Lost at Sea (by Jane)

Summary:  A tragedy befalls the Cartwright family.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  33,675


 

The frigid seawaters circled around Joe and relentlessly pulled at him with its icy fingers. How long could he hold on? It seemed like days since he had been sitting in the cabin with Pa, but in reality, it was a scant three hours since they’d enjoyed the warmth and safety of their temporary home.

“Pa,” murmured Joe. “Pa!”

Reaching across the battered wooden plank he clung to, Joe grabbed his father’s shoulder. “PA!!”

“Yes, Joe.” Ben answered quietly. “You don’t have to yell, son.”

Joe peered through the black night, but could not distinguish the look on Ben’s face. However, it wasn’t necessary to see, for Joe to know that his father was in trouble. The hastily applied bandage around Ben’s head was already soaked with blood, and Joe had no way to fashion another.

“Hang on, Pa.” Joe soothed as he moved closer and wrapped his right arm around his father. His own battered shoulder screamed at him with burning shafts of pain, but he held tight to his father with the damaged arm while the other clung to their makeshift raft.

Ben knew what was going on around him, and appreciated the strong arm his son provided, but he couldn’t seem to make himself respond. ‘So tired’ he thought as he leaned weakly on his son. It didn’t seem right to be relying on his young son. This whole trip was to be a gift for Little Joe; the long awaited trip to New Orleans.

For years, Joe had dreamed of making the journey east to the home of his mother. Of course, there were no ties with her family now, but he often talked of seeing the place where his mother had been born and raised. Ben had finally decided that he should be the one to take his son, and as Joe was 18 this year, the time had seemed right. Adam and Hoss had agreed to run the ranch in their father’s absence, and had even helped in planning the long-awaited voyage. Now it seemed like such a foolish venture.

*****

The two Cartwrights had boarded a clipper in San Francisco, and the beginning of their journey had been uneventful. Joe seemed to enjoy his first days on the ship, and Ben had been thrilled to share his knowledge of the sea with his youngest son. They had even made some new friends amongst the travelers they shared meals with.

But on this particular evening, the movement of the ship had changed as the vessel moved into the path of a storm. The passengers huddled in their cabins below deck as the waves increased in size, and the ship’s gentle rocking turned into a crashing ordeal.

At first, Ben was comfortable with their retreat below. But as the evening progressed, his apprehension grew until suddenly, a split second decision had him grabbing Joe by the arm, and pulling him up the narrow steps to the heaving deck above. As they neared the meager opening to the dark night, Ben Cartwright struggled to suppress a feeling of fear, which suddenly overcame him. It took every ounce of control he could muster, but the father successfully concealed his panic from his son.

The deck of a ship in the midst of a storm is a terrifying sight indeed, but Ben never faltered as they moved away from the stairway. With each wall of water that crashed over the deck, the ship seemed to roll a bit further, and Ben’s earlier intuition proved true. The men had grabbed hold of the railing only seconds before another impregnable surge of sea washed over the ship. With no warning, the ship’s deck seemed to have disappeared, and the human cargo on deck was flung out to the sea.

As the wave rushed over the deck, the wooden craft seemed to disappear from sight for a moment, but the men already in the water never noticed. They had escaped entrapment within its confines, but now found they were prisoners of another power, that of the sea.

Kicking hard, Joe made his way to the surface, but what he saw there chilled him far worse than the temperature of the water. Pieces of the ship were already scattered around him, and the cries of fellow passengers could be heard even over the sound of the storm. What he couldn’t see was the majestic outline of the clipper they had boarded a mere two days before. The only thing he could see now was the rounded bottom of the hull.

It was then that true terror found a home in Joe’s heart. Peering through the howling wind and driving rain, he struggled to catch a glimpse of his beloved father. Struggling to stay afloat in the angry waters, Joe searched in vain for the person most important in his life. No matter which way he turned, there was nothing but debris scattered about, and as time went on, even the cries of the other victims were drowned by the fury of the storm. Screaming Ben’s name into the night brought no results, and Joe was convinced that he’d never see his Pa again.

With an utter feeling of hopelessness consuming him, the youngest Cartwright lost his spirit, and what little strength remained in his body seemed to flow away like the waves around him. As his mind grudgingly accepted the fact that he’d lost his father, the one person who meant more to him than life itself, Joe’s arms and legs relaxed. Now that he was no longer kicking against the waves, his body succumbed to the sea’s control, and he began to sink beneath the surface.

One word saved the young man, and it came to him as if a whispering on the wind.

“Joe.”

With a surge of strength he didn’t think possible, Joe resumed his kicking, and quickly made his way through the churning waters until he reached a drifting piece of wood. There, clinging to its protection was his pa.

No words were spoken, but silent tears were shed as the young man clasped his father in his arms. Reaching across the wooden plank, the two men held each other tight as the storm raged on around them.

*****

The first rays of the morning sun pierced the angry clouds, but the golden shafts of light did little to encourage the weary men. Ben still clung weakly to their makeshift raft, his gaze never leaving his son’s face.

Joe had been quiet for some time, and if it hadn’t been for the steady pressure of his grasp, Ben would have thought he was asleep. But periodic questions from his youngest reminded him that Joe was conscious of his father’s predicament. However, it wasn’t until daylight that Ben was aware of his son’s injuries. It was that knowledge which, oddly enough, seemed to anger him. With voice raised and eyes burning, Ben turned on his son.

“Joe! What were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt?”

“Wha . .”

“Look at you. Half of your shirt is missing and you’ve been bleeding. Your shoulder is a mess, and I can tell you’re barely moving your arm. I’m your father! You can’t keep things like this from me!”

Staring at the older man, Joe was overcome with a new fear. This wasn’t like his father. Yes, Ben would berate or gently chastise him for his foolish behavior, but the anger in Pa’s voice was unwarranted. In fact, the older man was acting very peculiar, and even without a doctor’s diagnosis, Joe was sure his father’s unusual attitude was a result of his head wound. The young man prayed the symptoms would get no worse, as he had no way to help his pa, and now that the sun was peeking through the clouds, Joe could see that the shoreline was still miles away.

A strong swimmer, Joe had always been comfortable in the water, but the past hours had taken a toll on the young man. Now he found it took all his strength to keep the small plank on a straight course towards the land, which lie ahead. As for getting there quickly, that was impossible. Joe just prayed that they’d be able to get there at all. As for anyone else making it, the two men had given up that hope hours before.

At first there had been screams and cries from people who’d made it out of the ship. But in the dark fury of the storm, the Cartwrights had been unable to reach any of the others. They prayed that there would be other survivors around them, but morning had found them alone in the water.

Focusing ahead, Joe tried to put aside his thoughts and memories of the friends they’d made onboard the clipper. Yet visions of other passengers came over him as they drifted in the sun.

There was Mary, the dark-haired young lady who was also traveling east with her father. The two families had shared a dinner table the first night, along with a matronly woman who was sailing alone. Her husband had just died in the goldfields of California, and now she was going home to live with her daughter. All of them were gone now. Gone, along with the friendly captain Ben had admired, and the young sailor Joe had talked to.

Laying his head on the rough plank, Joe closed his eyes for a moment, but the visions remained. He wished for the luxury of sleep, but knew that he was Ben’s only hope for survival. The older man was too seriously injured to manage the long swim alone. No, it was up to him to keep them going. Yet, if only he could rest, just for a little while.

The quiet lapping of the water against the wood was a peaceful respite from the earlier crashing roar of the storm, and Joe was asleep before he knew it.

*****

A gentle hand stroked his hair, and for a moment, Joe expected to open his eyes and see Pa waking him for breakfast. But the scene that greeted him was much different than he expected.

Blinking rapidly, Joe raised his head to find his father watching him closely. The clouds that covered the sky at dawn were no longer there. Instead, the sky was a brilliant blue, emblazoned by the golden sun. Only the familiar caress from his father’s hand made Joe feel that waking up had been worth the effort.

“Joe? You alright, son?”

“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine. How long have I been asleep?”

“Couple hours.”

“Sorry . . .”

With his mumbled apology, Joe set to work. An overwhelming sense of guilt and shame filled him as he looked about and realized they’d made little progress over the past few hours. At least his father seemed a little more like himself, and for that the young man was grateful. But the men didn’t try to talk anymore. The salty seawater, and now the burning rays of the sun were already having an affect. Their lips were chapped and raw, their throats as dry as the sawdust at the lumber mill back home. Joe wondered, briefly, how long it would take for a man to die out here on the water.

On the other side of the narrow plank, Ben was filled with regrets of his own. He was aware that he hadn’t been thinking clearly in the past hours, and his memories of the night and early morning were shadowy at best. The last clear recollection he had was of grabbing Joe and heading for the deck just before the ship capsized. After that, his recall was merely bits and pieces, and he was uncertain as to if any of them really happened.

The only thing Ben was sure of was that he was responsible for putting his youngest son in harm’s way. And now, he was forced to rely on that same son to help keep him alive. Gingerly reaching up, he felt the cloth that encircled his head. Stiff with his own blood, Ben realized the bandage was actually the sleeve from Joe’s shirt, and he was suddenly consumed with pride for this young man, his son. Ben prayed for the strength to help his boy, but the only answer he received was a continuation of the pounding pain in his head.

Wondering what piece of the ship had struck him, Ben decided it must have been well aimed. The white-hot pain continued its threat to push him back into the darkness. Only Joe’s continued admonitions to ‘stay awake’ kept the older man’s resolve alive. He must stay strong, for his son.

*****

The sun’s rays were lengthening when, at last, Joe could make out a clear outline of the shore. The waves had grown in size as the men got closer to land, but they were still well away from a safe landing. Joe knew they needed to be on solid ground before the sun set. Drifting for another night on the ocean would mean certain death for both of them.

With renewed determination, Joe kicked with both legs, and paddled as best he could with his one good arm. At first, it seemed as if the effort was unyielding, but as the sun began to sink beyond the edge of the ocean, his labors were rewarded.

His yell of delight came out as a mere squeak, but if there had been someone there to witness the event, they would not have missed the joy in Joe Cartwright’s eyes. He knew that, as his feet touched the sand, he would never forget the relief or gratefulness he felt.

Pulling Ben into his arms, Joe stumbled and fell several times as he made his way towards the shore. Not until they were halfway up the beach towards the trees, did he finally allow his father to sink to the sand. And even then, Joe stood a moment longer, reveling in the feel of the earth beneath his feet. Then, he too sank into a heap next to his pa.

This time, he didn’t even try to stave off the sleep, which reached out to claim him. With an inaudible sigh, Joe welcomed the darkness, never aware that with his own last ounce of strength, Ben had pulled his son into his embrace.

*****

The soft sound of water in the distance continued to lull Ben Cartwright in his peaceful slumbers, but the warmth of the sun’s rays finally brought him awake. With eyes half open, Ben looked around in confusion, struggling to understand where he was. With a groan, he tried to sit up, but the sudden spinning sensation sent him instantly back to the safety of the sand. Slowly, his hand reached upwards and carefully investigated the thin material wrapped about his head. Although warm and dry, its presence reminded the man of what had happened.

“Joe? Joseph! Where are you?”

Although meant to be a loud cry, Ben’s voice came out as a hoarse whisper. Realizing there was no hope that anyone would hear such an entreaty, Ben tried to raise himself again. Once more, with the dizziness overwhelming him, his body slumped to the ground. Panting softly, the weak man lay quietly as he stared at the sky above him. He could tell that he was further up the beach, meaning that Joe had probably moved him here.

Gotta find Joe.

Turning slowly to his side, Ben found that if he moved in minute increments, he was able to stave off the nausea, which plagued him. It took several minutes, and a hearty dose of patience, but finally the gray- haired man made it onto his right side. From this position, he was able to look a fair distance up the shoreline. The view, however beautiful, was not what he was looking for. Again, Ben began the slow process of moving, this time managing to turn to his left side, where he surveyed the vista to the south. More sand, rocks and water met his gaze, and the exhausted man lay back dejectedly.

Joseph, where are you?

As his eyes drifted shut, the man found his emotions a combination of fear and anger. Almost helpless as a result of his head wound, Ben was uncertain as to where he was, or what had happened to his son. A feeling of exasperation began to fill him, even as he slid into a troubled sleep.

*****

Joe trudged down the sandy beach, a gull screaming loudly overhead. As he made his way past the rocky point, the pounding surf turned to a peaceful sound that soothed his tired soul. In the distance, he could make out the shape of his father, still lying in the sand where Joe had been forced to leave him.

After making it to land the previous evening, the two exhausted men had slept soundly through the night. When the morning light awoke him, Joe had been overcome by a sense of urgency that didn’t need explaining. They had been without water for almost two days; he had to find something for them to drink, and soon. Turning to his father, Joe tried valiantly to wake the older man. But no matter how hard he tried; he received no response other than an occasional moaning.

It was with much trepidation that Joe finally pulled himself to his feet and walked away. Stopping after only a few yards, he turned back and studied the still form of his father. A mental argument took place within him, but a strong force seemed to urge Joe forward. Sitting next to his Pa would be of no help. What he needed was water, and food if he could find it. So the young man pushed on, his footsteps slowed by the sand beneath his now-bare feet.

Ben and Joe had each kicked their boots off soon after the ship sank. The water filling them had threatened to pull the men under, and it had taken some maneuvering to rid themselves of their footwear. But the action had surely saved their lives. Now, Joe wished passionately for something to replace them as he gingerly stepped over rocks and sand.

His journey had been slow and uncertain, but finally Joe found what he was looking for. A small stream could be seen coming down from the hill above him, and winding its way thru the small Pinon trees and scrub brush, found its end in the sea. Rushing forward, Joe stumbled and fell in his hurry to reach the water he craved, and it was a grateful young man who finally toppled into the sparkling water. Hands splashing about in its shallow depths, Joe didn’t bother to use them to gather a drink; the thirsty man merely dropped his head into the refreshing liquid, and drank his fill.

Now he was returning to his father, grateful for what he’d found, but worried about how he’d be able to get his pa to its nourishing banks. With no way to carry the water back, Joe had finally done the only thing he could think of. Pulling off the remnant of his once-best shirt, Joe soaked it repeatedly in the cool water. Satisfied that every fiber was saturated with the life-saving liquid, he held the soaking bundle carefully in his hands, as he walked back to Ben.

As he drew closer, Joe felt his concern mounting at the motionless form of his father. He was sure that Pa would’ve come-to by now, and with every passing hour, he was more aware of how serious his father’s condition was. His tired legs faltered as Joe broke into a lumbering run, and he stumbled to his knees several times before reaching his father’s side.

“Pa. Pa! Wake up, Pa.”

Joe lifted his father’s head gently with one hand as he held the still-dripping shirt above Pa’s face with the other. As he squeezed the fabric firmly, a thin flow of water trickled down onto Ben’s parched lips.

It seemed like an eternity as Joe watched his father intently, but in reality it was only a few seconds before the man’s mouth parted to allow the water in.

At first, worried that his father would gag on the unfamiliar liquid, Joe was careful to allow only a little water on his father’s face. But it was soon obvious that Ben was coming to, and was now swallowing the water with ease. Joe squeezed the fabric tightly, anxious to give his father as much of the life-sustaining moisture as possible. All too soon, the flow had stopped, and Joe leaned back on his heels. Folding the shirt into a square, he draped it over his father’s forehead, and watched as Ben finally opened his eyes. With a sigh of relief, Joe released the breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“Pa.”

Ben looked at his son, eyes narrowing at the sight of the anxious young man above him.

“Joe? What are you doing, boy?”

“I found some fresh water, Pa. It’s a ways off, but I’ll help you get there. We’ll start whenever you’re ready.”

“What do you mean, a ways off. I’m not going anywhere. I have a pounding headache, and I have absolutely no intention of leaving this spot.”

Staring at his father in disbelief, Joe searched for the words to answer him. This didn’t sound like his father at all, and Joe was more than a little frightened at Ben’s reactions. Struggling to remain calm, Little Joe simply ignored his father’s statement.

“Come on, Pa, I’ll help you up. The stream is just south of here, and the water’s cool and clear.”

“I told you, Joseph, I’m not going anywhere.”

Dropping back on his heels, Joe stared at his father in amazement. Everything about Ben’s attitude seemed wrong. It was obvious that his father wasn’t in his right mind, but Joe was at a loss as to how to deal with him.

“Don’t stare at me like that. And what happened to your shirt? How many times have I told you to keep a clean shirt on? I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, boy.”

Ben’s voice was extremely weak, yet firm in its insistence. Joe found himself incredulous at these unusual responses from his father. Stuttering in his effort to answer, Joe finally gave up and sat down in the sand.

Something inside told him not to push his father to comply. Calm and gentle was the way to handle an injured man; he remembered Ben telling him that once. But Little Joe was not one overly familiar with either of those reactions. His normal responses were quick and forceful. The young man found himself wishing for one of his older brothers to help him. Adam or Hoss would know what to do, or how to handle the situation.

With head drooping, Joe closed his eyes and listened vigilantly to the sound of his father’s quiet breathing. Ben had, once more, fallen asleep.

*****

“Joseph?”

“Yeah, Pa.”

“Wake up, son.”

Slowly opening his eyes, Joe almost laughed at the first thought that hit him. Why’s Pa waking me up again? Then, as the memories came flooding back, Joe sat up quickly and looked around.

They were still in the same position, Ben lying on his back with Joe’s now-dry shirt shading his eyes. Crouched in the sand next to him, Joe realized they must’ve been sleeping for a while, and as he stretched a bit, the young man realized the sun was beating unmercifully on his bare back. Glancing around, Joe knew the only way the two would survive would be to work their way towards the stream, and the scant brush along its banks. The rocky hills above them held no trees and offered no respite from the burning rays of the sun.

Turning to his father, Joe finally realized what had changed. It was Ben. No longer angry or argumentative, Pa lay quietly watching him, and Joe found himself whispering a thank-you for the familiar presence.

“How are you feeling, Pa?”

“Tired. And my head hurts.”

“I bet. Do you remember anything?”

“A little. Are you alright, son?”

“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine. Just thirsty.”

“Have you had a chance to look for some water?”

“Yes, sir. There’s a stream down the beach a ways. Do you think you can make it?”

“Sure, I can make it. What’re we waiting for?”

Joe caught himself as he started to reply, reaching instead for his father’s arm.

“Joe, your shoulder. .”

“It’s alright, Pa.”

Ben studied his son carefully. He knew the boy was not being entirely honest, but he also knew there wasn’t much they could do about his injury. Regrets and concern filled the father’s heart, and it was several minutes before the worried man was able to speak again.

“Where’s your shirt, son? You need to cover up. You’ll be badly burnt if you don’t.”

“Well, I . .”

Seeing the confused look on his father’s face, Joe finally reached over and drew his tattered shirt from where it had fallen in the sand.

“I used it earlier to bring some water back for you.”

Ben watched closely as Joe pulled the sleeveless shirt over his reddened skin. Then, reaching up to his own forehead, the older man realized his son had once again used his garment as a bandage. It was obvious that the second sleeve of Joe’s shirt now adorned his father’s head.

“What happened to the first one?”

“You were bleeding pretty bad, Pa. I threw it away after we ended up here.”

Nodding carefully, Ben simply fingered the bandage for a moment, before dropping his hand to his side.

“Have I been much trouble?”

“No, Pa. But you did have me worried for a while. You’ll feel better after we get to that water.”

Reaching down, Joe helped Ben to his feet. Swaying weakly, Pa was relieved to have his son to lean on. The world still seemed to swirl around him, and his vision was marred by a black edge, but he fought off the queasy feeling and took his first step. Sheer willpower kept the man going as he plodded forward. Joe continued to watch him anxiously as they moved along the shoreline. He prayed silently that he would be strong enough to help his father.

*****

Sitting on the banks of the small stream, father and son rested quietly. There was little shade, but they managed to make use of what there was. Joe sat with his back against a narrow rock ledge, while Ben stretched out under a bush next to him. They dozed off and on through the afternoon, grateful for the presence of the refreshing stream, and a handful of roots and that Joe hand managed to dig along its banks. It wasn’t much, but even the meager nourishment was something to be thankful for.

Joe continued to watch his father carefully, but the man seemed more himself with each passing hour. There had been no more unusual behavior, and Ben seemed totally unaware of his previous strange demeanor. Although the dizziness still bothered him, Ben managed to sit up a little longer each time, and Joe hoped fervently that his recovery would continue.

There was no hope of rescue here on this deserted beach, and both men knew it could be many miles before they’d find any help. Even though they were unsure of their location, they knew they were well below the border of Mexico. It hadn’t taken much discussion for them to agree that their best course was to follow the stream east. With no food or money, and scant clothing, they would be of little threat to anyone they came upon. There was also little chance that anyone would have reason to bother them. They could only hope that someone along their way would befriend them. It promised to be a long journey home, but a journey that both were grateful they’d have a chance to make.

Hours later, the two men worked their way slowly up the hillside, their progress slow at best. With feet already torn and bleeding, Joe knew they wouldn’t be able to go very far before stopping again. Ben was past being worn out, yet they were still within sight of the ocean. There seemed little hope that they would survive this ordeal, yet Joe pushed those thoughts from his mind. He had to keep trying, had to stay strong for his pa.

A cry behind him caused Joe to spin around just as Ben fell. Rushing back to his father’s side, he clutched the man tightly as Pa moaned softly then closed his eyes.

“Can’t make it, son.”

“Yes, you can. We’re both going to make it. You’ve always told me that a man can do anything if he sets his mind to it.”

“You . . go ah ea d. .”

“No, Pa. I’m not leaving you here. Now get up. We’re almost to the top of this hill. We’re going to make it over this one, and the next one, and the next one. We’ll keep going as long as we have to. Adam and Hoss are depending on us, Pa.”

The last of Joe’s words were the ones that finally registered in Ben’s mind. Adam and Hoss. His other sons were back home, waiting for them to return, unaware that both father and brother were locked in a battle for their lives. No, he couldn’t give up, either. With a groan, Ben pushed himself up, and Joe helped him to stand.

“Let’s go, son. It’s a long way home.”

*****

Adam stared into the fire, his attention focused on the flames that licked the pine log burning there. His hand still clasped the telegram Roy Coffee had delivered earlier that evening. Thinking back over the past few hours, Adam realized he’d been moving as if in a fog since he’d first read the penciled words, telegraphed from their lawyer in San Francisco.

‘Regret to inform you. Ben & Joe Cartwright listed as passengers on clipper bound for Panama. Ship capsized in storm off Mexican coast. No word of survivors. Both considered lost at sea.’

The words echoed in his head as Adam continued to stare before him. Pa, Joe . . what will we do without you? Unshed tears gathered in the man’s eyes as he thought of his father and brother. Could they really be gone? Forever? Swiping his eyes with the back of his hand, the dark- haired man finally collapsed into the red-leather chair next to the hearth. The familiar feel of the leather, and a lingering scent that was his father’s, helped the man to relax. Slowly leaning back, his eyes closed.

Hoss had not spoken since Adam read the missive. Standing as if frozen while Roy murmured his regrets, the big man had slowly turned and silently climbed the stairs to his room. Now he sat, unmoving, on the edge of his bed, as memories of his father and brother ran through his mind. Only the ticking of his clock broke the silence in his room, and even that brought memories flooding back, as he recalled the time Pa had presented it as a gift. Knowing in his heart that nothing would ever be the same, Hoss finally slumped to his side, and let the tears flow.

*****

The sun beat down unmercifully on Joe’s bare back, and he scrambled back under the protection of a small scrub tree. He pulled his arm closer to his side, and sat still for a moment as he struggled with the pain. His shoulder seemed to be on fire, and he knew the injury was serious. Quickly shutting his mind to his own plight, Joe turned instead to look at his father. He sighed with relief when he realized that Pa was sleeping peacefully.

Ben and Joe made it over that first hill, then another, and still another. Always careful to keep the stream in sight, they had slowly made their way inland, hoping to come across a farm or village. Somewhere along the way, Joe lost track of the time. Uncertain as to how many days had passed since the shipwreck, all he knew was that they had to keep going.

Now, with the heat of mid-day upon them, he had insisted that they stop to rest in the shade, and for once, Ben hadn’t argued.

As he studied the small collection of roots and weeds in his hand, Joe sighed in resignation. Managing to find food had been a difficult task. Water was readily available, but other than a few roots and berries, Joe was unable to find anything of any substance. Continuing to watch for signs of game as they walked, he was frustrated at the lack of even a single track. Although he had spotted a lizard the night before, he’d been unable to catch it, and wasn’t sure what he would’ve done with it if he had. It was a barren stretch of land, one he hoped they’d never see again, if they made it out at all.

Ben’s condition had seemed to improve at first, and Joe had been relieved that his father was once again coherent. But after those first few hours of walking, the older man had lapsed into a sullen silence on several occasions. Joe quickly learned that this was a sign that his father wasn’t fully aware of where he was or what was happening. Sensing that any reference of this to his pa would result in a confrontation, Joe would simply find some excuse to stop and rest for a while.

Most of the time his ploy worked, but the last time Pa had become quite belligerent. After resting for only a few minutes, Ben had lurched to his feet and continued on, a string of insulting words hurled back at Little Joe. The young man had simply followed behind his father the rest of that afternoon, hoping that Pa’s strange behavior would vanish as quickly as it had appeared.

As the two men sat quietly in the shade, Joe was lost in thought, his mind replaying every aspect of his father’s injury. His fear was more intense than at any other time in his young life, and Little Joe had struggled to conceal those feelings from his pa. Bandaging his father’s head was the only medical help he could manage. There was no medicine here, no clean bed for the man to lie in. What else could he do?

Ben’s low moan brought Joe back to the present. Leaning over, he watched his father closely as the older man came awake. Joe could see the moisture on Pa’s brow, and he reached up absently to wipe it away, but he immediately pulled his hand back in surprise.

“Fever.”

That single stammered word awakened Ben Cartwright, and the man looked about frantically. As he looked up into the worried green eyes of his son, he had no idea of where he was or what was happening. The only thing he was certain of was his skin seemed to be on fire, and he needed to get away. Struggling to his feet, he pushed the boy roughly away; unaware of the pain he was causing his young son.

“Pa! Pa, wait.”

Unheeding his son’s cries, Ben lurched forward, his steps staggering and uncertain. Not knowing where he was going, not knowing how he’d get there, the man stumbled blindly on. The half-eaten root dropped silently from Joe’s hand as he struggled to his feet, and hurried to catch up to his father. The rock-strewn hillside was hard to manage in the best of conditions, but with his mind focused only on the pursuit of his pa, Joe didn’t care which way he went or what he stepped on. Stumbling repeatedly, his tired body failed him and he fell. Landing sharply on his side, Joe screamed out in pain as he slipped into the darkness.

*****

“What do you mean, they’ve stopped searching?”

The angry shout was accompanied by a loud thump as Adam’s hand was slammed against the dark mahogany desk. Thomas Winston, the Cartwright’s attorney, winced in surprise. He wasn’t in the least bit worried about his fine piece of furniture; rather, his fleeting thought was for the bruise that would surely develop on his young friend’s hand.

Hastily pushing himself into a standing position, the well-dressed gentleman strode quickly from the desk to stand before the dark-haired man.

“Adam, you know the Mexican authorities have done all they can. It’s been well over a week since the clipper capsized, and there’s been no sign of survivors in the past four days. The last two were found on a beach south of the border, and it’s still uncertain if that young lady will live. You have to face facts, my boy. With the violent storm, and the ship disintegrating so rapidly, there’s little chance that anyone else made it.”

“No, you’re wrong! They’re still alive; I can feel it. And I’m going to find them!”

Winston stared in shocked surprise at the large man standing across the room. From the time the Cartwright brothers had stepped into his office, the younger of the two had been silent, content to listen from his seat in the corner. Now, the man was stretched to his full height, visibly shaking with emotion, his hands almost as white as the hat clutched within them.

“Pa and Little Joe are alive, and I’m going to find them, with or without your help.”

With his last statement, Hoss turned and flung open the door. His retreat was met with total silence as the two remaining men watched him leave. Neither one was sure whom he’d been addressing, but both were certain that the worried man meant exactly what he said.

Stepping quietly to his window, Thomas looked out over the bay, his gaze drawn to the ships docked below. It was unbelievable that his long-time friend, Ben Cartwright, was gone. He recalled the last time they’d spoken.

It was the day before Ben and Joe had set sail; the three men had met for dinner at the prestigious hotel where the Cartwright’s had been staying. Mr. Winston had prepared several documents that Ben had requested, and needed to have them signed before the men departed. After dinner, Joe had excused himself, leaving Tom and Ben to visit alone for several hours. The two men had enjoyed their conversation immensely, and Tom was saddened to think that he’d never enjoy another quite like it.

Now he was faced with the distressing task of dealing with the remaining sons, and their grief. Profoundly aware of what a close family the Cartwrights were, he also knew how difficult it would be for Adam and Hoss to go on without their father and younger brother. Yet he also realized that denying their loss would only delay the inevitable.

Winston had fervently hoped he’d be successful in convincing them of the futility of a search, but it was obvious that both of these young men had inherited their father’s stubbornness. Lawyer Winston had failed this time, and he found that it was the most emotional failure he’d ever experienced. Adam’s deep voice interrupted his thoughts, and Tom turned slowly to face him.

“We appreciate what you’re trying to do, Tom, but you have to understand. . .” Adam’s voice faltered briefly and he rubbed a tired hand across his face. “This is Pa and Little Joe we’re talking about, and we can’t just give up without even trying. Hoss and I are riding down there, and we’d appreciate your help.”

Only the ticking of a clock broke the silence in the office. Its steady tick, tick, tick seemed to grate against Adam’s nerves, but to Tom Winston, it had a calming influence. Turning thoughtfully back to his desk, the lawyer settled into his seat, and opened the top drawer. Carefully selecting a sheet of paper, he reached for his pen and ink, and then began to write.

Now, the ticking clock was accompanied by the scratching of a pen on paper. Minutes slipped by as Adam watched his father’s friend working diligently over the document. Finally finished, the older man stared briefly at his writing while waiting for the ink to dry; then he folded the parchment and rose from his seat.

As Adam stepped forward, Tom held out his hand, yet hesitated to release the missive. His face displayed his inner struggle as he looked across the desk at his friend’s son.

“Adam, you and Hoss will be careful? Your father wouldn’t want any harm to come to either of you. He would want you to go on with your lives. .”

The dark eyes never faltered, and Adam’s hand remained steady as he reached for the paper.

“We’ll be careful, Tom. And . . thank you.”

The attorney released his grasp, and the paper instantly disappeared into Adam’s vest pocket. Seconds later the dark haired man was gone, the door closed quietly, yet firmly, behind him.

Thomas Winston turned back to his window overlooking the bay. His gaze was focused on the water far beyond, as it swirled about the many boats and ships gathered there. A movement to his right brought his attention to the street below, and the sight of a tall white hat disappearing into a cab caused the man to frown. As the carriage pulled away, he could see the two brothers seated next to each other, and he breathed a silent prayer for their safety.

*****

Joe awoke to the sensation of a familiar touch. A hand was smoothing the hair off his forehead, and he turned towards the warmth and love he knew he’d find there. Slowly opening his eyes, Joe was startled at the gaze that met his. Ben was sitting next to his son, shading him with his body. A thin piece of fabric was held loosely in his hand, water dripping slowly from the edge. He smoothed the wet cloth on Joe’s forehead, and the young man was grateful.

But the fear clutching at his heart would not subside. The look he’d seen in his father’s eyes was frightening, and Joe didn’t quite know what to expect. Was Ben angry? Was he simply worried?

“It’s about time you woke up, boy. How many times have I told you to watch where you’re going? We’ve got a long way to travel, and you falling down and hurting yourself isn’t going to help us get there. Now sit up here for a minute, then we’ll get started.”

Shocked by the terse words and gruff tone, Joe pulled himself up, never taking his eyes from his father’s face. Though the man looked like his pa, his words and actions seemed to contradict that fact. Breathing deep in an effort to calm his panic, Joe struggled to his feet. This in itself seemed to anger Ben Cartwright.

“What are you doing? I just told you to sit up! You don’t ever listen, boy. Now do what I said and sit down here to rest for a minute.”

In his feverish mind, Ben didn’t realize that pulling his son roughly forward had caused the young man unimaginable pain. The only thought he could seem to focus on was the insolent way his boy refused to obey him. Once more he turned on his son in anger.

“Boy!”

But Little Joe had once again slipped into a comforting oblivion. His last conscious thought was simply a question: Why doesn’t Pa use my name?

*****

“Well, are you feeling better now?”

Pulling himself up carefully, Joe looked around, struggling to remember what had happened. And suddenly it came rushing back to him, his father’s strange behavior; at first calm and relaxed, then nervous or angry. Joe knew it was the head wound that was causing the strange behavior, yet he wished for something, anything to be able to help his father.

Looking at the gray-haired man now, he seemed the same Pa that Joe had always known. Yet the comment Ben had just made seemed rather out of context for the normally solicitous father.

“Sorry, Pa.”

His own pain ignored, Joe steadied himself as the two men struggled to their feet and started up the path once more, neither one aware that they were being watched. It wasn’t until they reached a small outcropping of rock that Joe heard the rustling off to his left. Stopping several times to peer into the underbrush, he gasped in surprise when he finally realized there was a pair of dark brown eyes watching him intently. Grabbing Ben’s arm, he pointed towards the side of the trial, and they watched quietly as the small boy came slowly towards them.

Ben’s shoulders sagged as the weariness overcame him again, and Joe eased him gently to the ground. It seemed to take forever for the young child to approach them, but when he finally stepped in front of them, his greeting was clear and bright. However, neither of the men could manage to reply in the boy’s native tongue, and it was immediately apparent that the child did not understand English. It was obvious, though, that he was aware of the seriousness of their predicament.

With indiscernible words and various hand motions, it was soon clear that he was urging the men to follow him. There was no need to invite them twice; Ben and Joe were overjoyed to finally be in the presence of another human being, no matter what the age. After their initial shock, the weary men rushed to follow him as the boy scurried down the path.

*****

The tired men stretched their legs out before the crackling fire as they slowly relaxed beside its warmth. With minimal conversation being shared, the older man watched over the coffee pot while the younger of the two prepared a simple meal of beans. When the preparations were complete, he ladled up a serving on a thin metal plate, and handed it over the fire to his brother. Now the only sounds to be heard were an occasional clinking of utensils against the plates, along with the snapping fire as the branches burned brightly between them.

Neither man was hungry, and for the most part, they each spent their time rearranging the beans from one side of their plate to the other. It was the big man who finally broke the uneasy silence. Laying his plate on the ground, he dropped his head in his hands, sighing deeply before attempting to speak.

“I just can’t stand this, Adam.”

A look of love and concern passed briefly over the smaller man’s face, but he found that no words of comfort would come. His own throat was constricted, and there was an ache in his heart so deep, it felt as if the feeling would overwhelm him.

As Adam sat there silently, his thoughts continued to center on the missing members of his family. His father, a man so full of strength and determination, yet filled with so much love for his sons that he could comfort his children with a tender touch. And his brother. . that irascible youth who was still part boy, part man; a dark-haired bundle of energy that both infuriated him and stunned him with such deep feelings of love. How could he and Hoss go on without the two of them?

A sigh from across the fire brought Adam’s attention back to focus on the here and now. His remaining brother was hurting as much as he was, and somehow they had to help each other deal with the emotional turmoil, if they where to have the physical strength to continue their journey. It was a daunting task, this endeavor they’d begun. Two men, alone, attempting to find two other men in a strange and barren country.

He knew that Tom Winston had been correct in doubting their intentions, yet Adam also knew that he and Hoss had no other choice. If there were any chance that Pa and Joe were alive, the brothers would search to the ends of the earth itself, to find them. There was just no way around it, no discussion to be held, no questions to be answered. Each of them had understood the other from the very moment they’d received the telegram. Now it was just a matter of keeping their focus on the task ahead, and supporting each other during the process.

With an inaudible sigh, Adam pulled himself up and moved around the fire. Dropping back on his heels next to Hoss, Adam laid a tentative arm across his brother’s back.

“We can’t give up, Hoss. If they’re alive, we’ll find them.”

“But what if . . .”

“Until I see for myself to the contrary, I’m going to assume that they’re out there somewhere, alive. And I’ll keep searching until I find them.”

Adam studied his silent brother as the large man stared into the flames, and it was with great hesitation that he spoke again.

“So. . . are you with me?”

“You know I am, Adam. It’s just . . . I keep imaging what it would be like if I never saw Pa again, or heard Little Joe laughin’, and it just gets so . .”

“I know. I feel the same way.”

They sat there, wordlessly, for a long time. Each man still caught in a web of memories, neither willing nor able to pull themselves from their reminiscing. It was late when they finally settled back into their bedrolls, and drifted off to sleep.

*****

The small dwelling matched the landscape so well, that Joe was amazed when he stepped into the tiny yard in front of the adobe house. He hadn’t realized that there was a building there, let alone an inhabited home. The young boy had run ahead and was even now, leading a woman from the doorway.

Small and dark, but fairly young, the boy’s mother looked at the two men with obvious distrust. She watched them as they stumbled into the yard and after several minutes of conversation with her son, she seemed resolved to the men’s presence. Stepping up to Ben, she reached a supportive arm about his waist and guided him into the house.

Even at his height, Joe found that he had to stoop to enter the building. Its rough walls were thick and sturdy, and Joe was pleasantly surprised at the coolness within. Ben was already settled on a low cot positioned along the far wall, his face a study of mixed confusion and surprise. After struggling on their own for so long, the father and son were almost speechless now that they’d found someone to help them.

A small girl had been playing in front of the doorway when they entered, but she was now curled into a small ball on another cot across the room. Her dark eyes followed every movement, from that of her mother and brother, to the two strangers who now filled her home. However, the woman did not spare a glance for her daughter, instead busying herself with various tasks.

Hurrying back and forth across the room, the dark-haired woman quickly had a simple meal prepared and set before them. The fare was meager, but Joe relished each bite of his tortilla, and from the look on Ben’s face, he felt the same.

The only problem was, the woman had only provided them with a small quantity, and Joe was intensely aware that the unexpected company might cause undue hardship on this poor family. He had no way of knowing that the woman was concerned for their emaciated condition. She had lived in this country her whole life, and was well aware of the effect that could be brought on by eating too quickly, or too heavily after having gone for so long without.

So the woman set the wooden bowl back on her workbench in the corner, and motioned for the men to lay down to rest. Once again, they responded immediately, each laying on what, only now, seemed like luxurious accommodations. Within moments, both men were asleep.

*****

It was morning before Ben opened his eyes again. Looking around the small hovel, he strained to remember what had happened and why he was lying here alone. Sitting up carefully, he raised a tired hand to his head and held it, as the room seemed to spin slowly around him. Bits and pieces of memory came to him as he struggled to remain upright: the shipwreck, their time on the beach, walking along a small stream, Joe’s face as he looked into his father’s eyes. Joe . . . what happened to Joe?

The slow spin evolved into a devilish whirl as Ben pulled himself to his feet. He wanted to call out for his son, but his mind focused solely on his ability to stay erect. Grabbing about for something to hold onto, Ben was surprised to find an arm suddenly grasping his shoulders and easing him smoothly back to the rickety bed.

“Pa! What are you doing? You need to stay in bed and rest.”

Looking about the room, Joe quickly found what he was searching for and promptly retrieved a cup of water. Lifting his father’s shoulders gently from the bed, he held the cool water to Pa’s lips and waited while the man took a tenuous sip. Moments later, Ben was once again settled on the bed, and Joe squatted on the floor next to him, watching carefully for any unusual signs. A weak voice reached out to him from the cot.

“Joe. You alright, son?”

“Yeah, Pa, I’m fine. You’re the one I’m worried about.”

“I’m okay, just wish this headache would go away. Where are we, anyway?”

“Don’t you remember the boy out in the brush?”

“Some . .”

Ben’s hesitant look convinced Joe that he really didn’t remember, so for the next few minutes, the son described the past events to his father. An immense relief surged through him when he realized that Ben was listening and following his commentary closely, and at no time had his pa resorted to his earlier confusion. It wasn’t long before Pa’s eyes drifted closed, and Joe sat back on his heels to watch his father sleep. The head wound had obviously been serious, and Joe longed for home and the good Doctor Martin to tend his father.

Quietly leaving his father’s bedside, Joe stepped out into the sunshine and silently watched the woman going about her daily chores. His stomach, though hungry for a meal, no longer had that inside-out feeling of the day before, a fact he was extremely grateful for. Watching her now, busily moving about a small fire pit, he wondered at the items she was preparing. He longed to ask her the questions that plagued him. Why was she out here alone? Was there a village nearby? Did she have a man who would be returning soon? But the language barrier stood between them, stalwart as any brick wall might be.

Rubbing his temples wearily, Joe allowed his eyes to close for a moment, a detail that did not escape the watchful eyes of the senora. Stepping to his side, she grasped his good arm tenderly and guided him to a bench along the wall. As she carefully pulled the soiled cloth from his shoulder, he wondered at the way her voice suddenly changed. A continuous stream of words descended around him and from the sound of it, she was obviously chastising him. Joe winced as he recognized a familiar feeling, and then realized her actions were much the same as HopSing’s.

The dark-haired woman retrieved a wooden bowl and slowly dipped a mixture of water and herbs from a small kettle over the fire. After immersing a clean cloth into the steaming water, she began to gently clean his shoulder, while continuing to mutter reproachfully. Sitting quietly, while the person who ministered to him fussed at him in a foreign tongue, gave an odd feeling of reassurance to the young man, and he slowly relaxed. For a moment, he even smiled as he recalled many earlier scenes at home with the beloved Chinaman.

Head bowed forward, Joe sat in the shade of the small building, and minutes later, was dozing peacefully.

*****

Shielding their eyes from the afternoon sun, two weary travelers sat astride their mounts as they peered down at the city far below them. Each hoped, silently, that they would find word there of other survivors, so after several quiet minutes, they kicked their mounts and began the long descent into Los Angeles.

It was several hours later when Adam and Hoss rode into the bustling town. Stopping first at the livery, they made arrangements for their horses; then hurried to the sheriff’s office, as it seemed the best place to start. But when they closed the office door behind them a scant twenty minutes later, the looks they exchanged were full of frustration and disappointment. Hoss was the first to break the silence.

“Well, that was a pure waste of time.”

“Yes, but we had to try. If there had been more survivors found, the sheriff would’ve been the man who’d know.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Adam.”

Glancing across the street, Adam stepped off the wooden walkway and hurried towards their next destination. Hoss followed a little more slowly, his own emotions causing him to falter.

With the telegraph line still months from completion and the brothers anxious to learn the latest information, the local newspaper, the Los Angeles Star, seemed the most likely place to look. As the Cartwrights entered the busy newspaper office, Adam had a feeling that they’d come to the right place. The room seemed to be almost buzzing with activity.

Several men were working at the front desks, and an older woman was helping customers at the subscription counter. Through a doorway, he could see several typesetters working diligently at their machines, and to his right, a reporter was busy going through a sheaf of papers. After waiting impatiently at the counter, the two men were relieved when one of several office doors opened, and a rather gawky looking man hurried towards them.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, sir, we’re looking for some information on the shipwreck.”

“Why, yes, that’s definitely important news these days. Just check the recent edition, and you can read all about the latest reports.”

“No, you don’t understand. We’re not interested in reading your paper; we’re looking for information that will help us search for. .”

“Oh, yes, I do understand. You’re trying to find out something newsworthy before everyone else does, just like all those other people who slip in here from time to time. Well, sir, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell them. The paper comes out tomorrow morning, and you can just wait and read it then.”

Taken aback at the man’s impertinent attitude, Adam put his hand on his brother’s arm, realizing the tension that flowed through Hoss would surely find an outlet at some point. He just didn’t want to start a ruckus here, not now, when they could be close to learning something, if only this idiot of a man could be handled with patience. Drawing a calming breath, Adam tried again to explain.

“Mister….?”

“Owens. Samuel Owens.”

“Look, Mr. Owens, our father and brother were on that ship and we’ve ridden a long way to . . .”

“Maybe I could help.”

Adam and Hoss both turned to find a middle-aged gentleman watching them, his hand outstretched, a friendly smile upon his face.

“May I introduce myself? I’m Jason Perkins, the editor of the Star. Why don’t you follow me into my office, and we can discuss your situation in private. Owens, I’ll see to these young men, you may continue with your duties.”

The previously verbal man was remarkably silent as he turned back to the desk, but his stance showed clearly how put out he was. The two brothers concealed their amusement at the man’s new demeanor as they followed the editor into his office.

*****

The sound of the clock’s ticking filled the otherwise silent room, and Hoss found himself staring at the offending piece in frustration. In a sudden flash of memory, he realized there had been another timepiece that had antagonized him with its steady beating. Hoss had a strange picture of the steady tick-tock actually clicking away the minutes of a man’s life. Clenching his hands, as if in defiance, he shook his had sharply. ‘No, NO, they’re alive, both of them. They have to be. We’re going to find them.’

But thinking back over the day’s events, Hoss couldn’t help but admit there wasn’t a lot of evidence to encourage them. Although Mr. Perkins had been very friendly, and quite anxious to assist the Cartwrights, it had been obvious that his main objective was to find another story for his paper. Even as they’d left his office, the man had followed them out to remind the brothers that if they did find their missing family members, they should be sure and give all the interesting details to the Star.

Adam had been the one who’d almost lost his temper then, and Hoss couldn’t help but grin at the look of fury on the face of his normally calm brother. But at least they’d walked away with several useful pieces of information. They now had a specific location of the wreck, and a better understanding of what areas had been searched, and when.

Later, over dinner in the hotel restaurant, the brothers discussed and decided on their search plan, and first thing in the morning, they would put that plan into action. Heading south towards an old mission where an army unit now resided, they would use their letter from Thomas Winston in the hope of gaining some assistance from the soldiers. Then they would move southwest towards the coastline and begin a diligent search for Pa and Little Joe.

Settling down on his hotel bed, Hoss clasped both hands behind his head as he gazed at the ceiling above him. Satisfied that they’d checked into every lead available to them, he spent this quiet time thinking of his missing father and brother. He drew up memories of happy times with his family, hoping to dispel the sadness that continued to clutch at his heart. But no matter what scene he recalled, it inevitably dissolved into the image burned in his mind. The sight of a reeling ship, its deck slick with seawater, and two of the people he loved most in this world, being tossed into the darkness of a raging sea.

Almost an hour passed before Adam joined his brother in their hotel room. He’d spent that time wandering aimlessly through the growing city, satisfying his need for privacy even in the busy streets. Adam knew he wasn’t the only one that needed some time alone. Hoss was hurting, too, and sometimes, a man just needed a little space. The two brothers had been together almost every moment since they’d received that telegram. . . how many days had it been now? Days? Was it really days? It seemed as if that life-altering event had taken place months before. Agonizing months.

Moving quietly across the room, Adam was not surprised to see that Hoss had already fallen asleep. Nor was he surprised to see the look of sadness on his brother’s face. What did surprise him was how that expression affected him. Stepping quickly to the small wooden table placed between the two beds, Adam turned the lamp down, relieved that there was no one else in the room to witness the tears that now flowed freely down his own cheeks.

*****

Joe moved restlessly on the small cot, his shoulder alive with pain. He knew, even without being able to see, that the wound was red and swollen, the infection gaining control with each passing hour. The fever that had only been a minor aggravation at first, was now consuming him. The heat emanating from his body causing him to burn up one moment and shiver the next.

Though the kind lady had done her best to help with her herbs and natural medicines, the earlier lack of medical attention and days without food or proper rest, had all taken their toll. No longer was he concerned only for his Pa, Joe now knew that he was also in grave danger. He worried about the consequences of his condition, not for his sake, but for his father’s. ‘If I get worse, who’s going to help Pa?’

As he struggled to find a comfortable position on the bed, his mind also struggled with the decision Joe knew, he alone, must make. Should they remain here in this isolated place, or go on in the hope of finding a village? Or, at the very least, someone who could speak their language and help them to find a doctor? Was Pa strong enough to continue, or for that matter, was he?

Sitting up slowly, he wondered for a moment about what had become of the young boy. On the second morning, Joe had awoken to find their young rescuer missing. The woman did not seem to be worried or upset, and when he’d tried to ask her with motions and pointing, the senora had only nodded toward the trail, then returned to her work. Hence, Joe was left to ponder the child’s absence and what it might mean.

It was possible that there were neighbors the boy had been sent to, or maybe even a town or village. Then again, he might have returned to his chore of watching out for the family’s livestock that could be grazing in the hills around them. That first day, after eating and resting awhile, Joe had slowly made his way around the small dwelling, and was quickly aware that there was more to this family than he had first expected.

Although they were obviously not prosperous, there were several pens behind the house, and evidence of cattle and horses being kept there. But with no way to communicate, he was unable to ask the questions he longed to know the answers to. Where was the boy? Where was the woman’s husband? Was he coming home soon? Was there a town or a doctor nearby? Joe almost smiled when he realized he was wishing that he’d paid more attention to Adam’s attempts to teach him some Spanish.

Consumed with worry, questions filling his mind, Joe continued to sit, slumped on the edge of his cot. Without realizing it, he’d dropped his head into his hands, and sat there now, completely lost in thought. It wasn’t until Ben bumped against the table on his way towards the door, that Joe realized his father was up and moving about.

“Pa?”

It was as if he’d never spoken. Ben seemed intent on something, and although Joe had trouble making out his father’s expression in the dusky interior of the house, he was almost certain the man was scowling.

“Pa, where are you going?”

This time there was a muttered answer, but it was unintelligible and Joe pushed himself up to follow Pa, his own face now wearing a worried scowl. Unfortunately, Ben had already made his way outside and was walking slowly, but purposefully, across the yard.

“Pa! Answer me, Pa, where are you going?”

Hurrying after his father, Joe was almost shocked at the sight of the stooped visage before him. No longer the strong back he was familiar with, instead he was following what looked like a broken man. Shaking his head, Joe pushed the thought from his mind. They were ill, both of them, injured and ill. He had to get help for his father, there was no use putting it off any longer. They must leave this place and resume their journey toward…. towards what? Home? That was unthinkable. Yet, surprisingly, Joe realized that’s exactly what he had been thinking. Home. Just the word gave him the false sense that everything would be alright, if he could just get his father home.

All these thoughts ran through Joe’s mind as he approached Ben. Several steps were all that was needed to close the gap, and he grasped his father’s shoulder firmly as he questioned him again.

“Pa, what’s wrong?”

As the older man turned, Joe never saw the clenched fist that swung toward him with lightening speed. In fact, he wouldn’t have thought it possible for Ben’s reflexes to be so quick after everything his father had been through. However, the blow, which caught him on the left cheek, was substantial. Although Joe’s body spun to the side, he quickly righted himself and once again hurried to catch his father, totally oblivious to the blood that now streamed down his face. This time he stopped short of reaching out for his pa, simply calling to him instead.

He was surprised to see Ben turn to answer him, and even more surprised at the look on his father’s face. Joe froze in shock at the stark anger his pa turned on him. Even the warm, loving voice was gone. It was as if a stranger stood before him, and Joe took an involuntary step backwards in sheer astonishment. His strangled ‘Pa’ was lost in the older man’s shouted answer.

“What? What do you want? I told you I’m looking for somebody.”

Almost choking in his amazement, Joe struggled to speak clearly.

“Who are you looking for, Pa?”

“Don’t you hear, boy? I told you earlier, I’m looking for John. The deck should’ve been cleaned hours ago, and here it is almost time to set sail. Where has that boy taken off to now? You find him, and tell him to report to me at once!”

Turning angrily, Ben moved off again, this time his gait steadier, as if the anger in him were lending strength to his step. Joe fought back his rising fear, and once more, hurried after his father. He didn’t know how to help Pa, didn’t know what to do. This was way out of his range of experience, and no amount of patience seemed to be helping the situation. All he knew for sure was that he needed to keep his father close; couldn’t let Pa wander away on his own. Yet he was totally unprepared as to how to stop the older, and larger man.

Pleading silently for help, Joe swallowed back tears of frustration as he followed the man he loved above all others. He fought back his own anger and resentment at the events that had left him in this position. Wasn’t he injured too? Didn’t he need his father to watch out for him? And what if Pa didn’t come out of this? What if these strange mood swings were something that would be permanent? Stopping suddenly, he finally admitted the worst fear. What if all these actions were some kind of fatal symptoms? Had he made it all this way only to lose his father?

Resuming his course, Joe realized that Ben had already lengthened the distance between them, had left the yard and headed towards the wide path that ran to the east. Glancing over his shoulder, Joe could see the senora standing near the well, her daughter tucked safely under her arm. Seemingly shocked at the spectacle before her, the woman’s expression was one of fear and regret, and Joe longed to holler back words of hope and encouragement. But the longing was useless. Not only did he lack the adequate words, he also lacked even the slightest trace of reassurance to share with her. All he could find within himself was an unnerving sense of panic and foreboding.

It took no more than several minutes to reach his father’s side, and when he was finally close to his pa, Joe spoke to him once more; pleading with him in a quiet and soothing tone.

“Pa, why don’t you sit down for a minute? It’s awful hot out here and you’ve had a pretty rough time of it.”

Joe never knew if what happened next was an accident; never really cared. The only thing he knew for sure was that his father had suddenly and inexplicably, become his enemy. Although it had seemed, for just a moment, that Ben had recognized his son, the next moment the two men were on the ground, the oldest straddling the youngest. Firmly within the older man’s grasp; having been pushed backwards until he fell to the ground, Joe felt the large hands clasped tightly about his throat.

Struggling to free himself from the man’s powerful hold, Joe searched Ben’s face for any sign of recognition as he strained to call out to his father. But the man’s face was formidable, his eyes glassy, his tirade unbelievable.

“You will not bother my men again! You and your band of cut-throats were warned, but you wouldn’t listen! That young boy you attacked was a lad entrusted to my care. He died, you know. So . . what should I do with you?”

It was as if the hand of fear were clutching at his heart, squeezing it until he thought his chest would explode from the pain. Joe’s mind was consumed with terror and despair, no longer registering the physical pain from his shoulder or even in his throat where the strong fingers squeezed his breath away. The only pain discernible to the youth was the red-hot, glowing pain of betrayal that burned inside his breast.

This man who had loved him and nurtured him, the man who’d been his strength and protection; that same man was now kneeling over him, choking the very life from his body.

Arms flailing uselessly as he tried to break Ben’s hold, Joe kicked and bucked in a final effort to free himself. The world around him seemed to take on a strange grayish tinge; still he struggled to speak. But no one heard that final word as Joe slipped away. Not even the man, who had finally released his grasp, heard the whispered plea escape the boy’s lips.

‘Pa. . . .’

*****

Dark arms slowly loosened around the now quiet form, and gently lowered the large man to the ground. His eyes searching about for his family, Carlos Hernandez was relieved to see his wife, Maria, hurrying towards him, followed closely by his daughter Marta. Rushing forward, he met them both with open arms, satisfied at last that his family was safe. But his wife quickly escaped his grasp and hurried to the two men lying lifeless on the ground.

The older man was still, having simply collapsed in her husband’s arms, his energy spent. She wasn’t sure if he’d released the younger man before or after Carlos had rushed up to him, but either way, she was thankful that he’d let go in time. Bruises were already forming around the young man’s neck, his breathing weak but steady; yet another blessing she gave thanks for. Now if there were just some way to lessen his fever. . .

Within minutes, she had directed both Carlos and his hired hand, Manuel, to assist her, and the two injured men were quickly settled back in their respective beds. Her ministrations were simple, yet she did the best she could with what she had. As she worked, Maria explained the situation, her own fears relieved when she learned that Francisco had located his father and summoned help for the injured men. Carlos and Manuel explained that they had returned on horseback, leaving Francisco with the cattle at the old mission, but both men assured Maria that help was on the way, and should arrive before nightfall.

Sitting next to the young man, Maria continued her vigil into the night. There was no sign of consciousness in either man, and her concern was mounting. Although she had been fearful of them when they first arrived, Maria had a feeling that they were good men and worthy of her assistance. It had been obvious that the young man cared a great deal for the older one, and though she wasn’t sure of the relationship until now, she had been certain that they were family. Carlos had confirmed that the name the boy had continued to use, Pa, was indeed an English word for father.

Her husband had also told her of the recent shipwreck, and they all marveled at the strength of these men, to have made it through such an ordeal, and then to have made their way so far inland on foot. And so, long after the sun had set, and Marta sent off to bed, Maria and her husband continued to tend the injured men. The young man’s fever was dangerously high, his moans sounding tortured, as if his mind itself was in pain. The older man remained silent, his breathing steady, his heartbeat strong, yet his eyes closed in a deep sleep, one Maria was not sure he’d awaken from.

It wasn’t until the following morning that a wagon pulled into the yard. Several men jumped down and hurried to the door, and Maria was surprised to see that the men were not from the army garrison, but were instead, Mexican authorities. Although the explanation seemed simple enough, she was not happy about the situation. These men insisted that the American army not be allowed to travel into Mexico to retrieve their citizens, even though they were obviously victims of a tragic accident. Instead, the two men would be transported to the border, where they would meet with the American soldiers.

Unfortunately, Maria and her husband knew all too well how little these Mexican officials cared about American gringos. But no amount of talking or insisting would alter these men’s intentions, and the couple had no wish to bring the wrath of an army down on their young family. It was with a heavy heart that Maria helped them load the injured men into the back of the open wagon. She feared that neither man would survive the journey, especially with no one to care for them along the way. Raising her eyes to heaven, the young senora murmured her prayers, and pled for their lives.

*****

The white walls of an old church gleamed in the afternoon sun, the trees around it offering shade from the light, and rest to the weary travelers. But the sounds of horses from within the church walls, gave those same travelers a peculiar sense of surprise.

Reining in their horses, Adam and Hoss dismounted as they looked closely at the old mission, San Diego de Alcala. It seemed a shame that such a site, chosen and built as a place or worship, should now be used to house animals. However, neither man took time to dwell on the issue, turning instead to the soldier who had quickly approached them. Within minutes, they found themselves ushered into an office and presented to the commanding officer. After the initial introductions and pleasantries, Adam came right to the point.

“Colonel, our father and brother were on the ship that capsized south of here, and we’d like to ask your help in searching for them. I have with me, a letter from Thomas. . .”

The look on Colonel Anders face was one of total disbelief and Adam faltered for a moment as he struggled to understand the officer’s strange expression. Looking over at Hoss, he was met with a questioning gaze that he was sure, matched his own.

“I know this is rather unusual, sir, but if you’d let me . . .”

“Wait, Mr. Cartwright, I . . . please excuse me, it’s just that . . . did you say father and brother?”

“Yes.”

Immediately, Adam and Hoss were out of their chairs, alert to the feeling that this officer knew something about Pa and Little Joe.

“And they were passengers on the clipper bound for Panama?”

“Yes, that’s right, but why. . .”

“Please, sit down, I must tell you something.”

The colonel’s tone of voice was enough to keep the brothers standing, their senses fully aware that something strange was about to be revealed. Neither dared to hope that the news they were about to hear would be good. But the officer motioned again and they finally returned to their seats, waiting anxiously.

“Colonel?”

“I don’t want to get your hopes up, but there was a Mexican boy who came here yesterday, looking for his father. Seems the boy’s family had found two men wandering near their home. Both were injured and from what I understand, not in very good shape. The boy’s father, who had been here selling cattle, left immediately and we sent a wagon after him to bring the injured men back here.”

The room was silent as Adam and Hoss digested the news. Strangely, neither felt the elation they’d expected, instead a feeling of dread came over them both as they contemplated the possibilities. What kind of hell had Pa and Joe been forced to endure, and how badly were they injured?

“Colonel, is there someone here who can show us where the boy lives?”

A look of regret came over the officer as he faced the large man before him. It was obvious that the man was anxious and upset, but he also recognized a depth of feeling in this man that was astounding. No gruffness or bravado were evident, though the man’s size could surely convey that easily enough, instead, there was a sense of love that was almost palpable. Dropping his voice a bit, the older man spoke warmly.

“Son, it won’t be that easy. There was a problem when our men tried to cross the border. Even though it was a simple case of retrieving our citizens, the man in charge at their post would not let us pass. Instead, he arranged to send one of their wagons and promised to meet us at the border tomorrow.”

“You mean they won’t let you cross the border?”

“Yes, I’m afraid that’s true. I have tried to contact this man’s superior, but that gentleman is currently out of the area. In fact, I believe that it’s a simple case of a young officer trying to prove his authority. Unfortunately, I’m unable to do more, as I have orders to do nothing to antagonize the Mexicans in this area. You know . . politics.”

Adam was standing next to his brother now, dark eyes flared in anger.

“Is there another way to get down there?”

“Yes, of course, but it would take much longer. This seemed the fastest way to get these men the help they need.”

“Alright, we’ll go to the border ourselves. Surely they’ll let us cross, since we’re not soldiers.”

“It’s possible.”

The hesitancy in Colonel Anders’ voice was obvious, and Adam waited expectantly while the older man seemed to struggle within himself. Finally, he spoke again, his voice once more filled with a warmth of understanding.

“You two must keep in mind, it’s possible that these men aren’t your family.”

Now the brothers hesitated, neither able to accept that their search might not be over. Could it be a mere coincidence that these two men were found in the same remote area, yet not be Pa or Joe? Of course it was possible that there were other survivors yet unaccounted for. There was no reason to think that the Cartwrights were the only ones capable of escaping such an awful fate.

Adam and Hoss stood rooted in place, both lost in thought as they contemplated the situation. Once again the colonel broke the silence.

“Perhaps we can locate the boy. It’s possible that he’s still here, as his father had not completed his sale; maybe he could give us some kind of description of the injured men.”

As the commanding officer left the room in search of some answers, Adam returned to his seat while Hoss moved slowly to the small window. Looking out over the busy post, he watched as the soldiers went about their daily routine. It seemed like a lifetime since he’d worked side by side with his father and brothers on the Ponderosa. Pushing back the nagging thought that they might never work that way again, he turned back to watch his older brother.

Adam sat quietly in the wooden chair. Outward appearances would seem to show a man who was calm and in control, as if nothing unusual was taking place. But Hoss knew better. The set of his brother’s jaw, the penetrating gaze from his dark eyes, the stiff set of his shoulders; Hoss knew that Adam had been as taken aback as he was.

So intent on finding Pa and Little Joe, neither had let themselves dwell on the shape the two might be in when they were found. Of course they had known, instinctively, what the outcome could be, but now they were so close. And not only had they learned that both men were injured, but there could be a serious delay in getting them the help they needed. It took all the control either brother could muster, to keep from storming out of the building, and riding off toward Mexico.

 *****

The ship’s deck rolled beneath Joe’s feet, the boards slick from the waves. Overhead, the sails snapped in the wind, while the masts creaked from the added strain. Looking about for his father, Joe struggled to make his way toward the bow of the ship, when suddenly a violent jolt threw him from his feet. Clawing frantically to stop his rapid slide towards the edge, he finally found and caught hold of the bottom rail even as his legs slipped over the side. With half of his body dangling off the ship, Joe called out to the one man he knew would help him.

“Pa! Pa, help me! I need you, Pa.”

As if waiting for the summons, his father stepped from the shadows and moved towards the railing. Reaching down, he grabbed hold of Joe’s wrists, his grip firm and reassuring to the young man. Relief evident as he let go of the railing and grasped his father’s forearms instead, Joe called out to his father again.

“Pull me up, Pa. Please, hurry.”

Looking up into his father’s eyes, Joe was unexpectedly shaken at the sight. No longer the warm and reassuring gaze of a loving parent, instead he met the cold and heartless stare of a stranger.

“Pa?”

Joe pleaded for his father’s help, with his eyes if not his voice. But there was no answer, just a tensing in the hands that still encircled his wrists. Suddenly, instead of pulling the young man to safety, the strong hands released their hold.

A scream tore from Joe’s throat as he spiraled down into the darkness below.

Everything was still, as if the earth had stopped moving. There was no longer a storm raging around him, no creaking, no rolling of the deck beneath his feet, and when Joe finally managed to open his eyes, he was astonished to see not one, but two pair of dark eyes staring down at him. The bright sunshine of midday finally convinced Joe that he must have been dreaming. It could have been the movement and creaking of the wagon that had blended into his dream, and the jolt might have been nothing more than a rock in the road. Yet the speed, with which his heart beat, convinced him that his fear was real.

Joe’s head ached and the heat seemed unbearable. Turning slowly on the pallet, he struggled to understand where he was. What happened to the senora and her children? And how did he end up in the back of a wagon? Where’s Pa? Pa. . . wasn’t it Pa that . .

Turning his head, it took only an instant for Joe to realize that his father was lying next to him in the bed of the wagon. His reaction would’ve astonished his brothers, but more importantly, it would’ve almost killed his father, if the man had been awake to see it. As it was, Ben was still unconscious, blessedly unaware that his youngest son had backed away from him in sheer terror.

*****

“There it is!”

Excitement obvious, Adam and Hoss spurred their horses into a gallop. The sight of a wagon driven slowly by two Mexican soldiers was the one they’d been watching for most of the day, and now that it was within view, nothing would stop the brothers from reaching their goal.

The ride had been a quiet one, each man lost in thought as they rode south of the border. After spending several hours with the Mexican authorities early that morning, both Adam and Hoss were grateful that they’re hadn’t been any other problems. The superior officer at the post had not been easy to deal with, but Adam had finally convinced them that it was in their best interests to let the Cartwrights pass. It hadn’t hurt to throw in the name of a well-known rancher his father knew in the area. Since then, time in the saddle was all that separated them from finally reaching Pa and Joe; or so they hoped.

Now it was there before them, the wagon in which they prayed, they would find the end of their search.

Since his first cry of excitement, Hoss had ridden with his heart in his throat; now he found that he was almost afraid. As Adam explained their presence to the drivers, Hoss moved to the rear of the wagon, steeling himself to what he might see inside. Peering down, he recognized immediately, that their search was finally over. In the next instant, his heart froze in place at the sight of his father. Pa’s eyes were closed and his body so still, it looked as if he had already passed from this life.

In an instant, Hoss was out of the saddle and standing next to the wagon, his large hand reaching over the side to rest upon his father’s chest. The gentle movement there was faint, but steady, and Hoss released the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Only then did his gaze search for his little brother’s face. This time, he found a pair of hazel eyes staring unseeingly at the sky. Once more his chest constricted and his voice was a mere imitation of its normal self.

“Joe . . .”

With the drivers convinced to accept their presence, Adam had moved quickly to join Hoss. The sight of his father and brother brought a mixture of joy and sorrow to the man; joy that they’d been found alive, sorrow at their situation. It was obvious that both were in very bad shape. Climbing into the back of the narrow wagon, he moved carefully between them as Hoss spoke again.

“Adam, is he . . .”

It was then that the hazel eyes blinked slowly, and their little brother turned his head toward the sound of their voices.

“No, Hoss. He’s alive.”

But Adam’s reply was strangled as he took in his brother’s condition. Joe needed a doctor, now. With a rush of words Hoss didn’t understand, Adam persuaded the Mexican soldiers to resume the journey; then turned to take the saddlebag Hoss was handing in to him. There wasn’t a lot he could do, but he’d try. . .

Handing a canteen of water to his older brother, Hoss tied Sport to the wagon; then stepped into his saddle even as the wagon began to move. Urging Chubb forward, he kept pace with the wagon, watching closely as Adam cared for his father and brother.

Pulling a clean shirt from his saddlebag, Adam ripped it into strips. Dampening the first one, he bathed Joe’s face, alarmed at the heat radiating from his brother’s body. He was also surprised at the position that Joe was in. Although there wasn’t a lot of extra space, especially since he’d climbed into the wagon, there was still adequate room for each man to lie comfortably. But Adam found that Joe had pushed himself against the sideboards, almost as if he were trying to get away from something. Changing the cloth on his brother’s forehead, he hoped to see some kind of recognition, but Joe continued to stare upwards, his face expressionless, except for an occasional look of pain.

It was hard to do much in the cramped quarters, but Adam could tell the bandage tied around Joe’s shoulder was stained with blood. The problem was, he had no way of checking the wound as long as they were moving. Part of him longed to stop the wagon and attend to his brother’s injuries, but the other part knew what was needed most was a doctor’s care. So Adam bit down on his lip, and continued his simple ministrations.

Turning slightly, Adam checked on Ben again. Still chewing on his lower lip, the eldest son viewed his beloved father, shocked to see the changes that had taken place in the short time since they’d said goodbye. The man that had stepped onto the stage in Virginia City had been full of life and strength. The man that lay next to him now was thin and pale, a mere shadow of his former self. Laying his hand on Pa’s shoulder, Adam squeezed it gently, longing to know what kind of trials these two had endured.

A low moan brought his focus back to Joe, and Adam quickly removed the now-warm cloth and replaced it with a cooler one.

“Joe? Can you hear me?”

There was no answer, just a twisting of his brother’s head, as if the boy were looking for something. Suddenly, the movement increased as Joe began to thrash about, and his moaning grew louder. The words, however, were incoherent and Adam struggled to understand what his brother was trying to do. Was he searching for something or trying to escape? Adam decided it didn’t really matter as he strained to hold his brother down.

Even in the young man’s weakened condition, he managed to command a great deal of strength, and Adam was amazed at the rippling muscles beneath the thin shirt. But as Joe writhed back and forth, Adam had his first good look at his brother’s neck. The bruises there were unmistakable, and Adam suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

Dark blue and black, the prints had obviously been made by a man’s hands. Someone had choked Little Joe, strangled him to the point of . . . of what? How bad had it been? Who would’ve done such a thing, and what would’ve been the motive? It was obvious that neither man had anything to steal, nor were they in any shape to attack anyone else. And from what he’d learned from the army, the family that had found Pa and Joe were good people, not prone to anger or violence.

The mystery of it was not as unsettling as the sight itself. Pulling Joe’s shirt closed quickly, Adam prayed that Hoss hadn’t seen the marks. There was no sense adding more heartache to the already heartsick man. Time enough to deal with the details when Joe was better and could tell it for himself. . that is, if he got better. Adam didn’t have long to dwell on that thought.

With a sudden cry of anguish, Joe managed to yank himself from Adam’s grasp and once more pushed himself into the side of the wagon. The eyes were still focused on some unseen vision, but now they were also filled with fear. Pushing down his rising panic, Adam kept his voice calm as he crooned to his little brother.

“It’s alright, Joe. It’s Adam. Hoss is here, too, and Pa’s safe. I’ve got ya, boy. I’ve got ya.”

With these last words, Adam managed to pull Joe into his arms, holding him gently as the boy finally began to relax. Although he seemed calmer, there had still been no sign that Joe was aware of his brother’s presence, and looking up, Adam could see his own trepidation mirrored in another pair of eyes. Hoss continued to ride alongside, never taking his gaze from the scene playing out in the back of the wagon.

It was another quiet ride for the two brothers, but this time, the flicker of hope had grown into a flame. No longer were they merely searching, wondering if they’d ever see Pa and Joe again. They’d completed that part of their journey, proved that their intuition had been correct. Unknowingly, Adam and Hoss were both mixing similar prayers of pleas and thanksgiving. For even though Pa and Little Joe were still in grave condition, whatever had happened was in the past. No one could hurt them, now that the injured men were at last safe in the arms of the family that loved them.

On the wagon seat above them, two disinterested militants slowly guided the group north, towards the border.

*****

Shadows of dusk had turned to night by the time the wagon reached the Mexican post. Adam looked about frantically, worried that the American soldiers had not been allowed to wait there as agreed upon. But within minutes, Sergeant Wilson with his lantern held high, could be seen hurrying towards the wagon.

The transfer that followed was quick and well executed. Stretchers were produced, and the injured men carefully moved from the open wagon to an ambulance wagon covered in white canvas. The army surgeon took control and immediately dismissed Hoss and Adam to wait outside. With only his aide in attendance, the doctor began to examine his patients, dutifully conscious of the worried men awaiting his diagnosis.

Barely ten minutes had passed when the doctor, Major Emmons, emerged from beneath the tarp and gave his directions, pausing only to utter a few encouraging words to the anxious brothers. It was clearly apparent that he was eager to return to his own office, and even with the doctor’s reassurances, Adam sensed that his pa and brother were still in grave danger.

The lone wagon moved off into the night, its top reflected in the light of the rising moon. The men riding behind were grateful that the remaining trip was to be a short one; it was long past time for the weary travelers to reach the end of their journey. Hoss and Adam couldn’t help wondering how long before the full circle would come to pass; before the Cartwright family would once more be safe at home on the Ponderosa.

As the evening lengthened, the sounds were mesmerizing and for the tired men, they tended to blend together. There was the creaking of leather saddles, bits jingling, the steady step of the horses as they plodded onward. Mixed in were the loud creaks of the wagon as it rolled over the rough road, the harnessed horses straining in the dark as they pulled their burden towards home.

Hoss couldn’t help but drop his head as the night wore on. It had been a long day; heck, it had been a long string of days since they’d first headed out to find Pa and Little Joe. His body was tired; tired of the riding and tired from the stress of worrying. Even his mind craved respite from the tension. But he wouldn’t let himself give in to the temptation. Pulling himself straighter in the saddle, he watched his older brother riding just off to his right. Adam’s dark clothing made him almost one with the night, and Hoss strained to see the man’s profile in the darkness.

He longed to speak to his brother, needed to hear that deep voice reassuring him that everything would be alright. But Hoss wasn’t a boy any longer, and he knew that no words would truly assure him that this ordeal was over. He also knew that Adam was fighting his own fears; still he wished, with all his heart, that they could talk. Maybe then they could help each other, the way he and Joe did. For the younger brothers, it had always been that way; together, Joe and Hoss could talk about anything.

But it was different with Adam. At times, it seemed as if he had built a wall around himself. Was it a wall to keep Adam in or the rest of the world out? Maybe it was simply Adam’s means of protection; he’d endured enough pain in his young life, losing three mothers, forced to be a man while he was still a boy. . . But Hoss knew that you could break through that wall, it just had to be done carefully. And right now, he simply didn’t have the strength to try. He’d let Adam stay within his self-imposed barriers, and struggle to deal with his own feelings like any man would. Still, it hurt to feel alone.

Lost in his thoughts, Hoss did doze, albeit lightly, and it was Chubb that woke him as the gelding finally stopped and shook his head. The majestic white walls of the old mission shone in the moonlight, and the sight of this beautiful church, in the middle of nowhere, once more fascinated Hoss. But the increased activity brought him quickly into the present. Already the doctor was directing the removal of his patients from the wagon and into the infirmary.

Hoss hurried to catch up to Adam who was at the back of the wagon helping with Joe’s stretcher. Though his fever was obviously high, the boy was deathly quiet, and his brothers exchanged looks of fear at his unusual countenance. Moving together, they shared the burden of his meager weight, carrying him quickly into the building where he was moved gently onto a hospital bed.

Once again, the doctor sent them away. Although his manner was kind, it was clear that he did not need or desire their presence while treating his patients, even if it was their family. And so, they found themselves standing in a small office, alone. Several wooden chairs were available, but neither man had any wish to make use of them. Instead, they merely stood silent or paced about the tiny room. Not even the ticking of a small mantle clock registered in their tired brains. In fact, the men had a vague sense that time simply stood still.

*****

Golden rays of sunshine filtered through the narrow windows, giving the whitewashed room a golden glow. Stretching slowly, Adam rose from the bed where he’d spent a restless night, pausing briefly to watch Hoss sleeping in the next bed. It had been late when the doctor had finally convinced them to get some rest, and even later before either brother had been able to relax enough to sleep. Watching Hoss now, he reasoned that one of them, at least, deserved a few more hours of respite.

Major Nathaniel Emmons was a middle-aged, career-army doctor, and although it was obvious that he liked to do things in the military fashion, following each rule and regulation to the letter, the man had been kind enough to grant the family some extra consideration. It had taken several hours before the major had time to speak to the worried men, and he’d returned to find the brothers pacing his office like a pair of caged cougars. It was readily apparent that they would not be compliant unless they were in close proximity to the injured men, and in all fairness, he knew he’d feel the same if it had been his own family. The doctor’s resulting decision broke his own cardinal rule. Much to the surprise of his aide and assistant surgeon, Major Emmons assigned Adam and Hoss Cartwright, each, a bed in the infirmary.

However, he wondered, later, if that had been the best choice. During the remainder of the night, as the doctor and his staff worked to lower Joe’s temperature, the young man’s brothers had remained watchful, as if fearful that, should they shut their eyes, they might wake to find the boy was gone. The doctor couldn’t help but think that they would have been more relaxed in the officer’s quarters.

Placing yet another cloth upon his young patient’s brow, the troubled doctor looked up to see the dark haired man moving towards him.

“Good morning, Adam.”

“Major. How is he?”

“About the same, fever’s still very high, and he hasn’t regained consciousness. I’ve been wondering if he might be reliving his experiences. He seems to get very agitated and mumbles incoherently for a bit, then settles down without fully waking up. There’s no telling what kind of trauma he’s been through, but it’s obvious that he’s exhausted, which doesn’t help as his body tries to fight this infection.”

Moving to a chair on the other side of Joe’s bed, Adam seated himself quietly. With one hand resting on Joe’s good shoulder, he gazed down at his youngest brother, while fingering the boy’s unruly curls with his other hand. He couldn’t help but notice the dark bruises, a stark contrast to the white of the hospital bed.

“How about his shoulder?”

“I was correct in my first concerns there. The infection was advanced, and although I was forced to remove some of the tissue around the wound before suturing, I believe it will heal nicely.”

A low moan behind him interrupted the men’s conversation, and Adam turned quickly to place a hand upon his father’s chest.

“And Pa? Has there been any change in his condition?”

“No. As I told you last night, your father has suffered a severe head injury. I believe there may have been a fracture to his skull, but with no information regarding the injury, his earlier symptoms, or the length of time he’s been unconscious, all we can do now is wait.”

A low voice behind them, immediately redirected their attention. Hoss stood at the end of Joe’s bed, his gaze moving back and forth between Ben and Joe.

“I appreciate your putting their beds so close together. I know Joe will be looking for Pa as soon as he wakes up; they’re very close.”

Major Emmons nodded his head.

“It seemed the right thing to do.”

The men settled into a routine of sorts. Taking turns at either bedside, applying cold compresses to Joe, speaking quietly to Ben, the brothers did everything they could to stay close and assist the doctor. Even their meals were brought to his office, neither Adam nor Hoss venturing far from the sick ward. The stress was wearing on both of them.

Late that afternoon, Adam realized Hoss was sitting by himself, the look on his face one of despair. He knew a sense of regret for not having taken the time to talk with his brother. At first there had been little time, as they worked to bring the injured men back to the fort. Later, he found that he avoided conversation with his brother, partly due to the questions they both had about Joe’s injuries.

Hoss had barely concealed his dark look of anger when he first caught sight of Joe’s neck. With both men still unconscious, there was no way to get any answers, a fact that weighed heavily on the brothers. How could they look for retribution when they had no idea what circumstances had preceded Joe’s injuries? No one could imagine anything occurring during a shipwreck that would cause the marks he bore. It was too obvious that the imprints were those of human hands.

After positioning yet another cool cloth on Joe’s forehead, Adam moved quietly across the room and pulled a chair close to his brother. As soon as Adam sat down, Hoss dropped his head in his hands, the big shoulders trembling.

“How ya doing?”

Adam’s voice was low; its deep tone unmistakably gentle. He waited patiently while the larger man regained control, his own hands twined together nervously. Being an older brother wasn’t easy, but he’d always felt a sense of responsibility to his younger siblings. It just seemed harder to be positive this time; there was such an underlying element of fear involved. Uncertain as to what Pa and Joe had endured, and if they would even survive, left him feeling terrified. How could he encourage Hoss to be strong and optimistic, when he was feeling so lost himself? It suddenly occurred to him, that the one man he needed to talk with was the one he was most likely to lose.

Looking over at his pa, Adam prayed that the man would come through this, and with sudden inspiration, turned back to Hoss with the only words of encouragement that seemed appropriate.

“Hoss, you know what Pa would tell us to do now.”

Behind the large hands, a thin voice whispered back.

“Pray.”

*****

Something seemed different; the quiet wasn’t as deep, yet he felt calmer, almost at peace. The black void that encompassed him was sliding slowly away, leaving a gray mist that seemed almost familiar. In the background, a murmuring grew louder; it, too, gave him the impression that he should recognize its origin.

‘Voices . . the murmur was voices. But who was talking? And where was he? The ranch? Had something happened? The boys . . where were his boys. Were they alright? Struggling to pull himself from the haze he seemed to be floating in, Ben strained to reach out for his sons, to call them to him. Adam! Hoss! Joe!’

Everyone froze at the sound of the ragged shouts. Seconds later, the narrow bed was surrounded by bodies. The doctor was hard pressed to gain control as the father caught sight of his oldest sons, and the two harried looking men were also on the verge of losing control. It took several minutes for the Major to calm his distraught patient, but in truth, it was actually Adam’s firm voice that finally brought Ben back to himself. The deep baritone rang through the room as he raised his voice a third time in an effort to get his father’s attention.

“Pa!”

Ben’s gaze finally focused on Adam’s face and he slowly reached up to touch his son’s cheek, as if struggling to confirm that Adam was really there. His voice was weak now, his initial strength gone.

“Adam?”

In the next instant, he caught sight of Hoss who was now hunkered down next to his side. The big man stared unerringly into his father’s eyes while his own filled with moisture. Once again, the voice was faint but puzzled.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Pa. We’re here.”

Ben lay back upon his pillow, his pain obvious, yet his eyes continued to search for another face. But his final question was almost lost as he slipped into a dreamless sleep.

“Joe?”

Hoss stood up as Adam slowly let go of his father’s hand, the one he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“Doctor?”

“It’s alright, he’s just sleeping now.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I’m relieved, Adam. As I told you last night, the longer your father remained in a coma, the more concerned I was that he might never awaken. Now my prognosis is greatly improved. He’s not only been conscious, he’s spoken, and he recognized both of you. All of these are excellent signs, and I’d say, with proper rest and good nutrition, your father may make a full recovery.”

The silence in the room was deafening, but the relief was obvious. Neither son could speak, as both digested the news about their father.

*****

Several hours passed, and Hoss continued to sit by his brother’s bed, gently sponging the boy’s feverish brow. He couldn’t get past the change in Joe’s appearance. Thin and haggard, his pale face a stark contrast to the dark bruises below his chin, the boy looked like he’d been through hell.

“Hoss?”

Startled at the thin voice behind him, Hoss turned immediately to see his father watching him through narrowed eyes.

“Pa? Pa!”

Although he couldn’t hide his excitement, Hoss did his best to keep his voice low as he moved closer to his father’s bed.

“How ya feelin’, Pa?”

“I’m fine, Hoss. Where’s Joe?”

“He’s right here.”

Moving slightly to the side, Hoss gave Ben his first glimpse at his youngest son. The worried father drew a sharp breath as he caught sight of the boy’s profile; the flushed face belying the fever Joe was fighting. Struggling to quell his own flashes of pain, Ben drew himself up on one elbow in an effort to see.

“Joe?”

“He hasn’t come to yet, Pa. Looks like he’s been close several times, like maybe he was dreamin’ or somethin’, but then he quiets down again.”

“What happened?”

“Don’t you remember?”

Sinking back against the thin pillow, Ben gently rubbed his head, the flashes of pain growing stronger and more frequent. Hoss watched his father closely, worried that his pa’s injury had affected his memory.

“Pa?”

“Yes, I remember . . some. The ship going down . . . we ended up on a beach, somewhere. I think . . I was in pretty bad shape for awhile. . .”

Ben’s voice broke off, his eyes focused on a point far away, as if seeing a picture from the past. He didn’t realize that he’d gained an audience, as Adam and the doctor stood several feet away. But Hoss’s gentle chiding brought him quickly back to the present.

“Do you remember anything else, Pa?”

“Not much . . walking. I think we walked a ways. Joe used his shirt for . . for a bandage, I think. Yes, for my head, it was bleeding.”

As he spoke, Ben lifted a hand and warily felt the wound his son had cared for, before turning back slowly. It was clear that he was growing tired, his voice weak when he spoke again.

“Joe took care of me . . I think. There was sand . .yes, and water . . he helped me up a rocky hill. . . but that’s all. I can’t remember any more.”

Looking up, Ben’s gaze met that of his older sons, for Adam had moved quietly forward and was now within his father’s sight.

“I can’t remember anything else. . just pain. The pain was so bad . .”

The father’s eyes were filled, now, with a different type of pain as he stared up at his sons. What kind of terror had they lived through, and what did Joe have to endure alone because his father was too sick to help him. Ben was overwhelmed with concern for his youngest boy, and his eyes seemed to search for solace, something Hoss and Adam were quick to provide.

“It’s alright now, Pa. You’re both safe here at the garrison; the doctor said you’re going to be okay, and Joe will be fine too. Why don’t you get some rest now? We’ll be here when you wake up.”

Hoss nodded as his brother spoke gently to their father. Both men were relieved when Ben didn’t argue, merely turning his head to watch his youngest. Minutes later, his eyes slid closed as he fell asleep.

*****

Night had not yet turned to day when Joe finally opened his eyes. The flickering light of a kerosene lamp threw a series of strange shadows about the room, and Joe found that he was almost fearful as he strained to see around him. As his eyes grew accustomed to the feeble light, Joe looked to his left, and was surprised to see his brother Adam. Seated in a straight-backed chair, his head lolling gently to the side as he dozed, Adam looked exhausted.

As he watched his brother slowly come awake, Joe speculated on where he was and what had happened to him. Moving carefully on the narrow bed, he froze instantly. Bright spots of light in front of his eyes were testimony to the pain that shot through his shoulder when he stirred, and as he swallowed convulsively, a similar shaft of pain tore through his throat.

The moaning finally alerted Adam to his brother’s distress. Leaning forward now that he was fully awake, he reached out to grasp Joe’s hand, pulling back in surprise when their eyes met.

“Joe? Joe, it’s Adam.”

At first it was almost as if Joe didn’t know him, yet he did. There was an undeniable look of recognition in his eyes. Still, Adam had the distinct impression that his brother was afraid of something, but what? Joe continued to moan in pain, even as he pulled his body into itself. Just like when they were in the wagon, it seemed as if Joe were trying to hide from something. Adam shook his brother gently, to no avail. Even the doctor’s assistance brought no relief; Joe seemed to be trapped in a scene that no one else could discern.

“Pa!”

That final cry seemed to break the spell Joe was held in, for as he cried out, he opened his eyes wide, and relaxed, at last.

“Adam?”

“Yes, Joe, I’m here.”

“Where . . .”

“You’re at the old mission; been here a couple days now.”

 “Is Pa?”

“He’s here. Sleeping right now, but the doctor thinks he’s going to be fine.”

The tension finally left Joe’s face as he watched his older brother. Hazel eyes met dark brown, as if searching for reassurance. Adam smoothed the blankets back over his injured brother; then laid another wet cloth across his brow.

“Everything’s alright, Joe. You get some rest now.”

With a low moan as he leaned back on the pillow, Joe closed his eyes, as a feeling of protection wrapped itself around him. Adam wouldn’t let anything happen. Whatever was trying to reach him wouldn’t have a chance as long as his brother was nearby.

Adam didn’t miss the sigh that escaped the young man’s lips. Wondering, briefly, about its origin, he also pondered another point. Why didn’t Joe ask to see Pa?

*****

Ben turned slightly on his cot, his efforts giving him a slightly different view from which he could see the gentle rise and fall of his son’s chest; a comforting sight for the worried father. Recalling the events of the past few days, Ben couldn’t help but be amazed at the resiliency of his youngest boy. After Joe’s first period of wakefulness, it was only a matter of hours before the doctor declared the fever had broken. The rest of the family had watched closely, but from that point on, Joe had grown stronger, and though he still slept most of the time, he was definitely looking better. The harrowing experience would no doubt leave its mark on Little Joe, but Ben had been hopeful that in the end, his son would be the stronger for it. His hopes were somewhat dashed, however, after what he’d learned tonight.

The lamps had been turned low and everyone asleep when Pa awoke, everyone except Hoss and Joe. The whispered conversation was meant to be private, but Ben was glad that he’d overheard, even though the words were enough to leave him shaken from shame and remorse. At the first words, Ben knew he should have made himself known, but Joe’s wavering voice had convinced him to keep quiet. The boy was obviously distressed about something, and it seemed best to let him get it out. Minutes later, he wished fervently that there was some way to escape the horrible declaration he found himself privy to.

“Pa doesn’t know any of this, Hoss. I don’t want him to ever know. . .”

“It’s alright, Joe, you know I won’t tell him unless you want me to.”

“I don’t.”

There was a brief pause, as if Joe were gathering his strength, and Ben wished he could turn enough to be able to see his son’s face, but he kept still.

“Hoss, you know how Pa is; how stubborn he can be when he gets worked up. But even when he’s angry, you still know he cares about you, right?”

“Sure, little brother, we all know that.”

“Well, have you ever. . . I mean, when Pa’s been mad, have you ever felt like. . like he didn’t love you? Or even like you?”

The hesitation was brief, but Ben could almost feel the tension emanating from the other cot. When Hoss finally answered, his voice was filled with confusion.

“Course not; what would make you ask something like that?”

“Well . . . it’s just that . . you see, Hoss . .”

“Just tell me, Joe.”

“It’s hard to talk about. I mean, I know what happened was caused by Pa’s head wound, but it was so strange. One minute he’d be acting normal, knew who I was and what was going on, the next minute he’d yell at me.”

Now that he was finally telling the story, it was as if a door had been opened, and the story poured out. Joe stopped for only a moment to catch his breath before rushing on.

“Hoss, you wouldn’t believe what it was like. I kept trying to help him, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He’d forget things and sometimes he’d get so angry. There was something . . well, it was so unlike Pa, I can’t explain it.”

“Ahhh, come on, Joe. Sounds like he was just having a pretty rough time of it; was probably pretty worried about you, too. And with your shoulder hurtin’ and all . . I bet you were just a mite sensitive.”

“No . .no, it was more than that. Pa was really acting strange, and there were a couple times he even cursed at me!”

“Hmm . . well, now that you know how bad Pa was hurtin’, you can understand why he reacted like that, right? No reason to keep worrying over it. Doc says he’s gonna be good as new before long, then we’ll all head home, and everything will be fine.”

There was no answer, and after several minutes, Ben wondered if Joe had fallen asleep. Lying here listening to his sons talking reminded him of earlier years when the two were young. There were several conversations he’d overheard through the years, but none so disturbing as this one. How could he have acted so callously towards his own son?

It was obvious that whatever he’d said or done had distressed his son, and of all his three boys, Joseph was the one he’d always taken great care with.

For some reason, it had always been Joe who needed that extra reassurance that he was loved and protected. Even now, as a young man, Joe sometimes seemed to revert to his younger self, wanting only the closeness or presence of his father in times of trouble. It was impossible for Ben to understand how he could have disregarded his own son, even if he had been suffering himself. Surely a father’s love would transcend any injury he might have received.

As the silence lengthened, he began to relax, glad that there was no more to Joe’s story; what he’d heard was bad enough. But his middle son’s low voice heralded the beginning of another chapter.

“Hey, Joe?”

“What?”

“How’d you get those bruises on your neck?”

“Bruises?”

“Yeah. Right there at your throat . . they look . . well, it looks like someone’s hands were . . .”

As the voice slowly faded into silence, Ben’s body stiffened, and for a moment, he didn’t know if he could continue to hide his wakefulness. It seemed as if his ragged breathing alone would give him away. Every muscle in his body was tensed with waiting . . unable to fathom what kind of hell his son must have lived through. What more would Joe reveal tonight? But his son’s whispered answer did nothing to resolve the questions, and it was all Ben could do to keep from leaping up and demanding to know more. As it was, he was forced to lie there quietly as his youngest decisively ended the conversation.

“I don’t know, Hoss . . I honestly don’t remember much of anything after we found that little boy. . . Think I’m going to get some sleep now. Night.”

The rustling sound of blankets being straightened was all that filled the room, and Ben had to strain to make out the muted words Hoss answered.

“Night, Joe.”

Several hours had passed since the two brothers had spoken, but still their father moved restlessly on his cot. Watching Joe sleep now, it was hard for Pa to comprehend the implications of what he’d overheard. What or whom had injured his son? And why couldn’t the boy remember anything about the incident? Ben longed to move closer to Joe and inspect the bruises himself, but the knife-like pain in his own head kept him reclining on his pillow. He wondered, idly, if this nightmare of a trip would ever be over.

*****

The room was colored a pale yellow, the early morning sun just beginning to filter through the small windows overhead. Ben peered carefully out of half-opened eyes, almost as if surprised that he had fallen asleep in the first place.

The infirmary was still, although faint sounds of the waking post drifted in from outdoors, but they didn’t seem loud enough to have awakened him. The sound of low moaning from the next bed quickly caught and held his attention. Joe was in the same position as he was when Ben had watched him sleeping earlier, but now his body seemed stiff and tense. It was obvious that the young man was in the midst of a nightmare, and it appeared to be quite frightening from the way he rolled his head from side to side.

Suddenly, Joe jerked awake, his hands flailing frantically above him as if reaching for help. ‘Or fending off a foe.’ Ben’s fleeting comparison was quickly forgotten as he struggled to reach his son. Unfortunately, the vertigo that continued to plague him would not allow him to hurry to his son’s side. Instead, it was a halting process of small movements that took an extremely long time in Ben’s eyes. By the time he reached his boy’s side, Joe had already laid back against his pillow, his eyes focused on some minute speck on the ceiling above.

“Joe? Are you alright, son?”

“Yeah, Pa. I’m fine.”

Ben was balanced precariously on the side of Joe’s narrow bed, but the worried father steeled himself against the reeling affect of his head injury. Putting his hand on his son’s arm, he was surprised to feel a slight flinch as if Joe was attempting to shrug off his father’s touch.

“You sure, son? That sounded like quite a dream.”

“I’m sure. You can go back to bed now, I’ll be okay.”

Realizing that Joe had never looked directly at him, Ben took an extra moment to study his injured son. The affect of the sun and wind had taken a toll on his boy’s already tanned skin, but the real blow came when Pa studied the marks around his son’s neck. Hoss had not exaggerated when he described it as being made by a man’s hands. But who? Who would’ve done this to Joseph, and why?

Hazel eyes watched him closely as Ben drew back in astonishment. Words would not come, and finding that he was unable to speak, Pa groped blindly towards his own bed and dropped unceremoniously onto its rumpled surface. Silence stretched between them as the two men watched the morning sun filter into the room, and it was quite awhile before Ben felt he had his emotions under control enough to question Joe. But his energy was wasted. Unable or unwilling, Pa wasn’t sure which described Joe’s failure to answer his questions. Regardless of the reason, there was no further conversation on the subject, and the older man was left to worry over his son in silence.

*****

Riding into San Diego, Adam paused for a moment to study the view before him. If it weren’t for the circumstances that brought him here, the dark haired man was sure he would have enjoyed spending some time in this lovely city. As it was, there were horses and supplies to purchase, telegraphs to send and arrangements to be made before the family headed for home.

Almost three weeks had passed since Pa and Little Joe had been found, and the doctor had finally declared the injured pair fit for travel. Of course, neither one was in the strongest condition, but it seemed that they’d made a fair recovery, and everyone involved felt that it was time for the men to go home.

Joe continued to suffer from nightmares and Adam suspected that they were much more disturbing than his brother let on. From his description of the dreams, there was always a ship involved, a fact that seemed completely understandable considering the circumstances. The strange thing was that the dreams seemed to be growing worse, or at least Joe seemed to be more affected by them as time went by. At first the doctor had assured them that the nightmares would subside as Joe began to feel safe again, but that didn’t seem to be the case. And finally, Ben had been the one to insist the family return to the Ponderosa. He felt certain that his son would recover faster in the comfort and safety of his own home.

However, the eldest Cartwright had been a little slower to recover from his injury. The head wound he’d suffered had been severe, and the doctor continued to remind them that Ben was lucky to even be alive. Adam wasn’t at all sure that his father was ready for the arduous journey home, especially in view of the fact that Pa was suffering from extremely painful headaches. He suspected that his father was operating from sheer determination, and the doctor had fairly insinuated the same thing. But in the end, Major Emmons had agreed that Ben would be able to make the trip if they took it easy and stopped often to rest. He’d supplied them with medication to be used if necessary, and with his final approval, the men had begun to plan the expedition.

They had discussed various modes of transportation, but in the end, it was decided that riding horseback would be the best and easiest means. Of course, they could have taken a stage part of the way, or even bought a wagon or buckboard for the trip, but all agreed that bouncing over roads that were not always in the best condition would be more hazardous than riding a good sound horse. And so, Adam had been dispensed to the city to purchase mounts for his father and younger brother.

It was barely three hours later when Adam rode away from the city. Grateful that he and Hoss had left home with their own mounts, he nonetheless felt confident that he’d made sound choices in his purchases, and the horses he led back to the post were amongst the finest mounts available. With a sigh of contentment, Adam looked forward to returning to the ranch. Their departure had been abrupt, to say the least, and though they had kept in contact with the foreman, it was time for a Cartwright to be back at the helm.

It was that thought, the simple act of using the word ‘helm’ in comparison to their daily life, which suddenly caused the eldest son to freeze. Pulling Sport to a standstill, Adam paused to examine his thoughts.

With all of the worry and care they’d given to Pa and Little Joe over the past weeks, he and Hoss had never again talked about their experience. With a sudden burst of clarity, Adam realized how very close they’d come to losing their loved ones. That simple reminder left him shaken, and it took some time before he felt able to continue on his way. But as he sat quietly on Sport, his mind reeling with memories, days and weeks of worry and concern seemed to melt away. Instead, Adam focused on the simple realization that Pa and Joe were alive and well, soon to be home on the Ponderosa. When he finally resumed his journey, the sun seemed to shine a little brighter and Adam found himself humming a tune as he rode along, anxious to reach the post and his family.

*****

“Thank you, Nate. We’ll never forget what you’ve done for us.”

Major Emmons glanced down at his own hand, encased as it was in two large hands, which held his warmly. Looking back at the white haired man, he was almost overwhelmed at the emotion filled eyes that watched him closely. Then, pulling his military training into place, he answered in a matter-of-fact tone. Only someone close to him would recognize the sentiment in his own voice.

“You’re welcome, Ben.”

No more was said as the older man moved to his horse and gingerly pulled himself into the saddle. Once settled there, he stared down at the doctor for only a moment before turning to his sons.

“Okay, boys, let’s go home.”

The answering comments were lost in the movement of horses and pack animals as the group turned from the hitching post and rode away from the old church. But long after they’d disappeared from sight, the major continued to stand on the porch, staring after them. He wondered at the strong family ties that bound them so closely, and worried about the healing that had yet to occur.

There was an underlying concern that the doctor had been unable to dispel, something between the youngest son and his father. Adam had finally confirmed his suspicions when he mentioned that Little Joe seemed to have pulled away from his pa. It was obvious that Hoss, also, was worried about his family. But no matter how many times the doctor attempted to question the young man, each time he’d been quietly ignored or flatly rebuked. The whole situation had left the major almost unsure of his prognosis. Was there really something bothering young Cartwright, or just the remnants of adversity weighing heavily on the boy’s mind?

There had been no resolution to the men’s questions about the events in Mexico, and everyone concerned had been frustrated upon learning that the young boy had disappeared. He had been their only hope for answers, and there had even been some talk of searching for him until the commander had put a stop to it. Although the child’s relatives remained quiet about his whereabouts, the colonel assumed that the boy had returned to his parents in Mexico.

And then there had been the frustrating situation with the newspaperman. The editor of the Los Angeles Star, himself, had appeared at the fort one day, bound and determined he would walk away with the interview of a lifetime. Colonel Anders had put an end to that, by the Cartwright’s request, of course. In fact, the doctor felt certain that if the colonel hadn’t stepped in when he did, the middle Cartwright son might’ve taken things into his own hands, and physically removed Mr. Perkins from the garrison. It was obvious that neither of the men in question was up to, or willing to, share the details of their ordeal, and the two older brothers were willing to go to any lengths to protect them.

The uncertainty of their experiences had only led to more confusion for the two lost travelers, but there was nothing more that anyone could do. The colonel had promised to contact the Cartwrights if anything else was learned, but everyone involved knew that there was little hope that they’d ever know the truth about Ben and Joe’s experience south of the border. Perhaps it was better if they never did.

Finally, the major turned away from his brooding, reassuring himself that he’d done all he could do and time would have to do the rest. For now, he simply hoped that the journey home would be uneventful for the family, and that once they reached their destination, the two men would rediscover the closeness that the older brothers were certain had been lost.

*****

Joe inhaled deeply, happy to be outside at last and back in the open air. The afternoon sun was warm on his shoulders and he settled his hat at an angle to shade his face from its rays. Shifting carefully in the saddle, he fidgeted at the slow pace they kept, wishing he could simply put spurs to his horse and race back to the ranch. But though he railed at the sluggish pace, Joe recognized the prudence of this choice. His father was still weak, and in all honesty, his own shoulder was still giving him some trouble. As the horses moved into single file to traverse a narrow part of the trail, Joe used his vantage point at the rear of the line to study each of the men before him.

At the lead, Adam had his hands full with a nervous Sport who continually danced about the trail as if anxious to be off. Joe had a feeling that the horse was merely responding instinctively to its rider and that truth-be-known, Adam was as eager as any of them to get home. However, no one could tell from his calm exterior.

Shaking his head Joe almost laughed at the enigma that was his oldest brother. The man truly fit the nickname ‘Yankee Granite Head’ that Joe had bestowed on him; stubborn as the day was long, yet an expert on the art of concealing his true feelings. It was rare that anyone, even his own family, was allowed access to his emotions. Joe knew that Adam cared deeply about things; it just wasn’t often that the older man relaxed enough to show ‘how’ he felt. But being his brother, Joe had learned over the years how to read him. The family had been away from home far too long, and Adam was probably second-guessing his decision to make the slow ride home. No one could accuse Adam of not taking his responsibilities seriously.

Neither of the older brothers knew their younger sibling was awake that first night on the trail, but Joe had laid in his bedroll listening intently to the conversation. Adam was concerned about the ranch, yet worried about the health of his father and brother. There had been much discussion between him and Hoss as to which trail to take; should they go northwest towards San Francisco and then home or take the less inhabited route and travel up the eastern side of the Sierra’s. It was late that night before the two came to an agreement, and early the next morning the family headed northeast towards Lone Pine.

The route they chose was slightly shorter, but at the rate they were traveling, it could still be several weeks before they’d get home and Joe knew that had to be weighing heavily on Adam’s mind. However, when Hoss had suggested Adam ride on ahead, the oldest son had been adamant in his refusal. Joe had to admit that not only did he love his eldest brother; he also respected him.

While considering the man in the lead, Joe suddenly realized that the next man in line had turned in his saddle and was carefully studying the two men riding behind him. With a quick smile, Joe reassured Hoss that everything was fine and his brother turned back to watch the trail. The large man had kept a constant vigil over his father and younger brother, and Joe knew intuitively how difficult this whole experience had been for him.

Always the one to care for a stray, Hoss couldn’t stand for anything to be hurt, least of all someone he loved. But the uncertainty of those first days after the shipwreck was something he hadn’t come to grips with. It was obvious in his solicitous care of Pa, almost as if he were afraid that something might happen yet to take his father away. Joe knew how much Hoss relied on his father, maybe even more so than Joe himself. The constancy of his family and the Ponderosa was what kept his world in order, and Hoss would be lost if anything were to disrupt that. So Joe let his brother fuss over him, wisely aware that as time passed, things would return to normal.

The horses moved on at a steady pace as Little Joe thought about his family. And then his eyes settled on his father.

Pa rode easily on the Morgan gelding Adam had purchased for him, and Joe found it hard to believe that this was the same man he’d struggled with on the rocky hillside several weeks ago. The scene before him now was the same one he’d witnessed many times before; a strong man riding straight and proud, with his sons at his side.

Although Ben was still experiencing headaches, he insisted they push steadily for home, and only Hoss and Adam’s foresight kept the older man from overdoing it. Each afternoon, before the sun slid behind the horizon, the family would already be ensconced in a hotel or settled near a stream to camp. By unspoken agreement, the eldest sons were careful to state their plans as fact, giving their father no room to challenge or disagree with their arrangement. Joe saw it all and smiled to himself at the conniving ways of his brothers. He knew that his pa was also aware of the subterfuge, but with good grace, their father had yet to confront them on the issue. Instead, he seemed to resign himself to accept the slow trip, and after awhile, even enjoy it. Joe wondered if, in reality, the leisurely pace was all that Pa could really handle.

However, as he stared at his father’s back, Joe couldn’t help the slight frown that appeared on his face. There was something . . he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something that didn’t seem right. He felt good, having his father so near, safe and once more healthy. Yet little scenes kept appearing before him, visions of another man, one who was cold and angry. Joe’s frown grew as he struggled to understand what the images meant.

His memories of the past weeks were only bits and pieces of recollections; nothing that Joe could really say was clear in his mind. He’d tried to tell Hoss about what happened, had remembered some of the first days after the ship went down. Joe could almost see the sand on the beach, his father lying unconscious beside him, but even that seemed a hazy picture, coming in and out of focus as he tried to recall the exact sequence of events. From there the pictures were even more obscure.

He knew they’d walked a long way, knew there had been little food or water and there was only a dim recollection of a small boy. Occasionally he’d summon up segments of conversations that he and Pa had shared, but mostly it remained just bits and pieces of a larger picture, one that he couldn’t quite put together. Joe wondered, idly, if he’d ever remember everything that had happened. Part of him didn’t care; content to leave the past in the past.

But there was more . . . an undercurrent of confusion that seemed to be growing within him. Joe didn’t know what was causing the feeling, but he did know that it was getting stronger. Unaware that his frown had turned into something of a scowl, Little Joe rode along as he attempted to understand what was bothering him.

It was hard to admit, but he knew it had something to do with Pa, and that simply didn’t make sense. The two had always shared a very close relationship. Whether from his position as youngest son, or simply as a result of Ben’s love for Marie, Joe had always enjoyed his father’s attentions and welcomed them. But in the past few days, truthfully ever since he’d awoke in the infirmary, Joe had felt almost uncomfortable in his father’s presence. He could think of nothing that would have caused a break in their relationship. Of course he knew that their ordeal had been strenuous, but they’d been together, and Joe knew that was the most important thing to both of them. What could’ve happened to change that?

Regardless of what might have occurred, Joe couldn’t bear the feeling that was growing inside him. Every time his father came too close, Joe felt the desire to escape, and that alone was enough to frighten the boy. Where once he longed for his father’s touch, now he found himself striving to prevent it.

“Joe!”

Finding himself the only one still moving, Joe pulled back on the reins and his mount stopped immediately.

“Yeah, what?”

Hoss laughed as he repeated his question.

“I asked if you were going to stop here and camp with us or go on by yourself.”

Unable to stop his own grin, Joe moved slowly out of the saddle, being careful not to irritate his still throbbing shoulder.

“Nah, big brother, I guess I’ll camp here with you. Though I’m sure I’d get more rest if I found a place to sleep a mile or so down the road. You do know that you snore, don’t ya?”

The answering guffaw was almost joined by a slap to his younger brother’s back, but at the last minute, Hoss carefully dropped his arm around Joe’s shoulder instead.

“Nah, little brother, you don’t say?”

Ben and Adam joined in the laughter as the four men quickly set up camp, and the family seemed relaxed and at ease as the evening progressed. If anyone noticed the distance that Joe kept between himself and Pa, they didn’t mention it.

But the nagging feeling growing within him couldn’t be denied, and Joe found himself staring into the star filled sky hours later. Even on his side, Hoss split the night air with his snoring, but that wasn’t what kept the boy awake. He longed to talk with his father, but in reality, he didn’t even know what he’d say. The only thing he really knew with any certainty was that he didn’t feel safe anymore.

*****

“Wake up, boy. Joe, wake up!”

The faint light of the dying campfire barely illuminated Joe’s face, but Adam could see the hazel eyes had opened slightly. Slowly releasing his grasp on Joe’s arms, Adam carefully eased his brother back against the saddle.

“Joe?” You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks, Adam.”

The voice that answered was trembling, just as the boy’s hands were as he straightened his blanket. Peering through the dim light, Adam could see that his brother’s face glistened and his curly hair was damp with sweat, yet it was obvious that Joe didn’t want to talk about his dream. From the way the boy had already curled up under his blanket, it almost seemed as if he were trying to cut himself off from the world.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Uh, huh.”

Rolling back into his own bedroll, Adam continued to stare at his brother’s back, only now aware of the new position of Joe’s bedding. When camp had been arranged hours earlier, Joe’s saddle and blankets had been placed evenly between Ben and Adam’s. Sometime during the night, on purpose or by accident, Joe’s bedding had ended up closer to his oldest brother. Not that he minded, in fact Adam felt flattered that the boy felt comfortable in his presence. But in all Joe’s years, he’d never moved away from his father’s side. If Ben were in camp, you could be sure that Little Joe was bedded down nearby. Only when the boys were camping without their father did Joe end up next to one of his brothers.

It was a simple thing, an unimportant fact, but one that Adam couldn’t help but add to the growing collection of Joe’s strange actions. He fell asleep worrying about his brother, unaware that only inches away, the boy was still awake and more than a little worried himself.

*****

The few small towns along the way gave the weary travelers only scant comfort as they worked their way northward. During the first week of their journey there had been hotels or boarding houses to offer a hot meal and warm bed, but as the days passed, the men found themselves making camp more often than not. When they did find a town big enough to boast a general store, they would sometimes add a few supplies to their packs.

Joe, especially, still looked somewhat gaunt after his ordeal. The days without food, along with the infection and fever he’d suffered through, had left him thinner than usual; but his family was rather surprised at the lingering affects. After steady meals at the army post and the extra food they had available for him while on the trail, he should have been showing signs of renewed strength and vigor. Instead, the boy looked haggard in appearance; his previously lean frame could now be best described as skinny.

And then there was his attitude. Normally cheerful and easy to get along with, even with his mercurial displays of temper, the boy was now almost listless. He seemed to jump at every sound and though he acted as if he enjoyed being with his family, Joe’s eyes seemed to be continuously watchful; shifting nervously, as if afraid that something was out to get him.

After almost three weeks, the four riders where relieved to see familiar landmarks as they grew closer to home. By mutual consent, they had cut up towards the lake rather than ride into Carson, each man more than a little homesick. The tall pines were a welcome sight and the Cartwrights breathed a sigh of relief as they welcomed the end of their journey.

“Pa, I see it, I see it!!”

Ben’s heart lurched at the excited tone in his youngest son’s voice. It was a sound he didn’t realize he’d missed, but as the boy shouted with enthusiasm, it seemed the weight of the world was lifted from the father’s shoulders. Maybe everything would be alright once they were home. Kicking his horse into a gallop, Ben quickly caught up to his sons. The four of them sat quietly, even their mounts content to stand in silence.

The view before them was one that always inspired a feeling of awe to those who were witness to its magnificence. The shimmering mass of dark water was a vivid contrast to the blue of the sky above. An occasional white puff of cloud would move across the heavenly expanse, giving an added distinction to the scene, its own fluffy beauty reflected in the deep blue waters below. Along the shoreline were miles and miles of green trees, their tips seeming to reach out from the dark blue below to touch the light blue above; an occasional outcropping of gray rock only added to the diorama.

It was some time before anyone dared break the silence. They all seemed happy to simply drink in the sight before them, grateful that they’d been allowed to view this scene again. But the sun had passed its zenith and there were still some miles to travel; none of them wanted to spend another night on the trail when their own warm beds were waiting nearby. As if an unspoken command had been given, the four men turned their mounts and headed towards home.

*****

Hop Sing moved sullenly about his kitchen, preparing yet another quiet meal for himself. It had been many days since he’d received any word from his family, for that’s what he considered them, his family. Yet he knew that they would be back soon. At first he had worked happily, excited to know that the two lost travelers were soon to be home, but as the days dragged by, his happiness turned to exasperation. Waiting was always hard.

As he filled a bowl with rice and settled at the small wooden table next to the stove, the Chinaman was startled to hear a ringing shout followed by several whoops and calls. The series of sounds were not unheard of; in fact, he realized instantly that the noise was exactly what he’d been waiting for. Jumping from his seat, HopSing was at the door in an instant, a wide smile adorning his own small face.

Although the pounding hoof beats still echoed in the yard, the horses were no longer ridden, but stood standing quietly, their sides heaving from the final run. Their owners were already dismounted and in the act of pulling bedrolls and saddlebags from their mounts when the cook hurried to greet them.

“Vely good you home, Mr. Cartwright. HopSing glad you okay. Little Joe okay too?”

“Yes, he’s fine. And you’re right; it’s good to be home.”

“HopSing! There you are. What’s for dinner?”

The look of consternation on the Chinaman’s face would have stopped any other man in his tracks, but Hoss Cartwright was used to the cook’s stern countenance; he simply overlooked it. Instead, he slapped the smaller man on the back and hurried into the house to deposit his things before returning to care for the horses. It took several minutes before Joe stepped forward, but when he did, HopSing sucked in his breath, a look of surprise quickly concealed by a welcoming smile.

“There is younger son. Good you home, Little Joe. What you want for dinner? HopSing make you best meal, make you vely glad you back at home.”

“What do you mean, asking him what he wants for dinner? I’m the one who’s really hungry here.”

“Ah, come on Hoss, you’re always hungry. Let’s get these horses taken care of, and then you can start in on HopSing’s cooking.”

Joe smiled at the friendly banter between his brothers, unaware that he was being watched. The young man looked almost relaxed as his gaze moved slowly about the yard. It was as if he were taking in the sight for the first time. After several minutes, Ben cleared his throat and beckoned to his youngest son.

“Let’s go inside, Joe. We’re finally home.”

HopSing observed quietly as Joe hesitated for a moment; then the boy reached down and picked up his bedroll before following his father inside the house. As he returned to his kitchen, the Chinaman spoke rapidly in his native tongue. Had anyone within range been able understand the language, they would’ve known the man was more than a little concerned for his family.

*****

Ben heard the rider coming in fast and he stood quickly to stare out of the narrow window behind his desk. By the time he’d pulled back the thin curtain, Joe had already dismounted and was entering the side door into the kitchen. Immediately, Ben could hear the diminutive cook ranting in Chinese, his words indistinguishable, his frustration obvious. Settling back into his chair, Ben returned to his bookwork, struggling to keep his focus on the pages before him instead of centering on the light-hearted laugh of his youngest son.

It was several minutes later that the older man realized he was not alone. Looking up, he was startled to meet the green-eyed gaze of his son.

“Joe? Anything wrong?”

“No, just came in to give you a message from Adam.”

Ben watched in annoyed fascination as Joe fumbled with the hat held tightly in his hands. Normally, the boy would’ve rushed in excitedly, and in his youthful exuberance, found the only place to rest himself would be on the corner of his father’s desk. But today, Joe stood at that same corner, almost as if he were unsure of himself, causing Ben to cringe inwardly at the change in his son.

Life at the Ponderosa had settled back into routine after their return. Busy with his figures and ledgers, Ben was overwhelmed at the amount of work that had piled up in his absence. Each day the headaches grew less intense, until finally they caused only an occasional discomfort.

Joe had not been as lucky. No sooner had they reached the ranch, than the infection in his shoulder flared up again and Doc Martin had been out to the ranch several times to check on his patient’s progress. Although the wound seemed to be healing well, Ben had noticed that the boy still favored it and some evenings would find him carefully seated on the couch in such a way that the rest of the family knew he was in pain.

But the change that upset the family most was the one in Joe’s behavior. The normally cheerful young man seemed almost sullen at times. Although he seemed happy enough while busy with his chores and duties about the ranch, his whole attitude seemed to change the instant he walked into the house. And the dreams . . . what had started out as an occasional mumbling in his sleep on the trail had turned into full-fledged nightmares after they got home. Joe couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about them, often becoming angry if anyone questioned him about what he remembered.

Ben had struggled with the boy’s change, and had even talked with Paul Martin, stating that ‘if he didn’t know better, he’d think the boy was trying to avoid him.’ Of course, the doctor had argued with Ben’s theory, but the fact remained in Ben’s mind: Joe was avoiding his father.

“Pa?”

“What? Oh, sorry, Joe. I was just thinking. What did you say again?”

“I said that Adam wanted me to tell you that there was a lot more fence to mend than he expected. HopSing is fixing us a lunch, and we won’t be back until late.”

“Okay, son, that’s fine.”

Ben had risen from his chair, but as he approached Joe, the boy took an involuntary step backwards. Frozen in shocked surprise, Pa could only watch as Joe blurted out some excuse about his brother’s waiting before hurrying out the door.

*****

The familiar feel of the ship’s deck rolling beneath Joe’s feet caused a tremor of fear to ripple through the boy. Wide boards slick with foam from the waves made his progress treacherous. Still Joe moved towards the bow of the ship, looking frantically for his father. The sound of the sails snapping in the wind was accompanied by the creaking of the masts; the sounds almost lost in the howl of the fierce winds.

A violent shaking from deep within the ship threw Joe to the deck, and clawing frantically, he fought to stop his rapid slide towards the edge. Just as he grasped and held the bottom rail, his legs slipped over the side, leaving half of his body dangling off the ship. The terror in his voice was unmistakable, even to his own ears, as Joe called out to the one man he knew would help him.

“Pa! Pa, help me! I need you, Pa.”

Moving slowly from the shadows, a silver haired man appeared at the railing, and reaching down, grabbed hold of Joe’s wrists. The grip of his hands alluded to a sense of strength, and relief flooded through the young man as he let go of the railing and grasped his father’s forearms instead. Joe’s relief was evident as he called out to his father again.

“Pull me up, Pa.”

Staring into the dark eyes above him, Joe was unexpectedly shaken at the strange sight. No longer the warm and reassuring gaze of a loving parent, instead he met the cold and heartless stare of a stranger.

“Pa?”

The pleading in his voice was unmistakable, but there was no answer, and the boy felt a moment of hopelessness, and then the man released his grasp. As Joe plunged into the darkness below, he could still see the callous stare of the man above him.

Heart pounding, Joe sat up in bed and looked around him. It took several minutes before he truly convinced himself that he was safe in his own room. Once more this dream had shaken him, the vivid details exactly the same each time.

With a moan of frustration, Joe eased himself back against his pillows and stared at the ceiling above. He couldn’t erase the picture of his father’s uncaring gaze; it was almost as if he’d seen the sight before.

“Course you’ve seen it before . . you’ve only had this dream every night for weeks.”

Joe almost grinned as he realized he was now talking to himself, and out loud to boot. But the grin disappeared into a grimace as he struggled to keep his emotions under control. He longed to go to his father, but something continued to hold him back. Even though he was sure that it was the contents of the dream itself, still Joe couldn’t make himself talk to his father. Even the simplest of conversations had been difficult for the two lately, and Joe felt he had really tried. There was simply no explanation for what he was feeling.

And so he forced himself to take slow, even breaths in an effort to calm down. Lying in his darkened room, afraid to ask for the help he so desperately needed, Joe Cartwright fought his demons alone.

*****

“Well, what d’ya think, Adam? He’s not getting any better, is he?”

“No, no he isn’t.”

“What’s wrong with Joe, anyway?”

“I don’t know for sure. I’ve tried to talk to Pa, but . . well . . .”

“Pa’s afraid.”

“Afraid? Our Pa?”

“Yeah, Adam, afraid. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with Joe, and he doesn’t know how to help him. You know, if it was a cut to be stitched or a broken bone to be set, he’d know what to do, but this . . this is something real different.”

“You’re right. But just sitting here watching the kid get worse isn’t right either. I know Pa’s already talked to Doc Martin, but I’m going into town tomorrow, and I’m going to stop and talk to him again.”

“Couldn’t hurt anything.”

“Yes, but I wish we could say it would help. I don’t know how much longer Pa can take this.”

*****

Adam stood on the porch for several minutes, a piece of paper folded carefully in his hand. He recalled how happy he’d been to see the letter from Colonel Anders, hopeful that it would contain the answers to their questions. After reading it, Adam had those answers he sought, but how could he share the news with his family? He now knew how and when Joe’s neck had been bruised; worse, he knew who had caused it. Adam understood, at last, why Joe was acting the way he was, even if the boy didn’t know himself. What Adam didn’t know, was how he could use the information to help his family.

Pacing slowly around the porch, the worried man searched his mind for any plan that might help convey this information. But no matter how he imagined it, the only thing that happened was disastrous. If Joe really didn’t remember what had happened, this would only serve to reopen an old wound. And since it was obvious that Pa didn’t have any knowledge of the incident, telling him now would only devastate him.

As Adam stopped in front of the door, he made his decision. For now at least, the secret would be his own. Carefully folding the paper once more, he tucked it carefully in the front pocket of his black pants. Later, when he was alone in his room, he’d hide the letter away and pray that he’d never have to show it to anyone.

*****

Hoss pulled open the barn door, surprised to find his brother already up and tending to the chores.

“Hey, Joe, what’s got into you? Not often we find you already working at this hour.”

No answer came forth from the stall where Little Joe curried his horse, but Hoss could already sense his brother’s mood. It wasn’t the first time he’d met up with an angry Joe, and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last. But what he couldn’t stand was the way the whole family seemed to be breaking apart.

Pa was spending more and more time at his desk or on vague business trips to Virginia City. Adam, though working alongside his brothers, seemed to be forever lost in thought. More than once Hoss had found himself hollering his older brother’s name a second or third time before being answered. And Joe . . . his youngest brother seemed either angry or, strange as it might seem, scared.

Unable to make sense of the situation, Hoss found himself wanting to escape the feeling of anxiety within his home. And so, each day found him making more excuses to stay out on the range longer, or find jobs farther from the others. He couldn’t find a way to help his family, but neither could he watch as they fell apart.

While Joe worked quietly with Cochise, Hoss silently saddled Chubb. Then, without a word, the large man mounted his horse and rode away. For the first time in years, he didn’t look back or holler out a warm goodbye.

*****

The moaning intensified as Ben hurried down the hall towards Joe’s bedroom. Lamp in hand, he pushed open his son’s door, instantly aware that this nightmare was worse than the others. Joe was thrashing about, his hands flailing above him as if trying to hold on to or ward off some enemy.

Setting the lamp on a dresser, Ben moved closer to the bed, talking to his son in a low, comforting voice. He was surprised to see the movement on the bed intensify, as if Joe heard him coming. Sure that the boy felt he was in some kind of danger, Ben grabbed hold of Joe’s shoulders, shaking him gently in an effort to awaken him, his own voice raising in barely concealed panic.

“Joe, Joe! Wake up, son!”

His final words seemed to have the desired affect as hazel green eyes opened slightly. With a scream of terror, Joe pushed away from his father, forcing back the hands that held him. Pressing himself into the headboard for a moment, Joe’s arms and legs were a blur of movement as he struggled to escape, and then, caught up in the blankets, Joe fell as he attempted to get out of bed. Ben could see blood on his son’s face as Joe pushed himself off the floor, but still the boy moved away, never answering his father’s calls.

It was an unbelievable sight that met Adam and Hoss minutes later. Ben was almost kneeling on the bed, as if trying to get across it, but frozen in place. In the dark shadows of the corner, Joe was squatting on the floor, one hand held before him, the other clasped around his neck, as if in protection. His ragged breathing belied his frantic state, and an occasional moan of pain was heard; no one knew if it was a pain born of physical or mental duress.

Adam moved slowly to his father’s side, his own voice calm and reassuring.

“Come on, Pa, let’s go downstairs.”

“But, Joe . .”

“He’ll be alright. Hoss will take care of him. Come on, Pa. I need to talk to you.”

Ben’s face was a study in confusion as he allowed his eldest to lead him from the room. What could possibly have driven Joe to fear his own father? What kind of dream could have elicited that kind of response? Moving slowly down the stairs, Ben suddenly found that his knees were weak and shaky. He was glad for his son’s assistance as the younger man clasped his arm and helped him towards his chair. Seconds later, a glass of brandy was in his hand, and Adam was seated on the hearth before him.

“Pa, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”

The flickering flames licking around the pine logs held Ben’s attention and he didn’t respond immediately to his son. The brandy had warmed him, yet the empty glass felt heavy in his hand. His mind continued to dwell on the memory of Joe’s eyes as he stared at his father in fear, and a shudder ran through Ben as he felt the shock of that remembrance. It was several minutes before he realized that Adam had laid a hand on his arm as if waiting for something. Focusing on his eldest son, Pa was surprised to see that the young man held a letter in his hand and was looking at him expectantly.

“What? Did you say something, Adam?”

“Yes, Pa, I need to tell you something, and it’s not going to be easy for you to hear.”

“What is it, son?”

Adam hesitated briefly as he looked down at the paper in his hand, his expression one of dread. Finally, he looked up and met his father’s gaze.

“This letter is from Colonel Anders. The Mexican and his son were at the post awhile back, and the colonel was finally able to get some information about what happened to you while you were in Mexico.”

Ben continued to watch his son, waiting patiently as Adam struggled to continue.

“Pa . . the man said . . he told the colonel that . . .”

“Adam? What is it?”

Gazing up into his Ben’s eyes, Adam said a quick prayer that he wouldn’t destroy his father with the information he had to relay.

“The woman told her husband everything, from the time her son found you and Joe until the Mexican authorities took you away. Seems like you were only there a few days, but during that time you were pretty out of it from your head wound. She tended you as best she could, but most of what she provided was food and rest. She said that . . .”

Adam stood up, his uncertainty obvious. Reaching for his father’s glass, he walked slowly to the table and picked up the decanter. As he poured the amber liquid into the glass, he struggled to find the right words for what he knew he had to say. But there were no right words, and the delay was only postponing the inevitable.

The silence in the large room was unbearable, yet Ben held his tongue, struggling to control his impatience. He watched as Adam moved deliberately back across the room to his side, then accepted the brandy with a nod.

“Pa . . I don’t know how to say this . . it’s hard to . .”

“Son, just tell me. What happened?”

“The marks . . the marks on Joe’s neck . . it was a man’s hands that caused those marks. Someone choked him, almost to death.”

“Who? Who would do such a thing?”

Ben’s voice was full of rage as he leapt to his feet.

“Who did this to Little Joe?”

The wretched gaze that met his gave Ben the answer that no father could bear. Yet the look in Adam’s eyes was not enough. Though Ben’s voice softened, almost to the point of weakness, still he begged for an answer.

“Who, Adam? Tell me.”

“It was you, Pa.”

Dropping his head into his hands, Adam’s shoulders slumped in defeat. The news he’d strove to keep from his family must now come out, and he feared its effect. But after the scene he’d witnessed in Joe’s room only minutes before, Adam knew there was no other course of action. If they were to help Little Joe, the truth had to be told. In fact, he wondered now if he’d been wrong to hide it in the first place. Maybe if he’d come to his father when the letter first arrived . . . but there was no going back.

Looking up, he watched his father carefully, yet Ben still stood in the same place, as if rooted to the spot. His eyes were focused on the fire still burning brightly before them, however Adam knew his mind was elsewhere.

“Pa?”

Ben turned slowly to face his oldest son, but he couldn’t find his voice. Instead he simply stared at Adam, an unmistakable look of horror upon the older man’s face.

“It wasn’t your fault, Pa. You didn’t know what you were doing.”

“But I did it, didn’t I? There’s no mistake about this, is there, Adam?”

“No, Pa, there’s no mistake.”

With a sigh of pain that pierced his son’s heart, Ben slumped into his chair, his hands clasped tightly before him.

“You can’t do this, Pa. You can’t blame yourself.”

“Then who should I blame? Joe? Did he make me do this?”

“No, of course not. But you didn’t do this either, at least not you as you are now. The senora even said you were acting very strange.”

“That may be true, Adam, but to your brother, it was his Pa who hurt him. And now we know what’s been eating at him all this time, the nightmares, the sullen disposition.”

Silenced stretched between the two men, neither knowing what they could or should say. There was no easy answer to the situation. Finally, Ben stood up and approached his oldest son.

“Thank you, Adam.”

“For what?”

“For telling me. I know how hard this was for you.”

Staring at his father in surprise, Adam struggled to understand the strange calm that seemed to overcome the man. Yet as he stared into the dark eyes, he knew it was an illusion; a false sense of assurance the man was trying to provide for him.

“What about Little Joe? Are we going to tell him?”

“Yes, I’ll have to. I don’t know how, but I’ll have to.”

“We’ll tell him, Pa. We’re a family, and we’ll handle this together, like a family.”

Ben squeezed his son’s arm gently.

“Alright, we’ll tell him together, but not tonight, I need some time to think. Why don’t you go on up to bed now.”

Words of dispute flashed to mind, but Adam held his tongue. It was obvious that his pa wanted to be alone, and he respected that right. And so, instead of arguing, he simply clasped his father’s arm for a moment and then whispered goodnight. As Adam left his father’s side and moved towards the stairs, neither man heard the quiet click of the bedroom door upstairs.

*****

The early morning sun scarcely lit the way as Ben moved slowly down the hallway, pausing briefly in front of Joe’s bedroom door. His hand almost on the latch, Pa froze for an instant before letting it drop back to his side. He wasn’t ready to face his youngest son yet; didn’t have the words to explain away the horrible things he’d done. In truth, he hadn’t been able to face the horrendous reality himself; how could he explain it to his son?

With shoulders slumped, Pa continued down the hall to the stairway from where he could look out over the large room. He found little comfort in the familiar space; instead his home seemed cold and unpleasant. Everything seemed tainted, and as he finally made his way to his seat at the table, Ben realized that his whole world seemed to be stained with a feeling of anguish.

“Morning, Pa.”

A tight nod was the father’s only answer to his eldest son. Adam was already seated at the table, a heaping plate of food before him, and as Ben took his place, HopSing appeared at his elbow and quickly poured a cup of hot coffee. Still, the eldest Cartwright did not answer the Chinaman’s query; in truth, he didn’t have any idea what the man had asked him. A single ‘humph’ echoed back from the kitchen doorway, but even that didn’t register in Ben’s mind. His focus was on the youth upstairs; his whole being centered on the hurt he had inflicted on his son.

The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs heralded the approach of his middle son but it was the tone of voice that Hoss used that caught Ben’s attention.

“Pa, Adam. Come quick!”

Two faces turned towards him questioningly, but Hoss had already disappeared back into the upstairs hallway.

Ben was on his feet, but not fast enough to beat Adam to the stairs. The son hesitated for only a second, seemingly caught in the learned respect to let his father go first, but pushing that aside for his desire to reach his brother’s room and possibly protect his parent from a hurt they all feared. By the time Ben reached the doorway, Adam was already moving about Joe’s room, examining the open drawers and piles of clothing, while Hoss stood silently by the window.

The crestfallen look on Pa’s face was obvious, his distress clearly distinguishable. But it was the look on Hoss’ face that suddenly caught Adam’s attention. The big man moved one arm slowly forward, a single sheet of white paper held stiffly in his hand.

“I don’t understand, why’d he leave?”

Ben stepped forward as if in slow motion, his own hand shaking slightly as he took the note from his middle son. Reading the scribbled lines aloud took only a moment, but their impact would be long lasting.

Dear Pa.

I need some time. I’m sorry.

Joe

 

The silence in the room seemed like a wall between the men, separating them just as effectively as any argument ever could. It was several minutes before Adam could find his voice, but when he did, the conviction it held was forced.

“Pa, we’ll find him.”

Frozen in place, Ben could only stare as he took in the scene around him. Joe’s room was never considered orderly, and it had often been a source of contention between father and son, but now the room was in total chaos. Various articles of clothing were draped on chairs or at the end of Joe’s bed, the bedding pulled back as if his youngest son had simply leapt from the bed to begin packing. Joe’s saddlebags and bedroll were missing from their customary place; that along with the absent items made it clear that the boy had left for more than a short trip.

Unaware that he was fingering one of Joe’s good shirts, it was with a start that Pa realized Adam had spoken to him, and was waiting for some kind of response.

Ben Cartwright was a strong man, and in that single moment, it seemed as if he pulled from all the strength and fortitude that he could muster as he stood just a bit straighter. He knew what had to be done. Somehow, he had to find his son and make him understand; he had to convince Joe that his Pa loved him. Yet he was caught between knowing what must be done and the fear that he might not be successful. This was so different than any problem they’d ever faced; for never before had there been any question of the father’s love for his son, or the son’s safety with his father. That simple trust had always been there within the family, but especially between Pa and Little Joe. But now . . . What could he possibly say to his son that would prove how sorry he was? Turning slowly to face Adam and Hoss, Ben’s face was drawn and pale as he finally forced himself to answer.

“Yes, we’ll find him, but will he want to come home?”

The sadness in his voice was unmistakable, a fact that was not lost on either son. Still, the father forced himself to move towards the doorway, already concentrating on how to bring his boy home. Stepping forward, Adam placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder, squeezing it gently.

“Let me go, Pa. I promise I’ll bring him home.”

“No, Adam, it’s my place. I have to apologize; try to make him understand.”

“And you will, Pa, but let me bring him home first. You need to talk with him here, in the home he loves and feels safe in; not out on the trail somewhere.”

“But he doesn’t feel safe here anymore, that’s the problem.”

“Joe loves you, Pa. He will feel safe here again; it’s just going to take a little time to get it all worked out.”

Silent tension filled the room as Ben struggled inwardly to make his decision. He knew Adam was right, yet the parent in him longed to race out and find his missing child. But Adam’s quiet urging interrupted his thoughts.

“Trust me, Pa. I’ll bring him back to you.”

Ben couldn’t respond; could find no words to thank Adam for his offer. He simply nodded silently as he agreed to let his oldest son take over the task. Adam had been like a second father to Joe in those first years after Marie died, and although the two had something of a mercurial relationship, there was still a bond there that Joseph, especially, depended on.

Pausing for only a moment, Adam dropped his hand and walked quickly out the door, unaware that Hoss had turned to follow him. Moments later, Ben was alone in Little Joe’s room.

As he sank slowly into a chair, Ben dropped his head in his hands as he imagined his boy gone from his life forever. He had a sudden image of life without his youngest son, and Ben feared that they’d never know for sure what all they’d lost at sea.

*****

Adam was already tightening the cinch on his saddle when Hoss stepped up behind him.

“So, when are you going to tell me what’s going on around here?”

The big man’s voice carried no anger, yet there was a determination there that Adam recognized immediately. Wordlessly, he drew the Colonel’s letter from his pocket and handed it to Hoss, then turned his attention back to Sport. He didn’t have to watch his brother’s face to know what the man was thinking; even hearing the loud sigh was unnecessary. Adam remembered how the letter shocked and saddened him when it first came, and knowing how close Hoss and Joe were. . well, the letter could only affect his brother the same way.

“How long have you known about this?”

“A couple days.”

“And Pa?”

“Just told him last night.”

“So this is what Joe’s been living with . . .”

With his preparations complete, Adam picked up the reins and turned to face Hoss. He was prepared to see the saddened face, but he was totally unprepared to see the glistening eyes and telltale tracks along his brother’s cheeks. Stepping forward, he gripped the large man’s arm tightly.

“I’ll bring him home, Hoss. You take care of Pa, and I’ll bring Joe home.”

With a nod, Hoss moved back as Adam stepped into the saddle and rode quickly out of the yard. The big man watched as the black shirt disappeared from sight, and only then did he finally answer.

“I’m holding you to it, Adam.”

 *****

The sunlight glistened on the blue waters of Lake Tahoe, and Joe breathed deeply of the clean mountain air scented with pine. He knew he couldn’t stay here for long, as it was a certainty that he’d be followed, yet he couldn’t fight the undeniable need to say goodbye. Besides, this was one of his favorite spots, and knowing that he might never come here again made the boy conscious of each moment. Taking in every sight and sound, Joe struggled to memorize it all; his last visit. But no matter how hard he tried to relax and enjoy the surroundings, a persistent voice echoed inside his head.

“The marks . . the marks on Joe’s neck . . it was a man’s hands that caused those marks. Someone choked him, almost to death.”

“Who did this to Little Joe?”

“It was you, Pa.”

Shaking his head, as if to clear it of the offending voices, Joe turned away from the lake and returned to the lonely grave. He slipped to his knees, one hand gripped tightly on his mother’s headstone as the other reached out to touch the mound of earth before him. His sense of loss and betrayal was overwhelming, and for the first time in his life, Joseph Cartwright felt like he was truly alone in the world. Unable to hold back his tears any longer, the young man’s head dropped to his chest, and covering his face with his hands, Joe cried out to a mother he could barely remember.

“Why Mama? Why would he do something like that to me? I know he was hurt and sick. But . . . Pa . . . why?”

The young man’s voice broke, an audible sob carrying away any other painful words he may have spoken.

It took several minutes before Adam could control his own emotions enough to step forward and place a hand on his brother’s shoulder. The startled youth stiffened for a split second before turning slowly to identify the intruder and then dropped his head back into his hands.

“Leave me alone, Adam.”

For once Adam didn’t throw back the rebuttal that burned on his lips. There was no sense getting into a verbal war with his younger brother, it would only kill any chance he had of getting Little Joe to come home. Instead, he squatted down next to his brother and focused his gaze on Marie’s grave.

“Those roses you planted are sure pretty; Marie would’ve liked them.”

It took several minutes, but finally Joe cleared his throat and forced himself to answer.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, she loved flowers. I remember she told Pa one time that there couldn’t be enough of them around the house. After that, he made it a point to surprise her with bushes or plants he found; they’d replant them in her garden out back of the house until she had more flowers than vegetables growing there.”

Adam’s voice was filled with the warmth of reminiscing; so filled with the memories of Marie’s love that he didn’t notice the cold silence emanating from his brother. So he was rather startled when Joe pushed himself abruptly from the ground and brushed the dust from his tan pants.

Jamming his hat down tightly on his head, Joe strode purposefully towards his horse, the warmth of tender memories forgotten in his hurry to escape his brother’s company.

“Joe, don’t do this.”

“Can’t help it, Adam. I gotta get away.”

“But why now?”

Little Joe draped his arms across his saddle, bowing his head to rest upon them as if he no longer had the energy to hold himself erect.

“Cause now I know.”

“Know what?”

“I know that Pa’s the one who hurt me. And the nightmares make sense now, too.”

Had Joe turned around he would’ve been surprised to see the look of confusion on his brother’s face. But Joe didn’t look up, didn’t even move, he just stood there next to his beloved Cochise, as the weight of the world seemed to settle on his shoulders. Behind him, Adam stood stock-still, his face belaying the misunderstanding he felt.

Turning away, Adam paced back to Marie’s grave then turned back once more to stare at his brother. Still in his position of defeat, Joe hadn’t moved, a silent confirmation that his comments were sincere. Rubbing his head tiredly, Adam struggled to make sense of the situation, finally realizing that there was no use second-guessing his brother. There was only one-way to get things straightened out.

“Joe, why don’t you start from the beginning?”

“No sense wasting time. And it won’t change anything.”

“Maybe not, but at least I’d understand. Come on, just give me a couple minutes.”

Reluctantly, Joe moved away from his pinto and returned to his mother’s grave. This time he sat cross-legged beside his brother and proceeded to pick absently at the vines, which wound around the granite marker.

Adam quickly realized that Joe was an unwilling participant, and he struggled to find the right questions to get his brother to open up.

“What’s the first thing you remember after the shipwreck?”

“Being in the water.”

“Was Pa with you?”

“Yeah.”

This was going to be harder than expected, Adam realized. With only short, terse answers, Joe was definitely not making the process any easier.

“Did he get hurt then or later?”

“He was already hurt when we . . . oh, come on, Adam. This isn’t going to help anything.”

“It might. Now, when did Pa start acting different?”

“When we were in the water, but worse after we were on the beach.”

“What, exactly, did he do?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I’ve already told you, I don’t remember much about that time. Just bits and pieces, and not always in the right order.”

“But what about . .”

“Listen, Adam, I don’t remember what Pa did. I don’t remember what Pa said, or how he acted. Can’t you understand? It’s all a blur to me, just random memories that come and go. I didn’t even know that Pa was the one who bruised my neck until I heard you and . . .”

The quiet stretched between them as Adam finally realized what all had taken place. Joe must’ve been suffering from some kind of fear, but he must not have realized what it was from. And evidently he’d been eavesdropping the night before when Pa and Adam spoke in front of the fireplace. No wonder the boy had shut himself off. He must be feeling like there were dark surprises waiting for him wherever he turned.

Adam contemplated Joe’s revelation, surprised to learn that the boy had truly not been aware of what had taken place.

“Come back home, Joe.”

“I can’t stay there.”

“Why not? If you know Pa didn’t mean to hurt you. .”

“You don’t understand, Adam. I’ve been having these nightmares, and I ask Pa to help me, but . . .”

Adam dropped his gaze but was unable to block out the pain in Joe’s voice.

“Pa’s the one you need to tell this to. Why don’t you come home and tell him everything. You know he’s always been able to help you when you have a problem.”

“Don’t you see, Adam? I haven’t been able to talk to Pa for weeks, and I didn’t even know what he’d done. If I couldn’t talk to him before, what makes you think it’ll be any easier now? I’m scared, Adam, scared all the time, and I don’t even know what I’m scared of.”

This last part was spoken in a voice so faint that Adam had to strain to hear it. Reaching over, he laid a hand on Joe’s arm only to have it shrugged away. Suddenly, Joe was on his feet and moving back to his horse. He didn’t give Adam a chance to catch up to him before swinging into the saddle.

“I’ll see ya, Adam.”

“Joe, you can’t go.”

“I can’t stay.”

“Give him a chance Joe. Give Pa a chance to make it right.”

His head hanging low, the younger man didn’t speak for a moment, but when he did, his voice cracked with emotion.”

“I can’t . . .”

“Please, Joe!”

Cochise was already walking away and still Adam stood staring. How could he go back to Pa without his little brother? what would this do to Ben Cartwright? Adam knew; it would destroy him.

Part way down the trail, Joe pulled his horse to a stop and looked back one last time at his mother’s grave. His heart clenched in pain, as he took in the sight of a place so significant to him. But the picture that burned itself into his mind was that of a dark-clothed man, his face full of love and concern.

Hands on the pommel, chin dropping to his chest, Joe sat silently in his saddle. A familiar low voice carried itself to him on the breeze, and his head dropped farther as heard the plea.

“What would your mother want you to do?”

*****

Ben sat quietly in his red leather chair, his prayers spoken silently, his heart heavy with fear. He’d tried to work at his desk, had even attempted several small chores about the place, but had finally given up in defeat. There was only one thing his mind could focus on this morning, and that was his youngest child.

With his mind so intent on his silent pleas, Ben missed the sound of the horse’s hooves, but quickly recognized the heavy footsteps as they approached the front door.

‘One. There’s only one person coming in. Adam couldn’t bring him home.’

Pulling himself tiredly from his chair, Ben suddenly felt as if he were a hundred years old as the front door slowly began to open. Turning towards the fireplace, his shoulders slumped as he realized he was afraid to face his oldest son. Of course he couldn’t blame Adam; it wasn’t his fault that Joe was headstrong and stubborn. Yet Ben was filled with longing and regret. ‘I should’ve gone after him myself.’

“Pa?”

Ben almost fell against the hearth as he turned quickly to the sound of his son’s voice, and his own voice shook with feeling as he answered.

“Joseph!”

Pa found that he couldn’t get another word past his lips as he took in the sight of his youngest son. Joe’s face was pale and drawn, and his eyes held a strange look of apprehension. Pa stared at his boy for only a moment before responding instinctively. Stepping forward, he enveloped his son in his powerful embrace. He had to show the boy how much he loved him, and unconsciously he knew that his son needed to feel safe. Almost immediately, Joe began to speak softly.

“This dream, Pa, I keep having this dream. It’s always the same. I’m alone on the deck of a ship and there’s a horrible storm. No matter where I look, I can’t find you. Then something happens and I’m sliding towards the edge, but just as I go over, I manage to catch hold and I’m hanging above the water . . .”

Joe’s thin voice faltered for a moment, and he swiped at his eyes with the back of one hand before continuing.

“I call for you, but when you come to help me . . you look so strange, like you don’t know me, or worse, that you hate me. Then, just when I think you’re going to pull me back onto the deck, you let go of me and I fall.”

“Oh, Joseph.”

Ben pulled his son closer and raised his hand to the back of Joe’s neck. After several minutes, he pulled back enough to be able to look into his son’s eyes.

“Pa, I can’t explain why, but I’ve been so scared since we got home. I’ve tried to talk to you . . I wanted to, but . . .”

“It’s alright, son, I understand now. Whatever happened while we were in Mexico, whatever I did to you, it wasn’t your pa that did that. I hurt you, in ways I can’t even imagine possible, and I’m so sorry. I can’t believe that . . it’s so hard . . .”

Ben’s face was wet with silent tears and Joe was intensely aware of his father’s pain. Suddenly, his own feelings paled in comparison. For the first time since overhearing Adam and Pa the night before, Joe focused on how his father must have felt at the news. His pa, who’d always been full of love and protection for his sons, even when disciplining his youngest, there had never been a question of the man’s love.

“It wasn’t your fault, Pa; you didn’t know what you were doing.”

“No, but I hurt you, son. And I’d rather have died than to hurt you like that.”

“No, Pa, please don’t say that.”

“Joe, I love you son. You have to know that I love you.”

Ben wanted so much to add that he would never hurt his son, but those words would not come. He knew that it was too soon, and the promise may not seem real in the light of past events. For now, all he could do was show his love and pray that the feeling of security would return for his boy. Grasping Joe’s shoulders with his hands, Ben looked into his son’s eyes, pleading for that last release he needed so desperately.

“Son, please forgive me.”

“I do, Pa, I do.”

His head dropped back onto his father’s shoulder and for the first time in many weeks, Little Joe really did feel safe and loved.

*****

The wooden deck of the ship rolled beneath his feet, a feeling that seemed all too familiar. A sense of inescapable dread grew within him as Joe made his way carefully across the wide planks. Waves surged up and over the side of the ship, leaving their foamy tracks upon the walkway; the end result was a path that was treacherous at best. Yet Joe continued on his quest, searching anxiously for his pa. The sound of the storm was evident in the creak of the wooden ship and the snap of the cloth sails; but more terrifying, by far, was the fierce shriek of the incredible wind.

Suddenly, a vibration seemed to roll through the great ship, causing the craft to pitch beneath his feet. Joe was thrown unceremoniously to the deck, its slick surface adding to his predicament, as he slid uncontrollably towards the railing. His scream of terror seemed to go unheard as the young man slipped over the edge of the ship, his body dangling above the dark water of the sea. But once more Joe called out to the one man he relied on more than anyone else, his voice edged with a sense of panic.

“Pa! Pa, help me! I need you, Pa.”

His strength waning, Joe didn’t know how much longer he could hold on when he finally saw the man moving swiftly towards him.

“Help me, Pa, I’m falling!”

Stooping down, the older man reached out and grasped Joe’s wrists; then, with a strength born of love, he pulled the young man back to the deck of the ship.

Joe looked up into the familiar face and felt a surge of relief as his beloved father smiled down at him. The warmth of Pa’s love was like a balm that soothed his soul, and Little Joe’s eyes filled with tears. Pulling his son into his embrace, the two sat quietly together, the storm no longer raging around them.

From the doorway of Little Joe’s bedroom, two men stood in silent witness as their father held his youngest son. Then, slowly, Hoss draped an arm across Adam’s shoulder. The nightmare was over, and everything they’d lost had finally been found.

Epilogue:

Adam looked up from the ledger as Hoss slammed the front door.

“Adam! Adam, where are ya?”

There wasn’t a chance to answer before the large man hurried around the corner, and after catching sight of his older brother, came directly up to the desk. Adam smiled at the happy look on his brother’s face.

“What’s all the excitement?”

“We got a letter from Pa.”

Accepting the envelope from his brother, Adam tore the white paper, his own hand eager to complete the job. It had been weeks since Pa and Little Joe departed for New Orleans. Their journey took a slightly different course then originally planned, but no one questioned that the new route made everyone feel more at ease. Besides, Little Joe had made it clear that he would not be traveling by ship anytime in the near future.

After the first telegram arrived, stating that the travelers had arrived safely, there had been no further word. Assuming that the two were simply enjoying their visit, Adam and Hoss had busied themselves with the routine of the Ponderosa, yet they were anxious to hear from their absent family members. Now, with the missive in hand, Adam found himself both eager and relieved. If nothing else, the letter was confirmation that the two were fine; after all, any serious news would have come by way of telegraph.

Pulling several sheets of paper from the envelope, he read aloud from his father’s letter:

Dear Adam & Hoss,

 I hope this finds you boys doing well, and everything running smoothly at the ranch. We miss you both, and will be glad when we’re back home on the Ponderosa, but I must say that Joe and I are enjoying our time here in New Orleans.

 We’ve visited some of Marie’s relatives and have spent time in some of her favorite places. The city is as exciting as I remember it and we have met some very nice people during our stay. All in all, our trip has been a tremendous success, and Joe seems like his old self.

 Our plans have not changed, and we will be leaving for home at the end of the month. I will send you a telegram while enroute so that you will have the exact time of our arrival.

 Until then, take care of yourselves.

 Love,

Pa

 

Silence stretched between the two brothers as Adam finished reading. It was several minutes before Hoss cleared his throat and wondered out loud.

“Wonder why Little Joe didn’t write.”

“Oh, you know him. He was probably too busy chasing after some good looking girl.”

But as he folded the parchment, Adam couldn’t help but wonder about his brother’s comment. So immersed was he in his thoughts, it took several minutes before the dark-haired man realized the paper would not slide back into its original cover. Peering into its depths, Adam was surprised to see that there was something remaining there. Pulling out the second paper, he immediately recognized his name in the familiar backhanded writing on the front. Unfolding the small scrap of paper, a warm smile spread across Adam’s face, causing Hoss to move forward in curiosity.

“What does it say?”

Clearing his throat, Adam read the short note.

 

Dear Adam,

 Thank you!

 Love,

Joe

 

***End***

My sincerest thanks go to Terri and Kenda, who’ve been my help and encouragement throughout this long journey. You two are the best!!!

Return to Jane’s Home Page

One thought on “Lost at Sea (by Jane)

  1. Well since its been SO long since I’ve been on this site ( or any site) you know of course I just HAD to take the time to revisit one of your masterpieces! And Lost at Sea was just as awesome reading it here, no matter how many times I’ve read it off my printed copy. As time allows I hope to read ( many “again”) as you are such a terrific author and as I hope I am still your number one fan! ❤❤❤ Keep writing Jane!!!!!

    Like

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