Word Count: 9767
The young boy stood under the down flow of the waterfall he had stumbled across earlier in the day and allowed the cold water to wash the dirt from the remnants of clothing he still wore. The water was refreshing, cooling his aching body and the boy breathed deeply, filling his lungs to capacity.
The large man watched from his hiding place at the edge of the woods where he had a full view of the young boy standing under the water that fell from the rocky ledge above. He wanted nothing more than to run to the lad and throw his arms around the boy but instead held himself in check. Something about the way the boy moved and acted caused the larger man to stop. Watching quietly, the boy disappeared, seemingly behind the waterfall and from the big man’s view, only to return a short time later, totally nude. As the man in hiding watched, the boy stood again under the water as if a statue and allowed the water to cascade from the top of his curly brown head making its way to the boy’s bare feet. The boy looked to the older man like an Adonis, the features finely carved, broad at the shoulders, slim at the waist, the young muscular body golden in the sunlight as the water ran the length of him. A less observant man might have missed the boy’s expression on the handsome face, for the face was that of a frightened and perhaps desperate being.
The boy began washing his body with his hands, moving slowly as if in pain. His face was badly bruised and his head ached. The cold water offered a small amount of relief and so he lingered longer than was really necessary enjoying the coolness and allowing his tensed body to relax. It had been days since he had been allowed this luxury and it gave the boy a measure of peace.
As the large man watched from his hiding place, he wondered at the bruises on the boy’s body. The face looked as if it had been slapped several times, or punched might have been a better word. The boy sported two black eyes, his lip had been badly split open and it was obvious that the nose had been broken. Traveling down the boy’s body with his eyes, the large man noted the bruised arms and the way that the boy carefully moved while washing himself. The boy’s stomach area was a mass of black, blue, yellow and red patches, indicating more abuse. When the young man turned where his backside was facing the man in hiding, Hoss could see the large red welts that where also turning black and blue indicating more bruising. They ran from the boy’s shoulders, moving down the back and down across the buttocks and down the length of the legs. Anger flared in the man as he realized that the boy had under gone a severe lashing with some sort of strap. How could anyone have inflected such pain and suffering upon another human being? Especially this one, for the young boy whom Hoss was watching was his younger brother, Joseph Cartwright, who had been missing from home for more than two weeks.
As Hoss watched, the boy turned again into the waterfall and disappeared for a second time. Hoss knew he had to make his move, before Joe disappeared from sight and perhaps the area. He was determined not to let that happen as he and his family had spent days searching for some clue as to the younger Cartwright’s whereabouts. He carefully and quietly made his way to the edge of the water and moving as he had been taught by his Paiute friends, slipped behind the waterfall unbeknown to his younger brother. Joe had his back toward Hoss and stood drying his body with his hands. Hoss’ sudden intake of breath startled the badly beaten boy and he spun around so rapidly that the action left him swaying on his feet. Hoss had seen the bruises from the distance but had not realized to what extent they covered the body of his brother. Shock and anger had been his first reaction and his sudden intake of breath had caught the boy unaware.
Hoss reached out his hand to steady the wobbly boy but the movement frightened the youth and he suddenly fell to his knees crying. Hoss was immediately by his brother’s side but refrained from touching the boy.
“Joe?” Hoss said, “Are you okay Punkin?”
Joe refused to meet the blue eyes of his brother and lying on the ground, he drew his body into the fetal position and whined like a wounded animal. Hoss felt the sting of tears in his eyes as he watched his brother cower on the ground and for a moment was at a loss as what to do. He had never before seen his little brother acting as he was now and it broke the heart of the big man who was witness to the scene before him.
“Sh…baby, it’s okay, you’re gonna be all right now,” Hoss said as he removed his coat and laid it across Little Joe’s shivering and nude body. Hoss was not sure if the shivering was caused from the cold water or from the fact that Little Joe appeared to be scared mindless.
Hoss still half-afraid to touch the boy, sat down on the ground beside of the weeping lad and in a soft voice began talking to Little Joe, trying to calm him down.
“Little Joe, it’s me…your brother…Hoss. Joe…look at me…please Punkin. You’re gonna be okay. I’ll take you home…soon,” Hoss said gently. “Pa and Adam…well we’ve been huntin’ for ya for days now.” “Joe? Joe, you wanna go home boy?”
Joe sat with his face hidden, afraid to look at the big man who sat so close to him. “Please, don’t hurt me anymore!” cried the scared boy. “Please, I can’t take it anymore, don’t hurt me! Kill me if you have to, just hurry and get it over with. Just let me die!”
Hoss felt the tears running unchecked down his cheeks and swiped at them with the sleeve of his shirt. Who could have done this to his brother, why would they do it? Not more than two weeks ago his brother had been a happy go lucky teenager, excited about his upcoming hunting trip with his brothers and his father. Hoss remembered how thrilled the boy had been when their father had announced that the four of them would have a camping holiday. Little Joe’s joy had overflowed when Pa had agreed that they could do some hunting and fishing and Pa had agreed that the 16 year old Joe was responsible enough to carry his own rifle. Those had been such happy days for the family, until the day that Joe seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. And now Hoss could barely believe his eyes at the change in his brother who had been reduced to a whimpering shadow of his former self.
As Hoss watched the movements of the boy beside him, he caught a glimpse of the frightened face. Watching the green eyes that quickly darted about the chamber, Hoss knew that the boy was seeking an escape route and before he realized what was happening, Joe jumped from his spot on the ground and tried to run from the cave like area behind the waterfall. Hoss was in pursuit and before Joe knew what had taken place, Hoss had somehow managed to grab the boy’s ankle, knocking the startled boy to the ground. There Hoss pinned him so that he could not get away.
“Joe, settle down boy, I ain’t a gonna hurt you none,” Hoss said as the boy fought beneath him.
Hoss was surprised at the strength that his little brother fought with. He had supposed that in the boy’s weakened condition, he would not have possessed that kind of strength. But Joe was scared and frightened and he was fighting as if he were a trapped animal fighting for his life. He twisted and turned begging to be let loose; pulling and tugging at his arms as Hoss held them above the boy’s head. When that failed, he spat repeatedly in the larger boy’s face. Hoss, who was straddling the wiggling body, clamped both of the smaller boy’s wrists in one of his large hands and while holding the boy down, wiped the spit from his face and eyes.
“Let me go, let me go,” screamed Joe, who was no match for his larger brother. “Please, just let me go,” begged Joe, the tears running down the side of his face and falling into the dirt on each side of his head.
Joe jerked his head from side to side trying in vain to raise his battered body in efforts to knock the larger body from his own. Hoss cried along with Joe, he hated restraining the boy but was afraid if he let him up, the boy would flee in terror. Hoss had realized that Joe had been so dramatized by what had happened to him that he had not recognized his own brother. After several minutes the battle subsided and Joe’s weary and battered body gave over to the exhaustion and with that he succumbed to the darkness that over took him.
Hoss quickly released his hold on the unconscious boy and gathered him tenderly into his arms where he held him tightly to his chest while he rocked back and forth and permitted his tears to fall upon the bare chest of his young brother. When Hoss’ own tears were spent, he gently moved Joe deeper into the cave like area where he was away from the spray of the waterfall. Taking his coat, he placed it on top of the boy who had returned to the fetal position, hoping to bring warmth into the battered body. While Joe lay unconscious, Hoss returned to where he had hidden in the bushes and collected Chubb, his horse, along with his packhorse and brought the horses into the cave. Tethering his horses to the far side of the opening, Hoss took what few medical supplies he had brought with him and returned to where Little Joe lay.
After checking to see that Joe was still unconscious, Hoss went back into the late afternoon sun and gathered dry wood to make a fire. Once having completed that task, and having the fire blazing so as to knock out the chill, Hoss returned to the side of his brother. He then took a clean handkerchief from his saddlebag and the bar of homemade lye soap he carried with him and began cleaning the wounds that dotted the body that lay as if it were dead. While in the process of cleaning Joe’s injuries, Hoss felt along the length of the bruised body for any broken bones or cracked ribs. Whoever had beaten the boy, had managed to pick and chose the area of the body to cause sufficient pain yet keep the bones intact except for the broken nose. Several times Hoss stopped to make sure that Little Joe was still breathing and was relieved to see that he was. When Hoss finished tending Joe’s multiple wounds he carefully laid him on his bedroll and wrapped him in a blanket for added warmth.
While Joe was out, Hoss slipped from the camp and went in search of food. He was able to snare a rabbit and brought it back to cook over the open fire. He was not sure how long his brother had gone without eating and wanted to be sure that he had plenty. As the rabbit was cooking Hoss removed the can of peaches and biscuits that Hop Sing had packed in each of the individual saddlebags. Opening the can of peaches with his knife, Hoss ate what he considered half then helped himself to a couple of the biscuits, saving the rabbit and the remaining peaches and biscuits for Little Joe.
From his corner of the cave chamber, Little Joe began to stir and when Hoss heard the soft whimpering sounds, he immediately went to his brother’s side. Kneeling down he checked his brother for fever, finding none, Hoss let out a sigh of relief. Joe turned slightly from where he had been lying on his side and looked with startled eyes into the blue, tear filled eyes of his brother, but his own eyes were blank, not fully seeing the man who knelt at his side. Instinct told Joe to run or at least fight but his body ached from head to toe, his muscles were tight and Joe could not put forth the effort. He was bone weary and had already decided that if this big man were going to kill him, then he would welcome the relief from his pain and torment. Yet something about this man seemed familiar to the injured boy and Joe sensed a gentleness that appeared to radiant from this giant of a man.
“Here Joe, ya hungry?” asked Hoss as he offered one of Hop Sings biscuits to Joe who had scooted up against the wall of the cave. Joe watched as Hoss extended the offering toward him but drew back in fright, fearing that the man was about to strike him he covered his head with his arms and hands trying to protect himself.
“Hey buddy, I ain’t gonna hurt ya,” Hoss tried to calm Little Joe, tears coming again into his blue eyes. “Ya want somethin’ to eat?” he asked and offered the biscuit again.
Joe peeked out from under his arms and grabbed for the biscuit and began stuffing it into his mouth. He had been without food for three days and longer than that since he had anything solid enough in his stomach to squelch the gnawing pains that tore at his insides. His sense of survival and the need for nourishment forced him to except the offered food. Hoss was encouraged when he saw Joe eating and reached for the rabbit and offered that to him.
Joe briefly made eye contact with the big man but said nothing as he grabbed for the rabbit and began pulling it into small pieces and stuffing it into his mouth making his cheeks become full and rounded resembling a chipmunk. Hoss gave his brother a reassuring smile and turned to pour water into his tin cup returning to set it on the ground in front of the boy as he devoured the cooked rabbit. Taking a couple steps back so as not to make Joe feel threatened in any way, Hoss sat down to watch as his brother finished his meal.
“You sure were hungry, weren’t ya little one?” Hoss spoke softly and continued to smile as Joe ate. Hoss was hoping to gain the boy’s confidence and trust. It was clear that Joe seemed lost in a world of his own, probably finding shelter there from the torture he had suffered.
When Little Joe had finished eating, he lay back on the ground and pulled the blankets that Hoss had supplied earlier up around his body covering all but his head. He was tired and wanted to sleep again but fear of this man kept him from doing so. Every move that Hoss made, Joe’s worried eyes followed, but he spoke not a word. Hoss, who was aware that he was being watched, moved slowly, not wanting to give the boy any reason to want to flee.
Joe sat in silence, never moving and before long the warmth of the cave chamber began to take its toll on the tired boy. Having his hunger satisfied, and his wounds tended gave his body a reason to relax and before long Joe was sleeping soundly. Hoss curled up on the ground close to the sleeping form of his brother thinking that should the boy awake and be frightened, he would be close by. Only the fear that Little Joe might wake and flee the cave kept Hoss from having a restful night.
Long into the night the sounds of crying brought Hoss out of slumber. He rose from his bedroll and quietly turned toward his brother who was making the pitiful sounds. Seeing that Joe was still asleep but dreaming, Hoss could not help but gather his young brother into his arms, for the sound of his weeping was more than the gentle giant’s soft heart could bare. He carefully reached under Joe’s head and legs, pulled the boy onto his lap and grabbing the blankets that had fallen away from Joe’s body, Hoss covered the sleeping boy. As Hoss rocked he talked softly to Little Joe, telling him about the fear that he and his father and brother, Adam, had felt when Joe had failed to come home that night two weeks earlier. Hoss explained to him how they had searched and searched but had found no trace of his whereabouts until at last both father and brothers decided to split up and go in different directions. This way they hoped to cover more ground and have a better chance to find something, anything that might lead to his discovery.
Hoss told Joe that it was only by accident or an act of God that he had happened upon him while he stood under the waterfall. Hoss smiled to himself as he explained that when he had had to stop and make a trip into the bushes to relieve himself, the evidence was there showing that someone else had used the spot recently. That had been the reason for Hoss to start looking around and within minutes had stumbled upon the site of his brother’s hideout.
The whole time that Hoss rocked and talked to Joe, the boy slept fitfully in the massive arms cradled next to the heart which beat with love for the youngest of the Cartwright brothers. Soon the crying stopped and Hoss considered lying Joe down where he had fallen asleep earlier but decided that he felt more secure himself holding the boy in his arms. At least this way, if Joe tried to make a run for it, he would certainly be aware of it. Leaning down, Hoss kissed the head of the sleeping boy, telling him of the love that he had for him and then closed his eyes and slept.
Sometime before daylight, Joe woke, unsure of his whereabouts. He laid still, not moving, trying to figure out where he was and why he was being held like a baby. Then he remembered the big man and turned slightly so that he might see where the man had gone and it was then that he realized that he had been sleeping in the big man’s arms. Joe wondered when and why he had come to be there and fear began to grow in his heart. His movements woke Hoss and when Hoss opened his eyes he saw Joe staring up at him and could read the look of fear on his brother’s thin face.
“Mornin Joe,” Hoss said as he slowly set Joe into an up right position and carefully moved away.
Joe sat where Hoss placed him and taking the blankets pulled them up around his body, never taking his eyes from the man before him. Joe shivered, he was cold and wanted to move closer to the fire that had almost gone out but held back, not sure of his brother. Hoss, seeing that Joe was shivering from the cold, began building the fire in hopes of bringing warmth again into the chamber.
“I’ll have this ole fire going in no time Joe, how about some coffee?” Hoss said as he added more wood to the flame and readied the coffeepot to put on the fire.
Joe only watched as Hoss moved around making things ready for their breakfast, trying in his mind to figure out just what it was about this man that gave him a measure of security. Joe knew that if this large man had wanted to hurt or even kill him, he could have easily done so when the man had come upon him yesterday while he stood unaware behind the waterfall. Joe had been vaguely aware of the man cradling him in his arms during the night and recalled the soothing sound of his voice as he talked to Joe of things that Joe had no recollection of. Something about seeing the man’s tears as he talked spoke to Joe’s heart and he had found himself relaxing and a feeling of peace and security had come over him, allowing him to at last sleep peacefully, unafraid for the first time in days. Still cautious, Joe was beginning to feel as if he could somehow trust this man who had shown him nothing but kindness since their first encounter.
When Hoss had the coffee and their meager breakfast ready he set Joe’s plate on the ground in front of him and moved away. As Hoss prepared his own plate, he watched Little Joe out of the corner of his eye and when he saw that Joe had taken up his plate, Hoss came and sat again in front of his brother and began eating. This time, Joe ate more slowly occasionally turning his hazel eyes up to watch what Hoss was doing.
“Joe, I need to talk to you about a couple of things,” began Hoss as he ate his breakfast.
Joe turned his eyes to face his brother and stopped his hand mid-way to his mouth, waiting for Hoss to continue, not sure what was going to happen. Fear began to gnaw at his insides, for he was still scared, scared to be left alone again and scared because he was unsure what this man expected of him.
Hoss set his coffee on the ground in front of him and watched the emotions filter across the face of the boy who was watching him, the eyes clouding with what Hoss knew as fear. He had seen fear in these same green eyes many times in the young boy’s life; times when he had awaken from nightmares, only to find that he was alone and in the dark, crying out for a mother who was no longer. He had seen fear the first time that the boy had ridden on a runaway pony and he had seen fear when he had, had to encounter their father’s wrath and ended up across the lap of that father. Now he was seeing that same fear tenfold.
Being careful not to spook the boy Hoss calmly asked, “Joe, do know who I am?” Hoss waited, dreading the answer, should the frightened boy even speak for Joe had not uttered a word since yesterday afternoon other than to cry to be released.
“No,” came the soft answer.
“I didn’t think so,” spoke Hoss more to himself than to his brother, as he shook his head. “Joe, do you know who you are buddy?” Hoss asked, feeling the tears begin to well up in his blue eyes. The knowledge that his brother did not know him tore at his heart.
“No,” repeated Joe, casting sorrowful eyes up at his brother.
“Dadburnit,” Hoss said as the feeling of frustration taking over. “I didn’t think ya did.”
“ Well, Joe, you’re my baby brother, your name is Joe Cartwright, I’m Hoss, our older brother is Adam and then our father is Ben Cartwright. We call ya Little Joe for short. Joe, I know this is a lot to take in, I’ll tell ya more later when we have time, but right now I need to know something else Joe. You gotta trust me on this, okay?” asked Hoss, not really expecting Little Joe to answer him.
“We can’t get ya home yet, we’re about five days ride from there and with this weather beginning to get bad…well ya just ain’t up to the trip yet young’n. Ya jest ain’t strong enough right now, ya need more time to rest up but I gotta get us omething’ to eat. Joe, ya gotta promise me that you will stay right here, not leave this hideout. I don’t know who dun this to ya, or why. I don’t know if whoever they are might be lookin’ for ya,” Hoss explained and then saw the green eyes becoming wide with fear for the second time.
“Take it easy Punkin, I ain’t gonna let no one hurt ya again. You’re safe here as long as ya stay inside and out of sight. Joe, will ya trust me enough to leave ya for just a little while so’s I can get us some grub? I promise, Joe, I swear to ya, I’ll be back, but ya just gotta promise me that ya won’t run off? Please Joe, trust me,” begged Hoss as he tried to make his little brother understand the importance of the situation, all the while fighting with himself to control his tears which seemed to have developed a mind of their own since finding his brother.
“I’ll even leave ya my horse. If’n I ain’t back by dark tonight, ya can take my horse in the morning and ride out. If’n ya ride due east ya’ll eventually come out at the ranch. If’n ya get lost, all ya have to do is ask for Pa, Ben Cartwright, anyone can tell ya where the Ponderosa is. That’s the name of our ranch, Joe. Pa or Adam should be home by then, and ya can trust them, same as me, Joe. Do ya understand boy?”
Something in the tone of the big man’s voice, something akin to pleading, brought Joe’s eyes up to meet the blue eyes of his brother. Seeing the tears that had pooled there and were now running down the cheeks caused Joe to reach out and touch the face of his brother. The action both surprised and pleased Hoss, it was the first time that Little Joe had made a move on his own to make physical contact.
“Please don’t leave me,” Joe begged, “I’m scared, really scared,” he cried, his own eyes beginning to pool.
“I know ya are Joe, but I gotta, for just a little while. But I’ll come back, I promise, Joe, I promise ya,” Hoss said as he reached out and touched the shoulder of the boy, surprised that Joe did not pull away in fear as he had the night before.
Unable to speak, Joe could only nod his head yes. As he looked again into the face of the man before him, Joe knew in his heart that this was a man he could trust. Why would such a big man be reduced to tears for the likes of him if the man had not had a kind and tender heart?
“Great Joe, I’ll leave right away and with any luck, I’ll be back by supper time. You keep the fire goin’ and hopefully we’ll have another fat rabbit for supper, and Joe, this time I want some, all ya left me last night were bones,” smiled Hoss as he ruffled the curly head of the boy who smiled at him for the first time. “Remember, stay inside and ya try to get some rest. As soon as ya well enough, I’ll take ya home Joe, where ya really will be safe, okay?” added Hoss as he began gathering his rifle and shells.
Joe watched as Hoss disappeared around the waterfall and out of view. He quickly added another log to the fire and decided that he should get dressed. He had been wearing nothing but the blanket that the man who called himself his brother had provided since the day before. All that Joe had in the way of clothing were the remnants of clothing that he had been wearing for the last couple of weeks. Checking to be sure that they were dry, he dressed quickly and returned to his bed. The old weariness had taken over his body once again and Joe wanted nothing more than to sleep. For the first time in days, he felt safe and felt sure that the man, who had become his guardian, would return to watch over him. He only hoped that, whoever this man was, he would come back to him before his attackers had a chance to find him.
Hoss was worried about Little Joe, it bothered him to leave the boy alone, he could only hope and pray that Joe would be true to his word and stay put. He felt the need to hurry in his pursuit of food so that he could return as quickly as possible to the hideout and care for the boy who meant the world to him. He had been so relieved to find the boy, but so shocked when he had seen the shape his brother was in. How he wished that his father were here to help him get the boy home. As it was, his father and his brother were on a search of their own but that did not stop Hoss from wishing that there were some way that he could get word to them that the boy had been found. But that was impossible now and he hated the fact that his father would still be worrying about his youngest son and he could do nothing to stop that worry. He was well aware of the love that his father had for his youngest son. True enough Pa loved all of his sons, but the bond between their father and his youngest was a special bond. Perhaps it was the fact that Little Joe was such a special reminder of the woman who Ben Cartwright had loved beyond measure. She had been ripped from their lives so suddenly and tragically that Ben had found himself giving the larger portion of his heart and his love to this special boy. Neither he, nor his brother Adam, resented that fact, for in truth each loved the young boy as much as their father, giving that love freely to Little Joe whom in return rewarded them with hero-like worship. And which of them could or would deny the pride that they felt each and every time that they were made to feel that way?
Joe had slept most of the morning and afternoon but was suddenly awaken by a strange noise. Not sure what he was hearing, but hoping that the man called Hoss was returning, Joe crawled from his bed and quietly made his way to the opening of the cave and peered out. What he saw caused his heart to momentarily stop beating. His breath hung in his throat not going out or not coming in, fear and panic gripped at his heart. For an instance he froze, unable to will his trembling body to move. After what seemed like a lifetime, Joe was able to draw in a deep breath, clearing his head of the fog and allowing himself to move silently to the horses that remained inside the cave like hideout. Gently placing his hand on the soft noses of each horse, he prayed that the horses would remain silent as not to alert the five Bannock warriors who were watering their horses, just feet away from where Joe stood, unseen behind the waterfall. Joe prayed that the Indians were not familiar with the cave and would not venture to enter the hideout.
Joe’s heart beat rapidly causing difficulty in his breathing and he was frightened beyond measure; all the fears of the last few days came back to him, recalling the abuse he had suffered at the hands of these same Indians. Trying desperately to get control of his fears, he turned again toward the opening to check the whereabouts of his tormentors but because of the lack of oxygen to his head and lungs he collapsed to the ground before reaching his destination.
“I’m back, Joe,” called Hoss as he entered the cave hideout. “Joe? Where are ya boy?” Hoss said as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He briefly wondered if Joe had fled; but seeing the horses still tethered at the side of the cave, he knew that if Joe had decided to leave, he would have at least taken one of the horses.
“Joe?” Hoss called softly, listening for any sounds that might give a clue to Little Joe’s whereabouts. And then the familiar sound of whimpering and crying could be heard coming from the furthest and darkest corner of the cave.
Cautiously, and approaching in an easy manner, not sure of what he might find, Hoss called out softly again, “Joe? Baby, what’s wrong?”
Without looking up from where he was sitting with his knees drawn to his chest and rocking back and forth Joe cried out softly to Hoss, “they were here! They came looking for me!” Then having found his voice and giving in to his hysteria Joe began screaming, “Help me! Help me! Don’t let’em hurt me…Oh God…help me!” screamed the boy whose mind had closed in on his terror.
Hoss grabbed the terrorized boy and pulled him into his arms, holding him tightly to keep him from bolting from the hideout and running away.
“It’s okay Joe, your okay little buddy. They’re gone now Joe,” said Hoss as he rocked the boy, kissing his head, trying any way possible to calm the hysterical boy. “I promise, Joe, I won’t let’em hurt ya Joe, ya hear?”
Somehow, Hoss’ words penetrated through Joe’s hysteria and he stopped crying long enough to look into the face of the man who held him. Recognition came into his eyes then and he grabbed his brother around the neck and began crying once more.
“You came back, you really did come back,” cried Little Joe as he buried his face in the curve of his brother’s neck and wept.
“I told ya I would Joe, I promised, remember?” answered Hoss continuing to hug his younger brother tightly. Both brothers sat holding tightly to each other for several minutes, each afraid to let go of the other, each for reasons of their own. When at last their fears were quieted Hoss sat Joe in front of him so that the boy was facing him.
“Joe,” he began, “who was it that was here? Can you tell me?” asked Hoss watching Joe’s face.
Joe hung his head and tried to control the panic that he felt building again in his stomach, causing it to hurt. “It was the Bannocks, Hoss, there were five of them.”
Hoss was surprised, “Bannocks, Joe?” he questioned. “I didn’t know there were Bannocks this far to the west. Are they the ones who hurt ya?”
“Yes,” Joe said.
“What else do you remember, Joe?” questioned Hoss hoping to make sense of the situation.
He knew that the Bannocks were bad news to white folks, unlike the peaceful Paiutes that lived in the area. The Bannocks were known to capture white people, preferring to take women and children as slaves and their treatment of these whites were enough to scare the hell out of most grown men. Hoss felt his stomach begin to churn, if his little brother had been captured and tortured by the Bannocks, then Hoss could clearly understand his brother’s reasons for being scared to the point of forgetting who he was. Just the thoughts of what those Indians could do to a man, much less a boy scared him and he wasn’t one to scare easily.
“I don’t remember anything before I woke up with my hands and feet bound together. They had me laying on my stomach with my hands tied behind my back and my legs tied together and pulled up behind me tied to my wrists. Guess you could call it hog-tied.” Joe explained. “I don’t know how long I had been like that, but finally they untied my legs and jerked me up and dragged me into one of their tents. They threw some sorta food on the ground in front of me and told me to eat. It smelled awful and looked like rotted meat and when I refused to eat it, they began punching me in my stomach and face. By the time they finished doing that, I wasn’t able to eat. So instead of making me eat it, they tied it around my neck and left it there until it was so rotten I puked from the smell of it. They left it like that for a couple of days and during that time they didn’t give me anything at all to eat or drink. I had to stay hog-tied during that whole time. They tried everyday to make me eat it but when I refused and kept puking because of the smell they would just beat me some more. After that failed, they dragged me outside and left me there in the cold and never once untied me,” Joe hold Hoss as he fought to stop the tears that tried to form in his sad eyes.
“By the time they finally got around to untying me, I could hardly move my arms and legs, all I could do was crawl and that made them mad again, so they whipped my back, my butt and my legs with rawhide strips that had been soaked in water. That hurt like hell. Then when that wasn’t enough to satisfy them, they started kicking me all over, even in my face. That’s how my nose got broken.”
Looking into Hoss’ eyes, Little Joe could see the love that was so easily read there and he could no longer contain his own tears and he bent his head and cried.
“Hoss?” spoke Joe softly when he had been able to get his tears under control.
“They never were able to make me eat it,” Joe smiled slightly at his brother. “Later I found out it was polecat.”
“Oh God Joe, that’s awful,” Hoss said as he scrunched up his face in disgust. “Ya always were a stubborn little cuss,” smiled Hoss.
“Joe? How’d ya get away from ‘em?” questioned Hoss.
“After they beat me senseless, they tied me up to a pole with my hands behind my back to the pole and tied my ankles to the post. Then they took more of that wet rawhide and tied it around the pole and around my head and neck. When the sun started drying the rawhide, well, you know what happens don’t ya?” Joe asked Hoss who told him that he was very aware what happens to rawhide when it dries.
“It shrinks,” replied Hoss staring in shock at his brother, trying hard to imagine how painful that must have been to his brother’s neck and throat.
Joe took a deep breath before he could continue. He was trying his best to tell his brother what had taken place, but it was so fresh on his mind that even the telling of what he had, had to endure left him weak and trembling.
Hoss seeing that Little Joe was becoming upset moved to sit beside of him and Joe allowed his brother to slip his arm around his shoulder.
“Ya don’t have’ta go on if’n ya don’t wanna Joe,” Hoss told him.
Joe leaned his head on the shoulder of his brother, glad for the closeness of the big man beside of him. His brother’s presence was reassuring to him and gave him the courage to continue.
“I have to Hoss, I have to say it; I just have to. It helps, you know,” Joe said. “Anyway, after they tied me to the pole with the rawhide and it started to shrink, it started cutting into my head and throat. I thought I was gonna die for sure, the pain was so bad, I couldn’t stop myself, I screamed and screamed. I begged them to kill me and all they did was laugh at me,” Joe finished.
“I must have passed out at some time, cause when I woke up, I was laying under some scrub bushes, hidden from view and the Indians were gone. I don’t know how I got there or who might have put me there, maybe they thought I was dead already and just left me. For a few minutes, I even thought I might have been dead, but then I pinched myself to be sure and knew I wasn’t. So all I knew to do was to run and that’s just what I did. I ran and ran till I couldn’t run anymore. My head hurt like blazes, I couldn’t hardly talk and my back and the rest of my body felt like it was on fire. I thought about going home, but then I realized I didn’t even know where home was, hell, I didn’t even know my own name. Those two things scared me so bad Hoss. Once I started to cry, I couldn’t stop, I just couldn’t stop crying like a baby!” sobbed Joe.
Hoss hugged Joe to him trying to draw some of his little brother’s pain from him and allow it to flow onto himself. “Joe, its okay now buddy, its over.”
Hoss and Joe sat as they were for some time while each brother tried to come to terms with what one had heard and what the other had been through. Joe was the first to find his voice.
“Hoss?” asked Joe, while watching Hoss.
“Are you really my brother?” Joe asked never taking his eyes off the big man.
Hoss turned and smiled at the boy who now sat with knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped around his knees and resting his chin there. Hoss thought how young Little Joe looked sitting there staring at him through green eyes that had suddenly turned bright with anticipation.
“Yes Joe, I really am,” smiled Hoss.
“I’m glad Hoss, really glad. I like you,” Joe told him.
“I’m glad too Little Joe and I love ya!” Hoss replied, reaching out and gathering the smaller boy into his arms in a bear hug. Hoss was glad that Joe had stopped pulling away each time he made physical contact but choose instead to return the hug with one of his own.
“I wish I could remember,” whispered Joe softly.
“Don’t worry short shanks, maybe once we get home it’ll all come back to ya,” Hoss tried to reassure him, all the while hoping that what he had said would indeed be true.
“Now…I’m hungry, lets get this fire going and get these squirrels cooked,” smiled Hoss as he threw more logs on the fire and prepared the squirrels to start cooking.
“Tomorrow, I’m takin’ ya home little brother,” Hoss said, giving Joe one of his broad, gapped tooth grins.
The snoring in the cave seemed to be bouncing off of the walls, causing Little Joe to wake from his sleep. As he looked over to where Hoss lay on his back, mouth partly opened, Joe could only smile to himself. The big man sounded like a wounded grizzly when he snored. Looking at the fire and seeing that it had died down, Joe rose and placed two more logs on top of the glowing embers. It was only a short time before the new logs caught fire and warmth returned to their hideout. He moved his bedroll over close to where Hoss was sleeping, then snuggled down under the blankets and rolled Hoss over on his side. That was enough to stop the loud snoring, at least for the time being. But Little Joe was unable to fall back to sleep. His mind was on the journey he was to begin in the morning. He was going home. But Joe was worried, what would home be like? What would his father and his older brother be like? Would they welcome him as Hoss had done? He could not imagine anyone showing him more kindness and yes, love, than Hoss had shown to him the last few days. But the thought of meeting his father and brother scared him.
“Hell,” thought Joe, “if they’re anything like Hoss, I have nothing to be scared about. Those Indians and what they did to me, now there was a reason to be scared,” figured Joe. Joe turned toward Hoss’ back pulling his body up close to that of the larger man seeking to add body warmth to stay warm and when his eyelids became too heavy with sleep to keep open, Joe closed them and gave in to the sleep that claimed him.
When Hoss woke the next morning, he felt his little brother’s body close to his and his brother’s arm carelessly thrown across his side. Smiling to himself, Hoss slipped from under the arm as quietly as he could, not wanting to wake the sleeping boy until he was ready to start the trip home. He was anxious the get back to the ranch, he knew that Pa and Adam where still worried about Joe and now that he had not returned in the allotted time they had agreed upon, his family was no doubt worrying about him as well. He wondered what their father would think when he returned with Joe, not aware that Joe had lost his memory and would not be able to remember who they were. Didn’t matter right now, Hoss knew that Pa and Adam would be overjoyed having the young boy safe, regardless of the condition he was in. He knew his father was hungry to have his baby back in his arms and that hugging the boy to him would be his first reaction to the homecoming.
When Hoss had finished fixing them a cold breakfast served with hot coffee and had all but the bedrolls packed on the pack animal, he called for Joe to wake up.
“Come on short shanks, rise and shine,” Hoss called as he gently nudged his brother’s leg with his boot. “Get on over here and eat, we gotta long way to ride today.”
“I’m comin,” said Joe as he began crawling out from under the covers and making his way to the cup of hot coffee that Hoss had extended to him. “I wouldn’t be so dang sleepy if you didn’t snore so dadburned loud!” laughed Little Joe teasing his brother for the first time since he had been found.
Hoss smiled down at the boy who smiled up at him and for a moment, he forgot that Joe’s memory was gone. Hoss thought that if one did not know about the memory loss, one would think that the Joe who sat smiling up at him was the old Joe, his brother before he had been so badly beaten and terrorized and scared to the point of losing his memory.
“God,” prayed Hoss silently, “Please help us to know how to help this boy regain his memory. I sure ‘nough miss the real Joe!”
Hoss had been pushing the horses hard; he wanted to put as much distance as possible between the hideout and themselves, fearing that the Indians would return. He knew there would be trouble if that were to happen and he wanted to avoid that kind of trouble if at all possible. He wasn’t sure if he was up to taking on four or five mad Injuns and he was sure that his little brother was in no shape to be of help. Little Joe’s safety and well being was the most important thing on his mind right now. He had to get his brother home where he was sure that the boy would be safe and protected and with the love of his family, hopefully regain his memory.
They had ridden for several hours when Hoss began feeling Little Joe leaning into his back as they rode. He had put his young brother behind him on Chubb on the chance that should they need to break away quickly, he could leave the pack horse behind and together they could make a run for it. Little Joe was tiring, so Hoss made the decision to stop for a short rest; they still had a long way to go before he could feel comfortable about not running into the Bannocks.
“Let’s rest here for awhile Joe,” Hoss told him, helping the boy slide from the rump of the big horse.
Hoss dismounted as quickly as Joe’s feet hit the ground and led the horses into the shade where he tied them. Removing some hardtack and the canteen, he offered Joe some and claimed some for himself. Both boys sat side by side in the shade of a large tree and rested their heads against the trunk. It was not long before Hoss felt his brother leaning against his shoulder and heard his steady breathing indicating that Joe had fallen asleep. After about an hour Hoss woke Little Joe and told him that they had better get a move on, they had several hours of daylight left and he wanted to make the most of it.
For three days and three nights the Cartwright brothers followed the same routine, traveling for several hours, breaking for an hour or so then moving on till nightfall. First light each morning they were up and gone until at last by mid-day on the forth day of travel the weary brothers rode into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house. The moment that Joe had both looked forward to, and dreaded at the same time, had arrived.
Hoss noted that his father and brother’s horses were both tied to the hitching post in front of the house and standing next to them were two fully stocked packhorses, an indication that the older two Cartwright men were preparing to leave soon, continuing with their search.
“You okay Punkin?” Hoss asked Joe as he helped the boy dismount.
“I reckon so, I sure am scared though,” Joe answered, giving his brother a worried look.
Before Hoss could say anything to reassure his brother, the large front door of the ranch house opened and Ben Cartwright, followed by his eldest son Adam, stepped out onto the porch that was on the front of the house. When Ben saw his middle son standing in the yard his face broke into a wide grin and he called out.
“Hoss, you made it home son, good to see you,” Ben said as he approached Hoss unable to see his youngest son who had been standing behind the larger brother, afraid to be seen by the father that he had no memory of.
“Hi ya, Pa, Adam,” greeted Hoss who smiled from ear to ear. “I got somethin’ here for ya Pa,” Hoss said as he stepped away from Little Joe so that his father could now see the young boy.
“JOSEPH!” yelled Ben as he moved forward, ready to grab his son who had been missing for several days into his arms, unaware of the tears that had instantly formed in his chocolate brown eyes.
“Pa, wait,” Hoss said as he moved to stand between his father and youngest brother, instantly bringing a halt to his father’s approach.
“Joe…well, Pa, he ain’t got no memory of us, so he’s sorta scared,” explained Hoss looking to his father and then to his older brother who had also moved forward to greet their youngest family member.
Both Ben and Adam having stopped in their tracks, exchanged worried looks. “Lost his memory?” asked Ben, turning his attention again to his middle son.
“Yes sir, but I dun told him what I could about his life here. And he’s okay with it right now, just sorta scared meetin’ ya and all,” Hoss told them and moved to stand beside Little Joe, placing his large arm around the boy’s shoulder, offering some comfort to the lad.
Ben watched the mixture of emotions cross the face of the frightened boy who stood watching him, unsure of how to approach the boy. Ben’s heart was pounding in his chest, so relieved was he to finally have his baby son home safe at last. He wanted nothing more than to gather his son into his arms and hold him; it had been too many days since he had last been able to do that.
Adam also watched his young brother and saw the fear written on his once handsome face and wondered at the abuse that was evident there. His heart went out to this boy and to his father, for Adam knew of the worry his father had suffered in the days that this boy had been missing from their home. Adam had known of the sleepless nights and the whispered prayers and even the sounds of his father crying when he had thought that the older son had been asleep. Now it broke his heart knowing that his father stood with his love for this young boy showing on his face being forced to refrain from giving in to those built up desires to reach out to his youngest son.
“Joseph, come here, please,” Ben softly commanded his youngest.
Little Joe looked into the eyes of the older man. Something in the man’s tone of voice and the way in which he moved told Joe that he was expected to obey. Looking up into Hoss’ face asking with his eyes if it were safe for him to do as bided, Hoss gently pushed him forward until he was standing directly in front of their father.
Ben gently placed both of his hands on either side of the shoulders of the young boy speaking softly as he slowly pulled Joe to him and when he felt no resistance, he embraced him.
“Welcome home son,” Ben said as his voice cracked and making it impossible to continue speaking.
Joe allowed the older man to hold him, unable to believe the peace that had come into his body the moment he had felt his father touch him. Tears began forming in the green eyes, tears of relief, tears of joy, and tears of happiness. Perhaps he could not remember this home, this family before he had suffered the loss of his memory, but something from deep within his heart and soul told him that here, he was loved and cared for, and a connection to his former life was formed.
Joe clasped his arms around his father’s waist and together father and son stood clinging to each other. The father finding comfort in the closeness of his son’s embrace and the son finding much needed security and compassion in the strong arms that held him. Ben allowed his own tears to flow freely and they dropped into the curly brown hair of his youngest son as his son buried his face in the chest of his father and wept, his tears leaving little round circles on the leather vest his father wore.
Ben had insisted that Paul Martin, their family friend and local doctor check out Joseph’s injuries. After realigning Joseph’s broken nose, putting four stitches in the busted lip, and checking for broken or cracked ribs when he found none Doc Martin gave the young boy a clean bill of health.
“I can fix his body,” Paul told the worried father, “but the mind is something else. I do believe that this memory loss is temporary, and given lots of time and rest, he should start remembering things eventually. How soon though, I just can’t say. He’s young and the young usually snap back quicker than the rest of us. You just have to be patient with him Ben, Hoss you and Adam too,” added the doctor, turning to be sure that the brothers understood his instructions.
Joe was ordered to stay in the bed for the next couple of days, and did not even put up the normal arguments that he was famous for. Paul had left medication for Ben with orders that the boy be given a dose at bedtime so that he might sleep peacefully allowing his body to heal and rest.
Three days after the doctor’s last visit, Joe was allowed to get up and join the family at the table for meals. As Joe carefully made his way to the family table and sat down, Hop Sing began placing breakfast on the table, all the while spouting in his native Chinese language. Giving no thought to what he was doing or saying, Joe began answering the little oriental using the Chinaman’s own language.
Father and brothers alike turned startled eyes on the younger man, looks of profound disbelief on all three faces.
“I didn’t know you could speak Chinese,” said Adam, being the first to find his voice.
Laughing in surprise at his own disbelief, Joe turned to his brother, “Neither did I. But I can, and Adam,” paused Little Joe grinning, “you quote Shakespeare!” Joe told his brother pointing his finger in Adam’s direction, surprised that he knew that little fact.
“I have a horse and his name is Cochise, my mother’s name was Marie,” sang Joe jumping up and down, quoting fact after fact that had been purposefully withheld from him in the hopes that one day he would do just what he was now doing.
“Pa, I can remember! I can remember!” cried Little Joe as he ran to his father throwing his arms around the neck of the older man, taking him by surprise. Instantly, both his older brothers joined their father and little brother, all four Cartwright men unashamed of the tears that fell from each of their faces.
That day was the beginning for young Joseph Cartwright. As the days passed, he began remembering the life that he once had, before his capture by the Bannocks. With each remembrance, his ordeal with the Indians slowly became a thing of the past, showing up in an occasional nightmare when the boy had been exhausted from a hard workday, until at last even those nightmares were no more and life on the Ponderosa was again returned to normal.