Where Love Once Lived (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  20,855


 

 

“Do ya know your name?” questioned the old man as he bent his head to peer down at the straggled looking imp.

The boy looked thoughtful, confused and then, looking wistfully up at the stranger, shook his head no. “I can’t seem to remember.”

The old man straightened up and scratched his balding head, gazing at the wide hazel eyes of the boy who had wandered into his yard and had passed out cold, falling in a heap practically at his feet.

It had taken some time for the old gentleman to bring the boy around. He’d had to soak a cloth in the watering trough and had moistened the sun-blistered face and the dried, parched lips several times before the lad had regained consciousness.

“Looky, sonny, don’t ya remember nothin’?”

This question deepened the frown already embedded on the dirty, cherub like face. The youngster shook his head no.

The old man’s patience was beginning to wear thin. There was working needin’ to be done afore his son got home. If his grown son returned before the old man had finished, his son would be furious at his father for not finishing with the chores.

While the old man remained lost in his thoughts, the boy struggled to his feet, staggering somewhat and reaching out for something to support him.

“Careful now,” the old man cautioned as he reached for the boy’s arm to steady him. “Ya ain’t quite yourself yet…come on over here and sit down whilst I finish these here chores,” the farmer said as he led the boy into the barn and helped him to sit down on the nearest crate.

“Thank you,” stammered the boy said politely.

‘Polite,’ the old man thought to himself as he studied the lad a little closer. ‘Ain’t some street urchin, clothes too expensive for that…wonder who he is…or yet…where he came from.’

The farmer picked up his rake and worked a few minutes in one of the stalls before pausing again to look at his unexpected guest. “Ya got any ideay how old ya might be, kid?”

The youngster was rubbing the side of his head, as if he had a pain that was causing his head to hurt. Troubled eyes, the color of emeralds stared blankly up at the old timer. He shook his head. “I…don’t…know…” he stammered.

Henry Craigmiles sighed heavily. “Ya sure don’t know much, do ya?”

Joe’s eyes flashed instantly but then the pain surged through his head once more, stilling the angry retort he was about to give to the tiresome old gent. “No…sir, I…reckon not,” he said softly.

The man’s tone softened some as he moved to stand before the boy. He gently lifted the boy’s chin, forcing Joe to look him square in the eye. He turned Joe’s head slowly from side to side, examining his face carefully. “Don’t make no never mind; ya look to be about…fifteen…sixteen or so.”

He released the boy’s chin, still studying the boy closely. “Ya head hurtin’ ya some, I suppose?”

It was more of a statement than a question but Joe nodded in response. “Like a hot iron’s been pressed into my temples…” Joe, using the tips of his fingers, massaged his temples. His eyes were closed tightly, as if he were willing away the throbbing pain. “It feels like my head’s been locked in a vise,” he said weakly.

Henry watched while he worked. He wondered silently where the boy had come from, how the lad had ended up here and where were the boy’s parents…and his horse, for the kid had walked or rather staggered, into the yard before collapsing. He glanced out the opened door of the barn. From where he worked, he could see the yard where the chickens pecked at the ground. His son, Grant, would be home soon, and Henry knew that his work would not be finished and that Grant would be furious. Glancing again at the boy, he wondered if the lad were capable of helping him out. With the kid’s help, he could be finished by the time that his own son got back from town and save himself not only the physical part of the work, but the long drawn out verbal abuse that he knew Grant would rain on him.

“Ya think ya could give me a hand, boy?”

Joe glanced up, barely able to see through the blinding pain that caused his head to hurt so. “I…I’m not sure…”

Henry held the rake out to the boy who stood, wobbling. When Joe stretched out his hand to take the tool from the old man, everything about him began to swirl. Suddenly he felt himself sinking to the ground and by the time he lay in a ball at the farmer’s feet, Joe’s world as he had known it, had turned into a dark, dense black hole where nothing made sense to his jumbled and confused thoughts.

Before he could offer his assistance to the unconscious boy, Henry heard the sound of approaching hooves. He glanced up, seeing his son riding up to the front of the old house. Quickly he rushed to close the barn door and returned to Joe, pulling his still body into the empty stall and into the furthermost corner where it was dark and less likely that the boy would be seen. The old man half covered Joe’s body with loose hay.

“Ya stay right there, and be quiet. Ya hear me? Don’t make a sound, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Henry whispered, hoping that the boy might somehow hear him and understand. The old man slipped from the stall, glancing back over his shoulder at the curly headed lad who was trying hard to wake up.

The old man put his fingers to his lips; “Shh…I won’t be long,” he whispered as he disappeared out the door.

For several moments, Joe fought his way back from his darkened world. His head buzzed as he huddled in the dark corner. Once his eyes adjusted to the dark, he scanned his new surroundings, still rubbing at his eyes in an effort to clear the fog that had seemed to settle before him. He started to move, to rise, but then the old man’s words came back to him, warning him to be still and remain quiet. Joe wondered why he was instructed to do so, what had happened that seemed to have frightened the old farmer? Not fully conscious to what was going on around him, and too weak to put up a fuss, Joe moved into a sitting position where he could rest his head against the wall of the old barn. His knees he drew up to his chest. He propped his elbows on his knees and covered his eyes with his hands, his head was pounding again and the constant throbbing was making his stomach start to ache. He even feared that he might be sick. When the acidic bile began to boil, it took all his waning strength to swallow it down and keep it down.

Suddenly, Joe heard the heavy barn door being yanked open. Loud voices caused him to perk up somewhat, as he forgot about the rising bile and the everlasting pain in his temples. The voice that rang out the loudest was strange to him, certainly not the old man’s. And whoever it was, was angry, shouting and yelling. An inner voice cautioned him to remain still and quiet as he had been instructed. Joe even tried pushing himself deeper into his hiding place as he listened to the arguing.

“Why in blazes ain’t ya done? What have ya been doin’ all morning, Pa?” shouted the younger man. “Hell, can’t I even go into town for supplies and leave ya here to do one blasted thing for me?”

“Now son…it ain’t like I ain’t been busy….” started the old man as he followed his son into the dark barn.

“Sure, Pa…sure, I can just look around me and see what all you’ve been doing,” ranted Grant in an angry voice.

In the darkest corner of the stable, Joe was having trouble keeping his stomach from reacting. It rumbled and he feared that the angry stranger might hear him. He clasped his arms about his mid-section, temporarily forgetting the pain in his head to concentrate on the battle going on deep within his belly.

“Grant…I’m sorry, son,” Henry said, casting anxious eyes toward the stall where Little Joe hid in the corner. Henry was afraid that if Grant found the boy, there would be hell to pay. He hated kids of any age. Henry could never figure out just why, but his son could not stand being around children, especially half-grown youngsters, such as was hiding in his barn. He’d always claimed the teenagers to be troublemakers and ill doers, smart mouth and rude Grant had always declared. “They ain’t got no respect for their elders…none of them…” he would often shout at his father. Perhaps, thought Henry, it was Grant’s raisin’, comin’ back to haunt him.

Grant whirled around to face his father, “Sorry? Yeah Pa, for once you’re tellin’ the truth, you’re sorry all right! You always have been, ya know that?” shouted the furious younger man. “You ain’t never done nuthin’ right, ya wasted ya whole dang life digging around in this here dirt, for what Pa? What? Nothing, that’s what for!”

“Grant…”

“Shut up, old man!” yelled the son. From the corner of his eye, Grant caught a movement in the furthest part of the stall that he stood in front of. His voice became silent as he moved slowly into the darkness, inching his way closer to the one who was trying to make himself unseen.

“Grant, hmm…take a look at this here mare, I think she might have a loose shoe,” Henry called suddenly, hoping to draw his son’s attention away from the youngster he had placed in hiding.

“Wait a minute, Pa…well I’ll be!” shouted Grant as he extended his arm out toward Joe and grabbed Joe by the upper arm and easily, with his much larger hand, hauled Joe from his hiding place. “Looky what I found hidin’ in our barn.”

Grant held Joe’s arm tightly within his strong fingers, nearly lifting Joe off the ground.

“Let me go!” cried Joe painfully as he struggled to wrench free from the big man’s strong fingers.

Grant gave the squirming boy a good hard shake, knocking the boy to the ground. “Shut up, kid,” shouted Grant, glaring at Little Joe.

Moaning painfully, Little Joe was too weak to make an attempt to get up. His head felt strange and his vision was beginning to blur. He lay, unmoving on the dirt floor.

“Grant,” said Henry, eyeing his son, “the boy’s been hurt…he wandered into the yard about an hour ago…then collapsed. Why, he don’t even know his own name, or how old he be…or where he come from…”

Henry knelt down beside Joe and helped him into a sitting position. One look told the old timer that the injured boy was on the verge of passing out again.

“He…needs a doctor, son,” Henry said, looking up at the man towering over him.

“A doctor? Are out of your mind, old man…we ain’t got no money to spend on…a doctor. No…I want him outta here…we don’t have no need for wayward kids around here…now get rid of him…”

“Rid of him?” stammered the old man. Henry stood up, leaving Joe on the ground listening and watching, fighting to maintain some sense of what was going on around him. “What do ya mean…get rid of him…”

“Just what I said…I want him out of here…do you hear me!”

“Yeah, I hear ya, son,” Henry said. He glanced down at Joe and then up at his son. “But…how…”

Grant had started toward the door. His steps were heavy, weighted by the anger that brewed beneath his rough exterior.

“I don’t care how you get rid of him, just do it…he’s trouble…hell, Pa…look at him…he’s some rich man’s kid…”

Both men turned to look down at Joe who by now had slipped again into his haven of darkness. Neither said a word for several moments but then Grant smiled, wickedly.

“Pa…” he said, grabbing the old man’s arm. “Did you say the kid had no clue who he was…or where he’s from?”

“Yeah, he don’t even know how old he is…why?” Henry asked, sensing that his son was toying with some idea that had just popped into his head.

“You know what, Pa…?”

“What?” Henry suddenly had a sick feeling of his own growing in the pit of his stomach. Whatever his son was planning for the boy, it would not be good, of that the old man was positive.

“We sure could use some help around this place. Ya been complaining forever about your old bones…and I’m tired…just plain old tired,” Grant said, his grin widening.

“What are ya thinkin’ on doin’?”

Grant shut the door to the barn and moved to the back, opening a door there. “Let’s put him in the shed for now…that way, if anyone comes lookin’ for him…they won’t find him. Then…when he’s better…we’ll make up some story…ere…we’ll tell the boy…I’m his uncle and you’re his grandpa…his ma…my sister, your daughter, died…and she sent him to us for raisin’…” Grant snickered softly. “He’ll work for us…he’ll have to, ‘cause…we’re…family!”

The old man’s eye narrowed slightly. He was contemplating what his son had just suggested. He didn’t much like it, the boy’s family, if they be rich, might come lookin’ and if they did…there might be more trouble than what either of them bargained for.

“Pa…ya been wantin’ to slow down…now’s ya chance…you can have the boy work for you in the morning…doing barn chores and such…and after lunch…I’ll use him in the fields…he’ll be our own little white………….slave!” For the first time in ages, the younger man laughed.

“We can both slow down…” beamed the old man after several more moments of trying to visualize the plan in his own head. The smile that graced his face suddenly disappeared. He grabbed his son by both arms, looking him squarely in the eyes.

“What if the kid remembers who he is…and…wants to go home?”

“There won’t be no…going home…he’s mine…from this day on, he’s my nephew…now help me get him into the shed. By the time I’m finished with him…he’ll do any dam thing I tell him to, or pay the consequences.”

While Grant had been talking, he had picked up the whip that hung on a peg. He had allowed the leather to run through his fingers as the smile became more grotesque. When he bent to take a hold of Joe’s upper body, he hung the whip back on the peg.

“Nope…we ain’t gonna have no trouble out of this kid…that, Pa, I promise you!”

*****

Ben jerked back on his reins, bringing his big buckskin to a grinding halt. He glanced all around, trying to find his men, whom seemed scattered, as were the cattle, in all directions. On the horizon he spotted his eldest son, Adam, and off to the west he could make out the bulky form of his middle son, Hoss. Ben’s hungry eyes searched the hills in hopes of catching a glimpse of his youngest boy, Joe…Little Joe to those who knew him best, but Ben could not pin point the youngster’s location. “Must be on the other side of the hill,” he told himself as he kicked his mount into action.

They had just about settled in for the evening, the cattle were beginning to settle down while the men in camp were eating their supper when a horrific roar of thunder had disrupted everything. The loud racket had startled the herd and before anyone could so much as turn around, the entire herd had stampeded, spreading out in every direction possible. The men riding herd, including Little Joe, had taken out after the runaway mass of cattle in hopes of getting them turned and then stopped. The men in camp jumped into action as well and joined the others but it had taken more than an hour to get the charging herd under control. Even yet cattle bawled and paced nervously about. The majority of the group of wranglers had made a circle around the herd while others continued to look for strays.

It had happened so suddenly that Ben had no time to fix his eyes on his sons’ whereabouts, until that second. He saw Adam wave to him and he returned the gesture. When Ben reached his oldest, he pulled Buck to a stop.

Adam was sweaty and the dust had stuck to his flesh, covering his facial features and black clothing in a fine haze of gray. But he greeted his father with a tired smile. “That must be about the last of them, Pa.”

“Good son…are you alright?”

“Tired…dirty…thirsty…other than that, I can’t complain,” Adam said with a dimpled grin. “I saw Hoss over on that ridge,” he told his father, pointing to the place he’d last seen his brother.

“I saw him…what about Little Joe…have you seen him?” Ben asked, all the while searching the distant hills.

Adam automatically followed his father’s gaze. He even turned half way around in his saddle and looked over his shoulder. When he faced his father, his eyes had a worried look about them.

“No…last I saw of him, he was out in front of the herd…” Adam gulped as a disturbing thought struck him. “He was…trying to get out of the way…the herd…charged straight at him,” he finished.

Adam saw the color drain from his father’s face and wished he had phrased his statement differently than to have it appear that Joe might have been caught up in the stampede and perhaps, injured…or worse. He hurried to soothe the fear he’d seen spring into his father’s eyes. “He’s probably off in the brush looking for strays…I wouldn’t worry, Pa…we’ll find him.”

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His eyes still searched the horizon, looking for his youngest son. “You’re probably right, Adam. Let’s get back to camp…he might even be there…and if not…well, we’ll just have to look for him…”

“He’ll come riding in…knowing Joe, he’ll be bursting at the seams telling us about his exploits…”

“It would be just like that boy to be out in front of a runaway herd of cattle,” Ben grumbled in a good-natured tone. “He never stops to think about the danger he puts himself in…”

“Impulsive, spontaneous, daring…”

Ben gave his son a sharp-eyed glare that caused Adam to chuckle to himself. After a moment, Ben smiled too.

“Come on,” Ben said, shaking his head but not enough to shake the seed of fear that had been planted deep inside his heart.

*****

It was late that evening before Joe woke from his unconscious state. He opened his eyes to find himself in total darkness. His first thought was that he really wasn’t awake, that he was still lost in the sea of blackness in which he had fallen. When he reached up and touched the side of his head and could feel his own fingers against his pounding temples and felt the pulse that beat there, he realized that he had indeed awakened. Confused as to where he was, Joe pushed himself into a sitting position only to find himself sitting in the middle of a narrow cot.

Curious about his surroundings and trying to ignore the blasting pain in his temples, he swung his legs around to the side of the cot and tried to stand up. At first he was wobbly but after a few seconds he was able to move slowly toward a tiny ray of light that glowed between the cracks in the boards. When he peek between the boards, the light appeared small and served no purpose in helping Joe to determine where he was. For a moment, Joe allowed his hands to rest on the boards, feeling along the wall until he was able to find the latch on the door. He tried it, but it refused to budge. Frustrated with a growing fear settling in his gut, he tried again and again, pausing to still the rapid fluttering in his heart. The door was locked…he suddenly felt trapped and alone.

“I am alone,” he muttered to himself, wondering where the old man had gotten to and why had the farmer locked him up in this tiny, one room shack. Suddenly overcome with fear plus the constant thumbing in his temples, Joe balled up his fists and beat on the door…yelling out in a vain effort to be heard.

“HELP!!! HELP!!! LET ME OUT OF HERE!!  SOMEONE….PLEASE!!!”

In the house, the old farmer and his son sat in silence at the table, eating what meager scrapes made up their supper. The old man glanced up at his son just as the son raised his head and glanced at the door. “Sounds like…my nephew…has awakened,” the younger man said with a smirk.

“Sounds like it,” the old man said, rising and moving to the shelf over the stove. When he picked up a tin plate and began to fill it with the stew from the pot, Grant pushed back his chair and moved to stand behind his father. “Just what do you think you’re doin’?” he barked.

Henry looked up with a puzzled expression. “The boy’s awake…he’s no doubt hungry…I was goin’ to take him a plate…”

Angry, Grant grabbed the tin plate from his father’s work calloused hand and turning it upside down, dumped the contents back into the pot.

“We barely got enough to feed ourselves…he don’t need none…” Grant scolded.

“But…”

“NO BUTS! You heard me…the brat gets one meal a day…and what he gets and how much depends on how hard he works! If he sloughs off doing his work, he don’t eat…do ya understand? I ain’t wasting our grub on a lazy, no good kid who ain’t earned the right to eat…do I make myself clear?”

Tight lipped, the old man moved away. Grant returned to his seat, picked up his own tin plate and held it out to his pa. “Give me some more,” he ordered impolitely.

Afraid to say more, or refuse the demand, Henry took the plate and refilled it, handing it back to his son. For several moments he stood to the side and watched Grant cramming the stew into his mouth. The pounding on the door of the shed had stopped; apparently the boy had given up his appeal for freedom.

*****

Hoss found his father saddling his horse. It was early morning and the sun had yet to cast its rays over the tips of the mountains in the foreground. Ben was working feverishly.

“Where ya headed this early?” Hoss asked his father.

Ben barely glanced up as he continued to tighten the cinch on his saddle. “Joe didn’t come in last night…I’m going to look for him.” Ben dropped the stirrup down and turned around. “I want you and Adam to go with the men, take the herd on into Sacramento…when I find Joe, we’ll meet you there…wait for us. Tell Adam to see Mr. Curry, settle up with him and…wait for me.”

Ben grabbed the reins and mounted up. Buck danced in a circle before Ben had time to force him into a standstill. “Make sure you get a good price for those steers, understand?”

“Yessir…but Pa…why can’t…Adam take the herd on in…I…I wanna help ya find Little Joe…and…”

“Hoss…if I don’t find him by this time tomorrow…I’ll send word to you and Adam…but right now, I have a deadline on getting this herd to market…I need you and Adam to see that it gets done. But I have to find Joe…he’s my first priority…now please…just do as I ask.”

Hoss sighed deeply as he nodded. “Alright…whatever you say Pa…but, if ya find Little Joe…will ya send us word?”

Ben smiled, knowing how worried Hoss was about his little brother. They were shadows…Hoss and Joe…close, tight… “I’ll do better than that, son…I’ll deliver him to you personally…how’s that?” Ben said, smiling though he felt nothing like smiling. All night he had lain awake, listening to every sound, hoping that Little Joe would ride in…but it had all been for naught. Little Joe didn’t ride in and now Ben was worried sick about his youngest son. Anything could have happened…what if the boy had gotten hurt, trampled…what if his body lay broken and twisted under hundreds of pairs of sharp, cutting hooves. Unexpectedly, Ben shivered. ‘I can’t let my thoughts go in that direction. Joe’s alright…on foot maybe…’ he told himself.

Suddenly, Hoss’ voice broke through his disconcerting thoughts. “That’ll be great, Pa…now, don’t ya worry ya self none, Adam and me’ll get them critters to market on time…”

“Thank you Hoss…I knew I could depend on you…”

With that said, Ben spun Buck around and headed off at a full gallop.

*****

The door squeaked when it was pushed opened. Joe, who was lying on his back on the cot, opened his eyes and turned his head so that he could see who had unlocked the door. The old man carrying a tray pushed the door closed with the heel of his boot.

“I see you’re awake,” he greeted Joe as he set the tray on a crate that served as a small table. “Ya hungry?”

“Why’d you lock me in here?” Joe said as he rose into a sitting position and turned so that he could sit on the edge of the small bed. “Who are you…where is this place?”

The old farmer who was bent over the tray, worked at uncovering Joe’s meal, glanced up and smiled. “My, my…ain’t you all full of questions this morning’?”

The aroma of fried bacon and scrambled eggs filled the tiny room. Joe’s stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten in…how long? He couldn’t even remember his last meal.

Henry watched the boy’s reaction to the food, sensing that it had been far too many hours since the youngster had eaten. He pulled up another crate and sat opposite Joe. When he picked up the fork and held it out to the boy, Joe took it and began filling his mouth.

“Must’va gone a while without,” the old man said.

Joe glanced up and nodded. “I suppose,” he said between mouthfuls. “You didn’t answer my question…how’s come you locked me up in here?”

“Had to…”

“Had to? Why…I wasn’t goin’ to do you any harm…” Joe explained.

“No…don’t suppose ya was…ya was too sick…say, how’s ya head this morning?”

“Better…” Joe said and then crammed another bite into his mouth.

“Good…cause we got work to do,” Henry said, lowering his head so that he could watch the boy from beneath downed lashes.

For a moment, Joe stopped chewing and looked at the old man. He seemed to be ignoring him. “Work? What kind of work?”

“Chores, boy…chores. Didn’t ya mama ever make you do chores?” Henry said as he stood up and turned his back to Joe so that the boy could not see his face, or his expressions.

“My…ma?” Joe said, swallowing. “What do you mean…my ma? Do…you know who I am?” he asked, standing and coming around to stand in front of the elderly man.

Henry said nothing.

“Please…you…have to tell me…do you know me?” he practically begged. He had been more than just a little frightened when he stumbled into the yard, unaware of who he was or where he came from…or why he was where he was.

Henry took a deep breath and turned around, masking his true feelings. If he didn’t convince the boy that he was his grandson…Grant would be furious with…both of them. “I know ya…well…I mean…I ain’t seen ya in a few years. Ya was just a wee little thing the last time I laid eyes on ya…”

“Then you do know me!”

“Yeah…you’re…my…grandson.”

For a moment, Joe was stunned. This wasn’t what he was expecting to find out. He had just assumed that he was…what? “Grandson?” he stammered.

“Yeah…you’re my grandson…you be my daughter’s boy,” the old man lied.

Joe, unable to find words to express his shock, turned away from the man. “Then…is the other man…my…father?” Joe asked with a worried frown. He hadn’t really seen the younger man, but he’d heard him, and he hadn’t liked the man at all. He was loud, and had a voice that was vicious. Dread filled his young heart with fear. “Is he?” he asked again.

“Grant? No, no…Grant’s my son…your uncle…”

“Oh,” breathed Joe in relief. “Then…who…and where…are my…parents…my ma and pa?”

Henry swallowed hard and looked Joe square in the eye. “They be dead boy…kilt in a freak accident.”

Unable to endure more, Joe sat down on the cot. He was an…orphan…left in the care of this old man and a vicious uncle. Slowly he raised his head to look up at his grandfather. “When did this happen?”

Henry sighed, dreading more lies. “About three days ago…”

“I…don’t remember…” Joe muttered.

“No…of course you wouldn’t…you was with them when the wagon went down the side of the cliff…but ya fell out on the way down…bumped your head…they was kilt.”

“That’s why my head’s been pounding then?”

“Yeah…ya took a pretty hard knock…caused ya to lose ya memory…that’s why ya can’t remember nothin’,” Henry continued with his lie. “We would of buried ya folks…but…there just wasn’t…enough left to bury…” Henry made a low moan, deep in his throat.

Joe looked up, believing the old man to be sick with grief, which in truth, he was sick because of his lies.

“I’m sorry…” Joe said, standing up and placing a hand on the old man’s shoulder. He was amazed at how the elderly farmer trembled. “This must be hard on you.”

Tears had almost filled the old man’s eyes. They blurred his vision when he looked into Joe’s tear filled ones. “No harder on me, lad, than on you…but…life goes on, son…”

The words were like a sharp knife, piercing his heart, but had no notion as to why. But they sounded familiar in a strange, unexplainable way. “Yeah…I suppose…we’ll get through this…” murmured the boy.

Henry started for the door but stopped, his hand on the latch. “You best finish ya breakfast boy…there’s work ya need to be doin’…if’n ya want any supper,” he added, hoping the boy might take the hint.

“Yes sir…sure…I…hmm…guess if I’m gonna be living here…I’d best do my part,” Joe said. He felt strange inside. He’d just learned his folks had been killed but yet, he felt nothing of the loss he should have felt.

“Well, you hurry afore Grant…starts gettin’ impatient…”cautioned the old man.

Joe was pulling on his boots but paused. “It sure don’t take much to make him mad, does it?”

Henry glanced out the door. Grant was heading toward the barn. “No, it sure don’t…so get them boots on and let’s go to work.”

“Yes sir…say…umm…sir…can I ask you just one more thing…two things?” Joe asked almost shyly.

Henry peeked out the door again, worried that Grant might find his way to the shed but he was nowhere to be seen. Henry supposed his son had gone into the barn. “Make it quick like sonny.”

“My…name…what’s my name?”

Henry seemed surprised. “Umm…name…your name…is…Chad…yeah, that’s it, Chad…Chad Wilson.”

“Chad…”muttered Joe. “And…what do I call you…”

Again Henry seemed to fumble over his words. He blamed Grant for this, forcing him to be the one to come up all these lies…and this boy, Chad…asked so many fool questions.

“Well…I’m ya grandpa, ain’t I…just call me Grandpa…”

Joe almost smiled at the old man; he seemed utterly confused by his questions.

“PA…WHERE ARE YA!”

“Uh oh…we best get a move on…” Henry cautioned as he yanked opened the shed door and started out.

Joe reached out for the man’s arm, stopping him from going any further. “One more question…why’d you lock me in here…why didn’t you take me in the house when I blacked out?”

Oh great, thought Henry to himself. How in blazes was he supposed to answer that?

“Umm…well, ya see, Chad…umm…this here shed is where you sleep…the house ain’t that big you know…not much more’n a cabin…”he hurried to explain. He’d seen Joe’s confused expression and didn’t want the boy to continue asking questions that he had no answers for.

“I…sleep in here?” Joe said more to himself than to Henry. He glanced around the tiny shed, sickened. “But why lock me in?”

“Damn it, boy! Stop askin’ so many fool questions,” shouted Henry as he took Joe’s arm and forced him outside.

Grant was stomping toward them, resentment was written in every line of his angry face as he made his way over to them.

“’Cause we didn’t want you running off…you was confused…we didn’t want you to get hurt worse’en ya already be…that’s why we locked you in,” whispered Henry.

“Oh…guess that makes sense,” Joe answered.

“What the hell have you two been doing all morning?” shouted Grant, glaring at his father and then at Little Joe.

“It’s just now six, son…I took the boy some breakfast…”

“BREAKFAST!” yelled Grant, turning to look down at Joe.

“The boy ain’t ate in some time, son…he’s gotta have a full belly if’n ya expect him to help out…” the old man tried to explain.

Grant took a deep breath and spun around to face his father. “What did we talk about last night, old man…have you forgotten so soon? No breakfast…work first…and if…” he turned his fury on Joe. “If you do your work like it should be…then you eat…not before…you got that, boy?”

Joe was taken back by the man’s statement and by his ill temper. But something deep within told him not to cross this man; it might prove dangerous. He instantly didn’t like his uncle, something about the man, besides his bad temper, warned him to tread lightly where Grant was concerned. “Yeah, I understand,” he said.

The fire that burned his cheek and set him on his butt in the dirt came as a total shock to him. His head had not stopped hurting completely, but now, because of the back handed slap his uncle had given him, Joe’s ears were buzzing, his head spinning and his vision blurred.

“You’ll use manners boy, when you speak to me…it’s yes sir, no sir, please, thank you, may I…and you’ll do what I say, when I say…no excuses…got that?” Grant growled.

Henry had squatted down next to Joe and was slowly helping the dazed boy to his feet. Joe rubbed his cheek with his hand, unaware that it was trembling.

“I said…”

“Yes sir…I…understand…sir…” muttered Joe, looking at the man and then quickly looking away.

“Good, now get in that barn…I want it cleaned from top to bottom by noon. If ya ain’t finished, don’t come looking for lunch…cause there won’t be none…for you anyway. Then, at one o’clock sharp, I expect you in the south field ready to plow…now GET!”

Joe took one quick glance at his grandfather and then practically ran to the barn.

“You didn’t have to hit the boy, Grant…he’s still not hisself…”

Grant followed Joe’s path to the barn, and watched the boy disappear inside. He turned to glare at his father. “I don’t care about his health Pa…only how well he works…hear my words, old man. If the boy don’t carry his weight around here…I’ll dispose of him myself…”

Grant turned and walked away, leaving his father to contemplate his words. The thoughts and images that flashed through his head and before his eyes made his stomach churn. He cast troubled eyes Joe’s way and watched how the boy slowly made his way to the barn. For sure, his newly found grandson would have hell to pay if he crossed his just as newly found Uncle Grant. Pity for what lay ahead for the boy, who was not yet fully recuperated from his accident, filled the old man’s heart. Henry could only wonder at how long the boy would last under the strain of his illness and the workload that Grant had planned for him.

‘Dam kid, why’d ya have to show up on my doorstep?’ muttered the heartsick farmer.

*****

Ben was exhausted. So many long tiring days on the trail with the herd and then the stampede had all but done the man in. He was hot and dirty and he knew he smelled, he caught a scent of himself on the breeze and he longed for nice hot bath…at home. But the longing for such luxuries were nothing compared to the longing in his heart for his youngest son. Ben had ridden ahead for miles, following the deep ruts in the dry, dusty earth that showed in which directions the runaway herd had taken two evenings ago, yet he’d found no trace, no sign, no nothing, that gave him a clue as to what might have happened to Little Joe. Longing had since turned to fear, dread…an emptiness that filled his heart and caused his stomach to hurt. Where was the boy…what had happened to him…the words ran as a never changing rumble through his tormented mind.

“Anything, God…anything. Please let me find…something…this not knowing is…killing me!” Ben beseeched his maker.

Urging his horse on, Ben continued his search for the missing boy. “He has to be somewhere…but where!”

Knowing how desperately Hoss and Adam must feel, Ben turned his horse around and headed for the nearest town. He’d send a wire to them, as he had promised he would and if their business there was finished, he’d have his two sons join him in the search for the missing boy. Heartsick and filled with a vast feeling of failure, Ben rode fast, prayed without ceasing until neither he nor his mount could continue with the pace he had set.

“Whoa,” Ben ordered his horse. “Let’s walk a spell, big fella…cool you off some before we reach town.” Ben dismounted, and though his basic instinct was to hurry, he knew he must slow down, for his horse’s sake as well as his own.

*****

Ben wasn’t the only one exhausted and filled with despair. Many miles away in an old run down barn, Little Joe, Ben’s missing son, lay asleep in the middle of a hay pile that he was supposed to be loading onto a wagon. Having worked steady since before 7 AM, without taking a lunch break, Joe’s tired and weary young body had at last given out. He had only meant to stop and rest for no more than five minutes, but having nestled down into the softness of the hay, it had only been seconds before the boy had fallen into a deep slumber. Now, late for the appointed time he was to be in the field to plow, and far behind on his barn and yard chores, he’d soon learn how vicious the wrath of Uncle Grant could honestly be. Even as the furious surrogate uncle jerked the barn opened and stepped into the dim interior, Joe slept on, totally unaware that the big man had moved to his resting place and was now standing over him. Grant’s shadow hid the boy’s features from the light behind him, but the farmer could plainly see that the boy was sleeping.

Grant leaned down and grabbed the sleeping boy by the front of his shirt and hauled Joe to his feet. He shook the lad hard, bringing Joe instantly from his slumber. Joe was momentarily confused but then, seeing the angry eyes glaring at him, his confusion quickly turned to fear. He tried to pull away, but Grant’s fingers held tightly to the material as he spun the boy around, lifting Joe’s feet off the ground as he was yanked upward and then slammed into the half wall of the stable on the opposite side of the barn.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing…sleeping on the job!” roared the furious man.

Joe, having fallen on one knee, slowly attempted to rise. “I’m…sorry…I…was…tired…I didn’t…mean to fall…asleep…honest…it won’t happen…again…”

“You’re dam right it won’t happen again,” snarled Grant, creeping closer.

Joe had gotten to his feet and began backing up as Grant inched forward. The hard boards behind him dug into his back. His uncle towered over him. Joe gulped, swallowing the fear that had suddenly risen as bile into his mouth. When Joe saw the man raise his arm high into the air and saw the balled fist coming at him, he turned his head, covering it with both arms. Again and again the man struck the boy, until at last, Joe lay withering on the ground, groaning pitifully. When the blows ceased, Joe automatically curled his body into a tight ball, scooting as far from the cruel man as possible.

“You have less than five minutes to be in the field. I’ll meet you there; if you’re a minute late…I’ll…” he stopped talking and turned to pick up the whip from the peg in which it hung. “I’ll tear the hide off your back…now MOVE!”

Grant stepped back, giving Joe the room he needed to get to his feet. A spot of blood showed on his already swelled lip. He could taste it in his mouth but he refused to wipe it away, at least not yet. Pain crept down his back where most of is uncle’s blows were delivered. Joe was a bit unsteady on his feet, unsure of his steps as he crept around the man and towards the door. Once outside, he filled his lungs with fresh air. The air seemed to clear his head enough to remind him he’d best not be late…his time was running out. As he ran to the designated area, he continually looked over his shoulder. He could see Grant making his way to the field. When Joe reached the edge of the field where the mule stood, already harnessed to the plow, he stopped and inhaled deeply, again filling his now heaving lungs with fresh air. There was a sharp pain in his side that burned each and every time he breathed in and out. But he was determined not to let the man know just how badly he’d been hurt by the powerful blows to his body. He’d plow the field…he’d not give in to his despair…he’d not give in to the hopelessness he felt growing in his heart.

“Dang good thing you’re here on time…now see all this?” Grant asked as he waved his hand about the area. “I want this entire field plowed before sundown…” he glared down at the boy.

Joe knew he was gapping. The field must have been an acre, maybe one and a half, give or take a few rows. It would be no easy feat…he wasn’t even sure if he knew how to plow…he couldn’t remember having ever plowed before. But he was sure that he’d not make the man’s deadline…he wondered if even an experienced farmer could plow this much land in that length of time. Joe glanced up at the sky…it was well past the noon hour…probably around two or three o’clock.

“If ya don’t finish by dark…don’t come in until you do…and don’t worry about eatin’ ‘cause ya not gonna get anythin’,” growled Grant.

Joe swallowed hard and glanced around at his surrounding. Suddenly he felt his body pulled forward. The man had him tight by the front of his shirt, his eyes were dark, filled with hate.

“And don’t think about trying to run away…cause I’ll be watchin’ ya…and if ya do…well…you’ll wish to God I hadn’t caught up with ya…”

Grant flung the boy backwards, causing Joe to stagger but he caught himself before he fell.

“Now git to work!”

*****

It was far after dark, approaching mid-night before Joe returned to the barn with the mule in tow. It had taken every last ounce of his strength pushing his willpower to the extreme, but he’d finished the assigned chore. The field was plowed. The cost of his labor was that every muscle in his young body ached to some degree. His success gave him no pleasure for his hands were raw where blisters had formed and popped, leaving the skin marred and bloody. Though he tried early on, not to let his unhappy fate, the grueling work or the ornery old farmers get to him, his resolve broke when he knelt by the water trough and plunged his hands into the deep coolness. His face scrunched up in a painful expression, his hands burned so that it caused tears to spring into his eyes, overflowing and rolling down his cheeks. The tiny droplets of water dropped and mingled with the deeper water inside the trough. For several long moments Joe stayed at the trough. Every so often, he’d raise his hands out of the water and look at them. The flaming, burning flesh was barely visible in the faded glow of the old lantern. He glanced once at the old cabin. All the lights had been extinguished. Joe knew his new-found family had long since turned in for the night. Something else he knew…he was hungry…but it would do no good to beg, he’d have to wait until morning chores were done before his Uncle Grant would give him permission to eat.

After several minutes and barely able to keep his eyes opened, Joe made his way to the old shed. He found some rags, though not the cleanest, he used them to wrap his hands. Too tired for much else, the weary boy settled onto this cot and practically before he closed his eyes, he was asleep.

*****

The arms that embraced him filled him with a feeling of warmth and security. Joe nestled closer to the broad chest and listened to the steady beating of the heart beneath his ear. It had a calming affect on him. It gave him cause to relax and for the first time in many days, Joe felt safe…he felt…secure…no reasons now to be afraid. The reason…love. He could hear it in the beat of the heart; he could feel it in the strength of the arms that encircled him…he could hear love in the deep voice that whispered to him. In his sleep, the boy smiled and snuggled deeper into the bedding. He wanted to stay where he was…in this safe haven of love and strength, never to return to the cruel world in which he lived. He gently sniffed the air; the scent of the man was familiar. Joe tried to turn his head so that he might gaze at the man’s face, but always…always he was prevented from seeing the man clearly enough to make out who the man might be.

Never mind his thoughts repeated. You are safe now…you are going to be alright…we’re going home, soon…The words were repetitious. Home, love, warmth, strength…where was it coming from…who was the man holding him and cooing softly to him, reassuring him…who…who…who…

“TIME TO GET UP!” The door had been kicked opened and Grant stood tall in the doorway, the sun against his back. “GET UP, YA LAZY NO ACCOUNT BRAT!”

Joe raised his head slightly. Every part of his body screamed at him to stay put, but he slowly rose from his bed.

“It can’t be morning yet,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts. “I…just got to sleep.”

“Too bad…ya shouldn’t have sloughed off on your work yesterday,” Grant informed the boy. “What happened to your hands?”

Joe looked again at the doorway and saw his grandfather pushing his way past his uncle.

“Blisters…” muttered Joe, watching the concern spread across the older man’s face. He glanced up at Grant for his reaction while Henry carefully unwound the rags.

“Whew…that don’t look so good, Chad. Best we get some ointment on those blisters or you’ll never be able to work again. I’ll be right back.”

Henry walked past his son, giving Grant a furious glare as he went by. When the old man had gone, Grant walked over to Joe and grabbed both hands, holding them up so that he could inspect them. Joe wanted to pull away, but thought better of it.  He gritted his teeth and held still while Grant turned them up and over and then around.

“You’ll live…” he said with no feeling whatsoever in his voice.  “Did you finish all the plowin’?”

“Yes sir…”

“Darn good thing…did you take care of the mule?”

“Yes sir, I rubbed him down and fed him…gave him clean water and an extra measure of grain.”

“Good…we don’t want nothin’ to happen to that critter. ‘Cause if it does…I’ll have to harness you to that plow…and let you pull it.”

Joe swallowed hard. “Uncle Grant…sir…”

“What!” roared the uncle. He’d turned to the door watching his father hurrying across the yard.

Before Joe had a chance to ask his question, Henry appeared with the ointment and some clean bandages. He smiled at the boy as he nodded toward the two crates. “Sit down son, I’ll have ya all fixed up in no time…”

Joe hesitated, glanced up at his uncle and when Grant made no comment, he did as his would-be grandfather instructed. Grant turned and walked away, saying nothing more. Both Joe and Henry sighed in relief.

*****

Ben was standing out front of the hotel when he looked up and saw Adam and Hoss riding down the street towards him. A rush of relief filled him as he stepped up to greet his sons.

“Howdy, Pa,” Hoss greeted his father, giving Ben a hearty handshake.

“Hello, Hoss, Adam,” replied Ben, shaking Adam’s hand as well. “I take it you were able to get the herd to market on time?”

“Sure did,” smiled Hoss. He watched Ben closely, acutely aware of the weariness that plagued his father.

“Got $5 more a head too,” added Adam. “I take it…you’ve not found Little Joe?”

Ben, overcome with worry and all but worn out, shook his head. “No…” It was simple and plain…a direct answer that summed up it all up.

“I sent you a wire the next evening…”

“Took us a couple of days to get it, Pa…or we would have been here sooner,” explained Adam.

“I figured so, since I didn’t get a reply…so, I kept searching…I haven’t even been able to find his horse…nothing…not one dam thing!” Ben gritted his teeth, frustrated and angry about feeling so helpless, worried sick about his youngest boy…fearing the worse yet hanging on by a lone thread of faith.

“Have you talked to the sheriff…we know we were west of  Placerville, almost here in El Dorado…so the kid almost has to be between El Dorado and Sacramento…” Adam said, thinking out loud.

“Adam I’ve hunted every inch of that country…I didn’t find anything…nothing…”

“Pa…them cattle scattered in about a hundred different directions…some went west, some south…some up, down, some back towards where they come from…what if Little Joe took off after some that went north…or maybe…south…” suggested Hoss.

“I thought you said he was out in front of the herd when it stampeded?” Ben quizzed.

“Yeah…he was…but what if…he turned…he’d almost have’ta Pa…or get…” Hoss swallowed hard. “Get…trampled…and,” he rushed on, “since you ain’t found no sign of him or his horse…it ain’t likely the boy got trampled on!”

“Hoss is right, Pa…maybe you were looking in the wrong place.”

Ben seemed to be considering the new information. For sure he’d found nothing where he’d been, it wouldn’t hurt to look in opposite directions as his son suggested.

“Alright, Adam…Hoss…we’ll split up…I’ll ride up north toward Auburn; Hoss you go back towards Placerville and Adam…you ride down south aways…look around, if you don’t find something in the next couple of days…you meet Hoss back here and the two of you catch up with me…And if you should happen to find the boy…well, send me word in Auburn, I’ll check there for a message, say, in three days…”

*****

Though his hands hurt terribly, Joe still worked from sun up to sun down. His meals were meager and few and as the long tiresome days turned into weeks, his young, once muscular body began showing the signs of his abuse. His strength began to wane, his weight dropped, his once happy-go-lucky countenance had long since vanished. The boy was sad…lonesome and grieving for the love and respect that was missing from his life. His only respite from his lengthy hours and lonely nights, were long after he’d fallen to sleep and became lost in his dreams. The man appeared nightly, yet never showed his face. The strong arms and beating heart, the smooth, deep, mellow voice called out to him and Joe, deep in sleep, felt the pull, the yearning of his young heart to reach out to the man…but then just as he seemed about to discover who the man might be, the door to the shed would be yanked opened and Grant, ranting and raving, would shatter the dream into a zillion pieces.

*****

Two days later, the Cartwrights had returned to El Dorado. Adam had returned first, tired, dirty and disappointed that he had found nothing. He had stabled his horse at the nearby livery and had rented a room for himself, his brother and for his father. While he waited for them to arrive, Adam pleasured himself in a tub of hot soapy water and washing away miles of trail dust and sweat. He scrubbed himself until his body glistened and then redressed in the clean clothes he’d had sent out to the local laundry. Refreshed and feeling a bit better, it was while he sat in the dining room of the hotel that he first came up with the idea. He had watched the sheriff enter with his deputy and while he ate, he saw the pair going over the newest posters that had arrived on the afternoon stage. When he’d finished and paid for his meal, Adam hurried down the street to the local printing office he’d noticed when he had ridden into town.

As he pushed the door opened, the little bell over his head tinkled. Immediately, a man, not much older than himself, approached him, having come from the back room. “May I help you?” he said in a welcoming voice.

“I…hope so,” Adam said as he dug in his coat pocket for his wallet. He began flipping through it until he found what he was looking for. “I was wondering if you might be able to make up some posters for me?” he asked and then handed a small picture to the man. “And…put this boy’s face on the posters.”

The gentleman held the photo in his hand, studying the features of the boy who smiled back at him. “I reckon so…shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Good…I don’t mean to be forward, but I need them right away…how soon do you think you could have them ready?”

The man sensed the urgency in the tall stranger’s tone and mannerisms. “Is the boy wanted for something…a crime perhaps? And you’d want to put something besides his image on the posters I suppose?”

Adam’s laugh was bordering on nervous. The situation with Joe being missing was almost more than any of his family could endure. “He’s wanted alright…”

The man’s eyes grew big in wonder. “He’s only a boy…”

“Yes sir…he’s my kid brother…and he’s been missing for nearly a month now. My family and I have looked everywhere…and haven’t found a trace of him…I thought perhaps putting up posters…with his picture and a reward, might help us find him,” Adam explained.

“I see…and I’m sorry to hear about your misfortune. May I ask…how did he turn up missing?”

“We were bringing a herd of cattle to market…”

“Sacramento?”

“Yes…and the herd stampeded…just a ways out of town…Joe…that’s his name, has been missing ever since.”

“Hmmm…you don’t suppose the boy was…” he hesitated.

“Killed?” Adam moaned softly, the thought wasn’t new to him. “I hope not…but the longer time goes by that we don’t find anything…well…I try to be positive.”

“Absolutely, sir. Now, just write down what you want on the poster, and I’ll get started on them right away. How many do you want?” he asked as he handed Adam a paper and pencil.

Adam started writing, never looking up when he answered. “I think two dozen will do for now. I’m expecting my father and my other brother any time now…we’ll post them about town and in the surrounding area…” he said, handing the paper to the man. “How much?” he asked, digging in his purse again.

“Dollar and a half should cover it…are you Mr. Cartwright?” the printer asked after reading the reward poster with Joe’s name on it.

Adam tossed the money on the counter. “That’s right, I’m Adam Cartwright; my father is Ben Cartwright.”

“I’ve heard of him…has a big ranch down around Virginia City doesn’t he?” The man picked up the coins and put them in his cash box.

“That’s right,” Adam answered.

“Alright then, Mr. Cartwright…I’ll have these ready for you in about an hour…”

“Thank you,” Adam said with a tip of his hat. “I’ll be back later.”

When he returned more than an hour later, Ben and Hoss were with him. They picked up the posters, thanked the man and left.

“Adam, this was a good idea…why we didn’t think of it weeks ago is beyond me,” Ben said, holding some of the posters in his hand, staring at Joe’s reflection smiling back at him. Adam and Hoss swapped worried glances when they saw their father gently brush his fingertips down the side of the boy’s face on the poster. Ben sighed heavily and looked up at his sons. “I miss him terribly,” he said softly.

Touched by the warmth in his father’s voice and the sadness in his dark eyes, Adam placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “We know Pa…we miss him too.”

“Try not to worry, Pa…we’ll find ’im…I just know we will,” Hoss added.

After hanging several of posters about town, the three men retired to their hotel room for the night, anxious to start over again first thing in the morning.

*****

Joe was already up by the time that Grant came from the house the next morning. He’d barely slept at all, his insides churned with hunger. The need for food drove him from his bed. He hoped that by getting an early start that he’d earn the right to breakfast, being as how he’d been forced to skip both lunch and supper the day before.

Grant practically ran into the boy as he entered the barn, Joe was exiting.

“Well!” Grant stated firmly, obviously surprised to see the boy up and about.

“I…wanted to get an early start…sir,” stammered Joe.

“Hungry, heh?” smirked the older man. His eyes gleamed wickedly.

Joe lowered his head, afraid to look the man in the eye. He nodded his head and muttered in a low, almost shy voice. “Yes sir.”

“I thought as much…how long ya been workin’?”

“Since before sunup, sir…I’ve fed the stock, gathered the eggs and milked the cow. The milk’s in the well house…I was on my way to feed the chickens and slop the hogs. I’ll be done with mornin’ chores then…”

Grant eyed the boy closely. He’d changed since that first morning…the boy had lost some of the fight in him…course he’d beaten most of it out of the kid. Chad had been stubborn and belligerent, fighting against him at every turn. It had taken several trips to the woodshed and the firm leather strap, but Grant had managed over the weeks to curb the boy’s sharp tongue and ill manners. The lad appeared almost meek now, shy and tongued-tied, timid…afraid. He resembled nothing of the boy who had found his way to them. Once appearing well cared for and fit, the boy looked more like a street urchin now, unkempt and dirty, his hair lay in ringlets about his face. His eyes, once alive and dancing, now were dark circled and had more of a faraway look to them. He doubted seriously that if the boy’s family ever saw him, they’d not even recognize the lad, which pleased Grant, for he aimed on keeping the boy forever, forcing the kid to work for him, digging in the dirt that yielded little and shoveling crap from his barn. It was almost humorous to him, what he’d forced the once obviously rich kid to become. Grant smiled, surprising the boy who watched him from downcast eyes; fearful of what might be going through his uncle’s thoughts.

“When you’ve finished feeding the chickens and the hogs…go tell Pa to fix ya some breakfast…and eat fast…we’re goin’ into town today,” Grant announced as he turned and entered the barn.

For a moment, Joe was unable to move or to think clearly. It would be the first time since…whenever…that he’d been allowed off the farm. It mattered little to him that he’d be with both his uncle and his grandfather…he’d still be going. The excitement was almost too much as he hurried to finish his chores and then his breakfast. How many times had he thought about leaving, of running away, but the fear of what his uncle might do to him, should he be caught, tipped the scales into staying put.

“Maybe…just maybe,” he whispered to the chickens, “something good will happen today…maybe.”

*****

“I put up some more posters Pa, ain’t likely they’ll be missed,” Hoss announced. He was feeling a bit better about things this morning, more hopeful. He hoped his pa and brother were too.

“Thank you son…now, let’s get our things together and then have a bite to eat before we leave,” Ben suggested. He was quick to notice the spark of renewed hope that he’d seen in his middle son’s eyes. The thought occurred to him that if Hoss could still be hopeful, he would too. It would be a month tomorrow since Joe went missing…in truth, there wasn’t much to hope for…time was the worst of enemies now. There would come the day of reckoning, when they’d all have to admit that Joe was lost to them forever. A sad time to face for the future, but watching his two sons putting on hopeful faces, though Ben realized that it was for him that they were doing it, he’d do no less for them. Life would go on, with or with Little Joe. They would, by the grace of God, get though their loss, their grief…it wouldn’t be easy Ben thought…but he still had two sons, though the hole in his heart that would be forever an open wound for him, would always linger, reminding him of what he’d lost and most of what he would have missed, had the boy been found and brought home…alive.

“Pa…PA!”

Ben was jolted back to the present. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“You were a thousand miles away,” Adam said, sensing what had been on his father’s mind.

Ben’s lips pulled tight as he nodded. “I wish it weren’t so far…” he sighed. “Come on, I’m hungry,” he declared, forcing a smile.

*****

The wagon stopped in front of the general store and Grant quickly turned and looked over his shoulder at Chad who sat on the back edge of the wagon, looking all around, trying to take in every bit as much as he could.

“BOY!”

Joe spun around, having hopped down off the wagon bed. “Sir?” he answered quickly.

Grant jumped down as well and hurried to the back of the wagon. He picked up a leather harness and held it out to the boy. “I want you to take this down to the livery, tell the man there to fix it…and wait…the minute he’s finished, you get your butt back here…you understand? No dawdling around…here’s the money. It shouldn’t take more than half an hour…if you’re not back by the time we’re ready to load supplies…I’ll use the leather on you…and you know what that means!”

“Yes sir…I’ll…hurry…” Joe said, taking the harness from his uncle. He was anxious to get away…even if for half an hour. He felt like a bird out of the cage.

“Get goin’!”

Joe need not be told again, he immediately started running, but halfway down the street he slowed down and tried to take in as much as he could in the time allotted him, of the town and the folks that wandered the streets. Before he knew it, he’d reached the livery.

“Ya want something, boy?” the stable master inquired.

Joe held out the harness to him. “My uncle needs this fixed, sir,” Joe explained. “He said I was to wait.”

The old timer took the harness, inspected it and then nodded. “Won’t take but a minute, I’ll be right back, sonny,” he said and then disappeared into the darkness of the stable.

While he waited for the harness to be repaired, Joe walked a ways down the street, observing the people. Those that passed him stepped aside, as if they were afraid they’d catch something from him. Joe puzzled as to why…he knew he was dirty, but…it hadn’t really bothered him…until then. Uncomfortable with the strange glances and the constant staring, Joe turned back toward the livery. When he arrived, the harness was ready. Quickly Joe pulled the coins his uncle had given him, out of his pocket, paid the man and then hurried back in the direction of the general store.

He’d only gone a short way when a bulletin nailed to a post, caught his eye. Joe stopped and stared at the face imprinted on the poster. He read the words, Missing, Joseph Cartwright, age 16. $10,000 reward for information as to his whereabouts. Last seen on the 2nd of June. If seen, contact Ben Cartwright, Ponderosa Ranch, Virginia City, Nevada.

Joe squeezed his eyes tightly. A sudden rush of pain shot through his head. He pressed his fingertips against his throbbing temples in an effort to ward off the pain. Just as suddenly as it happened, the pain was gone. Opening his eyes, Joe looked again at the poster. The kid seemed familiar. He was about to reach up and snatch the cardboard when a loud voice calling his name, stopped him.

“CHAD!”

Chad turned, seeing his uncle stomping through the mass of people coming right towards him.

“Dang…I forgot the time!” Joe muttered to himself. His insides immediately began to churn. He knew what lay ahead of him and the fear he felt gnawing at his insides cause his stomach to rumble.

Grant grabbed the boy by the back of the neck and directed him back across the street toward the wagon. He practically forced Joe to bend over as he shoved him face down on the wagon bed in the back. The enraged man leaned down low, near Joe’s head.

“Just what in hell were you doing? I told you to come straight back here…I had to go down to the livery myself, only to find you’d already gone…where were you!” he growled in a low, threatening voice.

Joe was unable to rise, his uncle held him pinned, face down to the bed of the wagon. “I was on…my way…I…just stopped…for a…minute…honest…I wasn’t doing…any thing wrong…honest…sir…please…”

Grant’s fingers tightened around the back of Joe’s neck. The boy winced lowly. His breath became labored as he fought his rising fear.

*****

“Hoss…come on,” Ben said, for Hoss had stopped to watch what was going on across the street. Ben glanced at his son, saw the concerned look on the big man’s face and then looked across the street at the scene in front of the general store.

A man had a boy pinned to the back of the wagon, shouting at the boy. It made Ben’s stomach churn to see what the man was doing to the boy, especially when his own son was missing. Though he could never tolerate any form of abuse himself, Ben could only reason that perhaps the lad had done something wrong, perhaps stolen an item from the store. If that were the case, the father was certainly within his rights to discipline his child.

When Hoss took a step off the boardwalk, Ben reached out and put his hand on his son’s arm. Hoss glanced back over his shoulder at his father.

“No Hoss…stay out of it…”

“But Pa…he’s just a boy…”

“I know…I can see what’s going on, but it’s none of our affair son, now come on,” Ben said, gently tugging on Hoss’ arm.

Hoss looked again at how the man used his fist and struck the boy in the back between his shoulders. It sickened him. His mind had flashes of his youngest brother…how the boy, now slumped over, the man having gone back inside the store, looked as if he were in pain.

“Pa…I won’t be but a minute…” Hoss stated and then pulled away from his father.

Ben, surprised, quickly stepped in front of Hoss, placing his hands on the broad chest.

“Hoss…do not get involved. Ben took a quick look over his shoulder. “See, he’s alright, he’s helping his family load the wagon…”

For a long moment, Hoss stood watching, the boy going in and out of the store. The man had left with an older man and the pair were now making their way towards the saloon. Satisfied that the bedraggled boy was safe for now and appeared unharmed, Hoss gently removed his father’s hands and turned to join Adam on the sidewalk. “Let’s get the horses and get outta here,” he remarked tartly.

*****

Joe had finished loading the wagon as instructed and now rested on the tailgate, leaning back against the crates and sacks that he’d piled on behind. His back smarted where Grant had driven his fists into his flesh. He straightened up and tried to move his shoulders, working some of the stiffness out of his muscles, but it did little good.

As he sat up, he noticed the three men walking down the boardwalk. The trio, had stopped and were talking to some people who had also stopped to look at the poster he, himself had been looking at. Joe was curious…about the boy in the picture. He’d given it some thought while he’d been loading the wagon, and though he hadn’t seen his own refection since coming to his grandfather’s, Joe got the feeling that he resembled the boy on the poster.

He watched the three men, wondering how they fit into the scheme of things…did they know the missing boy…he had to find out who they were and why they seemed so interested in what the folks were saying.

It was a daring move on Joe’s part, not to stay with the wagon as Grant had ordered him to do. And he knew if he were caught not where he was suppose to be, there’d be hell to pay later, once they got back home. But the curiosity was over-whelming and before he knew what he was actually doing, Joe was hurrying across the street. The crowd had grown, making it easy for him to mingle amid the array of bodies, unnoticed. He tried to look over one man’ shoulder, but the man blocked his view. Joe tried to squirm around the man, but the crowd had closed in on him and he was virtually trapped among the throng of people.

It was then that he heard the voice. He froze, unable to move as he listened to the man talking. The voice, deep and mellow, soft yet commanding caused him to shiver. When he looked at the hairs on his arms, Joe noted that they seemed to be standing on end. The voice was alluring, threatening in volume yet, gentle and warm in tone. He tried to shove his way to the front. Men pushed him away, elbowed him in the ribs, but Joe fought his way through, determined to see the face of the man who spoke with the voice that had haunted his dreams for weeks on end.

At last the voice died away. Joe listened intently, wondering now if he had imagined the voice. By the time he’d pushed his way to the front, the crowd was parting, going in different directions so that within minutes he stood alone, in front of the poster of the missing boy. Something deep within caused a sob to escape from his mouth. Unsure of why, Joe felt like crying. He felt so alone, abandoned…frightened, heartsick.

“WHERE’S THAT KID!”

Fear, as strong as a bolt of lightening, pierced his heart. There was a voice he knew well…and with it came a dread so deep that it sent shivers of fear coursing down his spine. Joe looked up; Grant was heading straight toward him. His first instinct was to run away; but acutely aware of what would happen to him if he did, a split second decision not to, warned him to stay put. Instead, he snatched the poster, ripping it from the post and stuffed it into his shirt, unseen and then turned to face the fury of his tormentor.

He was hit so fast and so hard that the boy did not know what happened to him. It was only hours later when he awoke in total darkness and unable to move that he remembered the last thing he’d seen was the fire of hate burning bright in his uncle’s amber eyes.

His body ached, especially between the shoulders where Grant had vented his rage earlier and his jaw where he’d been hit when Grant found him gone from the wagon where he was told to stay. Joe could feel the cool earth beneath his body. It almost felt good from the repressive heat of the day. It was dark, no light was shining anywhere about and he wondered where he was. His hands were tied behind his back and ankles were tied just as tightly, his mouth was gagged, preventing him from calling out. Panic seized his young heart as he strained to make out the confines of his newest prison. After struggling for several moments, he gave up. It was no use; he couldn’t work the ropes free. Whoever had tied him had made doubly sure he’d not get away. It was then that Joe wished he had risked an escape.

Above him, he could here people walking across the floor. It dawned on him then that he must be in some sort of cellar, probably a root cellar, or a storm shelter dug out beneath the house. He listened intently, hoping to make out what was being said, but after several minutes, gave up, the voices were muted and inaudible. And at that point in his life, Joe cared less what was being said or what his uncle and grandfather had planned for him. He was weary, cold, dirty and so dadburn hungry that he could eat an entire cow had it been offered to him.

The door above opened and shut loudly. Someone had left, Joe could only wonder who and why. Little did he know that salvation was riding threefold right up to the front door.

“Howdy, stranger…” Grant greeted the threesome. The old man came quietly from the cabin, closing the door with more ease than his son. Henry stood to Grant’s right, watching the strangers as the older of them dismounted and stepped forward.

“Hello…my name’s Ben Cartwright…these are my sons, Adam and Hoss,” Ben said, introducing himself and then his boys. He extended his hand out to the farmers, but they ignored the gesture. Ben casually glanced up at Hoss and Adam.

“What’s you be wanting…or needing?” Grant asked gruffly.

Ben pulled a poster from his vest and unfolded it, showing it to both men. “We’re looking for this boy…my son, Joseph. He disappeared several weeks ago and we’ve searched the country round about for him, but can’t find a trace of him. I was wondering…perhaps you’ve seen the boy?”

Grant barely took notice of the poster. He was watching Hoss and the way the big man searched his surroundings with sharp eyes. Henry stepped up and took the poster from Ben, studied it and then handed it back.

“Nope…we ain’t seen no body…not a kid or nuthin’ in weeks,” Henry explained.

“Nobody?” Hoss said. He’d seen the man watching him. Something about the fellow disturbed him, he smelled of trouble. It was then that Hoss remembered the man. “Ain’t you the men I seen in town earlier today…you had a boy with you…about this high?” Hoss asked.

Ben noticed that the tall stranger paced slightly. Hoss was right; it was the man who was beating the boy.

“That’s right…you did have a boy with you. Perhaps your…son…might have seen my son hereabouts,” Ben said.

“No…my boy don’t go off the place lessen he’s with me, or his grandpa,” Grant stated.

By this time, Adam had dismounted as well and joined his father and brother in the yard with the two farmers. “Could we just ask him ourselves?” he said, almost insisting. He didn’t like the men either; he felt as Hoss felt, the men were trouble…and so obviously lying that it was almost a joke.

“Can’t.”

“Why not?” Ben returned.

“ ‘Cause…he…hmm…ain’t here,” Grant lied.

For a moment all were silent, then Adam stepped even closer to the younger farmer. “I thought you just said that the boy doesn’t go anywhere unless one of you are with him?” he growled.

Henry rushed to explain. “He did, say that…mister…but what my son here meant was that Chad…that’s the boy…well, he’s busy right now…sort of…tied up you might say. But I can assure you, he ain’t seen nobody either, cause if’n he had, he’d a said and he ain’t said, has he son?” Henry finished, directing his question to his boy.

“I said he ain’t…Look, mister,” he said, speaking to Ben. He’d moved away from Adam, for some strange reason the dark man in black intimidated him and he didn’t like the feeling that maybe the stranger knew he was lying. “We got work to do…a farm don’t run it’s self…we got stock to feed and…”

“Of course you do,” Ben interrupted. “We won’t be keeping you…thank you for your help. Here, keep the poster…just in case…there’s a reward, should you happen to see my son and direct one of us to him. The information’s right there on the front,” he said, giving the poster to Henry.

They turned and mounted up, riding away from the rundown place without so much as looking back, never knowing that just yards away and only a few feet beneath them lay the every thing they were searching so hard to find.

The Cartwrights had only ridden a short ways when Hoss pulled his mount to an abrupt halt. The others stopped just a few yards ahead and Ben turned his horse around and rode back to where Hoss waited. “Something wrong, son?”

“Yeah, plenty…them varmints were lyin’ Pa…I know it and so do you…so does Adam,” grumbled the usual cheerful young man.

Ben wore a serious expression as he nodded his head in agreement. “Yes…I realize that son…but what goes on within a man’s own home is his business. No matter where that boy was…he’s none of our concern. What is our concern is finding Little Joe…”

“But Pa…what if they hurt that boy…and why lie about where he was?”

“Hoss,” Ben said with a deep sigh, “I don’t know why they lied…I don’t care…I just want to find MY son and take him home…now please, lets move on, we have a lot of ground to cover,” he grumbled.

As he turned his mount back around, Adam blocked his path. Ben pulled up short.

“Pa,” Adam said. Ben noted the serious look in his eldest son’s dark eyes. “You’ve been driving yourself hard for a month…and we’ve followed you every step of the way…but…”

“But what?”

“Now don’t take this the wrong way…”

“Take what the wrong way…will you please just say, what’s on your mind?”

“Alright, I will. When…is it enough…I mean…Joe’s gone, Pa…plain and simple…AND…I will be the first to admit how badly that bothers me, how I’d give my life to have him back…but we’re going to have to face it sometime, Pa…Joe’s not coming home…not now…not ever…”

“Adam THAT’s enough! Do you hear me? I won’t give up…ever…not now…not ever! Now,” Ben said in a calmer voice. “If you and Hoss want to give up…I…certainly can’t fault you for that. You can go home…I…won’t hold it against you…I swear I won’t. But you have to understand something…” Ben swallowed down the pain that was crushing his chest, the pieces of his heart were piercing like daggers into his lungs, making breathing almost impossible. “I shall never forever myself for letting this happen…Joe’s…missing, possibly his…death…I can’t give up. I owe my all to that boy…I owe him, Adam…I HAVE to find him…”

“You ain’t blamin’ ya self…are ya Pa? Cause if’n ya are…you shouldn’t…this ain’t your fault, no more’n it’s mine or Adam’s or…anyone’s…” Hoss declared.

“I was blaming myself…in the beginning…but…I have a gut feeling, son, about something.”

“A gut feeling about what Pa?” Adam asked, tossing a quick glance at Hoss who seemed just as puzzled by their father’s statement.

“I have a gut feeling that Little Joe is alive…and he’s missing naturally, but not because he wants to…but because he’s being forced to…”

“What?” Adam stammered. “Pa…that’s wishful thinking…”

“No it’s not…let me explain something to you. Back there…at that farm…those farmers were lying…that was easy to see. They were hiding something…”

“Or someone,” Adam said aloud.

“Someone!” Hoss practically shouted. “Ya reckon…it’s Little Joe?”

Ben grew serious and grim. “I don’t know,” he stated flatly. “I’d have to ask why…we’ve offered a sizable reward…”

“Yeah but Pa…we just got them posters…maybe…” Hoss began.

Adam finished his brother’s sentence for him. “They’ve held Joe as their prisoner, waiting, hoping that someone would offer a reward.”

Hoss’ expression was one of fury. “They’s using him to gain a small fortune…hey wait just a dang minute…” His eyes were huge blue balls. “Ya don’t reckon that poor kid they was beatin’ on back in town could’va been…naw…that boy was too ragged and dirty, why anybody could tell he’s been worked like a…”

“Hoss, that’s it…Pa,” Adam said, growing excited. “What if that were Joe…what if those men were using the boy to work for them…doing chores and whatever else they didn’t want to do…all the time waiting for a reward to be offered? It’s possible, isn’t it?”

It was Ben’s turn to get angry. “It’s possible…I hate to think of that boy in town as being my own son…he was a mess, a dirty, smelly ragamuffin…he looked nothing like Little Joe…”

“Unless he’s been neglected as well as beaten and obviously starved…anyone could see that boy has missed more than just a meal or two…” Adam grumbled.

“I know that…but I have an idea about that boy…if we could just talk to him, offer him the reward…promise not to let his family hurt him…then, if…and I know it’s a big if, but if he knew anything about Joe’s whereabouts, the boy might be willing to talk to us,” Ben explained.

For the first time in weeks, his two sons could see the glimmer of hope that sprang into his dull, sad eyes. They looked at one another, and then nodded.

“Alright, Pa…it’s worth a try…but just how are we gonna get to that boy…without his family getting’ in the way?”

“I don’t know…yet. I’ll have to give it some thought, but for right now, let’s find a place to camp for the night…no fires…because I want to stay close to that shack…maybe, with any luck, we’ll get a chance to catch that boy alone. If that happens, we’ll…nab him…”

“Hey…maybe we could make a trade…”

“A trade?” Adam asked his brother.

“Yeah…their own kin for ours…Little Joe for that boy…” Hoss almost smiled. He’d risk anything to get his little brother back…anything, even his own life, and the others knew it…’cause they felt the same way about the youngest member of their family.

Ben smiled proudly at his middle boy and clamped his strong hand down on Hoss’ shoulder.

“Hoss, from the looks of that boy, I’d say he needs rescuing about as badly as your little brother. Perhaps we can do some justice for both…if the boy knows anything about Joseph,” Ben suggested.

“And…if he don’t?” inquired Adam.

“Then we’ll continue to look for Joseph, as I said before…I won’t give up until I know something…one way or the other. Now, come on, let’s get settled in for the night.”

*****

“The boy’s awake, Grant,” the old farmer informed his son at breakfast the next morning. “What are we gonna do with him now…they know he’s here?”

Grant was sitting at the makeshift table in the center of their tiny farmhouse, sipping coffee. “They ain’t got no idea that the boy is the one they’re lookin’ for…”

“No…but they know we got a boy here…and now they’s suspicious,” the old man worried as he poured himself a cup of the strong coffee. “They’ll be back…and when they do…there’s gonna be trouble…”

Grant watched the worried expression spread across his father’s face. He sat his cup down with a bang.

“Maybe you’re right for once, old man…we best get rid of the kid…” he said, pushing back his chair and standing.

Henry almost choked on his coffee. His head jerked upward as he stared openly at his son. “What do ya mean…get rid of the kid? Surely ya don’t mean…kill the boy?”

“Ya got any better ideas?” Grant stormed as he pushed back the tattered old armchair and pulled the worn rug from the floor where it hid the trap door to the cellar.

Henry had stood up and moved across the room, standing on the door in the floor. “Yeah, we clean ’im up, feed him and turn him over to his old man…we’ll collect $10,000 for our trouble…then we can get the hell away from his play!”

Grant’s lips were pulled tight across his face, his brow furrowed deeply as he thought about his father’s idea. But then he shook his head. “We can’t do that, Pa…”

“Why not…it’ll work…”

“No…we told Cartwright that the kid was ours…we can’t turn around now and say, ‘oops…we made a mistake, the boy is yours’…we have to get rid of the boy and now…before those men come back. I’ve an idea they didn’t believe one word of what we told them, ‘specially that big brute. We’ll take the boy off some where’s…then we’ll…do whatever needs to be done…”

“Grant…I think that’s a mistake…think about the money. The boy won’t remember nothin’…we’ll just tell Cartwright that we found his kid after they stopped by…”

“What if they ask about our boy…what’ll ya tell them?”

Henry rubbed the back of his head with his opened hand as he paced the floor. Suddenly he stopped and spun around, facing his son.

“We’ll take the boy to his father…and we’ll make up some story about leaving Chad at home…if we caught them out on the trail and return the boy there, they ain’t got no need to come back here. Grant,” Henry said, moving close to his son. “It’s what we been waitin’ for son…with $10,000 we can go anywhere and…start all over. We can buy us a nice place instead of living here in this dump. Why, we can even go back east if we’re a mind too…you’d like that wouldn’t ya son…or…maybe San Francisco…that’d be nice…what’ll you say…let’s give ’im back their boy. He’s been nothin’ but trouble anyways…”

It was the first time in a great many years that Henry had actually seen his son smile for real. The ages of time seemed to slip silently away from the younger man’s face. His eyes, usually dull and full of what might be described as hatred, suddenly took on a faraway, dreamy look. Grant’s body was as if under a spell, for the taunt muscles seemed to soften and when he looked at his father and spoke, the voice was calm and the tone smooth and clear.

“I’d like San Francisco, Pa. I’ll get the boy, you get the horses ready,” Grant said.

Henry grinned and went for the door, stopping suddenly and turning back around. Grant had just lifted the door and was beginning to descend the ladder.

“Grant, son…ain’t we gonna clean the boy up first?”

Grant, his head just barely above the opening, shook it from side to side. “No…we’ll take the boy to the old mine shaft and leave him there. I left some chains and rope…so he won’t get away. Then we’ll find Cartwright and demand the reward. We’ll tell him that he has twenty-four hours to bring him the money, or the boy dies.”

“Dies…how?” Henry felt sick to his stomach again.

“I dunno…I’ll crush his head with a rock and toss him down one of those old shafts. Nobody’d ever find him there. Don’t look so worried, Pa…Cartwright won’t risk it. He’s a rich man…and…he wants his boy back. Now hurry it up, get the horses ready.”

*****

“Stop fightin’ me!” shouted Grant as he untied Joe’s ankles and tried to get the boy on his feet. He jerked the gag out of Joe’s mouth. Joe tried to bite the man’s hand but Grant slapped Joe’s cheek. The blow caused the boy’s head to snap backwards. Joe groaned softly as he knees buckled beneath him.

“That’s better,” mumbled Grant as he laid Joe back on the ground and retied his hands in the front.

Joe stirred and raised his head, trying to focus on the man’s face. “Why?” he asked. His mouth was dried from the gag and forming his words was a task. “Where are you taking me? Please…Uncle Grant…I’m…sorry…”

“Never mind where you’re goin’ kid…but if ya gotta know…I’m sellin ya to some men that came by here earlier….”

Now on his feet, though unsteady, Joe stared disbelievingly at his assumed uncle. “What did you say?”

Grant had on hand on Joe’s arm and reached down and snatched Joe’s hat from the ground. “You heard me…I’m sellin’ ya to some men.” He smiled wickedly at the frightened look he’d seen fill the boy’s hazel eyes. “They like little boys…” he sneered. “And I could use $10,000! Now get up those stairs!” he said, shoving the boy forward.

Joe could not believe his ears. His uncle and he assumed his grandfather, were selling him, to…strangers. A new kind of fear filled his heart. He could only wonder what the men wanted him for? Slavery was something that went on back in the deep South not out here in the west…

“Why…”

“Why what?” grumbled Grant when they’d reached the living room.

“Why are you doing this to me…what do those men want me for? You can’t sell me…it’s against the law to sell another human being…” The panic was evident in his voice. His words were broken and when Grant looked at him, Joe’s eyes had begun to fill with tears.

“I dun told ya, stupid…they like little boys. Do I gotta draw ya a picture too? Use you’re imagination,” he said with a deep chuckle when he saw the tears begin to flow gently down the dirty faced boy. “Get used to it, kid…”

Grant shoved Joe toward the horses. His father had brought them into the yard. With his hands tied, Joe was unable to mount by himself, forcing Grant to help him mount up. He then retired Joe’s hand to the pummel so that the boy could not get away. Joe kept his head low, unable to look either man in the face.

*****

Hoss could not stand waiting any longer. As his father and brother slept, the big man crept quietly from his bedroll and quickly saddled his horse. He led Chubb a few yards away before mounting up and then directed his mount toward the old farmhouse where he knew the two farmers were hiding the boy believed now to be his younger brother, Joe.

Hoss glanced up at the sky. It would be light soon he pondered, hoping that he’d make it in time to see the beginnings of activity that he suspected would take place at the homestead.

He hid behind some boulders, being sure to stay out of sight but just as able to watch the front of the cabin. Luck was with him when Hoss saw the front door open and the old man step out into the early beginnings of the new day. He watched as Henry stretched and flexed his aged body and then strolled across the yard to the barn. The urge to slip down to the barn to see what the old man was doing, gnawed hungrily at his gut, but Hoss held himself in check, waiting. His wait was rewarded minutes later when the old man emerged from the barn leading three horses behind him. When Henry reached the front of the house, Hoss heard him call out for his son. Seconds later, Grant opened the door and what Hoss saw, turned his blood cold. There, right before his eyes, being shoved into the sunlight was his younger brother. Oh, Hoss had to admit to himself that his brother looked different, the hard times that had apparently befallen the youth, obviously showed. Not just anyone would have even suspected that the bedraggled, dirty ragamuffin he was watching could ever have been the once vibrant, over-rambunctious, feisty youngest son of the wealthy Ben Cartwright. The sight almost brought tears to the big man’s eyes, but anger arose instead and replaced the sadness with hatred so deep that it caused Hoss to shiver at the vile thoughts of what he’d like to do to the two farmers. He shook his massive head to rid them from his mind and slipped back to his horse, mounted up and slowly, at a safe distance, began to follow the trio. His chance would come, he believed it in his heart, and when the time was right, he’d reclaim what was his…his and his family’s.

The boy sat silently, the fight now gone from him, his spirit sunken deeply within him, unable to rise to the occasion. His uncle and grandfather had stopped to rest the horses, but he was not allowed the comfort of dismounting so that he might stretch his legs. He kept his head low, watching the pair from beneath lowered lashes. As he watched, he scanned his surroundings. It was then that he noticed a slight movement in the bushes just in front of him. Joe stayed calm, anxiously trying to catch a glimpse of what was moving about, wondering if it were a wild animal, never suspecting that rescue might be a probability.

Grant and Henry were munching on some stale bread, brought along with what meager supplies they had gathered before leaving. The dry bread caused Joe’s tummy to rumble, he was hungry…starved and could not for the life of him remember his last meal.

The movement in the bushes continued. Joe knew that no wild animal could be so near because the horses were yet to be disturbed by the smell…the usual warning that danger lurked nearby. Still Joe watched, and then…he saw it. There was a man creeping closer and closer, working his way off to one side, placing Joe and his mount between the two men, who were paying no attention to the boy still seated in the saddle.

When Hoss was close, Joe’s horse nickered softly, tossing his head. The sudden movement caught the attention of the two farmers. Grant looked up just in time to see Joe being yanked from the saddle and disappearing into the thick brush.

Hoss had managed to put his finger to his lips to keep Joe from crying out as he cut the ropes that bound the boy’s hand to the pummel. When Joe’s horse alerted the duo, Hoss had risked being seen, knowing that his timing was down to seconds. Joe was pulled from the saddle and shoved into the woods.

“Run, Joe…run,” the big man yelled.

Joe, startled by the sudden action, hesitated only a moment and then began running. He had no idea who the man was, but at this point, he cared little, obviously the man was attempting to save him, so he did as instructed and began running.

When he’d run only a short distance, he paused, hearing gunfire. Then suddenly he saw the big man running towards him, firing over his shoulder at his uncle and grandfather. A sudden sense of family loyalty washed over the boy. It took him by surprise, considering the cruel treatment that his uncle and grandfather had bestowed upon him, yet something deep within told him, this was his family, regardless. When Hoss reached his brother and grabbed his arm, trying to force Joe to move along with him, Joe began to struggle. He yanked and pulled on his arm, attempting to free himself from the big man’s grip.

“Let go of me…” babbled Joe over and over.

Stunned, Hoss wasn’t sure why his brother was fighting against him.

“Joe, dadburnit, stop fightin’ me…what in blazes is wrong with you?” grumbled Hoss as he pulled Joe along with him, keeping a sharp eye out for the two men who were slowly catching up to him.

Joe was dragging his feet, trying hard to grasp the underbrush as Hoss pulled him along.

“My name’s not Joe…it’s Chad…and I don’t know you…” grunted Joe as he wrapped his arm around a small sapling.

Hoss was forced to cram his pistol into his holster and use both hands to free his brother’s grip on the tree. “I ain’t got no ideay what in blazes ya talkin’ about, but ya name’s Joe…Little Joe and you’re my baby brother, now let go of this dadburn tree….”

Bullets whizzed over their hands and around their shoulders. Hoss wrapped his massive arms about Joe’s middle and jerked with such force that Joe’s grip was yanked free of the tree. Hoss practically tossed his brother into the air as he flung the boy off behind him and went for his gun. Joe’s body tumbled over the ground like a pebble across the top of smooth water, until his head banged against a rock, momentarily stunning him. He lay motionless on the ground, groaning, rubbing his temple where he felt the sticky blood begin to ooze.

Hoss barely had time to glance over his shoulder at Little Joe who struggled now to get up. The two men were close, firing at him. There’d be little time now to get away. He returned the gunfire.

“Get down Joe…” he yelled over his shoulder, hoping Joe would stay low.

Hoss made the mistake of rising just slightly, turning to look over at his brother. A gun blast rippled through the trees. Hoss felt the sudden burning in his left shoulder as the bullet pierced his flesh. His gun was knocked from his hand as he slowly slumped forward, his vision blurring.

“Run…Joe…r…un……..”

Totally confused by now…this big man calling him Joe…telling him to run, his uncle and grandfather shooting at them, killing the stranger…

Joe’s head was pounding…his temples throbbing…something wasn’t right, things suddenly were not as they appeared to be…the farmers were standing over the man, laughing… Joe rubbed his temples, staggered to his feet and slowly made his way over to his uncle and grandfather. Grant turned and glared down at the boy, surprising Joe when he grabbed his arm and practically jerked him off the ground.

“You stupid fool…this is your fault!” the man glared. “You forced me to kill him…your own brother…you little idiot!” Grant shoved Joe, causing him to fall to the ground. He was stunned.

“My….brother…” he stammered as he crawled closer to get a good look at the big man’s face. Joe turned Hoss over on his back, saw the blood seeping through the man’s shirt and dotting it with bright red blood.

It all came back to him in a rush…crowding his mind with unanswered questions. Tears flooded into his eyes.

“Hoss?” he whispered, leaning down closely to his real brother. He gently shook Hoss’ body. “Hoss…no…please…please…”

Without warning, Joe felt himself yanked to his feet. He turned to look up at his uncle. Before he could protest, he was shoved roughly forward.

“Get movin’, kid…” Grant ordered as he continued to shove Joe toward the waiting horses.

“No!” screamed Joe. “He’s my brother…HOSS! HOSS!”

“He’s dead, kid…can’t ya get that through your head?”

“NO…” Joe shouted as he began to struggle against the hands that drug him away from the place where Hoss lay.

When they reached the horses, the struggled ended when Grant slapped Joe hard across his face and flung him into the saddle.

“We’d best get outta here, Grant,” Henry told his son. “Them other fellas will be heading this way soon…they were bound to have heard the shootin’,” he added as he helped Joe onto his horse and held the reins while Grant secured Joe’s hands once more.

Joe could not keep his eyes off his brother. He silently prayed that Hoss would move, but Hoss lay deathly still…his stomach churned with grief as he continued to stare at the motionless form. He was only half conscious of his horse moving beneath him until Grant swatted his own and the trio of riders and their mounts bolted forward into a run. Joe was able to catch one last quick look at his brother before the three of them disappeared into the thick woods.

*****

“It’s coming from up ahead!” Ben shouted over the top of his shoulder as he hurried his horse through the brush.

Adam was following close behind his father, trying to keep up. The shots had awakened both men only to find that Hoss was nowhere around. At some point in time, Ben and Adam had concluded that the gentle giant had slipped away, unable to contain his desire at finding his younger brother. They had rushed to saddle their horses and follow the sounds of the guns, leaving behind their bedding and supplies in their rush to find their missing family members.

Ben pulled back sharply on the reins. Buck’s front hooves came up as the big stallion reared up. Ben quickly dismounted and ran a short distance into a small clearing. Adam followed, seeing for the first time, his middle brother lying motionless and pale on the ground. By the time he reached his brother’s side, Ben had already raised Hoss’ head and held it in his lap.

“Get the canteen,” Ben ordered. “Hoss…Hoss…can you hear me?” Ben pleaded in a soft tone.

Just as Adam reached his side, Hoss opened his eyes and began stirring, trying to sit up. He pointed to nothing, out in front of him, trying to speak.

“J…oe…they…got…Joe, Pa…we gotta get…to ’im…”

“Easy, son,” Ben said, glancing off in the direction that Hoss had pointed. He tore Hoss’ shirt and inspected the wound to his shoulder. “It’s only a flesh wound,” he told both Adam and Hoss. “Adam, you stay here and take care of Hoss…” Ben said, rising after helping Hoss to sit upright.

“Where are you going?” Adam said, almost demandingly.

“I’m going after my son!” Ben shot back. “You just make sure Hoss is alright,” he concluded.

By the time that Adam had helped Hoss to his feet, their father was gone. They could hear Buck trampling through the brush as Ben urged his mount onward. The need to find and hold his youngest son after so many weeks drove Ben with an urgency that he’d never felt before.

“I’m alright, Adam,” Hoss said weakly. “Just help me on my horse…and then you go after Pa…he’ll need some help.”

Adam nodded his head and did as Hoss had asked and helping him to mount up before he raced off to offer what assistance he could to their father. Gunshots could be heard, warning Adam to proceed with caution. He eased his mount to a stop, tossed the reins across a branch and worked his way to his father’s side, weaving in and out of the bushes as he did so. When Ben looked up and saw his son, Adam could read the relief in the elder Cartwright’s face and the unasked question glowing in the dark eyes.

“Hoss is alright, he’s coming,” Adam whispered.

“Good…Hoss was right, they have Joe. He said that Joe seemed confused, like he didn’t know him. And he said Joe wouldn’t go with him…said his name wasn’t Joe…” Ben hurried to explain.

“Wasn’t Joe? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No…unless…for whatever reason, Joe had lost his memory…Adam, get down…there they are!” Ben said, pushing down on Adam’s shoulder.

“CARTWRIGHT!”

The call rang loudly through the forest, calling out to him.

“I KNOW YOU’RE OUT THERE! I GOT YA BOY!” Grant continued to shout. “YOU CAN HAVE’EM…HE AIN’T BEEN NOTHIN’ BUT TROUBLE ANYWAY…ALL WE WANT IS THAT MONEY!”

Ben and Adam were watching each other’s eyes. Ben nodded his head and then peeked over the log they were behind.

“I WANT TO SEE MY SON. HE DIDN’T LOOK ANY TO GOOD WHEN I SAW HIM IN TOWN!” Ben yelled back.

“AW…THERE AIN’T NOTHIN’ WRONG WITH ’IM…HE’S JUST LAZY, THAT’S ALL. NOW HOW ABOUT IT…YA WANT YOUR BOY OR WHAT? ALL YA GOTTA DO IS GIVE US THE REWARD!”

Adam touched his father’s arm and motioned that he was moving around behind the pair of farmers. They could see both men, but there was no sign of Little Joe.

“Keep talking to them…I’ll see if I find Joe…they probably have him hid out,” Adam whispered.

Adam slipped quietly away and seconds later had disappeared out of sight. As Adam worked his way around the men, he could hear them haggling over the reward money. He found what he was looking for moments later. Joe was lying on his side, his back toward Adam. The boy had been bound and gagged. His hands were behind his back and his ankles tied with ropes that attached to his wrists. Adam felt his heart begin to pound wildly deep within his chest as he stole silently toward his brother. When he reached him, he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder; he felt Joe flinch at the unexpected touch.

“Shh,” whispered Adam as he quickly pulled the gag from Joe’s mouth.

“Adam……”

“It’s alright, little buddy…” he cooed softly. As soon as the ropes were gone and he’d helped Joe to his feet, Joe’s arms encircled his brother. Touched, Adam put his own arms about the trembling body, shocked at how thin and slight his little brother had become.

“Hoss…” sobbed Joe, “he killed…Hoss…” he continued to sob.

“No…no…it was only a flesh wound, Joe…Hoss is okay, I promise,” whispered Adam.

He gently pulled Joe’s head back so that he could see into the boy’s eyes. He was horrified to see the sadness, the fear and the downtrodden expression reflecting back at him. It angered him that someone had taken the joy, the every life out of this boy whom he had helped to raise and whom he loved more than life itself.

“Joe,” Adam said as he led Joe a short distance away and gently forced him to sit down behind some big boulders. “You stay right here…don’t you dare move…until either Pa or I come for you…understand?”

Joe had willingly sat down; exhaustion and lack of food had finally taken its toll on the young man. Immediately, he pulled his legs to his chest and rested his head on the tops of his knees. Adam squatted down and tenderly touched the top of the dirty, curly hair. A rush of passionate relief flooded through him, reminding him just how very much he loved the youngster.

“Joe…did you hear me? Stay here…I have to help Pa.”

Slowly, Joe raised his head and looked into his brother’s dark eyes. His were expressionless.

“Pa…” Joe’s lips almost formed a smile. “Pa’s here too?”

“Of course he is…you don’t believe for one minute he’s ever stopped looking for you…do you, kid?” Adam said with a slight smile of his own. “Now stay put, I’ll be back…”

Joe nodded his head. “Adam,” Joe said softly, calling out to his brother.

“What’s wrong, buddy?”

The boy swallowed hard and looked up with tear filled eyes. “I…I won’t go back with those…men…ever. I’d…rather die…first.”

Adam squatted back down, placing his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Joe…don’t you worry about that…I promise you…the only place you’re going is…home…with us…Pa, Hoss and myself…”

“But what if…”

“No…there are no ‘what ifs’…now you stay here until Pa comes for you…understand?”

Again, Joe nodded his head and watched as Adam slipped away. When he could no longer see his brother, he returned his head to the top of his knees and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep, but knew he shouldn’t. After a brief moment, he raised his head. In the background, he could hear the gunfire and knew that Henry and Grant were shooting it out with his father and brother. Joe wondered whether or not Hoss was with them. The gun battled continued, driving a deeper fear into his young heart with each shot that rang through the forest. Something within himself told him that his real family might need his help, but try though he might, he was just too weak and worn out to force himself upright. He pulled himself to his knees, bracing against the boulder behind him in an effort to stand. The pounding in his head returned and the boy felt himself sway; his vision blurred and as he called out to his father, a dark black abyss engulfed him, and he slumped forward, unconscious.

*****

Ben found his son behind the rocks, just as Adam had said he would. The gunplay was over, Grant was dead, having refused to surrender Joe to his family and having opened fire on the Cartwrights, it was a clear matter of self-defense. When Henry had seen his son fall, he had quickly tossed his gun aside and surrendered himself to Ben and Hoss, Hoss having caught up to his family while Adam was caring for Joe. Now he helped his brother by loading Grant’s body onto his horse and securing it for the long ride back into town.

“Joseph?” Ben called softly, expecting an immediate answer. He eased around the boulders, not wanting to startle the boy and totally shocked to find his son lying unconscious on the ground.

“Joseph!” Ben cried with more urgency as he hurried to turn Joe onto his back and take the boy into his arms. He felt his heart flutter and a sense of relief wash over him as he pulled Joe closer and held the boy against his breast. With hands as tender as any mother’s, Ben pushed back the wayward locks of chestnut hair from the boy’s face and gently petted the dirty, bruised cheek of his youngest son.

“Joe,” he urged, “wake up son…”

“Here’s some water, Pa,” Adam said, having grabbed the canteen off his horse and now handing it to his father. He went as far as pulling the cork from the top and dampening his neck scarf for his father.

Ben dabbed the cool clothe onto the dirt smudged face. Joe began to moan softly and his eyelids began to flutter. He struggled to open his eyes.

“Come on son…you can do it. Your Pa’s here now…and Adam and Hoss…we…need you to come back to us,” the anxious father urged.

All three Cartwrights were holding their breath, waiting anxiously for Little Joe to open his eyes. Seconds later the heavy lids fluttered again and opened. His father’s face was the first that Joe saw. His eyes immediately locked with his father’s. Ben smiled, fighting back the tears of joy that threatened to over-whelm him.

“Welcome back,” he said in a low, deep voice that was choked with emotion.

“Is…it…really…you, Pa?” stammered Joe who was fighting tears of his own.

Ben held Joe’s head lovingly in his arms. The fingers of his other hand tenderly caressed the boy’s face. “It’s really me…”

Before Ben could say more, Joe raised up and flung both arms about his father’s neck and wept. Ben’s strong arms embraced his son as he held him closely. Hoss patted his little brother’s back gently and smiled at Adam. Off to the side, Henry stood alone, next to the horse that carried his son’s body. He felt sick inside. He’d lost the only person who had ever meant anything to him. Grant had not always been as he was; many years ago, he had been just as loving as the boy in his father’s arms. Shame for what he’d committed against the Cartwrights, especially the boy, swelled his heart and he was forced to turn away, no longer able to watch the love that flowed between the family of men.

Joe at last pulled back and wiped his eyes. His smile reflected his happiness and joy at being reunited with his family. He allowed his father to help him stand and then leaned wearily against Ben’s strong body for support. “You ready to go home, son?”

“You bet I am…” Joe giggled. It was the first time in little over a month that he’d found anything worth laughing about. But it died quickly as they neared the horses and he saw Henry with his forehead resting against the body of his son. The old man’s back was to them.

Joe stopped for a second and then moved toward the old man. “Sir,” he said softly. He was still a might unsteady on his feet. Joe felt his father’s presence directly behind him and knew that if he needed him, Ben would be there for him.

Slowly, Henry turned around to face the boy. Joe was taken back when he saw the aged old face and how tired and worn Henry had suddenly seemed to appear.

“Why?” It was the only thing that Joe really wanted to know.

The old man shrugged his shoulders, looking at the boy with such shame that Joe almost felt sorry for the old farmer.

“I guess…’cause it’s what…he…wanted,” Henry said as he tipped his head toward the body. “I know that ain’t no excuse for what we did to ya…I knew better’n to do what we done. But…I reckon I was more afeared of my own son than what I was of what might happen to ya. All I can say son…is…I’m mighty sorry…mighty sorry…”

“I…reckon that’s something…I…don’t hate you…but…I don’t understand why…not really,” Joe said.

Henry, his lips pursed tightly shrugged again and turned his attention to Ben. “Mr. Cartwright…I want ya to know somethin’…my boy…Grant…he weren’t always like this…mean and ornery. Use’ta be, he was a nice boy…like your’s there,” he said, looking over at Joe who now stood leaning against his father for support.

“But…after my wife died…well…I reckon I dun went and gave up on life. I thought I didn’t have nuthin’ to live for…I sorta ignore the boy. Guess even he stopped tryin’. He turned to other things…not so good things…like…lyin’ and cheatin’…stealin’. Why, he even got himself sent off to prison for a spell. When he came back, he was meaner’n ever. Use’ta beat up on me…just for the fun of it. No sir, weren’t always like this…back yonder…home…that’s where loved once lived. But it’s dead and gone now…wish I was…might as well be…ain’t got nuthin’ now for sure to live for,” he rattled. “I hope ya realize just how lucky you be, Mr. Cartwright…very lucky.”

Ben placed his arm about Joe’s shoulder, feeling quite lucky that he’d found his son and that his family was once again complete. “I know I am…” he said, smiling down at his son. “Look Mr. Craigmiles…I’m sorry about your son…”

Henry held his hand up to halt Ben’s words. “Don’t be…I knew it would happen one day…he got what he deserved…and I reckon I’ll get what I deserve…but please,” he said moving closer to Joe.

Ben felt his son’s body become rigid and knew that Joe still feared the elderly man. He tightened his hold just slightly but enough that Joe felt the pressure.

“Just know, sonny, that my heart weren’t in what I was doin’ to ya…” Henry said and then patted Joe’s cheek with his callus, wrinkled old hand before he turned and mounted up. “Guess I’m ready now…we best be seein’ the sheriff.”

*****

“What’s gonna happen to him, Pa?” Joe asked a few days later as they walked out of the sheriff’s office.

“Well, he’ll probably go to jail for a spell. What you told the judge might help him some, might not get more than a year or two,” Ben explained.

Joe stood before his horse, hesitating before mounting up.

“Something wrong, son?” Ben asked.

“No…” he said quietly and then turned and looked at his father. “I was just wondering something though.”

“And what was that?”

“I was just wondering what it would be like to live with a person…say a father, or brothers,” Joe said, casting a sideways glance at his own two brothers who where mounted and waiting. “How it might feel to live in a home with no love and so much hatred…where a son beat his father just for the sheer pleasure of seeing him hurt…or where a father beat his son…or worse…just didn’t give a hoot about him.”

Joe turned with sad eyes and looked up at his father. “I…I’ve been there…these last few weeks and…I can honestly say…I’m happy to being going home…”

Ben smiled warmly. “I’m sorry Joseph that this happened to you…but…I’m also glad that you learned something from the experience…though it was a tough lesson…”

“Not one that I’ll be forgetting anytime soon,” Joe said in a light voice. “Thanks Pa.”

“For what?”

“For…being the kind of pa a boy can be proud of…for being there for me…always…and for…loving me,” Joe said in a near sob.

Ben stepped over to Joe and drew him into a hug. Adam and Hoss smiled.

“Joseph…it is I that needs to thank you…”

“Me…why?”

Ben tilted Joe’s chin upward and looked deeply into the hazel eyes. There were so many unanswered questions. What had happened to Joe, during and after the stampede? How had he ended up with the old farmer and his wicked son? Why had Joe not tried to come home, or send word that he was alright? The questions plagued him, but he’d have to wait for his answers. For now, he was happy just having the boy back with him, to hold, to love…he tried to explain what was in his heart right at that moment. He smiled down at his son, speaking in a low, soft and warm voice. A voice that Joe recognized from his dreams.

“For being the kind of son that makes being a father a delight…a pleasure…for just simply being…you! You, Adam and Hoss…have made my job…the best dang job around…” laughed Ben.

“Aw…shucks,” chortled Hoss from where he sat on his horse.

“That’s certainly saying a lot…” chirped Adam.

Joe beamed with happiness as he swung into the saddle. “I thought we were going home?”

“Home…” smiled Ben as he too mounted up. Home, where love, not once lived, but where love, was alive and well and overflowed, making him the happiest man alive.

“Let’s ride,” he called to the others, whom he knew would follow him to the ends of the earth if he asked.

And he was right, they would…they already had…and now they were all going home…together!

***End***

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