By: Jennie A.

It had been three hours since the rain storm had left Virginia City.  The roads were virtually un-passable.  Wagons were left alone waiting for the sun to free them
from the grips of abandonment.  Streets were deserted and businesses were slow.  Roy was standing just outside of his office holding a cup of hot coffee.  Watching
the sun set, he noticed a figure slowly stumbling down Main Street.  The child's clothes were layered in mud and were stuck to the small frame as though they were a
second skin.  The child wore no hat and his mud streaked hair hung down passed his shoulders.  As he neared the office, Roy slowly walked over to meet the child.
Holding out his hand he introduced himself.  Getting no response, Roy asked the frightened child to follow him into his office were he could be warmed up.  Still
holding eye contact with the ground, the boy nodded his head in acceptance and followed the sheriff into the building.

Roy lead the child over to a chair nearest the wood burning stove and retrieved a blanket from one of the bunks from his jail cell.  He draped it gently across the
child's shoulders.  Pouring another cup of coffee, Roy offered it to the child.  The boy looked up for the first time and reached for the cup.  With trembling hands he
inched it towards his mouth.  As the coffee warmed the child up on the inside, he began to shiver uncontrollably.  Wrapping another blanket around the child, Roy
explained to him that he wanted to take him over to the Doctor's office for him to be looked over.  Staggering to his feet, the boy grabbed his hand and allowed
himself to be lead across the street.

Paul was getting ready to lock up for the evening when he spotted Roy walking his way with a child in tow.  Stepping aside Paul allowed Roy to enter the office.
The child was still shaking as Roy lead him over to the settee to sit down.  Explaining to Paul how he had found the child walking the streets of Virginia City, Paul
was anxious to exam the child and to find out something about him.  "Son, my name is Dr. Martin. Could you tell me your name?"

The child gave no response and continued to stare at the floor boards.  Kneeling down in front of the child, Paul placed his hands on the child's knees, in an effort to
calm him.  "It's okay, you don't have to answer me just yet, but I would like to at least get you into a warm bath and some dry clothes.  Will you allow me to do that
much for now?"

Keeping his gaze on the floor, the child just nodded yes.  "Good! Roy will sit with you as I ready the bath.  It won't take me long at all", explained the doctor as he
stood and walked out of the front room.

Roy continued to talk to the boy in hopes of finding out who he was and where he had come from and more importantly, what had happened to him.  The child was
apparently in shock as he only stared at the floor.  Hearing Paul call out that the bath was ready, Roy again offered his hand to the boy.  He willingly accepted it and
followed him to the back room where his bath awaited him.  Standing next to the tub, the child made no movement to undress himself.  With help from Roy, Paul
was able to undress the child and get him into the tub.  A brief exam of the boy's body indicated that he had been hit by someone or something in the last few days.
The bruises that marked his body were starting to fade into colors of yellow and green.

As Dr. Martin washed away the dirt and grim from the boy's face, both men gasped outloud as a familiar face stared back at them.  Both men found themselves
fighting with their own emotions to remain calm.  Letting the initial shock of recognition wear off, Roy and Paul quickly resumed the task of cleaning up the boy.  Paul
got him dried off and into a clean nightshirt that was retrieved from his own dresser.  Settling him down in front of the stove, Paul offered the child a bowl of chicken
broth and a cup of hot chocolate.  Both waited patiently for the boy to finish eating before be began the difficult task of questioning him.

As he slurped the last of the broth, the boy looked up at Roy and asked him, "where's my Pa? I wanna see my Pa."

Relieved to hear him talk, Paul answered him, "Little Joe, Roy has sent someone out to fetch your family.  Because of the conditions of the roads, it will take some
time before they arrive here in town."  Hesitating slightly, Paul pressed on, "can you tell us where you have been?"

Joe was becoming nervous as he started fidgeting with his buttons on his nightshirt.  Lowering his head to look once again at the floor boards, he whispered, "how
long has it been?"

Sitting down next to the boy, Roy wrapped a comforting arm around the Joe's shoulders and pulled him close.  "Son, it has been almost three months since you
disappeared from the school yard."

Shaking slightly, the boy searched his friend's face as he asked, "three months? I've been gone for three months?"

"Well almost three months, at first your Pa thought you might have decided to goof off after school instead of coming home.  It wasn't until dark that he felt something
had happened and sent your brothers into town to gather a search party" replied Roy as he pulled the child tighter into a comforting hug.

"I.....I guess I missed the dance, huh?" the boy's voice trembled as he looked into his friend's face in disbelief.

Roy nodded as he went on to explain, "we have been searching for you up until the heavy rains started.  Can you tell me where you have been?"

Closing his eyes and relaxing against his friend, Little Joe sighed and began to tell his nightmare.

"There were four boys from school, you know, the older boys.  They were getting mad because the girls that they were asking to the spring dance were telling them
that they were waiting to see if I was gonna ask them to accompany me.  All during recess they were huddled together in a group and were always looking my way
and laughing.  I really didn't think much of it, other than they were upset that they weren't getting anywhere with the girls.  After the class was dismissed for the day, I
went out to the stable to get my horse and next thing I know I am waking up in some kinda of a cave.  My hands were tied with a rope and so were my feet. Can I
have a drink of water?"

Paul retrieved the water and handed it to Joe.  Gulping it down, he stared once again into Roy's face and asked, "when's my Pa gonna get here? I want to see my

Hugging him, Roy responded, "he will be here soon, remember what I told you about the roads?  Give it some time, he will come to you."

Little Joe swiped his hand across his moist eyes and continued.  "It was dark, they blindfolded me and I had a gag in my mouth. I couldn't see or talk.  Could do
nothing but listen.  The only sounds I heard where crickets and a cat growling in the distance.  I think it was a puma, but I could be wrong.  I remember hearing them
a few times when hunting with my brothers.  Do you know if my horse made it home okay?  I have been worried about what they might have done with him."  The
look in the boy's eyes pleaded for knowledge of a safe return of his horse to his family.

With a slight smile on his face, Roy told him that his horse had been found in the stable at the school yard and returned safely to the ranch.  Pressing on, he asked the
boy, "Can you tell me who the boys were that did this to you?"

Joseph's answer was whispered so low that Roy had to lean into him just to hear the reply.  "I can't, they told me if I ever told anyone that they would kill me."
Tears were starting to fill up in his eyes as he looked around the room for the comfort of his Pa.  His gaze once again returned to Roy as he started to talk again.

"Where was I? Oh, the puma, right?"  Not waiting for an answer, Little Joe continued.  "I called out to them but no one answered.  At first I didn't know if they were
there and not answering me or if they had upped and left me.  I remember laying there for a long time fighting off sleep.  I wanted to stay awake in case I heard my
Pa calling for me.  I musta fallen asleep cause I remember waking up to the sound of them walking around me.  Is it okay if I use the outhouse, I need to go real

Paul lead him out the back of his office and waited for the boy.  Minutes went by before he knocked on the door, "Son, are you alright?"

Hearing nothing but muffled sobs, Paul opened the door to find the boy sitting on the bench trying to bring himself under control.  He held out his arms and gathered
the boy into an embrace and allowed him to calm down before leading him back into the office.  Once inside, Joe looked into Roy's face again and asked, "when's
my Pa gonna get here, I wanna see him?"

Roy gently took the boy's hand into his own and lead him back to the settee.  "Look son, please give it time, the roads were washed out due to the rain storm.  I
promise you, your Pa will be here."

Little Joe sighed and sat down.  Drawing his knees up onto the settee he wrapped his arms around them and buried his head on his arms, closing his eyes.  "I don't
know if I can tell you anymore right now.  I wanna see my Pa. I'm.......I'm scared......I don't want them to hurt me anymore.  I wanna go home now.  Will you take
me home?  I can't wait for Pa to get here.  I wanna go now........please take me home."

The string of questions and requests hit both Paul and Roy like a hard blow to their stomachs.  Paul recognized the signs of emotional exhaustion taking its toll on
their young patient and left the boy's side to retrieve a sedative.  Seeing the doctor approaching with the glass of powder and a pitcher of water in hand, Joe jumped
up from the settee and tried to run to the door.  The look of sheer terror was etched deeply on the young boy's face. "No......no....no.....I'll be good,
please.......no......not that.......I didn't mean to get you mad."  As the words spilled out of his mouth so did the tears from his eyes.

Roy had gotten ahold of Little Joe and was holding him around the waist trying to calm him down.  "Son, you didn't get no one mad.  Paul thought things might have
gotten to hard to handle and was just going to help you calm down alittle.  Nothing more, I promise you that."

Paul was quick to re-affirm that promise.  "It's okay son, honest, this is just to help you calm down alittle.  Allowing Roy the time to pull the child into a closer
embrace, Paul held the sedative mixture up for Joe to drink.  Roy lead him to the back of the office to a bed and helped him settle down.  Pulling the covers up to his
chin, Roy gave him a smile and reassured him that things would be okay and that he just needed sometime to rest.  Allowing the medicine to work its miracle, Little
Joe closed his eyes and felt himself drifting off to sleep.

Paul had hoped to give the boy a few hours of rest, but within forty minutes after administering the sedative, his screams for help drew them back into the room.  He
was pressed up against the headboard, reaching out with his left hand, crying out for help.  "P....P....Please, don't leave me here.  I wanna go home.  Where's Pa?  I
need to see my Pa.  I wanna go home now, please let me go home, please!"

"Son, it's me, Doc Martin.  Let me help you.  Everything is going to be alright.  Reach out and take my hand, come on, it's okay."  Paul relayed this message a couple
of times before Joe slowly can out of his trance.  He allowed the doctor to hold his hands and gently pull him away from the headboard to sit next to him.  Feeling the
tremors in the boy's body, Paul gathered him  into a hug.  Paul could feel the tremors starting to fade as his breathing slowed.  A tear stained face looked up at him
and ask, "did you get my Pa yet?  Why ain't he here to take me home?  I wanna see my Pa."

"I know how badly you want your Pa, please trust me in knowing that he will be here.  I promise you, he will be here" explained the doctor.

Roy had heard the conversation that transpired between the doctor and the patient.  He really didn't want to upset the boy any more than he already was, but knew
that the longer he remained silent, the more likely the older boys would remain a mystery. Sitting down on the chair that was next to the bed, he asked Little Joe if he
thought he might be able to continue with his story.

Joseph rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands and wiped his nose with the sleeve of the nightshirt as he nodded his response.  Taking a deep breathe, Joe

"I think that it was morning when they came back to the hide out.  One of them untied my hands and removed my gag.  I was given a cup of water and a piece of
stale bread.  I was hungry but couldn't eat. It made my stomach hurt.  So, I just drank the water.  After I was done, I was retied and re-gagged and pushed down on
the ground on my face.  Do I have to tell you what they did to me?  I......I don't wanna go there.  They hurt me, sometimes real bad.  Everyday after they gave me
something to eat and drink, they would hurt me.  Sometimes", the boy's voice dropped to a whisper, " I didn't get to eat or drink because they couldn't wait to hurt
me.  Please don't make me say those things, it hurts to remember" pleaded Little Joe.

"It's okay son, we can always go back to that when you feel you can handle it.  Did they ever tell you why they were keeping you hostage" inquired Roy.

"No, but I heard them talking about letting me go the next morning.  I couldn't always hear what they were saying.  I did hear one of them say that they wanted to
scare me some.  Then one of the fellows sounded nervous and wanted to back out of the deal.  He sounded scared, just like me.  Another boy spoke up and said
that if they let me go, that I would tell Pa or you about what they did."  Hesitating for a brief moment, the child sighed and continued, "So, then they decided that I
would be kept there in hiding until you have up on the search.  The other fellow said something about or until I was dead.  I couldn't hear everything that was said.
Can you take a look outside and see if you see my Pa yet?  I wanna just go home.  I need to see my Pa" Joe asked while trying to maintain control of his emotions.

Roy stood up and walked out of the room to take a look.  Returning he shook his head to indicate that there was still no sign of the boy's father.  Sitting back down,
he asked Little Joe, "is there anything else that you can tell?"

Sniffling back a sob, he nodded yes and continued.  "This went on for days, or so I thought.  Was I really gone for three months?"  Not waiting for a reply, he
pushed on.  "After what seemed like forever, no one bothered to show up.  I was getting hungry and thirsty.  I managed to maneuver myself against the wall of the
cave and worked on getting the rope loose that held my arms.  That took awhile.  They used a new rope and it was really hard to break away."

Silence once again entered the room.  Both men were well aware of what this was doing Joe.  He fought to hold back his tears as he continued.  "After releasing my
feet, it took me awhile to get out of the cave.  But, I saw that it wasn't really a cave.  It was one of the mine shacks.  I had to crawl most of the way.  My legs were
shaky and I was getting dizzy trying to walk.  Once outside, I had to rest for awhile.  I was so tired.  I remember falling asleep and when I woke up I was able to
stand and walk.  Well, not really walk, my legs were still sore from sitting or laying all the time.  They hurt some."  Joe seem to freeze in time as the thoughts of his
capture rolled through his mind.  Shaking his head, he continued.  "The moving was slow... real slow. I was hurting in more places than I first felt now that I was up
and moving.  I am guessing about one hour had passed before I knew where I was."  Again silence entered the room.  For awhile no one said nothing.  Then Little
Joe stood up and walked over to far side of the room.  As he turned back around to face Roy and Paul, the emotional turmoil that he fought so hard to contain let
loose.  Sobbing uncontrollably, he sank to his knees and cried out, I was right here in Virginia City.  The whole time I was here."  Both men were at his side to try
their best to comfort him.  This time the sedative that Paul prepared was alittle bit stronger.  They managed to get Joe back into the bed and as they did, he buried
his face into the pillow, calling out for his Pa to hurry up and get there.  Ten minutes later he had fallen into a restless sleep.

Glancing at his pocketwatch, Roy was starting to worry about the boy's family making it into town safely.  He had heard how bad the roads had been washed out.
Knowing how the father felt about his sons, he felt in his heart that he would get to the boy even if it meant walking to town.  As he stepped outside, he was delighted
to see a full moon shining high in the sky.

Roy and Paul were both woken to the screams of Little Joe.  It was morning and still the child's father had not arrived.  Sighing, Paul entered the room and crossed
over to sit down next to him.  He was covered in a thin sheen of sweat and his eyes were unfocused.  Paul talked calmly to Joe and eventually he was able to calm
the boy down.  Rubbing his eyes dry with his fists, Little Joe once more asked, "has my Pa got here yet?  I really need to get home.  I have alot of chores to do
and......oh, no......I...I never got to do my book report.  Ms. Jones, she'll....she'll send a note home to Pa.  I will be in trouble.  Can you give me back my clothes?  I
can walk myself home.  Do you think Pa will be real mad at me.  I have alot of wood to chop, I bet.  Can I have my clothes back now, I need to go home.  Pa isn't
coming for me, is he?  He must of gotten the note from Ms. Jones already.   He must be mad at me.  That's why.......that's why he hasn't come for me."   Joe
continued to ramble on as tears once again fell from his eyes.

Motioning with his head for Roy to follow him, Paul walked out into the hallway.

"Roy, I hate to keep having to giving him a sedative.  Any idea where his father is and what's taking so long for him to get here?" inquired Paul.

"The messenger I sent to the ranch still has not returned.  I am assuming that it is because of the roads.  All that flooding has made things very difficult for man or
beast to pass through.  Let's give it a few more hours and see if they get back" replied Roy.  "If they aren't here by noon, I myself will ride out to look for them."

Joe  had overheard the beginnings of the conversation that took place between the Doc and Roy.  Choking backs the sobs that threaten to escape his body, the boy
firmly believed that the reason why his Pa had not come for him was because of the note that Ms. Jones had sent home concerning his lack of participation with his
book report.  Knowing how disappointed his Pa would be in him, Joe felt that he should maybe leave, thus releasing his Pa from any further disappointments in life.
A quick search of the room revealed only his boots.  Slipping them on over the pair of socks that Doc had lent to him, he quickly slide out the window and into the
alley way.  Clad only is his boots and a borrowed nightshirt, Joe made his way silently out of town.

"Roy, see if you can settle Little Joe, while I make him some breakfast" directed Paul.

Entering the room, Roy was quick to note that the boy was not there.  A fast search of the outhouse further confirmed his fear that Little Joe had disappeared.  Roy
ran back inside to notify Paul.  "Joseph gave us the slip, probably heading out to look for his Pa.  I am going to the livery stables and see if I can't get a horse to
catch up to that child.  He couldn't have gotten far, we were only in the hallway for a few minutes.  Boy, must be crazy to think he will get very far without a horse,"
explained Roy has he buckled on his gunbelt.  "You stay here in case he returns."

Doc's concerns for Joe were more towards the medical aspect.  Knowing the boy was dressed only in a thin cotton nightshirt, he was exposed to the elements of the
weather.  Adding to worry was also the fact that he had not eaten anything since last night.  The child's strength had not been restored and this weighed heavy on
Paul's mind.

Luck was on Roy's side as he headed slowly out of town in search of Little Joe. The roads were starting to dry up allowing the horse to stay on the selected path.
As he neared the outskirts of town, he saw the youngster making his way down the chosen path that would eventually lead away from his home.  Nudging his horse
into a canter, Roy soon caught up to the child.

Hearing the sound of the approaching horse, Little Joe sprung into a run.  He was determined to get away.  His tears were blinding him as he ran to escape the man
that would turn him over to his Pa.  Tripping over a rock, he fell hard to his knees. Mental and physical exhaustion over took the boy as he cried out "No!"

Roy practically flew down from his mount as he reached for Joe.  He hesitated when he saw the look of panic on the child's face.  "It's okay son, come on back to
town with me.  I, myself, will go in search of your Pa and bring him to you.  I promise."

"Noooooo! I.....I can't face my Pa right now" moaned the boy.

Roy was taken back.  "I don't understand.  I thought you wanted to see your Pa?"  As he spoke to Joe, he noticed that he was becoming more and more agitated.
Hoping to keep things under control, Roy reached down and pulled the boy up and swung him into the saddle.  Before Roy could pull himself up, Joe kicked the
horse into a gallop and took off.

Cursing himself, Roy turned to walk back into town.  Again lady luck was on his side.  A rider was approaching rather quickly. As the rider neared, Roy was
relieved to discover that it was Adam Cartwright.  Reining his horse to a stop, Adam look confused as he asked, "Roy where's your horse?  Did you find Little Joe's
trail?  How much..."

Signaling Adam to slow down, Roy explained, "I put your brother on my horse and before I could mount myself, he kicked the horse into a gallop and headed off
down the road towards Carson City."  Seeing that Adam intended to follow his younger brother, Roy reached up and grabbed the bridle.  "Now, just hold and listen
to me for a minute" he ordered.  "Your brother is very incoherent at the moment.  All last night and this morning he wanted his Pa and then out here he tells me that
he doesn't want to see him right now.  I don't know what happened but the boy is hurting emotionally right now.  We have to move in on him slowly.  Can't frighten
him anymore than he already is.  Now what about your Pa, did he make it into town?"

Nodding his head to confirm that his Pa was in town, Adam explained, "your messenger didn't arrive until this morning.  His horse throw a shoe and ended up lame.
He had to walk to the Ponderosa.  He arrived this morning around 7:00 am and we headed out just as soon as we got the horses saddled.  We went straight to
Paul's office and that's when we found out that Joe had run away.  Pa stayed back in town in case Little Joe showed back up there.  But, enough of this discussion,
hop up and let's get back and get you another horse.  We need to get that boy home."

Grabbing onto Adam's arm, Roy pulled himself up into the saddle.  Adam dropped Roy off at the livery stable and rode back to Paul's office to fill his father in on
Joe.  Paul and Adam convinced Ben that due to his emotional state, that it was in his best interest to wait for Joe there.  It had been a long three months for all
involved and Ben was end of his emotional rope. Reluctantly Ben finally agreed to wait with Paul. Meeting up with Roy again, they headed back to the road that
would lead them to Carson City.  Both men were lost in silent prayer as they rode hard hoping to find Little Joe before he collapsed from fatigue.

"Whoa! Hold on a minute Roy.  These tracks are doubling back" yelled Adam.  Spurring their horses around they headed back towards the direction that they
already came from.  Adam's rising concern for his brother's welfare was etched heavily on his face.

"Adam, we will find him.  I promised that boy that I would get his Pa to him and I aim to keep that promise if it takes the rest of the day to do so," expressed Roy.
"He's got to be getting hungry by now.  He left out of Paul's office this morning without any breakfast.  Not to mention the fact that he is mentally as well as physically
exhausted.  Sooner or later Little Joe has got to stop to rest, if not for himself for the sake of the horse."

Glancing at the sun, Adam realized that it was close to noon.  Panic was starting to set in again.  "Why, why this?  Hasn't the boy been through enough.  God, please
help me find him and fast," Adam silently prayed.

The double tracks came to end and it was there that Roy found them leading down the road to the Ponderosa.  "Hey, Adam" Roy called out with a strong feeling of
hope.  "Looks like Joseph decided to go home after all.  Let's ride."

Adam was starting to feel a bit relieved of the heavy tension that was weighing on his mind, as well as his heart.  Giving Sport his head, he took off in the lead.  The
tracks, Adam soon realized, were headed straight for the ranch house.  "I should have known" he whispered to himself.  "I should have known."

As they entered the yard, the horses were slowed to a trot, coming to a halt in front of the hitching post.  As they dismounted, Hoss came running out of the house.
"Where's Little Joe?  Is he okay?"  The words sputtered out as his excitement was displayed.

"Roy and I followed his tracks and they lead right here to the house.  You mean to tell me that he isn't in the house with you?" questioned Adam, as the look of
concern returned to his face.

"Adam, I have been waiting downstairs in the great room all morning waiting for you all to return.  No one has entered the house."  As Hoss answered his brother,
his eyes wandered around the yard.  Coming to rest at the corral, he noticed a strange horse still saddled drinking deeply from the bucket.  "Ummm, Adam"
whispered Hoss.

Without answering Hoss, Adam and Roy turned their heads to follow Hoss' gaze to see the horse in the corral.  "Boys, that was the horse that Little Joe took from
me" explained Roy.

Hoss squatted down to get a closer look at the boot prints in the moist dirt.  Pointing towards the barn, the two of them nodded in agreement and sprinted towards
the boy.  Upon entering the barn, Adam motioned for the other two to remain where they were and he proceeded to climb up the ladder.  As he neared the top,
Adam could hear the sniffling of his younger brother.

Crawling towards Joe, to keep from startling him, Adam made his way across the loft to Joe.

Little Joe was sitting with his knees drawn tight against his body.  His arms were hugging his legs and his head was buried between his arms . Adam recognized this
position, as Little Joe used it mostly when he was scared.  Coming to rest on his own knees, Adam leaned down so he was at Joe's level.  "Hey, buddy" he

"Go away, Adam. I didn't want to be found. I can't face anyone right now" sobbed the child.

Fighting the urge to hold his brother, Adam asked him, "Why, Little Joe, why don't you want to see any of us?  It has been so long."

Forcing himself to look up, Joe's eyes searched his older brother's face frantically looking for some sign of forgiveness.  Rubbing the palm of his left hand across his
eyes and then his nose, Joe muttered in between sobs, "I......I didn't get my book report to Ms. Jones and I know Pa is disappointed in me."  Pausing momentarily,
the boy gasped for air as he continued.  "I just done figured that if I was gone that Papa wouldn't see me as a disappointment anymore."  Spitting out those words
caused the boy to cry hysterically.

Adam pulled him up as he himself stood.  Little Joe responded by throwing his arms around his brother's neck and wrapping his legs tightly around Adam's waist.
Burying his face into Adam's shoulders Joe continued to cry.  "Little Joe, listen to me" whispered Adam as he hugged his younger brother tighter.  "No one is
disappointed in you.  You had no control over not turning in your assignment.  All we have cared about was finding you and bringing you home to us.  That's all,
nothing more."

"Nooo, Adam. Pa doesn't like me very much when I don’t do my schoolwork.  That's why I haven't seen my Pa yet.  Isn't it?" sobbed the boy.

"No, Joe.  That is not why you haven't seen Pa yet.  You took off from Paul's office just before we got to town.  Pa is back waiting there for you to return.  I went
after Roy to help bring you to him.  The last three months, Buddy, has been just as hard on the three of us as it has been for you.  I promise you that" explained
Adam as he rubbed Joe's back.

Drawing his head up away from Adam's shoulder, he placed his small hands on either side of Adam's face and turn his brother's face to make eye contact with him.
"Adam" he whispered, "does Pa still love me?"

Feeling his brother's pain and confusion, Adam's eyes filled.  Not trusting his own voice, he simply nodded yes.  Adam felt the tension and anxiety drain from Joe's
body and once again the boy laid his head on his shoulders.  Adam was quick to hug him closer and leaned his own head onto Joe's shoulder.  This time the release
of tears from both parties were tears of comfort and love.

As Adam and Joe made their way down from the loft, Adam found a note tacked to the barn door.

"Welcome home, little brother!  Roy and I went to town to fetch Pa.  This time no one is to leave this ranch.  You wait for us back in the house - you

HOSS and Roy

Adam shifted Joe to his right hip and handed him the letter to hold.  "We better listen to them.  Let's get inside the house and get you cleaned up for your reunion
with Pa and Hoss."

Placing his hand under Adam's chin, Joe again turned Adam's face to his.  "Can I have a bath?  I feel icky."

Laughing, Adam answered, "only if you let me cut that hair of yours.  Pa will be calling you a riverboat gambler if I don't."

Little Joe joined in laughing with his older brother.  Burying his head against Adam's shoulders once more, Joe whispered in his ear, "I love you Adam Cartwright.
Thanks for finding me.  I really do miss Pa and Hoss and you too."

By the time Hoss and Ben arrived back at the ranch, it was dusk.  The full moon had made it easier to travel the distance without much a concern for the horses.
Arriving in the yard, Ben was quick to dismount and ran towards the house.  Fear was once again present as he noticed that the house was dark.

Both men entered the house with guns drawn not sure what they were facing.  Ben made his way across the great room to his desk.  Striking a match across his
desk, he lit the lamp.  With the glow of the lamp to lighten up the room, both men preceded to search the house for clues.  Ben was the first one to notice the dishes
still laying on the dining room table.  He could see that the boys had eaten but couldn't figure out why the table had not been cleared off.  Swallowing hard against the
bile that was rising in his throat, he glanced over to Hoss when he heard him call out.  "Hey, Pa. Will you take a look at this?  Ain't this the purriest sight you've seen
in a long time" he whispered.

Putting his gun back into its holster, Ben joined Hoss who was standing in front of the fireplace.  His eyes filled with tears as he looked upon his eldest son stretched
out on the settee with Little Joe scrunched between the back of the settee and Adam's left side.  The younger boy's head was laying on Adam's chest and both had
the look of peace on their faces.

"I'm sorry little one but I need to hold you" whispered Ben as he gently reached over to gather his son.

"Papa" was all that was said as Little Joe laid his head on his Pa's shoulders.  He wrapped his arms around his father's neck and pulled tight his legs around Ben's
waist.  Ben walked over to his chair and sat down with the boy still attached to him and rubbed his back as he whispered "God only knows how much I have missed
you.  Welcome home, my son."

Adam had awoken when Ben had removed Joe from his side. Wanting to give them the time they needed to be alone together, Adam and Hoss quietly slipped
upstairs for a peaceful nights rest.  One that was long over due for everyone in the Cartwright house.


Paul had informed Roy and Hoss that Ben was over at the jail with four prisoners. It turned out that while Roy was back at the ranch, four boys had tried their hands
at robbing the bank. They had seen Roy riding out of town and figured that they had enough time to carry out their mission and escape to freedom. Paul and Ben had
just sat down outside of Paul's office with a cup of coffee in hand, when they heard the commotion across the street. The bully of the group was laughing as they
made their way into the alley, commenting on the abduction of Little Joe. When Ben and Paul made their surprise attack, two of the younger boys spilled their
involvement of the abduction. They were blaming the jist of it on the older boy. The other three thought it was funny to scare Little Joe, but it was suppose to end
after one night. It was the older boy who wanted to keep Joe hidden, afraid of someone finding out who they were. That fear turned to anger when he realized the
search party was looking for the boy and was not about to give up the search without a body. With two witness to testify to their confession, all four men were
locked up in the jail cell awaiting for the circuit judge to come to town.

Roy felt comfortable with the fact that Little Joe would not have to etch out his story in fear of these four boys. With Ben at his side, Little Joe would be able to have
his father present to complete the charges necessary to hold them in jail. Considering Joe's age of twelve, the judge would reply on the written statement and Ben
and Paul's word to prosecute. Little Joe would not have to take the stand.

The End
Aug. 2001