A Stranger in the House (by DebbieB)

Summary:  The last time that Little Joe sees his father is when Ben yells at him to jump seconds before their wagon careens down a steep ravine. Little Joe is found badly wounded and brought home to his brothers……..but what about his father? Ben has vanished and Joe’s grief is more life-threatening than the injuries he suffered from the accident.

Rated: G (12,440 words)

 

 

                                  A Stranger in the House

 

“JUMP!”

The axel had already broken loose from the wagon and the horses galloped onward, down the curvy road, the wagging axel chasing behind. The wagon followed for several yards before veering off the road and down the rocky cliff, tumbling over and over and over. The wooden slats shattered into small bits and pieces as the freight wagon careened to the bottom of the deep ravine. It stopped bottom side up; debris was strewn all the way from the top to the bottom of the rocky hillside. The young occupant of the wagon lay halfway down the rocky slope, his body battered and bruised and broken twisted amid the rocks. His hazel eyes closed to the devastation that surrounded him. His mind shut down to pain and agony that engulfed his body only to be awakened later to the loss he knew not that he now suffered.

Adam and Hoss were just coming from the house when the wagon pulled to a stop in the yard. Hoss looked questioningly at his brother. He cocked his head slightly. “Hiram Graham?” he whispered quietly.

“Seems to be,” muttered Adam as he strolled closer to the neighbor’s wagon.

“Adam,” greeted Hiram as he jumped from the seat and stood to face the oldest Cartwright son and his slightly younger brother.

Adam extended his hand to shake the other man’s offered hand. “Hiram. What brings you out this way?” asked Adam in a friendly way.

Hiram had a troubled expression on his sun-bronzed face as he motioned towards the wagon. “Best you look in the back there . I found him up on the cliff road,” he explained as he walked behind Adam and Hoss as they hurried to see what Hiram was referring to.

“Joe!” Adam muttered under his breath as he jumped into the back and knelt alongside of his youngest brother and began examining the boy’s battered and bruised body. He glanced anxiously at Hoss. “He’s hurt badly, best get the doc,” said Adam.

“No need,” Hiram stated as Hoss turned to do Adam’s bidding. Hoss paused. “Why not?”

“I sent Carl, my boy, into town to fetch Doc Martin. He should be here soon,” Hiram explained.

Hoss nodded his head. “Thanks…hey Mr. Graham…what about our Pa?”

“Your pa…I ain’t seen Ben,” Hiram told them.

Adam jumped down from the wagon. “Our pa and Little Joe were together.”

Hiram shook his head. “Sorry Adam, Hoss…but like I said, I haven’t seen your Pa since sometime last week. And Carl and I looked, but we didn’t find anyone except the boy. If we hadn’t come across the team of horses pulling that broken axel, we’d not even known that something was wrong. When we went looking for the wagon those horses had been hitched to, we just happened to see the boy lying about half way down that steep ravine…didn’t even find the wagon; must be all the way at the bottom.”

Adam took a deep breath as a worried scowl disfigured his handsome face. “Help us get Joe into the house if you will, and then we’ll worry about finding our father.”

All three men moved to the back of the wagon and using extreme care, they carried the unconscious boy upstairs to his room. Quickly, Hop Sing appeared with a basin of warm water, soap, clean towels and the first aid kit. Adam nodded his thanks to the family servant and together with Hoss they began the tedious process of undressing the boy and cleaning his wounds. A short time later, they heard the arrival of another wagon enter the yard.

Hoss crossed the room to look out the window. “Doc’s here, I’ll show him in,” he told Adam as he hurried to admit the physician. Paul Martin quickly made his way to Little Joe’s room where he found Adam attempting to console his brother who lay moaning on the bed. He stepped aside when the doctor approached the bed.

“My God,” muttered Paul as he captured his first look at his patient. “What on earth happened to him?” he asked Adam as he quickly began his examination.

“Apparently the freight wagon he and Pa were in went over the ravine up on the cliff road. Hiram Graham and his son found Little Joe and brought him home,” Adam explained.

Paul paused in what he was doing to look up at the two worried faces of the Cartwright brothers. “What about Ben, is he hurt as well?”

Hoss swallowed the knot that was in his throat. “We don’t know. Mr. Graham said they didn’t find anyone except for Little Joe.”

Not saying a word, Paul turned to Adam. “Nothing?”

“No…but as soon as we know how Little Joe is, Hoss and I are going to look for Pa,” Adam explained.

An hour later, Paul joined Adam and Hoss in the great room. “How is he?” Hoss asked as he rose from the chair where he’d been sitting. “Is he gonna be alright?”

“He’s resting right now,” Paul explained. “He’s banged up pretty badly. Bruised, cut and scraped. He has a couple of broken ribs, which I’ve bound and his right shoulder was out of place but I’ve fixed that as well. His left leg is broken and I’ve set the bone and will put a plaster cast on sometime tomorrow when I come out to check on him. He’s hit his head so I want someone to stay with him when he wakes up. I’m hoping he doesn’t have a concussion but we’ll have to wait until he wakes up to be sure,” he told the brothers.

Hoss and Adam swapped concerned looks. “We’re going to search for Pa…can’t you stay with Joe for a little while?” Hoss asked the physician.

“I can for a while. Hop Sing can sit with him until I finish making my rounds. I know you’re anxious about Ben. You boys go do what you have to do. Let me know when you find him and if my services are needed. And Adam…you and Hoss be careful.”

“Thanks Doc…we will. You just take care of our kid brother…and if he wakes up wanting pa…tell him…well, I’m not sure what he should be told,” Adam admitted.

Paul put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Don’t worry about Joe…I’ll take care of him and I’ll decide what to tell him when and if he needs to be told anything,” smiled the doctor.

Hoss nodded his head. “Thanks, sir. We’ll be quick and be back as soon as we can.”

“Adam, I ain’t seen a sign nowhere that shows that Pa was even here. I just don’t understand it,” grumbled Hoss as he pushed back his hat and scratched his head.

“Me either…I guess I’ll climb down the side of this ravine and see if I can find anything. Get a rope Hoss so I can tie it around my waist,” Adam asked Hoss.

Once the rope was secured around Adam’s waist he half smiled at his brother. “Hold on tight big brother,” Adam said. “It will be slow going but I think I can get to the bottom.”

“Don’t you worry…I’ve got ya. Yell out if you find pa…or…anything that might tell us where he might be.”

“I will; well, here goes.”

“I just don’t understand it, Adam,” Hoss groaned.

The brothers were on their way back to the Ponderosa after spending hours looking for clues to their father’s whereabouts and finding none.

“It’s like he weren’t even here,” he added with an unhappy look.

Adam sighed heavily. “I’ll admit, I’m worried Hoss. We both know that they were together and that Joe went over the side of that cliff…but where is Pa?”

“Reckon he stayed in Glenbrook?”

“Not likely Hoss. There’s no way Pa would let Little Joe drive that loaded wagon all the way home by himself. Something else happened, I just don’t know what it is,” responded Adam. “Come on, let’s get home. Maybe Little Joe’s awake enough to tell us what happened.”

“I sure hope so. I ain’t likin’ the idea of Pa lying around somewhere hurt or…or…well you know what I mean.” Hoss nudged his mount into a faster pace to keep up with Adam.

The moaning and whimpering could be heard as soon as the Cartwright brothers opened the front door and stepped into the house. Both stopped briefly to remove their weapons and place them on the credenza.

“That’s Joe,” muttered Hoss as he took off running for the stairs. Adam wasted no time in following the bigger man who was taking the steps two at a time. When they opened the door the sight they saw sent new waves of fear coursing throughout their young bodies.

“What’s wrong?” Adam practically yelled at the small oriental man who was trying to keep the addled young man from getting out of the bed.

“Boy want father,” chirped Hop Sing. “No understand father not here, say he go look for papa,” he explained.

Adam stepped to the side of the bed and lowered himself down beside Joe. Hop Sing willingly moved aside.

“Joe…Little Joe, it’s alright buddy,” Adam said in a tender voice. He took his brother’s fraying arms and gently lowered Joe back against the soft pillows, all the while speaking in a calm voice that belied his true feelings.

“Pa…” murmured Little Joe in a weak voice. “Gotta…find…Pa,” he said between clinched teeth.

“We will buddy, I promise. But right now you need to rest,” he cooed. Adam glanced up at Hoss who had nudged his shoulder.

“Ask him Adam,” he whispered.

Adam took a deep breath and turned again to Little Joe.

“Joe,” he said softly. “Do you remember what happened…right before the wagon went over the side of the ravine?” Adam leaned down low so that he could hear his brother’s words. Joe began to mumble.

“Pa…oh…pa.”

Adam tenderly brushed back a lock of hair that had become dampened and stuck to Little Joe’s forehead.

“What about Pa?” he said softly, glancing up at Hoss for a second.

“Jump!” Joe muttered looking at Adam with frightened eyes that suddenly filled with tears.

“Joe…did Pa jump from the wagon?” Adam asked hopefully, for it was at least a clue as to what happened to his father.

Little Joe’s closed his eyes for a moment and then reopened them. He looked up at Adam as tiny beads of water rolled slowly down the sides of his face. He took another deep breath and nodded his head. “Pa yelled…jump,” he uttered.

“Then what?” Hoss asked as he kneeled down on the opposite side of the bed. “Think Punkin, did Pa jump out of the wagon?”

Joe nodded his head for the second time. “I stood…up to…jump,” he gasped. “But fell…backward…into the…wagon. I…didn’t have…time before it…went over…the side. Never saw…Pa…again,” he finished with a deep sigh.

Adam and Hoss swapped confused looks. “Adam,” Hoss began, “if Pa jumped clear…where is he and why didn’t he stay with Shortshanks?” he whispered. He glanced down at Little Joe but Joe had already closed his eyes and seemed not to hear the question.

Adam straightened up and shook his head. “I don’t know Hoss. If he were hurt, we would have found him…and if he were not hurt, he’d never have left the boy there alone.”

Hoss stood up and scratched his head. “Maybe he was hurt, too much to help Little Joe, but not enough that he couldn’t have gone for help.”

“Could be, but if he went for help, the Graham ranch is the closest…and Hiram said they hadn’t seen Pa or anything that told them Pa was even with Joe. And we didn’t find a trace of him either,” Adam wondered aloud.

“Sumthin’ ain’t right Adam. Joe said Pa was there and that he jumped out of the wagon…but we can’t find Pa. What are we gonna do?”

Adam motioned for Hoss to follow him from the room. In the hall he closed the door softly so as not to disturb their brother. “I’m going back up that ridge and look again. Maybe we over looked something,” he told Hoss in a whisper.

“I’ll go with you……”

“No, I need you here to take care of Little Joe. I’m afraid when he wakes up again it will take more muscle than what Hop Sing has to keep that boy quiet and in the bed. I don’t want him to hurt himself more than what he already is.”

Hoss pinched up his lips but nodded his head in agreement. “Alright Adam, I’ll take care of Shortshanks, you find Pa…if’n you can.”

For the first time that morning, Adam smiled. “Thanks big guy,” he said as he patted the big guy’s shoulder. “I’ll be back in a couple of days. Send word by one of the men if you need me.”

“Sure thing…ya take care now,” Hoss told Adam as he turned and went back into the room to sit with Little Joe.

Joe was sitting propped against the pillows when Adam returned and entered his brother’s bedroom. The older brother smiled at his youngest sibling.

“Hey partner, how you feeling?” he asked as he pulled a chair closer to the bed. Hoss stood behind the chair.

“Fine…did you find Pa?” Little Joe hurried to ask.

A quick glance between the two older brothers gave Joe his answer. Instantly his eyes filled with tears. “He’s dead…isn’t he? I…killed him,” wept Joe.

Adam’s eyes widened. “No…no, Joe, buddy you didn’t kill Pa. There’s no proof that he’s dead…”

Joe’s tears overflowed. “I…did…I know I did,” he sobbed.

Adam sat down on the edge of the bed and took the distraught boy into his arms and held Joe while he sobbed out his misery. “Shh…” whispered Adam as he tried to console the youth. “We will find him, buddy…”

“You won’t,” cried Joe.

Hoss sat down on the other side of the bed. Tears had filled his sky blue eyes. The sight of the grieving boy and the thoughts that ran through his head that perhaps their father was in fact dead, filled his heart with both grief for their loss and with empathy for the young man who believed he was responsible for that loss.

“Hey Punkin, what ever happened to Pa, was not your fault…it was an accident, plain and simple. Me and Adam know that…and we ain’t blamin’ you for nuthin’. Ain’t that right Adam?”

“Of course we don’t. Listen Joe,” Adam said tenderly as he leaned Joe back against the pillows, “we don’t know what happened to Pa, but I’ll promise you this, we will find out one way or another.”

Little Joe scrunched up his face, closed his eyes while pressing his head back against the pillows. “You don’t understand,” he babbled, opening his eyes and looking from one brother to the next. “I…begged him to let me drive…he kept telling me no…but I kept hounding him…”

Hoss swallowed hard. “The axel broke…Pa wouldn’t have known that would happen…like I said, it was an accident.”

“But…”

Adam cupped the boy’s chin gently in both of his hands. “No buts, Joe. Pa didn’t just vanish into thin air. He’s somewhere, we just have to find where,” Adam said.

“Adam’s right Shortshanks; you said Pa jumped free of the wagon…”

“He did,” Joe said. “But why did he leave me if the jump didn’t kill him?”

“I don’t know kid, but if the jump killed him, why didn’t Mr. Graham find his body…why didn’t Hoss and I find him for that matter? We don’t have the answers…yet…but we won’t give up buddy until we know for sure what happened to our father,” promised Adam.

Joe rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. Adam groaned and handed the boy a cloth. Swallowing, Joe looked into his brother’s eyes. “It’s my fault…and nothing you can…say will change how…I feel,” he said in a broken voice.

Hoss shook his massive head. Adam pinched his lips together. “Joe, when we find Pa, he’ll tell you the same thing we did, it was an accident.”

“Not if…he’s…dead…dead men…don’t talk,” Joe sputtered. He turned away from his brothers and buried his face in his pillow. “Just leave…me alone.”

Slowly Little Joe began to recover from his injuries, but as the days turned into weeks, nothing could heal the emotional turmoil in his heart or the psychological difficulties suffered from believing he was the real reason his father was absent from their lives. Day after day Joe’s brothers would try to reassure him that nothing he did or did not do was the reason for their father’s disappearance or his supposed death.

But the boy could find no comfort in his brothers’ words or actions. His heart was so full of guilt and remorse that the pair of woes had slowly begun to have their effect on the troubled youth. Joe rarely slept and when he did, nightmares claimed what rest he could have had. Eating was almost obsolete, and the lack of nourishment was beginning to become evident even to the untrained eye. Often Adam or Hoss would find the boy hiding in the barn, weeping. They found him up at the lake at his mother’s grave; they even found him down in the cellar. Though they held him securely within the loving folds of their arms, nothing seemed to bring relief to his suffering. More times than not, the distraught youth proclaimed his self-hatred and voiced the hate that he knew his brothers held for him. Nonetheless they denied the fact; Little Joe seemed to have convinced himself that it was true. He turned against them, defying Adam’s orders, refusing to listen to Hoss’ advice, yelling at Hop Sing. He’d found the whiskey bottle and seemed determined to drink himself into a stupor. Adam hid the whiskey and all other liquor that was in the house. At least for a time, hiding the liquor seemed to put a halt on Joe’s heavy drinking. However, the night before, Adam had been summoned to town by Roy Coffee. Once arriving and confronting the sheriff, he found his younger brother locked behind bars in Roy’s jail.

“Drunk and disorderly,” Roy explained. “You can take him home with you now, or leave him here until morning…or longer if you need to,” Roy offered. “I understand he’s having a hard time Adam. But…the boy needs help and I think you know it.”

Grimly Adam agreed. “But how…how do I help him? Hoss and I both have tried our best to get him to understand that this accident was not his fault and that we don’t blame him…and neither would Pa if he were here to tell Joe.”

“But your Pa ain’t here Adam. And I think that’s what is troubling the boy more than thinking he kilt his own father. Little Joe has always needed his father…and still does…and now Ben ain’t here to help him. He’s simply grieving himself to death…look at him, he looks like hell,” Roy declared.

“I suppose I’d better take him home Roy. If I were to show up without him, Hoss would have my hide. He’s been so worried about the boy…well, we both have for that matter,” Adam told his friend.

“I understand son; I’ll have him get his things and then all ya gotta do is sign this release,” Roy told him.

“Hey Adam.”

Both Adam and Roy stopped to turn around. Jude Larkins was pushing open the door and entering the office.

“Mr. Larkins,” Adam greeted his father’s long-time friend.

“Hi Sheriff,” Jude greeted the sheriff. He turned back to Adam. “I thought I saw you come in here. Err…can we talk…outside if you don’t mind?”

Glancing at Roy, who nodded his head, Adam followed the older gentleman out the door onto the boardwalk.

“What’s on your mind…you seem a bit excited,” Adam said with a smile.

“It’s your pa…I seen him Adam!” Jude said excitedly.

Adam knew he should close his mouth. He was stunned. It had been nearly eight weeks since the accident and not one word about his father’s whereabouts had been uttered, until now.

“What do you mean Jude, you saw my father?” Adam said. When he looked down at his hands they were trembling.

“Over in Gardnerville…I was there day before yesterday and ran smack dab into him,” Jude said. He shook his head. “When I said hello to him, he acted as if he didn’t know me…strange, that’s what it was.”

Adam had a puzzled look on his face. “Wait right here. Let me speak to Roy and then the two of us will go over to the saloon where we can talk.” Adam stuck his head inside the office and called out to Roy. “Keep Little Joe just a bit longer Roy; I’ve got something I have to do first. I’ll be back in a bit,” he said and then joined Jude again. “Let’s go down to Daisy’s instead. Too much going on over at the saloon,” Adam suggested. “I’ll buy your supper.”

“Aw, you don’t have to do that Adam. But I might be talked into a cup of coffee and some of Daisy’s apple pie,” he smiled.

“Deal…now please tell me more about this man you say is my father.”

Once the pair were seated and served, Jude began explaining to Adam about the strange way that Ben had been acting.

“Like I said, I ran right into him. I was surprised to see him all the way down in Gardnerville. Anyway, when I said howdy, he just looked at me like I was a stranger,” he explained.

“Gardnerville? Wonder how he got way over there,” he muttered to himself. He turned his attention back to his friend.

“Jude, I know you and Pa have been friends forever, but are you absolutely sure it was my father?” Adam asked doubtfully.

Jude shook his head up and down. “As sure as I know who you are I knew he was Ben Cartwright. I even called him that.”

“What did he say?”

“Said, ‘sorry sir, you must have me confused with some other fellow’, that’s what he said. So I asked him his name. He didn’t say anything for several moments…almost like he had to think about it. But then he smiled and said his name was Walter Tibbs.”

“Walter Tibbs,” mumbled Adam more to himself than to his friend. “How was he dressed?”

“Same as always…same vest, same hat. But he didn’t have his sidearm…nope, of that I’m sure.”

Adam was thoughtful. Could it really have been his father or just some stranger that looked enough like Ben Cartwright to have been his twin? Stranger things had been known to happen. Adam shook his head slightly.

“Did you happen to see where he went when you left him?”

“Sure did. Some other fellow came out of the bank, called out to Ben…or that Tibbs fellow and then they climbed into a wagon and drove off out of town,” Jude said.

“I don’t suppose you’d happen to know who the other fellow might have been, do you?”

Jude sort of laughed. “I was so sure it was your father and just as surprised to see him climb into that wagon just like he knew the fellow, that I asked the first person who walked by who the man was driving the wagon. They said it was Henry Tibbs. And…I was curious enough to ask the lady who the man with Henry Tibbs might be…and guess what?”

“What?”

“The lady said she didn’t know for sure, but talk around town was that he was Henry Tibbs brother, come to visit from back east somewhere,” Jude said.

“That’s odd,” Adam said aloud.

“What’s odd?”

“An Easterner wearing western clothes…and obviously used ones at that. Most visiting people would just wear what they were used to, unless they felt as if they wanted to fit in,” Adam said.

“True, but Adam, anyone could tell that Ben wasn’t a dude from back east. Why he didn’t even have an accent…not like he did when he first came to Virginia City,” Jude said and then smiled. “What are you aiming on doing Adam?”

Adam wiped his mouth with the napkin and then stood up, tossing a few bills onto the table. “First I’m taking Little Joe home and putting the boy to bed.”

“Yeah, I noticed he ain’t looking too good, poor kid.”

“He’s taken this the hardest. He blames himself for Pa being…gone…though Hoss and I both have tried to get him to understand that it wasn’t his fault and that we certainly don’t blame him for anything that’s happened.”

“Well, I hope he’ll be alright Adam. He’s such a good kid…and cares deeply for your father.”

“That he does. And Pa cares deeply for him.”

“After you take Joe home…then what…are you going to Gardnerville to find out about that Tibbs fellow?” Jude asked.

“Yes…that’s exactly what I plan on doing. Mr. Larkins, I can’t thank you enough for telling me about this man.”

“Well Adam, I would have bet my life on him being Ben Cartwright. I hope when you find the man, it will be your father…for Little Joe’s sake as well as your own…and Hoss too of course. Good luck…and hey, thanks for the pie and coffee,” he smiled as he shook hands with Adam.

“Anytime Jude, and thanks again,” Adam called as he walked out of the café.

Hoss brushed the tears from his face. “Adam, are ya sure it was Pa?” he asked after he and Adam had finished supper and was sure that Little Joe was in bed.

Adam sat down in his father’s favorite chair. “No Hoss, I’m not sure. But Jude Larkins swears the man was Pa, even when the fellow denied it. That’s why I have to go to Gardnerville. I have to know beyond a doubt whether it’s our father or not.”

“Yeah, I reckon you do. Man, I sure ‘nough wish I could go with you,” Hoss grumbled. Hoss was sitting on the corner of the wooden table facing Adam. He looked into his brother’s hazel eyes. “I’d give my right arm if it were Pa,” he said in a soft voice. “I miss him, Adam,” he said as tears filled his blue eyes again.

Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “So do I, Hoss, so do I…and Little Joe…well, we both know that Pa’s not being here is killing the kid.”

“Yeah and I think he’s give up too. I mean, it’s like he don’t care none if he lives or not. I’m…afraid for him,” Hoss stated sadly.

Adam stood up and stretched. “All the more reason to find out more about this Walter Tibbs.”

“What if’n it ain’t Pa?” worried Hoss.

“If not, I guess we keep looking,” Adam said with a frown.

“Are ya gonna tell Little Joe where ya goin’ and why?” asked Hoss as he stood and moved closer to the fire. He stood with his back to the flame. He wasn’t really cold, but the warmth felt good on his backside just the same.

“No…I don’t want to give the boy any false hope. If it’s not Pa…there’ll be no need for Joe to be heartbroken again. He couldn’t take it a second time, Hoss.”

“What if it is…I mean…why would Pa not come home if’n he weren’t hurt?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he can’t,” Adam said, wondering at his own words. “Maybe he can’t… remember anything, you know maybe he had some sort of memory lapse.”

“Or maybe he just don’t care no more?” Hoss sputtered out the words. Adam looked shocked at his brother’s spoken words.

“You can’t mean that!”

Hoss tossed his long arms up in despair as tears rolled unchecked down his rotund face. “No…gosh dang it, Adam, I don’t mean it, honest, it’s just that I’m…I’m…so lost without him,” the big man sobbed.

Adam crossed the room and put his arms about the trembling shoulders. “I know Hoss,” he whispered. “But somehow…we’ll get through this together…and we have to be strong, for Little Joe.”

Hoss blew his nose on his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “Yeah, the boy…we gotta be strong for the kid,” he agreed.

“Let’s get some sleep Hoss. I’m bushed and in the morning, I’ll tell Little Joe I have to go away for a few days and that you’ll be here with him.”

“What if he asks why you’re going?”

“I’ll tell him the truth…that I have business in Gardnerville,” he stated firmly and then offered his brother a tiny smile when Hoss’ brows rose slightly.

“Well it is the truth…” snickered Adam and as they walked together up the stairs. “Night buddy,” he told his brother. “I’ll look in on Joe.”

“Night Adam…sleep well.”

The next morning both Adam and Hoss were just finishing their breakfast when Little Joe came down the stairs. He looked haggard and tired and unkempt. It was obvious that he had failed to comb his hair or shave but neither of the older brothers said a word as Joe took his place at the table. He raised his head slightly to peek at his brothers. His chin quivered.

“Hungry?” asked Adam.

Little Joe shook his head. “No…thanks,” he muttered. Joe rubbed his forehead. “Head hurts.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Adam said. Joe looked over at his older brother but saw nothing but kindness in the eyes that looked back at him. “How about some strong coffee?” he said and then smiled while pouring Joe a cup. He handed it to the boy who took it from his brother’s hand. Adam noted how the smaller hands shook.

“Guess I’ve got a hangover,” Joe said in a tired voice.

“Seems like it,” agreed Adam. Hoss snickered. “I’ve had my share of them Shortshanks…trust me, the coffee will help.”

Joe looked up at both brothers and offered a weak smile. He turned to Adam. “I’m…sorry Adam…about yesterday…all of them yesterdays and…the things I’ve said to you…and to you Hoss,” he added, turning in Hoss’ direction. “I…I didn’t mean any of them.” Tears filled the troubled eyes.

“Forget it Joe…we know you didn’t mean them. Hey, we all have our days,” offered Adam.

“I suppose. But it seems I’ve been having…too many…bad days lately,” Little Joe said as he took another sip of the hot brew. “It won’t…happen again, Adam…I…promise,” he said as he looked up into the forgiving eyes of his oldest brother.

“I’m glad Joe…but hey, there is something I need to talk to you about. Let’s go sit by the fire,” Adam instructed as he and Hoss stood and began to make their way into the great room.

Joe slowly got to his feet and followed, leaving his coffee on the dining room table. “Is something wrong? Am I in trouble…again?”

“No…nothing’s wrong buddy and you aren’t in trouble,” he added and then smiled. “Sit down, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam said, pointing to the settee. When Little Joe was sitting, Adam placed himself on the corner of the wooden table and leaned over close to Joe.

“Joe…” Adam swallowed hard. “I have to go away for a few days…”

“What?” Joe said loudly. “Why…where…Adam I don’t want you to leave,” Joe said almost in a panic.

“Hey, easy pal. I’m not leaving…I’m just going away for a few days. Hoss is going to stay here with you and…”

“No…please Adam,” cried Joe as he stood to his feet. Adam stood as well and placed both hands on Joe’s trembling shoulders.

“It’s just for a week. Listen Joe, I’ll be back…”

Joe surprised his brother by wrapping both arms about the elder brother’s body and unexpectedly began to weep.

“Please don’t go…I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting…I’ll be good, honest…just don’t go…don’t…leave me Adam.”

Adam cast a worried look in Hoss’ direction as he gently pulled Joe back so that he could see the boy’s face. Fear was etched into every fine line of the younger man’s face. Tears glistened in the depths of the hazel eyes. Adam felt a surge of compassion for his brother.

“You’ll be fine Joe…and I’ll be back, I promise!” Adam said trying to console the boy. “Look I have business down in Gardnerville, there’s a man I have to see…”

“What man…why do you have to see him…please Adam take me with you. Hoss could go too…just the three of us…please,” Joe begged.

Adam gripped Joe’s shoulders a bit tighter. “I can’t do that Joe. I have to go alone and you and Hoss need to stay here…and run the ranch,” he added. “Please…I need you to do that for me. And when I get back, I’ll tell you everything.”

Joe sighed deeply, swallowed and looked up at Adam. “You promise…you’ll come back?”

“Of course buddy. I’ll be back,” smiled Adam. He knew Joe was afraid, even if the boy wouldn’t admit it. And Adam knew the reason. Joe had always, since his mother died, been afraid that whenever their father had to be away that Ben would not come back and now that fear had been transferred from father to older brother. “There’s nothing that could ever stop me from being here for you pal,” he said as he gathered Joe into a warm embrace.

“Now…I need you to promise me something,” he said as he gently guided Joe back to the settee.

“What’s that?” Joe said as he wiped his tears.

“Joe, I want you to promise me that you will not leave this ranch while I am gone. If Hoss needs to go into town, you can go with him. Other than that, I need to know that will stay here.”

“Why? I don’t understand…is there going to be trouble?” Joe asked. His brow furrowed into a worried frown.

“No I didn’t mean it that way.” Adam chuckled. “I just want you to promise that you…um…will not follow me.”

“Follow you?” This time Little Joe grinned. “Oh…you think I might sneak away.”

Adam laughed softly. “It wouldn’t be the first time, now would it?”

Joe shook his head. “No…but I promise, I’ll stay here and help Hoss. But you better be home in a week or I might just break that promise…”

“It’s a deal. I’ll be back in a week or less. Thanks, buddy, I knew I could count on you.” Adam gently ruffled Joe’s wayward curls. “Now, how about you go upstairs and clean yourself up…you’re beginning to look like a riverboat gambler…I might have Hoss take you into town for a haircut!” Adam teased.

Joe stood up, grinning. “Now you’re beginning to sound just like…” he swallowed hard. “Pa,” he said as the light in his eyes dimmed somewhat.

Adam pulled his mount to a stop at the top of a hill. Down below stood a neat homestead. The house was whitewashed with dark shutters. Flowers bloomed along the edge of the porch and walkway; to the left of the house stood the barn. Adam noted that it was neat and well kept, reminding him of the barn back home on the Ponderosa. A corral housed three horses who appeared to be well cared for. A minute later, the front door opened and a man walked out. The gentleman was about his father’s age, maybe a bit younger, but looked nothing like Ben Cartwright. Adam felt a moment of doubt assault his heart. Had Jude been horribly mistaken? Before he could give credit to that notion, the door opened again and another man joined the first. Together they walked toward the barn. Adam’s heart fluttered; his breathing became labored and for a moment he thought he might actually pass out. As sure as he’d ever been about anything in his entire life, Adam was positive he was watching his father cross the yard and enter the barn of this unknown stranger. Excitement and relief began to consume his spirit as he spurred his mount into action. He had to…must…speak with this man who unknown to himself was in fact Ben Cartwright, his father, his mentor, his hero.

The two men were just exiting the barn when Adam pulled his horse to a stop. Both men stopped talking and began to make their way over to Adam who was dismounting. He felt his heart pick up tempo as his father and the stranger came nearer until they stopped in front of him.

“Howdy young fella,” Henry Tibbs greeted Adam. Ben smiled warmly at him.

“Hello,” responded Adam as he offered his hand in greeting. Henry accepted the welcome and he and Adam shook hands. Next Adam offered his hand to his father. Ben, still smiling shook hands as well. Adam’s heart skipped a beat when he felt his father’s grip on his hand. He had to swallow hard.

“What can we do for you?” Henry asked the tall, dark stranger.

“My name is Adam,” he paused to look at his father, “Cartwright,” he finished, watching Ben’s expression change just slightly.

“Cartwright?” muttered Ben under his breath, but Adam heard.

“I’m Henry Tibbs…and this is…”

Adam noticed the pause.

“Walter Tibbs,” Henry finished. He didn’t say anything to Adam about the man being his would-be brother for which Adam was glad that so far the man hadn’t told a lie.

“I’m here to speak with…” he turned back to his father before speaking again. “You sir, if you wouldn’t mind.”

Adam thought that his father seemed surprised that he was the one whom this handsome stranger wished to speak with. Ben glanced quickly at Henry and then back at Adam.

“Mind if I ask what this is about?” Henry said.

“It’s a bit personal, sir,” Adam explained. Turning to Ben he asked, “You don’t mind, do you sir. It won’t take but a few minutes.” His heart was in his throat and a smidgen of fear caused him to worry that maybe his father would refuse the invitation to speak with him. “It’s quite important,” Adam added with baited breath.

Ben’s expression changed and he smiled warmly at the younger man. “Of course, I’ll speak with you. Would you like to come into the house, we have coffee made?” he asked.

Adam hadn’t realized until that moment that he’d been holding his breath. He let it out slowly. “Thank you, but if you wouldn’t mind just walking with me…we could talk privately,” he said as he glanced at Henry who’s brow had frowned slightly.

“Certainly,” Ben said. He turned to Henry. “I won’t be long; no need to worry,” he told the other man.

“As you wish,” Henry said, turning and going back towards the barn.

Adam and Ben began walking slowly in the opposite direction. For several minutes neither man uttered a word, until they had reached a small grove of trees and Ben stopped, turning to Adam. “You seem a bit nervous…Adam…didn’t you say?”

“Adam, yes sir…” Adam smiled. “I suppose I am a bit nervous.”

“Then why don’t you take a deep breath and tell me what’s on your mind?” Ben said warmly as he leaned against a tree. “I don’t bite, you know.”

Adam chuckled softly. “No, I don’t suppose you do,” he smiled at his father. A lump had suddenly formed in the back of his throat and he had to swallow several times before it became dislodged enough so that he could speak again. He turned away from his father, least Ben see the fear that had caused his hands to begin to shake.

“Son…is something wrong?”

At the sound of his father’s warm voice, so filled with concern, Adam turned again. Tears glistened in his eyes, yet he forbid them to be released.

“I thought I could handle this, now I’m not so sure,” he said quietly.

“Handle what son?” Ben asked as he watched the younger man closely. It was obvious that the young stranger was either upset or worried about something and Ben had no idea how those feelings could concern him.

“Is your name really Walter Tibbs?” Adam said, almost blurting out the words.

Ben didn’t seem too surprised at the question. Calmly he asked Adam, “Why, do you know otherwise?”

“Yes!” Adam snapped. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to snap at you…but…this is so hard.”

Ben pursed his lips and then he took a deep breath. “Please, tell me who you think I am.”

“I don’t think I know who you really are, I know who you are…you are…Ben Cartwright…my…father,” Adam said and then clamped his lips together.

“Father?” stammered Ben. “Boy…are you positive?”

“Of course I’m positive. You didn’t answer my question…is your name really Walter Tibbs?”

“No…it is not but…to be completely honest with you…I have no memory of my life or who I really am since Henry found me and brought me here, to his home. I was hurt and he took care of me…I just assumed the name Walter Tibbs.”

Ben walked around the tree and stopped in front of Adam. His eyes were awash with tears. “How can you know for certain that I am this Ben Cartwright…and that I am your father? Please, I need to know for sure…I can see such pain in your face…can you prove to me that I am who you say I am?”

“Yes sir…I think that I can,” stated Adam as he laid his hand on his father’s shoulder. He moved it slightly till his fingers rested on the back of the same shoulder. “Do you have a small scar, right here,” he asked, touching gently the spot in question. “And is it V shaped like this?” Adam spread his two first fingers apart slightly to form a V. “And does the V point upright?”

Ben’s eyes brightened as he smiled at Adam. “Why yes…in fact I do…but how do you know?”

“Because I am the one who dug the arrow out of your shoulder a little over a year ago. You and I were hunting and came upon a small band of Paiutes…and you took an arrow to this shoulder. I know because you are my father,” Adam said with certainty.

“I wish I could remember Adam,” Ben sighed. “Tell me more, please.”

“I want you to come home with me, where you belong. Little Joe needs you………”

Ben looked questioningly at his son. “Little Joe?”

“Yes. I have two brothers, Hoss and Little Joe…”

“Hoss,” smiled Ben. “The word means a big friendly man.”

“How did you know that?” wondered Adam.

A small frown formed on Ben’s face. “I…I…don’t know,” he said looking into Adam’s eyes. “Is he…I mean is your brother a big, friendly man?”

Adam chuckled. “He most certainly is. And Little Joe is your youngest son. He’s full of life, spirited and right now grieving himself to death.” Adam suddenly became very serious. “You see, Pa…he thinks that he’s killed you…”

“What?”

“You and he had gone over to Glenbrook for some special lumber you needed and Joe was driving the wagon. The axel broke free from the wagon and when you jumped clear, Joe didn’t have time to jump before the wagon careened over the ledge…”

“Dear God,” muttered Ben. “Was the boy hurt?”

“Yes, but he’s better now…physically that is. Emotionally, he’s a wreck. See, you and he have this special bond…to Joe, you are his whole world…you are his hero…and now, he’s convinced himself that you are dead because of him. And it’s eating him alive.”

Tears formed in Adam’s eyes. Ben noticed immediately. “What else, son?”

Adam swiped his hand across his eyes to wipe away the moisture. “Please…you have to come home with me. If you don’t…I’m afraid of what might happen to Little Joe. He’s trying to hang on but I’m afraid he’s going to give up soon. I…can’t lose him.” Adam hung his head. His emotions were running high and he was afraid that he himself might have a break down soon.

“Of course I’ll come,” Ben said as he laid his hand on his son’s shoulder. “You have proven to me that I am who you say I am. I might not remember everything…but I’m positive you are telling me the truth. But what will this boy say when he realizes that I don’t have a clue to who he is or that I have no memory of my life with any of you…”

“It will be fine, Pa…you wait and see. Just having you home will be enough to save Joe’s life. And…maybe in time, just being there will spark a memory…”

“God, I hope so,” smiled Ben. “When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as you can be ready. I promised Little Joe that I’d be back within a week.” Adam chuckled. “And knowing Joe, if I’m not, he’s liable to come looking for me.”

Ben laughed, “Is he that daring?”

“Absolutely…and more so when he sets his mind to doing something…usually what he’s not supposed to be doing,” Adam explained.

“Oh my…how old is this young son of mine?”

“Almost seventeen…and Hoss is twenty-two…I’m twenty-eight…”

“My, I must have been a busy man,” snickered Ben as he and Adam began making their way back to the house. “And…my wife?”

“Pa…my mother, Elizabeth, died shortly after I was born. Hoss’ mother was killed by Indians…and Joe’s mother died from a fall while riding…Joe was only five at the time.”

“Dear God…whew…I have a lot of catching up to do…” Ben sighed heavily.

“We can do some of that on the way home,” smiled Adam. Though he tried not to let it show, tears slowly filled Adam’s eyes. He clinched his teeth, to keep from breaking down from the sheer joy of standing face to face with the father whom he adored.

Ben noted the young man’s struggle and stepped over to take Adam into his arms. “It’s going to be alright son,” Ben whispered into the other man’s ear. “Everything will work out, I promise,” he added.

Adam felt his body go slack. He could no longer be the strong one. “Oh Pa…” he wept. “You have no idea how happy I am that you’re alive…that Joe has a chance of a full recovery…and Hoss and I…” he pulled out of the comforting arms and looked into his father’s face. He smiled. “Now Hoss and I can relax and let you take over again.”

“I’ll need your help…at least until I remember what it is I’m supposed to be in charge of,” chuckled Ben.

“You’ll have all the help you’ll ever need; I can assure you of that! Especially Little Joe…he’ll be your shadow for a long time,” Adam said and laughed this time.”

“I can’t wait Adam, to meet these boys of mine. I have felt for weeks now that there was something missing in my life…and now I know what it was…or should I say who it was?” Ben laughed, “Let’s get going!” Ben said as he put his arm across Adam’s shoulder and led him back to the house.

The journey home was one that Adam would always remember. Spending this special time with his father brought joy and a measure of peace to his life. Along the way, he told his father all that he could in regards to Ben’s former life, his sons, his wives and all he could about the Ponderosa and the various actives that went on there. Ben learned about the mining operations, the lumber business, raising cattle, horse breeding and taming the wild ones. Adam explained about his contracts for these operations, including the ones with the Army and the supply of horses they sold to the Army each year.

But what Ben wanted to know most about were the sons he had no memory of. He listened to detail accounts about his travels westward with Adam, the journey with Ingrid and about Marie whom he had married while in New Orleans. Tales of each of his sons left him both laughing and crying at the same time. In his mind’s eye, he pictured each one. Hoss, his middle son who Adam had said was taller and stronger than most men yet kind and gentle; a man among men according to Adam and well-liked by everyone who had the good fortune of knowing him.

And then there was Little Joe with the untamed spirit and the fiery temper. Little Joe, explained Adam was the boy who was most emotional, who kept everything deep within himself until he was ready to burst before revealing his inner most self to his father. The youngest of the three Cartwright sons, the heart of the Ponderosa and the apple of his father’s eye…that said Adam, was Little Joe all summed up in a matter of a few words. And with laughter he added that Little Joe was the reason that his father’s hair was so silver. Ben had joined in the laughter and admitted that he was most anxious to meet his two younger sons.

By the time that the ranch house came into view, Ben felt as if he knew each one on a personal basis. He relished the idea of meeting them and at night, he knelt beside his bedroll and prayed that in God’s time, his master would awaken his mind to the lost memories that seemed to, even now, haunt his dreams. Ben craved knowing his sons…already deep within his heart, his fatherly love had taken root.

“It’s beautiful,” he told Adam as they sat atop the hill and looked down at the homestead he was told was built by his and Adam’s own two hands. “I can only imagine all the good times…and I suppose the bad times that we have shared within those walls.”

“We’ve had both, the good and the bad, but we always managed to overcome the worst of times. Being a family, you have taught us the true meaning of the word,” Adam said as he adjusted himself in the saddle.

“One for four, four for one?” he asked, turning to Adam and saw the surprised look on the younger man’s face.

“Funny you should remember that…you have taught us that very thing from day one.”

“Really, I’ve said it before?” questioned Ben.

“Many times, Pa, many times,” smiled Adam. “Well,” he said as he pushed his hat back into place. “Ready to meet your boys?”

Ben chuckled. “I’ll admit I’m a bit scared and a whole lot nervous.”

“It will be fine, Pa. Just remember, once Little Joe sees you, be ready for an arm load because I have a suspicion that he will fly straight into your arms,” Adam warned his father.

“And my arms will be wide opened for him…” grinned Ben.

“Thanks Pa…for understanding…I mean, you might not remember them, but they haven’t forgotten you. And we’ll sit Little Joe down this evening and explain to him what has happened to you. He’ll understand.”

“I hope so,” muttered Ben.

“I know the boy inside and out, he will.”

“I think you might be right. Is that him…he just walked out of the barn and is heading for the house,” Ben asked, pointing to the young boy who was in fact headed for the main house.

“That’s Little Joe. Ready?”

Grinning from ear to ear, Ben turned to Adam. “Let’s ride!” he all but shouted as he urged his mount into a full gallop.

Hoss was just about to close the front door when the sound of pounding hooves caught his attention. He stopped and turned around. What and who he saw almost brought the gentle giant to his knees.

“Joe…Joe…come here,” he sputtered to his younger brother who had just come inside. “Lookie who’s here,” he said, turning and giving the younger boy a wide grin.

“Don’t care,” snarled Joe. “I don’t wanna see or talk to anyone,” he growled. His mood was not the best. Joe hadn’t been sleeping nor had he been eating much. Once again he looked tired and though Hoss had done his best to encourage the boy, nothing the older brother had said had any effect on the mood swings of the younger. “Suite yourself,” Hoss called.

“But I just bet you’d want to see this!” Hoss said as he hurried out the door, running now to greet his father and leaving Little Joe alone to stew over whatever was plaguing his thoughts at this time.

When Ben dismounted and turned around, he found himself face to face with his middle son. He smiled warmly. “Hoss?” he uttered.

“Pa!” Hoss practically shouted as he enfolded his father amid his strong arms and lifting Ben slightly off the ground, Hoss spun his father around in a circle, so filled with joy that tears flowed freely down his face.

“You better put him down, Hoss,” laughed Adam. “You’re going to make him dizzy spinning him like that,” he chuckled.

Hoss stopped spinning his father and let Ben find his footing again. “Golly, gee, Pa…it’s good to see ya. We done thought you was…dead…”

“No Hoss, I’m alive and almost well,” laughed Ben.

The smile faded from Hoss’ face as he sized his father up. “Almost well…what’cha mean by that?”

“We’ll explain it all to you and Joe later,” Adam said. “Say, where is the kid?”

“He’s inside…and I’ll give you fair warning, he ain’t in a very good mood,” Hoss started to explain.

“PA!!”

The sudden shriek caused all three men to turn. Before any of them could say a word, Little Joe flung himself into his father’s opened arms. Tears of sheer joy ran unchecked down the young man’s face as Joe wrapped his own arms about his father.

“Pa…Pa…” sobbed Joe, unable to stop crying as he gripped his father as tightly as possible. “Oh Pa…I’m so sorry…I’m sorry…”

Ben’s arms embraced the boy. One hand held Joe’s head against his rapidly beating heart. The sudden burst of love for this particular child surprised the father and almost brought the older man to tears. Never…not that he could remember, had he ever felt so loved and needed, for the love that this boy held in his heart for the man who embraced him, was felt throughout that man’s body.

“Hush now Joseph, there’s nothing for you to be sorry for,” Ben said trying to console the boy. He glanced at Adam and smiled, mouthing ‘thank you’ to his son. Adam understood for he could see the love already blooming in his father’s eyes for not just one son, but for all three.

“You mean, you really can’t remember anything?” Little Joe who sat close to his father asked.

Ben sadly shook his head. “I’m afraid not Little Joe. But Adam’s done a fine job in filling in many of the important parts and it is as if I’ve known you and your brothers all my life,” he said, smiling now at the youngster.

Joe didn’t appear to be happy about the situation. “Are you ever gonna be able to remember?”

“I certainly hope so, son,” Be answered as he reached over and ruffled the thick curls. “We’ll know more after I see the doctor tomorrow.”

Joe stood up and walked around the room, coming full circle to face his father. “What…happens if you never remember?”

Ben noted the sad expression that Joe wore on his face and his heart went out to the boy. He understood that Little Joe had his father back but not really had him back. “Then I suppose we’ll just simply start from the here and now and make all sorts of new memories…and for you at least, you’ll always have the old memories,” Ben said as he rose from his chair and put his arms about the boy.

Joe scrunched up his face. “Yeah…but it won’t be like it used to be…not really,” he said and then suddenly looked up into his father’s face. “Pa…I really am glad you’re back…I…I…missed you.”

Ben gently pulled his son into his arms and hugged him. He leaned down and planted a kiss atop Joe’s head. “Everything will work out, according to God’s plan, son. We will just have to be patient and take it one day at a time.”

Joe snickered, causing Ben to pull the boy back to see his face. “And what might I ask is so funny?”

This time Joe laughed aloud. “If you really knew me, you’d know that being patient is not one of my virtues, Pa…not even close!”

Ben laughed. “Then perhaps this period of our lives is a time that the good Lord will use to teach you and I patience, for I have a feeling that patience isn’t number one on my list of virtues either, young man.” Father and son giggled and then embraced one another, both satisfied for now just knowing that one was father and the other was son and that a warm relationship was being born.

Life on the Ponderosa took on a sense of normalcy. Ben worked hard doing all the things he’d done before losing his memory, with the help of Adam, Hoss and even Little Joe. There was much that he learned, but other things seemed to come naturally for the elder Cartwright. He even became reacquainted with those who had been his closet friends, such as Roy Coffee who was the sheriff and Paul Martin the town’s physician.

“Pa, is something wrong? Adam asked. He had just come down the stairs and found Ben sitting at his desk with his head in the palms of his hands. Ben raised his head slowly. “I have a massive headache,” he told his son. “It’s been hurting all day.”

“Do you want me to send for the doctor?” Adam was concerned for it had not been the first time he had found his father as such. Ben had been experiencing headaches for several days now.

Ben shook his head. “No,” he answered as he pushed back his chair and stood up. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just go lie down for a while.”

“Of course not, go ahead. I’ll let you know when supper is ready,” Adam told his father.

“Thank you son.” Ben snickered. “Maybe I’ve just looked at these figures for too long,” he said as he pointed to the ledger he’d been working on.

“You go have that nap; I’ll take a look at those figures for you.” Adam moved around the desk and took his father’s seat and pulled the ledger closer.

“Where is your brother?” Ben asked before he started up the stairs.

“Which one? Adam asked without looking up.

“Little Joe, I haven’t seen him since lunch and then he wasn’t very talkative, nor did he eat very much. I tried talking to him, but he acted upset with me about something.”

“Joe?” Adam looked up at his father. “I noticed earlier he wasn’t in a very good mood.”

Ben walked back to the desk and stood looking down at Adam. “Is it my imagination, or has he been out of sorts for the last couple of days, and distant too,” the worried father questioned.

“I’ve noticed. He must have something on his mind. I’ll speak with him if you’d like for me to,” Adam offered.

“Would you?” Ben sighed.

“Sure. I’ll see if I can find him after I look over these entries.” Adam watched his father walk slowly up the stairs. He was a bit worried about how tired Ben looked and wondered if perhaps he should speak with Doctor Martin and perhaps even have the physician pay his father a visit. It had been weeks since Ben had come home and first seen the doctor in regards to regaining his memory so Adam thought maybe the reoccurring headaches might have something to do with how poorly his father had been feeling the last few days.

First he needed to find the mistakes in the ledger so that the books would balance and then he’d go search for Little Joe and see if the boy would open up to him about whatever he was fretting over. An hour later, Adam closed the books, balanced to the penny and went in search of his brother. As Adam entered the barn, he paused to give his eyes time to adjust to the dim light.

“Little Joe…are you in here?” he called out and waited for a response. He petted Cochise’s nose. The horse being in the stable told him that Little Joe was somewhere nearby. “Joseph!” he called louder.

A moment later Adam saw a small piece of hay float down from the loft. He smiled. “Should have known,” he muttered to himself. Little Joe’s favorite hiding place was in the loft among the bales of hay stored there. He quickly climbed the ladder and was not surprised to see his brother sitting in the far, dark corner of the loft on a bale of hay. The sight of the lonely boy and the sad expression on his face touched Adam’s heart.

“Hey Buddy…why are you hiding up here…didn’t you hear me calling for you?” Adam asked as he slowly made his way over to his brother. “Mind if I sit down?” It was then that he noticed the glistening moisture that glowed on the young cheeks.

“Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” Adam tried again.

“Ain’t nothing bothering me,” grumbled Little Joe as he turned away to wipe away the tears that were ready to fall.

“No? You don’t really expect me to believe that, do you?”

“Believe what you want, I don’t give a dam,” snarled Little Joe as he stood up and walked to the other corner.

“You better not let Pa hear you using that kind of language, you know how he feels about foul language,” Adam warned his brother.

Little Joe turned and walked back to stand over his brother. “I know, but does he?”

Adam looked puzzled. “Now what in blazes does that mean?”

“It means he doesn’t know anything about us, except for what he’s learned since he’s been here. He don’t even know what he likes and what he don’t like…he doesn’t know anything about how we feel or what we think…he’s our father in body only. I want my real Pa back,” Joe’s voice became high pitched and Adam noticed the boy’s chin quivering. “I want Pa to yell at me when I do something I shouldn’t. I want him to restrict me to my room…dangit, Adam…at this point, I’d welcome a necessary little talk, it if would bring my father back to me…I…I…miss him, Adam…” He turned his back to his older brother.

Adam could hear the soft sounds of his brother’s weeping. He moved to stand behind Little Joe and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders, slowly turning the boy around and then drew the unhappy youth into his arms where he held his brother until Joe’s sobbing subsided.

“Listen buddy, let’s sit down for a minute and talk about this,” Adam suggested as he gently led Joe back to the bales of hay and sat them both down. “I understand how you feel…”

“Really?” Little Joe asked in surprise. He wiped his eyes dry.

“Yes,” smiled his brother. “Pa is different now, but we need to realize that it isn’t his fault…or anyone’s. And I’m sure that he wishes he could remember us like we remember him before the accident. Joe, don’t you think that it’s as hard on him as it is on you and me and even Hoss?”

Little Joe lowered his head. “I suppose,” he said in a soft voice.

Adam moved closer to his brother and put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Think about it Joe, Pa’s a stranger in his own home. He lives among all the treasures that make up his life…not just the three of us, but photos of the women he’s loved, and can’t remember, belongings that he’s collected that he has no idea from where they came. I’ve seen him pick up the photo of your mother and stare at it. I’ve seen tears collect in his eyes and heard him muttering to himself, asking why couldn’t he remember. One night as I was going to bed, I heard him in his room praying, beseeching God to return his memory to him. So you know, buddy, as hard as it is on us, it has to be ten times worse for him.”

Adam paused to give Joe time to absorb what he was trying to tell him.

“He tries hard to be a good father to us…and he does care deeply for all of us. All you have to do is look at him and see the love in his eyes…it has to be hard on him. I’m sure deep down inside he wishes the same thing that you do…that he could remember,” Adam finished.

Joe wiped his eyes a second time. “I guess I’ve been sort of selfish, haven’t I?” he asked his brother.

“Meaning how?”

“I haven’t given much thought to how Pa was feeling; I was only thinking of myself…and that was wrong,” Joe explained. “I know he’s trying hard Adam, really, and I try to be patient with him, but sometimes I just wish…I wish…oh I don’t know. I just miss Pa being the way he was.” Joe chuckled. “You know Adam,” he said, grinning at his brother. “I used to think that sometimes Pa was just an old fuddy-duddy…that he was just getting so old and set in his ways that it was impossible for him to understand me and how I was feeling about things…that my ideas didn’t matter to him. But now I don’t think that…I’ve learned that who Pa was before is the man I most admired, the man I loved most and who I most wanted to be like.” The smile faded. “Now I’m afraid Adam, that I’ll never have that man back.”

He looked into his brother’s eyes. “And I don’t blame anyone but myself…I caused that accident…I took our Pa away from all of us,” he sniffled.

“Nonsense!” Adam declared. He cupped Joe’s quivering chin and raised the boy’s head. “I don’t want to hear you talking that way again, Joe…you did not cause that accident. You cannot go down that pity road again. Don’t you think for one minute that if Pa really could remember, that he’d be blaming himself for that accident and not you…simply because he failed to check the wagon to be sure it was safe?”

“I suppose. But Adam…I feel…well, you might think I’m being silly…but I feel sort of…lost…and lonely. Oh I know he tries to be good to me, almost too good. He hasn’t yelled at me in forever, and I’ve done things on purpose just to get a reaction from him.” He saw Adam’s brow rise. “I shouldn’t have I know and it was wrong, but he didn’t do anything…he didn’t even say anything…”

“Hey Adam!” It was Hoss calling from down below.

“I’m up here,” Adam called walking to the edge of the loft. “What do you need, I’m talking to Little Joe.”

“It’s Pa…he needs us in the house,” Hoss answered.

Adam glanced back at Little Joe. “Come on buddy, let’s go see what Pa needs us for.”

“Alright Adam…and thanks for listening,” he said softly.

“Anytime, you know that. We’re coming Hoss,” he called down to his middle brother.

He and Joe came down from the loft and together with Hoss hurried to the house. Ben was lying on the settee with a cool cloth across his forehead. Hop Sing was standing over him. “Mr. Cart’lite need doctor, head hurting very badly,” he explained to the trio of brothers.

Adam quickly moved around the settee and sat on the corner of the table. “Pa…are you alright?” he asked his father. Ben, who had his hand on the cloth and who’s eyes were closed, moved his hand away and opened his eyes just enough that he could see Adam sitting nearby.

“It’s this blasted headache, son. It feels like they are playing war drums inside my head…it won’t stop pounding,” he said through gritted teeth and then closed his eyes again.

Adam looked up at Hoss with a worried expression showing on his face. “Best you get Doc Martin,” he told his brother.

“I’ll go now…”

“No…let me, I’ll fetch the doctor,” Joe said to both brothers. “Hoss, I can ride faster than you, please Adam let me do this…for Pa,” Joe pleaded.

Adam nodded his head, “Alright Joe…but be careful.”

“I will…you hold on Pa…I won’t be long,” Little Joe said. He was already grabbing his hat and putting on his jacket.

“Joseph!” Ben called out. He opened his eyes, searching for the boy.

“I’m right here, Pa,” Joe said as he leaned over the top of the settee.

“Don’t you run that pony of yours too hard,” Ben scolded softly.

“I won’t, I promise,” Joe responded.

“And Joe…after you speak with Paul, you rest your horse first before coming home, do you understand me?”

Joe couldn’t keep the slight smile from spreading across his face. Ben sounded almost like his old self.

“Yes sir, I understand.”

“Then scat,” Ben said with a smile that looked more like a grimace.

Ben was sitting up talking to the doctor by the time that Little Joe returned. Little Joe had done as his father had requested and had remained at the doctor’s office long enough for Cochise to have a much needed rest before returning home.

“So, you’ve been having some flashbacks?” the doctor was asking his patient when Joe walked into the house and overheard the conversation. He quickly made his way to the settee to hear what his father was saying.

“Yes, but nothing that I can actually call a memory. It’s more like me being in a fog…seeing faceless figures, hearing voices talking but being unable to understand the words…those types of things,” Ben explained to the doctor.

“And, is that when the headaches begin?” Paul asked.

Ben nodded his head. “Yes…I know this sounds odd, but I feel as if something inside my head is trying to get out.”

Paul chuckled softly. “Well, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt that way, but I can understand what you mean. It sounds to me as if your memory is being jogged somewhat and your brain is trying to bring things into focus for you. I’m not sure but I’d say that given time, your memory will be restored….”

“Wahoo!” shouted Joe.

Ben scrunched up his face at the loud noise. He looked up at Joe with a slight grin on his face. “Must you make all that noise, young man?”

“Sorry Pa…” Joe answered with a smile.

It was two days later that Ben was sitting on the side porch with Adam and Hoss. The brothers had their backs to the yard while Ben sat facing the front. Ben had just sat his glass of lemonade down when he looked up to see his youngest son come barreling into the front yard on his horse. Cochise must have slipped for when he went down, Little Joe was flung from his back as a man being catapulted from a cannon. The boy landed on his back with a hard thud.

Ben screamed. “MARIE!” and jumped from his seat to run across the yard to his son. Both Adam and Hoss turned to see what was happening. The instance they saw their father gather the wounded boy into his arms, they sprang from their chairs and raced to join the pair.

“Joseph, are you hurt?” Ben asked as he held the boy close. “How many times have I warned you about riding so fast into the yard?” he gently scolded.

Adam and Hoss, both who had squatted now next to Joe, looked up into the face of their father. Joe too, had opened his eyes and was watching the expressions of worry, concern and a bit of anger playing on his father’s face.

“I’m fine, Pa…do you really remember telling me not to race into the yard?” he asked weakly as his father helped him into a sitting position.

“Yes…many times young man, I should tan your backside and I might when I find out that you really are fine…so…” Ben stopped talking. As Joe began to stand, all four Cartwrights looked from one to the other.

“Are you saying…” Adam began.

Ben smiled at him and then reaching out touched Adam’s face and then Hoss’ cheek. He looked down at his youngest, tears glistening in his eyes as he pulled the boy into a hug. “Yes…I can remember…all of you…everything…Marie’s accident.” He looked down at Little Joe who had pulled free of the confining arms to stare in shock at his father.

“That must be why you screamed ‘Marie’ when you saw Joe thrown from his horse,” Adam said.

Ben looked dumb-founded. “I screamed for Marie?” he questioned.

“Yes sir, ya sure did,” smiled Hoss.

“Well I’ll be,” muttered Ben. “That must have been the instant that my memory came back,” he explained. He looked down at Little Joe and saw the boy was about to cry. “Come here you little scamp,” he said as he pulled Joe into another tight hug. This time the boy wrapped his arms tightly about his father’s waist and clung to him.

“Welcome home, Pa,” he cried as he looked up into his father’s face and saw for the first time since Ben came home, recognition.

Ben squeezed tighter and then as Joe clung to him, Ben reached both hands out to gather his oldest two sons into his arms as well. Adam and Hoss did not hesitate, but stepped into the inviting arms of their father where all four Cartwrights stood huddled together.

“It sure is good to be back,” Ben proclaimed. “I’ve been a stranger in the house far too long.”

THE END

January 2015

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