Summary: It is spring, and the winter has passed. Five-year-old Little Joe wanders off to find his mama who died a couple of months earlier. This is about the incident that is referenced by Ben to Little Joe in the episode “Between Heaven And Earth” written by Ed Adamson.
Word Count: 3,184
Papa said it was spring, and winter was finally over. Mama’s pots of flowers were blooming along with her rose tree. But Mama was not around to water them. Papa said Mama was in Heaven enjoying the flowers up there. Staring at Mama’s beautiful flowers five-year-old Little Joe wished she was still here with him. If only he could see her again, and talk to her. He wished that he could reach Heaven so that they could play together again, and she could read him another bedtime story.
Little Joe turned and walked across the yard to the barn. He noticed his older brothers had already started cleaning the stalls. It was morning and they had all finished eating breakfast a little while ago. Little Joe remembered he had asked if the mountains reach Heaven, and Hoss had said that they came pretty near close. Adam asked him why he wanted to know and Little Joe said that he was just wondering. He didn’t tell them that he was thinking about climbing a mountain so that he could reach Heaven and see Mama again.
Stepping into the barn, Little Joe watched as 17-year-old Adam, with a pitch fork in his hands, scooped hay into the nearest stall. Meanwhile, 11-year-old Hoss talked to one of the horses like he was trying to calm it. It neighed at him as if it was talking back to him.
“I wish Mama was still here,” Little Joe said to Adam.
Adam replied without looking, “We all do.”
“Her flowers are blooming.”
“She’s not here to water them.”
Little Joe watched his oldest brother continue to scoop up the hay and place it down in the stall.
“I wish I could see her again,” Little Joe added.
Adam stopped with sadness showing in his eyes. “Listen, little buddy, we’re pretty busy out here. Go back in the house and see if Hop Sing needs help with something.”
For a few moments Little Joe stared at him in silence. He really didn’t want to go back inside the house.
Adam laid down some more hay. “Go!”
Little Joe turned and hurried out of the barn. He stood in the middle of the yard and decided he didn’t want to go back into the house. He gazed back over at Mama’s flowers. No, Little Joe decided, he wanted to see Mama again. Looking up at the sky, now covered by clouds, he wondered if the mountains were tall enough to poke through those clouds and reach Heaven. He thought about a rocky mountain that stood beside the road that led to Virginia City. He remembered something about Papa saying that eagles sometimes had a nest there. He turned and walked down the road that led out of the yard.
Little Joe walked fast along the road that led to Virginia City. Through the pine trees he sometimes glimpsed the rocky mountain reaching up into the clouds. Next, he heard the sounds of a horse’s hooves coming up the road behind him. Little Joe glanced back over his shoulder to see a single rider galloping his horse along. The rider was a young man who he didn’t recognize. Little Joe kept walking fast. Shortly the rider passed by and tipped his hat at Little Joe. He watched as the stranger continued down the road toward Virginia City.
Adam and Hoss gazed out of the barn as a light rain started. They had just finished laying fresh hay in all of the stalls.
“More spring rain!” Hoss exclaimed.
“Yeah”. Adam looked over at the house as he wondered what Little Joe might be up to. “Let’s hurry into the house.”
They both dashed across the yard and into the house. Adam glanced around the front room for any sign of Little Joe but he did not see him. Where was he?
“Little Joe!” Adam called out. “Where are you?”
No one answered. Then Hop Sing walked in from the kitchen.
“Have you seen Little Joe?” Adam asked Hop Sing.
“I didn’t hear him come into house,” Hop Sing replied. “The last I saw him I looked out window and saw him walking to barn.”
“I told him to go back into the house.”
Where had his youngest brother gone? Adam always felt very responsible for both his brothers. Their mothers were both gone now just like his own was. He’d felt accountable from the moment Hoss’ mother had put her baby into his arms. He watched her die in Pa’s arms just a few minutes later. He had also witnessed Little Joe’s mother fall from her horse as she rode very fast into the yard like she’d always done. She died later that night. That was about a couple of months ago.
Ever since Mama had died, Little Joe had talked about her seemingly nonstop. Adam sensed that both of his brothers missed Marie, who Adam had come to know as Mama. She was the only mother that his brothers had ever known. There were times when he noticed them brooding in silence, like they were thinking about her.
“We’ve got to find him!” Hoss exclaimed as worry showed in his big blue eyes.
Adam felt himself jerked back to the present. “Let’s look around inside the house first.”
Adam and Hoss looked in all the rooms, both upstairs and downstairs. They searched in every closet, cabinet and under every bed. But they could not find Little Joe. They even searched around inside the barn and the bunkhouse. They called out his name over and over again everywhere they looked. Adam and Hoss still found no sign of their little brother.
Adam started to feel dread as the rain continued. He realized that Little Joe must have wandered off, to only God knew where, and the rain was washing away any tracks that Little Joe may have made.
“He couldn’t have gone far,” Hoss said, as if to comfort Adam. “Little Joe’s just a little kid. Don’t worry, Adam. We’ll find him.” Yet the worry was still in his eyes.
Little Joe sat in the shelter of a boulder at the foot of the rocky mountain. He had just reached the mountain when it had started to rain. He shivered, watching the rain slowly come to a stop. After several minutes he peeked up from under the rock to see a few patches of blue sky between the dark clouds. He waited a while longer before he stepped out and started to climb up the mountain.
“Mama!” Little Joe called as he climbed. “Mama!”
But she did not answer. His voice echoed around him and off into the distance when he called.
Hoss stared at the gravestone on Mama’s grave; feeling tears in his eyes. Her grave was on a ridge which overlooked Lake Tahoe. He noticed that some white starflowers had started to bloom nearby. He knew that Mama would like that. If only she could be there to see it was spring and the wildflowers had started to bloom.
After it had stopped raining, Hoss and Adam had ridden their horses over there hoping they would find Little Joe. But they still had not found him. He had to be somewhere. Where could he have gone?
Hoss thought about how he still missed Mama. She was the only mother that he had ever known. He never knew his own mother just like Adam had never known his own mother. Hoss was glad that Little Joe had gotten to know his own mother; at least for a few years. Now his little brother was missing.
“I was hoping we would find our little brother here, or on the way here.” Adam looked around.
“Don’t worry, Adam,” Hoss replied. “We’ll find him.” He really wanted to believe that.
“I know you keep saying that.”
“But, I just know we will.”
“I don’t look forward to telling Pa that we’ve lost him.”
Little Joe continued to call out to Mama as he climbed ever upwards. But his calls only echoed, and she still did not reply. Couldn’t she hear him? Why didn’t she answer?
Little Joe started to feel scared as he saw how far up he was. The top of the mountain was almost in the clouds. But Heaven had to be right in the clouds, right? Or right above them?
Mama still did not answer.
Adam and Hoss rode their horses along the fence line, until they spotted Pa and some ranch hands working on a section of the fence. Adam noticed that they appeared to be wet as if they had been caught in the earlier rain. He took a deep breath as they rode over to their pa.
“What are you boys doing here?” Pa looked up. “Don’t you have work to do?”
Adam swallowed hard and answered, “Pa, we’ve lost Little Joe.”
“What do you mean you’ve lost Little Joe?” Pa’s face darkened, as if from growing fear and worry.
“Hoss and I were working in the barn. Little Joe came out there and I told him to go back into the house. That’s the last time we saw him. We’ve looked all over for him and we couldn’t find him. We even went out to Mama’s grave and he wasn’t there either.”
“Did you boys have an argument or something?”
“Did you last see him before or after the rain?”
“It was before the rain. It was raining when we discovered he wasn’t in the house.”
“He’s just a little boy.” Pa looked around. “Where on earth could he have gone?” His dark eyes started to show tears.
Hoss replied, “We’ll find him, Pa. I know we will.”
Adam sensed that Hoss wasn’t really that sure. His blue eyes were already shiny; as if with tears.
Little Joe sat leaning against a rock near the top of the mountain. From time to time he called for Mama. His calls still echoed and Mama still did not answer. He felt very scared when he looked down and saw how far away the ground was. He shook every time he thought about climbing back down.
It started to become dark and Little Joe knew he had missed both lunch and dinner. His tummy had already started to growl. Did his papa and brothers wonder where he was? Was he in trouble?
Little Joe started to cry. He wished he had told his brothers or Hop Sing where he was going. Now no one would ever find him, and Mama still hadn’t answered his calls.
It was already nighttime as Adam stared up into the sky. The clouds had cleared away to reveal the hundreds of stars that covered the sky; almost like silver dust in a man’s hands. He remembered when he was about four-years-old, he started asking Pa about his mother. Pa told him that she had died after he was born and that she was in Heaven, always watching over him. Pa told him the same thing after Inger, Hoss’ mother, had died. She was watching over him and Hoss. Now Marie was gone too. Adam thought about her watching over her little boy and his big brothers. Was she looking down from Heaven and seeing where Little Joe was right now? Where had he wandered off to?
Hundreds of people now searched all over and around the ranch. They came from neighboring farms and ranches; even from Virginia City. Glowing lanterns could be seen all around and voices everywhere called out for Little Joe. Adam, Hoss, and Pa rode around checking on the different searches. They also called out for Little Joe, but no little boy’s voice answered. They were now on the road that led out of the Ponderosa.
“It’s getting pretty late, Mr. Cartwright,” one of the searchers told Pa. “It’s also pretty hard to see in the dark. Do you suppose we should all turn in, and come back in the morning when it’s light?”
“If people want to go home, that’s fine,” Pa replied. “I’m going to keep looking for my son.” He turned to Adam and Hoss. “If you boys want to go back home and get some sleep that will be all right.”
Adam answered, “No, Pa. I’m going to keep looking.”
Hoss added, “Me too.”
Then a group of four people on horses rode up towards them.
“Is Ben Cartwright here!?!” One of the riders yelled.
Adam recognized the rider’s voice as that of Virginia City’s sheriff, George Stewart.
Pa yelled back, “I’m over here, sheriff!”
The riders rode over to them. Adam recognized three of the riders as the sheriff, a deputy and a businessman from town. The fourth man was a young man he had not seen before.
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” Sheriff Stewart said. “I have a gentleman here who may have seen your little boy this morning.”
“Where!” Pa asked.
“Mr. Cartwright, I’m Richard Walton,” the stranger informed him. “I’m here visiting family. I just found out that there’s been a search going on for a little boy. This morning, when I was riding into town I saw a little boy walking alone. I’m wondering if that may have been your son.”
Pa questioned, “What did he look like?”
“Well, he looked to be about four or five. He was a real cute little kid with sort of blonde or light-brown curly hair.” He paused for a moment, like he was trying to remember more details. “This was before the rain came through this morning.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“No, I tipped my hat to him.”
“Do you remember exactly where you saw him?”
“I think so.”
They all followed Mr. Walton to the road that led to Virginia City. He showed them the spot where he thought he had seen Little Joe walking along.
“What was he doing all the way out here?” Pa looked around in the darkness. “Where on earth did he think he was going?”
Adam trotted his horse on up ahead, as he tried to figure out what his youngest brother was possibly thinking that morning. He wished he would have picked up clues at breakfast time, or even when Little Joe had come out to the barn. Where could he possibly be? Then Adam noticed the black silhouette of Eagle’s Nest Mountain against the starry sky. That was it! He remembered Little Joe asking if the mountains reach Heaven. He also remembered him saying he wanted to see Mama again.
“Pa!” Adam called back. “I think I know where he may have gone!”
Little Joe shivered in the darkness; he felt all alone. He looked up at the stars and felt very lost. He knew no one would ever find him. Little Joe had stopped calling for Mama. She hadn’t answered all day.
He heard distant horses’ hooves. He’d heard them going by at various times throughout the day, but this time it sounded like they stopped at the mountain.
Then Papa’s distant voice yelled up to him, “J-o-o-o-s-e-e-e-ph!”
His voice echoed around the sides of the mountain. Little Joe felt excited and relieved that Papa was there.
He screamed back, “Papa!”
His voice also echoed.
“Where are you?”
“I’m up here!”
“Where up there?”
“I’m near the top!”
“Stay there! I’m coming up to you!”
They called back and forth to each other for several minutes. Papa’s voice slowly sounded closer and closer. It was hard for Little Joe to figure out how close he was because of all of the echoing. It felt like forever before Papa finally reached him.
Papa hugged him close and kissed him on top of the head. “I’m so glad to see you, son!”
“I’m sorry, Papa.” Little Joe hugged Papa back and felt a wool blanket, that seemed to be hanging over Papa’s shoulder.
“Joseph, what are you doing all the way up here?” Papa asked as he took the blanket and wrapped it around Little Joe. “We’ve all been worried about you and looking for you.”
Little Joe replied, “I just want to see Mama again. I thought a mountain would be tall enough to reach Heaven so that I can see her.”
Silence followed for a few moments while Papa continued to hold Little Joe close.
Then Papa pointed to the sky. “Do you see those stars up there?”
“Yes.” Little Joe nodded.
“Somewhere beyond those stars is where Heaven is. That’s where your mother is. Even though we can’t see her, she can see us.”
“How can she see us when she’s so far away?”
“Listen, you are very young, there are a lot of things that you’re not able to understand yet, but when you’re older, you will. Just believe what I am telling you. Your mother is watching you from up there and she will always be watching over you.”
Little Joe thought about that for a few moments, until Adam’s distant voice called, “Pa! Did you find him?”
“Yes!” Papa called back down. “I found him! We’ll be down in a little bit!”
More echoes followed.
Papa turned back to Little Joe. “All right, we had better get you down from here and home where it’s warm.”
“I can’t,” Little Joe replied. “I’m scared.”
“You’re scared of what?”
“All right, Joseph. I want you to close your eyes tight and don’t open them until I tell you to. Do you understand?”
“Put your arms around my neck real tight.”
Little Joe closed his eyes, wrapped his arms tight around Papa’s neck and buried his face in his shoulder. Then, he felt Papa climbing down as he held one arm around him. After several minutes of the climb Little Joe heard horses’ hooves trailing off into the distance. A few minutes later he felt Papa walking instead of climbing. Papa hugged him close again.
“All right, son, you can open your eyes now,” Papa said. “We’re finally off the mountain.”
Little Joe opened his eyes to see Adam and Hoss standing there.
“You had us all worried, little buddy,” Adam told him.
Hoss added, “Hey, short shanks. When I said the mountains come close to Heaven I didn’t mean they really do.”
Little Joe replied, “Sorry.”
Papa questioned, “Where did the sheriff, Mr. Walton and the others go?”
“They went to tell everyone that Little Joe’s been found,” Adam answered.
“All right. That’s fine. Let’s get your little brother home where he can be warm and have something to eat.”
“Yes, Pa.” Adam reached out his arms. “Here, I’ll take him on my horse. You’re probably tired from all that climbing.”
Adam took Little Joe in his arms and carried him over to his horse. Then he stopped and looked up at the sky. Little Joe looked up too. The hundreds of tiny flashing stars seemed like a large crowd of people watching.
“Mama’s up there,” Little Joe said. “She’s watching us.”
“Yes, I know,” Adam replied. “They all are.”
Tags: Little Joe Cartwright; Adam Cartwright; Ben Cartwright; Hoss Cartwright; Family
Author’s Note: I originally wrote this story back in 2001. I entered it in a Bonanza writing contest, and I didn’t win. In 2018 I came back to it and rewrote it for a challenge on Bonanza Boomers.
Other Stories by this Author
- Mama’s Brooch (by Sierras)
- Family Treasures (by Sierras)
- Wishes (by Sierras)
- Sunrise (by Sierras)
- I’ll Wait (by Sierras)