug and patted him on the back. “It alright now, Joe; you’re home where you belong. Now listen to me. I have to leave because if Tuck or his men find me, they’ll kill me. I’ll be in touch with you; your Pa said it was alright.”

“Where will you go?”

“Not sure just yet, but you’ll hear from me soon.” With that the men all shook hands and left.

*****

Joe looked at the locket again, then looked at Ben with tears running down his cheeks. “Pa, I’m sorry. How can you still want me here with everything I’ve done, and said.”

Ben walked over and stood in front of his son and waited. He wanted to hold the boy and let him know that everything was alright now, but he wanted the first move to be Joes. “Son, you have nothing to be sorry for. None of this was your fault. We’re just so glad your home.”

Joe looked up at his father, then threw himself into the man’s arms and cried. Finally, the truth was known and he knew where he belonged. With the father and brothers that loved him, he would be ok. He was home.

***The End***

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