Darkness Within (by DebbieB)

Summary:  When Little Joe’s best friend, Mitch Devlin, betrays Joe’s most private secrets to their older friends, Joe becomes the victim of the malicious joke.  Joe suffers from both the physical and emotional turmoil of the boy’s so-called fun. But what really eats away at Joe is why Mitch turned his back on him.  Will he ever be able to forgive his very best friend for his betrayal?

Rated: G  (21, 730 words)

 

 

                        Darkness Within

 

It was pitch black, the darkest of all darks and Joe could not even see his hand as he held it up to his face.  The space was cramped, he had just barely enough room to stretch out his legs, but lying down was out of the question, so he sat with his back propped against the wall and willed himself not to cry.  He was scared, he was alone and he hated the dark more than anything else.  Joe listened for any sounds that might tell him that his father and brothers had come looking for him but heard nothing, only the night sounds that told him that it was dark outside as well as inside.

Joe shivered slightly from both the coolness within the closet and from the fear he felt growing in his heart.  How had this happened he questioned himself trying to keep his mind busy?  He could not believe that his best friend Mitch had ratted on him, telling the others that he was afraid of the dark and when the older boys had laughed, Mitch had added the fact that he slept with his stuffed dog, Scruffy.  That had been the last straw, the others had hooted and laughed at him until they had tears in their eyes from laughing so hard.  Even Mitch had laughed, adding salt to an open wound, that’s what it felt like, thought Little Joe.

Joe felt the tears that burned his eyes and quickly wiped them away with the backs of his hands.  Where was his Pa?  Joe briefly wondered what was taking his father so long to find him but then reasoned that his family had no idea that he was even missing, for he was supposed to be spending the night with Mitch.  Somehow things had gotten out of hand and now he found himself locked in a closest miles from his home in an old worn down farmhouse that everyone had told him was haunted.

Joe shivered again and rubbed his arms with his hands in an effort to warm them.  Pulling his knees up to his chest Joe folded his arms across the top then rested his forehead on his arms thinking back to the days before and how all this true life nightmare had it’s beginning.

It began the evening that he and Mitch, along with three of their older friends had been caught trespassing on the property where he was now being held captive.  He and his friends were only trying to find out for sure whether or not the old run down house was truly haunted.  He and Mitch had managed to make it to the porch and nearly had the old door pulled free of it’s hinges when his pa had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, putting an end to their adventure. He and Mitch had been caught red handed with the door in their hands while the other three boys had scattered in all directions leaving them to face the consequences alone, just the two of them.

Joe remembered that his father had been furious with him and had sent Mitch home to his own father, ranting loudly at both of them as they scurried to mount their horses.  Mitch had taken off at lightening speed for home and when Joe had turned to face his father, he trembled slightly at the enraged look his father had worn on his face.  Ben said nothing but pointed toward home and Joe knew by his father’s silence that his Pa was fighting for control of his anger and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would not be sitting comfortably for several days by the time his father had finished with him.

Hoss met the pair as father and son rode into the yard and knew by the look on his brother’s face that Joe was in deep trouble again.  Eyeing his father’s expression only served to confirm what he suspected so rather than saying anything, Hoss stood silent until both his brother and his father dismounted.

“Hoss, will you take care of our horses for us?  Your brother and I have some things to discuss,” Ben stated.  The question was more of a command rather than a request and Hoss nodded his head as Ben handed the reins to his middle son.  Joe looked sheepishly at his brother and placed Cochise’s reins in Hoss’ other hand.  Joe glanced up at his father and saw that his father’s dark eyes were boring into his own hazel eyes.

“Go to your room now,” Ben pointed towards the house, “I will be up shortly.”

Joe gave Hoss one more quick glance as he darted for the door.  Adam was just coming outside to greet his father and was forced to step aside as Joe ran passed.

“What was that all about, he acts as if the devil his self was after him,” laughed Adam but stopped suddenly when he saw the look on his father’s face.

“He may well wish it were the devil by the time I get finished with him,” Ben stated as he watched Joe run into the house and grimaced when the boy slammed the door.

“What has the scamp gotten into this time?” asked Adam following Ben’s gaze at his brother’s retreating back.

Ben turned to face Adam, “Oh nothing, just breaking the law,” he said flatly.

Hoss halted his steps and looked back toward Ben.  “Breakin’ the law.  Lordy Pa, what’s he dun?”  Hoss was suddenly worried about his little brother.  Did his father mean that Joe might go to jail for whatever it was that Pa had caught him doing?

“He and Mitch were over at the Shamlin place.  I caught them red handed tearing the door off the hinges.”

“I thought ole man Shamblin put up ‘no trespassing’ signs around that place,” Adam spoke up.

“He did, Joe and Mitch were trespassing.  There were some other boys with them, but they ran off before I could see their faces.  But Joe knows who they were, and when I get finished with him, I will know who they were also.”  Ben started towards the house, dreading what he knew he had to do.

“Why don’t you two find something out here to keep you busy for a little while, until I finish with you brother?”  Ben did not wait for a reply but headed inside and slowly climbed the steps to his youngest and most trying son’s room.

Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing glances as they entered the barn and pulled the door closed behind them.

Joe was sprawled out on his bed, his arms curled over his head as he stared at the ceiling.  When Ben knocked lightly on the door, Joe was on his feet by the time that his father had entered the room.  The look on Ben’s face told the boy that his father’s anger had only lessened to a degree and what he had known was coming, was just about to be confirmed.

Ben moved to the over stuffed chair and lowered his body slowly onto the cushion, never taking his eyes from his son’s face.  Joe’s head was hung low, nearly resting on his chest but that did not stop Ben from seeing the way that his son’s chin had begun to quiver, nor did it stop him from seeing the tiny beads of water that had pooled in the hazel eyes.

“Joseph, come here please,” Ben ordered and watched as Joe slowly moved to stand in front of his parent.  Ben noted the way that Joe’s body language changed, the boy had become rigid and his arms hung down by his sides as if weighted, but Joe refused to look him in the eye.

“Look at me when I speak to you,” stated Ben in a controlled voice, for the boy’s defiance was beginning to try his patience.  When Joe refused to raise his head, Ben stood and cupped the boy’s chin with his hand and raised his son’s head upward forcing Joe to look him in the eye.

Ben could not help but notice the slight fear he read in the misty eyes that were now watching him and it troubled him to a degree that his son might actually fear him.  Releasing the pressure in which he had on Joe’s chin, he took a deep breath to steady his breathing before continuing.

“I want to know why you have chosen to defy me?  Did I not tell you just the day before yesterday that you were forbidden to set foot on the Shamblin property?” asked Ben.

Joe wanted to divert his eyes but thought better of it.  How had his father found out that he would be at the old house tonight?  It amazed him how often his father caught on to his shenanigans, which always resulted in his being in trouble.

“I asked you a question young man, I’m waiting for an answer,” Ben said, his voice taking on a deeper tone, one that Joe knew meant business.

“I…no…I mean…yes sir,” stammered Joe, having been lost in his own thoughts; he was not sure what the question had been and only hoped that he had given the correct answer.

“If you know that much, then tell me why you were there against my wishes?” Ben demanded watching Joe’s face as it began to pale in color.

“I dunno,” Joe said softly, averting his eyes from his father’s.

“I dunno? What kind of an answer is that, young man?” Ben’s anger was beginning to rise as he realized that Joe was pushing his luck.

“Pa, we weren’t doin’ nothin’ wrong, we was…” began Joe but stopped as Ben interrupted.

Ben’s brows were starting to meet in the middle as his face took on a scowl.  “Not doing nothing wrong, you say.  So since when did trespassing and breaking in to someone else’s property become, not wrong?” Ben all but shouted.

Joe was at a loss for words, he and Mitch were only going to the house because their friends had called them chicken and dared them that they wouldn’t, that’s all. But he couldn’t tell his father that because Joe knew that what they had been caught doing was wrong, and if his father knew he had only done what he did because of a dare, he was still in trouble.  It seemed to Joe that no matter what he said, he was still going to be in for it so for the lack of anything to say, Joe said nothing. choosing instead to shrug his shoulders.

Ben was furious, it appeared that Joe was openly defying him and it took all of his determination not to pull the boy across his knee and wear him out.  Ben felt himself shudder and turned away from his son.

“Get ready for bed Joseph, I’ll be back in a little while.”  Ben walked out the door, never once looking back to see if Joe had begun to do as he was instructed.

Joe pressed his back against the wall and stretched his legs as best he could.  Using his hands to feel along the wall for the knob on the closet door, Joe pulled up to his knees and pushed once more on the little door.  It would not budge.  Tears pooled again in his eyes, this time he made no move to wipe them away; instead he leaned his forehead against the wall and cried.

“Please Pa, help me.  I wanna go home…Pa, I need ya,” sobbed twelve year old Joe.  Joe tried pushing again on the door this time standing in the cramped space and using his shoulder.  Still the door refused to open.  Joe shivered and felt the tiny little goose bumps that popped up on his arm.  He was scared, he knew that Jed, Max and Willie and even Mitch had tricked him into spending the night at the Devlin’s just for the purpose of getting him back to the old house and locking him in the dark closet.  The older three, Jed, Max and Willie had waited until he and Mitch had turned in for the night before sneaking into the bedroom where they slept using the window that Mitch had conveniently left opened for them.  They had then jumped him while he slept, one forcing him face down while the others had tied his hands behind him and gagged him so that he could not cry out for help.  When they had pulled him to his feet and spun him around to the window, Mitch’s face had loomed before him and Joe had felt as if he had suddenly been pierced through the heart as he realized that his best friend had set him up.

The boys forced Joe out the window and into the shadows of the trees where they had the horses saddled and waiting.  Jed and Willie had roughly helped him into his saddle.  When Joe turned and saw Mitch mount his own horse, Scruffy tucked under his arm, Joe felt the sudden rush of tears at his betrayal.  The tears were angry tears and had it not been for the tight ropes that bound his wrists and the gag that prevented him from speaking, Joe would have pulled the smug Mitch Devlin from his horse and whipped his butt good or got beaten himself from trying.

The foursome plus their captive rode for more than an hour before Joe realized that they were taking him to the old haunted Shamblin house on the other side of town.  Fear and uncertainty began to fill Joe’s heart at what the others had planned for him.  Surely he prayed to himself, they would not leave him, not there, not in the house that even adults dared not venture.  But his fears were soon realized when they stopped at the back of the house and he was none too gently pulled from his horse and pushed forward.

Joe tried to balk but Max, the largest of the boys only shoved harder causing Joe to fall face down in the dirt.  As he struggled to his feet their evil laughter reached his ears as hands grabbed him tightly by his upper arms and hoisted him to his feet.  He raised his head and looked into the blue eyes of Mitch whom he had thought had been a friend.  Mitch said nothing as he brushed the dirt loose from Joe’s face and stepped aside giving Max the room to escort Joe inside.

The house was dark and musty smelling; tiny night creatures could be heard scurrying across the wooden floor when the boys stepped inside and disturbed their solitude.  Mitch and Willie lit candles and handed one each to Jed and Max.  Jed led the way up the rickety old stairs, Max pushing Joe every so often forcing him to follow.  Mitch and Willie followed behind; each casting wary glances around at the shadowy figures that danced along the wall as they silently made their way to the top.

Joe felt his stomach lurch and feared that he might vomit if he did not soon get air into his lungs.  The gag was drying out his mouth and he desperately needed a drink.  After climbing the second set of steps, these more narrow than the first, Max jerked back on Joe’s arm causing him to stumble backwards.  Suddenly flapping wings could be heard and all five boys ducked as a bat swept passed their heads.

“Darn it, can’t you stand up?” Max whispered, pulling up on Joe’s arm to break his fall.  Joe faced his captor, a look of fear mixed with anger clearly etched into the lines creasing his forehead.

Just as they reached the third set of stairs, the ones leading to the attic, the procession of boys stopped.  Willie and Jed moved ahead several paces before halting their steps. From what Joe could see from the glow of the candlelight, they had stopped in front of a door and when it was pushed opened, he was shoved in side of the room.  The room was vacant of any windows and the only other door besides the one they had just entered through was a tiny door that Willie and Jed were now pulling open.

Joe’s fear was mounting, as the realization came to him that here, behind this tiny door was to be his prison.  Joe swallowed several times in an attempt to keep his rising panic at bay.  He cast his eyes around the room, searching the faces of each boy in hopes that this was all a joke and that soon they would untie his hands and permit him to go home.  His hope was dashed as their laughter rang in his ears when they saw the terror in his eyes and on his face and he felt the dampness of his own tears as he was pushed into the confines of the tiny closet.  Once inside he was ordered to turn around and having done so, the gag and the ropes were removed from his hands and about his mouth.  Joe made an attempt to break free but was prevented from doing so by Jed, Willie and Max who shoved him backwards causing him to strike his head on the sloping ceiling of the closet.  Scruffy was tossed into the closet along with a pillowcase, which he was told, held enough food and water for a week.

Joe slightly dazed from hitting his head, screamed out at them as they pushed the door closed.  His pleas fell on deaf ears as the sound of hammering drowned out his cries.  Joe panicked when he become conscious that the boys were nailing the door closed.  He began beating on the opposite side of the door, yelling at Mitch to help him but the only sounds other than the hammering that he could hear was the sickening sound of their laughter.

“Mitch, how could you do this to me?  Why?  Please Mitch, this isn’t funny anymore, let me out,” shouted Joe trying to be heard above the noise of the hammering.

“We ain’t lettin’ ya out Cartwright, not for a week.  Let’s see just how brave ya are by then.  Don’t forget, go easy on the water and food, and remember, this place is haunted,” taunted Max, who detested the youngest Cartwright and who beamed with joy at having finally devised a plan to pay the little monster back for all of the times the smaller boy had beaten him in a fight.

Joe leaned his head against the door and listened, it had grown chillingly quiet.  Then he heard the sound of something being dragged across the floor and heard the way that the others were talking.

“Help me push this wardrobe in front of the door.  That way no one will know this door is here, just in case someone comes lookin’ for Cartwright,” laughed Max, Jed and Willie joining in.  Mitch stood to the side, a sudden battle with his conscience beginning to take place combating his head against his heart.

“Devlin, ya better get over here and help or you’ll be next,” demanded Max seeing that Mitch was having second thoughts.  “There’s another closet just like this one in the other room.”

Mitch, seeing that Max meant business, began pushing on the other side of the heavy wardrobe until they at last had the large piece of furniture firmly placed against the closet where Little Joe’s soft whimpers could still be heard.

“See ya, cry baby,” laughed Max as he and the others exited the room, shutting the door loudly enough to be sure that the frightened boy would know they had gone and left him alone in his dark prison closet.

When the four had finished with locking Joe in the closet and was once again outside, Max turned his fury on Mitch.

“You tell a soul about this, Devlin, I will hide you away some place where even God can’t find ya.  Do you understand?”  Max had grabbed the smaller boy by the front of his shirt and yanked him to his toes.  Mitch stood facing the taller malicious boy, his body trembled in fright as he gazed into the fiery eyes of the young man who threatened him and knew instantly that if he betrayed the angry boy, he could very easily lose his life for the look of death was in the dark eyes that glowed with hatred.

“Don’t worry about me, I ain’t gonna tell anyone,” promised Mitch softly as he trembled slightly at the thought of what Max might do to him if he squealed on the others.

Joe had no way of knowing whether or not it was morning or night, the darkness within the closet remained the same, it terrorized the young boy and Joe found that his terror was making it hard for him to breathe.  It was stuffy in the confines, not to mention how hot the small space had become, that along with the darkness had begun to weaken Joe’s determination not to cry and not to panic.

Joe felt around on the floor with his hands until he found the sack of food and the canteens of water that the gang had tossed in to him before nailing the door shut.  Taking the canteen and removing the cork from the opening, Joe drank deeply of its contents.  Before replacing the cork, he poured a small amount into his cupped hand and splashed his face with it.  The wetness helped to cool his sweating brow and even helped to clear his thoughts somewhat.

“Pa, please,” Joe begged aloud, aware that there was no one to hear his pleas.  Frustration got the better of the young boy and as Joe’s spirit crumbled, he pounded on the wooden door, the walls and even the floors with his fists until they ached from the abuse.

“Pa!  Adam!  Hoss, help me…come and get me!” wept Joe loudly.  “Some one help me.”

Joe slumped to the floor and rolled his weary body into a tight ball, shutting his eyes in hopes that he would wake up and find that this nightmare had been just that, a nightmare.  Instead, his thoughts turned to home and the night when his father had punished him for his disobedience.

Joe paced the floor nervously waiting for his father to return to the room.  Joe thought that surely Pa knew that the waiting was worse than the actual punishment, for he always made them wait.  It was something that parents were known to do it seemed, a form of punishment in its self.  Pa had always said that the waiting should be used to consider the error of his ways.  Pa was usually right in that, Joe had always considered what he had done, after he had done the deed.  He really never gave much thought as to the act while in the process of doing it.  Afterwards, he was always sorry for what he had done, though Pa rarely believed him, or so it seemed to Joe.

Joe was standing at the window when he heard the door softly open and he turned and watched as his father walked across the room toward him.  Joe noted that the deep furrow that had been on his father’s face earlier had smoothed out some, telling the boy that Pa’s temper had cooled considerably.  Joe met his father’s eyes, quickly feeling bad for pushing his parent to his limit, and knowing that he was the major cause of most of his father’s worries, Joe dropped his head, unable to meet the dark probing eyes of his parent.

“Joseph, have you had time to think about your actions?” Ben asked sitting in the chair.

Joe glanced upward until his eyes met Ben’s at last.  “Yes sir.  I know I was wrong for going there after you told me not too, and I’m sorry Pa.  But we wasn’t goin’ to do anything except walk through that old house and then leave.”  It was the truth he told himself; he had just wanted to prove to the others that he wasn’t chicken.

Ben studied his son’s face; the expression of open honesty plainly told him that the boy was telling the truth.  Ben knew that his young son was not one who normally went around breaking in to abandoned buildings and destroying other people’s property, that was why he was having such a hard time believing that he had actually caught the boy red handed doing just that.

“Then why did you go there, son?  If you knew you were not suppose to be there, if you knew that you were breaking the law, then please explain to me what were you thinking of by going there?  Don’t you know that you could get in to serious trouble for trespassing, not to mention breaking into the house?” questioned Ben.

Joe dug his toe into the carpet and hung his head, not sure what to say.  “I guess I wasn’t thinking,” he mumbled, not wanting to admit the truth to his father, that he had been afraid but didn’t want the others to know so he had taken their dare and gone anyway, against his father’s wishes.

“I guess you are right Joseph, how many times have I told you to think before you act?  Answer me son, how many times?” Ben watched as Joe mentally calculated his answer.

“A bunch, I guess.”  Joe looked at his father, checking his reaction to the answer and wondering if he had pushed another button.

“Yes son, a bunch.  In fact I have to remind you of that every time we have one of these little discussions, don’t I?  And for some reason unknown by either of us, you can’t seem to remember that little bit of advice can you?” Ben watched as Joe’s eyes slowly began filling with tears and felt his heart begin to soften with the sight.  How he hated having to discipline his son in this manner and worse, he hated seeing the tears that were ever present during these particular times.  Ben, wise to his youngest son’s antics, had already put two and two together figuring that once again the boy was trying to prove himself to his friends.

Reluctantly, Ben cupped Joe’s quivering chin in his hand and forced his son to look him in the face briefly before he pulled Joe across his lap speaking in a gentle but stern voice.

“I hate to do this Joseph, but I have tried every thing else that I know to do to enable you to remember to think first and act last.  Perhaps this little reminder will stay with you longer than the other methods.”

Ben raised Joe’s nightshirt and applied several wallops to Joe’s bare skin.  Joe wiggled and squirmed as each lick of his father’s open hand met with the bare skin of his backside.  Joe held back his tears until the stinging sensation became unbearable for him.

“I’m sorry Pa…ouch…ouch…” Joe clinched his jaw as the last wallop ended and Ben raised Joe to his feet.  Joe could not help but rub the tender flesh as he stood before his father chastised for disobeying.  His tears ran freely down his face, his cheeks slightly red from embarrassment at both having to bare his backside to his father and for having been caught at breaking his father’s rule.

“I won’t ask you who your friends were.  I already have a pretty good idea and I know that Mitch was among the group.  Joseph, I don’t think you will be seeing your friends for the next couple of weeks.  But when you do see them again, I think you should warn them of the consequences of getting caught on private property.  I don’t have a clue as to what all of you were up too, but I do strongly suggest to you that you never set foot on that particular piece of land again.  Do I make myself clear?” Ben stood from the chair as Joe looked into his eyes.

“Yes sir, I understand,” replied Joe humbly, still rubbing his behind.

“Good, then we shouldn’t have to have this conversation again, should we?”  Ben smiled to himself at the repenting look on the young face of his offspring.

“No sir.”  Joe saw his father watching him and dropped his head, unable to look into the dark eyes that seemed to be boring into his very soul.

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s trembling shoulders.  The touch of his father’s hand was all that it took for Joe to wrap his arms about his father’s waist and cling to him crying.

“I’m sorry Pa, honest…I won’t do it again, I promise,” cried Joe truthfully between his sobs.

Ben’s arms automatically embraced his son, “I know you won’t son.  And I accept your apology.  But for the next couple of weeks, you are restricted to the house and yard.”

“Yes sir,” Joe glanced up, saw his father’s smile and knew that he was forgiven.  Joe returned the smile and pressed his face against his father enjoying the secure feeling of his father’s arms wrapped around him.

“You get to bed now son, I’ll be back to say good night after you have time to compose yourself.”  Ben kissed the top of Joe’s head; mussing his dark curls as he turned to leave.

Joe waited until his father had shut the door before he released the floodgates that held his tears in check.  Once Ben had the door tightly closed, Joe flung himself across his bed and allowed the tears to flow.  His pride was hurt, his backside stung and he was mad at himself for having let his friends talk him into doing something that he knew his father would not approve of.  And his heart was broken by the fact that he knew his father was disappointed in him once again.

Sometime later Ben entered the room to tell his son good night but instead found the boy sleeping soundly, face down, blankets kicked to the floor and Scruffy tucked safely under one arm.  Smiling at the innocent picture that his son rendered, Ben picked the covers up from the floor and gently laid them across his son’s sleeping form.

“Good night sweetheart,” Ben muttered softly, “God bless.”  Ben lowered the wick on the lamp and closed the door quietly.

Joe woke from his dream with a start.  Pulling himself into a sitting position, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and pressed his ear against the door of his hideaway prison and listened.  He was sure he had heard something, but what had it been?  He had been dreaming of home and his family when the strange sound had lured him from his deep slumber.  Joe felt his heart beating loudly in his chest as he strained to hear the peculiar noise and hoped that whoever or whatever was moving about on the opposite side of the wall would not be able to hear the wild thumping of his racing heart.

“Pa?” Joe softly called finding a measure of courage he was not aware that he still maintained and hoping against hope that his father had found him.  Joe jumped when he heard the rattling of chains and instantly felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise as his newfound courage quickly dwindled.  Joe felt his stomach do a flip-flop and he had to take several deep breaths to stop the queasiness from becoming a reality and spilling out onto the floor.

Trembling, Joe remained silent as the sound grew louder and seemed to be coming nearer.  Joe closed his eyes but opened them suddenly as the thumping of footsteps reached his ears.

“Pa?  Is that you?” Little Joe called out hopefully, his eyes wide with fear.

The room grew deathly silent; Joe froze, suddenly unable to find his voice.  After several long minutes, Joe could barely make out the sounds of something scurrying around in the other room.  In a raspy voice that quivered with fear, Joe forced himself to speak.

“Who’s there?  Mitch?  Anybody?”  Joe’s voice shuddered as he spoke and he felt the tears slip from his eyes and roll down his cheeks.

As he pressed his face into the wall of the door, his forehead resting against the hard wood, Joe banged the seasoned wood with his open hands.

“PLEASE!  LET ME OUT!” screeched Joe desperately.  The frightened boy continued to beat and bang on the wall, his cries for help a futile attempt to gain freedom.

The second that Joe stopped shouting, the chains began to rattle, this time much louder and once more the resounding thumping of footsteps could be heard.  Terrified, Joe sank as far back into the closet as was physically possible and covered his ears with his hands muting the ruckus that was sending cold shivers up and down his spine.  Tremors caused the frightened boy’s body to shake uncontrollably as the noise within the room grew in volume.  When the clamor became so loud that Joe could no longer stand the racket, he screamed and screamed until his voice gave out and he slipped to the floor allowing his own inner darkness to claim him.

Much later, Joe woke.  His head was pounding and his hands throbbed from beating on the walls.  Joe felt the sticky substance on his hands and unable to see in the dark what it was, wiped them on his pants.  Minutes later the sticky substance had reappeared; it was then that Joe realized that his hands were seeping blood.  Pulling his shirt from his pants, Joe ripped the tail into strips and wrapped them around both hands in an attempt to bring an end to the bleeding.

Once he had his hands bandaged, Joe sat alone in silence and listened for any sounds that might be coming from the opposite side of the wall.  All was silent and Joe breathed a sigh of relief.  When his stomach growled, telling him that it was passed time to eat, Joe felt around the floor until he found the pillowcase and untied the short piece of rope that had been used to hold the contents inside.  Joe reached in and felt around at the items until his hand touched a round object.  Pulling it from the sack and unable to see what it was he held in his hand, Joe sniffed the object; it was an apple and instantly Joe took a big bite, sinking his teeth deeply into the luscious fruit.

Lonely and frightened, Joe sought for Scruffy and once he had found his stuffed friend, Joe clung to the toy as if the little dog had been his lifeline to reality.  When Joe had finished with his apple he propped his back against the furthermost corner of the closet, pulled Scruffy to his breast, folded both arms about his chest and leaned his head against the wall.  Minutes later the exhausted boy once again fell into a turbulent sleep.

Several times throughout the long night, Joe was awakened by strange unidentifiable noises.  Though he listened intently each time, the noises he heard seemed less threatening than the earlier ones when he had been so very frightened.  Joe opened his eyes only briefly each time he awoke, falling back to sleep almost instantly the minute he closed them again, the noises less important than his body’s need for rest.

Joe had lost all track of time.  He had no idea if it were morning or evening outside.  He only wished for his father or one of his brothers to come to his rescue.  Joe wondered if they even knew he was missing and if they did, where they worried about him, did they miss him?  These things Joe knew he felt in his heart for his family.  He wanted to go home in the worst way, he wanted his father and his brothers.  Joe remembered the night his father had held him, after their ‘little discussion’ and longed to feel his father’s strong arms holding him now.  Joe wiped the tears from his face for the hundredth time and forced himself to think of something besides home.

His thoughts turned to his best friend.  Joe wondered why Mitch had betrayed him, always before the two boys had been the very best of friends.  They had met their first day of school and from that day until recently, their friendship had grown beyond the limits of most young boys.  They had stood together against all odds, taking on every bully and ruffian in school when one or the other had been threatened.  Nothing or anyone had ever succeeded in breaking their bond of friendship, until now.  Joe felt saddened by the fact that Mitch and only Mitch, with the exception of his own family, had ever known or suspected that Joe had always been afraid of the dark, forcing him to want the lamp burning low, that he had nightmares that often left him in tears, and that he had since the age of seven slept with his little stuffed dog, Scruffy.  Scruffy had been a Christmas present from his brother Adam when Joe was seven and since opening the neatly wrapped package that Christmas morning nearly five years ago, Scruffy had always been his bed partner.  The knowledge that Mitch had taken it upon himself to share his secrets with their older friends ate away at Joe.  If that had not been bad enough, when the others had laughed and made fun of him, Mitch had joined in as if he had thought it funny also, and that had hurt Joe more than the telling of his secrets.  He hated it when one of his family or someone else laughed at him and made fun of him or even referred to him as ‘boy’ or worse, ‘baby’, and Mitch had done all three.

“Why Mitch, why?” cried Joe.  Joe buried his face in Scruffy’s soft fur and wept, his heart broken, lonely and scared.

“I don’t understand, Hoss.  What did Charlie mean, Joe left night before last in the middle of the night to come home?  He isn’t here, I’ve just come from the house,” Ben ranted, his temper already reaching the boiling point.

“I’m just atellin’ ya what Mr. Devlin said, Joe got upset with Mitch about somethin’ and left around eight o’clock night before last headin’ fer home,” Hoss explained for the second time. “He said he was worried about the boy riding off like that so late and just wanted to know if Joe got home all right.  I explained to him that we ain’t seen Joe since he left fer school on Friday.”  Hoss was beginning to get worried.  He stopped and grabbed Ben by the shoulder, halting the older man’s steps as they made their way to the barn.

“He was supposed to spent the week-end at the Devlin’s tweren’t he, Pa?”  The worry was evident in Hoss’ voice.

“Yes, and I thought that was where he was.”  Fear suddenly gripped at Ben’s heart.  “If Joe was supposed to have left night before last that means he hasn’t been seen since Friday afternoon.  Hoss,” Ben met his son’s eyes and saw his own worry reflected back at him in Hoss’ blue eyes, “You’re sure Joseph did make it to the Devlin’s after school on Friday didn’t he?”

“According to Mr. Devlin he did.  Seemed fine too when the boys got home.  But later that evening, after they went to bed, Joe got mad and just up and left for home.  Pa, I’m worried, it ain’t like Little Joe ta wonder off like that.  If’n he were mad and came home, he should have been here by Saturday mornin’.  He wouldn’t have gone no place else, not in the dark and all.”  Hoss scratched his head in thought.  “Pa, where could he have gone?  I mean, it’s Sunday, we was suppose to pick him up at church this morning.”

“I don’t know son, but we better saddle our horses and start looking.  Tell Adam to hurry; I want him to go with you.  The two of you head back toward the Devlin place, just in case,” Ben ordered.

“Just in case what, Pa?” Hoss looked puzzled not fully understanding what it was that his father had in mind.

“I don’t know Hoss, just in case.  Look for him; maybe he got thrown off his horse or something.  Just look, will you?”  Ben turned and headed back to the house, his anger at having to miss church swiftly turning to worry.  ‘That boy better have a good explanation for this little bit of impudence,’ mumbled Ben to himself.

Adam and Hoss had the horses saddled and were just about ready to leave when Ben joined them.  As he checked the cinch on his saddle, Ben told Adam and Hoss his plans.

“I am going to check with those other boys that Joe and Mitch have started hanging around with.  I’ll see if they have seen him.  If I can’t find out anything from them, I have one place in mind I want to check.”  Ben mounted his horse and turned the big buckskin in the opposite direction.

“The Shamblin place, Pa?” inquired Adam.

“Yes, and if I find him there after the little talk we had a couple of weeks ago, he may never sit down again.”  Ben nudged his horse and left in the direction of town.  Adam and Hoss exchanged looks and Adam shook his head slowly.

“That kid better not be caught at the Shamblin house again.  Not with the mood that Pa’s in right now.”

“Aw Adam, Joe ain’t gonna go back there.  Not alone anyway, everyone knows that place is hainted, Joe ain’t that brave, why he’d be scared to death to be there by his self,” laughed Hoss as he tried to visualize his baby brother entering that ole scary place all alone.  Hoss laughed louder, why he wasn’t so sure that he’d be brave enough to do it.

“Come on Adam, maybe Joe is just hidin’ out someplace cause he doesn’t want us to know that he and Mitch got into a tussle.  Bet he’s sittin’ in church right now wonderin’ where in tarnation we’s at,” called out Hoss who followed behind Adam.

Hoss had no way of knowing how true his words were.  Hours later, Joe lay in a crumpled ball; his feet bruised from kicking the wall in hopes of tearing free the nails that held the door securely.  The boys had made him forfeit his boots that first night, leaving them behind at the Devlin’s.  He had ridden with only his socks on and now even those offered no protection for his battered feet.  Joe was sure that he had broken a toe, it throbbed and when he tried to move it, the pain shot from the toe through the foot and upward.

“Please…please…someone,” screamed out Joe, his voice barely audible.

His throat hurt and when he had tried to eat, it burned so he had stopped eating until the hunger pangs had become so bad that he had been forced to swallow just a bite or two.  His water was quickly running out for the temperature within his dark cell had risen to new heights and he had carelessly used more than he should of the precious liquid.  Joe had finally determined that when the closet was the hottest, the sun was high, and with the slight cooling, evening had ascended.  With those thoughts in mind, Joe had counted his nights as two and his days also were two.  Night was quickly approaching for the third time and Joe shuddered at the thoughts of having to spend yet another night alone in his prison.

Joe shut his eyes and dozed.  He was awakened by the loud booming thunder that rolled across the heavens.

“Oh God no, not a storm.  Not now,” cried Joe.  “I hate storms, why are you doing this to me?  I haven’t been that bad, have I Lord?” continued Joe.  “Please God, I’ll be good, honest.  I won’t make Pa worry anymore…please, just don’t let it storm.”

“Pa…I’m sorry.  Please help me…I wanna go home, PLEASE!” ranted Joe, losing control.  “HELP! HELP!” shouted Joe, grabbing his burning throat with his bandaged hands and sinking to the floor.  “Pa, I need you…” his mumbled cry lost in the ominous roll of the thunder.

Ben glanced up at the sky and watched as the lightening danced across the wide-open spaces.  The bright blasts of light lit the yard around the old Shamblin homestead and Ben could not help but shiver at the eerie feelings he got from just riding around the deserted house.  Ben pulled Buck to a stop and listened.  With the wind picking up it had sounded as if someone were calling out to him, then with the thunder came silence.  As the lightening flashed Buck danced around, anxious to be back in his stall and out of the fast approaching storm.

“Easy big boy,” Ben leaned forward and patted his horse’s neck.  After the second time around the house, Ben was satisfied that the old house was tightly secured, as he found no boards missing from the doors or windows.  As he nudged Buck toward home, Ben was relieved to be leaving the premises, even if he did not believe that the old Shamblin place was haunted, he still did not like the creepy feelings he got when he had ridden around the house.

“Come on Buck, let’s get home and see if those boys of mine have had any better luck in finding their brother than I have.”

Ben gave one more glance over his shoulder and shivered at the way the old house was silhouetted against the darkness when the lightening lit up the night sky.  The sight left him with uncomfortable feeling as his thoughts turn to his youngest son and his worry about where the boy might have gone after leaving his friend’s house.  He was nearly home when he felt the first drops of rain hit his face and silently prayed that Joe had made it home before the storm hit in full force.

Ben was surprised and pleased to find Joe’s pinto stabled in his stall.  Relief washed over him with the knowledge that Joe was safely home, but that hope was quickly dashed when he suddenly turned and found both Adam and Hoss standing in the doorway their faces tired and haggard in appearance.

Ben looked questioningly at his sons, apprehension beginning to grow in his heart once more.  He already knew the answer but asked anyway,  “He’s not home?”

Both Adam and Hoss shook their heads.  “The horse wandered in here right after we got home.  We checked him good, there was no sign of blood, nothing to indicate that the boy was hurt or had been thrown,” Adam explained to his father.

Ben stepped over to inspect Joe’s horse for himself.  “Nothing?” he questioned.

“No sir.  Ya reckon he’s all right Pa?”  Hoss’ worry about his baby brother showed on his face and he made no attempt at hiding it.  “Ya think we otta go back out and look fer him?”

“Hoss, it’s already started to rain, and we can’t see anything in the dark.  As bad as I hate too, we’ll just have to wait until daylight and hope this storm passes by then.  Come on boys, let’s get a good night’s sleep and be ready to leave at sunup.”  Ben slipped his arms around each of his son’s shoulders and marched with them to the house.  Ben knew he wasn’t fooling anyone, lest of all him self, for he knew that none of them would be getting any sleep this night.

Ben stopped halfway to the house and turned to his sons, “Boys, get the horses ready, make sure we have some lanterns and our slickers.  I can’t stand the thoughts of that boy out in this mess, I’m sure he’s scared and it’s possible that he could be hurt.  Hurry, I’m going to speak with Hop Sing and I’ll be right out.”

Hoss and Adam exchanged pleased smiles that their father had decided to continue with the search in spite of the fact that it was storming.  “I didn’t think Pa would quit that easily, not when it comes to his baby,” grinned Adam, as he and Hoss set about getting the horses saddled and their gear together.

The three older Cartwrights weren’t the only ones not sleeping.  As the storm grew in magnitude, the fear that had taken up residence in Joe’s heart also grew.  It seemed to Joe that the old house rattled each and every time that the thunder rolled.  The wind howled and at times it appeared to be calling out to him, sending him deeper into the back of the dark closet.

“Jooooeeee, Jooooeeee,” the wind would howl.  Joe grabbed Scruffy and held tightly to his security link as he trembled in fear.  Again the wind called his name but this time Joe could hear footsteps on the stairs just outside the room where the closet was hidden behind the wardrobe.  Suddenly Joe froze, it sounded as if a door was being opened, and he heard the screech of the wood as it was dragged slowly across the floor.  Joe remained in his frozen state, unable to move.  Even his breath was coming in short puffs as he willed himself not to cry out, for in truth he was terrified.  All of a sudden something was pounding and beating on the walls of his hidden closet.  It appeared that the sounds were coming from all four walls and the noise was deafening to his ears.  Joe huddled in the middle of the floor, his head covered with his arms, tears flowing from his hazel eyes as his determination crumbled and he screamed out for his father and brothers to help him.

“Joooeee, we’re commminngg to geeettt yooouuu!  Weee wannnttt yooouurr soouull.”

The words could be heard over the pounding on the walls, the howl of the wind and the booming thunder.  Joe shuddered, felt his body grow weak and then passed out.

Four boys ran from the house, three holding their sides from having laughed so hard.  The fourth boy had tears building in his blue eyes and in the darkness that surrounded them he tried to hide them from the others.

“Oh crap, that was so funny,” laughed Max, wiping the tears from his eyes.  “I can just see Cartwright, screaming like a banshee for his papa.  The kid must have been out of his mind with fear.”

“Yeah, I bet he pissed his pants when we started beating on those walls,” smirked Jed.  “I’d love to have seen his face.”

He never knew just how true his words were, for Joe’s terror had caused his weakened body to react violently to his fright and when he passed out, his bladder had emptied automatically.

“What are we going to do to scare him tomorrow night?” Willie asked as he mounted his horse.

“I dunno yet.  It’ll have to be something good.  Hey, Devlin, what’s wrong with you?  Didn’t you think that was funny, the way the kid was screaming and all?” Max called out at Mitch who had mounted his horse but had yet to speak.

Mitch saw the dark look in the eyes of the others as they watched him and knew that he had to play along with them, though the thoughts of his friend locked behind the wall ate away at his conscience.

“Yeah, funny, real funny,” Mitch told them, his voice somewhat sarcastic.  The others laughed again, Mitch’s tone unnoticed by the preoccupied older boys.

By morning the rain had stopped.  Joe woke from his troubled sleep and reached for a canteen.  As he lifted it to his lips, only a drop fell into his mouth.  Joe shook the container then tossed it to the other side of the closet when nothing poured from the spout.  Grabbing a second canteen, Joe first shook it before turning it upside down; not even a drop dripped from this second canteen and in frustration, Joe tossed it on top of the first.

Joe was in tears by the time his hands found the third and last canteen.  Shaking it gently, Joe sighed in relief as the sounds of sloshing water reached his ears.  Joe pulled the cork from the opening and turned the water up drinking slowly.  He had no idea for sure how long he had been held captive but he was positive it was no where near the seven days that the others had told him he would have to stay.  Joe feared that his water supply would be gone before his time was up and prayed silently that the boys would return and leave more water for him.  But then they had promised to return the first night but had failed to show up.  Joe worried now if they had even meant to come back, would they just leave him there to die in the stuffy little closet?  Joe wondered, could even Mitch be that low, to leave his best friend to die alone, to be a participant in the cause of his death?

“Mitch, I hate you,” Joe said aloud, “do you hear me?  I HATE YOU!”  Joe screamed over and over until he finally wore himself out and collapsed onto the floor exhausted.  Joe lay where he fell, tears streaming from his red and swollen eyes.

Ben and his sons had spent the long rainy night searching everywhere for the youngest family member but had found no trace of the missing boy.  Wet, tired and discouraged, they had continued on their mission until late afternoon when Ben raised his hand in the air, signaling for them to stop.  He then suggested that they return home, get some food in their stomachs and grab a couple hours of much needed sleep before starting out once more.  Reluctantly his son’s agreed and headed for home.  The weary threesome rode in silence, Joe foremost in their thoughts as they played over in their minds the reasons that Joe might have had for being angry enough with his best friend to up and leave in the middle of the night like he had.

“Pa, Joe ain’t never got mad at Mitch before.  Wonder what caused the riff between ‘em?” questioned Hoss as he rode along side of his father.

“I’d have no way of knowing that son, seems like Joe would have to be the one to answer that question,” Ben replied to his son.

“He’s not the only one who would know,” intervened Adam after thinking about his father’s words.

“What do ya mean, Adam?” Hoss had turned to face Adam who had moved between his father and brother.

“Has anyone thought to ask Mitch?  After all, even Little Joe, as good as he is at it, can’t argue alone.”  Adam tossed them a smile showing the dimple in his cheek.

Ben pulled his horse to a stop his sons doing the same.  Looking up at the darkening sky Ben removed his hat and wiped the sweat beads from his forehead.  When he replaced his hat on his head, he turned to face his sons.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.  Of course Mitch would know.  It’s getting late, but let’s ride over to the Devlin’s and see what the boy has to say about it,” smiled Ben as he urged his horse into a gallop.  Adam and Hoss glanced quickly at each other and just as quickly followed.

It was well after the nine o’clock hour by the time that the Cartwrights arrived at the Devlin ranch.  Charlie having heard the sound of horses in his yard had stepped outside onto his porch to see who his company might be.  He was surprised to see three of his Cartwright neighbors dismounting from their horses and moved to greet the late night visitors.

“Ben, what brings you out so late?” greeted Charlie, offering Ben his hand.  Ben shook hands with his friend and began telling Charlie about Joe’s disappearance.

“Charlie, when you mentioned to Hoss the other day about Joe getting upset with Mitch and coming home in the middle of the night, did Mitch happen to mention what the riff was about?”

Charlie invited his friends inside and offered them a seat.  “No, Ben, not that I remember.  And to be honest with you, I’ve been so busy around here lately; I never thought to ask the boy.  Why?  Is something wrong?”

“Joe didn’t come home, Mr. Devlin,” Hoss spoke up before his father had a chance to reply to the question.  “We’ve been searchin’ fer him since Saturday night since I talked to you in town and we cain’t found ‘em.”

“Oh Ben, why didn’t you come and get me?  My boys and I would have been more ‘n glad to help you.”  Charlie stood and turned to face Ben.  “What do you want me to do?”

“We’d like to talk to Mitch, if you wouldn’t mind.  I know it’s late, but we thought maybe the boy might have some idea where Little Joe could have gone.  Joe’s horse came home alone; we don’t know if the boy is hurt, lost somewhere or hiding out.  If we knew that he intended to come home or maybe even hide out, it might help us know where to look,” Ben explained nervously as he sat and twisted the brim of his hat around in his hands.

“The boy’s in the bed, but I’ll wake him.”  Charlie turned to his wife who had just entered from the kitchen and asked her to fetch the boy and have him come into the living room.

“Ben, I’m terribly sorry about all of this.  I had no idea Joe hadn’t made it home.  I should have ridden out after him and rode home with him just to be sure he got there all right.  I feel terrible about this.”

“It’s not your fault Charlie.  Little Joe knew better than to pull a stunt like this.  But that’s beside the point, right now I am more concerned about his well being, than his whys and why nots,” Ben told his friend.

“Charlie,” Mrs. Devlin said in a calm controlled voice as she re-entered the room twisting the end of her apron with her fingers, “Mitch isn’t in his bed.”

Charlie jerked his head around to face his wife shocked at the news that Mitch was not in bed; Ben and the boys jumped to their feet with anxious looks on their faces.

“What do you mean, not in his room?  Where is he?” Charlie said as he dashed from the room to see for himself.

Charlie was back in a matter of minutes carrying a pair of boots in his hands and laughing.  “Mother, he couldn’t have gone far, probably slipped outside to use the outhouse.  Here are his boots.”  Charlie held the pair of boots up for his wife’s inspection.

Hoss saw the boots that Mr. Devlin was holding and took one boot from the older man and examined it.  “Mr. Devlin, these ain’t Mitch’s boots, these belong to my little brother,” Hoss said as he gave his father a worried look.

“Let me see those,” Ben took the boot from Hoss and the other from Charlie and held them up.  “You’re right son, these are Little Joe’s.”  Turning to Charlie he questioned the surprised man.

“Charlie, why would Joe leave for home without his boots?” Ben asked.

“And where is our son?” Mrs. Devlin asked her husband.

“I’ll have one of the boys check the barn, see if Mitch’s horse is there.  If not, I suggest we start looking for both of them,” Charlie moved to the stairs and called for his other son.  When the boy appeared, Charlie sent him to the barn to see whether or not his younger brother’s horse was in the stable.

In a matter of minutes Pete was back with the news that the horse was also missing.  “Something strange is going on here Ben.  First your son, now mine.  I wonder if they are mixed up in this together?”

“I don’t know, but it has me worried.  You and your son saddle up, my boys here and I are heading out again.  I’ll meet up with you later.  Please, if you find anything send word to Hop Sing, he will know where to find us.  And good luck, Charlie.’  Ben led the way out the door and as soon as everyone was mounted, they rode out again, this time searching for two missing boys rather than one.

Joe heard the noise again, louder this time.  It almost sounded like music, the eerie and scary kind of music, like you heard sometimes when the organ played at someone’s funeral.  The sound was faint, but Joe was sure he had not imagined it, but how he asked himself.  And where was it coming from?  The far distant sound continued and Joe shivered slightly.  He didn’t like the sound; it reminded him of all the dead people he had seen and the images that his mind conjured up caused him to want to scream out, but he held the urge to do so within himself.

Joe pulled his knees up to his chest and lowered his head, “Please come and get me Pa, please hurry.  I’m so scared, and I wanna go home Pa, please,” cried Joe.

Suddenly Joe jerked his head up, the loud crash sounded as if it had come from above his head.  Joe listened intently and when whatever moved above him began thumping, Joe’s heart kept rhythm with the beat.  The thumping continued overhead for several minutes, Joe barely took a breath, so frightened was the boy.  The young boy stood as if paralyzed unable to move until the loud shrill scream broke the silence of the night.  Joe himself began screaming at the top of his lungs, the music growing louder matching him scream for scream, the thumping mixing together with the others as the trio of earsplitting sounds sent the night birds from their roosts into flight just outside of the old house.

Joe’s hands were now bleeding, he had let his panic get the better of him and he had begun to beat and claw at the door and walls of his dark prison.  Small splinters of wood embedded themselves into his tender flesh and under his nails.  His shoulder now bruised from throwing himself against the passageway in his attempt to be free, throbbed from the pain.  Even Joe’s knees were bruised from trying to kick his way out; Joe was passed holding on to reality as his battered body slumped slowly to the floor where he lay in darkness and fear, his cries drowned out by the frightening noises made by, and unknown to Joe, his so-called friends who laughed amongst themselves.  Pleased that they had found the old pump organ in the attic, they banged the keys causing the sinister music to stay in pitch with Joe’s screams.

Ben, Adam and Hoss after more fruitless searching, had returned to the house to get fresh mounts and to refuel their lanterns from the previous night.  They were surprised to find Charlie Devlin and Mitch waiting for them in the great room.

Adam led the way inside and was the first to notice the red swollen eyes that told him Mitch had been crying.  Moving quickly into the room, Adam stood before the weeping boy and his father, dreading the worst.

“What’s wrong?  Have you found Little Joe?” Adam’s voice was demanding in tone.

“I haven’t found him, but Mitch says he knows where Little Joe is.  Ben, I thought it best to come here first.  Mitch has something he wants to tell you.”  Charlie placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and forced him to face the father of his friend.

“Make it quick, young man.  Tell them where Little Joe is,” demanded Charlie.

Mitch hung his head and Ben could see the tears that dripped off the end of his chin.  Gently Ben cupped the boy’s quivering chin and tilted his head upward so that he could see into the boy’s blue eyes.

“It’s okay son.  Just tell me about Joseph.”  Ben’s deep voice was calm and steady to the untrained ears of the little boy but under his calm exterior, his insides quivered in fear for his own son’s safety.

“He’s locked in a closet up at the old Shamblin house.”  Mitch swirled around to his father and buried his face in the front of the man’s shirt.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I never meant for Joe to get hurt…honest Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben knelt down on one knee, his heart racing and placed his hand on the boy’s trembling shoulder so that he could turn Mitch around to face him.  “Mitch, was Joe hurt when he was locked in the closet?”

Mitch shook his head no, “Scared, he was scared to death.  It was real dark with no lights, and it was even darker in that closet.  He begged us not to leave him but the others wouldn’t let him out and they told me if I said anything to anyone, they’d lock me in the other closet.  I was scared too Mr. Cartwright, but not as scared as Joe…he cried.”

Ben looked up at his sons and saw fear in their eyes and knew that they could see the same fear reflected back at them in his own eyes.  “Mitch, when did you and the others put Joe in the closet?”

Ben squeezed the small shoulders that trembled beneath his hands, as Mitch seemed to be mentally counting the days.

“It was Friday night.  The night he came home with me from school.  The others snuck into our room after he went to sleep then they jumped him and tied him up and took him there.”

“Friday!” Hoss nearly shouted.

“That was four nights ago, Pa,” Adam added.

Ben rose to his feet, “Come on, let’s go get him.  Thanks Mitch for being honest with us.  We’ll talk again after we get Joe home.”  Ben patted the boy’s head on his way out and followed his sons from the house and into the yard.

Hop Sing ran after them and handed Ben some blankets.  “Just in case number three son get cold.”

“Thanks Hop Sing.  We’ll be back as soon as we can.”  Ben could see the tears that had welled in the Chinaman’s eyes and suddenly felt his own eyes mist over with unshed tears that momentarily blurred his vision.

“Hop Sing have everything ready for lit’le one when you get home,” smiled Hop Sing trying to keep his tears from escaping.

Ben nodded his head in agreement and hurried to catch up with Adam and Hoss who had left without him.

It did not take the trio long to cover the distance to the Shamblin house for they rode at break-neck speed.  The driving force that pushed them to hurry was fueled by their need to find the boy whom they all loved more than life.  Ben’s thoughts kept recalling his son’s fear of the dark and the nightmares that he so often had and he shuddered at the thoughts of what his young son was being forced to endure.

Hoss jumped from his horse and ran to the porch where he immediately began pulling at the loose boards that kept the door from opening.  Adam joined him and together they managed to free enough of the barricade to permit them to enter the house.  Hoss squeezed through followed by Adam with Ben bringing up the rear.  Hoss stood silently listening for any sounds.

“Sure is spooky in here,” he whispered to his brother.

Adam glanced over his shoulders and then up at Hoss, “You can say that again.”

Ben lit the lanterns that Adam had thought to bring and together father and sons began to climb the stairs in their quest to find the hidden closet.  The light from the lanterns cast eerie shadows on the walls and even Ben shivered at their ghostly images that followed along behind them on the opposite wall.

The old stairs squeaked with the weight of the men and Joe, not knowing what was lurking around in the house, crept into the corner of his dark closet and shuddered in fright at the sounds of the approaching footsteps.

“Joe?” Hoss called out in a voice not much louder than a whisper.  The vacant old house gave him the woolies and he felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck rise at the way his voice seemed to calling back to him.

Joe trembled at the sound of his name echoing through the outer hallway and he sunk deeper into his hiding place in fear of what might lie in wait.

“Joseph, can you hear me boy?” Ben called as they continued on their upward course.

Joe felt his heart begin to pound in his chest.  He told himself he was imagining things for the sound of the voice calling his name sounded much like his father’s.

Hoss stumbled as the toe of his boot hooked on the edge of the step and he tumbled backwards.  The racket had awaken new dread in the boy who trembled in fright and when Hoss shouted out his frustration, the sound vibrated the vacant halls within the house and sent Joe’s courage over the edge as he too began screaming hysterically.

The screams stopped the men in their tracks as they exchanged startled looks.

“Joseph,” Ben mumbled to the others and took off up the stairs taking them two at a time.  The lantern swung to and fro in his hands as he ran in the directions of the piteous screeches.  Adam followed closely on his father’s heel.  Once they reached the top, Ben went in one direction darting from room to room in his search while Adam took the opposite side of the wide hallway.

Hoss ran straight ahead, seeing a second stairway, he ran up the narrow steps, stopping in front of the next set of steps that he could only surmise would lead him to the attic.  The wretched wails ceased momentarily as the three men stood silent, listening for further sounds that would tell them where Joe was being held.

“Joseph, son, tell Papa where you are.” Ben called through the darkness that surrounded him.

Immediately the screams began again.  Ben tossed his head from side to side trying to determine from which directions the sounds were coming.  Fear gripped at his heart, for he knew that Joe was beyond reason, the howls bringing to mind an injured animal caught in a deadly trap.

Hoss bolted through the only door in the upper hall and stopped.  The sounds were echoing loudest in the room and when Adam joined him, Hoss grabbed the lantern from his hands and held it high enough in the air that the entire room glowed in soft light.  Adam felt along the walls with his hands, frantically searching for a closet door.

“Here Adam, behind this wardrobe.  Pa in here,” shouted Hoss as he and Adam struggled to move the large heavy furniture.  Ben rushed in and he too began pushing the wardrobe away from the wall.  The screams grew louder as the men struggled with the closet door.

“Joe, it’s Pa.  Son, calm down, we’ll have you out in a minute.  Joseph, listen to me.”

Ben repeatedly called Joe’s name but the message either never reached through the boy’s terror or never registered in his mind.  The screams penetrated the walls and sent shivers up and down the spines of the three men who worked frantically at freeing the boy from his dark cell.

Once the nails had been loosened, it took both Hoss and Adam to jerk the door opened.  They pulled with all the pent up frustrations that had built within each of them over the last couple of days until finally the small door was pulled from its hinges and tossed aside.

The stench that suddenly assaulted his nostrils caused each man to gag.  Ben sat the lanterns down behind him and ignoring the offending odor stuck his head through the door.  He could barely see his son crouched in the deepest corner, his eyes wide with fright, Scruffy held tightly in one hand and the other hand fraying about in the air.

Slowly Ben crawled into the closet enough to grab Joe’s hand that swung about and speaking in soft tones, urged his son to follow him out of the enclosure.  Joe’s eyes unaccustomed to the light could only make out shadowy figures and pulled back against the hand that held his arm, his crying and begging bringing tears to his father’s eyes.

“Joseph, it’s okay now.  Papa’s here, Hoss and Adam are here with me.  Look son, here’s your brothers,” Ben cooed softly as he gently tugged at Joe’s arm.  It was obvious to all three men that Joe was unaware that his family had finally succeeded in finding him and was attempting to free him from his four day old prison.

As Ben pulled Joe closer to the door, Adam and Hoss each grabbed an ankle and helped to pull Joe from the closet.  When he was completely out, Ben made an effort to gather the hysterical boy into his arms hoping to still his frantic howling.

Joe fought against his father’s efforts to restrain him.  With his arms and legs he kicked and jerked from side to side, the nightmares he’d had suddenly coming to life in his confusion.  It took both his brothers to help Ben hold the boy still.  Joe’s voice grew weaker and weaker until at last his cries turned to sobs and then soft whimpers.  Ben continued speaking to the boy in soft soothing tones until at last, Joe exhausted from his battles, slipped from his tormented world into unconsciousness.

Ben gathered Joe into his arms, his offensive clothing no longer noticed as he rocked his baby back and forth.  His tears slipped silently from his eyes as he cradled his son.  Adam and Hoss sat along side their brother.  Adam gently examined Joe’s bleeding and splintered hands.  He could easily see the signs of infection that had started up from the wounds made the first days.  Adam also noted the sores about Joe’s feet and pointed at the broken toe on Joe’s right foot.  Hoss felt his temper begin to rise and the urge to retaliate against the ones who had treated his baby brother in such a cruel joke began to grow within his heart.

Ben watched as Hoss’ expression began to change and knew from years of experience that the look that now adorned his middle son’s face was one of pure hatred.  Ben knew he had to move to squelch the undesired emotion before Hoss acted on his feelings.

“Hoss, will you help me get these clothes off your brother?  We can wrap him in one of the blankets we brought,” suggested Ben in an endeavor to divert Hoss’ attention from his mounting wrath.

Adam had also seen the look and was quick to come to his father’s aid.  “I’ll get the blankets,” he said as he stood to his feet.

Hoss and Ben quickly had Joe striped of his nasty clothing and was ready to wrap the warm blankets around Joe by the time that Adam returned.  Ben allowed Hoss the satisfaction of carrying his brother down stairs, hoping to redirect the over powering urge to strike back that he knew Hoss harbored within himself.

As Hoss slowly and carefully made his way down the dark stairway, Joe momentarily opened his eyes.  Thinking he was once again dreaming, Joe softly called out to his brother.

“Hoss?” mumbled Joe weakly.

Hoss was surprised to hear his name spoken and quickly offered an encouraging smile to the boy in his arms.

“Hey Punkin, just hang on baby.  Ole Hoss is gonna take ya home now,” whispered Hoss lovingly to his precious bundle.

“Home?  I wanna go home.”  Joe closed his eyes again; his silent tears sliding down the sides of his dirty face.

Ben turned his head toward the bedroom door as the chiming of the grandfather clock downstairs in the family room reached his ears.  He glanced at the sleeping boy buried beneath the pile of warm blankets sighing in relief.  It was one a.m. and they had just minutes ago finished bathing and preparing the young boy for bed.  Joe had remained docile and unresponsive to their tender ministrations during the procedures, allowing their task to be completed quickly.  Now Ben’s youngest son lay in a deep exhausted sleep for which all members of his family were grateful.

Ben had noted the dark circles under Joe’s eyes, the pallor of his skin tone and when they had lowered his body into the warm water that Hop Sing had waiting in the tub, Ben had been able to count the boy’s protruding ribs.  Joe’s hands and feet they had treated as best they could and even at this early morning hour, the three older Cartwrights were found to be all anxiously awaiting the arrive of their family physician, Doctor Paul Martin, whom they knew would treat Joe’s superficial wounds in a more sound professional manner.

The doctor arrived just before the sun crested the mountains and was greeted at the door by Hop Sing.  Quickly the man servant ushered the doctor in and taking his hat and coat, placing them on the credenza, Hop Sing escorted the family physician to Joe’s bedroom where now the boy’s father and brothers were attempting to calm the boy as he screamed and wailed, tossing himself wildly about on the bed.

Paul hurried to Joe’s bedside and with trained eyes, quickly surveyed the situation as the family stepped aside to allow him more room to conduct his examination.

“Ben, hand me my bag, please,” instructed the doctor.  “I’m going to give him something to calm him down.  How long has he been like this?” Paul asked as he reached into his black bag and withdrew the powdered medicine.

Hop Sing who had slipped quietly into the room of his favorite number three son, took the proffered envelope of medicine and quickly mixed it into a glass of cool water.

“He was doing this same thing when we found him last night,” Ben offered as he moved to the other side of the bed and sat on the edge to help the physician to restrain the fraying arms.

“He calmed down sometime after we got him home and cleaned up, but when he woke about half an hour ago, he started all over again.  I’ve tried talking to him, we all have, but he seems to be locked in a world all his own.  I can’t reach him.”

“Here, help me hold him up and let’s see if we can get him to drink this,” Paul instructed.

Ben raised Joe’s head upward and slipped his arm behind the boy’s shoulders and held his arms still while the doctor placed the glass against Joe’s lips.  At first Joe tried to toss his head from side to side but quickly submitted to having his mouth forced opened by the doctor’s gentle hands and slowly began drinking the glass of water with the medication mixed in.

Joe’s sub-conscious mind must have sensed his father’s presence for when Joe allowed his fearful eyes to lock with the deep chocolate eyes of his father’s, he held his stance for several moments.

“Pa?” whispered Joe, as his eyes remained glued to his father’s face.

“Yes sweetheart, Pa’s right here.  Everything is going to all right now son.  You’re safe at home,” Ben whispered to his son, his soothing voice at last seemingly to have a calming affect on the boy.

“I was so scared,” cried Joe, his hazel eyes clouding with tears.

Ben glanced quickly about the room at his family and friends who stood around the bed watching and listening.

“I know you were precious, but that’s all over now.  You’re home and your brothers and I are here with you.  We won’t let anything happen to you.  You close your eyes and try to rest.”  Ben planted a kiss on top of Joe’s head, refusing to relinquish his hold on his troubled son.

Joe closed his eyes briefly but just as quickly opened them again, once more searching for his father’s face.

“Pa,” Joe called.

“Shh…Joseph, close your eyes son,” Ben encouraged.

“Mitch…” Joe sobbed, “he was one of them…why Pa, why?” cried Joe, the tiny tears rolling down the sides of his face.  “He was my best friend.”

Ben’s eyes misted as he held his head upward trying to keep the tears intact and took a deep breath before attempting to answer his son’s question.

“I don’t know Joseph, I just don’t know.  You rest now please, and we will talk about it later.”

Ben gently returned Joe’s head to his pillow and kissed the boy’s brow.  Caressing Joe’s cheek with the back of his hand as Joe closed his eyes, Ben stepped away from the bedside and stood with his back to the others as he gazed out the bedroom window.  He had asked himself the same question all through the long night.  Why had his son’s best friend turned on him and betrayed him by exposing his most private secrets?  Ben determined then and there that by the time Joe was able to ask the question of him again, he would know the answer.

Turning without speaking to the others, Ben left the room, the others filing out behind him while Doc Martin tended to Joe’s wounds.

It did not take the doctor long to treat Joe’s injuries and in a relatively short time he had joined the family downstairs in the great room, to explain to them what he had done for his patient.  Ever faithful Hop Sing remained with Joe who by now was deep into a sound but medicated sleep.

“Ben, I’ve removed the splinters and cleaned the wounds.  Luckily enough for Joe, he had not broken any bones in his hands, though he did somehow manage to break a toe.  There’s not much we can do for a broken toe other than to bind it to another, which is what I did.  He has managed to bruise himself up pretty badly, but those will fade in a few days.  Needless to say, he will be sore, but what worries me the most is his state of mind, we need to watch him closely so I want each of you, Hop Sing included, to stay with him at all times.  When he has had enough rest, we can see how he fares then.  Right now I want him to sleep, so I have left some sleeping powders with Hop Sing.  When he wakes, try to get him to eat something and then give him the powders.  Plenty of good sleep will not only help the body mend himself, but also will help clear his mind and hopefully put his fears to rest.”  Paul accepted the cup of hot coffee that Adam handed to him and lowered himself into the blue chair.

Ben sat down in his chair being careful not to spill his coffee that was offered to him.  “I was shocked at the amount of blood splatters that was on the inside of the door.  Joseph must have been terribly frightened to have used such an amount of force that it busted up his hands and feet that way.”

Adam and Hoss both nodded their heads in agreement.  Hoss had nearly cried when he had pulled the door away from its hinges and seen the blood splatters.  His heart had broken when he saw the way Joe’s hands were split and bruised from his constant beating against the hard seasoned wooden boards.  The thoughts refreshed his determination to seek out the ones who had caused his brother such misery.  When his anger became too overwhelming for him, he had to leave the room to keep from voicing his thoughts about the group of young boys who had not only betrayed but also tortured his youngest sibling.

Ben kissed his son good night as Joe buried himself beneath the blankets.  “God Bless, Joseph,” smiled Ben as he moved to extinguish the light.

“Night Pa,” called out Joe, his back turned to his father.  As the light began to grow dimmer, Joe turned quickly onto his back and called out to Ben.

“Pa,” his voice sounded loud and frantic even to his own ears.

“What is it son?” Ben stopped what he was doing and gave his son a worried look.

Joe gulped, he hated to ask his father to leave the lamp burning low, but this was the first night that he had asked to be alone.  For days now either his father or one of his brothers had remained by his bedside throughout the long nights.  Every night since coming home he had awakened from his nightmares and had cried out to be held in the arms of whomever it was that was sitting with him.  Joe hated himself for being scared and had reached the conclusion only today that this night he would start sleeping alone in his room.  But the thoughts of being in total darkness caused the old fears to jump ahead of his other fears so now as he looked into the face of his father, Joe could feel the small tremors that caused his body to shiver beneath the covers.

“Could ya leave it on just a little?” Joe asked in a soft voice.  He was relieved when his father gave him a small smile.

“Of course I can, how’s this?” smiled Ben, ready to grant the boy anything that would restore his courage and give him reason to once again feel safe and secure in his own home.

“Thanks Pa, that’s fine.  Oh, and Pa?”

“Yes son?” answered Ben, his hand already on the doorknob.

“Will ya leave the door opened?  I mean…well I…” stammered Joe, suddenly embarrassed by his lack of courage.

“I understand son,” answered Ben before allowing the boy time to have to explain his need and further his embarrassment.

Joe gave his father a weak smile and turned over on his side silently thanking God for his father’s understanding and before long was sleeping soundly.  It was in the wee hours of the morning that the high shrill screams brought each of the three older Cartwrights running from their rooms and into the hallway where they all but collided with one another.  Hurrying into Joe’s room, they found that the boy had moved from his bed into the darkest corner of his bedroom where he huddled against the wall, his screams piercing their ears, his arms swinging about in the air as if he were fighting off some unseen assailant.

Quickly Ben moved to his son’s side and with Adam’s help was able to subdue Joe’s movements but as he was pulled to his feet, Joe jerked his arms free from both his father and brother’s hold and ran toward the door.  Hoss seeing the direction in which Joe was traveling, quickly moved to shut the door causing Joe to slam himself against the back of the door.  This sudden action sent off a new round of heartbreaking wails as Joe began banging against and throwing himself into the closed door.

“Let me out!  Let me out!” screamed the frightened boy.  Hoss grabbed Joe around the waist and lifted him off his feet and carried him to the bed where he forcibly handed him over to his father who in turn, wrapped his arms tightly around the squirming boy pinning his arms to his sides.  Once his movements were restricted, Ben spoke in soft tones calling Joe’s name over and over and assuring his son that he was safe.

Joe calmed enough after several minutes that Ben was able to loosen his restraint.  Joe, his eyes dulled from sleep and unseeing from his nightmare, realized he was being held in his father’s protective arms and he buried his face into the front of Ben’s robe and wept.  Ben held his son for the remainder of the night while Joe slept cradled in his arms.  By the time the sun had risen, Ben was able to place the sleeping boy in his bed and slip quietly from the room where he joined the others at the breakfast table.

Once Ben was seated in his place, Hoss could no longer keep silent.

“How much longer is he gonna suffer like that?  It’s been three weeks now and there ain’t been a night yet that that young’n ain’t had no nightmare.”

Hoss was angry, not with his brother, but at the situation.  He had wanted to go after the ones who had forced his little brother to become so despairing and withdrawn, but his father had talked him out of it stating that it was the sheriff’s place to handle the problem.  Ben had reminded Hoss that he was needed here, to be close to Joe and to help his brother recover from the trauma he had been forced to endure.

It had been the right thing to say to his middle son, for Ben knew that Hoss would do whatever it took to help his younger brother’s health and state of mind return to what it had been before the incident.  Hoss was never very far from his brother’s side and neither Ben nor Adam had said anything when Hoss or Joe had apparently forgotten his own chores.  Adam and his father had quietly done whatever Hoss and Joe had failed to do, both knowing that Hoss’ protective nature and Joe’s need for security bound with the needed closeness of one another’s company and the time they spent together would be a time of healing for the younger sibling.

“Adam,” said Ben looking up from his plate.  “I’m going to ride over to the Devlin’s this afternoon.  Would you mind staying with Joe?  I think I will ask Hoss to come along.  I want to talk to Mitch and I think perhaps it would help Hoss to have to hear what the boy has to say about his part in all of this.  I should have done it by now, but with Little Joe being as he is; I didn’t have the heart to leave him so soon.”

“Sure Pa, no problem.  “I think I’ll take Joe and go up to the lake.  Maybe he’d like to do some fishing,” smiled Adam stuffing another half biscuit into his mouth.

Ben and Hoss rode out just after the noon meal leaving Joe and Adam standing in the yard waving.  “Well squirt, I bet I catch more fish than you do,” laughed Adam heading for the barn to get their fishing gear.

Joe didn’t answer but followed silently behind his older brother.  As they entered the barn, Joe stopped to pet Cochise’s nose.  “Adam?  Why are Pa and Hoss going over to the Devlin’s?”

Adam turned to face his younger brother and saw the angry look on his face.  Thinking to choose his words carefully, for Joe had made it plain to all of them that he hated Mitch and would never forgive him for what had been done to him.

“Well, Joe, I think Pa wants to talk to Mitch, to hear his side of the story.  Why?” asked Adam.

“His side of the story?  Why does he have to hear Mitch’s side?  Don’t he believe what I told him?” yelled Joe turning his back to his brother.

“Joe calm down boy.  Pa just wants to know what Mitch’s part in this whole mess was,” stated Adam hoping to calm his brother down.

Joe moved over closer to Adam, his anger showing on his face.  Adam noted the quivering chin and the tears that had begun to fill his brother’s sad eyes.

“Trader, that’s what he is.  Why does Pa have to hear it from him?  He’ll probably try to lie his way out of it anyway.  Besides Adam, I dun told Pa everything, my best friend betrayed me, that’s what he did,” Joe added softly and turned his head away to keep his brother from seeing his tears.

It hurt, knowing that your best friend had betrayed you, especially with such private secrets as to his being afraid of the dark and sleeping with Scruffy.  And then that so- called best friend had joined the others and laughed at him, yeah, it hurt and it hurt badly.

Before Adam had a chance to say anything else on the subject, Joe mounted his horse and headed out of the barn.  “You goin’ fishin’ or not?” he asked as he kick Cochise’s sides and took off.

Adam grabbed the gear and led Sport out of the barn mounting quickly. Joe had a head start on him but it didn’t take long for Adam to catch up.  The rest of the afternoon, the two brothers spent in companionable silence.  Though Adam tried to draw Joe into a conversation, Joe seemed lost in his own thoughts refusing to speak even when spoken to.  Finally Adam gave up trying and concentrated on catching enough fish for their supper.

It was late by the time that Hoss and Ben returned from the Devlin’s.  Adam could tell by the look on his brother’s face that Hoss was upset about something.  Hoss barely greeted his older brother as he entered the house, stopping only long enough to remove his gun belt and hat then to inquire as to Joe’s whereabouts.

“He just went upstairs,” Adam informed Hoss, when he asked.  Adam glanced at his father but was unable to read the expression on his father’s face.

Hoss shoved his hands into his pockets and with his head lowered he excused himself.  “I think I’ll go up and say good night to him.”

“Good night son,” called Ben as he watched Hoss slowly move up the stairs.

“Night Pa, night Adam,” Hoss called over his shoulder.

Ben waited until Hoss had gone into Joe’s room before he even sat down.

“Hoss seems upset, Pa.  What happened?” Adam asked, setting his book to the side.

Ben shook his head, “It was as Joe said, Mitch did betray him,” started Ben. “He owned up to that much and also told me who the other boys were and why they wanted to do harm to your brother.  Pretty sorry excuse for doing as they have, terrorizing the boy that way.  I don’t know what gets into these kids some times; you’d think the parents would teach them better.  I pray to God that I have taught the three of you better than to take your spite or resentment out on another human being in such cruelty.

“Well Pa, Joe said Mitch betrayed him and he’s really hurt by it too, Pa; more than any of us thought.”

Adam recounted the conversation to his father he had had earlier with his younger brother in the barn.  “I think that bothers him more than what the others did to him.  I don’t know Pa, he just seems so troubled by it.”

“Mitch is dropping by tomorrow.  He wants to talk to Little Joe.  He said he wants to tell him why he did what he did,” Ben informed his son.

Adam moved to the edge of his seat and stared at his father.  “Pa, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.  I mean, Joe already said he hated Mitch and he’s never going to forgive him for betraying him to the others. He wants nothing to do with Mitch, he said as much.”

“Well, I think he should hear what Mitch has to say.  But I won’t force him.  This is something that he and Mitch will have to try to work out between them selves.  I think if your brother understood his friend’s reasons, he wouldn’t feel the way he does now,” Ben informed Adam and then poured himself and his son a brandy.

“You going to tell me what happened?  Or do I have to wait to hear it from someone else?” Adam asked his father, a slow smile beginning to show on his handsome face.

Ben cut his dark eyes in his son’s direction.  “I’ll tell you.  You might be surprised to learn that your friend Pete Devlin played a major roll in it.”

“Pete?  You have my full attention, on with it Pa,” Adam leaned back to get comfortable and waited while his father finished his brandy.

Ben spent the next hour retelling the story as Mitch had told it to him and Hoss.  When his father had finished, Adam was silent for several minutes before he spoke.  “Poor kid, looks to me as if he and Joe were victims of Max Jenkins’ evil joke.”

“I have to agree Adam, it was a cruel and vicious thing for those other boys to do to Joe and Mitch.”  Ben placed his hand around Adam’s shoulder and walked up the stairs with him as they made their way to their rooms.

“Night Pa.  Sleep well,” said Adam.

“Good night son, God bless.”  Ben bid his oldest good night and quietly slipped into Joe’s room to say good night to his youngest.  Joe was already asleep, his body curled into a tight ball.  Ben pulled the covers up to his shoulders and tucked them in then placed a kiss on the boy’s brow.  He took another blanket from the foot of the bed and covered Hoss who had fallen asleep in the overstuffed chair in the corner of the room.

Silently Ben blessed his sons a good night’s rest as he pulled the door half way closed and slipped into his own room.

Joe was busy in the barn when he heard the sound of horses coming into the yard.  As he walked to the door and peeked out wondering who their visitor might be, Joe gasped loudly as he watched Mitch Devlin and his father dismount their horses.  Joe lurked just inside the door while Ben spoke briefly with Mitch and when his used–to-be friend turned toward the barn in his direction, Joe turned to run.  He did not get very far before strong arms reached out and grabbed him, halting his escape.

“Let me go Hoss,” said Joe trying to wrench himself free from his brother’s tight hold before his enemy reached the barn.

“Now ya just hold on a minute Short Shanks, maybe ya need to hear what he has ta say,” Hoss told his brother as he kept his grip held tight around the squirming boy.

“I don’t wanna hear what he’s got to say, I hate him!  Now let me go!” screamed Joe still struggling against Hoss.

“Joe, just listen a minute…” started Hoss.

Joe stomped on Hoss’ toe with the heel of his boot.  Instantly Hoss released his arms from around Joe as he hopped up and down holding his foot.

“Aw…why’d cha’ havta go and do that fer?” whined Hoss.

Joe who had backed up into the corner of the barn was furious at his brother.

“I told ya, I hate Mitch for what he did.  Why can’t you and Pa and Adam get that through your heads?  I don’t want to hear anything he has to say, now leave me alone,” shouted Joe as he started up the ladder to the loft but stopped when he saw Mitch standing in the doorway.

Mitch looked miserable.  “I heard what ya said Little Joe and I don’t blame ya one bit.”

“Good,” shouted Joe, “Then ya know I don’t wanna talk to ya.  Not now, not ever, now go away and leave me alone.”  Joe turned his head; he wanted to cry but forced himself not too.  Here was his best friend, his Judas, the one he hated most, yet something deep inside of Joe troubled him and he couldn’t understand why or what it was that gnawed at him.

“I’m sorry Joe, I just wanted ya to know,” said Mitch as he turned to leave.

Joe’s pent up anger shattered the wall that it had been hiding behind.  “You think just saying sorry is gonna fix things?” he ranted at Mitch.

“You laughed at me Mitch, you told my darkest secrets and then you helped them make a fool of me and all ya gotta say is ‘I’m sorry’?” screamed Little Joe as he followed Mitch from the barn.

Ben and Charlie were sitting on the side porch and had heard the exchange between the two boys.  Ben started to rise, but Charlie placed his hand on Ben’s arm to stop him.

“Please Ben, Mitch needs to know how Little Joe really feels; he needs to see with his own eyes what he has done to his friend,” said Charlie as Ben sat back down.

“Well I got somethin’ to say to you,” Joe grabbed Mitch by the shoulder and spun him around to make Mitch face him, unaware of the tears that pooled in the blue eyes that stared back at him.

“Ok, say it,” Mitch said glaring at Joe.

“I hate you Mitch Devlin and I never wanna see ya again and as far as I’m concerned…you can go straight to hell!”  With that Joe balled up his fist and swung at Mitch clipping him on the chin and causing him to fall backwards into the dirt.

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he and Charlie ran to break up the boys who were now locked together rolling around in the dirt each trying to punch the other.

Hoss reached the boys first and grabbed Joe by the arms hauling him to his feet.  Charlie grabbed Mitch and spun him around ordering him to his horse.

Joe had buried his face in his brother’s shirt and refused to turn around when Ben ordered him too.

“Joseph, look at me when I speak to you,” Ben instructed.

Joe kept his face pressed against Hoss’ mid section and shook his head no.  Ben was at a loss; short of physically forcing his son to turn around, Ben wasn’t sure how to handle the situation without making it worse for he could see that Joe was crying and did not want to embarrass him anymore in front of his friend than he already had been.  Charlie solved part of the problem for him.

“Ben, we’ll talk again soon.  Don’t be too hard on the boy, he’s still hurtin’.”  Charlie gave his friend a smile of encouragement and with his son in tow, mounted their horses and left.

Hoss had closed his arms around Joe and could feel the tremors that ran through the slim body.  Hoss met his father’s gaze and sadly shook his head.  Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gently squeezed.

“Joseph, it’s all right son.  Why don’t we go into the house where we can talk about this?” Ben said softly.

Joe, who still had his arms wrapped around Hoss’ middle looked over his shoulder at his father.  Instead of the anger he thought he would find in his father’s eyes, Joe saw love and compassion and seeing what he had hoped to find, threw his arms about his father’s neck and cried.  Ben instantly gathered the distraught boy into his arms and carried him into the house.

“Shh…Joseph, it’s all right now son.” Ben rubbed Joe’s back in a soothing fashion hoping to calm the weeping boy as he made his way across the yard.

Two nights later Adam slowly made his way upstairs.  He had sat up later than usual, reading a new book that had just arrived that afternoon from San Francisco.  As much as he would have liked to finish the book, when the old clock had chimed and announced that it was one o’clock, Adam had begrudgingly closed the cover of the new volume.  Making his way slowly down the hall, Adam stopped at Joe’s opened door.  His brother even now would not allow any of them to close his bedroom door at night, the fear of being locked inside still a heavy reminder for his troubled mind and heart.

Adam paused at the doorway as the sound of soft whimpering reached his ears.  As he gazed into the room, he could make out Joe’s silhouette in the dim glow of the light that Joe refused to put completely out.  Joe was standing in front of the window clad only in his nightshirt, Scruffy held by one ear and dangling at the end of his brother’s arm.  Adam could plainly make out the soft muted cries as he neared the boy who was as yet unaware of his presence.

“Hey buddy, are you all right?” asked Adam startling Joe from his thoughts.

Quickly Joe wiped the tears from his eyes before he spun around to face his older brother.  Scruffy was quickly hidden behind his back, Joe afraid that Adam might tease him or worse, laugh at him for holding on to the stuffed toy.

“I’m fine,” he lied.

Adam moved further into the room until he stood in front of Joe.  Without conscious thought, Adam reached out his hand and brushed back a stray lock of dark hair that dangled down on Joe’s forehead.  As he did so, Adam could feel the tenseness in Joe’s body and wondered whether the boy had had another nightmare.

“Couldn’t sleep?” he asked as he made himself comfortable in the chair next to the window.

“No, guess not,” replied Joe making himself comfortable by sitting on the edge of the bed, facing Adam.  When Adam glanced out of the window, Joe quickly tossed Scruffy under his pillow in an effort to hide him from his brother.

“Did you have another bad dream?” questioned Adam pretending not to have noticed the disappearance of the ragged little dog he had bought as a gift for Joe.

Joe was silent for a minute, his head hung low.  Finally he looked into Adam’s dark eyes, Adam noting the tears that had pooled in Joe’s hazel ones.

“What’s eating at you little buddy?” Adam asked softly.

Joe dropped his head for the second time and Adam watched as the lone tear rolled from his brother’s eye and down his cheek, stopping briefly at the chin before dropping onto Joe’s nightshirt.

Adam’s heart ached for his brother, it seemed as if Joe had been unhappy for weeks now.  He and his father had hoped after the courts had determined that Max, Jed, Willie and even Mitch be restricted to their own farms for six months unless in the company of their fathers, that Joe would have begun to act like his self again.  But Joe seemed more withdrawn and troubled than when he had first gotten back home.

At last Joe stood and walked to the window where he pulled back the drapes and gazed outside at the dark.  With the lamp burning low behind him, Adam knew Joe could see nothing other than himself staring back at him from the window.  Slowly, Joe turned to face Adam, tears now falling from his eyes, chin quivering and Joe struggling to compose himself.

Adam rose from his chair and stepped closer to his brother and tenderly pulled the weeping boy to him.  Joe made no resistance to his brother’s gesture, the need to be comforted and held greater than his self-consciousness at being caught by his older sibling crying.

“Why don’t you tell me about, Joe?  Maybe I can help?” Adam encouraged.

Joe had promised himself to keep his troubles to himself but with his brother’s tender touch and soft words, Joe’s resolve shattered.

“Why Adam?” sobbed Joe, “why’d he do this to me?  I just don’t understand how my best…friend could turn against me like that.”  Joe sniffed his nose and continued.

“It hurts…Adam…in here,” Joe tapped his heart.  “I hate him…and even that hurts, cause I really don’t wanna hate him,” Joe buried his head deeper into the front of Adam’s shirt.

“But I don’t understand…why?  Why?  Tell me why Adam,” sobbed Joe.

Adam gently cupped Joe’s face in his hands and raised his head so that Joe would have to look at him.  With his thumbs, he brushed away his brother’s tears and smiled down at him.

“I know its confusing little buddy.  But let’s talk about this; here sit down.”  Adam turned where Joe could sit down in the chair that he had just vacated.  Once Joe had sat, Adam kneeled down in front of him and tried to explain.

“Joe, first thing, and don’t go getting riled at me, just let me finish before you say anything.  The other day when Mitch came over to talk to you, you should have listened to what he had to say.  Perhaps if you had, you wouldn’t be feeling as you are now.  Mitch told Pa everything about what happened and why it happened.  I’m not saying that what Mitch did was right, we both know it wasn’t and just because he was your best friend doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to be upset with him for doing you like he did.  You do have the right, I would have been plenty mad if Pete had done to me what Mitch did to you.”  Adam paused to catch his breath, glad that Joe was silently listening and had stopped crying.

“The thing I want you to understand little buddy is that if Mitch had been older, he would have known how to handle things differently.  Do you want me to tell you why Mitch betrayed you?  It won’t make you feel any better about what happened to you, but it might make you feel differently about Mitch.”

Adam watched as Joe struggled with his decision. Finally Joe wiped his eyes and looked up at Adam.  When Adam’s eyes met his brother’s, Joe nodded his head yes.

“Several weeks ago, Pete, Mitch’s older brother, was over in Carson City.  He just happened to be in the bank when the bank was robbed and a teller was shot and killed.  When the robbers ran out of the bank, Pete somehow got pulled along with them.  The sheriff and several others were lucky enough to stop three of the men, one of which was Pete.  The sheriff thought at first that Pete was one of the robbers and it took several days to get everything straightened out.”

“During that time, Max Jenkins and Jed Davidson claimed to have been in Carson City and knew all about what happened.  They devised a plan to get back at both you and Mitch for taking them in the last fight the four of you had.  They were especially determined to pay you back, Joe.  But they needed Mitch’s help to get at you.  So what they did was to tell Mitch that they had seen everything that happened in the bank, even said that they had seen Pete shoot the teller.”  Adam stopped momentarily as Joe began squirming in his seat.

“Pete wouldn’t do nuthin’ like that, would he Adam?” Joe wanted to know.

“Of course not, but they convinced Mitch that he had and they told him that unless he helped them get to you, they would tell in court that Pete actually pulled the trigger.  To make things worse, they also told the boy that should the court find Pete guilty, he would hang.  Well Joe, needless to say, Mitch was terrified that Pete would hang.  He also believed that the only way to keep his brother from hanging was to help them.  Mitch had to choose, it was either Pete’s life or betray his best friend.  He sure didn’t want to see his own brother hang, but he also didn’t want to betray you, let alone hurt you.  But they forced him to make a choice.  Think about it Joe, if it had been you, who would you have chosen?”  Adam sat down in front of the chair and waited for his brother’s answer, hoping that Joe would understand his friend’s dilemma.

Joe thought about what Adam had told him for several minutes before he spoke.  “I wouldn’t have let you hang, or Hoss.”

Adam smiled, “Then you understand why Mitch had to pick betraying you instead of letting his brother hang, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I reckon, but Adam…he seemed to enjoy seeing me locked in that closet, and he didn’t do nuthin’ to help me get out…why?” Joe puzzled with the thought.

“Max threatened to lock Mitch up in a closet too Joe.  He said if he didn’t go along with everything that they did to you, they would still testify against Pete.  Mitch didn’t want to laugh at you, he even begged them not to keep you in the closet, but they roughed him up some and he finally just kept his mouth shut…until that last night, then he couldn’t stand it any longer and his conscience got the better of him.  Joe…look at me,” Adam rested his hands on Joe’s knees.  Joe’s misty eyes riveted back to Adam’s.

“Mitch feels terrible about what happened.  He’s sorry he hurt you and he felt like a trader, especially when his father and brother told him that everything had already been cleared up.  When Mitch found out that Max and Jed had not even been in Carson City, but had only over heard their Pas talking about it, Mitch got so mad that he went over to Max’s and had a fight with him…and he whipped him right there in his own yard,” Adam smiled at the thought that the smaller boy was so full of fury that he had for the first time ever taken the larger boy alone in a fist fight.

Joe couldn’t keep the smile off his own face, his mind drawing up the picture of his best friend actually taking on the taller and stronger Max Jenkins and within minutes his tears had dried and his sobs turned to laugher.

“I’d like to have seen that one,” laughed Joe and then just as quickly, he turned serious.

“I guess I can understand why Mitch had to do it…I guess I really don’t hate him after all.  I don’t think I ever did hate him Adam, but I tried too, but for some reason, I just couldn’t.”  Joe scrunched up his face in a frown.

“What’ll I do now?  I dun told ‘em I hated him and never wanted to talk to him again,” said Little Joe sadly.

Adam smiled at his brother, he couldn’t help it, the boy was like hot coals one minute and ice the next.

“Well buddy, I’m glad to know that you don’t hate Mitch; I knew if you were honest with yourself, you’d find out that you were incapable of hating your friend.  As for what you should do now, you could pay him a visit tomorrow…maybe have a little talk,” Adam suggested.

Joe raised his head, his face brightening at the idea.  “Ya reckon he’d talk to me?  I mean…I was kinda nasty to him.”

Adam rose from his seat in the floor and stretched his long lean body to work out the stiffness from sitting so long on the hard flooring.

“Wouldn’t hurt to try.  That is, if you still want him for your friend, besides, I have an idea that he is just about as miserable as you are.”  Adam tussled Joe’s curls as Joe rose out of the chair and smiled up at his big brother.

“Will ya ride over with me?  You could spend some time with Pete while’s I talk to Mitch,” Joe asked hopefully, for he wasn’t completely sure whether or not he wanted to go alone.

Adam smiled, glad that his little brother wanted to try to set things right between him self and his best friend for it was obvious to all of them that the boy was miserable without his companion.

“Sure, I’ll ride with you.  How about right after breakfast?” he asked.

Joe slept the remainder of the night peacefully.  By morning he was up and ready for this trek over to his friend’s house.  Ben noted the change of persona when Joe finally joined them for breakfast.  He briefly gave Adam a questioning look but averted his head when he realized that his youngest son was speaking to him.

“Is it okay Pa?” asked Joe.

“I’m sorry son, my mind was some place else.  What did you say?” smiled Ben guiltily.

“I asked if it were okay if I took the morning off.  I want to ride over to Mitch’s and have a talk with him,” Joe dropped his head for a moment.  “Pa?  Adam told me about everything…I thought if you didn’t care…I’d go see him.”

Ben smiled brightly and quickly glanced at his other two sons, seeing that they were just as pleased with the idea as he was.  Ben had been hoping that the two boys would find some way to patch up their problems and return to being friends.  Some of the boys that Joe tended to want to hang out with were not the types of friends that he would normally want Joe to be with.  But Mitch and his family had been friends, good friends, for as many years as Ben cared to remember and he was now glad to hear that Joseph wanted to try to work things out with Mitch.

“I’d think that would be a great idea.  You take as long as you need.  And Joseph…while you’re there…I think you should have a little talk with Mr. Devlin as well…if you get my meaning,” advised Ben with a wink of the eye.

Joe smiled at his father, “I will Pa, I promise and thanks Pa.”

“I sorta told him I would ride over with him…hope you can spare me for a little while,” commented Adam as he sipped his coffee.

“I think these two here are just tryin’ ta get outta work Pa.  Maybe we should go with ‘em,” scowled Hoss jokingly.

Ben burst out laughing, “You may be right son, but I think you and I will just stay here today.  Besides, I think Hop Sing is making your favorite for supper, chicken and dumplings.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that.  Chicken and dumplings, yum yum, my favorite,” said Hoss rubbing his stomach and smacking his lips.

Little Joe laughed, “you say that with everything that Hop Sing fixes.  It might take less time to just say what ya don’t like.”

“I agree little brother,” added Adam.

Two hours later Joe and Adam rode into the Devlin yard.  Charlie greeted his company with a smile on his weathered face and a hardy handshake.

“Howdy Adam, Little Joe, what brings you boys out this way?” Charlie asked taking hold of Cochise’s bridle as Joe dismounted.

“Howdy Mr. Devlin, I was wonderin’ if Mitch was around…I…hmm…got somethin’ I wanna say to ‘em…that is if ya don’t mind,” Joe looked up at his friend’s father and was relieved to see that the older man’s friendly smile was still brightening his weather worn face.  Joe knew that the smile was genuine for the man’s eyes twinkled and Pa had always told him that the eyes were the window of a man’s soul and if a man were truly content it would show in his eyes, and pa was almost always right reasoned Joe.

Charlie casually glanced up at Adam and Adam nodded his head slightly.  Charlie understood his silent message and returned his attention to his young guest.

“Mitch just took his fishin’ pole down to the pond.  You’re welcomed to join him if ya like,” offer Mr. Devlin kindly.

“Thanks, I think I’ll stroll on down there for a while,” smiled Joe as he turned to leave and glanced in Adam’s direction but stopped, suddenly remembering his promise to his father.

“Um…Mr. Devlin, sir?” stammered Joe, suddenly shy at having to apologize to a grown-up

“Yes Little Joe?” Charlie answered trying to hide his amusement from the little boy.

“About the other day…I’m sorry for what I said…I…I really didn’t mean it,” confessed Joe, happy to have that burden removed from his heart, for he had ended up feeling really bad about telling his friend he could go to…well, thought Joe, I’d better not use that word again.  I was just lucky Pa let it slide this one time.

“I know you didn’t son.  It’s okay,” Charlie rumpled Joe’s hair, causing the boy to laugh.

“Um…Joe…” began Adam when Joe stopped laughing enough to hear him.

“Heh?” said Joe looking at his older brother thoughtfully and wondering if he had forgotten something else.

“Don’t you think you should also apologize for punching Mitch?” Adam asked his brother.

Joe looked down at the ground and kicked at a clump of dirt before finally meeting Adam’s eyes.  Quickly he glanced up at Mr. Devlin.

“Naw, I don’t think I should cause if’n I say I’m sorry, I’d be lying and then Pa would wallop me.  Besides, I really did mean to punch him, ‘member?  I was mad at him.”  Joe looked innocently at both men.  The expression on his young face was one of innocence and gave cause for both men to burst out laughing.

Joe shrugged his shoulders, not understanding what he had said to make his brother and Mr. Devlin laugh.  Turning to leave, Joe was stopped once again by Charlie.

“Joe, do me a favor, will ya?” asked Charlie as he reached for an old tin can that had been left sitting on the banister on the front porch.

“Sure Mr. Devlin, anything,” offered Joe feeling comfortable now in the man’s presence after having cleared the slate with his father’s good friend.

“Seems that Mitch forgot his can of worms.  Would you mind seein’ that he gets ‘em for me?”  Charlie handed the can to Joe and Joe looked inside.  Mitch had filled the can with dirt and worms and Joe could see them wiggling around in the soft soil.  He pulled one long worm from the ground covering and whistled.

“Wow, lookit this one Adam, I bet ya could catch a real big fish with this whopper.”

Adam and Charlie laughed as Joe turned toward the Devlin’s pond in search of his friend.  Joe had his hopes up that before this day was over, Mitch would once again be his best friend.  He had decided after hearing what Adam had to say about why Mitch had done what he had, that he could no longer hate his friend.  Joe only hoped that now Mitch would not hate him and would instead forgive him for the mean things he had shouted at him the day before.  He was still carrying some anger in his heart, not so much directed at Mitch now, but at everything that had happened, but he no longer blamed Mitch, instead he resented the three other boys who had set out to destroy his friendship with Mitch, just because they wanted to get back at him.  Well, thought Joe, hopefully it didn’t work.

Joe found Mitch sitting on the edge of the bank, his feet dangling precariously just over the water.  Mitch had his fishing pole sitting on the ground beside of him and seemed to be lost in thoughts.  He was bent over with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin in the palm of his hands.

Mitch looked up at Joe as Joe came to stand beside of him but quickly cut his eyes back toward the water as if he were watching something in the distance.

“What are ya doin’ here?” he asked after several moments.  “I thought ya said ya never wanted to see me again?” snapped Mitch.

Joe suddenly felt awkward, for some reason he had not expected his friend to react as if he were angry.  Joe thought that Mitch would be pleased to see him, he guessed wrong.

“You can’t catch any fish if ya don’t put a worm on your hook,” said Joe extending his hand that held the can of worms out to Mitch.

Mitch stared up a Joe, shading his eyes from the sun’s glare.  After what seemed like a long time to the young boy, Mitch grabbed the can from Joe’s out stretched hand.

“Thanks,” was all that Mitch said as he once again fixed his eyes on an imaginary object in the middle of the pond.

Joe stood in the same spot, desperately searching his mind for something to say.  At last he just sat down next to Mitch who watched him from the corner of his eye.

“Havin’ any luck?” Joe asked and then laughed out loud.

Mitch jerked his head around to face Joe, a suspicious look on his face.  “What’s so funny?”

Joe’s laughter was stopped instantly.  “Ya ain’t got no worms, so ya couldn’t of had any luck, besides,” he said picking up Mitch’s pole, “ya don’t even have it in the water, so…”

“So?” grunted Mitch.

“So, what?” replied Joe.

“So, I don’t know, you said it first.”  Mitch turned to face Joe, his face beginning to show the tiniest bit of a smile playing at the corner of his lips.

“So…” Joe paused and took a deep breath, “so…I’m sorry about the other day and I didn’t mean what I said and I’m sorry I hit you and I hope you aren’t still mad at me cause I understand now about what happened and I hope we can be friends again and I ain’t mad at you any more and so…”

Mitch started to laugh, Joe wrinkled up his nose at his friend not understanding why Mitch was laughing.

“Look, you let all the worms get away,” laughed Mitch pointing to the can that had been tipped over.  The worms had taken advantage of the spilled dirt and were quickly worming their way into the soft earth where the boys sat.

Joe started laughing and before long both boys were caught up in the moment and rolling on the ground holding their sides.  After several minutes Joe sat up and grew quiet.  Mitch joined him as the two sat and stared out at the water.

“Mitch,” said Joe softly.

“Yeah Joe,” replied Mitch.

“I’ve missed seein’ ya.  Do wanna be friends again?  Please, I will if you will,” Joe faced his friend.

Mitch nodded his head, “I’ve missed ya too Little Joe.  Ain’t had no fun since…well, since we put that frog in Miss Jones’ desk drawer last month and she screamed so loud Sheriff Coffee came runnin’ over to see what all the fuss was about,” giggled Mitch.

“Yeah, that was somethin’.  Boy, did I ever get in trouble when she came out that night to see my pa.  If Adam hadn’t of convinced him and Miss Jones that it was all in fun, I might still be standin’ up.  But Adam thought it was funny too, he told me later after Pa sent me to my room.  Adam and I laughed so hard, he told me he would have loved to seen Miss Jones’ face when that slimy old frog jumped into her lap,” snickered Joe.

“Pete thought it was funny too.  He told me you deserved a metal for being brave enough to do somethin’ like that.  He said he had always wanted to pull some kind of joke like that on her too when he was in school, but he was to chicken to try.  I can’t see my brother being afraid of a silly old girl teacher, can you?” asked Mitch.

“Adam’s afraid of Miss Jones, he runs every time he sees her coming.  I always have to be the one to tell her he ain’t around or he can’t come to school…you know Mitch…I’d do anything for my brothers,” said Joe thoughtfully.

“Even betray ya best friend, Joe?” dared Mitch, solemnly.

Joe’s smile disappeared for several moments as he thought of his answer.  Smiling, he turned to his best friend, “Yeah Mitch, even betray my best friend, but only if I had to.”

“Thanks Joe.  That means a lot.”

Adam and Mr. Devlin had strolled down near the pond, just in case they might be needed to break up another fistfight.  Both smiled in relief when they saw the two young boys hugging each other and knew that they would have to be on their toes now that everything looked as if things were getting back to normal.

THE END
May 2002

‘Scruffy’ is the brainchild of two over zealous women who have too much time on their hands and tend to spend that time creating problems for a certain Cartwright family.  ‘Scruffy’ is a hand crafted, mail order creation designed to give joy and comfort as required to Joe Cartwright. Adam gave the stuffed toy to Joe, then seven, in a previous Christmas story written by Jennie A and myself.  Debbie B and Jennie A are the sole users and others may not induct the toy into their own stories without first seeking permission from the creators.

Thank you.

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