Christine Hastings
Rated PG13


Just before Adam goes away to college, an unexpected near tragedy teaches him how choices in his life may or may not change how his family feels about him…no matter where he is.

The little boy was no more than six years old riding proud as punch in front of his brother, a man a dozen so years older, just eighteen with a head of dark hair and chocolate colored eyes that matched his father’s. Hanging from the pommel of the saddle was a picnic basket and two poles for fishing were snaking out of the scabbard that Adam Cartwright usually kept his rifle in. Today wasn’t a day to worry about guns. It was a Saturday, a day to enjoy with Little Joe, Adam’s baby brother, just weeks before Adam was to go back East to college.

“Hurry, Adam, hurry,” little Joe urged. “The fishes will all be gone.” Adam held back a chuckle. His little brother was fidgeting in the saddle. He was so like his mother, always wanting to be on the go. When they finally reached Washoe Lake, Adam helped the little boy down then handed him his pole. Joe looked up at his brother with wide impatient green eyes that sparkled with anticipation.

“Come on, Adam. Like Pa says, the day’s a wasting.” Joe ran towards the edge of the lake. Adam took the blanket, picnic basket, can of worms and his own pole and followed his brother. Sitting down on the blanket he spread out and put the supplies on, he sat for a minute drinking in the fresh air.

“Adam can I take off my socks and shoes huh? I want to go into the water.”

“Joe, you know you can only go in with me. Take your socks and shoes off and wait for me.”

“K,” Joe answered. Adam watched the little boy with a smile. Sometimes he was jealous of the child, so innocent, so secure in his world. When Adam was Joe’s age, he was taking care of Hoss and they were still working their way across the country with a wagon train. It didn’t seem possible sometimes that a place like the Ponderosa could exist and they hadn’t known it. At the same time this was the only world Little Joe knew. With Boston looming in the horizon Joe’s little boy innocence was even more amazing. Adam envied him.

The morning was spent pleasantly, the brothers enjoying the peace and quiet of Washoe Lake and the surrounding countryside. There was hardly a sound in the air beyond a sweet wisp of wind and an occasional bird shifting through the ponderosa pines around them. Joe’s voice echoed when he caught a small fish and then a bigger one, his excitement contagious. Adam was pleased to add his own catch to his little brother’s. The fish were biting despite Joe’s restless movements as he walked deeper into the water until Adam spoke up.

“Joe, be careful. You go too far into the water and Pa’s liable to not be too happy.”

“Aw Adam, the water’s nice and cool and it’s so hot.”

“I know, Joe, but ya gotta listen.”

“Ya aint Pa,” the boy cried.

“Joe, if I have to take you out of the water, we will go home right now, and you know it will happen,” Adam warned. Joe sulked but came back towards shore. His pants were wet to the knees. Adam was tempted to let him strip to his underpants and just go for a swim. Joe learned to swim when he was little more than a toddler thanks to Marie’s insistence. He was a little fish. Instead Adam called a break.

“Come on, Joe. Lunchtime. Hop Sing’s fried chicken is going to taste great. I’m starved.” They left the fish tied to a string leaving them in the water to keep cool. Joe ran over to the basket his little argument forgotten.

“I’m real hungry,” he cried with the emphasis on real. “I bet I could eat as much as Hoss.”

“No one can eat as much as Hoss,” Adam laughed.

“I can, I’ll show ya!” Joe delved into the picnic basket bringing up a platter of fried chicken. Adam grabbed it before the overexcited child could drop it. Taking off the linen that covered the platter he gave Joe a leg.

“Here ya go, Little Buddy.” Joe was happy munching on the chicken leg. Adam helped himself to the chicken, apples, biscuits and cookies that Hop Sing sent along with them. They drank water fresh from the lake.

“Adam,” Joe queried between mouthfuls. “Can I ask ya something?”

“Sure, Little Buddy, anything you want,” Adam returned. “If you chew your food before you talk.” Joe chewed and swallowed, then took another bite and chewed again. About to speak, he remembered what Adam said and waited. Adam wondered if he had been as restless at Joe’s age as the boy was and decided he hadn’t. He had too much responsibility.

“Why do ya hafta go away?”

“I don’t have to go away, Little Buddy. I want to go to college to study.”

“Ya can go ta school with me,” Joe offered. “Teacher knows an awful lot.” Adam brushed Joe’s hair a bit. Joe pulled away.

“Hey, stop.”

“Sorry, Little Buddy. Sometimes I forget you’re getting so big. I bet you’ll be able to help Hoss and Pa a lot while I’m gone.”

“But I don’t wantcha ta go way, Adam,” Joe said putting his chicken down.

“Joe, I’m just going to school. I’ll be back.”

“Naw ya won’t. Ya won’t come back at all.” Adam tried to reach for Joe, but the child jumped up. He ran off toward the lake. Quickly Adam reached Joe, pulling him down to the ground.

“Joe, what’s this about? I promise I’m going to come back.” Joe tried to pull away. Adam held fast. Joe tried to hit at Adam until he burst into tears. The big brother was taken aback as Joe hugged Adam with all his might.

“I don’t wantcha ta go, Adam. Ya won’t come back. Ya’ll go way like Mama did.” Adam felt as if an arrow had pierced his own chest. Joe was sobbing his eyes out the poor baby hugging Adam as if he would just disappear.

“Joe, calm down,” His words were definitely lost to Little Joe. Picking up the small boy, Adam walked back to the blanket with the picnic basket and Joe’s uneaten chicken on its napkin. Cradling his baby brother in his arms, holding him tightly, Adam remembered the nights after Joe’s mother’s death when Joe cried fro his mother. Adam took his father’s place in comforting the child since Ben was just too devastated by his wife’s death to really take care of his children, especially an emotionally lost little boy. Joe took Marie’s death so hard and small wonder. One minute Marie was vibrant, laughing, playing and teasing her little son and the next minute she was gone, killed instantly in a riding accident. It was too much for Adam to understand sometimes, much less a little boy who was barely five years old at the time. Now, a year and a half later, Adam comforted the boy again until he calmed down.

“Joe, I promise. I promise I’ll come back. How about this? When I go away on the stage, I’ll leave you a letter and then every week I’ll send you and Hoss and Pa another letter right up until the day I come home.”

“You won’t come back,” Joe insisted. “When people go far away, they don’t come back.” Joe hung his head. Adam lifted the small chin looking into the little face that was so sad.

“Like Mama?” he asked. For a second Joe didn’t answer until he nodded looking down again.

“Joe, Mama went to heaven. She can’t send letters from heaven, but I can send letters from college and I can even come home.”
Joe’s tears continued but seemingly in a more controlled sad manner. He moved away from Adam, turning his back to him, his lunch forgotten. Adam waited.


“Yeah, Little Buddy?”

“Did Mama want to go to heaven like you want to go way?” Joe’s little boy confusion wasn’t lost on his oldest brother, the man who had raised him every bit as their father. Adam couldn’t remember his own mother. He was only Joe’s age when Hoss’ mother Inger died, but she’d been with them such a short time. Marie, Marie was the only mother any of the boys ever knew. Adam put his hand on the little boy’s shoulder.

“Joe,” he said. “Don’t you know your mama would never leave you if she had a choice?” Joe turned around

“Then why would you?” he wailed. Adam shook his head. Joe just didn’t understand.

“Joe, why don’t we talk to Pa about this. Maybe he can help you to understand.”

“Naw he can’t. You’re the only one can explain it cause you’re going way. Adam, can we go home now?”

“Want to go for a swim?” Joe looked out over the lake. Adam thought the child would say no. When Joe got an idea in his head he probably would just want to go home. He was surprised when Joe nodded.

“Can I? I’m hot.”

“Sure, Little Buddy. I’ll even go with you.” Joe took off his shirt and pants leaving only his underwear. Adam did the same. Little Joe jumped into the water with a screech and a holler. Adam did the same. When he came up he was relieved to see Joe’s face wreathed in smiles.

“It’s nice and cold, Adam. Pa’d like it cold wouldn’t he?”

“You bet he would Little Buddy, specially on a day like this. It’s hot enough.”

“Hoss would like to play too.”

“Think we should go home and let Pa and Hoss come with us?”
Joe seemed to think about that for a minute. Then he shook his head with a mischievous grin.

“Naw. We’s having fun by ourselves.” Adam laughed as Joe went under water then came up spouting the fresh clear liquid. Joe could change moods so fast it was downright scary as Hoss would say. Feeling younger than he had for a long time he, Adam chased Joe in the water, splashing him and throwing him up in the air and then letting the little boy hit the water. Joe’s giggles were a treasure to the older boy. After about an hour of fun, Adam decided they’d better get home since their pa would be expecting them.

“Come on, Little Joe,” he ordered walking up on shore. “Time to go.”

“One more dive, Adam, please,” Joe begged. Adam grinned.

“Sure thing. One more dive. Go on, Joe. I’ll get Sport and then we can go.” Adam kept an eye on Joe splashing in the water and walked up to the tree where Sport was happily munching away on some grass under the tree. Bringing the horse down towards the shore, he started to pack up. It was only a minute before he realized that Joe was way too quiet.

“Joe? Joe, where are you?” With a bit of fear in his heart, growing by leaps and bounds, Adam Cartwright yelled for his brother over and over again. Racing to the lake, he looked into the clear waters. He couldn’t see Joe anywhere.

“God, please,” he pleaded. “Joe this isn’t funny.” Trying to calm himself, he thought of where Joe was diving. Rushing to the spot, he jumped in to the water fully clothed. Swimming beneath the water, he was running out of air when he saw Joe’s body lying on the sandy bottom, only four feet deep. He also saw a rock. In a second he grabbed his brother, pulling him to the surface as fast as he could.

“Joe, oh, God, Joe,” he screamed on the surface. It took nothing for the strong young man to carry Joe to shore. Laying the tiny body of his baby brother on the ground, Adam was losing his composure. “Joe, breathe,” he cried. “Please, Joe. Please don’t die.” Turning Joe on his side he patted Joe on the back hard trying to get out the water that he thought was choking the life out of the little boy. He could see a growing bump on the top of Joe’s head indicating how the boy had come to be on the lake bottom.

“Come on, Joe. Come on.” Joe’s body was limp in Adam’s arms but he breathed when he coughed up some water.

“Joe, oh, Joe. Thank God,” Adam cried. He scooped the boy up in his arms and held him close while mounting Sport. He had to get Joe home so the doctor could see him and help him. Lying Joe face forward, letting the boy’s forehead lean against his chest, Adam choked back his tears as he rode home, talking non-stop to Little Joe.

“I’m sorry, Joe, I’m so sorry. I should have seen that rock. I’m sorry you hit your head. I love you Little Buddy. I promise if you just wake up, I won’t go away. I won’t go away. I won’t leave you.” He kept on talking, kept on praying as Joe breathed and coughed next to him without waking. Riding hard he rode into the yard calling for his father.

“Pa! Pa! Come quick. Pa, hurry.” Ben Cartwright threw open the front door and then hurried to his son to Adam’s relief. Hoss came running from where he had been working in the barn.

“Adam?” Ben asked. “Adam. Dear God. Joe! Oh, Baby. Adam let me have him. WHAT HAPPENED?” Ben’s voice escalated as Adam threw himself off his horse.

“I think he hit his head on a rock. He almost drowned, Pa. I’m sorry. I just turned away for a few minutes.”

“You shouldn’t have turned away at all,” Ben snapped. “Hoss go for the doctor, quick.” Ben’s arms went under Joe’s shoulders and knees, clutching the small body to him. Adam was sick at the sight of his father’s distress. Hoss spoke up.

“Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll git the doc.” Adam froze where he was, feeling guiltier than ever. Ben rushed into the house, yelling for Hop Sing. Hoss put his hand on his big brother’s shoulder. At thirteen, Hoss was almost as tall as and even bigger than Adam.

“Pa didn’t mean it, Adam. Little Joe’ll be jus fine, ya wait an see. He’s always got his self in some kind of mischief.”

“It was my fault, Hoss. He wouldn’t have been in the water if I hadn’t left him for a few minutes.” Hoss didn’t have an answer.

“I better go.” Hoss hurried back to the barn. Before Adam knew it, Hoss had a horse saddled and was racing past Adam. Adam wanted to run away, wanted to hide, but he knew he couldn’t. He’d almost killed Little Joe, his father’s baby. Adam resisted the urge to fall to his knees and sob. Forcing himself to walk, he went into the house and up to Joe’s room, uncertain what to do first. Looking up from Joe’s bed, Ben snapped at his son.

“Adam, help me.” Without hesitation Adam hurried to Joe’s bedside. Together father and son stripped Joe of his wet clothes. Hop Sing brought in some hot water. After bathing the boy and wrapping him in his night shirt, Ben washed the head wound just above Joe’s forehead. Adam cringed at the wound, listening again to every breath Joe took, easier now, as if the water were gone to Adam’s relief.

“Pa,” Adam started as Ben laid the boy in bed and covered him with blankets. Joe was so pale, it was terrifying to Ben. He took his anger and fear out on Adam without thought.

“I don’t want to hear it, Adam, not now.” Unable to help himself, Ben pulled Joe’s blanketed unconscious body into his arms, rocking back and forth with him as Adam watched, his own heart breaking for this father. Adam knew how Ben felt about the little boy, how sometimes it seemed as if only Joe kept Ben going after Marie died, only Joe’s need for his father and those giggles they loved so much. Ben’s words and actions were enough to break even the stoniest heart, much less his eldest son.

“Baby, it’s time to wake up now,” Ben crooned. “Papa’s here and you’re going to be just fine. Joe? Baby?” Adam couldn’t stand to see his father’s tears or Joe so lost to them. Bolting from the room, he ran out to the barn. Sport needed to be taken care of. Chores needed to be done. So much needed to be done. Collapsing in an empty stall in the barn, Adam pulled his knees to his chest. Over and over he went through those minutes. All he had done was get Sport. He hadn’t been gone that long. How could Joe have hit his head on the rock? Joe was just having fun. Joe knew how to have fun, to play and tease his brothers, to hug his father and giggle. Joe’s giggles taught Adam what being a little boy was all about, something he himself never really enjoyed being. He spent his childhood pioneering west with his father, not always certain of where their next meal was coming from. Joe! Joe! Joe!

“Adam?” Hoss’ voice called. Adam looked up, surprised Hoss had found him. He didn’t know how long he was sitting in the stall. It was dark. Joe? Where was Joe?


“I been looking fer ya, Big Brother. Pa was worried.”

“No, he should be worried about Joe.”

“Joe’s done woke up, Adam. He’s even had some soup. Little Brother wants ta see ya.”

“He’s awake?” Adam cried with incredulous amazement. Racing past Hoss, Adam ran across the yard and into the house. Taking the stairs two at a time, the young man flew into Joe’s room. There he found Joe leaning against their father as Ben read a story to the little boy. Joe sat up when he saw Adam silently watching him.

“Adam!” Joe cried. “Oops, my head.” He laid back against Ben.

“You have a headache, Joseph,” Ben scolded. “Remember what Dr. Martin said?”

“Yeah, he wants me to stay in bed…again.” Adam walked into the room. “Pa, Adam saved me.”

“Yes, he did, Son,” Ben answered with pride. Adam was confused.

“Pa, it was my fault he hit his head. He could have drowned.”

“Adam. He dove into the water. You couldn’t know he was going to hit his head. And you caught him quickly. Paul says he only got a little water into his lungs.”

“But he wasn’t breathing when I found him. He was dead.”

“Well I don’t know about that, but you did everything right and Joe just has a concussion from hitting his head.” Ben tickled the little boy who burst into giggles that sang out in the room. “He has to stay in bed for a few days, and you get to help keep him entertained.”

“I’m tired now, Pa,” Joe admitted. “I just wanted to thank Adam for saving me.” Adam sat on the side of the bed. Joe snuggled against Ben. Ben’s warm chocolate colored eyes went from Adam to Joe, continuing the story. Adam held Joe’s hand, staring at the little boy as the tired green eyes flickered and closed in sleep. Adam apologized again while Ben caressed the soft dark curls of his baby.

“I’m sorry, Pa, I’m so sorry. I never thought...”

“Adam, just let us alone. I’m going to sit with him for awhile.” Ben’s voice was a little tighter than it had been. Adam figured his father had been pretending his forgiveness for Little Joe’s sake. He was sure his father would never forgive him for the near miss. Walking out of his brother’s room, he ignored Hoss bringing Ben some dinner and went into his own room. Lying down on his bed, the young man lay on his back looking at the ceiling. Going away to college couldn’t come soon enough…and maybe Joe was right. Maybe he wouldn’t be coming back. He could never have the same relationship with his father or Joe or even Hoss again. He was sure of it.

Adam didn’t sleep much that night. If he expected Ben to come in to look in on him as he usually did, he was disappointed and more certain than ever that his pa was angry with him. In the morning, he got up and walked down the hall. Peeking in on Joe, he saw the little boy was still sleeping, his little arms flung every which way, his covers kicked off, and his little face angelic in sleep. Adam resisted going into the room and hugging Joe to him. Instead he walked downstairs to find his father and Hoss already eating breakfast.

“Morning, Adam,” Hoss greeted happily between bites of pancakes. “Better hurry. Hop Sing’s made a great breakfast and I’m powerful hungry.” Adam’s brown eyes met his father’s. Ben nodded a good morning but didn’t say anything.

“I’ll just have coffee,” he said sitting down.

“Adam, you need to eat,” Ben put in.

“I’m not hungry, Pa.” Ben ate quietly. Hoss took his cue from his father. When Adam finished his coffee, he started to get up.

“Adam, a minute please. Hoss, will you get some breakfast for your brother and then go upstairs and stay with him while I talk to your brother? You can take your plate too.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss answered. He disappeared into the kitchen with his plate still filled with food. Ben stood up.

“Adam, walk outside with me, will you?” Adam felt the urge to sink through the floor. Instead he followed his father outside. Shutting the door behind him, he joined Ben who turned around to put his hand on his oldest son’s shoulder.

“Adam I owe you an apology,” Ben said first. Adam was taken aback.

“What, Pa?”

“I’m sorry, Adam. I shouldn’t have blamed you for what happened.”

“It was my fault!” Adam concurred. He moved away from his father leaning on a chair, looking away from Ben. “I should have watched him more closely.”

“What did you do, Adam?”

“What do you mean?”

“Tell me how the accident happened. Just humor me, Son.”
Adam told of walking away from Joe for a few minutes and getting Sport. It only took a short time to bring the horse down. Only a minute or two passed when he didn’t hear Joe playing in the lake.
Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder again.

“Adam, Dr. Martin said you found him very quickly. Any of us could have done the same thing. It wasn’t your fault. It was an accident pure and simple.”

“How does the doctor know?”

“Because Joe recovered so quickly. If he stopped breathing it wasn’t long. You did everything right for him. I’m very proud of you, Son. You must have been terribly afraid.”

“I sure was,” Adam admitted shuddering again. “I never saw Joe that still, not even in bed.” Ben chuckled. Adam felt a tear fall.

“No, Joe is a bundle of energy that’s for sure. Adam, when I saw Joe like that, all I could think of was his mother. I needed someone to blame, and you were handy.”

“But Pa…” Adam turned around. Ben shook his head.

“I’m not making myself clear. I didn’t just need someone to blame for Joe’s accident. I was reliving Marie’s accident. I’ve blamed myself for a long time, ever since that day for her death. I told her time and again not to ride so fast, but she never listened, and I kept thinking I could have done something to stop her from that fall. When I saw Joe, I used you to funnel my guilt. Joe’s accident wasn’t your fault any more than Marie’s accident was my fault. An accident just happens.”

“And if Joe died,” Adam snapped. “Would you be so forgiving?”

“I don’t know, Adam, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.”

“Pa, it’s going to take me a long time to forgive myself. I can’t just forget it.” Ben nodded.

“I agree, Adam. I know it’ll take a while, but the truth is, you’re not to blame. Joe and Hoss are lucky to have you for a big brother…and I’m proud of you.” Ben hugged Adam who was stiff in his arms. Ben didn’t comment. Adam didn’t know what to do or feel. He still felt guilty, but he was glad his father didn’t blame him for the accident. Now if he could just forgive himself.

Over the next few days, Adam worked hard on the ranch. Little Joe was constantly underfoot but Adam seldom disciplined him as he used to. One afternoon when Adam and Hoss came back after a grueling day mending fences, they found Joe had ruined some hay bales by sliding on them. The nice stacks in the barn would need to be stacked and tied and put in the loft. Joe must have pushed them out of the loft and then played on them. Hoss found the stacks but no Little Joe.

“Adam, ya better see this,” Hoss said as Adam came into the barn.

“What, Hoss?” Joining his brother, Adam’s temper flared. “Joe, where are you?” At first there was no answer. Then Joe giggled as he came out of the hay. He had no repentance on his little face as Adam towered over him.

“Joe? You know better than to play in the hay like that. What’s wrong with you?” Adam asked.

“I just wanted to have some fun, Adam. It was hot and there was no one to play with.”

“Where’s Pa?” Adam demanded.

“He had to go to town and get the mail.”

“Joe, I ought to tan your hide,” Adam growled.

“Ya can’t. Ya aint Pa,” Joe sassed back. Hoss’ hand flew over his mouth. Adam didn’t wait. He turned Joe around and slapped his backside good. Joe giggled not upset at all. Adam slapped him again. When the older boy turned his brother around, Joe was still giggling even though he had tears in his eyes.

“Joe, what is wrong with you?”

“I was wondering when ya was gonna be Adam again,” Joe said. “Ya aint yelled at me for a long time.” Adam’s anger melted away at Joe’s words. Sinking down into the hair, he pulled Joe down. Hoss plopped down beside his brothers.

“You little scamp,” Adam laughed. “You did this on purpose, didn’t you, to get me mad.” Joe grinned.

“Well, I figured ya would git mad. I can clean it up, Adam, honest.”

“So you will, Little Buddy.”

“When ya go ta college, I’ll have ta help Hoss, won’t I? Cause ya won’t be here and there’s lots a work. Pa always says,” Joe went on.

“Joe, about me going to college,” Adam started figuring he had his brother’s undivided attention. “I don’t have to go if you don’t want me to.”

“It’s okay, Adam. Ya can go ta school.” Adam leaned back in the hay thunderstruck.

“What?” he asked. Little Joe’s face was completely calm, and at peace with what he was saying.

“Well, I thought about whatcha said that day.”

“At the lake?” Adam guessed.

“Yeah.” Joe looked down as Hoss nibbled on a piece of straw. When those bright innocent green eyes looked up at Adam, the young man felt as though he never could leave this child, even though he knew he had to for his own growth.

“I figured ya were right. Mama didn’t want ta go away. She couldn’t help it iffn she got hurt on her horse. Just like I got hurt in the water. Sometimes bad stuff happens, don’t’ it?”

“Yeah, Joe, sometimes it does,” Adam concurred. Joe sighed as he looked up with another question.

“Adam, Iffn I didn’t wake up, do ya think I woulda gone ta heaven too?”

“What do you think, Joe?” Adam asked, slightly shaking his head at Hoss whose big blue eyes widened at the question.

“I asked Pa. He said I would go to heaven, but not for a long time.”

“A long time,” Hoss breathed in relief. “Not till yer older than Pa.” Joe considered that for a minute. Then he looked back at Adam.

“Ya promise ya’ll write?” Adam pulled Joe to him in a hug.

“Every week, Little Buddy, every week.”

“Okay. But ya know, Pa says he might decide ta come and see you and he might take Hoss and me too.”

“He did say that,” Hoss agreed. “Wouldn’t it be something to see a big city like Boston and see where Adam is going to go to school?”

“I wanta see all the stores with candy,” Little Joe said. “And trains and wagons and guns and…”

“Whoa, Little Buddy,” Adam laughed. “Let me go and check those places out for you. Then when you come to visit, I’ll know just where to take you and spend all Pa’s money.”

“Pa won’t like that, Adam,” Hoss teased.

“Sure he will…if I can find something for him to spend his money on for himself,” Adam laughed. “Come on, Joe, Hoss and I will help you with this hay. I guess I owe you that much.”

“I don’t owe nobody nuthin,” Hoss laughed, throwing hay at his brothers.

“Hey!” Joe protested.

“Did I hear him say hey, Hoss. I think it’s time to show Little Joe what playing in the hay gets you.”

“What’s that, Adam?” Hoss asked. Adam grinned from ear to ear as he grabbed Joe and covered him with hay while the child protested over his giggles and Hoss joined Adam.

“Buried!” Adam exclaimed just as Ben came into the barn with his horse, Buck. Joe’s giggles were muffled as Adam piled hay on the child and Hoss tickled him. It was a picture Ben would carry with him for a long time before his voice bellowed in the barn and Adam’s grin met his.

“Boys…what’s the meaning of this mess?”

“Hi, Pa,” Adam yelled back. “Want to join us? We’re looking for Little Joe.” Ben chuckled. He shook his head as Joe called out.

“Pa, save me, save me.”

“I got him, Pa, don’t worry. He’s safe.” Adam pulled his brother out of the hay, standing him up and brushing him off.

“See, we found him,” Adam went on laughing.

“My turn!” Joe cried. “Hoss, help me bury Adam.”

“Pa, help me,” Adam begged in return as he was covered with hay. Somewhere out of the dimness of his tickling body and the hay over his eyes, Adam heard his father’s voice and knew he was indeed safe. He might not always be in the safety of his father’s arms he thought as Ben helped him out of the hay…but he knew, no matter what choices he made, he’d always be safe…in the hearts of those who loved him most, Ben, Hoss and Little Joe.