As the first anniversary of Marie’s death approaches, Ben takes the boys to San Francisco in an attempt to divert them from sad memories. Instead the family is faced with their worst nightmares. Can the fire in their hearts keep them going long enough to survive one more tragic event?
Fire…heat, smoke; screams filled the air as Ben Cartwright tried again and again to get to the second floor of the Celeste Hotel in San Francisco. Somewhere up there, he was certain he could hear his baby son screaming for him.
“Papa! Papa! Come get me,” Little Joe’s voice cried out. Ben knew the plea was all in his head. Still he brushed past the guests all rushing out of the hotel rather than in while his first born son tried to pull him back.
“Pa, no! You can’t go up there.” Flames licked the walls on either side of the stairway and the top of the stairs was already fully engulfed. As Ben reached the top, his sleeves were lit by orange flickering waves of heat.
“Joseph!” he heard himself scream while Adam’s voice screamed his name and the boy pulled him back down the stairs.
“Get down, Pa,” Adam ordered, using his own shirt to smother the flames consuming Ben’s sleeves. Ben, in shock, his lungs filled with smoke finally allowed himself to be drawn out of the three-story building only to collapse in the dirt outside as volunteers raced to save the building in vain.
“Pa! Adam,” Hoss Cartwright cried. “I caint find him. I cain’t find the little fella anywhere. Pa, yer hurt.” Twelve-year old Hoss was as close to panic as anyone had ever seen him. He knelt beside his father, taking off his jacket and putting it over him. Around them people cried out in despair as the building collapsed in a crescendo of wood, ash, and flames.
“Joe,” Adam gasped, his brown eyes staring at the charred wood in front of him. Ben struggled to sit up as Hoss’ voice followed his brother’s.
“Punkin?” Hoss jumped up running towards the building. Adam raced after him.
“Hoss, no! Hoss, you can’t. It’s too late. It’s too late.” Adam was still strong enough to overcome the boy. Hoss’ sobs joined Adam’s. Together they made their way back to Ben, back to their father. Ben lay on the ground. As his sons joined him, they could only hear him whispering in his pain and grief, whispering for that one person they could not produce no matter what they did.
“Joseph, Joseph…my baby…”
“Pa!” Hoss Cartwright cried out. “Pa! Joe!” Sitting up in the strange bed, Hoss Cartwright looked around in fear. His bedroom door opened to let in a shadowy figure who lit a lamp, showing his face.
“I’m here, Little Brother. You have a dream?”
“Yeah.” Placid even in his fear, Hoss didn’t offer any more information. Adam sat on the side of the bed, hugging the boy close. For several seconds the boys comforted each other. When they pulled back, Adam squeezed Hoss’ leg.
“Adam? What are we going to do? Pa…he aint getting much better. And Joe…he’s gone aint he?” It took courage for Hoss to ask about his baby brother. It took more courage for Adam to answer.
“I think Joe is dead, Hoss,” Adam choked out. “We can’t find him anywhere.” Hoss grabbled with tears falling down his broad cheeks. He dabbled at them with his sheet.
“I’m afraid, Adam. Cain’t we just take Pa and go home? Aint no reason ta stay here is there?” Adam’s chocolate colored eyes reflected his thoughts. This was a nightmare, far worse than anything he had ever experienced before. Marie’s death just a year before had devastated the family. In an effort to distract his son’s as the first anniversary neared, Ben brought the boys to San Francisco. His generous act had ended in tragedy, leaving Ben injured and the boys alone to cope by themselves. Inger’s death, the long journey across the country, even losing Marie didn’t compare to the agony that ripped through him at the thought of his baby brother’s death or his father’s suffering or his own grief. He nodded. Hoss was right.
“Would going home make you feel better, Little Brother?” he asked gently.
“Well, then that’s what we’ll do.” Hoss fairly threw himself at Adam. After Adam helped Hoss to lay down and rest, he saw the boy was still crying.
“Hoss, would you like me to stay with you tonight?” Hoss nodded. Adam, dressed in his own nightshirt, laid down next to the child.
“Ya won’t leave me will ya?” How well Adam understood Hoss’ fear. How often did he feel that vulnerable as a small child when all he had in the world was his father? At least now, the two of them had each other and Pa if he got well and there was no fear of money. They had enough to get them home, home to the Ponderosa with Ben and the nurse they had hired to take care of him.
“I promise, Hoss, I promise. I won’t leave you, not ever.”
“Thanks, Adam.” Hoss laid back in the bed. Adam tried to sleep, but there was nothing to ease the tension that kept him from peace if sleeping had allowed him that pleasure. Getting up, he walked out of the bedroom, leaving the lamp lit for Hoss. In the main living area, there was a small glowering fire in the fireplace. He stoked it up, sitting down in front of it. Pictures of his family just a year ago came to him. Pa, Marie holding Little Joe, Hoss following him around the ranch like a puppy dog. Now Marie was gone and his baby brother too. As for his father, he hadn’t been sensible since the fire. He was awake, his burns treated, but his mind unable to grasp this latest tragedy. Adam couldn’t bring himself to look in the room where his father was resting. He hated seeing him that way, hated…
“Pa!” he gasped in agony. “Oh Pa, what are we going to do?” When there was no answer, Adam realized he was the one who was alone, truly alone. Leaning his head into his arm, he wept, soft cries at first, then huge convulsive sobs that released his grief for his family. How could this be happening…and what could he do to bring his father and brother through it…and himself? Adam wished he knew.
Morning came all too quickly…or perhaps all too slowly.
Adam was up and dressed by the time Hoss opened his eyes. He talked to the nurse who fed Ben his breakfast, asking her if his father was strong enough for the trip home. She was hesitant, encouraging him to talk it over with the doctor. Adam planned to do just that. After he and Hoss had eaten breakfast, he knew he had to go out and look one more time for his baby brother. As he put his napkin down on the makeshift table in the living room, he looked over to his younger brother.
“Hoss, you have to stay here with Pa. I need to go out and make arrangements for us to go home.”
“I don’t want to stay here,” Hoss said. “I want to go with you.”
“I know,” Adam agreed. “I understand how you feel, truly I do, Hoss. But the best way you can help now is to stay here.”
“Because there are places I have to go that Pa and I probably both wish you didn’t have to.”
“Yer a going ta look for Little Brother aint ya?” Adam didn’t have to answer. He grasped Hoss’ shoulder and squeezed gently.
“Don’t leave the hotel, Hoss under any circumstances, do you understand me? Hoss, please, I have to know you are safe.” Hoss nodded. The two young men hugged.
“I’ll stay here, Adam. Dontcha worry none about me.” Adam gave the boy a reassuring smile. Leaving the hotel was almost a relief. Outside the air was a little damp, but cool and crisp for the early November morning. A patchy fog kept the sun from shining, kind of like how Adam’s heart felt, covered with its own numbing emotions. He stopped again at the morgue near the police station. All the victims from the fire that could be retrieved had been brought there. No further bodies had been found in the last twenty-four hours. No children’s bodies had been found either, Adam learned. His relief was immense or so it would have been he thought…except Little Joe wasn’t standing in front of him. Leaving the morgue, he went to the police station. Sergeant Fred Boil rolled his eyes at the sight of the young man who had haunted the station ever since the fire.
“Adam I thought I told you I would notify you if I had news about your brother,” he said before Adam could say a word.
“Yes, you told me and I’m still here. I had an idea.”
“I thought maybe, just maybe there is a possibility that Little Joe was rescued and someone found him. I’d like to put up a reward.”
“Adam, there are at least ten people unaccounted for from that fire,” the sergeant objected. “Ya put out a reward and every low life in the city will be after ya. What’ll yer pa say?”
“My pa would be doing the same thing if he could,” Adam snapped. “Sergeant, my brother is six years old. A year ago, his mother left him abruptly and without explanation. He still has nightmares. Now, he could still be out there, frightened and alone. What would you do?” Adam’s logic was formidable.
“I suppose when ya put it that way, but I think yer wasting your time.”
“It’s my time to waste,” Adam retorted. “Now who do I see?”
“Yer looking at him,” the sergeant answered. After a half hour a $2,000 reward had been offered for the whereabouts of Little Joe Cartwright. A description of the boy and circumstances of his disappearance was noted. Sergeant Boil would be the contact, he agreed, not that he was too happy.
“Yer a determined young man, Adam,” the sergeant told him. Adam didn’t dignify that comment with an answer.
“I’m hoping to take my father and brother home within a few days,” Adam told the sergeant. “You can reach us by notifying Sheriff Roy Coffee in Virginia City.”
“Will do,” Sergeant Boil agreed. “I hope someone finds your brother, Adam. I got a boy of my own.”
“Thanks, Sergeant.” Adam left the police station behind. Walking past people who were intent on their daily lives, he wondered how everything could be so normal for them. They had no clue what was happening to the Cartwright’s, the nightmare the family was facing. Adam wondered how many people passed him facing the same kind or a similar nightmare. He breathed deeply of the crisp air, ignoring the wagons, horses, cabs, buckboards, men, women and children around him. Arriving back at the hotel, he stood outside, his mind picturing the debris, the ashes, the wood and flames that were the last he had seen of the Celeste Hotel. This one wasn’t as nice, but it was clean and the staff was helpful to the two boys who were essentially alone with a seriously ill parent. Adam did not want to go inside. Putting one foot in front of the other, he did. Upstairs he entered the hotel rooms. It was quiet, too quiet. Joe should have been there, running up to him, throwing questions at him. Joe!
“Adam,” Hoss cried coming out of the second bedroom where Ben Cartwright was supposedly resting. “Adam, Pa’s awake, really awake. He was asking fer ya. Where ya been?”
“Just out, Hoss.” He patted the boy on the back. Hoss gave him a small smile. Adam took off his jacket putting it on the sofa. Hoss followed Adam into the bedroom where the shades were still half drawn. The nurse left Adam and Ben alone. Adam felt as if his heart were in his throat while he approached his father’s bed. Sitting down he thought Ben was asleep until his father’s brown eyes met his.
“Adam? Adam! Where…where’ve you been, Son?”
“Long story, Pa,” Adam answered. “How do you feel?”
“I don’t know. Tired.”
“Pa, do you feel strong enough to go home?”
“Home? We aren’t home?” Adam did a double take.
“Pa? You don’t know where you are?” Ben looked around the room. He shook his head. Now Adam’s heart sank down to the floor.
“We’re still in San Francisco, Pa.”
“Why? What happened?”
“There was a fire. You were burned on your hands and arms. You were trying…well…trying to get to Joe.”
“Joseph,” Ben sighed. “Joseph! Oh my God.” Adam couldn’t stand watching the memories flood back to his father. Ben tried to get up, tried to get out of bed. Adam quickly grabbed his arms.
“Pa, No! No! That’s not going to help Joe now. You have to stay in bed. You have to get well for you and me and Hoss. He needs you, more than you know.” Hoss’ name seemed to quiet the father. Tears formed in those deep chocolate eyes. Ben grabbed Adam’s hand with his own wrapped ones. He pleaded with his son to give him reassurance.
“Tell me you found Joseph, Adam. Tell me you found your brother. Please, Adam.” The young man looked down. “Adam?” Adam shook his head.
“Pa, I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t.” Ben seemed to age in front of his eldest son’s eyes, his body sagging back against the bed as if he could ignore the truth if he tried hard enough. Adam knew how that felt. It was how he felt over the last three days. He hurried on to explain what he had done over the last few days.
“Pa, Hoss, wants to go home! I put a reward out for anyone who finds Little Joe. They’ll contact the police here or Sheriff Coffee. Pa, we need to go home. I think it’s the best thing for all of us.”
“My baby?” Ben muttered. “We can’t leave him.”
“We don’t know where he is!” Adam exclaimed. “Hoss needs you and he needs the Ponderosa. So do I.” Ben seemed to come back to the present. Wearily, he nodded.
“You’re right, Son,” Ben admitted.
“I hired a nurse to care for ya. Shall we ask her to come back with us, to the Ponderosa?”
“Hop Sing,” Ben said. “Can help.”
“Yes, Sir. Pa…we’ll get through this,” Adam said. “Won’t we?” Adam wondered if his father could see how desperate he was. Ben was always there for him when he could be. The older man swallowed and spoke, taking the world off his son’s shoulders.
“Without Joseph…it will be tough,” Ben admitted. “We’ll do our best though. You put a reward up for Joe?”
“Yes, Sir.” Ben nodded and smiled.
“Good man. That’s my son. Make the arrangements, Adam. We’ll go home and we’ll find your brother. We’ll find him.”
“What if we don’t?” Ben closed his eyes. Adam didn’t press the subject. Ben wiped away his tears.
“Oh, Pa. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Adam leaned his head down on Ben’s chest. He felt his father’s bandaged hand on his back. For the moment, father and son comforted each other. When Hoss came in, he laid down next to Ben. The three remaining Cartwright’s could only give comfort and love to each other, mourning in silence all the while the missing member of their family, a six-year old boy who possessed their hearts in his and was most likely lost to them, forever.
Little Joe’s head hurt, just plain hurt. Tossing in bed, the little boy tried to remember if he had been roughing wrestling with his big brothers again, specially Hoss who was getting bigger and bigger and sometimes hit out harder than he wanted to. Pa would sure be mad about that. Pa! Pa, Little Joe thought. He wanted his father and mother.
“Ma! Pa!” he cried out, opening his hazel eyes to find himself in a strange room. All too quickly it dawned on Little Joe that his mother wouldn’t come, couldn’t come. She was with the angels Pa said. “Pa!” The door to the room opened, a lamp chasing the darkness away. An older lady, lots older than his mother came into the room. Her blond hair was untidy, but her smile was kind.
“Pa?” he asked with a tremor in his little voice. “Where’s my pa and my brothers?”
“Your brothers?” Her voice and his made Joe’s head cringe in pain. His hands went to his head, his voice moaning his discomfort, tears coming to his eyes.
“It hurts,” he whispered now. “It hurts bad.”
“Sh,” she crooned, sitting down next to him. “Sh. It will be all right.”
“Pa! I want my pa.”
“Not right now. Right now you have to rest, so your head feels better.” She tried to take him in her arms, but he resisted her efforts.
“No! You aren’t my ma. Leave me lone. Leave me lone.” Pulling himself away from the lady he didn’t know Little Joe scrunched himself up in the bed as small as he could. He heard voices talking, but didn’t listen. He must have fallen asleep for when he was aware of anything again, it was light out and his head didn’t hurt so much. He was resting in the lady’s lap he found. She was holding him in a rocking chair. Her chest rose and fell the way his mama’s did when she was sleeping. Joe wanted his father. He had to find him. Dressed only in a white night shirt, the little boy slipped out of the lady’s lap, edging towards the door. Maybe his pa was waiting for him outside. Pa wouldn’t leave him. Before he could touch the door it swung open, letting a very big man step into the room. Joe stepped backward, more frightened than ever.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” the man asked with a bitter laugh. Joe stared up at him, at the wild dark brown hair and pudgy face, the well muscled arms and cowardly gray eyes. He decided at once he didn’t like the man. He didn’t like him one bit.
“I want my pa!” Little Joe told him. “You have to take me to him.” The man laughed loud and long, a frightening laugh with no humor in it. Little Joe backed up until he felt the lady’s hands on his shoulders, holding him with comfort. Why was she good and he bad, the child asked himself? He didn’t know. He only knew he had to find his father and brothers.
“Well Little Man,” the stranger taunted. “I’d git yer pa iffn I could. But seems as how he’s dead, aint likely I’ll be gitting him any time soon.”
“You’re lying,” Little Joe cried. “My pa aint dead. Ya took me from him didn’t ya? He won’t like it none. He’ll come looking for me.” Joe’s head was beginning to pound again. He felt dizzy. “I want my pa.”
“Well that’s one thing ya caint have, kid. Now dontcha back talk me. Yer pa aint coming for ya and that’s flat.”
“He will!” Joe cried. “My pa would never leave me. He promised.”
“Stupid brat,” the man muttered. He slapped Joe across the face.
“Pat, he’s just a little boy,” the lady protested as Little Joe manly tried to keep from crying. “He’s hurt and confused.”
“Cracked his head when he jumped outta that winda,” Pat agreed. “Still if he’s anything like his old man, he’s going ta need discipline.”
“Don’t need discipline,” Joe shot back. “Just my pa and my brothers.” Joe’s eyes flickered. He couldn’t help leaning against the lady as his head told him to quiet down cause it hurt so much. Pat knelt down in front of him putting a finger to Joe’s face.
“Your pa is dead, Kid, your pa and brothers. They was in the hotel and the hotel is all burned up. Ya jumped out the winda and hurt yer head but no one else made it out. Ya understand? They aint coming fer ya, not now not ever.”
“No!” Joe screamed. But he remembered, remembered falling asleep in the room with his pa by his side. He remembered waking up terrified by the fire that was rapidly rushing towards him. He didn’t remember jumping, didn’t remember anything else. Pa! Adam! Hoss! Oh, Pa! Joe beat on Pat’s chest.
“Yer a liar,” the little boy accused. “Yer a big bad liar.” Pat pushed the boy to the floor and left the room. Joe laid where he was sobbing his heart out. He didn’t feel the lady picking her up in his arms, and comforting him. He fell asleep again, his heart broken, his little world shattered into pieces that could never be put together again. In his dreams Little Joe searched and searched for his pa, for Adam and Hoss. He couldn’t find them. No matter how hard he tried, he could not find them and his little boy heart he couldn’t know that just because someone told him they were dead didn’t make it so. To Little Joe, his family was gone. He was alone in the world a fact his pa had promised would never come to be. The Cartwright’s ceased to exist in Little Joe’s mind when he woke and the happy little boy who had been was gone as well destroyed by lies, and revenge that was just getting started.
“Joey, come on, Baby,” Rose Barton coaxed the six-year old a few days later. She was worried about the child who had not spoken since her husband convinced Joe his family was dead. Joe ate and drank when he was told, went to the bathroom and let Rose clean him, but there was no personality to the child. When he drank the water she gave him, he turned his head away, crawling back under the covers of his bed. Rose sat with the child night and day, amazed by his soft curls and little face. He was so young, so innocent of the world. His father must have loved him very much. Rose remembered how Ben Cartwright showed up at her son’s funeral. The man had the courage to come and tender his apologies, wishing there was anything he could have done to avoid the shootout. Ben confided he had three sons of his own, one just a babe and he couldn’t begin to fathom Rose’s pain at losing her son. After living eighteen years with her husband, raising her only child to die in a robbery, Rose knew more heartaches than Ben Cartwright could possibly fathom. She nodded her thanks and promptly forgot the man. She never blamed Ben for her son’s death. That burden rested squarely on Pat’s shoulders. The door in the front of the house slammed shut alerting Rose to her husband’s arrival. Pulling the cover up over Joe, she left him alone.
“Where’s the kid?” Pat asked first going into the kitchen. “Where’s my lunch?”
“I’ll get it for you,” Rose answered quickly, her fear of the big six-foot man evident. “Joey is sleeping.”
“That’s all the brat does is sleep,” Pat snapped. “Time he started to learn how ta be a part a this family.” Rose cut two slices of fresh baked bread, and placed some butter and roast beef between them. Cutting the sandwich in half, she added a cup of coffee. Pat bit into the sandwich without a word of thanks or manners as he chewed loudly.
“He’s been through quite a shock, Pat,” Rose excused.
“Yeah? Well I’d been through worse by his age. Pack up all this garbage tonight. We’re leaving in the morning for Modesto.”
“Modesto? Why? Oh, Pat, we were just getting settled here.” Pat’s cold eyes met his wife’s. She knew better than to argue. Turning away, she brushed away the tears that came. Leaving San Francisco meant leaving the few friends she had ever made in her life. She didn’t want to go, but she didn’t have a choice, not with Pat. He would kill her before he would let her go.
“The longer we stay in Frisco, well, iffn the kid escapes or goes outside, he’s sure to be recognized. They’s posters everywhere for him, a $2,000 reward.”
“$2,000 dollars?” Rose exclaimed. “Pat, if you handed Joey over to the police, or I did, we could really use that money.”
“If I hand that kid over to the police, they’ll string me up for murder. Ten people died in that fire.”
“So?” Rose wondered until it dawned on her. “Oh my God, Pat. You set that fire? Why? For what reason?”
“To git Cartwright of course. I saw him go into the hotel, laughing and joking with his sons, three of em while I had none. I followed them upstairs and saw what room they were in. About half an hour later, I came back and set the fire in the hallway. Went out the back so’s no one would see me. I thought they’d all die sure in there. When the kid jumped out the winda, I figured that was a gift. Glad I took him too after I saw that Cartwight and his boys survived.”
“They’re alive?” Rose asked with incredulous amazement. “Pat! That’s who put up the posters? I thought maybe a relative.”
“Nah. Cartwright’s bound and determined to find the kid. What do I care about a crummy $2,000 when I can put Cartwright through hell…” Both Rose and Pat jumped when they heard the front door of the house slam shut. Pat hurried into the living room where he could see the bedroom door open. Out the window he could see Little Joe running away up the street.
“Stupid brat,” the man hollered. Without a word he flew after the little boy. There were few people about as the house was at the edge of town, not close into the city. But Little Joe had an edge, an edge of fear and adrenaline. Pat saw the child scurry along the streets, but couldn’t quite seem to catch up to him until the boy made a critical mistake by turning into an alley that had no outlet. Pat smiled with a wicked grin as Little Joe came smack into the end of a brick building.
“Well, Joey,” Pat asked. “Where did ya think ya was going?” Joe, six years old, confused and terrified by a man who lied to him and hit him looked for a way to escape.
“Ya lied? Ya told me my pa was dead. He aint, he aint. He’ll come for me.” Joe tried to get to the right of Pat, but Pat was too quick. In a flash he grabbed the little boy, pulling him up into his arms and putting his hand over his mouth.
“I didn’t lie. Yer pa is dead…to you. He aint never coming fer ya.” Joe struggled until Pat hissed into his ear.
“He thinks ya died in that fire and no matter how hard he looks fer ya, he aint never gonna find ya, cause yer my kid now. Ya got that?” Again Joe struggled his hazel eyes wide with fear and denial. Pat was kneeling on the ground now. Holding the boy close, he kept his hand over Joe’s mouth and nose until the little boy lost consciousness. All he had to do was let Joe’s head rest on his shoulder as he walked back to the house. No one seemed to even glance at them as they went about their daily business. Rose had the door opened and shut behind Pat after he entered the house. He let his wife take Joe from him.
“What happened?” she cried. “Pat, what did you do to him?”
“Nuthin he won’t recover from,” the evil man replied. “Get him back to bed. From now on, make sure he’s tied with a rope to the bed so’s he don’t run away again.”
“He won’t, Pat. I’ll make sure of it,” Rose replied. “We don’t need ta tie him up.” Joe fell to the ground, tumbling unconsciously across the floor as Rose let him go and Pat pushed her against a wall.
“You tie him up good. If he’d gotten away today we’d both be in prison for kidnapping and murder. Ya got that? Iffn I git caught, yer going with me, Rose. Yer an accomplice, like it or not.” Rose didn’t argue her husband’s reasoning. She wasn’t an educated woman, but she knew she had nothing to do with the fire. She also knew the authorities might not believe her. After Pat went back into the kitchen, she picked Joe up, cuddling him close, his moaning pain reaching her own broken heart.
“I’m sorry, Joey,” she told him. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you. I wish…”
“Pa!” Little Joe cried. “Pa, help me. Pa.” Rose took the hapless child to his bedroom where she did exactly as she was told and Little Joe’s last chance for escape from his hell was taken away forever and always, at least as long as he was with Pat and Rose, at least that long.
Three weeks later
“Your hands are looking real good, Ben. Keep these bandages on another week and I’d bet you won’t ever know you were burned. Hop Sing’s herbs are really something,” Dr. Paul Martin congratulated. Rewrapping the bandages as he or Hop Sing had every day since Ben’s return to the Ponderosa, he threw a comforting glance at his friend.
“I saw Adam and Hoss heading out to mend some fences. Isn’t this just about the first time they left ya since your return from San Francisco?”
“I suppose. They’re like two mother hens sometimes,” Ben muttered. “So much work to do and I can’t even help.”
“They’re managing, Ben, with the hands and Adam doing the books at night. You have to be more patient with yourself.”
“Mistah Cartlight miss #3 son,” Hop Sing provided coming into the living room where the men were sitting. Hop Sing put down a tray with coffee and sandwiches on it. “You eat, Doctah and Mistah Cartlight too. No one eat enough round here no more. Hop Sing not needed. Hop Sing go back to China where appreciated.” The China man exited the room, muttering all the while. Dr. Martin chuckled.
“He’s not too happy, Ben. You better eat up, else you’ll be doing the cooking or worse one of the boys.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Ben answered. “Hop Sing is right. Even Hoss’ appetite isn’t the same since…since Joe…” Ben’s voice was lost in his grief. In the last several weeks since he had come home, Ben’s burns had healed slowly, and his physical strength definitely wasn’t up to what it normally was. Dr. Martin took the coffee pot and poured coffee into the two cups in front of him. His first taste told him there was already milk in the coffee. That was fine with him. He gave a cup to Ben.
“Drink it, Ben. If you don’t, I’ll put some brandy in it and then make you drink it.” Ben took the cup. Without being told he nibbled on a sandwich. When it was finished, Dr. Martin handed him another one.
“I’m not that hungry, Paul. Don’t give me a hard time for heaven’s sake. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“You’ve got one thing on your mind, Ben, one thing only and that’s Joe.” Ben’s paternal instincts flashed across his chocolate colored eyes as his gaze met Paul’s.
“And just what would you have me think of, Paul? Joe should be here, should be going to school with Hoss and arguing with his brothers. I should be able to tuck him in at night, hug him and read to him…Oh God.” Paul was quiet. How his old friend coped with Joe’s loss was a heavy burden for the doctor. Without a body, Ben always had this hope, a hope that Joe would come through the door, a hope that was killing him, slowly but surely.
“Ben, you have to concentrate on Adam and Hoss. They need you. Hoss specially. He’s lost so much and he’s just a little boy.”
“He’s not a little boy…”
“He is, Ben! I know he’s big and responsible. He’s never been irresponsible or flighty like Joe, and he’s like a rock for you and Adam, but he’s still a little boy. His own ma is dead, and now Marie and Joe. What do you want from him? And what about Adam? He’s only eighteen. It’s not fair to put the burdens on him that you have, running the ranch, taking care of Hoss and you. It’s not fair, Ben!”
“So what do you want me to do about it, Paul. I can’t exactly go out and round up the cattle or mend some fences or ride.”
“You don’t have to do that, Ben. You just have to be here for the boys…and yourself.”
“I’m not giving up,” Ben answered with his usual stubborn pride.
“Ben, you’re keeping Joe alive and it’s hurting all of you.”
“Paul?” Ben asked with amazement. “Don’t you think that’s normal. The last time I saw my son, he was sleeping in bed. The next thing I knew he was trapped in a burning building. He could have gotten out, Paul. He could have.”
“If he did, Ben, where is he?”
“I don’t know!” Ben cried with all the pent up anguish he had in his heart. “He’s my baby. My baby, Paul!”
“I know what Joe means to you, Ben. He’s all you’ve got left of Marie. I know that, my friend, but you have to let him go. Let him go, Ben for your sake and the boys.”
“No!” Ben answered. “No.” Ben put his head in his hands. Dr. Martin patted Ben’s shoulder. He left the man to his own nightmare. Ben just wasn’t ready to cope with the finality of Joe’s death. How could any one blame him. Ben’s devotion to his youngest son, to all his sons was well known to Paul and most of the Cartwright’s friends.
“Joseph,” Ben mumbled. “Oh baby, where are you?” And somewhere, somehow Ben was certain he could hear his baby son crying, crying softly and calling in a little boy’s voice.
“Pa, come get me. Pa, don’t leave me. Pa…Pa…Pa…”
And Ben could only live in a senseless world of loss, praying that somehow his son would come home to him…someday.
Joe Cartwright was hungry, more hungry than he could ever remember being. He wondered if this was how Hoss felt when he said he was as hungry as a bear. Crawling across the wooden floor, too weak to walk, he pulled himself up to look out the second floor window of the house that Rose and Pat were living in. As always now, the rope around his waist kept him tied to something, either a bed or a metal hook in the wall that Pat put there. Joe waited for one thing…to get away from Pat and Rose. He had to get home to the Ponderosa. He had to.
“Joey,” Rose said coming into the room. She found the little boy sliding down the wall to the floor. Quickly the woman put her tray down on a near by table and rushed to the weeping child. She gathered him in her arms, comforting him as best she could.
“Joey, it’s all right,” she crooned. The little boy stiffened in her arms. Of course it wasn’t all right. Not with Pat willing to torment the child at any given opportunity. Joey’s face grew more and more frightened each time he saw Pat. Rose knew it was only a matter of time before Pat’s hatred for Joe’s father was vented completely on Joey. She didn’t know how to get him away from Pat, not without getting herself killed. In the meantime Joey had bonded with her despite himself. He was so desperate for a mother, and she was just as desperate for a child. She tried to protect him as much as she could. She knew it wasn’t enough.
“I brought you some lunch,” she told him. Joe didn’t seem interested. Rose picked up the little boy, and sat him in a chair at the table. Placing a bowl of soup and a piece of bread with a half a glass of milk in front of Joe, she encouraged him to eat. Suddenly Joe was not hungry.
“No,” he told her. “Don’t want it.”
“Joey, you have to eat.” She took the spoon and fed him spoonful after spoonful of the thin liquid that was mostly just chicken broth and a few vegetables mixed in. After a half a bowl, Joe clamped his mouth shut. He pulled away from Rose, crawling on the floor to the bed and then lying against the bed, his head in his hands. Rose gathered the tiny cherub into her arms again. This time she laid him on the bed, singing to him till he fell asleep. He was so tiny, and if she wasn’t mistaken, he was losing strength with his poor appetite. His limp form in her arms made her afraid. In his sleep he mumbled words that sent shivers down her spine.
“Pa…come get me. Don’t leave me, Pa. Pa…Pa…Pa…”
Rose’s heart bled for the child. She fell asleep clutching him to her, praying for an answer to their predicament.
Rose woke to hear Pat slamming the front door. In an attempt to protect Joe, who still slept, she left him on the bed and went downstairs. There was only the two bedrooms on the second floor, and a living room and kitchen on the first. It was a tiny house, and the walls were thin.
“Pat? Where’ve you been?” Rose asked. Pat waved a wad of cash at her. Rose did not inquire further. She busied herself in the kitchen.
“The bank was real courteous in giving me this here money,” he told her. “Now we can get over to Stockton.” Screwing up her forehead in confusion, Rose turned to her husband.
“Pat, what are you planning?” she wondered. “Why are we going to Stockton?”
“I dunno. Reckon I was making my way east ta show Ben Cartwright I got his son.”
“He’ll kill you,” Rose retorted in a flat monotone. “You’re playing with fire.”
“Yeah, aren’t I?” Pat answered with a cruel grin.
“Why, Pat? Why? Why don’t you just let Joey go?” Rose was rewarded with a slap across the face, so hard that she hit the floor with a split lip.
“He’s mine,” the man gloated.
“He’s a baby, a little boy,” Rose retorted. “Since when are you such a coward…” That word was not the one Rose needed. Minutes later she still sat on the floor, a few ribs broken, her face a mass of bruises and her body aching from head to foot.
“Now you listen to me,” Pat hissed. “That kid is mine. You do anything to take him away and I promise you’ll pay, good.”
“I’m your wife, Pat. Doesn’t that count for anything?” Pat’s evil grin only continued.
“I own you, Rose. I always have and I always will. Don’t you forget it. If the kid dies you’ll hang right along with me.”
“So what? What makes you think death is any worse than this hell we live in?”
“You’re such a fool, Rose, such a fool.” He left her on the floor going upstairs to their bedroom.
“Get packed up. We gotta get out of here, and take care of the kid.” Rose breathed a sigh of relief as the door slammed. He’d sleep while she was preparing for their escape. She half wished the police would come, but she knew they wouldn’t. Pat hadn’t been robbing banks and getting away with it clean for as long as he had without becoming proficient at it. She hated him. For the first time in her life, she hated him. She had to get Joe away from him, one way or another, before the boy died. The problem was, she just wasn’t sure how.
Hours later Rose was ready to go. Joe was washed and in a clean set of clothes. Rose had given him some milk with a sedative that Pat kept and sometimes used on her. He was sleeping, thankfully when the trio made their escape into the night.
“That kid is gonna play right into our hands,” Pat told her as they rode on horseback, with Little Joe leaning against her chest. He was so light, she barely noticed she was holding him.
“He’s not playing anything,” she replied. “He hasn’t even smiled since you took him. He’s a frightened child.”
“His refusal to eat. He doesn’t eat, he’ll die, and then that will take care of Ben Cartwright.” Rose shuddered. There was no point to answering her husband. She knew Pat was right. Joe might only be six years old, and he might not really understand that not eating would end his life, but he wasn’t eating and that was the point. He was smart enough to know that this form of rebellion was the best one to normally get results. Only this time it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t. Joe would die first. And like him, she was helpless to prevent his death…or so she thought, so she believed and as long as she did nothing would happen to change the fate that dogged all three of them through Pat’s evil intent.
Two weeks later
Rose walked from the Stockton Mercantile towards the end of town where Pat had found yet another tiny house to rent. This one had only one bedroom with a double bed and a trundle bed which she had moved into the living room. Pat was never home except to sleep. She had no idea where he was nor did she care. Joe’s condition now required her full-time care. Taking the milk and bread and boullion she had brought from the store she hoped to get Joe to at least take in a little soup and bread. He was only taking small bits of food now, and was completely bed bound. He had even stopped talking. Somehow she missed that little voice more than anything. In the house, she put the groceries in the kitchen then walked across the room to check on Joe.
“Joey?” she asked? The little boy lay in bed, his hazel eyes barely blinking. Placing her hand on his head, she felt a fever for the first time. Her heart constricted in fear. Was this then the beginning of the end for the little boy who had stolen her heart.
“Joey?” His eyes looked to her, then closed as if he were making a decision. “Joey, open your eyes! Please, Sweetie!” The child was completely unresponsive. In terror now, she scooped the child up in her arms and ran out of the house down the street to the doctor’s office. As she ran, she knew she could not alert anyone to the fact that she was bringing Joe to the doctor. She would have to leave him in the back of the house. Running down a side street, she came up on the back of the houses. Many times since they arrived in Stockton she wanted to bring Joe to the doctor, but knew it was useless. This time it was just as useless. While the main street was busy, the back ones were not. Suddenly an arm encircled her waist. She screamed as she was pulled to a halt so fast, her feet left the ground.
“Where ya going, Rose?” Pat hissed. “Where ya going with my boy?”
“He’s dying, Pat. We have to do something.”
“I tole ya what I was going to do when he died, Rose. I was going to drop him off for Ben Cartwright to find. That’s where I been, to Virginia City and back. It’s going to be perfect, Rose, a perfect revenge for our son.” Rose felt physically sick to her stomach. Taking Pat by surprise, she bent over and vomited onto the dirt road. Next she turned and kicked him where it counted. Screaming with all she had, she ran. Pat recovered quickly. He ran after her catching her just outside the doctor’s house. Once more his arm snaked around her, his other hand taking a lethal weapon from his boot. In a second the weapon silenced Rose, entering her back, killing her over a few seconds where she realized she was sacrificing her life for nothing because Pat would win. She sank to the ground, Joe slipping from her hands, the metallic taste of blood seeping from her mouth. Her only satisfaction came as someone called out to Pat and she took her last breath.
“All right, Mister, hold it right there,” Pat looked up to find a gun drawn on him. He let go of Rose, her blood on his hands. Bending down, he picked up Joe.
“She was stealing my son,” he attempted to explain. “She’s drugged him.”
“Hold it right there,” the man repeated. Pat wanted to run with Joe, but he wasn’t sure what to do. Putting his hand to his gun, he refused.
“He’s my boy. Ya caint’ have him,” Pat called out.
“Put the boy down, Mister,” another voice cried. Rose’s screams had brought out more than just the doctor. Other men and women from the town had gathered. This was Stockton in the 1840’s a small town that was just beginning to grow, wild, and dangerous. All the men wore guns. All of their guns were now drawn on Pat. Pat slowly put Joe down. The child lay motionless on the ground. To the spectators it was hard to see if he was alive or not.
“Look, there’s been a mistake. The boy is my son. She was taking him. Look, he’s drugged.”
“What’d ya kill her for,” someone asked.
“To get him back,” Pat sneered as if the man were the stupidest person in the world. The sheriff arrived, his own gun drawn on the man. He approached Pat slowly and carefully. Suddenly Pat drew his gun. In less than a second he fell dead to the ground as the sheriff’s bullet hit him in the chest. Without hesitation, the sheriff and the doctor raced to the child on the ground. The townspeople encircled them. While the doctor picked up Little Joe, the sheriff turned to the encircling crowd.
“Okay, Folks. Break it up. The doc will take care of the boy.” Reluctantly the crowd dispersed. The doctor rushed into the house with the child. The sheriff turned to the scene at hand. Going through Pat’s pockets, he found only a ten dollar gold piece. In Rose’s dress pocket he found a poster, one that was in his own office, a reward and description of Joseph Cartwright. He had to get the undertaker for these two, the sheriff decided. Then he had to send a telegram…to Virginia City. He’d seen the child and five would get him ten, that that little boy was this missing child. He could only imagine the lady was trying to rescue the little boy and paid for her action with her life. But who was the man and what was wrong with the boy? None of it made sense. With the immediate danger passed, the sheriff went to the doctor’s office first. He had to make sure his assumption was correct before he gave a family false hope.
Inside Dr. Samuel Brooks’ office, the doctor placed Joe on a bed in his infirmary. There were two other beds there. His wife, Melinda stripped the child of his clothes. When the child lay naked in front of them, the couple stared just as the sheriff came in.
“Good Lord,” Sheriff Ralph Walters gapped. “That kid looks like a skeleton.”
“Looks like he’s starved,” the doctor answered. “Poor child. How could anyone let a boy get into this condition.”
“Someone who may have kidnapped him,” Sheriff Walters offered. He pulled out the poster and showed it to the physician. For almost a minute the three people stared at the child.
“Get a telegraph off to Virginia City,” Dr. Brooks ordered. “The sooner this boy’s family is here, the better. Where did you get this?”
“From the woman. It was on her body.”
“That’s the best piece of luck this kid might have had for a while. He’s barely alive as it is.”
“I’ll hurry, Samuel. Just don’t let the kid die.” The sheriff rushed off to the telegraph office. Dr. Brooks’ wife came to stand beside him, helping him put a nightgown on Joe and then getting him under the warm blankets.
“Sam? Do you think he’ll survive?” she asked. Dr. Brooks’s palm rested on Joe’s forehead. Sadly he shook his head.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. Pray Melinda. Pray.” She leaned against him, remembering her own lost child, killed during a recent fever epidemic.
“We have to save him, Sam. He’s so little. His parents must be so terrified.”
“We’ll do our best, Sweetheart…and maybe if we’re lucky, our little Peter will help us.”
“Maybe,” Melinda agreed. “Maybe.”
Ben sat in front of the fireplace. Upstairs, his two older sons were sleeping. Down here, all he could do was hold the image of his youngest son in front of him in the flames of orange that simmered and vanished then reappeared. Joe…the aching for Joseph was far more painful than anything Ben had ever felt before. Each morning he longed to stop in Joe’s room, to spend time waking him, to have him run into his arms, to hear that silly giggle or feel a hug. Instead he walked downstairs to a table set for three instead of four. His son was gone. Paul was right. He had to accept it, the sooner the better, but how, how? Dozing as the flames grew low, the evening waned. Finally, conceding it was time for bed, Ben doused the lamps and went upstairs. He bypassed Joe’s closed door, unable to look inside the room which had not been changed since they came home. Stopping in Hoss’ room, the father wasn’t surprised to find that bed empty as well. Opening Adam’s door, he found his two sons lying in bed together, Hoss snoring away while Adam lay with a lamp on and his eyes wide open.
“Adam,” Ben called softly. Heeding his father, the young man got up. Shutting his bedroom door behind him, the young man joined his father.
“Sorry, Pa. You weren’t worried about him were you?”
“I’m worried about both of you,” Ben confessed. “He’s too quiet and you are working yourself too hard.”
“I can’t help it, Pa. If I don’t do something sometimes I feel like I’m going to go crazy.”
“I know what you mean. Hoss hasn’t asked to play checkers since we got home and most of the time he sleeps with you.”
“Small wonder,” Ben answered.
“I’m scared too. Pa, I can’t stand getting up in the morning and not having Joe here. He’s my brother.”
“Adam…” Ben didn’t know what to say.
“How about if I go back to San Francisco? Maybe if I can talk to that sergeant again? Maybe…”
“No, Adam. If the sergeant had any news on Joe, you know he would have sent word.”
“But I was thinking too that we never checked the orphanages up there or in the surrounding country side. Maybe we were a little hasty in leaving the city.” The two men sat on a settee in the hallway, exhausted. Their fatigue came not only from a physical need to sleep.
“I did,” Ben answered.
“What?” Adam’s surprise hit Ben in the gut as he finally admitted to himself that all the hard work of the last four weeks had come to nothing.
“With Roy’s help, I hired several detectives in San Francisco shortly after we got home. I had them scour the orphanages and every place we could think Joe might have gotten to. There was no news, no evidence he survived the fire.” Ben reached into his pocket. Opening the locket he kept of Marie, he stared into her beautiful eyes.
“I failed her,” he said softly. “I let our little boy die.”
“Pa?” Ben’s chocolate colored eyes rested on his eldest son. Adam’s hand touched Ben’s leg.
“Pa, you couldn’t have done any more than you did.”
“I know. Someday, Adam when you are a father, you’ll understand. You, Hoss, Joe, each of you have been my joy, my blessing from your mothers. I lost them…and their loss was heart wrenching, but Joe…Joe was just a baby. He never even had the chance to marry or have his own children. It’s not right and I should have been able to protect him.”
“We all wanted to, Pa. You know I didn’t get along with Marie until Joe came. He was a bond between us. Without him I would never have accepted Marie without Joe and without Marie, I would never have realized how much I needed her…and Joe.” Tears fell down Ben’s face. Pulling Adam into his arms, he hugged his son tight, thanking God for this boy who had been with him through the most difficult and most wonderful days of his own life. They were still hugging when a ferocious knock on the front door startled them. For a second they were frozen until Hoss’ bedroom door opened.
“Pa? Pa, who’s downstairs?” Hoss wondered out loud, rubbing his sleepy eyes. Ben hurried down to the front room, swinging open the door to admit a smiling Roy Coffee.
“Roy? Roy, come in. What are you doing out here so late?” Roy’s face was fairly beaming. Glancing back at Adam and Hoss, Ben could see the two boys were confused. With his heart suddenly beating with expectation he gave his old friend his attention as he shut the door and then came to stand in front of him.
“A telegram, Ben, from Stockton. I brought it out cause I figured it couldn’t wait till morning.”
“A telegram?” Ben looked down at the outstretched hand.
“Take it, Ben. It’s good news. Ben…it’s Little Joe.” In a second Ben took the paper in his trembling hands. His voice choked as he read the words out loud.
“To Sheriff Roy Coffee, Virginia City, Nevada
Child found. Possible ID Joe Cartwright from poster.
Have family come urgent. Sheriff Ralph Walters, Stockton, CA.”
“Possible ID? Oh, God,” Adam cried.
“Pa?” Hoss asked. Ben looked up to Roy, fresh tears in his eyes.
“Ben, I have a feeling. I know Ralph Walters. He wouldn’t send a telegram like this unless there was strong reason to suspect the child is Joe.”
“What if…what if it isn’t?” Adam demanded.
“Then we’ll find out when we get there. Hoss go back to bed. You too Adam. I’ll make arrangements for us to leave for Stockton in the morning.”
“Pa, we can’t sleep,” Adam protested. “Not now.” Ben looked from Hoss to Adam to Roy. Without hesitation, he nodded.
“Ben the stagecoach goes through Stockton,” Roy offered.
“No, Roy. We’ll take our horses. We can make better time traveling across country. The boys and I will be fine. I’ll leave instructions for our foreman. He can handle the ranch while we’re away. Thank-you, Roy for coming out so late.”
“I hope and pray it’s him, Ben,” Roy told his friend, patting his shoulder, and then leaving. Ben turned back to his sons.
“I know how difficult this is,” Ben told them. “We don’t know for sure that this is Joe.”
“It has to be, Pa. It has to be,” Hoss cried, his logic coming from his heart and not his mind.
“Hoss, it doesn’t. But we’ll hope. We’ll hope and if it’s Joe, we’ll bring him home.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll go get dressed. Come on, Adam.”
“I’ll be right up to help you, Hoss.” When Hoss was upstairs, Adam reached out to his father who was going through some papers on his desk.
“Pa, can you do this?” Ben looked surprised at the question.
“What do you mean, Son?”
“What if it isn’t Joe?”
“Adam, go pack enough clothes in your saddle bags for three days. You know what to do. Like I told your brother, we have to hope it’s Joe.”
“Why couldn’t they say for sure?” Adam asked, his voice very serious. Ben’s eyes spoke volumes. Silently the younger man went back up stairs. Ben sat down. What if it wasn’t Joe? What was so wrong that they were needed urgently? Ben put his head on his hands and sobbed, knowing this was their last chance to get Joe back. And if they did, now he had to consider what condition the child was in…and if they ever really would get their little boy back home to the Ponderosa again.
“Dear God,” he prayed. “Please. Please Marie. Take care of him till I can get to him. Please take care of him.”
It took three days of hard riding to get to Stockton. Ben and the boys spoke little during the trip. They all were lost in their fear and worry for Little Joe, fear for his life and worry that the boy in Stockton wasn’t Little Joe. Not even Hoss spoke the unthinkable, that they might be headed west for no reason, that this was their last chance at finding his little brother. When the family arrived in Stockton, they rode as quickly as they could to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff looked a little confused at the entrance of three large men, although one was still a boy, but plenty large.
“Kin I help you folks?” Ralph Walters asked, a little wary.
Ben nodded but didn’t hold out his hand. His worry was written across his strained, exhausted face.
“I’m Ben Cartwright. These are my sons, Adam and Hoss.”
“Mr. Cartwright. Right. You got here quickly.”
“Where’s my son?”
“We think he’s Joe. Matches the description. We aren’t positive.”
“Hasn’t he told you?” Adam asked with apparent exasperation.
“Maybe we should just go over to the doctor’s office,” Sheriff Walters answered pointedly ignoring Adam’s question. Sheriff Walters opened the door to his office ushering the family out. Adam clenched his hands while Hoss followed his father and brother, confusion written across his face. It took only a few minutes to walk down the street to the doctor’s office. Sheriff Walters knocked on the front door, then opened it, stepping inside quickly with Ben, Adam and Hoss behind him. A man hurried from the back of the house.
“Ralph? What’s this?” he asked.
“This is Mr. Cartwright and his sons. How’s the boy today?”
“Bout the same, Ralph. Thanks for bringing them over.”
“Anytime, Sam. I’ll see you for supper Saturday.”
“Sure thing.” The doctor turned his attention to Ben.
“Mr. Cartwright? I’m Dr. Sam Brooks. Thank you for coming so quickly.”
“We came as fast as we could. Where’s Joe?”
“He’s in our infirmary. Mr. Cartwright, I need to talk to you about the boy before you see him.”
“We have to see him right now!” Hoss broke in. “It’s been forever and he must be scared, the poor little fella.” Dr. Brooks hazarded a smile at the large young man. He drew the family towards his waiting room. Indicating for them to sit down, he sat in a chair facing Ben with Hoss sitting next to him and Adam standing next to his father.
“Young Man, I understand your worry. You must be a great brother.”
“He’s the best,” Ben complimented his son. “But what about my son?”
“Joe hasn’t been responsive since he was found,” Dr. Brooks told them, letting the family down gently.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he was unconscious when we found him. The lady he was with had a poster in her pocket. It was the wanted poster for Joe. That’s how we identified him. Since then the boy has been awake off and on, but he’s barely eaten.”
“Joe’s never been a big eater,” Ben excused trying to deny what the doctor said.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Cartwright. Joe is extremely malnourished. He has pneumonia, and he’s running a high fever. We can barely get enough water in him to keep him hydrated. He’s a very sick boy.” Ben closed his eyes. Hoss looked from the doctor to Ben to Adam. He stood up.
“I wanna see Joe. I wanna see him now.” The doctor nodded. He led the family down the hall to the infirmary. Opening the door, they found Melinda Brooks tending to Joe. There were no other patients in the other beds. As one, the Cartwright’s engulfed the bed on either side. Melinda Brooks stood. For several seconds silence filled the room as Ben, Adam and Hoss laid eyes on Joe for the first time since the fire. Ben moved to his boy’s side unbelieving.
“Jesus,” Adam sighed.
“Pa?” Hoss pleaded. “Pa…what happened to him? Lookit those bruises on his arms and he’s so puny. Pa?”
“Sh, Hoss,” Adam urged putting his arm around his brother. Dr. Brooks took a chair and brought it over to Ben. As if moving in slow motion, Ben sat, taking the tiny hand of his youngest child in his own large one. With hurt eyes he looked to Dr. Brooks.
“He is your son?” Dr. Brooks asked.
“Yes. What the hell happened?” Ben cried. “Joe? Joseph, look at Papa. Papa’s here now. Sweetheart?” Anguish raged through the hearts of each person in the room, even the doctor and his wife. Joe didn’t respond. His little face was so frail, his little arms black and blue. Swallowing his anger at those bruises, Ben’s hand brushed back the curly hair.
“Soft…so soft,” Ben whispered. “Just like your mother, Joe. You’re going to be all right, Son. Adam is here and Hoss. We’re going to help you, and I promise, we’ll never let you go again. I’m sorry, Joseph. I’m so sorry. Joe, open your eyes for Papa. Open your eyes.”
“Keep talking to him, Mr. Cartwright,” Dr. Brooks encouraged. “Melinda, why don’t you show these boys where they can clean up and get something to eat? I’ll stay with Mr. Cartwright.”
“I aint leaving him,” Hoss hissed. Again Adam put his hand over the boy’s shoulder.
“No,” Hoss insisted. “He could die.” Tears fell down Hoss’ cheek. Ben looked across the bed to his sons.
“Hoss, I won’t let Joe die. He’s going to be all right, I promise. Go with Adam and get some rest. Just remember, Son. We found him. We found your little brother, and that’s a blessing.”
“Sure is, Pa,” Adam concurred. “Come on, Hoss. Little Joe wouldn’t like all the fuss anyway, you know.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Pa…”
“Go on, Hoss.” Ben encouraged. The boys followed Mrs. Brooks out of the room. Joe coughed, his little body racked by the pneumonia in his lungs. Ben couldn’t stand seeing his child suffering so much.
“Dr. Brooks, can I hold him?” he asked. “He’s hurting.” Dr. Brooks smiled.
“Mr. Cartwright, I’d guess holding the boy couldn’t hurt, but maybe you’d like to get cleaned up too.” As if on cue the sheriff came into the room with Ben and the boys’ saddle bags. The men looked up at the sheriff in surprise.
“I thought the Cartwright’s might need these. I had their horses taken to the livery.”
“You’re welcome.” The sheriff left. Ben looked to the doctor in a bit of confusion. Samuel Brooks smiled sadly.
“We had an epidemic pass through here a while back. Sheriff lost a girl and a boy. He knows what you’re going through. So do I.” Ben looked twice. In silence he put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder. There were no words. He had been so close to losing Joe…and still was.
“There’s a lean to on the other side of the room with a well, and some towels. We keep everything there to be handy. I’ll get you some coffee and a sandwich. You look done in.”
“I found my son,” Ben answered. “That’s all I wanted was to get him back. He’s special my Joe, all my boys.”
“They’re all special,” Dr. Brooks agreed with an unshed tear in his eye as he opened the bedroom door, “When they’re yours.” Ben took his satchel and went out to the lean to knowing the doctor was right, but he just didn’t know how special Little Joe was.
Ben carefully lifted his little boy into his arms, sitting in bed with the limp hot flesh next to his. Little Joe coughed with the movement. When Joe’s head rested against, Ben’s chest, he felt a contentment he hadn’t realized in weeks.
“Oh, Joseph. Where have you been Baby? What happened to you? Papa is here now.
He’s going to take care of you.” Joe’s small form was limp, completely limp
and unresponsive except for the coughs that racked him.
Ben couldn’t remember the last time he had ever seen Joe so still, as if he ever had. Joe…From the moment he was born, this little one was a bundle of energy, not quiet like the placid Hoss or serious Adam. Joe was on the go from morning till night. Ben should have believed like Adam did that Joe wouldn’t just give in. Did he jump out of the building? Did someone pull him out? Would they ever know? Would Joe live to tell them or would this little guy ever talk again? Ben’s heart ached for his boy’s suffering.
In the next few days it was an uphill battle to save Joe. He refused to take anything to drink. When he was awake, he only opened his eyes, but didn’t look around. Ben talked constantly to him while his sons and the doctor and his wife met the child’s needs. Joe was so hot, and the cough so fierce, Ben reverently wished he knew how to do more for his boy. His heart ached for Joe’s suffering and the needless grief Adam, Hoss and himself were enduring. On the third night, Dr. Brooks told him that either Joe would survive the night or die by morning. He was too weak to fight much longer.
“Caint we do something?” Hoss pleaded. “He’s come this far.” Dr. Brooks sadly shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Hoss. There’s only so much a man can do, even a doctor.”
“But he’s our brother!” Adam protested. “We aren’t letting him die. We aren’t. Joe you get back here. You aren’t going anywhere, Buddy.”
“We’ll keep him as cool as possible with cool cloths. Ben if you stay with him, and the boys, keep talking to him, letting him know you are here, that’s his only hope.”
“We’ll stay with him,” Hoss insisted. “He’s my little brother. Little Brother…”
Hoss pulled back his tears.
Little Joe’s head was leaning against Ben’s chest, Ben rubbed Joe’s back. Adam sat on one side of the bed and Hoss on the other. Together they changed the cool cloths on the boy. Adam rubbed Joe’s legs. When the doctor looked at him questioningly, he sighed.
“I figure he might know we’re here if we touch him. Can’t hurt, can it?” Dr. Brooks gave his sympathetic approval.
“No, Adam, it can’t hurt.”
“Pa, do ya think Joe knows how much we want him ta come home?” Hoss asked. “House aint the same without the little fella.”
“Never missed anyone the way we missed you, Joe,” Adam concurred. He rubbed Joe's legs a little harder. The boy moaned, the first sound he had made since the family arrived.
"Joseph?" Ben called to his son. The child's raspy breathing was Ben's only response. "Joe, I can feel your mother is with you. I know it's tempting to go with her, but don't go, Sweet Boy. Please don't."
"Pa, what do you mean?" Adam asked.
"She's here," Ben said. "She wouldn't leave Joe now, not now when he is hovering between life and death." As if to confirm his feeling, Ben felt as if Marie were kissing his cheek. In return, he kissed Joe's damp curly head.
"Pa..." Hoss cried. Joe's body stiffened in his father's arms.
"Marie, don't take him," Ben begged. "Please, Marie. We need him. We love him so. Marie!" Joe's body went into a seizure that lasted several seconds. Ben laid the child flat on the bed. Dr. Brooks flew off the bed he had been resting on.
"Hold him down," the doctor cried. Ben's heart constricted in agony, enduring the seizure with his baby until finally Little Joe was still, his green eyes closed, face white.
"Help him," Ben begged.
"Ben, it's up to him," Dr. Brooks answered. "We've done all we can. Let's get him back in the bed." Ben had no words.
"Come on, Little Buddy," Adam pleaded picking Joe up and depositing him again in his father's arms. "You can do this. You can. You're a big boy, remember? You can do this." They kept talking to the child. Little Joe's breathing grew softer until the terrible rasping ceased. Dr. Brooks laid down again. Time ticked by while dawn neared. Ben dozed as did Adam and Hoss, Adam lying next to his father and Hoss sitting in a chair with his head on the bed. Ben woke to feel Joe moving, actually moving. In awe, he felt weak arms go around his neck and the little face buried itself into the father's chest, and he went to sleep.
"Dr. Brooks!" Ben gasped. Once again the physician hurried to his patient's side. This time, Dr. Brooks stepped back a smile on his face.
"Doctor?" Adam pleaded. Hoss slept on.
"His fever's broke. He's not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, but he's beat the pneumonia. That's the first step towards recovery. He's some boy, Ben." Ben sobbed his relief as a wisp of wind touched his cheek. Marie...Marie's blessing on her husband and son. Joe would live. Ben knew he would, and he would be there to help his child recover from his ordeal. He would help Joe to find his heart and soul again, to set afire the soul that was part of his youngest child. His Joe was coming home at last.
Three weeks Later
“Now Joe, you don’t have to be afraid,” Ben told his son three weeks later. It was only ten days till Christmas, two weeks since Ben brought Little Joe home. The family was gathered outside, getting ready to go for a ride. Hoss, sitting his own mount grinned from ear to ear as Adam lifted Joe up to his father.
“Pa, Joe aint afraid. He aint never been afraid a nothing,” Hoss insisted.
“That’s right, Pa. Can’t stop Joe once he has an idea in his stubborn head,” Adam agreed. “He’ll sit a horse no problem.” He handed the little boy to Ben who kept up the false bravado the three of them were displaying for Joe.
“Well, Joe, what do you think?” Ben asked his son, setting him on the saddle in front of him. Little Joe leaned back in silence.
“I think he remembers, Pa,” Adam encouraged. “Ready to go?”
“Sure thing, Son.” Adam mounted without thought. Together the family rode through snow covered fields to the little cemetery where Marie and the little stillborn daughter she had lost two years after Little Joe was born were buried. Adam and Hoss rode ahead, their voices quiet but strong in the chilling air. Above them the sky was cloudy, the air speaking of snow before it’s expected arrival that evening. Ben didn’t have flowers at this time of year for Marie, but he wanted Joe to see where his mother was and he wanted to see Marie too before Christmas. There was no guarantee they’d be able to get up here on Christmas Day that was for sure. A sudden snowball hit Joe’s arm. Ben looked ahead to see Hoss grinning. Joe’s lack of response was disappointing. Ben swallowed heavily.
“That Hoss,” Ben chuckled. “He’d try and get a reaction out of you any way he could.” Ben pulled his horse up. Adam was quick to take Joe from him. Joe went willingly from his father to his brother, putting his arms around Adam’s neck and resting his head on Adam’s shoulder. To the family it was clear that Joe knew them. They just weren’t sure how to reach the little boy.
“Hey Little Buddy,” Adam said. “Let’s sit down here on the blanket Hoss has. We cleared some snow and thought you might like to talk to your mama. I bet you miss her.” Hoss and Ben put the blanket down. Ben sat down with Joe leaning against him. It was the middle of the morning, and since the stock had been taken care of, Ben thought getting Joe outside might be a good idea. Heaven knew just taking care of him inside, doing exercises to strengthen his arms and legs and keep his socialized didn’t seem to do much. Ben wanted his little boy back, and he meant to try every which way he could to reach the child. Ben hugged Joe towards him, pulling an extra blanket around the boy to keep him warm.
“You know, Pa, I don’t think there’s a prettier place in the world than right here,” Adam offered. “With the view of the lake and the mountains. Even in the cold and snow it’s peaceful.”
“It wouldn’t be peaceful iffn we had a snowball fight,” Hoss suggested mischievously. Hoss wasn’t one to sit still for long. He had too much living to do in his quiet way.
“Be still, Hoss,” Adam chided. “Let Joe enjoy being outside for a change. He’s been cooped up a long time.”
“Yeah, I reckon he has.” Hoss took the canteen they had brought and some tin cups. He poured some water into a cup and drank it.
“Let me have that, Hoss. I’ll see if I can get Joseph to drink some,” Ben suggested. Hoss readily gave his father the canteen and a cup. After there was water in the cup, Ben took Joe’s hands, encouraging him to hold the tin cup. To Ben’s surprise Joe did hold the cup drinking from it until it was half empty. Ben took it back with a grin. Adam nodded his own encouragement as he spoke.
“Not bad, Little Buddy,” Adam complimented. “Course that wouldn’t begin to satisfy Hoss.”
“That’s enough, Adam.” Ben chided. There was a certain contentment within his soul with his son snuggling against him. Suddenly he realized that that was what was different. Joe was snuggling against him, feeling safe, feeling his own form of contentment maybe. He kissed Joe’s forehead.
“Pa, do you think Ma knows we’re here?” Hoss asked. Ben ruffled Joe’s hair and kissed his bare head again. He’d taken off the boy’s hat to let the cool air whisper through the dark curls. The father’s chocolate colored eyes rested on Marie’s headstone. Adam answered for his father.
“Course she does, Hoss. She was with Joe in Stockton, remember?”
“Yeah, but I wish we could see her and talk to her. She always had a way of making ya feel special.”
“Specially Joe,” Adam agreed. “Course she was kind of partial to the kid.” Ben chuckled again. They spent some time talking about Marie. After about an hour, Ben declared it was time to go home. He got Joe’s hat, making sure it was on well enough to keep his head warm. Ben stood with Joe in his arms. He whispered into Joe’s ear.
“Do you want to say good bye to Mama, Son?”
“It’s okay if ya don’t Joe. Ya can say a prayer by yourself to Mama whenever ya want.”
“That’s a nice thought, Hoss.”
“I pray to her sometimes,” Hoss said. “Did some asking after the fire when we thought Little Joe was dead.” Joe suddenly whimpered.
“Papa,” he whispered. “Papa.” Ben’s eyes widened.
“Joe?” he asked, but Joe just buried his head in Ben’s chest.
“He heard us, Pa,” Adam told the older man.
“Ya think he understood us talking about the fire?”
“I don’t know, Hoss. Let’s get him home. He’s shivering a bit.” Ben answered a little shortly. In no time they were on their way home. Ben chided himself all the way home, wishing he knew more about the fire and what had happened to Joe. Joe calmed down by the time they got home. Adam and Hoss took the horses without comment. Ben carried his son inside. When he made to put Joe on the sofa, Joe clung to him.
“Papa! No!” Little arms around a parent’s neck usually speak volumes and this time was no exception. Ben sat down with Little Joe. He tried to sit Joe up on his knee. Little Joe simply laid back down, resting his head against Ben. However his father was more insistent.
“Joseph, I want you to look at Papa. Now sit up and pay attention.” Joe shook his head. Ben felt more hope than he had in a long time. Joe was listening. He knew exactly what he was doing. This was more of a temper tantrum than anything…and if it was one thing Ben Cartwright didn’t tolerate it was a temper tantrum. He sat Joe up on the sofa, letting him rest against the armrest of the sofa. Joe couldn’t help letting his green eyes rest on his father as he was looking up from where he lay.
“Joseph, do you know where you are?” Ben held his breath until Joe nodded. “Tell me.” Joe took a minute or so until finally he blurted out the word he needed.
“Home…” Ben thought for a few minutes. There was no excitement in the child’s voice. In fact Joseph spoke in a bit of a monotone. Could there have been some brain damage after all? Was he expecting too much from the little boy? If only he knew.
“Joe do you remember the fire?” he asked deciding he had to try since this was the first time he had really been able to talk to his son. “Joseph?”
“Scared,” Joe said with a bit more inflection. Tears welled up in his eyes. Ben moved to brush them away and Joe threw himself at his father again. “Don’t leave me, Papa, don’t leave me.” Gathering his boy in his arms, Ben whispered to the frightened child. Joe sobbed, not offering any more information. Ben cradled him until he was calmed. Soft breathing followed. The father realized his son had fallen asleep which was most likely a good thing. Carrying his burden as if he were as delicate as glass, Ben took Joe up to bed. While he was there, Adam and Hoss came in, the boys noisy as usual, Hoss demanding lunch and Adam teasing him. Finally Hop Sing joined in just as Ben came down stairs.
“You boys no good. You no wait for father to eat,” Hop Sing was scolding as Adam and Hoss sat down at the dining room table.
“I’m getting puny, Hop Sing. I gotta eat sumthin,” Hoss moaned in a pitiful tone which Adam was quick to nab.
“Quick, Hop Sing. Get some oatmeal. That’ll fill him up…for about five seconds.”
“You boys need to be quiet. Little Joe is sleeping,” Ben chided sitting down with his sons.
“Was going to see Ma too much for the little fella, Pa?”
“I don’t know, Hoss. It’s hard to figure what’s going inside Joseph’s head right now. He talked to me though. He pleaded with me not to leave him.” Hop Sing was putting some meatloaf and mashed potatoes on the table, along with fresh baked bread and butter. It was a light early afternoon meal, but since the family had had breakfast late, it would be enough. Adam hesitated before starting to eat.
“That’s his worst fear, Pa, being alone.”
“I know, Son. I think he was terribly traumatized by the fire and being away from us, especially so soon after Marie…” Ben pushed his own plate away and put his head down. Hoss didn’t move, his eyes going from his father to Adam.
“Go ahead and eat, Hoss,” Adam told him. “Pa?”
Ben stood up.
“You boys finish your lunch. I’m going out to the barn. Maybe cleaning up the tack room will get rid of some of this anger inside me.”
“You angry, Pa? What about?” Hoss asked with innocent little boy confusion.
“I’m angry about many things, Hoss,” Ben admitted. “I’m angry we had to lose Marie, that you boys don’t have a mother and now this with Joseph. He shouldn’t have had to go through the fire and whatever else happened to him. But it all happened and this family will go on. I just have to do something to help myself deal with it.”
“You want us to go with you, Pa?” Adam queried.
“No. You stay in the house in case Joseph wakes up. I’ll be back.” Adam and Hoss watched their father go outside. Hoss eat his lunch. Adam got up and went upstairs. He checked on Joe and then went to his own room. Like his father he had his own thinking to do. Sitting on the bed, he leaned back, thinking of Marie and Joe. He had been so resentful of Marie until Joe was born. Somehow once his little brother made his appearance, Adam ceased to resent Marie’s intrusion on their lives. She was Joe’s mother…and once he let her, she became his as well. His Pa was right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair for Joe to have suffered or for Marie to have died so suddenly and violently. Little Joe had just begun to understand his loss when the fire occurred. Now, given the additional trauma he had suffered, would his little buddy ever come back? Adam wondered, wondered and prayed.
“Pa?” a voice called out perhaps an hour later. “Pa! Pa!” Adam threw himself off his bed. In seconds he was down the hall entering Joe’s room. “Papa!” Adam froze as Hoss ran and bumped into him from behind. “Adam, where’s Papa?”
“Joe? Hey Little Buddy,” Adam answered with caution, approaching his brother as if he were seeing a ghost. Little Joe was sitting up in bed. Tears were streaming down his face.
“I want Papa, Adam. I want Papa. Where is he?” Adam turned back to Hoss who nodded.
“I’ll get him.” The younger boy disappeared. Adam sat on the side of the bed.
“Pa’s out in the barn, Joe.” Joe’s green eyes reflected his disbelief.
“I had a dream,” the little boy confided. “I dreamed Papa was gone…that he went away with Mama. Where is he, Adam? I need Papa.” Joe threw himself at Adam just as he had at Ben. This time as he sobbed he kept on talking.
“They kept saying that you and Hoss and Papa were…were dead like Mama. I told them you wouldn’t leave me, but you did. You did. Why? Why did you leave me?” Adam sighed. So this was what had been haunting his little brother. If ever someone would understand Little Joe’s fears it was Adam who for most of his childhood had only his father to call his own. Before he could answer, Ben came running into the room with Hoss close behind.
“Joseph. Joseph!” Joe sat back, his little boy face streaked with tears. Adam looked up to his father from the bed. There were tears in Adam’s eyes as well.
“Pa, they told him we died…”
“In the fire,” Little Joe finished. “I didn’t want to believe them. They lied. I knew they did, but I didn’t know and you left me.” The last three words ends in a wailing crescendo. Ben flew to his son. While Adam and Hoss watched, the father comforted the little boy as best he could.
“Joseph, you know we would never leave you willingly. We lost you after the fire. We couldn’t find you even though we looked and looked.”
“No you didn’t. If you had, you would have found me,” Joe cried, hitting his father on the chest. “You left me.” Ben grabbed the small hands. He set Joe back a few inches so that the child was able to meet his gaze. Intense brown eyes locked on the vulnerable ones of a tiny boy who had just lived his worst nightmare.
“Joseph, you know I wouldn’t lie about something so serious. San Francisco is a big city. Adam…well Papa was sick for a while, so Adam put out posters to tell people in other towns that we were looking for you. That’s how we found you. Someone notified us through a poster. We love you, Joseph. You know that.” Joe looked down. He wiped away the tears. Slowly his gaze went to Adam and Hoss.
“Did you look for me?” he asked with little boy hope. Adam nodded. Hoss was stunned for a minute by the question. He burst out as angry as anyone had ever seen him.
“Shortshanks, I don’t care what no body said. They had no right to tell ya we was dead. Durn fool no goods. We wouldn’t never leave ya and that’s a fact. We was scared too, scared we’d never see ya agin. So we was real glad to find you and bring you home. This house aint never been so danged quiet.”
“Hoss, watch your language,” Ben interceded on automatic.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I just caint believe what they done told the little fella. How could they?”
“They was mean, that’s why,” Joe offered. “Well the lady wasn’t but he was. He…he hit me.” Ben couldn’t stand that confession. He pulled Joe into a hug. Adam came over with Hoss.
“Joseph, you’re home now. We’re sorry you had to go through such an ordeal by yourself. Your papa and Adam and Hoss will never let something like that happen again.”
“But…but how can ya stop it?” Little Joe asked. “Mama went away and you couldn’t stop that. Then that man took me and you couldn’t do anything. I’m scared, Papa. I don’t want to be away from you again.”
“Is that why you haven’t been talking?” Ben asked. Little Joe shrugged.
“Well, Joseph, I guess there are no guarantees, but the truth is, no matter what happens, Papa, Adam and Hoss will always, always love you and we’ll always try to be here for you. And if someone tells you otherwise, don’t you believe it, not until you see for yourself its true.” Little Joe nodded.
“I promise, Papa. I won’t believe em ever.” Joe was content to let Ben pick him up and carry him down stairs that afternoon. As Ben held his little boy, he could see where just a few hours had shown him what he truly had to be grateful for. His heart was afire with love for the little boy who chattered on and on and asked why it was hard to stand or walk and on and on as only Joseph could. Joe was on his way home. And Ben Cartwright’s plate was full with love for his boys…and always for the women who loved him enough to leave him his three sons.