Childless Horror (by Camera Chic)

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Summary:  Little Joe has been kidnapped by a mean man and his ill wife. As he tries to deal with captivity, Adam, newly home from college, searches for his little brother whom he hasn’t seen since before he left for college.  

Rated: T (25,335)

Childless Horror

“Little Joe? Little Joe!”

“Joe! Where are you?”

“Joseph!”

“Pa, I can’t find him!”

“Adam, check over that way, down where the ships are. Hoss, go that way, where there are more people. Maybe he went that way. Maybe someone saw him.”

“Excuse, me…have you seen a little boy…? My son, my son is lost…he’s ten…brown hair…have you seen him? Has anyone seen him? Has anybody seen him?”

“Joe!”

Adam jerked up with a gasp, throwing aside the blankets and struggling for air, completely disoriented. Strange shapes stared back at him from the dark; they were lighter, darker, different than their surroundings, making them visible to him. Bigger, shorter, father away and wrong. Just wrong. This wasn’t his room…But then, as the terror of the dream faded and his eyes adjusted, he realized that it was his room. His room here, at home on the Ponderosa, not his room at school. He sank back against the headboard, closing his eyes; but then, as the details of the nightmare came rushing back, he sat up again with a gasp. If only it had been just a dream.

But then, as the terror of the dream faded and his eyes adjusted, he realized that it was his room. His room here, at home on the Ponderosa, not his room at school. He sank back against the headboard, closing his eyes; but then, as the details of the nightmare came rushing back, he sat up again with a gasp. If only it had been just a dream.

Adam knocked the rest of the covers aside, and then stood and went to the pitcher of water on the other side of the room. He poured himself a glass, and drank the whole thing. Only when he turned around did he realize his father had entered.

“I heard you yell, Adam.”

“I suppose I did, Pa. I’m sorry.” Adam walked back to his bed, where he scooped the blankets off the floor. Looking up at his father, he asked, “Did I wake you?”

Ben shook his head. “No…I haven’t slept.”

No one had. The last six weeks had been wrenching, endless nights of worry, nightmares, and questions. 

Who? For what reason? If only…

If only.

If only Adam had arrived sooner. An hour. One hour was the difference between sweeping the brother whom he hadn’t seen in over four years into a hug, and searching for a child who had disappeared. If only…

Adam sank onto his bed, and then reached out and picked up one of the little wooden figures from his nightstand. He had brought the carved horses back as a present for his youngest brother. Ben had written often of the happenings on the Ponderosa, and as the stack of letters on Adam’s desk grew, so also did Joe’s apparent love of horses. The letters told of Joe’s skill at riding, his increasing ability to handle difficult horses, his diligence in helping Hoss care for the sick animals, and even his disobedience- like the time he tried to ride a wild horse by himself and without telling anyone. His injuries weren’t life-threatening, and the few hands who had witnessed the incident were awed by his raw talent; still, punishment had been necessary, even if not severe. He had only broken his arm. It could have been his neck. He was too light to be a burden on the horse’s back, too small to take the horse under control. Much to his fury, he just wasn’t big enough.

Ben sat down next to him, picking up one of the other pieces. “These are perfect. He’d love them.”

Adam noticed the way his father spoke. The way they all did, and the way they thought. They couldn’t accept that he was gone, really and truly gone and they would never see him again. The few times any such thoughts of that sort had crept into Adam’s conscious, he angrily pushed them away. There was no body; his brother hadn’t died. And as long as he was still alive, there was hope. There was.

“When does your friend arrive in San Francisco?”

Adam forced himself out of his thoughts, and set the little horse down again. “Next Thursday, according to his letter. Pa…” He wanted to say it, to tell his father what he had been thinking. He tried many times, but even now he couldn’t. He didn’t want to say it, to see the pain in his father’s face when he told him even though his friend was a very good private detective, there was no guarantee. A child who disappears in San Francisco, the busiest city in the west…well, it wasn’t going to be easy to find any traces. How many people had come and gone in the few hours time, and how many of them would even remember a child crying out for his father.

“Adam…”

Adam looked at his father. Tears pricked the older man’s eyes, and the pain was evident in his expression. Ben placed his hand on Adam’s leg, and Adam could almost feel his sorrow in the touch. 

“Adam…I don’t have…unreasonable expectations. I know…” his voice faltered, and he paused for a moment. “I know there is very little hope, but…we must try. We can’t just give up, letting him disappear without a trace. I know it is slim, but if there’s a chance…”

“There’s always a chance,” Adam interjected quickly, wanting so much to relieve him from this hurt. Ben nodded slightly, and then stood up. “Pa…I’m going with Matt. I’m going to help him search.”

Ben nodded again. He knew Adam would go, and as much as he wished he could go with them, his presence was required on the ranch after having been away for so long. He almost wished he could keep Adam here, even though he knew there would be no stopping him. The thought of either of his older sons out of sight right now….

Still, Adam was a man. An adult, able to take care of himself as he had for the past four years. Thinking of that gave Ben a tiny twinge of regret. All of Adam’s achievements, his growth, joys and pains of the last few years had been pushed aside in the last few weeks. There hadn’t been any time to ask about his son, now that he was so much older and more grown up. Ben could see it; and if the circumstances had been different he would have delighted in discovering the details of the last four years of his son’s life. That Adam’s accomplishments had been pushed aside so swiftly, yet necessarily… 

“Pa?”

“I never even asked how your trip went.” Somehow, it was easier to say what had been on his mind now, in the darkness, rather than during the day when the harshness of sunlight would have made the conversation unbearable. “I hope you don’t think I am ignorant to all that you’ve done…all you’ve accomplished with your life.” Ben looked at him. “I am proud of you, son.”

“I know, Pa,” Adam replied softly. “It’s all right. There will be time for that later.” Adam could say it easily, because it was something he had thought about before, much to his shame at the time. His father had barely acknowledged his achievements and his hard work, all because of his brother. His own, dear brother, who, as Ben had informed him in letters, was excitedly and impatiently waiting Adam’s return. 

Adam had been looking forward to seeing him, seeing the young man he was becoming, seeing the look of love and pride in his eyes when he stepped off the stage. Little Joe owned him with that look. If he ever turned away in disappointment, it would break Adam’s heart. 

“Try to get some sleep, son,” Ben said, patting Adam’s shoulder as he turned away.

“Yes, Pa,” Adam murmured as he adjusted the blankets, and then lay down. He could tell by the birds outside that morning was coming. It was still dark, but in a few hours would be dawn and the start of another endless day. He needed action, he needed to do something. Any action was a step closer to discovering what had happened to his brother. 

*****

Joe watched as the rider in the distance came closer. His heart started to race a little faster as hope swelled in his chest. After a few moments it died just as quickly as it formed. The man must have noticed him, because he reined in, looking at the house for a couple seconds, then turned towards it. He pulled to a stop near the porch where Joe was seated. “What the hell are you doing out here?”

Joe couldn’t bring himself to look up at him. “I’m being punished,” he said, barely above a whisper. “She told me to wait here until you got home.”

Eli dismounted, and Joe fought against the urge to get up and run. He’d only been hit by him a few times, but Joe knew what he had done was worse than anything he’d been punished for before. The man grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. “What did you do?”

“No,” the female voice came from the house behind them. “No,” she almost begged, going up to Eli and grabbing his arm. “He didn’t do anything wrong, please don’t hurt him.”

“What did he do, Beth?”

Beth stared up at him, tears in her eyes. “Please, Eli…”

“Boy, tell me.”

Joe knew there was no use fighting it, and that if he got caught lying it would be worse. “I was rude to her, sir,” he said quietly. “And I refused to do my chores.” Joe’s goal had been to get her so frustrated with him, that she would make her husband take him back to San Francisco. She had been the one who found Joe after he got lost, and she had begged Eli to take Joe with them. He did anything she asked. 

The man was silent for a few seconds. “It’s no wonder your family abandoned you,” he finally said. “I would have too if my child was willful and useless.”

Joe dropped his head. “But they didn’t,” he whispered. 

“Don’t you dare talk back to me,” Eli replied, his tone low and threatening. Joe stepped back, looking up at the large man in fear, waiting to see if he would retaliate in some way; but instead of raising a hand, the man just gave him a look of disgust. “You’re nothing but a worthless brat. It’s your own fault your father left you. Maybe if you’d learned to bite your tongue and do as you were told, it wouldn’t have happened. I don’t blame him one bit for leaving you.”

Joe’s eyes started to burn with angry tears as the pain of the man’s words cut through him. He fought desperately to keep the man from seeing just how much those words hurt.

“You know my wife is ill. Why would you deliberately try to hurt her? Do you want to make her sicker?”

“No…I’m sorry…” Joe whispered.

“Go to your room and wait there.” The fury in Eli’s voice was unmistakable.

Joe slipped past Beth and inside to the room that had been designated as his, with the latch on the outside of the door to lock it and the stopped window that only opened a few inches. He sank onto the pile of blankets on the floor that served as his bed. It was hopeless. There wasn’t anything left to do. Being troublesome hadn’t earned him freedom; instead, all it did was get him punished. 

He was getting tired of fighting, and of getting beaten, but he couldn’t stop. Not when his family was out there, somewhere, looking for him he was sure. He didn’t care how many times Eli said they had left him deliberately in the city…he would never believe him. His father wouldn’t do that…he loved him too much.

Joe sat up as he heard footsteps coming down the hall. The door swung open, and Eli stepped in, the strap in his hand. Joe stared at him, waiting for instructions either to stand up, or go outside to the barn, depending on how bad the tanning was to be. “From now on,” the man said, “Whenever I’m gone, you’re going to be locked in this room. I see now I can’t trust you to be respectful when I’m away. My wife told me you’re rude to her every time I’m gone. She’s not well, and I will not put up with you treating her like this.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe whispered, terror of being shut up for days at a time building. “I won’t do it again…”

“That’s right you won’t. Once I’m through with you, you won’t even think about talking back to her. Go to the barn.”

Joe dropped his gaze, and then quickly slipped past Eli out the door. 

*****

“He’s still crying.”

Adam looked up from his book at Hoss, whom he hadn’t noticed come into the room. He glanced upwards, where the cries of their little brother were still loud. He looked back as Hoss climbed onto the settee next to him. “I could tell. Did he wake you up?”

“Yeah. Is there something wrong with him?”

“No, of course not,” Adam replied. “Babies cry a lot.”

“Did I cry?”

“Not that much,” Adam said with a smile. “You were a pretty happy baby as I remember.”

The crying grew louder, and both of them looked up to see their father carrying their little brother downstairs. “Your mother’s trying to get some rest,” he explained. Adam studied his father’s face- the dark circles under his eyes and tired lines on his forehead.

“Pa, I’ll take him. Why don’t you get some rest too,” Adam said, standing up and reaching for Joseph. Ben hesitated for a second, and then handed the baby to him.

“Don’t stay up too late with him,” Ben said. “Wake me up when you’re ready to go to bed.” Adam smiled slightly, knowing full well he wouldn’t disturb his parents for at least several hours; not until Joseph needed to be fed again.

Hoss got up and followed their father upstairs, and Adam turned and gently rocked the child as he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. “You certainly are loud, for being so little,” he whispered. Finally, after about a half hour, the baby quieted down, and fell asleep. Adam carefully sat down on the settee, so as not to wake him. He looked at the tiny perfect fingers, curled into fists, and the little nose and eyes, his face wet from tears. He wondered what this little person would be like when he grew up.

Adam quietly observed the people walking by him. There were so many different people. Most of them appeared nice, although absorbed in their own thoughts. When he tried looking at them through the eyes of a frightened 10-year-old though, all of them suddenly became menacing and frightening. What must it have been like, to be lost in this city? Not only the people, but the buildings, streets and horses, the wagons and loud brawls…

Adam closed his eyes and tried to stop thinking. 

The rumble of horses grew louder, and Adam looked to see the stage pulling to a stop. The door swung open, and several passengers exited into the waiting arms of family and friends. The last person to get out was a fair-haired man of about 25. He glanced around for a moment, and then spotted Adam moving towards him.

“Matt.” Adam extended his hand, which his friend warmly grasped. “How was your trip?”

“Fine, just fine,” Matt replied. “It’s good to see you again, Adam. Although…not under these circumstances. How are you holding up?” he asked, picking up his bags.

“Allow me,” Adam said, taking one of the bags from him. “I’m doing all right, considering.” Together, they headed towards the hotel in which Adam had already reserved a room. When they got upstairs, Matt opened one of his bags and pulled out a paper tablet and a pencil.

Matt sat down at the table, and Adam sat across from him. “This might be difficult, Adam. I need you to tell me everything that happened.”

“Well,” Adam sighed, leaning back. “My father and Hoss realized he was gone while they were walking towards the stage office. They turned and backtracked, but didn’t see any sign of him. I arrived, and we split up and searched. We looked in shipyards, stores, jails, restaurants; we asked everyone we saw if they had seen him…we looked through the whole city. Several times. There was nothing.”

“How long did you stay and search?”

“Four weeks.”

“And how long has he been missing now?”

Adam had to think for a moment. “About two months.” It seemed a lot longer. Adam caught the look that his friend tried to hide. “It’s hopeless, isn’t it.”

Matt tossed his notebook on the table. “I don’t know.” He rubbed his hand over his face. “You did everything you could, I don’t think there was anything else to do at that point. It’s just…there’s not a whole lot to go on. If someone had seen something, heard something, remembered watching him walk by with your father…it would give us a place to start.”

“I know where my father last saw him, and where he realized he was gone.”

Matt nodded. “That’s a small help. You asked everyone there if they had seen anything?”

“Almost every day, just to see if he somehow went back there. No one saw anything.”

“It…” Matt paused. “Wasn’t near any ships, was it?”

Adam shook his head. “Far from the docks, in fact.”

“Well, that’s good at least. And there was no where that he could have…I don’t know, fallen, or anything?”

“You mean some sort of accident?” Adam shook his head. “No, it was just streets and shops. There were alleys and lots of traffic, but we figured if he had stepped in front of a horse or something, they would have known.”

Matt nodded. “How old is he?”

“Ten.”

“Then he knew he could get help from someone, if he did get lost.” Matt paused, and picked up his notebook again. “You do realize…that something could have…happened to him, very easily, and…”

“You mean he might be dead?” Adam said quietly. “I did think about that. But if he is, we’ll never find him. We’ve got to search thinking that…someone took him. For whatever reason. He can’t be still lost, we would have found him. If he’s dead…then it’s hopeless. We just have to keep hoping that he’s still alive.”

Matt nodded. “All right then. So we’ll assume he was kidnapped. And because whoever took him never asked for ransom, they either don’t know who he is or don’t care. We’re going to have to search everywhere that someone might take a child for a reason. We’ll ask at all the shipyards, and shops, and anywhere that might need workers, and see if they were looking for help two months ago. We might not find very much, but at least we can rule out some places. Mines, we’ll have to ask at mines too.” Matt stood up. “Why don’t you show me where your family realized he first disappeared, and we’ll start with that?”

Adam nodded, and then took a deep breath and followed Matt to the door. At least this was better than doing nothing.

*****

It had now been about four months. Every day seemed to run into the next, and when Joe wasn’t busy working on the farm, he spent his time imagining that his family was looking for him, and they would find him soon. 

The horizon grew darker, and Joe sighed and leaned his head against his window. They should have been here by now. He knew it had only been a few days ride from San Francisco. What if it was true…had they really abandoned him? 

Joe angrily shook his head. His family loved him, he knew they did; but the tiny fear, gnawing in the back of his mind, wouldn’t leave him alone. It was easier to ignore during the day. At night, when he had nothing to distract himself with, it was harder to keep on believing. 

The door opened behind him, and he could tell by the heavy footsteps crossing the room it was Eli. Joe looked up as he dropped a folded piece of paper next to him, and then turned and left again.

With shaking hands, Joe unfolded the paper. It was a letter. He squinted at the words. The darkened room, and his unfamiliarity with some of the words was making it difficult to understand, but finally he came across a word he recognized. The one he had been afraid of. ‘Dead’. There was a sentence that had his family’s name in it, followed by that word. 

Joe stood up, and quickly went into the kitchen. Beth was in her chair next to the stove, with blankets over her lap, mending something, and Eli was tallying some numbers. “What does it say? What does the whole letter say? Please,” Joe begged, holding it out to the man.

Eli glanced up at Beth, and seeing her watching him, took the paper. “It says that your family is dead.”

“Please read it, please…” Joe had to know what it said. How, and why.

Eli sighed, and then read, “’Dear Mr. Grant, I am saddened to tell you there was an accident, and all the members of the Cartwright family are dead. The property has been sold, and there is no one left to take the boy.’” Eli handed the letter back to him, and then turned towards his books again.

Joe held it, feeling surprisingly calm. “How long have you known?” he asked.

“Three weeks.” Eli didn’t look up.

“I didn’t want him to tell you,” Beth interjected, without looking up from her sewing. “It’s quite an upsetting thing, but at least you still have us.”

Eli glanced towards Joe with a look of disgust, and…loathing, almost. Joe knew he only did it because Beth wasn’t looking. Joe didn’t know which was worse; Beth’s love, or Eli’s hatred. The man turned back to his figures.

“You lied,” Joe said quietly to Eli, moving a bit closer. “The last few weeks, you knew; but you told me they weren’t coming because they didn’t want me.”

“They didn’t want you,” Eli said, pausing to look up at him. “Go get the strap.”

Joe’s mouth fell open slightly. “Why?”

The man stood angrily, and Joe jumped back, startled. “First you call me a liar, and now you’re questioning me? Not only are you getting a tanning, but you can stay locked in your room for the next three days without meals as well,” the man snapped.

“Eli, no…” Beth started to cry. 

Joe slowly turned and went into the other room, where he pulled the leather strap down from the hook by the fireplace.

“The child called me a liar, Beth!” Joe heard Eli talking loudly from the other room. “I won’t stand for anything like that. He knows what he did, and the consequences.”

Joe walked back into the kitchen with the strap in his hand.

“But he didn’t mean to,” Beth begged. “Joseph, tell him you didn’t mean it…just apologize, please…”

Joe didn’t even acknowledge her; he just stared straight at Eli. Finally the man swore under his breath and lashed out. Joe winced, but the man only knocked the strap from his hands. “Go to your room!” Eli yelled. Joe turned and ran down the hall. He heard the man following, and then the latch was fastened.

Joe sank onto the floor, fighting against tears. They were dead. His father, his brothers…he would never see them again. And as much as Eli insisted, there was no way they had deliberately abandoned him. Joe hugged the blanket tighter as every bit of hope he had held on to faded away. He was only left with fear, loneliness, and pain. He was alone in the world, and he would never see his family again.

*October*

Hoss yanked the wagon to a stop in the yard, and then jumped down as Ben hurried out of the house. Hoss handed his father the letter, and watched impatiently as he tore open the envelope. When his father’s shoulders slumped, Hoss knew, once again, that there was no good news. 

Hoss hated bringing Adam’s letters home. Every week, he and Ben waited anxiously for the mail to arrive at Eagle Station, and for any news that Adam might have. Nineteen letters. Nineteen times Hoss closely watched his father’s face as he opened the piece of paper, and each time he watched as his father’s face grew sadder.

Joe had been missing almost six months now, and each day that went by brought them closer to the realization that he might never be found.

Ben turned and walked to the barn, and then came out a few minutes later with his horse saddled. “I’ll be back,” he said curtly, and then rode away. Hoss watched him go, and then started to unhitch the team.

Ben rode as fast as he could through the trees. If only this letter, today, had brought some sort of comfort. Today…

Ben finally came to a stop at his destination, and swung out of the saddle. He walked over to the grave, and knelt down next to the headstone of his wife. “Oh Marie…” he whispered. It was eleven years ago today, that he had first seen his son. Marie had smiled at him when the midwife placed the tiny bundle in his arms. He remembered looking down at that little perfect face, and lots of dark hair, even then. “This is your brother,” he had said to Adam and Hoss. “Joseph.”

Ben pulled the letter out of his pocket, and read it more carefully. It didn’t say much; just that there was no sign, and they were continuing eastward. “Marie,” he sighed. “I’m so sorry…I tried my best, but I didn’t think. I should have kept him closer. I shouldn’t have let him out of my sight. I just…hope that he’s safe. Either…with you, or wherever he is. Maybe someone found him, and took care of him, or maybe…maybe he’s dead. I just wish I knew.”

Ben remained there for awhile, quietly lost in the sounds of the woods. Finally he stood up and went back to his horse, and then slowly rode back to the ranch. There was still work to be done today, and he couldn’t let his middle son bear the brunt of his sorrow.

*****

“Adam! Joe’s hurt!”

Adam dropped the hammer he had been using to repair the stall in the barn, and ran outside. Hoss was coming towards him. “Where is he?” Adam said.

“On the settee. He was running and fell and hit his head,” Hoss replied, gasping as he turned and raced after Adam, who was moving fast. Adam burst into the living room, and moved quickly to the blood-stained child who was lying down, sobbing. The 3-year-old had a nasty gash on his head. Adam pulled out his handkerchief which he had just placed, clean, thankfully, in his pocket that morning and held it firmly over the cut.

Joe cried out and tried to struggle away, but Adam sat down next to him and pulled him onto his lap, trying to calm him. Joe leaned his head against Adam’s chest. “I want Mama,” he cried.

Adam had to admit he wanted her as well, but she and Ben had been away, and weren’t supposed to be arriving home until the day after tomorrow. “I know Joe, but she’ll be home in a couple of days. You’ve got me for now,” he said, hoping to calm the child. It seemed to work, and after a few minutes he had settled down and stopped crying.

“Is he all right?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know,” Adam replied, gently laying him down. “Go run and get me some bandages and some towels and water.” Hoss left, and quickly returned with the items as requested. Adam pulled the handkerchief away, and to his relief the wound didn’t open again. He very carefully cleaned the cut, as Little Joe squirmed and cried, and then bandaged Joe’s head. “It’s not as bad as I first thought,” he said. “It looks like a surface wound, but I bet he’s going to have a nasty headache.” Adam sat back, finally releasing the tension that had been mounting inside of him since Hoss had called.

He wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself if the child had been seriously injured. It was his responsibility to make sure nothing went wrong, and he took it very seriously. It was impossible, however, to watch Joe every second of every day. Adam sighed and picked up the child. He would certainly try harder from now on though.

Adam put down the pen, and picked up the sheet of paper, waving it gently to dry the ink. By his calculations, the letter should arrive at the Ponderosa about a week or two before he and Matt did. They were taking a slightly longer path through some Arizona towns. There wasn’t much of a chance Joe had been taken that far away, or in that direction, but Adam couldn’t stand not to look. They’d already combed every port, gold mine, and town along the western coast, and then had headed east through many trading posts, towns, and farms. They had gone south towards Texas, and then on towards the Mexico border, where they asked at all the towns they came across. Adam had considered going farther east, but it seemed unlikely that someone would have taken him that far from San Francisco. 

Possible, but not likely. 

The other reason they were heading back was because it was starting to turn into winter, and pretty quickly they wouldn’t be able to get back because of the snow. Matt was coming to stay with them until the worst of winter was over, and then Adam was planning to go back to San Francisco and start searching there again. His hope was that if Joe had been taken on a ship, it might have come back into port by then and there would be some word.

He looked at his letter, reading it over quickly to make sure it sounded coherent. ‘Dear Pa, we should be arriving home in about four or five weeks from the date I sent this letter. Hope you and Hoss are well, and I look forward to seeing you both again. Love, Adam.’ He folded it and put it in the envelope, just as the door to their hotel opened. 

Matt walked to the table, flipping one of the chairs around and straddling it. “There’s a little restaurant just down the street. I figured we could go there.”

Adam nodded, and then stood up and grabbed his holster, buckling it into place before following Matt out the door.

*November*

It was a crisp morning on the Ponderosa. The sun wasn’t quite up yet as Ben and Hoss started their breakfast. “Dang,” Hoss exclaimed after he had taken a bite. “This sure is the best flapjack I ever tasted.”

Ben chuckled slightly. “They certainly are good. I think Hop Sing’s going to work out fine here.”

“He sure is. He’s been here a week, and already he’s made somethin’ different every day. Not to mention the house is real clean. I don’t think it’s looked this good since Marie-“ Hoss quickly stopped, looking at his father. “Sorry Pa,” he said quietly. 

Ben put down his fork, closing his eyes. How had this happened? Finally he looked up at his son, who had a sad, guilty look on his face. “Hoss, there’s nothing wrong with you talking about Marie. Or Joe for that matter. They both brought joy to this house. We shouldn’t think of them with sadness.” Ben watched as Hoss glanced down, biting his lower lip. “I’ve decided I’m going to have Adam stay, when he comes back.”

Hoss looked up at him, and the sadness grew in his expression. “That means you’re going to have him stop looking.”

Ben sighed. He didn’t want to give up, but he didn’t want to live like this anymore. The sadness and tiredness was starting to wear on him. And Hoss…this had been especially hard on him. Not only did he have to deal with the pain of losing his brother, his best friend, but now his other brother was gone as well. He had been struggling with more than double the jobs and tasks he had been doing previously, along with trying to be strong for his father with his unending hopefulness. It was just too much for Ben to handle anymore, and he hated putting so much strain on his son.

Hop Sing walked out of the kitchen with a plate of eggs. He set it down, and then turned to Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, few things we need for kitchen,” he said, his words carrying a heavy trace of his accent.

Ben nodded. “Hoss can take you over to the mercantile at Eagle Station to get whatever you need.”

“Thank you,” Hop Sing replied, and then turned and went back into the kitchen.

Hoss quickly finished his breakfast. As he was getting up to go hitch the team, he turned towards Ben. “I don’t blame you, Pa, for wanting Adam back here to help. I really miss him too. But you know, I bet he finds Joe before that.”

Ben gave him a brief smile, and then Hoss turned and left. Ben was still hopeful that his son would be found, but he couldn’t bring himself to muster the amount of faith that Hoss had. The fear that Joe was dead was eating away at him; it would just be so much easier…

Ben swallowed, as guilt washed over him after the last thought. What if Joe was still alive, somewhere? How could he ever explain to him that he quit searching because it was easier to pretend he was dead? No, it wasn’t easier, it was…harder, in some ways. He sighed as he stood and walked into his study. He knew what it was, even though he hadn’t actually admitted it before. Hoss had stirred the feelings again, with the simple apology about mentioning Marie. Ben knew now, why he needed Adam home. Losing Joe had brought back the feelings of losing Marie, and Adam…had been there. He had been strong, in ways that Ben couldn’t, and ways he couldn’t see. He had relied on his son. It had taken years before he realized the amount of the responsibility he had placed on Adam, and that Adam had accepted, without a word. 

Ben couldn’t help but feel a little guilty, feeling that perhaps it was the amount of responsibility he had placed on him that had caused Adam to leave. His son had to live his own life, Ben knew. It wasn’t fair to hold him back.

But right now, he really needed him.

*****

Joe ran towards the house, head ducked against the onslaught of raindrops. He jerked the door open and scurried into the kitchen, and then leaned against the door to close it against the wind. He turned to see Eli sitting at the table, staring at him, a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of him. Joe was suddenly self-conscious under his glare, and straightened uncomfortably. The man hadn’t bothered with him the last couple of weeks, he’d only given him more chores to do, ever since Beth had…

Joe looked down. He knew Eli blamed him for her death, and if he was honest, he blamed himself a little too. Maybe if he’d been nicer to her, and not made Eli mad at him so much… 

“Finish everything?” the man asked.

Joe looked up at him. “Yes. Well…everything except replacing the boards in the corral.”

“Why didn’t you finish that?” Eli asked.

Joe wasn’t quite sure if he understood. “It…it’s raining…I thought I could finish it later…”

“You thought wrong.” 

The man said it so easily, that Joe was startled. “Now? You…want me to finish it…now?” Joe glanced towards the window, where the rain had started to fall heavier. 

Eli slammed his hand on the table, making Joe jump and quickly look back towards him. “Yes, now. And don’t come back in until it’s done,” he snapped.

Joe stared at him, then slowly reached for the door handle and pulled it open. He bit his lower lip, trying to keep the tears at bay, and then stepped back outside. The rain felt even colder against his damp clothing, and he ran for the barn, splashing through puddles with his bare feet. Once inside, he located the boards and tools necessary. Five of the boards in the fence had been broken or become rotted and fallen away. Joe picked up the pieces to replace them, and then dragged them to the door.

For a moment, Joe considered just waiting until it stopped raining to finish; but he knew, however, that it wasn’t likely to stop soon, and he would be here until dark, or even until the next morning. He stepped out into the rain, anger and hopelessness overpowering him, with warm tears trickling down his cheeks. 

When he finally finished an hour or so later, and at last stumbled into the house, soaking wet and freezing cold, Eli was no longer in the kitchen. Joe went down the hall into his bedroom, stripped off his clothes, and then wrapped himself in his blanket, shivering. He didn’t think it was possible to hurt any more than he did now. All he wanted was his father.

*December*

Hoss ran downstairs. “Pa!” he called. “Pa! Adam’s home!”

Ben stood up and dropped his account book on the desk, and then he went to the front door, yanking it open. He and Hoss watched through the blowing snow as two men pulled their horses into the barn. Ben shoved the door closed against the cold, and then hurried around the corner into the kitchen to tell Hop Sing that Adam and his friend had arrived and to make some coffee.

As he was leaving the kitchen, he heard the front door crash open, and he came around the corner to see Adam and another man stumble in, covered with snow. Hoss closed the door behind them as Ben hurried over. “Come, over to the fire,” he said, ushering them across the room. Ben helped as the outer clothing came off, and Hoss came quickly with blankets. “Son, I’m glad to see you but you should have known better than to travel in a storm like this.”

Adam almost laughed. That was exactly what he expected his father to say. “It was only bad the last half hour or so, and by then we were already on the Ponderosa.” He saw the look on Ben’s face, and then felt bad. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’m home and safe now,” he said gently, and Ben sighed.

Hop Sing walked out of the kitchen just then, with a tray full of cups of steaming hot coffee. “Thank you,” Ben said, taking two of the mugs and handing them to the two men. He took one of the remaining cups and Hoss took the last one. “Adam, this is Hop Sing. I hired him to help us around the house.”

Adam nodded towards him. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said. 

Hop Sing gave a little bow, and said, “Pleasure to meet eldest son.”

Adam smiled slightly at him, and then looked towards his companion. “Pa, this is my friend Matt Carrington. Matt, this is my father, and my brother Hoss, and of course, Hop Sing.”

Matt reached out and shook Ben’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Cartwright. Hoss, Hop Sing…” he nodded towards each of them.

“Tell me, do you have any news?” Ben asked, sitting down. Hop Sing retreated towards the kitchen as Matt and Adam both shook their heads.

“No,” Adam sighed. “No sign of him anywhere.”

“We’ve had a couple false leads,” said Matt, shaking his head. “There’s not a whole lot to go on.”

Ben nodded, and looked at Hoss before asking. “Please, tell me honestly. Is there any hope, at all? Or do you think he’s dead?” he finished quietly. 

Matt stared at the floor for several seconds before looking up at Ben. “Do you really want to know?” he asked gently. When Ben nodded, he sighed. “There’s been no sign of him in any town that you’d pass through going out of San Francisco. Of course we couldn’t check every single way station, but we checked…I don’t know, dozens of places. Certainly more.” Ben stood up and walked a few feet away. “We checked almost every major city between here and Texas, docks, mines, I’ve had messages out to a good many lawmen in different parts of the country, we’ve looked everywhere we possibly can… I’m sorry, sir…I don’t think there’s much hope at all.” Matt looked into his coffee cup as Ben turned back to them.

“Well, no one can say you didn’t do your best,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I think,” Ben started, looking in turn at Hoss, Adam, and Hop Sing, who had brought out more coffee. “I think that we all need to accept that he’s gone. We need to move on, and…try to heal from this.” Ben looked at Hoss as the young man looked away, blinking back tears. “It will be hard,” he said softly. “Joseph…was a dearly loved member of this family, and this hasn’t been easy. But we have to try to move on.” Ben looked at Hoss, who met his gaze and nodded, even with the tears in his eyes. Hop Sing gently touched Ben on the arm as he poured him some more coffee, and then went back into the kitchen. Only Adam didn’t look up or move.

Ben realized this must have been incredibly hard on his eldest son, who hadn’t seen his brother in years. He just hadn’t realized how much this must have worn on him. Adam glanced up and saw Ben watching him, and then he stood up. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, and quickly went upstairs. 

Matt watched him leave, and then looked back at Ben. “He has taken this really hard,” he said quietly. “He’s so driven, so determined to find him. We were going to go back to San Francisco one more time, and then I planned on leaving for home. I’m not sure when Adam plans on quitting.”

Hoss set his cup down and then got up. “S’cuse me,” he said, and then went up the stairs and down the hall to Adam’s room. “Adam?” he gently knocked on the door, and went in.

Adam was standing next to the window, watching the snowflakes fall. “I’m sorry, Hoss,” he said as his brother came to a stop behind him.

“Sorry for what?”

Adam turned and looked at him. “Christmas is soon,” he whispered. 

Hoss nodded, tears building in his eyes. “I know,” he whispered back.

“I…” Adam closed his eyes.

“What is it, Adam?”

“I just…really wanted to bring Joe home for Christmas.”

Hoss bit his lip, but it was too late. Tears were slipping down his face as he quickly embraced his brother. “Adam…you did your best!” Hoss felt his older brother’s arms encircle his shoulders. 

“I just wish I could have done better.”

*****

Later that night, after Hoss had gone to bed and Matt had gone to his room for the night, Adam sat down next to Ben on the settee. He wasn’t sure how to bring it up, especially after his father’s comments earlier; therefore he was surprised when Ben said, “Matt tells us you planned on leaving again.”

It took a moment for him to respond. “That’s right,” he finally said.

“Adam, there’s no reason to keep searching.”

“Pa, I have to.”

“There’s no hope, anymore. He’s been gone too long.”

“Pa-”

“He’s dead!”

Adam watched in stunned silence as Ben angrily got up from the settee and strode over the fireplace. “Joseph is dead, and I don’t want you to keep searching! I want you to stay here!” Ben glared back at him, and then his tone softened slightly. “I need you to stay here, Adam. I need you, and Hoss needs you. All of us…we have to get past this! Together! Nothing good will come of your staying away. ”

“Please, only for-”

“No, Adam!” Ben snapped. “I am adamant!”

Adam stood up, and angrily shook his head. “No, Pa, I can’t! I can’t stay here, I just can’t! I-” he stopped and turned away before running his hand through his hair, letting his hand linger on the back of his neck. “Please, Pa…just let me go to San Francisco, one more time. If I don’t find anything in the three weeks I’m there, then I’ll come back. I promise.”

“It won’t do any good…”

Adam shook his head. “Three weeks, Pa. That’s all I ask.”

Dropping his head, Ben closed his eyes. “Why?” When Adam didn’t answer after a few seconds, he looked up. “Why are you doing this… to yourself, to Hoss…to me? Why? You’re not…going to find anything. Either he was killed, or is so far away that we’ll never see him again.”

“Pa,” Adam whispered. “I…” Adam paused for a few seconds, and then quietly finished, “I just…wanted so much to bring him back to you, Pa.” Adam sank onto the arm of one of the chairs, still facing away from his father.

Ben slowly crossed the room and stopped behind him, and then put his hand on his son’s shoulder. He closed his eyes, and then quietly said, “Three weeks.”

Adam reached up and grasped his father’s hand. He was afraid to speak with the lump in his throat, and after a moment he got up and hurried up the stairs to his room.

*Early March*

“Please be careful, Adam.”

“I will Pa,” Adam replied. It was the same thing his father said every time he left, but this time it seemed to have more meaning. He had promised his father to be home within six weeks, allotting three weeks of travel time and three weeks of searching. Adam had never felt so conflicted. If he didn’t return in that time, it would break his father’s heart. But if he couldn’t find Joe, he didn’t know how he would live with himself.

Adam smiled slightly as Hoss patted his leg, and then with a nod at his father, Adam turned and raced out of the yard, with Matt following behind.

*****

“Matt.”

Matt looked at the building Adam was pointing at. It was a burned shell, as were two others next to it. They could see where some rebuilding had started, but it was still obvious a large fire had taken place. 

They had arrived in the city yesterday. First thing this morning, they had decided to start at the last place that Ben had remembered seeing Joe, and then retrace the route the family had taken, asking again at any jails or shops if a boy had been seen. Maybe he had been able to come back. They had ended up here. “That was the hotel they were staying at when Joe went missing.” Adam looked at a man who was walking by. “Excuse me, sir, do you happen to know what happened to the hotel?”

The man nodded towards the burned buildings. “Happened about three months ago. Seven people died in the hotel.”

Matt let out a low whistle.

“That’s about all they know. Marshal Ryder was in charge of the investigation, and he thought it could have been arson.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know if an eleven year old boy has been in the area within the past few months, perhaps looking for someone at the hotel?” Adam asked.

The man shook his head, giving Adam a puzzled look. “Not that I know of,” he said, before continuing down the street.

Matt shook his head and glanced at Adam. “Where to now?”

Adam was frowning. “Let’s go see this marshal.”

Matt was perplexed by Adam’s sudden interest, but he followed him down the street to the jail. They went inside, and Adam went up to the person at the desk. “Is there a Marshal Ryder here, by any chance?”

A man on the other side of the room looked up. “That’s me. What do you want?”

Adam and Matt walked up to him. “I was just curious about the hotel fire,” Adam said. “We stayed there last time we were in town.”

“What did you want to know?”

Adam sighed. “I don’t know. My little brother went missing almost a year ago, and I was hoping to ask at the hotel if they had seen any sign of him.”

“What’s your name?”

“Adam Cartwright.”

The man looked at them for a couple of moments, then nodded. “Come on this way.” He took them into a back room, and then pulled a stack of papers from a drawer. He started flipping through them, finally coming to the papers he was looking for. “That’s the third inquiry I’ve had as to you all.”

“The third?”

The man nodded, and pulled out a few sheets of paper from the stack. “These messages were addressed either to the hotel, or you.” He snorted. “They didn’t know where to send them, so they gave them to me.” He handed Adam three sheets of paper. The first was from a lawman in Texas, addressed to them at the hotel, informing them there was no sign of Joe. The second was very similar, only from Kansas. Adam flipped to the third letter, holding his breath, wanting so much for it to be something. After skimming it he let it out slowly. The lawman in Arizona hadn’t seen anything either.

Adam nodded his thanks, and then turned and left. Matt stayed behind a few moments, talking with the marshal, and then followed him outside. 

After several minutes of silence, Matt finally spoke up quietly. “Where to now?”

Adam shook his head slowly. “I guess there is nowhere else,” he whispered.

*****

Joe hugged the crumpled blanket closer as he heard his bedroom door slam. Only when he was sure that the man had left did he sit up. He pulled his shirt off, and then looked down at the marks on his stomach and arms. He couldn’t really see anything, it was so dark, but gently touching them caused pain to ripple through him. He put his hands on his cheeks, and could feel the difference from the swelling on the one side. Joe sighed and ran his hand over his back, where he had received the most blows. He could tell he would hurt for the next few days. 

There had been no reason for the beating tonight…except that Eli had been drunk. It got worse each time. After the first one, a month had gone by before Eli got drunk and angry enough to beat him again. After that, it had happened several days in a row, and then nothing until about two weeks ago. 

Joe wiped the lingering tears off his face with the back of his hand and looked toward the window, where the moon shone brightly in, illuminating his room. The brightest of stars had started to appear in the darkened sky, and he got up from the floor. Kneeling by the window, he rested his chin on his arms and looked up. Ever since he could remember, he had looked up at the stars when he missed his eldest brother. He wondered if Adam was looking back right now.

“One more year,” he whispered out loud. He had already decided that. About a month ago, he had tried to run away and had been only semi-successful. He had been gone for only three days before he realized he couldn’t survive on his own. There was no food, or water. He knew no one, and had nowhere to go. Strangers wouldn’t give him anything; he had nothing to offer them. Once he was older, stronger, able to do a man’s work…then he would leave. All he was doing now was waiting until he would be able to take on the work necessary for shelter over his head and food every day. He was good with horses. Maybe in a year he could find a ranch to work on.

Joe heard the front door crash open, and he started to shiver. Holding his breath, he listened, trying to hear if the man grew closer to his room again. Sometimes he had received several beatings in one night; the man didn’t really know what he was doing when he was drunk. The footsteps grew nearer, and Joe felt as though he couldn’t move. After several agonizing seconds, the man moved past his door, and into his own room. Only when there was no sound for some time, did Joe breathe normally again. He wouldn’t sleep tonight. Waking up to find a huge figure brandishing a belt was one of his recurring nightmares, and both that and his real-life nightmare were bound to keep him from closing his eyes. 

*****

It had been two months Adam had been home to stay. The family was finally starting to settle into their routine. In some ways, Adam hated it. It meant that eventually the memory of Joe would fade out of their everyday lives, as they got completely used to not expecting to see him, and not missing when he wasn’t there. 

Adam looked up from the book he had been trying to read as Hoss walked through the front door. “Here’s the mail, Adam,” Hoss said, handing him three letters. 

Adam went through them. One from a friend back east, one from a man in San Francisco about a investment of Adam’s…and one from California. Adam tore it open, holding his breath, and as he saw the first few words he gasped.

His hand shook as he read it. ‘To Whom it May Concern, I am writing in regard to any information concerning Ben, Adam, or Hoss Cartwright, concerning their deaths and any family that might be reached. Sincerely, Clyde Grant, Shasta County, California.’

“Adam?”

Adam looked up at Hoss. “This letter…” he handed it to him, and then watched as Hoss’s eyes grew large. 

“Adam…Adam, do you…do you think…?”

“I don’t know.” Adam took the letter back and reread it. He stood quickly, moving towards the stairs, and Hoss hurried after him. “Pa won’t be back for a couple of days. Don’t…tell him about it, Hoss. It may be a false lead, and…”

“I know, Adam. It’s best not to get his hopes up.”

“Tell him I went to California about some investments.” Within a few minutes, Adam had everything he needed. He hurried out of the house, and Hoss helped him saddle his horse, and then he was off as quickly as he could go.

*****

“I wish you didn’t have to go, Adam.”

“I know Joe.” His brother was too little to understand.

“What if I need you when you’re gone?”

“You’ve still got Pa and Hoss.”

“I know. But what if I need you?”

Adam pulled the boy onto his lap. “Just think about what I’d say to you if I were here.”

Joe thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Will you write me every day?”

“I’ll write every day, and then mail the letters once a week, how about that?”

Joe smiled, but then it faded away. “You’re going to be so far away,” he whispered.

“I know. But I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Not soon enough.”

Adam hugged the boy closer. “Whenever you really miss me, all you need to do is look at the stars. I’ll be looking at the same stars too.”

“Really?”

“That’s right. We can both be looking at the stars together, even though we’re far apart.”

Joe hugged him tightly, and then jumped down and ran out of the room. Adam watched him go sadly. He would be missing the next chapter in this boy’s life. He wondered what Joe would be like when he got back.

Adam felt his heart race faster as the house appeared on the horizon. He urged his horse a little faster, and he heard Matt quicken behind him to keep up. Matt had been in San Francisco on business the past few months, and when Adam had stopped by and asked him to come along, Matt had eagerly agreed. Adam was glad. If it turned out to be another false lead, at least he’d have a friend.

They got closer. It was just a little two-story house, with a barn, and fields in the distance. Adam pulled to a stop in the yard, and was about to call out when a man said, “Howdy!”

Adam turned to see a man walking out of the barn, brushing sawdust from his pants. “Are you Clyde Grant?” Adam asked. He almost couldn’t breathe.

“That’s me,” the man said. “What can I help you with?”

“You wrote a letter…asking about my family. I’m Adam Cartwright,” he managed to choke out.

“Cartwright!” he exclaimed. “I certainly am glad to meet you.” He walked towards them.

Adam swung off his horse. “My brother…do you know anything about my brother, Joe? He went missing in San Francisco about a year ago.”

The man nodded. “That’s why I wrote the letter. I found him at my brother’s place a few weeks ago. Joe told us his family was dead, and I just wanted to make sure. Me and my wife were trying to find him someone, a relative….”

“Where is he, is he here?”

“Yes, he’s here.” Clyde gestured towards the barn. “Come on with me.” Matt and Adam followed him into the barn, and then through the back towards a fenced-in pasture. 

Inside the pasture, Joe was sitting on the ground under a tree. He had been feeding the horses, but then he ran out of apples, and they didn’t care to be around him anymore. He glanced up to see Clyde coming towards the pasture with the two men he had seen ride in a little bit ago. There was a shiver of fear, deep inside, and he wished he could make it go away.

Ever since Clyde had found him, and brought him back to live with him and his wife, Vallie, Joe had been terrified that it would end. He actually had a bed now, and pillows and blankets, and they fed him, every meal, and he was never yelled at or sworn at or beaten for no reason. He had been almost afraid to get used to it, knowing it could change whenever they felt like it. Eli had done that a lot…offered him something, just to take it away or tell him he couldn’t have it. 

He didn’t want it taken away. 

Joe knew though, that they didn’t want to keep him here. He’d overheard them talking one night. ‘…there must be someplace he can go.’ Clyde was saying. ‘Maybe I could take him back to San Francisco…’ Joe had left quickly. He couldn’t bear to listen to any more.

And now, seeing the two men with Clyde, he knew it was going to happen. They got closer, and Joe could see the strangers looking around, probably for him. Both of them were dressed like the cowboys he used to know so well. They had guns strapped to their sides, and buttoned shirts tucked into their pants. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, working on a ranch. It was just…he wanted to stay here. He was afraid of being hurt again, and he didn’t understand why they wanted to send him away so much.

“Joe,” Clyde called as they came to a stop next to the fence. “Come here.”

He reached out and put his hand against the tree as he stood. It was the strangest feeling in the world, and there was a buzzing in his ears. He started towards them, and by the time he reached the fence, he felt like he could barely walk. Reaching out and catching the rail, he looked up at Clyde. 

“Come on over here, son.”

Joe climbed unsteadily over the rail, glancing at the two men standing a few yards away, and then he looked at Clyde. “Are you sending me away?” he asked quietly. Clyde hesitated, and Joe knew it was true. “What did I do?” he asked, his voice catching, fighting back tears. “Whatever it is, I’ll make it right! I’ll…do chores, I’ll do any extra chores you want me to. I’ll, I’ll work all day, morning until dark, please! Please…” Joe trailed off, noticing the glances exchanged between the two strangers, and that Clyde was shaking his head.

“Joe,” Clyde said. “It’s not like that. I didn’t tell you; I…” The man paused. “These men…well, this man…do you know who he is?”

Joe glanced at the men, and the one who was closer. He had such an earnest look on his face, and he was just staring at him. Joe felt a weird feeling, deep inside. He shook his head, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that was growing stronger. The man moved closer, and knelt in front of him, gently taking his arms. “Joe…do you remember me?”

He was so afraid to believe. He looked back towards Clyde.

“Joe,” Clyde said. “I wrote a letter, trying to contact your family…”

He froze, feeling as though the ground fell from underneath him.

“They…got the letter…”

He couldn’t breathe.

“Your brother…this is your brother, he’s here for you, to take you home.”

Please, don’t take it away, don’t take it away…let it be true…

“It’s your brother, Adam…”

Joe finally turned and looked back at him. Even though he hadn’t seen his brother in years, he knew. He knew it was him, and he didn’t understand, but he knew. It was true. Suddenly Joe felt a weird floating sensation, and he gasped. Everything seemed to drift away- sounds, colors, and the feeling of Adam’s hands on his arms, and it got very dark. The last thing he heard was someone calling his name before everything was gone.

*****

Joe opened his eyes. The blurry mass in front of him slowly came into focus to reveal Vallie holding something to his head.

“Feel better now?” she asked.

“What happened?” he whispered.

“There now…” she said, and pulled a damp cloth away from his forehead. “You just had a faint, perfectly understandable considering the last few weeks and then the shock today. Your brother’s in the next room.” She stood up.

“Wait,” Joe gasped as she walked away. He sank back onto the settee, and squeezed his eyes shut. There were footsteps, and then Joe felt someone touch his arm. Without meaning to, he pulled away, startled. 

“Joe…” a man said. 

Joe kept his eyes tightly closed. He was frightened…terrified…and he didn’t know why.

“Joe…?” the man whispered.

Finally Joe opened his eyes. The man was kneeling next to him, close. There was a seriousness in his gaze, and worry, and…love. His brother. This was his brother. Joe reached out and touched Adam’s face, almost to convince himself that he was real. “You’ve changed,” he whispered.

“So have you,” Adam said quietly. 

Tears burst into Joe’s eyes before he could stop them, and much to his embarrassment he started to cry. Adam pulled him into his arms, and held him, almost like a little child. “Adam…” Joe sobbed, struggling for just a moment. Finally he gave up, and just cried. “Adam!” He cried for all the times that he hadn’t before. For every beating that shouldn’t have happened, and every time he thought about how he would never see his family again. For all the time lost, and for the pain he had been put through. For the anger, and the hatred, and the sadness he had lived with everyday.

Adam just held him tightly. Joe wanted him to never let go.

******

Adam accepted the coffee that Vallie handed him, and glanced down again at Joe, who was curled up on the settee asleep with his head on Adam’s lap.

“I didn’t realize my brother had kidnapped him,” Clyde was saying. “In fact, I would never have believed that from Eli. Joe said he did it for his wife. She’d always wanted a child. She…died a few months ago.” The man paused. “Anyway, I was out visiting my brother, and came across Joe. Well, I’ve never seen Eli so mad, and after I managed to get the child to talk to me, I realized I couldn’t leave him, so I brought him back with me. I asked about his family, but he told me he had none- that you were all dead. I didn’t quite believe it, and that’s why I wrote once he finally told me where you lived.”

“Why did he think we were dead?” Adam asked.

“I think my brother told him you were, but I’m not really sure of the details. He’s barely said three words together since he’s been here the past few weeks. My wife and I have tried to get him to talk to us, but nothing’s worked. I’m not really sure what happened.”

“What about your brother?”

Clyde shook his head with a very slight smile on his face. “No,” he said. “My brother…hung himself. Just after I took the child away.”

Adam glanced down at his brother. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“No. I’m sorry he can’t be taken to justice. What he did was wrong, no matter what the reason was. Joe’s been through a lot because of what he did.”

“He seems frightened,” Matt said quietly. 

Clyde glanced down, then nodded. “He is. If you go to reach for him, he usually pulls away. He never looks at you, really. He’s afraid, all the time. I don’t know why, exactly. I’m sure…that my brother caused it. He was always pretty strict…harsh, even.” Clyde shook his head, and then looked at Adam. “I know there’s nothing I can do or say to make any of this right. I am truly sorry for what happened.”

Adam nodded slightly. “At least we found him,” he said quietly, and brushed his fingers through Joe’s hair.

******

Joe held tightly to his brother’s belt as they walked through the city. Adam’s arm was around his shoulders, keeping him close, and Matt was on his other side; but still, he was afraid. Every time someone walked by, or glanced at him, fear rippled through him, until he was dizzy with it. By the time they reached the hotel, he felt like he could barely walk. The city was a lonely, cold, frightening place. The buildings were threatening; they had kept him from finding his family when he was lost. He never wanted to experience that again. He would never let Adam out of his grasp.

He didn’t pay any attention to what Adam and Matt were doing inside until they were leading him up a set of stairs and into a room. There was a larger sitting room with a table and chairs, settee, and various tables and other objects which Joe hardly noticed. There was a door leading into the bedroom, where Adam was leading him now. There were two beds on either side of a window, and a chair next to the chest of drawers in the corner. 

“Why don’t you lie down for a bit,” Adam said. “You must be tired. I’ll wake you up later when we go to get food.”

Joe nodded as Adam nudged him towards one of the beds. He sank onto it, and almost before he was lying down he was asleep. 

*****

Adam gently kicked his boot at the door a couple times, and it swung open to reveal Matt. “Here, let me help you,” his friend said, taking some of the packages out of Adam’s hands. 

“Thank you,” Adam replied, stepping into the room. He glanced towards the bedroom, and then paused as he saw Little Joe standing there. Swallowing back the nervousness that he felt, and chided himself for, he grinned and said, “Hey, buddy, how did you sleep?”

To his relief Joe smiled and stepped into the room. “Just fine,” he replied as he walked up to Adam, and then gave him a brief and impulsive hug.

Adam grinned at him, and then walked over to the table where he set down the other packages he had been carrying. He glanced again at Joe, whom he half expected would be fretting with impatience, curious to see what Adam brought; but instead he was standing quietly, eyes downcast. Adam had to fight against his disappointment. This wasn’t the little brother who greeted him at the door after a long day of work, or excitedly tore open the presents he brought him when he came back from trips, or pestered him with questions, and make-believe, and wanted to do everything Adam did. This was his little brother who had just spent a terrifying year in isolated captivity, believing his whole family was dead. “Do you want to see what I brought you?” he asked gently.

Joe looked up, and Adam saw the surprise and a bit of anticipation in his eyes. “You brought me something?” he almost whispered, hesitantly. 

Adam nodded. “I just said I did,” he said lightly, with a smile, trying to ease Joe’s uneasiness. “Come here.” Joe went to the table, and Adam pushed two packages towards him. “These are for you.”

Joe looked up at him for a few moments, then back at the packages. Nervously licking his lips, he reached for the one closest. He opened it, and then gasped slightly. It contained new pants, boots, a belt, socks, and drawers. He opened the other package to find a shirt, a neck scarf like the one Adam wore, a jacket, and a hat. “Adam…” he breathed, looking up at his brother. He shook his head slightly. “Are…are you sure?”

Adam was puzzled. “Sure about what? That I want to give them to you? That’s why I got them, Joe.”

“It’s just…” Joe fingered the neck scarf. “It…it’s…so much.” He sighed. “But you’re my brother. That’s why. I’m sorry, Adam.”

“What is it?”

“I…just got used to people being mean…I guess…” Joe closed his eyes, biting the corner of his lip.

Adam nodded. “I know,” he said. “But no one else is going to be mean to you anymore. You’re safe, you’re with me, and we’re going home.” Joe quickly looked down. “Joe? What is it?”

Joe finally shrugged. “I don’t know. A few days ago…I just knew, that I had no one in the world who cared. Now…you’re all fine, and I should be really happy…I mean I am, but I’m…not. I’m…afraid. I don’t know how to go back…thinking about doing everything I did before…it scares me. I don’t know how to do it.”

“You just do it one day at a time.”

Joe shook his head. “I can’t.”

“It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll help you through it…”

“You just don’t understand.”

“Tell me,” he said gently. “I want to understand.”

“You can’t, Adam,” Joe almost snapped. “You can’t understand it. Ever! I thought you were all dead!”

Adam had no idea what to say.

“And now you’re not, and I’m going back home. I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to think, or how to feel! I should feel happy! But I’m not! I’m scared!”

“Joe there is no ‘should’ to how you should feel. You were kidnapped, and hurt, and-“

“You don’t understand! Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

“Joe?”

“Leave me alone, Adam! Just go away! Go away! Go away!” 

“Joe-“ Adam instinctively tried to reach for him, to try to calm him, but Joe pulled away, shrieking. 

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” Joe cried, throwing himself facedown on the floor. “Go away! Go away! Go away!”

Adam stared at him for a few seconds, at a complete loss of what to do. Finally he stood up walked out of the hotel room, pulling the door shut behind him. He had no idea what just happened. Joe had been through a lot; but why strike out against the one person who cared about him? Adam didn’t understand what was going on in his brother’s head, and he wasn’t sure how to make it better. If he wanted him to leave, though, he would give him his space.

The door opened, and Adam could hear his brother still crying inside. “You’d better get in here,” Matt said, and Adam walked in quickly.

Joe was on the floor, frantically crying out, “Adam!” over and over.

“I’m here,” Adam replied, now completely confused. 

Joe looked up at the sound of his voice. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it, Adam! I didn’t mean it!” Adam started towards him, but Joe yelped and put his hands out protectively. 

“Joe…” Adam said quietly, trying to reassure him. He started carefully towards him again, and finally reached him and sat down on the floor. “It’s all right…Joe, it’s all right. Just calm down… I’m not angry with you.”

“Please don’t leave me…I’ll never do anything wrong again…I’ll do anything you say, just please don’t leave me…”

Adam gently ran his hand over Joe’s back. “I’m not going to leave,” he responded, trying to calm him. “It’s all right Joe, I’m not going anywhere.” 

It was almost as if Joe didn’t even hear him through his hysterical sobs. “Please…don’t…leave…”

“Joe…it’s all right. I’m not leaving, I promise. No matter what happens, I’m not going to leave you.” 

He lifted Joe and gently pulled him close, just holding him for a long while until his tears had stopped.

*****

Matt swung the door open and stepped in. “Well, I just ordered the food, and…it should…” he started before he trailed off, looking around the room. When he had left, Adam had just started his letter to Ben. 

Now, Joe, Adam, and the table were covered in ink stains, there were crumpled papers all over the floor, and Joe’s eyes were rather red. Tear stains still marked his shirt, and he was glaring intently at the piece of paper in front of him, slowly and carefully moving his hand across it. 

Adam glanced up with a strained expression, and then looked back at Joe. “Okay, good job, now the ‘o’…that’s right, over…around and…under. Great job, Joe. Last, the ‘e’, almost like the ‘o’, that’s right, come up in the middle…over…and back and…yes! You’re finished! Wonderful job, little brother!” 

Joe got up and threw his arms around Adam, happily hugging him before pulling away and grabbing his letter, turning to Matt. “I did it! I did it! Adam helped me write a letter! Here, listen…’Dear Pa and Hoss, I miss you and I can’t wait to see you. Love, Little Joe’.” He smiled at Matt, and then grinned up at Adam. 

Adam smiled back, and then took his letter and carefully folded it with his own, sliding it into the addressed envelope. He was hoping the letters made it home before they did, just to ease the shock. “You did a good job.”

Matt smiled slightly. Usually Adam was very limited with his praise. It seemed his little brother brought out another side of him. “Guess what, they finished drawing a bath for you in the next room,” he said to Joe. Joe frowned, and then looked up towards Adam for confirmation. 

“Sure,” Adam said. “And when you’re finished getting cleaned up, we’ll have supper.” He reached out to put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, but the boy jerked away from him. Adam sighed as Joe moved close again, grasping his hand. 

“I’m sorry,” Joe whispered. 

Adam smiled slightly, shaking his head, and then gently guided Joe out of the room, following Matt into the next one where a tub of water was set near the fireplace. 

Joe quickly stripped off his old, ill-fitting clothing- he hadn’t changed into the new ones yet- and then got into the tub. As soon as he was settled in, Adam said, “You keep washing, little brother. Matt and I are going to wait outside the door, all right?”

Joe nodded, and then Adam stepped outside, where he immediately leaned against the wall with his eyes closed. Matt swung the door shut, and said, “Tell me.”

Adam slowly shook his head. “I know it’s not his fault, but I just don’t understand it. Every time I touch him, he pulls away.” Adam rubbed his eyes, continuing, “And he just…gets so angry, and then he’s acting like a little child, kicking and screaming. He had two full-out tantrums while you were gone; lying on the floor and everything.” Adam opened his eyes with a sigh. “I’m just hoping that once we get back to the Ponderosa and back to a normal life, he’ll start to settle down. I want to try to help with the transition, but I don’t know what to do.” Adam ran his hand over his eyes again. “At least it doesn’t look like he had any major injuries. I didn’t see any scars or anything, did you?”

Matt shook his head, just as the door opened. They looked down to see Joe stick his head out. “Okay,” the boy said, and then started to close the door. 

Adam put his hand out and caught it. “Is something the matter?” He watched through the crack as Joe shook his head and shrugged. 

“I just wanted to make sure you were still there,” he said, and then closed the door all the way. Adam looked at the door for a moment, and then sighed and started to put the letters to his father in his pocket. Matt reached out and stopped him, and then took the envelope. 

“I’ll take care of this,” Matt said. “You go take care of your brother.”

Adam patted him on the shoulder, and then went into the room, where Joe smiled at him and then settled back in the tub, creating soap bubbles with his hands. After a few minutes Adam was as engrossed as Joe, and together they laughed as they tried to create bigger bubbles than each other until the soap ran out.

*****

“Adam…what are you thinking?”

Adam looked down at the boy lying sleepily next to him. “I’m thinking about how happy Pa is going to be when he sees you,” he whispered. “What are you thinking?”

Joe was silent for a few seconds. “Well, I was thinking about Pa too. What do you think he’s going to say when we get home?”

“I think…” Adam looked down at Joe, running his fingers thoughtfully through the boy’s hair. Joe didn’t flinch. “I think Pa is going to pick you up and just hug you…for a very long time. I think he’s going to tell you how much he missed you, and how much he loves you…and…and let you pick anything you want for a huge meal to celebrate.”

Joe giggled. “Anything? Even…chicken and dumplings, and string beans, and potatoes, and fresh bread, and apple pie?”

Adam smiled. “All that.”

“Do you think he’s going to be upset with me?”

“About what, Joe?” 

It was quiet for a few seconds, and then finally Joe just moved closer to him. “I don’t know,” Joe whispered. “I just…don’t think he’s gonna be happy.”

“Oh, Joe, he is,” Adam whispered. He wished he knew the reason behind Joe’s fear. “Pa loves you, unconditionally, no matter what. He’s not going to care, as long as he gets you back.”

“Why…why do you think it…happened?”

“Why did what happen?”

“This. Everything. Why do you think it happened?”

Adam frowned. He wasn’t quite sure what Joe was talking about. “You mean, why do I think you got kidnapped?”

“Sorta…”

“Well…I wasn’t exactly there, Joe, but I know that that man decided to do something wrong, and take you away.”

Joe was quiet for a few seconds. “He said I should be grateful that he took me, because I would have been lost in the city still, but with him and his wife I had a place to sleep and food.”

“What…?” Adam was shocked. “That’s not true at all, Joe. Had he not taken you, we would have found you and we all would have been back home.”

“I told him that,” Joe said quietly. “But…he called me half-witted and said that if I argued with him he would take a strap to me.”

Adam pushed aside his anger at the man, because he sensed there was something Joe was keeping back. “What else did he say?” When Joe whispered in reply, he knew he was right. “Joe…I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?”

“He said it was deliberate.”

“What was deliberate?”

“That I got lost.”

“You mean that you got lost deliberately?”

“N-no…that…Pa…” Joe sighed. “That Pa…lost…me. Deliberately.”

“You mean that Pa left you on purpose in the city?” Adam felt Joe nod. “But why? Joe, why would he do that?”

“He said…it was because I was willful and disobedient. That he didn’t want me anymore…”

“No. No Joe, that’s not true at all. Pa…” Adam swallowed as he thought back to that day. “I’ve never seen Pa so scared in his entire life. He was…frantic with worry, he asked every single person he saw if they had seen you, he almost ran, back the way he came, calling your name, describing you to people…he did everything he could to find you.”

Joe was quiet for awhile. “Really?” he asked.

“Of course Joe. Why on earth would Pa ever leave you?”

“I don’t know. It just…I’m sorry Adam.”

“No. It’s not your fault. I don’t want you thinking like that, Joe. He took you away from us, lied to you and hurt you. Pa loves you so much, Joe. He could never ever leave you like that. All right?”

“All right…” the boy whispered, and then Adam felt him move against him as he started to drift to sleep. Adam closed his eyes and settled back, trying to push away his anger. He wished that he could know every single thing that had happened to his brother; but even if he did, he knew he would never be able to get the person to had done it to him. 

*****

Joe frowned, and watched as his reflection in the mirror changed with him. He didn’t like it. The frown in the mirror faded away, leaving only sadness and fear left in his expression. Joe didn’t like those either, but he wasn’t sure how to change them. He turned his face to both sides, looking at each of his cheeks. There were no bruises left at all. He knew there had been bruises, because they had hurt just like the ones he could see had. He was glad they were gone. He grasped one of his unruly curls, pulling it down almost to the tip of his nose, before letting it spring back up. They’d be gone soon too.

“Well, son, are you ready?” the large, friendly looking man asked. Joe sighed as he observed the scissors in his hand.

“Yes, sir,” he replied quietly, even though he hardly needed to. He glanced over towards Adam, who was seated in the next chair getting a shave. The man took the mirror and set it down next to him, and then grasped a handful of hair and cut. The curls fell all over him, over the cloth around his shoulders. He hadn’t allowed Beth to cut his hair, even though she had wanted to. He hardly let her touch him at all. He felt a twinge of guilt, remembering how rude he had been to her; but then, he remembered the punishment he had received when Eli found out. Eli had been beyond furious with him. He had whipped Joe with a belt every hour, and forced him to sit on a wooden chair in between beatings. It had lasted until Joe had fallen off the chair, almost unconscious.

“There you are, son.” 

Joe looked up as the man handed him the mirror again. A very different person sat before him now. The long tangled curls were gone, and his hair was short, neat, and wavy. He ran his hand through it, and had to admit it looked and felt a whole lot better. He smiled a little. “Thank you,” he said quietly as the man tugged the cloth from his shoulders. Joe slid off the chair, and went to Adam, who was leaning back with a towel over his face. “They cut your hair too, Adam,” he observed, as he ran his fingers through his brother’s shortened hair. Adam moved a little, and Joe jerked his hand away as instinctive fear rushed through him. Adam pulled the towel away, and as soon as Joe saw the smile on his brother’s face, the fear dissolved.

Adam sat up, and ran his hand over Joe’s head. “Look at you,” Adam grinned, and then his smile faded a little as he looked closer at his brother. “Let’s take a walk,” he said, and then stood up and handed some money to the men who had cut their hair. Adam led Joe outside with an arm around his shoulders. “What happened?” he asked.

Joe sighed, and then told him about the beating. “I wasn’t really rude to her anymore after that. I know I shouldn’t have been to begin with, but I thought if she got fed up with me, she’d make him let me go.” Adam stopped, turning Joe to face him. “What is it?” Joe asked apprehensively. 

“Joe…” Adam looked rather angry, and Joe backed up a little. “No, it’s all right. I’m…” He shook his head. “I’m upset that it happened. You should never have been treated like that.”

“I guess I shouldn’t have told you about it,” Joe said quietly. 

“Joe, no, I’m not upset with you, or that you told me,” Adam said, moving towards him and crouching in front of him. “You can tell me anything.”

“Really?”

Adam nodded. Joe smiled slightly at him, and then tugged his hand. Adam stood up, and they went back to the hotel. Once inside the room, Joe pulled off his jacket, and then waited for Adam to sit down before dropping onto the settee next to him. Joe stared at the floor for a few moments, and then looked towards his brother. “There is…one thing, it’s…” Joe stopped, taking a breath, and then letting it out as he tried to think of what to say. 

“Go ahead. I’m listening.”

“It…I’ve just, hurt, inside, ever since, and…if it might make it better…” Joe took a deep breath again. “It…was my 11th birthday, Adam. I was locked in my room all day, because he was away. I…was trying to make myself feel better. I imagined what my birthday meal would have been like. You were there, and Pa and Hoss. Pa let me sit in his chair, just for that one night. He made all my favorite foods, and a cake. It had eleven candles. I…” Joe looked away, down at his hands. “It sounds stupid, Adam.”

“No, Joe,” Adam whispered back. “It doesn’t. I want to hear more.”

“I…really pictured that cake, Adam. I held my breath, and wished, harder than I’d ever wished for anything before, and then I imagined blowing the candles out. They all went out on the first try, every single one. That…meant it should have come true. But it didn’t. I opened my eyes, and…the room was still dark…and…I was still cold…and alone.” Joe closed his eyes. The feelings from that night were painful. “I just…gave up…after that,” he whispered. “I…did exactly what I was told, and barely said anything. It just…hurt so much…knowing I was alone, and I would never see any of you again.” Joe felt Adam’s arms around him, and then he was lifted slightly into an embrace. He leaned his head against Adam’s shoulder, still keeping his eyes closed, trying to push those memories away and just think about now. He hadn’t felt so safe, cared for, or loved in such a long time. And perhaps best of all, he wasn’t afraid of losing it again.

*****

“Hey Adam?”

Adam turned back towards Joe. “Yeah?” he called back over the sounds of the horses’ hoof beats.

“Are we gonna stop for lunch?”

Adam seemed to laugh. “Well, not right now, Joe. We’ll be home in just a few minutes.”

Joe froze, and then yanked back on the reins. His startled horse reared, and then came to a grumpy halt. “What?”

Adam stopped, and then rode back, looking puzzled. “Joe…the ranch house is just over that hill. You…didn’t forget? Did you?”

Joe shook his head uncomfortably. “I…really wasn’t paying attention.” He had been thinking about the impending reunion with the rest of his family, imagining all the different scenarios, and hoping so much that Adam’s version was the right one. He shook his head. “I…Adam…I…”

“Joe…it’s all right.”

“I can’t do it, Adam. I just can’t…right now. Please, let’s ride around a little more…” Adam was shaking his head.

“Joe…your father and your brother, who have loved you your whole life, are waiting for you just over that hill. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Joe nodded, fighting back tears. “I know,” he said. “I know what you said, and I want to much to believe it.”

“You can believe it. It’s the truth…I promise.” Adam reached over and lifted Joe off of his horse and set him in front of him, with an arm around Joe’s waist to help him balance. “Come on,” he said. “We’re almost home.” He took the reins of the other horse, and then started towards the ranch house again. 

Soon they were over the small hill, and through the trees the house could be seen.

They rode into the yard. 

Joe almost held his breath as he looked around. There were chickens clustered in a little group, feeding in the grass at the side of the house. Horses moved and whinnied in the corral, and he could see the dairy cows in the pasture behind the barn. There was no sign of his father or brother. He felt Adam lift him, and then help him slide onto the ground. Adam swung down, and then wrapped the reins of the two horses around a rail. 

They started towards the house, and with each step Joe felt the nervousness in his stomach grow. He kept repeating the things that Adam had been telling him, over and over. 

“All right, just come up to the house when you’re done, Hoss.”

Joe stopped, and turned towards the sound of the voice, to see his father walking around the side of the barn. Ben had his eyes to the ground, but then he paused, and looked up towards the horses that were tethered in the yard. He turned and looked towards the house, and then he froze. He was just standing, staring at him. His brow was furrowed, and Joe couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Joe felt Adam move behind him, his hand settled on his shoulder, and then he was gently pushed towards the yard. As soon as he moved, Ben was running across the yard towards him.

Joe found himself being lifted into his father’s arms, and for a split second he was panic-stricken, but then he felt the love in his father’s embrace, and he threw his arms around him. “Pa!” he cried. “Pa!” Joe buried his face in his shoulder. “Oh, Pa…” he sobbed.

Ben didn’t say anything; he just tightened his embrace, holding him, feeling his son’s little arms around his neck, clutching at his collar. He closed his eyes and put his hand on the back of Joe’s head, touching, caressing those curls, missed for so long, and he felt Hoss’s arms wrap around him and Joe, and realized he was saying something. Telling Joe, how frightened they had been, how much they missed him, how much they loved him, and how happy there were to have him back. Words that Ben longed to say but could not force past his lips.

Ben could hardly believe he was holding his son again. It felt like ages, and at the same time like seconds, since he had last had him in his arms. All the things that he wanted to say, that he had imagined saying throughout the months of searching…all of them gone. He could never have imagined what this moment would even have felt like. His son was alive.

Ben finally knelt down and set Joe on the ground just in front of him. He placed his hands on Joe’s waist and gently held him a little ways away. Ben brushed his hand over his son’s face, smoothing away the tears. He was taller, skinnier, and evidence of what he went through could be seen in the look in his eyes. There was fear there, along with those tears, and hurt. His child had been hurt. Ben pulled him close again. He wanted so much to take that fear and hurt away, to erase it, make it so it never happened. 

Ben looked up at Adam, who was standing close by with his arm around Hoss’s shoulders, watching. He looked so incredibly happy, and nodded slightly at him. It was going to be all right.

With a little reluctance, Ben finally released Joe, and then moved so that Hoss could come forward and scoop the little boy into a huge embrace. Hoss spun him through the air, making Joe laugh. He set him back down, and Joe smiled up at him, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. “I sure missed you, Hoss,” he said.

Joe looked towards the last person who had come outside to greet him and Adam. It was a man, who seemed short compared to Hoss and Pa. He had kind eyes, and was wearing clothes very different from Joe’s family. Adam reached out towards the man, beckoning him to come closer. “Joe, this is Hop Sing. Pa hired him a few months ago.”

The man moved towards Joe, as Hoss loudly proclaimed, “And his cooking sure is the best! Why, you should taste his chicken and dumplings, and potatoes, and does he make the best pie you ever had!”

Hop Sing offered a small bow, and then, his accent different from any Joe had heard before, said, “Very pleased finally meet youngest son. Family tell so much about…many good things. Happy arrive home safely.”

Joe wondered how much Hop Song knew about what had happened. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said. Joe felt an arm fall around his shoulders and he jumped as fear raged through him. After a moment he forced himself to breathe again, and looked up. His father was staring down at him, with a slightly concerned look on his face. Joe smiled uncomfortably, knowing he couldn’t offer him an explanation. “Hi, Pa,” he stuttered, feeling stupid as his face turned red. He looked away.

“Why don’t we go inside and get you settled?” Ben said gently. “I’ll be you’re famished. Hop Sing has been preparing a wonderful supper for us, and I think it’s probably just about done.”

Ben guided him inside behind the others, and then helped him take his jacket off, hanging it on the hook next to the door. Joe looked again. His old jacket was still there. 

He reached up and pulled it down, as a wave of memories seemed to crash into him. Every rip, stain, and blood spot had a story and he wanted to try it on; but he knew it wouldn’t fit him, and even now he wished he had waited until no one was looking to take it down from the hook. 

They weren’t saying anything. They were all just watching him stand there near the door, holding his old jacket in his hand, reliving the memories it brought back. That’s all they were, memories. To his shock, he realized that he didn’t feel that way now; the way that this house, and that jacket, and these people had always made him feel. He closed his eyes. He was different. He was afraid, and each time he thought of his father, he had to push away the fears that rose, and replace them with the things that Adam had said. This was going to be hard, so hard, and he felt so alone. Not even Adam knew everything.

“Let’s go sit down,” Adam said, and Joe opened his eyes as his brother pulled the jacket out of his hands and hung it up. Joe followed his father and brothers to the living room. Ben sat down in his chair next to the fireplace, and then held out his hands with a smile. Joe smiled back, with surprise at the warm memories that action brought. He walked over and climbed onto his father’s lap, and Ben wrapped his arms around him. 

“I hardly…even know where to begin,” Ben said. “I don’t understand…Hoss said you were going to San Francisco on business, Adam.”

Hoss squirmed a little. “I lied, Pa.”

“I didn’t want you to be disappointed if it was a false lead,” Adam said. 

“I see,” Ben replied. He hugged Joe slightly. “Well, tell me about it,” he said.

Adam started to respond, but Joe cut in. “Let me,” he said quietly. Adam nodded, and Joe gave him a slight smile, and then looked up towards Pa. “Adam found me in California. The brother of the man who kidnapped me took me to live with him. Clyde was really nice to me…him and his wife. I think he sent Adam a letter…?” He looked towards his brother for confirmation.

“He sent a letter asking about our deaths, and whether any family could be reached.”

Joe nodded, and then looked down. “I thought you were all dead…” he said, and then couldn’t help but shudder. He felt his father tighten his hug slightly, and he knew he had felt it. He closed his eyes and leaned back against Ben, thinking about the day he got lost. He wanted so much to ask him what had happened…why he had left…but he was almost afraid to hear the answer.

“Joe?”

Joe hugged his arms around himself. “I…I looked up, and you were gone,” he said quietly. 

Ben pulled him closer. “Son, I’m so sorry. Countless times…again and again, I’ve criticized my actions on that day. I should have kept you nearby…should never have left you out of my sight, not for a moment.”

“Pa, I’m sorry,” Joe whispered. 

“Whatever for?”

Joe shook his head. He suddenly felt so much guilt; for believing his father capable of leaving him, for putting him through all the worry, for not trying to leave to find them.

“What happened, after we got separated?” Ben asked.

Joe sighed. “A woman found me, after a while. She said she would help me and I believed her. She took me with her to her husband, and then told him I was an orphan, and she wanted to take me back with them. I tried…to tell them, that I wasn’t…but they wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t listen to me. He hit me…really hard, and threw me in their wagon…and I was scared, so I didn’t say anything else. He took me back to their farm, and I begged him, over and over to let me go… At first he kept me locked up, and then he told me that…he told me…that you…” Joe trailed off. He couldn’t get the words out. “He gave me chores, and told me if I wanted anything to eat, I had to finish them by dark, and if I didn’t, I missed dinner, and breakfast the next day, until I got them done. I had a bed at first, but he took it away. He said I didn’t deserve it.” Joe opened his eyes. Adam looked somber, and thoughtful, as if he was applying this new information to everything else Joe had told him. Hoss had such a look of sadness on his face, and anger. Joe sort of wished that Eli was still alive, to suffer the wrath of his family for what he had put them all through.

“Joe, what did he tell you?”

“That you were dead,” Joe quickly replied.

“You said that,” Ben replied gently. “What else did he say?”

Joe opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t form. He shook his head. There was no way he could force himself to tell his father. “Please, Pa…” he whispered. “Don’t ask that.”

“Joe, I want to know.”

“But it wasn’t true, Pa! He told me lies, and they weren’t true, so it doesn’t matter! Don’t ask me that again!” He felt anger rising, inexplicably, as he struggled to keep from yelling. There was silence, as the others glanced at each other, trying to understand. He saw the look Adam gave them, and he pulled away from Ben and went to his brother. “Adam,” he snapped, standing in front of him, fists clenched at his sides. “Don’t. Tell. Them.”

Adam raised his eyebrows. “Joe…calm down.”

“No!” he yelled. “You can’t tell them, you can’t! Why did you bring me back, if you’re going to tell them? They’ll only hate me, and then I’ll wish I was anywhere else but here! Adam!” Furious tears blocked his sight, and he felt his brother’s hands on his arms, and then he was being lifted and carried out. Everything would be wrong if Adam told! His father loved him right now! What would he do when he found out that Joe believed he had left him? “No! No! Adam, you can’t…” he cried as he was set down. 

“Come here, put some water on your face.”

“Please, don’t tell! It’ll ruin everything!”

“Come on, little brother.”

Joe felt Adam bend over him, pushing him towards the water pump. Water was splashed onto his face, washing away the frantic tears that had been falling. Joe felt better, almost immediately, as his brother splashed him a couple more times, and then handed him a cup to take a drink. He gulped the water down, and then wiped his face on his sleeve. 

“Come along,” Adam said, and then led him back towards the house. Joe couldn’t force himself to look up at his father or brother as he went past them near the doorway. “Go on upstairs, and get changed for supper. Here, here’s my saddlebag. Your other clothes are in here.”

Joe grabbed it, and then raced up the stairs, changing as quickly as he could. He didn’t want to give Adam too much time to talk about him.

*****

Hoss looked past his fork at Joe. His brother’s head was down; he was solely concentrating on the food in front of him. Hoss sighed and looked back at his plate. He couldn’t think of one thing to say- not one. He tried to think about what they used to talk about, but all he could remember was the nonsense stuff. It had been so easy then. Joe had laughed along as they made up their own secret language, skipped stones for hours, even as they did their chores together. They had talked about things they wanted to do, and places they wanted to go, and how much they missed their brother. Joe used to sneak through the woods, and Hoss would try to track him. They built a tree fort and a raft. They both almost drowned from the raft incident, as they had loaded their pockets with stones before setting sail. They went home soaking wet and pant-less. Joe teased Hoss, and Hoss wrestled with him. When Joe had broken his arm, Hoss read him stories and played games and brought him bird nests from trees he wasn’t able to climb.

And now they had nothing to talk about. Adam had explained to them that Joe often had such bursts of anger, and that he hadn’t even wanted anyone to touch him after he was first found. Hoss was worried about what kind of treatment, or injuries, his brother had received to make him so angry and frightened. Surely the brother he knew a year ago had to still be there…

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Say, Joe,” he said. “You remember that old fishing spot near the rocks that we found a while back?”

Joe paused with a puzzled look before nodding.

“Well, I was out there the other day, and I saw the biggest fish that you ever seen. What say we go out there tomorrow and try to catch it? Or at least catch something?” Hoss grinned at him. He was happy to see Joe slowly smile back, and then happily nod.

“That would be great, Hoss,” Joe said, real happiness in his voice. 

“Maybe Adam and Pa could come too, if you want,” Hoss suggested.

Joe looked at Adam, then Ben, a little nervously waiting their response. 

Ben smiled at him. “I think you boys should go,” he said. “Hop Sing could pack you a lunch.”

Joe looked back towards Hoss, both relief and disappointment on his face. “We’ll catch that fish,” he said.

Hoss grinned at him, and then went back to his food, happy to see a bit of the old Joe again.

*****

Ben glanced at the clock again. It was past 10, but he hated putting a stop to his sons’ game. Hoss had suggested checkers after dinner, and Joe had been happy to play. Finally, after a couple more minutes, their match was done. “Excellent job, son,” he complimented Joe on the win. “Now I think it’s time for you two to head off to bed.”

Hoss put the checkers in the box, and then stood up. “Good night, Pa. Good night, Adam, Joe.” He hugged Joe, and then started for his room. 

“If you want to get ready for bed, Joe, I’ll be up in a few minutes to say good night and tuck you in,” Ben said. Joe nodded, and then started for the stairs but as he reached the bottom he paused and looked back.

“Aren’t you coming, Adam?” he asked.

Adam started to answer, but Ben was already saying, “Your brother is older, and can stay up later than you, son. Go on, and I’ll be up in a minute.”

Adam watched as Ben turned towards the fireplace to put a couple more pieces of wood in the flames. Joe took a few steps back into the room. “I don’t want to go to bed.”

Ben looked at him with surprise. “Joe…I’m sure you must be tired-“

“I’m not going!”

Ben looked at him, puzzled and a little angry. Angry that his son was, again, acting like this, and wondering what his captors had done to cause him to behave so violently. He took a deep breath and reminded himself of what Adam had told them before supper. It wasn’t Joe’s fault, entirely, but he didn’t understand how his son could have forgotten how he was raised. “Joseph,” he said kindly, but firmly. “I know you’ve had a long day. Go on upstairs and get ready for bed, and I’ll be right up to say goodnight.”

Joe angrily kicked at one of the chairs near the stairs as tears started to flow. “No! You can’t tell me what to do! I’m not going, I won’t!”

“Joseph, I certainly can tell you what to do, I’m your father. Go upstairs.”

“No! I’m not going, I’m not going! You can’t make me and I’m not going!” he yelled.

Adam grimaced as Joe threw himself down onto the floor, screaming and crying. A full out tantrum. He had stopped the earlier one, but hadn’t prepared their father for this. He moved past Ben, who was going towards Joe, and said, “Pa, let me.” He grabbed one of Joe’s arms, and then pulled him up. Joe’s cries only got worse as Adam carried him up the stairs past Hoss, who had come back down to see what had happened. 

“No! No! I’m not going! I’m not!” Joe cried as Adam carried him into his room and set him on the bed. Adam sat down next to him, and then tugged his shirt off amid screams and kicks. Adam looked up to see Ben and Hoss watching from the door, but Joe seemed oblivious. This was going to be hard to explain, he knew. He unbuttoned the boy’s pants, and then tugged them off as well. There was a nightshirt that he had left earlier for his brother. He gently held Joe until he had pulled it over his head, and then he guided his arms into the sleeves. Finally he settled back, holding the child in his arms. “Hush now,” he whispered, rubbing his hand over Joe’s back. “Come on, stop those tears. Hush…it’s all right. You’re all right.” He kept talking, and rocking his brother until Joe had settled down enough to hear him. “You had a long day today, buddy; but you did a good job; I’m proud of you. It was really hard for you, I know. But you’re all right now…everything’s all right.”

“Pa’s angry, isn’t he?” Joe choked out.

“No, he isn’t.” 

“But Adam…”

“Shh…that’s enough. He’s not angry, and he’s not going to be angry.” Adam looked up at Ben and Hoss, and then nodded to them that they could come in. “Look. Pa and Hoss came in to say goodnight.” Joe looked up as Ben reached down towards him. Joe pulled away quickly, pressing against Adam. Adam acted as if nothing had happened. “Why don’t you give Pa a hug, and I’ll turn down your bed.”

Joe reached up, and allowed Ben to lift him. “Good night. I love you, son,” Ben said, looking at Adam with some confusion. It was as though the boy hadn’t just pulled away from his father.

“I love you too, Pa,” Joe whispered.

Hoss reached out and patted Joe on the back. “Good night, Little Joe. I hope you have pleasant dreams.”

“’Night Hoss,” Joe whispered, and then reached for Adam, who took him and settled him into bed. 

Adam sat down next to him, and dimmed the lamp. “I’ll be down in a little bit, Pa,” he said quietly, and then lay down next to Joe. The child rolled over and settled against him, and then Ben and Hoss left.

After a few minutes Joe’s breathing had taken an even rhythm, and Adam waited until he was sure Joe was soundly asleep before carefully getting up and leaving the room. Downstairs, Ben was sitting in his chair, a book in hand; but Adam doubted he had been reading it.

Ben stood up. “What was that?” he asked. 

Adam could sense the anger underneath his father’s quiet tone. “He was tired, Pa. And angry. You just saw the best way I’ve discovered to deal with it.”

“This has happened before?”

“Yes… it’s happened a…few times. There’s just so much he has bottled up inside.” Adam shook his head. “He can’t talk about it. He gets so angry, and he doesn’t know how to let it out.”

Ben sighed. “What do you think happened tonight?”

“I don’t know,” Adam replied. “He was probably just overly tired, and wanted to make sure I was there. He’s been doing that since I found him…he won’t go to sleep unless I’m right there. I’m going to stay in his room tonight. He’ll most likely wake up a few times.”

“He certainly isn’t the same.”

“He’ll probably never be,” Adam replied, and then looked away from the hurt look that crossed his father’s face. It was the truth. Joe was forever, permanently, changed. Someday, hopefully he would be closer to the way he had been before; but Adam knew they couldn’t erase what had happened. They would all carry those memories forever, and they would affect everything they did. “Why aren’t you coming tomorrow?”

“I think he needs some time with Hoss. I know he needs time with me too, but…” Ben paused. “I don’t want to push him too much yet. I do want to talk with him soon. There’s something else he’s not talking about.”

Adam nodded, thinking about what Joe had told him in San Francisco. 

“What is it Adam?”

Adam had to chuckle. It always amazed him how well his father could read him. “There are a few things, Pa. I just don’t know if you really want to hear them.” Adam watched as his father turned towards the fire, fear in his expression. Fear of finding out something he would rather not know. 

Finally Ben said, “Please tell me. Joe shouldn’t have to go through this alone.”

Adam nodded. “All right,” he said. “Joe…was told that you didn’t want him. That you left him in the city deliberately, because he was disobedient.” Ben turned, and Adam saw the anger on his face. Adam sighed, and told him all the other things Joe had said and did. When he was finished, Ben was pacing angrily in front of the fireplace. 

“How could he tell him that. How could he even take him! And how could Joe-“ Ben stopped. He couldn’t blame his son for what happened; it wasn’t his fault. And yet… “I don’t understand…how could he think that? How could he actually believe any of that?”

“Pa. He was hurt, and afraid.”

“Adam I’m not blaming him. I just don’t understand what made him believe those things…that I would actually leave him.”

“He was just trying to figure out why he was there so long. Why he got kidnapped to begin with. He’s looking for reasons, for someone to put blame on.”

“Why not on the person who did this then?”

Adam flinched a little at the fury in his father’s voice and wondered if not telling him might have been the better decision. Still, at least now if Joe brought it up, their father would be prepared.

*****

Something woke Adam, and as he opened his eyes he realized his youngest brother was awake next to him, quietly sobbing. “Joe,” he whispered, taking his brother into a hug. “Tell me what’s wrong. Did you have another nightmare?” Adam felt Joe shake his head against his shoulder. “What is it?”

Joe began to answer, but then just started to cry harder into Adam’s nightshirt. 

“Are you all right? Do you feel sick?” Adam felt Joe’s arms tighten around him, almost as though that was the reason. 

Joe didn’t say anything for a long time, and just as Adam was about to prompt him again, Joe whispered, “I feel like my heart hurts.”

Even if Adam knew what to say to that, he wouldn’t have been able to respond.

“I don’t know Pa anymore. I…I feel so alone around him…”

“Oh, Joe…” Adam whispered, and hugged him tighter.

“I didn’t feel that way around you, Adam. You don’t treat me like he does. He acts like he’s afraid of me.”

Adam closed his eyes, and ran his hand over Joe’s head, and as his brother started crying again he gently rocked him. He wished there was something he could say that would help him. Telling him to be patient wouldn’t make him feel better. It would take a little time to reestablish the relationships that had been broken. For everyone.

*****

“Have fun, Joe,” Ben said. 

Joe nodded, adjusting the reins in his hand. He couldn’t bring himself to look at his father. Breakfast had been strained and awkward, and Joe knew that Adam must have told their father. He looked at his brothers, who were finishing up packing things, wishing they would hurry.

“Joe…” Ben started, putting a hand on his knee. 

“Bye Pa,” Joe said hastily, and then dug his heels into the horse’s sides. His horse started off, and he directed him into the woods, towards the direction of the lake.

“Joe!”

Joe heard them behind him, calling him, and urged his horse to go faster. The feeling of absolute freedom was almost overwhelming. He could go anywhere right now. He could do anything he wanted, and no one would tell him what to do, or punish him for wanting to be free. 

He wanted to run away from it all; from the nightmares that never ended, and the feelings of anger- anger towards the people that did this to him, and towards himself, and even towards his family.

As his horse approached the field ahead, he tugged him to a stop. Slipping off the saddle, he started to run.

The wind rushed past him, and the swish of tall dried grass being pushed out of his way was endless. Ahead was a sea of it; welcoming, beckoning him, but every time he seemed to get close, the end would move farther away. 

He ran on, feeling his heart pounding so loud in his chest, and every time he gasped in a breath, the pain was sharp but it kept him focused. Behind him, he had heard the sound of horse’s hooves, but they had faded away, and he was glad for it. It made it easier to pretend it was just him, running away. Not from his family, who were so far behind him in his imagination. Running from the nagging voices, and feelings that he couldn’t express.

The anger drove him on, and he forced himself to run faster. All he could hear was his breath, gasping sounds in his head, and the thud as his feet hit the ground. The brown sea ahead was blurry, as hot tears flushed his eyes. The ground seemed to be pushing at him, daring him to keep going, trying him that he might fall. He wouldn’t give up.

The field was ending. Up ahead he could see trees, and rocks, and dirt. Suddenly his feet were pulled from under him, and he fell hard in the grass, crying out as he landed. Gasping for air, he pushed himself up and kept going. His head was starting to hurt and his legs were getting tired, but it felt so good to run; get away from it all. Once again he fell, and this time pain shot through his knee.

Rolling onto his back, he gasped in air, and as the dizzy sensation settled, he became aware of the slowing sound of approaching horses. He reached a shaky hand down to his knee, and felt the tear in the fabric, and the sticky wetness of blood. The horses hooves got louder, and then stopped. Someone walked towards him, and then his view of the white-clouded sky was replaced by the concerned faces of his brothers.

They just looked down at him, and he tried to pretend they weren’t there. After a few moments, when the roar in his head had lessened, he pushed himself up again. Hoss tried to help him up, but he shook his head. “I’m not done yet,” he said, and started off again. He knew exactly where he was going. 

Each time he fell, he forced himself to get back up again, and his brothers followed a distance behind with their horses. Finally the lake appeared, and he climbed to the little hill overlooking it, where he almost collapsed on the ground next to a tree. He looked up as Adam and Hoss sat down on either side of him. 

“Better?” Adam said quietly.

“Yes,” Joe choked out. He took a deep breath. Her grave was exactly how he remembered it. Joe glanced down as Hoss handed him something. A canteen. “Thanks,” he said quietly. He drank, and then handed the canteen back and leaned his head against Hoss. 

“What happened, Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “A lot…” he sighed.

They sat there for awhile, until finally Joe stood up, trying to brush some of the dirt from his pants. “Come on,” he said, turning back towards his brothers. “Let’s just forget it for a little while, please? Let’s go have some fun.”

They stood up, smiling, Hoss a little more readily than Adam, Joe noted. Hoss bent down, and then flipped Joe over his shoulder. “Come on, young’en’” Hoss said, and then carried him towards the lake. Joe laughed. 

*****

That night, Joe was wide awake. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but he knew he should have been asleep long ago. Things kept running through his mind, and try as he might, he couldn’t quiet them. 

He felt so out of place here. He hated feeling like a stranger among his family, in the house that should feel like home. It was getting better, but sometimes he still jumped when someone came into a room or tried to touch him. He was just used to living in constant fear, and he didn’t know why he couldn’t just let it go. 

He repeated to himself, over and over, that there was nothing to be afraid of, that no one was going to hurt him…but he didn’t believe it. He’d had another nightmare last night, the same one. He had finally found his father in San Francisco, but Ben had pushed him away. Joe fell, and looked up at him, crying, “Why?” over and over. “I don’t want you,” was Ben’s reply.

Joe rolled over with a sigh. It was a constant struggle between resentment and guilt. He wasn’t sure who to blame for what happened. 

He just wished he could run away from it all.

*****

“Adam, have you seen Joe?”

His father’s slightly frantic question brought back horrible memories of the day Joe went missing, but Adam forced them away as he closed the front door behind him and turned towards his father, dropping his jacket on a chair. “What is it Pa?”

“I haven’t seen him for the last few hours, and I thought he might have been with you; but if he isn’t I don’t know where else to look…why would he just go off like this? He had to know I would worry! What if something happened to him?”

Adam watched as his father paced across the room and back. “Pa, he’s probably here somewhere. I know he wouldn’t just-“ Adam was interrupted by the front door banging open.

“Adam!”

Ben and Adam turned to see Joe run happily into the house. Ben quickly intercepted Joe, grasping his arms. “Don’t you ever leave without telling me where you’re going Joseph!”

Adam knew Ben’s show of anger was unintentional, still, Joe’s eyes had gone wide and he was standing frozen, just staring up at his father. Ben realized what he had done, and he quickly dropped to his knees in front of Joe. “I’m sorry, son; I just worried about you…”

“Let me go,” Joe whispered.

Ben stared at him, the pain of losing his son again to this inner nightmare cutting through him. Reluctantly, he dropped his hands as Adam moved behind Joe. As Joe started to turn, Adam stopped him, gently holding him so he still faced his Pa. “He was scared, Joe,” Adam said softly.

“No he wasn’t.”

“Joseph…” Ben whispered.

Without warning, Joe flew at his father, striking him with his fists and crying out in anger and frustration. “Joe-“ Adam gasped, and quickly pulled his brother away. Adam looked up at their father. It was then he realized that Ben hadn’t done anything to try and stop Joe. The hurt was evident on Ben’s face, and Adam slowly shook his head. He wanted to be able to tell him that it wasn’t his fault, and he didn’t know why Joe was acting like this. Joe loved their father.

“Joe…what did I do?” Ben asked quietly, his voice tired and worn.

“Why didn’t you find me?” the boy cried, his face pressed into Adam’s shirt. “He told me you didn’t want me, over and over, but I didn’t believe him! Then he told me you were dead, and I knew that’s why you didn’t come for me! But you weren’t dead! You weren’t! Why didn’t you want me? Why? I didn’t mean to wander away! I didn’t mean to! I know I deserved everything that happened, but…it wasn’t fair, Pa! It wasn’t fair!” Joe’s words became blurred as frantic sobs broke through his voice. 

Ben reached out and pulled him into his arms. “Joe…” Joe collapsed against him, sobbing. Ben cupped the back of Joe’s head with his hand, holding him close. “He told you terrible, untrue things. I would never had left you deliberately. I looked Joe, I was searching…for days and nights in a row. For months. If I had known where you were, I would have been there in a heartbeat.”

Joe was quiet for a few minutes, as his tears died away. Finally he pulled away from Ben. “I’m going to go to my room,” he whispered, and then turned and ran upstairs.

“Why won’t he believe me?” Ben asked, not really to Adam. Ben was silent for a few moments, and then he rose slowly to his feet. 

In his bed, Joe pulled his blanket over his head, his actions replaying themselves over and over. He had struck his own father. Joe felt his face burning at the shame of it, and he knew he deserved to be punished. As angry as he was, he should never have even thought of acting that way.

Joe sat up slowly as footsteps came to a stop outside his door. He tossed the blanket aside and stood up as the door was opened. Ben stepped into the room, and Joe didn’t know what to make of his father’s expression. He wasn’t angry…exactly. He looked upset, but as though he was trying to appear calm. Joe figured it was a sure thing for a spanking…or worse. He took a deep breath.

“Pa…I’m sorry I hit you,” Joe said. “I…I know, what you’re going to do, but…if you please…I’d much rather go without meals for the rest of the day than that.” Ben closed his eyes, and Joe was afraid that he might actually have hurt his father when he hit him, the expression of pain was so evident. 

“No, Joe…” Ben finally said. His eyes were still closed. “I’m not going to punish you. Sit down.”

Joe sank onto his bed, and nervously fingered the edge of the quilt. His father finally opened his eyes, and then sat down opposite him in a chair. 

“Joseph…I know you went through a lot, and you were hurt a great deal…but I just don’t understand how you could think I would ever leave you.”

Joe had to look away. He felt his father place a hand on his knee. “Tell me,” Ben said. “Tell me what happened to make you think that, and why you think you deserved it.”

Joe slowly shook his head. “I don’t know, Pa,” he whispered. “I…just don’t know. He said it, so much, and I knew it was a lie…” Joe sighed and looked down. “Pa, I just don’t want you to be angry with me.”

“I won’t be Joe…I promise…”

Joe could only shake his head. He’d already seen his father get angry a few times in the last couple days…he didn’t want it to happen again. “Pa, there wasn’t anything else,” he said quietly, knowing full well his father saw through his lie. 

Ben sighed. “Adam, Hoss, and I have to ride out and check some things tomorrow. I think you should come too. Maybe…”

Joe looked up at him.

“Maybe a change will take everyone’s mind off things for a while.”

Joe nodded. “Sounds fine, Pa,” he replied, forcing a smile. 

Ben chose to accept him at face value. “Good. We’ll leave first thing tomorrow. Now come down and have some supper.”

Joe nodded, and then got up and followed his father downstairs.

*****

Joe stood at the top of the stairs, listening to his family eating breakfast. He knew Ben wanted him to go with them today, but deep inside, he knew he couldn’t. He didn’t exactly know why. It just didn’t feel right. 

He knew that Pa wanted to talk to him again, but he couldn’t bear to. He didn’t want to see the hurt in his father’s eyes, from either telling him the truth or refusing to. There wasn’t any way to not hurt him. 

Joe sighed, and then descended the stairs. As soon as he saw them, his family called out good morning to him. He tried to smile in response, and then took his place at the table. Almost as if he had been waiting, Hop Sing exited the kitchen with a plate full of warm food. “Thanks,” Joe murmured as he picked up his fork. 

“Are ya excited ‘bout today?” Hoss asked, a grin on his face.

Joe put his fork back down. He could tell the rest of his family stopped eating, and were looking at him. He could almost see the looks of frustration and worry on their faces.

“Joe…?” he father said.

Finally Joe looked up. His father had exactly the expression he pictured, and Hop Sing was standing behind him with a similar look on his face. “I…” Joe whispered. He tried to clear his throat, but the overwhelming silence that had settled almost choked him. “Pa…please understand…I just…can’t. I can’t, Pa…I’m sorry…” Joe trailed off, begging his father to understand. He knew he didn’t when his father closed his eyes. 

“Joe stay here.” Everyone looked at Hop Sing, who had spoken up quietly. “So sorry, Mr. Cartwright, please excuse. Is not place to give advice, but Mr. Joseph…not want go with other men work on ranch. Feel safe here. He stay here, then. Help do chores here. Be much better when you get back.”

Ben glanced for a moment at Adam. “But…it will be all day…”

“Please, Pa, let me stay! I’ll listen to everything Hop Sing says, and I’ll help around the house and do all the barn chores…please…”

Ben looked at Joe, and then at Hop Sing. Finally he nodded. It was a hard choice to make. It wasn’t at all that he didn’t trust their cook; rather, he didn’t want to let Joe out of his sight. As if he understood what he was thinking, Hop Sing said, “No worry, Mr. Cartwright. Hop Sing keep son safe, just like Little Joe was own son.”

Ben nodded at him, and then glanced back at Joe; but the boy was eating, staring intently at his plate.

Joe didn’t look at him again, until Ben was getting ready to mount his horse. “Pa,” he said quietly, tugging his father’s arm. Ben looked down at Joe. “Please understand…” he whispered. Ben watched him for a few seconds, and then bent down and embraced him.

“I’ll try, son,” he replied, and then he and Hoss and Adam mounted their horses and rode out of the yard.

Joe turned back to Hop Sing. “What would you like me to do first?”

They started out by stripping all the beds and washing the bedding. Then Joe helped gather all the dirty clothes in the house, and they washed them next, noting the few tears in some of Hoss’ shirts and missing buttons in two of Adam’s. Hop Sing told him they would fix them later, and they went on to cleaning the entire upstairs. Joe rather liked the work. It gave him something to focus on, and not having his father and brothers around seemed to make it easier. He missed them, but sometimes he felt overwhelmed by their attention.

It was when they had reached the staircase and were polishing the banister and sides of the steps that Joe started talking.

“I really missed this house,” Joe said quietly.

“Miss house, and family that live inside, yes?”

“I thought they were dead.” Joe stopped as he thought about the letter. “He told me they died.”

“Very bad man. Hurt young boy.”

“Yeah. Along with that, he hit me a lot.” Joe lifted his cloth again and continued to polish the stairs. For a little while they worked in silence, until they had almost reached the bottom. “He didn’t leave any scars though.”

“Joe carry scars in heart.”

Joe glanced over his shoulder. Hop Sing hadn’t turned around, and was still polishing on the other side of the stairs. Joe looked back, and slowly, thoughtfully, rubbed the oiled cloth over the wood. “I have lots of scars nobody sees.”

“Why not show family?”

Joe just shook his head. 

“Scars meant to see…to have other people see and share in pain. Make pain easier when can share.”

Joe turned and looked at the man, who continued to speak while polishing the banister. 

“When carry scar alone, hurt worse. Family understand pain. Can help. Father have pain also. Both you share, make hurt less.”

Joe sat down on the edge of the step. “But…there’s just…so much…”

“Father understand. Love son very much.”

Joe quickly turned back to the banister to finish polishing his side, in case Hop Sing turned and caught the tears in his eyes that he was fighting badly to keep at bay. The man reached the bottom and stood up, and then, without looking back, started toward the kitchen saying, “Make supper now.”

*****

Dinner was quiet. Even Hoss was uncharacteristically silent, the day having been long and tiring. Joe watched his family carefully. He desperately wanted to see if Hop Sing was right, but he knew that they all were tired. Finally, arguing to himself that if he kept waiting, he would never get up more courage, and if he said something now, it would be easier on everyone, he spoke up. “He beat me a lot.” Joe watched their reactions carefully. He knew that his quiet statement had been heard when three sets of forks froze in midair, halfway between mouths and plates, and three pairs of eyes glanced towards him. There were a few seconds of silence, as the elder Cartwrights tried to think of something to say. Joe took a deep breath before continuing. “It happened mostly when he was angry or drunk.”

“He beat you for no reason?” Hoss quietly asked. His anger at the injustice of it was apparent.

“Not all the time,” said Joe, slowly. “Sometimes I deserved it, like when I talked back or didn’t do the chores I was supposed to.”

“Joe, you didn’t deserve that,” Ben said.

Joe looked at him, seeing the slight anger on his face but realizing it was at a man he could do nothing to, who had hurt his son without reason. He knew the next part would be hard, but he had been holding it inside so long, and he was tired of it. Tired of keeping secrets and hurting alone. “Sometimes, I…pretended that I deserved the beatings…that I was being punished for…just…being in the whole situation. It made them easier, by knowing they were my fault. It was…” Joe fingered the napkin on his lap. “I couldn’t understand…just what I had done to deserve it.”

“You pretended you were getting punished for getting lost?”

Joe nodded, his cheeks burning a little. He was kind of embarrassed, and it sounded dumb to him when his father said it out loud, but that’s exactly what he had done. “That and…well, I thought you had died.” 

“You blamed yourself for our deaths,” Adam said.

“Yes,” Joe said quietly.

“And when you found out we were alive…?”

Joe looked at his brother. He knew he knew, but he wanted Joe to say it. Joe closed his eyes against the anger that started to swell. He knew Adam was forcing him to do what he needed to, yet…it was very difficult. “Yes,” Joe said, struggling to find the right words to complete Adam’s sentence. “I…I was angry. I…went through so many beatings because I thought it was my fault, but…it wasn’t.” Joe shifted a little in his chair. 

“Do you blame us for your going through all that?”

Adam’s question seemed to pierce through him. He stared at the plate in front of him, and then slowly nodded. He couldn’t bear to look at them.

“Why have you been so frightened and angry at me?” Ben asked.

Joe couldn’t bring his eyes towards his father. He mentally traced the pattern on the china; around the edges of the blue flowers, up the stem, to the top of the plate, over and over.

“Before you even arrived here, you were afraid of something. Adam told me what you said and did on the trip back. What was it, Joe? Did the man who took you say anything, other than that I left you?”

There was a little white fleck on one of the petals, Joe noticed. He stared at it, until he seemed to see nothing else. Why couldn’t he say it?

“Joe?”

“He…just kept saying, how you didn’t care, and you left without me, over and over. He didn’t say anything else.” Around the petals, the stems and the leaves, to the top of the plate.

“Did you think I would be angry at you?”

Joe lost his place on the little blue flower. Suddenly the seat seemed hard and unforgiving, and he moved, trying to relieve the discomfort. “A little,” he whispered. A lie.

“Did you think that once you got home, I would be angry or punish you?”

The questions hurt; it was painful to hear them out loud. The chair grew more and more uncomfortable, and he slid to the edge of it as he nodded.

“Why, Joe?”

Hot tears pricked his eyes as he silently begged Hop Sing to be right. “I believed him…after a while,” Joe whispered. 

Ben nodded. “I know,” he quietly responded. “But I’m not angry at you, son.”

“He…he…” Joe could see his knuckles turning white as he clenched his fists. “He…made me say it. That you left me…because you didn’t want me anymore. I…was so tired, and hungry, and he wouldn’t give me anything to eat if I didn’t say it, so I did. I’m sorry…”

“I’m not angry with you, son.”

“I didn’t know what I did…why you didn’t want me. Every time…that he hit me, or punished me for something, I knew that…I deserved it. For something. I just didn’t know what. It was easier to pretend that I was being hit for being disobedient to you. There were so many times that I was punished for things I didn’t think were wrong…I thought for sure that’s why it happened.”

“Did you think that I would have punished you like he did?”

Joe squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. “Sort of…not everything…” he whispered. 

“What do you mean?”

Joe clasped and unclasped his hands for a few seconds as he thought of his answer. Finally he looked up. “He…he didn’t hit me a lot, at first. Just a few times. Instead, he just…” Joe shrugged. “I don’t know, it sounds weird. He made fun of me, or swore at me. He took things away, or made me feel…” Joe shrugged again, looking down. “Bad, I guess. When he was upset with something, even if it had nothing to do with me, sometimes he gave me extra chores…a lot of extra chores, and it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t get them done. If I didn’t finish everything I was supposed to in time, I had to go without dinner and breakfast. He would make me sit at the table, though… Once he did that for three days in a row, after he thought he had a strike at his mine, and it turned out to be nothing.”

“That man never shoulda’ hurt you, Joe.”

Joe looked up at the furious look on Hoss’s face. He felt bad for his brother, that he had to hear this too. “After…Beth…she was ill. That’s why they took me, to help out. I…wasn’t very nice to her. I wanted her to make him let me go. But…she got sicker, and…then…she…” Joe sighed. “He said it was my fault. That it was my fault she died, and my fault that all of you had too.” He shook his head. “I felt so bad. She tried to be nice to me, but I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t mean to do anything like that, though. He started hitting me a lot, then. He drank whiskey. He never drank it when she was alive…she wouldn’t allow it. He hit me mostly when he was drunk. But…I don’t know, I didn’t…mind it, as much, I guess. There weren’t any chores, and he didn’t swear at me as much, even though he did tell me it was my fault.”

“Joe…what part of all that did you think I would have done?”

Joe felt his cheeks start to burn. “Pa…I just…sometimes…thought that you would be as angry as he was. He blamed me for her death, and…I blamed myself for yours…” He slid to the edge of the chair and closed his eyes. His voice started to falter. “At first I…sometimes, I…pretended, that you were there…while I was doing chores, or locked in my- the room. I…pretended you were telling me everything would be all right, just to keep working hard, and that you’d find me…that you were looking for me right now. But then…it just, turned into weeks and months and…you weren’t coming for me…and I started…to believe what he said was true. And that you felt like that too…that you didn’t want me. And that’s why you didn’t come…” Joe couldn’t bring himself to look up at his father.

“Joe…did you ever imagine it was me giving you the beating?”

Joe eyes flooded with tears, and he quickly stood up and turned away from them. The room became a blurry mess from the tears falling freely down his face, and he felt strong arms take hold of him, and then his father was holding him close and safe. Joe sobbed uncontrollably. “I’m sorry Pa,” he cried.

“Son…” Ben whispered.

Guilt rampaged through him, and he tried to pull away. “Please let me go, Pa, please…” How could his father not be angry? Joe was startled when Ben rather roughly held onto him.

“No, I’m not letting you go again,” Ben choked. “Look at me.”

“Please…Pa…” Joe cried. He felt Ben grasp his chin, and tilt his head up, gently. Joe opened his eyes to see the tears in his father’s eyes and the hurt in his expression. He started to cry harder. “Pa, I’m sorry!” 

Ben knelt down in front of him. “Son…listen to me…” He reached up and held the back of his head. “I’m not angry Joe. I’m not upset with you, and I’m not angry. I’m proud of you.”

Joe was surprised. That was the last thing he expected. “Proud?” he whispered, wiping tears away.

“Yes, son. I’m proud that you told me. I’m glad that you did.”

“I didn’t want you to be ashamed…”

“I’m not. Not at all.” Ben ran his fingers through Joe’s curls. “But the question is, will you be ashamed of me?”

Joe felt cold, suddenly. As if his worst fear was about to be realized. “Why?” he whispered.

Pa looked right at him. “I gave up,” he said quietly. 

Joe saw the pain in his eyes, and almost lunged closer, clutching his father’s vest. “Pa…”

“We searched for months, and then Adam continued to search and I stayed here, writing letters to lawmen and private detectives across the country, responding to letters, and wanting so much to see you ride into the yard. I wanted it to be a mistake, or that you were let go, to come home. It was almost a year, and I asked Adam to stop looking. I…didn’t know how I was ever to explain it to you, when we found you. I’m sorry Joe…that you went through those extra months of captivity. I never should have given up.”

Joe reached out and put his hands on Pa’s shoulders. He saw almost everything that he had felt reflected back at him from his father’s eyes. He understood now, as much as he had given up, so had his father, and he couldn’t be angry with him. He wanted for Pa to be happy again. He wanted to be happy again too. He didn’t want to think anymore of what had happened, and he didn’t want Pa to think about it either. He wanted to hear his father laugh again.

“I understand. Pa, I love you…” he whispered, and Ben grabbed him and pulled him close, sinking onto the floor with Joe on his lap. Joe closed his eyes, and before too long he was asleep from exhaustion, safe in his father’s arms.

*****

“Three,” Joe said.

Hoss shook his head with a slight smile. “Are you sure?”

Joe nodded. “Yup.”

“Well, I say ten,” Hoss replied. “There’s no way it’s a three.”

Joe flipped the next card over. It was a nine of hearts. “How did you know it wasn’t a three?”

“We already picked four threes.”

Joe frowned, and then looked through the stack of cards on the floor in front of him. “Oh, yeah…I forgot,” he said. “I have 14 cards.”

“I know. You just counted them.”

Adam came to a stop at the sound of the voices, and looked over to the fireplace, where his younger brothers were sitting on the floor with cards stacked around them. “What are you playing?” he asked.

They looked up at him, and both of them shrugged at the same time. Adam almost laughed. 

“It doesn’t have a name,” Hoss answered.

“Yeah, it’s our own game.”

“I see,” Adam replied, and then watched as they played another round.

“Six.”

“Eight.”

The card was flipped, and it was an eight of diamonds. 

Hoss grinned and put it in his stack. 

“How many have you got now, Hoss?”

“I ain’t countin’ ‘em again. How many did I have last time?”

“16. That would mean you have…17 now. You’re still winning.”

“Yeah, well you keep picking the same number over and over. All the sixes have been drawn too.”

Adam chuckled, and then left his brothers to their game. With a cheerful whistle, he went into the barn to saddle his horse. After last night, it almost seemed as though a storm had broken up, leaving a few puddles and broken branches, but mostly sunny skies and warmth, and the promise of a bright, wonderful day.

*****

It was obvious to Ben that Joe was angry about something as soon as he sat down at the table for dinner. For almost half the meal he sat sullenly, a furious glare on his face, poking at his food until finally Ben decided it was enough. “Joseph, you can either share what’s troubling you or take a short walk until you’re calm enough to come back to the table.” 

Joe looked up at him, the glare only lessening slightly. “Pa, I can ride that horse. I know I can.”

“He wants to ride the pinto you traded over the winter,” Hoss jumped in. “I told him that horse is wild but he won’t listen.”

“But I was good, Pa! I was good with horses and I know I can ride him. I can!”

“Joseph, please do not raise your voice at the dinner table.” Ben waited until a slightly contrite look passed over Joe’s face before continuing. “That horse is wild…” he started, until he saw the intensely disappointed look on his son’s face. He glanced at Adam, and then looked towards Joe, who was back to playing with his food. Joe needed this, Ben knew he did; but he was afraid of the skills that his son may have lost, and the injury that could happen if he wasn’t careful. He just got his son back; he didn’t want to lose him again. “Joe, that horse is wild, young, and strong-willed. It’s never been ridden, and it may never be ridden. You can’t just jump on and expect him to listen to you. It’s going to take a lot of time and work, and I expect you to be very careful with that animal, and not rush him.”

Joe looked up, the anger dissolving from his face. “Pa?”

“He’s yours, Joe.”

“Pa…” Joe whispered, at a loss for words. He stood and went to his father, and then hugged him. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I will be careful, I promise.”

There was a little bit of noise behind them, and then Hoss exclaimed, “Well, looky there!”

Ben and Joe looked up to see Hop Sing enter with a large cake, which he set down in front of Ben. “That looks magnificent,” Ben said. 

“Celebrate Little Joe homecoming.” He smiled down at Joe, who grinned and then impulsively hugged the man around the waist.

“Thanks, Hop Sing,” Joe said. The man patted him on the head, letting his hand linger for a moment, before turning back towards the kitchen. Neither of them noticed Ben watching the exchange, nor saw the realization and then gratitude flash into his eyes. Ben picked up a knife, and then started to slice generous pieces of the cake as Joe sat down again. He handed one each to his sons, then called, “Hop Sing!”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright,” he answered, walking out of the kitchen.

Ben held a plate of cake out to him. “We need you here to celebrate as well.”

Hop Sing looked stunned, and then slowly reached out for the plate as a smile slowly spread across his face. Ben cut one last piece, and then set it on his own plate. 

“To all of us,” Hoss exclaimed, holding his fork aloft.

“To our family,” Ben said. 

“Our family,” Joe whispered, looking across the table at Adam, who smiled back at him.

“You know, I think Hop Sing is going to be with us for a very long time,” Ben said.

Joe grinned at his father, as Hoss said, “Well I sure am glad to hear that. It’s about time we had some good cooking around here.”

“Now just a minute,” protested Ben jokingly, and they all laughed; but then the laughter grew and rang through the house as the joy of finally having their family whole once was finally realized. Joe looked around the table, feeling nothing but giddy happiness, and joy at the realization that he felt nothing else. He listened to Hoss, his deep guffaws almost completely drowning out Ben, Adam, and Hop Sing’s quieter laughter, and looked at his oldest brother and father, the happiness apparent in the huge smiles. He sighed happily. It felt so good to be home.

THE END

 

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Author: Camera Chic

7 thoughts on “Childless Horror (by Camera Chic)

  1. I Love your stories. I could not understand Marie without Hop Sing…
    Anyway, I Love that Little kid! Little Joe forever!

  2. That was such an emotional rollercoaster! I love the way Adam dealt with it all and how you showed the journey back for all of them.

  3. Wow…I don’t know what to say! This story was incredibly well done, and I love how you portray the relationship between Adam and Little Joe. Two thumbs up!

  4. This was actually my second time to read this. I can’t believe I didn’t review! This was such a highly emotional story with so many twists and turns. Joe had a lot of anger and fear but Adam knew how to calm him. I loved the way Adam took over as Joe’s parent when he was needed but was able to stand aside for his father to take over that role.

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