Crystal Ball Predictions (by DebbieB)

Summary:  When Adam suddenly inherits a son, Joe is washed away by a flash flood, Ben breaks a leg and Hoss leaves home in search of his missing brother, the Cartwrights begin to wish they had never visited the fortune teller.

Rated: G (32,000 words)

 

 

 

                         Crystal Ball Predictions

 

Ben opened the door for the fourth time and stepped out onto the porch.  As hard as he tried, he could not still the uneasy feeling that had been growing within his mind all evening.  His sons had left earlier in the afternoon for the north pasture where he had sent them to repair a section of fence that had gotten washed out by the high rising waters just a day or so ago.  Ben glanced up at the sky and taking a deep breath, let it out slowly.  He did not like the looks of the dark storm clouds that were rapidly gathering.  It had rained every day now for five days, stopping late last night and thus giving his sons the required break they needed in order to fix the broken fences and return the stray cattle to their proper location.  Now it appeared as if the rain would start up again, and Ben was concerned that his sons would be caught in the downpour.

Ben turned and walked back into the house, closing the door behind him as he entered.  Pacing, Ben stopped before the fireplace and warmed his hands.  He would not admit it to anyone, lest of all one of his sons, but the predications that his three boys had received from the fortune-teller while attending the carnival last week in Carson City, worried the over-protective father.  He knew that Little Joe and Hoss had pestered their older brother, begging non-stop for him to join them in the gypsy’s tent and have their fortunes told.  Adam had repeatedly refused, not putting any store in such things but had finally given in to his brothers insistent pleas, if only to get them off his back.  Half an hour later, the three brothers had emerged from the tent the younger two laughing and joking about the things that the fortune teller had claimed she had seen in her crystal ball.

“You don’t really believe that foolishness do you?” asked Adam as he listened to his younger brothers comments.

“Aw shucks, Adam, course not.  Don’t ya think we’ve got better sense than that?” laughed Hoss, giving Joe a wink of the eye.

“I never know with the two of you.  Come on, we’ve wasted enough time.  We best be getting on home; Pa will be furious when he finds out how much time I let the two of you talk me into killing on such tomfoolery,” complained Adam as he mounted his horse and turned watching his brothers mount theirs.

“Hey Adam?”  piped Little Joe with a mischievous smile on his young face, “do you really have a son?  I mean, it could be possible you know, you’re forever telling us about all those beautiful ladies you keep company with when you go to San Francisco,” laughed Joe, ducking his head as Adam swung his arm out playfully trying to strike the younger boy.

“I think squirt, if I had fathered a son, or daughter for that matter, I would be very well aware of the fact.  But seeing as I have no wife as of yet, I cannot have either.  And as for the beautiful women in San Francisco, you better not bring that subject up in front of Pa, or it will cost you dearly, little brother.  Now drop the subject and let’s get home,” instructed Adam, giving his horse a swift kick and leaving the other two sitting in a cloud of dust, their loud laughter ringing in his ears.

Adam rode hard for several minutes, troubling thoughts worming their way into his thinking.  It could be possible he thought, but not likely, or at least he hoped not.  Judging from what the gypsy had stated he would have had to been about Joe’s age, eighteen, maybe nineteen at the time, which thinking back Adam had to admit, he had sowed his share of wild oats.  If the predication were true, which he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t, then the would-be son would be four or five years younger than Joe, making the unknown lad about twelve or thirteen, give or take a year.  Adam shook his head to chase away the disturbing thoughts, I don’t even believe in that rubbish, so why worry, he tried to convince himself and then slowed his horse in order to give his brothers time to catch up.

Ben rose from his chair at the sounds of laughter in the yard.  Quickly he jerked opened the door and smiled in relief as he watched his three sons leading their horses into the safety of the barn.  Ben watched each of his sons until all three disappeared from sight, smiling to himself at the close comradeship that the brothers shared. Looking up at the ever so dark clouds, Ben knew that the storm was nearing being as how he could feel the drop in the temperature as the winds increased in momentum and the air smelled of rain. It was a clean, fresh smell, one he had always liked unless of course it threatened the well being of one or all of his sons, which was the case on this night.

Ben stepped back inside and sat down at his desk pretending to be busy with some paper work.  There was no use letting his grown sons know that he had been worried about them.  Still, recalling what Hoss had let slip out about the gypsy’s predicted events, and seeing how she had stated that ‘much rain shall fall, bringing with it the breaking away of family’, Ben could only wonder.  Nonsense, he told himself, shaking his head.  No one can foresee the future, no one that is except the Almighty, who according to Ben’s beliefs already had all of their futures planned out.

Joe was the first to burst through the door, Adam and Hoss hurrying in behind.  The wind had risen even stronger and Hoss had to push hard at the door to get it closed.  Ben rose to greet his sons; their smiling faces bringing an end to his worry.

“Glad you made it home before that storm hit, boys,” greeted Ben while he watched them shucking their hats, coats and side arms.  All three looked up as their father welcomed them.

“Whew, that wind sure is agettin’ strong, ‘bout blew me away agettin’ inside,” laughed Hoss removing his big hat and placing it on the peg and turning to face his father.

“Oh come on now big brother, ain’t no wind that strong,” teased Joe as he ran his fingers through his unruly curls.

“I have to agree with the kid here Hoss, it would take more, something like a gale force wind to move that body around,” added Adam who poked his larger than average brother in the stomach with his long finger.

Ben laughed along with his sons and slapped Hoss on his back.  “You boys hungry?  Hop Sing kept your supper warm for you.  Come on, let’s sit down,” said Ben as he moved with his sons to the dinning room table.  Hop Sing hurried in and poured hot coffee for his three favorite sons and his employer before moving to the kitchen to bring in the meal he had kept in the warming oven for the boys.

“Have ya ever seed me when I tweren’t hungry, Pa?” laughed Hoss taking his seat across from Joe who continued to giggle.

Ben sat down in his own place at the head of the table, “No son, can’t honestly say that I have, unless you count that time when Bessie Sue dropped by unexpectedly and caught you smooching Mary Beth Wilcox out on the veranda, as I recall, you didn’t eat for about three days after that,” started Ben, stopping suddenly as loud laughter drowned out his words.

“He couldn’t eat, remember Pa, Bessie Sue gave him a fat lip,” snickered Adam as he forced his face into a serious expression.

“Yeah, and when Bessie Sue finished with him, Mary Beth broke the flower pot over his head and accused him of two timing her,” giggled Joe unable to control himself as he leaned across to Adam and shook his brother by his arm.

“Aw, shucks Pa, why’d hav’ta go and bring that up?” moaned Hoss, his red faced expression making his family burst into a second round of hearty laughter until even Hoss could not stop himself from joining in.

Adam tossed and turned trying to find a comfortable position in his bed.  He was not prone to having nightmares, not like his younger brother Joe who had been having them since he was five.  They had started after his mother, Marie, had died from injuries received from a fall from her horse and to this day the eighteen year old still suffered occasionally from them. Adam turned over on his side and shut his eyes trying to go back to sleep.  The dream had left him feeling unnerved and with troublesome thoughts.

‘You have a son, yes?’ the gypsy lady had asked.

‘No, I do not,’ replied Adam firmly, giving each of his brothers a stern look for having connived him into getting his fortune told to him.

“Ah, but my crystal ball sees a very young man; a handsome young man with dark eyes and dark raven hair, much like yourself, though you have yet to meet him,” whispered the gypsy.  ‘He will come soon, to claim his rightful spot, a spot that will be vacated by the one whom you love as a son.’

Adam turned again onto his back and sighed, wondering at the woman’s meaning.  Adam fluffed his pillows and turned to the opposite side, again shutting his eyes tightly in hopes of putting the woman’s words out of his mind.  Then he saw his younger brother’s face and heard again the gypsy woman speaking.

Joe was laughing, his handsome face distorted from scrunching up his nose.  And then she raised her hand, silencing the boy. ‘Do not laugh little boy,’ she had said with a ring of venom in her voice, her dark eyes piercing into his brother’s hazel eyes.

Joe’s face took on a serious expression.  ‘Why, what does your crystal ball say about my future?’ Joe had asked, a smile spreading across his boyish face as he glanced at his brothers.

‘I see water, lots and lots of water.  The rain, it will come soon and for many days the water will cover the earth, and with the rain will come a parting of the family,’ she paused and watched the faces of the three men.

‘So, it’s gonna rain, what does that have to do with me?’ his brother had inquired, the smile beginning to fade as he listened to her next words.

‘I see the water; it is running very swiftly over the ground.  It is carrying with it, many objects.   Ahh…. yes, I see, I see…you little one, you are in the water…No, wait.  I see your face, it is covered by the water and you are struggling, you are…’ she hesitated.  ‘No more…I see nothing more.  You go now, be on your way…’  She waved her hands in the air as if to shoo them away.

The gypsy woman started to rise but Hoss had placed his large hand on her arm, stopping her from leaving.

“Hold on a minute, missy, what about me?  What’s that ball of yours say about me, heh?” Hoss had asked.

Adam could tell that the lady was uncomfortable, not wanting to say more, but she returned to her chair and as her hands spread across the crystal ball and she stared into it’s depth, she paused and looked into the faces of each of the brothers, stopping and returning to face Hoss.

‘I see eyes the color of the sky and they are filled with much sadness.  You will grieve for what once was.’  Again her smooth hands caressed the glass ball and looking into the blue eyes that stared in awe at her, she continued.

‘You will make a long journey.  You are searching for the lost one; your search will take you far from where your heart is but you shall return only this time you will know things to be different from what they appear to be and your conscience will force you to voice your concerns and the truth shall stand on it’s own.’  Rosa stood up and waved her hands, ‘Go, all of you.  The ball speaks of nothing else.’

The brothers, silent now, stood and quietly exited the tent.  With out so much as a word to one another, until they were far enough from the enclosure that their laughter could not to be heard, they slowly walked down the street to where their horses were tied before Adam turned to speak.

“You don’t really believe that foolishness do you……………………

Adam was drawn from a troubled sleep by the sounds of the pounding rain as it beat down on the roof.  Pulling back the heavy curtain that covered the window his mood grew even blacker as he looked out onto the dismal day.  The sound of the barn door being pulled opened forced his attention to the activity below and he watched as Joe led the team of horses from the barn, the supply wagon following and covered with a heavy tarp.

Today was Saturday and Adam knew that it was Joe’s turn to make the trip into town for the needed supplies.  He almost felt sorry for his younger brother; he sure did not envy the boy the unpleasant task, not in this rain.  But, reasoned Adam, what needed to be done had to be done, and if anyone could accomplish it in this weather, Joe Cartwright was the one to do it.  Adam smiled, nothing, not even a flash flood could damper his kid brother’s enthusiasm when it came to going into town.  Adam watched as his father gave the boy his last minute instructions before moving from the window and dressing.  His stomach growled making Adam groan softly, okay, okay, I’m hurrying, he laughingly told his belly.

“Where’s Hoss?  I saw Joe leaving earlier…wait don’t tell me, Hoss decided at the last minute to go with him?” asked Adam as he sat down at the table.

“Oh you know Hoss, he worries more about that boy than you and I put together.  He used the excuse that he didn’t want Joe trying to hurry the team in this rain.  You know how Joe tends to rush those animals.  Just like his ma used to be, always in a hurry, even if there were no reason to be hurrying,” smiled Ben, his eyes taking on a far away look and Adam knew he was remembering another time.

“Don’t worry then, Hoss won’t Joe do something he’s not suppose to be doing.  Not with those horses he loves so well,” stated Adam reaching for the platter of flapjacks and moving six or more onto his plate.

Adam glanced up and saw his father watching him and smiled.  “I’m hungry.”

Ben laughed and shook his head, “you keep eating like that and you’ll soon catch up with Hoss.”

“Not likely Pa, no way can I eat as much as that bull,” returned Adam smiling.

“Dadburnit, Short Shanks, slow these horses down.  Ain’t no call fer ya to be runnin’em like this.  Now, do as I say, afore we git ta the bridge,” commanded Hoss as he shouted over the thunder that boomed.

“Whoa,” Joe called out as he pulled back on the reins.  “WHOA!” he shouted again with no results.

Using all the strength he could muster, Joe stood up in the wagon and pulled harder.  He had not intended for the horses to break into a run but the continual rolling thunder had spooked the large animals causing him to loose control.  Fighting the aching in his arms and back, Joe pulled back again and just as Hoss grabbed for the lines, the wagon seemed to suddenly be flying.  Joe felt himself being tossed upward and knew by the pain that struck his body that he had landed on something hard as he sank beneath the raging waters.

Hoss was watching the road ahead and gasped when the bridge came into sight.  The rain had caused the creek to overflow and the water ran across the spot where the bridge had once stood.  Suddenly realizing that Joe had lost control of the team, Hoss reached up and grabbed for the reins just as they started across what was left of the bridge.  The last thing that Hoss saw before the remaining bridge gave way, was his younger brother sailing out of the wagon and through the air.

In the next instant Hoss was fighting for his life, the water swirled violently around him and he struggled to hold on to what was left of the wagon.  Twice he was knocked under, the swift current carrying him down stream at a frightening speed.  When he was finally able to grab hold and hang on, his eyes sought the dark mucky water for his brother.

“JOE!  JOE!” screamed Hoss repeatedly until his voice cracked.  Frantically Hoss turned, searching the turbulent waters for any sign of Joe but could see nothing.  After being carried miles from where he had entered the water, Hoss saw a lull in the main stream ahead and knew if he were to ever make an attempt to swim to safety, he would have to do it now.  Taking a deep breath, Hoss let go of the boards he had been clinging to and swam for shore.  The water fought against his efforts but at last he pulled himself from the churning waters and collapsed onto the shore.

“Hoss, wake up son.  Can you hear me, boy?”  Ben gently slapped at Hoss’ cheeks in an effort to arouse the boy.  “Hoss, where’s Joe?  Hoss, please son wake up,” pleaded Ben giving Adam who had just approached him, a wary look.

“Did you find any sign of your brother?” Ben asked Adam hopefully while cradling Hoss’ head in his lap.

“Just this,” said Adam holding up a piece of green material that both recognized as coming from Joe’s jacket.

“Oh God, Hoss, Hoss.  Can you hear me, boy?” Ben patted Hoss’ cheeks again.

This time Hoss stirred and immediately began coughing up mouthfuls of water.  Ben held the boy’s head to the side, allowing the water to be more easily spit out.  After several moments, Hoss opened his eyes and instantly began fighting against the arms that held him.

“Joe, I gotta find Joe.”  Hoss struggled against his father’s attempts to hold him down.  “Let me go,” he grumbled as he pulled free, “I gotta find my little brother.”

“Hoss, calm down son,” said Ben as he rose and grabbed the larger man’s arm.  Hoss swung around, his hand coiled into a tight fist but stopped suddenly as recognition registered.

“Pa,” Hoss cried softly, tears swiftly filling his eyes.  “We gotta find Joe, he got throwed from the wagon.”

Ben glanced at the raging waters and felt his heart sinking in despair as he remembered that Joe was not a very strong swimmer unlike his two older brothers.

“I know son, we have several men combing the shores on both sides.  There’s no telling how far down stream he might have gotten.  We’ll just keep looking until we find him,” Ben forced his voice to remain calm though his insides where churning as hard as the waters that had nearly claimed one of his sons, and possibly had claimed the youngest.

“Are you feeling up to helping, or do you need to lie down?” Ben asked, concerned for his son’s well being.

“No, I gotta find him,’ replied Hoss.  “Pa, tweren’t his fault, those ole horses bolted when that thunder spooked ‘em.  Joe just didn’t have ‘nough strength in his arms to pull’em to a stop and afore I knowed what was happenin’ they runned clear out into the middle of that crik.  Last time I saw Joe, he was flying through the air, next thing I knowed, I was in the water myself.”  Hoss glanced over his shoulder at the water and shook his head.

“Come on, he’s bound ta be here somewhere.”  Ben watched as Hoss moved away to join Adam and the others in the search knowing in his heart that this big man blamed himself for his younger brother’s disappearance.

The search party searched throughout the long rainy night, using lanterns and torches and combing both sides of the banks of the swollen waters.  When daylight came, a new group of volunteers took over where the others had stopped so that the tired and exhausted men could rest before starting out again later.  By the time that nightfall descended on the group, several miles had been covered but still there remained no sign of Ben Cartwright’s youngest son, Little Joe.  Ben refused to give up hope, Hoss had all but collapsed and Ben had had to order the boy to bed.  Hoss adamantly refused to go home and had instead crawled into one of the many makeshift tents that their neighbors had so generously supplied so that the men could have a place to get in out of the rain.

Day after day the heavens continued to open up and douse the earth with rain.  The river and creeks continued to flow out of their banks while the water soaked earth refused to hold any more.  Never, agreed the group of volunteers had they ever seen it rain as it had for the last ten days, thus hampering the rescue operation.  It was because of the rain that many of the ranchers had given up hope of ever finding Ben’s son and had broken away from the groups and began returning to their own homes and families.  The current was moving too rapidly, the waters too high and dangerous the men had declared, leaving Ben standing alone with his older two sons.

“We’re sorry Ben, but its no use.  He’s gone Ben, not even a grown man could have survived in those waters for as long as Little Joe has been missing,” apologized one rancher.

“Ben, we’ve searched a total of twenty to thirty miles and you know what we found.  His jacket, boot and hat.  I’m sorry Ben, I’m truly sorry, but I have to get back to my own family, you understand, don’t you?” asked another, his head bowed low unable to meet the dark eyes of the grieving father.

Ben nodded his head, “Yes, I understand.  I want to thank all of you for your help, but my sons and I here aren’t giving up, not yet, not until we know something for sure either way,” said Ben shaking hands with his friends and neighbors as each man stepped up to him and bid him well.

When most of the men had left, Ben turned to face Adam and Hoss.  “What about the two of you?  You ready to quit too?” he asked, a bit of sarcasm in his voice.

Hoss was the first to speak up, “Naw Pa, not me.  I won’t ever give up.  It’s my fault that he’s gone and…”

“Hoss, stop it,” blared Ben.  “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times, this was not your fault.  You have to stop thinking like that, it was an accident, pure and simple,” Ben added in a more calm voice.  “No one blames you son, please, stop torturing yourself like this.”  Ben rested his hand on Hoss’ big shoulder and gave the boy a reassuring squeeze.

“Pa’s right big brother.  Come on, help me get his gear packed up and we’ll move our camp further down stream and work from there,” said Adam as he began placing the equipment into the packs on the packhorse.

For two more days Ben and his sons searched the banks and surrounding areas for any sign that Joe might have somehow made it to shore.  Spirits were low, the outcome looked bleak but none of the Cartwrights would voice their fears to the others, but each knew in their own hearts that it would take a miracle if they were to find the youngest family member at all now.

Dusk was quickly approaching as the men made camp for the night.  The rain had finally stopped early that morning and the sun had blared down on the watery earth in a futile attempt to begin the drying out process.  Adam and Hoss had each returned to their temporary camp and waited for their father’s return hoping that he might have found something that would give them a clue as to what might have happened to their youngest sibling.  Both young men were shocked when Ben burst into the camp at a gallop.  Buck tried to stop as Ben applied pressure to his reins but slipped in the mud going down on to his knees.  Ben was tossed from the saddle and with a thud landed hard in a nearby puddle.  Adam and Hoss moved swiftly to Ben’s side as the older man lay moaning covered from head to foot with mud.

“Pa!” shouted Hoss bending over his father.  “Are you okay?” he asked worriedly.

“My leg, I think it’s broken,” moaned Ben using Adam’s arm for leverage and pulling himself into a sitting position.  “Of all the fool stunts, and to think how many times I have yelled at your younger brother for doing just what I did,” fussed Ben, a small smile beginning to reshape his pained expression.

Adam returned the smile glad to see that his father was not hurt any worse and that he could find just a smidgen of humor in the accident.  “Don’t worry Pa, when Joe gets home, we won’t tell him, it will be our little secret.”

“Well, let’s just hope that Joseph is home before this thing heals.  I’d rather have him teasing me about this than not have him home at all.  Now, help me over to the fire son,” moaned Ben, the pain beginning to worsen.

Hoss and Adam had no other choice but to break camp and return to the house with their father.  For the time being, the search for Joe would have to wait, but not for long decided Hoss to himself.  As soon as their father’s leg was set and he was assured that Ben rested comfortably, Hoss knew in his heart that he would go on, alone if necessary.  He had promised himself that first night that he would not stop until he knew for certain the outcome of Joe’s accident.  Regardless what everyone told him about not feeling guilty about what had happened, Hoss felt in his heart that he was, he should have been paying more attention to the conditions around them than trying to doze.  Hoss swiped the back of his hand across his eyes, if he never found his little brother, he already knew that he could never forgive himself for what had happened.

Adam found some branches that he could use as a splint to hold Ben’s leg in place until the doctor could put a cast on his leg.  “Bite down on this Pa,” ordered Adam as he handed his father a piece of clean rag.  “I have to set this leg before we can move you.”

Ben stuffed the rag into his mouth and giving Adam a nod of his head, Ben closed his eyes to the pain as Adam snapped the bone back into place.  Ben grunted, the sound muffled by the cloth but opened his eyes after feeling that the bone had been properly set.

“You okay Pa?” asked Hoss as he held the broken leg while Adam placed the sticks in place and tied them securely with strips of cloth.

Ben gave his sons a weak smile and nodded his head, the pain clearly visible on the tired face of the older Cartwright.  Ben clenched his teeth as Adam finished with the makeshift cast and helped his father to his feet.  Adam stopped briefly to allow his father to catch his breath when he noticed how pale Ben had become. Carefully Hoss and Adam placed their father on the back of his horse then turned to finish with the supplies that were packed onto the pack animal and with Hoss in the lead, they headed for home.

Adam now rode ahead, going first into town to bring Doc Martin back to the ranch in order to properly care for Ben’s broken leg.  By the time that he had called on the doctor and the two were headed for the Ponderosa, Hoss along with the help of Hop Sing, had Ben comfortably situated in bed waiting, rather impatiently, for the physician’s arrival.

“Ben, what in the world have you done to yourself?” chided Paul as he entered Ben’s bedroom and approached the bed.

“I broke my dang fool leg, that’s what I’ve done,” snapped Ben, obviously irritated at his foolishness and just as obviously taking it out on the others in the room with him.

“Adam said you came barreling into camp and that your horse threw you,” said Paul, trying to hide the smile that wanted to curl his lips upward.  He removed the covers that lay on top of Ben’s broken leg in a last attempt at masking his face.  Slowly he began to remove the temporary splint and examine the break, all the while feeling along the calf of his patient’s leg to be sure that Adam had properly set the bone.

“Oh, he did, did he?  Well, for your information, my horse did not throw me, thank you, Buck slid in the mud and went down, I fell off,” again Ben snapped, this time giving his oldest son a disgusted look.

Paul laughed and gave Ben a doubtful look of his own.  “Benjamin Cartwright, right at this minute, you sound very much like that youngest boy of yours.”

The room suddenly became silent as all eyes turned to watch the face of Ben Cartwright drain of what little color was remaining.  Ben hung his head as his emotions suddenly became too much for him.

“I’m sorry Ben.  I guess I shouldn’t have said that,” apologized Paul giving Ben a gentle pat on his good leg.

Ben looked at his friend, his own misery etched onto his face.  “Aw, it’s okay Paul.  I just wish I could hear him complaining now.  I swear it would be music to my ears.”  Ben gave them a weak smile and laid his head back against the soft pillow, shutting his eyes and letting his heart take him back to the days just before the boy’s disappearance.

The water moved rapidly down stream, much too fast for the injured boy to do more than cling to the small tree he had finally been able to grab onto.  Joe could feel his body giving out on him, the pain in his ribcage making it impossible for him to make a try at swimming against the current and toward the shore.  To the weary boy it had seemed like hours now since the wagon and team had been swept into the raging waters.  The last thing that Joe could remember was trying to bring the team under control, after that everything was a blur and all of his energies now were concentrated on keeping himself from drowning.  Joe hit more turbulence and had to fight hard to keep from losing his hold on the tree as he and the sapling was pulled downward, the water rushing over his body at a frightening speed.  Just when Joe felt as if his lungs were ready to burst and he would surely drown, the force of the under current pushed him upward and to the surface of the water.  Joe coughed and spit water from his mouth, looking back over his shoulder from where he had just come and silently whispering a prayer of gratitude that he had made it this far.

Every muscle and joint in his body ached, his head throbbed, his right arm had a long gash that had yet to stop bleeding and Joe feared that he would not be able to hold on much longer.  His eyes stayed fixed on the fierce waters in front of him as his thoughts momentarily turned to his brother.  Joe wondered how Hoss had faired when what was left of the bridge had given way and the wagon had been swept into the swirling river.  Joe could only hope that his brother had somehow managed to swim to shore and with God’s help had been found in time.  Joe’s thoughts quickly returned to the violent waters as the sounds grew in volume and watched in horror as an unexpected waterfall drew nearer.  Frantically, Joe searched the banks for a means of escape but realized too late that his body was unwilling and unable to follow the commands that his brain issued.  Joe’s last thoughts before being tossed outward over the edge of the falls and downward to the rocks below were of his family and just how much he loved them.

“Papa, Papa, come quickly.”

“What is it child?  What is all of this yelling about?” asked the concerned father.

“Look Papa, down there,” the young girl pointed at a prone figure lying twisted among the rocks, “it’s a man Papa, see?”

“Yes, yes, I see.  Run and fetch your brother.  Tell Thomas to bring some rope and blankets; we may need them to bring the body up.   Hurry Patience, I must see if he’s still alive,” ordered Jacob.

“Hurry child.”  Jacob gently nudged his daughter toward their camp where they had stopped for the noonday meal.   As he turned and began the descent down the bank toward the crumbled body, Jacob whispered a silent prayer on the stranger’s behalf.

Jacob reached the spot where Joe lay and approached the boy with caution.  Stooping to inspect the body, Jacob placed his work worn fingers to Joe’s throat and was surprised to find a weak pulse.  Jacob glanced upward that the waterfall and slowly shook his head.

“God must surely be watching out for you mister,” he mumbled as he felt along the twisted body finding the broken bones in both legs and left arm.  Jacob probed gently along the ribcage and noted the busted ribs as well.  Thomas hurried down the slope to his father’s side bringing the requested items.

“Is he dead, Pa?” asked the younger man.

“No, but he should be; from the looks of him he’s been in the water for quite a spell.  And all these broken bones, the man must have surely found favor in our Lord’s eyes.  Help me turn him over, easy now, both legs are broken,” instructed Jacob as he gently slipped his arms under Joe’s body in an effort to turn him onto his back.

“Sweet Mary, mother of Jesus!” exclaimed Jacob when he saw Joe’s bruised and battered face.  “He’s just a boy Thomas, a lad no older than your brother Mathew,” Jacob stated as he brushed Joe’s hair from his brow and wiped what he could of the mud from about Joe’s face.

“Do you think he lives around here Pa?” inquired Thomas, helping his father to gently place Joe onto one of the blankets.

“I’ve no idea Thomas, though if he does, he must live very far back into the forest as there are no ranches or farms that I know of anywhere near here except for the Fishers and ours.   Careful now, tie the rope around him to keep him wrapped in the blanket.  We best get him up to your Ma, she’ll know what to do for him.”

Jacob and Thomas proceeded up the slope, using care in how they carried Joe.  Once or twice they slipped in the soft earth and nearly dropped the unconscious boy.  Each time, soft moans could be heard emitting from beneath the blanket that told the father and son duo that the injured boy still clung precariously to life.

Jacob glanced up toward the top of the slope, Martha his wife, Mathew his nineteen-year old son, Patience his youngest daughter, Mark and Luke his seventeen-year old twins were all waiting to help their father and brother raise the body over the edge and onto the ground.

“Who is he Papa, is he hurt badly or is he dead?” Patience asked excitedly.

Martha placed her hand onto the girl’s shoulder and gently applied pressure, bringing a silence to her constant chatter.

Jacob looked up at Martha, “He’s just barely alive and needs a doctor.  His legs are broken, as is his left arm and I’m sure he has some busted ribs.  He’s unconscious but we heard him moaning a minute ago,” stated Jacob as he and Thomas carried Joe to the family’s wagon and carefully placed Joe in the back.  The family gathered around the wagon, each anxious to catch a glimpse of the mysterious man they had found.

Martha climbed into the back and knelt down next to Joe, being careful to undo the rope around his body and removing the blanket that covered his face and body.  Martha gasped when her eyes took in the sight of Joe’s swollen face and tenderly her hands caressed his cheeks.  She felt the sting of tears as they clouded her eyes and she could do nothing to stop them from rolling down her own cheeks.

“Oh Jacob, he’s just a boy,” she exclaimed as she brushed away small particles of gravel from the mass of dark curls.  “We must get him home and send for the doctor at once,” Martha stated.

“Mathew, you ride into town and fetch the doctor, Luke you and Mark ride on back to the house and have your sisters bring the cot into the room off the porch. Help them get it ready.  We will be there as soon as we can, now hurry all of you.”  Martha clapped her hands together and her children sprang into action.

“What about me Mama?  What can I do to help?” asked ten-year old Patience expectantly.

“You sweetheart, can ride up front with your Papa and make sure he doesn’t hit all the holes and ruts in the road,” smiled Martha as she helped her daughter into the front of the wagon and dried the tears that remained on her pretty face.

It was only a matter of minutes before they were on their way.  Martha had chosen to remain in the back so that she could keep an eye on her patient.  With a mother’s care, she washed away as much dirt and mud from Joe’s face and from the gash on his right arm as was possible.  Her heart broke each and every time that the wagon jarred from hitting a rut and Joe’s cries reached her ears.  Martha took Joe’s hand in her own and whispered soft words of comfort as she stroked his head.  When the wagon wheel rolled into a deep hole and tossed sideways, Joe’s scream of anguish sent the motherly woman into a steady stream of prayers that never once stopped until at last they reached their home.

Hannah and Sarah had everything ready by the time that their parents arrived with the unknown boy and stood aside as their father carried him into the little room and placed him tenderly on the cot.

Hannah sixteen, and Sarah fifteen, both stretched their necks as the blanket was removed from around Joe.  Both pairs of blue eyes widened as they watched and each turned to meet the other as small smiles spread across their faces at seeing the handsome young boy on the cot before them.

“Girls,” barked Jacob, seeing their expressions, “bring some warm water, soap and towels in here so that I can clean this boy up.”

The smiles faded just as quickly as they had appeared and both girls scurried from the room to do their father’s bidding.  Jacob’s eyes met his wife’s and briefly held her gaze, their smiles telling each other that they knew what had made their young daughter’s faces suddenly brighten.

“I’ll bathe him, you go ahead with your chores,” Martha said at last.

“Martha, you can’t he…”started Jacob.

Martha straightened to her full height, “Oh yes I can, and I will.  Goodness knows, I’ve seen my share of naked boys in my time,” she smiled at the shocked look on her husband’s face.

“Well yes,” he stammered, “but the boy might not like the idea of you seeing him.”

“And who’s going to tell him, pray tell?  If he doesn’t ask, then he need not be embarrassed, now should he?”  Martha stood with her hands on her hips and dared her husband to abolish her.

Jacob smiled and leaned over and placed a kiss on his wife’s brow, “As usual Mother, I stand corrected.”

“Oh Jacob, I can’t help but feel the need to care for him.  Just look at him, why he is almost the spitting image of our James, God rest his soul.”  Martha placed a loving hand on her husband’s arm before turning to take the washbasin and needed items from her daughters.

“Hannah, please fetch me one of Mark or Luke’s night shirts for when the doctor is finished with the boy.”  Martha sat the items on the table and ushered everyone out of the room and closed the door after them.

Joe cried out in spite of the fact that the hands that tended him were loving and gentle hands.  Martha worked steadily and tried to ignore the pitiful protests that came from her injured patient.  The cries sparked her motherly instinct and she fought with herself for control over her emotions.  Her memories of her own stricken son flashed before her eyes each and every time that Joe’s pain caused him to vocalize his misery until she finally gave herself over to her tears and wept for both her son and the young man who so desperately needed her care.

The doctor arrived just before dark, Jacob had returned from doing his chores and took Martha’s place while she went into the kitchen and helped her daughters with finishing the evening meal.  When Doctor Blakefield stepped into the little room off the porch, his eyes widened at the sight of the boy lying on the bed.  Quickly he began his examination, giving Joe a significant amount of morphine to kill the pain.  Jacob stayed to help the doctor when time came to set the broken bones and apply the plaster casts. He could not help but feel sorry for the wounded boy when even with the pain medication his cries could be heard throughout the large rambling farmhouse.  Jacob watched the boy’s facial expressions as the doctor worked and all the while wondered at the boy’s identity and where he might be from and more so, whether he had parents that were worried sick about his disappearance.

The doctor came the next afternoon to check on Joe’s welfare and had found that the boy had spent the better part of the night and morning in a deep drug induced sleep.  Martha had stayed close to the boy, never leaving his bedside for very long.  During the night Joe had tossed and turned and cried out in an attempt to speak, but each time had failed to voice his words, the medicine never allowing him to remain awake for very long periods.  Joe would only need to close his eyes to be once again lost to the world around him thus putting a temporary end to his futile efforts at seeking answers to his unvoiced questions.

It was on the third morning after being found and brought to the Carver home that Joe began his long journey back from obscurity.  His mind fought with his body, the mind commanding his limbs to move, to get up, but the body rejected the orders, choosing instead to remain immobile.  Joe felt as if his body was wrapped tightly, unaware that his ribcage was bound with long strips of cloth preventing movement of the ribs, or that his legs were weighted down by the heavy plaster casts and lastly, the only things that his mind was fully aware of, the cast on his left arm, the tight bandage on his right and the constant throbbing in his head.

Joe groaned and slowly opened his eyes.  Everything was fuzzy and distorted; he could not make out the faces that stared down at him.  He tried to sit up but every muscle in his body ached, starting at the top of his head clear down to his feet.  And then gentle hands rested on his shoulders, forcing him back into the soft bed. Shutting his eyes to the nausea that threatened him, Joe listened to the soft whispers that buzzed about his head and tried to put names to the voices.  He listened for his father’s voice, desperately hoping that his pa was nearby, but the deep mellow sound that he knew so well was not among the group that surrounded him.  Chancing a peek from under his long lashes, Joe sought for his brother Hoss’ face, the last face he remembered seeing, but could not find him.  Where was he?  What had happened to him?  Why couldn’t he move and who were all of these people?  And why was his head pounding as it was?

“Pa?” cried Joe, “PA?”

Panic began to fill Joe’s heart, he knew he had just called out for his father, but why had they not seemed to have heard the sound of his voice?  What was wrong?

“PA!” shouted Joe, again trying to rise from the bed but was stopped by the pain that racked his body and he felt again the gentle hands.  Looking up, Joe stared into the soft, compassionate eyes of the woman whom Joe vaguely recalled being in his dreams.

“The boy is hurt badly and you mustn’t allow him to move about, not for several days,” Joe heard the order that the man who seemed to be in charge issued to the group.  Joe watched as the others all nodded their heads in acknowledgement of the statement.

Frightened, Joe stared at the man’s face seeking recognition.  Slowly Joe raised his right hand and rubbed at his eyes, even that small gesture caused the pain to flow from his arm to his head.  When his vision began to clear, Joe looked around the room at the people who stood around his bed.  Listening and watching, Joe knew that the people where talking about him, he could hear their muted whispers; he watched the expressions on their faces and saw the glances that were cast in his direction.  Suddenly the man approached the bed for the second time and gently removed the blanket that covered Joe’s arms.  Watching the man’s face, hoping that the gentleman would speak, Joe flinched as the man injected the needle into his arm.

“That should help him rest,” the doctor told the others.  “He’ll be out for several hours, I want someone with him at all times.  This boy needs all the rest he can get in order to recover.  Has he said anything or asked for anyone?” the physician inquired as he put his medical instruments into his black bag.

“Nothing, he’s tried to speak, but can’t seem to get the words out,” commented the older lady who gently placed Joe’s arms under the soft blankets and patted his cheek.

Joe tried again to speak but the affects of the powerful medicine took control of his body and mind refusing to grant him any further chance to ask his questions.  Joe closed his eyes and surrendered to the slumber that claimed him.  Quietly the Carver family moved out of the room, leaving Martha and Jacob alone with the doctor.

“He will be all right won’t he?” asked Martha, concerned as she busied herself straightening the blankets around Joe’s shoulders, fluffing his pillows and stopping to lovingly caress his face with the back of her hand.

“I think that depends on the boy, Martha.  He seems healthy enough but it’s obvious that he has been through some trauma, and no telling how long he was in the water.  Those floods north of us have been extremely bad and it is possible that the boy travel several miles in that swift current.  He sure swallowed enough of that nasty stuff.”  The doctor stepped over to the bed and placed his hand on Joe’s brow.

“His fever doesn’t seem as high today as yesterday.  You keep a close watch on him Martha and if there is any change, send one of the boys to fetch me.  I think with time and plenty of your good cooking the boy should be okay, we’ll just have to wait it out and see.”  Doctor Blakefield gently patted the concerned woman’s shoulder.

“Jess, why can’t the boy speak, he’s tried, but nothing comes out?” asked Jacob as he watched the pained expressions that Joe’s face took on each time the boy tried to move about on the bed.

“That could be several things, if the boy can actually speak, then it could be from the trauma, as I said, I’m sure the lad was in the water for quite a spell; could be he was just so frightened by what happened that he temporarily lost his voice.  Again, Jacob, time will tell.  Do you have any idea who he might be or where he came from?” asked the doctor moving out of the room with Jacob close on his heels.

“None, even the boys say they have never seen him around, and if he was from here, they would know.  With all these boys of mine, there isn’t too many kids that they don’t know,” laughed Jacob.

“The boy’s a good looking kid too, under all those bruises, I’m sure if he were from around here, Hannah or Sarah would have seen him before.  He looks to be about seventeen or eighteen wouldn’t you say?” replied Doctor Blakefield.

Jacob laughed at the doctor’s description of his children’s knowledge of the area young people, “I agree, on all counts.  I’ll walk you to the door doc,” smiled Jacob who winked at his wife as she entered the kitchen and who had overheard the doctor’s comments regarding her seven children.

“Just be sure he keeps quite Martha, and give him those powders I left you if he needs anything for the pain, one more thing, make sure you keep those pillows under his legs; elevating them that way will help lessen the pain some,” the doctor called over his shoulder as he walked with Jacob to his buggy.

“I’ll check in on him tomorrow afternoon, Jacob.”  The physician climbed into his buggy and gently slapped the reins onto his horse’s rump, waving good-bye as he headed away from the homestead.

The loud pounding on the door caused Hop Sing to hurry from his kitchen to open the door.  “Hello, I can help you?” he asked of the stranger who stood in the doorway, a young boy standing next to the older gentleman with a look of disgust on his face.

“I am looking for a Mr. Cartwright, is this the Ponderosa?” the man inquired of Hop Sing.

“Yes, it is Ponderosa, come in, please,” bowed Hop Sing stepping aside to allow the pair to enter.  “Which Mister Cart’lite you want?  Mister Ben or Mister Adam?  Per’aps you want Mister Hoss Cart’lite?”  Hop Sing waved his hand toward the great room where the older gentleman moved to take a seat on the settee.

“Mr. Adam Cartwright, if you please,” he said to Hop Sing then turned to the boy, “Sit,” he instructed the boy in a harsher voice.  The boy gave the man a scowl that was not missed by Hop Sing and then complied.

“I get Mister Adam, you wait, be right back,” said Hop Sing as he started for the stairs where Adam was still with Doc Martin and his father in Ben’s bedroom.  Gently Hop Sing knocked on the bedroom door before entering and when Adam turned in his direction Hop Sing motioned for Adam to step into the hallway with him.

“Hop Sing, what is it?” asked Adam, glancing over his shoulder at his father who was arguing with the doctor about having to be confined to the bed for several days and not being allowed to help in the search for his missing son.

“I sorry Mister Adam, but gentleman and boy downstairs, wish to speak with you, you come?  Yes?” Hop Sing informed his number one son.

“A man and boy? Who are they?  Oh, never mind Hop Sing, please tell them I will be right down,” said Adam and patted the shoulder of the family servant, “I just need to make sure that Pa understands that he’s not to get out of that bed.”

“Good luck, Mister Ben stubborn man, he want to find Li’le Joe, no like not able to search for boy,” Hop Sing bowed to Adam and hurried back down stairs.

“Hmm, neither do I,” mumbled Adam to himself as he returned to his father’s bedside.

“You heard what I said Ben, you are not allowed out of this bed, for any reason.  Do I make myself clear or do I have to use force?” Paul threatened, trying hard to remain serious.  Ben was as bad a patient as Joseph had always been and though things looked grim for this family, Paul could not help but see the similarities between father and son.

“I understand,” growled Ben, “but I have to find my son Paul, surely you understand that?”

“Pa, don’t worry, Adam and I will look for him.  I told you before, I’ll not stop until I find him, one way or another,” added Hoss, his large hands stuffed into his pockets as he tried to reassure his bedridden father.

Paul turned to face Ben’s two older boys, “And who is going to stay here and keep your father in this bed?”

“Well, if need be Adam can stay, but regardless, I aim to find Joe.  It’s my fault that…” Hoss paused and looked at his father.  Seeing the dark scowl that suddenly appeared on Ben’s face, Hoss stomped from the room leaving his sentence unfinished.

The three men swapped looks, each understanding Hoss’ need to be the one to search for his missing brother.

“Let him go Ben, he can’t help but feel as if he’s to blame.  It might do him some good and besides, one man on his own just might be able to cover more ground quicker than a whole group of men,” Paul suggested, placing his instruments into his black bag.

“I suppose you’re right Paul, but I still don’t like it,” Ben stated.

“Pa, I have some business to take care of, you do as Doc says and rest.  And don’t worry about Hoss, he’ll be fine and Pa…try not to worry any more about Joe, Hoss and I will set out again once you’re settled,” Adam told his father giving the physician a nod of his head, he slipped out of the room and hurried downstairs.

Adam slowed his steps as he turned the corner of the stairs where he could see into the great room.  Sitting on the couch was a young boy around the age of twelve or thirteen.  Next to him was a slightly older man, not quite as old has his father thought Adam, but older than himself.  What stopped Adam was when the boy raised his head and Adam saw his face.  The boy was handsome to say the least, his hair as black as coal with large dark brown eyes and when he smiled, Adam noticed the small dimple in his cheek.  Suddenly Adam felt as if his heart had stopped beating, time stood still as he in that instant recalled the gypsy lady’s predication that soon his son would come to take his rightful place, a place vacated by the one he loved as a son.  Suddenly the meaning to the words that had been spoken that night in the tent of a fortuneteller made sense to the astonished oldest Cartwright son.  Adam gulped and continued down the stairs almost in dread of what he knew was fixing to happen.

“Mister Adam Cartwright I presume?” asked the gentleman as he arose and watched the dark stranger walk slowly down the stairs.

Adam smiled slightly, “You presume correctly, and you are?”

“Mister Cartwright, my name is Jonathon Wheeler, and this young man is my grandson, Davie,” Jonathon introduced himself and the boy, extending his hand to Adam.

Adam clasped the older gentleman’s hand in his and instantly felt the moisture in the palm of the other man’s hand, but smiled graciously.  Fighting to keep himself from wiping his own hand on the leg of his pants, Adam turned and offered his hand instead to the young boy.

“Davie, its a pleasure to meet you,” greeted Adam who could not keep his eyes from the boy’s face.

Adam felt Jonathon’s eyes on him and something deep within Adam’s mind sent up a warning flag.  Facing the boy’s grandfather, Adam masked his face, making it impossible for the stranger to read his thoughts.

“Mister Wheeler, just what is it that you wanted to see me about?” Adam asked cordially.

Wheeler seemed to suddenly break out into a sweat as he faced Adam, “Hmm…Mister Cartwright, I hardly know where to begin,” he stammered.

Adam pointed to the settee indicating that the men sit.  “Why don’t you have a seat Mister Wheeler and start at the beginning?  Brandy sir?” asked Adam as he moved to pour the drink.

Hop Sing appeared from his kitchen carrying a tray of cookies and milk for the boy and set them on the table in front of the settee.  “Boy eat cookies, drink milk, make grow big and strong, like Hoss,” smiled the servant pleasantly.

“I don’t wanna be strong like a horse, you stupid chink,” shouted the boy surprising the others.

Hop Sing’s face fell as he stared in shock at the boy’s insolence. Adam shot the boy a dark warning glare and whirled around to face the lad.  Forgetting himself, Adam grabbed the boy by the arm and pulled him to his feet.

“How dare you come into my home and speak to anyone in this house in such a rude manner,” Adam all but shouted.

The boy jerked his arm from Adam’s grasp and glared up at him, “He’s only a slant eyed Chinaman.”

Before Adam could react, the boy ran from the room and out the door, slamming it as he rushed to distance himself from his grandfather and the dark piercing eyes of the stranger.

“Mister Cartwright, I apologize for the boy, he knows better than to speak like that.  But he has suffered so much lately, that I fear he tends to strike out at anyone at every opportunity; he seems to have forgotten that there is still kind people in the world,” explained Wheeler.

Adam returned to finish pouring the Brandy and handed a glass to Wheeler.  His own he turned upward and swallowed in one gulp and poured a second, which he drank more slowly.  His nerves were on edge, everything seemed to be happening, strange things that worried him, such as the arrival of this smart mouth boy.

“Why don’t you get to the reason of your visit?” stated Adam turning toward the elder gentleman, not knowing if he really wanted to hear what the man had to say.

Wheeler nodded his head and began his story.  An hour later, Adam sat alone, quietly in his father’s chair, his thoughts causing his head to begin to ache.  What the man had told him seemed to fit perfectly with events that had taken place in his own life twelve years earlier.

He had been in Sacramento about the time in question, on business he recalled, for his father.  Adam remembered that it had been one of the very first times that Ben had allowed him to be his spokesman in a business deal.  It had been an exciting time for him, the meeting had gone well, terms had been reached and then he had stopped in at one of the local pubs.  That’s where he had met the beautiful Miriam for the first time.  That was also the beginning of a long term relationship where Miriam’s was the first place he always managed to stop either while doing business in Sacramento or on his way to and from San Francisco.  Then suddenly the beautiful young woman had disappeared and though he searched for her off and on for years afterwards, she was never heard from again, until now.  And then he had left for college back east in Boston, thus forcing him to put an end to his futile search.  Now her father and his son shared quarters in the spare bedroom.  Adam tried to reason his way around it, but Wheeler knew too many of the details for it to be a hoax.  He knew the times when Adam had stopped by, he knew the places where they had visited, and he even knew some of the people they had known. Wheeler had stepped in when Miriam had been killed in an accident just twelve months ago. He had claimed his daughter’s son, his grandson and until now, had been attempting to raise the boy on his own.

Adam had questioned the other man at great lengths as to why Miriam had never tried to get in touch with him to tell him about the boy’s birth.  Surely Adam told Wheeler, he would have happily have married her, for he had come to love her deeply.  He would have brought her here to the Ponderosa and raised the boy on the ranch, he would have provided her with everything that she could have ever needed or wanted.

Wheeler explained to Adam that Miriam had refused to tell anyone who the father of her child had been, even himself.  Wheeler informed Adam that his daughter had always felt as if she were not good enough to marry a Cartwright, she feared that his name would have been dragged through the gutters if he had married her, so she had kept her secret all of these years, until she had been seriously injured.  Then out of necessity, she told her father.  She had made him promise to raise the boy himself unless he became disabled and then, and only then was he to take the boy to his father, Adam Cartwright.

That was the reason now; Wheeler was a sick man and feared that he would soon die.  Thus the reason for bringing Davie to the Ponderosa, so that he himself could return to the city and seek the medical help he needed; Davie could meet his real father, and perhaps over time, would be allowed to claim his rightful place as Adam Cartwright’s son, Davie Cartwright.

Adam leaned back, rested his head against the back of his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose; his head was throbbing.  At the sound of soft footsteps, Adam glanced up to find the young boy of his thoughts standing in front of him, his head held low.

“Did you want something?” Adam asked softly, studying the boy’s face yet not sure what he was seeking to find in the boy’s expression.

“Mister Cartwright, I just wanted to tell you that I was sorry for the way I acted this afternoon.  I shouldn’t have said what I did to your cook,” Davie looked up from under his long lashes and just as quickly dropped his head again.

Adam placed his finger under the boy’s chin and lifted his head so that he might see the dark eyes of the boy that was his son.  “I agree.  In this house we do not speak to each other in the manner in which you spoke, do I make myself clear?  It will never happen again, understand?”

“Yes sir.  But he is just a servant,” whispered the boy.

“Hop Sing may be just a servant in your eyes young man, but to this family he is much more.  I will expect you to treat him with respect at all times.  If you choose to defy me, I will take drastic measures to see that you will not sit comfortably for several days.  That isn’t an idle threat it is a promise.  His name is Hop Sing, I suggest you use it, no more vile names, understood?” instructed Adam sternly.

“I understand, sir.”  Davie nodded his head.

“Good, then I expect you to apologize to Hop Sing.  I will ask him in the morning whether or not you did as instructed.  I firmly suggest that you do as I asked.”  Adam released the boy’s chin and leaned back in his chair again.

“I’ll go do that now.  May I be excused?” Davie quietly wanted to know.

Adam shook his head yes and watched as the boy ran to the kitchen to find Hop Sing.

“Davie,” called Adam stopping the boy in his tracks, “You don’t have to call me Mister Cartwright, I am your father.”

Davie studied Adam’s face, the frown he wore unseen by his new father in the dim light, “What do you want me to call you then?”

“What would you like to call me?” Adam returned the question with one of his own, allowing the boy to make his own decision in the matter.

“Jackass,” mumbled Davie in a low voice that Adam could not hear.  “How about for now, I just call you Adam?” he said aloud.

“That’s fine Davie, Adam it is,” replied Adam watching the boy turn and head again for the kitchen, totally unaware that the boy was making faces that Adam could not see.

Closing his eyes, Adam knew he was in for rough times trying to squelch this boy’s bad attitude.  This boy thought Adam, my son, my love child.  How in the world was he going to explain this one to his own father?  Speaking of which…Adam rose and climbed the stairs, taking his time, trying to delay what he knew would come as a shock to his father.  And then there was Hoss, whom he knew would welcome the boy as Hoss always welcomed the unfortunate, the misplaced, the wounded, the unloved, with a loving heart and opened arms.  Adam thought about his youngest brother, would Joe feel the same when he finally came home, would Joe ever come home or would it be as the gypsy had predicated, the boy would come to take the place of the one loved as a son.  Adam ran his fingers through his hair and sighed, his head was still throbbing.

Adam broke the news to his father as simply as he could, he told the truth.  He explained everything to his father about just why Jonathan Wheeler and his grandson were here now, at the Ponderosa.  Adam did not go into great detail of his romance with Miriam, but instead told of how they met, how they became involved and why they parted ways, she choosing to disappear for whatever reasons, and Adam for his desire to go on to college.  Adam found it somewhat difficult to explain to his father about the boy, Davie, who had been conceived and born out of wedlock completely unknown to Adam.

Ben remained quite during Adam’s informative, if rather shocking, description of how all of a sudden, Ben found himself being a grandfather.  When Adam had finished, he studied his father’s face, his father’s silence beginning to unnerve him after several minutes of making no comments.

“Pa?” Adam asked meekly feeling as if he were once again a little boy standing in front of his father after being caught doing something that he knew he was not allowed to do.

Ben cast his eyes up at his son and could easily read the almost pleading look buried just beneath the surface of his troubled expression.

“Adam, I’m not sure what to say son.  Under different circumstances, I would be thrilled to know I was now a grandfather.”  Ben raised his hand as Adam opened his mouth to speak.

“What I would like to know, is why after all of this time, do they show up here?” questioned Ben.

“I told you Pa, Wheeler is a sick man.  He wanted to bring the boy here, to me, just in case something happened.  He didn’t want his grandson to be left alone, with no one to care for him,” explained Adam sitting on the edge of his seat.

“I understand that son.  But for my own satisfaction, I would like to have this man Wheeler checked out, with your approval of course.  I want to know for sure, no doubts before jumping into this thing.  In the mean time, he and the boy are welcomed to stay here.  That way we can get to know the boy, and his grandfather.  Is that okay with you?” Ben hoped that Adam would go along with his plan, he would never put the boy out, especially if he needed a place, but certainly not if he truly were his grandson.  Yet he needed to be sure, for Adam’s sake as well as the mysterious young boy across the hall.

“That’s fine with me.  I’ll go into town in the morning and have Roy send some wires; maybe he’ll do a little detective work for us.  I’ll send some wires of my own; I have friends there that would remember Miriam maybe they can give us some answers.”  Adam rose, feeling better for having talked to his father.

“Thanks Pa,” smiled Adam.

Ben returned the smile, “In the morning, I’d like to meet this would-be grandson of mine.  Right now, I’d like to rest if you wouldn’t mind, my leg is still rather painful.”  Ben rested his head back on his pillows and closed his eyes.

Adam moved quietly toward the door but stopped when Ben called out to him.  “Adam, I need you to stay here, until we get answers from San Francisco and Sacramento.  Hoss will have to go on ahead to search for Joe.”

Ben paused for several seconds, his eyes becoming misty when once again he faced Adam,  “I don’t want to give up on finding Joe, but son, I’m beginning to think that we need to face the facts.  It’s been nearly two weeks and we haven’t seen a sign of him since the first couple of days.  We know he went into the water, but did he come out, we may never know.  Joe may well be lost to us forever.”  Ben’s voice cracked as he said those last words and Adam hurried to his father’s side.

“Pa, please, don’t lose hope, we’ll find him, I’m sure,” Adam tried to reassure his father.

Ben stared at Adam, his dark eyes turning even darker than their normal chocolate coloring.  “Lose hope?  Never Adam, I will never give up hope of finding Joseph, do you hear me?  Just as soon as this blasted cast comes off, I aim to start all over again if need be, I only meant…” Ben stated firmly.

“I hear you Pa, none of us will.  Now please, try to rest.  I need to go talk to Hoss; we have to get some things worked out.  One of us will be up in a little while.”  Adam patted his father’s arm and watched as Ben closed his eyes.  It was only minutes before sleep claimed the weary man.

Adam let himself out of the room and went in search of Hoss.  He wasn’t hard to find, he and Davie were engrossed in a heated game of checkers while Wheeler had made himself comfortable in his father’s favorite red chair, a brandy in his hand.  Adam took in the scene briefly before allowing himself to be acknowledged, something was tugging at his memory; try as he might he could not put his finger on it but deep down Adam felt as if he had met Wheeler before now, but when and where?  Later he told himself, after he rested.

Late that night after everyone had retired, Adam slipped into Hoss’ room and woke the big man from a sound sleep.  It took several tries before Hoss finally opened his eyes and realized that it was his brother who was shaking his shoulder.

“Dadburnit Adam, what in thunder do ya want?  It’s the middle of the night,” grumbled Hoss pulling himself into a sitting position.

“I know Hoss, but I need to talk to you, it’s important,” Adam said as he pulled the chair up close to the bed.  “It’s about the boy downstairs, and about Joe.”

“I’m all ears big brother, what about them?” asked Hoss, ready to give his brother his undivided attention.

It was way into the wee hours of the morning before Adam slipped from his brother’s room and into his own.  Adam pulled back the covers and lay down on his bed, stretching his full length and propping his head on his hands.  When Adam at last closed his eyes, it was Joe’s face that repeatedly kept appearing before his eyes.  Joe was trying to tell him something, but Adam could not make out what it was that Joe was saying.  Joe was becoming upset with him, his hazel eyes filling with tears, his hand out stretched as if he were trying to grab hold, but then the vision began to fade until at last Joe’s face had disappeared from his sight.

Adam woke just before dawn and forced himself from his warm bed.  As he dressed, he listened for the familiar sounds that would alert him that others in the household had already risen.  Hearing nothing that might indicate that the others were awake, Adam hurried and finished his dressing and left the house without taking time to eat breakfast.  Quickly he saddled Sport and headed into town, he wanted to be at the sheriff’s office first thing that morning to speak with Roy Coffee.  He was anxious to get the telegrams sent to his friends in Sacramento to make inquiries as to Jonathan Wheeler and his daughter, Miriam.  Unbeknown to Adam, as he walked his horse from the barn, a certain young boy watched with curiosity from behind the window curtains of the upstairs bedroom, an unhappy frown spread across his face.

Hoss had delayed his parting for another week, the need to be sure that his father was going to be all right and with the arrival of the young boy and his grandfather, Hoss felt it his duty to remain at the ranch to help Adam with things that his father was now unable to do.  But urged by the feelings that Joe desperately needed him along with the repeated nightmares of seeing Joe’s body lying twisted and broken at the bottom of some unknown location, Hoss informed his father and brother that he would soon be leaving to continue with his search.

Hoss had his gear packed, putting the last of the fresh baked bread that Hop Sing handed to him into his pack.  Hoss turned and retraced his steps to the porch where his father sat, leg propped and waiting for him to come bid him goodbye.  Behind Ben stood Davie and Wheeler watching the strange way in which father and son acknowledged one another, confused by the obvious affection between the two men.

“Pa, guess I’m ready to go,” Hoss told his father.  “I’ll let you know as soon as I find something, may take me awhile.”

“I appreciate that Hoss.  Remember son, please be careful and take care of yourself,” said Ben as Hoss helped him to his feet.  Ben stood, with the aid of his crutch and placed his free hand on Hoss’ shoulder, “good luck son, God bless you.”

Hoss sniffed his nose, his head hung low nodding, “Thanks Pa.  You take care of yourself and do what Doc says.”

“I will Hoss, the sooner I can get this thing off my leg,” Ben pointed at the heavy cast, “the sooner I can join you.  Now remember what we talked about son, I want you to keep me posted.”

“Sure ‘nough Pa,” Hoss promised.  Turning to face Davie and his grandfather Hoss smiled at the boy.  “You be a good boy and help Adam take care of your grandfather,” smiled Hoss as he ruffled the boy’s hair, “both of them,” he added as he turned to go.

“See ya, Pa, Mr. Wheeler,” he tossed over his shoulder as he gently nudged Chubb forward.

All three watched as Hoss rode from the yard, Ben’s heart heavy with worry as his thoughts turned to his youngest son.  His mind was brought back to the present at the sound of young Davie’s voice.

“I don’t see what good it’s gonna do, him going off on a wild goose chase like that.  His dumb ole brother is probably dead anyway,” mouthed Davie.

“DAVIE,” shouted Wheeler as Ben turned suddenly to face the boy, wobbling on his crutch.  Wheeler had grabbed the boy and was about to slap him across his face when he met the dark intense eyes of his host.  Instantly he lowered his hand, releasing the lad’s arm.  Davie rubbed at the sore spot where Wheeler had pinched his upper arm.

“Davie,” stated Ben in a deep voice that stopped the boy from voicing his sharp retort to the other man, “my son Joseph may very well be dead, in fact the chances that he is still alive are very slim.  But that does not mean that Hoss, or any of us will ever give up trying to find out for sure.  When you are a family, as my sons and I are, and you love someone as we love Joseph, the desire to quit just because we are tired, or because we presume the worst is not reasons enough.  One never gives up hope, for to do so is to admit defeat, which where Joseph is concerned, unless we find out absolutely that he is truly lost to us, we will never stop until we find him, even if it means searching for the rest of our lives.  That’s what love and family are all about, devotion, trust, honesty, faith, and dependability.  If you cannot depend on your family when things go wrong, beside God, whom can you depend on?  I’ll tell you who, no one.  Now, if you will excuse me, I need to lie down, my leg is beginning to hurt some.”

Ben left Wheeler and Davie standing on the porch and hobbled into the house, the boy’s words causing disturbing thoughts to enter Ben’s mind. “Please God, help Hoss find my son, please keep both of them safe.”

Wheeler laughed softly and shook his head taking a seat in the rocker that Ben had just vacated.  Davie gave the older man a glaring look as he stood in front of his grandfather.

“What’s so funny?” asked the boy disgusted by the way the older man mocked his new- found grandfather.

Wheeler glanced up, “Cartwright, that’s what.  Why that stupid man thinks he’ll find his brat, and all that malarkey about family is nothing but hogwash and only fools believe in that stuff,” laughed Wheeler.

Davie glanced toward the house, deep in thought.  Ever since he had arrived at the Ponderosa, he had been a witness to scenes among the men who dwelled in the massive log home that he had never encountered before.  Wheeler had laughed behind the Cartwright’s backs, so had he in the beginning, but some where along the way, he had stopped laughing and had begun to watch.  Listening to Wheeler’s nasty laugh now, disgusted Davie, and the comment that the Cartwrights were fools, Davie thought ridiculous; he couldn’t see that any of them could be classified as fools.  Davie walked away, leaving his grandfather to listen to his own laughter as Davie entered the barn.

Cochise whom was stabled in the barn nickered softly as Davie approached.  Davie stopped and petted the pinto’s nose and wonder about the boy who owned the horse.  Davie knew just from listening to Adam and Hoss talk about their brother that the boy’s name was Little Joe and that he had been swept away by the raging waters over three weeks ago.  His family had searched for days with the help of neighbors and friends but after awhile the party of men had had to return to their own lives but the Cartwrights had continued on their own until Ben’s accident.  Davie knew that the reason Adam stayed rather to join the other brother in the search was because of him and Davie was shocked at the guilty feelings that had begun to form in his heart.

“It wasn’t suppose to be like this,” whispered Davie to Cochise.  “I was supposed to act like I hated them and hated being here, but it’s too hard.  They are being so good to me; they try hard to make me feel as if I am one of them and Adam, well, at first I didn’t want to be nice to him, but now…” Davie wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands, his emotions confusing him as he slipped his arms about Cochise’s neck and buried his face in the long mane, “I like him and I wish he really were my father, instead of…”

“Instead of who Davie?”

Davie whirled around; shocked that he had been overheard and speechless as he stared into the brooding eyes of his would be father.

“I asked you a question boy, I expect an answer,” demanded Adam, stepping up to the trembling boy.

“No body, honest Adam, no body,” stammered Davie, tears filling his eyes.

Adam approached the boy and as he reached outward, the boy drew back and covered his head in a protective manner with his arms.

“Put your arms down Davie, I’m not going to hit you,” said Adam in a more controlled voice when he realized that the boy thought he had intended to strike him.

Davie did as he was instructed but refused to meet Adam’s eyes.  Adam stepped back and closed the barn door, the action causing fear to rise in the young boy as he sought for an escape.

“Calm down boy, I’m not going to hurt you, I just want to talk to you.  Come over here and sit down, I want you to tell me what is going on.”  Adam pointed to a bale of hay and motioned for the boy to sit.  Scared not to follow Adam’s orders, Davie sat obediently on the bale.

Once the boy was sitting and Adam next to him, Adam begun his interrogation.  “Why don’t you explain what you meant by your statement?  Who do you wish were your father, and instead of whom?”

Davie avoided meeting Adam’s eyes.  “I didn’t mean nothing.  I mean…” Davie stammering, his mind frantically searching for the right words that would get him out of this sticky situation and hopefully convince this man he was telling the truth.  His well being depended on his lie for if Wheeler found out he had let the cat out of the bag, Davie knew he would be in for the beating of his life.

“I mean…for a long time, I didn’t know who my Pa was.  Ma would never say.  I always suspected that it was this guy that used to hang around Ma a lot, but I never knew for sure.  I…I didn’t like him…he used to hit me a lot when Ma wasn’t around, that’s all.  I just meant that I hoped that you were really my pa instead of him,” Davie looked up at Adam, the tears glistening on his face, God he was scared.  Part of Davie’s explanation was true; he did wish that Adam were his father.

Adam watched the boy’s face trying to read what he saw in the big brown eyes that looked so unsure and frightened.  When Davie did finally meet his eyes, Adam felt his heart go soft on him; he could no longer deny the fact that he had come to care deeply for this boy.  Reaching out, Adam slipped his arm around the boy’s shoulders and pulled him to him.  Adam felt the brief hesitation and then the total surrender.  Davie buried his face into the front of Adam’s shirt and cried, hating himself for being such a fraud.

Hoss had searched for nearly a week and many miles combing the banks on both sides of the now receding riverbanks.  He had talked to several people along the way, inquiring as to whether they might have seen any sign of his brother, Joe.  No one had seen a young man that fit Joe’s description, though one man did tell him about two unidentified males who he had heard about and thought that possibly they had been boys about the same age as Joe.  They had been found floating in the river about two weeks earlier.  Hoss was told he could make inquiries at the local undertakers as the bodies were taken there and the undertaker could tell him positively as to whether one had been Joe or not.

Feeling as if the weight of the world rested on his large shoulders, Hoss thanked the man and mounted his horse.  It took him the rest of the afternoon to reach the town.  Deciding to stop first for a beer, to quench his thirst and steady his nerves, Hoss entered the saloon and stepped up to the bar and ordered his beer.  As he sipped his none too tasty brew, his eyes searched the room studying the individuals that milled about.  Unexpectedly, as Hoss tipped his mug up to his mouth, his arm was bumped sending his beer down the front of his shirt.  Tired and discouraged, Hoss turned angry eyes toward the young man to his right, ready to do battle if necessary.  Instead, his attention was drawn to another man who sat in the far back corner at a table with several other men, totally engrossed in an obvious high stakes game of poker.

Hoss stood rooted to the spot, mug halfway to his mouth and unaware that the young man who had bumped his arm was speaking to him.

“I’m really sorry sir, could I buy you another beer?” asked the man, turning to see what or who it was that held the big man’s attention.  “Hey mister,” the younger man touched Hoss’ arm, jarring him from his trance.

“What?  Did ya say something to me, kid?” asked Hoss briefly glancing at the man who spoke.

“I said I was sorry for making you spill your beer and was wondering if I could buy you another,” the younger man stated for the second time.

“Oh, hey, don’t worry ya self none, it was an accident,” Hoss said as he finally faced the man.  It was then that Hoss noticed that the man was not much younger than himself and relaxing, smiled.  “I think I will take that beer, if’n ya don’t mind, it’s been a long day.”

“Two beers barkeep.”  Facing Hoss, the young man extended his hand.  “Name’s Thomas Carver, you ain’t from around here, you just passing through?”

Hoss took the extended hand into his and shook it firmly, “You could say that, hey thanks fer the beer.”  Hoss turned his mug up and drank deeply before lowering the glass and setting it on the bar.

“I’m Hoss Cartwright, pleased ta meet ya.  Say, you from ‘round here?”

“Born and raised,” smiled Thomas, turning again to watch the same man that Hoss was watching.

“That man, the one with the string tie, you know him?” Hoss asked never taking his eyes from the gambler’s face.

“Sure, biggest crook and cheat this side of the Rockies.  Why, you got dealings with him?” answered Thomas turning and leaning up against the bar.  His eyes saw the dark look that came into Hoss’ blue eyes and wondered whether or not he had spoken out of turn.

“Naw, just thought I knew him,” Hoss turned and propped his elbows on the bar.  “He looks like someone who was in Virginia City a few days back, said his name was Jonathan Wheeler.

Thomas laughed softly, surprised that Hoss had been correct in his assumption.  “Well, Hoss, Jonathan Wheeler is one of several names he has used.  Some men say that is his real name, but whatever, if you have to deal with him, use caution, he’s a sly one.  Known to pull more that one scam in his time.”

Hoss was silent for several minutes, wondering what Wheeler was doing in this run down town instead of being at the Ponderosa.  The old man had claimed that he was sick and needed to return to the city for treatment.  Hoss was aware of the fact that he had borrowed a large sum of money from Adam and his father just before he left to continue his search for Joe.  Jonathan had stated that he needed it for medical expenses and would repay the money from his estate should he die before being able to do it before hand.  Both Ben and Adam had agreed to the arrangement, having received no word back from the telegrams that either Adam or Roy had sent, his father and brother decided to take a chance on the man for Davies’s sake and loaned Wheeler the needed money.

Hoss watched the man, he and Thomas had moved to the other side of the saloon where he was not likely to be seen and sat down at a table.  Hoss and Thomas swapped pleasantries as Hoss kept his eye on Wheeler.  He wasn’t surprised when he overheard the man grumbling because he had lost several hundred dollars on that hand.

“What brings you this far west Hoss, you did say you were from Virginia City didn’t you?” inquired Thomas.

Hoss brought his attention back to his new friend.  “I’ve been searchin’ fer someone.  My little brother, his name is Joe. He’s about…hmm…this tall, has dark curly hair and hazel eyes.  You ain’t seed anyone around here like that have ya?”

Thomas stopped his mug midway to his mouth, “He’s missing?” he asked, taking a swallow at last.  Thomas’ thoughts were instantly back home where the boy they had found was recovering from his injuries and wondered whether he should mention the boy to this new stranger.

“Yeah, we was agoing into town for supplies when the thunder spooked the horses.  They bolted and Joe was driving, he couldn’t get’em stopped afore we got to the bridge.  The floodwaters had washed away part of it and we didn’t know it till it was too late.  Little Joe was throwed from the wagon and washed down river.  We’ve been huntin’ fer him ever since,” explained Hoss.

“We’ve just about given up hope of finding any trace of the boy too.  Pa busted his leg while out lookin’ so he cain’t help till it mends, and my other brother Adam, well, that’s another story,” Hoss nodded his head in Wheeler’s direction, “that story has to do with that man over there.”

Thomas smiled broadly, so the man was on the up and up.  Ma would be pleased to know that the boy’s family had finally found him but he realized that his mother would also miss the boy when his legs healed enough that his brother could take him home.  Joe still had about two more weeks of wearing the uncomfortable casts before the doctor would remove them.

“Hoss…Hoss,” Thomas tapped Hoss’ arm.

“Sorry, I was watching Wheeler, what did you say?” Hoss asked, giving Thomas his attention.

“Your brother wouldn’t be about seventeen or eighteen would he?” smiled Thomas.

“Eighteen, why?” Thomas had Hoss’ full attention now.  “Do you know something about him?  I know there are two bodies that were brought in over ta the undertakers a while back.  Was Joe one of’em?”  Hoss felt his heart rate quicken with fear.

“I don’t think so, that was a farmer up river and his son.  They drowned, but they were identified.  Hoss, I think your brother may be at my house.”

“What, Joe is with your family?  How?  When?  Why didn’t you say so before?” Hoss nearly shouted.

“Cause, you didn’t give me a chance too. Listen Hoss; let’s get out of here.  You come home with me and see for yourself.  Your friend in the corner will be here for some time.  He was making his brags earlier that he had a pocketful of money, just itching to be used for poker playin’.”  Thomas swallowed the last of his beer and stood up.

Hoss drank the last of his ale also and giving one last glance over his shoulder at Wheeler, Hoss followed Thomas out into the now setting sun.  Together they mounted their horses and as they headed for the Carver homestead, Thomas explained in detail how Joe had come to be at their place. Everything that Thomas described about Joe only heightened Hoss’ hopes that the boy was truly his younger brother.  Hoss could feel his rapidly beating heart and uttered an unspoken prayer that his search would end at the Carver home.

Hoss’ main concern now laid in the fact that Thomas had told him that Joe was unable to speak and had remained silent since finding the boy at the bottom of the waterfall.
Joe had been able to communicate with them, nodding his head yes or no, but with his left arm broken and two of his fingers on the same hand, he had been unable to even attempt to write his name for them.  He had at last succeeded in scribbling his first name on a scrap of paper for them but nothing more.  These tidbits of information, Thomas passed on to Hoss as they rode along side one another.

Thomas had also given Hoss some hope when he explained that the doctor thought is was highly likely that the condition was only temporary and with time, Joe would be able to speak as before.  What he did not tell Hoss, was that the doctor had also informed them that the inability to speak could have been caused by a head injury, for the boy had suffered from a hard wallop to the back of his head.  The large goose egg had since gone away, hopefully leaving no unforeseen problems that might be related to Joe’s lack of voice.

Ben paced the floor in front of the fireplace, his thoughts of young Davie mixed with thoughts of his missing son.  Adam, who was trying to concentrate on the book he held in his hands, glanced up as the continual thumping of his father’s cane on the wooden floor began to wear on his nerves.  The cast had since been discarded along with the crutch and had been replaced with the cane.  Ben had taken to thumbing the wooden stick each time he had become angry, disheartened, or upset and the new habit had quickly worn Adam’s patience to the outer limit.

“Pa, please, why don’t you sit down and rest?” asked Adam laying the book he had been trying to read for the past half hour down in his lap.

Ben stopped and glared at his son, “How can I? I am worried sick about Joseph, I am worried sick about Hoss, and now Davie has chosen to disobey, not only me but you as well.  Adam, where is that boy anyway?  I sent him to the barn over an hour ago to do his chores and he isn’t back yet.  He has homework to finish before bedtime and all he seems to want to do is dawdle.”

“Pa, calm down, Davie should be finished soon.  He is slow, I admit but you have to remember this is all fairly new to him.  Just be patient, please.  As for Joe and Hoss, surely Hoss will send us some news soon, he’s been gone over two weeks now, we’re bound to be hearing something any day now.”  Adam watched as his father finally gave himself over to the comforts of his favorite chair and once seated, Adam stood and walked to the door.  Davie was just coming from the barn and as Adam watched, he marveled at the pride that suddenly filled his heart as he watched his young son come across the yard.  For just an instant, Adam glanced back at his father and wondered if this was ever the way his own father had felt about him.  Ben looked up and saw that Adam was watching him, puzzled by the dreamy look on his son’s face that Adam had obviously forgotten to mask.  It was rare that one ever got a glimpse of his oldest son’s innermost feelings but at his minute, the mask was lowered and Ben could plainly see the unexplained joy in his son’s eyes and he dared to guess what was the cause.  His answer was quickly confirmed as Adam stepped aside to allow Davie to enter the house.

“Sorry it took me so long, I forgot a couple of things and had to do them,” the boy told Adam.

“No problem, why don’t you get washed up and then you can eat, Hop Sing has kept your supper warmed for you,” Adam smiled at his son, his happiness with the boy giving his voice a light ring to it.

Davie moved away into the kitchen and Adam returned to sit with his father.  Ben watched Adam and had to admit, though he still had reservations about the boy and his grandfather, Adam’s entire persona seemed to have improved upon the boy’s announcement that he was Adam’s son.  Ben admitted to himself that he liked seeing his oldest and most reserved son more opened and relaxed.  The young boy Davie, had been
the reason for the sudden change in Adam’s personality and for that Ben applauded him.

What did worry Ben, though he had not brought it to Adam’s attention, was the fact that he still had questions about both the boy and his grandfather.  Neither he nor Adam either one had had any responses from the telegrams that they had sent weeks earlier and when Jonathan Wheeler had suddenly asked for a loan, Ben had mixed feelings about granting him such.  It had been after much discussion with Adam that he had finally given in to his son’s wishes to help the man.  The very next morning, Wheeler had left, leaving behind his grandson and a promise to repay the money as soon as his health would permit him to find gainful employment that would allow him to do so, or if worse came to worse, he would make arrangements to repay the loan from his estate should that be the case.

As for his grandson Davie, Ben watched constantly.  One minute the lad seemed fine, other times he seemed rather sullen and withdrawn as if something was eating at him.  Ben admitted that from the time that Davie had arrived at the Ponderosa to the present, he had witnessed several changes in the boy.  Before Davie had been what Ben classified as a spoiled brat, rude and seemingly unfeeling towards others but now Davie showed more contentment, more self-confidence and admittedly, his overall attitude to everyone around him had greatly improved.

Davie sat at the kitchen table, not really eating but rather toying with his food.  His conscience was troubling him; for the last several nights he had been unable to sleep and lack of sleep had caused him to become irritable.  That in turned had caused him to forget himself and he had become defiant and overly rude to both Adam and Mr. Cartwright, which had resulted in Adam warming his backside.  Davie rubbed his bottom, it was the first time in his life that anyone had ever care enough about him to chastise him in such a fashion.  The only other times in his life that he had been hit was when his mother’s many boyfriends would become angry with him and either slap him across his face or worse, across the room.

Davie hated himself for what he was being forced to do. Pretending to be Wheeler’s grandson when in fact the man had not only been one of several of his deceased mother’s cruel boyfriends, but in fact was his own father, of which he was forbidden to tell anyone.  When his mother had been accidentally shot during a brawl in the saloon a year ago, Wheeler had taken the opportunity of stepping in and claiming the boy as his son.  From there Wheeler had forced him to be an unwilling participant in his devious scams.  At first Davie had refused but after the beatings he received at the hands of the vile man, Davie gave in to Wheeler’s demands in an order to save his own life.

Wheeler had been clever to say the least.  Adam Cartwright was just one of several men that Wheeler had suckered.  Jonathan would pick his intended victim, always a man of means and substance, and always one who had known the beautiful Miriam in the past.  He would then investigate the man’s background thoroughly until he knew more about the man than the man knew about himself.  He plotted and schemed for days, sometimes months before moving ahead with his plans.  Being slick of tongue with a way about him that most people found hard not to believe, he would advance with his plan of bringing in Davie as the out of wedlock son of his prey.  The Cartwrights were his third and most challenging but definitely his most rewarding endeavor.  He had managed to convince them all that young Davie was indeed Adam’s son, he had been granted the desired loan, and had managed to make his get away before they had been able to gain any knowledge that they had been victimized.  As part of the plan, Davie would remain with his would be father for just a couple of weeks, being so cantankerous and worrisome that when the new father heard the boy’s pleas that he be returned to his grandfather, the father would wholeheartedly agree.  With the Cartwrights, this aspect of the plan had failed, for both Adam and Mr. Cartwright had been determined to save young Davie from himself, thus turning the boy into a more respectful and conscientious young man.  Wheeler realized early on that he had overlooked this part of the Cartwright’s traits and with that in mind, had pushed ahead with the plan, making sure that Davie was left behind for good this time.  He would take the money and run, change plans later, play some poker and think about a new and perhaps easier way to pick the pockets of wealthy men.

Now Davie sat silent, these thoughts coursing through his mind and fearing what would happen to him should the Cartwrights find out that he had been part of a plan to swindle them out of several thousands of dollars.  And for what Davie asked him self; he had gotten nothing from the deal other than to be left behind as if he had been worth less than nothing.  Hot tears stung his eyes and he could do nothing to stop their flow.  Here he had felt for the first time in his life what it meant to be part of a family that loved and respected each other.  He had had no idea that this type of thing even existed, let alone allow him self to believe that he could be a part of such a family.  Davie’s self-pity seemed to overwhelm him as he sat alone with his thoughts and he laid his head on the small wooden table and cried for what he knew he had to do; he knew he was going to be honest with Adam, the man he most wished had been his real father.

Joe straightened his back and stretched his arms over his head.  He was tired of staying in bed and wanted more than anything to be up and about.  But the doctor had ordered him to remain in the bed for at least another week before the heavy casts could be removed from his legs.  At least thought Joe, his left arm was now free from the burden of the cast and it felt good to be able to move his upper body move freely.  His ribs had healed and now the tight bandages that had held them securely were also gone.  Joe smiled as Martha entered the room and placed his supper tray on the table next to the bed.

He liked the kind woman; he liked the whole family in fact.  The girls had doted on him, spoiling him something awful, their mother had gently scolded when they hovered over him as if he had been a helpless kitten.  The boys had kept him company, playing checkers with him and when Martha had been away from the house, an on going game of poker was always in the making.  Martha detested gambling and forbid any of her young sons to take part in the ungodly game, but the boys, each with a mind of their own, were easily taken in when Joe motioned for them to play.  No money had ever truly been lost in the game only toothpicks, as neither, Mathew, Mark Luke, or Joe for that matter, had any money.  Thomas was the only one who carried a dollar or two in his pocket but he never played, just observed and always kept the boys secret from their mother.

“Here you go young man, now tonight I want you to eat everything.  I don’t see how you manage to stay alive what with your eating habits,” laughed Martha as she set the tray across Joe’s lap.

Joe smiled at the motherly woman and nodded his head.  Martha heard the front door open and as the sound of male voices reached her finely tuned ears, she quickly excused herself from Joe’s room, closing the door gently behind her as she stepped out.

Thomas greeted his mother as he always had, with a hug and a quick kiss on her cheek.  “Ma, is Joe awake?” he asked Martha as he gently guided her to a chair in the family living room.

“Yes, I just took his supper in to him, why?” she asked as Hoss stepped forward to be introduced.

“Ma, this is Hoss Cartwright, he’s from Virginia City,” began Thomas when his father walked inside from having returned from doing his barn chores.  He had seen his son and the stranger as they dismounted and had hurried to join his wife.

“Pa, this is Hoss Cartwright, Hoss, my father and mother, Jacob and Martha Carver.”

“Pleased ta meet ya both,” smiled Hoss removing his hat as he smiled at Martha while taking Jacob’s hand in a firm handshake.

“Pleasure’s ours,” greeted Jacob, “what brings you this far from home, if you don’t mind my asking?” inquired Jacob.

Before Hoss could explain, Thomas jumped in to answer the question for him.  “I met Hoss by accident in town,” he gave his new friend a quick warning glance, Hoss noting that he had avoided mentioning that the ‘accident’ had been in the saloon.  “We got to talking and Hoss here is looking for his younger brother, who’s name happens to be Joe.”

Jacob and Martha looked quickly at one another and Hoss noticed when Martha glanced toward a closed door off the kitchen.

“Joe is Hoss’ youngest brother and it was during all that rain back a couple of months ago that Hoss and Joe had an accident that caused Joe to fall into the flood waters and get washed away.  He’s been missing from home since then and Hoss and his family have been searching everywhere for him and had almost given up of ever finding him alive.  That is until he and I ran into each other.  I thought maybe our Joe might be his brother, that’s why I asked him to come out.”  Thomas finished with his version of the story, all the while he had been talking, Hoss had nodded his head in agreement with how the story was being told.

“Well, I surely hope that Joe is one and the same.  The boy was hurt terribly bad and we feared that he might not make it.  Sure proved us wrong though, seems to be one tough kid.  A good kid I might add, well mannered and respectful too.  A couple of my boys could learn a thing or two from him,” smiled Jacob, totally unaware that Joe had taught two of his sons something, how to play poker.  “I suppose that Thomas told you that the boy hasn’t been able to say a word since we found him?”

“Yes sir, he mentioned that.  Hopefully it is something that will correct it’s self in time,” nodded Hoss, anxious to see his brother.  “Do ya think I might could see him now, it’s been forever and I…” Hoss choked up and dropped his head embarrassed that this family might see the sudden tears that had pooled in his eyes.

Martha was the first to notice and was the first to speak up, “Of course you can.  Thomas, would you like the pleasure of telling Joe that he has company?” smiled Martha knowing that Thomas and Joe had become quite close during his convalescing period.

“You know I would,” smiled Thomas, “Hoss you wait right here, I’ll call for you in a minute.”  Thomas gave Hoss’ shoulder a squeeze as he opened the door to Joe’s room and slipped inside.

Joe was propped up with pillows all around him and had just finished his supper.  He looked up at the sound of the door opening and smiled when he recognized his visitor as Thomas.  Joe had liked Thomas from the very start; something about the Carver’s oldest son reminded him of Adam whom he missed almost as much as he missed his father.

“Hi ya little buddy,” greeted Thomas, and it was then that Joe realized why he felt the way he did towards this particular young man.

Joe nodded his head in acknowledgement of Thomas’ greeting as he wiped his mouth with the checkered napkin and placed it on top of his plate.  Thomas removed the tray from Joe’s lap and set it on the table, taking the chair next to the bed and sitting down.

“How you feeling this evening?” Thomas casually asked.

Again Joe nodded his head and held his left arm up to show his friend that the doctor had been there and removed his cast.  Thomas smiled, “Great, now all you have to do is to get those off your legs and then you’ll be fit as a fiddle.”

Joe laughed and made a mock frown on his face.  Suddenly the frown became real as Joe’s thoughts turned to his family.  Thomas, not knowing what had caused the change only watched as he saw the hazel eyes suddenly cloud with unshed tears.

“Hey Joe,” said Thomas in a effort to bring the boy out of his gloom, “would you like to have some company?  There’s someone here to see you,” Thomas forced his face to remain expressionless not wanting to give away the surprise.

Joe looked at him questioningly, not knowing who it could be that wanted to pay him a visit and not in the least expecting it to be one of those who had just invaded his thoughts.
Joe shrugged his shoulders, causing Thomas to laugh.

“You stay right here, I’ll show him in.”  Joe made a giggling sound, where was he going to go, he couldn’t even get out of bed yet.

Thomas walked slowly to the door, prolonging the suspense and Joe grunted loudly, forcing Thomas’ attention to return to him.  Thomas stopped just as his hand touched the door and looked back at Joe.  “Just hold your horse pal, I’m getting there,” he laughed.

Before he opened the door, Thomas looked in Joe’s direction again and ordered, “Close your eyes Joe, and keep them closed until I tell you to open them.”

Joe looked suspiciously at his friend but did as he was instructed.  Thomas opened the door quietly and motioned with his finger for Hoss to enter.  Thomas’ family had all gathered in the living room when they noticed that Thomas had returned home with a stranger and all were curious as to whom and why the large man was paying them a visit.  They were both shocked and thrilled to find that the man was Joe’s brother and could not refrain from following the big man into Joe’s room to witness the reunion.

Hoss’ heart stopped when his eyes took in the sight of his brother.  It was all the big man could do to keep from running to the bed and gathering the boy into his arms.  Never had the sight of anyone touched him as much as seeing his brother alive and breathing as he was now.  Hoss looked anxiously at Thomas, wanting him to hurry before his joy burst the seams of his heart.

“You can open your eyes now Joe,” said Thomas.

Joe moved his hands from his face and looked up.  What he saw caused him to hesitate briefly before realization took hold.  Suddenly Joe’s mouth flew open, tears sprang into his eyes as he threw back the covers, unconcerned that the room was filled with observers as he stretched out his arms to his brother and tried to get out of the bed.

Hoss, overcome with emotion, grabbed the now sobbing boy into his embrace and pulled the trembling body to his heart.  Joe buried his face in Hoss’ shirt, his arms clinging tightly to his brother as both boys wept unashamedly.

Hoss’ large hand held Joe’s head firmly against his rapidly beating heart, half afraid that if he released the boy, he would suddenly be swept from him for the second time.  Joe made no attempt to remove himself from the security of Hoss’ embrace, himself not fully believing that it was in fact his brother that held him tightly.  The joy that emitted from each brother at finally seeing each other was something that the Carver family would speak of for many years.  Truly the love that was shared between his large man and his smaller sibling was one of God’s ever amazing miracles.

Martha dapped her own tears with the end of her apron and silently motioned for her children to clear out of the room giving the brothers time to them selves.  Quietly, Martha closed the door as the last of her offspring passed her, feelings of both happiness and sadness filling her heart.  Happiness that Joe had been reunited with a member of his family and sadness in knowing that now, Joe would soon be leaving them behind.

The two brothers spent the rest of the evening alone behind the closed door renewing their relationship.  Martha tapped lightly on the door much later and entered carrying a tray with two large slices of fresh baked apple pie and two cups of steaming hot coffee.  Hoss had requested paper and pencil and Martha returned shortly with the two items, once again leaving the brothers to themselves.  Hoss told Joe everything that had happened in his absence including the fact that Adam was now a father of a twelve-year old son.  He also related to Joe the story of the questionable loan to Wheeler and of his seeing the man in town earlier that day.

Joe in turned told Hoss what he could of what had happened to him, having to use paper and pencil in so doing.  He told his brother of the fear he felt when he saw the waterfall and knowing that he was going to go over, how is last thoughts had been of his family.  The fear reappeared in the hazel eyes as Joe told his story, moving Hoss to again wrap his strong arms about Joe in a protective manner.  Joe wrote of his fear he felt even now at no longer being able to speak, worried that he would be forever silent.  The tears slipped silently from his eyes as he looked wistfully into his brother’s face, his misery plain for Hoss to read.  Hoss refused to move, both young men finding comfort and much needed peace in the other’s presence.  It wasn’t long before Hoss heard the steady breathing sounds that Joe made, indicating that he had fallen asleep, secure in the strong arms that embraced him.

Two days later, Hoss informed the family who had been so kind to both himself and his brother that he would be back late that night.  There was something he had to do in town.  Thomas asked if he might tag along, and Hoss who liked the younger man immensely, agreed.

“Joe, I’ll be back late tonight.  Don’t ya go tryin’ to git up outta that bed again, ya hear me?” Hoss gently scolded, “ya about scare the life outta me when ya went and fell in the dadburn floor.”

Joe masked his feelings to hide how he really felt about his brother going off and leaving him so soon after finding him.  Joe wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he was scared.  He didn’t like the idea of Hoss leaving him again, what if, for some reason unknown to either of them, Hoss failed to return?  Where would that leave him?  No, Joe didn’t like it one bit.

Quickly his fear got the better of him and grabbing the paper and pencil Joe scribbled a short message to his brother and handed Hoss the paper.  Hoss scanned the written words, please don’t leave me, and cast worried eyes at his younger brother.

“Aw shucks, Short Shanks,” began Hoss sitting on the edge of the bed, “I ain’t agonna leave ya.  I’ll be back, I promise, you’ll see.”  Hoss studied his brother’s face and seeing that Joe still looked doubtful, Hoss, to lighten the mood, reached up and ruffled Joe’s mass of dark curls.

“We’d better git ya a haircut afore we go home boy.  Pa would skin ya alive if’n he saw how long this mess has gotten, you know he don’t like ya lookin’ like no riverboat gambler,” joked Hoss with a wide smile across his face.

Joe couldn’t stop the giggling sounds that burst forth and giving his brother a nod of his head, Hoss felt relief at leaving Joe for the few hours he needed to complete his mission in town.

“You rest Joe, we’ll be going home soon I promise buddy.”  Hoss patted Joe’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion and left Joe with a smile on his face.

As soon as Hoss closed the door, the smile faded.  Joe knew what Hoss had to do in town, but he still did not like the idea of being left behind.  With Hoss’ arrival, the desire to go home grew greater day by day.  He missed his father and older brother, he missed Hop Sing and his own room, he even missed Cochise, although Hoss had assured him that the horse was being well cared for in his absence.  Still that did not squelch his desire, it only heightened it, he wanted to be the one caring for his horse, and he thought to himself, he was just a little curious about the new son that his older brother had somehow inherited.

“Patience,” thought Joe, “that’s what Pa is always trying to teach me, patience, well, I think I have been patient long enough!  I wanna go home!” his heart screamed.  With that, Joe balled his hands into tight fists and slammed them down into his pillow enjoying his private little temper tantrum.

Adam found Davie, of all places, hiding in the hayloft in the barn.  Davie had been sullen and withdrawn for the past couple of days and Adam worried that perhaps the boy was missing his grandfather.

“Mind if I join you?” asked Adam as he hauled himself up the ladder.

“Do I gotta choice?” snapped Davie, drying his eyes before Adam could see his tears.

“Do I have a choice?” corrected Adam moving to sit down next to the boy.

“I dunno, that’s what I asked you,” Davie popped back.

Adam just rolled his eyes, he felt as if he were talking to his younger brother all over again.  Briefly his thoughts turned to Joe and Adam wondered if Hoss had had any luck in finding out anything about him.  It had been nearly a month now since Hoss had left and Adam and his father had received only one telegram and that had been about two weeks ago.

“I didn’t mean to snap at grandpa, Adam, honest.  It’s just that I didn’t hear him tell me he needed me to help Hop Sing, then when Hop Sing got mad at me and grandpa started yelling at me, I just…well…I wasn’t thinking,” Davie tried to explain.

Adam smiled at the boy and rested his hand on the boy’s shoulder, “it’s okay Davie, Pa doesn’t stay mad for long.  Why don’t you tell me what’s been eating at you?” asked Adam hoping that his son would explain why for the last few days he has been so down in the mouth.

“Ain’t nothing eating at me,” Davie turned his head away pretending to be watching a bird that had flown into the rafters of the barn.

“Davie, look at me son,” ordered Adam calmly.  “I think there is, but I can’t force you to confide in me.  But I want you to know that when you are ready to talk, I’ll be ready to listen.  You have to believe me Davie, whatever it is, we can work it out.”  Adam smiled and left the loft and Davie with his thoughts.

Davie watched Adam as he climbed down the ladder and wished more than ever that the man who had been more than kind to him over the last couple of months were really his father.  Davie had planned all week to tell Adam and Mr. Cartwright who he really was and why he was really brought to the Ponderosa but each time that he tried, he had become fearful of what would happen to him after the truth had been exposed.  Would they send him to jail, or to an orphanage, or worse, back to Jonathan Wheeler.  Davie was just too scared to find out so he had once again delayed in confessing to the Cartwrights that he was a fraud.

That night after Adam tucked Davie into his bed, he returned to his own room, undressed and slipped into bed hoping that sleep would not be long in coming.  For more than an hour, Adam tossed and turned until finally he gave up and propped him self up in bed.  The mixture of troubling thoughts racing through his mind had kept him from his much needed sleep.  Joe was foremost in his mind; he missed the boy terribly and longed to see his brother’s smiling face, to hear again the sound of his giggles and admittedly, Adam longed to be able to slip his arms around his brother’s shoulders and hold him close.

Adam felt his eyes fill with tears and quickly wiped them away.  Leaning his head back into his pillows, and glancing about his room his eyes suddenly came to stop at the shelves of books above his desk.  Quietly Adam slipped from his bed and stood before the bookcase, his eyes searching one book in particular.  At last he found what he was looking for and pulling the book from the shelf and blowing off the dust that had accumulated on the top, he crawled back into bed and pulled the covers up over his legs.

Adam held the book almost lovingly in his hands and gently brushed at the front cover.  Moby Dick, it had always been Joe’s favorite story.  Adam hesitated before opening the cover, remembering the last time that he had read the story to his younger brother.  It had been three years ago.  Joe had been mauled by dogs and the family plus the doctor had believed the dogs to be rabid.  Adam had granted Joe what they believed to have been his last request; Joe had made Adam promise that he would take him some place where their father could not find him.  Joe had not wanted either their father or Hoss to see him suffer the cruel affects of hydrophobia and Adam had granted Joe his wish.  As it turned out, the dogs had been poisoned rather than having been rabid and it was the arsenic that had been making Joe sick.  Once Joe received treatment for the poisoning, he had recovered fully and before long had been up to his old tricks.  Adam closed his eyes and remembered the relief he had felt when he found out that Joe was going to be all right.

Opening the book, Adam was startled to see that someone had written a short note on the inside cover.  Quickly his eyes scanned the note, stopping briefly to dap at the dampness on his cheeks, for the words had struck a soft cord in his heart.

Dear Adam,

Sorry about writin’ in your book, but I couldn’t find any paper.  I know that by the time you find this, my death and burial would have been long over.  I just wanted ya to know a few things.  First I want ya to know how much I loved ya.  I always have, I know many times I didn’t show it, but I don’t want ya to have any doubts now as to the fact.  You have always been my hero; I have always looked up to ya.  You are the kind of man that I have always hoped to one day be.  I respect ya and admire ya too, I didn’t let ya know very often that I did, but I did.  I don’t know why I felt as if I could never show my true feelin’s to ya, I guess maybe I never thought that I could measure up to the kind of man I knew ya expected me to be one day.  Seems silly now; death has a way of makin things look different somehow and openin’ your eyes about the really important things, like family and loyalty and love and being there for each other. Those are what matters most to me, now that it is too late for me to really show all of ya how I truly feel.  I’m sorry now that I didn’t take the time to tell each of ya that I loved ya or to let all of ya know how I really felt about that, that’s why I want ya to know now.

Thanks Adam, for everything that ya have ever done for me, the times when Pa couldn’t be there for me, I knew I could always count on ya and ya always came through for me.  I appreciate it, all of it.  I mean it too big brother, honest.

Adam, I know that this last thing I asked ya to do for me was the hardest.  I only wish that I could have spared ya havin’ to watch me suffer and die.  If I could have gone off alone I would have, but as in the past, ya are here for me.  Thank you just doesn’t seem enough somehow for all you’ve done and just sayin’ I’m sorry ain’t enough for all I have put ya through, including this last thing.

Please Adam, take care of Pa and Hoss for me.  Tell them how much I love them and that I appreciate what they have done for me, Pa especially.  I know this will be hardest on him, please tell him for me that I never blamed him for any of this.  Make him understand somehow Adam, that it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just happened.  Remind him if ya gotta that he is always tellin’ us that ‘what will be, will be’.

Take care of yourself too big brother; you are the best big brother that a kid could ever have and I love ya, please, please never forget that, never forget me either and Adam, I want ya to know that I ain’t so scare anymore, not with you here with me.  Somehow, just your being here makes me not afraid, your presence gives me courage that I didn’t know I had.  Thank ya for that; if I gotta die, I wanna die as a man, not a scared little boy.  You have given that to me and I love you more for it.  Remind Pa to look for me in the stars, just like he does for Ma,
I’ll be there with her.

Love,
Your Little Buddy,
Joseph Francis Cartwright

Adam could not believe his eyes.  Joe had written a note to him, probably on the night that he had last read to his brother.  Adam remembered that night, he recalled reading for what seemed like hours, his brother ever attentive, hanging on every word of the story like he wanted to remember it for all eternity.  What Adam could not remember was when he fell asleep, the book on his lap nor could he remember anything about Joe taking the book from him while he slept and writing the message.  Joe must have thought he would die soon, and knowing that he and Joe had always had problems talking things out amongst themselves, Joe probably thought that he could more freely speak his mind in a written message rather than verbally.  Adam read again Joe’s words and wondered if even now the boy whom he loved as his own was looking down from above at him.

‘Please God, let Hoss bring him back to us,’ Adam silently prayed.  Unable to concentrate on the book, his mind seemingly fixed on Joe’s whereabouts, Adam set the book aside, turned the wick down on the lamp and snuggled down into the comforts of his bed.  This time it did not take sleep long in coming.

Hoss and Thomas slipped quietly into the saloon, Hoss not wanting to draw attention to themselves.  As they stepped up to the bar and ordered a beer, Hoss turned and scanned the room for Jonathan Wheeler.  It was as he had hoped; the man was again sitting in the back corner of the room fully engrossed in a game of poker.  Hoss wondered briefly how much of his father’s money the man had managed to lose and taking mug in hand, Hoss causally strolled over to the table, Thomas following slowly behind.  Hoss stood behind Wheeler, the unsuspecting man completely unaware that his benefactor’s son was watching how easily he lost his father’s money.

When the last of the cards were finally played, Wheeler slammed his fist on the table and screamed at the man across from him that the man had cheated him.  The man opposite Wheeler grabbed the table over turning it thus sending money, cards and chips flying in all directions.  Wheeler stepped back as the man advanced on him and bumped into Hoss.  Hoss quickly grabbed Wheeler by his shoulders and twirled the man around behind him.

“Hold on to him will ya?” Hoss said to Thomas who then grabbed Wheeler.

Hoss and the gambler had a few not-to-friendly words, Hoss finally persuading the man to take his money and leave.  The gambler, realizing that Hoss out weighed him by several pounds and not wanting to engage in physical combat with such a worthy opponent, picked up his money and stuffed it into his pocket.

“Next time, old man,” he grunted at Wheeler as he marched out of the saloon, his two cronies following closely behind.

Hoss then turned on Wheeler.  “Ok mister, ya got some explainin’ ta do.  Let’s me and you have a seat over here,” ordered Hoss taking Wheeler by the front of his jacket and pulling him down in a near by chair.  Thomas, who had remained silent during the goings on, sat in the other chair, leaned back and smiled as he watched the old man’s expression suddenly turn pale as he looked up at Hoss and recognition began to register in his brain.

“I thought ya was a sick and dying man?” stated Hoss none to friendly as he towered over the now trembling man.

“I…I…am Mr. Cartwright…I just stopped here on my way to Sacramento,” Wheeler stuttered.

“Is that right?  Well seems to me you have been here more than a day or two.  I was in here several days ago and you were sitting in the same spot over there, doing just what you were doing tonight…losing my father’s money in a poker game.”  Hoss was livid.  “Why don’t you try again, as ya can see, I’m about to git riled.”

By this time, Wheeler was trembling in his chair.  “I…I…don’t really know what you want me to say, Mr. Cartwright,” he said almost pleadingly.

“Wheeler, you are nothing but a liar and cheat.  Ya all but stole that money from my father and brother and if’n ya tweren’t so darn old, I’d pound ya good right here on the spot.”  Hoss grabbed the man by his jacket and jerked him to his feet.  Thomas never moved, he was enjoying watching his friend, the man Wheeler had it coming to him.  Thomas knew the man had been trouble for everyone in town for quite sometime and was glad to see that the crook was finally getting what he had coming to him.

“Why don’t ya tell me what else you lied to my pa and brother about?  What about that kid, Davie?  Was he part of the plan to swindle my father out of all of his money?” demanded Hoss.

Wheeler came unnerved, his game was over and he had to think quickly, before this mountain of a man made real his threat of pounding him into the ground.  At this point, Wheeler decided on the truth, almost, which had worked before when confronted by an irate victim.

“I decided to use the boy as a pawn…I figured if the rich Ben Cartwright thought that the boy was really his grandson, your pa would not hesitate to make a small loan to help a dying man.  And I wasn’t wrong, your father was very generous.”  Wheeler sat back down in the chair when Hoss released his hold on him.

“That’s what I thought, so he’s part of the plan.  How could you use your own grandson like that?  What kind of a man are you?” Hoss asked, taking the empty chair and facing the older man.

“Davie ain’t my grandson.  For that matter the boy ain’t nothing to me, never has been.  Oh yes, his ma was killed, in a saloon brawl.  I just took the boy cause he didn’t have any one else.  I came up with the plan, forced him into helping me and gave him a few dollars for his efforts,” he lied.

“Tell you what Mr. Cartwright, I’ll give you back all of your father’s money that I have left and you keep the kid, if you will forget all about this and let me go on my way,” stated Wheeler hopefully, putting on the most repenting look that he could muster.

“Oh, you’re gonna give back the money and then you are going to go back to the Ponderosa and explain to my father and brother, just what you have done.  As for the boy, I will let Adam decide what to do with him.”  Hoss reached into Wheeler’s coat pocket and pulled out his wallet.  “Is this all?” he demanded as he counted out the money.

“That’s all I have left, yes sir.  Say, Mr. Cartwright…maybe we could make a deal…”

“Shut up Wheeler, and come with me,” Hoss grabbed the man by the shoulder and shoved him forward.  “We’re gonna go see the sheriff.”

Hoss and Thomas placed Wheeler in the custody of the sheriff and after explaining what had happened; Hoss filed a complaint with the assurance that he would be allowed to take Wheeler with him when he was ready to leave for home.  As the town’s telegraph lines had been torn down days before by vandals, Hoss was unable to wire his father that he had found Joe and that they would be returning as soon as his brother was able to travel.

Having successfully completed his business with Wheeler, Hoss suggested that he and Thomas return to the saloon for another beer.  Thomas, unaccustomed to the liberties that Hoss was accustomed to, agreed wholeheartedly and followed the big man as he returned to the bar.

Several hours later, Hoss helped a drunken Thomas from his horse.  Hoss himself was none too steady on his own feet as he all but carried the near unconscious man onto the porch of his home.  Before Hoss could open the door, Jacob jerked the door opened and Hoss found himself staring into the dark eyes of his friend’s father.

“Sorry, Mr. Carver, I didn’t know the boy couldn’t hold his liquor.”  Hoss’ own words were slightly slurred as he stumbled in with Thomas.

“I’ll put my son to bed, Hoss, you best check on your brother, he’s been waiting up for you,” said Jacob as he slipped his arms about his son and guided him towards his room, leaving Hoss to make his own way to Joe’s bedside.

Joe was indeed waiting up for Hoss.  He smiled broadly as Hoss entered and finding the chair, slumped forward nearly falling as he struggled to sit.  Joe’s shoulders trembled; his silent giggle shook his body as he realized that his brother was slightly more than a little intoxicated.

Hoss returned the smile best he could before sliding out of the chair and into the floor.  Joe watched, amused, as Hoss curled up into a ball and began snoring.  Knowing there would be little sleep for himself now that his inebriated brother had started sawing logs, Joe crept to the foot of the bed and grabbed the extra blanket that Martha kept there and opening it, fluffed it out and spread it over Hoss.  Joe smiled, Hoss would have to make due without a pillow, not that he would ever notice, laughed Little Joe to himself as he pulled his own blanket over his head in an attempt to drown out the noise that Hoss was making.

The next morning, Joe was awaken by loud piteous moaning.  Startled, Joe raised up in bed and searched for the sounds before remembering his brother who had returned home from a night in the saloon.

“Ohhh…my head,” moaned Hoss as he sat up.

Joe grunted loudly causing Hoss to turn in his direction and seeing Joe’s broad smile grumbled, “Ain’t funny little brother.”

Joe grunted again louder than before as Hoss struggled to his feet.

“Dadburnit, short shakes, stop making all that racket, you sound like one of Hop Sing’s little piglets; I dun told ya, my head hurts,” growled Hoss.

Joe covered his mouth with his hands to hide his smile from Hoss as Hoss turned to glare at him, “wipe that smirk off your face, squirt, or I’ll do it fer ya,” ordered Hoss.

Joe, eyes wide with mock fright, took the edge of his blanket and did as instructed, wiped the smile from his face.  Looking up at Hoss, the laughter dancing in his hazel eyes, Joe batted his long dark lashes at his brother and gave him one of his most innocent looks.

Hoss unable to control is own laughter, burst out in a rousing round of giggles as he sat on the edge of the bed and gathered Joe into a headlock.  Briefly the brothers wrestled around on the bed, Hoss being careful not to really hurt Joe and Joe laughing hysterically though no sound could be heard.  Hoss felt the trembling of his brother’s body that revealed to him that Joe was enjoying the tussle as well as he was.

“Ohhh…my aching head,” complained Hoss one more time.

The next day, Dr. Blakefield arrived and after a brief examination of his patient, announced that the cast could be removed from Joe’s legs.  Joe almost cried at hearing the good news but held back as all of the Carver family, plus his brother, had crowded into his room full of excitement at the good news.

“Joe, you will be able to travel by the week-end if you take it easy,” smiled the doctor.
Joe returned the smile and using his fingers, crossed his heart, promising the doctor that he would follow the instructions.

“Good.  I want you to see your own doctor as soon as you can once you are safely home.  Hoss, make sure that he does, I have an idea that this young man doesn’t take much to physicians,” teased Doctor Blakefield.

“Yes sir, I’ll make sure he does just that, and if I cain’t, I can promise ya that our Pa will,” promised Hoss smiling at the dissatisfied look on Joe’s face.

“Also,” began the doctor, “try not to worry too much about your voice Joe.  I believe in time your voice will come back to you.  Probably when you lest expect it too.”

Dr. Blakefield patted Joe’s arm and turned to his audience, “if all of you will excuse us now, I shall remove this young man’s casts.  I am sure he is most anxious to be on his feet once again.”

“Out with you, all of you, Hoss, you too,” Martha waved her hand toward the door and watched as her children marched out of the room.

Joe was well rested by the time that the Saturday morning sun rose high in the sky.  Hoss had everything packed that they would need for the journey home and all that was left to do now was to bid the Carver family farewell.

Hoss shook hands with Jacob and his boys, the lady folks, he honored with a kiss on the cheeks which caused the older girls to giggle earning themselves stern looks from both their mother and father.  After Hoss had said his good-byes, he stepped away, giving Joe his own private time with the family that had saved his life and whom had become more than just casual friends to him.

Joe shook each young man’s hand, giving each a friendly slap on the back.  When he took Jacob’s hand in his own, Joe felt his eyes become misty and sniffed his nose in an attempt to keep his tears at bay.  Jacob too had tears in his own eyes.  At a loss for words, Jacob pulled Joe into his arms and hugged him tightly.

“You be careful boy.  And come back to see us someday, you and your brother are always welcomed here,” smiled Jacob as he held Joe.  At last he released his young charge and stepping back, swiped at the tears in his eyes.

Joe nodded his head, giving the older Carver a winning smile.  Turning to the girls, he repeated Hoss’ actions and planted a kiss on Hannah and Sarah’s cheeks.  Patience, he gathered up into his arms and held her for several minutes until finally handing her over to her father.

“I love you Little Joe, please come back,” cried Patience.

Joe kissed her brow and in his own way, told Patience that he loved her too.  When Joe stood before Martha, he hung his head briefly, wishing with all of his heart that he had words to tell her what he really felt in his heart for her.

Martha sensed his need and gently lifted his chin and seeing his tears, slipped her arms about him and pulled him to her breast.  “Joe, I’m going to miss you son.”  Martha placed a kiss on Joe’s brow.  “I’ve come to think of you as one of my own, it is hard to let you go, but please know that you will always be remembered and loved.  We hope you come back someday.”

Joe kissed Martha’s cheek in return and turned away, afraid of his own emotions.  Hesitating briefly, he joined Hoss who waited with their horses.  Mounting slowly, he turned and tipped his hat to his friends each waving as they bid the brothers farewell.

“God bless you Joe, you too Hoss,” called out Martha as she stood by her husband’s side and wiped her tears on the tail of her apron.

Hoss and Joe rode into town later that morning stopping first at the sheriff’s office to collect Jonathan Wheeler so that they might return him to Virginia City to face charges for having defrauded their father and brother out of their money.  Hoss signed all of the required papers that gave him authority to transport his prisoner back with him.  While the sheriff made sure that all the papers were in order, Joe and Hoss ate a hasty meal at the local cafe and by noon the brothers and their prisoner was back on the trail.

It was getting late in the afternoon by the time Joe admitted to him self that his energy was spent.  He had been forced to remain in bed for such a long stretch of time that now he was unaccustomed to being up for so many hours.  Joe reined in his mount, stopping just long enough to force his weary body to stretch trying to relieve the stiffness in his sore muscles.  His legs, just free of their heavy casts, ached and Joe rubbed at the soreness where the bones had been broken.  The action had not gone unnoticed by Wheeler, and unseen by his guardians, he smiled slyly, his mind working double time plotting his escape and how the overly tired young man could be of help without ever being the wiser.

Hoss turned and noticed Joe lagging behind.  Stopping, he turned Chubb around and rode the short distance back to where his brother had stopped.

“Ya okay, Joe?” asked Hoss concerned when he saw the pained expression on his brother’s young face.

Joe nodded his head not wanting to have Hoss worry about him and smiled weakly at his brother.  Unable to express how he really felt and not sure that he would have even if he had been able to voice his complaints, Joe gently kicked his mount forward, leaving Hoss and Wheeler to follow behind him.

The trio rode for another hour before Hoss decided to stop for the night.  “Joe, hold up,” he called out to Joe who was still in the lead.  Hoss noted how the boy’s shoulders sagged as he rode and decided he had been right in making the decision to stop early for the night.  The extra couple of hours of sleeping time would give Joe renewed strength by morning allowing them to start out fresh come daybreak.

They set up their camp in the shade of several tall trees, not far from the creek bank.  Hoss loosened the ropes on Wheeler’s wrists and allowed him time to care for his personal needs before retying the ropes behind the man’s back and ordering him to sit.

While Joe rested Hoss set about preparing their evening meal.  By the time that he had the meal finished, Joe had fallen asleep and was curled into a tight ball wrapped in his bedroll.  Hoss gently nudged Joe attempting to wake him but Joe only slung his arm out at Hoss and turned over.  Deciding that Joe needed his rest more than nourishment, Hoss returned to the fire to eat his own supper.

“Hey fatso, what about me?  Ain’t you gonna feed me?” called out Wheeler in a nasty voice.

“Just hold ya horses.  I’ll get around to ya, when I’m ready,” snapped Hoss in return, finishing his own supper first before taking Wheeler his.

Carefully Hoss untied the man’s hands and retied them in front so that Jonathan could feed himself.  Hoss sat nearby keeping a close eye in case his prisoner tried to escape.  When the man was finished with his plate, Hoss retied the ropes, this time forcing the man to lean against a small sapling where Hoss tied him to the tree.

The night passed uneventful; much to Hoss’ relief; Wheeler made no attempt at escaping and even managed to sleep some throughout the night.  Joe seemed to have rested well, for come morning he was up and had the fire going and the pot of water boiling for the coffee.

“Hey little brother, how ya feelin’ this morning’?” asked Hoss as he crawled from his bedroll and stretched.

Joe tossed his brother a big smile, but Hoss could still see the pain that Joe tried to hide, etched into the fine lines on his face.  Hoss made a mental note to take things slower today than they had the day before.  Joe had been anxious to get home and because of that, Hoss had felt the need to close the distance between home and themselves as much as Joe’s strength would allow; now looking back, Hoss realized he had pushed the boy too hard.  Today would be different, he told himself.

From his spot beneath the tree Jonathan Wheeler watched the proceedings going on in camp and was quick to pick up on the fact that the younger Cartwright was moving in a sluggish way.  Pleased with the knowledge, Wheeler knew that he would bide his time, it had to be perfect, and with that he rested his back against the tree and waited for the fat man to come put him on his horse.  Buried beneath the surface of his calm demure, Wheeler’s heart beat fast in anticipation of being free once again.  Hopefully he thought he just might be able to take out the largest brother for his part in destroying his plans.  Wheeler knew that once the big man was incapacitated, the younger and weaker Cartwright would pose no threat.  Once again his thoughts turned to the purse full of money that Hoss Cartwright carried inside his vest.  Determined to reclaim what he believed to be rightfully his, Jonathan snuggled against the base of the tree and waited.

By mid day the small group of men had traveled several miles.  Hoss tried to slow the party down, but Joe was determined to get home so Hoss had reluctantly given in to his younger brother’s wishes that they push on.  They stopped only briefly for a short rest and then later when Hoss heard a thump then a loud groan.  Hoss reined in his horse and twisted in his saddle, beyond Wheeler who followed Hoss, Joe had fallen from his horse and lay sprawled in the dirt.  Jumping from his own horse, Hoss hurried to his brother’s side.

“Joe, dadburnit little brother, are ya hurt?” asked the big man as he gently helped Joe roll over.

Joe groaned again and grabbed his left shoulder.  Looking up at Hoss, the older brother could see the hazel eyes begin to slowly fill with tears as Joe tried to hide his pain from his brother.

“Let’s take a look punkin’,” Hoss softened his voice, not meaning to let his aggravation get the better of him.

Hoss gently unbuttoned Joe’s shirt and pulled the shirt open so that he could see the shoulder.  A large bruise had already started forming, though after carefully running his hands along the collarbone and down the arm, no new breaks could be found.

“Looks like ya mighta pulled a muscle or somethin’.  There ain’t nuthin’ broke, just might be a little sore for a while.  Why don’t we stop here for the night and git an early start in the mornin’?” Hoss asked Joe helping him to his feet.

Joe shook his head no while he buttoned his shirt.  Hoss scowled at him, though he really wasn’t mad at the boy.  Joe knelt down on one knee and scribbled something in the dirt.  Hoss had to bend forward to see what Joe was trying to tell him and when he was able to make out what looked more like chicken scratchin’ to him, he shook his head and smiled.

“Ok short shanks, but just for a while longer,” laughed Hoss who was now making a sling for Joe to rest his arm in.

As Hoss helped Joe mount his horse, he took one more look at the message in the dirt and smiled to himself.  Joe had written, ‘just put me on my horse and let’s ride.’

Much later, Joe would not admit it to Hoss, but his shoulder hurt like blazes and now his head had started to throb.  Joe felt his will power fading as quickly as the evening sun and though his body screamed for him to stop, Joe refused.

From his vantage point, Jonathan Wheeler who trailed behind Joe, could plainly see that Joe’s strength was being sapped from him in his never ending determination to push on.  Wheeler knew from experience that it would only be a matter of time before the boy gave out completely.  Then as the boy gave in to his exhaustion, he could follow through with his plans for escape.  He had not so much as finished that thought when in front of him, Joe pulled sharply back on his horse’s reins and all but fell from the saddle as he slid down to the ground.

Hoss pushed ahead of Wheeler and was beside Joe in seconds.  “Okay, Little Brother, that’s it for the day.  We aint’ amovin’ another inch, ya hear me?” demanded Hoss.

Joe could only nod his head in agreement, he was much to weary to argue and even if he wanted to, he knew Hoss would never permit it.  Hoss hauled Joe to his feet and helped him to the nearest shade where he ordered him to sit and not move.  Too tired to put up a fight, Joe obediently did as he was told.

Hoss tied the three horses to the nearby bushes and pulled Wheeler from his horse.  Wheeler gave Hoss a smile that seemed to rub the big man the wrong way and without thinking, Hoss shoved the little man down in the dirt.

“Don’t ya move, I ain’t in no mood to put up with ya and I’d as soon shoot ya as to have to chase ya around.  Ya hear me?” barked Hoss as he shook his finger under the man’s nose.

Wheeler, forcing himself not to tremble, for in truth, Hoss scared him some.  “I hear ya,” was his only reply.

Wheeler scooted up to the big rock that was behind him so that he could rest his back and watched as Hoss prepared the camp for the night.  Every so often he turned in Joe’s direction and under lowered lashes, watched as the boy rubbed his sore shoulder and moved it around in an effort to relieve the stiffness.  It appeared to Wheeler that Joe was having little success in alleviating his pain, which caused Wheeler to smile in satisfaction.  Tonight, he thought, tonight.

Wheeler got his chance, it was too good to be true and he basked in his joy.  Hoss had just taken his plate having forgotten to retie his hands behind his back.  Joe sat by the fire poking at it with a stick, lost in his own thoughts, probably of home smirked Jonathan.

“I’m goin’ down ta the crik Joe, keep ya eye on that rascal for me, will ya?” called out Hoss as he gathered the dishes and headed for the creek.

Joe, weary and passed ready to call it a night, cast tired eyes over his shoulder in Wheeler’s direction.  Wheeler sat bone still, not moving his hands lest the boy see that his brother had forgotten to redo the ropes and waited until Joe had turned his head.

Joe rubbed his sore neck with his right hand unaware that Wheeler had quietly gotten up and had silently moved in behind him.  As soon as Joe lowered his hand, Wheeler grabbed Joe around the neck using his tied hands as leverage, pulled Joe from the log where he had been sitting and forced Joe face down in the dirt.  Joe taken off guard, struggled with his good hand to slip his fingers between the rope and his neck as he felt the tightening of the rope that was choking the life from him.  Unable to free his left hand from the sling, Joe knew quickly that he was fighting for his life.  Worn to exhaustion, and aching from head to foot, it soon became apparent that he was swiftly losing that battle.

Determined not to die after having come so far, mixed with the need to see his father one more time, drove Joe to keep fighting. Rising to his knees just enough to be able to move more freely, Joe drove his elbow hard into Wheeler’s ribs.  The unsuspecting action caught the other man off guard and as he slumped backwards, Joe scream, “HOSS!”

Hoss heard the loud plea, recognizing the voice as that of his brother he quickly dropped the tin plates he held in his hand and rushed back to the camp.  Wheeler had jumped Joe again and was laying across his brother’s back.  Joe was being held by his thick hair while Wheeler cruelly banged Joe’s forehead against the ground.

Hoss grabbed the man by the scuff of the neck and tossed him off and away from Joe who lay motionless on the ground.  Hoss had just enough time to roll Joe onto his back and as Joe opened his eyes, unknowingly to Hoss, Wheeler grabbed for Hoss’ rifle that sat propped against a nearby tree.

Joe caught the slight movement from the corner of his eye as Wheeler shouldered the rifle he called out a warning.  “Hoss, look out,” shouted Joe.

Hoss turned, pistol drawn and fired a single shot that dropped the advancing man to the ground.  Quickly Hoss hurried to Wheeler’s side to examine the body.

“He’s dead Joe,” stated Hoss returning and kneeling next to Joe.

“He tried to strangle me,” said Joe rubbing at his neck where the rope had left burns about his throat.

Hoss stared at his brother in shock for several seconds.  Joe, sensing his brother’s sudden silence looked up to see Hoss staring at him and noted the way his blue eyes pooled with tears.

“Hoss, what’s wrong?” asked Joe concerned now for his brother.

“Joseph, you can talk,” Hoss sat down in the dirt, stunned at hearing his brother’s voice for the first time in months
.
Surprised at himself for not realizing what had happened, Joe stared back at Hoss.  Suddenly both brothers grabbed the other and laughing loudly, wrapped their arms around each other.  Hoss pulled Joe to his feet and swung the smaller boy around in a circle.

“Goshdangit, Short Shanks, ya can talk.  I cain’t believe my ole ears.  Golly it sounds good ta hear that silly laugh of yours again!” laughed Hoss once he had stopped and set Joe on his feet.

Joe swayed, a little dizzy from having been swung around and around but joined his brother in the laughter.

“It’s just as Doc Blakefield said it would be, when I least expected it to happen, it did,” chirped Joe, giggling.

A few minutes later the brothers had turned serious again.  “Guess we better take Wheeler’s body into the next town and explain to the sheriff what happened.  We can wire Pa and Adam from there and tell’em we’ll be home soon, little brother,” Hoss said as he and Joe lifted Wheeler’s body onto his bedroll and wrapped him up.

“What’ll you tell Adam about this man and the kid, Davie?” questioned Joe.

“I don’t reckon on tellin’ em nuthin’ about Wheeler until we git home.  I wanna break it ta Adam easy like, he sure ‘nough took alikin’ to that boy.  Cain’t say I blame him none either, once the boy learnt we cared ‘bout’em, he turned out to be sorta nice.  I hate ta think what’ll happen ta ‘em now.”  Hoss finished tying the ropes around the blanket that covered the body.

“What say ya and me just keep this thing ta ourselves ‘til after I talk ta Adam?”  Hoss looked up at Joe and waited for an answer.

“Suites me just fine, Hoss.  I suspect Adam’ll be hurt once he finds out the kid was part of the scheme, especially if he cares as much about the boy as you say he does.  Won’t be easy on him,” Joe told Hoss.

“He does care little brother, that’s what makes this whole mess so bad, somebody was bound ta get hurt, and it just had to be our big brother,” Hoss commented sadly.  “Ain’t liken the ole boy hadn’t lost enough people in his life already.”  Hoss looked over at Joe but Joe had laid down on his bedroll and with out meaning to, had fallen asleep.

Hoss smiled at the sight and reached over to pull the blanket around Joe to keep him warm.  Hoss knew come morning, the blanket could be anywhere.  Joe wiggled and squirmed all night long and usually you could find him without his blanket, even when sleeping out on the trail.  But at least for a while, Hoss would see that he stayed warm.

Roy Coffee rode into the yard just as Ben and his grandson was coming from the house.  Ben told Davie to go ahead and start his chores and explained that he would be there shortly to help so that he would not be late for school.

“Mornin’ Ben,” greeted Roy, dismounting.

“Roy,” Ben extended his hand to Roy and they shook.  “What brings you out our way so early in the morning?” asked Ben curious as to the sheriff’s early morning visit.

Roy pulled an envelope from his vest pocket and handed it to Ben.  “Hi ya, Adam,” Roy turned his attention to Ben’s oldest son as Adam approached and returned the greeting.

“Oh, here Ben.  I thought you might be anxious to see this,” the sheriff stated grimly.

Ben opened the envelope and withdrew the paper from inside.  Unfolding the paper, Ben glanced over his shoulder at Adam who had come to stand behind his father and read over his shoulder.

Ben Cartwright…stop
Ponderosa Ranch…stop
Nevada Territory…stop

Wednesday, May 21…stop

Will be home day after tomorrow….stop

Hoss

Ben held the paper in his hand and said nothing.  Adam stepped around and faced his father, disturbed by the message.  It was plain to see that his father was equally as disturbed.

“Pa?” said Adam after what seemed like ages but in truth had only been a few seconds.

Ben looked up at the sound of his son’s voice and folded the paper and tucked it securely into his vest pocket.  “Well Roy, seems as if Hoss will be home soon,” Ben told his friend.

“Just Hoss, Ben?  Didn’t he say whether or not he found any trace of Joe?” Roy inquired of his friend, he too disappointed that Hoss had not mentioned anything about the youngest Cartwright.

Ben’s lips were drawn into a tight line as he fought to conceal his disappointment.  He wouldn’t let on but he was devastated that Hoss had not found his brother.  For surely, thought Ben, had Hoss been successful, he would have said so.  Ben had no idea about the surprise that his middle son was about to give him.

“No, Roy.  I guess Hoss couldn’t find him.  Or maybe he did but just didn’t want to give me the bad news until he got home.”  Ben looked beaten and Roy could not help but to feel sorry for his best friend.

Roy reached out and placed a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “Try not to think the worst Ben.  Not until you know for sure.”

“Thanks Roy, but that’s a little hard to keep from doing,” Ben told him.

“I gotta get back to town Ben.  I’ll ride out in day or two to see ya, you take care now.”  Roy mounted his horse and left both Ben and Adam standing alone in the yard.

“Pa?” started Adam.

“Not now Adam, not now, I’m not in the mood.”  Ben started walking toward the house.

Adam stood watching his father, noticing how slow and deliberate his father walked and it made him sad to see his father so heartsick.  Joe was lost to them forever, the gypsy had known all along what would happen, and she had told them everything up to that point.  She had known that Davie was Joe’s replacement, not that one person could ever replace another, but she knew that the ache in their hearts could be lessened somewhat with the love of Adam’s son and Ben’s grandson.  Still thought Adam, not to ever have Joe around?  The thought brought tears to his dark eyes and when they slipped silently down his face, Adam made no move to wipe them away.  Slowly Adam entered the barn where Davie was already busy at work and without so much as a word, grabbed the pitch fork and drove it into the hay with such force that the young boy stopped what he was doing and turned, amazed at the anger that poured forth from his would be father.

Joe was ecstatic; he was almost home and it took all of his willpower not to force his horse into a run.  Just a little longer he told himself over and over again until he almost had himself believing it. They had delivered Wheeler’s body to the sheriff in the last town with enough money to give the man a proper burial, filled out the required papers and signed their names, saying that what had happened was the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  The sheriff had informed them that he would be in touch and sent them on their way.  The brothers had ridden most of the night, at Joe’s insistence and now that home was just over the next hill, Joe could barely contain his joy at getting to see his family once again.

They pulled up their horses for a short breather on the last rise just before entering the yard.  Joe removed his hat from his head and wiped away the sweat.  Hoss watched his brother for any signs that Joe might be ready to keel over.  It had taken all of Hoss’ limited vocabulary to talk the youngest into stopping for even the short amount of time that they had late last night.  It seemed to Hoss that the boy might be trying to actually kill himself in his drive to reach home and Hoss was just as determined that that would not happen, not after what it had taken to find the boy and have him this close to home.

“Come on Hoss, I’m hungry and I bet Hop Sing has breakfast just about ready.”

Joe did not wait for Hoss to reply instead he kicked hard at his mount’s sides and took off at a run.  Hoss had no other choice but to follow and as he took off he leaned forward and whispered into Chubb’s ear, “I promise ya extra oats ole boy if you can beat ‘em.”

Chubb must have understood what his master had promised for suddenly the big stallion broke into a run that surprised even his rider and in seconds, Hoss and Chubb had passed Joe and his horse, Hoss’ laughter being carried back to Joe by the wind from Chubb’s heavy hooves.

Ben and Adam had just sat down at the table when what seemed like thunder sounded in the yard outside.  Both father and son jumped from the table and ran from the room.  Adam jerked open the heavy oak door and stepped out onto the edge of the porch, Ben close on his heels.  Both father and son stopped in their tracks waiting for the dust cloud caused by the thundering hooves to settle.  Ben waved his hand in front of his face to clear the air and Adam coughed to clear his throat.

Seeing that it was Hoss, but not noticing his youngest son who stood between the two horses, Ben bellowed, “Hoss, what in thunder is the meaning of this?  You know I will not stand for you to ride into the yard in such a manner.”

“Hi ya, Pa.  Sorry ‘bout that, but I was just tryin’ to keep up with squirt, here,” greeted Hoss grinning broadly at the surprised look on his father’s face.

“Who?” snapped Ben as he and Adam stepped closer to his son.

Adam saw him first as Joe tried to stay out of sight.  Adam grinned but could not stop himself from speaking up.  “I think Hoss meant him, Pa,” Adam pointed toward Joe.

Joe peeked his head up over Chubb’s saddle and grinned at his father.

“Hi ya, Pa,” suddenly Joe’s smile disappeared as the need to embrace the man who had given him life overwhelmed him.  Ben must have felt the same for in a blink of an eye; father and son found themselves locked in each other’s arms, tears of joy and happiness streaming from their faces.

“Joseph…Oh Joseph,” Ben whispered over and over into Joe’s ear.

Joe buried his face in Ben’s vest and as Ben held his son tightly, he could feel the tremors that passed through Joe’s body.  Joe swayed slightly, suddenly finding himself weak from lack of rest and proper nourishment.  It seemed as if all that had happened the last few hours had suddenly come to a climax and Ben found himself having to slip his arm under Joe’s in an effort to keep the boy from falling.

“Let’s get you into the house, son.  You’re about to collapse.  You must be worn out.  Adam, help me,” asked Ben moving toward the house, Joe leaning heavily on his father.

“Hi ya, big brother, did ya miss me?” smiled Joe weakly as Adam slipped his arm around Joe to help his father.

“Yeah, like a toothache,” teased Adam, ruffling Joe’s hair.  His pleasure at having his brother home showed on his handsome face.  It was one of the rare times that Adam had let the mask fall completely away and his joy was evident to even his son who stood to the side watching the reunion between this extraordinary family.

Davie stepped aside to give the trio space to get through the door.  Hoss followed behind and stopped to ruffle Davie’s hair in the same way Adam had done Joe.  “Hey pal,” greeted Hoss, resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Hi,” returned Davie, almost shyly as he walked into the house with Hoss at his side.  “Is that your brother you were lookin’ for?”

“Sure is, that’s Little Joe,” beamed Hoss.  “Come on over, I’ll introduce you.”  Hoss ushered Davie forward until he was standing in front of Joe who had been forced by his worried father to lie on the settee.

Joe looked up when he saw the boy and smiled, his eyes slowly moving to meet Hoss’ blue ones.

“Joe, this here is Davie,” Hoss had his hand on the young boy’s shoulder as he introduced him to his brother and no one seemed to notice that he had purposely failed to mention that Davie was Adam’s son, no one that is except Joe.

“Hi Davie, I’m Joe, but you can call me Little Joe, most folks around here do, unless it’s Pa.  He usually calls me Joseph and that’s mostly when he’s mad at me,” Joe informed the boy who looked embarrassed at being there.  Joe remembered those feelings of being out of place and suddenly, knowing what was to happen in the next few days, Joe felt sorry for the boy.

“Someone help me up,” he said changing the subject, “I rode all night just so’s I could have some of Hop Sing’s famous blueberry pancakes,” Joe informed the group as Adam helped him to his feet.  “You do have blueberry pancakes don’t ya Hop Sing?” Joe ventured to ask while making his way to the table with the aid of his oldest brother.

Hop Sing burst forth with a long stream of Chinese that no one seemed to understand as he hurried to the kitchen, his arms waving wildly about in the air.  Minutes later he returned with a platter stacked high with the requested pancakes, much to everyone’s amazement, except Joe, for he was the only one who remembered that it was Friday morning and Hop Sing almost always fixed blueberry pancakes on Friday!

By late Sunday evening, Joe had related his entire story about what had happened to him after falling into the raging waters.  He told of his fear at being swept miles from his home; he told of going over the waterfall and of the amazing family that had found him and with love and care had nursed him back to life.  Several times Joe became emotional as he spoke of the Carver’s and Ben stopped him more than once to assure him that at sometime they would find a way to visit the family.  Joe had the hardest time telling of his inability to speak but withheld the real reason that he had been able to regain his voice.  He knew that Hoss had yet to tell either Adam or his father about Jonathan Wheeler and had, after seeing the love that his older brother now carried in his heart for the boy whom he believed to be his son, Hoss had prolonged the inevitable for just a little longer.

Joe could not hide his tears when he told his father about the day when Hoss stepped into his room at the Carver’s and the feelings that overcame him at seeing his brother again.  Joe looked over at Hoss who sat across from him and could see the same mixed emotions on his brother’s face.  The brother’s exchanged knowing smiles as their family watched.  Ben sensed that the strong bond shared between these two had over the last few weeks become stronger than ever before.  He knew that Adam sensed it also as he watched Adam taking in the exchange between his younger siblings and hope with all of his heart that Adam did not feel left out.

Hoss’ conscience was causing him to lose sleep.  He knew that time was running out, Adam had to be informed of Wheeler’s scheme that had resulted in the family losing several thousands of dollars, not to mention the heartache that Hoss knew Adam would suffer when the truth was told.  Hoss had finally gone to his father and after talking at length about finding Wheeler and how he had used the boy; Ben had become enraged that a man could do such a thing, using an innocent child as bait to swindle money out of another human being.  What worried Ben now was how was his eldest son going to take the news and naturally Ben worried about the boy, Davie.  He had grown fond of the lad, he knew Adam had come to love the boy and he knew that Davie had come to think of them as his family.  Ben hoped that Davie had come to love them in return, but Davie was such a puzzle to him that Ben could not be sure of the boy’s feelings.

On Tuesday, Hoss was still struggling with his dilemma and was on the verge of telling all when a loud knock sounded at the door.  Hop Sing hurried from his kitchen to answer and to everyone’s surprise Roy stood in the doorway, a well dressed gentleman stood slightly behind him.

Ben moved to greet his company, Joe, Hoss and Adam standing as Roy and the stranger moved across the room to join them.

“Roy, good to see you,” Ben greeted him.

“Ben, Hoss, Adam,” greeted Roy.  Roy moved to face Joe, “Well you little whippersnapper, ya finally decided to come home, did ya?” laughed Roy who embraced Joe.

Joe laughed, his face unexpectedly turning red.  “I just couldn’t stay away, Roy.”

Roy turned again to Ben, “Ben, this is Luther McGregor.  He’s from up around Salt Lake City.  He needs to talk to you about the boy.  The boy is in school isn’t he?” asked Roy.

“Yes, he’s in school.  Why Roy, is something wrong?” Ben asked worriedly.

“No, nothings wrong, not really,” Roy started to explain.

“Mr. Cartwright, it’s a pleasure to meet you sir.  I’ve heard about you, good things, rest assured,” Luther added.  “Maybe I had better explain why I’m here,” he suggested.

“That might be a good idea, why don’t you have a seat?” offered Ben, moving to his red chair and waiting for his guest to take a seat.  Adam and Hoss moved to stand in front of the fireplace, Roy took the blue chair while Joe and Luther sat on the settee.

“This may not be easy for you to understand, Mr. Cartwright.  But I am here about the boy, Davie,” started Luther.

“What about the boy?” asked Adam, a look of intense uncertainty on his face.

Joe and Hoss exchanged concerned looks, both wondering where this conversation was headed.

“I will get straight to the point gentleman.  First I want to assure you that I mean the boy no harm, on the contrary, I am most interested in the lad.  You see, David Burke Livingston, the boy you call Davie, is my grandson.  His mother Miriam McGregor Livingston was my daughter.”  Luther paused, watching the startled faces of the gentlemen in the room.

“I don’t understand,” began Adam, forcing his voice to remain steady, “I thought Jonathan Wheeler was his grandfather, he said he was Miriam’s father.  Adam gave his father a quick glance.

“Jonathan Wheeler is a liar and a cheat, Mr. Cartwright, if you will forgive me for being so bold,” apologized McGregor.  “He and I go back many years.  I first met the man when my daughter brought him home to her mother and I just after David was born.  Needless to say, we were somewhat taken back by the fact that she had married him and bore him a son without telling us,” he told Adam.

Adam remained speechless, his thoughts trying to calculate the time space as to his last night with the beautiful Miriam and Davie’s birth.

“Adam, I was told how well you have cared for the boy since Wheeler brought him here.  I want to thank you for that, but I have to be honest with you.  Young David is not your son he is Wheeler’s.  Jonathan Wheeler’s real name is Jonathan Andrew Livingston and he was married to my daughter over a year before you met her.  David was a baby, less than a year old during the time you were seeing my daughter.  David lived with my wife and I during that time because Miriam was in the process of filing for a divorce from Jonathan and he had threatened to take the boy away from her if she went through with her plans.  She was terrified of him for he often beat her.  She was in hiding when she met you.  It was just by chance that you ran into her that first time, and well, she cared very much for you.  She admitted to us that she could not stay away from you; you were everything that she had always hoped to find in a man.  But she knew that things could never be between the two of you, that’s why she ran away from you.  That’s why you never heard from her again, she didn’t want to hurt you and she didn’t want you to find out about Jonathan nor her son, so she ran away.”  Luther paused and gave the men time to absorb the news.

“Adam, if it’s any consolation to you Miriam felt awful for deceiving you the way she did.  When she was dying, she made me promise to find you someday and ask you to forgive her for what she did to you.”  Luther hung his head as the memory of his dying daughter returned to haunt him.

“Adam, we could do nothing to keep Jonathan from taking David away from us.  He had the legal right, by law he was the boy’s father and though I am a wealthy man, I could not do anything to prevent him from claiming his own son.  It broke our hearts when we had to relinquish custody of David over to that man.  It killed my wife, literally killed her.  She had nothing to live for after Jonathan took the boy away.  We were never allowed to see him again after all of that and it drove my wife to her grave.”

“When I got word that Jonathan was using the boy in his scams, I hired a private investigator to find him.  When he came here, to your home, I had him followed and watched.  We were just about to nab him when he suddenly disappeared and we haven’t been able to find a trace of him since,” continued McGregor.

Knowing looks passed between Hoss and Little Joe and Hoss knew the time had come to speak up, but before he could Luther took up where he had stopped.

“Adam, regardless of what my daughter did during the course of her short life, I loved her, I always have.  I also love my grandson.  He is all that I have left in this world now and I want the chance to make things up to the boy.  I know, for I have seen with my own eyes, the way that Jonathan treated that boy.  He beat him and often.  I have in my possession, papers that now give me legal custody to the boy.  Jonathan was arrested two years ago on a murder charge in Salt Lake City and was sentenced to life in prison.  Unfortunately, he never made it to prison.  He broke out of jail, stole the boy from his bed and took off.  I have come to claim what is rightfully mine and hopefully will be able to put Jonathan Livingston in jail where he belongs.”

“Mr. McGregor, if what you are telling me is in fact, the truth, then that means that everything that both Wheeler and Miriam has ever told me is a lie, am I correct?” asked Adam, not wanting to believe that he had been taken for a fool by the woman whom he had once loved and by her conniving crook of a husband.

“I am truly sorry Adam, for I can see how this has hurt you.  But yes, everything that the man you refer to as Wheeler has told you is a lie.  As far as Miriam, she loved you; that much I know to be truth.  I am sorry, so very sorry.”

Ben watched the color drain from his son’s face and moved to stand beside him.  Gently Ben laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder to offer a small amount of comfort but instead he could feel the tightness of the muscles beneath the palm of his hand.

“Adam,” said Hoss, moving to face his brother.  “I need to tell ya somethin’ myself.  It concerns you too, Mr., McGregor,” began Hoss.

“Hoss, is there more to this than what you have already told me?” asked Ben surprised at his son’s statement.

Hoss nodded his head in response and continued as he now had the attention of everyone in the room.

“I was gonna tell ya as soon as Joe and me got home, but I been aputtin’ it off cause I didn’t quite know how to break it to ya,” stammered Hoss as he shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Just say it Hoss, just say it for heavens sake,” scolded Ben.

“Adam, Mr. McGregor, Jonathan Wheeler or Livingston, whatever his name is, well, he’s dead,” Hoss told them.

“Dead?” said Ben, Adam and Luther at the same time.  “How do you know this?” asked Adam.

“Cause I kilt ‘em,” confessed Hoss.

“You? How? When and for God’s sake, why?” demanded his father.  Adam had felt his knees growing weak and returned to his seat.  Ben stood facing Hoss and waited for his son to answer.

“He was trying to kill me Pa, that’s why Hoss had to kill him,” offered Joe.

Ben spun around, “kill you? How do you fit into this mess?”

“Pa, maybe ya better sit down, you too Mr. McGregor while I explain everythin’ ta ya’ll,” said Hoss motioning for everyone to calm down and take a seat.

For an hour and a half, Hoss rattled on about how he had found Wheeler in the saloon gambling on the same night that he had run into Thomas Carver who in turn had taken him to the Carver home where he had found Joe.  Hoss left nothing out of his story, not even the part when Wheeler had told him that the boy had meant nothing to him, just another useless kid.  Hoss could see how hurt his brother was by the whole ordeal and he felt guilty for his part.

“Adam, I’m sorry, honest,” he apologized.

Adam saw Hoss’ discomfort and uncertainty.  He rose, placing both hands on his brother’s broad shoulders.  “Hoss, you didn’t do anything, except save our kid brother’s life.  The man deserved to die from what I can see.  He was a monster; he got what he earned in life.  You had to do what you did, and besides Hoss, he would have killed you and Joe if you hadn’t stopped him.”

“Thanks Adam, I was scared ya be mad at me for not tellin’ ya sooner.  If’n I’d aknowed Mr. McGregor here was goin’ ta pay us a visit, I’d told ya afore now,” claimed Hoss.

Adam was about ready to speak again when the door opened and Davie walked in, putting a stop to the discussion.  “Davie, come over here son, I want you to meet someone,” Adam greeted the boy.

Luther McGregor remained at the Ponderosa for another week getting acquainted with his grandson.  David took an immediate liking to his newfound grandfather and it wasn’t long before they became inseparable.  If you saw one, you saw the other. The one had become the other’s shadow.

Adam had mixed feelings about the new relationship.  Part of him envied the pair, another part of Adam’s heart was happy for the grandson and grandfather duo.  Thus when the day came that Luther McGregor announced that he and David would be leaving, Adam put aside his own heartache and smiled as he helped Hoss stack the man’s trunks on the back of the wagon.

“I don’t know how to thank you Mr. Cartwright, I owe you so much,” Luther shook Ben’s hand then Hoss’ and Joe’s.

“You don’t owe us a thing Luther, it was our pleasure,” replied Ben handing Hoss the last of their belongings.

Luther turned to Adam, “son, thank you so much, for everything.  I mean, for loving both my daughter and her son.  I shall never forget you my boy.”

“And I shall never forget you sir,” smiled Adam.

Ben watched the interaction between Adam and David’s grandfather and saw that his son had once again raised the mask that had throughout his lifetime, hidden his innermost feelings from those around him.

David waited until his grandfather climbed into the wagon before approaching Adam.  As he stood before the man whom he had prayed could have been his father, he was suddenly at a loss for words.

Adam knelt down so that he could be eye level with the boy and reaching out, grasped the slims arms and pulled the boy to him and saying nothing, held him tightly for several moments.  David began to cry, his body trembling as he did so.

“I love you Adam,” he whispered in between sobs.

“I love you too Davie,” Adam responded, somewhat surprised at the way he had grown to feel towards the boy whom he had accepted as his son.

Adam picked the boy up in his arms and after giving him another tight hug, sat him next to his grandfather on the wagon seat.  Swallowing to clear the tightness in his throat, Adam stepped back and allowed Charlie, who was driving them into town to catch the noon stage, urge the team forward.

The Cartwright’s waved until the man and his grandson was out of sight.  Each man momentarily stood silent in the yard, each lost in their own thoughts until Joe broke the silence.

“Hey Adam, there’s a carnival comin’ next week to Placerville, wanna go with Hoss and me?” asked Joe smiling.

“I dunno, maybe.  Anything different this time?” Adam wanted to know.

Ben and Hoss exchanged looks, each wondering…

Joe smiled, “I hear tell they have a real fortune teller at this one, wanna have your…”

“Oh no you don’t you young scamp, not this time,” exclaimed Ben grabbing his youngest, “you are going to be riding fence for a solid week!”

Hoss and Adam burst into laughter.

“I wouldn’t laugh if I were you,” Ben turned his mock fury on his two older boys, “the two of you will be helping him.”

“Aw shucks, Pa, do we gotta, he’s such a pest,” moaned Hoss.

“Why me Pa?  Why do I havta always be the one to baby sit,” gripped Adam.

“Baby sit?” shouted Joe, freeing himself from his father’s hold, “ya better not be talking ‘bout me, I ain’t no baby.”

“Yes you are, you’re a spoilt brat,” laughed Adam, Hoss joining in.

“Pa!” shouted Joe.

Ben walked away leaving his three squabbling sons to argue.  “Some things never change,” he told himself aloud as he shut the front door behind him drowning out the ruckus his ‘boys’ were making.

“Boss need coffee, yes?” asked Hop Sing bowing to his employer.

“No, boss need brandy,” laughed Ben.  “Make that a double,” he added as the noise outside grew in volume.

Ben peeked out of the window above his desk, his two oldest where locked together in mock combat, totally unaware that they had his youngest wedged between them, struggling to get free…or did they know?  He couldn’t say for sure, not with those three.

THE END
April 2002

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.