The Survival Instinct (by Territell)

Summary:  Rustlers on the Ponderosa threaten all four of the Cartwrights.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  22,560


 

It was still early afternoon as Ben headed towards the South pasture to join his eldest son. Business had necessitated him to be away from the ranch for almost three days and, much as he was tired and would have preferred to go straight home, he decided to surprise his eldest with an impromptu visit. Adam would be leaving soon to attend college back East and Ben was already beginning to feel the ache inside that comes with the longing for someone who can’t be with you. This was a familiar feeling to him of late and he was trying hard to prepare himself for the imminent departure of his first-born.

Marie had now been dead for six months and it was only in recent weeks Ben had finally felt capable of taking up the reins and living life once more. In those first few weeks after her death, Ben had fallen into deep depression and Adam had been left to pick up the pieces, not only looking after his young brothers but ranch matters as well.

Adam looked up when he heard the approaching horse and smiled upon realizing it was his father. He was eager to show Ben the progress he had made while in charge and also to discuss with him some of the ideas he had for improvements. The branding and round up were almost finished and it wouldn’t be long before they started the cattle drive to San Francisco. Once the cattle had been sold, Adam would only have a few weeks before leaving for Boston and college, a dream he never thought to see materialize.

Much as Adam relished the thought of the adventure before him, he also had misgivings about how far from home he would be. Adam had spent all of his short life at his father’s side and he had to steal himself to fight against the wrench he felt at leaving. He knew for him, college was the right thing. His thirst for knowledge could not be quenched in Virginia City and even though Ben had been against the idea at the beginning, he had also come to accept the inevitable, Adam must fulfill his dream.

Adam’s smiling, dimpled face, beamed as Ben dismounted from his horse and came to watch his son wrestle with a struggling calf. Charlie, the ranch foreman, came to stand at Ben’s side.

“How’s it going Charlie?” asked Ben.

“Almost done,” Charlie replied. “The boy there runs a tight ship,” he added, inclining his head towards Adam.

“Well, he had a good teacher,” Ben smiled, with a wink in his son’s direction.

Once the calf was branded and back on its feet, running to its mother and bellowing at the top of its lungs, Adam stood up. Taking but a moment to stretch his long legs, he strode over to join his Pa and Charlie.

Ben’s eyes shone with pride. Adam was turning into such a fine young man. At 17 he hadn’t quite filled out his growing body, but even though he was lean, the outdoor life he led had toned his muscles and made him strong. His bronzed skin, dark hair and brown eyes were sure to make him a hit with the girls back East and Ben already worried how Abel Stoddard, Adam’s grandfather, would cope with having a robust teenager under his roof. He only hoped the old gent was up for the job.

“Hi Pa,” Adam began, holding out his hand in greeting. “How was your trip?”

Ben reached forward and gripped his son’s outstretched hand. “It went very well, Adam. We have been awarded the timber contract for the Turner Company and it looks as if we are going to be paid top dollar for all the beef we can herd to San Francisco.”

“That’s great news, Pa!” Adam enthused. “We are just about done here. Do you want me to finish off or ride back home to the ranch before the boys get home?”

Ben was puzzled for a moment and then remembered. “Oh yes, the boys. I forgot Hop Sing was visiting Number 4 cousin this week. I just lose track of his many relatives,” he added with a shake of his head. “If you’re almost done anyway, why don’t we ride back together?”

Adam was elated at the prospect. It had been rare in the last few months for him to have time alone with his father. In the early days after the death of Marie, Ben had taken time away on his own to come to terms with his grief and since his return Little Joe monopolized almost every spare moment that Ben had. Adam could not resent his little brother’s demands on his father’s time; the child was still confused and traumatized at not only the loss of his mother but also at the initial desertion of his father.

“Let’s hope Hoss doesn’t forget to pick Little Joe up from Mrs. Green’s house when he finishes school,” Ben mused. This had happened on a previous occasion and Ben had found himself riding back into town to collect one distressed little boy.

“I reminded him this morning, Pa, but you never know with Hoss. By the time he finishes school, food will be the only thing on his mind.”

Ben, Adam and the men in hearing distance all laughed. Nothing came between Hoss and his stomach and the size of him reflected the fact. Adam may have grown some over the last months, but Hoss, who was more than six years his junior, was only a couple of inches behind him in height and wider than him in girth. If a person didn’t look too closely at Hoss’ baby face, they could be forgiven for thinking the eleven year old in front of them was a fully-grown man.

*****

Back in Virginia City, the school day was just ending. The days were tedious and boring for Hoss and he often pleaded with his Pa to let him leave and help out on the ranch. He argued he was as big and strong as most of the men working for Ben and already was able to put in a full day’s work when the occasion warranted. But Ben was resolute: an education must come first.

When Miss Jones rang the bell, Hoss was the first one out of his seat and, picking up his books, he swiftly made his exit. Saddling his horse, he rode to the outskirts of town and over to the Green’s little cottage. His stomach had started to rumble and he wistfully hoped there might be a snack ready for him when he arrived. After all it was a long time since lunchtime and he was a growing lad!

On other occasions, when picking up his brother, Hoss hardly had time to dismount before a little whirlwind ran down the steps and flung themselves into his arms, but on this particular day there was no sign of Little Joe. Mrs. Green looked rather cross when she answered the door and with just a couple of words, ushered Hoss into the parlor. This fastidious lady never looked happy at the best of times, but today she had a particularly pronounced frown on her face. Hoss looked around for his brother, feeling sure he would be the cause of the lady’s countenance, and sure enough there in the corner stood a very dejected and tearful Little Joe.

Hoss sighed. It was obvious Joe had been up to mischief yet again, and Mrs. Green wasn’t one to stand any of his nonsense. Giving Joe a sympathetic look, Hoss turned to Mrs. Green. “Is everything all right Mrs. Green?”

“It is now, but we have had quite a day, haven’t we, Little Joe?”

Biting on his bottom lip Little Joe could not bring himself to answer, but he did nod his head slowly, all the time keeping his eyes focused on the lady in front of him.

“Right. Young man, you can now get your jacket while I decide what report Hoss can give to your father.”

Those words caused the unshed tears in Joe’s eyes to spill down his face. The hard swats he had received from Mrs. Green would be nothing compared to the tanning his Pa would give him when he got home.

Looking at his brother’s tears, Hoss almost cried too. He couldn’t bear to see Little Joe upset. Why did the imp have to get into so much trouble?

“Are you hungry, Hoss?” Mrs. Green asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.

“Yes Ma’am!” Hoss replied in anticipation. Upset as he was there was no point in denying himself nourishment.

“It’s a long ride home,” Mrs. Green acknowledged. “I don’t suppose it will spoil your supper if you have a snack before you go.” Then turning to Joe as he walked back into the room she added, a little more kindly this time. “Blow your nose, Joseph, then come and sit down at the table.”

Much to Mrs. Green’s disgust, Joe lifted his sleeve towards his nose. Hoss quickly pulled a handkerchief from his own pocket and pressed it into his little brother’s hand. Joe took the handkerchief, blew his nose, and then handed it back to a reluctant Hoss. Joe walked over to the table, wiping his tears away on the sleeve of his jacket, and then climbed up next to his brother.

Mrs. Green placed a piece of pie in front of both boys, and a plate of cookies in the center of the table. Joe immediately reached for the cookies, only to have his hand slapped sharply by Mrs. Green. “No pie, no cookies,” she remonstrated. “Eat the pie first.”

The boys had just finished eating when Mr. Green arrived home. Harold Green was the town blacksmith and Joe didn’t think he had ever seen a man so big. Joe thought his Pa was tall, but this man towered above Ben. Looking up at the man mountain, Little Joe’s heart sank when he saw that he was carrying the family cat, Blackie.

“What on earth has happened to the cat?” Mr. Green asked, holding the cat out towards his wife. “He wouldn’t come to me just now and then I saw this.”

Harold Green turned the cat around, displaying a large bald patch on its back. The cat was obviously none to happy about its haircut and screeched out its distress.

“Some young man has been up to mischief again,” stated Mrs. Green looking pointedly at Joe. “He took your razor and shaved Blackie while I was outside hanging the washing, this afternoon. I had already warned him this morning about touching things he shouldn’t.”

Mr. Green turned his attention to Joe and the child cowered back in his chair. Going over to the table, the huge man lifted the boy from his seat and stood him on the bench in front of him so he could look him straight in the eye.

“What have you got to say for yourself, little boy?” the man asked with just the hint of a twinkle in his eye. If the truth be known, Harold Green found the smallest Cartwright child and his antics highly amusing. Harold’s huge bulk belied his kindly nature, and if it was left up to him, he wouldn’t have the heart to discipline the boy, but he knew his wife would not approve if he weren’t stern with the youngster.

Little Joe could not look the man in the face. “I just wanted to practice shaving for when I’m big,” he said in almost a whisper.

“That is a very dangerous thing to do, Little Joe,” said Harold as seriously as he could, picking the child up once more and holding him in front of him. “I’m sure your Pa has warned you about touching sharp objects?”

Joe nodded his head in acknowledgement and the tears, which were never far away, started to roll down his cheeks afresh.

Harold Green melted instantly and hugging the small body to him, he patted his back and soothed. “Oh well, no harms done. Blackie may not be too happy, but his fur will grow back in time.” Then he caught the warning look his wife gave him. “But no more touching razors, little boy, or I might need to paddle that little bottom of yours myself. Is that understood?” Joe nodded his head furiously, convinced he would never survive a spanking from this giant of a man.

“Has Mrs. Green spanked you today?” Harold continued.

Joe looked over at the person in question. “Yes Sir.”

“Well I hope you have got the message,” Mr. Green emphasized, before turning to Hoss. “If your Pa asks if he has been a good boy, you can tell him I say he has been fine.” Harold Green was well aware of Ben Cartwright’s ideas on discipline and although he could understand how hard it was for a man to be bringing up three boys on his own, he didn’t want to put Little Joe in the firing line if he could help it.

As the words sank in, Little Joe brightened immediately and in that instant he decided he really liked Mr. Green after all and rewarded him with one of his most enchanting smiles. Those smiles had the reputation of melting most of the population of Virginia City when turned in their direction. Even Violet Green was not completely immune to his charm and, despite her firm discipline when dealing with the child, she was still very fond of him.

Harold looked to his wife for approval of his decision and when she saw the relieved look on the little boy’s face, she succumbed. “All right, Little Joe, we won’t tell your Pa this time, but if I ever find out you have touched another razor I will box your ears good and proper,” she admonished.

By the time Hoss had climbed on his horse and settled Little Joe in front of him on the saddle the child was back to normal, talking incessantly and never pausing for breath. Due to the pie and cookies, Hoss was in a good mood also and was happy to sit back and let his little brother chatter on continuously all the way home.

*****

Ben and Adam were more than half way back to the ranch when they decided to take a short cut, which could only be used at certain times of the year due to the thick undergrowth. As they rode to the top of the hill, they noticed smoke rising up from the valley below. This was at a part of the Ponderosa that was never used for cattle as it was in a deep ravine and not easily accessible.

“Who on earth would be down there, Pa?”

“I don’t know, son, but we’ll soon find out,” Ben replied, a deep frown spoiling his weathered but still handsome face.

Making their way through the trees, they looked down in surprise at the sight below them. Half a dozen men sat round the fire of a makeshift camp in no obvious hurry to leave.

“Who are they, Pa?” Adam asked, concern showing in his voice. They certainly didn’t look like settlers or the mismatch of travelers who passed through the Ponderosa on occasions.

Ben was immediately guarded. He was determined to confront the men, but didn’t want to put his young son at risk.

“I’m going down to talk to them, Adam, but I want you to stay here.” As Adam went to protest, his father placated. “I need you for back up, son; no point us both walking into the lion’s den.”

Adam saw the reasoning behind his father’s words, but he was determined to be of some use. Taking his gun from the holster, he stood at the ready. Ben also took out his gun and made his way down the hill. Walking into the camp, he took the men by surprise.

“What are you men doing here on the Ponderosa? This is private land and you are trespassing.”

A lank unkempt man of about 35 got to his feet and, with no sense of urgency, smiled as he walked towards Ben. “No need to be unfriendly Mister. My name is Bill Slater and these gentlemen,” he indicated with a snicker. “These are my business associates.”

The man’s nonchalant manner did not deter Ben and he kept his gun pointed in their direction. “Well, my name is Ben Cartwright, and you are on my land. Suppose you pack up your things and move on!” he persisted.

Slater looked at a point beyond Ben and smiled. “I ain’t fixing to do that, Mister Cartwright. So what you gonna do about it?”

Ben was the one holding the gun and therefore, as far as he was concerned, was the one calling the shots. “If you don’t want any trouble, I suggest you do as I say.”

Slater just laughed. “And I suggest you put down you gun, I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he advised sarcastically.

Ben was about to protest when he became aware of what Slater was looking at over his shoulder. There had been lookouts round the camp and one of the men was now walking down the hill, pushing a red faced Adam in front of him. As they reached the bottom, Adam apologized. “Sorry, Pa. Never saw him.”

Ben half-smiled in his son’s direction. He wasn’t angry with Adam, only with himself. How could he have been so stupid as to walk into this set up unprepared?

“What do you want me to do with them?” a man asked, placing the gun in the small of Adam’s back.

Bill Slater, the lanky stranger, was obviously the leader of the motley crew and he shrugged his shoulders. “Tie ‘em up, good and tight.”

Without further ado, Ben and Adam were bound hand and foot and secured to a nearby tree.

“How long do you propose to keep us here?” Ben asked.

“As long as we need to,” Slater replied with a further shrug of his shoulders. “We should finish our business shortly. After that, well, it depends on what mood I’m in.”

Ben and Adam exchanged worried glances. Hoss and Joe would be arriving home shortly and there would be no one to meet them. At 11 years old, Hoss was capable of looking after himself and Little Joe for a short while, but if neither Ben nor Adam didn’t return by nightfall, both father and elder brother knew the boys would start to panic.

*****

Hoss and Joe were not particularly perturbed to find no one home when they arrived. They just assumed their brother had been delayed; after all, it wasn’t the first time. With a full stomach, Hoss was quite happy to get on with his afternoon chores and even let Little Joe help out as much as he was capable. Unfortunately Joe, in a rush to grow up and compete with his brothers, kept insisting that he could do things he wasn’t quite ready for.

Hoss entered the barn to find his little brother with the rake in his hands. Grabbing it away from the younger boy, Hoss said sharply, “Give me the rake, Little Joe. You know you ain’t supposed to touch that; it’s far too big for you. Now why don’t you go and feed the chickens?”

Joe glared at Hoss but for once didn’t put up any fuss, for he was still anxious Hoss didn’t mention anything to his Pa about the cat.

As afternoon turned into evening Hoss began to feel apprehensive. “When’s Pa coming home?” Joe asked for the umpteenth time.

“I’m not sure Joe.” Hoss was pretty certain his Pa had said he would be home that day, but he didn’t want to get Joe’s hopes up in case it didn’t happen.

“But I want him to come now,” the five year old persisted with the stubbornness of a small child. By then he was tired, fractious and hungry and had not seen his father for three days. Joe needed constant reassurance when Ben was away from the ranch; his mother had been taken from him so suddenly and he half expected the same thing to happen to his father.

“I want Adam,” Joe now whined, his bottom lip starting to tremble. If his father wasn’t there then he wanted the next best thing.

Hoss didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t cope if Joe began to holler and he was all for sitting down and crying himself.

“I want to go and look for Pa and Adam,” Joe stated, not to be put off anymore.

“We don’t know where to look, Little Joe.”

“But what if Pa has fallen off his horse?” Joe’s greatest fear was that the same thing would happen to Ben as had happened to Marie. “We have to find him.”

Hoss’ resolve was weakening. “Okay, we’ll go and find him,” Hoss placated. He couldn’t think what else to do and he didn’t want to be left alone with a distressed Little Joe. There were still a couple of hours to go before dusk and with any luck they would meet up with either Pa or Adam as they made their way home.

Joe’s tears dried immediately. “Are you gonna take your gun?” he now asked with excitement. Hoss shook his head vigorously, alarmed at just the thought. He had been delighted to receive a Kentucky rifle from his Pa at Christmas and both his Pa and Adam had been teaching him to use it in the intervening months, but he wasn’t allowed to touch it without one of them being there to supervise.

“Pa would be awful mad if I took the gun, Little Joe,” Hoss explained.

“But what if there’s Indians?” Joe whispered, opening his green eyes as wide as he could, as his overactive imagination took over. Hoss was torn; much as he knew he should not disobey his father, he argued to himself that it wasn’t safe for him to take Little Joe out into the night without some sort of protection. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Little Joe,” he finally conceded. “We need to arm ourselves, just in case.”

Once Hoss had made up his mind, it didn’t take him long to put his plan into action. He brought his saddlebags in from the barn and proceeded to fill them with items he thought they might need, food being his main priority.

Once complete, Hoss went off to get his gun and Little Joe looked round Hop Sing’s kitchen for something he could use to help Hoss if the need arose. His eyes fell on the knives Hop Sing kept for carving the meat and vegetables. Without ever being told, Joe knew he was not allowed to touch the knives and he had been given a very strong lesson that very day on the dangers of touching sharp instruments. Looking around the kitchen for some other form of weapon, Joe’s eyes were quickly drawn back to the knives. After all, Mr. Green said he wasn’t to touch the razor; he didn’t really say anything about knives. Carefully picking up the smallest knife, he wrapped it in a cloth and stored it inside of one of Hoss’ saddlebags. It was only a little knife after all, and in Joe’s eyes would not warrant the same punishment as touching one of the large ones.

After donning his own outdoor coat, Hoss insisted Little Joe put on his warmest jacket over the top of his dungarees. It had been a warm day but the cool night air was likely to be chilly and his little brother didn’t have much meat on his bones. Satisfied they had everything they needed, Hoss once again saddled his horse and, putting Little Joe in front of him, set off to find his Pa and brother.

That morning Adam had informed Hoss he would be working in the south pasture, so Hoss decided to head in that direction first. He wasn’t exactly sure when his Pa was due to return home but he did know Adam should have been home shortly after he and Joe arrived home from school.

Later that evening, when the sun had almost gone completely and an eerie darkness had settled on the land, Hoss decided they must head for home once more. There had been no sign of Adam or Ben and Hoss was beginning to think they would be at home waiting and worrying about him and Little Joe.

Joe was beginning to sniffle again and Hoss wasn’t feeling much better. “Quit sniveling, Little Joe,” he ordered, as his patience began to run out. “It ain’t my fault we can’t find them. Never should have left the house in the first place. I’ll bet Adam and Pa are at home waiting for us and I’ll be the one gets the tanning.” Hoss stopped his whining and sniffed the air. He was sure he could smell smoke. Looking all around him for signs of a fire, he was rewarded for his efforts by a trail of smoke, barely visible, rising up into the night sky.

Climbing from his horse and pulling Little Joe down next to him, he took hold of his brother’s hand and made his way to the top of the hill, leading the horse behind him. Taking his rifle from its sheath, he carefully tucked it under his arm before turning to Joe. “You stay here with the horse, Little Joe,” he whispered. “I’m going down there to check out who those people are. Now don’t move until I get back, you understand?” Joe nodded his head solemnly and tried to be brave as he watched his brother move off into the darkness leaving him alone.

After ten minutes, Joe’s imagination was running riot. Hoss had not returned and he thought he must have been taken captive by Indians, or even worse, scalped. With no thought for his own safety and his fears now forgotten, he stood on the nearest rock and reached up into Hoss’ saddlebags and very slowly removed Hop Sing’s knife.

Not wanting to get caught by Hoss with the knife in his hand, he stored it away carefully in his jacket pocket. As quietly as he could, he made his way through the undergrowth and set off towards the campfire.

Jeb Baines had been dozing. It was his turn to take watch, but there was little likelihood of anyone coming upon them, as they were miles from anywhere. His eyes were closed and a slow smile was forming on his face as he began to dream about Lily, the pretty saloon girl he had spent time with back in Washoe. The sound of a footstep snapping on a twig brought him back to full consciousness and he instinctively aimed and fired his gun towards the noise before he was fully awake. As he stood up his eyes almost popped out in amazement. There in front of him, not twenty feet away, stood a tiny boy, frozen to the spot in fear.

“God help me boy, where did you come from? If you’d have been an inch taller I’d of blown your head clean off.”

Everyone in the camp was now fully awake and Ben and Adam could not believe their eyes. Where on earth had Little Joe come from and where was Hoss?

Ben’s heart was racing when he realized how close his baby had come to been blown away. Fighting down the bile working its way up from his stomach, he tried to gain Joe’s attention. Joe was rigid with fear, his eyes fixed on the man in front of him, or more likely on the gun still smoldering in his hand. “Joseph!” Ben said in the voice that brooked no argument. “Come here, Joseph.” Little Joe snapped out of his trance like state and, as if scalded, raced with the speed of a jackrabbit across the camp and into his father’s lap. Ben winced as Joe’s knees found their target. All the men present screwed up their faces and instinctively crossed their legs as Ben doubled over, as far as his binds would let him, and fought to catch his breath. Normally Ben was prepared for Joe’s rambunctious way of saying ‘hello’, but with his hands and feet tied he had no way to protect himself.

Little Joe sobbed and Ben found himself fighting back his own tears, but for different reasons, as he asked in a voice not quite as deep as normal, “How did you get here, Joe?”

Before Joe had time to answer, there was a scuffle as Jeb ran swiftly from the camp and into the darkness. He returned a few minutes later pushing Hoss in front of him, the boy’s rifle now safely in his hands.

“Now looky what I found hiding in the bushes,” Jeb said. As Hoss turned to face him Jeb drew back his fist and punched him hard in the nose. Hoss stumbled and fell heavily back onto the ground. Jeb sniggered; this was going to be fun. With his fists clenched tightly in front of him, he was ready to continue the fight as soon as Hoss got back on his feet. To the bully’s utter surprise, the ‘man’ on the ground covered his now bloody nose with his hands and began to cry.

Ben was so angry he almost burst a blood vessel. “You animal,” he snarled. “Untie my hands and I’ll beat the living daylights out of you. See how you fair against a man instead of beating up on a child.”

Jeb looked back at Ben and shook his head in puzzlement. “What do you mean, Mister?” he said looking pointedly at Joe. “I never touched the kid.”

“That child!” Ben spat back, inclining his head towards Hoss.

“What, soft boy here?” Jeb grinned, giving Hoss a kick with his foot, as he was still sat on the ground. “He looks big enough to take care of himself.”

“He’s eleven years old!” Ben said through gritted teeth. He would like to tear the bully limb from limb but could do no more than move his body a couple of inches forward.

Jeb bent down and taking Hoss’ hair in his hand he lifted the boy’s head so he could take a good look at his face in the firelight. Seeing the obvious baby face, Jeb had the good grace to look contrite. “How was I to know? A man sneaks up on you with a gun in his hand, you don’t ask questions.” Then looking round at the other men in the camp he tried to justify his actions. “Anyone would make the same mistake. Look at the size of him.” He turned back again to Hoss. “What’s your Mama feeding you, boy?”

Jeb then called over to Ben. “Next you’re gonna tell me this one here’s only two,” he laughed, pointing his finger at Little Joe.

Joe’s sobs stopped immediately. He was not a baby; he had only been out of dresses for about eighteen months, and only then because his poor mother could not put up with his pleading for britches any longer. Joe was very proud of his ‘big boy’ status and standing up he ran over and kicked out at the laughing fiend who had hurt his beloved Hoss and now challenged his pride. “I’m not a baby!” he shouted. “I’m five.”

His little boot caught the man right on the shins and Jeb howled and hopped round on one foot as his fellow gang members roared with laughter. “Why you little demon,” Jeb yelled, grabbing hold of Joe’s arm and landing a stinging swat to his backside.

Joe struggled against the hand that held him and kicked out at the man again and again. Jeb raised his hand to smack Joe once more, when Bill Slater intervened. “Let the kid go, Jeb, unless you want to listen to him screaming all night.”

On his release, Joe ran quickly back towards his father. Seeing his approach, Adam quickly pulled his legs up to his chest, not wanting to be party to one of Joe’s special welcomes. Adam need not have worried because Joe once again took up residence on his father’s lap. A sick smile spread over Ben’s face as he looked over the top of Joe’s head. It was becoming obvious to him that the small boy had wet himself with fright, and the wetness was now soaking through and into Ben’s own shirt and pants.

As Ben shifted uncomfortably, Adam’s voice whispered next to him. “What we gonna do, Pa?” Ben didn’t have any answers and even though Adam now classed himself as one of the ‘grown-ups’, his father still wanted to protect him.

“Just hang in there, son’ it’ll all work out,” Ben said, with an optimism he didn’t feel.

Jeb was back to jibe at the small boy. “How come your so puny kid?” he smirked. “Is the big one here your Mama’s favorite? Does she give him all the meat?”

Joe glared at the man and retaliated, for he hated being called puny. “No she didn’t? Anyway, Hoss’ Mama’s wasn’t my Mama,” he reasoned.

“Oh, so the big guys have a different Mama,” Jeb digested, looking at Hoss and Adam.

Little Joe shook his head once more. “Adam’s Mama’s not the same as Hoss’ Mama,” he explained, as if everyone should know.

Jeb looked at Ben with renewed interest. “Your kids all got different mothers?”

Ben inclined his head wearily.

“You don’t belong to one of them there religions groups, do you?”

Ben didn’t have a clue what the man was on about.

“You know the ones,” Jeb prompted, thinking Ben must be one lucky man. “Where they can have lots of wives.”

Ben would have laughed at the man’s curious face if circumstances had been different. “No, I do not have lots of wives,” he replied. “I was married three times, at three different times, but unfortunately each of the boy’s mothers died.”

“Sounds more than unfortunate; in fact, it sounds mighty suspicious, if you ask me” Jeb retorted, but now he knew Ben didn’t in fact have three women living with him, he quickly lost interest in the conversation.

One of the other men pulled Hoss to his feet and helped the overgrown boy to clean the blood from his face. “You all right, kid?” he asked.

Hoss wiped away his tears and nodded his head. The man turned to Bill Slater for guidance. “What we gonna do with these two?” he asked, pointing to both Hoss and Joe.

Bill stood looking at the boys for a second debating his next plan of action. “Best tie up the big one and put him over there with his Pa.” Seeing the shock on Hoss’ face, he gave a sympathetic leer. “Sorry, son, but 11 or not, you’re big enough to cause me unnecessary bother and that I can do without.”

The man took hold of Hoss’ arms and led him over to sit next to his father.

“What about the runt?” Jeb asked, indicating to Joe who was once again curled up on his father’s lap.

“He’s not likely to give us any trouble,” Bill replied. “One swat will keep him in check. Leave him with his Pa.”

Several moments passed before Joe whispered, not wanting anyone else to hear. “Pa, I’ve wet my pants.”

Ben sighed and, rolled his eyes in Adam’s direction. “Yes, I know Joe.” he said, before calling for Bill Slater’s attention. “My son has had an accident. I need to sort him out.” Ben didn’t want to embarrass Joe, but as the night was getting colder it was important to get him out of his wet clothes.

It took a moment or two for Bill to realize what Ben was on about, but when the penny dropped, he turned to Jeb. “Untie the big guy while he sorts out the kid.” Jeb reluctantly did as he was asked, but all the time he kept his gun pointed in Ben’s direction.

Ben rubbed his aching wrists, then lifted Joe from his lap he stood the boy next to him. Standing up Ben worked the stiffness from his limbs, before bending to open Joe’s jacket.

“What you doing Pa?” Little Joe asked.

“We need to get you out of these wet things and dry them in front of the fire,” Ben replied.

Joe caught hold of Ben’s hands as they made to unbuckle his dungarees. “But Pa, they’ll see me!” he said in horror at the thought of these strange men seeing him in the buff.

Despite the circumstances, Ben had to smile at the child’s innocence, knowing he could give Little Joe two minutes and he would have forgotten all about his false modesty. “Don’t worry, Little Joe, we’ll find something to wrap you in so no one will see.” As he said this, Ben looked over at the men huddled in front of the fire hoping one of them would yield a blanket.

Bill turned to the man nearest him. “Give the kid your blanket.” The man made to protest, but Bill insisted, and he reluctantly handed over his bedroll to Ben and lay back on the hard earth in a huff.

Ben stripped Joe’s dungarees from him and then looked in puzzlement at the boy’s naked legs. “Little Joe, where are your drawers?”

“They itch!” the boy replied stubbornly jutting out his chin.

Ben chided himself for not supervising the child’s dressing on a morning, but he let the matter go for now. Taking the blanket, he wrapped it around his son’s chilled body and lifted him into his arms. It was way past Little Joe’s bedtime and the boy was dead on his feet. When lifted, he immediately laid his small head down on Ben’s shoulder, and putting his thumb in his mouth, he began to suck in earnest. Again Ben looked to Bill Slater for his approval. The man shrugged his shoulders but nodded. Ben began to pace backwards and forwards in front of a very nervous Jeb, who still kept his gun pointed in Ben’s direction.

Within minutes, Joe was sound asleep and Ben laid the sleeping tot between his brothers. Picking up Joe’s pants he laid them near the fire to dry before turning to Slater and asking if it was possible to have blankets for his other sons.

“No can do,” Slater replied. “We don’t have spares. Don’t mind for the baby boy there, but the other two will have to rough it, same as the rest of us.”

Jeb indicated for Ben to sit back down where he had been before and once again he was bound hand and foot. As soon as Jeb walked away, Ben turned to his sons and asked in a whisper, “You boys all right?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Adam replied. “Hoss has fallen asleep, but he’s pretty upset. He thinks you’re going to be angry with him for bringing Little Joe out here.”

“What’s done is done,” said Ben, resigning himself to the situation, “And I’m willing to bet it wasn’t his idea in the first place.”

Adam’s smile was just visible in the darkness. “He did mention Joe thought you might have fallen off your horse.” The tactless comment had hardly passed over Adam’s lips when he realized what he had said. “Sorry, Pa, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s okay, Adam. Now try and get some rest, hopefully we will find out what this is all about in the morning.”

*****

Ben slept fitfully that night. He had to try and think of a way to rescue not only himself but his children. Also with his hands and feet tied, he was not in a position to keep hold of Little Joe and he worried that if the child woke first he may wander off unnoticed.

As it was, none of them slept late that morning. Their stomachs were groaning with lack of food and Hoss especially was out of sorts when he opened his eyes.

“When are we gonna get something to eat, Pa?” Hoss whined. “I ain’t eaten anything since the pie and cookies Mrs. Green gave me yesterday.”

“That’s a pie and cookies more than I’ve had!” Adam threw back at him.

Ben rolled his eyes. Some things never change! The day had hardly begun and already they were sniping at one another. His arms and legs felt cramped and sore and he was sure his sons were suffering the same discomfort. Only Little Joe had been in a position to move his body during the night, and looking over at the now rousing tot, Ben could see he had obviously done plenty of that. The blanket Ben had wrapped him in the night before now enveloped his body like a cocoon.

Joe’s tousled head peeped from beneath the blanket just a moment later and with the natural curiosity of the young, he was quick to shrug himself free of his cover in order to explore his surroundings in the bright light of the day.

It didn’t take long for Joe to recall the events of the night before and he stood up and looked round at his Pa and brothers with a disgruntled look on his face. “Why you still all tied up?” he demanded, as if they were doing it to annoy. “I’m hungry.”

Ben tried to keep the exasperation from his voice, knowing Joe was too young to understand. “Don’t worry, Little Joe, I’m sure we’ll have something to eat soon.” What more could he say? How do you try and explain to a five year old the evil games some men play. It was better if they didn’t alarm him unduly.

The rest of the camp was beginning to come alive, fresh logs were thrown on the fire and the aroma of coffee and bacon began to fill the air.

None of Joe’s modesty of the night before was apparent this morning. With his little bare bottom exposed he inquisitively sidled over to where the men were gathering.

“So when do we set out?” one of the men asked of Bill Slater. “The bank opens at 9 and we need to hit it before they cotton on to what’s happening.”

“We’ll set off as soon as we’ve eaten,” Bill replied. “Everyone knows what they’ve got to do.” Then he turned to the man on his right. “Don’t forget, you and Jock need to be hidden in those hills just outside of town,” he instructed to Abe. “If anyone follows us out, you can pick them off from there nice and easy.”

Abe nodded his head. They had planned this robbery down to the last detail. Virginia City Bank hadn’t originally been their next target but when they received a tip off about the amount of money that had been deposited in the bank over the last week, they decided it was a golden opportunity not to be missed.

Jeb Baines became aware of their small interloper and he prodded Bill Slater in the ribs with his elbow and indicated towards Joe. Bill looked down and was amused to see the tiny boy looking back at him with expectation.

“What you after?” he asked.

“I’m hungry,” Joe replied, as way of explanation.

Bill reached down and pulled the child into his arms. “In that case, I suppose we’d better feed you,” he replied. “Your pants should be dry by now little fellow,” he added, patting the boy’s bare bottom. “Why don’t you go and put them on?”

Scrambling from the man’s arms, Joe made his way to where his pants were lying and proceeded to pull the dry, but still soiled dungarees, up his legs. He successfully managed to get them on, but several minutes later he was still struggling with the buckles and straps.

“Come here kid,” Bill beckoned, and when Joe walked over to him trying hard to keep his pants up, Bill started to laugh. “You need a hand with them straps?” Joe nodded his head and Bill found himself finishing off what Joe had started.

Bill had never had much to do with young children and Joe’s natural charm amused him, while all the time he was formulating in his mind just how he could use the boy to his advantage. After all, he convinced himself, if they had the boy with them, there was every likelihood they would walk away without one shot being fired and more importantly without a posse in hot pursuit. The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed to him.

Ben and Adam watched the interchange closely. The angry father held his temper in check. He didn’t want to do or say anything that might antagonize the man, which may result in his temper being directed at one of his sons.

When breakfast was ready, Ben and the boys had their hands untied and were allowed to eat. Little Joe took this opportunity to clamber onto his father’s lap and get a long overdue hug. When the meal was over, Jeb insisted on retying the bonds, much to Joe’s annoyance. Jeb ignored the boy’s protestations and went about his preparations to leave camp.

Once the fire had been extinguished and the horses were saddled, Bill stood in front of Ben and smiled. “Can’t say it’s been a pleasure, Cartwright, but the time has come for us to move out.”

“What about us?” Ben asked, hardly able to keep the loathing from his voice.

Bill shrugged his shoulders. “You never know, someone may chance along and find you.”

Ben couldn’t believe the man was just going to leave them there. “You know, without a fire, the chances of us being found are almost nil.”

“That’s not my problem, Mister. I never asked you to stick your nose in where it don’t belong.” With that Bill made to mount his horse. Before doing so he grabbed the youngest Cartwright by the back of his pants and swung him up onto the saddle before him.

Joe began to struggle and call for his Pa, but Bill just clamped his hand over Joe’s small mouth, and with a tip of his hat, to Ben he rode away laughing.

Ben, Adam and Hoss could do nothing but gaze at the retreating horses. A lump formed in each of their throats as they watched them pass over the hill and out of sight. What was to become of Little Joe and what was to become of them?

Adam was the first to speak. “Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll get out of this and go after Little Joe; they won’t get away with it!”

In spite of himself, Ben had to smile. Trust Adam to be the positive one. What ever would he do without him?

*****

Bill and his gang continued their ride towards town. Jeb sidled up towards Bill.

“No one will ever find them there, you know?” he said quietly, not wanting Little Joe to hear.

“That’s not our problem,” Bill replied without concern.

“But two of them are just kids!” Jeb persisted.

“Like I said Jeb, that’s not our problem.”

Jeb shook his head and rode on without further comment. Most people who didn’t know them would have thought Jeb was the hard one and Bill the one with the soft heart, but that was not the case. On the outside Jeb could be hard and callous, but underneath there was a soft core that, when it came to it, didn’t have the killer instinct. Whereas on the other hand, Bill often came over as charming and likeable, but really he only used people to serve his purpose and when their usefulness was gone, he could kill them and dispose of them without ever giving another thought.

By this time Bill had removed his hand from Joe’s mouth and eventually the little boy found his voice and his nerve. “I want my Pa!” Bill’s first instinct was to turn the child over and give him a few swats so he would be under no illusion who was boss, but for the moment the kid amused him, much as a new puppy, and so he replied in his best coaxing voice. “Don’t worry, kid, we are just going to have a little adventure then you can go back to your Pa.”

“But he’s all tied up,” Joe persisted.

“Aw, that’s just part of the game Little Joe. Jeb there will go back and let him go once we pay a visit to town, won’t you Jeb?”

Joe looked over at Jeb for confirmation and the man struggled to formulate the lies. “Sure, kid, I’ll ride back soon and cut them free. It was just a little bit of fun really. Don’t you play games like that with your brothers?”

“Sometimes,” Joe replied hesitantly. “But I ain’t ever tied up Pa before.”

Joe was placated for the moment, but Jeb shot an accusing look at Bill, wondering what he had planned for the child and when would he tell him he was unlikely to see his Pa and brothers again.

On the outskirts of the town, Bill and his band of men stopped and dismounted.

“Right!” said Bill in a commanding voice. “Abe, you and Jock get up behind those rocks and wait for us. The rest of you will be coming with me. Only change to the plan is we will be having Little Joe here ride along with us. Can’t see the sheriff or anyone else taking a risk on killing the kid, so this job should be a piece of cake.” Then turning to Little Joe, he lifted him from the horse and into his arms.

“Listen kid, we’re going to play at bank robbers. You and I are going to be the robbers and ride into town and get all the money.”

Little Joe’s eyes opened wide. “Won’t Sheriff Coffee throw us in jail?” he asked.

Bill laughed. “No, he won’t do that. Remember it’s just a game, Joe, so don’t be frightened.” Little Joe wasn’t sure, but he nodded his head just the same. Sitting the child back on the horse and climbing up behind him, Bill marveled at the gullibility of small children.

The men rode into town in twos arriving from different directions and making their way over to the bank as unobtrusively as possible. Three of the men entered the bank and another two stayed outside to watch for unwelcome visitors and to keep an eye on the horses. Jeb and Bill, with Little Joe in tow, entered the bank last of all.

It was still early in the morning and there were only three customers standing at the counter. The teller behind the screen sensed something was amiss but before he could raise the alarm, Bill and his men pulled their guns.

“Don’t anyone move!” Bill shouted, holding Little Joe up in front of him. “Now let’s take everything nice and easy and no one will get hurt. Everyone down on the floor, except you,” he added, indicating towards the teller who was now shaking like a leaf.

Jeb grabbed the frightened man and, with a gun pointed to his head, walked him towards the safe. “Now open it and don’t try any heroics or my finger just might slip.” The man had no intention of putting his life on the line, and with a trembling hand, he dialed the combination and the safe door swung open. Bill’s gang quickly filled their sacks with the cash and made to leave.

At the last minute, Bill had all the people in the bank moved into the back room and the door locked, for there were no windows or other doors from which they could escape and he was confident of a clean getaway. Turning to the child in his arms, he smiled. “Looks like we don’t need your help after all, Little Joe.”

Luck would have it at that precise moment, Roy Coffee and his deputy Clem were walking towards the bank. On seeing the two suspicious looking men standing outside, they quickly drew their guns and walked towards them, just as Bill and his men burst through the bank doors. Roy pointed his gun in their direction. “Hold it right there,” he shouted.

Bill stopped in his tracks but then a slow smile spread across his face. Lifting the little boy further up in front of him he placed his gun at Joe’s head and shouted for Roy to hear. “If you don’t want this boy’s brains splattered all over your street, Sheriff, you’ll put down your guns and move back.”

Roy indicated to Clem to do as they were asked, for immediately recognizing the youngster; there was no way he would risk a child’s life and especially not the son of his best friend.

Bill kept the gun pointed at Joe as he sat him on his horse and climbed up next to him. Before leaving he turned once again to the Sheriff and sneered. “If you follow us, this boy’s as good as dead.”

The gang made their getaway and headed for the hills. They rode hard and fast and didn’t stop for several hours. Eventually when the horses began to tire, they dismounted and waited for Abe and Jock to catch up with them.

“Well?” Bill asked, quickly going to their side. “Were we followed?”

Abe shook his head. “We waited as long as we dared and there was no sign of a posse or anything. They certainly must have believed you would kill the boy, ‘cause normally we would have had to shoot a couple to slow things down.”

Bill smiled and then looked around for Joe. The child was still stood next to the horse where Bill had placed him, a confused and shocked look on his face. Rushing over to him and throwing him in the air like a ball, Bill whooped with glee. “See, I knew this kid would bring us good luck. There’s no way they gonna risk his life by coming straight after us.”

Hugging Joe to his chest, he smiled down into the green eyes and chuckled. “Now wasn’t that a good game, Little Joe?”

Joe didn’t know what to think; the whole thing had seemed so real, not like when he played bank robbers with Hoss. “Y-y-you were going to shoot me,” the child stated, his bottom lip beginning to tremble.

“Shoot you! No I wasn’t going to shoot you boy; that was all part of the game.” Bill then remembered the child’s fright of the day before and his reaction. “Now go and have a pee over there before we set off again,” he said as kindly as possible. “Cause we won’t be stopping for quite a while.”

Joe did what he was told, but on his return he looked up at Bill questioningly. “Can I go and see my Pa now?”

“It seems your Pa has decided to meet up with us later, Little Joe. So you’ll just need to stay with us a while longer. That’s okay isn’t it?”

There was something about this man Joe wasn’t sure about. One minute he seemed nice, the next Joe was frightened of him. Instinct told him not to make a fuss and so he just nodded his head.

All the men remounted and they set off once again on their journey. It was a hard ride for a small boy and before long Little Joe couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. Putting his thumb into his mouth, he fell into an exhausted sleep. Bill was unaware of what had happened until he almost let the child slip from the saddle, and pulling his horse to a stop, he opened his jacket and refastened it round Little Joe’s body.

Continuing on until night was falling, the group of hungry, dusty men finally reached their hideaway many miles away, hidden in the hills. Several women came out to meet them and welcomed them back after their lengthy absence.

Bill climbed carefully from his horse, using one hand to cradle the still sleeping tot hidden in his coat. Walking over to his woman he grabbed her roughly with his free hand and planted an urgent kiss on her lips, leaving her in no doubt what was on his mind for later that night.

“What you got there?” Maggie asked curiously, trying to peak inside his coat.

“I’ve got a surprise for you Maggie,” Bill replied. Opening his coat he revealed the sleeping child to her. “You keep telling me you want a baby; well, I brought one home ready made for you.”

Maggie hardly glanced at the child before shouting back at him. “When I said I wanted a baby, I meant I wanted one of my own, not someone else’s half grown brat.” And with that, she turned her back and went to walk away.

Bill wasn’t fazed. He casually took his gun from his holster and pointed it at Little Joe’s head. “Okay, if you don’t want him, there’s no point keeping him hanging around.” Maggie turned when she heard the gun being cocked. “NO!” she screamed before rushing back to Bill’s side and grabbing the child from his arms.

Shaking with fright, she carried the now waking Little Joe away from Bill, his laughter ringing in her ears. She knew he had duped her, but then again Bill was capable of almost anything and Maggie wasn’t prepared to risk the child’s life by calling his bluff.

Taking the child over to the fire, Maggie sat down with her back to the rest of the group, and took the opportunity to study the face of the little boy, who was now looking up at her with large frightened eyes. “Don’t worry, little one,” she cooed. “No one is going to hurt you.” Maggie traced her fingers down the baby soft skin and brushed his unkempt hair from his brow. The child looked decidedly grubby and his clothes smelled of urine, but beneath the dirt Maggie could see he was a real beauty. “Are you hungry?” she asked, and was surprised at how the little face lit up at the mention of food.

Placing him on a blanket, she went off in the direction of the other women and set about filling a plate with stew and a large chunk of bread. Maggie sat enthralled as the child hungrily ate his fill; she couldn’t believe such a small body could consume so much.

Maggie decided the child would need to be bathed, for he was just too dirty to leave the way he was, but before she had time to boil the water, Little Joe was fast asleep once more. Laying the child down on the blanket, she began to remove his soiled clothes. Joe whimpered and tried to push her hands away.

“Sorry there, little fellow,” she whispered. “But if you are gonna stay around here, I’m not putting up with the smell. These clothes will need to be washed tonight, if they are to be dry before morning.” As she talked, she quickly stripped the little boy naked and then wrapped him in the blanket to protect him from the night chill. Picking him up, she carried him towards the tent she shared with Bill Slater.

“Just hold it there, Maggie. What do you think your doing?” Bill’s voice cried out to her.

“Just putting the child to bed,” she replied in explanation.

Bill moved swiftly towards her and taking Joe from her arms, he walked over and placed him on the hard ground outside the tent. “He sleeps there,” he instructed.

“But Bill?” Maggie pleaded, “he’s so little.”

“Maggie,” Bill stated coldly. “I’ve been away for nearly five days and you have more pressing duties to perform.”

“But I have to wash his clothes; he’ll need them in the morning.”

Bill raised his eyes in exasperation. “Hey Julie!” he cried, shouting to one of the other women. “Maggie’s gonna be tied up for the rest of the night, so why don’t you do her a favor and wash the kids clothes.”

Julie nodded over none too happy with the request, but she knew better than to refuse.

*****

The following morning Maggie was up bright and early. Bill and his men expected coffee and breakfast as soon as they opened their eyes and the women were more than willing to oblige to keep them happy.

Maggie was also worried. She had quizzed Bill as to where the child had come from but, as usual, he was very evasive as to the real facts of the situation. Little Joe would remain with them for as long as Bill found him of use, of that Maggie was certain. She didn’t delude herself into thinking Bill cared for the boy as Bill cared for no one but himself. Everyone else was useful to him but when that usefulness was gone, Bill discarded them just as easily as he would an old coat.

As the bacon sizzled in the pan, Maggie pulled an old tin basin in front of the fire and prepared to fill it with hot water. Once the child had awoken, her first priority would be to wash some of the trail dust from him. Joe’s clothes were still not dry and she decided she would have to dress him in one of Bill’s shirts until his pants were ready.

The smell of food aroused the sleeping tot and he poked his head out from under the blanket. Joe looked round the campfire with a dazed expression on his face. He could hardly remember anything from the night before and he wondered who all these people were. Catching sight of him, one of the women called over out, “Looks like our little visitor is awake, Maggie.”

Maggie stopped what she was doing and walking over to Joe she scooped the little boy from his bedroll. “I’m hungry,” declared Little Joe almost immediately.

“Bath then food,” Maggie responded, moving towards the tin bath, which was now steaming with water. Little Joe’s eyes widened with fright and the other women giggled as the naked tot struggled to escape from Maggie’s clutches. Unable to keep hold of the squirming child any longer, Maggie was forced to set him down and Joe took off running before his feet hit the ground.

Pandemonium followed as the women scattered in all directions trying to grab the fleeing tot. If Adam and Hoss had been there, they would have informed them a running Joe was not an easy target, for the child ran like a young colt and was just as skittish.

The noise awakened a number of the men who had been sleeping off the hard ride of the day before and within ten minutes Joe had the whole camp in an uproar. Bill was not a morning person and as he emerged from his tent, a hushed silence fell across the group. Joe was the only one unaware to tread carefully.

“What the hell is going on here?” Bill shouted angrily.

Before anyone else had time to reply, Little Joe stamped his foot angrily on the ground. “I don’t want no baf,” he stated.

Under other circumstances, the scene of a small naked boy having a tantrum while a dozen or more people ran about after him would have been amusing, but Bill did not see the funny side of life at such an early hour. With a couple of strides, he closed the gap between him and Joe and with a quick swoop he had the child in his arms. Holding the boy up in front of him he landed two hard swats to his rear before walking over and literally dumping him in the hot tub.

Joe began to bawl, but his cries were quickly cut short when Bill shouted out in a menacing voice. “Enough! One more sound and I will thrash the living daylights out of you. Now everyone pipe down and let a man sleep.” With that, Bill disappeared once more into his tent.

The tiny tot sat in the water, looking up at Maggie with hurt in his eyes. Not a sound was made as the tears began to fall and Maggie’s heart melted.

“Don’t cry little one, you’ll be okay. Maggie will have you clean in no time and everything will be all right. Just wait and see.”

Joe remain subdued for the rest of his bath and didn’t utter another word as Maggie, washed, dried and dressed him in Bill’s shirt. His little bottom cheeks were pink from the swats but otherwise he was unhurt and as he ate the plate of food in front of him, he began to rally round once more.

Young children, like young animals, are very selfish creatures. The world revolves around them and their needs. Once Joe was clean and his stomach was full, his other pressing need surfaced. He wanted his Pa and he wanted him now.

“Can I go and see my Pa now?” Joe asked.

Maggie didn’t know how to answer him. The fact was she didn’t know where Joe’s Pa was, or even if he was alive, which she doubted very much. “Maybe later, Joe, but not right now.”

“But he promised,” Joe persisted. “He said I could go and see my Pa.”

As Joe’s voice started to rise, Maggie frantically looked round for something to distract him. She had no doubt Bill would carry out his threat and thrash the child if he was disturbed. Maggie had yet to learn how stubborn Little Joe was, but in the days that followed she would have her work cut out keeping him safe from the hands of Bill Slater.

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss had spent a frustrating day and night. Much as they tried they had been unable to loosen their bonds. Despair was beginning to descend upon them, as without water they could not hope to hold on for too long in the hot sun of the day.

Listening to the whimpering of his middle son tore at Ben’s heartstrings. Hoss was still a child and should not have to suffer in this way. Ben cursed himself yet again for entering the camp unprepared and for putting his sons’ in this desperate situation. How many times had he warned them about the ‘gung ho’ behavior he himself had displayed?

Adam tried his best to console his young brother, but in his heart he felt as crushed as Hoss.

“Don’t cry, Hoss, someone’s bound to have realized we’re missing. I’ll bet Sheriff Coffee has half the territory out looking for us by now.”

As he listened to his son’s words, Ben hoped against hope help was indeed on its way, but would it be in time. What Adam hadn’t added to his statement was, without a fire burning to alert someone that they were there, the chances of anyone looking into this valley for them was almost none existent. The Ponderosa was so vast, it could take days or even weeks to scour the land and even then they might never be found.

Ben’s thoughts turned to his youngest son, his baby. Little Joe was still so young; there was no way he could comprehend or understand what had taken place. What would become of him? Would they just abandon him when he had served their purpose? Or would they ………… Ben stopped his mind from going in that direction. Surely to God they wouldn’t harm someone so young and helpless. A shiver ran down Ben’s spine. The fact of the matter was, he had no doubt the men were capable of anything; after all, they had left him and his sons to die and Hoss himself was still a child.

As his eyes clouded with unshed tears, Ben looked over to where Joe’s coat lay abandoned in the dirt just a few feet from him. He couldn’t help but wonder if Joe had been cold during the night, and he wished he had shouted for them to take his jacket.

Stretching out his feet as far as he could, the grief stricken father was able to put his heel on the little jacket and drag it along the earth towards him. With much effort Ben was finally able to stretch down his bound hands and pick up the only thing he had left to remind him of his child. Grasping the jacket between his fingers he tried to hold it towards his face so he could feel the material against his skin and maybe even smell the unique smell that was his son.

As Ben’s hands caressed Joe’s coat, he was surprised to feel something hard in one of the pockets. Twisting the jacket around so he could reach inside, Ben gasped with surprise when he pulled out a small knife.

Adam and Hoss were startled and more than a little concerned, when their father began to chuckle softly and then started to laugh out loud.

“Pa?” Adam asked. “Pa, are you okay?”

“The little imp,” Ben smiled. “One of these days,” he added, shaking his head from side to side.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss whispered, looking at his father with fear in his eyes at his uncharacteristic behavior in such dire circumstances.

“Nothing’s wrong, son. In fact, things are looking up.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, the worry reflecting in each of their eyes. When they turned back to their father they were surprised to see he was free of his bonds and was turning to them with a knife in his hand ready to release them.

“How?” asked Adam incredulously. “Where did the knife come from?”

“Courtesy of your little brother,” Ben chuckled. “One of these days that child is going to listen to what I tell him, but not too soon I hope.”

As soon as they were all free and had stretched their aching limbs and stamped their feet to try and get the circulation going once more, they set off to climb out of the valley and head back towards the Ponderosa. It was likely to be tough going. Bill and his men had not been stupid enough to leave the Cartwright’s horses behind.

Two hours later they needed to stop for a break. Even though they had quenched their thirst at a nearby stream, it had been more than 26 hours since any of them had eaten, and in the heat of the day, their bodies were crying out for nourishment. Ben worried more about his sons than himself, especially Hoss. He may be big, but at the end of the day he was still a young boy and not up for the grueling trek in this heat.

As time went by Adam remained as stalwart as ever and matched Ben step for step, but Hoss’ head was low and he was beginning to lag behind. Ben stopped for a second to give him a hug and then took hold of his hand before moving forward once again as Hoss forced a smile onto his lips and endeavored to keep up.

The sun shone down relentless, caring not for the distress it caused. Hoss could go on no longer and sank to the ground crying with tearless eyes, too exhausted even to weep. Ben and Adam sat at either side of him trying to bring comfort, but their words sounded empty. What could they promise him?

Just when despair had settled across them like a black cloud, they heard the sound of horses approaching. Ben stood up and looked into the distance, hardly able to believe his eyes. Riding towards them were Roy Coffee and three other men.

“Thank God,” Ben muttered, relief allowing him to give vent to his emotions.

Sheriff Coffee and his deputies were surprised to find Ben and the boys in such a desperate state and hurried forward to give them water.

Ben hardly took more than a sip from the canteen before giving Roy a questioning look. “What are you doing out here? I thought no one would ever find us.”

Roy took a deep breath before giving the news that he knew would cause much heartache. “The bank in town was robbed yesterday, Ben. The men involved had Little Joe with them and they used him as a shield to escape. There’s always someone looking out for that boy so I knew something must have happened at the Ponderosa. I sent a posse out after the men and I decided to come out to the ranch. We’ve spent all night looking for you…”

Ben interrupted. “What about Little Joe? Is he all right?”

Roy shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Ben; they took the boy with them. I didn’t send a posse out straight away, not with Little Joe’s life at stake.”

Ben reluctantly had to agree, but fear gripped his heart. “You don’t think they would just abandon him do you?”

Roy couldn’t give an answer; he didn’t know what was in the men’s minds. “I’ve sent a posse after them Ben. If Little Joe’s on the trail, don’t worry, they’ll find him. Now if you and the boys are fit enough to double up with us we’ll get you back to the ranch.”

Upon arrival back home, Ben was all for eating, changing and setting off in search of Joe. His oldest friend had his work cut out making him see sense.

“You’ve got to at least rest overnight Ben. The state you are in, you won’t sit a saddle more than a couple of hours before you keel over. Then what good would you be to the boy? You need a clear head that’s for sure.”

In the face of reason, Ben relented. “Guess your right, Roy, but each minute wasted means Little Joe is taken further away or left alone in the middle of nowhere.”

“Now Ben, don’t go jumping to any conclusions. You and the boys try to get a good night’s rest and I’ll see you in town in the morning. I should have word from the posse by then and we can decide what’s best to do next.”

The trio spent a restless night, each worrying what had become of Little Joe, but not wanting to put that fear into words.

Next morning they were up at the crack of dawn and Ben was anxious to be on his way. Breakfast was a somber affair, with very little eaten, even by Hoss. Rising from the table and crossing to the credenza to don his jacket and put on his gun belt, Ben was surprised to see his sons doing likewise. “What’s going on, boys?”

“I’m coming with you, Pa,” Adam stated, jutting out his chin in a familiar way.

“Me too,” Hoss added, only not with as much confidence.

“That’s where you are both wrong,” Ben replied, with a definite edge to his voice. “I have one son missing and I’m not prepared to put the other two in danger.”

“He may be your son, Pa, but he’s our brother and when it comes down to it, I’ve been the one looking out for him these past months,” Adam blurted before he could stop himself.

Ben felt his temper flare momentarily, but quickly calmed himself down, realizing the truth of Adam’s statement. After all, Adam had taken care of Joe and Hoss’ needs since Marie’s death and Ben didn’t have the right to shut him out now.

“Okay you win,” Ben yielded. “Grab you coats and let’s be on our way.”

*****

Back at the camp, Maggie was having a difficult time placating Little Joe. Once the little boy had fixed his mind on something, he was like a dog with a bone and wasn’t prepared to let go. “I want to see my Pa,” he demanded in a loud voice yet again.

“Later Little Joe, later,” Maggie replied beginning to lose patience. “Let’s get your pants on; they’ll be dry by now.”

Maggie picked up a protesting Joe and carried him over to the fire. Sitting him on her knee, she was just about to put on his clothes when Bill made an appearance and Joe instinctively cowered back into her arms.

Bill’s bad mood of earlier was now gone and he walked over to Maggie and bending down he ruffled the little boy’s hair and smiled. “How you doing, little man?”

Joe was confused; he didn’t quite know how to take this man. Ignoring Bill’s question, he piped up without fear. “I want my Pa.”

“He’s busy at the moment,” Bill appeased. “He’ll come and get you when his work’s finished.”

Joe bit on his bottom lip and pondered Bill’s words for a moment. “But I want him to come now!” he cried a little louder.

Bill wasn’t used to dealing with young children and had expected Joe just to accept everything he told him on face value. He laughed at the obstinate look on the small boy’s face but didn’t bother replying to his demands.

Once Joe was dressed, his natural inquisitiveness lured him over to where Bill was sitting with Jeb and a few of the other men. Bill was sitting back with his hands resting on his knees and was amused to see Joe sit down next to him and mimic his stance. When Bill moved, Joe followed suit and before long everyone was chuckling at the little boy’s antics. They had never had a child amongst them before and the hardened men found themselves warming to the little boy with the engaging smile.

It was late morning when Bill called everyone to him to tell them his future plans. As the group formed he looked around and turning to Maggie asked, “Where’s the kid?”

Maggie pointed to a bedroll at the other end of the camp. “He’s having a nap; seems to have worn himself out running round all morning.”

“Good!” Bill replied. “I don’t want him listening to what I’ve got planned.”

As Bill began to unfold his scheme, a number of those present began to feel uncomfortable. Although they always went along with whatever Bill decided, they weren’t totally convinced that using a child to obtain their goal was a good plan. However, knowing their leader’s volatile temper, no one said a word of dissent.

“Right Maggie, you know what to do,” Bill stated finally. “Jock, saddle up the buckboard. Maggie and Julie are going into town.”

Darkness had fallen before the two women returned. When Maggie climbed down from the buckboard, Little Joe ran to her and threw himself into her arms. It was obvious the boy had already formed an attachment to her and had been quite upset to wake and find her gone.

When Joe finally settled for the evening, the women and a couple of the men gathered in front of the fire to drink coffee.

“Let’s have a look at what you bought then Maggie, ‘cause you sure brought back plenty packages with you,” one of the women asked.

There was lots of laughter and whistles as Maggie opened each of her parcels in turn.

Inside the first ones there were several expensive dresses, hats, shoes and undergarments befitting a lady of quality. Maggie then proceeded to open boxes containing clothes to fit Bill. Expensive suits, hats and shoes.

“You’re going to look a real dandy in those, Bill,” Jeb joked.

“That’s the whole idea,” Bill replied with a smile on his face. “Hey Maggie, let’s see what you got for the kid.”

Opening the last packages, Maggie held up beautiful little girl’s dresses, hats, pantaloons and shoes. She had even bought a rag doll!

Bill jumped up and kissed Maggie on the cheek. “We sure are going to have ourselves one pretty little girl Maggie,” he announced. “Our little Josephine is going to be a stunner.”

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss were sat in the jailhouse together with Roy Coffee and Clem, his deputy.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” Clem began. “The trail just went dead. The posse followed for as long as they could but they must have gone into the hills. The ground is so hard at the moment there was no way of telling which direction they went.”

Ben nodded his head in acknowledgement, knowing there was no point having a go at Clem, for he had done the best he could.

“Me and the boys are going to head out, Roy. Maybe it will be fruitless but we can’t just sit here and do nothing.”

The Sheriff had no words of advice to give and he nodded silently. Feeling he had failed his best friend, it was with a heavy heart he bid goodbye to the Cartwrights.

“Keep in touch, Ben; let me know where you are in case there is any news. In the meantime, I have sent a telegram to as many towns as I can so that they can be on the look out for those men and Little Joe of course.”

Ben tried to be positive as he set out, not only for himself but for Adam and Hoss. Their forlorn faces tugged at his heart and he only wished they had more to go on. He would try and pick up the trail from the directions given to him by Clem but he knew he was clutching at straws.

That night when they stopped to make camp, they were at an all time low and Hoss began to cry. “It’s all my fault, Pa; I should never have taken Little Joe out looking for you that night. If I had stayed at home, he would be safe and those men wouldn’t have taken him.”

Ben hugged his overgrown child and wiped the tears from his eyes. “You weren’t to know what would happen, Hoss. No one blames you for this, you are not responsible for the evil of those men.”

“Plus think about it, Hoss,” Adam chimed in. “If you hadn’t come looking for us, Joe would never have taken the knife, and without the knife, Pa and I would probably have been left by those men to die. So really you saved our lives.”

It took a few seconds for the meaning of Adam’s words to sink in, but when they did Hoss brightened considerably, knowing now that some good had come of his folly, but he still worried for his little brother. “Guess your right, Adam, but I was real surprised that Little Joe took Hop Sing’s knife. Especially after what Mr. Green said.”

Ben looked puzzled. “Mr. Green? What has Mr. Green to do with Joe taking the knife?”

Hoss shifted uncomfortably realizing he had dropped his little brother in it. “Well, nothing to do with the knife Pa, but he did warn Little Joe about touching razors.”

Knowing that there was no doubt a story to go with Hoss’ words, Ben sat down with his coffee in his hand. “I think you had better start at the beginning, Hoss, and don’t miss anything out,” he said, intuitively knowing this was one of those stories he didn’t really want to hear as his middle son regaled the tale of the hapless Blackie.

*****

Little Joe had spent a restless night and several times the whole camp had been awoken as the child cried out and sobbed for his Pa and brothers. Maggie had tried to comfort him but the small boy was inconsolable. During the day, Maggie had been able to distract him when he became upset, but in the blackness of the night, the child wanted his Pa and nothing nor nobody else would do.

Due to the broken sleep, everyone was tetchy the following morning and it was a sleepy and cross Little Joe that finally made an appearance. Bill and Maggie had dressed in the clothes purchased the day before and were just discussing last minute arrangements with Jeb.

“Why you dressed like that?” asked Little Joe, looking up at them.

Bill bent down and picked up the child. “You and I are going on another adventure, Little Joe, and Maggie is coming with us.”

“Then can I go see my Pa?” Little Joe asked hopefully.

“Yes,” lied Bill. “Then you can go see your Pa.”

The empty promise brought a wide smile to the child’s face and Maggie felt so guilty, she could hardly bear to look at him.

“But first,” Bill continued. “You have to get dressed.”

Putting the little boy down, he took him over to where the girl’s clothing had been laid out in preparation.

Joe looked at the frilly dress and pantaloons with scorn. “They’re girl’s clothes,” he said indignantly, crossing his arms in front of him. “I’m not wearing girl’s clothes.”

“But it’s just a game, Little Joe,” cajoled Bill. “I’m going to be the Papa and Maggie the Mama and you are going to be our little girl Josephine. We are going to go into town on a stagecoach and stay in a hotel. Won’t that be good fun?”

Little Joe was having none of it. He was a big boy now and there was no way they were going to make him wear a dress. Reaching out he grabbed hold of the clothes and threw them to the ground and proceeded to jump on them. The fractious and tired little boy was at the end of his tether and reacted by having the tantrum of his life.

Bill was taken aback for a moment, for he had never witnessed anything like it. But he soon took control of the situation, yanking the child up by his arm and dragging him away from the clothes. Sitting down, Bill pulled Joe over his knee and gave him the hiding of his life. Little Joe screamed out in terror and struggled to get free, but Bill held him fast and only stopped when his own hand began to sting.

“Get him dressed and if I hear another word out of him, he’ll get the same again,” he cried through gritted teeth, as he handed the sobbing child over to Maggie.

Little Joe’s sobs continued all the time Maggie washed and dressed him in the girl’s clothing, but the fight had gone out of him and by the time she had finished, he hung limp and beaten in her arms.

The buckboard was ready to go and Jeb and Bill climbed on board. Maggie passed Little Joe to Bill before climbing up and sitting next to him. As they made their journey into town, Bill informed Joe of what was expected of him.

“Now Little Joe, if you don’t want another spanking you will do exactly what you are told. From now on, you are called Josephine and I am your Papa and Maggie is your Mama. Is that understood?”

Joe was completely confused. He didn’t understand why this man was making him do this. Why would he want him to pretend to be a girl? He was hurting worse than he had ever hurt before. It wasn’t the first spanking he had had in his young life but it was certainly the most painful, but that pain didn’t compare with the hurt to his pride. Wearing a dress with bows, a bonnet and pantaloons was the worst punishment of all, and just thinking about it started the tears rolling again; he hiccupped several times as he thought of his humiliation.

“Is that understood?” Bill asked once more, shaking the child to get a reaction.

Joe nodded his head furiously; he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Bill’s temper ever again.

At the moment of birth, all living things have one thing in common — the instinct to survive — and a human child is no different. Even though Joe was young and had no idea what evil plans Bill Slater had for him, his instinct told him that he would have to play along with whatever the man had in store if he was to survive this ordeal and return to his family. It was finally beginning to dawn on Little Joe that Slater had no intention of letting him go and he began to wonder if his Pa and brothers were still tied up where they had left them. Much as he wanted to, Joe was too afraid to ask.

When they arrived in town, Jeb dropped them at the stage office and, after a quick word with Bill, he returned to camp. Bill bought tickets on the stage to Dutchman Flats and then he and Maggie each took one of Joe’s hands and took him over to the coffee shop for refreshments while they waited for the stage to arrive.

As they sat down, a comely middle aged woman came out to greet them. “Two coffees and a milk for the child,” Bill ordered.

A few minutes later she arrived back and set the coffee cups in front of them. Looking over at Joe, she declared “What a little beauty she is. My, she’s going to break some hearts when she gets older. The boys will be flocking round.”

Joe looked at the woman but did not respond. He was finding it difficult to sit he was so sore, but he did not dare complain in case he angered Bill.

Maggie tried to appear normal. “Oh I think my husband will be able to keep those boys in line, Ma’am. Plus Josephine is only four so we have a lot of years yet before we need to start worrying.”

Joe’s face flushed with embarrassment; not only was he suffering the indignity of wearing girl’s clothes, but they were saying he was four. Babies were four. He wanted to shout out and tell everyone he was five, but one glance at Bill’s face was enough to make him bite his tongue.

Before the hour was up, they were on the stage for Dutchman Flats, and as there wasn’t a spare seat, Joe was forced to sit on Bill’s knee. The traumatic morning and the movement of the coach had the effect of sending Little Joe to sleep. Maggie and Bill breathed a sigh of relief; they were taking a big risk using the boy in their plans, but the rewards would be worth it in the end.

Joe slept for the whole of the journey, and when he awoke, he found himself lying on a bed inside a hotel room. The room was empty and he immediately thought of escaping, but when he ran to the bedroom door he found it locked. Going over to the window, Joe looked out to find himself on the second floor. There was no way out for him and he climbed back onto the bed and lay down, putting his thumb back into his mouth for comfort. He so desperately wanted his Pa, wanted to go home and see his brothers and have Hop Sing shout at him for chasing the chickens. He just wanted his life to be back the way it was.

When Maggie and Bill eventually returned to the room, they insisted that Joe change into a fresh dress and shoes. Once they too were changed, Bill stood Joe in front of him and lifting the child’s chin with his hand declared. “We are going to have dinner tonight with a very important man, Joe. Other than ‘hello’ when we meet up, there is no need for you to say another word this evening, is that understood?” Joe quickly nodded his head and Bill was satisfied that he had got the message.

When they descended the hotel stairs, a gray haired man came up to meet them and shook hands with Bill and Maggie. Then turning to Joe he took hold of the boy’s hand and shook it gently. “Very nice to meet you, young lady. Now what is your name?”

Joe felt a moment of panic! He had only been told to say ‘hello’ and was not allowed to say anything else.

Maggie stepped in to rescue him. “Please excuse Josephine, Mr. Edwards; she’s really very shy and not used to strangers.”

Mr. Edwards ruffled Joe’s curls. “That’s all right, I understand. Probably just as well for them to be wary of strangers at this age.”

Mr. Edwards was the town Bank Manager and he was anxious to impress his new investors by wining and dining them without a thought of the cost in the hotel dining room.

“So you see, Mr. Edwards,” Bill was explaining during their expensive dinner. “I would like to invest $50,000 initially with your bank, but once my business venture is underway, that will just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Edwards was positively drooling at the thought of all that money being invested with his bank; the bank owners would be so pleased, he might even get a promotion out of this.

As soon as the meal was ended, Bill and Maggie made excuses and left. “Sorry to leave so early, Mr. Edwards, but one young lady here needs her sleep. It has been a long day.”

“Yes, of course,” Edwards replied. “I shall be happy to see you in the bank first thing tomorrow.”

The following morning, Maggie once again dressed Joe as a little girl. By this time, the boy had no fight left in him and he made no protest as the dress was pulled over his head. Shortly after breakfast, Bill and Maggie took Joe by the hand and made their way over to the bank.

The first customers of the morning were queuing in front of the teller’s window, but when Mr. Edwards caught sight of his very important potential investors, he quickly made his way out of his office and over to the ‘family’.

Bill went through the motions of a potential investor and caring family man with relish, enjoying the role as he strung the silly man along. In some ways he was quite disappointed when the door to the office burst open and Jeb and four other men suddenly rushed into the room, brandishing their guns.

Maggie screamed and made a big pretence of hugging Little Joe to her breast. Bill put a protective arm around his ‘family’, while Mr. Edwards almost had a heart attack.

“Okay, everyone just stay calm and no one will get hurt,” Jeb called out. Then grabbing hold of the bank manager he pushed him towards the safe. “If you want to wake up tomorrow, Mister, I suggest you open it pronto.”

With fumbling hands Edwards dialed the combination and opened the door, and the men quickly filled their saddlebags with the cash inside. As they made to leave Jeb went over to Bill and Maggie and before Joe knew what was happening, Jeb grabbed hold of his dress and pulled him roughly into his arms.

Joe started to struggle and was about to scream when Jeb placed his hand over his mouth and turned to the people in the bank. “Now if you want to get this little lady back in one piece, I suggest no one follows us.” He turned towards Bill. “Are you the little girl’s, Pa?”

“Yes!” cried Bill in an anguished voice.

“Then Mister, I suggest you make sure we aren’t followed if you want your baby back alive. Once we have left, wait exactly one hour and then you, and only you, can ride out of town. We’ll leave the kid unhurt on the trail, but only if you turn up unarmed and don’t try any funny business. You got that?”

“You have my word,” Bill declared vehemently. “Just don’t hurt my daughter!”

With that the gang left taking Little Joe with them. Maggie started to wail and cry for her child and Bill put up a big pretence of comforting her. When the Sheriff and his deputies arrived, everyone was anxious not to put the little girl’s life at risk and so it was agreed that they would follow the bank robber’s instructions.

Exactly one hour later, Bill rode out of town, alone and unarmed to collect Little Joe. When he came upon the boy he had been left sitting on a rock with his hands and feet tied so he wouldn’t try running off. Bill untied the ropes and then lifted Joe onto his horse. “You did good, kid,” he said. “Now when we get back to town, just keep your mouth shut. Don’t answer any question.”

When Bill rode back to town, Maggie ran out into the street. “My baby, my baby,” she cried, grabbing hold of Little Joe and hugging the boy to her as she kissed his face over and over again. Joe remained impassive in her arms. The games these people were playing were far beyond his comprehension and it frightened him to show any emotion in case he was doing something wrong.

Once everyone had calmed down, the Sheriff tried to question Joe. Realizing the boy showed signs of breaking, Bill, who had him sitting on his knee and, without anyone being aware, slipped his hand under the child’s dress and nipped Joe hard on the leg. ‘Josephine’ began to cry in earnest and Bill then insisted to the Sheriff that the child was too traumatized to be interrogated.

That afternoon Bill and Maggie packed their cases and insisted on leaving on the next stage. No matter what Mr. Edwards said to try and change their minds, they claimed to be far too distraught at the whole affair and had decided to move on, away from such a ruthless area

Dismounting from the coach at the next town it wasn’t long before Jeb rode in on the buckboard and collected them. No one had any reason to be suspicious and their plan had worked perfectly.

*****

In the following weeks, the Cartwrights searched relentlessly for Little Joe, but could find no trace of him. Eventually on one of their numerous stops, Ben picked up a telegram from Roy Coffee asking him to meet him in Reno. It was more than a day’s ride away so they set off immediately and on arrival made their way straight to the Sheriff’s office, neither taking time to freshen up or rest.

The local sheriff was a man called Dan West and he welcomed them warmly. West sent his deputy to find Roy Coffee and also asked him to find one of the townsfolk called Mrs. Meadows and bring her to the office as well.

Roy was glad to see his old friend, and after the initial pleasantries, he set about bringing him up to date with the latest news.

“There have been several bank robberies over the last few weeks Ben and we have reason to believe it is the same gang involved in each one.”

“What about Little Joe? Is there any news of him?” Ben asked impatiently.

“Don’t worry I’m coming to that Ben,” Roy responded. “I believe a Mrs. Meadows has some information for you.”

At this point Sheriff West joined in the conversation. “Mr. Cartwright, it was only when Mrs. Meadows came to me after the bank robbery here and offered some valuable information that I got in touch with the law officers in charge of the towns where the last two robberies took place, and we were able to put some of the pieces together.”

“What do you mean? What pieces?” Adam asked. He was anxious for news of his little brother and everyone was just talking in riddles.

West tried to explain. “After speaking to my counterparts, I found out that in each of the other robberies a man and woman arrived in town the night before with their small daughter, the man claiming he was there to invest a large sum of money in the bank. On the day of both the robberies, he and his family were in the bank and the robbers took his daughter hostage. The robbers held the child in order to make good their escape and avoid being followed.”

“No one has that much bad luck, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on each occasion.” Roy interjected. “They have to be in with the gang.”

“I still don’t see what this has to do with Little Joe,” Ben cried in exasperation.

Just then the door opened and the deputy arrived escorting an old lady who looked to be in her late sixties.

“Oh Mrs. Meadows,” said Sheriff West, offering her a seat. “I would like you to meet Mr. Ben Cartwright and his sons, Adam and Hoss.”

Mrs. Meadows inclined her head at them all and then sat down.

“Now Mrs. Meadows, I wonder if you would tell Mr. Cartwright what you told me about the day of the robbery.”

Taking a deep breath Mrs. Meadows recalled the event that took place a week ago.

“I was in the bank that morning,” she began. “As I waited, I noticed a couple come in with the most beautiful little girl. Big eyes and the face of an angel. She looked about four years old.”

Ben was anxious to get to the point of the story but he held his tongue and allowed the old lady to continue.

“Mr. Jennings… he’s the Bank Manager… well he asked the couple to go into his office with him. So the man turned to the little girl and sat her on the chair outside. He told her not to move and he would be back soon. I can tell you, I didn’t like the way he talked to the child. She was just a little thing and looked all scared…”

Sheriff West interrupted. “I’m sorry to rush you Mrs. Meadows but Mr. Cartwright really needs to know what happened.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry Mr. Cartwright,” she flustered. “Where was I? Oh yes the little girl was sat on her own and she started to shuffle about on her seat and hold herself. I had four children of my own and I now have seven grandchildren, so I could tell the signs.” Mrs. Meadows smiled and looked at the men knowingly. “So I went up to the little mite and asked her if she needed to go. The little thing nodded her head frantically; she was so grateful. Little ones can’t wait you know. When they need to go they need to go. I took her outside and well that’s when I found out. I didn’t know what to think. It’s a disgrace why would anyone do that to a child?”

“What did you find out?” asked Ben. His was tired and hungry and his head was pounding.

“That it wasn’t a little girl at all,” Mrs. Meadows said incredulously. “It was a little boy.”

Ben, Adam and Hoss looked at the woman for a moment as if she had gained an extra head.

“I can see you are as shocked as I am,” the old lady said sadly. “Why would parents do that to their own child?”

“Because he is not their child, Mrs. Meadows,” said Ben with a tear in his eye. “I have no doubt that the little boy in question is my youngest son, Joseph.”

*****

The last few weeks had not been happy ones for Little Joe. The once high spirited and rambunctious five year old had been replaced by a frightened little boy who dreaded each new day.

Bill Slater’s volatile temper was often directed at the child and Little Joe started trembling every time the man came near him. Maggie did her best to protect the boy but on the occasions where she had intervened, Bill had made it harder on Little Joe in the long run, so all she could do was try and keep the boy out of his way as much as possible.

Joe no longer protested each time he was made to wear a dress. He now knew what was expected of him and he did so without a fight. Even so, Bill still found many reasons to find fault and on each occasion Joe was spanked until his little bottom felt quite raw.

That was bad enough, but what Joe couldn’t cope with was when Bill was nice to him. That bewildered him more than anything. On lots of occasions, Bill had spanked him for virtually no reason, but then an hour later expected the child to be full of fun and run around and giggle when Bill wanted to play with him.

Joe still cried many times during the day and night for his Pa and brothers. Jeb and Maggie kept telling him that his Pa would come soon, secretly hoping that he would eventually get tired of asking and forget his family. One night Joe was particularly upset and wouldn’t be placated. Bill had been drinking heavily and was thoroughly sick and tired of the incessant whining and decided he would not put up with the crying any longer.

“Your Pa and brothers are still tied to the tree Little Joe,” he said spitefully. “And that’s where they’ll remain forever.”

“But you p-p-promised,” Little Joe cried. “You said it was a game and Jeb would let them go.”

“Well I lied!” Bill shouted and then burst into laughter at the little boy’s distraught face.

Bill was beginning to tire of the child; what with his constant crying and sullen face, he wasn’t fun anymore. One more job, Bill decided, just one more job and then he would get rid of his ‘puppy’.

*****

Churchill was to be their next stop. They had been lucky up to now, but Bill was sure that word would eventually spread about the couple with the little girl and Joe’s usefulness would come to an end.

The plan proceeded just the same as before. Bill, Maggie and Little Joe arrived in the town by stage and booked into the hotel. As soon as possible after arrival, Bill introduced himself to the local Bank Manager.

Unbeknown to Slater, he hadn’t finished booking into the hotel before a telegram was sent to Roy Coffee to announce Bill, Maggie and Joe’s arrival in town. Ben and the boys had been on a knife-edge for more than a week waiting for just this news and they were packed and ready to set off in no time at all.

It was a long hard ride and by the time Roy and the Cartwrights arrived, the bank robbery had already taken place. Bill had left to collect his ‘daughter’ and Maggie was under arrest. The Sheriff of Churchill and his posse had left shortly after Bill and were now on their way to apprehend him.

Roy Coffee and Ben were furious. Why hadn’t the Sheriff apprehended Bill Slater and rescued Joe when he had the chance? What possible reason could he have for allowing the robbers to take Joe with them?

One of the sheriff’s deputies tried to appease the angry men. “We didn’t really think we were putting the boy at risk. After all, they don’t appear to have any intention of harming him.”

Ben was ready to make the man eat his words, but Roy and Adam held him back.

“What does he gain by allowing the bank robbery to take place?” Roy questioned.

The deputy glanced nervously at Ben. “We thought he might lead us to the rest of the gang. He may actually meet them when he goes to pick up the boy.”

“Come on. Roy,” Ben called over his shoulder as he walked out of the door. “I intend to catch up to them before Little Joe gets caught up in the crossfire.”

The posse took Bill Slater by surprise when they came across him at the cliff top. He was stood at the top of the hill with Little Joe in his arms. After loosening the rope that bound the boy’s feet, he had intended to return to town to collect Maggie so they could be on their way.

“Hold it right there, Mister,” the Sheriff shouted, his gun trained directly on Slater.

Slater’s natural instinct had been to go for his gun, but he had forgotten that he was unarmed. He turned to face the men in front of him and smiled, keeping up the pretence of the distraught father.

“Sheriff, I can’t believe you would have risked my child’s life by riding out here.”

“We’re on to you Slater,” the Sheriff replied. “Now put the boy down and hold up your hands.”

By calling his ‘child’ a boy, Slater knew then that the game was up. He made as if to put the child down, but at the last minute he caught hold of Joe by the back of his dress and with his own arm extended as far as he could, he held the terrified boy out over the cliff edge. Joe began to kick and scream, afraid of heights at the best of times.

“Now Sheriff,” Slater called, ignoring the boy’s cries. “I’m sure you don’t want this little boy to have a nasty accident,” he said sarcastically, indicating the sheer drop over the cliff top. “He’d probably be dead before he hit the ground; that’s a mighty jagged rock to fall down. Now why don’t you and your men put your guns down and move away nice and slowly.”

The Sheriff and his men unwillingly did as they were asked.

It was at this point that Ben, Hoss and Adam came riding round the corner. Taking in the scene before him, Ben rushed forward to plead with Slater.

“Look Slater, we’ll do anything you want. Just put Little Joe safely back on the ground.”

“Well, well, well!” Slater smirked. “If it isn’t the Cartwrights. You lot must have nine lives! How on earth did you get free?”

“Never mind that,” Ben dismissed. “I’m begging you, please just put my son down.”

“All in good time Cartwright. All in good time. Now just take off your gunbelts and lay them on the ground and kick one of those guns over to me.” Ben and Adam complied immediately.

Little Joe as this point had his hands over his face, unable to look at the drop in front of him, and he whimpered softly, totally unaware his Pa and brothers had arrived.

Slater tried to steady himself as he bent down to pick up the gun, all the time keeping his eyes on the men in front of him. As he reached forward his feet started to slip and in an effort to stop himself going over the cliff, he let go of Little Joe and scrambled forward with both hands to safety.

The nightmare scene played out in slow motion in front of Ben and his two eldest son’s eyes. One minute Little Joe was held aloft and the next he had disappeared, falling to the rocks below.

Everyone, except Slater, stood rigid with shock, unable to comprehend Little Joe was gone.

After what seemed an eternity a strangled tormented cry came screaming from the anguished father’s mouth. “Nooooo!” Ben cried, rushing forward and grabbing Slater by the throat. With Little Joe, his youngest, his baby, now gone, this evil monster was going to pay, and Ben proceeded to choke the life out of his murderer.

The Sheriff and one of his men tried their best to pull Ben’s hands away but at that point in time grief had given the father the strength of ten men and he was not letting go.

Hoss was lying on the ground sobbing his heart out, not wanting to believe what he had witnessed.

Adam was in a daze; the shock rendered him helpless to help his Pa or Hoss. All he could think of was Marie’s words to him shortly after Joe was born. “Whatever happens Adam, Joe will always be your little brother and I’m trusting you to look after him.”

“Trusting you, trusting you, trusting you,” kept repeating in Adam’s head. He had failed Marie, he had failed Hoss and his Pa, but most of all he had failed Little Joe.

Standing at the top of the cliff, oblivious of the melee that was going on around him, Adam looked down with unseeing eyes. Suddenly he snapped back to the present. “Quiet!” he shouted, but on getting no response, he was forced to scream out at the top of his lungs. “QUIET, JUST LISTEN!”

His son’s screaming order startled Ben and his hands slackened allowing the Sheriff to pull him from the unconscious Slater. Everyone stood still and quiet, not sure what to expect and wondering if Adam was losing his mind.

The seconds ticked by and the only noise that could be heard was the labored breathing of all the men on the cliff top. Finally Ben went over to his eldest son and tried to pull him away from the cliff edge. Adam yanked himself from his father’s grip. “Listen Pa, just listen.”

Standing still once more Ben strained his ears, then it came, distant and weak, but without a shadow of a doubt it was a child’s pitiful cry.

“Little Joe?” Ben cried in amazement. Then lying down and stretching himself as far over the cliff as he possibly could he looked down the rock face, trying to catch a glimpse of his son, but there was no sign of the boy. The cliff was very uneven, crevices dipped in and out, and numerous trees grew out of the rock face, concealing several places where a small child could be hidden.

A sense of urgency took over those present. Several ropes were produced and Ben insisted on being the one to drop over the side.

Adam grabbed his father’s arm. “No Pa, let me. I’m lighter and slimmer than you and it will be easier for me to get into any tight crevices.”

One of the men from the posse stepped forward. “In that case let me go, I’m slighter than the boy here.”

“But Little Joe will be frightened if it’s not someone he knows. Please let me go, Pa,” insisted Adam.

They were wasting precious time as they argued, so Ben quickly nodded and tied a rope round his son’s middle. Taking a second rope he gave one end to Adam. “This one’s for Little Joe,” he said, giving Adam a quick hug. “Good luck.”

The end of each of the ropes was tied to two of the horses and two men held onto the horses’ reins, waiting for instructions. Adam was dropped over the side and, as quickly as it was deemed safe, lowered down the cliff.

Adam was more than 40 feet down and there was still no sign of Little Joe. He strained his ears to hear any sound of the child, but the whimpering had now stopped. There was a slight overhang of rock that Adam had to swing out from in order to descend further, and it was as he did so that he caught his first sight of his little brother. Still a long way further down there was a tree growing out from the cliff and the dress Joe was wearing had snagged on one of the branches and the child had come to a sudden and violent stop. Adam could not tell how badly Joe was hurt, for he didn’t seem to be moving and even at this distance Adam could see blood seeping from his head.

“I can see him Pa!” Adam called excitedly up to those above. “He’s still a way off you will need to give me more rope.”

Ben held his breath as he gave Adam more slack, he was almost afraid to ask if Joe was still alive.

As Adam got closer to his brother he could hear a soft moaning cry coming from him, and was only a couple of feet short of reaching him when the rope came to a sudden end. “I need more rope, Pa; I’ve nearly got him.”

“There isn’t anymore Adam, can’t you reach him?” Ben’s panicked voice asked.

They couldn’t afford to waste any time as Little Joe’s position was very precarious and he could fall to his death at any moment. Adam softly called out to the boy. “Joe, Little Joe, it’s Adam, look at me Joe.”

Joe started to cry but he didn’t lift his head. His body was hurting all over and he was afraid to move, afraid to even open his eyes.

After several more attempts, Adam was becoming desperate; he needed to get his brother’s attention. “JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT, YOU LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!” he bellowed.

Instinctively Little Joe’s head shot up and he looked for the first time at his big brother. “A-A-Adam?” the little boy cried, starting to wriggle.

“NO JOE, DON’T MOVE!” Adam cried out in panic. Then in a softer voice he coaxed. “Just lift up your hand Joe. Lift it above your head and Adam will get you.”

Tears of pain started to flow from the little boy’s eyes, mixing with the blood that was already running down his face. “My arm hurts, Adam; I can’t move it.”

“Lift your other one Joe. Now don’t cry; just do what I tell you. Lift your arm and I’ll take you to see Pa.”

Adam’s breath caught in his throat as Joe slowly tried to raise his other arm, he was afraid that the movement might jar him loose from the branch and he would have no way of saving him. Adam had turned his body round so that his head was facing downwards towards his brother and he stretched out his arms as Joe reached up as far as he could.

Adam’s body was drenched in sweat as he struggled to stretch his long fingers down towards the tiny hand that was now wavering backwards and forwards in front of his eyes.

“Stretch a bit more Joe, just a little bit more.”

“I can’t,” wailed Joe. “It hurts.”

“I know it does Joe, but you’ve been such a brave boy up to now. You can do it. Show me what a big boy you are.”

Joe wanted so much to be a big boy. His pride had taken such a beating when Slater had made him wear a dress all those times. He would show that evil man he wasn’t a baby and he would do like Adam asked no matter how much it hurt. Biting on his bottom lip, he looked up into Adam’s loving face and with as much effort as he could he reached out his hand towards his brother.

Adam’s two hands had just closed over his brother’s slim wrist when the material of the dress began to tear and suddenly Joe found himself swinging in mid air, dangling by one arm from his brother’s strong hold. Little Joe began to scream at the top of his lungs with fright and the men above feared the worst, thinking the child had plunged to his death.

Struggling to keep his grip on the boy’s wrist Adam frantically tried to calm Joe down. “It’s okay, Joe; I’ve got you. Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” Then with all the strength he could muster, he pulled the child up into his arms. Taking deep breaths Adam tried to still his pounding heart. He wrapped one arm round Little Joe’s body and very slowly used his other arm and feet to turn his body round in the right direction.

Once his head was again facing the sky he was able to undo the other rope from his belt and tie it round his little brother’s waist.

Unaware of what was happening, Ben, Hoss and the other men were desperate for information. “Adam, what’s happening? Have you got Little Joe?”

“Yeah Pa,” Adam called back. “I’ve got him. Give us a second and then you can start and pull us up.”

“Is he hurt Adam? What shape is he in?” Ben’s frantic but relieved voice drifted back down the cliff.

Adam tried to make a quick assessment. “His head’s bleeding, I can’t tell how bad it is, but he’s conscious.” Then looking at Joe’s left arm he noticed how bent and out of shape it seemed. “I think his arm’s broken Pa. What should I do?”

“There’s nothing you can do, Adam. Just do your best to protect it on the way up. Are you ready, son?”

“Ready, Pa.”

The ascent was much harder than the trip down. Adam could only use his left hand to steady himself against the jagged rock; his other arm was wrapped tightly around Little Joe. Several times Adam stopped himself from crying out as his body was bumped and bashed against the sharp edges.

When finally they arrived at the top, Ben and the Sheriff pulled the two of them over the edge at once. Adam lay on the ground exhausted but happy as his father gently hugged Little Joe to him. Once he was safely in his father’s arms, Little Joe began to cry in earnest; the last few weeks had been the most traumatic of his young life and now that it was almost over and he felt safe once more, the strain began to really take its toll.

As he cradled the crying tot in his arms, Ben took a moment to bend down and stroke the head of his eldest. “Well done, son.”

Adam smiled up at his father’s happy face and tears sprang to his eyes, the sight of his father and baby brother together was one that he thought he might never see again. Not to be left out, Hoss came lumbering over and threw himself down on the ground next to Adam and hugged him until Adam had to beg him to stop; he could hardly breathe.

Once the initial euphoria wore off, Ben inspected Joe’s many injuries. The Sheriff took his bandana and tied it round the little boy’s head. “Don’t worry Ben,” he reassured. “Head injuries always bleed more than any other; I’m sure he’ll just need a couple of stitches.”

Joe’s right ankle looked to be swollen and painful, but Ben didn’t think it was broken, which is more than could be said for his left arm. It was swollen and bent at the elbow and Ben knew he would have to pull it back into shape before he could strap it up.

Stroking Joe’s cheek with his thumb, he tried to gently tell him what he was about to do. “Little Joe your arm is broken and Pa is going to have to pull the bone back into place. Don’t be afraid; it will all be over in a second.”

Little Joe looked at his Pa’s face through tear filled eyes and Ben could see that he really didn’t comprehend what was being said to him. He had nothing to give him to help the pain and it was better that they get it over as quickly as possible. Adam had stood up by this time and seeing his father’s dilemma came over to help.

“I’ll hold him, Pa,” Adam volunteered. Ben nodded, knowing it was better that Joe was not passed to a stranger. Realizing what was about to happen, Hoss couldn’t bear to watch and hid his face in his hands.

Adam sat on the ground and Ben gently passed Joe to him. Taking the child’s left arm he waited but a second before pulling the bone back into place. Joe’s eyes shot open and he screamed in agony before going limp in Adam’s arms.

Opening his eyes, Hoss looked at his little brother and for a moment thought the worst. “Is he all right. Pa?”

Ben was quick to reassure. “Yes, he’ll be all right Hoss. Poor little soul has passed out, but maybe that’s for the best. At least now I’ll be able to strap his arm without causing any more pain.”

As Joe lay in his brother’s arms, Ben administered to his injuries as best he could. He used water from his canteen to wash the blood from Joe’s face and bound his injured arm to his body. Finally he strapped the sprained ankle so as to protect it from further injury.

Ben stood up and his eyes met with those of Bill Slater who had recovered consciousness and was now sat on his horse with his hands handcuffed in front of him. Ben once again felt anger surging through him for the man who had almost killed his child, and he cursed him to hell, for no matter what the good book said, he would never forgive him.

*****

Ben had been sitting on the bed in his hotel room for more than two hours. A sleeping Little Joe lay next to him and the doting father could not bring himself to leave his side. The doctor had left hours ago, but ever since Ben had sat watching the child slumber, reluctant to let him out of his sight for even a moment.

Just then the bedroom door opened and Adam and Hoss entered. Ben placed a finger to his lips, indicating that Joe was still asleep. Both boys walked quietly over to the bed and gazed down at their little brother.

“Is he alright?” Hoss asked. “He’s been asleep a long time.”

“He’s going to be fine Hoss,” Ben whispered. “He’s just exhausted. I shouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t sleep the rest of the evening and night, especially after what he’s been through.”

Ben shuddered when he thought about their return to town. Slater had been taken straight to jail and Adam had gone for the doctor while his father took Joe to the hotel.

The memory of Joe’s screams still rang out in Ben’s head as he again relived the boy’s pain. It had taken both Ben and Adam to hold Joe’s head still as the doctor inserted six stitches into the gash just above his right ear. As if that wasn’t enough, the child had then to endure the pain of having his broken arm set. By comparison the injury to his foot, which was bad enough, hadn’t seemed so serious.

Adam tried to persuade his father to leave Joe’s side just long enough to go and get something to eat, but Ben shook his head. Food could wait; tomorrow would be soon enough to eat.

“I’ll go and see if I can rustle something up for you Pa,” Adam persisted. “I’m sure the hotel manager would organize something if I asked.”

“Okay Adam, but then why don’t you and Hoss try to get some sleep, it’s been a long day.”

Half an hour later there was a quiet knock at the door and Roy Coffee entered carrying a tray of food for Ben. “I met Adam on the stairs,” he explained.

Walking over to the bed, Roy looked down at the sleeping tot. “How is he?”

Ben’s eyebrows knitted together and he had to swallow hard before answering. He was having difficulty keeping his emotions under control when he thought about what Joe had suffered.

“Look at him, Roy. He’s little more than a baby. How could anyone be so cruel?”

“He’s young, Ben; he’ll bounce back.”

“Will he?” Ben asked a little more sharply than he intended. “How do you suggest I try explaining to a five year old the evils of the world? Do I shatter his innocence forever? How can he ever forget what’s happened to him? And how will he ever trust again?”

Roy looked compassionately at his friend and Ben immediately felt guilty. “I’m sorry, Roy. It’s just…”

“You don’t need to explain, Ben. I understand.”

Encouraging his friend to sit down and eat, Roy motioned for Ben to join him on one of the two chairs positioned near the window. Once again Roy tried to comfort the distraught father.

“Look at Adam,” Roy began, trying to be positive. “You have often told me of the trauma he suffered as a child and he’s turned out fine. Little Joe’s of the same stock, and he has all of you to love and support him, he’ll get through this.”

Ben pondered Roy’s words. “You are right about Adam. He is a fine young man; in fact, I couldn’t ask for better,” stated Ben. “But he has the scars, Roy. Believe me, he has the scars; he’s just become very good at hiding them over the years.”

Both men remained silent for a few minutes, each deep in their own thoughts. Finally Roy could not put off any longer the news he had to give.

“Thought you would want to know Ben, the posse has returned empty handed. Slater’s men had already packed up and left camp when they got there.”

Ben’s fists clenched in anger. “What about Slater?”

“His trial will start next week. There’s no doubt he’ll hang Ben. There are at least four wanted posters out on him for robbery and murder.”

Ben thought about the upcoming trial as he looked over at his sleeping son. “Will they need Little Joe?”

Roy shook his head. “The law reckons if a child’s not old enough to understand taking the oath, then he’s too young to give evidence in a court of law. So you can take Little Joe home Ben. There’s plenty people to testify against Bill Slater.”

“Thank goodness” Ben breathed a sigh of relief. “I didn’t want to have to put the child through that. I hope Joe never has to see that man again.”

As Ben started to yawn, Roy decided to take his leave. “Get a good night’s rest, Ben,” he said, looking back towards the bed. “Don’t worry about Little Joe; with all of you to help, I just know he’ll be fine.”

*****

It was the early hours of the following morning when Little Joe first began to regain consciousness. The first waking sensation he had was one of pain and he moaned softly as he reached up with his right hand and felt the bandages on his head. His left arm was strapped tightly to his body and he did not attempt to move it. Fear gripped his soul as he remembered the events of the day before, but it all seemed like a dream.

Joe vaguely had thoughts of his Pa and brothers rescuing him, but he wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t.

As he lay in the darkness, Joe became aware of someone lying next to him and he held his breath as he tried to decide whether he dared open his eyes and look. There was a vaguely familiar smell of pipe tobacco in the room and Joe’s heart beat rapidly, not daring to hope that his greatest wish had come true. With his right hand, he very carefully reached over and gently touched the person next to him. Joe began to smile; the touch and smell were unmistakable; it really was his Pa.

Ben’s eyelids fluttered slightly as he felt the warm breath on his cheek. He was still in that dreamlike state of not being asleep, but still not fully awake, and he struggled to open his eyes. When he did so, he was rewarded with the wonderful sight of Joe’s face only a few inches from his own and the little boy was smiling. Lifting his own arm, Ben very carefully encircled his small son and hugged the child to him. With a sigh of contentment, Little Joe snuggled up to his Pa, laid his head on the big man’s chest, and fell into the most peaceful sleep he had had in weeks.

Ben treasured that first night with his young son, blissfully unaware that it was the last peaceful night they would have for weeks to come.

*****

Over the next few days, everyone found they had to tread very warily round the youngest Cartwright. Although Little Joe was overjoyed to be back with his family, his recent ordeal had left him tearful and afraid of his own shadow.

Every attempt to get the little boy to talk about his experience was thwarted. Joe would clam up and go into a world of his own and Ben thought it best if they left him to come around in his own time.

Joe coped as best he could with his injuries, but the fact that he was unable to walk on his injured foot, meant that Ben or Adam carried him everywhere they went, which was probably just as well, as Joe couldn’t bear to be left alone.

That was the daytime but the nighttime was a different matter. Joe’s nights were continuously disturbed with bad dreams. He screamed out again and again for his Pa and Ben often slept with the little boy in his arms as he tried to reassure him that he was there and wouldn’t leave him.

At the end of the week, it was decided Little Joe was fit enough to travel home to the Ponderosa. As the family rode out of town on a buckboard, Ben glanced back at the jailhouse and was incensed to see Bill Slater peering out through the bars watching the Cartwrights depart. Ben had always thought he would never see the day dawn when he would wish to see a man dead, but in Bill Slater’s case, he was willing to make an exception, eagerly anticipating the hour he would be hung for the evil he had done and the terror he had caused to a small child.

The nearer they got to home the happier Joe became, and the first time that Ben heard the little boy’s high pitched infectious giggle after so long, he knew everything was going to be alright. It would take time and a lot of love and patience but he knew that was something Joe would have heaped on him in abundance by his family.

They were almost home when Joe made his first reference to the ordeal they had all suffered.

“Pa, when you and Adam and Hoss were all tied up, who came and cut you loose?”

“No one cut us loose, son,” Ben replied.

“Well, how did you get free?” Joe persisted.

“With the knife you had in your pocket,” Hoss piped up.

Joe’s face immediately became guarded and he looked from Hoss to his Pa trying to gauge his reaction. With just a moment’s pause he, stuck out his chin defiantly. “Mr. Green never said not to touch the knife; he only said not to touch the razor,” he said, confident his clever excuse would pacify his father.

Ben was puzzled for a second and then a slow smile crossed his face. He started to chuckle and before long he was laughing until the tears ran down his face.

“Don’t ever change, Little Joe,” he pleaded, hugging the small boy to him. “Please don’t ever change.”

***The End***

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