Whose Child is This? (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  27,812


 

“Aw…come on, Little Joe…I promised them we’d help out.”

“I can’t, Mark; I promised my Pa I’d come straight home after school, and if I’m late…I’ll be in trouble again!” Little Joe said firmly.

Both boys were saddling their horses inside the little barn next to the school building where they attended school.

Joe turned to lead his horse from the barn.  Mark, Joe’s friend, had only come to Virginia City a couple of months ago with his family.  He and Joe had met at a church social one Saturday night and since that time, the boys had become fast friends, not completely to Little Joe’s father’s approval.  Ben didn’t really dislike the boy, but Mark was older by a year and a half, and much wiser to the world than his fifteen-year old son. He had overheard the newcomer speaking with his young son about certain things that Ben felt to mature to be discussing with a fifteen year old and thus Ben had tried to sway Joseph away from a relationship with the older young man, but to no avail.  The best he could do was to limit the amount of time that Little Joe spent with the boy, and even that had become a quest, the boy still attending school had made his attempt even harder to control.

“Joe, listen up, will ya?” Mark said as he put his hand on Joe’s shoulder to stop him from mounting up.  “They are nice ladies…and they don’t know anyone around these parts…”

“Then how come they know you?” Joe asked, brushing his friend’s hand off his shoulder and then mounting up.

“I told ya, they’ve been coming into the store to buy things…”

“What kind of things?” Joe wanted to know. He wasn’t really interested, but he had no notion what womenfolk bought when they went into a ladies apparel shop.  Once he asked his father, but Ben had only looked at him with eyes wide and mouth opened and had muttered something about him not being old enough to know such things, so naturally he was curious.

“Just things, Joe…”

“Like what?” insisted Joe as he turned his horse toward the road home.

“I don’t know…girl things…lacy bloomers…corsets…hats…hell, I don’t know what they wear under all them petticoats…but that ain’t the point…”

“I’d like to see…” giggled Joe.

“See?  See what, for heaven’s sake!”

“See what they wear under their petticoats,” Little Joe laughed.

“Oh good grief, Joe…listen, come with me, please?  Those ladies asked my ma if she knew a couple of boys that would do a little work for them.  They’re staying out at the old Henson place and there’s a couple fences that need repairing and…golly, Joe…they sure are pretty ladies…if you tell your pa you was helping out a couple of old women who needed a fence repaired, he won’t get mad and yell at you…come on, please…” Mark insisted.

“I thought you said they were pretty ladies, now you’re saying they’re old…which is it?” Joe said as he pondered whether or not to go along with his friend and help the women out.

“They are pretty…and they are old…well, at least they’re older than us,” Mark smiled in a sly manner.

Joe watched the expression on the other boy’s face and then started to giggle. “Bloomers you say?  What color?” Joe asked. He turned his horse back around, heading in the opposite direction, following along side his friend, who eyed him curiously.

“Just the regular ones…white, but they had lace on them…”

“Hmm,” muttered Joe softly.  His young face wore a lopsided grin.  “Alright, I’ll go along, but we can’t stay long, understand?”

“Sure…come on, Little Joe,” Mark made a joyful screech and kicked his horse in the sides; Joe laughed and hurried to catch up to his friend.

*****

Joe was surprised when he stopped his horse in front of the little house.  It was neat and clean looking and the walkway leading up to the front door was lined with pretty flowers.  Glancing around to take in the entire setting, Joe’s expression turned to one of puzzlement. “I thought you said the corral fence needed mending?  I don’t see any downed fences.”

“Well, maybe they already got someone to fix it for them,” Mark answered as he swung down from the saddle.  “Come on, let’s knock,” he said, already on the porch.

Joe let out a long sigh, wishing he hadn’t been so quick to commit himself.  He slid down from his horse and quickly tied the reins around the hitching post and joined Mark on the porch.  Mark was already tapping lightly on the door.

Joe had just placed one foot on the porch when the door was opened and a young woman of approximately eighteen years of age, appeared in the doorway.  Instantly she smiled a warm greeting at the two boys. “Why, Mark, what a pleasant surprise,” the young lady said.

Mark quickly pulled his hat off his head and nodded a greeting.  Joe removed his hat.  He felt awkward standing on the porch gapping at the woman.  She was beautiful, he thought to himself.  He saw the sunlight beaming down on her hair and noticed how the chestnut waves glistening in the bright light.  When she turned to look his way, he was mesmerized by the soft, warm glow in her hazel eyes.  He smiled, feeling like a dunce for being unable to say a word.

“Hmm…” stammered Mark.  “Miss Grace, this is my friend, Joe Cartwright,” Mark said, introducing Joe to the young woman.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Joe,” greeted Grace.

“Hmm…ere…” gulped Joe, taking the lady’s hand in his.  He stammered, “I assure you, the pleasure’s all mine,” he said, repeating a line he had heard his older brother use. Leaning down his head, he gently kissed the back of the delicate hand, causing the lady to gasp lightly.

“My, aren’t you the gentleman?” she smiled, glancing at Mark and noting how he watched his friend.

Joe blushed, the pink tint to his cheek making him to appear much younger than his actual age.  He said nothing, for he knew not what to say.

“Please, come in, I know my sister, Beth, is anxious to meet you,” Grace said as she led the way into her parlor.

Instantly, another young woman appeared.  The second lady was as lovely as the first, if not more so.  She looked to be about twenty years old, Joe quickly surmised.  When she offered her hand to him, he repeated the actions taken when he had kissed the hand of the first woman.  Beth Paquett smiled warmly at both boys. “Please, won’t you be seated?” she asked, waving her hand outward toward the settee.

Mark plopped down, but Joe, having been taught better manners which he suddenly remembered, waited for the two ladies to sit before he joined Mark on the couch.

“I’m so pleased that you brought someone with you, Mark,” Beth said.  “We do so appreciated it, don’t we Grace?”

“Oh yes, there are only certain things that we can do for ourselves; most of the odd jobs around here need a man’s touch,” she smiled, looking Joe’s way.

Joe failed to notice the way that Grace twisted her hankie around in her hands, or the slight glow to her cheeks.

“So tell us, Joe…are you from around here?” Beth quizzed.

“Yes ma’am…my pa and my two older brothers and I…we have a ranch, south of here.  The Ponderosa…that’s our ranch,” he added.

“It’s the biggest spread around,” Mark said with a touch of pride in his friend.  “His old man…ere…his pa, Ben Cartwright, he’s the richest man in Nevada!”

Both women turned to stare at Joe.

“I…I wouldn’t say that…” Joe stammered, slightly embarrassed at the comment.

“I have to confess,” smiled Beth, “I have heard of your father.”

Joe’s eyes widened.  “You have?”

“Certainly…you father was a friend of our mother’s…” Grace blurted.

Joe turned to stare in shock at the sisters.  “He was?”

Beth smiled as she turned to her sister. “Grace, I’m sure the boys must be hungry and thirsty after riding this far…please, will you get some lemonade and cookies from the kitchen while I explain to them what we need to have repaired?” Beth’s smile faded and her eyes grew dark as she looked at her sister.

Grace was a bit hesitant, but quickly got up and excused herself.

“So, Joseph, you have lived here all of your life?” Beth asked.

“Oh, yes ma’am, I was born on the Ponderosa. Your sister said your mother knew my father…how?”

Beth’s expression changed, but Little Joe was too young to understand the difference that had washed over his new friend’s face. “Back in New Orleans…my mother, Victoria Lussier Paquett, was friends with a woman by the name of Marie…”

“Marie!” Joe said loudly, interrupting the lady.  “That was my mother’s name…your mother and my mother were friends?” Joe asked, amazed to be talking to someone whom might have known his mother.  “Did you know my mother?”

Beth laughed softly and shook her head. “No, not really, I was just a little girl then, about five years old.  Grace was only three.  I’m sorry, Joe,” Beth said when she saw the disappointment in the young boy’s eyes.  “I wish I had, but I didn’t…”

“Then my mother introduced my father to your mother, I bet?” smiled Joe, excitedly.

Again, Beth laughed.  “Not quite…our mother introduced your father to your…to Marie.”

“Wow…” muttered Joe.

“Oh, Grace,” Beth greeted her sister has she returned with a tray laden with cookies and lemonade, “please, set it on the table, there,” she ordered, pointing to a serving table off to one side.  “I’ll serve,” she said, moving to the table where she exchanged glances with her sister.

While Beth poured each of the boys a glass of lemonade and a plate of cookies, Grace joined the boys in the parlor.  Minutes later, while enjoying the conversation with the two beautiful ladies, Joe was munching cookies and sipping the cool glass of lemonade.

“What was it you needed done?” Joe said, yawning. Quickly, he covered his mouth.  “Excuse me,” he apologized, embarrassed.

“We have some fences around the back of the barn that need repairing.  One of the cows keeps getting out…and some boards in the barn in one of the stalls have come loose and needs to be fixed,” Beth explained as she refilled Joe’s glass.  “Neither Grace nor I are any good with a hammer,” she laughed lightly.

Joe smiled.  A second yawn escaped, further embarrassing him as he tried to cover it up. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I’m suddenly so sleepy I can’t seem to keep my eyes opened,” he explained, yawning again.

His eyelids were becoming so heavy that Joe was forced to gently shake his head in order to keep from falling to sleep.  He jumped to his feet, swaying slightly.  Grace, Beth and Mark remained seated, watching the young boy struggling to stay awake.

“I best be getting home,” yawned Joe.  “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll come back tomorrow to help you, if that’s alright with you?”

“That will be fine, Joe…but why don’t you sit back down, you look about ready to drop,” Beth said kindly, standing and slipping her arm about Joe’s slender shoulders.

He yawned again, “no, I’d best be get…getting…” yawned Joe, his eyelids losing the battle as his eyes closed. His body sagged against the woman’s.

“Help me get him into the other room,” ordered Beth, eyeing her sister and their other guest.

Jumping to their feet, both Mark and Grace did as Beth had ordered and helped her move Little Joe into a room off the parlor where they placed the boy onto the soft bed.

Beth straightened up, smiling at Grace and Mark. “Thank you, he should sleep for hours,” she said, directing her words at the young man.  “He seems like a very nice young man, Mark,” Beth said.

“He’s alright, for a kid,” Mark said, “I like him.”

“I’m sure he’s a fine boy,” Grace added.

“Yeah…well, just be good to’em, will ya?  Ya promised not to hurt’em,” Mark said as he moved from the room.

The two ladies followed.  Beth closed the door behind her.

“Of course we will.  You don’t think we’d hurt or be unkind to our own baby brother…do you?” Beth smiled, handed Mark his hat and then opened the front door.

“No ma’am, I reckon not,” he said, glancing over toward the closed door.  “You won’t tell’em I had anything to do with this, will you?”

“Certainly not…now Mark, be sure to take his horse and leave it somewhere where his father won’t be sure to find it…and don’t breathe a word of this to anyone, do you understand, or the deal is off,” warned Beth.

“Don’t worry about me, Miss Beth…I’ll handle things, you just be sure that the money is in the bank over at Carson City by noon tomorrow, or…or…I’ll go straight to Ben Cartwright and tell him I know all about his sordid past and how he’s lied all these years to his own son, about the boy’s real mother!  He’ll pay me good when he finds out I’m the only one who knows what really happened to his precious baby boy!”

Grace cast a worried glance at her sister.  Beth’s eyes had grown extremely dark as she glared at the young man, now standing on the front porch. “Don’t you dare threaten me, young man.  I told you the $5,000 would be in the bank the day after you delivered Joe Cartwright to me, and it will be…now get out of here…and remember, you never knew either of us, and you have no clue where Joe went once he left the schoolhouse…”

Mark nodded his head.  He swung into the saddle, taking Joe’s horse with him; he smiled his thanks at the sisters and rode off to finish last minute details.  The young man shook his head in disbelief.  He had found it hard to believe the story that the two sisters had told him, but at last they had convinced him, and when they had offered him five thousand dollars just to bring Joe Cartwright to their house and then leave as though nothing had happened, he had agreed to play dumb about things.  After all, what was the kid to him…nothing, that’s all, and he had great plans as to what he would do with the money he’d just made from the sisters’ little kidnapping scheme.

“Ain’t you going to have a rude awakening, Little Joe,” smirked Mark as he slapped Joe’s horse on the rump, turning him loose to join a herd of wild mustangs.  The saddle, he hid behind a pile of rocks, covering it with brush so that it would not be easily found.

Remounting, Mark headed home, dollar signs dancing before his eyes.  It had all been so easy, he smirked.

*****

Ben was more worried than he was angry.  His youngest son’s tardiness was something he expected, but as the fading of day grew dimmer and dimmer, his worry mounted minute by minute.  Frustrated, he closed the door and returned to the fire, picking up the poker, he jabbed at the flames.

“Do you want Adam and me to go look for’em?” Hoss asked, eyeing his father and noting the mixture of worry and anger in the senior Cartwright’s frown.

“No, I do not,” Ben snapped. He placed the poker back where it belonged and moved to his chair.  “If he isn’t home in half an hour, I’ll go look for him…and if I find him where I think he is right at this moment, I’ve half a mind to tan that boy’s backside,” grumbled Ben.

The anxious father looked over at the grandfather clock.  The chimes, striking the hour rang loudly in the quiet room.  All eyes were fixed on the door, half expecting the tardy boy to burst in with the chiming of the clock.  Such was not the case.

“Alright, it’s past 8:00 o’clock, Little Joe should have been home hours ago!  Hoss, saddle our horses, will you?” ordered Ben.

“Sure thing, Pa,” said Hoss, jumping to his feet and hurrying to the door, where he paused to tie on his gun belt and don his hat.

“I’ll help you,” Adam offered, not really wanting to be alone in the house with his father.

Ben was in one of his moods and the last thing Adam wanted was to listen to his father bemoan the shortcomings of his younger brother.  Joe would be in trouble for sure, if he did not have a good reason for being so late, that much Adam was certain.

Minutes later, the trio was on their way into town.

“I think the first place to stop would be Miss Jones’, just to be certain that your brother wasn’t playing hooky again,” Ben said as they rode along.

Adam groaned softly, being sure that his father had not heard. “Pa, why don’t we stop over at the Anderson place? Joe’s been keeping company with the boy…Mark, I think his name is.  Perhaps he could tell us if Joe were in school today…it would save us a trip all the way into town,” Adam suggested, keeping his fingers crossed. He really did not want a meeting with the schoolmarm; she tended to make him fidget and perspire in an uncommon manner.

“Yes…that’s a good idea, Adam.  Hoss and I will start there; you ride on into town and speak with Miss Jones,” Ben said. He couldn’t stop the smile he felt spread across his face.  The wise father knew why his eldest son had conjured up the idea of stopping at the Anderson’s first.

Adam frowned.  “Why don’t I stop at the Andersons and you and Hoss ride into town?” Adam said as he tried to keep the resentment from sounding in his tone of voice.

Ben laughed, pulled back on the reins and stopped.  When he turned around to look at his son, Adam noted the broad smile that lessened the worry on his father’s face. “Adam, we’ll all stop at the Andersons, and then, if need be, we’ll go on to town, together.”

Ben knocked the second time on the door.  He cast worried eyes at his sons, who had remained seated on their horses.  When Ben at last heard footsteps coming to the door, he sighed in relief.

“Ben!” greeted Mr. Anderson.

“James,” Ben said in response, “I’m sorry to bother you this late.”

“No bother, Ben,” James Anderson said. He glanced up at Adam and Hoss. “Why don’t you and the boys come inside, Laura’s got a fresh baked apple pie?”

Hoss licked his lips and started to dismount.

“No thank you, James,” Ben said.

Hoss paused, glanced sadly at his brother and then swung his long leg back across Chubb’s back.

“Is something wrong?” James asked.

“No, I hope not, but it seems that my youngest son has failed to come home.  We were getting just a little worried so we thought we’d stop by here…I was wondering if your son, Mark, might have seen Little Joe?” Ben said, hopefully.

“Naw, I ain’t seen him, Mr. Cartwright…not since after school I mean,” Mark responded.

He had heard voices at the door and wondered to whom his father was speaking, but the instant that he heard Little Joe’s name mentioned, he had hopped to his feet and joined his father on the porch.

“Then he was at school?” Ben questioned.

“Joe?  Yeah…I mean, yes sir,” he corrected after his father elbowed him.  “He said he had to go straight home…he’d been late so much, he was afraid you’d wallop him good if’n he were late again,” Mark explained.

Ben’s dark brows rose somewhat.  His lips were firm and his jaw twitched slightly. “I might just do that,” he muttered.  “Well then, son, when school was out, Joe said he was heading home?”

“Oh, yes sir.  I saw him mount up and head that way,” Mark assured them.

Ben pushed his hat back on his head and scratched his forehead.

“He might have had an accident, Pa,” Hoss suggested.

“Yes…that’s possible.  His horse might have thrown him, and he could be hurt…” Ben glanced up at his sons.  “Let’s back track, we might have missed something; he could be lying off to the side of the road…or worse.”

“Would you like some help?” offered James.  “Mark and I could ride along with you?”

“We’d appreciate that,” Adam called from where he sat, waiting.

“Good; son, saddle our horses.  Ben, we’ll be right with you…don’t you worry…we’ll find that boy of yours.”

******

It was close to midnight before Ben could bring himself to call off the search.  He was heartsick and worried.  The small group of men had combed nearly every inch of the country from the Ponderosa to the Anderson’s and into town.  Adam had even swallowed his pride and talked with the teacher, Miss Jones, who reported that nothing unusual seemed to have been going on with young Joseph, as she referred to Adam’s youngest brother.  Joseph had been the model student, since the last episode, she had said, smiling fondly at the handsome man who had, in her mind, come to pay her a call, using his little brother as an excuse.

“We’ll go home and get something to eat.  We can leave at sunup,” Ben said, discouraged.  “We’ll need fresh horses and some supplies; I’ll not stop until I find the boy!”

Hoss swallowed hard, glanced at Adam and then turned to reassure his father. “We’ll find him, Pa…we just gotta.”

“Yes, Hoss…we just gotta!”

*****

It was the next morning before Little Joe managed to open his eyes.  He glanced around at the room, not sure where he was.  His head was pounding, hurting something fierce, and his stomach was churning. “Pa?” he called out weakly.

The door to the room opened quickly, admitting a young woman who hurried to his bedside.  Smiling, she leaned down and brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen on his brow.

Joe squinted his eyes, trying to remember where he had seen the girl before, but nothing came to mind. “Where’s my pa? And who are you?” he asked.

The young woman pulled a chair to the side of the bed and sat down, smiling warmly. “He’ll be along soon, Joseph,” she explained.  “Are you hungry?”

“How’d you know my name?” he asked, confused.

Her dark brows rose slightly. “Don’t you remember?”

“Remember what?” Joe inquired.  He felt somewhat disorientated. With one hand, he pressed his fingers to his throbbing head. “I can’t remember anything…my head hurts, something fierce,” he explained. Slowly he raised his head and looked through squinted eyes at the pretty woman. “Who are you?” he asked, repeating his previous question.

The woman had risen and was mixing something into a glass of water.  She turned back to Joe and sat down, holding the glass out to him.  When he refused to accept the drink, she explained. “It will stop your head from hurting,” she advised.

Joe looked a moment longer at the lady and then accepting the glass, turned it up and downed the contents. “Thanks,” he said, handing the glass to the woman.  Joe leaned his head back against the soft pillows and closed his eyes.  He felt so sleepy.

When the door opened and closed, Joe strained to open his eyes, but the lids seemed to be weighted and he was unable.  Around him, he could hear soft whispering.  Once, he had heard his named mentioned and he tried again to open his eyes. “Pa?” he murmured.

Both young women turned to see the boy staring blankly at them.  Beth moved to the bedside and sat down.  Lovingly, she took Joe’s hand in hers and held it.  Grace joined her sister and knelt down next to the bed.

“Joseph…your father’s not coming…” whispered Beth.  “He’s allowed you to go with us…”

“What?  Why?  I want to talk to my father,” Joe said, straining to stay awake.  “Who are you?” he asked again.

Joe was more confused than ever.  What on earth was this woman talking about?  What did she mean, his father was not coming…he was being sent away…with these strange women…why? “Please…” whimper Joe as he tried to crawl out of bed.  “I gotta…go…home!”

“Shh…don’t trouble yourself,” Beth said as she gently pushed Joe back down against the pillows.

“But…I…don’t understand…my father…”

“It’s alright, Joe; everything will be as it should be…soon…just as soon as we meet up with our mother…”

“Mother?” stammered Joe. He forced his eyes to remain opened and tried to focus on the face before him, but everything was getting all fuzzy again. “My mother…she’s…dead.”

Grace looked from Joe’s tormented face to the expression on her sister’s face.  She waited for Beth to explain to the boy.

“No, Little Joe…your mother…our mother…is very much alive…and Grace and I are taking you to meet her…your real mother.”

“Real mother?  I don’t understand…my mother…died…when I…was little…”

“No Joe, Marie Cartwright died…but she wasn’t your real mother.  Mine and Grace’s mother, Victoria Lussier Paquett, was your real mother…”

Joe closed his eyes tightly, trying to put the pieces together.  This woman wasn’t making any sense, she was talking in riddles about things that baffled him; he knew who his mother was…it was Marie…Marie Cartwright that’s who his mother was. “No…” he muttered.  “You’re wrong…I don’t know…

“Yes, Joe…it was all a lie…all of it.  Your father and your brothers have lied to you for years.  Marie Cartwright was not your mother…Victoria Paquett was your mother, and Ben Cartwright and his conniving wife, Marie, stole you away from our mother just days after you were born, and took you far away from us.  Now Grace and I are taking you home with us, back to the mother who has looked a lifetime for you…back, Joe, where you belong.  You are our brother, Joseph, OUR brother…”

“No,” cried Joe, “it’s not…true…” he sobbed.  “Pa…couldn’t…he wouldn’t…NO!” screamed the distraught boy.

Joe struggled to get out of the bed but he felt so tired, so weak that when the girls gently forced him back down, he turned his face into the pillow to hide the sudden rush of tears.  Before a single drop could stain the white linens, the boy had fallen into a deep drug induced slumber.  Little did Joe Cartwright know, that for the last several hours, while his father and brothers combed the countryside for him, he was being taken further and further from the people who loved him the most.  Many miles already separated the unknowing boy from the home he had grown up in and the land that he knew so well.  By dawn he would be on his way again, heading to a new home…a place where he’d learn the shocking truth…or would he?

*****

“He has to be somewhere!” growled Ben, pulling his horse to a complete standstill.  “He didn’t just drop off the face of the earth!”

Adam reined his horse in next to his father’s.  He looked intently into his father’s dark, sad eyes, at a loss for words to comfort his worried father. “Pa,” he said after a short hesitation.  “It’s been four days…and we’ve found nothing…”

“But Adam,” Ben said, turning to look at his son.  His expression was one of heartbreak and it tore at his son’s heart to see his father so discouraged. “Joseph has not vanished…oh, I realize he isn’t likely to be around here…but he IS somewhere.  Somebody, somewhere knows something…people just don’t vanish into thin air…I suspect there are those who would like for me to think that is exactly what happened to my son…but it is not.  We have to keep looking…”

“Where, Pa?  Where can we look that we haven’t already looked?” Adam said in a demanding tone, for he too, was heartsick that they had found no clue as to Little Joe’s whereabouts.

Ben made a heaving sigh and lowered his head. “That’s just it, son, I haven’t a clue where to begin…”

Hoss, who had remained silent during the exchange, moved his horse forward, siding the opposite side of Adam. “Why don’t we start all over?” he suggested.

Both Ben and Adam turned with puzzled expressions, to Hoss.

“What do you mean, start all over?” his father asked.

“Well, Pa…we know this much for sure…Joe left school…on his horse, supposedly heading home.  We know for a fact he didn’t get home, so…somewhere in-between school and home…Joe had to have gone another direction.  We’ve gone east…to the Anderson’s, who say they haven’t seen the boy…west into town to talk to the teacher…south is home…what about north?  There’s the lake…we ain’t checked there yet…and there’s that cave where me and Joe used’ta play…”

“Hoss, I’ve had men checking up at the lake.  Roy and his men checked every ranch to the north…even the vacant ones, like the old Henson place.  He said there had been a couple of ladies staying out there, but they must have gone back east or something because the place was abandoned recently…”

“Why?”

Ben’s puzzled expression deepened. “Why…what?” he asked Hoss.

“Why was it abandoned…and where did the ladies go…why were they even there in the first place…who were they?”

“You know, Pa…Hoss might be on to something.  I, too, heard about the two ladies that were staying there.  Word is, they just showed up there one day and several days later were gone.  Who were they, why did they come here in the first place…and why did they leave so suddenly…and in the middle of the night?” Adam said, tossing the numerous questions at his father.

“I don’t know son, but how do you know they left in the middle of the night?”

Adam pushed back his hat and rearranged himself in the saddle. “I’m not sure, maybe it was something that Miss Jones’ mentioned.  I didn’t really pay much attention to what she was saying…I was in a hurry to get out of there, but she said something about overhearing Mark Anderson telling Little Joe about the two ladies that moved into the Henson place.  I suppose Miss Jones felt it proper to ride over there and introduce herself.  She said that she planned on doing so the next day…, which was Saturday.  Well, when I ran into her on Monday when you sent me into town for more supplies, she stopped me to talk…she wanted to know if we had found Joe…well, she said that she went out to the Henson place to introduce herself to the two ladies and that there was no one around.  Abigail said she peeked in the window and it looked as if the ladies had vanished.  She tried the door and it was unlocked, so she went in.  She said that clothes were thrown all about, dishes were still on the table and Abigail said when she looked in the barn, the ladies’ carriage was gone as well.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ben said, thinking aloud.

“No…but that’s not all,” Adam continued, “I stopped by Roy’s office but he was gone.  Clem was there and when I asked him if he knew anything about the two women, he said only that they had come into town the week before and were buying some supplies.  I went down to the ladies shop to speak with Mrs. Anderson, all she could tell me was that they came in, bought some personal articles and left.  She said she thought they went into the general store, so I went over to the mercantile to speak with Cass and he said they came in, bought about a week’s worth of groceries, a couple of bottles of laudanum, paid cash and then left.  He watched them leave and said they were headed toward the Henson place…’

“Laudanum?  That’s odd, was one of them sickly?” Ben inquired.

“I asked Cass the same thing, and he said they looked healthy to him, and pretty too,” smiled Adam.

Ben made a scowl.  “Looks can be deceiving,” he said in a grumpy tone.

Adam sort of laughed.  “I know that, Pa…Cass just threw that in.”

“Did he happen to mention if the two women gave their names?”

“No, but he did say he heard the younger one refer to the other one as Beth,” answered Adam.

“Beth?  He didn’t get a last name?”

“Not that I know,” Adam said, shaking his head.  “He said the younger one looked to be about 18 or 19 and the older lady about 20ish.  They only came into the store that one time…”

“Odd, very odd…but I make no connection between the ladies and your brother,” Ben said, puzzled by the odd circumstances surrounding the two young women.

“I can’t say that I do either, Pa…but it’s strange that they show up here, stay less than a week and disappear on the same night that Joe turns up missing.”

“Doesn’t make any sense at all to me…but let’s do what Hoss suggested.  Why don’t we take a ride out to the old Henson place and do a bit of snooping around?” Ben suggested.

*****

When Joe was finally able to open his eyes, he was stunned to find himself sitting or rather leaning, against the inner wall of a moving carriage.  It was dark inside, the window shades having been pulled down to forbid the light from entering the coach, though Joe did sense the presence of the two young women.  Both were quiet but when he looked over at them, he knew they were watching him.  The idea of having both young ladies watching his every move unnerved him. “Where are we going?” he questioned.

His speech was slightly slurred from the doses of laudanum he had been given.  Joe appeared to be dazed and confused, but that too was from the drug. The boy had been taking the drug, sleeping hours and hours, waking only briefly for small meals, completely unaware that it had been added to his drink or to his meals and now, four days later, still had no knowledge that he was being transferred further and further from his home.

His head slowly began to droop as he struggled to stay awake.  Something seemed to be haunting him, teasing his memory, testing his awareness.  Joe felt as if his thoughts were spinning out of control and he couldn’t bring a halt to the merry-go-round feeling swirling in his head.  The drug had left him with no sense of time or place, totally oblivious to the direction in which the carriage was moving.  The only thing that was lodged in his head was the fact that he wanted to be somewhere other than where he was.

“Home…I want to go…home,” he babbled.  “I’m…gonna be…in trouble for…being…so late,” he whispered as his head lowered so that it appeared his chin was resting on his chest.

“He doesn’t remember a thing,” Grace whispered to her sister.

“No…and that’s good.  By the time we reach Mother, he’ll be like putty in her hands,” Beth said with a sly smile.

Tenderly, she leaned forward and straightened the blanket that had slipped from Joe’s shoulders.  Her smile softened as she gently ran her fingers down the side of the young boy’s face. “Just think, sister…we’ve found our baby brother!”

“Oh Beth, I’m so happy…all our lives Mother has talked about her lost baby, her missing little boy, and now…here he is.  I can’t wait to see her face when she sees Joseph for the first time since…since that horrible Ben Cartwright stole him away from her!  Ohhh…how I hate that man for what he’s done!”

“Now, now, now, Emily Grace…it isn’t Christian to hate anyone…not even someone as horrid as Mr. Cartwright,” Beth abolished gently.

“Well, maybe it isn’t Christian, but he deserves to be hated!  He broke our mother’s heart and for years she has mourned the loss of this boy…and the man she loved.”

“I don’t agree with you, sister, about Mr. Cartwright deserving to be hated.  I know all too well what he did to our mother, but he’s going to get paid back.  When Joseph learns the truth, and all that, that horrible man did to Mother and to him…the boy will no doubt end up turning his back on his own father…and it’s no one’s fault but Mr. Cartwright’s!”

“That would serve the man right…Joseph disowning his own father,” Grace said as she leaned back against the soft leather seat.  “I was wondering something though, Sister?”

Beth had leaned back as well, though she kept her eyes on the sleeping boy.  It was hard to see Joe in the darkened interior, but the handsome young boy’s features had become embedded in the mind of his newly found sister.

“What is it, dear?”

“I was just wondering if Mother will like the name, Joseph, or if she would prefer to change it?”

“Hmm…I don’t rightly know, Grace.  I like the name myself, but then…it was the name that Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright chose for him.  I know Mother always favored the name, Phillip, after her father.  I remember her telling me once, about her father, and what a fine gentleman he was and how strikingly handsome.  She said he had hazel eyes and chestnut colored hair…”

“Just like Joseph?” Grace whispered.

In the dark, Beth smiled at her sister.  “Just like Joseph.”

*****

“I don’t see anything to tie these women to Little Joe,” Ben grumbled.

He and Adam had been prowling through the empty house where the two women had obviously been staying.  Clothes were laying about, here and there, left behind for whatever reasons; a few groceries hadn’t been used and remained neatly stacked in the kitchen pantry.  Dirty dishes remained on the table and in the sink; the stove obviously had been used for cooking but was now cold.  In general, it appeared that when the two women left, they left in a hurry not bothering to gather up all their possessions to take with them.  The idea that they might have left in a hurry, in the middle of the night was beginning to be more of a fact rather than an assumption to the Cartwrights.

“There’s nothing in here either, Pa…but the bed’s been slept in,” Adam said as he joined his father in the main room.

He had been looking about in the smaller bedroom off the living room, where, unknown to either he or his father, Little Joe had spent the first half the night he had disappeared.

“Oh yeah?” Ben said, curiously as he glanced into the room.  “That’s odd; both the other beds have been slept in as well.”

“Maybe they had company?” suggested Adam.

“It’s possible, but Clem or Cass didn’t mention that there were more than just the two ladies, did he?” Ben asked.

“No sir.”

“I wonder who the third person might have been?”

“I think I can answer that,” Hoss said from the doorway.

The big man had been out inspecting the barn, looking for clues to the unanswered questions about the women who had occupied the house for no more than a week.

Hoss held out his hand to his father. “Look at this,” he said, placing the article into the palm of his father’s hand.

Adam stepped closer for a better look.

Ben stared at the article, turning over in his hand.  His throat suddenly felt tight.  He clinched his jaw as fear began seeping into his inner being, filling his heart with a dread.

“It’s a silver conche like the ones on Little Joe’s hat band,” Ben said.

Adam reached for the conche and took it from his father’s hand.  It was then that he noticed how the senior Cartwright’s hand shook slightly.  He glanced up at his father and saw Ben gulp. “I noticed the other day the Joe had one on his hatband that was about to come off…”

Ben’s eyes grew small; his jaw was set firmly. “Are you sure, son?”

“Yes sir, I mentioned to him that he ought to fix it before he lost it…you don’t think this…” Adam held his hand out; the conche lay in his opened hand, glistening in the sun,

“could be…that particular one…do you?”

“I can’t say for sure, Adam, but if it is…that raises another question,” Ben stated.

“Like how’d it get here?” Hoss said, eyeing both his father and brother.

“Exactly,” Ben said in a deep tone.

*****

The woman strolled along the long porch, gracefully descending the steps as she waited for the carriage to come to a complete stop.  Deep within her bosom, her heart beat rapidly with excitement and when she glanced down, she noticed how her delicate, though slightly wrinkled, hands trembled.  Her hankie was twisted in a tight knot that matched the knot in the pit of her stomach.

The driver of the coach jumped down and immediately opened the door to allow the young women to disembark.  Grace was the first to greet her mother and instantly she moved into the opened arms of welcome.

“Oh Mother, it’s so good to be with you again,” cooed Grace.

“It’s good to have you back, Gracie,” greeted the mother.

She held her arm around one daughter and stretched out the other to welcome back her oldest daughter. “Beth…darling,” the happy mother smiled warmly.

“Hello, Mother,” Beth said, returning the smile as she leaned forward and placed a light kiss to her mother’s cheek.

Not sure what was expected of him, Joe climbed slowly down from the coach.  The long tiring trip and the constant use of the laudanum had taken its toll on the boy.  Joe’s face wore the look of a sickly child; his eyes had dark circles under them, leaving him looking as if he needed more than just one good night’s rest.  Weakened from the long trip and the lack of a nourishing meal, Joe swayed slightly as he placed his feet down on the ground.  Tightly, in an effort to keep from falling, he grabbed the door of the coach, gaining attention from the three ladies.

“Joseph!” Beth, who had grown very fond of her younger brother, hurried to offer herself as a support.  “Easy now…you’re very tired and not feeling up to par,” she cautioned as she gazed lovingly at the boy.

Grace moved to Joe’s other side and entwined one arm about Joe’s to give him more support.  Slowly, the sisters moved the young man closer to the older lady.

Beth smiled, “Mother,” she began, “this is Joseph…Joseph Cartwright.”

Victoria Paquett looked as if she might faint, but the smile that she gave the young man was warm and friendly, deceivingly inviting.  Her dark eyes gazed at the lad standing before her, taking in every feature of his expression and the shallow almost haunted look in the sad, hazel eyes. “Joseph,” she cried in a cooing voice.

Victoria held out her arms to embrace the boy in a hug.  Joe was pressed against the woman’s bosom and suddenly felt as if he were smothering.  He knew the woman was saying something to him, but her words were not actually registering in his head.  Knowing he should be listening, but concentrating on his breathing, he failed to hear his father’s name mentioned.  When the lady finally released him, Joe instantly sucked in a chest full of air.  His head buzzed as he began to sway, only slightly aware that Beth was supporting him on one side and Grace on the other.  He looked up at the woman, trying to focus his eyes on her face.  Her lips were moving, but her words sounded as if she had her head under water trying to talk to him.  He forced himself to concentrate on what she was saying.

“So…I want you to feel comfortable here with us.  I know it has come as a shock to you, finding out that I am your real mother…and that for all the years of your life, your father and that woman…Marie…and your brothers as well, have done nothing but tell you lie after lie…they stole you away from me…that horrible woman snatched you from my very arms!”

Words, all scrambled, began swirling about in his head.  Words that he did not understand. ‘Real mother’, ‘father lied’, ‘horrible woman’, ‘snatched you’,…everything became a blur after that and nothing else that the woman said mattered.

“Mother!” Beth cried softly.

She had seen Joe’s expression change to one of sheer horror at her mother’s words.  She had felt Joe’s body tense and felt the weight of him leaning heavily against her and knew that it would be only moments before the boy collapsed. “Mother, please,” she cried again, this time more forceful.

Victoria took a deep breath, calming herself before continuing.  Her smile was strained, not that the boy cared. “It will take some time to get used to living with a house full of women instead of men, Joseph.  But we will work through it.  I have a lot to tell you, to explain to you about how…how you were taken from me and how it was that I was able to find you after all these years.  But all of that can wait, you obviously are worn to a frazzle and need to rest.”

Victoria turned her attention back to her daughters, her expression softened when she looked at them. “Why don’t you show…your brother…” She noted that Joe’s eyes widened.  “Why don’t you show your brother to his room, and make him comfortable?”

“Yes, Mother,” answered Grace.

Victoria moved to brush back a lock of curls from Joe’s forehead.  Her fingers lightly traced the outline of his jaw. “After you have freshened up and rested a spell, we’ll have dinner…and then perhaps we can have a chat, would you like that?” Victoria prompted.

Joe, who for the entire course of his life, had been drilled about his manners, and even in his wasted state of mind could not forget them, nodded his head slightly. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good…now go along with your sisters,” Victoria encouraged.

As the trio of young people turned to go, Victoria reached out her hand and touched Beth’s arm.  With a nod of her head, Grace led Joe into the house, leaving Beth to confer with their mother.

“Beth, darling…tell me, how did it go?  Did anyone see you leave with the boy…did he give you any trouble…what about Ben Cartwright…”

“Mother, please,” cautioned Beth. She took her mother’s arm and led Victoria a short distance from the porch.  As they walked along, the younger woman leaned closer to her mother.

“It was simple; Joseph showed up one day at the house, with a friend…the boy we hired to lure Joe there.  I gave them refreshments,” Beth smiled, “a good dose of the laudanum and the boy was sleeping like a baby within fifteen minutes.  He didn’t wake up until hours later and by that time, we were already settled in a motel in some Godforsaken town in the middle of nowhere.  Every time he woke, I gave him something to eat, and before he could get himself fully aware of what was going on, I’d give him another dose.”

Beth stopped and turned to her mother.  Her expression wore a worried look. “Mother…are you sure…are you absolutely positive that we’ve done the right thing?  I mean, after all, the boy…”

“Hush,” ordered Victoria.  “Of course we’ve done the right thing.  The boy will be fine…in time.”

“But…he so obviously loves his father and…”

“Nonsense…that will all change when he hears what I have to say!”

Victoria walked a few paces away, separating herself from her daughter.  Her eyes had narrowed and her lips were drawn tight.  Beth noted the high red color to her mother’s cheeks.

“He has it coming to him…the way he treated me…making me believe that he loved me…and then marrying her instead.  And that woman…a witch…that’s all she was.  A known woman…she’s had so many men that even God lost count!” The angry woman puckered up her lips in disgust and stepped closer to her daughter. “And to think that slut actually helped Ben Cartwright raise my child!” snarled Victoria.  “I never could figure out what he saw in her…”

“Mother, please, it isn’t right to speak ill of the dead…”

“Oh…don’t you be so righteous and judgmental, young lady!  That woman stole the only man I ever truly loved…” Victoria quickly clamped her mouth shut as she stared at her daughter’s shocked expression.  “Except for your father, of course.”

“Of course,” Beth said, whispering the words softly.

Victoria placed both hands on her daughter’s arms and smiled. “It’s true my dear…I loved them both, Louis…and Ben Cartwright…I’ve told you the story of each.  Your father was a warm, loving, gentle man and if he had lived longer…well…I wouldn’t have had to endure all the suffering that Ben Cartwright and that piece of trash he called a ‘wife’, forced on me.  And Joseph…would have been…should have been…WAS my son, not hers.  And he will be once more…when I finish with that boy, he will never speak to his father again…I will destroy Ben Cartwright’s life the same as he destroyed mine…and I will make his precious little boy the pawn, he will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back…you just wait and see!”

Beth clasped her fingers so tightly together that the knuckles turned white.  She stared into the face of her mother, wondering at the sudden change she was witnessing.  Never before had she seen her mother so consumed with hate.  Dare she question it? “Mother, I understand that you were hurt by Mr. Cartwright’s…rejection…but…”

“But what?” stormed Victoria.  “Are you about to suggest that I shouldn’t feel as I do?  Because if you are, forget it…I have every right to despise the man.  He practically left me at the altar, holding his child!  Everyone we knew kept telling me not to trust the man, that he’d already had two wives, two sons and was poor as field dirt.  But I loved him and worse than that, I trusted him.  He promised to marry me…anything he said, to keep his son from being a bastard…but it was all lies.  He ran off with Marie…what’s-her-name and together they conceive the story that Baby Phillip…that’s what I named him…Joseph is what Ben wanted to name him…but they allowed everyone to believe that she was his mother; they even lied to the boy.  For that, Ben Cartwright will come to regret for the rest of his natural life.  What he’s done to me is done, it’s over, but I cannot, nor will I, forgive him for stealing my son…never!”

“Please Mother; I was just going to ask you…what about Joseph?  How do you think he’s going to feel when you explain all of this to him?  Don’t you realize how hurt he will be…how he might turn against both of you?”

“Both of us?”

“Yes Mother, what if your plan backfires?  What if your son hates you for…one, taking him away from his family that he’s always known, two, for telling him horrible things about the father that he loves dearly…and for the awful things you’ll tell him about the only mother he ever knew.”

Victoria seemed to be thinking about what her daughter had said.  She turned and walked away, keeping her back to her daughter for several long moments.  When she came back, her expression had changed. “Beth…that is a chance I am willing to take.  You see, I’ve already lost the man I loved…I’ve never had a day with my son, and if what you fear might happen, happens, then we are no worse off than before. I would have gained nothing, and I’ve lost nothing.”

*****

“Mr. Anderson, we must speak with your son on this matter,” Ben insisted.  “I’m telling you, your boy was seen leaving with my son.  Mark may very well have been the last person to see Little Joe before he turned up missing.”

Mr. Anderson sighed heavily, shaking his head from side to side in surrender. “Alright, Mr. Cartwright, just calm down.  The boy’s in the barn; come on, let’s go see if what you claim is true or not.”

Mr. Anderson stepped around Ben and marched toward the barn.  Ben glanced up at Adam and Hoss who had remained seated on their horses and nodded his head in an indication for them to follow.  Quickly both young men swung down from their mounts and fell into step along side their father.

“MARK!” shouted Mr. Anderson as he reached the entrance to the barn.

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Come down here…”

“I’m busy, Pa…”

“Never mind what you’re doing, get down here right this minute!”

Mark, who appeared from the hay filled loft, looked from one face to the other.  His eyes rested on his father’s face. “Am I in trouble, Pa?”

“Should you be?” Mr. Anderson demanded.

Mark shook his head.  “No…no sir…I ain’t done nothing…honest…”

“Mark,” Ben interrupted.  “I just want to ask you a couple of questions…”

“If it’s about Little Joe…I don’t know a thing…really…” the boy stammered, suddenly looking guilty.

The look did not go unnoticed by Ben nor the boy’s own father.

“Mitch Devlin told me that on the day Joe didn’t come home, he saw my son leave school with you…”

“Yes sir, but I done told you that.  We rode as far as the fork in the road…I went home and I assumed that Joe did too…”

Ben glanced at the boy’s father and then continued. “Mitch also said that he took the shortcut home…via the old Henson place.  He said he saw you and Joseph standing in the yard, talking to one of the women that were staying at the house.  Mitch started to join you, but the two of you went inside so he decided not to be…as he said…a party pooper, so he left.  That was the last time Joe was seen.  All I want to know now is…what went on in that house…where did you two go when you left there?”

Mark looked sick, like he might need to empty his stomach.  His anxious eyes glanced in his father’s direction.

“Don’t lie, boy, or I’ll take the strap to you…”

“Yes sir,” Mark stammered, glancing up at Ben.  “Nothing happened…honest. We went there to help the ladies mend a couple of fences. The older one asked us in…to explain what was needing fixing…the other lady offered us some cookies and lemonade…that’s all…really, Mr. Cartwright.  After that, I left.”

Ben was thoughtful for a moment. “You left?”

“Yes sir.”

“What about Joe?” Adam popped up to inquire.

“I…I…don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?  Didn’t Joe leave with you?” Ben demanded.

“No…I don’t know when Joe left.  I…wasn’t feeling too well, so I decided to come back the next day to help them…I reckon Joe stayed and helped.  I assumed that was what he did…”

“Why did you lie to us in the first place?” Adam growled.  “You could have saved us two days of combing the countryside for my brother!”

“I…I…don’t know…I guess I thought…I…might be in trouble or something…Pa told me to come straight home…”

Ben allowed his anger to lessen somewhat.  He put his hand down on the boy’s shoulder.  When he spoke, his voice was calm. “It’s alright, son.  I just needed to confirm that my son was actually at the Henson place.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said, offering what seemed like a truthful apology.

“Joe stayed behind then…when you left…and you’ve seen nothing of him since?”

“That’s right.”

“Did the ladies tell you their names?”

Mark was suddenly at a loss as to what he should say.  He had given his word that he would never tell anyone about what he had taken part in or the fact that he knew what was going to happen to the Cartwright kid.  But if he lied now, and his father found out…he’d get the beating of a lifetime.  The boy’s eyes scanned each face.  His father’s face was the most fearsome of the four.  Inwardly, he cringed. “They were sisters…from…someplace back east…or maybe down south.  That’s it…New Orleans, I think they said.”

Ben’s eyes grew wide and dark. “New Orleans?” he repeated.

“Yes sir.”

“Their names…what were their names?” Ben demanded. A new kind of fear sprang into his heart.  He suddenly felt sick, as if he might vomit.  He had loved New Orleans, loved most of the people there, but it was no secret that when he left the city, bringing with him, his third wife, Marie, he and she both had left behind many enemies.

“It was a French name…I…I…can’t remember.  Umm…Beth, that was the older sister…and…and…Grace…that was the younger sister.”

“The last name…I want the last name…” insisted Ben.

“I’m thinking…I’m thinking…honest, sir…umm…Par…Pa…Qu…I can’t remember,” the boy cried, frightened at the rising anger he saw in the three faces of the Cartwrights.

“Just take your time, Mark,” Ben encouraged.  “It’s important…very important,” he said, glancing at Hoss and Adam and knowing that his sons were totally unaware as to why their father was pushing so hard for an answer.

“Yeah, buddy…just take your time,” Hoss echoed his father’s words.

“They were pretty girls,” Mark grinned.  “Umm…the name ended in a t.  Pa…q..et…”

“Paquett?”  Ben stated the name almost the second that the sounds came out of the boy’s mouth.

The boy’s eyes brightened and he grinned.  “Yeah…that’s it…Paqu…ett; Beth and Grace Paquett!”

Adam had been watching his father’s face and had seen the color drain the instant that he said the name aloud.  He could only wonder at the mystery behind the strange occurrence.

“Pa…what’s wrong…do you know someone with that name?” Adam asked anxiously.

“It’s possible…but I’ll explain later.  First I want to know why those two young ladies decided to skip town in the middle of the night.  Mark, did either one say why they were here?”

Mark was beginning to fidget.  He had seen the horrified look on Mr. Cartwright’s face and when he had glanced at his father, he could easily tell that his own father was growing angry.  He shrugged his shoulders in response to Ben’s question.

“What kind of dumb answer is that?” shouted Mr. Anderson. He moved close to his son; his eyes were dark with anger.  Bart Anderson knew his son well enough to know that the boy was holding back, that there was more to this story than what his son was telling or admitting too.  He’d find out the truth, if he had to beat it out of him.

“It’s all I know!” Mark shouted back at his father.

Before anyone could react, Bart raised his hand and slapped his son across the face.

“Liar…I heard you talking to the Cameron boy the other night!” Bart turned to face Ben. “I didn’t pay any attention to what they were saying, you know how boys are, always bragging about this and that.  That’s all I thought the boy here was doing, but…” he eyed his son, “but…he said something about those girls…and I heard him mention your boy’s name.  I walked on by but just as I rounded the corner of the house, I stopped to pet the dog, that’s when I heard Mark saying something about those girls leaving town in the middle of the night and…and…aw…damn it…what did he say?” Bart eyeballed his son with a dark scowl.  “And taking Joe Cartwright with them!”

His voice became high pitched as his excitement grew.  “That’s it; Mark said the ladies were taking your boy with them…now why on earth didn’t I think of that the other day?”

Adam, who had restrained from having his say with the boy, finally stepped up.  He’d been watching Mark Anderson and something about the way the boy never looked his father eye to eye when talking, caused him to believe that the boy was hiding something.  Adam now spoke up. “Where were they going to take my brother?” he asked in a deep voice.  The elder Cartwright son stood nose to nose with the boy, who was as tall as he was.  “And don’t say you don’t know, don’t shrug your shoulders and by all means, don’t lie, it could have serious effects,” he warned.

Mark took a step backward.  His eyes were huge and filled with fright.  This raven-haired man scared him.  He’d head stories about how Adam Cartwright watched out for his brothers, Joe had told him.  His friend had told how Adam was fearless, how he dared any man…or any other person, to over step their bounds where Little Joe and Hoss were concerned.  More than one acquaintance and many strangers had been on the receiving end of his wrath, and with the fire he saw burning in Adam Cartwright’s dark eyes, he quickly decided that he wanted no part in tangling with this man.  He gulped, almost swallowing his tongue. “They didn’t say,” he muttered in a low voice.

Adam glanced from his father to Hoss and then looked at Mark squarely in the eyes. “Then they did take him…”

The boy nodded his head up and down, affirming the statement.

“Why…why pick Joe?”

“I think I can answer that, Adam,” Ben said, speaking up.

All eyes turned in his direction; everyone watched his face.

“The two young women, Beth and Grace Paquett, are the daughters of…let’s say, an old acquaintance of mine.  I knew their mother, Victoria Paquett, only briefly, while I was in New Orleans many years ago…before your brother was born, before Marie and I were even married,” Ben explained.  “They were just little girls back then…”

“But that doesn’t explain why they took Joe…and besides, how did they get him to go with them?” Hoss said, breaking a long silence.

This time, heads turned toward the boy, Mark Anderson.

“Well?” demanded his father.  “The man expects an answer!”

Mark lowered his head, unable to meet the steady gazes of the three Cartwright men. “They…drugged him…one of the ladies mixed something in his lemonade and they planned to keep him drugged until they met up with their mother…”   He chanced a quick glance at Ben, saw the well of mixed emotions in the deep-set brown eyes and continued.

“I don’t know where they were going to take him…honest…they wouldn’t tell me.  They said it was best if’n I didn’t know.”

Ben pinched his lips together and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, gently squeezing.

“I believe you, son.  We’ll find Little Joe.  But I need to know one other thing.”

“Yes sir?” Mark answered, casting an anxious eye at his own father.

“Why did you help them?”  Ben’s question was direct and to the point.

Mark wanted desperately to shrug his shoulders.  He had agreed to lure Joe to the Henson place for the girls.  The money had certainly made him want to attempt the daring challenge and the fact that even now $5,000 was sitting in a bank over in Carson City with his name on the account was rewarding enough, but somehow at that moment, he didn’t feel as if the money was that important.  He hadn’t asked any questions, he hadn’t even bothered to ask the women why they wanted to kidnap Joe Cartwright, or why they were going to take him so far from home…and worse, what was going to happen to the kid, once they took him away.  Mark felt a surprising wave of guilt wash over him.  What had he led his friend into?  Where was the kid now…was he alright?

The nervous young man swallowed hard.  He looked up to find Ben watching him.  He felt so little, like a naughty little boy. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” he muttered in broken words.

Mark decided it was time to be honest, he was sorry.  The broken, frightened look in the elder Cartwright’s face, the worn and tired appearance of his self gave him a sick feeling in his gut.  What if something awful happened to Joe…it would be his fault.  There would be no way that could live with his self if that happened.

“Mr. Cartwright, Pa…” he said meekly.  “Those two ladies offered me…” he gulped again, “$5,000 if I would bring Joe out to their place and then leave without saying a word to anyone about what they was planning…”

“WHAT!” shouted Adam. He quickly and without thinking, grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt, and lifted Mark off the ground. “Why you little…I should kill you right here!” he growled, pushing the boy back against the wall of one stall.

“Adam!” Ben shouted.

But Adam hadn’t had his say and he was determined to make himself understood.  He pushed his face into the boy’s face; their noses were almost touching. “It’s a good thing you aren’t a man, or I would make good that promise.  But you understand this…if any harm comes to my little brother you best start running, for I will be right behind you.  There’ll be no rock big enough, no mountain high enough and no ocean too wide for you to hide in or cross.  I will hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands…do you understand that?”

The frightened young man was close to tears.  His body trembled as he nodded his head up and down.

“Good, then we understand one another!” Adam pivoted on his heels and stormed out of the barn.  Minutes later, he was joined by Hoss and soon afterwards, Ben came from the barn.

Ben looked at his sons.  His face bore a solemn expression. As he started to mount up, he turned to Adam and Hoss. “Let’s ride.”

Both brothers swung into the saddle.

“Where we headed?” Hoss asked.

“To find your brother and to bring him home,” responded Ben with assurance.

“Ya got any ideay where he could be?”

“I got an ideay,” smirked Ben.  “Come on, daylight’s wasting.”

*****

Victoria smiled warmly as she watched the young man enter into the parlor.  Carefully she took in everything about the boy, disappointed that the lad looked nothing like his father and very much like the woman whom she had, over the course of several years, grown to hate with a passion.

“Please, sit down,” she commanded, pointing to a chair.

Joe glanced at the chair and then did as instructed.  He looked tired; his eyes were ringed with dark circles and the irises appeared dulled, no doubt from the drug that he had unknowingly been taking for the last several days.  When Joe was seated, Victoria noted how his slender shoulders drooped and how he watched her yet he appeared not to be seeing her, as if his mind was far, far away.  She almost laughed, thinking that the poor kid was probably wondering where his daddy was and why didn’t his papa come and save his poor miserable soul.  At first, she thought she might actually be able to love the boy, but then seeing how much he resembled Marie Cartwright, she felt as if she wanted to reach over to the boy and slap his face!

“Where is this place?” Joe asked rather shyly.

He glanced around the room. “Where’s my father…when’s he coming?”

“He’s not,” Victoria stated firmly.

Joe’s eyes narrowed and the woman saw the boy tighten his jaw. “Yes he will…he’ll find me,” he said defiantly.

Victoria moved to sit down in a chair opposite the boy.  She could easily see that the boy was upset, trembling in fact.  Being by nature, a tender woman unless provoked, she almost felt sorry for the boy.

“Little Joe…may I call you that?” she asked.

Unable to speak because of the knot that had suddenly lodged in his throat, he nodded his head yes.

“Good…Little Joe it will be…for now…later we’ll change your name…when you have become more comfortable living here with us…”

“Change my name?  Why would I want to do that?” he asked, taken back somewhat by the suggestion.  “And I don’t want to live here…I want to go home.”

“You probably don’t want to, Little Joe,” she explained, ignoring his other statements “…at least not yet, but when I finish telling you all about your father and how he’s lied to you all these years, I doubt seriously that you will want to carry his name around for the rest of your life.  No, I think not.  Phillip Paquett will suit you just fine…”

Joe stood to his feet, barely able to comprehend what this strange woman was saying to him. “My father doesn’t lie…he’s never told me a lie…and…and I don’t like that name, Phillip Pa…Paq…whatever!”

Victoria only smiled up at the boy as she gently reached for his hand and held it in hers.

“Please…sit back down…there is so much that I want to explain to you.”

Joe pulled his hand free of the woman’s.  He glared at her, taking an instant dislike to her. “I don’t want to sit down…and if you’re going to tell me that my father has lied to me about something…about anything…then don’t, I won’t believe you!” he spat at the woman.

Sighing, Victoria stood up and crossed the room to the little serving table.  There she poured each of them a cool glass of iced tea.  With her back to Joe, who was now pacing the room like a caged animal, she opened a tiny vile and placed two drops of laudanum into the glass she then offered to Joe. “Here, try this…its iced tea…”

“I know what it is…and I don’t like iced tea…”

Victoria was quickly growing weary of Joe’s attitude. “Drink it anyway, young man.  It will make you feel better!”

Always, or almost always respectful, Joe turned the glass up and down the contents.  Minutes later he was seated in his chair, looking more dazed than before and paying little attention to what the woman was telling him.

“Your father and I…well, we were very much in love, Joe…and we…well, we were planning on being married, but we couldn’t wait.  I loved your father dearly and he adored me.  It was only weeks later that I discovered that I was with child…his child…you…”

“What?  I don’t understand…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, I was pregnant…you do know what that means, don’t you?”

Embarrassed, Joe nodded. “My father never told me about you and him…”

“Of course he wouldn’t…just before you were born…he met Marie…”

“My mother…”

“No…she is not your mother!  I am your mother…”

“That’s impossible…and it’s a lie…my mother was a kind, sweet…beautiful woman and she was…”

“A tramp…that’s what Marie was…”

“Don’t say that!” shouted Joe.

He tried to rise but the drug had taken affect and he felt weak and tired.  All he wanted was to find his father and go home.  A good night’s rest in his own bed…away from this horrible woman was what he needed.

“Its true, son…I am your mother.  Your father never intended for you to know.  He waited until you were born…I was sick…it was a hard birth…and your father and that woman came to my bedside and snatched you away from me.”

Victoria moved to kneel at Joe’s feet and took his hands into hers. Her eyes had misted with false tears, her chin cleverly trembled. “I never saw you again after that, until this afternoon when your sisters brought you to me.  What your father did to me was awful.  He stole my son…he broke my heart by leaving me in disgrace and running away with that whore and taking you…my precious little boy with them…”

“No…no…” Joe cried, shaking his head back and forth. He jerked his hands free and tried to push the woman away, but she refused to move.

“He’s a liar…a bastard…don’t you see…he’s led you to believe that she was your mother…but it was all a nasty, wicked evil lie…I’M YOUR MOTHER!  DO YOU HEAR ME?”

Frantic to distance himself from this raving lunatic, Joe shoved Victoria backwards, causing her to fall over in the floor.  As he tried to flee, the lady tripped him, causing him to stumble and fall to the floor next to her.  She reached out to grab him.  As if in a drunken stupor, Joe tried to scramble away, staggering toward the door.

Victoria pushed herself upright and got to her feet, following the boy.  Joe had reached the door and was pulling and jerking on the handle, desperately trying to open the door.  But it was locked and he was caught in her trap.  Behind him, he heard the woman laugh.  He spun around; she was coming right at him.  All Joe could see of her face was the twisted, tormented expression and her eyes that glowered with hatred.

“HE MADE ME THE LAUGHING STOCK OF THE TOWN!!  YOU ARE MY SON…FROM THIS DAY FORWARD…AND YOUR NAME IS PHILLIP PAQUETT…” her face was inches from his.

Joe’s back was pressed to the door.  Her hot breath burned in his face as he tried to push himself deeper into the woodwork.

Victoria pressed an opened hand on the door on either side of Joe’s head.  She laughed wickedly. “Your name is Phillip…say it!”

“No…”

She slapped his right cheek, leaving a handprint. “My name is Phillip…say it!”

“No…” He felt the burning of his left cheek.

“Say it…or I shall lock you in the attic until you rot…my name is Phillip…say it!”

Joe swallowed.  Her face was becoming more and more distorted as the laudanum reached its total affect.  He felt his back scraping down the wooden door as his body began to slip downward.  His words were broken and slurred by the medication. “My name…is…Joe…Joe Cartwright…”

Before she could strike him a third time, Joe crumbled into a ball, lying at the woman’s feet.

*****

“Are you sure about this, Pa?  I mean Sacramento…what makes you think them women would take Little Joe there?”

“Just something that Victoria said to me, years ago,” explained Ben.

“And what was that?” Adam asked.

Ben was toying with the conche that had once been on his youngest son’s hatband.  When he slipped it into his pocket, he looked up at Adam. “She told me once, a long time ago, that if she were ever to move west, Sacramento would be the place where she would love to live.  She had seen a picture of the city in a book, she loved the old quaint houses…the shops…naturally it would be the most likely place for her to take Joe.  Besides, she sent her two daughters to Virginia City, knowing that they would not be recognized, and knowing now what the plan was…to kidnap Joe…then she wouldn’t be too far from her girls.”

“That makes sense,” Adam said.  “But why not change their names…why use their real names…didn’t they stop to think that if you heard the name, you would know who they were?  What if Joe had heard the name…”

“But I’ve never mention her or her daughters to you…”

“True…but Victoria Paquett had no way of knowing that…and neither did her daughters.”

“Well, then, that was her second mistake!” Ben said with a determined voice.

“Second mistake…what was her first mistake, Pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben’s eyes glowed with anger; his expression was unreadable. “Taking my son!  That was her first mistake!”

Adam and Hoss nodded in agreement.

“One thing I don’t understand, Pa,” stated Adam, “you haven’t told us…”

“What might that be, son?”

“What was this woman to you…and why kidnap Joe?  What reason or reasons would she have?”

The trio had camped for the night and now was sitting around the fire sipping coffee, each pondering the whereabouts of their missing loved one.

“Maybe I’d better explain this to you,” Ben said as he leaned forward and took the coffeepot from the fire and refilled his cup.  He held the pot out, offering to fill the cups his sons held up for him.  When he’d finished, he placed the pot back on the flat rock in the center of the fire ring and leaned back against his bedroll.  Ben cleared his throat.

“I met Victoria when I went to New Orleans to tell Marie about her husband’s death.  She was a friend’s of Marie’s at the time, but I didn’t know that until later.  Her husband, Louis Paquett had died a short time before, leaving her with two small daughters, Beth and Grace.  I spent some time with Victoria and her daughters and I was growing very fond of all three of them.  Unfortunately, I realized too late that Victoria was looking for a husband and a father for her children.  One day, right after I met Joe’s mother, Victoria proclaimed her love for me.  I wasn’t totally surprised, in fact I felt flattered that she felt that way, but I had already been smitten with Marie and knew her to be the woman I would want to ask to marry me.  When Victoria found out, she was enraged.  She threatened to spread horrible lies about herself and I, she threatened to add fuel to the gossip that was already spreading around the city about Marie, if I didn’t marry her.  Well, naturally, I wasn’t going to do that…I didn’t love her.  Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt her, but it was Marie that I loved and it was Marie that I wanted to spend my life with and Marie who I wanted for a mother for both of you.

Again, Victoria vowed to ruin both Marie and myself.  I had only one option, and that was to marry Marie as quickly as possible and leave New Orleans.  Needless to say, you know the story about all that happened before I could leave the city, but by the time all that mess was straightened up…Victoria had already stated new rumors…damaging rumors,” Ben explained.

“What kind of rumors, Pa?” Hoss inquired. Both he and his brother were held spellbound by the accounts of their father’s escapades of his time in New Orleans.

“She began telling everyone who would listen to her that I had promised to marry her…that she was carrying my child, but that I had run off with another woman…Marie.  All of which were lies…I was never intimate with that woman…or with Marie like she claimed, until we were married.”

“Then she had Joe kidnapped because…”

“Because she promised to make me pay for rejecting her.  She vowed to hurt us, Marie and myself, I mean.  She said that one day I would regret not marrying her…so…she took Joseph, Marie’s son…away from me…”

Adam closed his eyes.  Running through his mind was a mental picture of his little brother.  On the boy’s face, he saw all the hurt, the pain that this crazed, spiteful woman had caused.  In his heart, Adam knew the woman would not only make his father pay, but would try to drive a wedge between the boy and his father as well.  He sensed that Victoria Lussier Paquett would do all in her power to turn Little Joe against his own father. “You know, don’t you Pa, what she’s going to try to do?” Adam said, watching the play of emotions changing constantly on his father’s tired, worried face.

“I suppose she hopes to turn the boy against me,” Ben said and then took a sip of his coffee.  He tossed the remains into the dirt and set his cup on a rock close to the fire. “We’d best get some sleep, we’ve a long ride tomorrow,” he said as he snuggled down into his bedroll and turned over, leaving his back to his sons.

When he closed his eyes, an image of his young son stood before him.  It was as if the boy himself, were in reality, standing before him.  Tears were rolling gently down the front of his son’s face.  Ben saw the boy’s lips moving, forming a question; it consisted of only two words.

‘Why, Pa?’

Ben squeezed his eyes tightly, forcing the image to go away.  The sadness and the broken hearted expression that exhibited itself on the young face, was too much for the weary father to bear.  His worst fears were smothering his heart.  He knew if he didn’t find his son soon, that woman might very well accomplish her deepest desire…and that was to destroy him…and his son in the process and in the worst of ways.

*****

When Joe woke, it was dark in the room and musty smelling.  It took several long seconds for his eyes to adjust to the light but when they had, he sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the narrow cot where a bed had been made for him.  It was several more moments before he felt strong enough to stand up. When he managed to do so, he crept toward the area where a ray of soft light had worked itself between the boards that had been nailed together in order to cover the only window in the tiny room.

Joe tried to peer through the opening, but it was dark outside as well and the only thing visible was the ray of moonlight that shot down from the lunar planet overhead.  He was locked in the attic, high above the ground on the third floor of the house.  The woman had said he would be if he did not comply with her wishes, and obviously he had not, for wasn’t he here now?  Fresh fear gripped at the boy’s hungry gut as he turned and pressed his back against the wall. It was then that he could make out the silhouette of the lamp sitting on a small table just a few feet away.

Carefully feeling his way over to the table, he found a small box of matches and he quickly drew one from the container striking it across the tabletop.  The tiny flame brought a welcomed glow into the otherwise dreary, depressing room.  Joe removed the globe from the lamp and held the match to the wick, waiting for the wick to ignite and bring more light into the room.

As Joe made sure that the match was out, he spied a tray covered with a crisp white cloth covering whatever was beneath.  Almost, as if his empty stomach knew, the instant that the cloth was removed and he spied the tray laden with fresh fruit and veggies, it growled, warning Joe that it had been a long time since his last meal.

Joe licked his lips and picked up the bright red apple, biting down into it and instantly savoring the flavor.  A silver cover was removed from its dish to reveal the potatoes and gravy that lay along side the generous serving of roast beef.  Joe leaned down and sniffed the meal, the aroma was almost overpowering to the hungry young man.  Joe pulled up the stool to the table and immediately began to devour the luscious meal; little did the boy know that it would be the last of plenty before the vicious, spiteful woman would begin to deny him even the basic essentials that would be needed to maintain life.

With his hunger and thirst satisfied, Joe returned to the little cot and lay down.  It wasn’t long before the boy was sleeping.  It would be hours before he was to awaken again, this time the haunting memories of the conversation with his benefactor, to whom he was now solely dependant, would haunt even his daytime hours and become so intense at night as to prevent sleep from becoming a peaceful retreat.

*****

“Sacramento’s an awfully big city, Pa.  How’s we gonna find Little Joe anyway?” Hoss asked as they stood at the entrance of the main hotel building.

“I have an old friend who is a sergeant on the police force here and one who is his deputy.  As soon as we’re settled in, I’m going down to the station and have a talk with both, if possible.  Sergeant Albert Clodomir came to Sacramento from New Orleans about five years after I brought Marie back to the ranch.  We’ve maintained a long distance friendship since then and I’ve often visited with him and his family when I come here on business.  He’ll help us…and I assure you, he will remember Victoria Lussier Paquett!” Ben said with something of a smile tugging at his lips.

“So he knew her as well?” Adam said, with a grin.

“Son…by the time I left New Orleans…everyone who was anyone, had heard of the vicious Victoria Paquett!  Come on now, let’s get settled in a room and have some lunch.  I’m anxious to have a talk with Al,” Ben said as he led the way into the lobby of the hotel.

Not more than two hours later, Ben was standing in the station waiting for his friend to finish business.  Ben saw the sergeant stop and speak with a man and then glance down the hallway at him.  The man’s face broke into a smile as he hurried forward to greet Ben.

“Ben Cartwright, you old son of a gun…what brings you to our fair city?” Al said, shaking Ben’s hand.

“Business…”

“I should have known…well, how many silver contracts have you made…or is it timber this time?”

Ben shook his head.

“Cattle?”

“No…something much more valuable than any mining or timber contract and certainly worth more to me than all the cattle combined…no Al…it’s…my youngest son.  He’s been kidnapped and I believe him to be somewhere within the city…”

The sergeant was astonished.  “Kidnapped you say?  Why Ben…and do you know by whom?”

Ben’s expression darkened and the transition did not go unnoticed by the observing officer.

“Maybe I should start at the beginning. Is there somewhere that we can speak in private?” suggested Ben.

Albert pointed to an office where the door stood opened.  “Certainly, let’s go to my office.  Right this way, Ben.”

Once inside the office, Albert took a seat behind his desk and motioned for Ben to sit down.  Ben refused.

“I’ve been riding for days…better than a week really…looking everywhere for my son,” Ben explained.  “We’ve completely started over twice…and I finally got my first lead.”

“What kind of lead, Ben…you didn’t say, but do you have any clue as to who and why someone might want to take your son?  Has there been a ransom note?”

“No…no…there’s been no note and there won’t be.  The person who had my son taken did it for only one reason…” Ben glanced up at his friend.  “And that reason was to make me pay for something I…didn’t do…almost sixteen years ago!”

Sergeant Clodomir seemed puzzled as he watched Ben pace around the room.

“I’m worried about what she might do to him and what she might say to him…just to get back at me…”

“She…she who, Ben?  Who do you believe kidnapped your boy?”

Ben stopped in front of the desk and leaned down, bracing his upper body by folding his fingers into tight fists and supporting himself on the desk. “There’s only one woman I know daring enough to pull this off…and that’s…Victoria Lussier Paquett…”

“My God!  Ben…you can’t be serious?  After all these years…do you believe she would still follow through on that promise she made you…way back then?”

“I certainly do…the two young women that came to Virginia City and stayed only a matter of days was Vicki’s two daughters…oh…they are all grown up now and very much in cahoots with their mother!”

“Are you positive?”

“Absolutely, I have witnesses…and there’s a young man that accepted $5,000 from them to lure my boy out to the place where they were staying…he’s admitted it to me!” growled Ben, releasing some of the anger that had been brewing over the last couple of weeks.

“That’s incredible, Ben…I…can hardly believe any of it.  Listen, please, sit down and start from the beginning…I want to know everything.  Wait…” he said as Ben took a chair.  “I want my Captain to hear this as well, excuse me for just a minute.”

*****

“That’s about it,” Ben said, finishing the long tale about how his son became a missing person.

“It sounds, Mr. Cartwright, as if your assumption about your boy being in the city has merit.  What our job is now is to aid you in finding him.  Do you have any idea what part of the city this…let me see now,” the Captain said, hesitating long enough to look over his notes.  “This woman…Victoria Paquett…do you have any thoughts or leads as to what part of the city she might be living in?”

Ben sighed deeply; he missed the boy something terrible and longed to have his son back with him. “No…none whatsoever.”

“Ben…” Albert said, butting in on his friend’s thoughts.  “I remember you telling me once that Vicki said she wanted a big house…a mansion…perhaps we should begin by finding out what houses have recently been vacated and then see if anyone new has moved into them.  Over on the west side of town, there are some wonderful old homes.  I can just see that woman strolling gracefully through the rooms…”

“That’s not a bad idea, Sergeant,” the Captain said respectfully.  “Mr. Cartwright, unfortunately, there are very few homes of that grandeur in this section of town.  Most of the old stately homes in this area have been turned into apartments or shops, so unless we fail to find something in the area that the Sergeant suggests, I wouldn’t waste time looking here.  I’d begin immediately on the other side of town…and I’ll be very happy to offer you any kind of help you will need, including man power.”

Ben stood to his feet and shook hands with both men.  “Thank you…both…I knew I could depend on Albert here and sir,” Ben said, addressing the Captain, “I will be eternally grateful to you and your men for helping me find my son.”

“You are most welcomed, sir.  You be here about 8:00 AM tomorrow morning and we’ll get started right away.  If need be, we will go house to house until we find someone who knows something.  You do have a photograph of the boy, I hope?”

“Yes,” answered Ben. He pulled the picture from the pocket of his vest where since the day that Joe had failed to come home, Ben had carried the photo next to his heart.  He handed it to the Captain who took it and studied Little Joe’s image.

“You’ve got a very handsome youngster,” he smiled at Ben.  “He looks like a charmer, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Ben looked down at the photograph.  His heart leapt into his throat as he studied the likeness.  A wave of love surged through his veins.  At last he looked up, smiling. “Yes…Joseph is quite a charmer.”

*****

“LET ME OUT!” Joe shouted in a weak voice.

His fingers were folded into fists and were beating on the heavy door.  The sides of his hands were split and blood oozed from the cuts, but he paid them no mind.

It had been several days now since his delicious meal of roast beef and gravy.  Day by day the size of the food portions had grown smaller and smaller until there was practically nothing at all on his plate.  The lack of proper nourishment had left the boy in a weakened and often confused state of mind and body.

To add to his woes, his captor had stopped the laudanum and the withdrawals from the liquid opium had given him severe headaches and the weak trembles.  His entire body shook now as he pleaded with anyone who might hear him, to let him out of the confining attic hideaway.

Joe rested his forehead against the back of the door.  He had cried so long over the hellish days spent in the hot attic room that there were no more tears to form in his sad, lonely eyes.

He pounded on the door again.  “Please…let…me out!”

His pleas fell on deaf ears.  Down below, Victoria stood at the foot of the steps looking upward at the locked door.  The house was quiet and she was alone, except for the boy.  The servants had been given the day off and Beth had taken her sister out for the afternoon.  There had been a musical show at the theater and the younger girl had been pleading with them to be allowed to see it.  Finally realizing that it would be good to get the girls away from the boy…for they were furious with her for locking him in the uppermost room.  Little did her daughters know of the abuse he’d suffered over the period of the last week, nor were they aware of how withered and emaciated the boy had become.  It was hard for even Victoria to look upon the boy.  But it served him right, she quickly chided herself for the moment of compassion she’d felt for the kid.  He was stubborn that was for certain.

Slowly, Victoria climbed the steps to the attic.  She stopped at the door and listened intently.  She could barely hear the sounds coming from the other side.  Somehow she knew the boy was still at the door.  Victoria pressed her ear against the cool wood.  What she heard and the words she could make out made her smile.  The boy seemed to be talking to himself and his words were exactly what she had been waiting to hear.

“Why…Pa…why…did you…lie?”

Victoria heard the boy start to sob.

“She’s not my mother…not Marie…oh God…Pa…how could…you do that…to me?” Joe banged his fist against the door in total frustration. “I…I…hate you…for what…you’ve done…”

The boy’s break down was complete.  His thinking and even his emotions had been altered so that he was no longer able to think or feel in a rational manner.  It was likely that not even his father or his brothers would recognize the boy, so changed in appearance had he become and so drastically twisted were his thoughts.

A smile crept onto the woman’s face.  “I wish you were here Ben Cartwright…to hear your son speak so ill of you…I’d love to see the horror on your face…I’d love to see you begging your son to forgive you…hahahahaa…you deserve this you…you…bastard!”

“Please…” begged the boy, “let…me…out…”

Victoria clutched her fingers together in a joyful manner and pressed herself close to the door. “What is your name?” she said just loud enough to be sure that the boy had heard.

There was a long pause, long enough so that the woman thought that perhaps the boy had crawled back to his bed and fell asleep…or perhaps he had just given up on life completely and had died.  Several more moments passed by and she was almost tempted to unlock the door and see for herself what had become of her special ‘guest’.

“Phil…Phillip…Paq…Paq…I don’t…know,” the whispered cry managed to reach her ears.  “Phillip…”

“And who is your mother?” Victoria asked with a happy smile.

“Mar…no…not her…she was…a lie…you are…you are…my mother…”cried Joe, his words broken and laden with sorrow.  “Please…unlock…the door…please!”

Quickly the woman pulled out the key she kept in her breast pocket and unlocked the door.  When she yanked it opened, she gasped loudly.  The boy, looking nothing like his former self, fell into her arms.  She had no other recourse but to grab him to keep him from falling.  The stench coming from the room caused her to gag.  The boy himself didn’t smell much better so she hurried to pull the lad into the tiny hallway and shut and lock the door, all the while holding Joe upright supported by one arm.

Wishing she had not given the butler the night off, she practically had to drag the now unconscious boy down the flight of stairs.  Joe’s bare feet banged along each step.  The noise sounded loud even to her ears.  At last she was on the second floor.  Looking around, she decided to put the boy in the room next to hers.  There was an adjoining door that separated the two rooms.  That would make things more convenient when she was caring for what she now referred to as her son. Silently, she vowed that her son would make a speedy recovery.  Once she was sure that his mind had been altered completely and that the boy now known as Phillip, would devote himself to her, she would allow Ben Cartwright one visit with his former son.  She would see the hurt, the pain and grief that would mark her former admirer’s heartbroken expression.

Victoria laughed as she hauled the boy’s body onto the bed.  She made short work of stripping off the nasty, smelly clothes and placing a warm blanket over the body.  Being sure that the boy was totally out, she hurried into the washroom that was on the second floor and quickly began heating water.  She’d bathe the boy herself, just this once and then in a few days, when Phillip had regained some strength, she would have the man servant help with putting the boy into the tub for a thorough cleansing.

It was at the top of her list to restore the boy to good health…after that, she’d kick him out to defend for himself.  She didn’t want him, he was Marie’s son…but she’d be sure that the boy didn’t want his father ever again, before she enforced the last step of her revenge.

Victoria carried the last of the hot water into the room and began the dubious task of bathing the boy.

Only once did Phillip open his eyes.  The far away look in his troubled eyes assured her that he had no conscience memory of what had transpired.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked in a whispered voice.

Phillip tried to focus his eyes on the woman’s face.  He stared hard at her image, and then he made a tiny smile. “My mother…” he said, drifting off once more.

*****

“Aw…dadburnit, Pa…I bet we done knocked on fifty doors,” grumbled Hoss who had found a bench along the sidewalk and had plopped down to rest his feet.  “And we ain’t no closer to findin’ Joe than we was before hand.”

“Then we’ll just have to knock on fifty more doors.  I’m not leaving here without my son.  He’s here; I just know he is…” Ben declared.  “I’m not giving up!”

Hoss had removed one boot and was rubbing his foot.  He looked up at his father, noting the discouraged expression on his face. “Dangit, I ain’t askin’ ya to give up…besides, I know you wouldn’t…all I’m askin’ is for a few minutes to rest.  And I’m hungry too, Pa…”

Ben let the wind blow from his lungs and surprised his middle son with a smile. “I’m sorry, Hoss…of course you’re hungry.  We’re all hungry.  I saw a little café back that way,” he said pointing, “Why don’t we go have some lunch?”

“Ya mean it, Pa?” Hoss said in a happier voice. He pulled on his boot and stood up. “I sure hope they have steak and taters…these finger sandwiches we been surviving on ain’t enough to keep me alive hardly.  Why, I could get a dozen or more,” he said laughing.

Ben laughed as well.  It had been such a long time since he had last laughed.  He could barely even remember what it was that had caused him to do so.  Shrugging his shoulders, he fell into step beside his son. “When we find your brother…I’ll buy you the biggest beef steak in town…how is that?”

“That sounds just fine, Pa…just fine!”

*****

“Beth, I just don’t understand why Mother would do such a thing,” Grace complained.  “Joe is such a nice boy…I can’t believe she locked him in the attic, why I do declare, do you know just how hot it can get up there?  And that’s not all, sister, I asked Cook what she had been sending up on his tray…and you want to know what she told me?”

“What?”

“Practically nothing…that’s what she said.  She whispered it to me too; she said Mother would lock her in an attic if she ever found out that Cook told me.  I promised not to tell Mother if Cook would slip a little extra onto the boy’s tray, but Cook said there was no way she could do that.  Mother always came in to inspect the tray and she was the only one allowed to take the tray to Little Joe.  Beth…I swear…I do believe that Mother has gone off the deep end…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Gracie, don’t be so dramatic!”

“I’m not being dramatic.  I’m worried sick about her, Beth.  All she talks about is her precious baby, Phillip and how that horrid couple snatched her baby from her and stole him away halfway across the county…I’m telling you, Sarah Elizabeth…Mother is losing it!”

Beth set down her fork and took her sister’s hand in hers. “Emily Grace…that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard you say…however…” she added before Grace could deny the statement.  “I will agree with you that Mother has been acting rather strange the last few days, especially since she allowed Phillip out of the attic.  She explained to me why she was forced to lock him up…that didn’t make much sense to me either, but I suppose she had her reasons…”

“Then you think she’s losing it too, don’t you?”

“I didn’t say that…I only said that I find some of the things she does, a bit odd…now please, finish your lunch.”

*****

“How’s this?” the waitress asked.

“This is fine, thank you,” Adam answered, tipping his hat at the pretty young woman and causing her to blush.

“I’ll be right back with your menus,” she said as she turned to go.

The waitress returned promptly and took the men’s orders.  Ben looked around at the gathering of people who were sitting at the tables having lunch.  He wasn’t looking for anyone in particular so he was surprised when he noticed the two young women sitting off to themselves at a corner table.  For several moments, he watched the pair.

“Pa, is something wrong?” Adam asked after turning to see whom or what his father was so interested in.

Ben forced himself to return his attention back to his sons and the two men who Sergeant Clodomir had assigned to help them search for his missing boy.

“Do you know those ladies?”

Ben glanced again at the pair and shook his head. “No…I’ve never seen them before,” he answered.

“They sure is purty!” grinned Hoss as he looked over at the pair.

“Hmmhumm,” muttered Adam.

“All right you two, that will be enough!” laughed Ben.

The waitress had returned and began taking their orders.  While Adam and Hoss ordered, Ben glanced again at the young women.  Something about them continued to draw his attention causing him to fail to hear the waitress asking for his order.

“Pa…”

“What!” he snapped and then, realizing he sounded angry, apologized.  “I’m sorry, I’ll have a steak as well…and potatoes, please,” he told the waitress.

When he looked again toward the corner table, the two women had gone.  Quickly, Ben scanned the room, spying the two ladies near the cloakroom where they had stopped to pick up their coats.

He watched as they slipped them on and started toward the door.

“Excuse me,” he addressed the waitress.  “But by any chance, do you know those two young ladies that are standing near the door… they’ve stopped to speak to that gentleman?”

The waitress turned so that she could plainly see the pair in question.  Adam and Hoss and even the two deputies turned to look that direction as well.  Each man waited anxiously for the waitress’ reply.

“No…I’m sorry, I don’t know who they are, but I do know that they are fairly new in town,” she explained.

“I know who they are,” a gentleman server announced after hearing Ben’s question.

When all eyes turned to him, he blushed. “Well, I mean…I don’t actually know them, I just know about them,” he explained.

“Tell us,” Adam ordered.

“They’re sisters, I know that much.  And they live with their mother over on 23rd street, that’s just a couple of blocks over.  They’re not from around here…or at least the mother isn’t, she talks funny…”

“What do you mean, she talks funny?” Ben said, curious about what this young man was telling them.

“I don’t mean anything bad…I just meant that she has an accent.  I waited on them once when they came in for dinner…”

“I see,” Ben said flatly.  “Do you happen to know who their mother is…what her name might be?”

The waiter thought for several seconds and then shook his head.  “I’m sorry sir…I don’t know her name, but the girls…well, I tried asking the youngest one out on a date, but the older one insisted that her sister not go, she gave some lame excuse about not staying in town for long, something about they had to get back to…hmm…where was it…oh…I remember, she said they would be leaving soon for home.  When I asked her where her home was, she said New Orleans.”

You could have heard a pin drop it became so quiet at the table where five men sat open-mouthed.

“Ma’am,” said Ben. He pulled his billfold from his vest pocket and took out several bills.  “Please…take this and if you would, cancel our order…we won’t be staying.”

“Oh…well, yes sir.  But…is it me?  I mean, I can get you another waitress…”

“No, no, my dear, it’s just that…well, something has come up and I need to take care of it immediately, I’m sorry,” Ben explained. He turned to the others.  “Come on…we’re going to follow those girls…if my hunch is correct…those are the young ladies that lured your brother away…”

*****

The five men split into groups.  Adam and Hoss walked along on the opposite side of the sidewalk from where the two young women were walking.  Ben and the two officers strolled together behind the girls acting as if it were an everyday thing to be out on a sunny afternoon stroll.

The two unsuspecting ladies laughed and chatted the entire time.  The older woman seemed to be pointing out different objects along the way and then the pair would engage in conversation totally unaware that they were being followed.

After a couple of blocks, the girls turned off the main street.  Ben motioned for Adam and Hoss to continue walking while he and the two officers, dressed in street clothes, followed the two ladies.  They passed several large, elegant homes before stopping in front of one home that could be classified as a mansion.

The house was nothing like what Ben could imagine himself or his sons living in, but the thought of Victoria Paquett being mistress of this home was something to consider.  It suited her; it was definitely the style of house that she had once told him she hoped to own.

Ben held his hand out, stopping the two men.  He watched the girls, unobserved, and when they turned to walk up the wide, flowered walkway, he followed.  Coming down the opposite side of the street he could see Adam and Hoss hurrying in his direction.  They waited until his sons joined them.

“This is the house,” Ben said in a near whispered voice.

“Are you sure, Pa?  I’d hate to bust into the wrong place…”

“I’m positive.  Now listen, you and Hoss and one of the officers stay down here, on the curb.  James here will go with me.  Once we’re inside the house, give us ten minutes and then the three of you follow us.  It’s a big house, and there’s no telling just where your brother might be…”

“Alright, Pa…just be careful…”

Ben smiled and placed a hand on each shoulder of both boys.  “I will…and with any luck, we’ll have the boy back with us in a very short time.”

He turned to go.

“Good luck,” Adam called.

“That goes for me too, Pa!” Hoss added.

The two young women had already entered the house and the front door was closed.  Ben glanced at the officer and then knocked on the door.  The door was opened almost immediately by one of the women whom they had followed.  She smiled warmly at the strangers.

“Yes?” Grace smiled, greeting the gentlemen, “May I help you?”

“Hello,” Ben said in his warmest voice.  His face bore a friendly smile.  Inside, his stomach was churning.  “I’m looking for an old friend of mine, and I was told she might live here,” Ben explained politely.

“Well, I don’t know…who is your friend?”

“Who’s at the door, Gracie?” called a voice from deep within the house.

Ben’s heart rate suddenly went berserk.  Gracie or Grace, he knew to be the name of one of the young women who had played a major role in kidnapping his son.  This beautiful young woman standing before him was Victoria’s daughter, of that he was sure…and somewhere deep within the bowels of this massive house, was his beloved son.

“Just a couple of gentlemen, Mother,” Grace called and then turned back to the two men.  “I’m sorry…who were you looking for?”

“I think I’ve just found her,” Ben said, pushing his way into the house.

Frightened, Grace backed up, drawing her fists up to her chest. “Who are you?  What do you want?” she said in a trembling voice.

Ben held his hand out to the girl to comfort her, but Grace pulled back.

“Please,” said Ben, “I mean you no harm…honestly.”

“Then get out!”

“Not until I get what I came for,” Ben said.

“What on earth would that be?  We don’t even know you…”

“Does the name, Ben Cartwright, mean anything to you?”

Ben saw the girl’s eyes widened in horror.

“Sweet Jesus,” she muttered.  “MOTHER!!  MOTHER!!  COME QUICKLY!!”

The shouts brought Adam and Hoss running up the walk and into the entrance foyer where their father and James were standing before a near hysterical young woman.

“Pa…what’s going on…did you find Little Joe?” Adam asked in a rush of words.

“Well, well, well!”

All eyes turned to see the elegant woman causally strolling down the long winding staircase.  Victoria’s gown was chic though a bit daring for the afternoon.  But not one could deny the fact that the woman was remarkably beautiful.

“Ben Cartwright,” she said with a slight smirk.  “Somehow…I knew you’d find me.”

“You presumed correctly.  I admit, it wasn’t easy at first…but after I found out that you paid a young man…a friend of my son’s…$5,000 to lure him into a trap…I knew that if it took me the rest of my life…I’d find you…and my son.  Now where is he?”

Victoria stood on the last step of the staircase, flanked on both sides by her daughters. “What makes you so sure he’s here?”

“I don’t think, Victoria, I know,” Ben said in a deep voice.

He was fighting to maintain his composure.  Adam was looking around at all the doors that led to different rooms.  He tapped Ben on the shoulder.

“Just say the word, Pa…and Hoss and I will tear this place apart!”

“Yeah, just say the word,” echoed the big man.

“Hold on, Mr. Cartwright,” one of the deputies said as he put a restraining hand on Adam’s arm.  “You can’t just bust in here and start tearing things apart…that’s against the law…”

“Kidnappin’s against the law too,” Hoss declared.

The angered young man started to cross the room, but Ben stopped him. “No, Hoss…he’s right…we’ll get a search warrant.”  Ben glared at Victoria.  “We’ll be back…and if you have harmed my son in any way…I’ll see you pay for what you’ve done…”

“Don’t threaten me, Ben Cartwright.  You don’t scare me…not any more!”

Ben moved closer to the step.  He’d like nothing better than to put his hands about her lily-white throat and squeeze the life out of her until she confessed as to where she had hidden away his son.

“I don’t make threats, Vicki…I make promises…you should know that!”

“How dare you come into my home and threaten me…get out…GET OUT!” she screamed.

“I’ll go…but remember, I’ll be back…and if my son is in this house…I will find him!” stormed Ben as he turned to leave.

“Pa!” Hoss said in a rambling voice.  “We can’t leave here without Little Joe…JOE!  JOE…WHERE ARE YA BOY!!” he screamed at the top of his voice.  “JOE!”

“Hoss…stop it…stop that right this minute!” demanded Ben. He grabbed his son by the arm and practically dragged him from the house.

Out on the porch, Hoss pulled free of the vise like fingers that held his arm. “It ain’t right, Pa!” he stormed.  “Joe’s in there…I know he is…and I aim on gettin’ him out…”

“Oh no you don’t, not like that you aren’t!  We’ll do it legally, and when we find Little Joe…that woman and her daughters will pay for what they’ve done…”

Ben stomped off the porch and took the arm of one deputy. “I want you to go straight back to the station and get us a search warrant, do you understand?  My sons and I will wait for you…at that restaurant where we saw the girls.  And please hurry…I want my son out of that house tonight!”

“Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright…you just be sure to keep your sons away from that house though, until we come back!”

“They will do as I say…won’t you?” he growled at Hoss and gave Adam a warning look as well.

Hoss hung his head.  His lips puckered, but he nodded in agreement. “Yes sir,” he muttered. Hoss glanced up at the two deputies. “But if’n ya ain’t back here by seven, I’m tearing the walls down in that house, if’n I hav’ta.”

“And I’ll help him,” Adam spoke up to say.

Ben gave his sons another warning look and turned back to the officers. “You’d best hurry; I’ll hold them off as long as I can.”

“Alright, Mr. Cartwright…it may take a while to obtain a warrant, it has to be signed by the judge…”

“I understand,” Ben assured the man.

Minutes later, Ben, Hoss and Adam sat at a table at the little sidewalk café where they had stopped to get lunch, but had declined the meal in lieu of following the girls.

“Pa…I’m sorry for what I done,” Hoss said meekly.  “I know Joe’s in that house…I just know it…”

“I understand son…and I too, believe that Joe’s there.” Ben placed his hand on top of Hoss’. “We’ll find him, Hoss…I promise.”

“I know we will, Pa…it’s just…well…me and Joe…we’re…” Hoss made a sniffling sound.  His blue eyes were clouded with dampness when he looked up at his father.

“It’s alright, son; we understand, don’t we, Adam?” Ben stated, turning to his eldest son for support.

“Of course we do, Hoss…I feel the same way about the boy.  I always have…we’ll get in there and we’ll take Joe out…”

“I hope so,” muttered Hoss.  “But I got a feelin’ in my gut that tells me…it ain’t gonna be easy!”

*****

“I don’t want to talk to him,” Joe grumbled.  “He lied to me…all my life, he’s lied!”

He was still confined to the bed.  His appearance was improved, but he still lacked the healthy glow of youth that had been so dominant before being taken as Victoria’s prisoner and transformed into her son.

Victoria sat down on the bed, next to the boy and gently caressed his cheek.  Her voice was low and dripping with emotion, all for Joe’s benefit. “I know my darling…but all that’s over now.  And I won’t let him take you away from me again.  Phillip, look at me,” she said as she tipped Joe’s chin upward and turned his head so that he was forced to look into her eyes.  They magically filled with tears.

“You have to tell him, son…”

Joe swallowed hard.  “What if he won’t listen?  What if he tells me I still have go with him?  I don’t want to go away with him, I want to stay here…with you…and my sisters.”

Victoria smiled.  “Then you shall,” she said, rising from the bed and turning toward the door.  “I will allow him to see you, but only long enough for you tell him how you feel and then he will be asked to leave, if he doesn’t, I will have the officers that are with him, physically remove him and his sons.”

Joe lowered his head slightly.  “Alright then…but  Mama…you won’t leave me alone with him, will you?”

“Oh Phillip, of course not, not if you really want me to stay.”

Victoria was glowing on the inside.  It had been a long time coming…her revenge of Ben Cartwright.  The day had finally arrived and she was going to be witness to his heartbreak.  Anticipation fueled her rapid heartbeat.  She hadn’t been this excited about anything in years! “I’ll send him right in; the sooner you have your say, the sooner he’ll be asked to leave!”

Victoria hurried from the room and literally floated down the long winding staircase.

*****

Ben, Adam, Hoss and the two officers were waiting in the foyer.  Victoria paused long enough to catch her breath and steady her trembling hands before entering.

“Mrs. Paquett, I have a search warrant here that is signed by the judge that gives us the right to search the premises for Mr. Cartwright’s son…” one officer was explaining.

She shook her head.  “There’s no need for that.  I’ll show Mr. Cartwright where the boy is.”

“Then he is here!” Ben said with a heavy sigh of relief.  “Where?”

“Yes, Ben, Phillip…as he prefers to call himself now…is here.  He didn’t want to talk to you, but I convinced him that he should.  Afterwards…it is his desire to remain here…with me and his sisters…”

“Sisters?  What in blazes are you talking about…Joseph has no sisters…and why on earth would he want to call himself Phillip?” Ben demanded.

“Because that is the name I gave him when he was born…”

“Joe ain’t your son, lady…he’s Pa’s…and he ain’t got no sisters, just me and Adam here…ain’t that right, Pa?” Hoss explained.

“Of course it’s right…”

“Mr. Cartwright, are you sure…this Phillip is actually, your son?” the officer, confused, looked from the gentleman to the lady who both claimed that the boy was theirs.

“Of course I’m sure…and I’m also sure that this…this…woman IS NOT my son’s mother.  Joseph was born on my ranch…the Ponderosa…not in New Orleans…I have no idea what she has told my son!”

Ben pushed his way around Victoria.  His eyes were tiny slits that glowed dangerously dark and were filled with loathing. “I want to see my son right now!” he demanded in a commanding voice.

He took Vicki’s arm and practically hauled the woman, who laughed lightly, up the stairs.  She paused at the door. “Phillip has asked that I remain with him while he speaks to you…”

Ben gave the woman a daring glare as he pushed the door opened and entered the room.  If he had been expecting to be greeted with open arms, he soon learned that was not the case.

Joe was sitting up in bed but is head was leaning back against the pillows.  He barely glanced up as his father and brothers moved closer to the bed.  Hoss glanced at Adam, taken back by the cold expression on his little brother’s face.

Ben noted the narrowed eyes so filled with venom that it caused his heart to skip a beat…no…more than one beat, several.  The change in his son was astonishing for the boy looked nothing like his former self.  Gone was the happy twinkle from the hazel eyes, which now bore dark circles.  The once sun bronzed face was now pale and the rosy cheeks were no longer visible but were sunken in as if the boy had gone days without eating.  If he had been troubled and worried before finding his son, the anxious father was more so now than ever before.  He felt heartsick and suddenly an awful dread washed over him that he couldn’t shake.  Something warned him that his son had been forever changed.  Ben glanced at the woman who stood on the opposite side of the bed and saw Joe turn his head and look up into the woman’s face.  When the boy reached for the woman’s hand, Ben’s stomach turned upside down.

“Joseph?” he said softly, making his way to the bed.

The boy turned and looked up at the man.  Ben smiled at his son, but the boy only looked away. “My name is Phillip,” he said after a brief silence.

Ben glared at the woman, who only smiled in return.

“Why do you call yourself Phillip?  Your mother and I named you Joseph…Joseph Francis to be exact.”

“No…she wasn’t my mother!” Joe said sternly as he at last turned and glared at the man who wore a stunned expression on his face.  “She was a lie…just a lie,” Joe said in an extremely low voice that expressed the hurt he was feeling.

“No…Joseph, listen to me…”

“Why?  So you can tell me more lies?” spat Joe.  “You lied to me, Pa…all my life you told me that she was my mother…but she wasn’t…she helped you to steal me away from my real mother!  This is my real mother…”

“That’s a lie, Little Joe,” Hoss quickly said. He stepped up to the side of the bed and glared down at his younger brother. “I don’t know what this here woman’s been tellin’ ya…but I know for a fact that she ain’t ya ma…”

“You’ve lied too, Hoss…and you Adam!” Joe growled.  “All of you…even Hop Sing…I wasn’t born on the Ponderosa…I was born in New Orleans…!”

“Joseph, that’s not true…I have proof…”

“Show me!” Joe dared his father.

Ben was caught off guard by the statement.  “Son…I don’t have it with me…it’s at home…I’ll show you when we get back…”

Joe stared hard at his father.  Ben was sickened by the near hate he saw in the boy’s eyes. “I’m not going with you…I’m staying here…with my mother!”

Victoria made the mistake of snickering softly, because it pushed Ben to stand to his feet.

“She’s not your mother, and you’re not staying here…do you understand me!” Ben stated firmly, speaking to Joe but keeping his eyes on the woman.

He’d never hit a woman before in his life, but he’d sure as hell like to hit one now, he thought.

“No,” Joe said with as much determination as he could muster.

Inside he felt as if he were dying.  He cast his sad eyes up to look at his father, and the expression on the senior Cartwright’s face was tearing his heart out.  He’d always put so much faith and trust in his father…it had destroyed him, turned his world upside down to find out that for all of his life, his father had lied to him about his birth, about his mother…he could only wonder what else his father had lied to him about.

Ben was devastated by Joe’s refusal to return home with him.  He rounded the bed and grabbed Victoria by both arms.  His fingers squeezed hard, making the woman suck in a gulp of air to fill her lungs and to keep from crying out.

“I don’t know how you’ve convinced him of these lies, but lies they are!” stormed Ben.  “Now you tell him the truth…you tell him that the child you gave birth to, died…the night that Joe’s mother…Marie…and I came to pay our respects to you and to tell you that we were leaving for my home in Nevada…TELL HIM!” shouted Ben, shoving the woman down on the side of the bed next to Joe.

Victoria laughed.  The sound was strange and ugly and all eyes were fixed on the woman’s distorted face. “Oh, Ben…you’re such a fool!” she taunted.  “I promised you sixteen years ago that I’d get even with you and look at you now!  Your own son hates you…he can’t even stand to look at your damn face!”

The laughter continued and grew more evil.  Beth and Grace had joined the men in the room.  Grace was shaking with fear and Beth stood with her arm about the younger girl’s shoulders.

“He is my son…” she bragged.  “Joseph Cartwright never existed except in your mind…he’s Phillip Paquett and he’s mine…do you understand?  I can prove that I gave birth to him!”

Victoria leaned down over Joe, who had turned away from his father and brothers and now had eyes only for the woman who claimed to be his mother.  She cradled his face in her hands, and then ran her fingers through the thick, curly chestnut locks.

“When our son was born, Benjamin, he had a small red birthmark on the back of his head, right at the hairline.  It was shaped like a strawberry…am I right?”

“How should I know…we never had a child together…”

“More lies, Benjamin…Have you forgotten…you pointed it out to me, right after Phillip was born.  And you called it ‘stork tracks’, remember?”

Ben swallowed.  He did remember telling Vicki that her son had little bright red marks on the back of his head…but a lot of babies do, even Joseph had them…Ben stopped suddenly and looked down at the boy.  Joe had moved his eyes upward and was watching his expression, waiting for an answer.

Victoria turned to the officers. “You can look…the same birthmark is still there…it hasn’t changed, it hasn’t somehow mysteriously vanished,” she assured them.

James started toward the bed, but Ben held his hand out to stop him. “There’s no need to look…” he said in a broken voice.  “It’s there, just like she said…”

“Pa!” Adam said, startled and confused by what his father…sounded…like he was admitting.

Ben, his head low, glanced over at Adam and Hoss.  “It’s alright, son,” he said to Adam, “she’s telling the truth…”

Joe sucked in a gulp of air and let out a soft moan.  Ben hurried to sit down beside him on the bed, but Joe looked away, unable to meet the probing eyes.

 “Joseph…you have the same birthmark…many babies, when they are born, bear ‘stork tracks’, most of the time, they go away…yours didn’t.  But that doesn’t prove that you are her son…you are not…” he explained.  “You are my son and Marie’s son…nobody else’s.  Adam and Hoss are your brothers…you have no sisters because this woman is NOT your mother.  Joe…please, you have to believe me…I’ve never lied to you…ever and I’m not lying to you now.  I don’t know how she managed to convince you of such things, but they are false…”

Joe turned his head just enough so that he could see his father’s face.  It was as it had always been, in the depth of the dark wells of his father’s eyes he could see the love that had always been there for him.  Suddenly his own eyes filled with tears.  Something from deep within himself wanted to believe this man, wanted to trust him as he had always done in the past…but yet…could he?  She had been so convincing…telling him things about his father that only a woman who had loved a man deep enough to conceive a child with him, even out of wedlock, could possibly know.

For weeks now, his mind had been boggled, his head had pounded and it had been she…the one who called herself mother…who had been at his side, who had whispered softly into his pounding head.  Victoria had hummed and sang softly, soothing him so that he could sleep.  And when nightmares had disturbed his slumber, she had been the one who answered his cries …she had been the one to…to…

Joe squeezed his eyes tightly…somehow the picture of this woman became distorted and in his mind, he saw another woman.  The other woman looked very much like the first, but she was hitting him…screaming at him…calling him names.  She deprived him of food…she offered very little of something to drink.  He remembered his mouth being so dry that he could barely speak.  Joe glanced down at his hands…they hurt, yet he could see nothing there to make them hurt.  Somewhere in the house, he heard a door slam…and then it all came flooding back to him.  She had slammed another door…a door that had kept him locked away…in a little room.  He had pounded with his fists…he had begged and pleaded for the door to be unlocked, yet it had not.

The room was small and musty.  Oft as not, it was unbearably hot during the day and cold at night. He shivered thinking about it, he felt the fear anew…he was back in the darkness for there had been no window to speak of…no other way out of the room except through the lone door, and she kept that locked.  He could hear her whispering now…just on the other side… ‘what is your name…what is you name?  Who am I…who am I….

His visions were suddenly gone.  Someone was talking to him.  The voice was familiar; the face haunted his memory, tugged at his sub-conscious.  He turned toward the voice.

“Listen little buddy,” Adam said as he kneeled down at the head of Joe’s bed.  “Pa’s telling you the truth; I was there when you were born.  In fact, I had to fetch Dr. Martin for your mother, your real mother,” he stressed, giving the woman a sharp look. “Joe…I held Marie’s hand while we waited for the doctor to arrive.  He had been on a call and I had to hurry back. Pa was away at the time and…”

“And I stayed with Mama while Adam went lookin’ for the doc, Joe…honest Shortshanks…we was there with her…”

“And Pa barely made it home before you were born.  Hoss and I were scared silly…the way she cried out…the pain she went through…Joe…this woman here has filled your head with lies.”

“NO! YOU’RE LYING NOW…!” shouted Victoria as she shoved Adam aside and knelt down, close to Joe.

“They’re lying, my darling…my precious little boy…they’re lying!” wept Victoria.

Beth stepped up to the bed totally confused by everything she was hearing.  She pulled her mother upright and held her close. “Mother, please…”

Angered, Victoria pulled away, looking down at Joe.  She suddenly turned to the officer. “I want these people out of my house…NOW!” she shouted at him.

“NO!” Ben stormed, “not without my son!”

“HE’S NOT YOUR SON…HE’S MINE!” screamed Vicki.

“Mr. Cartwright…” James stammered.  “I think this is a matter for the courts to decide.  Perhaps you and your sons had better go…”

“NO…I’m not leaving here without my boy!”

“GET OUT!” the woman shouted.

It was obvious that she bordered on hysteria.  She lay across Joe’s body, shielding him from the family he had just denied, protecting him…willing him to be her son, to stay with her…to love her…

James and the other officer each took an arm and began pulling Ben from the room.

“Mr. Cartwright…I’m not sure whose child this is, but I think you’d best go, sir,” James said.

“NO!” screamed Ben as he tried to pull away.

He glanced back over his shoulder; the crazed woman had hidden his son away in a hug.  He could see Joe trying to push her away, trying to call out to him, but the officers pulled and jerked him along with them until he could no longer see his son.

“JOSEPH!”

“Pa…stop!” Adam demanded, fighting at the arms that grabbled for the boy.  “We’ll come back, Pa…listen to me!  Stop struggling…we will get him out of there…I promise.”

*****

Upstairs, Joe had finally broken free of the woman’s mad embrace.  He struggled to get out of the bed, fighting against her hands that seemed determine to keep him from getting up.

“Help me you, little fools!” Victoria screamed at the girls.

They were too stunned to move, too paralyzed with fear to do as they were instructed.

Joe had his feet on the floor and used his upper body to push the woman away from him.  Somehow, he managed to get to the window.  He tried to push it opened, but it was either locked or stuck.  Down below, he saw his father being led away by the officers.  His brothers were walking slowly behind.  They were getting into a carriage…Joe pounded on the window…beating the glass until it was sure to break and cut his hands.

“PA!  PA!” he bellowed.  “DON’T LEAVE ME!!  COME BACK…COME BACK!” wailed the boy, sobbing.

The five men were in the carriage.  Joe saw it lurch and then begin moving forward, taking his family further and further away from him.

The sobbing boy leaned his forehead against the cool glass.  It was several moments before he heard the hideous laughter behind him.  He spun around.  Victoria was doubled up; her sadistic laughter rang hollow in the quiet room.  Joe became very subdued.  The two girls moved to his side, frightened at the horrific change that had come over their mother.

Victoria stepped closer to the trio, noting the frightened expressions on each face. “You little fools,” she spat at them.

“Mother…please…what is wrong with you!” cried Beth.

“She’s crazy,” muttered Joe.

His statement caused Victoria to laugh louder.  Unexpectedly she stopped suddenly. “You little bastard!” she screamed, surprising him by slapping his face.

Joe groaned as his head snapped to one side.

“How dare you!” she shouted and slapped the other side of his face.

“Mama…don’t!” yelled Grace who tried to place herself between the boy and the irate woman.

“GET OUT OF MY WAY!” bellowed Victoria as she grabbed the young girl by the arm and flung her to the floor.

Grace shrieked as her head hit the corner of the table.  Silence filled the room, as each one looked down at the girl whose head was now showing blood.  Beth screamed and raced to her sister, leaving the mother to turn her wrath on the frightened boy.

Completely out of control, the crazed woman began beating the boy with her fists.  Trained to perfection to respect women…Joe did nothing but try to protect him self.  He tried to see the girls but with the woman pounding his face and arms, his chest, his mid-section…he could do nothing.  Then, when he had covered his head, the hammering fists stopped.  Joe chanced a peek, but it was the wrong thing to do, it left him wide opened for the vase that she crashed down on the top of his head.  Instantly, everything went black as the battered young man sank to the floor, unconscious.

When Joe came to, he found himself lying on the floor.  As his eyes slowly began to focus, he saw that he was once again locked in the attic prison.  Softly, he groaned and pushed himself up right, waiting for his head to clear.  Once on his feet, Joe staggered to the door. “Nooo!” he screamed.

The door was locked.  Down below, on the ground floor, he barely made out the sounds of someone shouting.  Then there was a scream, a piteous unmistakable plea for help.  Joe recognized the voice; it was the older daughter, Beth.  She screamed again.  Frantic to be out of the hideaway, Joe jerked on the door, but it refused to open.  He began beating on it with his fists.  Far beneath him, more screams echoed up the staircase and reached his ears.

“LET ME OUT!  LET ME OUT!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

Several times more, Joe shouted to be released.  His voice grew hoarse, this throat hurt and his eyes filled with tears.  Victoria was laughing hysterically.  The screams had stopped.  Joe could only wonder at what had happened, what misery had that wicked mother succeeded in accomplishing. Was Beth hurt? Grace had been; her mother had turned on her like a fierce, half crazed animal caught in a trap.  Joe suddenly became afraid for the two young women, scared that Grace might be injured more than just having been knocked to the floor.

“BETH!” yelled Joe.

He pressed his ear to the door; someone was coming up the stairs.  When the key sounded in the lock, Joe backed up, waiting for the person on the other side to free him.  The heavy wooden door was shoved opened, slamming against the wall behind.  Joe gasped, Victoria stood before him, covered in blood.  In one hand she held a long, thin bladed knife.  The expression on her face was evil and distorted.  Joe backed up, his eyes never leaving her face or the hand that held the threatening weapon.  He swallowed, willing away his fear.

“What have you done?” he questioned, using a voice that he hoped did not tremble when he spoke.

“She tried to get to you…” the demented woman said in a husky voice.  She laughed, a mean, twisted sort of laugh that caused Joe to swallow again.  As Victoria advanced, Joe stepped back, until there was no more room.

The woman lunged at him with the knife, Joe ducked under her arm in an effort to get away, but the point of the sharp knife jabbed into his left shoulder.  Joe instantly felt the stabbing pain and screamed.

As the woman raised her arm to make another jab at him, Joe managed to shove the woman away.  She staggered back and forth, nearly falling but giving Joe the time he needed to flee the attic.  Behind him, the woman screamed her rage and when Joe stopped long enough to glance behind, Victoria was in pursuit.

Joe turned to run, but his foot became tangled and he tripped, landing on the narrow staircase that led down to the second floor.  Victoria’s wicked laughter resounded in his ears as he lunged again at him.  The frightened boy struggled to get to his feet, but the depraved woman flung herself on top of him, pinning him to the stairs.

The slicing edge of the knife grazed his other arm.  Bright red drops of blood instantly stained his shirtsleeve. The demented woman began screaming obscenities at the struggling boy as she raised her arm high over her head.  Joe’s fingers had twisted themselves about the wrist in which hand she held the knife.  Victoria fought to bring the knife downward, intending to bury it deeply within the boy’s chest.  Joe battled to keep her fist and the knife from penetrating his flesh.

The woman was strong, driven by hate she managed to work the point of the knife to within inches of his breast.  His heart beat wildly in his chest; fear had filled his soul and in a blink of an eye, his life flashed before his mind’s eye.  Ben Cartwright’s imagine exploded before him, causing him to cry out for the man whom he had always loved.

“PA!”

The knife moved closer.  Joe’s eyes were wide and filled with terror as he fought to keep from dying.  Tiny beads of perspiration dotted his brow and ran, burning into his eyes, mixing with the tears that had accumulated there.  He was growing weaker and barely able to keep his attacker at bay. If help didn’t arrive soon, it would too late…he’d be dead, having left all the things he wanted to tell his father, unsaid…and his father wondering at the son who had denied him.

*****

“But you don’t understand Judge,” argued Ben. He slammed his fist down on the judge’s desk. “The woman’s a lunatic…my son’s life is in danger!”

“Mr. Cartwright, calm down.  I’ve already explained, this matter of custody must be heard in a court of law…”

“Custody!” stormed Ben, “there is NO matter of custody…the boy is MY son…”

“According to Captain Miller…there is the likelihood that Mrs. Paquett is the mother…”

“She is not my brother’s mother!” Adam shouted.

“Please…all of you…I don’t want to have any of you physically removed from my office, but I will if you gentlemen do not get a handle on your emotions…”

“I’m sorry your Honor…my son Adam is sorry…we’re all sorry…and if I don’t get my boy away from that woman…everyone will be sorry!”

The judge took a deep breath and stood up.  Only his wide mahogany desk separated him from the angry men.

“Get a lawyer Mr. Cartwright…I can hear the matter in about 6 to 8 weeks, that’s how far behind we are on the dockets…”

Ben was beyond being just plain mad, he was furious.  He banged his fist on the desk, wincing at the pain that shot through his hand.

“Six or eight weeks!” he bellowed.  “Joseph may not have six or eight hours!!”  He shook his finger under the judge’s nose.  “And if you think I’ll wait that long to get my son out of that house and away from that crazy woman, you are badly mistaken!”

He snatched up his hat from the desk and stormed from the office.  Adam and Hoss exchanged worried looks and quickly caught up with their father who was standing on the steps of the courthouse.  Ben’s friend, Sergeant Clodomir was right behind the two brothers.

Ben turned to face his sons and his friend. “If either of you think I’m waiting nearly two months to get Joe away from Vicki, you’re solely mistaken.  I won’t wait that long, I won’t wait 6 or 8 days or hours…come on,” he ordered as he started to walk off.

Sergeant Clodomir grabbed Ben’s arm.  “Ben, wait…I’m fairly sure I know what you’re planning to do…but you can’t…it will be breaking and entering…kidnapping…you could go to prison!” his friend warned.

“Then I’ll just go prison…but not before I make sure that my son is safe and sound and as far away as I can get him from the clutches of that…that…obnoxious woman!  Adam, Hoss…are you coming with me or not?  Make up your minds!” Ben growled as he turned again and marched down the street.

Hoss raised his brows and looked from Adam to the sergeant.  “I’m goin’ with Pa…”

“Not without me you aren’t!” Adam said with as much determination.

Together they fell into step behind their father.  The sergeant stood with his hands on his hips watching the threesome walk away from him.  He shook his head. “I’ll probably regret this,” he muttered to himself.  Then aloud, he called out to Ben. “Wait for me, I’m going with you!”

*****

At the house, the battle between the woman and the young man was still raging;  Little Joe was fighting for his life.  A strange sound down below him caused Joe to falter slightly. The tip of the knife was resting atop his shirt.  He could feel the sharp point going through the thin material and pierce his flesh…and then suddenly…a shadow moved over him, he heard shouting; the woman screamed.  Her body was flung from his and in that instant he was free and scrambling to move down the stairs.  Someone was running up the stairs toward him as he toppled from one step to the other; hands were grabbling at his body, everything was a mass of total confusion; as the unknown hands touched his body he heard a piercing scream, not recognizing the voice as his own.

“NO! NO!” he yelled as he fought against the hands that tried to hold him.

“Easy son…easy Joe…take it easy, boy, it’s me…your Pa…Joe, Joe…stop fighting me…it’ your pa, boy…your pa!”

Joe’s struggling slowly began to cease as the realization that it was not the woman he was fighting so hard to be rid of, but the man who had always been there for him…it was his father.

Joe’s body slumped heavily against the older man’s chest.  His eyes sought his father’s face.  Tears ran freely down the front of his face as Joe tried to calm his heavy breathing.

“Pa,” his lips whispered.

Ben ground the boy’s face against his chest, holding tightly to the sobbing boy who now clung to him as if his entire life depended on that grasp.

“Shh…it’s over now son…you’re alright, boy,” cooed Ben in an attempt to calm the weeping boy.

“Pa…Pa…” sobbed Joe, “she tried to…to…stab me…she…she wanted to…kill…me…oh Pa!”

Ben’s eyes had filled with tears but he refused to free them and give them right of way.  Instead, he took a deep breath to steady his pounding heart.  The knowledge that he and Adam and Hoss not arrived when they had, his son would now be dead!

“Joseph…son…I’m here…she’ll not hurt you ever again,” he whispered to his son.

Ben glanced up at Adam who had been the one to pull the villainous woman from Joe.

“She’s dead, Pa,” he said lowly.

Ben pinched his lips tightly.  Joe moved slightly, looking up into his father’s face, seeing the pain and hurt in the depths of the dark eyes.

Joe’s chin still trembled as he glanced up at his brother.  Adam knelt down and stroked the boy’s head in a brotherly manner.  He offered the lad a small smile. “Are you ready to go home now?” he asked softly.

Joe swallowed, a sob caught in his throat as he nodded his head.

“Let’s get these wounds tended to first,” Ben said in relief.

He scooped the boy up into his arms and turned to descend the stairs.  Joe tried to see behind him but only caught a glimpse of the woman’s body lying on the floor.  The knife was buried deep in her midsection.  Sickened by the sight, Joe closed his eyes.

“Albert?”

“Don’t worry, Ben…Hoss and I will take care of the bodies,” he assured his friend.

Downstairs, Ben placed his son on the couch and began to open the boy’s shirt to inspect the knife wounds.  He watched Joe’s face and saw the pain that the boy tried so hard to hide.

“Pa…” muttered Joe. He had folded his fingers about his father’s wrist to still the older man’s hands. “Grace…and Beth…” he whispered.

With lips pressed tightly, Ben shook his head.  “I’m sorry son…Gracie is dead…I’m not sure about Beth.”

“No!”

“Shh…Joe…”

The youngster gasped.  Fresh tears filled his eyes. “They…they saved my life, Pa…” he cried.  “Grace stood between me and that…woman…” he sobbed.  “She…killed them…didn’t…she?”

Totally exhausted, Joe broke down and wept.  Ben gathered his son into his arms and held him tightly, allowing the boy to cry out his grief.  It was several moments before Joe’s crying ceased.  His father laid him gently back against the pillows that Adam had stuffed behind his little brother’s head.  For just a short, brief period, Joe’s eyes stayed fixed on his father’s face, then slowly, succumbing to the exhaustion, the eyelids closed as Joe fell into a deep, welcomed sleep.

*****

At the sound of the opening and closing of the door, Ben looked up.  Adam and Hoss had just returned from having gone downstairs to the dinning room to have dinner.  Hoss carried a covered tray into the room with him and as he placed it on the table near the bed, Adam moved to the opposite side to check on the sleeping boy.

“How long has he been sleeping like that?” he asked his father.

Joe had been moved, from the house after collapsing, to the hotel rooms where the Cartwrights had been residing for the last week or so since their arrival in Sacramento.  The boy had not awakened but only briefly during the move and then again when the doctor was present to examine and treat his injuries.

“Since the doctor was here earlier. Joe was hurting pretty badly so the doctor had to give him something for the pain…he’s been asleep ever since,” explained Ben.

“Come eat, Pa, I brought you somethin’,” Hoss said as he uncovered the tray.

Ben cast a quick glance at Joe who slept soundly and then sat down at the small table where Hoss had placed his supper.  In a moment, Adam joined him.

“I spoke with Sergeant Clodomir like you asked me to do and we saw the judge,” Adam explained.  “I explained what happened when we went back to the house, about the girl we found dead…and how that woman was trying to kill Little Joe.”

“Did you tell him how she tried to kill you as well?” Ben said after swallowing what was in his mouth.

“Yes sir, I told him how she tried using the knife on me and about fighting her off.  It’s a shame that she fell on the knife, killing herself, Pa.  For that, I’m sorry…but I’m more sorry for her daughters…and all the lies she told them.  I’m afraid Miss Paquett has been badly traumatized by the things her mother said and did, but Sergeant Clodomir said that he and his wife would look after Beth until she makes a full recovery.  They took her in, you know?”

“I’m not surprised, Adam; the Clodomir’s are very wonderful people.”

“Oh…and he said there wouldn’t be any charges filed on big brother here, it being an accident and all…how the woman died,” added Hoss.

Ben placed his drinking glass on the table and stood up, wiping his mouth.  He smiled at Adam. “I’m glad, son,” he said, squeezing his son’s shoulder.  He glanced toward the bed and noted that Joe was beginning to wake up.  “We’ve got a lot to be thankful for; if we hadn’t gone back to that house…Joe might well have been murdered,” he muttered as he walked across the room.

Joe’s eyelids batter a few times and then his eyes opened.  Ben smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Well, hello there,” he said warmly.

“Hi Pa,” Joe muttered in a tired voice.

His older brothers came over to welcome the boy back from his long nap.

“Hey Adam…Hoss,” Joe said.

“Hey yourself, kid,” grinned Adam.

“Hi ya, Shortshanks, how ya feelin’?” Hoss inquired.

“I’m alright,” Joe said. He sought his father’s face.  His eyes filled with tears and a troubled scowl furrowed his brow. “Can…we…talk, Pa…please?” he said barely above a whisper.

Ben swallowed the knot that had suddenly risen in the back of his throat.  He nodded his head.

“We’ll see you later, Pa. Joe, you take it easy now kid…come on, Hoss…I want you see that saddle I found at the leather shop down town,” Adam said, gracefully excusing himself and his middle brother so that the kid and his father would have a while to speak privately.

“What…oh…” stammered Hoss.  “See ya later, Punkin,” he told Joe, “bye ya, Pa,” he said as he followed Adam out of the room.

At the door, he paused and smiled at his father and brother who were both watching his and Adam’s departure.  Ben nodded his thanks, his two older boys understood their brother’s need to be alone with him, and for that he was grateful, for he had some things deep within his heart that he wanted to say to Little Joe as well as whatever it was that the boy wanted to say to him.

When the door shut, Ben turned to smile at Joe.  Tenderly, he brushed back the damp curls that had glued themselves to the boy’s brow. “What was it that you wanted to talk to me about, son?”

Joe turned his head and looked away.  He suddenly felt unsure of how to put his feelings into words.  There had been so much that happened and he had felt so overwhelmed by it all and as he thought back on it now, he realized what a horrible mistake he had made when he had…turned against his own father.  Joe gulped as he looked into his father’s face.

He was surprised to see the tenderness in his father’s eyes, for he had been sure that his father would hate him for all the harsh, unkind words he had said to him and of the way that he had treated the man who cared about him more than any other living being.

“I’m…sorry…Pa,” he muttered. Joe tried to still his trembling chin, but it was hard to do.

“For what, son?”

A puzzled look caused Joe’s face to form a frown. “What do you…mean…for what?  I…I…betrayed you…” Joe proclaimed with a sob.  “I…I stopped trusting in you…I stopped believing in…you…Pa…for just a little while…I…I…I even…hated you!”

“Joe…”

“It’s true, Pa…I…thought…no, I believed what that woman…said about you…and my mother…my…real mother.” Joe was forced to stop talking.  His throat had become so thick that he could barely swallow.  Large tears filled his eyes and when he lowered his head, they rolled slowly down his cheeks to reach the end of his chin and drip onto the white sheet that covered him.

Ben too was filled with emotion.  Gently he tipped Joe’s chin up so that he could see into his son’s eyes. “Joseph…answer me this…did you for one minute stop…loving me?”

Joe was fighting back the rush of emotions that threatened to spill over.  Sure he’d been mad at his father, he had even doubted the man he’d trusted all of his life, but thinking back over the last several days, it was clear to him that in spite of all that had happened, he had not for one moment stopped loving his father.

Joe shook his head no.

“I’m glad, son,” Ben said softly, “Because I would have been very sad if you had.”

“But Pa, I thought…”

“I know what you thought, son…and I know why you had those thoughts…”

“You do?”

“Yes…you see Joseph,” Ben said, explaining the happenings that he knew Joe was unaware of.  “When you first went to the Henson’s place…and met Beth and Grace…you had no idea that you’d been lured there.  It was all part of a very elaborate plan to…get back at me…”

“You?  I don’t understand.”

“Well, many years ago…before you were born, when I was in New Orleans, I knew Victoria Paquett.  It was right before I met your mother.  She was a young widow with two little girls and was expecting another child very soon.  Her husband, Louis Paquett had recently died.  I liked her and I adored her daughters.  Vicki and I quickly became friends; unfortunately, she wanted something more from our friendship, something that I couldn’t give her.

She wanted me to marry her.  She needed a husband to take care of her and a father for her children.  But I couldn’t son, I didn’t love her…and that rejection was hard for her to accept.  When I met your mother and found myself deeply in love with her instead, Vicki was angry, very angry with both Marie and myself.  She vowed to get even with me for not marrying her.  She spread rumors…ugly rumors.

And then her son was born.  He was a beautiful little boy, had a head full of dark curls…but he was sickly and before he was more than a day or two old, he died.  His death, so recently on the heels of her husband’s death was almost more than Vicki could bear.  Your mother and I paid our last respects to her and told her we were leaving for my home.

Shortly afterwards, Vicki made some pretty nasty allegations, claiming me as the father of her child…which of course wasn’t true.  I learned later that she made the same announcements to all of our friends back in New Orleans, along with the lie that Marie and I had stolen her child away with us.  That’s when she vowed to get revenge.  She vowed to one day find me and steal back the baby that she claimed I had stolen from her…”

“And she thought I was that baby?” Joe asked.

“I suppose so, son.  I don’t know how she found me…but when she did, she used her daughters to steal you from me…oh…they were too young to know the truth about their real brother.  You see, Joseph, Vicki lied to her own children about her baby…she made them think that you were that baby…their brother…Well, as it were…they drugged you that afternoon when you went with Mark Anderson to the Henson place.  He was paid $5,000 to lure you there…”

“WHAT!  Why, that…you just want until I get home…I’ll teach him a lesson…”

Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gave the boy a squeeze. “You never mind that, son…that’s already been taken care of.”

“What happened next, Pa…how’d I end up here? I…I don’t remember much after that first afternoon.”

“As I was saying, you were drugged…and kept you drugged until you were brought here…to Sacramento to Vicki’s house.  When you were told the lies, about your mother and I…Vicki was determined to make you into the baby she lost.  When you would not give in to her demands, she locked you in the attic and practically starved you to death trying to force you to admit that you were Phillip and that you hated me…for the lies that she claimed I had told you all your life.  The lack of proper nourishment and the added affects of the drug, her constant drilling you…well, son…let’s just say she did her job well…”

“That’s…sick…” Joe murmured as he tried to take in everything his father was telling him.  He looked up, great sadness shown in his eyes. “I…I’m sorry…I can’t believe…I said those things to you…or that…I’d stop trusting you…and…”

Ben’s large gentle hands cupped the boy’s face.  He smiled and leaned down, kissing Joe on the forehead. “Shh…it’s over, son…and I know you didn’t mean what you said…it was the drugs and the foul treatment that altered your thinking…and your emotions.  She played on those Joe…she used you, son, for her benefit.”

A lone tear rolled from the corner of Joe’s eyes. “I thought she really cared for me…I even began thinking that…maybe she was my…real mother.”  Joe swallowed and looked directly into his father’s eyes.  “I think I’ve always wanted a mother…so much so…that…that I guess…I wanted to believe…that she was…my mother.  Does that make any sense?”

“It makes a lot of sense, Joseph.  God, I know how you’ve missed not having a mother.  I wish with all my heart it hadn’t been like that for you or for Hoss and Adam, but sometimes, certain things just are not meant to be, son.”

“I know that…or at least, I do now.”  Joe sighed deeply.  “Are you mad at me?” he asked meekly, afraid of what his father might say to him.

“Mad?  No, of course not.  I’m relieved that you see things differently now…”

“Oh Pa…you don’t have any idea how I felt…I was sick…I thought…you…I mean…golly…I feel like such an idiot…”

“No, son, don’t feel that way…it wasn’t your fault…why, I was fooled by Vicki’s vicious lies before…long before you were even conceived.”

“But I hated you…”

“I know…and you thought you had just cause…”

“No, Pa!  There can never be enough reason for a son to hate his own father…to turn his back on the man that…that gave him life.  For that…I can’t forgive myself…I hurt you…and don’t deny it…I saw it in your face…in your eyes.”

Joe was weeping by this time so much so that his father gathered his son into his arms and held him close.  For several minutes, they stayed locked in one another’s embrace.  Ben gently rocked back and forth as he clung to his son and allowed their emotions to reach an all time peak before the weeping subsided.

“There, there,” cooed Ben.  “Let’s put it all in the past son…”

Joe kept his face buried against his father’s breast. “You forgive me…don’t ya Pa?” Joe asked in a whisper.

“You have nothing to be forgiven for…but if it will make you feel better, then yes…for you’re past indiscretions and all that will come in the future, I forgive you Joseph.  You see…I can say that, because I love you…you are my son and Marie’s son and what she and I created together was a gift of our love given to us by God.  And how can I not forgive or not love, something as wonderful as God’s gift?  Always remember and know that I love you Joseph, then, now and forever more.”

“I love you too, Pa…honest I do…”

“I know, son, I can feel that love flowing through you at this very moment.”

Joe surprised his father by giggling.  Ben grasped the slender shoulders and gently pushed Joe back until he could see the boy’s face.  The expression Joe wore caused him to smile. “What’s so funny, you little rascal?”

Joe giggled again. “That’s not love you’re feeling, Pa…that’s my stomach growling…I’m hungry.”

Ben’s mind went momentarily blank and when the statement of Joe’s meaning finally registered in his brain, he tossed back his head and let loose with a bellowing round of laughter.  He pulled Joe tightly to him, his arms wrapped about the boy in a bear hug.

“Why…you little scamp!” he laughed.

***End***

Return to Debbie B.’s home page

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

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