Blue Ice Crystals (by Carla)

Summary:  Little Joe is kidnapped.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  24,477


 

“I’m sorry, Joseph, but I did warn you what would happen if you failed to bring in your homework this morning, didn’t I?” Miss Breckenridge said as she looked down at the small child in front of her. The little boy looked so pitiful, she had to put her hand to her mouth to hide a smile.

“Yes Ma’am, you did, but I…” began Joseph “Little Joe” Cartwright, running his fingers through his thick curly hair. He chewed on his bottom lip trying to think of a good excuse for not having done his homework.

“No “buts” about it Joseph. Now, I’ve already told your brother Adam to come for you an hour after school lets out. By then, you should have finished all your work – that is, if you get started right away.”

“Yes, Ma’am”, mumbled Little Joe, wishing he were somewhere else -anywhere else! He didn’t mind being at school when the other kids were there, he didn’t actually enjoy it, but he liked being with his friends. However, having to stay after school with no one to talk to was not something he relished. He wished his older brother Hoss were here, but Hoss had not been in school that day – he was home with a cold. Joseph thought about trying again to come up with an excuse, but one look at Miss Breckenridge told him it would be useless. Sighing dramatically, Little Joe shuffled towards his desk looking as though the weight of the world was on his small shoulders.

The young teacher smiled, her blue eyes shining, as she watched Joseph, remembering the first time she had met the youngest Cartwright.

*****

It was only three months earlier that twenty-year-old Mishayla Breckenridge had secured the position as teacher in the Virginia City School. Mishayla was a tall slender women with long curls the color of summer wheat cascading down her back in waves, soft peaches and cream skin and a beautiful smile that showcased her perfect white teeth. Her most noticeable attribute, however, was her eyes. They were a beautiful almost translucent blue, yet they sparkled like sun kissed clear frozen water. Little Joe would later, when describing his new teacher, tell his oldest brother, Adam, that Miss Breckenridge had eyes the color of “blue ice crystals”. She had grown up in Ohio and after her parents were killed, had decided to head west. After a few months in Denver, she continued on to Virginia City in Nevada. Since she only arrived in Virginia City the day before school was to start, she had not met any of her students.

On the first day of school Benjamin Cartwright, one of the wealthiest men in all of Nevada, had entered the schoolhouse with his two youngest sons. Ben was a big man with dark hair that was beginning to gray, dark smoldering eyes and a quick smile. There was a sense of elegance and power about him. Walking on one side of him was a child she guessed was about 13 or 14 years of age. He was plump with a friendly moon -shaped face and sparkling blue eyes. On the other side was a small child with dark curly hair haloing his angelic face. He was clinging to his fathers arm with his right hand and had his left thumb in his mouth. He was watching every move the teacher made, his green eyes wide.

As he walked up to her, Ben extended his hand saying, “Good morning, Ma’am, my name is Ben Cartwright and these are my sons, Eric and Joseph.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Cartwright, I am Mishayla Breckenridge,” said the teacher as she shook his hand. She then turned to Hoss saying, “Hello Eric, I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Eleven year old Eric, nicknamed Hoss, looked up at his father who smiled encouragingly. “Thank you Ma’am.” He said as his cheeks turned red. Hoss was big for his age, and while he could have easily been a bully, he was shy and had the heart of an angel. Miss Breckenridge knew right away that she and this young man with the bashful smile would be fast friends.

Ben turned to his youngest son. Brushing a stray curl from his son’s forehead he said, “Joseph, this is Miss Breckenridge. She will be your teacher, son – say hello.”

Miss Breckenridge looked at him in surprise – Joseph didn’t look old enough to be in school. Why this curly headed tot couldn’t be more than four years old, much too young to be in school! He should be home with his mother!

Little Joe was thinking he should be at home as well. He had never been to school before, but Hoss had told him about it. There were things like homework and learning numbers and having tests all sorts of horrible things! Hoss had also told him that teachers were mean. He wondered briefly how such a pretty lady could possibly be mean. But Hoss would never lie to him, so he watched her suspiciously as she bent down, and smiling offered him her hand.

“Hello Joseph.” she said. “And how old are you?”

Little Joe looked at her with green eyes flecked with gold, and with one and still gripping his father and his thumb still in his mouth answered, “Five and a half.”

Ben let go of Little Joe’s hand, got down on one knee in front of him and aid, “Joseph, I’m going back to the ranch now. Hoss will be here with you and either Adam or I will come to get you when school is over. Al- right?” Ben had dreaded this moment and hoped Little Joe would not become upset. He watched his youngest son’s face, trying to anticipate what would happen next.

“No, that’s not alright,” thought Little Joe trying to decide how he was going to get out of going to school. Since he really was a little scared, it didn’t take much for the little boy to cry. He looked at his father, tears welling in his eyes. His dropped his thumb from his mouth and with his lower lip quivering, he reached out, grabbing his father around the neck with both arms.

“No, Papa, don’t leave me! Please don’t leave me! I’ll be good, Papa, I promise. Please take me home with you; I don’t want to stay here!” Little Joe was sobbing now and Ben’s heart was breaking. It was hard for Ben to leave Little Joe even when he wasn’t upset. He thought about just taking him home, but decided that would not be a good idea in the long run.

Ben picked the sobbing child up and holding him tightly, talked to him in a soothing voice. Finally, Little Joe stopped crying and Ben asked Hoss to take him outside for a minute. Hoss took his little brother by the hand and together they walked towards the door, Little Joe looking over his shoulder at his father, tears staining his cheeks, his thumb securely back in his mouth. As his sons exited, Ben turned to the teacher.

“I think I better explain. You see, Miss Breckenridge, Joseph lost his mother in a riding accident just a few months ago and he is afraid I’m going to leave him too. He is also very close to his brothers and on occasion, tends to get upset if one of us isn’t with him. I think he will be fine once he realizes Hoss will be with him all day and Adam or I will be coming back for him. I know he’s a little young, but his…” Ben stopped talking and took a deep breath. “His mother worked with him at home and his brothers and I continue to work with him. I think he’s ready for formal schooling.”

Miss Breckenridge smiled at this man who was so obviously a wonderful, caring father. She took his hand in hers.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright, I’m sure Joseph will be fine once he gets used to his new surroundings.”

As it turned out, truer words were never spoken. It had taken them a few minutes but once Joseph was assured that Hoss was indeed staying with him and some of his friends were also going to be there, he was fine. In fact, when he became comfortable with going to school, he was a different child than the one she had met that first day. Instead of sitting quietly with his thumb in his mouth, he was in constant motion, talking, laughing and fidgeting – generally being a distraction to the whole class. Miss Breckenridge often wondered where all that energy came from and how his father kept it in check.

*****

Miss Breckenridge? Miss Breckenridge?”  A small voice shook her out of her reverie.

“Oh, yes Little Joe – what is it? Do you need help with one of the problems?” she asked.

“Oh no, Ma’am, I’m finished,” he said, flashing her the brilliant smile she had come to love so much in the last few weeks, his green eyes dancing.

She was a little surprised that he had finished in such a short time and even more surprised that he had solved all the problems correctly. She decided to see what else this small child with a mind like quicksilver could do that she was not aware of.

“Little Joe”, said Miss Breckenridge, retrieving a book from the drawer of her desk. “I just received a new reader from back east. Would you help me try it out?”

“Yes, Ma’am”, Little Joe answered enthusiastically. His father and brothers read to him all the time – something he enjoyed very much. “What are we going to read?”

“It’s called the McGuffey Reader and was written by Dr. William McGuffey at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A friend of mine works for Dr. McGuffey and she sent the entire collection of his works to our school.”

With a puzzled look, Little Joe asked, “A doctor wrote it? But Ma’am, I don’t think I can read a doctor book.”

Miss Breckenridge suppressed a laugh as she explained that Dr. McGuffey was not a medical doctor, but a professor and minister.

Little Joe didn’t really understand, but he accepted her explanation without further questioning. He pulled a chair up close to hers and leaned into her shoulder so he could see the book. Miss Breckenridge opened the reader and began. After a few pages, she realized Little Joe was reading ahead of her and asked him to read aloud, which he happily did.

“Little Joe, how long have you been able to read on your own?” She asked in amazement after he had finished the entire reader without missing a word.

“Oh, I don’t know – since I was just a little kid, I guess” he answered proudly. Miss Breckenridge saw a look of sadness suddenly pass over the small child’s face. She started to say something, then decided to hold back. After a moment’s silence, Little Joe whispered, “My Mama used to read to me all the time – before she…. she went to heaven….”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, tears stealing down his cheeks, his lower lip quivering. “I-I miss her an awful lot.”

Miss Breckenridge reached over, brushed a stray curl from his forehead and hugged him, her heart breaking for this precious child, unshed tears stinging her eyes. They sat in silence, Little Joe thinking about his mother and his teacher thinking about her parents. After a few minutes Little Joe looked up at her with his tear stained face. “Papa and Adam read to me now – sometimes Hoss too. I still miss Mama a whole lot, but I like it when they read with me. Would you like me to read some more, Miss Breckenridge?”

“Yes, Joseph, that would be wonderful,” she said encouragingly. She was rewarded with a crooked smile.

For the next ten minutes, Little Joe read to his teacher as she listened, amazed that this five-year-old was reading better than some of her older students. Just as she was about to compliment him on how well he could read, she heard the door in the back of the room open. She glanced up expecting it to be Adam, coming to collect his little brother. She was shocked to see three men dressed completely in black clothing, with black dusters, black gloves; hoods over their faces and guns in their hands. She jumped to her feet, grabbed Little Joe and quickly pulled him behind her.

“Who are you? What do you want?” she demanded. The three figures didn’t say a word; they simply continued walking towards the front of the room.

“Who are you?” She screamed again. “What do you want?” Her heart was racing; she had never been so frightened.

The largest figure walked up to her and looked directly into her eyes. Her eyes grew wide and she started to speak, but before she could get a word out, the man reached out and slapped her across the face. Her head snapped to the side as his hand hit her and she cried out. She reached out to Little Joe just as one of the other figures grabbed him.

The little boy screamed in terror.

“Let me go! Let me go!” He cried. He began kicking and hitting the man with his little fists. The man wrapped his big arms around Joe’s little ones, pinning them to his sides.

“Let him go!” Mishayla screamed at Little Joe’s attacker, hitting the man with her fists. The figure turned and backhanded her, sending her to the ground. Her head hit the edge of the desk as she fell. She tried to get up but darkness swallowed her up. “Little Joe, Litt…” she whispered as blackness enveloped her; her blue eyes closing. Somewhere in the distance, she heard Little Joe’s terrified screams, but she was helpless.

*****

Ben Cartwright shuddered as a sudden chill crawled up his spine – something was wrong – he couldn’t put his finger on it – but something was definitely wrong. When he left the Ponderosa that morning, everything was normal. Hoss had awakened with the sniffles, and although he didn’t think it was anything to worry about, Ben felt he should stay home from school. Little Joe hadn’t wanted to go without Hoss, but Ben had insisted. After a tantrum hadn’t worked, Little Joe had finally given up and with a dramatic sigh, followed Adam out the door, looking like a condemned man heading for the gallows. Ben smiled at the memory. Little Joe was such a handful it took Ben, Adam and Hoss all three to keep up with him. Although small for his age, Little Joe was a bundle of energy with an insatiable curiosity that on more than one occasion had gotten him in trouble. But, he was also the heart and soul of the Cartwright family and no child was more loved. Ben suddenly felt the need to hurry home and urged his horse to go faster. He prayed the only thing wrong was his overactive imagination, but somehow he knew it wasn’t.

*****

As Ben was moving towards the Ponderosa, 18 year old Adam Cartwright was headed to the Virginia City School to collect his little brother.

Little Joe hadn’t wanted to stay at school without Hoss and had tried to talk Adam into taking him back home to keep Hoss company. Adam adored his little brother and had a tendency to give in on occasion, but this time persuaded Little Joe to stay at school. Well, he didn’t actually persuade him as much as he bribed him. Adam promised his little brother he could ride Beauty, Adam’s horse, all by himself. He knew his father would not approve, but he would worry about that later.

At the time, the promise pacified Little Joe and that was Adam’s main objective.

As Adam rode into the schoolyard, he saw Little Joe’s pony tied to the hitching post, but didn’t see anyone around. He climbed off his horse and started up the steps to the door, which was open. Adam’s dark eyes took in the entire classroom, but no one was there. He frowned, wondering where the teacher and his little brother could be.

“Little Joe? Miss Breckenridge? Where are you?” he called as he walked toward the center of the room, rubbing his hand absently through his dark hair, looking in all directions. No answer. Adam was beginning to get a bad feeling.

Frowning, he waited a minute, listening intently then called out again, “Miss Breckenridge? Are you here? Little Joe? It’s me – Adam, time to go home Buddy.” Still no answer.

By this time, Adam had reached the front of the room and stood facing the teacher’s desk. He noticed a small reader lying open on the floor and furrowed his brow. He had met Miss Breckenridge on several occasions and knew she shared his love and respect for books – she would never allow one to be treated in such a manner. As he stooped to pick it up, he heard a sound. He stopped cold. Where was it coming from?

“Little Joe?” he called out. Slowly, he stood up, tilted his head, listening carefully. Suddenly it dawned on him; the sound was coming from underneath the desk! Adam quickly moved around to the back of the desk and gasped in horror at the sight that met his eyes.

Miss Breckenridge lay under the desk, her feet and hands tied. She had a gag across her mouth and her blue eyes were filled with fear, glistening with unshed tears. The right side of her face was bruised and she had dried blood on a cut above her left eye. Adam quickly untied her and helped her into a chair. She was shaking so badly Adam was afraid she would fall. Suddenly, fear gripping his heart, Adam realized Little Joe was nowhere to be seen. He turned to the frightened young teacher and taking her gently by the shoulders asked in a shaky voice, “Miss Breckenridge, where is Little Joe? Where is my little brother? What happened?”

“I-I-I don’t k-k-know,” she cried, her voice shaking so badly Adam could hardly understand her. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Adam waited as long as he could, trying to give her time to pull herself together.

“Can you tell me what happened? Please Miss Breckenridge…” Adam begged trying to keep the hysteria he felt out of his voice.

“We-we were sitting here reading. The d-d-door…” she stuttered then stopped.

“Please Ma’am, please tell me what happened,” Adam begged. His heart was pounding in his chest so hard he felt it would burst. While he wanted to shake the information out of her, he forced himself to wait until she was ready.

She waited a minute trying to compose herself before she continued. “Little Joe and I were sitting here reading when three men came in the door. They wore hoods over their heads and had guns.” Her eyes widened and she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, Adam! They took Little Joe! I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t! They-they hit me – I  – I fell and- and I hit my head and blacked out. Oh my God! Adam – they took Little Joe!” Miss Breckenridge burst into tears.

Adam felt as though he had been punched in the stomach. For a moment he couldn’t speak. Finally finding his voice he began questioning her again. “Miss Breckenridge, do you know who they were? Did you recognize their voices? Did you hear them leave? Do you know which way they went?” Adam asked quickly, terror mounting in his heart.

“No Adam, they didn’t say a word. They just walked in and took Little Joe. Adam, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I-I didn’t…” She stopped talking suddenly. She was running her thumbs around the waistband of her skirt where she kept a handkerchief. As she started to pull the handkerchief out, she also felt another piece of paper. She bit back the urge to pull the paper out and read it. She knew what it was and she also knew she had to wait before turning it over to the authorities.

As he watched her, Adam had a feeling there was something she wasn’t telling him, but decided that getting to the sheriff’s office as quickly as possible was his top priority. He stood up and helped her to her feet.

“We have to get to town and tell the sheriff what happened. Do you think you can ride?” Adam asked.

“Yes, I can ride.” she whispered, dreading the next few hours.

*****

Twenty minutes later Adam Cartwright and Mishayla Breckenridge entered the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Coffee had been sorting through the latest batch of wanted posters and looked up as they came in. He noticed Mishayla’s condition and the look of fear on Adam’s face. He jumped up and walked toward them, taking Mishayla gently by the arm and leading her towards a chair.

“Adam? Ma’am? What happened?” asked the sheriff, as he helped Mishayla into the chair.

“Sheriff Coffee, someone kidnapped Little Joe from the schoolhouse,” Adam burst out.

The sheriff’s dark eyes flew wide open and he felt as if someone had struck him in the heart. Sheriff Coffee adored Little Joe and was horrified to think what might have happened to the happy go lucky child. “What did you say?” he asked, hoping against hope that he had heard wrong.

“It’s true, Sheriff, someone took Little Joe,” Mishayla said so quietly that at first Roy Coffee wasn’t sure she had spoken at all.

“Tell me what happened, Ma’am,” Roy said softly.

“There’s not much to tell really.” she began. “It all started when…

A few minutes later, Roy Coffee had started organizing a posse to search for the kidnapped child. One of his deputies had taken Mishayla to Doctor Martins’ office. As Roy checked the ammunition in his revolver and rifle, he turned to Adam saying, “Adam, you best go tell your Pa what has happened. I’ll take the posse over to the schoolhouse and we’ll start tracking from there. You get some of the Ponderosa hands and meet us.”

“Yes sir” said Adam running out the door, dreading the thought of having to tell his father and brother that the heart of the Cartwright family was missing.

*****

Ben had hoped that when he entered the courtyard of the Ponderosa the feeling of dread that had begun to consume him would disappear. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen as the feeling only deepened.  He quickly took care of his horse and went into the house, hoping against hope that all three of his sons would be waiting for him inside.

“Adam? Little Joe? Are you here?” he called as he took off his gun belt, hat and coat, searching the large room with his eyes. After receiving no answer, he headed up the stairs to Hoss’ room. He opened the door slowly in case Hoss was sleeping, but found his middle son sitting up in bed reading.

“Hi Pa. You are home early. Adam didn’t expect you back until after dinner time,” said Hoss.

“I finished my business early and decided to come on home. How are you feeling son?” he asked as he felt Hoss’ forehead for any sign of a fever. While Hoss was a little warm, Ben knew he would be all right. He silently thanked God that at least one of his sons was safe at home.

He frowned, wondering again what could be keeping Adam and Little Joe so long.

Hoss watched his father for a minute before he answered. “I’m fine Pa. Just a little stuffed up.” He hesitated again. “Pa, are you alright?” Hoss asked his father in a worried voice. “You look kinda peaked.”

“Yes, I’m fine.” he smiled. Then his smile turned to a frown. “Where are your brothers?”

“I don’t know, Pa. Adam went to get Little Joe a long time ago. I heard him leave, but I haven’t heard them come back.”

Both Ben and Hoss turned towards the window as they heard a horse coming in to the courtyard at a dead run.

“That’s probably them now, Pa. Just running a little late I expect,” Hoss said, relief in his voice. He had been worried about his brothers as well.

Ben hurried to the window and watched as Adam dismounted his horse and hurried towards the house. Little Joe was no where to be seen. Turning to Hoss, trying to keep the worry out of his voice Ben smiled and said, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, son. You try to get some sleep.”

“Sure Pa,” Hoss said as his father left the room. Hoss could tell by the look on his father’s face that something was wrong. He got out of bed and tip toed to the top of the stairs, pressing himself against the wall so his father and brother couldn’t see him.

Just as Ben reached the bottom step, Adam burst into the room. When he saw his father, Adam stopped cold. He didn’t know how he was going to tell his father that Little Joe was missing. He knew that his little brother was the apple of his father’s eye – in fact; he was the apple of everybody’s eye!

Ben knew as soon as he saw Adam that his fears were about to be realized. He froze in his tracks almost afraid to speak.

“Adam, what is it? What’s happened? Where is Joseph?” Ben finally asked, fear clutching his heart.

Adam looked at his father and tried to speak but couldn’t. The shock of what had happened suddenly overwhelmed him. He felt the color drain from his face and was dizzy. The room began to waver as he stumbled towards the couch. He would have fallen if his father hadn’t caught him.

“Adam? Adam, are you all right son? What’s wrong?” Ben begged his son for answers as he lowered him to the couch.

Adam closed his eyes and took a deep breath trying to get control of his emotions. “Pa” he started, turning to look his father in the eye. “Pa, its Little Joe. Someone-someone…” Adam took another deep breath, wishing he had to tell his father anything but this.

“Someone what, Adam? Please son, tell me!” Ben was scared now. He knew something had happened to his baby and his heart was in his throat as he waited for Adam to answer.

“Pa, someone took Little Joe from the schoolhouse. Miss Breckenridge was beaten and tied up. I found her when I went to pick Joe up after school. She said three men with hoods and guns came in and took him.” Now that he had started talking, Adam couldn’t seem to stop. “Pa, Sheriff Coffee has already organized a posse. I came to get a fresh horse and some men and tell you what happened. I told the Sheriff we would meet him at the school.”

Ben had paled dramatically at Adam’s announcement. “Adam, did…. Did Miss Breckenridge say if they had – had hurt him?” Ben’s voice was hardly above a whisper.

“She didn’t know, Pa. They knocked her out before they took him. She only remembered him screaming for help.” Tears filled Adams eyes as he looked at his father.

“Did- did they say why they were taking him? Did she recognize their voices?”

“No, Sir. Miss Breckenridge said they never said a word the whole time they were there. They walked in and just…” Adam lowered his voice to a whisper and finished “took him.”

“NOOOOO!”

Ben and Adam jumped at the sound of Hoss’ scream. They both ran up the stairs to where Hoss was sitting on the floor with tears running down his face. Ben got down on one knee and hugged Hoss to his chest and trying to hold his own tears back, whispered, “It’s alright Hoss. We’re gonna get him back. He’ll be fine, you’ll see.” Adam prayed with all his might that his father was right.

“Pa, I’m sorry – it’s all my fault. I should have gone to school with him, protected him…” Hoss sobbed.

Ben’s heart broke for his son. Hoss had always protected his little brother and Ben knew he was feeling guilty. He put his hands on Hoss’ shoulders and looked him in the eye, “Hoss, it’s not your fault, son.” He looked up at Adam, knowing he was feeling guilty as well. “It’s not Adam’s fault, not my fault and not Miss Breckenridge’s fault. It’s the people who took him – it’s their fault. But, I promise you we’ll get him back and the people who took him will pay.”

Once they calmed him down, Hoss had begged to be allowed to go with the posse, but Ben told him they needed him to stay home in case there was a ransom note. He also didn’t want Hoss out in the weather – it was getting colder and Hoss was already sick, Ben didn’t want him coming down with pneumonia. Hoss had not been happy about the decision, but reluctantly agreed.

“Please God, please let them find my little brother safe and sound. Please bring him back to us. We can’t live without him, Lord, we just can’t. Please….” Hoss prayed as he watched his father and brother ride out to search for Little Joe, tears streaming down his face. When Ben and his men arrived at the Virginia City schoolhouse, Sheriff Coffee and his posse were looking around for tracks and any evidence inside the schoolhouse. As they rode into the schoolyard, Roy turned to greet them, his face full of worry.

“Ben, Adam, I promise you we’ll find out who did this and get that boy back home where he belongs.”

“Thank you Roy.” Ben said, then asked, “Have you found anything that would tell you what happened to my boy?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. There were no clues at all inside the schoolhouse and Miss Breckenridge couldn’t tell us much other than two of the men was about medium build and the third was a big man. They all wore hoods over their faces. Strangest thing though, they never said a word – not one word – I can’t figure it Ben.” The sheriff shook his head in amazement. “Anyway, Charlie has picked up some tracks, but there are four sets so we’re assuming that a fourth person was waiting outside.

Adam looked up at the darkening sky and frowned. “We better get a move on – looks like rain clouds moving in.”

Ben and Roy both looked toward the sky as Adam spoke. Time was of the essence now. They had to find something before the rains came or they may never get Little Joe back.

“Let’s ride and may God help the people who took my boy when I get my hands on them.” Ben said, his voice dark and cold, his dark eyes promising to make good on the threat.

*****

After being carried out of the schoolhouse kicking and screaming, Little Joe was put on a horse in front of a fourth person, who was also wearing a hood. This person, like the other three, never spoke a word.

As he started to kick again, the kidnapper put a strong arm around Little Joe and squeezed. He then pulled a small bottle out of his pocket, opened it and poured a little of the liquid on his bandana. He then placed the bandana over Little Joe’s mouth and nose. The little boy struggled for a few seconds before being swallowed up by darkness.

The four kidnappers and one small boy rode steadily for two hours until they came upon an old cabin concealed behind a stand of huge Ponderosa pines. One of the riders took Little Joe off the horse, carried him into the cabin and laid him on a small cot set up in the corner of the room. The man then took a piece of rope from under the cot and began tying Little Joe’s hands behind his back. He found another piece and tied the little boy’s feet together. Next, he took off his bandana and placed it over Little Joe’s eyes, making sure the child wouldn’t be able to see when he returned to consciousness. Finally satisfied, he went outside to help his cronies with the horses.

A few minutes later, Little Joe woke up terrified. He couldn’t move and he couldn’t see. His head was fuzzy and he felt sick to his stomach. It took him a little while to realize he was tied up and blindfolded. He listened for voices or any other sounds. Hearing none, he decided he was alone and tried with all the might a five year old could muster to free himself, but, it was no use – he was just not strong enough to break his bonds. Tears filled his blindfolded eyes as he wished with all his heart his Papa and brothers would come and take him home. Who were these bad people and why did they want him? Where was he and why was he alone? Had they just left him here to die? The more he thought about it, the more scared he became. Exhausted from trying to undo his bonds and the lingering effects of the chloroform, he lay back and fell into a troubled sleep.

*****

The posse had only been on the trail of the kidnappers for little more than an hour before the skies opened up and they were pelted with ice cold raindrops. With each drop of rain, Ben’s hopes of finding his son faded a little. He knew they would have to hurry before the tracks were washed away by the rain and urged his horse forward, picking up the pace of the posse. It would be dark soon and the rain was going to be a major hindrance, but Ben vowed not to give up looking for his son until Little Joe was safe in his arms.

As Adam rode, he thought about Mishayla Breckenridge’s story. He was certain she was hiding something, but couldn’t figure out what it could be. He wondered briefly if she were somehow involved, however he quickly dismissed that idea as he remembered how she had been injured. Who could have taken his little brother and why? His father had a few enemies, but none that would go so far as kidnapping.

Adam glanced at his father, worry written all over his face. What would happen to his father if they lost Little Joe? To his father and brothers, Little Joe was like a ray of sunshine on a cold cloudy day. Fear again gripped his heart. It had only been a few months ago that they had lost Marie, Little Joe’s mother. Ben had withdrawn into a deep depression that threatened to consume him forever. He only came out of it when Little Joe’s safety was in question. If they lost the precocious child now, Adam knew they would also lose his father. The world as they knew it would never be the same again and Adam was terrified at the thought.

“NO!” he chided himself. “I can’t think like that – we WILL find Little Joe safe and sound! I won’t accept anything less!”

Taking a deep breath to regain control of his emotions, Adam again focused on the area surrounding him looking, hoping, and praying for a clue -any clue – that would lead them to Little Joe.

*****

In Virginia City, Mishayla Breckenridge was angry as she saddled a horse. Angry that Little Joe Cartwright had been kidnapped, angry that she had been physically hurt, but, most of all, angry that she had been used. After leaving Doctor Martin’s office, she had gone to the boarding house where she was living. Only when she was safely within the confines of her room, did she reach into the waistband of her skirt and pull out the piece of paper. As she suspected it was from the kidnappers. She read the note, growing angrier at each word, her blue eyes blazing with rage. When she caught up with the kidnappers there would be hell to pay. She would make them wish they’d never heard of Virginia City. She quickly mounted her horse and headed out of town, determination written all over her pretty face. Her destination: the Ponderosa. She pulled her horse up about one half mile from the house.

She dismounted, tied the horse securely to a tree, and then made her way silently toward the house. She hid beside the barn for a few minutes, making sure no one was around. She then stole up to the door and slid a piece of paper under it. Quickly and quietly she ran back to her horse and headed to town to wait for the visit she knew would come. As she rode, she remembered the last time she had seen the blue eyes behind the hooded mask.

*****

It had been less than a year ago that she had been living with her parents, Mac and Martha, and her twin brother, McKenna, on a 200-acre farm in Ohio. Her father didn’t want her out working in the fields, so Mishayla had accepted an offer to teach in a small school in the nearby town of Oxford. Mac and McKenna worked the farm all day and Martha kept busy around the house and in her vegetable garden. They had a good life, good friends and good neighbors with one exception: The Taft family.

Carlton Taft, the wealthiest men in Ohio, wanted the Breckenridge farm and would stop at nothing to get it. Taft had inside information telling him a new railroad track would be coming straight through the Breckenridge property and Taft knew the railroad would pay a small fortune for that land. He tried to buy it, offering Mac less than half of what the land was worth. Although he only had enough ready cash for one more payment on the property, Mac refused the offer and told Taft to stay away from his farm. Mac’s crops had done well and he knew in a few more weeks, he would be reaping the harvest and could continue making payments on the land. He only had five more payments and the farm was his. Taft had sworn he would have that farm and nothing would stand in his way.

Two weeks after Taft’s visit, while Mishayla and McKenna were in town, several men rode onto the Breckenridge farm, lead by Taft’s son, Shaynne. When Mac again refused the offer to buy his farm, Shaynne had ordered his men to set the barn on fire. Mac tried to stop him and was rewarded by a bullet in his chest, his life force leaving his body before he hit the ground. Martha had tried to escape, but, not wanting to leave any witnesses behind, Shaynne had killed her as well. The bodies were then placed in the house, which was burned to the ground.

When Mishayla and McKenna returned home, all they found was the dying embers of what was once their home. The barn had been burned and all the animals inside had perished. The crops in the field were also burned. McKenna and Mishayla were devastated – they had lost everything. McKenna had gone to the sheriff, but was told nothing could be done, as there were no witnesses. Taft had offered McKenna half of what he offered Mac for the farm. McKenna knew he would lose the farm anyway and had accepted the money, but had sworn vengeance.

McKenna was joined by three of his cousins in his quest for revenge. The cousins, Dylan, Colin and Taylor Breckenridge, had also had run-ins with Carlton and Shaynne Taft and had lost their farm to fire – and Taft – as well. Jessica Breckenridge had been visiting neighbors when her family’s farm was burned, but her husband, and Mac’s brother, Martin, had been killed along with the two youngest children.

Five-year-old twins Sabrina and Savannah were asleep in the house when Sabrina was awakened by the sound of guns discharging outside the house. Although the little girl tried, the fire spread so quickly she was unable to escape the roaring inferno. Savannah had never awakened from her nap. The Breckenridge family had lost everything they owned to Taft. Jessica was so grief stricken she suffered a heart attack and died a week after her husband and daughters were buried.

The Breckenridge cousins thought long and hard about how they would get their revenge. Finally, Taylor suggested they kidnap Shaynne Taft’s six-year-old son, Ricky and hold him for ransom. That way, not only would they get back the money they felt Taft stole from them, but also Taft and his family would feel the pain of losing a child. The other three readily agreed and they began to plan how they would obtain the child.

Suddenly, McKenna remembered Ricky was a student at Mishayla’s school. After much discussion, and only after her brother and cousins promised no harm would come to the child and that he would be returned to his family, Mishayla finally relented and became part of their “gang”. Her job would be to keep Ricky after school for some minor infraction, which would be easy since the freckle faced red headed child was well on his way to becoming a challenge for any teacher.

Ricky was the only son of Shaynne and Sophie Taft and the only grandchild of Carlton and Bertha Taft. As such, he was spoiled rotten and expected to get his way on every occasion. Mishayla had never kept him after school before simply because she didn’t want to see the Taft family any more than she had to. But, this time she would – she found herself wanting revenge almost as much as her brother and cousins.

Two days later, after the other children had left school for the day, Mishayla and Ricky Taft were alone in the schoolhouse. Ricky was angry – very angry. His green eyes flashing, he informed the young teacher that she was going to be in big trouble when his father and grandfather found out she kept him after school. Mishayla didn’t say anything, she just wished her brother and cousins would hurry up and get the brat.

Suddenly, she heard the door open and looked up to see three men dressed all in black. Their faces were covered with hoods and the only part of their bodies that was exposed was their eyes. It only took one look into the ice blue eyes of the tallest man for Mishayla to know it was McKenna. No one spoke a word. Dylan grabbed Ricky, putting a cloth over his nose and mouth. Ricky struggled for a few seconds before succumbing to the chloroform. After he was sure the child was unconscious, McKenna told Mishayla he was going to tie her up – that way no one would suspect she was in any way involved in the kidnapping.

Mishayla had agreed her heart in her throat.

Less than 30 minutes after the Breckenridge cousins left the schoolhouse with their captive, Shaynne Taft showed up to collect his son. He marched into the schoolhouse threatening Mishayla – telling her she would never teach in the state of Ohio again. Once inside he stopped his tirade mid-sentence – no one was there. He looked around and called out his son’s name. No answer. He moved up to the deck in front of the room. It was then he heard a noise coming from underneath the desk. It was Mishayla, her hands and feet tied and a gag in her mouth. He quickly untied her and demanded to know where Ricky was – she hurriedly told him about the kidnapping. Mishayla had done a very good job of convincing Shaynne that she had no idea who had kidnapped his son. The only thing she was able to tell him with certainty was that 3 men were involved and they had headed west out of town toward the Ohio -Indiana boarder. Shaynne believed her because she looked terrified, shaking from head to toe. She was on the brink of fainting dead away. Mishayla WAS terrified – what if this man figured out what had happened? What would he do to her? To her brother? Her cousins? Shaynne took her to the sheriff’s office to tell her story. After she gave them the few details, the sheriff and Shaynne had left her in order to form a posse.

Mishayla waited until the sheriff’s office was empty. Making sure she wasn’t seen, she left the ransom note that Colin had given her when they took Ricky. She then went to her room in the boarding house and tried to calm herself-finally falling asleep. Several hours later, she was awakened by a loud knock on her door. It was the sheriff and Shaynne Taft. They explained that a ransom note had been delivered and the instructions in the note said that Mishayla was to bring the $100,000 ransom to a crossing 8 miles south of town and she was to come alone. Mishayla didn’t have to pretend to be shocked, she hadn’t read the note Colin wrote and no one had mentioned this little detail to her. She had no choice but to agree and Shaynne left to get the money together.

Mishayla rode out of town with the money. She was angry and more than a little scared. What if they got caught – then what? Taft would make sure they were all hanged. When she got to the place where she was supposed to leave the money, Mishayla looked around – she could feel that McKenna was close by. A few minutes later he emerged from behind a large bush. She had asked where Ricky was and if he was hurt. McKenna had assured her that Ricky was fine and that she was to deliver him to his family. The little boy had been kept locked in a dark room – having never seen or heard his kidnappers. They felt safe in letting him return home, knowing he couldn’t tell the law anything that might implicate them. Dylan carried the child from behind the bushes. He was unconscious – chloroformed to keep him quiet until Mishayla could get him home.

Mishayla had given her brother the money, put Ricky in front of her on her horse and returned him to his family. The Taft family, while extremely relieved to get Ricky back unharmed, did not quite believe Mishayla’s story. There was no evidence of her involvement or her family’s involvement for that matter, so the Taft family couldn’t do anything. Not believing they had pulled it off, the male members of the Breckenridge gang decided to take the money and run. Mishayla, unable to face the Taft family any longer, followed the boys to Denver. She left Denver soon after, going on to Virginia City alone. She hadn’t seen McKenna since Denver. Until today.

*****

“I’m sorry Ben, but we’re gonna have to go back. The tracks are all gone and they could have taken off in any direction. It’s getting dark and the rain is getting harder. I hate to say it Ben, but we aren’t gonna be able to find anything in this storm.” Roy Coffee hated to give up the search, but he knew it would be useless to wander around in the dark.

“I know Roy, but I can’t just quit. I have to find my boy. He’s out there somewhere and he’s alone and probably terrified. I can’t just give up on him.” Ben was having a hard time controlling his emotions. No one moved as they waited for Ben to make the decision – should they continue the search or abandon it? As they waited, they heard a horse coming. All heads turned as they heard someone yelling. “Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!”

It was Sam, one of the Ponderosa ranch hands. He had been in Carson City when Little Joe was taken. Upon his return to the Ponderosa, he was met by Hop Sing and Hoss. Hoss quickly explained what had happened and handed Sam a piece of paper, telling him to get it to Ben as quickly as possible. Sam handed that same piece of paper to Ben now explaining.

“Someone slipped this under the door at the Ponderosa. Hoss told me to get it to you right away, sir.”

“Thank you Sam,” Ben said as he took the paper. He read it silently, his face paling a little more at each word. He then read it out loud:

We have your son Joseph. He has not been harmed and will not be if you follow these instructions to the letter. 

Get $50,000 dollars in small bills. Put the money in plain brown saddlebags and give them to the schoolteacher. She is to bring the money to the foot of Eagles Nest at noon tomorrow. She is to come alone – we will be watching. If we see anyone other than the teacher, your son will be killed.

 

As Ben finished reading the note, the silence around him was deafening. Finally, Adam couldn’t stand it any longer.

“What are we going to do, Pa?”

“We’re going to do exactly as they say. If they are at Eagles Nest, they can see for miles in all directions. Let’s get back into town. I need to get the money ready and find out if Miss Breckenridge will deliver the ransom for us.”

No one spoke as they all mounted their horses and as quickly as possible, headed back to Virginia City. For the first time since learning his son was missing, Ben Cartwright had a glimmer of hope. He prayed all the way to Virginia City that Little Joe was safe and would be returned to his family soon.

*****

“Colin, why did you only ask $50,000 for the Cartwright kid?” asked Taylor Breckenridge. “I hear his old man is worth a whole lot more than that.”

“We only gave him a few hours to get the money together. I figure a bank this far out in the boonies probably wouldn’t have more than $50,000,” answered Colin with a shrug.

Colin glanced over at McKenna who was pacing up and down the small porch of the cabin. McKenna was running his fingers through his blond curls, a look of pure concentration on his face.

“McKenna, something wrong?” Colin asked his cousin. “You know, there’s no way a posse could follow us in this storm. It started raining a few minutes after we left Virginia City – there are no tracks. We’re safe here.”

McKenna stopped pacing and took a deep breath. He looked at Colin, worry in his blue eyes.

“No, nothing wrong. I know they can’t follow us. It’s just, well, I just wish we’d had time to fill Mishayla in on our little plan. I sure hope she goes along with us. If she doesn’t, we could be in deep trouble.”

“Oh, come on McKenna,” snorted Taylor. “When has Mishayla ever failed to come through for you? She would walk on water if that’s what it took to help you. You know that.”

“I guess,” sighed McKenna. “It’s just that when we saw her in Denver, she made it clear that she didn’t want to be involved in any more of our jobs. The Taft kidnapping scared the devil out of her. No, I don’t think she’ll turn us in, but she’s gonna be madder than hell.” He grinned in spite of himself.

Taylor and Colin returned the grin. They had seen Mishayla lose her temper and knew she was a force to be reckoned with when she was angry.

Just then, Dylan came out of the cabin. He ran his hands through his blond hair, yawning. He sat down on the edge of the porch, just out of the rain, stretched out his long legs and rubbed his blue eyes. “How’s the kid?” asked McKenna, nodding towards the cabin.

“Oh, he’s just fine. I fed him and gave him some water to drink. He didn’t want me to feed him – said he wasn’t a baby anymore. He’s a tough little customer. Told me when his Daddy and brothers caught up with us, we were gonna be put in jail for a long time,” laughed Dylan. The other three laughed with Dylan. This kid wasn’t like the Taft kid – that one had cried the whole time. No, this little guy was gutsy and the four cousins had to respect him for that.

“Well, make sure he doesn’t see us or hear us,” said McKenna. “I kinda like the kid and don’t want him hurt. If he sees us, though, we’ll have to get rid of him.”

Inside the cabin, Little Joe was trying to figure out how he could get away. He had finally started to loosen the ropes when one of the kidnappers had come in to check on him. After feeding him and giving him water to drink, the kidnapper had checked the ropes and tightened them. He then checked the blindfold to make sure it was secure.

“What are you going to do with me?” Little Joe demanded. He was scared, but he wasn’t about to let his kidnappers know it.

No answer.

Little Joe knew someone was there. Why wouldn’t he answer his question?

“Please, please tell me what you want from me,” the little boy begged, on the verge of tears.

Silence. Then the sound of footsteps going across the floor. Little Joe heard the door open and sensed the man had left the room. He sighed and as the tears began to fall, again wished his father and brothers would hurry and come for him. He felt so lost and alone.

*****

Mishayla was not surprised when she heard a knock at her door. She knew they’d be coming and was glad this whole episode would be over soon. She opened the door, and as expected, found Sheriff Coffee and Ben Cartwright standing in the hall.

“Sheriff Coffee, Mr. Cartwright, did you find Little Joe?” she asked, knowing full well they hadn’t.

“No, Miss Breckenridge, we didn’t. We’d like to talk to you a minute if you don’t mind,” Roy said.

“Certainly, come on in. Mr. Cartwright, I’m so sorry about Little Joe. I wish I could have stopped them, but they took me completely by surprise,” she said truthfully looking into Ben’s dark eyes.

“Miss Breckenridge, I know you would have helped my son if you could have. It wasn’t your fault,” Ben assured her. She flinched at his words, feeling a pang of guilt in her heart.

She turned her back to the men as she walked toward a chair. She turned back to them, seated herself, and although she knew exactly what they wanted, asked, “What can I do for you?”

“Well, Ma’am. We’ve received a ransom note for Little Joe,” he began.

“Why, that’s good news! Then he’s all right! That’s wonderful, Mr. Cartwright!” She had hoped McKenna and the others had not hurt Little Joe, but after they had struck her when they took him, she wasn’t sure anymore. No one had ever raised a hand to her – not even her father.

“Miss Breckenridge, the kidnappers want you to deliver the ransom. I know I have no right to ask you to endanger yourself, but Ma’am, they say if you don’t bring the money alone, they will kill my son.” Ben’s dark eyes begged her to help him.

She looked into those eyes and was consumed with guilt. She turned away from Ben, unable to look him in the eye any longer. Slowly, Mishayla stood up and walked to the window. She wanted to tell Ben where his son was and who had him, but couldn’t bring herself to turn in her brother and cousins. After a few minutes, she turned back to Ben and Roy. She looked at Ben and said, “What do you want me to do?”

Ben let out the breath he didn’t even realize he was holding. He handed her the note and waited patiently as she read it. “My son Adam is getting the money together as we speak. You’ll need to leave within the next half hour in order to get there in time.” Ben walked over to her and took both her hands in his. “Miss Breckenridge, are you sure you want to do this? It could be dangerous.”

She smiled at him. “Yes sir, I’m sure. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine and we’ll have your son home in time for dinner.”

“Thank you Ma’am.” Ben said in a husky voice.

“Ahem, Ben, Miss Breckenridge. We need to get going. Ma’am, we’ll get you a horse saddled and have in out in front of the boarding house in about fifteen minutes,” said Roy.

“I’m going over to the bank and make sure the ransom money is ready to go. I’ll be back in a few minutes. And Ma’am, thank you again.” Mishayla smiled at him. “It’s the least I can do, Mr. Cartwright.” After Ben and Roy left, Mishayla sat down on the bed trying to pull herself together. She hated that her family was responsible for the pain Ben and his other sons were experiencing. She had heard nothing but good things about the Cartwrights and felt badly that McKenna had chosen to take Little Joe. She took a deep breath and began to change into clothes that would be more conducive to riding a horse.

True to his word, fifteen minutes later Roy Coffee was in front of the boarding house with a horse for Mishayla. She glanced out the window and saw Ben and Adam leaving the bank and crossing the street to meet Roy. She grabbed her rain slicker and headed out to begin her journey.

After being thanked again by Ben and then Adam for helping them, Mishayla was glad to be on her way. The longer she was around the Cartwrights, the more guilt she felt. McKenna was going to have a lot of explaining to do – as was Dylan – she was sure he was the one who had backhanded her, causing her fall. Yes, her brother and cousin had a lot of explaining to do. She had told McKenna she didn’t want to ever be involved in any more unlawful acts. She knew they were lucky they didn’t get caught when they kidnapped Ricky  Taft. The last time Mishayla had seen them, McKenna, Dylan, Colin and Taylor had been working on a ranch outside Denver. All four seemed to enjoy the work they were doing and had not been in trouble with the law for anything. She wondered what had happened to cause them to go back outside the law.

Mishayla followed the instructions on the note and reached the drop off point at the predetermined time. She waited; knowing McKenna was watching and would wait until he was sure she wasn’t being followed to show himself. After a few minutes, her patience paid off. McKenna stepped out from between two large boulders.

“Hi, ‘Shayla.  How ya been?” McKenna asked, knowing his sister was going to let him have it with both barrels.

“McKenna Breckenridge, I am so angry with you right now! How could you do this to me? I have a job I love and am finally happy for the first time since Mama and Daddy were killed and you have to come along and ruin it all! Why, McKenna, why?” Mishayla was livid, her blue eyes burning with anger.

McKenna had lowered his head as his sister started her tirade. He had anticipated her anger and let her vent, saying nothing until she finished.

“I’m sorry ‘Shayla. We were in Carson City and heard some women in the mercantile talking about the new teacher in Virginia City. Adam Cartwright was there and he said he felt sorry for the teacher having to try and teach his little brothers. We knew they were talking about you when Cartwright described your eyes. He said his little brother called them “blue ice crystals”. When we heard the Cartwrights were filthy rich, we decided to take the kid, just like the Taft kid. We didn’t have time to alert you to the plan. I’m glad you understood ‘Shayla”. McKenna smiled at his sister nervously. He hoped she would just give him the money, he’d give her the kid and it would all be over.

Mishayla glared at McKenna. Although she was very angry with her brother, she couldn’t help but smile. He was after all her twin brother.

“Well, I have the money. Give me Little Joe and let’s get this over with,” she said. “What are you going to do now – or shouldn’t I ask?” She had already decided not to ask about why they left Denver. The less she knew, the better off she’d be.

“Don’t worry ‘Shayla, we’re done with kidnapping. We are going to Texas and buy a ranch.” He thought for a minute, then added. “Mishayla, why don’t you come with us? I miss you and we would have a good life in Texas.”

“I can’t. That money is not ours and I would not be happy spending it. I like Virginia City, McKenna, and I like my job. Please, just let me have Little Joe and you and the boys go on to Texas. Don’t wait around too long before you leave. I have a feeling Mr. Cartwright has a posse ready and waiting. As soon as I show up with his son, he’s going to send them out looking for you.”

“Don’t worry, we’re not hanging around.” He looked back and called for Dylan to bring Little Joe. Dylan appeared between the same boulders McKenna had come through. He was carrying an unconscious Little Joe wrapped in a warm blanket.

“Hi Mishayla,” he greeted his cousin. “The kid is fine. I used some chloroform on him, but he’ll be ok in a while. Ah, Mishayla, I-uh-I’m sorry for hittin’ ya. I was afraid you’d say something while the kid was still conscious. I’m really sorry ‘Shayla.” Dylan looked down at his boots waiting for Mishayla to say something. He glanced over at McKenna and nodded his head towards Mishayla, indicating that his cousin should apologize as well. McKenna took the hint.

“Me too, Mishayla.” McKenna said sincerely. “I’m really very sorry.”

Mishayla looked at her brother and cousin. She let them squirm a minute or so before smiling and letting them off the hook.

“Just don’t let it ever happen again. Now, give me Little Joe so I can get out of here.”

Dylan handed Little Joe up to Mishayla. She positioned the little boy so he would be as comfortable as possible. Glancing first at McKenna and then Dylan, she said, “I’m going to take him home now. You boys better get out of here while the rain will cover your tracks.”

“Take care Mishayla. If you change your mind, we’ll be in El Paso. And, Mishayla, be happy.” McKenna lifted his sisters’ hand and kissed it. Tears filled his eyes. For some reason he feared he would never see his beautiful sister again.

Mishayla smiled at McKenna, leaned down and kissed the top of his blond head. Waving to McKenna and Dylan, she turned the horse and headed towards Virginia City, hugging five year old Joseph Cartwright tightly, thanking God he was safe.

It was nearly 4 o’clock before Mishayla returned to Virginia City. Adam was the first to see them coming and his heart flip flopped when he saw she was holding what he hoped was his little brother in a blanket. He ran toward Sheriff Coffee’s office where his father was nervously pacing back and forth across the floor. Ben jumped when Adam flung the door open.

“Pa! Pa! She’s coming and I think she’s got Little Joe with her!” Adam’s voice was shaking – a mixture of fear and excitement.

Ben, Roy and Adam all ran toward the edge of town. Mishayla stopped her horse and lifted the little boy down to his father. Little Joe was just coming out of his drug-induced sleep and was very confused. His head was buzzing and he felt sick. He opened his eyes and saw the fuzzy image of his father’s face.

“Papa?” he asked his voice hardly audible.

“It’s alright now, Little Joe. Your Papa’s here and you’re gonna be fine.” Ben hugged his small son tightly. Adam reached over and ruffled his little brother’s curls.

“Hi ya kid. How ya doin’?” Adam asked, struggling to keep the tears that were threatening to overcome him at bay.

“Hi Adam. My head hurts and I think I’m gonna be sick,” his little brother answered quietly.

“Let’s get him over to Doctor Martin.” Ben wrapped the blanket tighter around Little Joe and turned to leave. He stopped, turned back to Mishayla and said, “Thank you Miss Breckenridge, thank you for returning my boy to me.”

Tears filled Mishayla’s eyes and she couldn’t find her voice, so she just smiled at Ben.

“I want to thank you too, Ma’am. I don’t think we could have survived if anything had happened to Little Joe,” Adam said sincerely. Then he smiled and added, “I know the kid can be a brat sometimes, but I promise you, no other child is loved as much as that one. Thank you – you not only saved my little brothers life, but you saved my whole family.”

Mishayla smiled at Adam, still not able to speak. Adam turned and ran toward Doctor Martin’s office. Just as he reached the door, he saw Hoss riding into town. Hoss saw him and pulled his horse up.

“Adam, did you get him back?” Hoss asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“Yes, Hoss, we got him and he’s gonna be fine. Doctor Martin is looking at him now. Come on, let’s get you inside before you get pneumonia.”

Hoss smiled. He felt better than he had in days. His little brother was safe that was all that was important.

After removing the wet blanket and his wet clothes, Little Joe was subjected to a full physical exam by Doctor Martin. He answered all the doctors’ questions wishing he would hurry up. He was so sleepy he could hardly keep his eyes open. Finally, Doctor Martin pulled the warm covers up to Little Joe’s chin. The little boy looked up at his father.

“Papa, can I go back to sleep now? My head hurts.” Little Joe asked his father. He was still suffering from the effects of the drug and did not remember the events of the past couple of days yet. All he wanted was to sleep.

Ben looked at Dr. Martin and smiled as Dr. Martin nodded his approval. Ben turned back to Little Joe and quietly said, “Sure, son. You can go to sleep now.”

“Thanks, Papa” Little Joe mumbled and snuggling down in the warm quilts, let sleep take him.

Ben turned to Doctor Martin again. “Paul, are you sure he’s alright?” Ben asked, still worried. Little Joe hadn’t looked any worse for wear, but Ben was concerned that he was so sleepy.

“He’ll be fine Ben. He’s just feeling the effects of the chloroform. As soon as it wears off, he’ll be as active as ever. He seems to have been taken care of very well. There are no signs of physical abuse or of being denied food or water. I’ll check him again when he wakes up, but I really think he’s going to be fine.”

Ben thanked the doctor, relief evident in his voice. Adam walked up behind his father. “Pa, what are we going to do about the kidnappers? Are we going to go after them?” He asked.

Ben closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. After a few minutes, he finally answered Adam’s question.

“I don’t think we could ever find them, Adam. Unless Little Joe can give us some more information, we have no idea who we are looking for or in which direction to search. The most important thing is that your brother is home safe and sound. We’ll wait until he can tell us what happened, then we’ll decide what to do next.”

That was not the answer Adam had hoped for. He was very angry with the men who had caused his family such pain and wanted them to pay for their crime. But, he had to respect his father’s decision – for now.

*****

“Damn! I knew it!” said Shaynne Taft, bursting through the door of the hotel room, his green eyes blazing with anger. He threw a copy of the Denver newspaper on the table in front of his father. Carlton and Shaynne were in Denver on business when Shaynne had noticed a story in the paper that was strangely familiar. He had hurried to the hotel to show it to his father.

“You knew what?” asked Carlton, confused.

“Read this.” Shaynne pointed to a story on the first page of the paper. The headline read “Cartwright Boy Returned Unharmed in Virginia City.”

Carlton picked up the paper and quickly scanned the article. He gasped in surprise.

“You WERE right!” he exclaimed. “Damn those Breckenridge boys!”

“Not only the boys, Pa.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the story says that the local school teacher was the one who delivered the ransom and returned the boy.”

“So?” Carlton wondered where his son was going with this line of thinking.

“Pa, don’t you see? It has to be Mishayla! The paper said the teacher didn’t want her name printed! Now, why would she do that if she didn’t have something to hide?”

Carlton thought about that for a minute. He stood up, pacing around the room, rubbing his hand through his graying red hair. Finally, he stopped and turning to Shaynne said, “Go to the stage depot and get us tickets. We’re going to Virginia City. If it is Mishayla Breckenridge, we might have enough evidence to finally have those boys arrested.”

“I’ve already got tickets”, said Shaynne holding them up for his father to see. We leave on the 6:00 stage tonight.”

*****

“You are crazy!” Dylan looked at his cousin in amazement. “We can’t go back to Virginia City!” The four cousins were about forty miles out of Virginia City when McKenna had suddenly announced that he was going back. His three cousins were astounded at the idea and were trying to talk him out of it.

“Why not?” asked McKenna. “No one saw us. The kid was blindfolded and drugged. He can’t finger us and Mishayla sure isn’t going to turn us in. What could go wrong?”

“Why do you want to go back?” asked Colin. He too, thought his cousin had taken leave of his senses.

“I’ve got to talk to Mishayla. We shouldn’t have used her like we did and I’ve got to make things right with her. I can’t be happy until I do. Why don’t you boys go on to Texas and I’ll catch up with you later.”

Taylor studied his cousin carefully. He knew McKenna’s mind was made up, but he didn’t like the idea of staying in Virginia City any longer than absolutely necessary. He looked to Dylan and Colin. Dylan nodded his head and Colin shrugged his shoulders. Taylor looked back to McKenna.

“McKenna, are you sure?” asked Taylor, not wanting to leave his cousin. “Don’t you think your pushing your luck just a little hanging around Virginia City? I know Mishayla is probably mad at us, but she won’t hold a grudge. Besides, she already accepted your apology. C’mon to Texas with us. You can write her later. She wouldn’t want you taking such a chance.”

“No, I’m sorry, this is something I have to do. I don’t know why, but I just HAVE to. You go on ahead and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.”

McKenna’s cousins looked at one another and silently agreed. “Alright, we’ll go on ahead. But, McKenna, you be careful.” Said Taylor, reaching out to shake hands with his cousin.

Dylan and Colin also shook hands with McKenna.

“We’ll be waiting for you in El Paso, Cousin,” said Dylan. McKenna nodded his head.

“I’ll be there ‘fore you know it.” He smiled. He turned to Colin and put his arm around his shoulders. “You take care of your big brothers, Colin. Don’t let them get in any trouble, ya hear?” said McKenna.

Colin smiled, “I’ll take care of them. You just make sure you don’t get yourself in any trouble, Cousin.”

The four men mounted their horses. McKenna started back toward Virginia City while his cousins headed towards Texas. None of them realized this was the last time they would be together.

*****

“Well young man, how do you feel this morning?” Dr. Martin asked as he entered Little Joe’s bedroom.

“I’m fine sir. Papa said I had to wait until you came before I could get out of bed. Can I get up now? I’m tired of laying here. It’s boring,” the little boy complained.

Dr. Martin smiled at Ben. “Sounds like he’s back to normal.” He turned his attention back to his young patient. “Let me check you over first, then we’ll see,” he answered.

Adam and Hoss both hovered in the doorway anxious to hear what the doctor had to say. Both had spent the morning with Little Joe, reading stories to him and playing checkers. Adam had wanted to question him about the kidnapping but Ben wouldn’t let him. Sheriff Coffee was coming out later in the morning to talk to Little Joe and Ben didn’t want him subjected to questioning more than once.

Dr. Martin checked Little Joe over carefully and after a few minutes pronounced him physically fit.

“Does that mean I can get up now?” asked Little Joe hopefully.

“Well, I think it would be alright, but I don’t want you out of the house yet,” answered Dr. Martin.

Joe wasn’t happy about having to stay in, but he didn’t argue. At least Dr. Martin was letting him get out of bed.

Dr. Martin turned to Ben smiling. “Ben, I think he’ll be just fine. There doesn’t seem to be any lingering effects from the chloroform. However, I do want to be present when Sheriff Coffee questions him.”

“Thank you, Paul. I was hoping you would agree to stay. I’m worried about how he will react when he’s forced to talk about what happened.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door.

“I’ll get it, Pa,” said Adam as he left Joe’s room.

Adam bounded down the stairs and to the front door. He opened it to find Roy Coffee standing there.

“Hello, Sheriff Coffee. Come on in.” Said Adam, moving aside to allow the sheriff to enter.

“Thanks, Adam. How’s Little Joe?” He asked.

“The Doc is with him now. He seems to think Little Joe will be fine. Come on upstairs. We’ve been waiting for you.”

The two climbed the stairs and entered Little Joe’s bedroom.  “Well, hello there young man,” Roy said walking over to Little Joe’s bed, nodding hello to Ben and Paul. “You look fit as a fiddle. How do you feel?”

“I’m fine, Sir,” answered Little Joe. “Doctor Martin says I can get up now.”

“That’s just fine, son. Little Joe, I need to ask you a few questions. Is that alright with you?” Sheriff Coffee needed to question Little Joe, but didn’t want to upset him any more than necessary.

“Sure, Sheriff Coffee. What do you want to know?”

Ben and Dr. Martin both moved closer to Little Joe’s bed. Ben sat down on the bed next to Little Joe. He wanted to be close just in case. Dr. Martin leaned on the bedpost. Adam and Hoss moved to the foot of the bed. No one wanted to leave Little Joe. Sheriff Coffee sat in the chair next to Little Joe’s bed and leaned forward.

“Little Joe, I want you to tell me what happened at the schoolhouse the other day. Can you do that for me?” asked Roy.

At first Little Joe seemed puzzled by the question. He looked up at Roy, frowning. “What do you mean?” he asked.

Ben and Roy both looked up at Paul Martin, who shrugged his shoulders. No one had mentioned the kidnapping to Little Joe for fear of upsetting him. Now it seemed the child had no recollection of what had happened.

“Little Joe, do you remember staying after school with Miss Breckenridge a couple of days ago?” asked Ben, taking the little boy’s small hands in his much larger ones.

Little Joe scrunched his face up, trying to remember. Everyone in the room held their breath. Little Joe looked around the room at each man. His eyes came to rest on his father. “Papa, I don’t know. Why did I stay?” he asked in a confused voice.

“You had negle – uh- forgotten to do your homework and Miss Breckenridge kept you after school to do it. Do you remember that, son?”  Ben looked at Little Joe not sure if he really wanted his young son to remember the terror he must have felt being taken in such a manner.

Little Joe closed his eyes and leaned back against his pillows.  Suddenly, it all rushed back to him – staying after school, the men coming in, the cloth being placed over his face. He remembered being tied up and blindfolded. He also remembered being so scared and wishing someone would help him. The little boy’s body suddenly shuddered. He opened his eyes and looked around the room. He felt like he’d just awakened from a nightmare.

Ben looked from Little Joe to Doctor Martin, worry evident on his face. Little Joe had paled visibly as memories of the kidnapping flooded back to him and the little boy was trembling all over.

Roy tried again. “Little Joe, can you tell me what happened at the school house son?” he asked softly.

Little Joe looked at Roy. He moved his mouth, but no sounds came out. He closed his eyes as images of hooded men with guns filled his mind. Little Joe opened his eyes and tried again to speak.

“I’m – I’m sorry. I-I can’t…” Little Joe stopped talking and took a deep breath, his eyes filling with tears. He looked at his father and his face crumbled.

Ben immediately gathered his young son in his arms as the child began to sob, his small body trembling uncontrollably. Hoss and Adam looked at each other, a mix of worry for their young brother and anger at the people who had done this to him reflected in their eyes.

“It’s alright son. Shhhh. It’s alright”, he said as he rocked Little Joe back and forth. Little Joe just cried harder. Adam felt his anger escalate as he saw the turmoil his baby brother was going through. He silently vowed he wouldn’t rest until whoever has done this to Little Joe was caught. He glanced at Hoss and knew he was thinking the same thing.

“I think that’s enough for now Roy. You’ll have to come back later,” said Dr. Martin as he readied a shot for his young patient.

“Sure, Doc. Ben, I’m sorry….” Roy began.

“It’s alright Roy – I understand. Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Maybe by then he’ll be able to talk.” Ben continued to rock his youngest child, not looking up at Roy.

“Yeah, I’ll do that.”

Roy left the room, Adam and Hoss on his heels. As they reached the living room, Adam put his hand on Roy’s shoulder. Roy stopped walking and turned to face them.

“Sheriff Coffee, have you found any clues that might help explain what happened to my brother?” asked Adam.

“No, I’m sorry Adam. No one remembers seeing any strangers in town lately. There were no clues at all in the schoolhouse and Miss Breckenridge can’t add anything other than what she already told us. I’m sorry, boys, we just don’t have anything to go on.”

Hoss spoke up quickly, “You ain’t giving up are you Sheriff?” he asked.

“No, don’t worry about that Hoss. You know how much I think of that little boy. I won’t give up – I swear it,” Roy said, his jaw firmly set.

Adam and Hoss couldn’t help but smile at the determination on Roy’s face.

“Thanks, Sheriff, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Hoss said. “Is there anything me and Adam can do to help?” he added.

“Well, Hoss, I just don’t know. There are no tracks because of the rain and we lost them in an area where they could have gone in three different directions. Then again, it could be somebody walking the streets of Virginia City right now – I just don’t know. We sure don’t have anything to go on, but I’m not giving up – I promise you that.”

“Thanks again for all you’re doing Sheriff,” said Adam as he shook hands with Roy. As he opened the door, he added, “If you do hear anything, you’ll let us know?”

“You’ll be the first,” Roy promised.

After Roy Coffee left, Adam and Hoss stood together, each lost in his own thoughts. They looked up as they heard footsteps on the stairs and saw their father and Dr. Martin coming down.

“How is he, Doc?” Hoss asked anxiously.

“He’s sleeping now, Hoss.”

“Is he gonna be alright?” Adam asked, his dark eyes clouded with concern.

“I think so Adam, but we’ll just have to wait and see. He’s been through a very traumatic experience. We just have to give him some time.” answered Paul. He turned to Ben and added, “The sedative I’ve given him is pretty strong, so he’ll probably sleep the rest of the day and through the night. I’ll be back out tomorrow morning to check on him. Don’t worry, Ben. He’s a tough little character – he’ll do fine.”

“I sure hope so Paul.” Ben said to his friend, his face reflecting his worry.

“You and the boys get some rest. You all look worse than Little Joe!” Paul said lightly, smiling. He knew they hadn’t had much sleep in the last couple of days.

“We will. Thank you, Paul,” said Ben.

Doctor Martin looked at his old friend, knowing none of them would rest peacefully until they were sure the youngest Cartwright was all right.

“Good day then. If you need me, don’t hesitate to send for me,” said Paul.

Ben nodded his head and bid Paul good bye.

After the doctor left, Adam turned to his father. “Pa, why don’t you and Hoss get some sleep. I’ll sit with Little Joe,” he offered.

“I want to sit with him too, Pa,” Hoss added.

Ben smiled at his sons, his heart filled with pride. “Thank you, boys, but I think I want to stay with him for awhile. Tell you what, you two go get some sleep and I’ll come wake you in a few hours. You can take turns sitting with him. How’s that?” He knew Adam and Hoss needed to be with Little Joe, to be assured that he was all right.

“Alright,” Adam said reluctantly. “You promise you’ll wake one of us in a couple of hours…”

“Yes, I promise. Now go on up and get some sleep.” his father smiled, slapping his on the back.

The three Cartwrights headed up the stairs, Adam and Hoss going to their bedrooms as their father headed towards Little Joe’s.

*****

Mishayla was sitting on her bed, trying to prepare her lessons for school. Her heart wasn’t in her work. All she could think about was Little Joe Cartwright and what her brother and cousins had done to him.

She thought for a minute and realized she was just as guilty as they were. True, she had not planned it – hadn’t even known about it until the boys had shown up. But, she hadn’t turned them in either. That made her just as guilty. She sighed deeply. Why did they have to follow her here? She was happy until they showed up. Now she knew she would have to leave Virginia City. She couldn’t live with seeing the Cartwrights every day knowing she was part of the reason they suffered.

Mishayla’s thoughts were interrupted by a knock on her door. “Who could that be this time of night?” She wondered as she made her way to the door.

“Who is it?” She called through the closed door.

“Shayla? It’s me – McKenna,” came the quiet reply.

Mishayla quickly opened the door, grabbed her brother by the arm and pulled him into her room.

“McKenna! What are you doing here? Do you realize how dangerous this is? What if someone saw you?”

“Calm down, Mishayla. No one in Virginia City knows me. If they did see me, I’m just a guy visiting his sister. There is nothing suspicious about that. Now, just take it easy. Everything’s alright.”

McKenna said guiding his sister towards the rocking chair. “C’mon now, sit down.”

“McKenna, why are you here?” Mishayla asked her brother as she lowered herself in the chair.

“I-I, well, “Shayla, I needed to see you…. To apologize for involving you in the kidnapping. I know it was wrong and I’m really sorry. I need to know that you really do forgive me. Do you?” McKenna asked, looking into his sister’s eyes.

“Where are the boys? Are they with you?” she asked.

“No, they went on to El Paso. I told them I’m meeting them there in a couple of weeks. I had to see you-make sure you understood how sorry I am. Mishayla, please…” McKenna’s voice trailed off as his blue eyes begged for her forgiveness.

“I don’t know why, but I do forgive you McKenna. But, you shouldn’t have come here; it’s too dangerous. You have to leave.”

“I’ll be leaving tomorrow. I’m too tired to leave tonight so I got a room in the hotel. Are you sure you don’t want to come to El Paso with me?

“I’m sure. I wish you wouldn’t stay in town – I think it is just too dangerous.”

I’ll be fine – don’t worry. I’ll be out of here before you know it!” The twins stood up and faced one another, smiling. Suddenly, McKenna hugged his sister, kissing her cheek. “I love you Mishayla,” he said, tears filling his blue eyes.

“I love you too McKenna.” She said as she hugged him back. “Now, get out of here.”

After her brother left, Mishayla walked to the window. A minute later, she saw McKenna leave the boarding house and walk up the street to the hotel. Suddenly she felt a shiver run up her spine. It was a bad omen – she knew she would not rest until her brother was safely out of town.

*****

Ben Cartwright woke in the middle of the night to the sound of his youngest son screaming in terror. Ben jumped out of bed and made his way quickly down to Little Joe’s room, meeting Hoss in the hallway. The two entered to find Adam holding Little Joe tightly in his arms, rocking back and forth and talking to him soothingly. Adam looked up as they came in.

“Adam, what happened?” Ben asked quickly.

“He had a nightmare,” Adam said quietly. “Pa, I swear I’m gonna find the men who did this to him if it’s the last thing I do.” Adam’s dark eyes were smoldering with anger. He continued to rock Little Joe and finally succeeded in quieting him down. After a few minutes, the child fell back into a fitful sleep.

Adam put Little Joe back to bed, pulling the covers up and tucking them around him. He turned to his father. “Pa, I’m going to go into town tomorrow and see if I can come up with anything.

He put his hand up as his father started to protest. “Pa, I know it’s Sheriff Coffee’s job. But, he’s got a whole town to look after – he can’t spend all his time on Little Joe’s kidnapping. I promise I won’t do anything other than ask questions.” Adam’s dark eyes begged for his father’s permission.

“I want to go, too, Pa,” said Hoss. “I just feel like I gotta do something.”

Ben looked at his sons. He knew how frustrated they were – he felt the same way. But, he didn’t want them hurt either. Finally, he sighed and said; “Alright, but I want your word – both of you- that you will not do anything dangerous. Is that understood?”

“Yes Sir!” both boys answered in unison as they turned to leave the room.

Ben smiled and turned his direction back to his youngest child. He frowned at the look on Little Joe’s sleeping face – a look of fear even in his sleep. Ben hoped Adam and Hoss would uncover something that would make Little Joe’s nightmare end.

*****

Mishayla was up before dawn. She had spent half the night trying to decide what her next move would be. Realizing she could no longer stay in Virginia City, she had come to the decision that she would go to El Paso with her brother after all. Maybe if they did buy a ranch, they could all settle down. Mishayla pulled her long blue cloak around her slim shoulders and lifted the hood over her blond curls.

She walked across the street towards the hotel, hoping McKenna hadn’t left town yet. As she entered the hotel, she looked into the dining room spotting her brothers blond head right away. It was early yet, so McKenna was the only customer. Mishayla quickly walked to his table and seated herself across from him.

McKenna was surprised to see his sister; he thought they’d said their good byes last night. Before he could say a word, Mishayla took his hands in hers, looking into blue eyes that mirrored her own.

“McKenna, I’ve changed my mind, I’m coming to Texas with you!” she told him excitedly. “I thought about it all last night and I think we – you, Taylor, Dylan, Colin, and I – I think we could really make a go of a ranch.”

McKenna stared at her for a moment, speechless. He had wanted so much for her to join him and their cousins in Texas and now she was!

“Mishayla, that’s wonderful! We’ll have a good life there, you’ll see. The boys went on ahead to look for some property for us. The boys and me can run cattle and you can do the books for us and we’ll do just fine. Just fine,” McKenna said grinning from ear to ear.

“I’m glad you’re pleased. I hope we can all settle down once and for all.”

“When can you be ready to leave?” McKenna asked.

“Humm, I hadn’t really thought about it, but I guess I should tell the school board I have to leave. What should I tell them so they won’t be suspicious of my leaving so suddenly?” Mishayla was becoming agitated. “I have to come up with something!”

“Calm down ‘Shayla. Why don’t you just tell them you have to go take care of a sick relative?”

“I can’t tell them that. When I applied for the position in Virginia City, I told them I didn’t have any family left.”

“I know, tell them you are homesick for Ohio and that you’ve been offered a position there? You still have a lot of friends there. That should work – don’t you think?”

Mishayla furrowed her brow, thinking about what McKenna said. Finally, she agreed his plan would be her best option.

“Alright, I’ll let the school board know this morning that I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

“Good! Until then, though, I don’t think we should be seen together. One look at us together and anyone would know we’re related.”

The twins talked for a few more minutes, finalizing their plans. Finally, Mishayla decided she had better leave before someone saw them. She stood up, pulled her hood up and winking to her brother said, “I’ll see you later.”

As she walked towards the schoolhouse, Mishayla was suddenly filled with sadness. She loved teaching and had grown close to the students in Virginia City – especially Little Joe Cartwright. She frowned as she thought about the active little five-year-old, wondering if he was all right. She stopped as she realized she was in front of Dr. Martin’s office. Before she knew it, she had opened the door and entered. Dr. Martin was sitting at his desk, drinking a cup of coffee. He smiled and stood as she entered the room.

“Miss Breckenridge, good morning!” he said. “Can I interest you in a hot cup of coffee?”

Mishayla smiled at him and nodded.

As he poured her coffee, Dr. Martin asked, “What can I do for you, Miss Breckenridge?” He turned away from the stove and handed her the cup.

Mishayla accepted the coffee and smiled her thanks. She took a sip of the coffee. Dr. Martin motioned for her to sit down as he returned to his own chair. He sat back and waited for Mishayla to speak.

“I – well, I’m worried about Little Joe Cartwright. Such a horrible experience for a young child to go through. I thought that maybe you had been out to see him and could tell me how he is.”

The look of worry on her face caused Dr. Martin to smile. She was obviously very concerned about her young student.

“Well, Ma’am, I don’t ordinarily discuss my patients with others, but I can tell you that physically, Little Joe is just fine.”

Mishayla frowned. Somehow the doctors statement didn’t make her feel any better. Doctor Martin noticed the frown and reached across the desk, taking her hand.

“Don’t worry, Miss Breckenridge. Little Joe is a tough little boy. He’ll be fine.”

“Thank you Dr. Martin. It’s just that I feel so guilty because he was taken while under my care. Do you think it would be alright for me to go see him?” Mishayla knew in her heart that the only reason she wanted to see Little Joe was to clear her own conscious. If he really were all right, then she wouldn’t have to feel so badly about her part in the whole incident.

Dr. Martin sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin. He was quiet for a minute, remembering how upset Little Joe had been the last time he saw him. Mishayla tried her best to be patient while waiting for Dr. Martin’s reply. Finally, he leaned forward and looking directly into her blue eyes said, “Well, Ma’am, I really don’t think he’s up to visitors just yet. Even though he wasn’t hurt physically, he did go through a very traumatic experience. I think it’s best if he’s just with his family for now. Maybe in a few days he’ll be up to seeing other people.”

Mishayla was disappointed, but she smiled and rising from her chair thanked the doctor for the coffee. After leaving the doctors office, she headed to Reverend Jackson’s house to tell him about her impending departure.

*****

“How much longer do we have to ride this stupid stage?” complained Shaynne Taft to his father. He was tired and sore from bouncing around in the stagecoach.

“It won’t be much longer now, son,” his father answered. “Then we can finally end things with the Breckenridge bunch. They will pay for what they did to us and to Ricky. This is going to be such sweet revenge.” The old man’s eyes left no question that he meant every word he said.

“How are we gonna play this, Pa?”

“I figure the first thing we need to do is find out if Mishayla really is the teacher mentioned in the Denver papers. If she is, we start with her. If she doesn’t give us the information willingly, then we’ll just have to persuade her.”

Shaynne had never heard his father’s voice so cold and hard. It scared him a little, but it also gave him hope. Hope that the men who had kidnapped Ricky would be punished. Ricky had become very quiet and withdrawn after his kidnapping and was terrified to leave the house without his mother. Shaynne wanted the Breckenridge family to feel all the pain his son had felt. He wanted them to beg for their very lives. Nothing would stand in his way this time – he would see to it that justice was served.

*****

Adam made his way quietly down the hallway from his bedroom to Little Joe’s. He opened the door slowly and smiled at the picture that met his eyes. Ben was sitting on Little Joe’s bed, his back resting against the headboard, eyes closed. Little Joe was snuggled close to his father, his right hand clutching a fist full of Ben’s shirt; his left thumb half way in his mouth, a stray curl on his forehead.

Ben stirred and blinked his eyes open. He glanced down at his small son and was glad to see he appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Ben suddenly became aware of Adam standing in the doorway.

“What time is it?” He yawned.

“About 5:30. “ Adam nodded towards his little brother. “Did he get any rest at all? You don’t look like you did.”

Ben’s back was stiff and sore. He wanted to stretch, but was afraid he would awaken Little Joe. He yawned again and rolled his shoulders, trying to release some of the tension.

“He slept some, but not very soundly.” Ben studied Adam’s face. Even in the dim light, he could see dark circles under his oldest sons’ eyes.

“Adam, what are you doing up so early? You look exhausted. Why don’t you go back to bed for awhile.”

“I’m alright. Hoss and I wanted to get an early start so we could get into town this morning. I want to go by and talk to Miss Breckenridge again.”

“Miss Breckenridge? Roy said she told him everything she remembered. Adam…you-you don’t think she had anything to do with Little Joe’s kidnapping do you?” Ben asked slowly, frowning. “Remember son, she is the one who returned your brother safely to us.”

“I know Pa. I just have a feeling she knows more than she’s telling. I…”

Adam stopped talking as Little Joe’s small body suddenly went rigid and he began trembling violently. His breath came out in little moaned gasps. Ben reached down and quickly lifted Little Joe into his lap, talking softly to him, hugging him close to his chest.

“It’s alright, son. You are home now – everything is all right. Your Papa’s got you – you are fine.” Ben continued talking as he smoothed Little Joe’s dark curls, kissing the top of his head.

Adam watched in silence as Little Joe quieted down and putting his thumb back in his mouth once again fell into a restless sleep.

“Pa, Hoss and I are going to do the chores and then head on into town if that’s alright with you.” Adam kept his voice just above a whisper. Ben nodded his permission, his eyes never leaving Little Joe.

An hour and a half later, Adam was arguing with the family cook, Hop Sing.

“Hop Sing, we don’t have time for breakfast. We need to get to town,” Adam told the diminutive Chinese man.

“You no eat, you get sick. You growing boy – must eat,” Hop Sing insisted.

Hoss watched silently hoping his brother would decide to take the time for breakfast. He wanted to get to town as badly as Adam, but didn’t relish the long ride on an empty stomach.

Finally, Adam relented and Hop Sing disappeared into the kitchen, and a few minutes later, returned with a platter piled high with bacon and eggs and a basket of hot biscuits. He poured coffee for Adam and put a mug of cold milk on the table for Hoss. He then retreated up the stairs. Five minutes later, Ben appeared at the top of the steps. He slowly made his way to the table, stretching the kinks out of his tired body as he walked.

“Mornin’, Pa,” Hoss greeted him. “How’s Little Joe this morning?”

“Morning, son. He’s still sleeping. Hop Sing insisted on staying with him for awhile.”

Adam handed his father a cup of coffee. “Pa, do you think Little Joe is ever going to be able to tell us anything about what happened?” he asked.

Ben took a sip of his coffee, then sighed. “I don’t know, Adam. If they kept him drugged the entire time, he may not even remember anything.” He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “I just don’t know.”

The three finished breakfast in silence, each one thinking about the little boy upstairs. After breakfast, they went to check on Little Joe who was just waking up. He looked confused for a moment as he glanced quickly around his bedroom. His eyes came to rest on his father and he smiled.

Hop Sing stood up and left the room as Ben walked to the bed. Ben reached down and hugged Little Joe. Little Joe clung to him tightly. “Good morning, young man. How are you feeling today?” Ben asked, trying to keep his voice light.

Little Joe didn’t say anything, but gave his father a small smile. “Hi, little buddy. Can I have one of those hugs?” Adam asked crossing the room to his brother and father.

Little Joe reached up and put his arms around his oldest brother’s neck. Adam lifted him up and hugged him tightly. Hoss came up beside Adam and Little Joe reached out to hug him. He then put his head on Adam’s shoulder and put his thumb in his mouth.

Adam shot his father a worried look. For Little Joe to be this quiet was unnatural. Ben looked as concerned as Adam. At that moment, Hop Sing entered the bedroom with a tray.

“Hop Sing bring food for Little Joe,” he said handing Ben a plate of food, bowing slightly.

Adam sat down in the rocking chair, still holding Little Joe. He lifted Little Joe, turning him so he was facing their father.

Ben picked up a fork and stabbed a bite of scrambled eggs. He lifted the fork to Little Joe’s mouth.

“Here you go, son. Hop Sing has made you a wonderful breakfast,” he said enthusiastically.

Little Joe dropped his thumb from his lips and stared at his father with a look that could only be described as one of anger. He suddenly sat up straight, balling his small hands into fists, his green eyes flashing.

Ben looked at Adam, then Hoss and knew they were as confused as he was about Little Joe’s sudden change in attitude. Neither knew what to say. After a moment of silence, Little Joe unclenched his hands, took a shaky breath and spoke.

“Papa, I can feed myself – I’m not a baby.” he said quietly, a single tear stealing down his cheek as he looked at his father with troubled green eyes.

“Of course you can, son,” said Ben. He picked up the plate and held it out to Little Joe.

Little Joe stared at the plate, and then suddenly his lower lip began trembling as tears filled his eyes. His face crumbled and his small body was racked with sobs. The older Cartwrights were horrified. Adam hugged Little Joe tightly as the child buried his face in his older brother’s chest. Adam began rocking him gently, singing softly. Ben and Hoss watched in silence, their hearts breaking for the child they loved so much. They stayed that way several minutes until Little Joe, tears spent, body exhausted, fell asleep clutching Adam’s shirt in his small hand. Ben stood and reached to take Little Joe from Adam, but Adam stopped him.

“It’s alright, Pa. I’ll hold him for awhile,” he whispered and then began humming softly, still rocking his small brother.

Ben retrieved a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around his sleeping son, then brushing a curl from his forehead, kissed his dark curly head.

“Pa, what was that all about?” asked Hoss, his blue eyes brimming with tears. “What caused Little Joe to get so upset?” Hoss adored his little brother and it broke his heart to see him in such a state.

“I don’t know, Hoss. Something must have happened to him while he was being held captive,” Ben answered in a tired voice.

“Should I ride in and get Doctor Martin?”

Ben pursed his lips thoughtfully before answering. “No, Paul said he would be out later today anyway. Hopefully, Little Joe will sleep for awhile.”

Adam held Little Joe for a few minutes more before gently putting him to bed. After tucking him in, Adam kissed his little brother’s cheek and whispered a promise in his ear.

“I’ll find them, Little Joe. I’ll find them and I’ll make them pay for what they did to you. I promise you that – if it takes me the rest of my life, they will pay for what they did.”

*****

Adam and Hoss rode towards Virginia City in silence, each one lost in his own thoughts. Adam’s thoughts once again turned to Miss Breckenridge. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he felt she was somehow involved in the kidnapping. He wanted to talk to her again, but decided to check in with Sheriff Coffee first to see if he had any news.

They arrived in Virginia City about the same time the stage came in from Denver. Across the street from the stage depot, Adam and Hoss dismounted their horses, then watched as two well dressed men exited the stage. Even from their vantage point, they could tell the two were related. Although one was obviously older than the other was, they were both tall and solidly built. But the most noticeable similarity was their red hair. The older man walked across the street, stopping in front of Adam.

“Excuse me, sir. Would you be kind enough to point me in the direction of the Sheriffs office?” he asked.

‘My brother and I were on our way there ourselves. We’ll show you the way,” Adam offered.

“That’s very kind of you. My name is Carlton Taft and this is my son, Shaynne,” he said as the younger man joined him.

Adam shook hands with both men and introduced himself and his brother. “I’m Adam Cartwright and this is my brother, Hoss.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Hoss, shaking hands with both men.

Carlton’s eyes widened. “Did you say Cartwright?” he asked.

“Yes sir.”

Carlton and Shaynne exchanged a look before Shaynne asked, “Is the child who was kidnapped related to you?”

Adam and Hoss were surprised by Shaynne’s question.

“He’s our little brother. How did you hear about the kidnapping?” asked Adam.

“The story was in the Denver papers. That’s why we’re here. If you will show us the way to the Sheriff’s office, we’ll explain everything.”

“Of course, right this way,” Adam said as he started down the street, anxious to here what this man had to say.

The four men walked towards Sheriff Coffee’s office unaware of the blue eyes watching them from the shadows.

*****

Mishayla was headed to the Reverends house when she saw the stage come in. She didn’t pay much attention to it until she caught sight of a man with red hair. Her heart leapt into her throat as she realized who the man was. Quickly hiding in an alleyway, Mishayla peeked around the corner only to see another red haired man depart the stage. Fear crept into her heart. She knew McKenna had to be warned and right away! She waited until the four men entered the Sheriff’s office, then made her way quickly to the hotel. She slipped through a side door and silently stole up the stairs.

McKenna jumped at the sharp knock on the door. He knew Mishayla was going to meet him outside of town so no one would see them together. “Who is it?” he asked suspiciously and was surprised to hear his sister’s frantic answer.

“It’s me, Mishayla. Open up – please hurry.” The urgency in her voice bothered him. Something must be wrong.

He quickly opened the door and she entered obviously upset. “Shayla, what’s wrong? Why are you here? I thought we decided to meet outside of town.” McKenna was almost afraid to hear the answers to his questions.

Mishayla quickly shut the door behind her. She grabbed her brother’s arm.

“McKenna, we have to get out of Virginia City right now! Carlton and Shaynne Taft just got off the Denver stage! They know, McKenna, they know what we’ve done! We have to leave! NOW!” Mishayla was frantic.

McKenna paled as his sister spoke. How could they know? Ricky hadn’t seen them, hadn’t even heard them. How could they know?

“Mishayla,” he began. “They can’t possibly know it was us. It’s a coincidence that they are here. But you are right; we need to get out of town before they see it. If they find out about the Cartwright kid and see us here, then we could be in a bad spot.”

McKenna paced back and forth as he spoke trying to decide their next move. After a few minutes, he made his decision.

“Mishayla, I’m going to sneak out of town. You wait a few minutes and follow me. I’ll meet you at the same spot at Eagles Nest. We’ll be long gone before the Taft’s ever know we were here. Just be careful – don’t let anyone see you on the street.”

Mishayla nodded her head in agreement. She was scared and wanted to get away as soon as possible. She hugged her brother, then quickly took her leave.

*****

“I can’t believe it – I just can’t believe it. She’s such a nice girl. I can’t believe she could be involved in kidnapping.” Roy Coffee shook his head.

“Well, believe it Sheriff. She and her brother and cousins kidnapped my grandson and from what these boys say, their brother as well,” said Carlton Taft.

For some reason Adam wasn’t shocked. He had suspected her involvement all along, but felt bad that his hunch had been right. He really liked Miss Breckenridge. Hoss, on the other hand, was astounded.

“I’m sorry sir, I just can’t see Miss Breckenridge being a kidnapper. She is just too nice and the best teacher we ever had!” the eleven-year-old exclaimed.

“Hoss, I know you like her – I liked her too, but we have to find out the truth for Little Joe’s sake.” Adam put a comforting arm around his younger brother’s shoulder. Looking at Sheriff Coffee, he asked, “Sheriff, what is the next move?”

“Well, Adam, I guess the best thing to do is question Little Joe again. I can’t arrest Miss Breckenridge without some sort of evidence. Sounds like Ricky Taft couldn’t identify his kidnappers. If Little Joe can’t give us something to go on, well, I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do.”

“What!” Carlton Taft thundered. “How can you just do nothing? Haven’t you heard a word we’ve said? Mishayla Breckenridge, her brother and cousins are kidnappers, Sheriff. You have to do SOMETHING!”

“Mr. Taft”, began Roy, “You have no proof and I can’t arrest her on your say so. Besides, Miss Breckenridge lives here alone. She hasn’t had any visitors and from what I understand, she has no living relatives. I’m sorry, but right now, there’s nothing I can do.”

Carlton and Shaynne Taft were furious. Shaynne pounded his fist down on Roy’s desk.

“Now, calm down gentlemen. Let’s go out to the Ponderosa and see if we can talk to Little Joe. Mebbe he can give us some information,” Roy said.

“Sheriff, I want Hoss to ride ahead and let Pa know you’re coming. I know he will also want Dr. Martin to be there, so if you can give us a few minutes, I’d appreciate it,” Adam said.

“Sure, Adam, you boys go on ahead. Mr. Taft, I’ll take you over to the Livery where you can rent a buggy.”

*****

After sending Hoss back to the ranch with Dr. Martin, Adam set out for Mishayla’s house. His excuse for calling on her was to see how she was holding up after the kidnapping. As he neared the boarding house, he saw Mishayla standing outside the door with a tall, slender blond haired man. Adam knew that man must be Mishayla’s brother, McKenna.

He wondered if the two were aware of the Tafts presence in Virginia City. Adam moved into the shadows and watched as Mishayla and McKenna engaged in what appeared to be a frantic conversation. Still lurking in the shadows, Adam slowly edged his way closer to the boarding house until he was close enough that he could make out what the two were saying.

“McKenna, the Tafts’ are already in Virginia City! We don’t have time to do anything but get out of town as quickly as possible.” Mishayla’s voice was almost frantic.

“I know.” McKenna sighed. “Go on in and get your things together. I’ll get the horses ready and meet you here in about 15 minutes. If we ride fast and hard, we might be able to catch up with the boys.”

Mishayla nodded her agreement and McKenna started walking away from her. Suddenly, he stopped, turned back to his sister and took her small delicate hands in his larger, rough ones. Looking into her eyes, he said, “Shayla, I really am so sorry to have put you through all this. I wish we’d never left Ohio. Tears welled in his blue eyes. Mishayla’s heart melted as she gave her brother a quick hug.

“It’s OK. We’re together and that’s what is important. Now you go get the horses. Everything will be all right, McKenna. You’ll see.” Mishayla’s voice betrayed her confidence.

Adam’s dark eyes smoldered with anger at her words as he balled his hands into fists. No, everything would not be all right he silently promised the pair. Resisting the urge to confront them, Adam quickly formulated his plan of action. Since Sheriff Coffee was at the Ponderosa and Deputy Clem was in Carson City, Adam decided it was up to him to do something. Remembering what McKenna said about catching up with the others, Adam decided to follow them. Making his way back to Beauty, Adam stopped at the Sheriff’s office and hurriedly wrote a note explaining what he had learned. He then retrieved his horse, and returned to the alley. A few minutes later, still safely hidden in the shadows, Adam watched as the young teacher and her brother mounted their horses and headed South out of Virginia City. Keeping a safe distance behind, Adam quietly followed.

*****

“What do you think, Paul? Should I let Roy question him again? He gets so upset and so far, he hadn’t been able to tell us anything,” Ben asked his friend.

“Ben, I think Little Joe needs to tell us what happened before he can start to recover. I know it’s hard, but it is also necessary. I’ll be right here. If Little Joe becomes too upset, then we’ll just have to stop them,” Dr. Martin answered.

Sighing, Ben reluctantly nodded his approval. Just then Hoss entered the house. “Pa, Mr. Taft and his son are here,” he announced.

“Hoss go upstairs and stay with Little Joe.”

“Sure Pa.”

Hoss went upstairs to his little brothers room, opened the door. Little Joe was lying on top the covers, fully dressed except his boots. He had his thumb in his mouth and clutched a blanket in his other hand. Hoss crossed the floor to where his brother slept and lowered himself in the chair next to Little Joe’s bed. He took Little Joe’s tiny hand in his and brushed a stray curl from the child’s forehead. Hoss hoped Little Joe would be able to help the Sheriff, but he dreaded the next few hours.

*****

“Mr. Cartwright, I know exactly what you are going through, believe me,” Shaynne Taft said. “My son, Ricky, is just a little older than your Joseph. He was kidnapped while staying after school with his teacher, Mishayla Breckenridge. Don’t you think that is just more than a little coincidental?”

“I understand that, Mr. Taft. But, you said your son could not identify his kidnappers. If it was the same people and the kidnappings are identical, then Little Joe probably won’t be able to identify them either. I just don’t want to put him through any more. He’s scared enough as it is. I just don’t know. What do you think, Paul?” Ben asked turning to his long time friend.

“Ben, we’ve talked about this already. I think you should let Sheriff Coffee question Little Joe again. I know it will be rough for him, but he’s going to have to come to terms with what happened sooner or later.”

The Tafts, Dr. Martin and Sheriff Coffee waited in silence as Ben struggled to come to a decision. Ben crossed to the massive fireplace and stood staring at the dancing flames, his heart torn. After a few minutes, he finally agreed to let Roy question Little Joe again, but only after extracting a promise from Roy Coffee and Paul Martin that if Little Joe became too upset they would stop. He asked the Tafts to wait downstairs and sent Hop Sing to get coffee and sandwiches for them.

Ben, Roy and Paul slowly climbed the stairs to Little Joe’s room. They found Hoss and Little Joe playing with the wooden horses Ben had bought for them the last time he was in San Francisco. Ben smiled as he remembered how excited Little Joe had been when Ben had given it to him. The toy was painted like a pinto pony and Little Joe had told his father then that he wanted a real pony just like it when he grew up. Both boys looked up and smiled at their father entered the room. Ben reached down and lifted his youngest son off the floor. He hugged him closely, then sat him on the edge of his bed. Ben knelt down in front of Little Joe, took the child’s hands in his, and looking into his young son’s eyes began explaining what was about to happen.

“Little Joe, son, do you feel up to taking to Sheriff Coffee for a few minutes?” he asked quietly.

Little Joe’s body stiffened, his small face paling at his father’s words. Ben flinched at the fear and pain in Little Joe’s eyes. For a fleeting moment, he thought about reconsidering his decision. But he knew in his heart that Paul Martin was right, Little Joe would have to face his fear before he could begin to put it behind him.

Ben sat next to Little Joe on the bed. Suddenly realizing that Hoss was still in the room, he motioned for him to sit on the other side of Little Joe. Hoss quickly crossed the room and sat down. Taking Little Joe’s hand in his own, he offered his little brother a smile of encouragement.

“Little Joe,” Ben began gently, looking directly into the child’s eyes, “You are safe now, nobody is going to hurt you. Sheriff Coffee needs to ask you some questions. Hoss and I will be right here and we’re not going to let anything happen to you. I need you to answer the Sheriff’s questions; can you do that for me, son?”

Little Joe’s lower lip began to quiver as his green eyes filled with unshed tears. After a moment, he bit his lip and fighting back the tears, offered a small nod.

Ben smiled and hugged him. “That’s good, son, that’s real good.” Ben then singled Roy that it was all right to begin questioning Little Joe.

*****

Adam carefully and quietly continued to follow the kidnappers. As he did, his thoughts turned to his baby brother. Little Joe had always been wrapped in a blanket of love and security; his father and brothers eternally there to protect him from harm as he lived the innocent life of a five-year-old. Anger boiled Adam’s blood as he thought about the people who had taken that innocence and trust from Little Joe. He was also angry with himself. If only he hadn’t made Little Joe stay at school that day, none of this would have ever happened. Adam’s desire to see the people who put his family through such pain, burned in his heart and soul. A sense of renewed determination surged through his body.

The Breckenridge twins had been riding at a steady pace over rocky terrain for about 2 hours when McKenna’s horse suddenly stumbled. McKenna quickly dismounted and hurried to check the right front leg of the animal, finding a deep cut. He gave an exasperated sigh.

“What is it, McKenna?”

“Horse cut his leg. I won’t be able to ride him.”

“What are we going to do?”

McKenna thought a minute before answering. “We’ll have to ride double on yours until we can get another. We’ll just leave this horse here; someone will come across him soon,” he said as he took his saddlebags and bedroll off the injured animal. “It’ll slow us down a bit, but we got a pretty good head start and no one knows which way we headed when we left Virginia City so we’ll be alright.”

“That’s what you think,” Adam Cartwright said to himself. He had seen McKenna’s horse stumble and knew the kidnappers would be slowed down considerably – hopefully enough for Sheriff Coffee to find Adam’s note and come after them. He waited silently as Mishayla and McKenna prepared to continue their escape.

*****

Little Joe was sitting on his bed, his father on one side of him, his brother on the other. Sheriff Coffee was sitting in a chair directly in front of Little Joe.

“Now, Little Joe,” Roy Coffee began in a gentle voice. “I need you to tell me exactly what happened that day at school. Can you do that for me, son?”

Little Joe looked at his father who smiled and nodded his encouragement. Turning back to Sheriff Coffee, in a small quavering voice the little boy began his story.

When he got to the part where the man had grabbed him, Little Joe’s lower lip began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears. Ben could feel his small son’s body trembling. He put his arm around Little Joe and hugged him close.

“It’s alright, son. Just take your time. It’s all right. I’m right here.”

After a few minutes, Little Joe settled down and continued. “They had me tied up and my eyes covered. Somebody came in to give me food and water.” Suddenly he looked up at his father before going on. “I told them I wasn’t a baby. That I could eat all by myself if they would just untie me…but they wouldn’t,” he finished his voice barely above a whisper.

Ben smiled at his courageous little boy. “That was very brave of you, Little Joe,” Ben said as he hugged his son to his chest. Little Joe gave him a small smile.

“What happened next, Little Joe?” Roy asked.

When Little Joe finished his story, Roy asked him if he could remember anything about the people who had taken him.

Little Joe sat in quiet reflection for a few minutes, his small face the picture of concentration, his eyes closed. He chewed on his bottom lip, lost in thought. The room was totally quiet. Suddenly, Little Joe’s eyes flew wide open and he quickly turned to his father, grabbing Ben’s arm. “Blue ice crystals!” he shouted excitedly.

Ben, Roy and Paul shared a puzzled look. Ben glanced at Hoss, who shrugged his shoulders. Ben turned his attention back to Little Joe.

“What do you mean, Little Joe? What blue ice crystals?” Ben asked in a puzzled voice.

“That’s what color his eyes were, Papa! The man who grabbed me! His eyes were like blue…”

Little Joe suddenly stopped speaking, a look of confusion washing over his pale young face.

“What is it, Little Joe? What’s wrong, son.” Ben asked his voice full of worry.

“Papa, that man…” Little Joe began slowly.

“That man what?” Ben wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.

“That man, Papa. He had the same eyes as my teacher. Me and Adam, we decided Miss Breckenridge has eyes the color of blue ice crystals and the man that took me…his eyes were just like hers,”  Little Joe explained, his voice shaking as tears filled his eyes.

Ben looked at Roy Coffee. “Is it enough, Roy?”

Roy shook his head. “Well, it’s enough to question Miss Breckenridge again.”

Roy reached over and patted Little Joe on the back. “You done a fine job, son. A fine job,” he praised the little boy.

Little Joe suddenly sat up straight and looked all around the room, a look of panic on his face.

“Papa, where’s Adam?” he asked in a frantic voice. He looked around the room again, his eyes open wide. “Papa, they didn’t get Adam, did they? Adam is all right isn’t he? Papa, where is Adam? I want to see him. Where is he?” The little boy was becoming more and more upset.

Ben picked his youngest son up and hugging him tightly began talking in a soothing voice. “Shhhh. Little Joe, son, Adam is fine. He’s…. He’s just out taking care of some ranch business. He’ll be back soon, you’ll see. He’s fine. Why don’t you and Hoss read one of your books while I tell Sheriff Coffee good bye. OK? Can you do that for me Little Joe?”

Ben tried to comfort his son, but Little Joe was becoming more and more agitated. Little Joe screamed for his brother, tears running down his cheeks. Ben walked the floor with his son, rocking him gently, but Little Joe was not to be consoled. Finally, Ben looked pleadingly at Paul Martin, who had already prepared a sedative for Little Joe.

The sedative quickly took effect and within minutes, Little Joe was sound asleep in his father’s arms, his dark eyelashes damp again his pale skin.

Ben carefully placed Little Joe on his bed, brushing a stray tear from his cheek. He leaned over, kissed Little Joe on the forehead as he ran his hand through his baby’s thick dark curls.

After instructing Hoss to stay with Little Joe, Ben quickly made his way downstairs. Roy, Paul and the Taft’s all looked towards Ben as he came down.

“How is he Ben?” asked Dr. Martin.

“He’s asleep. I left Hoss with him. Roy, where is Adam?” Ben had been so concerned about Little Joe he hadn’t noticed Adam wasn’t there until Little Joe asked for him.

“Well, I don’t rightly know, Ben. After he sent Hoss to get Paul, I figured he come on ahead of us. You don’t think he went to see Miss Breckenridge do you?”

Ben sighed deeply. “I’m afraid that’s exactly what he’s done. I sure hope nothing has happened to him.”

“Now, Ben. I don’t think the young lady is dangerous. Besides we don’t know for sure if she’s even mixed up in this.”

“Not mixed up in this! Sheriff, how can you even think that? That girl is as much mixed up in this as her brother and cousins and they are getting away while we’re sitting around doing nothing!” Shaynne Taft was infuriated.

“Shaynne, calm down, we’ll get them. I promise you that, son, we’ll get them,” said Carlton, his voice low and threatening.

*****

Adam continued to follow the Breckenridge twins, carefully breaking branches off trees so the posse could easily follow. Since the injury to McKenna’s horse, the pace had slowed considerably and Adam knew they would have to stop soon to let the remaining horse rest. He hoped the posse was not far behind.

As he rode, his thoughts again turned to his baby brother. He smiled as he remembered the look on Little Joe’s face when Adam had promised him he could ride Beauty. He thought about how his little brother could make him smile when he was sad, about how much joy this one small child could spread to so many. Adam was so involved in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the noise behind him until it was too late. He had turned halfway around when he felt a sharp pain on the side of his head. He fell from his horse and hit the ground hard. His vision became a combination of muted colors of gray and red as he tried to rise. He heard a scream. He heard the sound of a gun going off. He fell again to the ground. Then darkness swallowed him up and Adam Cartwright heard nothing more.

*****

Once they had found Adam’s note and got fresh horses, it didn’t take long to figure out which direction Adam and the kidnappers were headed.

When they found the freshly broken tree branches, they knew they were on the right track. They had pushed the horses as fast as they dared and Roy was confident they would find Adam and the kidnappers soon.

Finally the posse was forced to stop and rest the horses.

“Ben, Adam sure did a fine job of leaving a trail for us to follow,” said Roy Coffee admiringly. “We can’t be more than an hour or so behind them.”

“Yeah Roy, he did leave a good trail. I just hope he’s got sense enough to stay far enough behind that they don’t spot him,” Ben said, his voice tinged with worry.

“He’s young, but he’s smart. He’ll keep a respectable distance.”

“I sure hope so.”

“Don’t worry, he’ll do fine.” Roy slapped Ben on the back and then turned to the posse. “OK, boys, let’s get moving. It’s going to start getting dark soon, so we best move on out,” he said as he mounted his horse.

The posse rode steadily for another hour, finding Adam’s trail markings every half mile or so. They came to a small clearing where a horse was lazily grazing on some sweet grass. Cody Montana, one of the Ponderosa ranch hands eased his way up to the animal. After checking it over carefully, he gave his assessment. “He’s got a bad cut on his leg, but he should be alright in a few days. This is one of the horses Charlie had for sale down at the Livery yesterday. You think the kidnapper might have bought this horse, Sheriff?”

“Bought it or stole it. Can you tell how long he might have been here?”

“Well, the blood is pretty dry. I’d say he’s been here an hour or better.”

Another member of the posse, Jake, had been looking around the area. “Mr. Cartwright, Sheriff Coffee, look at this,” said Jake pointing to the ground. “These tracks look like somebody riding double on one horse. These tracks here are Adam’s. I’d say we’re getting pretty close to ’em. They’ll have to slow down to rest the horse so we should catch up to them pretty quick.”

“Let’s ride then,” commanded Ben.

The posse quickly remounted and headed out once again. Ben’s heart was pounding so hard he knew the rest of the men could probably hear it. He didn’t care; he was worried sick about Adam. He was also angry that Adam took off after the kidnappers alone, but he did understand how his son felt. Adam had blamed himself for what happened to his little brother although Ben had tried several times to convince him it wasn’t his fault. He prayed that Adam guilt wasn’t clouding his mind as he followed Little Joe’s kidnappers.

*****

Mishayla screamed as she saw McKenna raise his gun and aim it at Adam Cartwright’s head. She reached out and knocked against the gun just as it went off, sending the bullet into a nearby tree.

“Mishayla! What the hell are you doing?” McKenna yelled.

“You can’t just kill him in cold blood! That is murder, McKenna! Don’t you understand? You can be hung for murder! What are you thinking? You can’t do this!” Mishayla was almost hysterical.

“We have to Mishayla. He’s the only person alive who can testify against us. We have to get rid of him or we will spend the rest of our lives running from him and his family,” McKenna explained in a cold, calm voice.

Mishayla stared at her brother in shock. She couldn’t believe this was her own flesh and blood. For a moment she couldn’t speak. Finally finding her voice she tried again to talk sense to McKenna. “We can not commit murder, McKenna. It’s just not right. You know that. What’s happened to you? When did you become so consumed with revenge that you’ve forgotten how to recognize right from wrong?” Mishayla was truly afraid now and tears spilled down her face unchecked.

McKenna watched his sister for a moment, letting her words sink in. Sighing, he put the gun back in his holster and bent over to check Adam’s head where he had hit him with the butt of his gun. “He’ll live,” he said calmly as he checked the bloody cut on Adam’s temple. “We’ll tie him up and take his horse. Somebody will come up on him sooner or later. Give me that rope over there.”

Mishayla decided her best plan of action was to do what her brother told her. She retrieved the rope and handed it to him.

“Are you sure he’ll be okay?” she asked quietly as she tried to get a better look at Adam’s head.

“I said he’d live, Mishayla! Now get on that horse and let’s get out of here!” McKenna yelled.

Mishayla took a step back and started to say something. Thinking better of it, she silently walked to her horse and mounted up. For the first time in her life, she was afraid of McKenna. What could have happened to turn her sweet, fun loving brother into such a cold-hearted person? The McKenna Breckenridge she knew would never even consider hurting an innocent man, much less kill him. Something terrible must have happened to her brother; something she didn’t know about. McKenna quickly tied Adam securely and rolled him under a bush, half hiding his body in the thick foliage.

“Mishayla, let’s go.” he commanded as he mounted Adam’s horse and started down the road at a quick trot.

Mishayla quickly followed her brother as she cast a worried glance over her shoulder at the still unconscious Adam.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered as tears again filled her blue eyes.

*****

Jake and Cody had ridden ahead of the posse and now Jake was coming towards them at a full gallop. He pulled his horse up, trying to catch his breath.

“What is it, Jake? Did you find Adam? Is he alright?” Ben fired the questions fast and furious.

“We-we found him Mr. Cartwright. He was tied up and stashed under some bushes. He’s been hurt,” Jake said.

Ben interrupted him. “Hurt? How bad is it? Where is he?”

“He’s got a good sized knot on his head, but he’s got a strong pulse. He’s about a mile up the road.”

Ben jumped on his horse and headed down the road, fear in his heart. He prayed Adam was not badly hurt. A few minutes later, he spied Cody with Adam. Adam was lying lifeless on the ground, his face a pasty white. Cody was applying a cold compress to his right temple. Adam began to regain consciousness just as his father knelt at his side.

“Take it easy, son, take it easy. You’ve got quite a lump on your head. Just be still.”

“W-w-w-what happened? Where…. Where am I?” Adam asked in a confused voice.

“Adam, you were following the people who kidnapped Little Joe. Don’t you remember, son?” Ben was worried. Adam seemed so confused and he was so pale.

Adam sighed, rubbing his temple. He was dizzy and concentrating hurt his head. It took him a few minutes, but the events of the last few hours slowly began to come back to him.

“I remember now, Pa,” he began slowly. “I saw Miss Breckenridge with her brother and overheard them say they were leaving town. I had to follow them, Pa. I just couldn’t let them get away. I just couldn’t.”

“I know, son. Let’s not think about that now. How do you feel?”

“I’m fine, Pa. We have to go after them; they can’t be that far ahead!”

Ben put his hand on Adam’s arm as Adam tried to get up. “No, Adam. You stay here and take it easy. You probably have a concussion. I’ll have Jake stay with you and….”

“No Pa! I have to go! Don’t you understand? I promised Little Joe I would get the people that kidnapped him! I can’t break that promise to him, Pa, I just can’t!”

Adam tried again to rise, this time his father taking him by the arm, helping his up. “OK Adam. Just take it easy.”

Adam looked around slowly. “Did they take my horse?” he asked.

“I guess so. We found a lame one a few miles back. Was that one of theirs?” Roy Coffee asked.

“Yeah, stumbled and cut his leg. Ohhhh,” Adam swayed as he tried to walk. Ben reached out and grabbed him by the arm.

“Adam, I really don’t think you’re up to riding, son. Why don’t you stay here and….?”

“NO!” Adam shouted, then grabbed his head between his hands. “No,” he said in a much quieter voice, “I have to be there when they’re captured.”

The posse mounted up as Ben led Adam slowly to his own horse and helped him up. Ben climbed up behind Adam and the posse continued their search. They traveled at a steady pace for about an hour before one of the scouts came back with news. There was a small shack about 2 miles ahead. The scout had recognized one of the horses tied up out front as Adam’s. The posse quickened their pace, stopping about a quarter mile from the shack. Roy Coffee sent several men around to both sides and around back of the cabin instructing them to be quiet and wait for his signal. Shaynne Taft led the men around the back of the cabin.

Ben, Adam, Carlton Taft and Roy rode towards the front of the house. They took cover behind a large boulder just a few hundred feet from the cabin.

“YOU IN THE CABIN,” Roy yelled. “THIS IS SHERIFF ROY COFFEE. WE’VE GOT YOU SURROUNDED! COME ON OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP AND NOBODY WILL GET HURT!”

Silence. Roy tried again. “WE KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE. COME ON OUT AND NOBODY WILL GET HURT!” he repeated.

A shot rang out from the cabin, the bullet bouncing off the boulder just in front of Roy’s face.

‘WE DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU, BOY! AND WE DON’T WANT TO HURT YOUR SISTER. JUST COME ON OUT NICE AND EASY.”

Another shot sounded. Adam cried out in pain as the bullet grazed his right arm.

“Adam!” Ben cried, hurrying to his son.

“I’m okay, Pa. It just grazed me,” Adam said through gritted teeth.

‘C’mon, sit down over here.”

Ben took his bandana off and carefully wrapped it around Adam’s arm.

“Pa, I’m fine,” Adam said.

“Sure you are. You’re pale as a ghost and can hardly sit up. I’d say you’re in great shape,” Ben scolded.

Suddenly a scream rang out from the cabin, then several shots. Then silence.

The shocked men outside looked at each other and waited. Suddenly the door of the cabin opened and out stepped Shaynne Taft holding Mishayla Breckenridge by the arm.

“It’s alright, Sheriff! I got him! Got the girl too! Told you I’d get ’em, Pa! Told you I would!” Shaynne Taft’s eyes were bright with excitement.

Mishayla Breckenridge was in total shock. She was frozen in place, staring into space, tears streaming down her cheeks. Sheriff Coffee placed his hand gently on her arm.

“Are you alright, Ma’am?” he asked gently.

Mishayla didn’t answer. She just continued to stare, seeing nothing.

Just then Cody came out of the cabin. All eyes turned to him, then fell to the ground as he shook his head. McKenna Breckenridge was dead.

McKenna’s body was wrapped and placed on the back of Cody’s horse. Mishayla rode behind Adam, her slim arms instinctively wrapped around his waist. They began the long, somber trip back to Virginia City.

*****

Dr. Martin checked Adam’s head and came to the conclusion that Adam did indeed have a mild concussion. He also cleaned and bandaged Adam’s arm.

After checking on Mishayla Breckenridge, who was in a drug-induced sleep, Adam and Ben started for home. On the way, Adam finally got the chance to question his father about Little Joe.

“Pa, how is Little Joe? Is he better?” he asked quietly.

“He’s very worried about you. He was afraid the kidnappers had gotten to you too.” Ben smiled a little. “Guess he was right, huh?”

“Yeah, well they don’t have me anymore. Let’s go home,” Adam said as he urged his horse forward a little faster.

As they entered the courtyard, Ben fully expected Hoss and Little Joe to come barreling out the door and was a little surprised when they didn’t. He helped Adam from his horse and, after turning both horses over to one of the hands; they started for the house together. They opened the door and stopped. They turned to each other smiling, and then looked back at the sight that had greeted them.

Hoss was sitting in his father’s favorite chair, sound asleep. Little Joe was in his lap, his left thumb planted firmly between his lips.

But it was what was in his right hand that caused a lump to come to Adam’s throat. For in that small hand was Adam’s shirt, gripped so tight, even in sleep, that Little Joe’s knuckles were white.

Adam walked softly towards his brothers. Just as he got to them, Hoss blinked his eyes open. Seeing his big brother, he grinned and reached out to hug him, tears filling his gentle blue eyes. Adam knelt down and hugged him back, so choked up he couldn’t speak. Adam reached over and gently shook his baby brother.

“Little Joe? Little Joe? Come on Little Buddy, wake up. It’s me – Adam,” he said softly.

Slowly Little Joe opened his eyes. When he saw Adam, his thumb fell from his mouth as he stared at his oldest brother. “Adam?” he whispered as he reached out to touch his face. “Is it really you? I’m not dreaming, am I? You’re really here? Did you get them, Adam?” He softly stroked Adam’s face.

“Yeah Buddy, it’s me. We got them. They won’t ever hurt you again.”

Adam waited for Joe’s reaction. Getting none, he lifted Little Joe’s chin up until he looked him in the eye.

“You OK, Buddy?” Adam asked, worry in his voice.

“I’m fine, now,” Little Joe answered. Then he noticed the bandages on Adam’s head and arm and began to get upset.

“Adam, you’re hurt. Adam, I…I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault you were hurt. I’m s-s-sorry!” Joe’s voice broke as tears began stealing down his pale cheeks.

“What are you sorry for, Little Joe? It wasn’t your fault.” Adam hugged his small brother close to him.

“Yes, it was,” he sobbed.

“Little Joe, come on now Buddy, calm down and tell me why you think this was your fault.”

After a few minutes and a drink of water, Little Joe had calmed down enough to talk to his family.

“Now, son, can you tell us why you think this was all your fault?” Ben asked softly.

“Because I didn’t do my homework. If I had, none of this would have ever happened. It’s all my fault. I’m sorry, Adam. Really, I am.” Little Joe’s eyes begged his family to forgive him.

“Little Joe, I want you to listen to me. OK?” Adam started.

Little Joe nodded his head as he wiped away a stray tear.

“The men that took you were Miss Breckenridge’s family. She didn’t know what they planned to do, but they had decided before they even came to Virginia City that you were the one they were going to kidnap. They would have taken you from someplace else if they couldn’t get you at school. So, you see, Little Joe, it wasn’t your fault at all. Do you understand that?” Adam prayed his little brother would accept his explanation and let the guilt go. He watched Little Joe’s small, pale face as a multitude of emotions passed over it in a few short minutes.

Finally, the little boy spoke. “It really wasn’t my fault, Adam? You’re not mad at me?” he asked, his eyes searching his brother’s face for confirmation.

“It really wasn’t your fault, and to prove I’m not mad at you, how about I let you ride Beauty tomorrow,” Adam said winking to his father.

Ben gave a start, then winked back at Adam. Right now he was willing to do anything to get his little boy back to some sense of normalcy.

Little Joe grinned from ear to ear as he hugged Adam’s neck tightly. Adam reached over and pulled Hoss into the group hug as Ben watched proudly, love in his heart; a smile on his lips; a tear in his eye.

*****

EPILOGUE:

Carlton and Shaynne Taft returned to Ohio without filing charges against Mishayla Breckenridge, who was heartbroken over the death of her brother. Mishayla, hoping to save her cousins from the same fate, told Sheriff Coffee where they were headed. They were arrested in Arizona by the territorial Marshall and returned to Ohio where they were convicted in the kidnapping of Ricky Taft. The judge sentenced them to 25 years in prison. Ben Cartwright did not file charges in Nevada. Mishayla changed her name to Mary Breckenridge, moved to Kentucky and opened a school that specialized in training nurses.

And….. Little Joe Cartwright finally got to ride Adam’s horse all by himself!

***The End***

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