The Dark Cloud (by Susan)

Summary:  If they only knew what was in store for them after delivering a herd to San Francisco.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  23,746


 

Sipping his coffee at the breakfast, Ben Cartwright glowered at the empty chair at the table. Two of his sons, Adam and Hoss, wordlessly finished their breakfast, occasionally glancing furtively at the empty chair and at each other. Neither wanted to break the silence that would unleash the growing rage on their father’s face.

His coffee cup clattered loudly as Ben set down not too gently on the saucer. “What time did your younger brother get home last night?” he asked angrily.

After a giving Adam a fleeting look, Hoss turned to his father. “I dunno, Pa,” he answered with a shrug. “I didn’t hear him come in.”

“Adam, you were up late. Did you see Joe come in?” Ben asked, turning to his oldest son.

“Joe wasn’t home when I went to bed,” Adam replied evenly. Then, seeing the angry frown on his father’s face, he added hastily, “I’m sure he must have gotten back from Virginia City right after I turned in.”

“That boy has no more sense than a two year old,” Ben declared in disgust. “What is he thinking, staying out all hours of the night when he knows we have branding to do.”

“Pa, he probably just lost track of the time. You know how Joe is about things like that,” Hoss observed in a conciliatory voice.

“Yes, I know how he is,” replied Ben, his voice getting louder. “Well, if he thinks he is going to lie in bed like some gentleman farmer while we do all the work, he’s got another think coming!” He abruptly pushed himself away from the table and stood up. “I’ll get him out of bed….now,” Ben added, almost shouting. He strode rapidly across the room and up the stairs.

“Whew,” remarked Hoss quietly after his father had left the room. “Pa sure is mad at Little Joe.”

“I know,” Adam agreed. “You’d think by now Joe would know better than to stay out late, drinking and gambling in Virginia City. Pa is going to blister his ears.”

“His ears aren’t the only things that are going to get blisters if I know Pa,” Hoss observed with a grin.

Both men looked up as Ben tramped angrily down the stairs. He hadn’t been gone for more than a minute and it was awfully quiet during that time. Adam and Hoss glanced at each other. “Did you wake Joe?” inquired Adam in an innocent voice.

Ben stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “Joe’s bed hasn’t been slept in. It appears your brother forgot to come home last night,” he told his older son, his fury barely concealed. Ben walked across the room, toward the door, stopping to pick up his gunbelt and hat. “I’m going to Virginia City and drag that boy home,” he declared heatedly as he buckled on his gunbelt; Ben slammed the door behind him as he left the house.

Adam and Hoss sat silently for a moment. “Do you reckon we ought to go with Pa?” asked Hoss, sounding more inquisitive than concerned.

“I’d guess we’d better,” answered Adam with a sigh. “If we don’t, Pa will have Joe riding fence for the next year. And that means we will have do the branding and all the other work without him.”

After getting to their feet reluctantly, Adam and Hoss walked to the door, stopping to pick up their gunbelts and hats also. “You know, Adam, sometimes that little brother of ours can be more trouble than he’s worth,” grumbled Hoss as the two men followed their father out the door.

A short time later, the three Cartwrights were riding briskly down the road to Virginia City. None bothered to look around or admire the scenery; they knew the road like the back of their hands. Ben was concentrating on getting to Virginia City as fast as possible, his anger growing with every mile. Adam and Hoss were focused on keeping up with their father.

Arriving in Virginia City, the trio halted their horses in front of the Silver Dollar saloon. Dismounting, Ben casually threw his reins around the hitching post in front of the bar. Adam and Hoss did the same.

As Adam and Hoss lingered on the street behind him, Ben pushed opened the swinging doors of the saloon. Stopping abruptly, he looked around in surprise. The Silver Dollar was almost empty; only an old man cleaning the floor and the bartender were in the room.

“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright,” the bartender called cheerily. “What can I get for you?”

“Nothing, Bruno,” replied Ben in a distracted voice. “I’m looking for Little Joe. Have you seen him?”

“No since last night,” Bruno answered. “You know, I never saw such a run of luck at the poker table. That boy of yours must have won every hand he played.”

“Joe won at poker?” Adam said in surprise as he poked his head over the doors.

The bartender laughed. “I know what you’re thinking Adam. Usually, Little Joe is the worst poker player in the place. But last night, he was really lucky. He started out with maybe $20 and ended up with over $1,000.”

Adam whistled. “Over $1,000! Are you sure?” he asked.

“Well, I didn’t count it, and neither did he,” admitted Bruno. “But I can usually guess how much is on the table. Joe had at least $1,000 when he left here.”

“What time did he leave?” asked Ben, his anger cooling.

Frowning, the bartender thought for a moment. “It must have been about midnight,” he said. He thought for a minute longer before adding, “Yeah, I’m sure it was before midnight. Joe said something about having to get home because he had some branding to do today. Why? Didn’t he get home on time?”

“He didn’t get home at all,” declared Ben. “Are you sure he left town?”

“I guess I just assumed he did,” Bruno acknowledged with a shake of his head. “He had a beer at the bar, bought me one, too. Said he had to get home and walked out the door. I didn’t see him ride out, though. Like I said, I just assumed he was going on home.”

“Pa, you don’t think anything happened to Joe, do you?” asked Hoss with concern as he and Adam pushed their way into the saloon. “That’s a lot of money he was carrying.”

Ben hesitated before answering. “No,” he declared but his voice betrayed a hint of doubt. “I’m sure he’s fine. He probably just changed his mind and decided to stay in town. Let’s go check over at the hotel.”

Giving the bartended a nod of thanks, Ben turned and walked out of the bar with Adam and Hoss trailing after him. The three stood on the street outside the saloon, unsure about what to do next. “Adam, you check the hotel….” Ben was starting to say when a shout interrupted him.

“Ben!” a voice called. “What are you doing in town so early in the day?”

Ben turned to see Sheriff Roy Coffee walking up the street toward him.

“Hello, Roy,” answered Ben. “We’re looking for Little Joe. He didn’t come home last night.”

“Didn’t come home?” repeated Coffee in surprise. “How can that be? I saw him riding out of town about midnight.”

“Are you sure?” asked Adam.

“Sure I’m sure,” the sheriff stated. “I was making my rounds about midnight when I saw Joe come out of the Silver Dollar. I said hello and we talked for a minute. Then he got on his horse and rode out. I watched him ride out of town, toward the Ponderosa.”

Concern spread over Ben’s face. “Did you see anyone following him? Joe had a lot of money.”

Roy Coffee shook his head. “No, no one followed him. Some fellows came out of the saloon while we were talking, but they rode out ahead of Joe. I didn’t see anyone else.”

“Maybe he doubled back and stayed at the hotel after all,” suggested Hoss, not really believing it.

Again, the sheriff shook his head. “No, I just came from the hotel. I check the register every day, just to see who’s staying there. Joe wasn’t at the hotel last night.”

Ben’s face was creased with worry. “We must have missed something on the road,” he said, his voice filled with concern. “Let’s go back and check.” Adam and Hoss nodded their agreement.

“I’ll check around town to see if anyone has seen him,” offered Coffee as he watched the three men mount their horses. “I’ll send a message out to the Ponderosa if I find anything.”

“Thanks,” yelled Ben as he turned his horse and rode out of town, followed closely by his sons.

This time Cartwrights traveled slowly along the Virginia City road in the direction of the Ponderosa. As the best tracker of the three, Hoss rode in front, his eyes glued to the ground. Adam and Ben scanned the area around them; neither of them saw anything unusual in the empty countryside.

The three men were about halfway to the Ponderosa when Hoss suddenly pulled his horse to a stop. They had come to a narrow portion of the road. On their right was a high hill, with large boulders scattered throughout the rise. On their left was a wide expanse of land covered with tall grass and bushes; a small strand of trees stood a few yards away from the road. Hoss dismounted and bent to peer closely at the ground.

“Pa!” exclaimed Hoss. “See those dark smudges. That looks like dried blood.” He stood and looked toward the scrub brush. “It looks like something was dragged off the road.”

Quickly, Ben and Adam dismounted. “Start searching the brush,” Ben ordered. The three Cartwrights waded into the tall grass, their eyes glued to the ground. They had walked only a few feet before Ben stopped and pointed. “Look!” he shouted. He could see the legs of a body half-hidden in the scrub brush, legs which were wearing familiar tan pants. He could also see part of the green sleeve of a jacket sticking out from under a bush. The trio rushed to the body.

Pushing the branches of a bush aside, Ben saw the unconscious form of his youngest son. Joe had a jagged wound on his forehead, a few inches above his left eye. Dried blood streaked the left side of his face and neck.

A knot of fear formed in his stomach as Ben placed his fingers on Joe’s neck; he breathed a sigh of relief when he felt a steady pulse. Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “He’s alive,” he declared in a voice tinged with both relief and anxiety. He cradled Joe’s head and shoulders in his arms, repeating his son’s name over and over as he lightly tapped Joe’s face. There was no response. Ben turned to his other sons, the concern evident on his face. “Adam, get to town and bring the doctor out to the Ponderosa. Hoss, go to the ranch and get a wagon. Make sure you bring plenty of blankets and bedding.” Without a word, Adam and Hoss rushed back to their horses.

Turning back to Joe, Ben stroked his son’s head gently. “It’s going to be all right, Joe,” Ben murmured quietly. “Just hang on. We’ll get you home and you’ll be fine.”

Joe made no response. He laid like a limp doll in his father’s arms.

*****

Bending over the bed, Doctor Martin listened to Joe’s heartbeat through the stethoscope. Joe was unconscious, his head wrapped with a wide, white bandage. His face had been cleaned and his clothes replaced by a nightshirt. The doctor listened for a few moments, then removed the instrument from Joe’s chest; he took the tubes from his ears and shook his head. Then the doctor turned toward Ben, Adam and Hoss, who were standing at the end of the bed, their faces dark with worry.

“His heartbeat is nice and steady,” announced the doctor, “but that’s bad head wound. He’s got a concussion, Ben, and possibly a hairline fracture of the skull. There’s no way to tell if there’s any…” Dr. Martin hesitated, then continued, “any other injuries until he wakes up.”

“When will that be?” asked Ben, anxiously.

“There’s no way to tell about that, either,” the doctor admitted. “He’s in a coma. It could be hours, a day, a week, or…it could be never.”

Ben’s eyes widen with fear. “Isn’t there something you can do?” he demanded.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” replied Dr. Martin. “I’ve done everything I can do. All that’s left is to wait and see what happens.”

As Ben’s shoulders slumped in despair, Adam put his hand on his father’s arm. “Pa, Joe’s a tough kid,” he said in comfortingly tone. “He’ll come out of this.” Adam turned toward the doctor. “There must be something we can do,” he insisted. “Some treatment, some medicine, something.

Doctor Martin shook his head. “Very little, I’m afraid,” admitted the doctor. “I’ll show you how to keep him comfortable. But all we can do now is wait.” He looked at Ben. “A little prayer wouldn’t hurt.”

Raising his head, Ben stared at the doctor. Then he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Joe is going to be all right,” he stated in a positive voice. “I know he’s going to be all right.”

The doctor looked at Ben with a grim face. “Ben, I can’t guarantee anything.”

“I know you can’t guarantee anything,” Ben acknowledged. “But I can. I know Joe is going to wake up and be fine.”

*****

A short time later, Dr. Martin descended the staircase at the Ponderosa followed by Adam and Hoss. At the bottom of the stairs, he turned. “If I know Ben, he won’t want to leave Joe. I’m counting on you two to make sure he gets some food and rest. It could be quite awhile before we know something. It won’t help Joe if Ben makes himself sick also.”

“Don’t worry, Doc,” answered Hoss. “We’ll make sure Pa takes care of himself.”

“See that you do,” the doctor stated firmly. He placed his hat on his head and started toward the door, then stopped. He turned again to Adam and Hoss. “That wound of Joe’s could only have been caused by a bullet. Do you know what happened?”

“No,” Adam replied with a shake of his head. “We went looking for him when he didn’t come home last night. We found him unconscious along the side of the road. He won a lot of money playing poker last night, but the money was gone when we found him. We figure someone bushwhacked him, robbed him and left him for dead.”

The doctor nodded. “When I get back to town, I’ll tell Roy Coffee about this. I’m sure he’ll want to investigate. Send for me if there’s any change. Otherwise, I’ll stop back in the morning.”

“Thanks, Doc,” said Hoss. “We appreciate everything you’ve done.” Dr. Martin merely nodded and headed toward the door.

After watching the doctor leave, Adam and Hoss stood silently for a few minutes, not sure what to do next. Then Adam put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “C’mon,” he offered, “I’ll get Hop Sing to fix us something to eat.”

“I ain’t hungry,” declared Hoss, shrugging off his brother’s hand. The big man walked over to the large fireplace and stared into the flames. A frown of worry creased his face.

Adam knew how worried Hoss was about Joe; he felt the same gnaw of fear in his own stomach. But he also knew that standing around wouldn’t help Joe and it would just make both of them feel worse. “Hoss, why don’t you and I ride back to where we found Joe?” he suggested. “Maybe we can find something to tell us what happened and who shot him.”

Hoss looked with surprise at his brother, then glanced toward the top of the stairs. “What if…” He stopped and swallowed hard. “What if Pa needs us?” he continued.

“Nothing is going to happen while we’re gone, I promise you,” Adam stated with conviction. He only wished he believed it. “I’ll tell Pa where we’re going. You get the horses ready.”

For several minutes, Hoss just looked at his brother, then he nodded slowly. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly and walked toward the door.

After heading up the stairs, Adam turned toward Joe’s room; he stopped outside the half-opened door. He could hear soft sound of a voice from inside. With an eager shove, Adam pushed the door open.

Sitting on a chair next to Joe’s bed, Ben was lightly stoking Joe’s arm and talking to his son. Joe lay immobile on the bed, showing no reaction, but Ben seemed oblivious to the lack of response from his youngest son.

“Pa,” Adam said softly as he walked into the room.

Looking up, Ben stared at Adam with a blank expression on his face.

“Pa,” Adam repeated, “Hoss and I are going to ride out to where we found Joe, to see if we can find anything to tell us what happened.” Ben just nodded and turned back to Joe. Adam hesitated, as if he wanted to say something more. But he couldn’t think of anything to say.

*****

It was almost dusk when Adam and Hoss returned to the ranch. Hoss had the reins of a pinto horse in his hands, and the animal followed the riders docilely. The two men stabled the horses, then walked to the house. As they entered, Hop Sing was crossing the living room, carrying a tray with a coffee pot and cups. The cook stopped as Adam and Hoss strode into the room.

“Hop Sing, how’s Joe?” asked Adam as he and his brother removed their hats and guns.

“Little Joe still the same,” answered the Hop Sing sadly. “Mr. Cartwright, he won’t eat, won’t leave Little Joe. Hop Sing think maybe he like some coffee.”

“We’ll get him to eat and rest,” Hoss promised, taking the tray from the cook. “Why don’t you go fix some stew or something. I’ll make sure Pa eats it.

“All right,” agreed Hop Sing. He hesitated for a moment and then added, “Mr. Hoss, Little Joe good boy. Whoever did this a bad man. “

“I know, Hop Sing,” agreed Hoss. “Soon as Joe wakes up, we’ll find out who did this. I guarantee you that whoever hurt my little brother is going to pay for it.”

With a nod of satisfaction, Hop Sing turned and walked toward the kitchen.

Adam came to his brother’s side. “Hoss,” he said softy, “we may never find out who shot Joe.”

A look of pain flashed across Hoss’ face. “I know that, Adam,” he admitted. “But if we do find out, that buzzard will wish he was never born.” Adam slapped his brother lightly on the back and the two men climbed the stairs.

Upstairs, Adam pushed open the door of Joe’s bedroom and Hoss followed him in, still carrying the tray that Hop Sing had given him. Joe laid as motionless as before; Ben was still sitting in the chair next to Joe’s bed but he was no longer talking to his son. Instead, Ben was just staring at Joe, as if he was trying to wake him by sheer willpower.

“Pa, we’re back,” announced Adam. Hoss walked across the room and placed the tray on the desk near the window. Ben looked at his older sons and merely nodded.

“How’s Joe? Any change?” asked Hoss hopefully.

“I think his color is a little better,” answered Ben. “He seems more comfortable.”

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances. To them, Joe looked exactly the same as when they had seen him a few hours ago. “Pa, why don’t you get some rest,” suggested Adam. “Hoss and I will stay with Joe.”

“No, I’m fine,” Ben insisted with a shake of his head.” Slowly, he turned to look at Adam. “Did you find anything?” he asked in an almost disinterested voice.

“Not really,” admitted Adam. “We found Joe’s horse grazing in that strand of trees. We also found a couple of footprints by the side of the road. But they could belong to anybody, and they could have been there for quite awhile. Roy Coffee rode up as we were looking around. He searched the area with us but didn’t find anything. Roy is going to do some asking around in town, but I don’t think he’ll have much luck.”

Ben nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned back to Joe.

“Pa, you haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast. Hop Sing is fixing some food. You need to get something to eat,” urged Hoss with concern.

“I’m fine,” Ben stated once more, his voice firm.

Adam walked over to his father. “Pa, making yourself sick isn’t going to help Joe. You can’t take care of him if you don’t take care of yourself. Hoss or I will come get you if there’s any change. “

“I guess you’re right, Adam,” Ben agreed reluctantly. “It’s just so hard to leave him. I know he’s going to wake up soon, and I want to be here when he comes to.”

“I know,” said Adam. “And I promise we’ll come get you if he starts to wake up.”

Nodding, Ben turned back to Joe and stroked his son’s arm. “Joe, I’m going to leave for a bit, but I’ll be back soon,” he told his unconscious son. “Adam or Hoss will be here if you need anything,”

Again, Adam and Hoss exchanged glances; Adam shook his head in warning to his brother.

Getting to his feet, Ben stretched his tired muscles. He walked slowly toward the door of the room, then halted. He turned back toward Joe and looked again at the figure lying in the bed. “I’ll be back soon, Joe,” he repeated, then left the room.

“Adam, Joe can’t hear us, can he?” asked Hoss after Ben had left.

“No, I don’t think so,” replied Adam. He looked at his sleeping brother. “I guess it just makes Pa feel better to talk to him.”

“I’m worried about Pa,” said Hoss. “He’s acting kind of strange.”

“This is hard on him, Hoss,” Adam told his brother. “You know how protective he is about Joe. After all that’s Pa has been through — losing three wives — I don’t know what he’ll do if Joe doesn’t wake up soon.”

“I know how he feels, Adam,” admitted Hoss. “I don’t know as if I could stand it, either.”

“We’ll get through this,” Adam declared a bit grimly. “Why don’t you pour me a cup of coffee? I’ll stay with Joe for awhile. You go down and make sure that Pa eats something and gets some sleep. You can relieve me in a couple of hours.”

*****

For almost three hours, Adam sat with his brother, watching in vain for any signs of movement. He wished he could do something to help Joe, but knew there was nothing to be done. All he could do is sit and wait. Adam felt the frustration building in him; he found himself clutching his hands into fists.

When Hoss relieved him, Adam was assured by his brother that Ben had eaten a little bit of Hop Sing’s stew and was taking a nap. Adam left the room to do the same.

After settling into the chair next to Joe’s bed, Hoss looked at his younger brother with concern. Joe was pale, but seemed to be sleeping peacefully. A lock of dark hair had fallen over the bandage around Joe’s forehead; Hoss gently brushed it back. “Doggone it, Joe,” Hoss muttered, “how did you get yourself into this mess?” He shook his head. “Joe,” Hoss said a little louder, “Stop being so stubborn. You can wake up; I know you can. Just open your eyes.” Hoss looked over his shoulder guiltily, thankful no one was in the room to hear him. I’m as bad as Pa, he thought. He turned back to the bed where Joe laid unmoving. Hoss sighed and sat back in the chair. He knew it would probably be a long night.

Joe laid in a coma through the night and into the next day. Ben, Adam, and Hoss fell into a routine of each staying with Joe for about three hours before being relieved. Each man shifted the unconscious man’s position on the bed and forced some liquids into him, hoping to make Joe more comfortable. Each also hoped their actions would bring some kind of response. They were all disappointed.

Almost two days had passed since Ben found his youngest son along the side of the road. Sitting by Joe’s bed, Ben wondered if he looked as tired and worried as he felt. Ben read a few lines from the open Bible in his lap in silent prayer, then glanced at Joe, who slept peacefully, unaware of the worry and concern he was causing. Sighing, Ben lowered his eyes to read some more. Then he heard the door opening behind him and looked up.

Hoss and Adam entered the room, followed by the doctor. Their faces also showed the strain of the past few days; both looked pale and drawn.

“Pa, the doc’s here,” said Hoss quietly as Doctor Martin walked in.

“Hello, Ben,” the doctor greeted his old friend. “Any change?”

“No,” answered Ben, “he’s still the same.”

Nodding, Dr. Martin walked to Joe’s bed. He checked the wound under the bandage and re-wrapped the cloth. He also checked Joe’s pulse and breathing before turning to Ben. “The wound is healing fine, and his heart and lungs are normal,” the doctor said encouragingly.

“Then why won’t he wake up?” asked Ben with despair.

“I don’t know, Ben,” admitted Dr. Martin. “The injury probably caused a bruise and some swelling in the brain. He may not wake up until the swelling goes down. There’s just no way to tell how long that might take.”

“There must be something else we can do,” demanded Adam. “There must be something that will wake him up.”

“I’m sorry, Adam,” the doctor replied almost sadly. “This isn’t like an illness or a broken bone. There’s no medicine or surgery that will heal it. The only cure is time.” He looked around the room at the discouraged men, trying to think of some words of comfort. But nothing came to him. Finally, Dr. Martin picked up his bag. “I’m heading over to the Swanson place. Mrs. Swanson is expecting another baby. Then I’ll be going back to town. Come get me if there’s any change.”

As he watched the doctor leave the room, Ben sighed. “It’s my fault,” he declared. “I should have known he was in trouble. I should have gone looking for him sooner. Maybe if we had found him before we did…”

“Pa, that’s not true and you know it,” interjected Adam. “You couldn’t have known what had happened.”

“Adam’s right,” added Hoss. “There’s no way you could have known he was in trouble. You ain’t got nothing to feel guilty about.”

“I just feel so helpless,” Ben said. He looked at Joe with a grim expression.

Suddenly, Joe’s hand moved. Ben stared, not sure if he had really seen the movement or just wished it. Then it happened again. Joe’s left hand pushed the covers a few inches, then came back to his side.

“Adam, Hoss, he moved his hand,” shouted Ben. The other two men hurried to the bed. “Joe, can you hear me?” asked Ben, stroking his youngest son’s head. “Come on, son, open your eyes. You can do it. Open your eyes and wake up.”

*****

Joe wasn’t sure where he was. He felt like he was swimming in some dark, murky, water. His head throbbed, and his body felt weak. He could hear voices, but the words made no sense to him. He wanted to sleep but somehow knew he shouldn’t. He moved his hand, trying to push away the dark cloud that seemed to surround him. He heard a voice again, and suddenly the words began to make sense to him. “Come on, son, open your eyes” he heard. Joe wanted to obey. But his head hurt so much and his eyelids felt like they weighed a ton. He heard the voice yet again and felt the touch of a hand on his head. Joe struggled and opened his eyes a bit. The light sent a stab of pain through his head and he quickly shut his eyes. “That’s it,” he heard the voice say in an encouraging tone. “You can do it. Open your eyes.”

Joe tried again. He lifted his eyelids a little. The light still hurt his eyes but wasn’t quite as painful. He took a deep breath and the pain seemed to lessen. He pushed his eyes open.

At first, everything was a blur. He blinked his eyes several times and the images began to come into focus. He saw three men standing by his bed with anxious looks on their faces.

“What happened?” Joe asked in a weak voice. He swallowed; his throat was dry and his mouth felt like it was filled was sand. He winced in pain as his head throbbed.

“Do you want some water?” a voice offered.

Joe nodded and then winced again. Even that small movement sent waves of agony through his skull. He felt a glass at his lips and a hand gently lifting his head. His head protested with a stab of pain, but his thirst was overwhelming and the need for some water won out. Joe drank from the glass greedily and gratefully felt the liquid cooling his dry mouth and throat. He continued drinking until the glass was almost empty, then pushed his head back onto the pillow. The supporting hand and glass were removed.

“What happened?” Joe repeated, his voice stronger.

“Don’t you remember?” a voice at the end of the bed said.

“No,” replied Joe softly. He tried to keep still. Moving his head made it hurt worse.

“We found you alongside the road. A bullet grazed your head. You’ve been unconscious for more than two days,” explained the voice nearest to him.

Joe said nothing. For some reason, he really didn’t care what had happened. All he knew was that his head hurt. His eyes searched the room. “Where am I?” he asked.

“You’re in your room at the Ponderosa,” replied the voice nearest to him.

“The Ponderosa? What’s that?” asked Joe curiously.

The three men standing around the bed looked at each other and then back at Joe, surprise and worry on all their faces.

“Who are you?” Joe asked, his curiosity growing.

“Don’t you recognize us?” asked the man at the end of the bed.

Joe shook his head, wincing at the wave of pain the movement caused.

The man closest to the bed placed his head gently on Joe’s head. “Son, can you tell us your name?” he urged.

At first, Joe thought that was a strange question. He started to answer, then stopped. His mind was blank. He tried to think, frowning in concentration. The pain in his head got worse. Suddenly, he was filled with panic and fear.

“I don’t know,” Joe answered the man in a frightened voice. “I can’t remember.” He looked around the room, his fear growing. “I can’t remember my name.”

As he saw the pain and confusion on Joe’s face, Ben’s stomach clutched in fear “Son, think,” he said gently. “Surely you know your name and who we are.”

Joe’s eyes widen. He stared at the man next to the bed and then looked wildly around the room. He started breathing faster as his terror increased. Nothing looked familiar to him. The men in the room were strangers. He tried to think but nothing came to him. “I don’t know,” he cried in fear. “I can’t remember anything. What’s wrong with me?”

Ben turned toward the end of the bed where Adam and Hoss were watching. Both faces were creased with worry. “Hoss,” he ordered, “Go get the doctor. Get him now!” Without a word, Hoss spun around and hurried out of the room.

Quickly, Ben turned back to the bed. Joe was struggling to sit up but Ben put a restraining hand on his son’s shoulder. “Take it easy, Joe,” he advised as he gently pushed his son back on the bed. “Hoss has gone for the doctor.”

“Hoss?” Joe asked in confusion. He blinked his eyes as if he were trying to clear his mind. “Who is he? Who are you?”

“I’m your father,” answered Ben in a soothing voice, trying not to let the panic he felt reach his voice. “Your name is Joe Cartwright.” Ben gestured toward the end of the bed. “This is your brother Adam. The man who left the room is your brother Hoss.” Ben looked hard into Joe’s face. “Doesn’t any of this seem familiar to you?”

“No,” Joe replied, his voice fading. Suddenly, he felt tired, felt an overwhelming desire to sleep. He started to close his eyes but opened them abruptly when a hand roughly shook him.

“Joe, you have to stay awake,” Ben stated, shaking his son. “You can’t go back to sleep.” He began talking to Joe about the Ponderosa, how they found him, anything to keeping him awake. Adam chimed in, repeating his name and reminding Joe that he was his brother. Both men knew letting Joe fall asleep was dangerous; he could slip back into the coma.

For his part, Joe stayed silent. His head ached but that bothered him less than the fear he felt. He tried to remember something, anything, but his mind remained blank. He watched the men in the room, but faces meant nothing to him. He listened to what they said, but the names they repeated weren’t familiar. His mind was in a whirl. What was happening to him, he thought. Could he believe what was being said? But why would they lie to him? Why couldn’t he remember his name? Questions spun through his head but no answers came to him.

As he heard the door open, Joe looked up. A white-haired man entered the room followed by the big man who had left earlier. The white-haired man approached the bed.

“Hello, Joe,” said Dr. Martin with a smile. “Welcome back.” He turned to Ben. “Hoss told me,” he added quietly.

Tentatively, Joe nodded his acknowledgement as the white-haired man sat on the edge of the bed. Here was yet another face he didn’t recognize.

“Do you know who I am?” asked the doctor. Joe shook his head slowly. “I’m Doctor Martin,” continued the man. “I need to examine you. Is that all right?”

Once more, Joe nodded, his eyes never leaving the doctor’s face.

Doctor Martin checked Joe’s eyes, holding a finger in front of Joe’s face and asked Joe to watch it as he moved the finger back and forth. He told Joe to move his arms and legs, and smiled in satisfaction as Joe did what he was told. Finally, the doctor reached over to the table and picked up the Bible that Ben had placed there. He handed the book to Joe and asked him to read from it. Joe frowned but opened the book. He read a few lines of the book easily. The doctor smiled again as he took the book back.

Joe decided he couldn’t stand this any longer. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked. “Why can’t I remember anything?”

“Joe, you have a form of amnesia,” explained the doctor. “It’s not unheard of with a severe injury to the head. That prevents you from remembering names, faces, and probably past events.”

Joe swallowed hard. “How long will this last?”

Doctor Martin hesitated. He looked around the room at Ben, Hoss and Adam who were watching him anxiously. “That’s hard to say. It could last only a few days. On the other hand, it could take some time for your memory to return.”

“Is there anything we can do?” asked Ben.

The doctor shook his head. “I know I keep saying this, Ben, but there’s nothing to do but wait. Joe needs to get plenty of rest. He’ll probably have some bad headaches for awhile, and maybe some dizziness. I’ll give you some powders which should help the headaches.” He turned back to Joe and smiled reassuringly. “I know this frightening, Joe, but you’ll get better.”

Staring at the white-haired man, Joe said nothing. He knew he ought to believe what the doctor told him, but he couldn’t. All he knew was that he was in a strange place, surrounded by people he didn’t know.

After mixing some powders with water in a glass, the doctor gave the tumbler to Joe to drink. Joe looked at the glass suspiciously.

“It’s all right,” Dr. Martin reassured him. “It’s just some medicine to help your headache.”

Still unsure, Joe glanced at the doctor and then back at the glass. He took a deep breath, then swallowed the mixture.

Taking the tumbler back, Doctor Martin set it on the table by the bed. “Now, Joe, I want you to stay awake. Do you think you can do that?” said the doctor. “I need to talk to your Pa and brothers for a minute. You need to stay awake while we’re out of the room. Will you do that?”

“All right,” Joe agreed, “I’ll stay awake.”

The doctor gestured to Ben, Adam and Hoss, and the four men left the bedroom.

As the men left, Joe watched with a feeling of relief. Somehow, he felt better now that he was alone. He was tired but he didn’t try to sleep. Joe took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling.

Out in the hallway, Doctor Martin closed the bedroom door behind him. “Let’s talk downstairs,” he suggested to the Cartwrights.

In large room at the bottom of the stairs, Doctor Martin stood in front of the fireplace as the other three watched him anxiously. Finally, Ben could stand the silence no longer. “Doc,” he said with a touch of despair in his voice, “what is it? What can we do?”

“I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t do,” the doctor replied. “You can’t overwhelm Joe with information. He’s a very frightened and confused young man right now. You start telling him a lot of things and you’ll liable to make his condition worse.”

“Frightened?” said Hoss. “What’s he scared of?”

“Of what’s happening to him, of being in a strange place, of you,” answered the doctor forcefully.

“Of me?” exclaimed Hoss. “I’m his brother. I wouldn’t hurt him.”

“You know that and I know that,” said Dr. Martin. “But Joe doesn’t know that.” He saw the frown on Hoss’ face. “I know this is hard, but you’re going to have to be very patient with Joe for awhile.”

“But what can we do?” asked Ben again.

“Let him ask the questions,” Dr. Martin suggested. “Don’t try to tell him everything at once. He may remember things gradually or it may come back to him all at once. But until he does start to remember, you have to be careful with him.”

“All right, you’re the doctor,” agreed Ben with a sigh. “What else?”

“Keep him awake for the next few hours, then let him sleep,” instructed Dr. Martin. “He’ll need to stay in bed for a week or so. Make sure he gets lots of Hop Sing’s good cooking. And let him decide what he wants to know.”

*****

The tall man in the clothes of a wrangler lounged by the door of the saloon, idly watching the people who walked by on the street. A man in a dark suit and white vest strolled by and stopped next to the cowboy. “Got a light?” asked the man in the suit. The wrangler nodded and lit a match. The man in the suit cupped his hands around the flame as he lit a cigar. “I heard Cartwright is still alive,” murmured the man as he puffed on his cigar.

The cowboy froze. “What?” he said in surprise. The match burned down and singed his fingers. The wrangler quickly shook out the match.

“I said Cartwright is still alive. He’s hurt bad, but he’s still breathing,” repeated the man in the suit.

“I thought sure he was a goner when I dragged him off the road,” the cowboy declared, his voice full of worry. “What do we do now? He saw both of us when I jumped him.”

“Don’t panic,” advised the other man in an even voice. “We don’t know the kid is going to make it. Let’s just wait awhile.”

As the men talked, they didn’t notice Sheriff Coffee walked up.

“Excuse me,” Coffee said to the man in the suit. Both the man and the wrangler stiffened.

Suddenly relaxing, the man in the suit gave the sheriff a smile. “You startled me,” he explained in a friendly voice. “What can I do for you?”

“You were in that poker game with Little Joe Cartwright the other night, weren’t you?” asked Coffee.

“I sure was,” answered the man. “Luckiest run of cards I’ve seen in a long time. Why? Is there something wrong?”

“Yes,” Roy Coffee replied. “Somebody bushwhacked Joe Cartwright after that poker game and stole his money. I’m trying to find out who did it.”

“Bushwhacked him!” the man exclaimed in surprise. “How terrible.”

“Did you see anything suspicious that night? Anything out of the ordinary?” asked the sheriff.

“No,” suited man replied with regret, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see a thing. After Joe left, the game broke up. I saw him talking with you when I left the saloon.”

“Where did you go after the game?” asked Coffee.

“Just for a short ride,” explained the man. “I rode for awhile to clear my head, then came back to the hotel.”

“You lost a lot of money in that game, didn’t you?” the sheriff asked with suspicion.

“Some,” the man admitted with a shrug. “But I had more money. I wasn’t wiped out.”

Roy Coffee turned to the wrangler. “What about you?” he asked.

“Me?” replied the cowboy in surprise. “I wasn’t in that game. I was just having a drink in the saloon. I watched for awhile and then left.”

“You two know each other?” asked Coffee, his eyes narrowing.

“We’ve had a drink together,” answered the man in the suit quickly. “I wouldn’t say we were friends or anything. Just acquaintances.”

As the sheriff was talking with the two men, the doctor drove up in his buggy. “Roy!” shouted Doctor Martin.

Coffee turned to the doctor. “Doc, how’s Joe doing?” he asked with concern.

“He’s awake,” answered the doctor, still sitting in his buggy. The wrangler and the other man looked at each other with worried expressions.

“That’s good news,” declared the sheriff, his voice filled with relief. “When can I go talk with him?”

“Don’t waste your time, Roy,” advised Dr. Martin. “He can’t remember what happened.”

“Well, maybe he will if I ask him a few questions,” insisted Coffee.

“Roy, the boy’s got amnesia. He can’t even remember his own name, much less how he got hurt,” explained the doctor.

“What!” exclaimed Coffee. “How long will it last?”

“No way of telling,” Dr. Martin replied. “It could be quite awhile before he can remember anything. I’d lay odds that he’ll never remember the shooting.”

The two men behind Coffee visibly relaxed as they listened to the doctor.

The man in the suit walked up to the sheriff. “I’m real sorry to hear about the Cartwright boy,” he offered with false sincerity. “You let me know if there’s anything I can do.” He tipped his hat and walked away. The tall cowboy walked off in the opposite direction.

The doctor watched the man in the suit walk away. “Who was that?” he asked the sheriff.

“Just one of the men in the poker game that night,” replied Coffee. “He didn’t know anything about what happened.”

“That’s too bad,” said Dr. Martin. “Well, I’ve got patients to see. I’ll let you know if Joe’s condition changes.” The doctor snapped the reins and the buggy moved off.

*****

Joe spent the next week in bed. His headache gradually eased but his memory didn’t return. Each time he woke, Joe looked around the room, hopeful that the memories would come flooding back. But nothing happened. He knew he recognized the room only from being in it for the past few days. He knew he recognized the man who said he was his father only because the man was almost always with him. He answered to “Joe” because they told him that was his name. He didn’t know if that was right, but no other name seemed familiar to him.

The man called Hoss and the one who said he was Adam visited him frequently. A Chinese man named Hop Sing brought him food. When he shaved, Joe stared at the face in the mirror, but he didn’t recognize it. He spent hours thinking, trying in vain to remember something. Most of the time, though, he simply felt overwhelmed with helplessness and despair.

Almost every day, Dr. Martin came to the room and checked on him. After a week, the doctor removed the bandage around Joe’s head, and declared Joe fit enough to get out of bed for awhile each day. Joe sat in the chair by the window and stared blankly at the yard below.

Feeling helpless, Ben stayed with his son as much as possible. But Joe asked him no questions, and simply answered politely when Ben talked to him. There was no warmth in their conversations, no sense of a connection between the two men.

On the fourth day since Joe had been allowed out of bed, Ben made his daily visit to his son’s room. Joe was sitting by the window as usual, wearing a red robe over his nightshirt. He was staring down at the yard in front of the house.

“Are you all right, Joe?” asked Ben. Joe nodded but didn’t look at him. “Can I get you anything?” Ben persisted. Joe shook his head. Ben watched his son for a few moments, then turned to leave. He stopped when he heard Joe’s voice.

“How long have I lived on the Ponderosa?” asked Joe quietly.

“Your whole life,” replied Ben. “You were born here.”

“Is it a big ranch?” Joe asked.

“It’s the biggest ranch in Nevada,” explained Ben.

“Is there a town nearby?” persisted Joe.

“Yes, Virginia City,” answered Ben. He was encouraged by Joe’s questions. “It’s about an hour’s ride from here.”

“I must have been to Virginia City a lot,” observed Joe, still staring out the window.

“Thousands of times,” agreed Ben with a smile.

“And I must have ridden around this ranch a lot,” Joe continued.

“You’ve been over every square inch of it at one time or another,” Ben told his son. He frowned; he wasn’t sure what Joe was getting at.

“I’ve been to Virginia City thousands of times, and I’ve been over every square inch of this ranch,” Joe repeated. He shook his head. “And now, I couldn’t find my way to the barn,” he stated, his voice filled with bitterness and despair. Joe put his fingers to the bridge of his nose and winced.

Walking over to his son, Ben put a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m fine,” answered Joe. “I’ve just got a headache.”

“You should rest. Let me help you back to bed,” offered Ben. When Joe nodded his agreement, Ben grabbed his son’s arm and helped him stand. He led Joe over to the bed and watched as Joe sat down on the edge.

After slipping off his robe, Joe climbed under the covers, turning his back to Ben.

“Do you want any powders for the headache?” asked Ben with concern.

“No,” came a muffled reply from the bed. “I just want to be alone.”

Pursing his lips, Ben tried to think of something to say. Joe’s coldness toward him hurt, even though Ben knew he didn’t mean it. Finally, he sighed and walked out of the room.

As Ben was walking down the stairs, Adam and Hoss came in the front door. “Quiet,” Ben advised, “Joe’s trying to sleep.”

“How is he feeling?” asked Adam

“About the same,” answered Ben, trying not to let the worry he felt creep into his voice. “He asked a few questions.”

“That’s a good sign,” suggested Hoss heartily.

“Maybe,” replied Ben doubtfully. “I don’t think the answers he got helped him any. I wish there was something we could do for him. He seems so lost.”

“Pa, you know what the doctor said,” Adam told his father. “We just have to be patient with him. Joe will come around.”

“I hope so,” Ben said. “I really hope so.”

*****

Joe’s physical condition continued to improve. He could now spend most of the day out of bed and only rarely got a headache. He also lost his fear of the people around him. Joe decided if they were going to harm him, they would have done it by now. Instead of danger, all he felt was kindness and concern from the men who were caring for him. Joe wished he could offer the same feelings back to them. But no matter how hard he tried, Joe couldn’t summon anything except gratitude toward these strangers. He had no memory of them as family, no sense of belonging with them. They were simply some people whom he had met about two weeks ago and who had been kind to him.

Joe was sitting by the window when the doctor came to visit him once again. He greeted the man politely and endured the doctor’s examination with stoic silence. He noted that Ben stood in the doorway watching. Joe thought of him as Ben, not as his father. He didn’t remember having a father.

“You’re doing fine,” Dr. Martin announced as he finished his examination. “I think you can get dressed and go downstairs tomorrow.”

Joe felt a rush of panic. “Downstairs?” he said in a shaky voice. “I don’t know….I mean, do you think I should?”

“Joe, you can’t stay in this room forever,” the doctor advised in kindly voice. “Besides, you never know what might trigger your memory. I think it’s time you started trying to get back into your old routine.”

“I don’t know what my old routine was,” Joe declared, his voice betraying his panic.

“Don’t worry, Joe,” Ben assured his son. “We’ll help you. It will be all right. If you don’t remember something, all you have to do is ask.”

As Joe watched the doctor and Ben leave the room, a feeling of dread descended on him. Tomorrow he would have to leave this room. Tomorrow he would have to try to remember a whole lot of things. He didn’t know if he could do it.

“I don’t understand Joe’s reaction to coming downstairs,” Ben said with concern as he descended the stairs with the doctor. “He seemed frightened by the idea.”

“It’s to be expected, Ben,” answered Dr. Martin. “He feels safe in that room. It’s the only place he knows. Now he is going to have to face a lot of things he doesn’t remember. He knows he should remember them, but he can’t. It’s going to be hard for him.”

“What should we do?” asked Ben.

“Just keep doing what you are doing. Be patient. Don’t push him. Let him try to remember. Like I said, you never know what’s going to trigger his memory,” advised the doctor.

*****

The sun was up by the time Joe woke the next morning. He lay in bed for awhile, delaying what he knew he should be doing. Finally, he sighed. There was no putting off the inevitable. The doctor was right; he couldn’t stay in this room forever.

Climbing out of bed, Joe walked slowly to the dresser against the wall. He pulled open drawers and took some clothes out. Reluctantly, he began to dress, taking as much time as he could. He washed and shaved carefully, dragging out the process. At last, he could think of no more reasons to delay leaving the room. Joe took a deep breath and opened the door.

Outside of his room was a paneled corridor. Joe could see the doors to a number of rooms along the corridor. To his left was the top of a staircase. Joe walked toward the stairs.

Slowly descending the stairs, Joe’s eyes darted around the rooms he could see below him. Actually, there was one big room, divided into three sections. He could see an area with a desk and bookcase, and a living room area with a large fireplace. Just beyond the living room was a dining room. Joe stopped at the landing and looked around. He had no memory of having seen these rooms before.

As he descended the rest of the stairs and walked to the dining table, Joe saw Ben, Adam and Hoss watching him. A plate was set before an empty chair on the left side of the table. Joe hesitated, then walked to the empty seat and sat down.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said heartily.

“Good morning,” answered Joe in a quiet voice. He nodded at Hoss and Adam. Joe’s eyes quickly scanned the room, then lowered to look at the plate.

An awkward silence filled the room. Joe stared at his plate. Ben watched him and tried to think of the right thing to say. Hoss and Adam looked at each other, also at a loss for words. Finally, Adam cleared his throat.

“Joe, would you like some coffee?” asked Adam.

Looking up, Joe nodded slowly. Adam reached for the coffeepot as Joe passed his cup to the man. After Adam filled the cup and handed it back, Joe sipped his coffee. No one said a word.

“Well, um, we didn’t know when you were coming down so we started breakfast without you,” explained Ben with a false cheeriness. “Let me get Hop Sing to make you something hot.” Ben leaned back in his chair and called to the kitchen. “Hop Sing!”

With a frown on his face, Hop Sing shuffled into the dining room. “What you want now?” asked the cook grumpily. The frown turned into a smile, though when he saw Joe sitting at the table. “Ah, good morning, Little Joe,” the cook greeted the youngest Cartwright

“Hop Sing, would you make Joe some breakfast, please,” ordered Ben. “We didn’t save anything for him.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing agreed eagerly. “I make eggs, bacon, everything Little Joe like.” The cook scurried back to the kitchen.

Another awkward silence descended on the room as the four men each sipped their coffee. No one seemed to know what to say. At last, Adam wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up. “We’d better get started,” Adam announced. “We’ve got a lot of work to do today.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss as he got to his feet also. The big man looked at Joe. “We’re going down to the south pasture to look at a new string of horses. Why don’t you come down and join us after you eat?”

Joe looked at Hoss with an expression of misery. “I…I don’t know where the south pasture is,” he admitted.

A pained look crossed Hoss’ face.

“Why don’t you finish your breakfast and just relax for awhile,” Ben suggested quickly. “You don’t want to overdo it on your first day. We’ll be back in a little bit and you can join us then if you feel up to it. Does that sound all right?”

“I guess so,” agreed Joe in a quiet voice.

Nodding encouragingly at Joe, Ben pushed back his chair and stood. Hoss and Adam were already at the front door and he walked toward them. Ben stopped and glanced back at his youngest son. Joe was just sitting at the table, idly turning his coffee cup on the saucer. Ben shook his head in concern; he simply didn’t know what to do.

“Pa, let him be,” Adam advised quietly. “He’ll be all right.”

Sighing, Ben nodded his head. “Let’s get going,” he said. The three men walked out the door.

Joe ate his breakfast slowly, not really hungry but not sure what else to do. He had been at the table for quite a while when Hop Sing began clearing the dishes. “You like?” he asked Joe eagerly. Joe nodded his approval and continued to eat.

When there was nothing left on his plate, Joe stood and looked around. The room was still unfamiliar to him. He walked to the window and looked out. Hop Sing came in to the clear the last of the dishes from the table; he saw Joe staring out the window and shook his head in sympathy. With a shrug, the cook picked up the last of the dishes and went back into the kitchen.

Gazing at the unfamiliar landscape before him, Joe hoped something would trigger a memory. With a sigh, he turned back and scanned the dining room again. So far, everything he saw was new to him.

Walking into the living room, Joe searched the room with his eyes. He crossed over to the gun rack next to the fireplace and slowly ran his hand over the barrel of one of the rifles. The cold steel felt both familiar and alien. Joe turned from the gun rack and walked to the table behind the sofa. A black statue of a rearing horse sat on the table. Joe examined the statue carefully. He didn’t recognize it.

For the next hour, Joe explored the room and its contents. He picked up objects and looked at the pictures on the wall. With each action, he hoped he would feel the stirring of some memory, but he was continually disappointed.

Discouraged, Joe moved over to the part of the room with the desk and bookcase. He stood in front of the bookcase, reading the titles of the volumes. He was sure he must have read some of these books, but he had no idea what they were about. He stared for a long time at the map of the Ponderosa hanging on the wall behind the desk. It meant nothing to him. He could have been staring at the map of some foreign country.

Turning to the desk, Joe saw a picture in a gold frame on the edge; two similar pictures were on the other side of the desk. He picked up the portrait standing by itself. A young woman with light colored hair smiled at him from the picture. He felt he should know the woman, but he didn’t.

Joe was still holding the picture when Ben, Adam, and Hoss came in the front door. “Joe?” Ben called as he removed his hat and looked around. He saw his son standing by the desk. “Joe?” he said again.

With a guilty expression on his face, Joe turned toward the older man. “I’m sorry. I was just looking around.”

“It’s all right,” Ben replied gently. He hesitated. “Did anything look familiar?” he asked hopefully.

Joe shook his head. He showed the picture to Ben. “Who’s this?” he asked.

A tender smile crossed Ben’s face. “That’s your mother. The picture was taken in New Orleans, right after I met her,” he explained. “She’s…no longer with us.”

“My mother,” Joe repeated as he looked at the pictured again. He pursed his lips and turned to Ben, his eyes glistening. “I don’t remember her,” he admitted in a quivering voice.

Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, your mother died right after you were born. You never knew her.”

“Did I…do I talk about her very often?” Joe asked.

“No, not really,” answered Ben. “You grew up without her. I told you as much as I could about her. I can tell you again, if you want.”

Swallowing hard, Joe nodded. He placed the picture back on the desk. “Maybe later,” he mumbled. Joe winced and rubbed his temple.

“Are you all right?” asked Ben with concern.

“Yeah,” said Joe. “I just have a little headache. I think maybe I’ll lay down for awhile.” He glanced at the stairs with an uncertain expression on his face.

“I’ll help you upstairs,” Ben offered, quickly understanding Joe was not sure he could find his way back to his room.

“Thank you,” Joe answered gratefully.

From the living room, Adam and Hoss had watched the exchange between Ben and Joe. They continued watching as Ben put his hand on Joe’s elbow and guided him up the stairs.

“It’s like living with a stranger in the house,” observed Hoss as the pair disappeared at the top of the stairs.

“I know,” agreed Adam. “It’s particularly hard on Pa.”

“How come?” asked Hoss.

“Haven’t you noticed?” Adam asked his brother. “Joe doesn’t call him Pa. In fact, Joe doesn’t call him anything. Joe treats him like someone he just met. I know how that must bother Pa.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Hoss acknowledged with a hint of surprise. “I guess I didn’t realize it. Pa is trying so hard to get through to Joe. I wish there was something we could do to help.”

“Maybe there is,” said Adam.

“What?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t know yet,” Adam answered. “I need to think on it for awhile.”

Only a few minutes passed before Ben came down the stairs slowly. “He’s all right,” he told his sons in response to the question on Adam and Hoss’ faces. “I think he’s just a little overwhelmed by everything.”

“Pa,” declared Adam, “I think we should try and find Joe something to do. Sitting around all day brooding about this can’t be healthy for him.”

“I don’t know,” Ben replied doubtfully. “I don’t want to push him too hard.”

“Look, Hoss is going out to fix the fence on the corral by the barn. Let Joe help him,” Adam suggested. “It’s not going to hurt Joe to bang a few nails.”

“That’s right, Pa,” Hoss added. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t do too much.”

For a moment, Ben looked at Adam and Hoss thoughtfully, then shrugged. “Maybe you’re right. It can’t hurt and it might help.”

About an hour passed before Joe reluctantly came down the stairs again. Ben was sitting at his desk, working on some papers. He looked up and smiled as Joe walked toward him. “How are you feeling?” Ben asked.

“I’m all right,” answered Joe. “I was just a little tired.” He looked around the empty room. “Where’s…Adam and Hoss?” he asked hesitantly.

“Adam went down to finish checking on those horses. Hoss is working on the fence outside. If you feel up to it, he could use a little help,” Ben said. He watched Joe’s face carefully.

“Me?” replied Joe in surprise.

“Well, the doctor said you could do some light work. Hoss could really use the help,” Ben advised.

Joe’s face was clouded with uncertainty.

“He’s right outside the front door,” Ben added in a persuasive voice. “Why don’t you give him a hand?”

Joe continued to hesitate. He had seen so many unfamiliar things already today that he wasn’t sure he was ready for more. He took a deep breath. Well, maybe he could go out for a bit, he decided. It seemed ungrateful to refuse the man who had been so kind to him. “All right. I’ll go help.”

Trying to appear unconcerned, Ben watched Joe walk to the front door and pull it open. As his youngest son left the house, he let out the breath he had been holding. It was a start, he thought.

On the porch in front of the house, Joe stood still. His gaze took in the countryside around the house. Once again, he looked for something that would be familiar to him, and once again, he was disappointed. Everything was new; he was seeing everything for the first time.

Working on the corral fence, Hoss had seen Joe come out of the house but pretended not to notice him. The truth was, Hoss had no idea what to say to his brother. He still felt bad about how miserable Joe looked at breakfast when he mentioned the south pasture. So Hoss just continued to work, and waited to see what Joe would do next.

For several minutes, Joe just looked around. When nothing triggered a memory, Joe sighed. Somehow, he knew nothing would be familiar. Joe turned to watch Hoss, who was busy tearing some old boards off the fence. Several planks of new lumber were stacked neatly to the side, along with a hammer and some nails. Joe took a deep breath and walked over to the big man.

“Could you use some help?” Joe asked in a tentative voice.

“Sure could,” Hoss answered, his voice tinged with relief.

“What would you like me to do?” asked Joe.

“Grab the other end of this board and pull,” ordered Hoss. “We need to get this old wood down and replace it with some new wood.”

For the next half hour, Joe and Hoss worked silently, pulling the old wood off the fence. For Joe, it was a relief to just do what he was told, and not to have to think about things. Hoss, for his part, still felt awkward around Joe. Rather than say something that might upset his brother, Hoss said nothing but what was absolutely necessary to finish their task.

When the old wood was finally down and cleared away, Hoss told Joe to pick up one of the new planks of wood and bring it over. Joe went to get the wood while Hoss reached down into a tin can to grab a handful of nails. He dropped several, and bent over to pick them up.

As Joe was carrying the plank toward Hoss, Ben walked out of the house calling Joe’s name. Joe turned toward Ben, and as he so, he smacked Hoss on the rear with the board, sending the big man sprawling in the dirt.

Instantly, Joe froze. He hadn’t meant to hit Hoss with the board, and he didn’t know how the big man would react to the accident. If Hoss had a temper, he might be really angry. A man that size could beat him to a pulp. Joe’s face betrayed the worry and fear he suddenly felt.

For a moment, Hoss laid in the dirt. Then he sat up and began to roar with laughter. He stopped abruptly when he saw the tragic look on Joe’s face.

“I’m…I’m sorry” said Joe in an apologetic voice. “I didn’t mean it, honest.”

“It’s all right, Joe,” Hoss replied with a grin and started to shake with laughter again.

Ben rushed over. “Hoss, are you all right?” he asked anxiously.

Laughing too hard to speak, Hoss just nodded. “I’m fine,” he asserted when he finally got his breath. “Joe just knocked me down.”

“You should have seen yourselves,” Ben told his middle son with a large grin. “You two were better than a comedy at the theater.”

A worried frown creased Joe’s face as he watched Ben and Hoss smiling; he didn’t understand what the two men found so funny. Joe realized he was still holding the plank, and quickly dropped it.

The thud of the wood on the ground caught Ben and Hoss’ attention. They turned to Joe, the laughter still in their eyes. The laughter died quickly, though, when they realized Joe was not joining in.

“I’m really sorry,” Joe repeated. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine,” Hoss assured his brother. He shook his head at Joe’s reaction. His little brother should have been giggling, not worrying.

Ben also was sobered by Joe’s reaction. This was not the carefree young son he thought he knew.

Turning to Ben, Joe asked politely, “Did you want me for something?”

“I just came out to tell you that Hop Sing has some sandwiches ready,” answered Ben. “Why don’t you leave this for now and get cleaned up.”

Giving a nod, Joe started walking toward the house, then stopped. He turned back to Hoss. “I really am sorry,” he said again.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hoss stated. “We’ll finish this tomorrow.”

“All right,” Joe agreed and walked toward the house.

Getting to his feet, Hoss brushed himself off, then sighed.

“What’s the matter?” asked Ben.

Hoss looked uncomfortable. “I was just thinking,” he admitted.

“About what?” pressed Ben.

“Aw, Pa, it’s going to sound silly,” Hoss told his father.

“Silly?” said Ben curiously. “What’s silly?”

Hoss continued to look uncomfortable. “I miss Little Joe,” he finally blurted out. When he saw Ben’s startled expression, Hoss tried to explain. “I mean, he looks like Joe and he sounds like Joe. But he’s ain’t Joe, not really,” Hoss said, struggling for words. “I told you it was silly.”

“No, it’s not silly,” Ben stated gravely. “I know what you mean.”

“If this had happened a month ago, Joe would have been rolling on the ground cackling with laughter,” Hoss continued. “But he just stood there, like he was afraid I was going to hit him or something.

“Hoss, I know,” Ben agreed. “What’s happened has been hard on all of us. Joe’s not the same.”

“Pa, I’d give anything to have the old Joe back,” Hoss told his father wistfully.

“I know,” Ben agreed again. “We just have to be patient and hope for the best.” He laid his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Go get cleaned up and get something to eat.” Ben waited until Hoss entered the house before he let his body sag with discouragement.

*****

When Adam walked into the Ponderosa ranch house, Ben, Hoss and Joe were already eating dinner. He quickly left his hat and gun by the front door and strolled into the dining room.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Adam as he sat down. He peered at the food on the table. “Did Hoss leave me anything thing?” he asked with a smile.

“Good thing you got here when you did, older brother,” Hoss replied. “I’m feeling right puny. I’m going to need all the nourishment I can get.”

Ben smiled at the banter but noticed Joe didn’t join in; Joe ate his dinner in silence.

“How did the fence mending go?” asked Adam as he filled his plate with food. “I noticed you still had a lot to do when I rode in.”

“It was fine until your brothers decided to start a comedy routine,” explained Ben with a smile.

Adam raised a quizzical eye at Ben’s remark, then laughed as Hoss related how Joe had sent him sprawling. “I hope you smacked him good,” Adam noted with a grin to Joe.

“It was an accident,” Joe mumbled, flushed with embarrassment.

“I know it was, Joe,” Adam said gently. “All the same, I wish I was there to see it.”

Shrugging, Joe said nothing more and continued to eat. Adam looked at Ben, who simply gave a slight shake of his head. “How did those horses look?” asked Ben, trying to fill the silence which suddenly had descended.

“Pretty good,” answered Adam as he ate. “Almost as good as that string we found last spring up at Buckhorn Canyon.”

Ben turned to Joe. “Do you remember that round-up?” he asked hopefully. “You roped that black stallion last spring; Hoss and Adam tried for him, but you were the one who got him. He’s turned out to be a pretty good stud.”

For a minute, Joe looked at Ben and frowned. Finally, he shook his head. “No,” he said with discouragement in his voice. “I don’t remember.”

Once again, an awkward silence ensued. Each of the Cartwrights seemed to suddenly find the dinner on their plate needed their attention. Adam looked thoughtfully at Joe as he ate.

“Pa, that creek up in Horseshoe Meadows is low again,” Adam suddenly announced. “I think I’d better check it. Those beavers we chased last spring might be back and damming it up.” Adam turned Joe. “We had some problems up there last spring,” he explained. “As I said, beavers dammed up the creek. We had to tear down the dam and chase the animals out of there.”

Joe just nodded.

“Joe, why don’t you come with me?” suggested Adam.

“Me?” Joe replied in an incredulous voice.

“Sure, why not?” Adam said. “It’s an easy ride. And if there is a beaver dam, I could probably use some help.”

“Adam, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” offered Ben in a worried voice.

“Pa, we’re just going to take a short ride,” Adam countered. “I’m sure Hoss can finish fixing the corral by himself.” He turned Joe. “Well, do you want to come along?”

Uncertainty flitted across Joe’s face and he bit his lip. “I guess so,” Joe answered in a cautious tone.

“Good,” acknowledged Adam in a hearty voice. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

*****

The sun was barely up as the Cartwrights finished breakfast the next morning. This time, Joe was at the table early. He felt strangely eager to go with Adam to check on that creek. He wasn’t sure why, but it felt good to have something to look forward to.

Finished with his breakfast, Adam got to his feet. “C’mon, Joe, we should get going,” he announced. “I’ve got the horses all saddled and waiting out front.”

Nodding, Joe stood also. He walked to the front door, then hesitated. On the table by the door were four gunbelts, rolled up and ready for someone to pick up. Adam watch silently as his brother looked at the gunbelts, then chose one. Joe slipped the belt around his hips and buckled it tight. It fit him perfectly. He grabbed a light colored had off the hat rack and walked out the door.

Following his brother to the door, Adam stopped to watch Joe in the yard. Ben came up behind him. “Adam…,” Ben began, but Adam motioned to him to silent.

“Wait a minute, Pa,” Adam interrupted his father. “I want to see something.”

Peering out the door, Ben tried to spot what was so interesting to Adam. All he could see was Joe walking over to his pinto, checking the girth and then mounting the animal. He looked expectantly at Adam.

“What did you want to see?” Ben asked with a frown.

Adam just shook his head. “I’ll tell you later,” he replied quietly.

With a confused expression, Ben stared at his oldest son, but Adam just stood watching Joe who was waiting in the yard. Finally, Ben sighed and then put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Adam, you’ll keep a close eye on Joe, won’t you?”

“You know I will,” agreed Adam with a smile. He picked up his own gunbelt from the table and grabbed a black hat from the hat rack. Placing the hat on his head, Adam started walking toward the horses, buckling the holster as he walked. He checked the girth on his saddle, and then mounted.

“Just follow me,” Adam told Joe as he turned his horse and began to ride out of the yard. Joe did the same.

Hoss came up to stand behind Ben. “What was that all about?” he asked Hoss as he watched Adam and Joe ride away.

“I don’t know,” answered Ben without turning. “Adam has something up his sleeve. I just can’t figure out what it is.”

*****

Adam rode slowly up the trail with Joe at his side. Joe kept looking around at the unfamiliar scenery, hoping something might spark a memory. He waited tensely for Adam to ask him if he remembered the area, but Adam seemed content to just ride to the stream. Occasionally, Adam would stop and point out a landmark to Joe, telling him the name of a mountain or meadow. Joe was relieved when Adam simply told him the name of the place and rode on, rather than asking if he remember it. Gradually, Joe began to relax and enjoy the ride.

When they reached the creek, Adam pulled his horse to a stop and stared at the water with a frown.

“What’s wrong?” asked Joe, halting his mount next to Adam.

“That creek is even lower than yesterday,” Adam explained. “Something must be damming it up. Let’s go take a look.”

Giving his horse a nudge, Adam headed to the right and began following the stream. Joe did the same, but he was feeling a bit confused because Adam seemed so disinterested in asking him about what he might remember. The rest of the men at the Ponderosa seemed to ask him that question all the time. Finally, Joe shrugged his shoulders and continued to follow Adam.

*****

Ben spent the day working at his desk. He tried to get the books up to date, but he couldn’t concentrate. He could hear Hoss working in the yard, but knew that the noise of Hoss pounding on the new fence wasn’t what was disturbing him. He was worried about Joe. He kept telling himself that he was being over-protective, that Adam wouldn’t let anything happen to his younger brother. But telling is one thing; believing was another.

When he heard Adam and Joe riding in, Ben let out a sigh of relief. They had been gone a long time; it was getting close to supper. Ben closed his ledger with a bang and walked rapidly to the door. He emerged from the house just in time to see Adam and Joe dismounting near the barn. Both had mud on their boots, and flecks of the wet dirt dotted their pants and shirts. But the amazing thing was the expression on Joe’s face. He was relaxed and smiling, looking the like the old Joe.

“Well, you two were gone a long time,” called Ben with a smile as he approached his sons. “What kept you?”

“The creek was dammed up,” Adam replied. “We’ll tell you all about it at supper. Right now, we have to put these horses away properly and then get cleaned up.” Adam turned to Joe. “I’ll show you which stall to use.”

“All right, thanks,” answered Joe with an easy smile. “My horse deserves a good rub-down after the day he’s put in.”

A bit confused, Ben watched Adam lead his horse into the barn with Joe following. He didn’t quite understand the way Adam was talking to Joe, or Joe’s new attitude. However, he did think that dinner was going to be much more enjoyable than the meals they had sat through the last day or so.

Ben’s prediction about dinner seemed right. When Joe and Adam joined Hoss and Ben at the table, Joe continued to act more like he did before the accident. Ben stared at his youngest son as Joe easily slipped into his place and began reaching for the dishes of food. Ben turned to Adam. “What happened up at Horseshoe Meadows?” he asked.

“Joe, why don’t you tell it?” Adam suggested as he reached for a bowl of potatoes.

Almost eagerly, Joe set the platter of meat he had been holding down on the table. “Well, when we got to the meadow, Adam showed me how low the creek was,” Joe began. “We followed the creek for awhile, then came across a beaver dam. Adam and I spent most of the rest of the time taking the dam apart. It was hard work; those beavers really know how to build! Then we spent some time chasing the beavers away from the water. They’ll probably come back, but it will be awhile before they build another dam.

“Was the dam as big as the one from last spring?” Hoss asked Joe, a touch of astonishment in his voice.

Joe looked at Adam.

“I don’t think so,” Adam answered. “But it was pretty solid. It took Joe and me a couple of hours to get it apart.” Adam ate a bite of dinner. “What about you?” he asked. “Did you get that corral finished?”

“Almost,” Hoss replied as he filled his plate. “It’s slow going, working alone. Joe, do you think you could give me a hand tomorrow? There’s not much left to do but I could use the help.”

“Sure,” agreed Joe, his voice full of enthusiasm. “I’ll be glad to help.”

“Did anything along the way look familiar today?” asked Ben in an encouraging voice. “Did you remember anything?”

Suddenly, Joe’s expression froze; the eagerness seemed on his face disappeared in an instant. He frowned in thought for a minute, then shook his head. “No,” said Joe, his voice changing to a more hesitant tone, “I didn’t see anything I remembered.” He looked down at his plate, and started to concentrate on eating.

Ben stared at his son with astonishment. He couldn’t imagine why Joe’s demeanor had changed. But in a flash, Joe had gone from the old confident Joe to the new Joe who was distant and silent. Ben had no idea what caused the change.

Clearing his throat, Adam looked directly at his father. “Um, Pa, we need to talk about those horses I was working with.”

“What?” replied Ben. He tore his eyes from Joe and looked at Adam, who was staring at him with a purposeful expression. Ben frowned for a moment, then took a deep breath and began talking about horses.

During the rest of the meal, Joe sat in silence as Ben, Adam and Hoss discussed their plans for the horses. Ben kept watching Joe out of the corner of his eye, hoping he would see another change in his son. But Joe continued to look down at his plate as he ate, seemingly ignoring the conversation around him.

As soon as dinner was over, the Cartwrights went into the living room. Ben settled in his favorite leather chair by the fire; Adam chose the chair opposite his father while Hoss sat on the sofa. Joe stood uncertainly in the middle of the room for a moment, then excused himself. “I’m kind of tired,” Joe said as he headed up to his room.

Watching his youngest son climb the stairs, Ben was bewildered by the change that had come over Joe, both before and during dinner. He turned to Adam. “What happened?” Ben asked in a voice betraying his confusion. “I mean, this afternoon when you rode in, Joe seemed like the old Joe. Then at dinner, he switched back. I don’t understand it.”

Leaning forward in his chair, Adam took a deep breath before answering. “Pa, I think we’ve been going about this all wrong. I don’t think we’ve been helping Joe. Remember what the doctor said about not pressuring Joe to remember things. Well, that’s just what we’ve been doing.”

“You’re wrong, Adam,” Ben protested. “I haven’t pressured him at all.”

“But you have,” countered Adam. “Every time you ask Joe if he remembers something, he’s feels you expect him to say yes and he can’t. He thinks something is wrong with him because he can’t remember, and he tries harder. But the harder he tries, the worse it gets for him.”

“What do you mean, Adam?” Hoss asked in a puzzled voice.

“You saw Joe today when we came back. He felt pretty good. I think it’s because I didn’t ask him once if he remember anything,” Adam explained.

“I still don’t understand,” Ben admitted.

“Well, you saw him this morning,” Adam continued. “When we left, I didn’t say anything to him. But he instinctively picked up the right gunbelt. When he went outside, he went right to the pinto – his horse. He checked the girth and mounted, just as he always did.”

“You don’t think he’s faking it?” exclaimed Ben in alarm.

“Of course not,” replied Adam. “What I’m saying is that when Joe doesn’t have to think about something, when no one asks him to remember something, he’s fine. It’s only when he tries to remember and can’t that he gets upset.”

“Adam, I think you may be right,” Ben agreed slowly. “I’ve seen the look on his face when he tries to remember something and can’t. It obviously bothers him.”

“That’s what I meant, Pa,” Adam declared eagerly. “What we have to do is stop asking him to remember things, or expecting him to remember. He just can’t seem to do it right now, and that bothers him, makes him anxious.”

“What should we do?” asked Hoss. “I mean, I agree with you, Adam, but I don’t know what to do. Yesterday when we were working on the fence, I didn’t know what to say to him. I felt kind of bad about not saying anything.”

“We have to treat Joe like we would treat anyone who was new to the Ponderosa,” Adam explained. “Don’t expect him to know anyone or anything. Show him everything, introduce him to everyone. Act like he’s never seen any place or any one before, because he hasn’t. He knows how to do things like ride or fix a fence; he doesn’t have to try and remember those kinds of things. It’s names and faces and places that he can’t recall.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Ben agreed with a sigh. “But it’s going to be hard to do.”

“I know, Pa,” said Adam. “But I think for Joe’s sake, we have to try.”

“But, Adam, he was so much like the old Joe at dinner,” observed Hoss. “When he was talking about tearing down that dam, he was acting and sounding the like he did before the shooting.”

“I know,” Adam agreed. “That’s because he could remember what he did today. That’s what we have to do. We have to give Joe some memories.”

*****

Descending the stairs slowly to breakfast the next morning, Joe was steeling himself for another unpleasant meal. He knew the others were trying to be kind, trying to help him, but he hated it when they asked him about something that he couldn’t remember. He hated the feeling of frustration and despair that seemed to overwhelm him each time someone asked him to remember something.

Sighing to himself, Joe walked over to the table and slid into the empty chair. Ben, Adam and Hoss were already seated at the table, drinking coffee; Hop Sing had just entered the room with platters of ham and egg. Joe nodded a greeting to the cook as Hop Sing set the platters on the table.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said in a cheery voice as he reached for one of the platters. Joe mumbled an acknowledgment and then stared at his plate, hoping to avoid questions from the men around the table.

“Pa, I’ll finish working on those horses today,” Adam announced as he poured himself a cup of coffee. He turned to Joe. “It usually takes about a week or ten days to break that many horses,” he explained.

Looking up, Joe stared at Adam, somewhat surprised that the man took the trouble to explain about the horses.

“We’re going to sell them to the Army,” added Ben. “We have a contract to provide remounts to them on a regular basis.”

His gaze turning to Ben, Joe watched him warily, waiting for Ben to ask him if he remembered that fact. He was relieved when Ben began to eat. For now, at least, the man sitting at the head of the table didn’t seem to be interested in what Joe remembered.

“Will you help me finish that corral, Joe?” asked Hoss.

This time, Joe turned toward the big man. “Yeah, sure,” he agreed tentatively. He waited for Hoss to say something more, to ask him a question. But Hoss simply began to eat, apparently finished with his remarks to him. Joe began to relax. For at least one meal, it seemed, he was not going to have anyone badgering him about what he did or didn’t remember.

As they finished their breakfast, Ben, Adam and Hoss chatted easily about work to be done on the ranch. Each time one of them mentioned a name or place, they explained to Joe what it meant. Joe found himself enjoying the conversation. No one was pressuring him to remember anything, and he was learning some things along the way. He even asked a question or two, and was happy that no one seemed to think it strange to have to answer them.

When the meal was finished, Hoss stood and hitched up his pants. “C’mon, little brother. Time to get to work.”

After wiping his mouth with his napkin, Joe also got to his feet. “All right,” he said, a small smile on his lips. “Let’s get going.”

Adam and Ben continued to sip their coffee as the other two left the table, Ben observing furtively as Joe left the room with Hoss. He was pleased to see Joe walking with a more confident stride.

“That was the best meal we’ve had around here since Joe’s accident,” remarked Ben after Hoss and Joe had left the house. “I think maybe your idea is going to work.”

“Don’t sound so surprised!” Adam stated with a grin. He immediately sobered up. “I hope for Joe’s sake you’re right,” he added.

For the next week, Ben, Adam and Hoss were careful to take the time to explain everything to Joe. They introduced him to the ranch hands, all of whom had been told the situation in advance. Hoss showed Joe how to get to the north pasture where the herd was grazing. Adam guided Joe to the lake, and told him where they kept the fishing poles. Both of them took their brother to the timber camp, and pointed out the trail to the sawmill. Over dinner, Ben asked only about that day’s activities, and was rewarded with an enthusiastic recap from Joe. Each day, Joe seemed more relaxed and confident. Each day, he seemed a bit more like the old Joe.

However, Ben noted that Joe never talked about anything that had happened prior to the accident. Ben forced himself not to ask, even though he was desperate to know if Joe’s memory was returning. He didn’t want to take the chance of shattering the fragile confidence that seemed to be growing in Joe.

*****

Ben was working at his desk when he heard a knock on the door. He frowned, wondering who would be visiting in the middle of the day. He walked to the front door and pulled it opened.

“Roy, hello!” Ben said warmly when he saw Sheriff Coffee standing in the doorway. “Come on in.”

“Hello, Ben,” replied Coffee. He walked into the house and looked around. “You here by yourself?”

“Yes,” Ben answered. “The boys are out looking for strays, and Hop Sing went to Virginia City for supplies. Why?”

“I was hoping to find Joe at home,” explained the sheriff. “I didn’t know he was well enough to go back to work.”

“Joe?” Ben said with a frown. “Why do you want to talk with Joe?”

“I want to ask him about the night he was shot,” replied Coffee. “I’m hoping he will have remembered something by now.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Roy,” Ben advised, his frown deepening. “Joe is still a long way from being himself. I don’t think he remembers anything about that night. He would have said something if he did.”

“It can’t hurt to ask him, can it?” pressed Coffee.

“It might,” Ben replied. “He’s been doing so well since we have stopped asking him to try to remember things. I don’t want to risk some kind of relapse by throwing questions at him again.”

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to take that risk,” said the sheriff firmly. “Ben, there have been two more men killed under circumstances similar to Joe’s. Both won big money in a poker game, and both were ambushed on the way home. I’ve got no clues on who might be behind this. I’ve talked to everyone I can think of and checked every possible alibi. So far, I’ve come up dry. I’m at my wit’s end.”

“You have no idea who might be doing this?” asked Ben with surprise.

“None,” asserted Coffee.

“How about the men in the poker game? Could it be one of them?” Ben suggested to the lawman.

“That’s the first thing I thought of,” answered Coffee. “But there were only two men in all three games. And both of them have alibis. I’ve got to ask Joe about what happened to him. I’m desperate.”

Before Ben could reply, the front door opened and his sons walked in. While Adam and Hoss greeted the sheriff enthusiastically, Joe just looked at him, curiosity showing on his face.

Hurrying over to Joe, Ben put his arm around his youngest son’s shoulders. “Joe, this is Roy Coffee, the sheriff in Virginia City,” he explained quickly.

Joe nodded, a guarded expression coming over his face. “Hello,” he said cautiously.

“Joe, it’s good to see you looking so well,” declared Coffee with a warm smile. “I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Questions?” replied Joe, his voice becoming even more cautious. “About what?”

“About the night you were shot,” the sheriff answered. “Do you remember anything about what happened that night? Do you remember seeing anyone on the road from Virginia City?”

“No,” declared Joe in a flat voice.

“Try to remember,” pleaded Coffee. “Think hard. Any little thing might help.”

“I don’t remember anything,” Joe repeated.

“Can’t you try to remember?” asked Coffee, a bit desperately.

“Roy, Joe has already said he doesn’t remember anything,” Ben said firmly. “You have your answer.”

“Ben, I don’t like pushing him, but I’ve go to,” Coffee insisted. “Two men have been killed.” The sheriff turned to Joe. “Think back. Think about that night.”

“I don’t remember anything,” Joe confirmed again. His voice sounded nervous, and he began shifting his weight from side to side. Ben could tell his son was becoming increasingly agitated.

“Roy, Joe would tell you if he knew anything,” Hoss said as he watched Joe’s growing discomfort.

“Can’t you try?” Coffee asked again.

“I have tried!” Joe burst out, his voice filled with anguish. “Every night. I lay in bed night after night, trying to remember something, anything. I try to picture people I should know, places I must have been. I spend hours trying to pull up just one memory, just one little bit of something that happened more than a few weeks ago. But there’s nothing, nothing but blackness. It’s like I’m lost in some dark cloud and I can’t find my way out.”

“Joe…” Ben started to say in a soothing voice.

Joe turned to him, his face full of pain and distress. “You don’t know what it’s like.” Joe looked around the room. “None of you can understand what it’s like,” he proclaimed bitterly. “You can’t understand what it feels like to pray night after night for some bit of memory and have nothing happen. You don’t know what’s it’s like to feel so lost.” Turning abruptly, Joe pushed past Ben. He practically ran across the room and up the stairs.

Everyone stood in stunned silence after Joe’s departure. No one seemed to know what to say.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” Coffee said finally in an apologetic voice. “I had no idea.”

“None of us did,” replied Ben, still staring at the stairs.

*****

Joe was still in his room when dinner time arrived. He was reluctant to go downstairs to eat. He was embarrassed by his outburst and wished he hadn’t been so vocal about his feelings. He also hated the thought of the pity he would see on the faces of Ben, Adam and Hoss.

Sighing, Joe slowly paced in his room. He couldn’t stay up here forever, he thought, and besides, he was hungry. He decided it was best to just get it over with, to just face men downstairs. Joe opened the door of his room and walked out.

The other three Cartwrights were already seated at the table as Joe came down the staircase. He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, reluctant to join them.

At the table, Ben was explaining the deadlines on a timber contract to Adam and Hoss. He looked up as he noticed Joe standing at the bottom on the stairs. “Joe, dinner is ready,” he said in an off-hand voice and turned back to Adam and Hoss. The other two men seemed to ignore Joe.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Joe walked to the table. As he sat down, he looked into the faces of the men sitting around him. They seemed to find their conversation absorbing, and had no special interest in him. He relaxed and reached for his napkin.

Dinner turned out not to be the ordeal Joe had dreaded. Ben, Adam and Hoss pointedly talked about everything but what had happened earlier in the day. They tried to treat Joe as they had for the last week, explaining things to him as they went along. But Joe could tell they were trying too hard. He could see the strain around Ben’s eyes, and furtive glances from Adam when he thought Joe wasn’t looking. Hoss laughed a little too hard at a not so funny remark Adam had made.

Finally, Joe decided it was better not to have what had happened hover like some ghost around the table. When there was a lull in the conversation, he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about what I said this afternoon,” he declared in a strained voice. “I know you all are doing your best to help, and I appreciate it.”

Ben glanced at Adam, who shrugged his shoulders slightly. Then he turned to Joe. “Joe, we know this has been difficult for you,” Ben told his son sympathetically. “I guess we just didn’t realize how difficult it’s been.”

“I keep trying to remember, I really do,” Joe stated in a discouraged voice. “But I keep running into a blank wall.”

“We know you’re trying,” commented Hoss.

“Maybe you’re trying too hard,” suggested Adam. “Maybe if you just relax, and don’t try to remember, something will come back to you.”

“Maybe,” agreed Joe, but there was growing tone of discouragement in his voice. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Reaching out, Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm. “We’ll get through this, Joe. It’ll be all right. You’ll see.”

Joe nodded but he didn’t believe Ben’s words.

*****

Swinging the ax swiftly, Joe split the log in front of him. He chopped at the log several more times, cutting the wood into kindling, then paused for a minute, mopping the sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve. He looked around as he stood alone in the yard in front of the house. It felt good to be on his own for awhile, even if it was only standing in front of the house.

For the past week, ever since his outburst to the sheriff, one of the Cartwrights seemed to be with him all the time. He knew they were only trying to help, but their constant presence was beginning to be a bit suffocating. He was glad that Adam and Hoss went looking for strays without him, and that Ben had accounts to work on. He had volunteered at breakfast to chop wood for the kitchen fire, and had seen the looks that Ben had exchanged with Adam and Hoss at the table and was sure the men were silently deciding which one would stay to help him. He had to make an ironic comment that chopping wood was a one-man job and he was the one man who could do it before Ben hastily agreed.

Pulling another log from the stack, Joe placed it carefully on the chopping block. As he swung the ax, he thought about Adam’s earlier remark about trying too hard to remember. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder if he knew how to chop wood; he just went out and did it. Maybe Adam was right, he thought. Maybe he was trying too hard.

Joe chopped the log into kindling and was reaching for another when he heard the jingle of harness. He turned to see a buggy pulling into the yard. A gray haired man about fifty, wearing a suit and bowler hat, was driving, and a pretty young girl dressed in blue was sitting beside him in the rig. Her head was bare, and Joe could see the sun glinting off her pale blonde hair.

The buggy had barely stopped when the girl leaped out. She ran across the yard and threw her arms around Joe. “Oh, Joe, it’s so good to see you!” she exclaimed in an excited voice as she hugged him hard.

The man came up behind her. “Sally was so eager to see you that she insisted we rush right over,” the man explained with a smile. “We practically went right from the stage to the Ponderosa.”

The girl pulled back a bit from Joe, her arms still on Joe’s shoulders. She frowned. “Joe, what’s wrong?” she asked. She noted the blank look on Joe’s face, and the stiffness in his body. “Aren’t you happy to see me?”

An uncomfortable look crossed Joe’s face. “I…um…I…” Joe stammered. He started to look around, desperately seeking someone to help him.

The girl dropped her arms to her side and stamped her foot. “Joe Cartwright!” she cried angrily. “Have you been seeing someone else while I’ve been gone?”

A look of pure misery came over Joe’s face. He didn’t know what to say or do. The two people standing in front of Joe evidently knew him. But their faces meant nothing to Joe.

Joe heard the front door of the house open and turned to see Ben hurrying to the front yard. Joe’s body sagged in relief.

“Frank, Sally, it’s good to see you,” Ben called in greeting as he rushed to the pair.

“Well, at least someone is happy to see us,” replied Sally in a sulking tone.

In rapid succession, Joe look at the girl and then the man who was standing next her. He still had no idea who these people were. Joe turned back to Ben, his face showing the wretchedness he felt. Without a word, Joe brushed past his father and ran into the house.

“Well, I never!” exclaimed Sally as she watched Joe disappear through the front door.

When Ben returned to the house a short time later, he went right to Joe’s room, instinctively knowing that his son would be there. He knocked lightly on the door but there was no response. Ben knocked again, then pushed the door open.

Joe was standing by the window, his back to Ben. “They’ve left, haven’t they,” said Joe without turning around. It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yes, they’re gone,” agreed Ben.

“Who were they?” asked Joe, continuing to look out the window.

“Frank Gibson and his daughter, Sally,” explained Ben. “They’ve been in San Francisco for about six weeks. They didn’t know about your accident.”

“The girl seemed mad at me,” continued Joe in a flat voice.

“You were seeing quite a bit of Sally before she left,” Ben told Joe. “Naturally, she expected a warm welcome from you. Once I explained the situation, both she and her father understood. They were sorry about what happened.”

For several minutes, Joe just stared out the window. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ve been thinking,” he said in a quiet voice. “Maybe it would be better if I left here, if I went someplace where no one knows me.”

“Left?” exclaimed Ben in alarm. “Why do you want to do that?”

“If I went someplace else, I wouldn’t have to worry about meeting people I’m suppose to know. People wouldn’t expect me to know them,” explained Joe. “It might be easier for everyone.”

“Joe, you can’t leave,” declared Ben. “This is your home.”

Joe turned to Ben. “Home?” he said in a voice filled with anguish. “Home is a place where you have memories of growing up. Home is place where you know everyone. This isn’t my home.”

Crossing the room, Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, I know how hard this has been for you,” he acknowledged. “But it’s only been a few weeks since you were injured. You need to give it more time.”

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Joe stated. “I don’t know if I’ve got enough guts to stay here.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ben in a puzzled voice.

“You don’t know what it takes to face every day wondering if you’re going to meet someone you should know. I look around, and nothing, no one is familiar to me. Everyone knows me, but to me, they’re a stranger,” Joe told his father. “It’s hard, maybe too hard. I don’t know if I’ve got enough courage to keep doing this.”

“You may not know, but I do,” said Ben firmly. “I know how much courage you have. When you were about 15, we went hunting together. A bear came charging out of the woods, right at you. You stood there as cool as ice, raised your rifle, and dropped that bear with one shot. I remember thinking I never saw such courage.”

“Don’t you see? You remember, but I don’t,” replied Joe bitterly. “I don’t remember if I’m brave. I don’t remember anything about me. That’s why I think it’s better if I went away. I can go someplace where I can build a new life, build a new me. Someplace where it doesn’t matter what happened to me in the past.”

A knot of fear formed in Ben’s stomach. “Joe, you’re just upset. What happened today was unfortunate. But things will get better. I know they will.”

Joe said nothing. He turned back to stare out the window again.

Ben saw the slump of Joe’s shoulders. The air of discouragement around his son was almost palpable. Ben felt the fear growing as he thought of losing his son forever. “Give it some time, Joe,” he pleaded. “Please. Promise me you won’t leave, at least for a little while.”

For a minute, Joe continued to stare out the window; then he slowly nodded his head. “All right,” he agreed in a low voice. “I owe you and the others something for all that you’ve done for me. I won’t leave….yet.”

The words stung Ben. First, because he knew Joe was planning to leave; it was only a question of when. But more importantly, Ben could tell the only feelings Joe had for him and Adam and Hoss was gratitude for looking after him for the last month or so. There was no indication of affection, of trust, or of family ties. Joe didn’t remember his father and brothers; he only remembered the men who had helped him.

Ben didn’t know what to say; he didn’t know what to do. Finally, he walked slowly out of Joe’s room. As he descended the stairs, he suddenly felt old.

“Pa? Are you all right?”

Looking up, Ben was surprised to see Adam and Hoss standing by the fireplace. He hadn’t heard them come in.

“Are you all right?” Hoss repeated in a worried voice.

“What are you boys doing here?” Ben asked in a distracted voice. “I thought you were chasing strays.”

“We ran into Frank Gibson and his daughter on the road,” explained Adam. “They told us what happened. We decided we’d better come back. How’s Joe?”

“He’s talking about leaving,” answered Ben, his voice betraying his dismay. “He thinks it might be better if he went away and started over someplace where no one knows him.”

“Leaving!” Hoss exclaimed in surprise. “He can’t leave. The Ponderosa is his home.”

“That’s what I told him,” replied Ben. “But he said he doesn’t remember having a home.” Ben blinked his eyes; he could feel the tears forming. “If he leaves, he won’t come back. I know it.”

“But why exactly does he want to leave?” asked Adam. “I don’t understand.”

“He says it’s too hard wondering every day if he’s going to meet someone who knows him, but he views as a stranger,” explained Ben.

Turning abruptly, Adam stared into the fire. Ben could see his oldest son was thinking, trying to form a plan. Ben waited hopefully. Adam’s ideas usually worked. Maybe he could come up with one that would keep the family together.

Adam stared into the fire for a few more minutes, his eyebrows knitted in thought. Suddenly, his face cleared, and Adam turned back to Hoss and Ben. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get Joe into town, to let him meet everyone we know,” Adam declared.

“What!” said Hoss in astonishment. “Why would we want to do that?”

“Joe is feeling tense because he doesn’t know when he’s going to meet someone who knows him but he doesn’t recognize,” explained Adam. “So, we’ve got to remove that uncertainty. If he meets everyone, sees everyone who would know him, he won’t have to worry about running into someone unexpectedly. He’d also find out that people know about his amnesia, and don’t expect him to remember them.”

“That makes sense,” Ben agreed. “But how are we going to do that? And, more importantly, how are we going to get Joe to do it?”

“It won’t be easy,” admitted Adam. “But I think I have an idea.”

*****

Joe was surprised to see Adam and Hoss sitting at the table when he came down for lunch. He was still upset over his encounter with the Gibsons but tried not to show his feelings. “You two run out of strays to chase?” he said with a shaky grin as he slid into his chair.

“Not hardly,” replied Adam with a smile. “We just had something more important to do.”

“More important?” asked Joe. “What’s that?”

“We have to select the biggest, fattest steers on the Ponderosa for the church picnic on Sunday,” declared Hoss. “Them steers are going to be the main dish at the picnic.”

“Picnic?” Joe repeated with curiosity.

“Every summer, the church in Virginia City sponsors a community picnic,” explained Ben. “The Ponderosa always provide the beef. We don’t want to disappoint them this year.”

“We’ll take the cattle to town this afternoon,” added Adam. “That way everything will be taken care of before we all go into town on Sunday.”

Suddenly, Joe looked down at his plate. “I don’t think I’ll be going,” he said in a low voice.

“Joe, you don’t want to miss this,” Hoss told his brother with enthusiasm. “There’s games, and music, and lots of fine food.”

“Not to mention lots of pretty girls,” added Adam.

Joe looked up, his face full of misery. “I won’t know anyone there.”

“Joe, everyone there is a friend,” said Ben gently. “They all know what has happened. No one is going be offended if you don’t know them.”

“I don’t know,” Joe replied uncertainly. “So many people….”

“Just go into church with us,” Adam urged. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. But just give it a try.”

“It’ll be fun, you’ll see,” added Hoss.

“Please, as a favor to us,” Ben implored. “Please come with us, just for a little while.”

Joe looked at the eager faces around the table. He felt he owed these men something for taking care of him. Besides, this might show them why he felt he had to leave. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. “I’ll go for a little while.”

*****

Joe rode his horse slowly toward Virginia City. It was a bright Sunday morning, and he ought to have felt good about being out on such a glorious day. Instead, he felt a growing sense of dread. He hated the thought of facing all those strangers in town, and wished he hadn’t agreed to go to church. He had tried to back out of going this morning, but Ben, Adam and Hoss insisted that he come with them. Even now, he was trying to think of an excuse to turn around and head back to the ranch.

Riding next to Adam and Hoss, Ben was on his horse about five feet in front of Joe. He turned in his saddle. “Come on, Joe, step it up,” he urged. “We’re going to be late if we don’t hurry up.”

Joe nodded but kept his horse at a walk. It was fine with him if it look a long time to get to town. In fact, it was fine with him if they NEVER got there. Joe sighed. He had made up his mind that he would do this one last thing for Ben, Adam and Hoss, and then he would leave. He just hadn’t thought this would be so difficult.

As he rode slowly toward town, Joe looked around. This was the first time he had been on the Virginia City road, at least in his mind. The scenery was new to him.

As the riders approached a section of the road with a hill on one side and tall grass and bushes on the other, Joe suddenly pulled his horse to a halt. The three older Cartwrights rode a few yards further, then realized Joe was no longer with them. Ben pulled his horse to a stop, and looked back. Joe was just sitting on his horse, not moving. Ben gestured to his other sons. The three of them turned their horses around, and rode back to Joe.

Approaching his youngest son, Ben could see a frown on Joe’s face, and noticed Joe was sweating, even though the day was cool. “Joe, is something wrong?” he asked with concern.

“I don’t know,” Joe answered, looking around. “There’s something about this place….” Something seemed to be flitting around in the back of Joe’s mind, but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. He frowned and thought hard, but whatever was bothering him was suddenly gone.

“Joe, this is where…” Hoss started but Adam interrupted him.

“What is it about this place?” Adam asked quickly. “What’s bothering you?”

“I don’t know,” Joe said slowly. “It’s just kind of a funny feeling.” He looked around again, then shrugged his shoulders. “I guess it’s nothing.”

Ben and Hoss looked at Adam, wondering if they should tell Joe that this is where they had found him the morning after he was shot. Adam quickly shook his head. Ben chewed his lip, uncertain about what to do. Adam had been right about so many things when it came to dealing with Joe that he wanted to trust his oldest son’s judgment. But he also didn’t feel right about not telling Joe what had happened here.

“Come on, let’s get going. We’re going to be late,” Adam announced, looking pointedly at Ben and Hoss.

Ben and Hoss exchanged glances. With a small nod, Ben turned his horse toward town. “Let’s get moving,” he ordered. Ben decided he would talk with Adam later. Besides, they would have to pass this spot on the way home. Maybe it would be better to tell Joe then.

Most of the congregation was already in the church when the Cartwrights rode their horses through the deserted streets of Virginia City. A few latecomers were rushing toward the wooded building with the tall steeple on the edge of town. Ben again urged his sons to hurry.

A sea of horses and empty wagons seemed to fill the side yard next to the church. The Cartwrights found a tree a few yards from the building and quickly dismounted. They tied their mounts to the tree and removed their gunbelts, looping them over the horns of their saddle. Ben, Adam and Hoss walked briskly toward the church. Joe trailed behind the other three, reluctant to face the people inside.

A man in a black coat stood in the doorway of the church, holding a Bible in his hand and greeting the latecomers. Ben walked quickly up the steps to the door of the church and shook hands with the minister.

“Did you talk with everyone?” Ben asked in voice so low that it was almost a whisper.

“Everyone,” the man answered with a reassuring tone. He turned and greeted Adam and then Hoss. Joe slowly climbed the stairs, the last to enter the church. The minister greeted him warmly.

“Hello, Joseph,” said the reverend, sticking out his hand. “It’s good to see you. I’m Reverend Winters.”

Nodding, Joe shook the man’s hand briefly, then hurried into the church. He saw Ben, Adam and Hoss sliding into an empty pew in the middle of the church and rushed to join them. Joe thought he heard a murmur go through the crowd as he walked up the aisle. He looked straight ahead, not wanting to see the faces around him.

As the minister made his way to the front of the church, Joe paid little attention to him. He stared straight ahead, ignoring everyone in the building. He could almost feel the eyes of the congregation on him. Joe’s only thoughts were about how quickly he could escape from the church.

When the minister began reading from the Bible, Joe didn’t really listen; he was more concerned about how the people around him were staring at him. He paid scant attention as the minister gave his sermon. He was thinking more about what a bad idea it had been for him to agree to come to town.

Joe was surprised when he realized the congregation was standing and had begun singing. He had been so distracted that he didn’t realize the service was almost completed. He was even more surprised when he realized he knew the words to the hymn. He added his voice to those around him, pleased that he could join in.

As the singing ended, the minister walked to the pulpit. “Before we end this morning, I have a few brief announcements,” Reverend Winters said. “First, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you about the picnic after services. I hope all of you will stay and join in the fun. Just remember: this is a CHURCH picnic so I expect you will dispense with the drinking, fighting and swearing for at least one day.” A small laugh erupted in the congregation, and Reverend Winters joined in with a smile.

The minister’s face then turned solemn. “I also want to remind you that one of our flock has suffered a terrible tragedy.”

Ben could see Joe stiffen next to him. The last thing Joe wanted was a public announcement about his troubles.

“Amy Cahill’s house burned down two nights ago,” the minister continued. “Amy escaped injury, but she lost almost everything. So we’re going to have a jar at the picnic for donations. Please be generous. Now, let’s have a final hymn before we all head to the festivities.”

Joe let out a sigh and relaxed.

As the congregation sang the final hymn, Joe started looking furtively at the people around him. No one seemed to be paying much attention to him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He knew when the service ended, he would have to face all those people, those strangers who would expect him to know them. Joe could feel the tension building in him as he thought about dealing with the congregation. He began praying for help to get him through this.

As the service ended and people started filing out of the church, Joe suddenly found the building a fascinating place. He stared at the windows, the roof, and the walls. He looked everywhere except at the faces around him. When everyone else had gone, Ben nudged him gently. Joe turned to Ben with a grim expression on his face and took another deep breath. Finally, he slid out of the pew and walked out of the church.

Small knots of people were standing around talking as Joe descended the steps. Several people looked at him, some with sympathy and some with uncertainty. Joe stopped at the bottom of the stairs, wondering what to do next. He wanted desperately to leave, but he would have to walk through the crowd to get to his horse. He stood still, trying to decide what to do. No one approached Joe; the people around him also seemed uncertain about what to do. Adam and Hoss stood a few feet away, ready to help. But they seemed as unsure as the townspeople about what to do next.

Standing at the top of the stairs next to Reverend Winters, Ben watched the scene below with concern. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” Ben murmured to the minister.

As he continued to gaze into the faces of strangers around him, Joe felt a tug on his pants leg. He looked down to see a small boy of about eight standing next to him. Joe crouched down to talk with him.

“Hello, Joe,” said the boy with a wide grin.

“Hello,” Joe replied, a smile reluctantly breaking out on his face.

“Is it true what my Ma and Pa said?” the boy asked. “I mean, is it true you got hurt and you can’t remember anything?”

“It’s true,” Joe told the boy.

“You can’t remember anything?” the youngster repeated in surprise. “You don’t remember buying me candy at the store? Or bringing me home when I got lost last winter?”

“No,” Joe said, his voice filled with dismay. “I don’t remember.”

The boy put his finger in his mouth and considered Joe for a minute. He seemed to be trying to make up his mind about something. Finally, he nodded. “Well, that’s all right,” he declared. “I don’t care if you don’t remember that you’re my friend. I’ll just remember for both of us.”

Joe couldn’t help smiling. “Thank you,” he said.

“My name’s Billy Pearson,” the boy explained. He turned and pointed to a man and woman standing a few feet away. “That’s my Pa. His name is Harry. He’s the best blacksmith in the whole world. And that’s my Ma. Her name is Elizabeth, but my Pa calls her Lizzy. She makes the best cookies you ever tasted.”

The man and woman walked over to Joe. “Hello, Joe,” the man said, putting out his hand. “It’s good to see you again.”

Joe stood and shook hands with the man. “Harry Pearson?” Joe repeated the name the boy had told him.

“That’s right,” the man acknowledged with a smile. “And this is my wife Lizzy.”

“Hello, Joe,” the woman said graciously.

Joe felt another tug on his pants leg.

“Come with me,” Billy told Joe insistently. “I know lots of people. I’ll tell you who everyone is.”

“Now Billy…” Harry Pearson started to say.

“It’s all right, Pa, really,” interrupted Billy. “Joe’s my friend. I’m just remembering for him.”

Pearson looked inquiringly at Joe as Billy started pulling on Joe’s hand. “Come on!” the boy said again urgently. Joe shrugged his shoulders and let Billy lead him into the crowd.

Ben and Reverend Winters smiled as they watched Joe and Billy walk off. “And a little child shall lead them,” quoted the minister. Ben let out a sigh of relief. Adam and Hoss looked at each other and just grinned.

Billy pulled Joe toward a woman about 40. She wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a sharp, angular face. The youngster stopped in front of the woman. “This is Miss Adams,” he announced. “She teaches school. She’s a pretty good teacher except she gives us too much homework.”

“Billy, if you would concentrate on your work in the classroom, you wouldn’t have so much homework,” Miss Adams snorted. Then she turned to Joe and smiled. “Hello, Joseph,” she greeted him. “I taught you during your last year in school. You disliked the class work as much as Billy does. You’re probably more than happy not to be able to remember our former encounters.”

As Joe gave the teacher a small smile, something seemed to flicker in the back of his mind. But whatever it was, it was gone in an instant.

“Well, I hope to see you at the picnic,” Miss Adams added briskly. She gave Joe a brief nod and then moved to talk to a couple standing a few feet away.

“Come on,” Billy said urgently as he pulled at Joe’s hand again. He led Joe to a small crowd of people and once more began making introductions.

Ben, Adam and Hoss had silently watched as Billy pulled Joe through the crowd. They tried to hover discreetly in the background, ready to step in if Joe needed them. It soon became obvious, however, that the boy had Joe well in hand. “I think we can go over to the picnic grove,” stated Adam with a smile. “Young Billy seems to have the situation under control.”

Ben hesitated. “Maybe we should tag along, just in case,” he suggested.

“Pa, we can’t be with Joe every minute of his life,” said Adam firmly. “This is as good a time as any for him to learn to manage on his own.”

“I suppose,” agreed Ben reluctantly. He still hesitated, though, and watched as Joe shook hands and spoke briefly to Frank Gibson. He turned back to Adam. “By the way, Adam,” he asked. “Why didn’t you want us to say anything to Joe on the trail?”

“On the trail, for the first time, it seemed as if Joe was remembering something on his own,” explained Adam. “I think we should wait and see if something comes to him. If we tell him what happened, we’ll never know if he remembered it or not.”

“You could be right, Adam,” Ben acknowledged slowly. “He did seem to think that spot on the trail was familiar. Do you think we should ask him about it on the way home?”

“No,” said Adam emphatically. “If we ask him, he’s liable to try too hard. Let him tell us.”

“Well, you’ve been right about everything so far, Adam,” Ben agreed. “We’ll trust your judgment.”

“You know how he gets when he tries to remember something,” Adam told his father. “Let’s not upset him, not today.” He watched as Joe and Billy moved toward another knot of people. “Although, it looks like he’s handling this well,” Adam added.

“That little Billy sure is something,” Hoss said with a grin. “Reminds me a lot of Joe when Joe was that age.” He turned suddenly somber. “Pa, do you think Joe will change his mind about leaving?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. “I hope so.”

Two hours later, the crowd was spread throughout the grassy area next to the church, enjoying the picnic. While Hoss and Adam were pitching horseshoes, Ben had discreetly followed Joe, and watched in satisfaction as Joe ate a plate of food that Sally Gibson handed him. Billy had wrinkled his nose in disgust as Joe indicated he wanted to talk a bit longer with Sally. Grinning a bit, Ben went to get a plate of food for himself.

A short time later, Ben noticed Joe sitting under a tree alone, seemingly just watching the people around him. He walked over and sat down next to Joe. “Where’s your shadow?” he asked with a smile.

“You mean Billy?” replied Joe. “He left me when I started talking with Sally. Said he didn’t like girls.”

Ben laughed. Then he looked into Joe’s face. “You seem to be enjoying yourself.”

“It’s funny,” Joe said, wrinkling his forehead a bit. “I don’t really know any of these people. I mean, I don’t know the names and faces, but somehow, they seem familiar.”

“Familiar?” Ben repeated, feeling a surge of hope.

“It’s hard to explain,” Joe told Ben. “I just feel like these aren’t really strangers. I don’t know them, but for some reason, I feel comfortable being around them. ” Joe shook his head. “Like I said, it’s hard to explain.”

Once more Joe turned his attention to the crowd. Suddenly, he pointed to two men standing a short distance away. One was a tall cowboy; the other was dressed in a suit. “Who are they?” Joe asked.

Ben peered at the men. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve never seen them before. Why? Do you know them?”

Joe watched the men for a minute. “No, I guess not,” he replied. “There’s just something about them…like I should know them.”

The two men that Joe had pointed out were also watching him. They saw him point at them and turn to say something to Ben. The cowboy shifted nervously. “Do you think he recognizes us?” he asked in a low voice.

The man in the suit shook his head. “I don’t think so. He didn’t seem to recognize anyone else.”

“But what if he does?” insisted the cowboy. “If he tells the sheriff that we’re the ones who bushwhacked him, the sheriff will figure out we killed those other fellows. After all, I was the one who alibied you after those games.”

“You’re getting all heated up over nothing,” declared the other man.

“I don’t like taking chances,” stated the cowboy in a sulky voice. “Not when I could get hanged.”

“Well, you’re right there,” admitted the other man.

“We should have left by now,” the cowboy continued. “I don’t like it that we’re still here. We should leave right away. Today.”

“With so much money to be made in this town?” the man said in surprise. “Those miners and cowboys can’t wait to start playing poker on payday, and most of them are very bad at the game. I’ve hardly had to cheat at all to take their money.”

“But we had to…” the cowboy hesitated and looked around. “ We had to do something else when you lost money.”

“I don’t cheat when a player at the table looks to be fast with a gun,” remarked the man in the suit. “You can have a real short life trying to do that. It’s your job to find other ways to take their money.”

“Well, I don’t like taking on fast guns either,” the wrangler declared with a frown. “It’s easier if I just take the money from a body.” The cowboy looked around cautiously. “It’s a dangerous way to make money, though.”

“We make money, that’s all that counts,” stated the man firmly.

“You know what?” said the cowboy thoughtfully. “I think Cartwright should have another ‘accident’ on the way home. This time we’ll make sure he’s dead.”

The man shifted uncomfortably. “There’s four of them,” he replied. “I don’t like those odds.”

“If we hide up in those rocks, we can pick ‘em off before they know what happened,” countered the cowboy.

The man thought for a moment and then nodded. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “Let’s go. I want to be waiting for them.”

Relaxing under the tree, Ben and Joe sat together comfortably. Ben pointed out people and told Joe stories about them. When Joe asked a few questions, Ben felt hope growing in him. Joe didn’t seem upset at all. In fact, he seemed to find the talk interesting.

Suddenly, Joe sighed and sat back against the tree.

“Are you all right?” Ben asked with concern.

“Yeah,” answered Joe. “I’m just feeling a little tired.”

“It’s been a long day for you,” said Ben. “Why don’t we head for home?”

“I don’t want to take you and Adam and Hoss away early,” protested Joe. “Especially since there’s still a lot of food left. Hoss would never forgive me. “

“Adam and Hoss don’t have to leave,” advised Ben. “I’ll just tell them that you and I are going, and they can come home whenever they’re ready.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” asked Joe.

“I don’t mind,” replied Ben, wanting the chance to spend some time alone with Joe. He hoped this would help Joe feel more comfortable with him, and make it more difficult for Joe to think about leaving. “I don’t mind at all.”

A short time later, Ben and Joe were riding on the trail from Virginia City to the Ponderosa. Adam and Hoss had wanted to leave with them, but Ben persuaded them to stay. He felt both of them could use a little fun after the strain of the past few weeks. Besides, he told them, it didn’t take three of them to guide Joe home.

As Ben and Joe neared the spot where Joe had been found, Ben noticed son was slowing his horse. He also noticed a frown on Joe’s face.

Abruptly, Joe pulled his horse to a stop. He looked around, the frown on his face deepening. His breathing became a bit more rapid.

“Joe, what’s wrong?” Ben asked in alarm.

Joe didn’t seem to hear the question; he continued to look around. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He looked up again, and began blinking his eyes rapidly. Joe swiveled his head around, stopping when he came to the hill. He began studying the rocks above them. Suddenly, he saw a glint of sunlight bouncing off a rifle barrel.

“Pa! Watch out!” Joe shouted and pushed Ben off his horse. A second later, a shot rang out, and a bullet whizzed into the ground in front of the horses.

As Joe dove to the ground, another shot rang out, causing both horses to run down the road. Joe crouched and ran over to Ben who was sprawled in the dirt.

“Pa? Are you all right?” Joe asked anxiously.

Ben lifted his head. “I’m all right,” he answered. “Let’s get under cover.”

A third shot rang out as Ben and Joe ran to some rocks nestled against the bottom of the hill. They knelt behind the large granite pieces and pulled their guns from their holsters. Both men looked at the boulders above them.

“Did you see where the shot came from?” asked Ben.

“From behind those two big rocks about halfway up the hill,” Joe answered. He looked around. “You keep them busy. I’ll try to flank them.”

“Joe, no…” Ben cried, but before he could stop him, Joe was gone.

Shooting at the rocks above him, Ben didn’t really caring if he hit anything; he just wanted to keep whoever was up distracted. He could see Joe dashing between rocks and bushes, working his way slowly up the hill. Ben fired three times in rapid succession, hoping that the shooters above were concentrating on him, and wouldn’t notice his son.

Two shots hit the rocks in front of Ben, and he crouched low for a minute. He raised his head slowly, but couldn’t spot Joe. Ben ducked as another bullet zinged off the rock to his right.

Up on the hill, Joe had moved up to right angle from the rocks behind which Ben was hiding. About halfway to the top, he spotted two men crouched behind the big boulders about ten yards away. Both men seemed to be focused on the bottom of the hill. One fired a rifle while the other seemed to be searching for a target.

Walking as quietly as possible, Joe approached the men with his gun drawn. He got within a yard or so of the shooters when his boots scraped some loose rocks. A shower of pebbles descended on the men below him.

One of the men, a tall cowboy, turned to look behind him. As the cowboy swung his rifle around, Joe fired, hitting the man in the shoulder. The cowboy let out a yell and dropped his rifle.

Moving quickly, Joe scrambled toward the other man who was dressed in a suit. “Drop it!” he shouted. The man was holding his rifle at an awkward angle, and he saw Joe’s gun pointed directly at him. The man dropped the rifle.

“I got ‘em, Pa!” Joe called, never taking his eyes off the men who stared back at him with sullen expressions. Joe pulled the rifles away from them, then stepped back. He watched them carefully, and kept his gun pointed toward them.

A few minutes later, Joe heard footsteps to his left. He glanced quickly in that direction, and saw Ben climbing up the hill. “Are you all right, Pa?” he asked anxiously.

“I’m fine. I wonder who was shooting at us?” asked Ben, puffing slightly as he reached Joe.

“The one in the suit is named Benson,” explained Joe. “He plays poker. I don’t know the other one.”

Astonished, Ben stared at his son. “Joe?” he said hesitantly. Suddenly, it occurred to Ben that Joe had called him Pa. For the first time in weeks, Joe had called him Pa. “Joe?” he repeated.

A crooked grin appeared on Joe’s face. “Yeah, I remember,” he declared.

“Everything?” asked Ben.

“Well, almost everything,” Joe stated. “I remember leaving Virginia City after I won all that money in the poker game. Benson was in that game. And I remember getting this far on the trail home. The next thing I remember after that is waking up in my room.”

“Are these the men who bushwhacked you?” asked Ben.

“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “I think we ought to take them to Roy Coffee, and let Roy sort it out. But I’ll bet you that if Roy searches their things, he’ll find a wallet that belongs to me. Even if he doesn’t, they’ll still be charged with attempted murder for taking those shots at us.”

Ben shook his head in amazement. “Joe, I can’t believe it,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “I’ve been hoping and praying….” Ben swallowed and then cleared his throat. “You keep an eye on them,” he ordered briskly. “I’ll go find the horses.”

Two hours later, Ben and Joe were walking out of the sheriff’s office. They had delivered their prisoners to Roy Coffee and given him a complete statement of what had happened. Joe also told Coffee everything he could remember about the night he was shot. His tone was matter-of-fact, and he even joked about the run of luck he had at cards that night. The sheriff had a difficult time writing down Joe’s statement; he kept staring at the young man, dumbfounded at the change since his visit to the Ponderosa. The old Joe was back, and Roy Coffee couldn’t have been happier about it.

The sheriff promised to search the two men’s things to look for evidence that they were the ones responsible for shooting Joe and murdering the other two men. He also declared that even if he couldn’t find anything, the two men would spend a long time in prison for their attempt to kill Ben and Joe earlier in the day.

As Joe and Ben emerged from the sheriff’s office, Adam and Hoss were waiting for them. Hoss looked at Joe with a quizzical expression while Adam stared hard at his younger brother. When Ben had sent for them, he told the messenger to tell Adam and Hoss that Joe was himself again. Both men hoped that meant that Joe’s memory had returned, but were afraid to believe it.

“What are you two looking at?” asked Joe, trying to keep the grin off his face. “I haven’t seen such long faces since I roped that stallion you two missed last spring.”

Letting out a whoop, Hoss rushed up to Joe. He hugged his brother and then pounded him on the back. “Joe, you little devil,” he declared with a huge smile on his face. “You ever do anything like this again to us, I’m going to tan your hide.”

More reserved but with a smile no less wide than Hoss’, Adam walked up to Joe and put his hand on his youngest brother’s shoulder. “Welcome back, little brother.”

Ben threw his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “We’ve missed you, Joe.”

“I know I haven’t been exactly easy to live with the last few weeks,” stated Joe soberly. “I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Joe,” Ben assured his son.

“It was like I was in the dark for those few weeks,” Joe explained. “I wanted to remember things, but I just couldn’t. Things started to seem a bit familiar at the picnic, but it was just a feeling, like something nagging at the edge of my brain…something I could almost get my hands on but couldn’t quite reach. Then suddenly, on the trail, everything came rushing back. It was like a dark cloud opened up and the sun came rushing in. I don’t know what caused it, but I’m sure glad it happened.”

“Joe, you don’t have to try to explain it to us,” Ben told his son. “We’re just happy to have the old Joe back with us.”

“Well, we’re happy for now,” kidded Hoss. “We may change our minds about that.”

“Yeah, the next time you try to trick us into doing your chores for you, we may have second thoughts about you being yourself again,” added Adam with a wry grin.

“One thing I found out, though,” said Joe in a solemn voice. “No matter what happens, I know I’ll never truly be lost and alone. I know one of you will always be there to help me find my way. That’s nice to know.”

Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulders. “Son, let’s go home.”

Joe grinned. “I’ll lead the way,” he said happily.

***End***

 

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