You’re my Son (by Blueyes)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word count:  17,000


“Come on Joe, we better get going. It’s gonna be three before ya make it home, and ya know what ya Pa said he’d do to ya if ya snuck out again,” Mitch said trying to convince his best friend to leave the saloon. Mitch had witnessed and felt the wrath of Ben Cartwright before, and knew that he followed through with any consequences he promised.

“Yeah, guess ya right,” Joe said as he collected his winnings and excused himself from the poker game.

Jack Patterson sat alone at a table in the back and watched as the boys made their way to the swinging doors. Grabbing Janie, one of the saloon girls, he first ordered a whiskey then asked, “You know that kid that just left?”

“Which one, Little Joe or Mitch? I know them both, why?”

“Little Joe? What’s the kid’s last name? I think I know his folks.”

“Cartwright, his Pa’s name is Ben Cartwright, the owner of the Ponderosa.”

“Got a brother named Adam?” Jack inquired.

“Sure does, a real good looking fella, a real heartbreaker. That Little Joe’s gonna break a lot of hearts too. Already has.” Janie sighed.

“Do they look alike?”

“Say mister why ya asking so many questions about the Cartwrights?”

“Curious is all. I knew Ben and his wife Marie long ago. Say Ben’s the kid’s father huh?”

“Yeah, Little Joe is the youngest, he’s fifteen. He has two brothers Hoss and Adam. Adam is the oldest; he’s twenty-seven I think.”

“Try twenty-nine. But then again, I can see why he would lie about his age.”

“Wadda ya mean by that?” Janie asked. She as well as everyone in town knew and liked the Cartwrights.

Jack could see that by telling this girl the Cartwrights secret he would be able to destroy Ben Cartwright. Anticipation growing he relayed the story.

“You see, I knew Ben and Marie back before the little one was even thought of. I had worked for Ben for about three months when Marie discovered she was pregnant. Adam was fourteen then, not twelve like they want everyone to believe. Ben went out of town for about a month. No one thought about it until the kid decided to come early. The doctor had said that he wouldn’t make it being only seven months into pregnancy. Well when he came into the world screaming his lungs out and only slightly small, the doctor told them that they must have had their dates wrong. Well one thing lead to another and finally Marie confessed to Ben that she had ‘educated’ young Adam and the child was his. Ben knew that it would destroy his reputation if anyone found out so he accepted the boy as his own and made the choice to never again talk about it,” Jack related.

“You trying to tell me that Adam is Little Joe’s Pa? Just how do you know that?” Janie asked.

“I overheard the discussion between Adam and Ben. Ben knew that none of it was the boy’s fault. It was his first experience with a woman. He told the boy that he forgave him, but he would never be able to let the kid know he was his father.”

“Well, I’ll be. So why you telling this to me?”

“Because, I feel that the kid ought to know who his Pa is. Don’t you? I just think it’s time that the truth came out.”

“Yes, he should know, and Adam should have a chance to be a Pa to him, after all he treats the boy like he was his son.”

“Well, maybe someone ought to tell the kid, since his family won’t.”

“Maybe,” Janie replied as she stood thinking on what the man had said.

Knowing that he had accomplished his mission, Jack excused himself and left for the camp he had set up in the hills. He knew by the morrow the word would be around town and his plan would be set in action. Soon Marie’s son would flee his family and then he could totally destroy Ben Cartwright.

*****

Sunday morning broke warm and sunny. Ben awoke and readied himself for church. In a jovial mood he made his way downstairs where he was soon greeted by both his older sons. Breakfast ready, the three elder Cartwrights awaited the arrival of the youngest member of the family.

“Why is that boy so hard to get up on Sundays?” Ben questioned to no one in particular.

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances knowing that once again their younger brother had snuck out of the house for a night on the town. Seeing their Pa stand, Adam quickly said, “I’ll get him; you go on and have your coffee, Pa.”

“Thank you, son.”

Adam made his way up to Joe’s room and knocked on the door before entering. Seeing his brother still sleeping, he smiled to himself. ‘Time to pay the piper, kid. Only you get the choice of which piper you pay this time.’ “Joe, come on wake up, boy.”

“Don’t wanna,” Joe replied sleepily.

“Look kid, you can wake up for me or I can go get Pa.”

Joe opened his eyes and stared at the angry eyes of his eldest brother. Judging by the look on his face he figured that Adam might know of his little indiscretion from the night before. “Fine, I’m awake.”

Adam sat down in the chair and waited for Joe to sit up. “Now that you’re awake, I have a question for you.”

“Huh?” Joe asked rubbing his eyes.

“Would you care to explain to me why you’re so sleepy this morning?” Adam asked with his arms folded across his chest.

“I guess I didn’t sleep very well last night,” Joe answered with his most innocent face.

“It’s hard to get any sleep at a poker table isn’t it, Joseph?”

“Who me?” Joe asked pointing to his chest.

“Look Joe, don’t even try it. I know that you snuck out last night.”

“You gonna tell Pa?” Joe asked biting his lower lip.

“Tell you what, you have a choice. You can either tell Pa or deal with me,” Adam said with a smirk.

“And just what do you mean by deal with you?” Joe asked cautiously.

“Well if you tell Pa, you know that means a trip to the barn. A trip to the barn means dropping your trousers and a belt. Dealing with me, you can keep your pants on.”

“You mean your gonna tan me?” Joe squeaked.

“Don’t you think you deserve it?”

“Awe Adam, I didn’t do anything that bad,” Joe pleaded.

“Let’s see, you snuck out, was drinking and gambling. I think that Pa would consider that pretty bad, want to find out? Now come on; Pa’s waiting breakfast on us. Make the decision.”

Joe dropped his head and mumbled, “You, I guess.”

“Ok, get ready for church and get on downstairs. Pa is having lunch in town with Paul and Roy today so we will take care of everything else after we get back from church.”

The Cartwright buggy pulled up in the church yard just in time to be the last ones to enter. Ben thought that the stares they were receiving were due to their tardiness. He had no idea that rumors were being spread about his family. Once the final hymn was finished, they flowed out of the church and made their way to the buggy. Ben waved the boys off and went to meet his friends for lunch.

Joe shifted restlessly on the buggy seat, thinking of his upcoming encounter with Adam. He knew that he had messed up with sneaking out last night, but he never bargained on the fact that Adam would take such a stand with him. He had had encounters with Adam several times in the past and knew that he was in for an uncomfortable evening. Nevertheless as Adam says it‘s the lesser of two evils. At least he could keep his pants up. Adam sensed what his brother was thinking and smiled inwardly. He knew that if he didn’t do something to prevent Joe from this behavior, he would undoubtedly be caught by their Pa before long. He had had a similar experience himself with Pa and wished to himself that he had had a big brother to protect him. Joe may not know it now, but someday he would understand why he was doing this.

*****

Ben made his way to the International House to meet Paul and Roy. He found them sitting and a table in the corner. Walking over to join them he noticed all the stares he was getting. Sitting down he smiled and asked, “Will one of you tell me if there is something on me that is making everybody stare.”

“No Ben, don’t see anything, but we do know what’s causing the stares,” Roy stated.

“Well are the two of you going to fill me in or not?”

“Ben, this may take a few minutes, so let’s order first,” Paul suggested.

Ben agreed and once they had ordered he pushed to find out what was going on.

As Paul and Roy related the rumor that was floating around they could see the anger rise in Ben’s eyes. They both had known Marie and could in no way believe that there was any chance of this rumor being true. They also knew of the close relationship Ben had with each of his sons. Little Joe was the apple of his Pa’s eye.

“So Ben that’s about it,” Roy stated.

“Who?” was the only thing the shocked cattle baron could ask.

“We have no idea who, Ben, but you can rest assured that I am checking into it.”

“The damage has already been done. No matter how many pieces of proof I can dig up, there will always be a few that will believe it. Those are the ones that will end up causing trouble.”

“I know, Ben, the reason we wanted to make sure you knew was so that you could tell the boys yourself. Wouldn’t want the boys to hear of this in town, especially Little Joe.” Paul stated as he sipped his coffee.

“Well he will be hearing about it I’m afraid, what with school. I’m quite sure that the kids will have overheard their parents talking. There is only a couple of weeks left of school and I’m afraid they will be long weeks,” Ben said shaking his head.

*****

Adam steered the buggy into the yard and hopped down. Looking over at Hoss, he asked his big little brother to put the horses away.

“Buddy, go on up to your room. I’ll be up in a minute.”

Joe chanced a look at Hoss and not seeing any help there he dropped his head and walked slowly into the house.

“Adam?” Hoss said tentatively.

“Now Hoss, don’t go getting soft on me; we agreed last night that this would be for the best. If he keeps on this way, Pa’s going to find out. Is that what your want?”

“No. I know that we agreed on this, but I hate to see him that way. You ain’t gonna be too hard on him, are ya?”

“Nowhere near as hard as Pa would be,” Adam said noting the sullen look on his brother’s face, he added, “I won’t be too hard, I promise.”

Hoss smiled up at his brother and lead the horses to the barn as Adam entered the house.

*****

Joe stood pacing the room waiting for his brother to join him. He had tried repeatedly to come up with some sort of compromise that might work. As he was thinking, he heard the door open.

“A-Adam, can we talk about this?” Joe asked nervously.

“Sure, we can talk to Pa,” Adam said as he walked in and closed the door behind him. “Look Joe, I want you to understand that from now on if you sneak out this is what you get. If you had any sense in that head of yours you would understand that you are getting off easy here.”

“I know I messed up last night, and I’m sorry. I promise that I won’t sneak out again.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear that, but it won’t change today. Now let’s get this finished before Pa gets home; that is, unless you want to explain to him why I’m tanning you?”

Joe realizing that there was no way to talk Adam out of this gave in and walked over to his brother.

“Turn around and grab the dresser,” Adam ordered.

Joe did as told and Adam delivered eight lashes with his belt. “Now, you stay up here for awhile until you can pull this off in front of Pa. Just remember, if he notices anything then you’ll have to explain to him what happened,” Adam said as he replaced his belt.

Joe nodded his response but didn’t turn to face his brother. Adam sensed the sadness in him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Joe? Look at me.” When his younger brother didn’t respond, he gently turned Joe to face him. “Joe, I know that you don’t think so now, but I’m only trying to protect you. Anything could happen to you out there in the middle of the night. Not to mention what Pa could do to you. Can you understand that?”

“Yeah, I guess. I just don’t want you mad at me Adam,” Joe said as he fought back the tears.

“Oh buddy,” Adam said as he pulled Joe into a tight hug, “I’m not mad at you, just concerned. I love you, kid.”

“Love you too, big brother.” Joe said as he tightened the hold he had on Adam.

*****

Ben arrived home in time to catch up on the books and spend time with his boys before supper. He watched as Adam read, Hoss worked on a harness, and Joseph concentrated hard on some homework that he had conveniently forgotten about Friday afternoon. The conversation that he had in town that day with his friends kept running through his head. Ben couldn’t for the life of him figure out who would want to spread such a hurtful rumor about his family. As he sat there pondering on the thoughts he watched his youngest, sitting in his Pa’s chair, head down and tongue sticking just outside the corner of his mouth. He watched him shift slightly and noticed the slight wince he made. ‘Wonder what that is all about? The only time I’ve seen that look is after he’s had his britches warmed. But Adam hasn’t said anything. Well, I’ll get to the bottom of this after supper. I guess I need to have a talk with all of them after supper too.” Sighing he got up out of his chair and walked over to join his sons.

After supper the Cartwright boys all gathered in the great room and waited on their Pa to tell them what had him so upset. They noticed that he was having trouble bringing up the subject. Adam grew impatient as he watched his father pace in front of the fireplace.

“Pa, whatever it is, just tell us. Maybe we can help.”

Ben stopped pacing and sat in his favorite red chair and looked at each of his sons. “This isn’t going to be easy to tell. I want each of you to listen to what I have to say before you say anything.” Receiving nods from each of his sons he proceeded.

“Someone has been spreading a rumor around town about this family. This rumor mainly affects Adam and Little Joe. According to the story, Adam is Little Joe’s father,” Ben said as he looked around taking in all the expressions on his sons faces. “I don’t know who has started this, but Roy is checking it out. The reason I’m telling you this tonight is because Joseph has to return to school tomorrow and I wanted him to be prepared in case anything was said.”

“Pa, can’t I just stay at home?” Joe asked.

“Joseph, you know that running away form this won’t make it go away,” Ben stated.

“Pa, how can these people believe this lie? I mean, after all there is only eleven and half years between Joe and I,” Adam asked.

“Whoever is saying these things also said that we lied about your age. That you were actually fourteen when Joe was born,” Ben explained. “Now I want each of you to listen to me closely. I want you all to ignore these accusations and not have any trouble out of them. Do I make myself clear?”

Ben was awarded by the nods of his two eldest sons. Seeing that his youngest had yet to acknowledge his request, he turned to him, “Joseph, do I make myself clear?”

Joe looked at his Pa with the anger apparent in his green eyes and through clenched teeth he agreed. “Yes sir.”

Ben walked over and sat on the low table in front his young son. “Look at me, son,” he requested. Waiting on Joe to meet his eyes, he continued. “I know that this is hard to comprehend, but you have to do this for me. How would it look if you or your brothers ended up in fights over this. That would be giving this person what he wants. You all have to go about your business as usual and keep your heads held high. We have done nothing wrong. Understand?”

“Yes Pa. I understand. I won’t cause a fight, but understand this I won’t back down from one either,” Joe said coolly.

“YOU make sure that YOU don’t start one. This is no longer a request, Joseph.” Ben’s patience was running thin. He could understand why his son was upset, but he could not let any of them go around getting into fights. He had taught them better and had instilled certain values into them.

“Pa, can you think of anyone that would want to cause us trouble?”

“No Adam. I’ve been thinking on this all afternoon and I can’t come up with anything. I thought that maybe one of you might have an idea.”

Seeing each of them shake their heads, Ben sat in his chair and stared into the flames. After thinking for a while he turned to watch his sons. As they carried on with their normal nightly routine, he couldn’t help but wonder why Adam and Little Joe had been singled out. Could this be something personal against Adam or Joe? He decided that somehow tomorrow he would come up with the answer.

*****

“Adam, go get your little brother for breakfast, please.”

“Sure Pa,” Adam said as he made his way to the stairs.

“Pa, this ain’t gonna be easy on the kid,” Hoss said as he sipped his coffee.

“I know. But then again, Joe has a lot of friends at school and they should stick by him. So maybe it won’t be too bad,” Ben said as they turned their attention to the stairs where Adam was leading his obviously irate little brother down to the table by his upper arm.

“What’s going on, Adam?” Ben asked as he stood and watched the scene.

Depositing his brother into his chair, Adam looked over at his Pa and said, “Pa, your baby son here doesn’t want to go to school today.”

“Joseph, we have been all through this last night. You have to go,” said Ben sternly.

Silence was his answer as Joe placed his arms across his chest and stared at the plate in front of him.

“Eat your breakfast, so you won’t be late,” Ben said holding the platter in front of his son. Joe sat there and didn’t acknowledge his father. “JOSEPH!”

Taking the platter from his father and sitting it back down on the table, Little Joe re-crossed his arms. Hoss glanced up at him and then to Adam.

“Joseph,” Ben said in a low growl. “You pick that platter back up and serve yourself and then eat. I have had about enough of this.” Ben watched as his son sat there without budging.

Unable to tolerate his little brother’s behavior, Adam looked over at him and said, “Buddy, you better be glad that the rumor isn’t true, because the way you have acted this morning, you would have already been over my knee.”

Joe shot Adam an angry glare. “Well it ain’t true and you ain’t my Pa, so this is nothing to you!”

Ben at his wits end, jumped up from the table, “Well young man, I am your Pa, and if this rude behavior isn’t stopped now, you will find yourself over my knee!”

“I ain’t hungry.”

“You need to eat something. And you better hurry or you’ll be late.”

I am not hungry!” Joe said as he got up and ran out the front door.

“That boy!!” Ben said as he started to follow him.

“Pa, let me talk to him,” Hoss said as he stood up and made his way over to the door.

“Fine Hoss. But you tell him that before this day is out he owes this family an apology.”

“Yes, sir.”

*****

Hoss found Joe in the barn saddling his horse. He could see that he still hadn’t cooled off any.

“You ok, shortshanks?”

“What do you think?”

“No call in being rude with me. But what I think is that if you don’t straighten yerself up, Pa’s gonna pound ya good. We’re on your side in this, remember?”

“Then why won’t Pa let me stay at home? He knows what’s gonna happen at school.”

“Look Joe, Pa’s right about this. You can’t run away and hide. That ain’t the little brother I know. Don’t tell me you’re scared of words.”

“I ain’t scared of nothing,” Joe said glaring at Hoss.

“Well then, why don’t ya wanna go?”

“Cause I know that I’ll end up in a fight before the day is over. I know what Pa said but, I ain’t gonna take nothing off of anyone,” Joe said as he vaulted onto Cochise and rode toward town.

*****

Joe arrived at the schoolhouse late and turned his horse out in the corral. Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders and entered the small one room building.

“Joseph, you’re late.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Jones.”

“Take a seat and get out your history book.”

The morning went slow as Joe noticed that several of the kids kept looking at him and whispering. He looked around and caught the eye of his two best friends, Mitch and Seth. He was glad to see that they hadn’t turned on him. They both gave him a reassuring wink.

Finally lunchtime came and they all went into the yard to eat and talk. The hour long break had always been a welcome time for Joe, but this day he wasn’t so sure. He, Mitch, and Seth all sat together at the side of the building, Joe sharing the cookies Hop Sing had packed for him.

“Joe, you ok?” Seth asked.

“Yeah, I guess. Just don’t know why someone would wanna say such lies about us.”

“It’ll all pass over, you’ll see,” Mitch added.

“Be glad when it does,” Joe said as he placed a blade of grass in his mouth. “Can you imagine all these people believing that ole granite head is my Pa?”

Minutes later they were joined by Josh Carter and his friends. Josh made himself comfortable on the ground beside Joe.

“Hey Cartwright.”

“Josh”

“So, how does it feel?”

“How does what feel?”

“Knowing that that know-it-all brother of yours is actually your daddy?” He laughed.

“Carter, the rumors ain’t true,” Joe snapped.

“Well, that ain’t what I heard,” he said standing to join his friends. Joe stood and faced him, flanked on both sides by Mitch and Seth.

“I don’t care what ya heard, they ain’t true.”

“No wonder ol’ Adam is so popular with the ladies; he had good training by that Creole slut mother of yours,” Josh popped off.

“You take that back, Carter, before I tear your head off.”

“I ain’t takin’ nothin’ back. Why you so upset? At least you’re still a Cartwright,” he laughed.

Fists clenched and advancing on Josh the boy only stopped when he heard, “Joe!” Turning around he saw Adam walking over to him.

“Stay out of this, Adam.”

“Better listen to ya Pa, Little Joe. Wouldn’t want to get a tannin’,” Josh called over his shoulder as he and his friends walked away laughing.

Adam caught Joe around the waist before he could go after them. Turning him around to face him, he asked, “What’s going on here.”

Seeing that Joe had clammed up, Mitch said, “It was that Josh, Adam. He was talking about Joe’s mama.”

“Look Joe, this is only the first day of this. You need to try to ignore it. They will keep this up if they think it’s bothering you.”

“So, I’m just suppose to let them say those things about her and you and Pa?”

“Yep. We know it’s not true, so what they think doesn’t matter. You hear?”

“Yeah, I hear you. I’ll try, but it won’t be easy.”

“I know it won’t, but you have Mitch and Seth here to talk to and the family at home. Ok?”

“Yeah, thanks, older brother. What cha doin’ in town anyhow?”

“I have to pick up a few things for Pa. I better get going; you ok?”

“Yeah. See ya later,” Joe said walking toward the school with his friends.

*****

Adam went on into town after leaving Joe. Making his way down Main Street he was startled at how many people were whispering as he went along. ‘I see what you mean, little brother. I hope I can keep my promise to Pa too.’ He thought to himself as he pulled the buckboard in front of Cass’ store.

“Mornin’ Adam.”

“Mrs. Cass, how are you today?”

“Just fine, and you?”

“Pretty good. I have a list. I’ll be back after a while.”

“That’s fine. Oh Adam, we want your family to know that we don’t believe any of that mess that’s going around. We both know you and we knew Marie, and know that there was no way it was true.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Cass; that means a lot to us.” Adam said tipping his hat to her as he left.

Walking down the street he stopped to pick up the mail and then headed to the saloon. He decided that after witnessing the incident at school he would stick around and meet Joe afterwards.

“Hey Sam, give me a beer please.”

“Sure thang, Adam. How ya doing today?”

“Better I’m sure after this,” he said taking a sip.

“Well, if it isn’t the high and mighty Adam Cartwright. Where’s your kid?” came a voice from behind him.

Looking up into the mirror, Adam saw Larry Townsend. If trouble was to be found, Larry was usually the cause of it.

“What’s a matter, Cartwright, still won’t admit to the fact the boy’s yours? Don’t blame ya much; after all, the boy is kinda wild and all. Then again you was always kinda wild as a kid too. Guess he comes by it naturally, huh?”

“Well, Pa always took pride in the fact that he’s raised a spirited litter,” Adam said with a crooked grin.

“Always did have a smart mouth on ya boy. Someone needs to teach you respect for your elders.”

Adam turned to face Townsend and took the last long drawl of his beer. Sitting the glass down on the bar, he pushed his hat back and calmly said, “When you earn my respect, you’ll get it. Until then we have nothing else to say.” Turning to leave, he was caught off guard by a hard right hook that connected to his jaw. The blow only staggered him and the fight was on. Adam landed a solid punch to Townsend right eye and another to his left jaw. Seeing that his opponent was down, Adam casually strolled out the door and made his way back to the buckboard.

*****

School finally over, Joe walked with Mitch and Seth to the corral where they started saddling their horses. They weren’t there long until they heard Josh and his friends behind them.

“Hey Little Joe, we didn’t get to finish things this morning,” Josh called.

“I don’t have anything to say to you, Josh. Just leave me alone,” Joe said as he continued to saddle his horse.

“What’s wrong? ‘Fraid your daddy will come back? ‘Fraid you’ll get in trouble?” he taunted.

Joe turned and walked up to Josh with his fists clenched. “Last time I aim to tell ya, Josh. Adam ain’t my Pa. Now leave me alone.”

Josh took advantage of the situation and punched Joe in the eye. Joe came up fighting. Throwing himself into the bigger boy they fell to the ground and starting exchanging punches. Mitch and Seth stood in front of the others to make sure that Joe got the chance to have a fair fight. As the last punch was thrown, Adam stopped the buckboard and ran over to the boys. Joe stood staggering while Josh stayed on the ground. Seeing Adam, Josh and his friends took off.

“Joe!” Adam called as he approached.

“I’m sorry Adam, but… Hey what happened to you?” Joe asked taking in the appearance of his older brother.

“Same thing as you little brother.” Adam smiled and ruffled his curls.

Joe smiled back, seeing that he wasn’t gonna hear a lecture from his brother. “Guess we’re both in for it, huh?”

“Looks like. He throw the first punch?”

“Yep, what about you?”

“Same here. Well let’s get on home and face the music,” Adam said putting his arm around Joe’s shoulder.

“At least you don’t have to worry about a tannin'”

“I don’t put anything past Pa,” Adam laughed.

“You ain’t serious, are ya?”

“I think we can talk him out of it; hey, we had to defend ourselves.”

“Tried that one; don’t work all the time.”

“We’ll see,” Adam commented as they jumped up on the buckboard and left for home with Cochise trailing behind.

*****

Jack Patterson stood beside the trees watching the display in the school yard. He watched as Joe fought the other boy and then the interaction between the brothers. ‘Maybe I won’t kill the kid. It just might hurt his family more if I turn him against them and take him away. Always wanted a son of my own. He would have been mine if Ben hadn’t taken my Marie away. Damn him.’ Making the decision to take the boy away would need some planning. But there was time.

*****

“I just don’t believe it. I told all of you that you were to avoid fighting over this, and what happens? Not one but two of my sons come in sporting bruises and cuts. Would you two PLEASE tell me why this happened?” Ben yelled as he paced in front of Adam and Little Joe sitting on the settee.

“Pa, just calm down for a minute, please,” Adam said.

“I am CALM!” Ben bellowed.

“You’re shouting.”

“I am not shouting,” Ben said in a calmer voice.

“We didn’t have a choice. Both of us had to defend ourselves. Neither of us threw the first punch.”

“That’s not good enough, Adam, and you know it.”

Joe leaned over and whispered, “I told you, Adam.”

“What am I going to do with you two?” Ben added putting his hands on his hips.

“Pa? I’m sorry about the fight and my attitude this morning. I tried to avoid fighting. I walked away from it twice, but when he hit me, I hit back,” Joe said dropping his head.

“I’m sorry too, Pa. I was leaving when Townsend just up and hit me. I had no choice.”

“Alright… this time. But no more. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.,” they said in unison.

Ben watched as the boys walked out the door to do chores. ‘Those two are more alike than either one wants to admit.’

*****

Finishing his morning chores and giving his Pa a promise to avoid another fight, Little Joe left for school. Nearing the Carson City road, he noticed a man leading his horse. Seeing the horse limping he urged Cochise faster to catch up.

“Mornin’, sir,” Joe said as he reigned his horse beside the stranger.

“Mornin’, young man.”

“What happened to your horse?” Joe questioned as he got down.

“I’m not really sure. She just started limping. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about horses would you?”

“Just about everything.” Joe smiled and checked the horse’s hoof. “You just picked up a stone, is all. She’s good as new,” he added patting the horse’s neck.

“Why thank you, son. I’m Jack Patterson,” he said offering his hand to Joe.

“My friends call me Little Joe,” he said shaking Jake’s hand.

“Little Joe?”

“It’s what I get for being the youngest.” He laughed.

“I see. Brothers or sisters?”

“Brothers, two of them,” Joe said mounting his horse.

“Which way you headed Little Joe?” Jack asked mounting also.

“Toward Virginia City, to school.”

“Mind if I ride along with you?”

“Not at all. You live around here?”

“No, just visiting. Looking for a ranch called the Ponderosa. Looking for Ben Cartwright.”

“Well you’re in luck. The Ponderosa is my home. I live there with my brothers and my Pa.”

“This is my lucky day.”

“You want me to tell you how to get there or you want to meet me after school and ride home with me?”

“I have a few things to do so I guess I’ll meet you.”

“See you after school then,” Joe said turning his horse into the schoolyard.

Jake watched as Joe turned his horse out and walked over to the boys he was with the day before. ‘Nice kid. I will enjoy having him as a son. It’s payback time Ben.’

*****

“Ok class, now I need three of you to come to the board and solve the math problems, let’s see…” said Miss Jones looking around the room, spotting her ‘three musketeers’ as she titled them. “Mitch, Seth, and Joseph.”

Mitch and Seth walked up front and picked up the chalk and began while Little Joe continued to stare out the window, lost in thought.

“Joseph….JOSEPH CARTWRIGHT!”

Looking up at his teacher, Joe said, “Sorry ma’am. I didn’t hear you.”

“I can see that. Please come to the board and solve the last problem.” Abigail had also heard the rumors that were circulating and had decided to give a little where Joe was concerned. He was never the most attentive student, but she knew the family and knew how all of this had to be weighing on the boys mind.

“Yes ma’am,” Joe said as he walked to the board to join his friends.

After the boys had finished they walked back to their seat where Joe found a note lying on his desk. Waiting for the teacher to turn around, he opened it up and saw:

CARTWRIGHT FAMILY TREE

Ben Cartwright:

Adam Cartwright-Creole slut Hoss Cartwright

Little Joe Cartwright

Refolding the note he looked over at Josh Carter and saw him and his friends snickering. This was finally the last straw. Forgetting about the consequences and the promise he had made, Joe leapt from his seat and grabbed Josh by the collar and punched him in the mouth. All of the other children scattered as Mitch and Seth tried to pull Joe off of Josh. Miss Jones joined them calling out to them to stop.

“JOSEPH, JOSH!! Stop that right now!”

Pulling him free at last, Mitch and Seth lead Joe to the other side of the room.

“Josh, you go out in the back room and get cleaned up, NOW! Mitch, you and Seth take Joe outside to clean up. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Yes ma’am,” Mitch said.

“Come on Joe,” Seth said leading him out back to the pump.

“What happened in there, pal?” Mitch asked.

“Nothing,” the boy said holding the cool, wet towel to his busted lip.

“Look Little Joe, that wasn’t nothing. I’ve seen ya mad before, but I ain’t never seen ya tear into someone like that.”

“Fine, I’ll show you, but you don’t say anything to Jonsey, you hear.”

“We won’t, but you know she’s gonna send a note home to your Pa unless you got a real good reason.” Seth stated.

Wiping the blood from his lip, he said, “I don’t care; it was worth what I’ll get for this.” and handed the paper to Mitch.

Mitch and Seth read the note. “I don’t blame ya, Joe. I just wish you’d waited until after school,” Mitch said handing the paper back.

“Here comes Miss Jones,” Seth whispered.

“Mitch, Seth, you two go on in now and thank you.”

Miss Jones waited until the boys went inside and turned back to Joe. Glaring over her glasses she shook her head. “I’ve heard Josh’s side, now I want to hear yours.”

“I don’t have anything to say, ma’am”

“Joseph, you realized that by not saying anything you are admitting to it being your fault.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Fine young man, I’ll give you until the end of the day. If you haven’t told me by then, I will have to send a note to your father. Little Joe, I know you’ve been going through a lot lately, but I can’t abide having the class disturbed by this kind of behavior.”

“Yes ma’am”

“Well, go on back to class then.”

*****

The rest of the day went along fairly well and soon it was time to go home. Joe refused to tell the reason why he had attacked Josh, so true to her word, Miss Jones sent a note with him for Ben.

“What on earth happened to you son?” Jack questioned as he looked at Joe.

“Had a little scuff is all,” Joe said, trying to keep the anger from his voice as he thought of the note.

“A little one? Looks like it was a pretty good one. What’s the other fella look like?” Jack laughed. He was enjoying the fact that he had caused so much trouble, and was impressed at the fight in the boy.

“Bout the same,” Joe smiled. “Well, you ready? I gotta get on home,” Joe added with a wince.

“What’s wrong?”

“Pa ain’t gonna like the note I got for him. Guess I better enjoy this ride home, tomorrow’s is likely to be a mite uncomfortable,” Joe said as he vaulted into the saddle.

“Pa kinda strict, huh?”

“Well, he don’t allow us to fight, and we all know the consequences; the only problem is, I’m the only one still young enough for them.”

“Maybe he won’t be too hard on you, since you’re not alone.”

“Say, what brings you to the Ponderosa anyways, if ya don’t mind my askin’.”

“Well son, I was looking to buy some land around here and someone told me that Mr. Cartwright might know of somewhere.”

Adam and Hoss were in the barn doing evening chores when they heard the horses enter the yard.

“Sounds like little brother,” Hoss said pitching a fork full of hay into the stall.

“Too slow to be baby brother,” Adam smirked.

Walking out to see who it was, they took one look and shook their heads. “Boy, can’t a day go by that you can stay out of trouble?” Adam said crossing his arms over his chest.

Joe shrugged his shoulders and dropped his head. “Don’t much look like it.”

“Was it that Carter kid again?”

“Uh huh.”

“You know what to expect this time, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Joe sighed.

“Put your horse up and get your chores done,” Adam said and swatted Joe on the backside as he past them. Looking over at the stranger that had arrived with his brother, Adam asked “May I help you?”

“Are you Mr. Cartwright?”

“One of them, and you?”

“My name is Jack Patterson, and I wanted to talk with Ben Cartwright.”

“I’m Adam Cartwright. Pa’s in the house; would you care to go in?”

“Thank you,” Jack said as he, Adam and Hoss walked into the house.

“Pa?”

“Yes son?”

“You have a visitor. This is Jack Patterson,” Adam said introducing the two men.

“Mr. Patterson, what can I do for you?” Ben asked. Before Jack could say anything, the door open and allowing the youngest member of the family to enter. Ben took one look at his son and anger immediately filled his eyes. “JOSEPH! Fighting again?”

“Yes sir,” Joe admitted. There was no way he was going to hurt his family by showing them the note. He would simply take the punishment.

“Care to tell me what happened?”

“I got in a fight with Josh Carter. Miss Jones sent this,” Joe said handing the note to his Pa.

After reading the note, Ben glared at his youngest son. “Joseph, get up to your room. We will finish this after I see to our company.”

“Yes sir,” Joe said walking to the stairs. “See ya later Mr. Patterson.”

“Thanks for letting me ride out with you, son.”

Ben watched as his boy made his way up the stairs. Looking back at Patterson, “I see you’ve already met my youngest.”

“Yes, he was kind enough to show me the way out here. Troubled boy, though, and very worried about how he’d be accepted at home.”

“Yes, well he knows how I feel about fighting,” Ben stated.

“I fully understand; though in all fairness, sometimes there is no choice.”

“Yes, well what can I help you with?”

“I’m looking to buy some land in these parts, and I have chosen some that includes that magnificent lake.”

“Well, that land isn’t for sale. It’s a part of the Ponderosa,” Ben said calmly.

Patterson smirked, “Surely, we can come to an agreement on that; I mean money is no object.”

“That’s right, it isn’t. The land is not for sale. Now if you will excuse me, I have another matter that requires my attention,” Ben said opening his front door.

Patterson walked out and mounted his horse. He rode around to the side of the house and waited, he wanted to see how hard Ben was on the boy, so that he could react in the right way to the boys needs.

*****

Ben walked slowly upstairs and knocked on Little Joe’s bedroom door then entered. Joe stood and faced his father with his head lowered.

“Joseph, sit down,” Ben said then joined his son on the bed. “I want to know what made you attack this Carter boy.”

Silence

“Joseph, look at me son,” Ben said lifting Joe’s chin to meet his eyes. “I want an explanation and I want it now.”

Little Joe was close to tears and Ben could see he was struggling with what had happened. He wanted to take his baby in his arms and hold him and make all the bad go away as he had when Joe was smaller, but knew he had to remain firm with the youngster. This was the second day in a row that he had been fighting, and this time according to the note had been his fault by jumping the boy in class. Ben knew that the boy must have done something to Joe but without an admission from his son he had no choice but to follow through with his promise.

With his chin held firmly in his fathers grasp, Joe still refused to keep eye contact. He also refused to tell any of his family of the cruel note that was left on his desk. As much as he was dreading the upcoming punishment, he wanted that more than the hurt it would cause the ones he loved. So he remained silent.

“Well, I see that you are going to say nothing to defend yourself in this matter, so you leave me no choice, son. I have to assume that you were the one at fault, like the note states.” With a heavy sigh, he pulled his son over his knee and delivered a sound tanning. “Joseph, you stay up here until supper. I’ll call you down,” Ben said and left his crying son, with a heavy heart. Outside, Patterson sat and listened to the sounds that came from the open bedroom window. With a smile on his face, he rode from the ranch.

Adam and Hoss were sitting in the great room as Ben came down. They could see that same display of emotions that always graced the face of their father after having to punish one of them in such a way.

“You alright, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Yes, I just don’t understand what’s going through that boys head,” Ben said as he stood in front of the fireplace.

“Aw Pa, you know how the kid is; he’s always into something. He don’t mean nothin’ by it,” Hoss said looking up from his work.

“No, there is something more going on here than just a simple fight. The boy has never just up and attacked someone. He wouldn’t even defend himself.”

“Maybe ‘cause he knew he was wrong,” Adam said.

“No, I mean he never even said one word. I want you boys to see if he’ll open up to either of you,” Ben asked of his two elder sons.

“Sure Pa,” they agreed.

*****

On the way into Virginia City, Patterson stopped by the lake where Marie had been laid to rest. Walking over to the grave he knelt down and looked upon the stone. “Oh, my sweet Marie. If only you had stayed with me, you would still be here to raise that fine son of yours. Cartwright doesn’t deserve him. But don’t you worry; I’ll take care of him for you. Goodbye for now.” Looking out over the lake, he took in the peaceful view. ‘Ben, get ready, it’s my turn to take. My choice is Joseph.’

*****

“Hoss, will you go and get Joseph, for supper?” Ben asked.

“Sure Pa,” Hoss said. Entering his little brother’s bedroom, he watched as the boy stood in the window staring out at the stars. He could see the turmoil on his young face and his heart broke. Walking over, he laid his hand on his shoulder, startling the boy.

“Sorry punkin, didn’t mean to scare ya.”

“I didn’t hear ya come in.”

“You were a million miles away, what cha thinkin’ bout?”

“Nothin’.”

“Can’t ya tell ol’ Hoss what’s troubling ya, please?”

Joe looked up into the crystal blue eyes of his brother and saw the concern in his eyes. Hoss saw the unshed tears that threatened to fall. “I can’t, Hoss, please don’t ask me to,” Joe said as a tear fell.

Hoss gathered him into his strong arms, hugging him and trying to give what comfort he could. “Don’t cry, punkin; you’re breaking my heart, young’un.”

Joe wiped his eyes and washed his face. “Supper ready?”

“Yeah, Pa sent me after ya.”

“I’ll be right down.”

*****

Hoss walked into the dinning room with his hand in his front pockets. Looking up at his father, “That kid is really rasslin’ with somethin’ but wouldn’t talk. Whatever it is is really eatin’ at ‘im; the kid’s so close to tears, I just couldn’t stand to push anymore.”

“I know. Is he coming down?”

“Yes sir,” Hoss said as they heard the door shut.

Ben watched as Joe eased onto the chair. He saw the red eyes and the drooped shoulders. His heart melted thinking about how hard all of this was on the boy. ‘If only you’d talk to me, maybe I could help,’ Ben thought to himself.

Joe sat in silence. Every attempt to bring him into the conversation was only met with short quick replies. The knot that was growing in his stomach was preventing him from eating. Every bite making him feel nauseous. The more he thought of the note, the more he fought to keep the tears at bay.

Ben watched as one tear escaped down his sons cheek, “Little Joe, please talk to me,” he said as he laid his hand on Joes’.

Joe looked up at his father then jumped up and ran out the door. Ben sighed and looked at Adam. “I can’t get through to him.”

“Let me try,” Adam said wiping his mouth and standing to leave.

“Adam.”

“Pa, don’t worry, I won’t push to hard. But that kid cannot keep letting this thing eat him up.”

Adam walked into the barn and climbed the ladder leading to the hayloft. He knew that would be the first place the boy would go since he couldn’t leave the yard. Spotting his baby brother sitting in the corner with his head resting on his knees, he walked over and sat down beside him.

“You alright?” Adam asked.

“Leave me alone, Adam. I don’t want to talk,” Joe mumbled.

“I think you need to. It can be just between us, if you’d like.”

Joe looked up into the dark hazel eyes of his eldest brother. He knew that he had to tell someone, it was weighing to heavy on his heart and he needed to feel the comfort of his family. Slowly, he pulled the note from his pocket and hand the paper to Adam.

Opening the paper, Adam read the cruel words upon it. Looking over at the tear stained face of the boy he loved as if he was his own, he grabbed him into his arms and let him cry out the hurt.

After several minutes, Adam pulled Joe around and looked into his face, “Better?”

“A little; don’t ya see now why I couldn’t tell Pa?” Joe asked.

“Little buddy, I don’t think your giving your Pa enough credit. Oh, he would have been mad, but not at you, at the people that caused this.”

“Maybe, but he’d have still been mad at me too, with what I did.”

A smile tugging at his lips and knowing that whatever it was his baby brother had done must have been well over the line drawn by Ben Cartwright, he asked. “Just what did you do?”

“I pounded Josh right in the class room,” Joe said with a crooked little grin creeping onto his handsome face.

Adam caught him in a headlock and ruffled his hair, bringing a round of giggles. “You’re right; you’d have still gotten that tanning. Let’s go talk to Pa so he can quite worrying about his baby.”

“I ain’t no baby,” Joe said trying to frown at his brother. Then sticking his hand out to his still seated brother, “Let me help ya up, old man.”

“I’ll old man you, you scamp,” Adam said jumping up and grabbing him into a hug.

*****

Ben and Hoss looked up as Adam and Little Joe walked in the front door. Ben noticed the boy was more at ease now and wondered at the relationship of his two sons. One minute Joe was bucking up against Adam, then the next he was spilling his heart out to him. He could now understand what the rumors had stemmed from. They could easily pass as father and son.

Little Joe walked over and stood in front of his Pa. Slowly he took the note from his pocket and handed it to him. Ben studied Joes face for a moment before opening the letter and reading it to himself. Slowly refolding it, he handed it to Hoss, who also read it.

“Is this why you got into that fight?” Ben asked.

“Yes sir,” Joe answered softly.

“Why didn’t you show me this earlier?”

“I didn’t want to hurt you, or Adam and Hoss. Besides, I didn’t think it would change the outcome.”

“You’re right, it wouldn’t have. But at least I would have known why. Son, please don’t ever be afraid to tell me what’s bothering you. That’s what we are here for. I love you, son,” Ben said as he pulled Joe to his chest and kissed the top of his curls.

“I love ya too Pa, but I just couldn’t. I knew how much it hurt me, and I didn’t want you hurt by it.”

“There ain’t but one thing to do with somethin’ like this,” Hoss stated. “Joe, you want to do the honors?” Joe took the paper and tossed it into the fire.

“You’re right, Hoss; I feel a lot better now,” Joe smiled.

“I think I can make you feel even better. I don’t think that any other punishment is called for after this,” Ben said with a smile.

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said as they all fell into their normal nightly routine.

*****

Jack watched from the hill above the schoolyard the next morning as Joe eased from his saddle. He smiled to himself knowing the boy must be hurting. The one thing that had bothered him the day before was the fact the boy was so close to his family, especially his father. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to immediately turn the boy against them, he decided to just take Little Joe and then work on turning him. Today was the day, he decided as he left to prepare the line shack to hold his prisoner.

Joe had had a hard day sitting on the wooden seats in the classroom and was glad when the day and in fact the week was finally over. He had avoided Josh and the others, not engaging in any fights. Mitch and Seth had stuck to him like glue, hearing that the other boys were planning revenge on their friend. Now it wasn’t that Joe couldn’t take care of himself, but no one stands a chance with three on one. Joe was lucky that his friends felt the way they did, for they had ridden most of the way home with him, putting a halt to the plans Patterson had of taking the boy.

*****

Saturday morning was the usual day for picking up supplies and the mail. Normally Ben would send Hoss and Joe in, but wanting to show the people that the family had nothing to hide and that all the rumors were indeed false, he sent Adam and Joe.

“Adam, you sure Pa knows what he’s doing?” Joe asked.

“About what?”

“Sending us to town. I mean, won’t people think it true seeing us together?”

“What do you suggest, that we never get seen together again?” Adam asked.

“No, I guess he’s right. This is normal. I mean, we go to town sometimes.”

“Tell you what. After we finish with all the errands, we’ll grab a beer,” Adam smiled.

“Now ya talkin’ big brother,” Joe smiled.

*****

Adam watched as the stares were cast at he and his brother. He wondered how much longer all of this would go on. It seemed as if they had been under the microscope forever, but actually it had only been a just shy of a week. Glancing at his little brother, he hoped he would be able to control the boy if something were said. Wishing now that he hadn’t offered the trip to the saloon, he could only hope the crowd would be small. Hitching the buckboard in front of the general store, they both entered.

“Morning Adam, Little Joe. How are you this fine morning?” Mr. Cass inquired.

“Hey Mr. Cass,” Joe smiled.

“We’re just fine, and you?” Adam questioned.

“Pretty good, I take it you boys have an order for us today?”

“Yes sir,” Adam said handing the list over to the man. Standing at the counter, neither of them noticed when the Marshall brothers entered.

“Well, looks who’s here, Ned,” Tom said to his brother. “It’s that ol’ dog, Adam Cartwright and his brat,” the men snickered.

As Joe turned with his fists clenched and started to walk toward the men, Adam placed his arm against his chest and stopped him. “Let it go, buddy.”

“Yeah boy, better listen to ya, Pa. Wouldn’t want ya ta get inta any trouble now,” Ned laughed.

Adam turned and smiled at the duo. “Look boys, why don’t just go on now and let this go. Both Joe and I are tired of hearing about all these false rumors.”

Walking over to stand in front of Adam, Ned looked over at Joe and smiled. “Look Cartwright, don’t none of us that knew his Ma, blame ya. Hell any of us would have taken her up on the offer.”

His own blood boiling over the hurtful statement, Adam was just able to catch Joe as he lunged forward at Ned. Holding on to his brother, he growled, “Get out now, and don’t ever let me hear you say anything else about Marie. Next time, I won’t stop him, I’ll join him.”

Tom and Ned walked slowly out the door with Tom looking back over his shoulder, “The kid sure gets his temper from you, Adam.”

“Let go, Adam, I’m alright,” Joe said, finally calming down.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Come on, I’ll buy you that beer. I think we both need one,” Adam said pulling Little Joe’s hat over his eyes and running out the door, followed closely by his brother.

*****

Jack Patterson sat at a back table in the saloon watching as people came and went. He had been disappointed all day that his plan hadn’t worked. Jack’s plan had been to take Joe, then turn him against his family, but the boy hadn’t been alone long enough for him to do so. Sitting alone, nursing a beer, he was surprised to see Adam and Joe walk up to the bar. Seeing the boy pick up the beer and sip it, he was even more surprised. In his opinion, a boy that age shouldn’t be partaking in such things. It was bad enough that the boy was sneaking out and such, but for his responsible older brother to allow this was unthinkable. But on the other hand, it could get rather interesting in here, if someone starts teasing the boy or his brother, Jack thought. Smiling, he relaxed and waited for the show to begin.

“Thanks Adam. I mean for the beer and for stopping me back there,” Joe said staring at his glass.

“That’s what older brothers are for,” Adam said patting him on the back.

“Yeah, well, another fight would have meant another encounter with Pa, and I ain’t ready for that just yet,” Joe said smoothing the back of his hair.

Larry Townsend sat with his friends listening to the conversation between the brothers. Smiling he walked over and stood on the other side of Little Joe. Adam ignored the man, knowing that he was sure to try to start something.

“Cartwright, I’m surprised at you,” Townsend stated shaking his head. “Ain’t you fellas shocked?” he asked turning to his friends.

“Sure am, Larry. Why who’d a thought it,” Ned agreed.

“Why it’s positively shameful, if ya ask me,” Tom said.

Adam listened as long as he could. Turning to the men he calmly asked, “Ok, just what is bothering you three?”

“Well Adam, we just can’t believe ya’d let this sprout come in here with men and drink. Why he should be at home sucking on a milk bottle. Just what kinda Pa are ya?” Townsend asked causing a round of laughs from his friends.

“First of all, it’s none of your business whether or not Little Joe is allowed to drink, and as for what kind of Pa I am, well, I guess we won’t know until I become one,” Adam stated. Putting his arm around Little Joes shoulders, he quietly said, “Let’s go.”

“Sure Adam,” Joe said downing the last of his drink. He was impressed at how his brother had handled the situation, and hoped that he too could remain as calm.

“That’s right, little boy, run along with ya Pa. It won’t be long til it’s ya bedtime,” Ned called as they made it to the door.

Joe stopped and turned to face the others. “Look, I’m getting just a little tired of these games. Adam is not my Pa, but if he was, I couldn’t be prouder of the fact. He’s a great brother and someday when he meets someone, he’ll be a great Pa. But get this straight, my Pa is Ben Cartwright,” With this said, he walked out the doors, followed by his older brother.

“Joseph?” Adam called.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, older brother. I just said the truth,” Joe said as they walked back to the store to load the supplies.

*****

Ben smiled as Adam related the story of how Joe had handled the men in the saloon. He hadn’t agreed with the fact that they had ventured in and had a drink, but the outcome had proven to show that his boys could indeed handle this awkward situation as men.

More than a week had passed without incident and things were just beginning to get back to normal. Even the town’s citizens had become bored with the accusations concerning the Cartwrights. Jack too had noticed this and knew he had to keep the wound open. Using his contacts back in New Orleans, he had a false birth certificate sent to him. Taking it he slipped it into an envelope and mailed it to Little Joe from Carson City. The paper clearly stated that Adam and Marie were the parents to Little Joe. His contact had been able to acquire a document that had been signed by Dr. Paul Martin, who had delivered Little Joe, and used it to forge the signature. All he had to do know was sit back and wait, for he was sure that it would plant the seeds of doubt in the youngster’s mind.

*****

“Hey Joe, ya got a letter today,” Hoss called as he entered the house and handed the remaining letters over to his father.

“Me? Who’d be sending me a letter?” Joe questioned taking the envelope and tearing it open. Joe stood rooted to one spot for several seconds before anyone noticed how quiet he had become. Rereading the document for a third time, he walked over to Ben’s desk where he and Adam were going through the mail.

“Joseph, what’s wrong?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, little buddy, you don’t look so good,” Adam added.

“Pa, ya got a copy of my birth certificate?” Joe asked.

“Actually, no, son, I don’t. It was destroyed by a storm that came through here when you were four. Your mother and I meant to have Paul write out a new one, but never had the chance. It was only two weeks later that your mother died,” Ben explained.

“Why, Joe?” Adam asked.

“Yeah shortshanks, what’s up?” Hoss added, joining his family at the desk.

Joe looked down at the envelope he held, then straight into his father’s eyes. “So Doc. Martin can confirm what you’re telling me?”

Ben stood and walked around to where his son stood. “Little Joe, what’s this all about? Of course, Paul can confirm it; he is the one that delivered you.”

“Well, if he signed that birth certificate, then why did he sign this one?” Joe asked handing the paper over to his father.

Ben took the paper and read it; handing it over to Adam, he waited until his sons had read it. “Joe, I don’t understand…”

Cutting him off, Joe looked at each of them, “I don’t understand it either. Pa, I want to believe you, but where did this come from?”

“I don’t know. But I do know that it’s not correct. I am your father, not Adam.”

“Joe, you don’t really think we’d lie to you about something this important, do you?” Adam asked, now standing beside his father. He watched as the boy struggled to figure out the truth inside himself.

“Look at it Adam, it’s Doc. Martin’s writing. Why would he sign it? And you don’t have one to show me,” Joe said. He wanted to believe his family more than anything, but here was proof that said they were lying to him. No one could prove to him anything different. But why? Why would they continue the lie now that his mother was gone. He could see it at first, the lying; it would be to protect her and Adam. At that time he was underage, but not now. Why wouldn’t they have told him? All he could think of was that he was a disappointment to Adam, and he hadn’t wanted to claim him. All of the emotions got to be too much. “What Adam? Am I that much of a disappointment? Is that why none of you have told me? Is it because you didn’t want me?” By now the tears had come and Joe was just short of hysterics.

Reaching out for his son, Ben was startled when Joe pulled away from him and bolted from the house. “JOSEPH!” he called as he heard the sound of hoofbeats leaving the yard.

“Pa, who’d do this to the kid?” Hoss asked, grabbing his hat.

“I don’t know, but until we do, it’s not safe for him to be out there alone. Let’s ride,” Ben called as he left the house, followed closely by his two older boys.

*****

Joe was riding hard, tears blinding his sight. Trusting Cochise to care for him, he turned on the trail that led to his mother’s grave. He had decided that he would stop there and calm down before going into town and seeing the doctor. Paul could answer his questions, and set the whole thing right. Slowing his horse to allow him to cool down, the boy was lost in thought. ‘Now what? Where do I go from here? If Adam is my father, then everything will change. I love him, but as my big brother, not as my Pa. I want Pa to be my Pa. How do I face my friends, and everyone else? They all knew before I did. It ain’t right, it ain’t fair.’ He was so lost in his thoughts that he failed to hear the other horse come up beside him. The first knowledge he wasn’t alone was the sudden burst of pain that rendered him to the darkness.

*****

“There’s his tracks, Pa,” Hoss stated as they neared the lake trail. They had all figured that the boy would go to talk with his mother as he always did when upset or in trouble.

“Boys when we get there, I’d like to talk to him first,” Ben said, still trying to figure out just what he would say to his child.

Making their way through the winding trail, finally they came upon the clearing where Marie had been laid to rest ten years earlier. Seeing Cochise tied to the branches of a nearby bush, they dismounted.

“Pa, I don’t see him anywhere.”

“Neither do I, Adam. Alright, spread out and search the area. He probably just went for a walk.”

Adam was the first of the trio to make his way back to the headstone and noticed a piece of paper lying in front of it weighed down by a rock. “PA!”

Ben and Hoss came running to where he knelt, as Adam removed the paper and unfolded it. Handing it to his father he joined them as he read.

Ben,

Once you stole my darling Marie, now it’s my turn and I have now taken the only link you have to her. Her son is now mine. Now that I have been able to convince him that he is not your son, and that Adam was too ashamed to accept him, he will become my son. I will raise him as Marie would want.

I’m shocked that you didn’t recognize me the other day, Ben. Think hard, it’ll come to you.

Fredrick LaBlanc (Jack Patterson)

Folding the letter and placing it in his vest, Ben closed his eyes and prayed to the Lord to give him strength, and for guidance in finding his son.

“Pa, just who is this fella?” Hoss asked, his anger rising.

“He was in love with Marie, but she didn’t feel the same for him. He wouldn’t leave her alone, and finally after he threatened her life, she had him arrested. He just couldn’t accept that she had no feelings for him.”

“But why now? And why would he want to take Joe?” Adam asked.

“Now, because he’s only been out of jail for a couple of years. It probably took him that long to trace us down. He took Joe to make me suffer. I just hope he doesn’t hurt him.

*****

That sound, what was it? He knew he had heard it before, but for some reason he couldn’t make it out. Lying on the narrow cot, Little Joe slowly started to come around. His head was pounding, almost in rhythm with the thumping he could hear in the distance. Someone was chopping wood, that’s what the sound was, he determined. But why was his head hurting so badly, and why did his legs feel so heavy. Chancing it, he opened his eyes. The light, dim as it was, still caused stabbing pains behind his eyes. Slowly looking around, the boy suddenly remembered what had taken place earlier. The startling realization that his whole life had been one big lie. His father and Adam had both lied to him. No that’s not right, he chided himself. According to all the proof, the man he had always known as his father was in fact his grandfather, and his bossy older brother was really his Pa. But that couldn’t be right, could it? They wouldn’t lie to him, would they? Pushing the thoughts to the back of his mind, Little Joe turned his thoughts to his immediate problem, where was he and who had taken him prisoner.

*****

“Look Roy, all I know is that LaBlanc has my son, and I want him back!” Ben stormed. He was getting edgy knowing that his young son was out there somewhere, and that the man that had taken him had a defiant brutal streak.

“Calm down, Ben. Ya know how I feel about that there young’un of yourn. And ya know I plan on doin’ everythin’ possible to get him home safe,” Roy responded. He had known the family since coming to the area and felt deeply for all of them, but Little Joe had won his heart from the day he had rushed to the Ponderosa with Dr. Paul Martin, for the premature birth. He had gone to show his support for his friend, in what he thought would be a time of grief. But early on the morning of All Hallows Eve, just minutes after midnight, the newest member of the Cartwright family came kicking and screaming into the world, and hadn’t slowed down since.

“Pa, try to calm down. We will find him. I promise you that,” Adam stated.

“Yeah Pa, Adam’s right. We know who’s got shortshanks. Now all we got to do is find him.”

“Ben, give me just another half hour and we’ll be ready to go,” Roy said walking out from behind the desk. “I’ve written out a telegram to be sent to the surrounding towns with a description of Little Joe and this LaBlanc fella. Hoss, if ya’ll run this on over to Ted, I’ll start getting the men ready to ride.”

“Sure thing, Roy. Be right back,” Hoss said and was gone. Thirty minutes later, the search party rode out to where the abduction took place.

*****

Little Joe watched as the door to what he knew to be one of their line shacks opened. Feigning sleep, he listened to the sound of boots on the hardwood floor. He listened as the person came closer to the bed, finally stopping next to where he lay.

“Come on, son, open your eyes,” LaBlanc said, sitting down in the chair next to his victim. “I know you’re awake.”

‘Son? Hell I ain’t got a clue whose son I am, but one thing I do know, I sure as hell ain’t your son.’ Slowly the boy opened his eyes and looked at the familiar face in front of him. “Why are you doing this? What do you want?”

“Joseph, my name is not really Jack Patterson; it’s Fredrick LaBlanc. I am your mother’s oldest brother, your uncle,” he lied.

“You’re lying; my Pa told me that all my mother’s relatives were dead,” the boy declared, his anger rising.

“I’m sure that’s what Ben told you, son, but it’s a lie. Just as he lied to you about being your father. He’s not, you know.”

“Yes he is. You don’t know anything about it.”

“Oh Joseph, I wish I could spare you this, but it looks as if you’ll be hard to convince of the truth,” LaBlanc said, standing and moving over to his saddlebags.

Joe watched as he pulled out an envelope and returned. “Are you the one that sent me that fake birth record?” he questioned, sitting on the side of the cot. It was then he noticed his ankles had been shackled to the leg of the small bed.

“Yes, I sent it, but it isn’t a fake. And I’m sorry for having to confine you this way, my boy. I just figured it would be the only way to get you to listen to me.”

“You could have saved yourself the trouble, cause I ain’t gonna believe ya.”

“Really? Well I think this ought to change your mind.” He said pulling a sheet of paper from the battered envelope he held. “This is a letter that your mother sent to me not long after you were born. I think that once you read what she had to say, you’ll understand.”

Little Joe looked nervously at the paper held in the outstretched hand of LaBlanc. Taking it with shaky hands, he slowly unfolded it and read:

My dearest Fredrick,

I hope that I can depend on you for your help. I have given birth to a wonderfully beautiful little boy. He is my heart, my soul and all I live for. Due to his early arrival, I was forced to tell Benjamin the truth concerning the child. He was hurt, and for that I will forever be sorry, but he has seen past the unfaithfulness and has agreed to raise Joseph as his own son. Benjamin decided that Adam will only be considered a brother to the child, and at no time will Joseph be told the truth.

The reason for needing your help is this. I wish for someone to know the truth and upon Joseph’s eighteenth birthday, tell him of his true parentage. I feel that when he becomes an adult he should have a right to know. I will tell him myself, but in the event I am no longer here, I wish for you to. I have enclosed a copy of his real birth record as proof.

Your loving sister,

Marie

Fredrick watched the play of emotions on the boys face and knew the choice to have a saloon girl compose the damning letter was the right one. The boy looked as though he would get physically sick, possibly passing out. “Joseph, are you alright, son?”

Lost in his own private hell, Little Joe was snapped out of his thoughts as he watched a lone tear fall, splashing onto the paper he held in his hand. Nodding his head and refusing eye contact he handed the paper back to the man across from him.

Knowing the battle had finally been swayed in his direction, LaBlanc stood and gently pushed Joe back onto the cot. Covering him up and looking down at the boy, he smiled, “Now, I know this has come as quite a shock, son, so you just lay down here and try to get some rest. We’ll talk more later.”

Consumed by grief, anger, heartbreak, and uncertainty, Little Joe closed his eyes and drifted off to dream.

LaBlanc stood looking at the boy that lay on the cot, smiling. He knew that now he would be easier to handle, and he could cause Ben the same heartbreak he had suffered when Marie left.

*****

Roy had been able to round up several men to aid in searching for the missing Cartwright. The party consisted of Roy, his deputy Clem, Ben, Adam, Hoss, and long time family friends Charlie, Peter, and Mitch Devlin. Mitch and Little Joe had been friends since birth, Mitch being three months older than Joe. Charlie, Mitch’s’ father, and Peter, his older brother, had at first told the boy he was too young to go along. Mitch had been adamant that he was going, his final words on the subject being, ‘You can leave me behind if ya want, but that’s my best friend out there and I will follow you after you leave. You can tan me if ya want Pa, but I’m going one way or the other.’ Seeing the determination in the blue eyes, Charlie had relented.

Meeting back at the spot Joe was abducted the men spread out in search for tracks. It took no more than fifteen minutes to find and determine the direction taken. With Hoss leading the way, they began the journey to bring Joe home.

“Ben?”

“Yeah Charlie?” he replied as his friend rode up along side him.

“I understand from Roy that this fella just got out of prison. What was he in for?”

“Attempted murder. He beat a friend of Marie’s half to death because he wouldn’t tell him of Maries’ whereabouts. That’s why I’m frightened for Joseph.”

“Don’t worry Ben; we’ll get that young’un of yours back. We have to. If not, my arm’s liable to go stiff,” Charlie stated seriously.

“Say that again?” Ben questioned.

“Well, if Little Joes’ not around then Mitch won’t have anyone to get in trouble with. They ain’t in trouble, then I can’t keep this ol’ arm of mine limber swinging my belt,” he smiled.

Laughing for the first time since the abduction, Ben turned to his friend. “Thank you, Charlie.”

“No need for thanks, I know you’d do the same.”

*****

Joe awoke to the smell of coffee brewing and bacon frying. Opening his eyes he watched as LaBlanc busied himself fixing supper. His mind, feeling some what clearer than before, was racing with questions he needed answered. His hurt and confusion had surfaced as anger, and one way or the other he was going to have those answers.

“Feeling better, son?” he heard the voice call.

Sitting up and running his fingers through his curls, Joe’s only reply was, “Ain’t your son.”

“True, but you are my nephew, and for that reason alone, I demand your respect, young man.”

“You want my respect, you have to earn it. What do you expect? You took me from my home, my Pa and brother. You don’t deserve my respect!” Joe shouted jumping to his feet.

“Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.” LaBlanc said shaking his head. “You need to understand something. I didn’t want it to be like this but you are showing me just how much of a failure your grandfather has been in your upbringing.”

“He’s my Pa, not my grandpa. I don’t care what ya say!”

“How much more proof do you need? I’ve shown you the birth record and your mother’s letter. Ben Cartwright is your grandfather, and Adam is your father. They were so ashamed of you that they have spent the last fifteen years living a lie.”

“That’s not true, my family loves me. Pa’s told me plenty of times how proud of me he is,” Joe said trying to hold back the tears that threatened to fall.

“Best we cut through the chase, boy. I have hired a team of lawyers to represent me in this matter.”

“What matter? W-what do you mean?”

“I have filed for custody of you. You are my only living relative and you will be returning home with me,” LaBlanc lied.

“The hell you say. I ain’t goin’ nowhere with you!” the boy screamed.

“You watch your mouth, boy,” he said advancing to stand in front of the youth.

“Go to hell!”

LaBlanc raised his hand as to attempt striking the boy. Stopping he smiled. “No, not yet. There will be a time for lessons in obedience soon. But first we have to get ready for the arrival of your grandfather and father. I assume by now they should be on their way.”

“Yeah, and they’ll kill you for this.”

“No, I don’t think so, because you see you’re going to stop them.”

“Oh yeah? Just what makes ya think so?” Joe questioned, crossing his arms over his chest.

Opening the door, LaBlanc called, “Brett! Johnny! Bring him in.”

Little Joe watched as two men he didn’t know entered. Between then stood a struggling man he’d know all his life. “Hop Sing!” he called. Turning to face LaBlanc he added, “What have you done to him you asshole?”

“Now, now. Language, Joseph. I haven’t done anything to him…..yet. What happens to him is completely up to you. When Cartwright arrives, you will tell him you want to go with me. That you want nothing from them because they lied to you. And if you value his life, you’ll make it believable.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Then the Chinaman dies. It’s your choice.”

Joe sat on the cot, laying his head in his hands. His decision was made. There was no way he could allow these men to hurt Hop Sing, and the only way to prevent this was to hurt his family. “I’ll do it, but you promise me you’ll let Hop Sing go.”

“He will be left tied here. No harm will come to him as long as you do as told.”

*****

It was nearly dusk and knowing that tracking was near impossible, Roy called a halt for the day. All the members split up to set up camp.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?” Ben answered running his hands across his weary face.

“Me and Adam done been talkin’. We think we know where they’re hold up.”

“Yeah Pa, looks like they’re heading up to Oblivion,” Adam stated.

“Of course. But why?”

“Don’t know Pa, but he sure has made an easy trail to follow,” Hoss added.

*****

Little Joe laid awake for most of the previous night working out what he’d say when his family arrived. He cursed the man who took him and himself for once again running off without thinking. If only he hadn’t left like he did none of this would be happening. A tear made its way from the corner of his eye as he thought of his family and how his life had been nothing but a lie. The proof was overwhelming, the birth record, and the letter his mama wrote were the missing pieces to this puzzle. But no matter, he could eventually see past that. What was tearing at his heart the most was the pain he was going to inflict upon those he loved, for no matter what this man said he knew they were proud of him and loved him dearly. His head and heart finally content with everything tomorrow would hold, Little Joe slipped into a deep sleep.

*****

“Pa, look down there in the corral.” Adam whispered as they all hunkered down in the early morning light.

“Well, there’s Cochise and two other horses. Shouldn’t be too hard. Pretty good odds,” Ben replied taking in the situation.

“Ben, let’s you and I get a little closer. Everyone else fan out and be ready,” Roy ordered.

Ben and Roy worked there way down the side of the hill to the front of the shack, and waited until the others signaled their positions were taken. “Now Ben, let me try to talk ’em outta there first.”

“Fine Roy, but I don’t aim to wait too long.”

Standing, Roy called, “You in the shack, send the boy out and no one will get hurt.”

Joe awoke to the shouts and looked to see LaBlanc and Brett with guns drawn, positioned at the windows.

“Brett, get the kid over here.” LaBlanc instructed. “Joseph, if you value that Chinaman’s life, you’ll do as told. Johnny has a gun trained on him in the back room. One slip, he dies. Understand?”

“I got it alright. Just get this over with.”

“SHERIFF!”

“Yeah LaBlanc, I hear ya.”

“Joseph is coming out to talk to Cartwright. Don’t try anything; there’ll be a gun aimed on him the whole time.”

“We understand.”

Ben stood next to Roy and watched as Little Joe emerged just outside the shack. Smiling at the youngster he asked, “You alright, son?”

Taking a deep breath and steadying himself for the hardest thing he’d ever do, Joe looked directly at his father who stood less than thirty feet away. “Son? Is that what you called me? You ain’t my Pa and ya know it. You lied to me, and Adam lied to me too! By the way where is Adam? Or should I say Pa? Come on out here, PA!”

“Joseph,” Ben said in more of a whisper, stunned at the words and more at the hate behind them.

“Well, least ya got that right. Didn’t lie about my name too, did ya?

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, shocked at the words their little brother was saying. “Stay here, Hoss,” Adam said. Making his way down the hill he took his place beside Ben.

“Hi PA!” Joe spat out sarcastically. “How nice of you to join us.”

“Little brother, I don’t know what your playing at, but enough is enough.”

“Oh you are so right. I have had enough. I’m leaving with Uncle Fredrick and don’t none of ya try to stop us. Just turn on around and go home. I know why ya lied. I’ve always been a disappointment to ya’ll, so now you won’t have to worry about being embarrassed by me anymore.”

“Little Joe, I don’t know why you’re saying this, but you are my son. Adam, is your…”

“Save it, old man. I don’t believe you anyway. Now GO! Just leave!” Joe yelled as he went back inside.

“JOSEPH!” Ben yelled.

“Look Cartwright, the boy made his decision, now get out of here!” LaBlanc yelled, firing a warning shot that caused the others to retreat.

“Pa, Adam, ya ok?” Hoss asked joining them.

“Yeah,” Adam replied, his jaw tight. He couldn’t stand to see the anger, confusion and hurt on his father’s face.

“I don’t understand. What’s gotten into that boy?”

“He’s hurting Hoss. The boy actually believes those lies,” Ben said quietly.

“Well, when I get my hands on your baby son, he’s going to be glad I’m not his Pa,” Adam growled.

“I just don’t understand why the sudden change,” Ben said shaking his head.

“Yeah, well the kid just crossed he line at being disrespectful,” Adam stated.

“Something hadda happen, Pa,” Hoss added.

“What now Ben? We can rush the shack and take the boy.” Roy proposed.

“No, to risky. Let’s leave.”

“What? Pa we ain’t gonna leave shortshanks here are we?”

“Of course not, Hoss. We’ll just make them think we are. We’d stand a better chance on the trail. We take him by whatever means necessary,” Ben said, standing. “I have a few things to straighten out with that young man.”

*****

LaBlanc watched as the posse mounted and rode toward the ranch house. Smiling to himself over his victory, he turned. Little Joe sat on the bunk, his heart breaking more and more with each hoofbeat in the distance. “Well now Joseph, that was quiet a performance you put on.”

“You’ll keep your word and leave Hop Sing here?”

“No.” he said, holding up a hand to silence the boy. “Johnny has taken him over close to Carson City and will release him there.”

“Why? You said you’d leave him here.”

“Well, this way, he won’t be able to fill Cartwright in as quick. We’ll be in Sacramento by then; now let’s go.”

Joe walked over to the door and watched as the one called Brett brought the horses around. Knowing Hop Sing was safe and now there was only the two of them left, he figured now was his chance for escape.

“Mount up,” LaBlanc said pushing the boy toward Cochise.

Little Joe took the reins from Brett and vaulted into the saddle. Seeing they were distracted, he took the opportunity and urged his horse into a gallop giving him his head.

“Get him!” LaBlanc yelled.

Taking off after Joe, Brett gained enough ground to lasso his prey. Feeling the rope as it encircled him, Joe felt it tightening around his midsection. Knowing he’d hit the hard packed earth, he pulled up on Cochise stopping the horse.

Brett grabbed the lead rope with a snarl. “Let’s go, kid. That was a real stupid thing to do. The boss ain’t gonna like it.”

“Come on, let me go. My Pa will give ya whatever ya ask,” Joe said hopping to persuade his captor.

“Sorry kid, can’t do it. He’d kill me. Now come on.”

LaBlanc stood by his horse watching as Brett lead Cochise back to the shack. He could see the determined set of Joe’s face. Knowing this wouldn’t be the last attempt at escape, he decided now would be the time for the first lesson in obedience, and respect, he felt he was owed from the boy. “Get him off that horse. NOW!” he bellowed.

Pulling the youth from his saddle, he dragged him struggling to stand in front of his boss, holding his arms against his sides.

“I expect an explanation, young man.”

“Pretty obvious ain’t it? I was leaving.” Joe stated defiantly.

“You will watch that smart mouth, little boy.”

“Go to hell” was the response given through clenched teeth.

Joe felt the sting to his face and his head snapped back as the words left his mouth. Turning back he looked into the cold hard eyes of his tormentor.

“I told you last night that there would be a time and place to teach you proper behavior. After this morning’s little stunt, I believe now is the time for lesson one.” Seeing the fright the boy was attempting to hide, he knew he was making the right decision. But he had to be sure he left no visible marks he couldn’t justify to the court. Nodding to Brett, he waited for him to do as planned.

Little Joe fought to free himself as Brett turned him around and held him. “Let me go!” he yelled as he heard the swooshing noise of LaBlanc’s belt being pulled loose.

“Now Joseph, there is no use in fighting. You brought this on yourself. I expect you’ll behave yourself from now on. If not, this is what you’ll get every time.”

Biting his lower lip to stop the yelps and tears, Little Joe prayed with each lash of the belt for his Pa to come and get him. After more than a dozen strikes he was released.

“I hope we’ll have no need to repeat this lesson, but have no doubt that I will if you push me. Now get on that pony! Brett, you hold the lead rope until which time I feel I can trust Joseph.”

“Yes sir. Come on kid, get on the horse.”

Slowly and carefully Little Joe lowered himself in the saddle, determined not to let the man see just how much he was hurting.

Looking up at the boy, Brett saw the pain and embarrassment on his face. “Tried to tell ya, kid. Better listen to him, ‘cause he will continue to use that belt on ya each time ya try it.”

Not trusting his voice, Little Joe simply nodded.

*****

The posse sat in the trees atop the trail watching and waiting for Joe to pass, and working on a plan.

“Got any ideas, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Other than killing LaBlanc and his hired gun, then taking a belt to your younger brother? No.”

“Awe Pa, ya can’t really believe that shortshanks meant those things he done said.”

“I don’t want to, Hoss, but he sure sounded believable. There is no telling what all LaBlanc told him.”

“Pa, did you hear what Joe called him?” Adam asked.

“Yes, he called him uncle,” Ben stated, as Roy and the others came up beside them.

“Ben, boys, we need to figure out what to do from here. We can’t just rush ’em; Joe could get hurt. Don’t help that he’s seen all of us today.”

“Sheriff Coffee, that ain’t exactly true, sir,” Mitch stated, glancing at his father. “He hasn’t seen me, ‘cause Pa wouldn’t let me leave the horses.”

“What cha got in mind, Roy?” Charlie asked.

“Well, I thought that maybe if one of us could come down the road from the other end, then maybe stop them by speakin’ to Joe, it would give us the chance to come up behind them. Ya know, take them by surprise. The key to it’ll be for the lone rider to take the signal and knock himself and Joe off the horse.” Roy explained.

“I’ll do, sheriff,” Mitch said.

“Mitchell, I don’t know about this. It’s dangerous,” Charlie said shaking his head.

“I agree with Pa, kid,” Peter added, seeing the pleading look from his brother.

“Ben you know I do anything to get Joe back…” Charlie started.

“Charlie, it’s alright. I wouldn’t want to send Little Joe either.”

Mitch walked back to the horses, mad at his father for stopping him. Little Joe was his best friend and no matter what he said, he knew that Joe wanted to be at home on the Ponderosa. His decision made, Mitch waited. ‘Little Joe, I hope you appreciate this. ‘Cause after it’s all over with, I ain’t gonna sit for a month.’

*****

LaBlanc and Brett kept a watch out for the posse as they traveled. At no time did they expect any trouble from Little Joe. It was easy to look at the boy and see the pain he was in. Joe watched the hills and hoped that his family was still somewhere out there, looking for him maybe even watching him at that moment. Coming around the bend in the road, Joe looked up and took a deep breath, the pain was increasing. He’d had his share of whippings before, but never had they been anywhere near that bad. His thought wondered to his home, and his family. He wondered if he’d ever see either of them again. But after what he’d said, he didn’t figure they would want to see him. Maybe it was for the best he was leaving.

“Here they come,” Adam whispered to the others. “Peter you ready?” he added. Peter had been chosen to be the lone rider, with the signal word being Roy calling out LaBlanc’s name. He was at that time to knock Joe from his pony.

The sound of a horse leaving the camp caught their attention. Looking to where they were tethered, they all watched as Mitch left to save his friend.

“Damn it Mitchell!” Charlie said under his breath.

“Charlie, I’m sorry,” Ben started.

“No, no Ben it’s not your doing. This is all on Mitchell. He just better hope he ain’t hurt coming off that horse. I don’t wanna wait til he’s better to blister his backside.”

“Come on, we have to get going if this is gonna work,” Roy called.

Joe looked up at the sound of an approaching horse. He saw it was his best friend Mitch and wondered what was up.

“Know who that is Joseph?” LaBlanc asked.

“Yeah, a friend of mine. He won’t cause trouble. Just let me talk to him for a minute, then he’ll go.”

“Ok, go ahead, but don’t try anything. You don’t want a repeat of earlier do you?”

“No. I won’t,” Joe said, as he eased Cochise up to meet his friend.

“Hey Little Joe. Ya alright?” Mitch asked, trying to keep a smile on his face, as if they were just joking around. He could see the others watching every move.

“Yeah, just great.”

“Don’t look so good. They beat ya up?”

“Smacked me around a little. Why ya here?”

“You’ll see soon. Just don’t be surprised when I knock ya off Cochise. Oh and I better be gettin’ a thank you after this is over, ‘cause I probably won’t be seeing you for quiet a while except at school. Won’t be riding much either,” he snickered.

The conversation stopped as they heard Roy yell, “LABLANC!” It was the signal Mitch had been waiting for, and on hearing it and seeing LaBlanc and Brett turn to face the posse, he threw himself into Joe, both hitting the ground. The sound of gunshots rung through the air. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, then all was silent. Mitch and Little Joe looked at each other and smiled, as their families made their way to them.

“Mitchell, are you alright?” Charlie asked pulling the boy to his feet and into a tight embrace.

“Yeah Pa, I’m fine. Sorry Pa, I hadda do it; he’s my best friend,” Mitch whispered on his fathers shoulder.

Pulling him back and looking at his son, Charlie smiled. “I’m proud of you son, but you pull another stunt like that and I’ll…”

“I know what you’ll do, Pa.”

“Yeah and when he’s done, I’ll take over little brother,” Peter added grabbing him in a head lock.

Joe stood watching his family walking toward him. His emotions running high over what had happened and his physical pain was more than he could take, as a tear ran down his cheek. He wanted his Pa, no matter what anyone said, Ben had always been his Pa and he needed to feel his arms around him. “Pa?”

It was the only word Ben needed to hear. Walking over to his son, he wrapped his arms around the boy and let him cry. “It’s alright Joseph, it’s alright son,” he whispered.

“Pa, I’m so sorry about everything.”

“Joe, come on, son. Let’s sit down over here and talk. Your brothers are worried about you too,” Ben said leading Little Joe over to a fallen log, and motioning for Adam and Hoss to join them.

“Pa, if it’s all the same, I’d rather stand.”

“Why shortshanks, did ya hurt yaself in that fall?” Hoss asked.

“No,” he replied softly.

“Little buddy, did he beat you?” Adam asked; he was the only one that noticed the signs of the stiff walking his baby brother was doing.

“Yes.”

“Why?” Adam questioned, wanting nothing more to beat the man to death for putting his brother and his family through this hell.

“I tried to run, and smarted off to him. He said I needed a lesson in obedience and respect,” Joe said looking at the ground. The words he said to Adam and his Pa haunting him.

“Well, even if you did, it wasn’t his place to give it to you. Joseph, why did you say all those things back at the shack?” Ben asked; he could see the boy need to get it off his chest. And he needed to know why.

“Pa, is Hop Sing alright?”

“I guess; he was fine when we left,” Ben said as the Devlins and Roy joined the group.

“They had Hop Sing at the shack Pa. They said they’d kill him if I didn’t tell you to go away, and that I didn’t… I didn’t want to be with you anymore,” Joe said, a sob catching his throat. “I’m sorry, Pa; I wouldn’t hurt you for anything. You either, Adam. Please forgive me, but I couldn’t let them hurt Hop Sing.”

“Joseph, it’s alright. I believe you, son. You had to do what you felt was right, and I’m proud of you for that,” Ben said pulling his son in for another hug, Adam and Hoss each placing a hand on their little brothers back for support.

“Pa?”

“Yes son?”

“I think you need to read this,” Joe said taking the letter from his mother out of his pocket. “Was he my uncle?”

“No son,” Ben answered looking over at the body of the man that had wreaked such havoc in the youngster’s life. “He was in love with your mother, and she didn’t care for him. He just got out of prison. This was a plot for revenge on me and your mother.” Ben read the letter and handed it to Adam.

“Pa, I need to know for sure. I believe you and Adam, but after this I really need proof.”

“I understand that son, and just so happens, I have the proof you need. Paul has a copy of your birth record at his office. I didn’t know it but he keeps a copy for himself. He said you can see it anytime you want. And I have several things at home with your mother’s writing on it, which doesn’t match this. Think that’s enough?” Ben smiled.

Little Joe smiled the first real smile in ages. All was normal again in his life. “Yeah Pa, I sure do, and I’m glad you’re my Pa,” he said turning to whisper in his father’s ear. “Besides, Adam’s too strict.”

“You scamp!” Ben laughed. “I love you, boy.”

“Love you too, Pa.”

***The End***

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