The Photograph (by StephanieJ)


Synopsis: Afraid that some day he’ll lose his father or brothers, Little Joe feels he needs photographs of his family to help keep his memories alive. But trying to convince his family to take time off to get their pictures taken proves difficult. It takes a tragedy for Ben to realize how important the Photograph really is.

Rating: PG
Words:  14,400


The Photograph

Little Joe Cartwright was riding home from school in a good mood for the first time in nearly two weeks. He had an idea…a good idea; no it was a great idea. It was the answer he’d been praying for since his pa had returned from his last business trip. Joe always hated when any of his family was away. His older brother Hoss was more than his brother, he was his best friend and he was lonely whenever Hoss was gone. Eldest brother Adam, while bossy and strict was a comfort to Joe and he worried that someday Adam would just decide traveling was better than ranch life and would leave for good. Pa, well Pa was his whole world and Joe hated it whenever his father was gone. And this last trip was sheer torture for Joe. Pa’s trip was to last a week but Ben was delayed in his return and Joe had nearly worried himself sick that some tragedy had befallen his father and he’d never see him again. His mother had left him and Joe was sure that someday he’d be left alone with only his memories. So Joe hated it when his father and brothers traveled.

The brainstorm came to Joe as he was leaving school. He saw the peddler’s wagon coming toward Virginia City and when it came close enough to see the writing on the side, he gasped “Cecil Miller-Photographer.” A photographer, Joe thought. “That’s it!!!!” Joe exclaimed. “That’s what we need! Huh, well that’s what I NEED! Photographs of each of us and one of the family.” Joe’s mind was a whirl with this great idea. Now to convince his family. Surely they’d see the value of photographs. “We have photographs of each of our ma’s, heck it’s the only way Adam or Hoss would even know what their ma’s looked like and it sure helps me remember my mama and to feel close to her.” The timing here is everything, he thought as he continued to work out his plan. Things had been crazy at the ranch lately. It was round up time and it had not been going well. Strays seemed to be everywhere, the roundup was short handed and most of the extra hands were just plain green. “I’d be more help than some of these guys”, Joe figured. But at only 12 years old, his father still thought he was a kid. “Anyway back to the plan, Cochise”, Joe said to his horse. “How am I going to get Pa to take an afternoon off to get our pictures taken? Well, I’ll just be on my best behavior, eat a lot for supper, do my homework and chores without havin’ to be told and then while they’re all still in shock, I’ll ask” he chuckled. ” I sure hope none of ‘em choke on their dinner, huh Cochise” Joe giggled and Cochise snorted as if to agree.

Joe put his plan into action and he was ready to pour on the charm when his father and brothers got home. But tonight was not a good night and Joe picked up on that right away as the large front door burst open and three dirty, angry men stomped in. But not one to take defeat easily, Joe pressed on. “Hi ya Pa! How’d it go today? Hop Sing has supper nearly ready and it’s gonna be a feast. I had a good day in school, today Pa, I did real good on my math test and I got my chores done and…”

“JOSEPH! Would you quiet down and let me get in the door!” Ben bellowed at Joe and the boy recoiled. Immediately sorry, Ben turned to Joe and said, “I’m sorry son. I didn’t mean to snap at you, but we’ve had a terrible day, and I just want to sit down to a peaceful supper.”

Still trying to salvage his plans, Joe started again, “That’s okay Pa, I understand.” Ben and Adam had already headed off to the wash house to clean up for dinner as Joe turned to Hoss and asked, “What happened today?”

“Oh Joe, it was a mess,” Hoss explained. “One of those green nitwits Adam hired spooked the herd and they stampeded. Cattle went every which way and undid all the work we’ve done this past week. Pa is so mad and we’ll be workin’ double hard to get that herd in on time. I’m getting’ tired just thinkin’ bout it.”

“Golly I’m sure sorry Hoss, maybe Pa would let me help, I’m sure I’d be more help than some of those hands.” Joe ventured.

“Don’t even ask Shortshanks, you know how Pa feels about you going to school. You’d be smart just to eat supper and go to bed. Pa and Adam were talking on the way home about having to go over the books tonight and that, on top of this day, can only mean more shoutin’,” Hoss advised.

It was good advice, Joe knew, but he had his plan…

“JOSEPH, HOSS could we please get down to supper, Adam and I still have a lot of work tonight and morning will come pretty early,” Ben commanded.

Joe was beginning to reevaluate his plan.

Supper was relatively calm as Ben and Adam discussed the recent problems with the roundup. Joe stayed his course; sitting quietly and eating all his dinner, even though he didn’t want it. He was too excited about the photographer and his great idea, and supper was the last thing he wanted. But his father didn’t seem to notice. A peaceful silence surrounded the table as the meal came to a close when finally Joe blurted out his request in one fast babbling breath: “Pa I saw a photographer come into Virginia City this afternoon and wouldn’t it be great to get some photographs of all of us. We don’t have any and it would be real nice, I think.”

Adam’s head snapped up to glare at Joe, “Didn’t you listen to anything we’ve been talking about, boy?!” He demanded, and then continued, “we’ve got cattle scattered from here to the Comstock and you think we have time to traipse off the Virginia City and take a picture.”

Joe grimaced, when he heard his great idea coming back at him like that it did sound a bit frivolous. But he just snapped back, “Well we don’t have to do it tomorrow!”

“That’s enough,” Ben thundered. “I don’t need this tonight. While that’s a nice idea Joseph and any other time I’d say fine, but NOW is not that time.”

Pressing on, Joe asked, ” Well, when then?”

Taking a loud breath Ben just replied, “I don’t know Joseph, you may be excused. Go and get ready for bed and I’ll be up later to kiss you goodnight.”

And with that he was dismissed. Well so much for my timing and planning, but I’m not giving up on my great idea, Joe thought.

The next few days seemed to follow the same path…his father and brothers were gone early and home late as they tried to get the roundup back on course. And while their dispositions improved somewhat, they had no free time and none was in sight.

Blessed with the Cartwright stubbornness, Joe pressed Ben to get their photos taken. Each time however, the answer was similar: ‘no Joe’; ‘not now Joe’; ‘later Joe’…until finally Ben told Joe not to say another word on the subject. Joe’s hopes for the photographs were fading away. And all this alone time only proved to Joe the greater need for the photographs. Joe’s mind was once again consumed with the idea of the photographs. His thoughts now were more urgent: How much longer would the photographer be in town? How much longer would his family be working such long hours? How can they take time for pictures, if they don’t even have time for me to ask them about it? What if something happens to one of them on the round up or they go on another trip before…well Joe couldn’t even finish that thought. But then once that thought came to him, that was all he could think of.

Hop Sing was well aware that something was bothering Joe. The long face and scant meals were a sure give-a-way. Getting Joe to talk about his problems was an art, but Hop Sing was very talented. So over an early supper, one evening alone in the kitchen, he got the whole story. Hop Sing’s heart was breaking for this poor little boy, as he told Hop Sing why he wanted, no needed, the pictures.

“Don’t you see Hop Sing,” Joe cried softly, “I’m afraid something is going to happen to Pa, or Adam or Hoss and I’ll lose them just like I lost Mama. But this time I won’t even have a picture of ‘em to help me remember. I’d have forgotten mama’s face, if it wasn’t for the picture and I’d hate myself if I ever forget what any of ‘em looked like.”

Hop Sing took the sobbing boy into his arms “No, Little Joe never forget, family and mama always in heart, just need to close eyes to see.”

“No Hop Sing,” Joe cried, “it’s not just the face it’s the details…like the way she held her head, the way she did her hair, the sparkle in her eye, shape of her mouth.”

Hop Sing nodded and patted his back and said “Little Joe need to talk with father and make him see.”

“I can’t Hop Sing, he’s already got too much to do,” Joe sighed and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

Hop Sing huffed, “Father never too busy for sons.”

“Not now,” Joe replied as he thought about how many times his father had said that to him lately. Then he ran up the back stairs to his room and cried himself to sleep.

Joe was still asleep when Ben and the boys returned that evening. Hop Sing had supper on the table and had vowed to help his favorite Cartwright. “This looks great Hop Sing, where’s Joseph?” Ben asked.

“Little boy very tired he sleeping,” Hop Sing answered.

“He’s tired!” Adam exclaimed, “He should try spending a day with us!”

“Don’t even joke about that with him Adam, you know he’d love to,” Ben admonished.

“I know Pa, sorry,” Adam replied.

Hop Sing shuffled around the table, and muttered, “Being alone with heavy thoughts just as tiring as hard work.” He continued muttering in Chinese as he went back to the kitchen.

“What’s that mean?” Hoss asked. “He sure can talk in riddles.”

“I think it means Joe’s got something on his mind and we’ve all been too busy to notice,” Adam ventured.

“Well now that the round up is just about done, I’ll see to it we all have some free time together. I’m ashamed to admit it but we’ve all been pretty busy and Joe’s been alone a lot,” Ben declared.

“Yeah, Pa but Joe understands this roundup has been a nightmare,” Hoss stated trying to ease his father guilt.

“Yes, well that’s not his fault is it, in fact he’s been really good and very helpful, or haven’t you both noticed who’s been doing all the barn chores without complaint. I hate to have to tell Joe we’ll each be going out of town the end of the week,” Ben said feeling all the more guilty and neglectful of his youngest.

“Oh, he’ll understand, Pa and once we all get back we should have a bit more free time, like you said.” Hoss explained “We can take him fishing or whatever he wants. Do you want me to get him for supper, Pa?” Hoss concluded.

Hop Sing reappeared and stated: “You late, Little boy eat earlier.”

“Sorry Hop Sing, let’s eat, I’ll go check on him later,” Ben said.

As supper concluded, Ben went outside for a breath of fresh air and to think about what could be troubling Joe. Hoss headed into the kitchen looking for a second piece of pie. Hop Sing was busy in the kitchen, but was quick to offer Hoss more pie. Serving the pie, Hop Sing figured now was a good time to start to helping Joe get his photographs and he asked Hoss: “Mr. Hoss, your mama very pretty lady?”

“She sure was Hop Sing”; Hoss answered, confused by this question that seemed to come out of the blue.

Hop Sing hid a smile and continued, “How you know?”

“Well, Pa’s told me and of course I have her picture,” Hoss explained confused by these odd questions from Hop Sing.

“Ah yes, pictures very important,” Hop Sing stated and then returned to clear the table, hoping to find Adam alone at the table. Hoss remained in the kitchen finishing his pie and he just shook his head as he and Hop Sing crossed paths as Hoss headed to the great room.

Hoss went directly to his father’s desk. He took his mother’s picture, went over to the settee and sat down. Adam noticed Hoss staring at Inger’s picture and asked: “Hop Sing talk to you, Hoss?”

“Yeah”, Hoss answered glancing up, “You too?”

“Oh yeah,” Adam replied, “I think this is a clue to what’s bothering Joe.”

Just then Ben came back in asking, “What clue to what’s bothering Joe?”

“Well I don’t know Pa, except, Hop Sing is talking in riddles again, and ‘ole Adam here thinks it has something to do with our little brother,” Hoss explained.

“What’s all this Adam?” Ben inquired.

“Well I’m not certain Pa, but I think Hop Sing wants us to get our pictures taken for Little Joe.” Adam stated.

“OH, I see, the photographs again,” Ben said, “well let’s talk to Joe about it after I tell him about our trips.”

“TRIPS, WHAT TRIP?!?!?!” Joe exploded from the top of the stairs.

Ben shared a look with Adam and then Hoss before he turned to face the firecracker on the stair. This was not how he wanted to start this conversation with his youngest. “Joe, calm down now,” Ben started.

“You’re ALL going on trips?” Joe thundered, “When? Can I go? WHY do you all have to go?” This was the last thing Joe wanted to hear. His emotions were still raw from his confessions to Hop Sing and now to hear all his family were leaving on business trips. He just couldn’t hold it together and he started to cry as he turned and raced back to the comfort of his room.

“Well, that went well don’t you think,” Adam quipped.

“Pa, I think we need to find time to get our pictures taken before we all have to head out,” Hoss declared. “It’s all he’s talked about, maybe it would make him happy.”

“I agree, Pa, I think that would do a lot to calm the boy down. You know he was really scared when you were gone last time and then when you were late getting back, well if you were gone one more day I was going to send for Dr. Martin to give the boy a sedative. He was a wreck,” Adam explained.

“I know it, and I hate it that this bothers him so much,” Ben sighed.

Hop Sing appeared out of nowhere and interrupted, “Pictures help; little boy scared something happen to family, then all he have is memories but he afraid he would forget. He think picture help hold memories in heart. Like it does for Mama’s.”

“Oh that poor punkin”, Hoss exclaimed “Pa can’t we find time…

“Don’t worry Hoss,” Ben interrupted immediately understanding the repeated requests for photographs and again feeling sorry that he hadn’t given his son the attention he needed, “we’ll take tomorrow off and all meet Joe after school and get our pictures taken.”

Hoss sighed in relief and Adam just smiled.

“Good suits all pressed and ready to go”, Hop Sing offered.

“Thank you Hop Sing”, Ben chuckled and called “JOSEPH!”

Joe reappeared at the top of the stairs, eyes red and puffy, “Yes sir.”

“Come here son, I owe you an apology, I’ve been very busy lately and I’m afraid I have neglected you and I’m sorry. Would you have time tomorrow after school to join your brothers and me at the photographer? I think we need to get our pictures taken,” Ben stated.

Joe’s face brightened and his glorious smile graced his young face as he threw his arms around his father’s neck and asked: “You mean it, Pa?!”

“Yes, I mean it son,” Ben said as he returned the embrace. “Let’s you and I head upstairs so we can talk about these very short little trips your brothers and I have to take and we can clean you up and get to bed. It wouldn’t do to have us looking all tired for our photograph, would it?”

“No sir, let’s go,” Joe replied and walked hand in hand with his father up the stairs.

The next morning, Joe got up without the usual assistance and was excited to get to school.

“Boy, we should get our picture taken every day if it would get you up and at ‘em like this,” Adam joked.

Everyone laughed, even Joe as he replied: “I’m just really excited Adam, I gotta go now, Miss Jones has us doing some nature project today and she warned us not to be late. Pa will you be sure to bring my suit, please.”

“Don’t worry Joe, have a good day and we’ll meet you at the schoolhouse this afternoon.”

“YIPPEEEEE!!!”, Joe shouted and was out the door.

“I guess we should have scheduled this sooner, he sure is happy.” Ben said

“I think it’s lifted a huge weight off his shoulders,” Adam suggested.

“Well I’m glad, that’s a hefty burden for a little boy to carry,” Ben said concerned.

“I’m just happy to have a day to rest,” Hoss chimed in trying to lighten the mood a bit.

“You and me both, little brother. You and me both, I’ve got a new book calling to me and I can’t wait to get at it,” Adam replied.

“You boys have really worked hard and deserve a day off so enjoy, but be ready to head to town by 2:00, so we can get Joe by 3:00. That boy will be fit to be tied if we’re late,” Ben explained.

“Yeah, that from the prince of lateness,” Hoss joked, “You can bet he’ll be on time for these photographs.”

“Well, I have different kinds of books calling me boys, so please excuse me. Adam, if you get tired of your book, I can certainly use some help with mine,” Ben chuckled.

“I’ll keep that in mind Pa!” Adam replied.

At the schoolhouse, Joe was anxious to get going. Miss Jones had come up with a nature hunt for the students today. Joe was thrilled. He didn’t think he could have sat in the classroom all day, so a nature hunt would at least have him outside. Maybe the day would go by faster this way he decided.

“Good Morning class,” started Miss Jones, “as you all know today is our nature hunt. I have already selected the groups…most will be boy/girl. However since we have a few more boys than girls, a few groups will be two boys and a girl. So…”

“Well that’s not fair,” interrupted Sally Harrison, “the bigger groups will be able to get more!

“That’s enough Sally,” chided Miss Jones. “I haven’t even told the class the groups, perhaps yours is a group of three. But even if it is, I will be expecting the larger groups to collect more and each group will be graded based on their overall collection for the number of children in their group. I can assure you everything will be fair.” The teachers monologue continued, “Of course for those of you willing to put in the extra effort I will be offering 10 extra credit points to the group that finds something no other group finds.”

“I’m getting those 10 points,” whispered the very competitive Sally.

Little Joe sat unusually quiet at his desk, half listening and half thinking about his families plans for later that day and was brought back to reality by the sound of Miss Jones’ voice calling him: “Little Joseph, are you listening?’

“Yes Ma’am,” he replied.

“Fine, as I was saying,” she repeated, “Joseph your partner is Sally Harrison.”

Joe groaned to himself. “Lucky you, Joe”, his best friend Mitch leaned over and chuckled to him, “You get little Miss Go-Getter.”

“Yeah, well no worse than you! You got Prissy Polly,” Joe sniped.

“Oh, but I have Seth, too,” Mitch said.

“Well, maybe we could all head out together,” Joe pleaded, “and we could hunt near each other that way I won’t have to deal with Sally all alone.”

“Oh all right Joe, don’t beg…I can’t stand it,” laughed Mitch.

With three quick claps Miss Jones called to the students, “Okay now children you may all start out. Those of you with horses may use them and should head a bit farther out so that we’re not all bunched up here near town. But remember, I want everyone back around lunchtime, so let your tummies be your guide and don’t be too late.” She looked directly at Joe with that final remark and he responded with one of his winning Joe Cartwright smiles.

“Come on Joe,” Sally called to him. “I brought a horse today so we can cover a lot of ground, let’s head toward the stream. I think we’ll find the best things near there and I want those extra credit points,” she said waving her finger at Joe and at one point poking him in the chest.

Rolling his eyes, Joe answered his bossy partner, “Okay, Okay, let’s go, but Mitch, Seth and Polly are going that way too, so lets all ride along together.” Joe replied looking pleadingly at his friends.

“As long as they don’t get in my way they can do what ever they want,” retorted Sally as she rode off.

Joe rolled his eyes again and turned Cochise to follow.

“Alright, come on Polly you can ride with me,” Mitch chuckled as he and Seth exchanged smiles.

“Poor Joe,” Seth whispered, “Sally’s going to drive him all day.”

“Yeah, but that’s why were going along, so we’d bes’ keep up before she talks his ears off,” Mitch laughed.

“You guys coming?!” Joe shouted back at his friends.

They all laughed. “This is going to be fun, huh, Joe,” Mitch howled.

“Oh yeah, FUN!” Joe sighed.

So the hunt went on. Sally insisted that each team searched on their own so that they’d each have different items. Joe agreed but suggested they all stay within shouting distance. Mitch and Seth chuckled, but agreed with Joe saying they should for safety reasons. After all, they reasoned, “we are pretty far out from school and near the river and all.”

Sally was getting frustrated. She didn’t think Joe was hunting that hard and she was sure they hadn’t found anything special enough to earn the extra credit points. “Joe Cartwright, you need to look harder. I’m the one doing all the work,” she yelled at Joe, again.

“Look, I think we have some good things and we should think about going back. I’m going to call to Mitch and them.” Joe stated. “Hey you guys!!! Are you about ready to head back?”

“NO, not yet JOE!!! Sally shouted. “I’m not done yet. I’m going closer to the river first,” and she ran off.

“Well be careful,” Joe called after her, “I don’t want to jump in and get you!”

Sally got to the riverbank and quickly saw the prize she wanted. A lone wild flower growing on the end of a fallen log perched out over the racing water. Sally wanted that flower for her collection and she considered no other option, but to crawl out on that log and get that flower.

“JOE!!! JOE HELP ME!!!!” The scream sent shivers down Joe’s spine and he was at the rivers edge in a moment and saw Sally bobbing in the water upstream from his location. “Swim to the edge, Sally!” Joe shouted.

“I can’t swim Joe, please save me! It’s cold.” She called to him.

There were only seconds to react, now. Pulling off his boots, Joe called to his friends: “MITCH, SETH HELP QUICK, SALLY’S IN THE RIVER.” Then without a second thought he dove into the freezing water. Joe swam out to Sally and grabbed her around the waist. The terrified girl struggled with Joe and he cried out, “Sally hold still I’ve got you!”

“No, Joe I’m going to drown,” she sobbed.

Mitch and Seth with Polly tagging along reached the river to see Joe grab Sally and hold her tight as they floated down the river. Joe was fighting Sally and the current while he tried in vain to reach the bank. All the while the frigid water was draining his strength.

“Joe,” Mitch shouted, “grab the branch just ahead of you, we’ll get a rope and pull you over.”

Joe saw the submerged tree sticking out of the water just in the knick of time and reached out with his free hand in a desperate grab. He held on for dear life and knew they were in terrible trouble. Sally was terrified beyond reason and continued to struggle in Joe’s grasp. “Stop fighting me Sally, you’re only making it worse.”

“No Joe,” Sally shrieked, “I’m drowning!!”

But Sally was only part of Joe’s problems now, as something under the water became tangled around his leg.

“Hurry Mitch, I can’t hold her much longer!” Joe called out.

“I’m here Joe!” Mitch called. “Seth has Cochise, I’m going to throw the rope and try to lasso Sally, pull it down around her best you can and we’ll have Cochise pull you both out.”

Again the only reply was a desperate plea: “HURRY MITCH!”

Mitch threw the rope with a silent prayer for accuracy. But no luck. Next try, again no luck. Each time Joe watched hopefully, as they all did.

“Come on Mitch, you can do it,” Seth encouraged.

“Help me Lord” Mitch cried throwing the rope for a third time and this time he found his mark.

Sally was beyond helping herself as she panicked and she fought Joe as he tried to pull the rope down over her. Joe held firmly to the tree with one hand, wrapped his free leg around Sally pinning her to his body and then used his other hand to pull the rope down.

He managed to get the rope around her chest and hoped she would calm down feeling the rope.

“Are you ready Joe?” Mitch called out nervously watching as Joe’s head disappeared under the water.

Popping up, Joe sputtered back. “Okay, but pull hard my leg’s tangled in something and it’s pulling me under!”

“Okay, Joe!” Go Seth!!” Mitch yelled.

Sally screamed as she felt tugging on both sides…in front as the rope pulled her toward safety and in back as Joe fought to hold on.

“NO JOE!!” she screamed. “You’re going to drown me!!! LET GO, LET GO!” She raged, slapping at Joe’s face.

Stung by the slaps, numbed by the cold, exhausted from fighting Sally and the current Joe lost his grip on Sally. He could only watch as she was pulled to safety and he was pulled under by what ever had his leg.

“Hurry Seth, Joe’s gone under!” HANG ON JOE, WE’LL GET YOU PAL!!!! Mitch cried out desperately to his friend.

Seth and Polly pulled Sally out and quickly fumbled to get the rope off her and back out to Joe.

“HURRY!!! Joe can’t hang on much longer!” Mitch yelled again, relieved to see Joe’s head again above the surface.

“JOE, JOE, JOE,” Sally cried, “what about me, I almost drown.”

“Shut up Sally, Joe IS drowning, now let me get that rope!” Seth screamed.

Sally slumped to the ground truly unaware that Joe was still in danger. She lay in a heap and cried.

Polly stood silently on the side watching the horror before her and was the first to see more danger ahead. “Oh no look!” she sputtered pointing a shaking finger up stream from Joe. A group of logs and debris was heading right for Joe, leaving scant time for a rescue.

“JOOOOOE!!!” Mitch cried out, his voice cracking with terror, and tears streaming down his face. “Catch the rope” He yelled as he desperately threw the rope. “You gotta catch it. You gotta break free NOW, HURRY, OH LOOK OUT!!”

And with that final plea, the debris was upon him. Joe only saw what was coming as it hit him. Something caught him by the shoulder spinning him around and pushing him under, while yanking his leg free from its entanglement. He felt something rip in his ankle. He was tossed among the debris like he was in a butter churn. Up, down, around and around as he was whisked away downstream among the debris all the while hidden from view. Soon he knew no more as he was hit with great force in the head. His last conscious thought as his head sank below the water and his lungs burned was “OH God, now I’m the one who’s going to drown.”

Back on shore, the small group of children watched in horror as the river seemed to swallow their friend. Joe was there one moment and now gone, either lost under the water or swept away in the debris.

Mitch and Seth screamed for Joe as they scanned the river, but received no response. Each passing minute made them more despondent. Polly tried to comfort Sally who sat weeping and rambling…”oh, I’m so sorry Joe, this is all my fault, you to told me not to go near the river…oh I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault…”

Polly didn’t know what to say to comfort the girl, because in truth, she did think it was her fault, but that wouldn’t help now. They just needed to find Joe.

“Seth, you stay here and keep looking, I’m going to follow the stream a ways and see if he comes up further down…” Mitch shouted as he ran off.

“JOE! JOE!” Seth screamed. “Where are you? OH GOD, WHERE ARE YOU? Polly come help me look!” he shouted at the shocked girl. “Do you see him anywhere?”

“No,” the girl barely whispered, “he’s gone.”

“NO, he’s not!” Seth shouted, “We just gotta keep looking…”

Alone on the ground, Sally continued to cry for Joe and now for herself…”I’m cold, I’m wet, I want my mother, my arm hurts…”

“Shut up!” Seth yelled at the sobbing girl. “Joe’s gone and all you can think about is yourself, he saved you, don’t you even care that we can’t find him.” His voice cracked as he spoke and he too started to sob. “We can’t even find him.”

Polly came over and put her arm around him for comfort as they both stared at the river willing Joe to return.

“She doesn’t mean to be selfish or cruel, not really…she blames herself and she’s scared.” Polly tried to explain her friend.

“Well, we’re all scared,” he said, while he thought to himself that it is her fault.

“Maybe Mitch found him,” Polly offered hopefully.

“I hope so,” Seth cried.

Sally stood to join them, “I hope so too, because it’s been a long time now.”

“Oh would you shut up, haven’t you done enough?!” Seth shouted at the thoughtless girl. Then he saw Mitch walking slowly toward them, alone.

“Did you find him?” Seth ask desperately, but he knew the answer, it was written all over his friends face.

“No, no luck here either?” he asked tears poured from his eyes.

“GOD, Mitch, what do we do…he’s not here, he’s not down stream…we gotta find him,” Seth begged his friend.

Mitch just stared at the water. He was at a loss too. He turned to face Seth and they stared at each other. Finally Seth spoke, “You think he’s gone. That’s what Polly said, Sally thinks it’s been too long if he went under. What do you think, huh Mitch, What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Mitch answered crying again. “It has been a long time. I can’t see how he’d be okay if he hasn’t come up by now, but we would have seen him. I think we need to go get some help.”

“Well we can’t leave him out here alone…I mean, well I’m not going. You go get help and I’ll keep looking, Okay?” Seth asked almost begging, he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Joe alone to his fate.

“Okay, I’ll take the girls, Sally needs the doc anyway. I’ll get the sheriff, I guess and Oh GOD, we’re going to have to tell Miss Jones, and OH! Mr. Cartwright. What do I tell Mr. Cartwright, Seth?” Mitch started to cry all over again. He just turned and walked to his horse.

“Polly can Sally ride with you on Seth’s horse?” Mitch asked.

“Sure, come on Sally, let’s go,” Polly said

“Go? Okay, yeah, let’s go, I want my mother.” Sally whispered.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, Okay Seth?” Mitch called to his friend.

“Yeah, hurry though,” Seth said, ” Just hurry”

The ride back to the schoolhouse was silent, each child lost in their thoughts of the horrific afternoon. Mitch was sick at the thought of have to tell Mr. Cartwright that Joe was most probably lost. He mulled over a number of ways to break the news and each left him hiccuping with sobs and finally he decided to let it come any way he could get it out. As the small group neared the school, they met up with other nature hunters.

“Hey Mitch, how’d you guys do?” Billy called to them. “Hey what’s the matter?”

“Billy, can you and Tommy go get the Sheriff and the Doc. Something awful has happened and we need ‘em. Have ‘em meet us at the school would ya?”

“Sure Mitch” the boys replied and ran off, each alarmed by the sight of their crying classmates.

“Jeez, what do you suppose happened, Billy? They were pretty upset.” Tommy asked.

“I don’t know, but I guess something happened to Joe or Seth, cause they weren’t there, is all I can figure. Let’s hurry up!” Billy replied.

The boys fetched Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin and they all hurried to the schoolhouse anxious to find out what happened. They all arrived at the school about the same time. Mitch was helping the girls off their horse as the Sheriff and Doctor arrived and they all entered the school. Most of the children had already returned from the nature hunt and were seated at their desks as the somber group entered the room. Upon hearing people enter, Miss Jones spoke without looking up, “I hope that’s you Little Joseph, I’d hate to think you’d be the last ones back, but I’d not be surprised…Really…but.” She had been making a small joke for the children, but not hearing any chuckles, she looked up from her desk and was immediately alarmed to see the pitiful group.

“Oh my heavens,” Miss Jones exclaimed, “what’s happened?”

“We’re just getting to that, Miss Jones.” Sheriff Coffee replied, “Perhaps you should dismiss the class.”

“Yes of course,” and with three quick claps, she stated “Class dismissed.”

The children just sat there and Miss Jones said, “Please children, go home now. Billy would you stop by Sally’s house and ask her mother to come for her, please?”

“Yes ma’am,” the boy replied.

As the children left, Doctor Martin began examining Sally’s arm. Miss Jones was comforting Polly and Sheriff Coffee sat down with Mitch.

“Okay, now, can someone tell us what’s going on?” the sheriff asked.

“Yes, please, children, where are Seth and Joseph,” Miss Jones asked.

And with that the tears began again. The adult all exchanged concerned looks and the girls turned to Mitch expectantly.

Mitch took and deep breath and began, “We think Joe’s drowned in the river.”

“WHAT!” Miss Jones cried out.

“What are you saying, son?” Doctor Martin asked more calmly.

And as best he could Mitch told the whole story. He would look occasionally to Polly for confirmation and she would nod. All the while Sally sat staring into her lap.

“…and so here we are and we gotta get back to Seth. He was mighty upset, and well if he should find Joe now…well we gotta get back.” Mitch concluded with an exhale.

Doctor Martin and Sheriff Coffee exchanged another look, as they had throughout the miserable tale. Each could hardly believe that spunky Little Joe Cartwright was gone. Drowned in the river. It was hard to believe.

“Please Sheriff, can we get back to the river now and look for Joe?” Mitch asked again drawing the men back to reality. “Yes of course. I’ll go get some men and equipment and I’ll need you to take us to the spot. I’ll be right back,” and then Sheriff Coffee hurried from the room.

“Yeah Okay,” Mitch whispered.

“Miss Jones, are you alright?” Doc Martin asked her. “Miss Jones?

“Yes, Yes…it was a harmless nature hunt, how could this happen? This is all too awful to be true.”

Mrs. Harrison, Sally’s mother arrived at the school and was informed of the tragedy. Doctor Martin had tended Sally’s bruised arm and put some salve on the rope burn on her shoulder. He also offered a sedative to Sally’s mother. “She seems to be going back and forth between blaming herself for Joe and feeling sorry for her own misery. Just give her this and have her rest. I’ll be out to check on her tomorrow or the next day. Mrs. Harrison could you also take Polly home on your way? Dear,” Dr. Martin turned to Polly, “do you need something to help you rest?”

“No thank you, Dr. Martin. I think I want my mother too. I keep seeing what happened…I just want to go home,” Polly answered.

“Of course, come along girls, it’s been a perfectly awful day, you both need to rest.” Mrs. Harrison collected the girls and ushered them out of the schoolhouse as the Cartwright approached the school. “Quickly now girls,” Mrs. Harrison said as they all saw the Cartwrights.

“Shouldn’t we stay and talk with Mr. Cartwright, Ma’am?” Polly asked.

“No, not now,” Mrs. Harrison replied trying to protect her daughter, “we’ll offer our condolences some time later. Come along now.”

“Oh Mother,” cried Sally.

Ben and the boys approached the school with a sense of trepidation. It was too early for school to be out, yet they saw children heading home.

“I wonder what’s going on?” Adam stated.

“I don’t know but does it seem like all the kids are staring at us?” Hoss asked.

“Well we do look dapper in our suits,” Adam joked.

“That must be it then, come on boys lets go fetch that brother of yours and get him all prettied up, too,” Ben added with a chuckled.

Inside the school Doctor Martin sat with Miss Jones. They were expecting Ben Cartwright and his boys. Joe had told everyone that morning that his pa and brothers were coming for him after school for the picture. Miss Jones cried softly as they waited, finally asking the Doctor, “How are we ever going to tell Mr. Cartwright this dreadful news?”

With that question, Ben and his sons entered the somber scene.

“Tell me what dreadful news?” Ben asked, “Paul, what are you doing at school? Is someone ill? We saw children heading home. Where is Joseph?”

Ben stared at the Doctor and then at Miss Jones. He was petrified. Adam and Hoss felt the same terror. Something was terribly wrong and it had something to do with their brother. The silence in the small room was deafening.

Sheriff Coffee shattered the silence. He burst into the room and declared: “I’ve gathered a few men and we’re ready to head out. Oh Ben, boys. I’d imagine you’d wanna be coming along.”

“Come along where? What’s going on here?” Ben demanded.

“Doctor Martin has something happened to Little Joe?” Adam found the courage to ask the question they all feared.

“Let’s all sit down, there’s no easy way to go here, Ben.” Doctor Martin started, “We think Joe was lost in the river today saving Sally Harrison.”

Again silence filled the room.

“Lost?” Ben finally spit out. “What do you mean lost?”

“Well, from what we gathered from the children with him at the time,” Doc Martin paused and pulled in a deep breath. “It appears that Little Joe drowned in the river, Ben.”

Ben paled. He felt physically ill and thought perhaps he might pass out.

“Ben,” Paul asked and he looked to Adam and Hoss for help, but saw they each were in no better shape than their father.

“What, what happened?” Adam asked holding up his hand as if to wave off the bad news.

Once again the horrific tale was repeated. Miss Jones cried quietly. Grief filled the classroom as tears poured from the stricken family.

“So Mitch here was just about to take Roy and his men back to the river and see what they can find,” Doc Martin explained.

“Well let’s go then,” Hoss declared, leaping to his feet feeling a glimmer of hope. “We’ll find ‘em, Pa you’ll see.”

“Hoss,” Doc Martin started, “Ben, Adam, the children looked for at least 30 minutes before coming back. As far as they could tell, he never came up.”

“Well he might’ve gone down stream,” Hoss cried.

“They looked down stream, they followed the debris till it broke up and never saw him.”

Doc Martin explained. “I’m truly sorry Ben, Adam, Hoss. I’d do anything not to have to tell you this.”

Ben staggered to his feet. “Come on boys lets go with Roy. I need to go to the river.”

They left, with Roy on their heels, all following the overwrought Mitch Devlin to the river. Doc Martin called after Roy, “Roy, when you’ve finished up, take Ben and the boys back to the Ponderosa. Stay with them, I’ll meet you out there later. And should you find Joe, well send for me immediately. Ben’ll need me I expect.”

Roy nodded and rode off to catch up.

The pitiful group searched well into the night. No one wanted to give up. Everyone knew though, hours later, that their quest was hopeless. But no one was willing to tell Ben Cartwright or his sons that.

Finally, Sheriff Coffee said, “Look, Mitch and Seth, have had a long day and we need to get them home now. We’re not doing any good out here in the dark. I think we should call it a day now and meet in the morning say at 10 a.m. Okay, Ben?”

“What Roy?” Ben asked from his grief stricken fog.

“Pa, we need to get home now. We’ll come back in the morning,” Adam told his father, looking to Hoss for help. Hoss was too overcome with his own pain to help Adam. Now Adam just prayed that he wouldn’t say anything to make it harder to get Ben to go home.

But no such luck, not on this sorry day. “We can’t leave Joe out here Adam.” Hoss exclaimed. “You know how he feels about the dark.”

“Oh Hoss,” Adam said softly, with tears running down his cheeks. “Joe’s okay now, Marie is taking care of him now. We need to go home. Come on Pa, please, you need to eat and rest.”

The mention of Marie seemed to bring comfort to Ben. “Joe’s with Marie,” he mumbled.

“You’re right Adam, Joe’s alright then.” Hoss sobbed. “He has his momma, now.”

“Come on then let’s all head home, let’s meet at the Ponderosa at 10 a.m.,” Sheriff Coffee directed. “If it’s all right with you Ben, I’ll see you all home. Doc Martin said he’d meet us there, just in case you needed him.”

Another silent ride from the river ended this time at the Ponderosa amid a sea of emotions. Hop Sing rushed out to meet the family, unaware of the day’s event. He was sputtering in Chinese until he looked upon Ben’s face and he knew in an instant that life would never be the same. Roy took the cook aside and filled him in. Devastated Hop Sing retreated to the kitchen to find comfort in cooking for his family. Each of the Cartwrights trudged wearily into the house falling into their favorite chairs.

“Look at us, all dressed up,” Ben started. “We were supposed to get our picture taken today, Roy.”

Roy wasn’t sure what to say or do…so he just stood there.

“Yeah,” Hoss continued his voice cracking with grief. “Joe had been pestering us for weeks to get our picture taken, cause he was afraid something would happen to one of us and he’d be without so much as a picture to help him remember.”

“Ironic isn’t it,” Adam took up the story. “He was afraid for us, and here we are without him…”

“And without so much as even a picture,” Ben sobbed.

Roy felt the need to step out and let the family grieve. He went to the front porch to wait for Doc. Martin.

Doc Martin showed up some time later. “Where you been doc? We’ve been back for a while?” Sheriff Coffee asked.

“It seems this grief is contagious, Roy, I’ve been all over town giving sleeping powders and sedatives: Miss Jones, Mrs. Harrison, Sally, Polly, Mitch and his mother, Seth, and frankly I think I may need one myself when I have a moment to reflect on all of this.”

“I know what you mean. Searching that river was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Ben and the boys are inside…they are pretty broken up naturally,” Roy said.

“I’ll go check ‘em out. I think I may stay here tonight if you want to head back to town, Roy.” Paul stated.

“All right Paul, see you in the morning. We’re all heading back out to search for Joe’s body.”  He paused, Wow, I can’t believe that: Joe’s body.  Roy shuddered.

“I know,” Paul added, shaking his head. “See you later.”

Inside, Paul found the Cartwrights pretty much as Roy left them. Each sitting, staring into the fire. Lost in remembrances of the little boy who was the joy of this family.

“Ben, are you alright?’ Paul asked the stupid question knowing full well the answer. “Can I give you something to help you sleep? Have you had supper?”

Ben stared at his friend, the man who brought his bright-eyed boy into this world. “I miss Joseph, Paul. I don’t want to eat or sleep. I just want this day back. I want my son, my baby.” And the tears came again.

“Adam, Hoss, can I help you two in any way?” The doctor asked, feeling truly helpless.

“No Paul, but thanks,” Adam replied. “Come on Hoss let’s get something to eat and then to bed.”

Hoss just stared at his brother is disbelief. How could he just keep going, Hoss wondered. Maybe it was that Adam had a lot of experience in keeping going. But Hoss didn’t want too. This time it was just too hard.

Adam responded, “We need to Hoss, if we want to head back to the river in the morning. We have to for Pa, and for Joe,” he said, his voice full of emotion.  “We have to bring him home…he’d want to be near his mother.” After a quick sniffle he turned to Dr. Martin. “Paul will you look after Pa for us?” Adam moved to his father and uncharacteristically reached down and pulled him into a tight embrace. He hugged him, cried for a moment on his shoulder and then whispered: “I love you Pa, Hoss and I both do, very much. Please Pa, we need you. Please stay with us.” Then he straightened up and took Hoss to the kitchen.

Ben knew Adam was referring to when Marie died. Ben all but fell apart and retreated from his family. Ben was sure for Adam to be so demonstrative; he was worried he’d lost more than his brother this day. Adam was afraid he’d lose his father as well.

Does Adam know what he asking of me, Ben wondered. I’ve lost so much, but to lose a son, a child, my baby…How do I bear this? I know the sun will rise tomorrow as it did today and as it always will. But without Joseph do I really care? I do have two other sons who need me, who are also in pain. Pain almost as severe as my own. But how do I help them, How do I help myself?

Almost as if he were reading Ben’s thoughts, Paul spoke to Ben “We’ll get through this Ben. You and your boys together, with your friends by your side, we’ll help you take it just one day at a time.”

Ben looked to his friend and one more time this night, tears flowed, and it would not be the last.

Three weeks after they lost Joe, Dr. Martin rode into the yard at the Ponderosa and found Ben Cartwright sitting on the porch, cup of coffee in hand. Ben looked weary and old, thought Dr. Paul Martin as he approached. “How are you this morning, Ben?”

“I’m surprised really that while so much has changed, so much seems the same.” Ben replied his voice flat and tired.

“How so, my friend?” Paul asked.

“The sun comes up every morning and all around the Ponderosa, life, just goes on. But in that house,” Ben motioned behind him, “things will never be the same. When I wake-up in the mornings I fully expected to hear Joe giggling with Adam and Hoss, running down the stairs yelling about not being hungry and not wanting to go to school…this is just so unreal. He can’t really be gone. He should just ride into the yard, at full gallop on Cochise. But I know now he won’t.”

“How are Adam and Hoss?” Paul inquired, but he already knew the answer, he hoped getting Ben to talk about how they were all feeling might help him some though.

“They’re in a haze I think, Paul, when they’re not down by the river looking for Joe’s body…”, Ben paused and sucked in a long deep breath. “I can’t believe I just said that…Joe’s body…it doesn’t even sound right. Does it? Anyway, where was I, oh yes, well…Hoss just tends to Cochise and Adam spends his time in Joe’s room. Nobody’s eating or sleeping much…we all just wander around this house…this empty, quite house and I don’t know how much more any of us can stand.” Ben sighed rubbing his temples.

“I saw Roy in town and he said you’re not going out to the river anymore,” Paul asked.

“No,” Ben replied. “It’s just too hard on Adam and Hoss. I can’t ask them to keep searching in vain. So the boys and I talked about it yesterday and we’ve come to realize it’s hopeless. We’ve been over every inch of that area and there’s nothing, no sign, just his boots.” Ben sighed. “I guess it’s just one more thing I have to accept…there’s a hole in my house, in my family and in my heart”, Ben’s voice cracked as he spoke. “The only thing left I could do for him was to lay him to rest next to his mother with a proper Christian burial and now I can’t even give him that.”

“Well Ben, we can still hold a memorial service for him, that may give you and the boys a chance to say goodbye in a formal way. It may help some. I know his friends and the whole town really could use it…everyone seems lost…still in shock, I think, you know that little boy of yours touched so many people. He’s going to be deeply missed,” Paul explained. “The Reverend and I will help with the planning if you like?” he added.

The question was lost on Ben, his thoughts had returned to the weeks before Joe was lost and the simple request his child had made. “You know Paul, all Joe talked about for weeks was getting our picture taken. He must have asked me more than a dozen time: ‘Can we get our picture taken, Pa? When’s a good time, Pa? The photographer won’t be around much longer, Pa.’ And you know what I said, ‘Not now Joe, Not today Joe, we’re too busy, Joe. There’ll be time later Joe’. Well, there is no later now is there, one simple request to put his mind to ease when the rest of us would travel. And I denied it and now I’d give anything now for a single photograph of that precious child, anything.”

“Ben how about the service?” Paul pressed trying to shake his friend from his guilt.

“Service? Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’ll talk to the boys tonight, perhaps you both could come out tomorrow?” Ben struggled to ask.

Dr. Paul Martin returned to his office the next evening, mentally exhausted. He and Reverend Hastings spent the afternoon with the Cartwrights making the difficult arrangements for Little Joe’s memorial service. As he approached his office, he saw a man sitting on the stoop.

“Can I help you with something?” Dr. Martin asked the man.

“Ya, I’m looking for the Doc.

“Well you found him,” Dr. Martin replied as he sagged onto the doorknob.

“You all right Doc?” The man asked with genuine concern.

“Yes, thank you. It just been a very long day,” the doctor explain, eager to unload his burden on the stranger. “I spent the day helping my dearest friend plan the funeral for his youngest son.”

“Oh I’m sorry, that surely makes for a hard day,” the stranger agreed.

“One of many lately, friend, one of many,” Doctor Martin sighed. Collecting himself, Doc Martin asked, “So what can I do for you? Are you ill?”

“No, not me Doc, I’ve come to see you about a little boy,” the stranger explained. “My names Parker, Samuel Parker and me and my Mrs. are mighty worried about the little fella.”

“Well lets get a look at him,” Doc said.

“We was kinda hopin’ you could come with me, he’s with my wife a ways outta town. He got all worked up when I suggested coming into town to see ya,” the man explained.

Doctor Martin shook his head. Memories of Little Joe Cartwright again came flooding to his mind. “That reminds me of another little boy,” he mumbled. “Tell me about his condition while I get my bag together. Let’s start with his age, How old is the boy?”

“Well he’s a little fella, kinda puny, he’s as skinny as a fence post split in two. I’d say he’s eight or nine or so,” Mr. Parker answered.

“Eight or nine or so!!” Dr. Martin repeated sharply, “Don’t you even know how old your own son is?”

“Oh, he’s not my son, Doctor” Samuel Parker replied, then added sheepishly, “We sorta found the little fella.”

Shaking his head in confusion and holding up his hand as if to stop the man. Doctor Martin said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry…I don’t seem to understand… you, you found him.”

“Yes, well really you could say he found us. You see, me and the Mrs. had made camp for the night, let me see, about a week or so ago, I guess. We were out by the river about 50 miles from Virginia City. My Mrs. made a wonderful stew for dinner and we was having us some supper and coffee and we kept hearin’ this funny noise. Kinda sounded like cryin’ or sobbin’ and we both looked about the camp at the same time and there he was. He just came a stumblin’ into camp, fell down and just lay in the dirt crying. Well, my Mrs. just scooped him up and started fussin all over him. He was filthy, looked like he been beat up or something. He was all cut-up, bruised up…really a pretty bad mess. His clothes was all torn up, no shoes, his ankle was all swelled up and he had a huge ol’ cut on the back of his head that was all swelled up, too. Well the Mrs. done the best she could to get him clean and fixing him up but he’s still in a bad way. He don’t eat, and what little he does seems to come right back up. That foot’s still swollen and he don’t walk too good on it. His head might need some sewin’ up even still and he’s got these bad headaches. But now he just lays there…he won’t come around.” Parker explained the saga to Doctor Martin, who just stared at the man trying to take in the whole incredible tale.

A nagging little thought had creeped into the Doctors mind as he listened to the tale…skinny little boy, puny even, he said, didn’t want to come to the doctor’s office, didn’t eat much, found with no shoes, looked all beat up…maybe like he’d been whisked down a river, though Dr. Martin. Collecting himself a bit, Doctor Martin asked, “So when did you say you find this boy?”

“Well, let me think now…I guess it’s been about a week he’s been with us now, like I said before,” Parker replied.

“Mr. Parker, can you tell me, what does this child look like?” Doc. Martin asked, afraid to be hopeful, but he still had that nagging feeling.

“He’s really a cute little fella, brown curly hair, green eyes and like I said about as skinny as a matchstick.” As Parker described the boy, Doctor Martin feel a glimmer of hope.

But still afraid to hope this child could be Joe Cartwright, Doctor Martin asked for more information: “Do you know who he is…his name or anything about him?”

“No we don’t know him. Naturally, we’ve tried and tried to get him to tell us where he’s from, about his family or even what’s happened to him. But he started crying and staring at us with those big green eyes almost like he was pleading with us to leave him alone. And then when them headaches started up real bad makin’ him throw up, well the Mrs. said no more questions and now you can’t get nothing out of him. I think she figures since we ain’t got no kids of our own that if we can’t find his kin, that we’d just keep the little fella.”

“Well, he’s not a stray dog, Mr. Parker.” Doctor Martin stated, as he finished a silent pray that this boy was who he hoped he was. “I’m sure he has family that misses him terribly. Now let’s get going and see if perhaps, I don’t recognize the boy.”

Arriving at the camp, Doctor Martin could barely contain himself. He could feel his heart racing and his palms were sweating with anticipation. Please God, he prayed silently, please let this little boy be Joe. Doc Martin slowly approached Mrs. Parker as she sat on the ground with the small boy’s head in her lap.

“Doc, this here is my Mrs. her names Martha. Martha this here is Doctor Martin.” Samuel Parker made the introductions as he and the Dr. approached.

“Ma’am, how’s he doing?” Doctor Martin asked kneeling down.

And as he finally got a good look at the child he gasped and said in a hushed voice, “Joseph.”

“He’s out to everything now Doctor, he don’t seem too good. Earlier, stirred a bit, grabbed his head like he had a bad headache then threw up what little food I had gotten in him and he’s got a bit of a fever, now,” Mrs. Parker explained.

Doctor Martin gave Joe a quick check up and then turned to the Parkers. “Could I speak with you both, over there?” he asked stepping away a bit from Joe.

“How is he Doctor?” Mrs. Parker asked.

“Well he obviously has a number of problems, he’s malnourished, some of those cuts are infected, his ankle is severely sprained and that head injury appears, at quick glance, as though it could be serious,” the Doctor explained.

“Mr. and Mrs. Parker, I know this boy,” Doctor Martin explained trying to contain his excitement. “This is Joe Cartwright and until a few moments ago everyone thought he’d drowned nearly a month ago. In fact, Mr. Parker, it was this boy’s funeral planning I was telling you about when we first met. His family is overcome with grief and I can’t begin to tell you how they’ll welcome this news. There appear to be some immediate problems to deal with, obviously his physical condition is precarious. Has he said anything to you?”

“No, not a thing…we’ve asked and asked, but nothing he just stares off or looks at us with pleading eyes…truly almost more than I can bare. I was beginning to wonder if he even understands English,” Mrs. Parker offered.

Dr. Martin shook his head, unsure as to what to think. “Well he certainly understands. I think we should move him to the Ponderosa. Perhaps some familiar surroundings might help. I think he must be in some kind of shock…all the trauma of what’s happened to him. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m just not sure. I’ve not dealt with something like this before. I can help with the physical problem, but the rest, well we’ll just have to wait and see. But if anything can help this child it’s his family, lets get moving” Doctor Martin suggested hopefully, as he was desperately concerned as to how to proceed.

“Are you sure we should move him doctor. He’s just so weak and fragile, I know he probably needs his family, but what if he doesn’t respond to them. Couldn’t that hurt him more? It doesn’t seem to me he can take much more…he’s already so thin and sickly,” Mrs. Parker sighed dejectedly.

“Well Mrs. Parker, we just need to be careful, explain to him what’s happening as we get him ready. I know it looks as though he doesn’t hear or understand, but we can’t be sure. So talk to him; reassure him that everything will be okay and that we are taking him to his father. They really have an incredible bond and I just know he must be longing for them terribly. Okay, lets get Joe settled and get you all off to the Ponderosa, then I’ll get on ahead and prepare his family.”

It had been a long emotional day at the Ponderosa, as Ben and his sons met with the Reverend and Doctor Martin to plan Joseph’s funeral. After another sparsely eaten and silent dinner the family tried once again to find a peaceful evening routine; one that didn’t leave them feeling the gaping whole left by the missing youngster that was the heart of this family. The silence was deafening as each man suffered with his emotions of the day and each was startled by the commotion at the front door.

“Ben, BEN!!” Shouted Dr. Martin as he pounded on the front door.

Hoss jumped up and dashed to the door, pulling open the big door to reveal an unusually flustered Dr. Martin.

“Doc, what’s the matter? Are ya alright?” Hoss asked.

“Hoss,” Dr. Martin started, still breathing hard from his speedy trip to the ranch house, “I need to speak to your father right away.” Seeing Ben in his favorite red leather chair looking haggard and worn, Dr. Martin brushed by Hoss into the great room to share his news and hopefully bring joy and laughter back to this family.

“Ben, Adam, Hoss, please all of you come here and sit down, I have the most incredible news.” The words rushed out and Doctor paused to catch his breath and choose his words. “Ben,” Dr. Martin began in a soothing tone, hoping not to shock his dear friend to greatly. “Ben, Joseph has been found,” He paused again letting that statement be absorbed. “And he’s alive.”

Gasping, Ben leaped from his chair and then fell to his knees, dropping his head into his hands sobbing, “Oh Thank God, Thank God!!! He’s alive, Joseph’s alive, Paul? Is it true? Oh dear Lord.” Ben cried as Adam and Hoss each rushed to his sides, helping him back into his chair. As Adam handed his father a glass of brandy he spun and pummeled the doctor with questions: “Where is he, Paul? What happened? Is he alright?”

Paul took Ben’s trembling hand in his and tried to calm him down, by telling him what he knew: “Let me tell you all I know…” and Paul explained the story to the reeling family.

Hoss was horrified to hear all the details of his baby brothers’ condition and with tears streaming down his face he cried out…”He was wandering around those woods for weeks all alone! Hurt and hungry! Oh Pa he musta been so scared.” Ben reached out to comfort his middle son, but his heart to was aching and feeling guilt. “We should have kept looking for him, he must have thought we abandoned him” Ben murmured.

“Oh Ben, I told you the Parkers found Joe nearly 50 miles from here. No one could have imagined he could have survived in the river for that long let alone for weeks in the wilderness. Everyone including myself felt for certain Joe was gone.” Paul tried to comfort. “But more importantly however, is Joseph now. I think we still have quite a battle in front of us.”

“Paul, can you tell us any more about Joe’s condition and what we’re going to need to do?” Adam asked trying to move his family beyond their own shock and guilt, and into action.

Doctor Martin smiled at Adam, knowing what he was trying to do and started with his instructions. “What he needs most is what you all do best: Love, reassurance and comfort. Physically however, we should start with a warm bath, he’s filthy. The Parkers were very good with him, but weren’t set up to care for a sick child. Next we need to get Hop Sing on some light broth.”

With that Hop Sing popped out from the kitchen, where he had been listening to the wonderful news of his boy and thanking his ancestors for beginning to restore his family.

“Hop Sing already started soup, be ready for my boy, when he need” And with a bob of his head he returned to his task.

“Just broth doc, I thought you said he was just about starvin’. Shouldn’t we be trying to fatten him up right away.” Hoss asked knowing how badly he’d want food after being with out for so long.

“Not just about starving, Hoss. He IS starving, but stuffing him is the wrong way to go, as the Parkers found out” Paul started to explain and Ben and Adam exchanged a worried look. “What happened Paul,” Ben asked.

“They feed him what they had, breads, heavy stews and his body couldn’t handle it. Mrs. Parker says he just throws up what ever she gives him. She was at her wits end by time I got there. So we have to go slow and let his body adjust to being fed again…Let me warn you, Joe’s always been thin, but you’ve not seen anything like he how looks now. These weeks have been hell for him I’m sure. He’s must have found things to eat in the woods that kept him alive, but it couldn’t have been much.”

Taking a deep breath, Paul continued to explain Joe’s condition. “Joe also appears to be in some kind of shock. He hasn’t spoken to the Parkers at all and he didn’t speak to me either. He just stares. Mrs. Parker says he cries and looks at her pleadingly, but says nothing. That’s where the Cartwright brand of love comes in. I’m hoping getting him here, in his home, his room, with his family will help bring him the comfort and security he needs to recover.”

“He will though right Doc, he’ll get better won’t he?” Hoss begged the doctor for some reassurance for himself and his family.

“I hope so Hoss, I hope so,” was all the doctor could say.

Ben shook his head, it was all so much to take in…Joe alive, sick, very sick and in shock. Would he be returned to him only to have him taken away again? No, Ben thought, NO I will not lose this boy again. Ben rose from his chair and stated “Joseph will be fine, we’ll see to that. We’ll do what needs to be done; however long it takes, my Joseph is alive and I’ll not lose him again. Let’s get ready, Joseph will be home soon.”

Adam and Hoss shared a smiled and each had the same thought, Ben Cartwright had spoken and no one in his right mind would defy his proclamation. And as they went to help get thing ready for Joe, each hoped conviction and dedication would be enough to help their little brother.

Ben Cartwright paced the porch of the Ponderosa ranch house like a caged animal. Everything was ready for Joe’s return: broth warming on the stove, fresh linen on the bed, cool water in the pitcher by the bed, fire burning to warm the room, the doctor’s supplies arranged on the dresser, all that was needed now was Joseph.

After what seemed like an eternity, a wagon finally came lumbering into the yard. In a heartbeat Ben was off the porch and sprinting across the yard to meet the wagon, close on his heels were Adam, Hoss, and Hop Sing. Doctor Martin held back to give the family a brief chance to reconnect before he took control of the situation.

“Where is he?” Ben shouted anxiously to Mr. Parker as he approached the wagon.

Pulling the reins to halt the team, Mr. Parker replied, ” He’s with the Mrs. here in the back. Martha, the boy’s father is out here, can you hand him out?”

Instantly Hoss was throwing back the canvas at the back of the wagon and Ben reached in to take Joseph. Pulling the small boy to his chest, Ben sobbed, “OH Joseph, son, Oh Thank God, Thank God…I never thought I’d hold you again, baby.” Gently, Ben kissed his face as he held his child as tears flowed unashamed. Adam and Hoss moved closer to touch their brother to reassure themselves and offering a comforting hand. Joseph however was unaware of the love that surrounded him, as he lay oblivious in his father’s arms. His body was in shock and his mind unresponsive from the abuse, neglect and exposure of the last few weeks of wandering the wilderness eating God knows what, sleeping out in the cold and dealing with the injuries from the fight with the river.

Though he hated to interrupt, Dr. Martin knew they needed to get the boy inside, cleaned up and into bed. “Ben, boys, we need to get Joe inside now. Hop Sing, please bring the warm water to Joe’s room so we can get him cleaned up.”

“Yes, Yes right away,” Hop Sing answered and scurried off to help his boy, followed closely by the doctor.

Ben started toward the house still holding Joe close to his chest. Hoss walked along side and stroked his little brother’s curly hair. Adam turned to follow but remembered the Parkers. They were still standing in the yard unsure what to do. “Please, come inside and make yourselves at home, but please excuse us, we’re just so overwhelmed to have Little Joe home, you understand.”

“Certainly, young man, you and your family have been through so much and we don’t want to intrude,” Mr. Parker started only to be cut off.

“Please stay, Mr. Parker,” Adam implored. “I know my father will want to thank you for all you’ve done for my brother. I’ll have Hop Sing prepare the guest room for you.”

“Alright, son, just tonight then and in the morning we’ll be on our way,” Mr. Parker answered.

“Fine then, now if you’ll excuse me,” Adam turned and ran into the house and up to his little brother’s room.

In Joe’s room, Ben sat on the bed with his son’s head on his lap as he gently cleaned his face with warm water. Doctor Martin and Hop Sing had removed his clothes and were tending to his many scrapes and abrasions. Doc Martin rewrapped the sprained ankle. Hoss and Adam just stood by gazing at their brother their eyes glued to the piteous form on the bed.

Finally, Hoss spoke what they were all thinking. “Doc should we try to feed him some…he’s so skinny, I can see his bones.”

“I know it looks awful Hoss, but first we need to finish cleaning these cuts. Hop Sing could I have some more water?” Doctor Martin replied and issued orders handing Adam a wet cloth, “Adam will you help me here?”

“Ben, how you doing there? Can you clean that cut on the back of his head? I think that’s going to need some stitching.” Ben took another clean cloth and set to work on his son’s head with the gentlest touch. All the while Joe was unmoving and unresponsive.

As the activity to tend Joe’s injuries came to an end. Joe was clean, bandaged and tucked into a warm bed. All that remained was to try to get some food into the boy. “Well, let’s try some broth now, shall we?” Doc Martin asked and as if on cue, Hop Sing appeared with a bowl of warm soup. “Ben, why don’t you sit him up a bit and we’ll try to spoon this in, but don’t be discouraged if we’re not to successful at first, we’ll just need to be persistent.”

“What’s your prognosis, doc?” Adam finally asked and each elder Cartwright held his breath to hear the answer.

“Well Adam, I’m not too sure really. We’ve tended his injuries and they should heal, we need to build him up from this malnutrition and that will take some time. But the shock he seems to be in…well I just don’t know how to heal that. My prescription is some good old fashion Cartwright TLC and prayers, that it’s enough.”

“It will be enough,” Ben vowed wiping the seemingly ever-present tears from his face. “We’ll stay with him every moment,” he added, looking at the nodding heads of his two older boys, “every moment” he repeated.

The next day dawned with no change in Joe’s condition. Dr. Martin, who had stayed the night, checked the injuries once again, provided instructions for Joe’s continued care and said he’d return to check the boy the next day. As he looked into the faces of the concerned family, his concern was growing that they might be facing a prolonged situation and he wasn’t sure how to address the issue with the Cartwrights. Doctor Martin knew Ben, as well as Adam and Hoss would try to spend every moment at Joe’s side. Each wanting to be there when he finally came back to them in every sense. But how long would that be? Finally he decided to address his concerns if the situation dragged on for very long. He prayed Joe would come around soon.

Morning also found the Parkers preparing to leave the Ponderosa. They had discussed their concern for Joe as they journeyed to the ranch the previous night. The Doctor’s story seemed so far-fetched they wondered if it could be true and perhaps the boy had just run away from a bad home situation. But once they met the Cartwrights, felt the love between them all and saw the emotion play across the faces of Joe’s father and brothers when they saw Joe again, the Parker’s knew Joe would be safe at home.

“I do wish you’d stay a while” Ben started as the Parkers joined the family in Joe’s room to bid farewell. “It’s the very least I can offer after all you’ve done for my family.”

“Oh no, Mr. Cartwright, we should be on our way. You folks need time together to make your family whole again and get that young fella there well,” Samuel Parker said.

“Oh we’ll get him well, you can count on that, Mr. Parker.” Hoss said with a forced conviction as if he were trying to convince himself. “We won’t leave him for a second, will we Pa?” Ben raised his brow and nodded with a thin smile as he held Joe’s limp hand. “I just wish he’d show some sign of coming around, he just lays here.”

“We just need to give him some time, Pa,” Adam reassured his father with a squeeze to his shoulder. “I’ll see the Parkers out, I’ll be right back.” Walking with the Parkers outside, Adam shook Samuel Parker’s hand warmly. “As my father said, we can’t thank you enough for bring that boy back to us…you really have no idea how much we all love that kid.”

“Oh, I think we know, don’t we Martha. He’s lucky to have you,” Parker replied.

“We’ll be praying for Joseph’s complete recovery,” Martha Parker added.

Doctor Martin returned the next day to pretty much the same scene he’d left. Joe unmoving and pale in his bed and his family gathered around, each seemingly staking out a territory. Adam and Ben on each side of the bed with Hoss next to his father at the foot of the bed. Doctor Martin shook his head. “Any change, Ben?”

“No not really, he takes water and the broth, but that’s all…he looks a little better though I think,” Ben said hopefully, thinking if perhaps he said it it would be so.

Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing glances, the knowing being that Joe really looked the same: pale and still.

“Well let me take a good look at him. Why don’t you all take a bit of a break and get something to eat. Am I correct in assuming none of you have left his side for more than a moment?” Paul inquired. And each man meekly nodded his head and hesitantly rose to leave.

Paul descended the stairs to find the elder Cartwright at the dinner table eating their first decent meal in quite a while. Seeing Paul, Ben flew to his feet, “Paul, how is Joseph? Did you leave him alone, I’d better go up…”

“Ben relax, Hop Sing is with Joe, and he’s doing some better. His injuries are healing nicely. We just need to keep him warm, comfortable and keep up the water and broth. In fact, try feeding him every few hours now,” Paul explained.

“How soon…” Hoss started to ask only to be cut off by Doctor Martin.

“I don’t know Hoss, I don’t know when he’ll come around. It could be a while, so you’ll all need to start taking better care of yourselves. You won’t be doing Joe or yourselves any good by letting yourselves get sick.”

“What are you talking about, Doc?” Hoss asked.

Adam jumped in, “He means we need to be sensible about how much time we spend with Joe…set up a schedule where we rest, eat, and tend Joe so that none of us gets too rundown.

“Precisely, Adam. Joe needs you all, but he needs you all healthy and strong. So be sure to eat and rest, Doctors orders Ben!” Paul ordered.

“I understand Paul,” Ben sighed. “It’s just hard not to sit in his room… to stare at him… to will him well…to want to hold him…when for so long I thought I never would again.”

“I wish there was a way we could all be with him all the time…he’ll need us all right here with him when he comes around,” Hoss sulked.

“Maybe there is,” Adam declared his mind formulating a plan.

“What are you talking about Adam,” Hoss questioned.

“Pa, will you be alright here for a while, I need to run an errand in town?” Adam asked his father.

Puzzled, but wanting to get back to Joe, Ben replied, “We’ll be fine, but hurry back will you.”

Adam hurried to leave, but detoured through the kitchen to talk a moment with Hop Sing.

A few hours later, Hoss looked out the window of Joe’s room to see Adam return with a peddler’s wagon following closely behind him. On the side of the wagon he read: Cecil Miller-Photographer.

“Well would you look at that. Leave it to ole Adam to know just the thing that would make Joe happy,” Hoss smiled at his brother genius.

“What is it Hoss?” Ben asked looking up from Joe’s still form. “What did Adam bring?”

Before Hoss could answer, Hop Sing hurried into the room, “Mr. Adam say to come down stair, Hop Sing stay with boy.”

“I’d rather stay with Joe,” Ben started, but was quickly interrupted.

“Mr. Adam say come…has idea to help Little Joe, Hop Sing stay. Call right away if boy change.” Hop Sing said as he directed Ben and Hoss toward the door.

Wondering what Adam was up to, Ben descended the stair with Hoss on his heel, “Adam, son what’s going on, Hop Sing all but pushed us out the door, I really want to get back to Joseph”

“Pa, you remember what Joe wanted that day?” Adam queried.

“Of course, the photographs”, Ben answered

“Yes the photographs, well the Photographer is here. Let’s give Joe what he wants…put them all around his room. Pictures of each of us, heck even one of Cochise,” Adam explained excitedly.

Ben smiled with tears in his eyes knowing the deep affection each of his sons had for the others that had resulted in the wonderful idea. “That’s a wonderful idea, son,” Ben said choked with emotion. “I’ll ask Hop Sing to press our suits…have the photographer start with Cochise, and be sure she’s decked out in her finest gear.”

“The suits are ready Pa,” Adam replied. “I enlisted Hop Sing before I left.”

“Well let’s get ready,” Hoss said as he sprinted up the stairs.

As the days progressed, Joe continued to improve. Doctor Martin made daily trips to check his progress and each day reported that Joe was slowly improving. Joe was beginning to stir. His muscles were twitching. His head lolled from side to side and faint moans escaped his lips.

Cecil Miller was a talented photographer and soon his work adorned Joe’s room. On the bed-side table were two portraits: one of Ben and the other of Marie. On the dresser were portraits Adam, Hoss, Hop Sing, and even Cochise. Each photograph was meticulously positioned so Joe could see them easily without moving. Their surprise was ready and now they waited…again, they waited. This time however, the wait was short. As Ben dozed in the chair near Joe’s bed, Joe finally came back to them. His eyes fluttered, and anxiously popped open as Joe sucked in a breath as if awoken from a nightmare. Joe blinked his eyes and glanced around his room. He was stunned to be home and in his bed. His eyes landed on his father and locked on. Inhaling deeply, Joe called out to his father, “Pa.” The sound was no more than a whisper, but Ben heard the voice he longed to hear and he sprung forward and grabbed Joe’s hand.

“Joseph,” Ben sobbed to his youngest. “You’re alright now son, pa’s here and everything will be just fine. Ben pulled his boy into a hug and stroked the back of his head offering silent prayers of gratitude to the Lord.

Finally releasing his son and settling him back on the pillows, Joe looked around the room. A small smile came to his face as his eyes landed on each photograph in his room.

“Pa, the pictures, you got them, even Hop Sing and Cochise. They’re great. Thanks…” his voice faded.

“They are almost perfect precious, they’re missing just one thing,” Ben explained again taking Joe into a strong hug. “You, Joseph, you. And as soon as you’re well, we’ll be taking care of that. You see son, your Pa came to understand, while you were gone, how important the photographs were to you and why. When I thought we’d lost you and we didn’t even have a picture of your beautiful face…well I understand now son, how…” Ben paused and realized his son had drifted off to sleep again. “…well I just understand now precious.”

A few weeks later Cecil Miller was again in the yard at the Ponderosa ready to take photographs. Ben Cartwright explained to Mr. Miller what he wanted: a portrait of all his sons together, one of the four Cartwrights, one of Joe on Cochise and of course one of Joe. His youngest son had recovered nicely and was once again bounding all around the house and into each of his brothers’ rooms offering advice on wardrobe and hairstyle to make the best photograph.

“Come on you guys, Mr. Miller is ready,” Joe shouted as he ran out the door.

Ben, Adam and Hoss gathered on the porch and watched as Cecil Miller posed Joe for his photograph. Taking his position behind the camera, Cecil called to Joe, “Okay Joe, let’s have a smile.” And, as if on cue, Joe flashed his most winning Joe Cartwright smile.

“He’s back, isn’t he Pa?” Hoss chuckled as he affectionately slapped both his Pa and Adam on the back.

“He certainly is Hoss, he certainly is, and now we have the pictures to prove it,” Ben smiled.


The End


March 2002


Other Stories by this Author


Author: StephanieJ

6 thoughts on “The Photograph (by StephanieJ)

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this story. It shows the truth of not putting things off and taking time to listen to each other. What an ordeal but Joe was right all along. Pictures are worth more than a thousand words, aren’t they?

  2. It’s great to see this story at Brand!

    I can understand Little Joe’s fears, but to have the tables turned on his family. (shuddering) There’s old proverb about not putting off to tomorrow what could be done today… It sort of fits, don’t you think?

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