By Jennie A.


Where There Is Love

By: Helen Steiner Rice

Where there is love the heart is light,

Where there is love the day is bright,

Where there is love there is a song

To help with things are going wrong…

Where there is love there is a smile

To make all things seem more worthwhile,

Where there is love there’s quiet peace,

A tranquil place where turmoils cease…

Love changes darkness into light

And makes the heart take "wingless flight"…

Oh, blest are they, who walk in love,

They also walk with God above-

And when you walk with God each day

And kneel together when you pray,

Your family will be truly blest

And God will be your daily "GUEST"…

And love that once seemed yours alone,

God gently blends into HIS OWN.

Joe watched as the deputy rode out of the yard and quietly closed the front door. He glanced around the great room and his eyes filled with tears as they rested on the faithful family friend, Hop Sing. Hop Sing brushed away his own tears as he watched the youngest Cartwright run up the staircase. He heard the bedroom door slam shut and went back to the kitchen to remove the welcome back home meal from the oven.

Upstairs Joe had flung himself on his father’s bed and buried his head into the comforts of the pillow. He could still smell the bay rum cologne that lingered on the bed sheets and Joe tried desperately to find some kind of serenity in the faint odor that filled his nostrils. The tears had turned into heart wrenching sobs that tore through his eight year old body causing the young boy to shake in fear. The pain alone in his heart felt like a vise grip that had slowly began to tighten and eventually had Joe gasping for air. Clutching the pillow with his fists Joe hugged it to his chest and closed his eyes. Exhaustion was claiming the small boy and Joe gave up his fight with his emotions as he felt the hand that rubbed his back.

The beams from the moon peeked through the heavy curtains that hung on the windows in Ben’s room. Joe opened his eyes and immediately recalled the visit from Samuel, the sheriff that was filling in for Roy while he was out of town. Joe’s eyes filled instantly with tears as the words that had been relayed to him the evening before pierce through his heart. He sat up in the bed still clutching the pillow to his chest and cried. Joe heard the bedroom door open and felt the presence of Hop Sing entering the dark room. He secretly had wished that it was Pa or even Adam coming to rescue him from the horrors of another nightmare, but knew deep in his heart that wasn’t the case.

Hop Sing gathered the young boy into his arms and spoke softly in his native tongue to the now hysterical child. No words would ever comfort Little Joe, not even those words spoken by Hop Sing. Not knowing what else to do, Hop Sing just held the boy tightly and continued to mumble words of comfort.

It was nearly noon before Little Joe awoken once again and this time Joe forced himself to get up. He stood alone in the room that once belonged to his father and fought back fresh tears as Joe realized that never again would he be sitting on the downed quilt watching his father shave. Never again would Joe laugh as Ben splashed some of the bay rum cologne onto his small face and gather him into a morning hug. Never again.... Joe stopped the mental torment and opened the door leading out to the long hallway. He felt he was walking his last mile as he made his way to the staircase. Joe descended the steps as though he expected them to open up and swallow him. He eventually found himself standing in the great room and staring at the backs of several men that were talking to Hop Sing.

Mr. Devlin saw the distraught child standing at the base of the staircase and motioned for the other men to cease the conversation. He walked over to where Joe stood and draped a reassuring arm around the slumped shoulders. Mr. Devlin led the boy to the settee and forced him to sit down. Seated beside Little Joe, Mr. Devlin explained to him the purpose of their visit. Joe could hear his father’s friend speaking but did not hear what was being said. It wasn’t until Samuel squatted down in front of him and placed a hand on his knee that Joe looked up into the face of a man that appeared to show no sympathy or remorse.

"Do you understand what Mr. Devlin has explained to you boy?" questioned the deputy as he tried to get Joe’s attention.

Joe glared into the cold eyes of a man that Roy had put his faith into and slowly shook his head no.

The deputy started to repeat what Mr. Devlin had tried to convey to the boy but was interrupted by Charlie, the foreman of the ranch.

"I’ll talk to him later Sam, I don’t think now is the time to cause a scene," Charlie explained as he pulled Joe to his feet. He led the boy to the kitchen and left him in care of Hop Sing and returned to the great room.

"I will take care of the arrangements with the Reverend and stop by your office later this afternoon and go over the other details."

Mr. Devlin walked towards the front door and quietly turned back to face the group of men that still stood in the room. "I am sure that Mrs. Devlin will not have any objections to the boy staying with us," he assured the deputy as he felt all eyes staring at him. "I am sure that Ben would have wanted the boy to stay close to his own home so that one day he can return to claim what is rightfully his."

Charlie gathered his hat from the peg that once supported Hoss’ hat and stepped out on to the porch. He glanced up toward the heavens and closed his eyes, praying silently that the small eight year old boy would find peace before it destroyed him.

Joe was seated at the kitchen table attempting to eat a bowl of oatmeal that Hop Sing had prepared for him. His eyes fell upon the pan that had held the roasted pig that was suppose to have been the welcome home dinner that he had helped Hop Sing prepare. Once again Joe’s eyes clouded over with moisture and watched as the tears fell from his eyes onto the wooden table. He could hear the attorney telling the cowhands that they no longer had a job at the ranch. Joe was not of age and could not draw from the bank account to pay the wages necessary to run the Ponderosa. Joe felt the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and shivered slightly as the attorney continued. What he heard next caused the boy to push himself away from the table and run up the back staircase that led to his room. Flinging the door open, Joe ran and jumped on his bed and let the tears of frustration lose.

"Why can’t I stay with Hop Sing? What did they mean that he had no rights to the boy?" Those thoughts swirled around in his head only adding to the confusion of why any of this had had to happen. Adam had promised that no matter what he would always be there to protect and to take care of him. He had promised that Joe would never have to worry about anything in the event of his father’s death. Joe reached across the bed and gathered Scruffy into his arms hugging him tightly to his chest. He felt that Adam had betrayed him by breaking this promise but knew that it was not really Adam’s fault that he too had been buried under the rockslide thatclaimed him as well as the rest of his family.

Joe sat on the edge of his bed and watched as Hop Sing packed his satchel. He fought back the tears that begged to be free and closed his arms around his only confidant left in the world. Scruffy had been a gift from Adam last Christmas and he had taken to the snuffed animal immediately. Bo had been placed on the dresser near his Mama’s photo. Joe felt that the bear was getting fragile from the many washings over the years and wanted to preserve him as a keepsake. Now he watched as his friend carefully wrapped his Mama’s photo and Bo in brown paper and placed them in the satchel on top of his clothing. He followed Hop Sing down the stairs and hesitated at the bottom step, looking back towards the upstairs. He knew it would be many years before he could return to the house to claim it as his own and felt the old familiar vise grip tighten slowly in his chest. Hop Sing led him to the settee and made him sit while he went about the great room wrapping up some momentums that Little Joe could take with him.

Joe’s eyes rested on the fireplace and watched as the ambers faded away. He smiled to himself as his thoughts wandered back that wonderful Christmas when he had persuaded Hoss to go down the chimney.

"Joe was dancing up and down in excitement. "Hoss, you and Adam both said that Santa comes down the chimaney. But I think he is too fat, so I figured that if you could fit down that thing, then for sure old fat Santa could. What do ya say, do it for me, please Hoss, please, please, please," begged Joe batting his hazel eyes at his middle brother and giving him one of his most angelic looks, a sure winner every time.

Hoss’ old soft heart melted. He was a sucker when it came to refusing his baby brother and he knew it. "Okay, but ya better not be atellin’ no one about this or I’ll clobber ya good, ya hear me?" Hoss ruffled the curls on top of Little Joe’s head."

He could almost see the black boots dangling from the chimney and hearing the voice of his father’s laugh caused Joe to giggle. His memories were lost in time when he felt the hand clamp down on his shoulder. Joe forced himself to stand and follow Mr. Devlin out of the house. He stopped in the doorway and gave the house a final look over. Joe felt the vise grip tighten to the point that it caused his heart to break in two. He brushed away the falling tears and followed Mr. Devlin to the hitching post. Hop Sing stood holding the reins to Snowflake, a gift from Santa just last year. He remembered the words that his father spoke to him as he was carried back into the main house to breakfast that cold Christmas morning.

‘I have all I want for Christmas right here, Joseph.’

The fallen tears ran freely down his face as he gathered the reins from Hop Sing and threw himself into the arms of the man that had helped his father raise him. He knew that he would be seeing him on visits to town but still the boy felt like his whole world and is reason for existing had been pulled out from under him. Reluctantly Joe forced him self to let go of his friend and mounted the pony. He nudged Snowflake forward and silently followed Mr. Devlin out of the yard never looking back.

The days that followed passed slowly for Joe. The Devlins were nice to him and treated him as though he was one of their own. Yet Joe never felt like a part of them. He was left alone to grieve and only disturbed when it came time to eat. As hard as he tried to please Mrs. Devlin, Joe could only nibble at the home cooked meals that were placed in front of him. Even his friend Mitch had given up on trying to pull Joe out of the self-dug grave that Joe had buried himself in.  

The memorial service that had been held earlier that morning had been beautiful. Joe knew his family would have been pleased to see that the whole town had attended the services. Joe managed to hold himself together until they had arrived at the lake and watched as Charlie directed the ranch hands where to placed the tombstones. Joe had felt himself go weak in the knees and had reached up to grasp Mr. Devlin’s hand as he fell to his knees. Mrs. Devlin had insisted that Joe be removed and returned to the house. He had finally forced himself to stand back up on his feet and gently pulled himself away from the Devlins. Joe was compelled to stay until the end of the service and some how managed to hang on until the last of the visitors had ridden away. As he watched Charlie placed the shovel into the back of the wagon, Joe let himself go. He no longer cared what anyone thought about his weaknesses nor did he feel any shame as his tears ran unchecked down his face.

Mr. Devlin had excused Joe from the dinner table when the boy refused to eat any of the dinner that had been placed before him. Alone in the darkness in Mitch’s room Joe thought back to a particular story that Adam had read to him just a few weeks ago. Home is where the heart is, Joe recalled the phrase that Adam had to explain it’s meaning of. This was not his home, not that the Devlins’ were not nice people and all, but nevertheless they were not family. Joe knew where he should be, where he had to be and without giving it a second thought, Joe packed his belongings into the saddlebags that he had received from his father on his eighth birthday. Extinguishing the lamp Joe slipped out the window and across the yard to the barn. Hastily he saddled up Snowflake and led him out of the backdoor of the barn and down the road that would lead him home.

Joe entered the familiar yard of the ranch and was disappointed to find that the barn had been nailed shut. The house too had been secured and it took Joe a while to break into the house. He had chosen to break a window near the back door as to not draw any attention to the house if and when someone came looking for him. It took him even longer to board up the broken window and then making his way to the barn began to pry the boards lose that had been placed over the barn door. Joe entered from the rear of the barn again hoping that no one would think to check it if and when they came looking for him. He silently gave thanks to the snow that had begun to fall. He knew that his tracks would be harder to follow as the snow gracefully covered them. Once the difficult task of disguising his presence had been accomplished Joe reentered the house. His boots echoed in the vacant dwelling as he found his way in the dark to the great room. He gasped out loud as his eyes adjusted to the dark and fell upon the contents of the room. All of the furniture had been covered in white linen to protect it from the gathering dust. Joe walked around the room and allowed his hand to brush along the desk that his older brother and father once occupied. Memories of playing hide and seek under the large desk caused Joe’s eyes to tear again.

Joe was drained from his escape and quietly sat down on the settee. He stared at the now empty fireplace and allowed his eyes to close momentarily as his mind reflected back into time. It was a time that Joe had always loved. Dinner had been eaten and his family would gather around the massive stone fireplace. Ben would read from the family bible the Christmas story while the rest of the them would cuddle up on the settee listening to their father’s voice relive the magic of this miraculous tale.

Remembering that tonight was Christmas Eve Joe stared at the vacant corner near the fireplace. He put his coat back on and went in search of a tree that he could erect for his upcoming Santa visit. Joe knew that he could not manage to cut down a magnificent tree like those his brothers had managed to do in the past. His swollen eyes fell upon a small sapling that he had himself had planted earlier that spring. After struggling with the axe, Joe finally was able to separate the young tree from the frozen ground. On the back porch Joe emptied out the now dead rose bush from a flowerpot that Hop Sing had left behind. Carefully Joe replanted the sapling into the cold dirt and dragged it back into the great room. Remembering Pa’s warning about touching matches, Joe worked alone in the dark. He had to be satisfied with the tree the way it was and forego the traditional candles that always seemed to light the stairway to heaven. Certainly Santa would not be upset that the small boy could not retrieve the family ornaments from the attic this time of the evening. Besides Joe reassured himself, he remembered Hop Sing telling him that everything had been boxed up and stored safely until he would return to claim what was rightfully his.

Exhaustion had begun to take a toll on the young boy and Joe sank down into his familiar spot on the settee. He closed his eyes but quickly opened them when he swore that he had heard Adam gently strumming on his guitar. The tears pooled in his hazel eyes and he allowed them to fall. Joe wrapped his arms around his knees and instantly jumped to the floor when he heard his father’s voice ordering him to take his feet off of the furniture. Feeling guilty Joe walked quietly up the stairs and stopped when he reached his room. He slowly turned to face his father’s door and out of respect, knocked before entering. The tears continued to flow freely as Joe climbed up on to the large bed and burrowed himself under the down comforter. He forced himself to go to sleep knowing that Santa would not make his visit until he was lost to the land of slumber.

Joe woke to the rays of the sun peeking through the curtains and suddenly remembered that it was Christmas morning. He threw back the covers and jumped to the cold floor landing with a thump. Joe began shouting Merry Christmas as he opened the door that led to the hallway. The wide smile slowly turned into a frown when he remembered that the large home now only housed himself. Brushing the tears out of his eyes Joe descended the stairs and walked to the small tree that somehow had managed to fall free of the pot. This time Joe didn’t wipe away the tears as he picked up the tree and tried in vain to replant it. It was then that Joe took notice that Santa had not been to visit him. Frustrated with the events that were unraveling on what had always been his favorite holiday caused the young boy to collapse onto the floor hysterical.

He forced himself to look at the tiny tree that struggled to remain upright and between sobs began to talk out loud. "Why didn’t ya come to me? Was it ‘cause I used the axe?" The crying was beyond the hysterical point and Joe had to fight to breath. "Is it ‘cause I put my feet on the settee?" Joe’s hand automatically wiped at the fallen tears as he continued to question his behavior. "I’m sorry for being bad...I just wanted a Christmas tree to look at. Pa always had a tree for us." Again Joe’s hand involuntarily wiped at the tears. "I didn’t mean to be bad, I said I was sorry for putting my feet on the settee." The tears were streaming uncontrollably down his face at this point and Joe forced himself to justify his behavior. "I’d punished myself, Santa. I went to bed ‘member?" Joe laid his head on the cold wooden floor in front of his dilapidated tree and wept.

It was the knock on the front door that had awakened Joe and he quietly ran up the stairs to further escape the posse. He knew that his home would have been the first choice in the search of his disappearance. Joe opened the door to Hoss’ room and quickly closing the door behind him ran to his brother’s wardrobe. Joe pulled the heavy door closed and buried himself under Hoss’ clothes that he had pulled off of the hangars. He held his breath as he heard the footsteps enter the room. Joe sat still and waited what seemed like forever before leaving the safety of his hideout. He snuck down the hall to his own room and peered out into the yard from behind the curtain. It wasn’t until Joe saw the retrieving hoof prints that he allowed him self to take a breath.

Knowing that the search party would not give up looking for a missing child, Joe quickly readied his pony and took off towards Virginia City. His hopes were to pursue the banker to give him some money and Joe’s excuse would be that he needed to give it to the Devlin’s to help with the additional cost of taking care of another child. With the snow that had blanketed the ground traveling to town took longer than Joe could remember it taking. Eventually he rode down the vacant street until he stopped in front of the bank. Joe cursed himself when he remembered that it was Christmas and that nothing other than the hotel and saloon would be open. Joe remounted Snowflake and led him down the dirt road heavily coated with the white snow until he came to the home of the banker. Adam had taken him there a few times in the past year when he had personal business to tend to and their father had been out of town. Swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat Joe knocked loudly on the hollow door.

He was invited in out of the cold while the misses called on her husband. The man introduced himself and then apologized when he failed to recognize Joe as one of the Cartwrights. The man motioned for Joe to step into the room to warm himself as he explained that the bank would not reopen until morning. Joe tried to hide his disappointment and was quickly comforted when the man said that he would do what he could to get Joe some money. He excused himself from the room and the misses motioned for Joe to sit down. Joe was rewarded with a cup of hot cocoa while he waited for the banker to return.

Joe was fidgeting with a thread that he found hanging on his jacket. It was nearly an hour ago that the man had left to inquire about making a withdrawal from Joe’s savings account. He glanced up when the front door opened. Behind the banker stood four other men, one who happened to be the deputy that had taken Roy’s place. Samuel walked over, grabbed a fistful of curly hair and yanked Joe to his feet.

"What is the meaning of running away?" he yelled into the frightened face of the boy that now stood paralyze with fear. "Do you have any idea how long we have been riding in the cold looking for you?" The man continued to yell obscenities at Joe and he flinched when the man’s spittle landed on his face. The pressure intensified as the angry man clasped his fingers around Joe’s arms and squeezed. "I’ll teach you a hard lesson boy," he shouted as he pulled Joe behind him, "one that you will never forget."

Joe turned and stared at the man who his father had thought of as a business partner as well as a friend. What little hope that Joe had left was forever crushed as he turned his face away from the man who betrayed him. Joe felt the burning in his eyes as they once again filled with tears and could not believe that this man had seemed so eager to offer his assistance just one hour ago.

Samuel continued to show no remorse as he practically dragged Little Joe down the snow covered street and pushed him through the door into the sheriff’s office. Once inside the building the door was slammed shut and locked. Sam grabbed Joe by the arm and once again pulled him toward the awaiting cell. Joe was shoved into the dark, lonely barred room and before he could pick himself up off the damp floor, Sam had slammed the door shut and locked it. He extinguished the lantern before closing the door that separated the cell from the office and called out from the other side.

"I will return sometime later and if there are any scrapes left over from my now cold dinner, I just might find it in my heart to offer you some."

Joe heard the heartless laughter echo through the silent building and cringed when he heard the deputy leave once again slamming the door behind him. Left alone to ponder in the dark, Joe felt his way to the cot and curled up into a tight ball in a vain effort to warm himself from the drop in temperature. The barred window offered little in terms of light and certainly did not ward off the cold wind that had started to blow. Wet snowflakes had found the entrance to the cell and continued to blow their way into the solitude of the building. It didn’t take long for the weary boy to close his eyes and fall into a restless sleep. Dreams of Christmas’ past seem to help the exhausted child sleep more soundly and soon found himself hunched down in front of the tree ripping open presents that he had hoped to received earlier this morning.

The clanging of a spoon running across the length of the metal bars jarred Joe from his dream. He rolled over on to his back and was greeted by the devilish smile that flashed from the evil face of the deputy.

"Glad to see that you did not succumb to the cold," Sam sarcastically stated as he unlocked the cell. "Here’s that holiday meal I promised ya."

The deputy dropped the metal plate to the floor and kicked it across the cell causing it to slide under the cot that Joe was occupying. Joe mumbled a weak thanks and waited for the deputy to leave the premises before retrieving the food that had come to rest against the wall. Joe sat down on the edge of the cot and stuck his finger into the cold scrapes that had been served to him. Fighting the urge to vomit, Joe was forced to dump the slop into the chamber pot that was under the cot. He no longer heard the growling from his long time emptied stomach and realized that he no longer cared if he ever ate another meal again. He felt that his whole life had come to an abrupt end and no longer had the desire to survive. Without his family, without his home and without his friend, Hop Sing, Joe no longer had a care in the world. He curled back up into a tight ball and silently prayed that he would fall asleep and join his family in the night sky among the stars. His mind was flooded with the memories of his father standing outside with Joe in his arms gazing up into the stars that Pa had named after his three wives. Joe closed his eyes and remembered the last Christmas he had spent with his mother before she had passed on to the world of eternal rest and allowed sleep to claim him.

Morning arrived as the deputy rudely awakened Joe. There was another man that Joe had never seen before standing behind Samuel. Panic seized him as the door was unlocked and Joe ordered to vacate the cell. As soon as Joe stepped clear of the cell both arms were roughly grabbed and pulled behind his back causing him to cry out in pain. Sam tied his wrists together before shoving him forward. Joe stumbled as he fought to maintain his balance. The cold had settled through to his bones making his body hard to maneuver. He walked stiffly between the men and was quickly ushered to the waiting stagecoach just outside the telegraph office. As the coach pulled away from the loading platform Roy Coffee entered the town.

Roy had been called away to Reno to testify in a murder trail. He had been gone over two weeks and was looking forward to joining Ben and the boys for his yearly Christmas visit. He had sent a wire the day before announcing his return. Before heading out to his friend’s ranch, Roy stopped by the office to get an update on the happenings in Virginia City. He was shocked to find the building unlocked and empty. Walking out into the deserted streets of town Roy headed over to the livery stable to rent a horse. He wasn’t surprised to find Billy passed out from too much celebrating. Roy hastily jotted a note and helped himself to his favorite horse. Before long Roy was on his way to the Ponderosa.

Upon entering the yard Roy was taken back when he saw no signs of life around the ranch house. He dismounted his horse and carelessly threw the reins over the hitching post before walking to the barn. His hand ran along the length of the board that had been nailed across the large oak doors. A feeling of uncertainty ran throughout his veins as he paced his steps across the frozen ground towards the main house. Roy strained his ears to hear the laughter that generally penetrated from the house and was stunned to hear nothing other than silence. He knocked on the front door and not waiting for the invitation to come in, tried to open the door. He was confused when he found that the door was locked. The feeling of uncertainty was replaced with nervousness as he again pounded on the door. Again not waiting for a response, Roy nearly ran around the house to the back door. He had to scrape away the ice that had formed on the window of the door to peer inside. The nervous feeling escalated as he saw that the kitchen was vacant. As he stepped away from the door Roy noticed that the one window had been boarded up. Curiosity overrode his friend’s privacy and unable to find anything to pry the boards lose, preceded to break another window.

Once inside Roy found the matches near the cooking stove and soon had the soft glow of the lantern to guide him through the house. Roy was astonished to find the furniture covered by the starched white linens and the nervous feeling was replaced with a queasiness that he had not felt since he had the flu over one year ago. Roy slowly walked through the downstairs in search of a clue that would tell him what had taken place. Unable to find such evidence, Roy warily ascended the staircase. The queasiness was replaced with a violent lurching of his breakfast when he found all three of the boys’ rooms empty and signs of desertion was evident. It wasn’t until he entered Ben’s room that he found that the bed had recently been slept in and Roy’s mind was traveling faster than any steed that he had ever ridden trying to come up with some answers.

Roy quickly ran down the stairs and out of the back door. He made a mental note to come by and board up the broken window later. As he rounded the corner of the house he spotted a group of riders entering the front yard. Roy called out to them identifying himself as was relieved to see Mr. Devlin as one of the riders. Mr. Devlin dismounted and walked over to Roy. He offered a comforting arm to Roy as he felt the older man’s knees buckle. Devlin had just informed him of the misfortune that had taken hold of the youngest Cartwright’s family. He filled Roy in on the disappearance of Little Joe and how the deputy had suddenly vanished himself. Devlin helped Roy to the porch and assisted him as he sank into the rocking chair. The numbness that engulfed his body and soul pierced a hole into his heart that Roy knew would never heal. Pushing his own feelings aside, Roy silently vowed to find Joe and take him under his wing. The young boy meant something very special to him, as he never had the joys of becoming a father himself. He delighted in spending time on the Ponderosa and always welcomed the boys into his own home. Knowing how distraught the boy must be without any family left to care for him only enlarged the hole that had been torn in his heart.

Roy slowly made the long ride back to town. He hoped to find Ben’s attorney available so that he might speak with him. So many unanswered questions to the fate of the youngest Cartwright drove Roy nearly insane. Roy was anxious to know the whereabouts of Joe’s proper placement due to the unfortunate accident that left him without a guardian. Not waiting for an answer to his knock, Roy entered the attorney’s office. Mr. Miller seemed to have been expecting this visit and immediately invited Roy to have a seat. Roy was devastated to learn that his temporary deputy had taken it upon himself to place Joseph into the hands of an orphanage just outside of Reno. He learned that Ben’s last will and testament only provided provisions in the uneventful timing of his death alone. Ben had made the mistake that most father’s make when assuring that their children would be taken care of. He had assumed that Adam and Hoss would be there to aid in the rearing of the youngest Cartwright and therefore never gave it another thought.

Feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, Roy staggered his way back to the office. He sat down in his chair behind the desk and placed his elbows on the desk. Shaking his head in disbelief Roy rested his head on his hands and closed his eyes. His thoughts were a mixture of confusion and sympathy and had a difficult time drawing conclusions. His feelings were interrupted when he heard the voice that spoke to him.

Roy threw his head up in wonderment as he starred at the man standing before him. Staggering to his feet he stumbled around the desk to stand in front of Adam.

"Adam?" Roy reached out to touch the image of the boy believed to have been killed almost a week ago. He struggled to bring his emotions under control as he continued to question the man. "I... I was just informed that you were...."

Roy never got to finish his sentence as Adam slumped forward. If Roy had not grabbed a hold of the faltering figure, Adam would have fallen to the floor. He led Adam to a chair near his desk and poured him a cup of coffee. Adam accepted the hot drink and after sipping some of the nourishing liquid, placed the cup on the desk.

"Roy, I need your help. Pa and Hoss were still alive when I left them to bring back assistance. It took me days to travel back to town and I can only pray that they are still alive."

Roy clamped a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed it slightly. He quickly withdrew his hand when he felt Adam flinch. "I’ll round up some men and get them on their way. You wait here for me."

Roy grabbed his coat and halfway out the door turned back to Adam. "How badly are they hurt?" he questioned as he saw the dark bruises for the first time on Adam’s face and hands.

Adam shook his head in an attempt to clear the fogginess that seemed to penetrate his brain. "Hoss thinks he dislocated his shoulder and Pa said that his left leg felt broken." Adam sat quiet for a few seconds before speaking again. "Where’s Little Joe? What has he been told?"

Roy swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat and walked back to stand next to the fatigued man. "Let me fetch the men and get them on their way and I will talk to you when I get back. I need to stop at the telegraph office and send an emergency wire to Paul. He has been in Carson City for the holidays and his nurse has taken ill."

With those words spoken Roy hurried out of the office and down the street in search of a rescue party. He knew that he would not have any trouble finding volunteers to assist in the rescue, as Ben was a friend to all in town. Mission accomplished Roy ran back to his office hoping to settle Adam down for a much needed rest. He had seen the exhaustion written on the young man’s face and knew that it would take some fighting to get the boy to eat something and then to sleep. Roy tried to think of a way to avoid answering Adam’s questions in regards to his younger brother. He did not have all the answers and had secretly gathered a few volunteers to ride to Reno to intervene with the straying deputy.

Upon entering his office Roy found that Adam was still awake and appeared to be very nervous. Roy sat down behind his desk and placed his hand over those of Adam’s.

"This is difficult for me to say Adam," began Roy as he watched Adam shift in his seat, trying to find a position that would make him more comfortable. "I just got back into town less than a few hours ago myself."

Adam pulled his hand out from under Roy and held it up halting the conversation. "Roy, I want to know where my little brother is and what he was told," demanded Adam as he struggled to his feet.

Roy sighed deeply and stood to meet the dark eyes of his friend’s son. "Adam, please sit down. I can tell you what has happened but this is coming from Mr. Miller’s mouth not mine."

Adam felt his heart skip a beat as he fought to remain calm. Something in the way Roy was talking frightened him and he felt his stomach flip flop. "Where’s Little Joe?" Adam gritted his teeth as he asked again.

Roy sat down and began explaining the details of the boy’s whereabouts the last week. He told Adam of how the Devlins had taken Joe back to their home and were willing to look after him until he became of age to claim the Ponderosa. He gave Adam the horrifying details of Joe running away on Christmas Eve and then showing up at the banker’s house requesting money to give to the Devlins. Roy had to reach out to support Adam when he told him that Samuel had left earlier to take Joseph to an orphanage near Reno.

Roy had assumed right when he tried to persuade Adam into lying down on the cot in the cell. Adam had agreed to eat some beef stew that Roy had simmering on the wood-burning stove in his office but had to stand firm on his order to rest. Reluctantly Adam gave in to Roy’s demands and allowed his friend to assist him to the awaiting cot. Roy retrieved a folded blanket from the foot of the bed and covered Adam before slipping out of the cell. He left Adam a note explaining that he was riding with the volunteers to aid in the search and rescue of Adam’s family. He then strongly requested that Adam stay put to wait for their return.

Adam heard Roy’s departure and impatiently waited until he saw the search party ride down the street that led to Placerville. He knew that he was in no shape to sit a horse but the yearning burned inside of him as he thought of his baby brother in the hands of total strangers. Pushing himself beyond most men’s limits Adam forced himself to get up. After renting a horse from the livery stable Adam quickly stopped at the mercantile to purchase supplies needed for his trip to Reno. Within the hour Adam was on his way to Reno to collect his brother.

Samuel and his traveling companion made the ride almost unbearable for the youngest Cartwright. As the stage pulled away from Virginia City, Joe was pushed out of the leather seat and made to sit on the floor. Both of the older men utilized the empty space so that they might stretch out and enjoy the ride. Joe eased himself into a corner near the seat that the stranger had occupied and closed his eyes. He was tired, more tired than he had ever been in his short eight years of life. But the main reason for shutting his eyes was so he could hide the tears that had begun to pool in his already swollen eyes. Within minutes the boy was asleep, again troubled by the dreams of his deceased family. His nightmare painfully came to an end when Joe felt the toe of a boot connect in his side. His hand subconsciously reached for the tender spot as he opened his eyes to see who had kicked him. Samuel was grinning from ear to ear and laughed out loud when he saw that the young boy had awakened.

"Get up you lazy brat," ordered the deputy as he grabbed Joe forcefully by the arm. "It’s time to get up and hustle down some of that tasty way station food."

Joe swayed slightly as he was jarred to his feet. Sitting so long in that one position had caused his legs to fall asleep. It was complicated for the boy to walk as the sensation of pins and needles penetrated the tiny nerve endings in his lower extremities. The traveling companion had no patience for the slow movements that Joe had exercised and shoved his hand into the small of Joe’s back causing the boy to fall forward in the wet snow. Joe’s vision blurred from the tears of frustration as he felt a large fist clutching at his coat. Within seconds Joe was yanked to his feet and shoved forward again. Reaching the small wooden hut, Joe knocked on the door and waited for the invitation to enter.

Once inside Joe was ushered to the far corner of the room and ordered to sit down on the floor. He watched as the two men sat down to eat the warmed up stew that the caretaker had served. The man questioned about Joe’s portion and was given the go ahead to feed the kid. The old man knelt down in front of Joe as he offered the coffee mug filled with stew to him. He leaned forward so that he might talk to Joe but quickly glanced over his shoulder to assure himself that the men at the table did not hear what he was about to say.

"Kid, ya need to shape up and get this nonsense of running away out of ya’re system. Ya only make matters worse for ya’self ever time they catch ya and return ya to that there orphanage." The man gave Joe a small smile as Joe accepted the cup of stew.

Joe returned the smile and brought the cup to his mouth. He was hungry but the thoughts of being brought to an orphanage caused his stomach to react to the odor of the food. Fighting the urge to retch, Joe sat the mug down on the hearth and returned to his vigil of watching the two men. They had completed their meal and had taken up drinking from a half full bottle of, what Joe thought to be, gut rot whiskey. He felt the twitch of a smile attempting to form when he reminisced about the night that Adam had drunk one too many shots of the cheap whiskey. Joe had thought it funny to watch his older brother barely able to stand, walk or even talk
without swaying and slurring. Even with the help of Hoss on one side and Pa on the other, Adam could not take steps without stumbling to his knees.

Joe was almost relieved when the driver informed them that the horses were being hitched up and ready to continue their embarkment towards Reno. Forcing himself to stand, Joe stretched his arms above his head trying to work out the kinks that had settled in his lower back. Within minutes Joe was again ordered to sit on the floor. He glanced around trying to locate a dry area, one that had not been stepped on by wet boots. Scooting into the far corner of the stagecoach Joe eased his stiff body to the floor and drew his knees up tightly. The night was ascending and with it came the much colder temperatures.

After Joe had settled in, the other two men climbed into the stagecoach and within minutes were fast asleep, each savoring the lasting effects of the whiskey. Joe stood and peered out into the approaching darkness in search of the stars that he had come to admire over the years. Seeing the North Star twinkling down at him, Joe returned the smile and waved.

"Mama..." Joe choked on the word before continuing, "I know now that you’re happy. Papa, Adam and Hoss are there with ya." The boy’s eyes clouded up with moisture and as the tears dripped from his eyes, Joe caught one of the droplets with the end of his index finger. He held his hand out the window of the traveling stagecoach and watched as the wind carried his tear to the heavens above.

Samuel’s foot had slipped off of the leather seat and fell to rest on Joe’s shoulder. Joe had tried endlessly for quite some time to remove the boot that appeared to get heavier as the solemn ride continued. He sighed deeply and finally slid himself out from under the boot until he was lying on the dirty floor. Using his arms as a pillow, Joe fell into a restless sleep.

The two men were awakened as the coach came to an abrupt stop, indicating that they had reached the end of their journey. Samuel sat up and panicked a brief second before locating Joe sleeping on the floor. Using his left foot he kicked the young boy in the back in order to wake him. Joe grunted as the boot made contact with his aching body and moaned out loud when the foot repeated its invasion on the boy’s back. Samuel’s friend, who Joe had heard called Jake, laughed and followed suit. In order to escape the physical abuse that was raining down on his body, Joe stood and backed up against the door.

Still laughing the deputy reached towards Joe’s face and instinctively Joe raised his arms in front of his face to protect it from the attacker. Angered by the sudden movement from Joe, Samuel wrapped his hand around both of Joe’s wrists and yanked down on his arms. Once he had the boy’s arms pinned in front of his body, Samuel slapped Joe across his face causing the lower lip to split dotting Joe’s coat with small droplets of blood. Satisfied that he had caused injury to the small boy, Samuel then pulled Joe forward and shoved him out of the coach. Joe landed on the hard packed snow face down. As he pushed himself up from the cold groundJoe saw the red stain seeping into the white blanket of snow. Before he could react in fear, Jake was behind him. Grabbing hold of Joe’s black belt Jake pulled Joe to his feet and again shoved him towards the waiting buckboard.

Joe was unmercifully thrown into the back of the wagon and had hit his head against the back of the seat. Terrified to make a sound, Joe swallowed hard to contain the urge to cry out. As the wagon lurched forward Joe was thrown off balance and again hit his head, this time on the floorboards. The deputy and his companion laughed as they watched Joe curled himself up into a ball and using his feet push himself into the corner of the wagon. He could feel the constant throbbing intensify as the horses trekked forward. Another hour lying in the cold night air had Joe shivering. By the time the wagon was pulled to a stop outside the orphanage, Joe had grown sleepy and could no longer feel his hands and feet.

Joe felt that his torture had ended when he heard the soft voice of the woman who came out to greet the wagon. He strained to hear the conversation that was taking place but the howling of the wind prevented that. He was welcomed to the home by a petite woman who smiled at him and offered her hand to assist him from the wagon. She took on a look of concern when her warm hand closed around his near frozen one and turned to question Samuel.

"Sam, what is the meaning of this?" she questioned as she held up Joe’s hand in hers. "The boy is nearly frozen to death. Why couldn’t you have wrapped in a blanket from the stables before starting the ride out here?" The reprimands continued as she tugged on Joe’s hand indicating that he was to follow her. "Not even here for one minute and already have to fetch the doctor."

Joe picked up on the anger in her voice and grimaced when she roughly dragged him through the open door of the building and down the dark hallway. Turning around to face him, she pointed a finger and poked him in the chest with it.

"You, in that room and undress," she ordered. "You have fifteen minutes to warm yourself in the bath before the doctor arrives to give you an exam." She propelled Joe through the doorway and quickly closed the door behind him.

Joe sat down on the chair that had been placed near the round copper tub and began the weary task of unbuttoning his coat. The cold had stiffened his joints and Joe found it difficult to accomplish this once simple task. Unable to undress himself Joe let the tears of frustration roll down his cold face. Before he could wipe away the evidence of his tears the door to the room was flung open and the woman appeared with a small towel draped over her arm.

The appearance of her face showed signs of hardening as she found him still dressed and just sitting on the chair. Anger surfaced and she pulled Joe to his feet.

"Why aren’t you in the bath boy? The doctor will be arriving any time now and you have not even washed the dirt from your body." She had begun to unbutton the coat as she questioned him.

Not waiting for an answer she continued with the rough movements and soon had Joe’s shirt and long john top removed. As she reached for the belt Joe automatically backed away and turned around to hide the embarrassment that he knew was apparent on his face. The woman quickly turned him around as she wrapped her fingers into the curls on his head.

"Don’t’ you ever turn away from me," she snapped as her hand returned to the belt. "If you don’t want to be undressed like a baby then you should have followed the set of directions that were issued to you when I left you here."

"I just needed some help with the buttons," Joe tried to explain but was cut off.

"Then help you shall receive," the woman snorted back at him causing Joe to cringe back in fear. She unsnapped his pants and watched as they dropped to the floor. She pointed a finger at Joe and motioned for him to remove his under clothing and boots.

As Joe stepped into the tub he reached for the cloth that was draped over the side of the tub but was stopped by the woman’s hand. She gave Joe a devious smile as she lathered up the lye soap in the cloth and proceeded to wash him. Joe bit down on his already split lip attempting to hold back on the tears of embarrassment that she was creating for him. Joe was lost with his will to hide the tears that begged to be released that he didn’t notice that the woman had completed the task. She slapped him upside the back of his head and holding out the discolored towel which was no larger than the towels that Hop Sing had used to dry the dinner dishes with, ordered him to get out of the tub and dry off. As Joe dried off the beads of water from his body he watched the lady leave the room only to return shortly carrying in her arms a thin cotton nightshirt.

"Put this on and follow me," she demanded as she threw the nightshirt at Joe. "Quickly boy, you don’t want to keep the doctor waiting."

Martha re-entered her office and found the two men with heads together in close conversation. "I finally the got the boy settled for the night. The doctor gave him a clean bill of health. Now we need to discuss what we are going to do with him," commented Martha as she crossed the room to join in the men’s conversation.

Samuel looked up with a devilish grin on his face. "I have decided that I am going to adopt the boy myself," began Samuel.

Martha’s mouth dropped open as she placed her hand over Samuel’s. Samuel smiled up at the startled woman, "Yes that means we have to get married. Our plan worked, the three Cartwrights are dead," laughed Samuel inhumanly.

"What about the surviving relatives?" questioned Martha.

"Like I said, they’re all dead," Samuel laughed as he pulled Martha down onto his lap and placed a kiss on her cheek.

"How do we know that Ben Cartwright doesn’t have any living relatives, besides the brat?" spoke up Jake at last. He had been listening to the conversation between his two companions and wondering what his share in the devious plan would be.

Samuel laughed and wrapped his arms tightly around Martha’s waist before answering.

"I’ve already seen to that," as he withdrew a folded paper from his vest pocket, "Ben Cartwright is not the boy’s father. His son Adam is the boy’s real father."

Jake gave Samuel a puzzled look and asked, "how do you expect to pull that one off?"

Samuel unfolded the paper and handed it to Jake to read. "I’ve got friends in high places, and if you take notice, the seal of Nevada and the signatures are all authentic. There is no one to question us, Cartwright’s wife Marie, is dead also. The boy is the last Cartwright alive, with nothing to stand in our way. And in time, even that little problem with be wiped from the face of the earth." Samuel stood Martha on her feet and walked to the cabinet where she hid her liquor. Popping the cork on the champagne bottle he proceeded to pour each of them a glass.

"Soon," he smiled as he held his glass in the air to make a toast, "the Ponderosa will be mine," then turned to Martha and seeing the look on her face, rephrased his toast, "ours."

Martha unlocked the door and entered the dark room surprised to find the bed unoccupied. Panic seized her as she swiftly scanned the room and wondered where the boy might have gone. Joe was sitting in the far corner of the room with his back up against the wall. He had drawn his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them and was rocking back and forth. His forehead was resting on his knees and all that could be seen was the soft curls that graced his head. As Martha moved closer to the frightened boy, Joe slowly raised his head and met the woman’s eyes. The look of anger that she wore on her face sent shivers of fear throughout his body. Martha bent down grabbing Joe by his arm and yanked the startled boy to his feet. A slight moan escaped from Joe’s lips as he winced in pain at her rough handling of him.

"What do you mean sitting on that cold floor? You little fool; don’t you even know that you could catch cold? If you get sick enough to die, you can ruin everything. Now get your butt up," snarled the angry woman as she raised her hand and slapped Joe’s face. Joe cried out, more in fear of this lunatic woman than from the pain he felt on his cheek.

"You had better get used to this dearie, this is what your life will be from now on, unless you learn to mind," Martha snarled as she shoved Joe towards the bed. "Get dressed, I am taking you out of here."

Joe reached for his clothes and began to dress. He turned once, hoping the crazy woman would not watch but his hope died in vain as he realized that she had not taken her eyes from him. Fearing a repeat of her hand across his stinging face, Joe hurried to do as he had been instructed.

Martha gloated as she watched the fear spread across the reddened face of the boy. Now she knew what it would take to control the brat. If needed she would not hesitate to use more than her hand across his face to keep the boy under her discipline. A good strong strap laid across his back would prove essential if needed, and she smiled at the newfound knowledge.

Martha grabbed Joe once again by his arm as she half pulled, half pushed when Joe seemed to stall slightly, on his way to the waiting buckboard. Before Joe realized what had happened, Martha placed Joe into the back seat along side Jake who glared down at the boy. Martha climbed into the front seat next to Samuel and Samuel slipped his arm around her shoulders drawing her in close to him.

Joe was getting tossed around the back of the wagon as Samuel’s attention was locked on Martha not on the ruts that lied on the frozen road ahead. After what seemed like forever to Joe the horses where finally pulled to a stop. Jake was the one that grabbed Joe by the arm as he pulled the boy from the back of the wagon thus causing him to fall unmercifully to the solid ground below.

Martha resumed her position and closed her hand around the bruising arm replacing Jake’s hand. Joe automatically took a step forward but was quickly jerked back to stand by Martha’s side. Glaring down at the small boy, she smiled as she voiced her last warning, "remember what I said about minding. I have a wonderful thick strap that belonged to my foster father and rest assured I will not hesitate to use it across your back if you choose to become defiant."

She cupped Joe’s quivering chin in her outstretched palm forcing the boy to look her in the eye. "This threat applies to you minding here at your temporary home as well. Do I make myself clear?" Martha glared down at the frightened look that had replaced the blank stare just moments ago.

Unable to trust his voice Joe simply nodded his head. Dragged by his arm Joe was led down the unshoveled path to the small log cabin that seemed lost sitting in the middle of a blanket of white snow. The only other structure was a smaller building that Joe guessed to be the barn. As he quickly scanned the horizon Joe noticed that there were no other signs of civilization as far as he could see.

The door was opened before Martha could announce their arrival. Joe had to tilt his head backward in order to look up into the unshaven face of the man that stood in the doorway. The giant of a man was much taller than his father and so much heavier than his brother, Hoss. Joe suddenly felt much smaller standing in front of the big man. His heart skipped a beat as he felt fear rush through his veins. The look on the man’s face clearly indicated that he was not the type of person that welcomed children.

Mr. Gunther stepped aside, allowing Martha to enter the homestead as he motioned for her to sit down and as Joe went to occupy the other vacant chair he was shoved across the room.

"You, boy, don’t you ever say or do anything under my roof without getting my permission first," shouted the man as his face turned red with anger. "Where are your manners?"

Joe picked himself up off the dirt floor and stood quietly afraid to answer the question. He was not prepared for the large hand that flew across his vulnerable face knocking him off his feet and back to the floor. Joe felt the heat spread across the side of his face and fought to control the tears that begged to be released.

The man towered over Joe as he continued with the rampage, "rule number two, you will answer any questions that I ask and will do so without any hesitation."

Joe forced himself to look up at the face that wore no expression other than anger.

"Rule number three, crying is for babies and I take it that since you are not clad in a gown and diaper that you have out grown that phrase of your life." The man reached out causing Joe to flinch and grabbed a fist full of curls pulling Joe to his feet. "Therefore, no crying will be tolerated. If you choose to disobey this rule, it is punishable by a beating with my razor strap."

Joe quickly swallowed the bile that had risen in his mouth; he gagged on the after taste that lingered as he wiped his arms across this eyes attempting to dry his tears.

Mr. Gunther had seen Joe gag but continued to dish out his list of rules. "Number four, if you get sick you will first be responsible for cleaning it up, not me. Second, you will earn a trip to the barn for a date with my strap." Mr. Gunther tightened his hold on Joe’s hair and forced the boy to look up.

"Sickness is a sign of weakness and that will not be tolerated here." Joe’s neck was bent so far back that he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out in pain. Mr. Gunther shook the arm that held Joe’s hair captive causing Joe to stumble backwards. The same hand movement quickly pulled him forward.

"Rule number five, it is your responsibility to clean my home to my satisfaction. After your chores are completed here you will take your ornery hide outside and repeat your performance in the barn. You will not eat or sleep until I am pleased with the outcome. If I have to instruct you to repeat a task you will forego your daily meal. Sleep will not come to you until the chore has been redone to my satisfaction."

The man pushed his hand against Joe’s head causing the boy to fall on his butt. He pointed a stocky finger at Joe and continued to hand out his requirements. "Number six, you will have my breakfast on the table by 6:00 A. M., lunch at noon and dinner at 6:00 P.M., not one second late or you will find yourself out in the barn."

The man turned away and sat down at the table where Martha was sitting taking in the lecture with amusement. Joe turned his head to look at her and found that she was smiling down at him.

"Relax boy, it’s only temporary. As soon as the circuit judge arrives, the adoption papers can be signed." Martha stood and shook hands with Mr. Gunther. She walked to the door, stopped and turned around to face Joe once more. "I know for a fact that your new parents are eager to take possession of you." With those departing words, Martha let herself out of the house and closed the door behind her.

Samuel dropped Martha off at the orphanage leaving her to prepare the papers necessary for them to proceed with the adoption. "Your plan is one that would bring shame to a genius," commented Samuel as he leaned down to plant a kiss on Martha’s rosy cheeks. "By placing the brat into foster care indicates that you are following proper procedures and it certainly does not let on just how eager we really are to claim the boy."

Martha returned the kiss and wrapped her arms around Samuel’s neck; "Mr. Gunther will have the kid removed from his care when we are notified by a stranger that he is being abused." She smiled at Samuel and held him at arm’s length to watch his facial expression. "The judge will be pleased to learn that I want the boy. He has known of my position at the orphanage for nearly three years. It will be like taking candy from a baby."

Samuel laughed and as he pulled Martha back into his arms, he bent his head so that his mouth rested by her ear. "I can hardly contain my excitement. Soon we will be proud owners of the largest ranch in the territory of Nevada."

Martha waved good-bye to her beau and watched until he was no longer in sight. She entered the home and walked down the dimly lit corridor to her office. Opening the door she jumped startled to find a large handsome man sitting on the settee. Adam stood and apologized for startling her. He held out his hand and introduced himself.

"I am looking for my baby brother. I have good reason to believe that he might have been brought to your orphanage."

Martha brushed her hair back in place and took her seat behind her desk. "I am sorry Mr. Cartwright, but no children have arrived here since before the first of the month." She reached for the pitcher of water in the far corner of her desk and poured herself a drink. Filling the second glass, she offered it to Adam.

Adam accepted the glass and after taking a sip, returned it to the desk. "Is there another home in Reno?" he asked as he rubbed at the throbbing in his temples.

"There is a home on the outskirts of town that house wayward children. It might be possible that he was delivered there," explained Martha as she silently prayed for the handsome man to leave.

"I don’t mean any disrespect, Ma’am, but my brother is far from being a troubled child." Adam smiled at Martha and continued, "the only problem that the boy has now is overcoming the grief he has been carrying around thinking that his entire family has perished."

"I can relate, Mr. Cartwright, with the boy’s feelings that is," stammered Martha. "I lost both of my parents at a very early age and was raised in foster homes until I became of age." Martha stood and offered her hand to Adam, "you must excuse me, I need to tend to the children. It is getting close to dinner time."

Adam shook her hand, thanking her for the suggestion that he check out the other home. As Adam opened the door to the office, Martha stopped him. Adam turned around and was surprised to see a smile on her face.

"Ah, Mr. Cartwright? If you don’t locate your brother, maybe I can make another little boy’s dreams come true," said Martha as she took a step forward.

Adam looked at her and without clearly thinking about his response, let the words tumble out of his mouth. "I am deeply sorry Miss, but I see nothing funny in your comment." Adam placed his black Stetson on his head and walked out of the room, letting the door slam behind him.

Joe had just completed the first of his many chores. Mr. Gunther had drank himself to the point of passing out on the sweat stained sheets that covered the straw mattress that laid on the floor in front of the fireplace. Careful not to disturb the man, Joe chose to clean the stack of dishes in the kitchen. Luckily for him there was a fire already burning in the cook stove and Joe filled a cast iron pot to heat the water. As he waited for the water to boil, Joe went to work scraping the moldy remnants into a slop bucket he found by the kitchen door.

It was when the room became dark that Joe realized it had to be close to six and he had not started cooking the evening meal. As Joe rummaged through the near empty pantry he felt the sting of a belt rip across his back. Unprepared for the man’s actions, Joe let a cry slip through his lips. Immediately Mr. Gunther took hold of Joe’s collar and dragged him out to the barn. Joe was made to hug a support beam that was centered in the barn. As he wrapped his tiny arms around the splintered beam Mr. Gunther bound his wrists with an old rope that he had pulled down from a rusty nail on the wall. This prevented Little Joe from moving and he had to turn his head to the side in order to breathe. With a quick move of his hands the large man grabbed Joe’s trousers and jerked them down leaving the boy’s legs and backside fully exposed so that he would feel the full effects of the leather strap on his skin. When the cold air from outside hit Joe’s lower extremities, Joe felt his bladder beg for release. Not wanting to embarrass himself further, Joe willed the urge to go away.

The belt had been replaced with the razor strap that had been spoken of earlier that day. With an evil smile across his face the man stopped only long enough to dip the strap into the watering bucket in the nearest stall.

As hard as Joe tried to keep his screams from escaping, the pain that racked his body would not allow him to do so, thus causing the man to laugh. Joe’s cries for help fell only on the ears of the livestock that danced nervously around in the confinement of their stalls. His pleas eventually ceased and he no longer cared to fight for the will to survive. As he closed his eyes visions of his family appeared each of them holding out their arms waiting to embrace him, making their family complete once again. As his body surrendered to the darkness, Mother Nature could no longer contain herself and Joe’s bladder spilled forth onto the dirt floor.

The man maintained a steady rein with the strap as the blows consistently branded their mark on the unconscious boy. Small beads of water flew from the end of the wet strap each time it found its mark across the bloody back of the small boy. When Mr. Gunther finally dropped the strap onto the ground he stepped closer to the still form to examine his handiwork. Joe’s shirt was shredded and the man could almost count the number of welts that appeared on the boy’s back. As his eyes traveled down, Mr. Gunther once again smiled in satisfaction. He lost count of the number of red swollen welts that covered most of Joe’s bare buttocks and legs. As he staggered to face the boy the man saw that the rough beam that held him captive had scraped Joe’s face and blood was dripping from a gash above the right eyebrow. The intoxicated man reasoned that it must have occurred when the boy slumped forward and hit his head on the post. Dark bruises had begun to appear on various parts of the tear stained face and again the man smiled, pleased with his first lesson on obedience. The man admitted to himself that he had not held back on the force used on the blows. Every ounce of his strength had been behind each swing that had been delivered. The wet strap had snapped and popped each time it made its mark, the water having added a stinging sensation to the now raw skin.

The events from the past week had finally caught up with Adam as it had begun to take its toll on the young man. With little rest from the previous night Adam was forced to take a room at the hotel. Quickly he washed and eased his tired body in between the welcoming comfort of the sheets. As soon as his eyes closed his thoughts wandered to the encounter he had experienced with Martha. He struggled with the question of why Martha had sent him to a reform school in search of his baby brother. Plagued by the memories of Little Joe’s laughter Adam was prevented from finding any peace in sleep. Adam tossed and turned before surrendering to his conscience and pushed back the covers. He hastily dressed and soon found himself standing on the weather beaten porch of the orphanage.

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose desperately trying to make heads or tails of his brief conversation with Martha. He recalled that she had mentioned that no new children had come to the home prier to the first of the month. Adam scratched his head, and yet Roy had plainly stated to him that Joe had been brought to Reno. Surely Roy’s information had been correct, it was not like the sheriff to be so misinformed, but if not and Martha was right, where could his little brother have been taken. Adam dropped his hand to rest on the snow covered railing and gazed up into the twinkling of the night sky. Then and there Adam secretly vowed to God that he would not rest until he located the little boy who had brought so much joy and happiness into his life starting with the very day that he had been born.

Adam shook his head to clear away the painful thoughts that had begun to eat away at his mind. The uncertainty as to whether or not his father and middle brother was now safe played a major part in the troubled thoughts that weighed heavily on his mind. As his eyes focused on the ground, he noticed the distinct wagon wheel tracks that had been etched in the snow. Immediately Adam recalled that Martha had commented that she had just returned from placing a child into foster care while waiting for adoption procedures to be finalized. He then remembered how she had quickly excused herself to tend to the other children.

The imprints from his boots crunching on the now frozen snow were the only sounds that pierced the stillness of the night. Within minutes Adam had saddled his horse and using a torch to light his way he set out to follow the tracks.

He did not seem to notice that the temperature had fallen below the freezing point as something else that Martha had said continued to gnaw away at him. He could not comprehend why she would ever suggest that he might want another boy when he was so determined to locate his own flesh and blood. Urging the horse into a trot, Adam had an uneasy feeling that Martha knew more than what she had presented.

Mr. Gunther was prepared to celebrate his victory in breaking the youngster’s spirit. After a brief search he sat back on his haunches and using his rotting teeth, pulled the cork free from the bottle. By the time he had emptied the bottle of rock gut, Mr. Gunther was starting to feel the affects of the cold. Pulling himself to his feet he swayed momentarily before staggering out of the barn. Too drunk to think coherently, he left the barn door open forgetting all about the near naked boy tied to the beam. Halfway to the house Mr. Gunther felt his stomach working its way up and quickly leaned forward to free its contents. Unable to maintain his balance Mr. Gunther fell forward into the snow.

It was almost dawn when Adam rode into the Gunther’s yard where the wagon tracks had ended. Dismounting and dropping the reins to the ground, Adam approached the house. The door swung opened as he knocked. Drawing his gun Adam apprehensively entered the house. Guided by the faint glow of the smoldering embers Adam preceded with caution surveying the house. It was quite clear to Adam that this place could not have been a government approved home for children. His observation pointed out that the people who lived here obviously were not ones to maintain a respectable home. ‘Our barn is kept cleaner than this rat hole,’ thought Adam as he walked to the kitchen. He quickly noted that this was the only room in the house that had been cleaned up. Clean dishes were still sitting on the counter next to the tub of dirty dishwater.

Adam was beginning to think that he had over reacted to the tracks that he had followed. As he stepped back onto the porch Adam glanced over toward the barn. It was then that he saw the figure lying on the ground. Removing his gun from his holster once again, Adam crept slowly over to the fallen individual. He knelt down along side the man and removed his glove. Adam placed his long fingers against the neck to feel for a carotid pulse but quickly removed his hand when he felt how cold the man was. He had been dead for several hours and by the first light of dawn Adam could see the bluish tint that had blanketed the man’s skin. As Adam rolled the stiff body over the stench of vomit mixed with the odor of whiskey invaded his nostrils. His stomach lurched emptying out his dinner onto the frozen ground. Pulling loose his neck scarf Adam used it to wipe away the remnants from his mouth. He forced himself to look back at the dead man and after finding no evidence of bodily harm he quickly drew the conclusion that the man had aspirated. Adam retrieved a blanket that he had pulled from the mattress in the house and covered the deceased before picking up the empty whiskey bottle. Placing it under the blanket for the sheriff to find, Adam then mounted his horse. As he turned the horse back towards the direction of town he saw that the barn door was swinging in the wind. Quickly dismounting Adam crossed the yard to tend to the livestock and secure the barn before returning to Reno.

Adam stopped dead in his tracks and fell to his knees. The sight of his little brother tied to a wooden beam was more than Adam’s heart could bear. The young boy’s head had fallen to his side resting against the beam. Adam’s heart skipped a beat as his eyes focused on the white waxy appearance that Joe’s skin had taken on. He also noticed that Joe’s finger tips and around Joe’s lips had a bluish tinge to them. Panic seized the older Cartwright and forcing himself to his feet Adam reached out with a shaky hand to feel if the life had been drained from the body of this beloved baby brother. Adam slowly let out the breath that he had been holding as he felt the faint pulse that was still beating within Joe’s neck. Fumbling with his knife, Adam cut the rope with a single swipe of the blade. He gently eased the still form of his little brother to the ground, removed his own coat and wrapped it around the cold body. Joe’s body temperature had dropped so low that it was beyond the point of shivering. Gathering the boy into his arms, Adam ran across the yard to the house.

Once inside Joe was placed on the mattress that was in front of the fireplace and quickly Adam went to work to build the fire. Within minutes Adam had a blazing fire roaring in the hearth and turned his undivided attention to caring for Joe.

Adam knew that his first priority was in warming the boy quickly before he slipped too far from the point of recovery. Adam heated a pot of water and began filling the tub that he had found in the shed just outside of the kitchen door. Once he had heated enough water to fill the tub, Adam removed his coat and the remnants of clothing that was left on the boy and eased him slowly into the warm water.

Adam supported the frigid body with one arm careful to keep the head above the water. Using his free hand Adam slowly bathed the small boy desperately trying to raise the body temperature. He had seen the numerous welts that covered Joe’s backside stemming from the shoulders clear down to the bend of his knees. Adam was grateful that Joe had still had on his boots and that his pants were bunched up around his ankles or certainly this madman would have marked those areas as well. As much as Adam knew the cleansing of the open welts were important the warming of Joe’s body core was top priority.

As Adam’s hand continued to run the cloth over Joe’s torso he saw several slivers of wood protruding from Joe’s chest. Reminding himself of his first priority, Adam forced himself to leave the splinters until later.

Adam’s eyes widened with a fear that he had never felt before as the color of Joe’s skin began to change. What originally was white and waxy in appearance slowly turned a mottled blue and purple. Panic squeezed at Adam’s heart as he wondered if he had done something wrong to cause this. Removing Joe from the cooling water Adam dried him off with a towel that he had removed from his own saddlebags. First Adam tended to the gash above Joe’s eyes and then he carefully removed the splinters from Joe’s upper torso and ran his hands down the length of Joe’s body breathing a sigh of relief when no other slivers of wood were found.
Careful not to disturb the boy Adam dressed Joe into his own spare set of thermal underwear that he had bought before leaving Virginia City. The socks were too large for Joe’s short legs. ‘Short Shanks’, that’s where Hoss got that. Adam slowly smiled after pulling the socks up over Joe’s knees as he continued with the task of warming the now shivering child.

Once more Adam sighed in relief when Joe began to shiver. He remembered Doctor Martin explaining the body’s own will to survive and this was how the body subconsciously attempted to generate more heat through muscular actions. To further aid in the warming of his baby brother, Adam wrapped the small body with his bedroll and laid him down on the mattress. Stoking the fire and adding more wood, Adam then lay down and protectively wrapped his arms around Little Joe, pulling him into a tight embrace.

As the young Cartwright continued his struggle to achieve normal body temperature, Adam sang the French lullaby that he used to sing to Joe when he had trouble fighting off the night demons. It was well into the afternoon before the shivering finally subsided and exhaustion claimed Adam as he felt some of the tension drain from his body.

The howling of wolves woke up Adam and his attention was quickly drawn to his little brother that still slept. Adam quietly slipped out from under the covers and tucked them back around Joe before tending to the dying fire.

Adam felt trapped having to stay at the house longer than he had planned when he noticed that darkness had engulfed the homestead. The growling of his empty stomach was a reminder that he had not eaten since the previous night. Adam had never been a picky eater but the pantry held nothing of interest to the hunger pains that consistently reminded Adam that it was well past time to eat. He gathered his coat from the floor and lighting the lamp trampled through the freshly fallen snow to the barn. Lady luck was on his side as he retrieved eggs from beneath the hens and was pleased to find that the man at least had a milk cow. With his treasures safely tucked under his coat Adam hurried back to the house to fix himself what he considered a dinner fit for a king. With a tray of scrambled eggs, fried apples and a pot of freshly made cocoa, Adam returned to sit by Joe. He had made the decision to eat before waking his brother.

Joe could faintly hear the voice that prompted him to open his eyes. The voice sounded so familiar but yet Joe knew he could not be hearing his older brother. Thinking that he was dreaming, Joe refused to open his eyes, not wanting his dream to come to an end. As he lay there savoring the deep baritone voice Joe felt the stinging of tears that leaked from beneath his eyelids and ran freely down his cheeks. Joe tried to raise his hand to brush away the remnants but could not find the strength to comply. Even the slightest movement of rubbing his face against the woolen blanket left Joe feeling totally exhausted. As Joe lay buried in the warmth of the bedclothes he swore that he could smell Adam’s bay rum after-shave. Again, Joe convinced himself that he was dreaming and allowed his eyes to remain closed.

Adam had seen the tears slip down the swollen face and watched as Joe struggled to wipe them away. Again Adam called to him and was rewarded when Little Joe blinked his eyes opened. Joe lay mesmerized as he saw the hand reaching for him and caress the top of his shoulder. Fear clutched at his heart when the hand made contact yet Joe could not feel the familiar gesture of love. Fresh tears pooled and ran down the tear stained face. Adam pulled back the covers and gently lifted the distraught child into his arms. The fear escalated as Joe could not feel the strong arms that cradled his body; nor could he feel Adam’s shoulder against his cheek. It wasn’t until he had stopped crying that he heard the distinct sound of his oldest brother’s heart. Joe acknowledged that what he was experiencing was not a dream but in fact his oldest brother…Joe stopped himself and briefly recalled the conversation with sheriff Samuel…but in fact his father was physically present and holding him in a securing embrace. His voice was almost a whisper so low that Adam could barely hear him. "Pa." The word was all that Joe found the strength to muster.

Adam closed his eyes and rested his chin on the top of the abundant curls that covered the young boy’s head. He struggled with what his reply should be unsure himself as to the fate of their father and brother. His decision was to remain silent until Joe had regained some of his strength. Adam started to explain to the wide-eyed boy how he escaped the rockslide and then left Virginia City to search for him. Adam explained to Joe the injuries that had been inflicted upon his body and felt the boy relax somewhat when advised that the numbness he was feeling would subside. The numbness was part of the healing process when one was exposed to the freezing cold for long periods of time Adam assured Joe.

Adam stood still cradling his brother against him as he heated up Joe’s meal. Joe was famished and gave Adam no argument when he was spoon-fed. Adam smiled and gently rubbed the back of Joe’s neck as he watched Joe gulp down the hot cocoa. Adam extinguished the lamp and laid Joe back on the mattress before joining him under the blankets. As Adam sang to his little brother he watched by the glow of the fire the eyelids becoming heavy and finally closing. Adam continued to sing and heard Joe mumble, "Pa" before drifting off to sleep.

Adam had not been asleep that long when the screams jarred him awake. Stumbling to his feet, Adam lit the lamp and returned to the hysterical boy. Gathering Joe into his arms only caused the young boy to scream louder. Adam’s first thoughts were that Joe had experienced another nightmare and began rocking and humming to him. Joe adjusted his head so that he could better hear the comforting sounds of his father’s heartbeat. As the crying diminished Adam replaced the rocking with rubbing the back of Joe’s neck. Joe flinched and Adam realized that the numbness had passed and that it was not a nightmare that had caused the boy to cry out but the continuing healing process of the cold. Adam again rested his head on the soft curls that covered Joe’s head. Adam explained the process to Joe, hoping to ease the fear of the unknown and was pleased to feel the presence of a tiny hand touching the side of his face.

Joe moved his head from the echoes of Pa’s heart and gazed up into the dark eyes that were already looking at him. "Pa," whispered Joe as he struggled against the pain in his hand that continued to caress the unshaven face. "I wanna go home." With those words spoken Joe returned his head to the comforts of the heartbeat and cried, as the pain became too much to bear.

It tore Adam apart to have to listen to the sounds of Little Joe’s torturous pain and was only after his brother fell in slumber totally spent by the long hours of crying that he himself could relax enough to sleep.

With the first rays of the morning sun pouring through the bare windows, Adam dragged himself out of bed. Returning from the barn, he quickly scrambled some more eggs and made a pot of fresh hot cocoa. Before he could return to wake Joe, the cries of pain once again filled the small house.

Joe refused to eat and with a pleading voice repeatedly cried out the one most important word in his vocabulary. Adam hurried to saddle the horse and bundling Joe up with as many blankets as he could rustle up mounted the horse placing Joe backwards on the saddle so he could lean against Adam’s chest. Adam was tempted to urge the horse faster as Joe continued to cry out in agony. He fought with himself to maintain a walk knowing that the jarring in the saddle would cause Joe more pain. Adam glanced down at Joe when the crying ceased and was relieved to see that he had exhausted himself and was now sleeping. Using it to his advantage, Adam kicked the mare into a canter and before long arrived in Reno.

Adam located the doctor’s office and carried Little Joe into the building. He tried to hide his disappointment when he saw other patients waiting to see the doctor. But when the agonizing screams ripped through the office, the doctor quickly entered the waiting area. Adam was ushered into a vacant examining room and was ordered to place the hysterical child on the table. As the doctor questioned Adam about Joe’s injuries and Adam explained the circumstances to the doctor, Joe stretched out his hands and clamped on to Adam’s squeezing with all of his strength. Once more the use of a single word, ‘Pa’, tore open Adam’s heart as Joe continued to cry out.

Adam returned the squeeze and keeping one eye on Joe, watched with the other as the doctor undressed him. Unknowingly Adam gasped out loud as the clothing was removed and his eyes widened at the sight of the large bruises that had appeared on various locations of Joe’s body. The doctor completed the examine and after applying some salve to the welts on Joe’s back and buttocks he then applied a small amount to the gash above Joe’s eyebrow. The doctor then turned to his nurse and ordered a sleeping powder to aid the youngster into a healing sleep along with a small dose of morphine to alleviate the pain. As Joe relaxed and drifted off to sleep the doctor gestured for Adam to join him in his office.

Adam swallowed the lump that formed in his throat as the physician explained the healing process of exposure. He cringed as he allowed the doctor’s words to penetrate the fogginess of his tired mind.

"The capillaries that were injured began to leak edema fluid as the body is warmed. This fluid gathers in the surrounding tissues thus causing the blue and purple coloring on the skin. The liquid that has pooled and will evidently be absorbed by the body also causes the swelling. All of this is a result of the blood vessels opening to feed the deprived veins of oxygenated blood." The doctor offered Adam a cup of hot coffee before continuing.

"Your son will experience stinging and burning pain and might even develop superficial blisters as his body heals itself." The doctor paused as the fear registered on Adam’s face.

"I will prescribe some sleeping powders and morphine to administer to help comfort the boy," assured the physician as he placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder. "I expect the throbbing, aching and burning to last for a few weeks before subsiding. The larger bruises that you witnessed were caused by contact, not exposure. Please understand, holding or touching the boy at his time will cause further bruising; however those will fade in time. So you need to decide whether you want to do that or have no physical contact to avoid the bruising. Either way, the child is bound to suffer to some degree."

The doctor refilled Adam’s coffee cup before proceeding with the discussion. "The welts should be kept clean and salve applied three or four times a day. It might be more comfortable if your son sleeps on his side or stomach until the tenderness subsides."

As Adam listened and made mental notes of Joe’s treatment, the doctor waved his hand motioning to the sheriff who had entered the room. Adam was introduced to the town sheriff and filled him in on the bizarre happenings that had unfolded the last few days. The sheriff wanted to know what circumstances had led Joe into coming to the orphanage and was stunned to hear that it was done at the hands of a deputy and Adam’s father’s attorney.

Paul Downy, the sheriff, was an old friend of Roy Coffee’s and was familiar with Ben Cartwright, and strongly suggested that Adam stay at the doctor’s home with Joe while he questioned Martha. Sealing the agreement with a firm handshake Paul promised to send a wire to Virginia City inquiring about the fate of Adam’s family and to follow up on the search for Samuel.

The doctor’s wife showed Adam to a small guest room at the rear of the house. She praised him as she watched how Adam lovingly handled his son and with a promise to return later with some lunch closed the door allowing Adam to take a nap.

Martha answered the knock at the door and felt a surge of panic race through her body. Sheriff Downy let himself in when Martha froze in the doorway. With each passing question that Sheriff Downy asked, Martha grew more and more frightened. Fear of going to prison had entered her mind and without any hesitation blurted out the entire scheme involving the youngest Cartwright boy. All blame was placed on Samuel as she rattled on with her version of his plot. Her main excuse for playing along with the scheme was that Samuel had threatened to kill her if she refused her assistance in gaining legal control of the boy. Sheriff Downy watched as Martha’s mouth nearly dropped to the floor when he questioned her about Little Joe’s adoption when she knew that Little Joe had a brother that was very much alive. Nervously she handed over a folded piece of paper. She quietly took a step backward as Paul read what was printed on the document. Paul refolded the paper and inserted it into his back pocket as he reached to grab Martha’s arm.

"Whoa, hold on a minute Miss, I am not finished with you yet," warned the sheriff as he led Martha back to the chair forcing her to take a seat. "Would you care to explain this document or shall we go to my office first?" asked Paul as he snapped the handcuffs closed securing Martha to the arm of the chair. Her only comment was, "can’t you read?"

"Yes ma’am, I can read and it states that Adam is the boy’s biological father which is an untruth, so that makes your document a fraud. Seems to me the boy has a surviving relative, that being his brother Adam Cartwright, his legal guardian and now has been reunited with him," the sheriff told Martha.

"Reunited?" stated Martha surprised at that bit of information. "How? When? He had no idea where we took the boy." Too late Martha realized what she had said and knew that she had just implicated herself in Samuel’s scheme.

"Appears that now your entire scheme has just backfired," stated the sheriff.

Confused and frightened, Martha burst into tears. In between the sobs she managed to sputter out, "Oh, not quite Mr. Sheriff, the boy has lost half his family and if it wasn’t for that brother, we would have soon owned the Ponderosa. Samuel will see to it that his plan carries on, one way or another."

Paul shook his head at the way the woman showed no remorse for her actions involving the small boy and his family. After Martha refused to tell him where Samuel was hiding, Paul returned to his office with Martha in tow and locked her in a cell to wait her fate.

Returning to the doctor’s office Sheriff Downy sat down with Adam to fill him in on the scheme. "The whole scenario was a deliberate plot to kill you and your family. Your father’s attorney played a major roll in handing out legal advice to Samuel. It was his idea to name you as Joe’s father and your father as the boy’s grandfather.

Adam stopped him by holding up his hand, "How does changing Joe’s father make things easier for them?" questioned Adam as he began pacing the floor.

"Simple actually, if your father remained on the certificate, by law, Mr. Miller would have to run a post seeking for a living relative. By altering the document, Mr. Miller knew that other than your brother and father you had no other surviving relatives and was also aware that there are no surviving relatives from Marie’s side of the family," explained the sheriff.

"Are you trying to tell me that Mr. Miller a man that claimed to be a friend of my fathers has suggested that Marie and I, my step-mother," Adam stopped, he could think about what those two had implied.

"I am sorry Adam, but that was his intentions," said the sheriff.

Flabbergasted by what he was hearing Adam interrupted. "But why me? Why would they still try to proceed with the adoption?" Adam rubbed at the start of what promised to be one hell of a headache.

"Adam, you are how old?" inquired Paul as he poured Adam another refill of coffee. Adam shook his head no to the offer of coffee as he answered the question.

"Twenty. Why? My father’s will allows me to take over on his behalf should something happen to him," explained Adam as he continued to rub at the pounding that had replaced the throbbing.

"The judge probably would not put up an argument if you were married but by law you are not of legal age until you turn twenty-one. It was part of the scheme to use your age now that you are very much alive," said Paul.

Adam turned his back to the sheriff fighting to control the anger that had raised another notch. Paul continued with the information hoping to finish so that Adam could calm himself before Little Joe awoke.

Adam swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and slammed his fist on the table, "Over my dead body," yelled Adam, "no son-of-a-bitch will ever own the Ponderosa unless their last name is Cartwright."

The sheriff handed Adam a glass of water and forced him to sit. Adam felt the anguish that his younger brother had been fighting to overcome. Unable to control the thoughts that played havoc on his mind, Adam then realized that the confusion and mental torment were just part of the suffering that was destroying Little Joe’s existence.

Adam shook his head desperate to clear the fogginess from his mind. "These bastards were so determine to ruin an eight year old just to possess a piece of land," shouted Adam.

Adam rested his head on his hands and felt his own heart break in two. That precious word that Joe had spoken was his attempt at seeking comfort from whom he now believed to be his father. Adam had just assumed that Little Joe had been saying that word in despair over loosing his pa. Adam was torn between telling Little Joe the truth or allowing Joe to hold on to his belief…at least long enough for him to regain his strength caused mixed emotions to hold a death grip on the young man’s heart. Adam felt the salty tears drip freely from his eyes, now more confused than ever.

"How can I tell Joe the truth behind the conspiracy that those maniacs implanted in his mind and at the same time tell him that I am not his father, but his brother? And then try to explain to him that who he believes is his grandfather is his father and his uncle who is really his brother were very much alive when I left to get help? How could an eight-year-old handle this devastating news twice in his short lifetime if I have to tell him the search and rescue party arrived too late? It certainly would push the boy over the edge, if in fact he could even understand it…in the condition he is in…" Adam stopped his rambling and searched the eyes of the sheriff that sat across from him. "What do I do?" he pleaded.

The piercing cries cut through the room like a hot knife slicing into fresh made butter before Adam could get Paul’s opinion. Paul left to summons the doctor, leaving Adam to console Little Joe. As Adam gathered Joe into his arms the boy wrapped his own arms around Adam’s neck and buried his face against Adam’s cheek. Adam felt the shiver run down the length of his spine causing the hairs to stand on the back of his neck. Once again Joe mumbled the word that now tugged at Adam’s conscience. The doctor approached Adam and retrieved Joe from his embrace.

Joe turned and held out his arms back toward Adam, yelling at the top of his lungs. "Pa!"

Adam was stunned momentarily, as he had never heard Joe screamed so loud. Instantaneously, Adam held out his own arms and grabbed the hysterical boy back into his loving embrace. "It’s okay buddy," Adam reassured him as he gently drew Joe’s head to his chest. "Everything is going to be just fine, I promise."

The doctor mixed a pain powder into a small amount of warm water and then decided to add a mild sedative as well. Handing the glass to Adam the doctor left the room to gather his supplies to tend to Adam’s hand. Sheriff Downy had informed the doctor of Adam’s encounter with the table and had felt certain that the young man had injured himself by his observation due to the way that Adam had cradled his hand to his body. A short time later, Adam’s broken hand had been wrapped and the physician ordered him to take a similar mixture that he had earlier prescribed for Joe. Both boys slept through the night undisturbed by the unfavorable events that had plagued their lives the last few days.

Little Joe was the first to awake and although he still hurt Joe felt that it was not as bad as it had been and that he could tolerate the discomfort as long as his pa took him home. He reached over and placed his left hand on his father’s shoulder to wake him. Adam blinked before he opened his sleep filled eyes and found himself looking into the small bruised face of his little brother. Adam smiled up at Joe before taking his hand into his own. Squeezing the small hand Adam saw the pained expression wash over Joe’s face and quickly lightened his hold on Joe’s hand. Adam cringed tracing the outline of the bruise that had formed in the shape of his own hand knowing that he had been the cause of it. Joe cupped Adam’s face with his hands and turned Adam’s head so he could have his father’s undivided attention. Once eye contact had been established Joe returned his hands to the two weeks growth of hair that covered Adam’s face.

"Pa," whispered Joe as he caressed the cheeks of his father, "I wanna go home."

Adam knew he could not prolong the inevitable. Drawing Joe onto his lap, Adam positioned Joe against his chest and began stroking the soft curls that covered the boy’s head.

"Buddy, I want to go home, too, but now is not the time. The day and a half ride alone would cause you too much discomfort not to mention what the cold would do to you.

Joe pushed himself back up so he was straddling Adam’s waist. He let his tears flow freely as he again cupped his father’s face. " Pa, we have to go home. I dun put up the Christmas tree," Joe gulped and swiped at the tears that ran down his cheeks. "I need to find Snowflake."

Adam knew the boy would end up having his way as the tears tugged at his own heart. He felt that he could not deny the small boy his favorite holiday no matter how inconvenient it would be to get him home.

"Shh…don’t cry," soothed Adam as he cradled Joe against his chest, "I’ll find a way to get you home."

While Joe was eating his lunch under the careful watch of the doctor’s wife, Adam went in search of a buckboard. After making arrangements at the livery stable Adam stopped at the mercantile to purchase the supplies necessary for what promised to be a slow journey home. He returned to the livery stable and packed the supplies securely under the seat of the wagon. The stable boy had cushioned the back of the wagon with hay, to show his appreciation Adam handed him a silver dollar. He tossed the bundle of blankets in the back before heading over to bid Sheriff Downy farewell. The sheriff was understanding of Adam’s decision to head home and regretfully informed him that no reply had been received regarding the fate of Adam’s family.

Adam’s heart weighed heavily for the burden that he now carried not only as the sole owner of the Ponderosa but as brother and father to Little Joe. Fear had replaced the slight hope that Adam had dreamed of hearing that his family was safe. He reasoned that no reply from Roy could only mean one thing. The search party had arrived too late and Roy could not find the words to tell Adam of the unfortunate news.

Adam returned to the doctor’s office and dressed Joe with the set of thermal underclothes that were more his size before putting on his new street clothes. Unable to find a pair of boots for Little Joe, Adam covered Joe’s feet with a couple pairs of socks before putting on his new winter coat. The doctor had heated some warming bricks and Adam placed them strategically around the boy before covering Joe with the abundant pile of blankets. Adam climbed up into the seat of the rented wagon but before he could urge the team forward, Sheriff Downy stopped them. Paul threw his bedroll and saddlebag under the seat and placed himself along side of Adam. While gathering the reins in his hands, Paul informed Adam that he had his deputy to cover for him and wanted to go to Virginia City to search for Samuel. Paul had a distinct feeling that Samuel had chosen to travel back to Virginia City in order to secure any loose ends and make his next move in owning the Ponderosa.

Adam welcomed the company as his broken hand was causing him some minor discomfort. Slowly they made the lonely trek across the isolated trails stopping every two or three hours to reheat the warming bricks. The doctor had provided Adam with an adequate supply of painkillers and sleeping powders to administer to Joe making the wagon ride more tolerable.

Late afternoon on the second day, Adam pulled the team to a halt in front of Roy’s office. Joe was still asleep and Adam left him under the watchful eyes of Sheriff Downy while he went in search of Roy. A sense of uneasiness settled over Adam when he found the office vacant. Quickly he wrote a note to Roy explaining that he had Little Joe and was heading home. As he placed the note on Roy’s desk, Adam’s eyes fell upon Little Joe’s saddlebag hanging on a peg behind the desk. Adam removed the saddlebag from the peg and opened one side. He smiled to himself as he unpacked Scruffy, his father’s pipe, a whistle that Hoss had whittled and his guitar pick that had been placed between the pages of Joe’s favorite storybook, Moby Dick. Adam repacked Joe’s treasures and opening the other side, almost certain to find clothes, Adam’s eyes filled with tears as he untied the family’s priceless heirlooms that Joe had so carefully packed. Photos of Elizabeth, Inger, and Marie were the first items that he had laid on the desk. The photo that Adam had taken before he had gone away to college had followed. It was a picture of the three brothers standing in front of a Christmas tree. Next came a photo that Pa had sent to him while he was away in Boston. It was a photo of Ben with Hoss seated next to him and Little Joe sitting on Ben’s lap. Last but not least was Bo. Adam brushed away his tears and repacked the family treasures into the safety of the saddlebag. Draping the bag over his shoulders, Adam climbed up taking his place in the buckboard.

Adam pulled up just outside of the International Hotel and while Paul checked in, he tended to the horses. Little Joe was somewhat dazed from feeling the effects of the medicine and was having a difficult time in waking up. Adam gathered Joe into his arms and entered the hotel lobby. When Paul finally came down the stairs, the three of them went to the restaurant for dinner.

"Table for three," stated Adam as the hostess greeted them.

"I am sorry sir, I only have a table for two available now," apologized the lady, "unless you care to wait."

"The table for two is fine," replied Adam, "the boy can sit on my lap."

Once seated, the waitress handed them the menus and took their drink order. By the time that she returned with their drinks Adam had managed to rouse Joe awake and saw the smile that appeared on the small face when Joe saw the sarsaparilla that had been placed before him. The smile tugged at his heart and managed to melt some of the anger that he had been holding on too. It was then that Adam knew his place was at home taking care of Little Joe and leaving justice to the sheriff. The waitress took the food order and promised to return shortly with their meals. When she did return with the food, Joe’s face lit up once again as she placed a second sarsaparilla in front of him. The squeal of delight was loud enough to temporarily quiet the restaurant. Paul and Adam both felt the burden of dismay lifted as they took in the joy of watching Joe gulp down the drink.

"Pa, can I have more?" asked Joe turning around to look up into Adam’s face. Adam glanced down into Little Joe’s plate and saw that the boy had left not a single crumb lingering behind.

"Are you sure that you can polish off another helping? Or do you want to save room for dessert?" asked Adam as he tousled the curls on Joe’s head.

" I want more fried chicken," replied Joe as he turned his face to look at Adam. "But no peas or potatoes, just chicken, so I can have dessert too."

Adam had to laugh at the serious look that had appeared on Joe’s face and lifted his hand gesturing to the waitress. After the bill had been paid, Paul parted company leaving the Cartwrights to part for home.

The house was dark and showed no signs of welcoming the two lost souls. Adam found the front door locked and broke the windowpane on the kitchen door, enabling them to enter the house. His footsteps echoed loudly throughout the vacant house causing a slight shiver to run down Adam’s spine. Adam placed Joe on the settee and covered him with the blankets from the wagon. It took a while to get a fire going in the hearth and by that time Little Joe had fallen asleep once more.

Adam took advantage of the time to head out to the barn to unhitch the horses and bed them down. He had to stop long enough to break loose the boards that were used to ward off any unwelcome guests. Before reentering the house, Adam stood gazing around the front yard. Many unanswered questions plagued his mind as he looked at the deserted grounds. Not a single animal roamed other than the two horses that he had just stabled. Adam first went to check on Joe and still finding him sleeping made the lonely climb up the staircase. Adam paused on the landing, running his hand along the Indian blanket that adorned the railing. Many memories flooded through his head as he recalled the numerous times the blanket had been put to use.

First stop was his own room and Adam started a fire so that they might turn in before long. Next he stopped at Hoss’ room. As he held the lamp up an eerie glow filled the room and Adam quickly closed the door. Stopping at Joe’s room he opened the door to find the room in perfect order expect for the white linens that covered the furniture. He stepped back and as he stood in front of his father’s door, hesitated before turning the knob. Upon entering the room Adam noticed that the bed had not been made and everything else had been covered with the all too familiar white linens. He sat down on the edge of the bed and silently prayed for guidance and the strength that he knew he would need in the days to come.

‘You left me to follow in your footsteps, Pa, awfully big footsteps. Help me to fill them and make you proud,’ prayed Adam.

His prayers were interrupted by a blood-curdling scream. Taking the steps two at a time Adam found Joe standing on the settee near hysteria. Adam quickly gathered Joe into his arms and walked the floor trying to calm him down.

‘Help me Pa,’ Adam prayed as he held fast to the trembling body in his arms. Slowly Joe succumbed to sleep and Adam carried him up the stairs laying him on the bed. Adam undressed him and managed, without waking Joe, to get a nightshirt on him that he had been warming near the fire. After stoking the fire and quickly undressing, Adam slipped under the blankets and draped a protective arm around the sleeping form of his brother.

Adam watched as the dirt fell threw his fingers and landed on the pine box. A sense of failure washed over him as Joe’s hand clamped down tightly on his own. The heart breaking "NO" rang through the air causing a flock of geese to take flight. Adam sat up and wiped at the sweat running down the side of his face. His nightshirt was clinging to his body that was drenched in a thin layer of sweat. Before getting out of bed Adam brushed back the irate curl that had fallen so nonchalantly unto Joe’s forehead.

It was nearly noon before the two boys woke up judging by the position of the sun in the partly clouded sky. After getting dressed, Adam and Joe headed into town to replenish the pantry and to have a talk with Mr. Miller, Ben’s attorney. Adam needed to find out where all the livestock had gone and what he could legally do to get it all back. He was lost in his thoughts and only when Little Joe began shaking his arm was the trance broken.

"Sorry, buddy, I didn’t hear you," apologized Adam as he forced a smile.

"Pa, I was asking ya if we could go look for Snowflake when we get to town," Joe replied with a question of hope flashing in his eyes.

Adam put his arm around the small waist and slid Joe close to him. "Snowflake was at the livery stable and we can get him before heading home," explained Adam as he tucked the blankets around Joe’s legs.

The door burst open causing the startled man to look up from his desk. Adam slammed the door closed and in a few short steps stood in front of Mr. Miller. Reaching across the desk Adam jerked Mr. Miller to his feet by the front of his shirt. The smaller man was forced into looking at the anger that was deeply engraved on Cartwright’s oldest son’s face. Hatred seemed to flow forth from the depths of the darkening eyes.

"You bastard! How could you do that to my little brother?" yelled Adam as his hand closed into a clutched fist. "How can you sleep at night knowing that your greed caused my brother such devastation?"

Mr. Miller stood paralyzed with fear and had lost all sensations leaving him feeling numb. Never before had he seen the type of rage that appeared to seep through every pore of Adam’s body. He closed his eyes in anticipation of the forthcoming fist and held his breath. Slowly he exhaled and opened his eyes thinking that the man had come to his senses but was wrong. As soon as his eyes focused he saw the large fist close in on his vulnerable face. The sheer force of hatred flung his body back against the wall and then sliding to the floor. Adam reached down and once again pulled him to his feet and drew back to deliver another swing.

Adam staggered and regained his balance as Roy’s hand closed around his arm preventing the fist from hitting its target. "No Adam," instructed Sheriff Coffee while leading Adam to the far side of the office. "Not this way," Roy explained as he blocked Adam’s path of approach. "If you don’t regain control of your self, I will end up having to put you behind bars for assault and battery." Roy positioned Adam so he was looking at Joe standing outside the office doorway. "Think of what will become of Little Joe if you are tried and found guilty of those charges."

Mr. Miller smiled as he rubbed the tender spot on his cheek knowing that Roy would not allow Adam to further inflict his body with angry fists. Adam peered over Roy’s shoulder and forced himself to speak to whom he had once considered his father’s friend.

"Explain one thing to me Mr. Miller," Adam threw Roy a questioning glance and getting his approval pressed on. "Now that I am back and obviously very much alive how do you intend to accomplish your devious plan?"

The man again smiled thinking he had total control of the situation in question. "Quite simple Adam, you are only 20 years old, not quite old enough to have legal control of your father’s assets or your younger brother."

Adam smirked before replying. "Wrong answer Mr. Miller," he remarked continuing with his expert explanation. Adam pulled forth the folded piece of paper from his back pocket. "Remember this Mr. Miller or do I need to refresh your memory?" Adam unfolded the paper and held it up for him to see. "This official document clearly states that I am the boy’s father and therefore, regardless of my age, grants me the sole custody of the child." Adam’s smirk changed into a smile as he tucked the paper safely into his pocket. "As far as the Ponderosa is concerned, I am free to live there as stated in my father’s will and I have a Power of Attorney that you, your self placed your signature on that will allow me to pay the wages to keep her up and running. I find it hard to believe that the circuit judge will not allow Roy Coffee here to act as temporary guardian of the Ponderosa until I turn twenty one, which by the way is in only two months."

The tension in the room multiplied as the attorney realized his mistake by changing the birth father of Little Joe. The only comment that he managed to force pass his tight lips only buried himself a little deeper into trouble as Roy was still witness to the conversation.

"Samuel had other plans that will soon alleviate all of you Cartwrights," the laughter was that of a man slowly retreating into a world of insanity as the trap closed firmly around him.

Adam drew his hand into the shape of a fist but was quickly reminded of the charges that could be brought against him. Slowly he relaxed his hand and took a deep cleansing breath. He forced a smile hoping to reassure his baby brother that he was once again in control of his emotions. "All right Roy," replied Adam as he held out his arms to gather Little Joe. "This time I will listen to your advice," said Adam as he tightened his hold on Joe, "but I am trusting you to lock up this son of a bitch and keep him away from us until the circuit judge arrives."

Adam stepped out of the building onto the deserted streets of Virginia City and then turned around. "Next time I will not stop at anything to deliver my sentence."

"Wait Adam, there’s something…" Roy’s words were left unheard by those in which they were intended for as Adam quickly climbed aboard the wagon and urged the horses into a gallop leaving a trail of dust behind.

Both boys rode toward home in silence; each lost in their own thoughts of the upcoming trial. Two of the four perpetrators were now behind bars, leaving only Jake and Samuel at large. Adam felt his blood boiling as the thoughts of Samuel living in the house that he had helped his father build years ago. He shuddered as he quickly blocked the image of that man acting as Little Joe’s father. Adam gulped and forced himself to swallow the sour taste that coated his tongue and gazed down into his brother’s face. Little Joe was starring at him and Adam knew that he had not only witnessed the scene but had probably heard the exchange of words. He forced a smile and gently squeezed the small frame that had managed to entwine itself around his waist and neck. Adam leaned into the warm embrace and tenderly kissed the curls on the boy’s head. "Everything is going to be just fine, Little Buddy, just fine. I promise."

Joe acknowledged his brother by further wrapping his legs around Adam’s waist and resting his head against the soothing sounds of life that beat from within Adam’s chest.

The sun had begun its nightly descent casting a firey glow that reflected off the snow-capped mountaintops. By the time the team was pulled to a halt in front of the darkened house Little Joe had fallen asleep. Adam gently aroused him from his nap and together they unloaded the supplies from the back of the wagon. After a quick supper of ham and pinto beans they settled down in front of the warm fire to enjoy a story. Soon after Adam had begun reading Little Joe had fallen asleep. Adam marked the page and placed the book on the stone hearth before cuddling the still form against his chest. He glanced around the still room desperately praying that this was nothing more than a bad dream and that he would wake up to find his family around him. As the memories of his family invaded his mind, Adam’s eyes fell upon the sapling that Little Joe had planted in the pot. It brought back the conversation that Joe had told him about erecting the Christmas tree in hopes that Santa would still visit him and how on Christmas morning the disappointment of not finding the gifts had left him feeling guilty for putting his feet on the settee. Adam’s heart ached for himself but more so for the little boy that laid asleep on his lap. Reminiscing of Christmas’ past flooded Adam’s mind and he quickly made the decision to celebrate the belated holiday.

Adam rose carefully from the comforts of his father’s leather chair and carried Joe up the stairs to his room. His good intentions were placed on hold for the evening as Joe awakened the minute Adam placed him on the bed. Fear and confusion consumed the boy’s face as tears over flowed from the hazel eyes, running down the thin face only to drip onto the white cotton pillow. No words were exchanged as Adam followed the direction of Joe’s finger. Briefly he starred at the door that hid the room that once belonged to their father. Finally given in to his own despair, Adam hugged Joe to his chest allowing his own tears to mingle with those of his baby brother’s. Emotions soon claimed them both and together they fell into an exhausted sleep, arms securely wrapped around one another with Scruffy tucked in between them both.

Ben and Hoss were exasperated as they both listened to the news that Roy had finally decided to tell them. Ben had interrupted Roy more than once and if it weren’t for his injuries would have jumped to his feet on numerous occasions. They were stunned and at a lose for words as Paul Downy gave them the horrible details of Joe’s treatment at the foster home and at the hands of Samuel and Martha. Ben felt his face redden as his blood pressure rose to a level that he had not experienced in many years. Even when Roy informed them of the incarceration of Martha and Mr. Miller, Ben still carried a grudge, something that was not common for him to do.

A great weight was lifted from the Cartwright’s shoulders as they listened to the news of Adam returning from Reno with Joe safely at his side. Mr. Hiram Woods, Ben’s newly appointed attorney, had also visited with Ben and Hoss and after hours of signing papers promised the Cartwrights that their live stock and ranch hands would be returned to the Ponderosa no later than the beginning of next week. The good news continued to pour in as Roy had also located Hop Sing and the oriental friend was eager to return home as well. His promise to start work the following morning had Ben’s spirits soaring higher than an eagle as Hoss seemed to shiver with the anticipation of being reunited with his two brothers once again. The only bit of information that was kept from Ben was the document that Adam still had in his possession, which stated that he was Joe’s father. Roy reasoned that this small problem would be rectified once the family was all together.

The ride back to the Ponderosa was an uncomfortable one for both of the Cartwrights. Hoss’ shoulder had been dislocated and had broken his clavicle and the motion of the wagon greatly intensified the searing pain that traveled through his body. Ben’s leg had received a compound fracture of the femur as well as dislocating the patella. The sedative that was administered before the journey home did little to calm the men as the excitement of being reunited kept them awake. It was well past midnight when they finally pulled into the front yard. Roy and Paul Martin assisted Ben and Hoss into the darkened house. Once Roy had lit the lamp, Dr. Martin assisted Hoss to the settee. Ben insisted that he remain downstairs for the evening not wanting to disturb the sleeping boys that Roy had found cuddled up in Adam’s bed. As much as Ben yearned to see his sons he thought it in their best interest to wait until morning. Roy had told Ben about the difficult time that Little Joe was having and the countless nights when neither boy could sleep more than a few hours. His heart was being pulled into two different directions and ultimately had decided not to disturb them.

Both Ben and Hoss turned to face each other as they had seen the leaning sapling that stood in the familiar place of the Christmas trees from the past. As tired as he was Hoss forced himself to get up from the settee and after a few minutes, leaned back on his haunches pleased that the sapling now stood proud and tall. No words were spoken but each man in the room read each other’s thoughts. An hour later the four gentlemen stood back to admire the tree. It was a fragile little sapling but managed to stand tall sporting a few heirlooms that Ben had decided to decorate the tree with. The angel was too large to take her place on the top of the small tree and it was Hoss’ idea that this year the family portrait from Pa’s desk would do the honors. Under Ben’s careful instructions, Roy and Paul had quietly snuck up the stairs into his room to remove the Santa presents from their hiding place. Lost behind the brightly wrapped gifts the tree was picked up from the floor and placed in the center of the wooden table that sat in front of the roaring fire. Paul retrieved the baby blanket from Little Joe’s trunk to use as the tree shirt and symbolically wrapped it around the base of the pot. Hoss rearranged the gifts around the table and made sure that the tree was not hidden from view. Ben motioned for Roy to gather Little Joe’s gifts from the hearth and watched with pride as his friend placed them among the other gifts. By three in the morning all the presents had taken their proper place around the tree and only because of exhaustion did the men give in and go to sleep.

Hoss was still asleep when Ben had awakened. With the use of his crutches he unsteadily made his way to the breakfast table to join his friends for an early meal. None of the three men could sleep much and gave in to the excuse that they were hungry.

Adam was the first to wake and slowly eased himself out from under the blankets. He had heard voices generating from downstairs and he felt the butterflies beginning to flutter in his stomach. He was still exhausted from the trip from Reno and emotionally drained as well. Adam knew that he couldn’t handle another crisis but it was human nature’s drive of curiosity that drove him to go down the stairs.

Dumbfounded Adam stood frozen to the bottom step of the staircase. He had never expected to find his father sitting at the breakfast table. His mouth opened to speak but the words had somehow gotten stuck in his throat. It was Roy that steered the boy toward his father and it wasn’t until Adam’s hand touched the warm flesh of his father’s face that realization hit and hit hard. Collapsing to his knees Adam for the second time since the accident let his emotions win him over. Ben’s hand rubbed the tension in Adam’s back and didn’t stop his words of comfort and reassurance until Adam had composed himself and stood. Brushing away the evidence of tears he pulled a vacant chair next to his father and listened as he was caught up on the events that happened once the search and rescue party had dug them free. Roy and Paul took this as their cue to vacant the premises and promised to return later that afternoon to check on the lot of them.

The reunion with Hoss was similar and Adam felt the fatiguing feelings returning to his body. Ben made him promise that he would return to bed as soon as Little Joe was awake and Christmas could be celebrated. Adam stood next to his brother and admired the tree that continued to stand so proud and then ran up the stairs to collect his presents to add to the pile. Little Joe was still asleep and Adam quickly rearranged the quilt that the squirming boy had kicked off the bed. He closed the door behind him so the talking would not disturb the sleeping child.

Adam returned to the table and the three men continued to talk about the happenings that had threatened to tear the close-knit family apart. On many occasions the discussion was put on hold as the men recomposed themselves. Ben wanted nothing more than to embrace his sons and console them but was forced to stay sitting. The horrors of Little Joe’s treatment nearly caused the other Cartwrights to fall apart but the image of the happy go lucky boy kept them together. The tiny patter of bare footsteps descending the staircase called an immediate end of their conversation. All three heads turned as the youngest Cartwright jumped from the landing to the ground floor landing with a small thump.

Without glancing around to see if he had been seen, Joe ran back up the stairs and straddled the railing and with a small giggle took the forbidden ride down to the bottom, landing against the knob with an "owie" escaping from his lips. He quickly dismounted and repositioned his nightshirt before rubbing the tender spot. Joe turned to head towards the kitchen in search of his breakfast and stopped when he saw the three faces starring back at him. Curling his tiny hands into fists Joe gently rubbed both eyes in disbelief. He felt the guilt wash over him now knowing that he had been caught doing the unthinkable, not once but twice. Instinctively his hands went behind him to cover his backside. When the shock had worn off the faces of the respectable figures that were still sitting at the table, replaced with smiles that Joe felt that all was forgiven and ran across the floor to meet the outstretch arms of his grandfather.

"Papaw" was the only word spoken as the excited child wrapped his tiny arms around Ben’s neck. Ben on impulse wrapped his own arms around the now weeping child and drew him closer for a long awaited embrace. His eyes diverted to Adam and searched his oldest son’s face for an explanation to Little Joe’s remark. Adam mouthed the word ‘later’ and then smiled as Ben leaned down to ease his baby into his lap.

A puzzled look once again was cast Adam’s way when Little Joe pulled himself away from Ben and climbed on to Hoss’ lap calling him Uncle Hoss. Once more Adam mouthed the word ‘later’. A knock at the door interrupted the family reunion and Adam went to see whom it was. Ben heard the muffled exchange of words before Hop Sing made himself known to the rest of the family. Hoss was exceptionally pleased to see him as the oatmeal that Adam had prepared seem a mite bit pasty to him. After welcome home greetings were exchanged the small cook pointed to the wooden spoon that stood freely in the middle of the bowl of oatmeal. A splash of Chinese gibber gabber spilled forth as the oriental reached for the bowl only to hand it to Adam directing him to dump it into the slop bucket for the pigs.

Unable to play the role of Santa due to his injury, Ben had passed on the responsibility to Adam. When all the gifts were opened and everyone thanked each other, Joe squatted down near the wooden table to look at the sapling that represented their Christmas tree. His fingers ran lightly over the familiar blanket that had been used as the tree skirt. His eyes filled with tears as he reminisced how that blanket never left his side. Joe’s eyes absorbed the sentimental ornaments that had been so lovingly placed on the tree. He stood so he could get a better view of what had been placed on the top signifying what normally was an angel. His emotions took a strong hold of him and he couldn’t stop himself from crying. As he climbed onto his grandfather’s lap, Joe saw the look that appeared in his father’s eyes and quickly assured his father that he was crying cause he was happy. Ben drew the small boy to his chest and wrapped an arm around the quivering shoulders. "It was Hoss’ idea," explained Ben. "He wanted to ensure that this year’s tree was something special."

The two young boys had disappeared upstairs to play with their belated Christmas gifts and this opened the floor for discussion between Ben and Adam. Ben sat and listened intensely as the saga unfolded. He was shocked to learn about Mr. Miller’s involvement with changing a legal document and naming Adam as Little Joe’s birth father. Adam finished and handed the folded piece of paper to Ben. Ben could see the hurt that his older son had been struggling with the last two weeks and reassured Adam that under the circumstances he would have probably done the same thing. His only request was that Adam be the one to explain to Joe and set things right with the boy.

Hoss was sent downstairs when Adam had gathered up enough courage to face his baby brother. Mixed emotions flooded the youngest Cartwright’s face and the sure sign of free falling tears clearly expressed how Little Joe was taking the news. Adam tried to gather Joe into a hug but his arms where pushed away by Joe. "You lied to me Adam," the words came out slowly and in between sobs. "I don’t understand it, why?"

Adam once again tried to explain his reasoning as he attempted to make physical contact with the near hysterical child. Joe wanted no part of the bodily contact and made that quite clear to his older brother. "Just leave me ‘lone Adam," Joe wiped at the tears that still ran down his face, "or am I sup’ose to call ya Pa?"

Those words torn Adam apart and feeling lost for words, he stood and watched in horror as Joe threw Scruffy in his direction just as he exited the room. Joe threw himself down on the bed and within minutes had cried himself to sleep. The nightmare played havoc on his mind as he watched himself being forced to choose between two of the three most important men in his life. The circuit judge instructed him to quickly make his decision – ‘Ben Cartwright or Adam Cartwright, come on boy this jury does not have all day.’

Joe sat up and wiped at the sweat that had coated his brow. More confused than ever Joe sought out his brother Hoss. Hoss had done his best to explain the reasons behind Adam’s motives but still Joe couldn’t help but feel resentment towards him. Knowing the weight of the world was resting on his shoulders and his alone, Joe reluctantly returned to the great room. His face fell when he saw that Paul Martin was standing over his father and his eight year old mind quickly drew the conclusion that his father had perhaps taken a turn for the worse.

Adam was at his side in a matter of seconds. He had noticed the worried expression that had engulfed the young boy’s face and wanted to reassure him that Paul was just examining the fractured leg, nothing more. Joe gazed into Adam’s eyes and for the first time since they had their talk earlier that morning, Joe realized that no matter who Adam claimed to be, he undoubtedly loved him either way. He tugged on Adam’s hands indicating that he wanted Adam to kneel down to his level. Adam obeyed his younger brother’s request and was rewarded with a small boy that wrapped his tiny arms around his neck. "I’m sorry Adam," was all that Joe could whisper as his emotions had taken over and he could no longer trust his voice.

Adam cradled Joe against his chest and stood. Getting the nod of approval from Ben, Adam took the boy upstairs to his room leaving them to some privacy as their feelings for one another were displayed. Both boys had fallen sleep and Hoss smiled down at them, capturing the bond that only brothers could form before waking them for dinner.

Dr. Martin had stayed at Ben’s request. He was informed of the injuries to Little Joe and Ben wanted his friend’s medical advice on how the boy was really doing. He had witnessed the way Joe had winced when Adam had picked him up and had even seen how difficult it was for the boy to sit down.

Dr. Martin excused himself and went in search of Hop Sing. He had examined Joe and found much to his relief that the boy’s body was mending the way it was suppose to be. He too had noticed the discomfort in the boy’s movements and was prepared to make not only his youngest patient comfortable but his oldest one as well.

"Here you go Joseph," said Paul as he handed Joe the glass of water. "You need to drink all of this for me."

Joe took a swallow and gagged as he recognized the bitter taste of the painkiller that Paul had mixed into the warm water. With the glass still near his mouth, Joe spit the concoction back into the glass.

Hoss was standing along side of Adam and felt his own stomach lurch as the gagging sounds from Joe penetrated his own ears.

"Joseph." Joe turned his head to look into his father’s eyes. "You have to drink it son, it will take away most of the discomfort that you are experiencing and enable you to sleep more peacefully," explained Ben as he gently lifted the retreating head. "Go ahead son, Paul is waiting."

Joe bit his lip and then slowly nodded his head. Another sip was taken and that one also ended up back in the glass after Joe gagged on it. "I can’t Papa," cried Joe. "It tastes yucky. It makes me wanna throw up." Joe turned pleading eyes to his older brother when he felt the man’s presence. "Please Adam, tell them how yucky it tastes."

Hoss’ stomach muscles involuntarily contracted causing the boy to once again gag.

"Don’t throw up Little Joe, don’t do it," pleaded Hoss as he forced himself to swallow the acid tasting bile in his mouth.

Adam smiled, "I know it tastes pretty bad Buddy. I had to drink it myself after I broke my hand." Adam brushed back an irate curl from Joe’s brow. "But it does work wonders on alleviating the pain."

Joe sighed deeply and once more took a sip of the bitter medicine. This time he gagged and emptied the contents of his mouth onto Ben’s lap. "I’m sorry Pa, I can’t drink it."

The moment he heard Joe gag for the third time, Hoss warned his little brother again, "Don’t’ throw up, don’t throw up! I’ll pound ya good if’n ya do!"

His pleas feel on deaf ears as Joe continued to gag. As he watched Joe’s mouth open to dispose of the vomit, Hoss clamped his hand over his own mouth and ran from the room.

Ben rubbed Joe’s back but before he could utter a word of encouragement, Dr. Martin handed Ben a similar glass of the same mixture. "Ben, this one is yours," said Paul. "Why don’t you show Joe here how it’s done," suggested the doctor with a wink of his eye.

Ben returned the wink to Paul and swiftly downed the mixture. He handed the glass back to him and then turned his attention to Joe. "See Joe, it wasn’t that bad," encouraged Ben. "Why don’t you try drinking it fast and then when you are done I will have Adam here get you a sarsaparilla to help dislodge the taste from your mouth."

Joe took the offered glass into his own hands and slowly brought the rim to his lips. "I can’t Pa," Joe gagged even though nothing had been placed into his mouth.

Adam intervened and took the glass from Joe’s hands. "Be right back, no one move and I will explain momentarily," he directed as he left the room.

Moments later Adam returned with the glass. He handed it to Joe and smiled when he saw the puzzled look on the boy’s face. "I get the sarsaparilla and I don’t have to drink that yucky stuff?" questioned the boy.

"Not quite Little Buddy," stated Adam. "I mixed some of the sarsaparilla into the mixture. It doesn’t taste so bad now. Go on try it Buddy, persuaded Adam.

All gave a sigh of relief when the boy finished his medicine and handed the glass back to his brother. "Thanks Adam, you’re smarter than the bigger people," said Joe wearing a smile that spread from ear to ear. "What’s you gots behind your back Adam?" asked Joe seeing that Adam had his other hand hidden.

With a chuckle Adam brought forth his hand and gave his father the other glass. "This here is for Pa," smiled Adam. "He drank his medicine without putting up much of a fight and I thought he deserved to get a sarsaparilla too."

Once dinner had been completed they all moved to their respected places in front of the roaring fire. Joe had climbed onto Ben’s lap and requested that the Christmas story be read as they were celebrating the holiday today. Ben sat silent as he gathered his thoughts together to answer the question that his youngest had just dropped into his lap.

"Pa, how come Santa came last night instead of on Christmas." Joe toyed with the belt on Ben’s robe as he waited for the explanation.

Adam picked up on the distress call when Ben glanced his way. He took the cue and walked over to where his father and brother were sitting. Adam knelt down and gazed into the hazel eyes of his little brother.

"Joe, Santa did come by on Christmas Eve, just like he always does," Adam saw the puzzled look and continued his explanation before Joe could question him further. "He knew that Pa and Hoss were alive and decided to wait until we could all be together before visiting with us." Adam smiled back as Joe’s face widen with glee and then placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder as he listened to Joe’s response.

"I already knew that Adam, just wanted to see if you did," reasoned Joe as he leaned forward to draw Adam closer to him. "I love you Adam," whispered Joe. "I honestly don’t care if you are my brother or my father." Joe held up his hand to cover Adam’s mouth. "Let me finish please," begged Little Joe. "I know that either way you love me and that I love you." Joe swiped his arm across his eyes drying the unshed tears with the sleeve of his nightshirt. "I know that there is a lot of love in this house and that we are here to take care of each other. I am the luckiest boy in all of Nevada," Joe sniffed and turned his head to look at his father’s face. "What other kid has two," Joe smiled and then turned to look at Hoss, waving his arm so Hoss could join in the family hug. "I mean what other kid has three people that love them as much as you love me and can get away with callin’ ya all Pa?"


Samuel and Jake were eventually caught and turned over to the respectful members of the law. Martha and Mr. Miller were tried in a court of law along with Samuel and Jake and found guilty of several felonies including kidnapping. All four were sentenced to the state penitentiary for a minimum of twenty-five years.


Dec 2001

Special acknowledgement:

Where There Is Love By: Helen Steiner Rice

A special thank you to Bonanza for allowing me the pleasure to dream this story plots.

A special thanks to Debbie’s six year old son, Shawn, (aka her Little Joe) for putting up a struggle while taking his medicine.

And to Debbie for allowing me to hear it take place over the phone. I also wish to take this time to thank Debbie for the countless hours that she spent on the phone with me taking dictation and typing this for me during the time my computer was in the hospital getting fixed. Without her help in typing this story would not be ready for posting this week.

And last but not least to Debbie’s husband, Hugh for his inspiring words, "Don’t you dare throw up. DON’T YOU DARE THROW UP."