Door to the Past (by HelenB)

Summary:  Sequel to The Closed Door.  Joe crosses paths with the men who were involved in his kidnapping. And what is the secret Joe’s family are keeping from him?

Rating:  T  (24, 025 words)

The Closed Door Series:

The Closed  Door
Door to the Past

 

In my story “The Closed Door” Joe was kidnapped during a robbery gone wrong at the Ponderosa. Four men were involved, including Danny Kidd – they were part of a larger gang. One of the men was killed and Danny explained how he had come to be involved. The rest of the gang got away. The story continues six months later….

Door to the Past

“Are you sure you’ve got everything you need?” Ben asked.

Joe nodded patiently. It was about the fifth time that his father had asked the same question that morning. Joe had been very ill for a long time after he’d been shot by one of the men who had then kidnapped him. This was his first long trip away from the Ponderosa since then and his father couldn’t stop himself from worrying.

Joe understood and smiled. “Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll be fine.” Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulders and squeezed gently before they both walked outside.

Joe’s horse Cochise was saddled and Joe tied his bedroll and saddlebags on while his brothers waited, mounted on their horses. He mounted and turned to wave to his father. “Bye, Pa. See you in two weeks.”

Ben nodded. “Look after yourself, son.”

The three brothers turned their horses. “See you tonight, Pa,” Hoss called before they rode out.

Adam and Hoss rode as far as the turn off to the main road with Joe. After they pulled their horses to a stop, Adam said, “Good luck with the contract, Joe. I’m sure you’ll do fine,” he smiled and added, “And try to stay out of trouble.”

“Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do,” Hoss joked as he punched his little brother lightly on the arm.

“I’m not making any promises that I might not keep,” Joe laughed and before his brothers could reply, turned his horse and called out goodbye as he rode away.

Hoss laughed. Adam shook his head and grinned, then turned to Hoss. “Well, we better get to work.”

**********

When Joe Cartwright rode into the town of Silver Flats, he looked around until he found a sign locating the boarding house. He rode over and after tying Cochise to the hitching rail, walked up the stairs and knocked on the door.

Mrs Anderson, a plump woman in her sixties answered the door. Seeing the young man standing there she asked, “Can I help you? Are you after a room?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Joe answered, “My name’s Joe Cartwright and I ….”

Mrs Anderson cut him off excitedly. “Little Joe!” she exclaimed, looking him up and down, “You are so tall now. I can’t believe you were once the little boy who sat on my knee,” she grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him inside. “Come in, come in.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” Joe looked at her, “I….” he paused, not wanting to hurt the woman’s feelings by telling her that he didn’t know who she was.

The woman smiled kindly. “You don’t remember me, do you?” when Joe shook his head, she continued, “Well, I’m not surprised. It’s been a long time. You were five years old when I last saw you. My name’s Laura Anderson. My husband Daniel and I lived near you and your family.”

Old memories tugged at Joe and he suddenly realized who she was. “Aunt Laura!” The woman seemed to glow with happiness that he remembered her.

“Come through and lets sit down. I want to hear all the news about what you’ve been doing.” Laura Anderson led Joe into the sitting room and once she had him seated with a cup of coffee and a large piece of cake, she sat down, ready to hear all the news about the Cartwrights.

Joe told her what had happened over the years and the woman listened with interest, asking questions.

The Andersons had been good friends of Ben and Marie’s. The memories Joe had of them were faint but he remembered the comfort he’d found in Aunt Laura’s arms after his mother had died. Then suddenly a few months later she was gone, too. His father had explained that the couple had sold up and moved away. The Cartwrights had never heard from them again.

When Joe finished talking about himself and his family, he asked, “How have you been, Mrs Anderson and what about Mr Anderson?”

Mrs Anderson reached over and patted Joe’s arm. “I’d like you to call me Aunt Laura, like you used to, if that’s all right with you?” Joe nodded and she said, “Your Uncle Dan is out right now visiting a couple of friends. He’ll be back soon.”

“Why didn’t you ever write and tell us where you were living?” Joe asked, “We could have visited.”

Tears came to Laura’s eyes. “I wish that had been possible.” Joe wondered curiously why it hadn’t been possible but thought it would be rude to ask. “Dan and I were not lucky enough to be blessed by children,” Laura said quietly, “I wish I could have seen you grow up. I wanted you so badly. I’d have given anything to have kept you as mine.” She stared at Joe with such intensity that he felt uncomfortable and he wasn’t sure what she’d meant by her words.

Laura drew her eyes from the young man’s face, feeling she’d said the wrong thing. Quickly she said, “I mean, I wish I could have had a little boy just like you. How long can you stay?” she asked, trying to change the subject.

“I’ll be here for about a week. I have some business with a man named Mr Weems.”

“It will be so good to have you here,” Laura said, happily. “I’ll show you to your room and you can wash up. We’ll be eating in one hour.”

**********

When Joe came downstairs he could hear arguing coming from the kitchen. A man’s voice said, “I made a promise, Laura. I can’t break it.”

Mrs Anderson replied, “It’s been years, Dan. It can’t hurt anyone now.”

Joe started to turn, intending to go upstairs again, feeling he had intruded. Laura came into the room and saw him, she called, “Little Joe, Uncle Dan’s home. Come and say hello.”

Feeling a bit awkward about the argument he’d overhead, Joe walked through into the kitchen. “Hello, Mr Anderson,” Joe said as he came in and saw the man sitting at the table.

Mr Anderson didn’t say anything for a moment, then as if making a decision, he stood up and held out his hand, “It’s Uncle Dan to you, Little Joe. It’s good to see you again.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Joe replied as he shook the man’s hand. They talked in the kitchen for a while and then when all four of the boarders were seated at the dining room table, they went though into that room and joined them.

“Gentleman,” Dan said, “I’d like you to meet a very good friend of mine, Joe Cartwright.”

Joe was about to greet the men when one, who was sitting with his back to Joe, spun around to face him. Both men stared at each other in shock. After Joe had been kidnapped he’d killed one of the men but the other two hadn’t been caught. When Danny Kidd described the two men who were with him that day, Carl Willis and Mark Simmons, Joe had realized that although he didn’t know them by name, he did know who Danny was talking about as he’d seen those men at times when he’d been in Carson City. The Cartwrights and Sheriff Coffee had continued to look out for the men but neither of them had been sighted again, until now.

The man pushed his chair back, knocking it over in his rush. He ran for the back door. Joe was after him in a moment.

Two of the other men who were sitting at the table got up and ran to the back door with the Andersons to see what was happening outside. Mrs Anderson screamed as the man known to her as Richard Smith drew his gun and fired at Joe. The bullet missed and Joe fired back.

After it was over, Joe looked down at the body. The four people who had watched from the door rushed over to him. “Are you all right, Little Joe?” Mrs Anderson asked.

Joe nodded. He looked at Mr Anderson, “You better get the sheriff.”

Dan was about to go when he saw the sheriff coming towards them. “Here he comes now. Must have heard the shots. You haven’t got anything to worry about though, Little Joe. We all saw how he drew on you first. You killed him in self defence.”

“What happened here?” Sheriff Luke Taylor asked when he reached the group gathered around the dead body. He was a young man, only a few years older than Joe. This was his first job as a sheriff.

“It was self defence, Sheriff,” Dan Anderson said. He explained to the sheriff what had happened.

The sheriff looked at Joe and asked, “Why did he run? Do you know him?”

Joe nodded. “Six months ago some men tried to rob my father at our ranch, the Ponderosa. It’s near Virginia City,” the sheriff raised his eyebrows in surprise, he’d heard of the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa. “They kidnapped me. That’s one of the men, Mark Simmons,” Joe looked at the sheriff, “You can wire Sheriff Coffee in Virginia City to confirm my story.”

Sheriff Luke Taylor looked over at Mrs Anderson. “He arrived in town about a week ago, didn’t he?”

Mrs Anderson nodded. “Yes, he said his name was Richard Smith. He came here to the boarding house here with Frank Carter.”

“Where’s he?” the sheriff asked.

Mrs Anderson looked around and realized that one of her boarders hadn’t come outside. “He was at the table with us. It’s strange that he didn’t come out to see what was happening, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is,” the sheriff agreed, “Did you recognize him?” he asked Joe.

Joe shook his head. “No, we think there were ten men all together in the gang but only three were at the house that day when they took me. I don’t know what the others look like.”

“I think we need to have a talk to Frank Carter,” the sheriff said. He looked at Joe, he’d only just met the young man but his instincts told him that Joe was a man he could trust. “Come with me. The rest of you wait here, just in case he tries to shoot his way out, too.”

Going inside the two men looked around, seeing no one. They carefully made their way upstairs. Checking the rooms, they found one where clothes were flung all over the bed and floor. “Looks like someone left in a hurry,” Sheriff Taylor said. “Quick! Let’s go to the livery.” The men ran down the stairs and rushed to the livery. They were just in time to see Frank Carter lead his horse out and mount up. As he turned, he saw the sheriff and Joe. His hand moved for his gun. Sheriff Taylor and Joe pointed their guns at him. The sheriff called out, “Don’t even think about it!” Carter was not about to give up and he spurred his horse. Sheriff Taylor fired, the bullet hit Carter in the arm and he fell from the saddle.

“Dumb move,” the sheriff said as he looked down at the injured man. “I warned you not to make it.” He pulled the man roughly to his feet.

**********

Once the doctor had patched Carter up, Sheriff Taylor started to question him. The sheriff soon discovered that not only was there no honor among thieves but no loyalty either. Carter couldn’t wait to turn in the other men in the hope of getting a better deal for himself. He told the sheriff and Joe that there had been ten men in the gang and that four of the men, Willie Day, Clyde Walters, Steve Webber and Mac Ryder had been killed the month before in an attempted robbery. Sheriff Taylor was going to send a wire to the town where it happened to check the details.

“Willie Day and Mac Ryder they were in charge. When they died Carl Willis took over,” Carter said.

Sheriff Luke Taylor glanced at Joe and saw the frown on his face at the mention of Willis’ name. “You know him?”

“I know him all right,” Joe answered, “He was one of the men who came to the Ponderosa that day.”

“So,” Luke said, “there’s four dead last month, Carter here locked up and Richard Smith or Mark Simmons or whoever you want to call him dead, that leaves four still out there somewhere.”

Joe shook his head. “Three. When I was kidnapped, I managed to get away. One of them, Tom Parkinson, died when he was chasing me. Went over a cliff.”

The sheriff raised an eyebrow, he’d already worked out that this young man could look after himself. “With a bit of help?” Joe simply shrugged and the sheriff nodded in understanding.

“Carl and Tom were tight. Carl’s still lookin’ to pay you back for that,” Carter said, “And it looks like payback time is comin’ soon.”

“What does that mean?” Sheriff Taylor asked.

“If you agree to tell the judge that I helped you. I’ll tell you.”

“You’ll tell us or I’ll make sure the Judge knows that you wouldn’t help us,” the sheriff said angrily. He made a threatening move towards the man.

“Here!” Carter shouted, “They are coming here to meet up with me next week. Next Friday.”

“Well”, Joe looked at Sheriff Taylor, “looks like we have time to plan a little welcome party.”

**********

With Carter now locked in a cell, and the door from the cells into the office shut, Joe and the sheriff talked privately.

“Do you think they will come after you when they find out you’ve killed another one of them now?” Luke asked.

Joe shrugged. After Joe had escaped and killed one of his kidnappers, there had been rumors around town that the gang was going to get even with him. At first Joe’s family had kept that from him but feeling Joe had a right to know they had finally told him. “There was talk when Parkinson died that they were going to come after me. It didn’t happen.”

Luke leant back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “I see,” he frowned, “But from what Carter just said they were planning to. You need to be careful.”

“You’re beginning to sound like my father,” Joe joked but seeing the serious look on the sheriff’s face, he agreed, “Don’t worry, I will be.”

**********

Four days later, Joe sat in the sheriff’s office talking. Sheriff Taylor had talked with their prisoner Carter again. He’d found out the names, Hank Carson and Paul Simpson, and descriptions of the two men who would be coming into town with Willis. He’d wired nearby towns to warn them to look out for the three men and there was a marshal on the way. Marshal Tom Stewart was due to arrive the following day. “Are you sure you don’t want to wire your family and tell them what’s happening?” Luke asked.

Joe shook his head. “No.”

“Why are you so adamant about it, Joe? From what you’ve told me about your family and what I’ve heard about you Cartwrights, I think they’d want to know. They’d want to be here.”

The two young men had spent a lot of time together over the last few days. Joe had met with Mr Weems and the timber contract had been agreed to. Ben had told Joe that when the contract was signed, he was to take a few days off before starting the long journey home. Joe had wired his father to tell him the deal was done, the contract signed and he would be starting home next week. Now with free time, Joe often accompanied Luke on his rounds of the town for something to do and Luke had started eating most of his meals at the boarding house.

“I guess being the youngest I’ve always felt I have to prove myself. Like the nickname Little Joe,” Joe shrugged, Luke had asked why the Andersons called him Little Joe and Joe had explained that it was what his family had started calling him from when he was born and it had stuck with him, “No matter how old I am, I will always be Little Joe to them. Pa and my brothers are always ready to step in whenever they think I need help,” Joe laughed ruefully, “even when I don’t think I need it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. I do. But they’ve been worse since all this started. They’ve been so worried that Carl Willis and the others would come after me. This is the first time I’ve made a trip away from home alone since I was kidnapped. It took me weeks to persuade Pa to let me come here to handle this deal. They’ve all become so over protective.”

Luke nodded understandingly. “You’re afraid that if they find out Willis is on his way, they’ll come. And they’ll feel they were right to be over protective.”

“Yes,” Joe agreed. “I need them to know I can handle my own problems.”

“Joe,” Luke started, “I have to tell you….”

Joe had walked over to the window while they talked and he looked out. He saw a face he knew, Carl Willis. Willis was with two other men. The three dismounted and tied their horses to a hitching rail across the street.

“Luke!” Joe called, interrupting his friend, “It’s Willis.”

“They’re two days early!” Luke shouted. He looked out the window and saw the man that Joe indicated was Willis. Looking at the other two men, he said, “The descriptions fit the ones Carter gave us of Hank Carson and Paul Simpson.”

Joe nodded. “They’ll probably start looking for Carter and Simmons. They’ll get suspicious when they can’t find them in town.” Luke and Joe watched as the men walked into the general store.

“What do you think?” Luke asked, “Do we take them now?”

“I don’t think we have any choice. We don’t know what will happen if someone in town tells them about the dead man or the one we have in jail. We can’t take the chance of someone getting hurt.”

The sheriff nodded. “We’ll take them when they come out of the store then.”

Joe and Luke quickly went over to the store and stood out the front, one on either side of the door. They had their guns ready as they heard footsteps coming towards the door from inside.

“Hey, Sheriff!” one of the townspeople suddenly called out from across the street, “What’s going on?”

There was a scuffle and shouting from inside the store. “Damn,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“Get off the street!” the sheriff called and waved his arms, knowing they’d been given away.

The three men came out of the store. Paul Simpson held an arm around the neck of the storekeeper, holding the man to him. Willis held the storekeepers daughter to him. A gun held to her head.

“You!” Willis spat when he saw Joe, “I might have known! Drop your guns or they die!” When Luke and Joe hesitated, he pressed the gun harder and the young woman screamed and pleaded for them to do as he said.

“Do it!” Willis demanded.

Joe and Luke glanced at each other and then slowly put their guns down on the ground.

“Hank, get the guns,” Willis told the man who wasn’t holding a hostage, he then jerked his head in Joe’s direction. “And then tie him up.” Hank Carson moved forward to do as he’d been ordered. Joe’s hands were tied behind his back and he was then pulled over to a horse. Luke watched in horror as a rope was tied tightly around Joe’s neck and he was told to mount up. Joe struggled but out of the corner of his eye he saw the terror on the faces of the storekeeper and his daughter. He didn’t want to be responsible for getting them hurt so he mounted. The other end of the rope was then tied to the saddle horn. Hank Carson mounted a horse next to Joe.

Carl Willis dragged the young woman over to the horses, knowing it would be too much of a struggle to get her mounted and not wanting to waste time, he said, “Try to follow us and he’s dead!” he jerked his head in Joe’s direction. Pushing the young woman to the ground, he quickly mounted behind Joe and rode out. Hank Carson was right beside them.

The last man, Paul Simpson, pushed the storekeeper away from him but as he was mounting, the horse reared throwing him heavily to the ground. Sheriff Taylor moved towards the man but the horse reared up again and when it came down, the hooves struck the man on the ground, killing Simpson instantly. Sheriff Taylor grabbed the reins.

People rushed to help the storekeeper and his daughter Emma to their feet and escorted them home.

Sheriff Luke Taylor stood in the street, his mind racing. He believed that Carl Willis had been serious when he’d said that he would kill Joe if they followed but he also knew Joe’s life was in danger if he didn’t go after them. He was about to shout out to the men around to start getting a posse ready when Laura Anderson ran up to him.

“I just heard what happened,” Mrs Anderson clutched at his arm. “Is Little Joe all right?”

Luke tried to calm her down. “He was when they left. Don’t worry, Mrs Anderson. I’m getting some men together to go after them now.”

**********

Three men rode into town from the other direction. Seeing everyone standing around in the street it was obvious something had happened.

Hoss turned to his father. “What do ya think has happened, Pa?”

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, anxiety starting to gnaw at his stomach that something had happened to his youngest son. They rode towards the gathered people and Ben’s heart almost stopped when he spotted what appeared to be a body on the ground. When he got closer, he was relieved to see that it wasn’t Joe.

“What’s going on?” Ben asked.

“Who are you?” Sheriff Taylor replied.

“I’m Ben Cartwright,” he nodded towards the two men with him, “and these are my sons Adam and Hoss.”

“Mr Cartwright,” Luke said with relief, “thank goodness you’re here.”

“I got a wire telling me that Joe needed us,” Ben said anxiously, “And you haven’t answered my question. What’s going on here? Where is Joe, is he all right?”

“I’m very sorry to have to tell you this,” the sheriff said, “but Carl Willis came into town with two of his men. One of them is dead,” he nodded at the man on the ground, “I’ll explain how it all happened later, but they’ve taken Joe.”

“Taken Joe!” Ben shouted, “What do you mean they’ve taken my son! When! Where did they go!” Ben shouted his questions one after the other.

“It’s just happened,” Luke replied, “I’m getting some men together to go after them now.”

“Let’s go then!” Adam yelled impatiently.

“Wait!” Luke said, “We have to be careful. They said they’d kill Joe if anyone followed. I believe they mean it,” he swallowed hard, “Willis is mounted behind Joe. Joe’s hands are tied behind his back, they tied a rope around his neck and then tied it to the saddle horn.”

The color drained from Ben’s face. “If Joseph falls or Willis pushes him….” his voice trailed off. They all knew what a fall from the horse would do to Joe tied the way he was. Ben tried to pull himself together. “Let’s go! We’ll keep the group small. Just the four of us.”

Sheriff Taylor nodded in agreement. “I’ll get my horse.”

None of the Cartwrights noticed the woman who had stood near them, quietly listening. She now walked over to the other side of the street and stood out of sight, watching them.

**********

The last two gang members, Carl Willis and Hank Carson were riding hard to make their escape. Joe was finding it a struggle to stay mounted but he knew the other two men didn’t care.

The sheriff and the Cartwrights weren’t far behind. The trail was easy for them to follow, the fleeing men making no effort to cover it.

Hoss pulled his horse to a stop, the others did the same. “I don’t think we’re far behind them now.”

Ben nodded. “But how do we get Joe back? We can’t just rush them and hope that things work in our favour. It’s Joe’s life we’re risking. We have to have some kind of plan to stop them.” Ben’s fear was that his son would die because of their efforts to save him.

“I think the best thing we can do is to try and cut them off,” Luke said, “They seem to be following this trail. Two of us could cut around and block them off. We’ll have them between us.”

“It’s not much of a plan but I agree,” Adam said, “It’s the best we can do. They won’t keep Joe alive once they have no more use for him.” Adam knew they’d all been thinking the same thing but he was sorry he’d said the words aloud when he saw the look on his father’s face.

Ben drew in a deep breath. “Adam, you go with the sheriff and get in front of them. Hoss you stay with me.”

“We know they’re not far in front of us from here,” Sheriff Taylor said, “So if you keep up the same pace you should be about ten minutes behind them.” He pulled out his pocket watch and looked at the time. “We’ll plan to cut them off in one hour so try and get as close as you can to them by then.” Ben checked his own watch as Adam and Luke rode away.

**********

The news hadn’t been well received when, six months earlier Carl Willis had to tell the leaders of the gang, Willie Day and Mac Ryder, that the planned robbery at the Ponderosa had gone very wrong. Willis had wanted to go after Joe Cartwright but he’d been over ruled. The others thought it was better to cut their loses and run.

When Day and Ryder had been killed and Carl Willis took over leadership of the remaining men, he planned that one day in the near future, they would make a return visit to the Ponderosa. But Willis had been unable to set his plans into motion, as it turned out he’d been the one almost caught in a trap and he was furious. Willis urged his horse faster. As soon as he knew they had gotten away safely, he intended to make Joe pay. They rode on.

Carl Willis rode around a bend and saw two men up ahead blocking the road.

The man with Willis, Hank Carson, pulled his gun from his holster. Sheriff Taylor fired and Carson fell from the saddle. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Joe’s eyes had opened in surprise at the sight of his brother and new friend up ahead. Willis turned his horse and Adam and Luke could not fire for fear of hitting Joe. Before they could do anything to stop him, Willis had ridden back around the bend, out of sight of Adam and Sheriff Taylor. Willis pulled his gun from his holster as he rode.

When Carl Willis saw the two men coming the other way, he knew he was caught but he was determined they wouldn’t take him alive.

From the corner of his eye, Joe saw Willis raise his gun to fire. It was pointed at his father and his brother, Hoss. Without any thought for his own safety, Joe pushed himself back into Willis, causing them both to fall from the horse.

The next few seconds seemed to last for hours for Ben and Hoss. Willis had fired as he fell but his aim had been knocked off by Joe and the bullet went harmlessly by.

“Please, God, no!” Ben cried in horror when he saw Joe fall. The horse Joe was on was frightened and started to run.

“No!” Hoss screamed, raising his gun he was about to fire at the horse, knowing he needed to stop it anyway he could.

Suddenly Adam and Luke appeared. They were closer to Joe than Ben or Hoss and they immediately rode to the horse. Adam reached over and grabbed the reins, pulling it to a stop. Both men dismounted. Luke rushed over to Carl Willis who was reaching for the gun he’d dropped. Luke kicked the gun away and pointed his own gun at the man’s head.

Adam was trying to calm the horse, anxious to check on Joe.

Ben and Hoss rode carefully up, not wanting to spook the horse and quickly dismounted. Ben’s hands shook and his stomach churned as he moved towards his youngest son who lay still on the ground.

Ben and Hoss knelt down and Ben’s shaking hands reached out to check Joe’s pulse. “He’s alive,” he said, amazed that he was able to say those words but very fearful about the injuries Joe might have suffered. Ben quickly checked Joe over. The rope had bitten savagely into his neck and wrists. His right arm was broken and his shoulder dislocated. He had cuts and bruises all over from being dragged.

Hoss pulled out a pocket knife and as quickly as he could he cut the rope away from Joe’s neck and wrists.

Sheriff Taylor tied Carl Willis up and then took the reins of the horse from Adam. With Joe free, Luke pulled the horse away from him and then turned to face the family.

Grabbing a canteen, Adam trickled some water into his brother’s mouth and wet a kerchief, wiping the young man’s face. There was no response.

“We have to get him back to town,” Ben said, “get him to a doctor. I’ll take him on my horse with me.”

“Do you think we should put him on a horse, Pa?” Hoss asked, concerned they might hurt him more.

“It’ll take too long to make a travois or get a wagon,” Ben didn’t take his eyes from his young son’s face, “We’ll just have to take that risk.”

**********

“He’s very lucky,” Doctor Peter Johnson said after he finished patching Joe up. “From what you’ve told me, it’s a miracle he survived the fall.” He looked at the family who had all insisted on staying while he worked and chose his next words carefully. “There is some damage to his neck. We’ll just have to wait and see how serious it turns out to be.”

“You mean more than just the bruises and welts that we can see?” Adam asked.

“Yes,” the doctor agreed. “his throats very swollen,” he paused for a moment but knew he had to tell them, “If his vocal cords are damaged he may never speak again.”

Hoss walked over and knelt by his brother’s bed, he reached out and gently touched Joe’s left arm. “At least he’s alive,” he said quietly.

The doctor spoke again. “His other injuries, although painful are not life threatening. He’ll be all right with time. We’ll just keep bathing the cuts and watch for infection.” Joe’s shoulder was back in place and his arm set. All the cuts and scratches had been thoroughly cleaned. Joe had started to wake when the doctor had begun to work on him. Doctor Johnson had used ether to knock him out again, wanting Joe to keep still while he worked. “I think he’ll sleep for hours yet,” he told the worried family.

**********

It was the next day before Joe stirred. Ben leant forward in his chair when Joe began to move. “Joseph, Son. It’s Pa. Can you hear me? Joseph, come on, open your eyes.”

Finally Joe’s eyes flickered open and focused on his father. Joe’s lips formed the word, ‘Pa,’ but when he tried to voice the word there was only silence. He tried again, not understanding why he couldn’t make himself heard.

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry, it will be all right,” Ben kept repeating the words over and over again. It took a long time to calm Joe down but he was still drowsy and feeling very unwell and despite his anxiety, he finally went back to sleep.

Once Joe was asleep, the elder Cartwrights eyes all turned towards the doctor. “It might just be because of the swelling. We’ll have to wait until that goes down before we know if it’s permanent. Probably a week or so. Just give him cool drinks and keep cold cloths around his neck.”

**********

An hour later when Joe woke again, he once more became distressed when he couldn’t talk. Ben sat on the edge of the bed and squeezed his son’s left hand comfortingly. “I know it’s frightening, Joe, but you must try and stay calm. Do you remember what happened?”

Joe frowned. He remembered falling from the horse but had no idea what had happened after that.

Ben looked into Joe’s eyes and knew the question his son most wanted to ask. “Joseph,” he said, gently, “your throat is swollen that’s why you can’t talk at the moment,” although he couldn’t speak the words Ben knew Joe wanted to know when he would be able to speak again. Ben wanted to promise that he would talk again when the swelling went down but he knew he couldn’t lie. “The doctor doesn’t know if your throat is permanently damaged. We’ll just have to wait. Try not to worry.”

Joe’s eyes scanned the room, relief evident on his face when he saw his brothers. “We’re all fine, Joe,” Ben said a he pushed the hair away from Joe’s forehead. “Sheriff Taylor is fine, too. He’s been very worried about you. We all have.” Ben’s hand kept brushing the hair back as he said, “The gang’s all taken care of now Joe, they’re finished.”

Joe clutched his father’s arm and mouthed the question, ‘Sure?’

Ben nodded. “Yes, son. I’m sure. Carl Willis is locked up in the jail with the one you caught. All the others are dead.”

Adam poured a glass of water and Ben supported Joe while Adam helped his young brother to drink. When Joe had finished, Ben laid him back down and rearranged the sheet.

“It’s all over now, son. All over. Try and go to sleep. We’ll be right here with you,” Ben rubbed his hand gently up and down Joe’s arm trying to sooth him. “I’m so sorry, Joe,” Ben said quietly, “I wish you hadn’t done it. I’d rather have given my life. I’m so sorry.”

Joe was still very weak and tired, he wanted to ask what his father meant but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. He was soon asleep. A few minutes later, Luke opened the door and came in. “Sorry I didn’t knock,” he said quietly, “I didn’t want to disturb Joe.” Ben waved the apology away and Luke asked, “How is he?”

“He can’t talk,” Adam said, “but we’re hoping he’ll be all right once the swelling goes down.”

Luke was shocked at the news. “I’m so sorry,” he said, feeling guilty that he’d let Willis ride away with Joe, “If only I’d been able to stop them from taking Joe.”

“It’s not your fault,” Ben said, “We don’t blame you.”

Luke was comforted by the words but they didn’t stop him from blaming himself. “Is there anything I can do to help?” Luke asked. “Are you going to stay here with him or I can take you over to the boarding house where Joe has a room? I have someone watching the jail for me so I don’t have to go straight back.”

The doctor walked in and heard the last part of the conversation. “There’s nothing more medically that I can do for your son, Mr Cartwright and I may need this room for other patients,” he said, “He’d probably be more comfortable in his room at the boarding house anyway. When he wakes up again you can take him over there.”

“You’re sure he’ll be all right?” Ben was reluctant to take Joe from the doctor’s while he still looked and felt so ill.

The doctor nodded. “I won’t be far away. If you do need me, just send for me.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, he looked over at his eldest son, “Adam, can you go with the sheriff and see if you can get a couple of rooms for us.”

“I’ll go and fix it up now, Pa,” Adam said and left with Luke.

**********

Luke opened the door of the boarding house and walked in. He’d been coming over so frequently since Joe had moved in, Mrs Anderson had told him to stop knocking and just come in like one of her boarders. Adam followed him in.

“Mrs Anderson,” Luke called, “Mrs Anderson are you home?”

Laura Anderson came out of the kitchen where she’d been trying to keep busy. Her eyes were red and it looked like she’d been crying. Luke had been keeping her informed on how Joe was doing.

“Luke!” she cried, “How’s Little Joe? Is there any more news?” Joe rarely introduced himself to people as Little Joe so Adam was surprised to hear the woman call his brother by that name. Mrs Anderson caught sight of Adam. “Adam, how is he? Is he going to be all right?”

Adam looked at the woman in confusion, wondering how she knew who he was. As he looked at her, he realized there was something familiar about her. He thought about what Luke had called her, Mrs Anderson, and he suddenly realized who she was.

“Mrs Anderson!” Adam exclaimed, “It’s been a long time. I’m surprised you recognized me.”

“You still look the same despite the years and I did see you earlier when you arrived in town with your father and Hoss. How is Little Joe?” she asked again.

“He can’t talk at the moment. The doctor’s not sure but his throat might be permanently damaged. He may not be able to ever talk again,” Adam replied, his voice almost breaking.

“No!” Laura put her hand to her mouth in shock, “Oh, no,” she sank onto a nearby chair. Burying her face in her hands she wept. Adam knew then how much the woman still cared about his youngest brother.

“Mrs Anderson,” Luke knelt down beside the chair, “The doctor said that we can bring Joe over here, said he’d be more comfortable here than at the doc’s office.”

The woman wiped the tears away as she got up. “I’ll get his room ready. I’ll….” She caught sight of Adam’s face and stopped.

“Do you own this boarding house?” Adam asked.

“Yes, we do,” a man’s voice said and Adam turned to see Daniel Anderson coming into the room.

“I don’t think Pa will want to bring Joe here,” Adam stated firmly.

“Why not?” Luke asked, confused.

“Little Joe’s been staying here with us. He knows who we are,” Laura looked pleadingly at Adam.

“He doesn’t remember what happened. What you did,” Adam replied coldly. He turned to Daniel, “You made my father a promise. I thought you were a man of your word. Obviously I was wrong.”

“It’s been a long time, Adam. Can’t you let it go?” Dan asked.

“No!” Adam spat the single word out furiously.

Luke looked around the room, seeing the sadness on Laura Anderson’s face and what appeared to be guilt on her husband’s. The only expression on Adam’s face was anger. He knew the Andersons had known the Cartwright family years ago and could only assume the problem between them had to do with the past but for now Luke knew they had to worry about the present.

“There’s really no where else to stay in town, Adam,” Luke said, “There are some rooms above the saloon but that would be very noisy. Joe wouldn’t be able to get much rest there. I’ve got a room next to my office. It’s only small but you’re all welcome to stay there. I just don’t think Joe would be very comfortable with all of us squashed in there.”

Adam frowned with indecision and Luke said, “Joe would be most comfortable here.”

“I’ll have to talk to my father and see what he wants to do,” Adam said, he turned and walked out of the boarding house.

“What was that about?” Luke asked.

Laura once again sank down onto the chair. Tears flowed from her eyes as she said, seemingly to herself, “Ben won’t bring Little Joe here. He’ll take him away. He’ll take Little Joe away from me again.”

**********

Adam walked back to the doctor’s office, going over and over in his mind the best way to tell his father who owned the boarding house and who Joe had been staying with while he’d been in town.

Adam quietly opened the door to the room where his brother was and seeing Joe still sleeping said, “Pa, can I see you out here for a minute?”

“What is it?” Ben asked.

Adam motioned with his head. “Out here please, Pa.”

Ben frowned, wondering what was wrong. He signalled for Hoss to stay with Joe and went out to talk to his eldest son.

“What is it?” Ben asked as he closed the door behind him.

“Sit down, Pa,” Adam nodded to a chair in the outer office.

Ben refused the chair and asked, “Adam, what on earth is wrong?”

“I’ve just been to the boarding house and spoken to the couple who own it.” Adam took a deep breath, knowing there would be an explosion when Ben found out. “Pa, it’s the Andersons.”

The name registered with Ben but he was unwilling to accept it. “Not Dan and Laura Anderson?” he asked disbelievingly. Adam nodded.

Ben clenched his hands into fists and took deep breaths, trying to calm down, then a thought struck him. “Joe’s been staying there?” Once again Adam nodded.

“That woman!” Ben’s voice rose in anger and Hoss opened the door.

“Pa, what’s wrong?” Hoss asked.

Ben realized how loudly he must have yelled and quietly said, “Did I wake Joe?”

Hoss turned from the door and checked before answering, “No, he’s still asleep.”

“Come out here for a minute, Hoss,” Adam said.

Hoss carefully closed the door behind him. He wanted to find out what had caused his father to be so angry.

Ben paced the floor. Adam turned to Hoss and asked, “Hoss do you remember Daniel and Laura Anderson who used to live near us?”

Hoss nodded. “Ain’t likely to forget ‘em after what happened. Why?”

“They’re here,” Adam said, “Mr and Mrs Anderson own the boarding house.”

Hoss turned and looked at the closed door behind which lay his young brother, as though he was checking on the boy. He then looked back at Adam. “Are we going to take Joe there?” he asked.

“No!” Ben answered firmly.

“There’s no where else, Pa. Only rooms above the saloon and Luke has one room next to the jail, he said we could sleep there but that’s going to be no good for Joe, it would be too cramped.”

“We’ll manage,” Ben answered.

“Be reasonable, Pa.” Adam pleaded, “Think of Joe.”

Ben cut him off. “I am thinking of Joe. I will not let that woman near him again.”

“Pa,” Hoss said, “you know how much Joe means ta me. I’d never do anything that I thought might put Little Joe in danger. You know that don’t ya?”

Ben nodded, wondering where Hoss was going with this conversation.

“I think the best place for Joe to recover is at that boarding house. I hate what they did, but Pa, there’s nowhere else to take Joe where he’s going to be comfortable. At least we know Mrs Anderson will help us look after him.”

Ben kept his voice down so that he wouldn’t disturb Joe but the anger was clear when he spoke. “Like she helped us last time!” Ben spat the words out and Hoss almost flinched at his father’s anger. “Are you saying that we should just forget the pain she caused us? The pain she caused Joseph. Just forget what she did, pretend it never happened?”

“That’s not what I meant, Pa,” Hoss said. Ben could see how hurt he was and was sorry he’s taken his anger out on his middle son.

“I know, Hoss,” Ben said, patting the big man’s arm, “I’m sorry, Son. What do you think, Adam?” he asked, turning to his eldest.

“I haven’t forgiven her for what she did or Dan either,” he paused for a moment, “But that’s a lot of years in the past. I think Hoss is right. I really don’t think we have any other options.”

Ben nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed, “Adam, go and tell her we’ll bring Joe over.”

**********

Sheriff Taylor answered the knock on the boarding house door, he’d just been about to go back to the jail. “Adam, come in.”

Adam walked inside and asked, “Where are the Andersons?”

“In the sitting room. Mrs Anderson’s very upset. She says she’s sure your father won’t bring Joe over here.”

“I see,” Adam replied, worried about the attachment the woman so obviously held for his young brother. “I need to see them,” Adam continued, “we’ll be bringing Joe over later when he wakes up.”

“Oh, Adam,” Mrs Anderson said from the doorway, having heard the last part of the conversation, “That’s wonderful. I’ll go and get his room ready.” She started to hurry away and then stopped and turned back. “You will need rooms too, of course,” she said, as if just realizing Joe’s family would be staying with him.

Adam looked at her for a moment before answering. “We’ll just need one extra room. Two of us can share that while the other is with Joe. That way he’ll never be alone,” he looked pointedly at the woman and she blushed before hurrying away.

Luke was about to ask what had happened to cause the obvious bad feelings Adam had for the woman but before he could ask, Adam said, “I better get back to Pa and help him get Joe ready. I’ll see you later, Luke.”

**********

A few hours later Joe woke, his father was sitting in a chair by his bedside and leant forward. “How do you feel, Son?” Ben asked automatically and then regretted his words immediately, knowing there was no way Joe could answer him. Trying to work out a way to ask questions that Joe could answer he said, “Do you feel up to us moving you?” When Joe nodded, he continued, “We’re going to take you to the boarding house.”

Joe shook his head and Ben was able to understand the word his son mouthed, ‘Home.’

“Joe,” Ben gently stroked his sons left arm. “As soon as you’re well enough we’ll take you home but you’re not up to the trip yet.”

Joe realized he wasn’t wearing anything except bandages. He pointed at himself and then tugged at the sleeve of his father’s shirt. Ben looked blank for a moment and then understanding dawned and he shook his head. “No, you don’t need clothes, we’ll take you over in a wagon.” Joe shook his head, no.

Ben moved and sat down on the side of the bed. “I won’t argue about this with you, Joseph. I know how sore you must be. You’re covered in cuts and bruises.” That Joe didn’t try to argue further with his father to get his way was testament to just how much he was hurting.

Adam and Hoss organized the wagon. Joe was carefully wrapped in a sheet and Hoss carried him out to the well padded wagon. When Joe had tried to sit up he had realized there was no way he was even going to be able to walk out to the wagon.

Pulling up outside the boarding house, Hoss lifted Joe out. He tried to be careful of his brothers wounds but when Joe winced and bit his lip, Hoss felt awful that he was hurting him, “I’m sorry, Little Joe,” he said quietly.

Mrs Anderson was waiting at the door. “Through here,” she said and the Cartwrights followed her inside and into one of the rooms.

Hoss gently put Joe down on the bed and Mrs Anderson brushed past Hoss as she went to Joe’s bedside. She stroked his cheek softly. “Don’t you worry about anything sweetheart. I’ll take care of you now.”

Ben cleared his throat and Laura turned quickly, seeing the frown on his face. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow but Ben felt that he had to at least thank the woman for letting them stay there. “Thank you for letting us stay here, Laura,” he caught sight of her husband standing at the door, “Dan.”

“There’s no need to thank us,” Laura said quickly, “I’m so pleased to be able to help.”

Ben ignored the comment. “Laura, will you leave us alone so we can get Joe into bed properly and make him more comfortable.”

“Come on Laura, leave them be,” Dan said. Daniel Anderson was unable to look any of Joe’s family in the eye.

“I can help,” Laura ignored her husband and leant down to adjust Joe’s pillow.

“No!” Ben said firmly, “We’ll manage.”

Joe blinked, surprised at the tone of voice his father was using.

Laura didn’t seem offended though and said, “While you’re doing that then, I’ll go and make Little Joe something to eat.”

“The doctor said it’s going to be hard for Joe to swallow for a while,” Adam said, “I think he’ll only be able to manage some cooled soup at the moment.”

Laura nodded. “I’ve got some soup on. I’ll just get it ready and let it cool.” She bent down and kissed Joe on the forehead. “I won’t be long.”

Joe noticed the dark looks that passed between his father and brothers and wondered what was wrong.

When Laura and Dan left, Ben shut the door and turned to Joe. He started to unwrap the sheet. With his arm free, Joe grabbed his father’s wrist and then let go and made a writing motion with his hand.

“I think he wants to write something,” Adam said and Joe nodded, pleased that his brother had understood.

“Later,” Ben said, “Right now we’re….” pulling the sheet away, Ben was surprised when Joe knocked his hands away and used a finger to write firmly in the air. Knowing this was a battle he wasn’t going to win, Ben turned to his eldest son. “Adam can you get Joe some paper and a pencil.” Adam quickly left to get what his brother wanted and was back within minutes.

Ben was regretting that he’d denied Joe’s first request for the writing materials, knowing it might be the only way Joe would be able to communicate with them ever again.

“I’m sorry, Joseph,” Ben said as he and Hoss worked to unwrap the sheet and get Joe into bed. Ben put pillows behind Joe’s back to help him to sit up. “I’m just worried about you. I wanted to get you comfortable but I shouldn’t have brushed off what you wanted to tell me. I’m very sorry, Son. Can you forgive me?” Joe reached out and squeezed his father’s hand and Ben knew he was forgiven.

“Here, Joe,” Adam put the paper on Joe’s lap and handed his brother a pencil.

The elder Cartwrights watched as Joe wrote the words, Are you angry with me, and looked back at his father.

“No!” Ben said immediately, shocked at the words. “Of course not. Why would you think I was angry at you?”

You all seem to be angry, Joe wrote.

Ben realized that his son had picked up on the tension between them and the Andersons. “I promise we’re not angry at you, Joe. Not at all,” Ben said.

“Pa’s right, Joe,” Adam said, “You’ve done nothing wrong so we certainly aren’t angry at you.”

“That’s right short shanks,” Hoss added, “That’s just plumb silly to go thinkin’ things like that.”

“Now we’ve got that straightened out, young man,” Ben said lightly, “how about I go and see if that soup is ready?”

Joe shook his head and touched his throat.

“I know it’s sore,” Ben said sympathetically, “but you have to eat. Just try a little bit, hmmm,” he encouraged. Joe nodded. “Good boy,” Ben patted his son’s arm, pleased that Joe had at least agreed to try and eat something.

“I’ll get it, Pa,” Hoss, left the room to get his brother’s soup.

“Mrs Anderson,” Hoss said, as he walked into the kitchen, “Pa sent me to get the soup.”

“Hoss,” Laura turned to him, “you used to call me Aunt Laura. You can again if you like.”

Dan stood near his wife, waiting anxiously for Hoss’ reply. He felt overwhelmed by guilt every time he had to face a member Joe’s family.

“Adam and I haven’t called you that since the day we found out….” he trailed off and then said, “Well, we haven’t called you that in a long time.”

Laura looked away. “I was just going to take Little Joe’s soup in to him.”

“Is it cool enough?” Hoss asked.

“I think so,” Laura replied, “I sat the bowl in some ice water to cool it. I don’t think it will be very appetizing cold though.”

Hoss screwed his nose up with distaste, agreeing but he also knew Joe needed nourishment. “He has to eat,” he said as he picked up the bowl.

“I’ll take it in,” Laura said.

“No, ma’am,” Hoss stopped her, “I’m sorry but I think my Pa would prefer I take it in.” Disappointment washed over Laura Anderson’s face and her husband took her into his arms.

**********

Sheriff Luke Taylor came over to see Joe the next day. He walked into the room as the family were discussing the telegram Ben had received.

“I wonder who it was who sent us that wire to come here?” Hoss asked.

Ben shrugged. “I don’t know who sent it and right now I don’t care. I’m just very glad that they did.” Ben looked at Joe. “Why didn’t you send for us, Joe?”

When Joe made no attempt to communicate an answer, Ben said, “It was because you wanted to prove you didn’t need us, wasn’t it?”

Joe grabbed his paper and quickly wrote, It’s not that I don’t need you. I just wanted to show you that I could handle my own problems. That I can look after myself.

“And when did I ever say you couldn’t?” Ben asked gently. “Joe,” he looked into his son’s eyes, “I wish I could make you understand that you don’t have anything to prove to me, your brothers, yourself, no one. There’s no shame in asking for help. Accepting help doesn’t mean that you can’t handle your own problems, that you are incapable of looking after yourself. Some problems are just impossible to handle alone and that’s what family is for.”

Joe wrote, I didn’t want you to worry.

“Joseph,” Ben leant closer, “I’ve worried about you since the moment you were born and I’ll continue to worry about you until I draw my last breath. I love you, that’s why I worry. That’s why your brothers worry. We care about what happens to you. It’s not because we think you can’t look after yourself. You’ve more than proved that you can.”

“I’m sorry if you’re upset about your family coming, Joe,” Sheriff Taylor said quietly, then looked at Ben, “I talked to Mrs Anderson about it, told her I was thinking of sending you a wire. She tried to talk me out of it, said Joe wouldn’t appreciate the interference since he’d already said he didn’t want to send for you. But I was worried things would go wrong and I thought you had a right to know that Joe was in trouble.”

“It was you who wired me?” Ben asked and when Luke confirmed it with a nod, Ben smiled and held out his hand, shaking Luke’s hand he said gratefully, “Thank you so much, Luke. Thank you.”

Luke turned to Joe. “Don’t be angry, Joe. I’m sorry but I just had to do it.”

Joe wrote something and handed the paper to his friend. Luke smiled with relief as he read, I’m not angry. I’m glad you sent the wire, Luke. Thank you.

Ben suddenly frowned as he thought about what Luke had said about Laura Anderson trying to talk him out of sending the wire that would bring Joe’s family to Silver Flats. All Ben could think about now was that Laura Anderson had tried to keep them away from Joe and that could have cost Joe his life.

**********

A week later, time had brought some improvement in Joe’s condition. Although still sore, he was able to get up and move around. Self conscious about the marks still visible around his neck, Joe had refused to leave his room. Ben had solved the problem by loosely tying one of his bandanas around his son’s neck. Joe had lost weight but the doctor was confident that now he’d started to eat solid food again he would soon gain it back. The main concern of everyone was that Joe still couldn’t talk.

The Cartwrights were discussing the trial of Carl Willis and Frank Carter that was due to start in two days. The prosecutor had come to talk to Joe but the young man became increasingly frustrated at not being able to communicate the way he wanted to. Finally he’d had enough and pencil and paper went flying across the room.

Ben picked up the writing implements and turned to the prosecutor. “I think Joe’s had enough for today,” the tone of his voice told the prosecutor there was no room for negotiation.

“I’ll come back and see you tomorrow, Joe,” the prosecutor said. Joe’s face was turned away and he didn’t acknowledge that he’d heard. Ben waited until the man had left and then went and sat by his son.

Joe slowly reached for the pencil and paper and wrote the words, I’m sorry. He kept his head down and Ben reached out and tilted his son’s face up so he could look into Joe’s eyes. Ben saw the tears the young man was trying to hide.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Ben said understandingly, “I know how frustrating it is for you.”

Ben watched as Joe wrote, I don’t want to have to use this forever, and pointed bitterly at the paper. The previous day, the doctor had told Joe and his family that with Joe’s continued inability to talk even with a lot of the swelling now down, he believed that the damage was permanent. It had been a hard thing for them all to accept.

Adam looked down at the paper and read the words aloud. He squatted down beside his brother and put a hand on his knee. “You don’t have to,” Joe looked questioningly at his older brother. “You did a wonderful job of teaching Annie Croft sign language a while back,” before Joe could protest, Adam hurried on, “We are hoping just as much as you are that the doctor is wrong, that it’s only temporary,” Adam gently patted Joe’s knee while he talked, “As much as we are hoping for the best, we have to accept the outcome may not be what we want.”

Hoss pulled a chair up next to his brothers and sat down so that he could look into Joe’s eyes. The big man’s own eyes were filled with tears at his younger brother’s unhappiness.

“I’m so sorry, Little Joe,” Hoss choked the words out. He wiped a sleeve across his face and looked at his father. Both men had been filled with guilt since Joe had been hurt. They both blamed themselves. “You were trying to protect us. I wish you hadn’t a done it, little brother,” Hoss said sincerely.

Joe’s eyes widened and he looked from his brother to his father, seeing the guilt they both felt. Suddenly Joe remembered what Ben had said after telling him that Carl Willis was locked up. ‘I’m so sorry, Joe. I wish you hadn’t done it. I’d rather have given my life. I’m so sorry.’ He’d intended to ask what his Pa had meant but the words had slipped to the back of his mind. Now Joe realized that his father and Hoss both felt responsible for the loss of his voice.

Joe wrote, I’m glad this happened to me.

“Joe,” Ben started, confused, “I….”

Joe shook his head and wrote, If it was a choice between one of you getting hurt or this happening to me, there really was no choice to be made. Joe pointed to his neck and then wrote, This was worth it. Please believe me!

“Oh, Joe,” Ben swallowed the lump in his throat.

Hoss looked away and when he was able to get his emotions under control, he turned back to his brother. “Then let us do this for you, Little Joe.” Hoss knew he’d carry the guilt forever if Joe never spoke again and he vowed to himself that he would always stay by his younger brother’s side to be his voice.

“If we all learn to sign, it will be a lot easier for you to communicate, Joe,” Adam said, “What do you think?”

Joe was reluctant to agree, believing that if he started using signs it would mean he was accepting that he might never speak again and he wasn’t ready to accept that yet. But he’d been honest when he’d told his family that he would rather be the way he was now than have one of them hurt or killed. Joe looked at his family and nodded.

“Good,” Adam patted his brother’s knee again and stood up, “You can start by teaching us the signs that you know and when we get home, I’ll get some books and we’ll learn more.”

“Do you want to start now, Joseph?” Ben asked, he thought it was a good idea but he didn’t want Joe to feel like they were forcing him to do it.

Joe nodded, wrote the word, Pa, and then made the sign for it.

Hoss had always hated schooling but he’d walk to the ends of the earth if there was something there that would help his little brother. Nothing was too much bother so Hoss watched intently, determined that this was something he would learn to do without complaint.

**********

A few hours later the family took a break. Joe knew a lot of the signs needed but was finding it difficult to make them all with his right arm broken and his shoulder still sore. Still, he did manage to show them a lot. He’d kept up with his signs because whenever Joe was near the Croft place he always called in and saw Annie and her father. Joe and Annie ‘talked.’ There was a lot to learn though and it was going to take time. Ben, seeing Joe was getting tired, had suggested a break. Adam and Hoss walked down to the saloon while Ben stayed with Joe.

**********

The expected marshal had come and gone. Seeing that everything was now under control he had left Sheriff Taylor in charge of the prisoners.

At the jail, Sheriff Taylor told Carl Willis to step to the back of the cell and when he did, Luke opened the door, put a plate of food down on the floor and then shut and locked the cell door. He repeated the process with the other prisoner, Frank Carter.

Sheriff Luke Taylor had just gone back into his office when he heard shouting from the cells. He went running in and saw Carl Willis lying on the floor, his hands clawing at his throat. “He’s choking! Help him! He’s choking!” Frank Carter shouted.

Sheriff Taylor quickly unlocked the cell door and ran in. He bent down to help the man. He felt a fist crash into the side of his head. He started to black out and was punched again. He collapsed onto Carl Willis and was roughly push off when Willis stood up.

Carl Willis laughed. “Stupid fool. I didn’t think he’d be dumb enough to fall for that.” He grabbed the sheriff’s gun and keys and released Frank Carter from his cell. “Let’s go,” Willis called.

“Where?” Carter asked.

“The Cartwrights are at the boarding house,” Willis replied, as though it was now obvious where they were going.

Willis and Carter took their own guns from the office and then carefully made their way to the boarding house.

**********

There was a knock on the bedroom door and Ben opened it.

“I thought Little Joe might like something to eat,” Laura Anderson said, pushing past Ben. Joe was in bed, just starting to go to sleep when he heard the woman come in. He sat up and leant back against the bed head.

“Joe was just going to sleep,” Ben’s voice was tinged with anger.

“I’m sorry, darling,” Laura walked over to the bed, “I didn’t mean to wake you. I made some custard especially for you and thought I’d bring it in.” She put the tray on Joe’s lap. Although he was eating solid food, his throat could still only tolerate soft soothing foods so Laura had spent a lot of time cooking things he might like and Joe was grateful to her.

Joe looked around and realized his pencil and paper were on the other side of the room so he signed the words he wanted to say.

The woman smiled but looked confused and Joe looked at Ben waiting for his father to tell Laura what he’d said.

“Joe learnt sign language to teach a young deaf mute girl. He’s started to teach us some of it. Joe said, Thank you,” Ben hesitated before adding, “Aunt Laura.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Laura clapped her hands together, “Will you teach me, too?”

Joe was about to nod in agreement but Ben snapped at the woman. “There’s no point. The doctor said that Joe’s well enough to make the trip home now in a wagon so as soon as the trial is over, we’ll be leaving.”

Tears came to Laura Anderson’s eyes, she put a hand up to her mouth to stop the sob escaping and ran from the room, crying.

Joe leant over the side of the bed, put the tray on the floor and glared at his father. Ben tried to ignore the look and nodded to the food. “Eat that and then try and have a rest.”

Joe shook his head and in his anger started signing so quickly, Ben had no idea what he was saying. Ben went over and got the paper and pencil, handing them to his son. “I can’t keep up yet, Joe.”

Joe grabbed them from his father and wrote, Why are you always so nasty to Aunt Laura?

“She’s not your Aunt,” Ben replied, saying nothing more.

You didn’t answer my question, Joe wrote.

Ben ran a hand over his face, wondering if he should tell Joe what had happened all those years ago to cause his hated for the woman. And yes, Ben admitted to himself, even after all these years, it was still hatred he felt for her. And he was angry about Laura trying to talk Sheriff Taylor out of sending for them. He hadn’t confronted the woman about it because he knew if he did, all his old anger would spill out as well.

Ben took a deep breath and started, “Joe, there’s something….” he was interrupted when the bedroom door crashed open and Mrs Anderson stood there. Carl Willis stood behind her, a gun held to her head.

Willis forced Mrs Anderson into the room. Frank Carter followed them in and shut the door.

Joe stared at them in shock. Carl Willis had hired a lawyer to defend him at the upcoming trial, that’s how he’d found out where the Cartwrights were staying. He’d also found out something else and looking at Joe he asked cruelly, “What’s the matter, Cartwright? Cat got your tongue?” he laughed at his joke.

Ben felt his anger grow at the taunt and glanced at Joe, hoping his son would hold his temper. He then looked back at Willis and said, “Let the woman go. She’s done nothing to you.”

Willis ignored him and pointed his gun at Joe. “Get up. I’ve never shot a man who’s been lying down but if you don’t hurry up, they’ll be a first time.”

Ben knew none of the other boarders were home and Daniel Anderson was down at the store so he couldn’t rely on help coming from them. “What are you going to do?” Ben asked, trying to hide the anxiety he was feeling for Joe’s safety. He looked across the room at his gun that was too far away to be of any use.

“What do you think, old man,” Willis spat. “I’ve been waiting for months to pay your whelp back for what he did.” Willis pushed Mrs Anderson away from him and waved his gun at Joe. “Get up!”

Joe was still very sore. He slowly pushed the sheet and blankets covering him off and got up from the bed but suddenly his knees buckled and he sank to the floor. Ben reached for him but in that instant something went flying across the room and Carl Willis was hit flush in the face with the bowl of custard.

Before Ben knew what was happening, Joe was back on his feet and charging at Carl Willis, slamming into him. Both men fought for possession of the gun.

**********

On their way back to the boarding house, Adam and Hoss saw Sheriff Taylor stumble from his office, blood streaming down the side of his face.

“What happened?” Adam shouted as he rushed over with Hoss right behind him.

“Willis and Carter escaped,” Luke said, knowing there would be time for further explanations later.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other. “Pa and Joe!” Hoss exclaimed.

Adam had the same thought. “Will you be all right?” he asked the young sheriff.

“Yes,” Luke said, pushing them on their way. “Go! Go!” he said urgently.

Hoss and Adam ran. They had almost reached the front door when they heard a shot from inside.

Frank Carter ran out the front door and started firing. Adam shot him. Sparing a brief glance and seeing the man was dead, he ran into the house with Hoss. Neither brother worried about their own safety, their only fears being for their father and young brother.

Carter had panicked when Joe had attacked Willis. He’d run from the room when the shot had sounded, not waiting to see who the bullet had struck.

Adam and Hoss burst into the room. Mrs Anderson stood near the wall. Carl Willis lay on the floor dead, custard covering his face. Joe stood over Willis, the gun hanging limply from his left hand. Ben was standing next to Joe, an arm around his son’s waist.

Adam reached for the gun and pulled it from his brother’s hand. “Are you all right?”

Joe nodded but could feel himself starting to tremble from the shock and exertion.

Ben tightened his hold. “It’s all right, Son,” he said quietly. Looking at his older sons he said, “You boys take care of things in here. I’ll take Joe into the other room.” Ben looked down at the body of Carl Willis lying on the floor and felt no sorrow at the man’s death. He was glad it was finally over and they didn’t have to worry anymore. There was no possibility that Willis or his men could ever hurt Joe again.

“I’ll help you, Pa,” Hoss reached out to help support his brother, “Then I’ll go and tell Luke everything’s all right here and come back and give Adam a hand.” Adam watched as Joe was helped from the room and he then turned to Mrs Anderson. “Mrs Anderson, you’re not hurt are you?” he walked over to her.

“No, I’m fine,” the woman replied shakily.

“Let me help you to your room and you can lie down,” Adam said.

Laura shook her head, “I’m all right. I’ll help you clean up. I….” She broke off as she looked at the body lying on the floor.

“No,” Adam said firmly, “You go and rest. Hoss and I can manage here.” He helped her to her room.

**********

Later that evening, the Cartwrights sat at the dining room table. The other boarders had eaten earlier and retired to their rooms so the Cartwrights had some privacy.

Mrs Anderson was feeling much better and was happily getting their food ready. When she brought some dishes through and put them on the table, Ben asked, “Laura, will you get Dan and come and sit down with us? We need to talk.”

When Laura returned from the kitchen with her husband, the Cartwrights stood up and waited until Laura was seated and then sat down again.

“I’m very sorry that us bringing Joe here endangered you,” Ben said.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Laura replied quickly and sincerely. “No one could have known what would happen and I wanted you to stay here. It was Joe’s quick thinking that saved us,” she looked lovingly over at him, “You’ve turned into such a fine young man. Your mother would be so proud.” She wiped a tear from her eye and then forcing herself to be strong, stood up and said, “Now, you must all be hungry. It’s been a long day. I’ll finish bringing the food in so you can eat.”

“Laura’s right,” Dan replied as his wife left to get more food, “don’t blame yourselves. We are both so pleased that we were here to help.”

**********

After they’d eaten the main meal of stew, Laura brought in some dessert. She placed some cake in front of Ben, Adam, Hoss and Dan and a bowl of custard in front of Joe. “Eat it this time, Little Joe, don’t throw it,” she said jokingly. The three older Cartwrights laughed and Laura said, “I was so frightened at the time but now when I think about it I can’t stop laughing. I know I shouldn’t joke about it, after all those men did die, but I can still see him standing there, his face covered in custard. It was funny.”

Sitting next to Joe, Adam immediately turned to him when he felt the touch on his arm that signalled him that Joe wanted to say something. Adam had caught onto the signs much quicker than his father or Hoss so he spoke aloud to tell the others what Joe was signing. “It could have been worse for him. I could have thrown the….” Adam suddenly stopped talking and started to laugh.

“Thrown the what?” Hoss asked.

Laura realized what Joe had said and her mouth started to twitch with laughter, she quickly excused herself and was followed by her husband. Their laughter could be heard coming from the kitchen.

“Thrown the what?” Hoss asked again.

Ben also guessed what Joe had said and knew he should reprimand him for talking about such things at the table and in front of a lady but he was laughing too much to say anything.

“Thrown the what!” Hoss asked once more, this time in frustration as he looked around the table and wondered what his family was finding so funny.

Adam managed to get the words out between laughter. “The chamber pot.”

A grin broke out on Hoss’ face and then he joined in the laughter as he got the joke.

Once they’d finally gotten themselves under control, Hoss pretended to be angry. “What did you have to say something like that for, Joe? You’ll put me off my food.”

Joe tapped Adam’s arm and once again Adam read his signs aloud. “Nothing could put you off your food.”

Hoss scowled but then quickly joined his father and older brother in laughter again.

Ben watched his youngest son, so pleased to see him joking with his family. Ben had been afraid that Joe would start to feel isolated from them and he knew now that they’d made the right decision in starting to learn how to sign. He knew it would still be very hard for Joe because the only ones he would be easily able to communicate with would be his family. But it was a start.

**********

The next day, Adam, Hoss and Joe went over to see Sheriff Taylor, they were making preparations to leave and wanted to say goodbye and then they had to pick up some supplies.

Mrs Anderson was in the kitchen of her boarding house when Ben went in to talk to her. “Laura,” he called and she turned from the stove and smiled.

“Ben, can I get you something to eat?”

“No, thank you. I’m fine.”

“I wonder how much longer Joe will be?” Laura asked.

Ben noticed that Laura had said she wondered when Joe would be returning not all three of the boys. “I don’t know,” he answered, “They have a few things to do,” he paused and then added, “We’re leaving tomorrow, Laura.” The woman quickly turned away and kept her back to Ben. He knew she was crying.

“I knew you’d have to go home. I just wish you weren’t leaving so soon. I’ve so enjoyed having Little Joe here with me. I knew I couldn’t keep him forever,” she said sadly.

“You tried though, didn’t you!” Ben snapped. He saw Laura’s shoulders slump and felt guilty for his words. “I’m sorry, Laura. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s been very good of you to let us stay here and you’ve been a great help with Joe. I really do appreciate it. It’s just….”

Laura turned to face him. “It’s just impossible for you to forgive me,” Ben started to shake his head in denial but Laura held up a hand to stop him. “No, don’t deny it, Ben. I’ve had a lot of time over the years to think about what I did.”

Laura walked over and stood in front of Ben. “My only excuse is that I love him like he’s my own. I truly believed that what I did then was the best thing for everyone,” before Ben could interrupt and protest, she continued, “But I was wrong. So very wrong. All I did was hurt everyone. I’m just so glad that Little Joe doesn’t remember. Please don’t tell him, Ben. I don’t want him to think badly of me. To hate me for what I did to him. Please don’t tell him.”

A movement from the doorway caught their attention and both turned and saw Joe standing there.

“It’s too late for that,” Adam said from beside his brother, “It has to be told now.” Joe stared at them all wanting to ask what was going on. The frown on his face showed his anger and confusion.

“I think we all need to talk,” Ben said, “Come and sit down, Joe.” Ben pointed to a chair at the kitchen table and then nodded at Adam and Hoss who were still standing at the door. “Both of you, too. This involves us all.” Adam and Hoss walked over to sit down, Hoss taking a seat protectively next to Joe. Ben sat down at the head of the table so he could also be near Joe.

Ben looked at his youngest son. “I know you remember spending time with Laura and Dan when you were a child. We all had some good times together.” Joe nodded and Ben reached over and gently squeezed Joe’s left wrist, keeping his hand there, he continued, “But something happened two months after your mother died.”

Joe looked questioningly at his father, his eyes asking what his voice couldn’t. He wanted to know what had happened that was so terrible.

Ben took a deep breath and started to tell the story, “One Friday morning, Adam took you over to the Anderson place….”

Laura Anderson was waiting at the door when Adam rode up holding his five year old little brother in front of him.

“I heard you riding up,” Laura said, walking out to meet them.

Adam swung down from his horse and then reached up and pulled Joe down, placing the little boy on his hip while he talked. “Aunt Laura,” Adam said, “Pa wants to know if you can look after Little Joe for us today. We know it’s short notice but Hop Sing had to go into town last night to look after a sick relative and the rest of us are busy. If it’s a bother, we’ll….”

“Nonsense,” Laura interrupted, reaching for the little boy, “Little Joe’s never any bother for me to have.”

Joe turned his face into his brother’s body and clung tightly to him. “Want to stay with you.”

“I know you do, little buddy,” Adam said gently, “But I have a lot of work to do today.”

“I can help,” Joe said softly.

Adam stroked Joe’s back. “And you are always a big help to me but I have to go to the mine today and it’s just too dangerous to take you with me.” Ben was thinking about buying some shares in a mine and he wanted Adam to take a message up there with some questions he had.

“I’ll be good,” Joe cried.

Adam bit his lip, torn with indecision. Ben had some meetings in town, he’d only just started being interested in ranch business again after the death of his wife, Joe’s mother, Marie. Hoss was at school. Usually Hop Sing would look after Joe when the family was busy. That morning with Hop Sing unavailable, Ben had been going to take Joe into town with him. Adam had suggested taking Joe to the Andersons. He knew it would be a long day of meetings and he thought his little brother would get bored. Now he regretted the suggestion and wished he’d let his father take Joe with him, seeing how upset the child was. Joe had always willingly spent time with the Andersons, the couple having no children of their own loved the little boy and truth be known, spoilt him. But since his mother’s death Joe had hardly let his family out of his sight.

Laura gently stroked the back of Joe’s head. “Don’t you want to stay with me, sweetheart? I could really use your help. My garden has so many weeds in it and I was hoping you would help me with it. Then later we can saddle my horse and go to see Uncle Dan, he’s out fixing a fence. Would you like that?”

Joe sniffed and Adam pulled a handkerchief out and wiped his brother’s nose. Joe turned to Mrs Anderson, “Can we go and see the beavers?” Whenever the Cartwrights visited the Andersons, Joe’s family always took him down to see the beavers at the river. Joe loved to watch them play.

Laura nodded. “Of course we can,” she reached for him and Joe reluctantly let go of his older brother.

“You’ll come back for me?” Joe looked pleadingly at Adam.

Adam reached over and ruffled the boy’s hair. “Of course I will. You be good and I’ll see you later this afternoon, all right?” Joe nodded and Adam mounted up, waved and rode away.

**********

Ben was in a meeting when there was a knock on the door and one of the men went to answer it.

“Sheriff Coffee,” the man said, “Come in. What’s wrong?”

Roy Coffee looked over at Ben Cartwright and said, “I need to speak to you, Ben. It’s bad news.”

“What is it?” Ben asked, his anxiety rising, “The boys….” His mind started racing.

Roy Coffee considered Ben a good friend and he hated to be the one to tell him such awful news. Looking around the room and seeing the other men looking in his direction, he thought it would be better to talk in private. “It might be better if we talk outside, Ben.”

“No, tell me now!” Ben said anxiously.

“I’m real sorry, Ben. John Dawson just rode in. He was doing some work out at the Anderson place with Dan,” Roy stopped unable to go on.

“Tell me what’s happened!” Ben shouted, as he walked towards Roy Coffee.

The sheriff looked away from Ben unable to face him knowing the devastation the news he was about to give would cause Ben. “Laura took Little Joe down to the river. With the recent rain we’ve had that river’s running fast,” Roy swallowed, “Little Joe fell in, Ben. He’s gone.”

Ben’s face paled, if not for the desk he suddenly leant on for support, his legs would have given way. One man stood and put a hand on Ben’s back in sympathy. Ben ignored the gesture and stood straight to face Roy.

Taking a deep breath, Ben asked, “What do you mean he’s gone?”

“It’s been about four hours, Ben. Laura, Dan and John Dawson, they’ve been up and down that river lookin’ for the boy but they couldn’t find him. Dawson said Dan was worried about Laura and sent her home but he’s still out there looking.”

Ben brushed past Roy and headed for the door. “I have to go. I have to get out there.”

“Wait, Ben,” one of the men gathered for the meeting called, knowing he spoke for everyone there, he said, “We’ll go with you.”

“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully, rushing from the room.

The men all knew there was little possibility of finding the boy alive but at least they could find the body so Ben could have the comfort of giving his son a decent burial.

Ben’s thoughts weren’t on finding a body though. He wasn’t ready to accept that his child was dead.

Roy Coffee went to see Doctor Paul Martin, to ask if he would come out to the Andersons with them. He knew if they didn’t need the doctor for Little Joe Cartwright they would need him for the boy’s father.

Adam had finished at the mine earlier than he’d expected to. He decided that since he was close to town and school was almost finished, that he’d go there so he and Hoss could both ride over to the Anderson place to pick Little Joe up.

Adam was slowly riding down the street when he saw his father come out of one of the buildings. “Pa!” he called, “I didn’t think the meetings would be finished….” his voice trailed off when he saw his father’s face. He dismounted and hurried over. “Pa, what’s wrong?”

When Adam reached him, Ben clutched his eldest son’s arm. “Little Joe’s fallen in the river. They can’t find him!”

“No,” Adam shook his head, his heart racing.

“We’re on our way out there now to look,” Ben said urgently, “I have to go.”

Adam nodded. “I’ll get Hoss and we’ll follow you out.”

About to hurry away, Ben stopped. In his panic he’d forgotten Hoss. “No,” Ben said quietly, “Take Hoss home. He shouldn’t be there.” Ben wanted to believe they would find Joe alive but if they didn’t, Ben didn’t want to risk Hoss being the one to find his little brother’s body.

“No,” Adam said firmly. “There’s no way I’ll be able to keep Hoss away once he knows what’s happened. You go on, Pa. We’ll catch up.” Still holding Adam’s arm, Ben squeezed it, trying to comfort them both, he then ran for his horse.

Adam quickly rode over to the school, getting there just as the school day ended and children ran out the door. “Adam,” Hoss called happily when he saw his older brother.

Before Hoss could say anything, Adam said, “Quick, Hoss, saddle your horse. We need to go. I’ll explain on the way.”

Hoss wanted to ask what was wrong but by the urgency in his older brother’s voice, he knew it was something serious so he didn’t waste time. Hoss ran to the barn where the horses were kept, saddled his horse as quickly as possible and hurried out to Adam.

Adam wanted to get Hoss out of town before he heard the news from someone else. Once they were out of town, Adam pulled his horse to a stop. Hoss did the same.

Adam reached over and put a hand on his brother’s arm. Knowing there was no easy way to tell him, he said, “Little Joe’s fallen in the river at the Anderson place.”

Hoss stared at Adam, for a moment he waited for his older brother to continue, waited for Adam to tell him that Joe had been pulled out and he was fine but when Adam didn’t continue, Hoss felt like his heart was breaking.

Hoss started to cry and asked, “Is he….”

Adam interrupted the words. “He hasn’t been found yet,” he saw the hope leap into Hoss’ eyes. He knew his next words would destroy that hope but they had to be said, “There’s not much chance that he’ll be found alive, Hoss. You know that river it….” Adam’s voice broke and he couldn’t go on. Like Hoss, despite knowing that if Joe hadn’t managed to get to the bank within the first few minutes of falling in he wouldn’t have survived, Adam wasn’t ready to accept they’d lost him from their lives.

“We have to get out there and help them look.” Hoss spurred his horse into a run not waiting for an answer. Adam quickly followed.

**********

Ben rode his horse hard all the way to the river on the Anderson ranch. John Dawson had told him where Laura had said that Joe had fallen in so when he reached that spot he flung himself from his horse and started searching the bank, calling for his son.

The other men had caught up to Ben and when Adam and Hoss reached the river, they wasted no time in joining them in the search. Adam kept Hoss with him as they scoured the bank and edges of the river. Suddenly up ahead of them Hoss saw their father. Running to him, the boy threw himself into his father’s arms. “Oh, Pa,” he sobbed.

Ben held him tightly in his arms, feeling the boy tremble. Adam joined them and after a moment, Ben gently pushed Hoss away from him, still holding onto his son’s arms in comfort. “We have to keep looking, boys.” They both nodded solemnly.

About half an hour later they met up with Daniel Anderson who was coming the other way. Walking towards Ben, he said, “I’m so sorry, Ben. So sorry.” Ben only had eyes for what Dan held in his hands.

In Dan’s left hand he held a boot that just that morning, Ben had pushed onto the small foot of his son. In his right hand he held a little hat that had been a birthday present from Adam to his youngest brother.

“I’m so sorry, Ben,” Daniel said again as Ben took the boot and hat from his hands. Ben walked past Dan without a word and kept searching, clutching the small clothing tightly in his hands.

Some of the men went to get lanterns and when darkness fell, the search continued.

By midnight most of the men had gone back to their homes, believing there was no hope of even finding the body. Ben and his two eldest sons would not leave the river. They continued searching and calling for the little boy.

Roy Coffee approached Doctor Martin. “Paul, we have to talk to them. As much as I hate to say it, there’s no hope.” Roy Coffee had a soft spot in his heart for Ben’s youngest son and felt great sorrow at the boy’s death. He knew the child couldn’t have survived and that they might never find his body, it was probably tangled somewhere deep in the water.

Paul nodded sadly. “I know.”

Ben walked along the water’s edge, not feeling the cold wind that blew, his thoughts only of Little Joe. He had his lantern held up and repeatedly called his son’s name.

When Adam and Hoss saw Roy Coffee and Paul Martin approach their father, they walked over to join them.

“Ben,” Paul said gently, “you can’t go on like this. You’re exhausted. It’s cold. It’s too dark to….”

Ben cut him off angrily. “My son is out here somewhere in the dark and the cold and you expect me to just walk away and leave him. How can I go home to a warm bed and leave him out here,” Ben looked into his friend’s eyes and the doctor saw his despair, “I can’t leave him out here,” Ben said quietly, almost to himself, “he’ll be so afraid out here all alone in the dark. I can’t leave him out here all by himself. I can’t.”

Despite the pleas of Roy Coffee and Paul Martin they could not get the family to leave the river, they both reluctantly returned to town with the last of the men.

**********

By daylight, Ben was on the verge of collapse. Adam and Hoss weren’t faring much better.

After getting a few hours sleep, Roy Coffee and Paul Martin went back out to the river, they found the Cartwrights still searching.

Ben saw them coming and looked away. He knew they would try to convince him again to stop searching.

Paul and Roy walked slowly over to Adam and Hoss who were a bit further down stream to Ben. “Boys,” Paul said carefully, “I know it’s a hard thing to face but you have to accept that Little Joe is dead. You have to help your father accept it. He’s going to need you both now.”

Adam turned away and looked out at the water. “It’s my fault. It was my idea to bring Little Joe over here for Aunt Laura to look after him. Pa was going to take Joe into town with him. It’s all my fault.” Adam brushed away the tears that started to fall.

Ben had walked over towards the small group, intending to tell Roy and Paul that he knew what they had come to say but he didn’t want to hear it. Now he stopped as he heard what his eldest son said.

“Adam,” Ben said, gently putting a hand on his back, “It’s not your fault, Son. There’s no way you could have known something like this would happen. Please don’t blame yourself.”

Adam slowly turned and looked into his father’s eyes, seeing that the older man’s eyes held sadness but no blame towards him. “It’s nobody’s fault. It was an accident,” Ben said. Looking over at Hoss, Ben held out his arm, Hoss went to him and his father hugged him close. As much as his heart ached for his youngest son, Ben knew he had to think about his other boys now. They needed to rest. “It’s time we went home, boys,” Ben said quietly.

Hoss opened his mouth to protest but out of the corner of his eye he saw Adam shake his head. The brothers looked at each other in silent agreement. This was terribly hard on their father, they would do nothing to make it worse. As hard as it was they would go home and try to accept that there was now no hope of finding their little brother.

The Cartwrights turned at the sound of hoof beats and saw Dan Anderson riding towards them. When he reached them, he dismounted and said, “I didn’t know if you would still be out here.”

“We’re just going home now,” Ben said sadly. Dan looked away, unable to meet Ben’s sad gaze. “Dan, how did it happen?” Ben felt he needed to know but he hadn’t had a chance to ask until now.

Still avoiding Ben’s eyes, Daniel replied, “Laura said that Little Joe wanted to see the beavers so they came down here to the river. Little Joe went closer for a better look and before Laura could grab him, he fell in. John and I were working on a fence over in that direction,” he pointed behind them, “Laura came to get me but by the time I got here there was no sign of him. I’m so sorry, Ben.”

“How is Laura?” Paul Martin asked, “I’ll call in and see her.”

“No!” Dan shouted and everyone looked at him. He took a steadying breath, “No,” he said again, this time more quietly, “There’s no need for that. Laura wants some time to herself.” He looked at Ben for a moment and then looked away, “She’s not up to seeing anyone right now. Please understand, Ben, she can’t face you right now. Just give her some time.”

Ben nodded, “Please tell her we don’t blame her, Dan. As I just told Adam, it was an accident, nobody’s fault.”

**********

For the next week it seemed like life went on for the Cartwrights but it wasn’t really living. There was no joy or laugher, no happiness in their lives. They existed, nothing more.

That first day when the family had returned home they had found Hop Sing waiting for them. News always seemed to spread quickly to the Chinese community so it wasn’t surprising that Hop Sing had heard the terrible news.

Despite Ben’s assertion that no one was to blame they all had feelings of it.

Ben truly didn’t blame Adam. He knew the boy had just been looking out for his young brother and had made the suggestion because he thought Joe would enjoy the day more at the Andersons rather than been stuck inside all day but oh, how Ben wished he’d taken the child with him. Alone at night when he waited for sleep that wouldn’t come, in Ben’s mind he could hear Little Joe crying for him.

Adam found himself constantly thinking of ‘If onlys.’ If only he had let his father take Joe into town. If only he’d taken Joe with him when the boy had pleaded to stay with his big brother. If only….It was nearly driving Adam mad.

Hoss hadn’t returned to school yet. He often broke down in tears, finding it impossible to accept life without his little brother. Hoss had always looked out for the small boy and even though he knew there was nothing he could have done to prevent it, the guilt persisted that he hadn’t been there when Little Joe needed him.

Guilt weighed heavily on Hop Sing, that if he hadn’t been away that day, Little Joe would have stayed home with him. He would have been safe. He would still be alive.

The family had found themselves unable to stay away from the river. This morning, just as they had everyday for the last week, Ben, Adam and Hoss searched for Little Joe. Ben saw Adam suddenly turn away and walk towards his horse. “Adam,” he called, walking over to him, “Are you going home?”

“No, Pa. I’m going over to see Aunt Laura.”

“Adam, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You know what Dan said when he called over to see us a few days ago.” In the last week the Cartwrights hadn’t seen Laura at all. Dan had stopped by a couple of times but he always seemed in a hurry to leave. Ben felt like the couple were avoiding them, in a way he understood it, knowing that Laura must hold herself responsible for what had happened. “She’s not ready to see us yet.”

“She’s not ready to see us!” Adam snapped, “She owes us an explanation, Pa. How could she have let him get so close to the water!” Adam turned back to his horse and leant his head down on the saddle as he cried, “Oh, Pa. How could she have let him fall in!”

Ben put an arm across his son’s shoulders and squeezed, feeling the comfort he needed, Adam turned into his father’s arms. Adam had been trying to be strong for his family and he felt the weight lift a little now that he’d finally expressed his grief. Ben turned to check on Hoss and saw him walking along the waters edge. He guided Adam over to a tree and they sat down underneath it.

“I feel bad for blaming her, Pa, but I can’t help it.”

“I know,” Ben replied. “I have the same feelings. I told Dan to tell Laura that we didn’t blame her because I know we shouldn’t. I know it was an accident. But like you, I do blame her.” He patted Adam on the leg and left his hand there while he spoke, “It’s not fair to her though. As hard as it is we must let the blame go. We must accept it for what it was. A terrible accident.”

Adam nodded but couldn’t bring himself to say he agreed. “I know Uncle Dan told us how it happened but don’t you want to hear it from Aunt Laura, Pa.”

“Of course I do, Son, but I’m sure Laura’s feeling over whelmed with her own guilt right now. Upsetting her more by making her talk about it won’t change anything.” ‘It won’t bring my little boy back,’ Ben thought to himself.

Adam stood up and wiped the tears away. “I need to get away for a while, Pa.”

Ben understood. He knew the time had come to stop searching but he couldn’t seem to make himself stop. The strain was getting to them all. He knew Adam needed a break. “Why don’t you take a ride for a while.”

Adam nodded. “I won’t be long, Pa,” he said, getting up and walking over to his horse. Ben waved and watched him ride away.

**********

Adam had every intention of doing as his father had suggested. He was just going to ride for a while but without even realizing it, he found himself turning his horse in the direction of the Anderson house.

Adam could hear screaming and crying when he rode into the yard, for a moment he thought it was his imagination. Adam didn’t know that late at night, Ben heard Joe crying for him. Had he known, he would have understood. Every night since they’d returned home without Joe, the little sleep Adam had managed to get was restless. He had nightmares about Joe falling in the water and heard the terrified screams of his little brother. Sometimes the screams seemed so real that when he woke he rushed to get out of bed to go to Little Joe’s room to comfort him, thinking the boy was having a nightmare. Then suddenly he’d remember that Little Joe was gone and it was a living nightmare the family had been left to endure.

Adam pulled his horse to a stop as he heard the words, “I want my Pa!” Adam’s heart leapt, there was no doubt in his mind who was shouting. He jumped from his horse and ran for the front door. He grabbed the handle and flung the door open.

Held in Laura Anderson’s arms was Little Joe Cartwright.

“Little Joe!” Adam shouted excitedly. When he saw his brother, Joe held out his arms to him.

Laura stared at Adam, shocked to see him there. Over the cries of Joe she hadn’t heard him ride up. She took a step back but Adam immediately moved forward and pulled his little brother from her arms.

Joe buried his face in the crook of his brother’s neck and shoulder and sobbed. Adam’s heart was beating so fast it felt like it was going to leap from his chest. He gently rubbed his brother’s back, trying to calm him down. “When did you find him?” he asked Laura breathlessly, “Where?”

Laura backed away from them, shaking her head, suddenly she turned and ran from the house, calling for her husband.

Adam sat down on a chair and carefully started to pull Joe back from him, wanting to make sure he was all right. Joe resisted, clinging to him. Adam gently persisted, whispering words of comfort. Finally he got a good look at the boy. He’d already felt by holding the boy, that Joe had lost weight and his first look confirmed it but he was relived when he didn’t see any obvious injuries. Joe’s face was red from crying and streaked with tears.

Adam pulled the boy back towards him and cuddled him, revelling in having the child in his arms again.

Adam had no idea what had happened, he assumed that Joe must have somehow gotten himself out of the river and had been wandering, lost. He thought Daniel must have come across the boy earlier that day. He couldn’t understand Laura Anderson’s reaction but right at that moment it didn’t matter to him.

“Let’s get you to Pa,” Adam smiled at his brother, “Pa’s going to be so happy to see you.”

At the mention of his father, Joe stopped crying and pulled back excitedly, looking at his older brother’s face, “You’ll take me to Pa now?”

Adam ran his fingers through his brother’s hair, brushing it away from his forehead, he softly kissed him and promised, “Right now.”

Adam wanted to ask Joe what had happened, where he’d been but the boy was still so upset, he thought the best thing to do was to get the little boy to their father. Adam stood and with Joe on his hip he walked out the front door.

Laura Anderson had run to get her husband who was working nearby. They were hurrying back to the house when the two brothers came outside. Laura broke away from her husband and ran towards them screaming, “You can’t take him! He’s mine! You can’t take him!” Laura reached them and tried to pull Joe from his brother’s arms. Joe screamed and clung tighter to Adam.

Adam had never hit a woman before but he shoved her away as hard as he could, knocking her to the ground. Laura scrambled to her knees. Dan rushed up to her, kneeling next to her, he held onto his wife’s shoulders. “We have to let Adam take him, Laura. He’s not ours to keep.”

“Dan,” she sobbed, “Please don’t let him take my little boy.”

Adam looked at the couple in shock. His mind racing as he tried to work out what had been going on.

Daniel looked over his shoulder while he held Laura. “Go, Adam. Take Little Joe to your father. I know there’s a lot to explain. Tell Ben I’ll come over and see him once I get Laura calmed down.”

Adam could feel Joe trembling, he was obviously frightened by the way Laura was behaving. “It’s all right, Little Joe. You’re safe, I’m with you,” he whispered the words repeatedly as he put Joe up on his horse and mounted behind him. They could still hear Laura screaming as they rode away, “Don’t take him!”

Adam kept his arms wrapped tightly around the boy held in front of him on the horse. Once they were well away from the house, Adam asked, “Little Joe, do you remember the day I left you with Aunt Laura?”

“You said you’d come back for me but it’s been a long time. Why did you take so long?” Joe sobbed.

“I’m sorry, little buddy. Honestly, I am. It’ll never happen again, I promise,” Adam gently squeezed him and asked, “Can you forgive me?” Joe sniffed and nodded. Adam kept talking quietly, comforting him as they rode.

Joe calmed down and Adam wasn’t sure if he should risk questioning him further, he didn’t want to cause his little brother to start crying again but there was something he had to know. Something that had been nagging at him since he’d found Joe at the Andersons. “Joe, did you fall in the river that day. The day I left you with Aunt Laura?” Adam held his breath while he waited for the reply.

Joe shook his head. “No. We didn’t go to the river.”

Adam blew out his breath. He was furious at the Andersons but he hid it from Joe as he asked, “What happened? Why didn’t you go and see the beavers like you wanted to?”

Joe leant back against his brother, comfortable in his arms. “I fell asleep and when I woke up it was night time. Adam,” Joe turned his head and looked up at his brother, “Aunt Laura took my boots and hat,” Adam glanced down and noticed for the first time that Joe was only wearing socks, “and she wouldn’t let me go outside for all the time I was there. When I asked when you were coming for me she said she didn’t know and when I asked her to take me home, she wouldn’t. Why was she like that, Adam?”

“I don’t know,” Adam said honestly, “I think maybe she’s sick. Did she hurt you, Little Joe?”

“No,” Joe replied, “She was nice to me but I just wanted to go home.” Joe looked around and realized that they weren’t heading in the direction of home. “Adam, I want to go home. You said I could see Pa. I want to see Pa now!”

Adam felt relief that Joe was acting like his usual demanding little self and he replied, “Pa’s not at home right now, Little Joe. He’s down at the river. We’re going there now, all right?”

Joe nodded excitedly and started to squirm in the saddle. To the five year old it had been a very long time since he had seen his Pa.

They reached the river and Adam started walking his horse along side of it, knowing they would eventually find Pa and Hoss walking along it somewhere up ahead.

Adam and Joe saw their father at the same time. Adam dismounted and lifted Joe down before the boy could fall from the saddle in his rush to get down.

“Pa! Pa!” Little Joe called excitedly. Ben turned at the sound of the voice calling him. For a moment he stared disbelievingly at the small figure racing towards him. Then it was like his own feet grew wings and he ran to meet his youngest son.

Ben grabbed the boy up into his arms, hugging him tightly. “Joseph, Joseph,” Ben repeated the name over and over again.

Hoss further downstream, having heard the shouting, came running. Seeing his little brother alive and in their father’s arms, he ran over to them. “Little Joe! Little Joe!” he called.

Not wanting to let his young son out of his arms but knowing Hoss would want to hold him, Ben sat down on the ground and put Joe on his lap. Hoss flung himself to the ground beside them and reached over to hug his brother. After a while, Hoss reluctantly released Joe and sat back. “Where did you find him?” he asked his father.

“I didn’t,” Ben replied, “Adam just rode in with him.” Ben and Hoss both looked to Adam but he shook his head, silently indicating they should leave the explanations to later. Ben didn’t mind, explanations could wait.

Joe looked up at his father’s face and realized the man was crying. He reached his hand up and put it on his father’s cheek as he said, “I missed you.”

Ben put his hand over the small one on his cheek and brought it to his lips, kissing it gently. “I’ve missed you, too, Joseph. So very, very much.”

The wind blew over the water and Joe shivered. Adam took his jacket off and wrapped it around the thin frame of his youngest brother.

Ben was alarmed at the weight Joe had lost in the week he’d been away from them. He stood up with Joe still clutched tightly in his arms. “We’d better get this young man home,” he tried to keep his voice light.

**********

There was another excited reunion when the family arrived home and Hop Sing saw who Ben carried inside.

When Joe declared he was hungry, Hop Sing rushed to get him some soup. He looked so thin they didn’t want to put anything heavy in his stomach. He was very tired and after he’d eaten, Ben carried him upstairs and put him to bed for a nap. Ben had noticed the dark circles under Joe’s eyes and was worried about them and his loss of weight. With Joe asleep, Adam quietly told his father how he’d come to find Joe. Ben was furious at the couple. He sent Adam for the doctor and sat down beside the bed, anxiously watching Joe sleep while he waited for Paul to come.

Paul Martin couldn’t believe the news when Adam told him the child had been found alive. He hurried out to the Ponderosa with Adam. When they arrived, Little Joe was awake and declared that he didn’t want the doctor looking at him but when his family told him they would stay in the room with him, he allowed Doctor Martin to examine him.

The family waited nervously and were relieved when Paul finished the examination and said, “He’ll be fine. He’s very thin but some of Hop Sing’s good cooking will soon fix that up.” Adam had told Paul that it appeared that Joe had been with the Andersons for the last week but that they didn’t know much else. “Haven’t you been eating?” he asked the child gently.

Joe shook his head. “I wanted to come home.” Paul nodded understandingly. It only took a few more minutes for Joe to go back to sleep. Paul turned to the family, “He’s obviously been fretting for you and hasn’t been eating or sleeping.”

“You’re sure he’ll be all right?” Ben asked.

“I’m sure,” Paul replied, “Now,” he picked up his bag, “from what Adam told me about how Laura Anderson was behaving, I better get out there.”

Anger flared on Ben’s face at the mention of Laura’s name but he managed to keep his voice low so as not to wake Joe. “I don’t know what’s been going on out there but if they’ve been keeping my son from me for all this time, you can tell them I intend to have them charged with kidnapping and anything else I can think of.”

Late that afternoon, after Joe woke from his nap, all the family sat on the floor downstairs in the great room playing with Joe’s toy soldiers. There was a knock on the door and Adam went to answer it. When he opened the door and saw who it was, Adam turned around and called, “Pa, it’s Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin,” he paused and his voice was cold when he said, “and Mr Anderson.” Adam stepped back and allowed the men to enter.

The men came in and greetings were exchanged. Joe looked over at them and Dan called, “Hello, Little Joe, are you having a good game there?”

Joe nodded silently and everyone noticed that he edged closer to his father. Ben slowly stood up, keeping himself protectively in front of the small boy. “Hoss,” Ben looked at his middle son, “take Joe upstairs to play for a little while.” Usually Joe would have protested that he wanted to stay downstairs but he seemed nervous now that Dan Anderson was there and willingly took the hand Hoss held out to him. Hoss led his brother upstairs and Ben waited until he heard Joe’s bedroom door shut and then he turned to Daniel. “What the hell has been going on?”

“Ben,” Dan started slowly, finding it difficult to put into words what he wanted to say, “There’s no excuse for what Laura and I have done, but please believe me when I say how sorry I am.”

“I don’t want your apologizes. I just want you to tell me exactly what it is you did do. Little Joe never fell in the river, did he?”

“No,” Dan shook his head. “Laura’s always wanted children so badly and you know that Little Joe means the world to her. Well,” he paused, “Laura wanted to keep Little Joe as her son.”

“You can’t be serious!” Ben said angrily, “He’s my child not a possession you can just decide you want to keep. Do you know what you put us through? All this time you’ve let us believe that Joseph was dead!”

“I didn’t know it was a lie at first, Ben. I was repairing a fence with John Dawson when Laura came riding up on her horse, she said she’d taken Little Joe to the river and he’d fallen in. John and I went rushing down there. We searched and searched but couldn’t find him. I thought he’d drowned and I didn’t want to risk Laura finding his body so I told her to go home and I sent John into town to tell Sheriff Coffee. I knew Roy would find you and let you know what had happened.”

Ben and Adam didn’t interrupt to ask questions, they just listened as Dan tried to explain why such a cruel deception had been played on them.

“It wasn’t until I left the search late that night and went home that I found out the truth. I walked into our bedroom and found Little Joe asleep in our bed. Laura was sitting next to him. At first, I thought she’d found him and I was about to go and tell you when Laura stopped me. She told me what she’d done. She said she’d given Little Joe a sleeping draught and put him to bed, then she went down to the river and put one of his boots and his hat on the bank so it would look like they’d washed up there. Then she rode to tell me that he’d fallen in.” Dan saw the anger grow on the faces of Ben and Adam, he hurried on. “You have to believe me, Ben. I was so very angry at her when I found out the truth but she became so upset when I told her we couldn’t keep him. She started to cry and said she wouldn’t be able to stand it if I took him away from her, that life wouldn’t be worth living,” Dan hung his head, “I know it was wrong but I couldn’t bring myself to take Little Joe from her.”

“But you took him from me!” Ben could contain his anger no longer. “What is wrong with you! You can’t take someone else’s child just because you want one of your own. We were friends. How could you have done this? How could you let us believe that Joseph had drowned? Were you going to keep him locked in your house forever? How did you think you were going to get away with it?”

“It wasn’t planned, Ben. It just happened. Laura got some sleeping draughts off Doctor Martin recently because she was having trouble sleeping and she had some left over. When Adam brought Joe over Laura somehow convinced herself that Joe was an inconvenience to you now with Marie gone and she wanted him to know the love of a mother again.”

“An inconvenience!” Ben raged, “Joseph has never been an inconvenience. If Laura really cared for Little Joe she would never have done this to him. He has had enough turmoil and upset in the last months without being torn away from his family. As you said, Joe no longer has his mother here to love him but there is no one in this world who could love him more than his brothers and I do.”

Adam glared at Dan Anderson, knowing he would never think of the couple again as being like an aunt and uncle. “Mr Anderson,” Adam said coldly, “I took Little Joe over to your place, not because it was inconvenient for us to have him that day but because I thought he would enjoy the day more there. How dare you insinuate that we don’t want him. You know that’s not true.”

Dan was very ashamed of what he’d done. He looked at Ben and Adam and said, “You are right about everything you’ve said. I know it’s not enough but all I can say is, I’m sorry.”

Roy Coffee and Paul Martin had stayed silent. Now Roy spoke. “We have to decide what we’re going to do now.”

“There’s nothing to decide,” Adam said angrily, “They both deserve to go to prison for what they’ve done.”

“Laura’s in town right now with my wife. She can stay with us until we decide what to do. There’s a place we can send Laura that I think will be better for her than prison,” Paul Martin said.

“I don’t care what’s better for her!” Adam snapped.

Ben didn’t reprimand Adam for speaking so rudely, he knew how upset his eldest son was, he went over and put a comforting hand on his arm. “It won’t hurt to listen, Adam,” Ben turned to Paul and asked, “Do you mean an asylum?”

“Yes, I do,” Paul affirmed.

Ben had heard stories about how bad some asylums could be but in his mind there was no other option, they couldn’t just let her go free. “She has to be locked away somewhere,” he said, “We can’t take the risk that she might do this again with someone else’s child.”

“I don’t know if this makes it better or worse but it wasn’t just any child Laura wanted, it was Little Joe. I don’t think she will do it again,” Dan said quietly.

“We can’t be sure of that though,” Paul Martin replied, “And like Ben said we just can’t take the chance. Maybe in time Laura will realize how terrible what she did was.”

“What about Dan?” Roy Coffee asked Ben. “Do you want me to take him in?”

“I know you’re angry, Ben, and you have every right to be,” Paul Martin said, “But if Dan doesn’t go to prison he’ll be able to visit Laura and it might help her.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, “Let Dan go, but….”

“No, Pa!” Adam shouted, “You can’t just let him go free.”

“I know how you feel, son,” Ben replied calmly, “But locking Dan up won’t do anyone any good,” he looked over at Daniel Anderson, “There are conditions.”

“Anything, Ben,” Dan answered.

“I want you to stay away from Joe. I want you to sell your place. I want you to pack up and get as far away from here as possible. I never want to see or hear from you or Laura again. If one day Laura is released from the asylum, she is never to try to contact Little Joe or go anywhere near him ever again.”

“You have my word on it, Ben,” Dan said sadly, “I can’t believe this has happened,” he turned to Adam, “You boys have always meant a lot to me. I’ll miss you.” Adam turned away without a word.

Dan swallowed hard and turned back to Ben. “Will you buy my place, Ben? I know you’ll give me a fair price for it and then I will be able to leave straight away.”

“If that’s what you want,” Ben agreed.

“It is,” Dan nodded, “I’d like to ask for one thing,” when Ben waited silently, Dan continued, “I’d like to say goodbye to Little Joe.”

“No!” Ben angrily refused, “Joe’s frightened of you and Laura now. It’s best to just make a clean break. We’ll tell him you had to leave town unexpectedly. I’ll get the sale papers drawn up and have them sent over for you to sign. Goodbye, Dan,” Ben walked over to the front door and held it open until the man who had once been a good friend slowly walked out the door and Ben quietly shut it behind him.

**********

That night Joe had declared that he wanted to sleep with his Pa. That was a request Ben would not deny.

Ben had told Joe earlier that night about Daniel and Laura leaving and he seemed to accept the news well. Ben had thought Joe might be upset but it seemed their strange behaviors of the last week had made Joe a little unsure of the couple.

Joe rolled over and snuggled into his father’s side. “Pa,” he whispered loudly, “Are you awake?”

Ben almost laughed, Joe’s whispers were never quiet. “Yes, Joe, I’m awake. What is it?”

“With Uncle Dan and Aunt Laura moving away, I won’t be able to see the beavers anymore, will I?”

Ben wrapped an arm around Joe and pulled him closer. “Of course you will,” he comforted, “That lands part of the Ponderosa now so you can see the beavers as much as you like.”

“Really!” Joe yelped excitedly and Ben was pleased he’d been able to make the boy so happy.

“Yes, really. But there’s one thing you must promise me,” Ben felt Joe nod and he continued, “You must never, ever go down to the river by yourself, all right?” Ben knew it was irrational but he worried about Joe being near the water. He knew it was something he would have to get over.

“I promise. But you and Adam and Hoss will take me, won’t ya?” Joe asked.

Ben knew Daniel Anderson would be gone within the week so he suggested, “How about next Saturday? We’ll all go and have a picnic there. How would that be?”

“I can’t wait!” Joe said excitedly and proceeded to talk about all the things he wanted to do on the picnic. Ben smiled as he listened, he didn’t think they would be getting any sleep for a while, Joe was too excited, but Ben didn’t mind, he could happily listen to Joe talk all night.

**********

The following Saturday, the family went down to the river for their picnic. Ben had spent most of the last week at home with Joe. Things were slowly getting back to normal though. Roy Coffee had come out to see Ben and informed him that Dan Anderson had left town and Laura had been sent away to an asylum many miles away.

Ben held his youngest son’s hand as they stood on the bank of the river. Joe laughed as he watched the beavers and took a step closer.

Ben’s hand immediately tightened on the small one held within his. He noticed that both of Joe’s brothers reached to stop him as well.

Ben knew it would take a long time for them to recover from what had happened. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hold the boy’s hand forever, to keep Joe with him for every minute of the day, that one day he’d have to let go. But Ben wasn’t ready to start letting go yet and he knew he wouldn’t be ready for a long time yet. He reached down and swung Joe up into his arms. Little Joe put his arms around his father’s neck and hugged him tightly. “I love you, Pa.”

Tears came to Ben’s eyes and he rubbed the little boy’s back gently. “And I love you, Joseph. Very, very much.”

Ben felt his older sons move closer to him and they both reached out to touch their little brother as though needing to confirm he was really back with them.

Ben looked at each of his sons and smiled. “I love you all,” he said quietly and reveled in having all of his boys with him.

**********

There was silence in the room when Ben finished telling the story.

Dan Anderson had come into the room while Ben was talking and stood quietly listening next to his wife. Now, Joe stared at the Andersons, shocked at hearing what they’d done. Joe stood up and Laura reached for his hand, he pulled it back and started to walk away.

“Little Joe, please,” she begged, “I did it because I love you. Please don’t hate me.” Joe didn’t stop or turn back, he just walked away. He could still hear her calling as he shut the bedroom door. “Please don’t hate me!”

Laura put her face in her hands and cried. Dan tried to comfort her. The elder Cartwrights quietly excused themselves and went to talk to Joe.

Opening the bedroom door, Ben found his son packing. “What are you doing?” Ben asked.

‘Leaving,’ Joe signed and turned back to his packing.

Ben knew Joe was very upset about what he’d just heard and he spoke calmly. “It’s too late to leave now, Joe. We’ll leave in the morning like we planned.”

Joe shook his head firmly and when he turned to face his father, Ben saw the tears shining in his son’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ Joe signed.

“You’ve got nothing to apologize for,” Adam said, “You aren’t responsible for what they did.”

Joe reached for his paper and pencil, knowing it was too hard to sign what he wanted to tell his family. I’m sorry for what they put you through. I’m sorry that I don’t remember it and that I didn’t understand why you were so angry with the Andersons. I know now.

“Joe,” Ben comforted, he put an arm around his young son’s shoulders and led him over to the bed, sitting down beside him, “Don’t feel bad for not remembering. As far as you knew, we’d just left you with them for that week. We discussed telling you the truth because we didn’t want you to think we would just leave you with someone else like that for so long. Doctor Martin thought it was better that we didn’t tell you, he suggested we wait and see how you settled down after a few days back with us.”

“You wouldn’t let us out of your sight at first,” Adam added, “but after promises that it wouldn’t happen again, you just seemed to forget about it after a while.”

I remember other times we spent with the Andersons, picnics and things. Why don’t I remember that week? Joe wrote.

“I asked Paul about it,” Ben said, “he told me that he thought it was something you didn’t want to remember so you somehow just blocked it out.”

“I was glad when you didn’t remember it. I was so afraid you’d hate me because I was the one who left you with Mrs Anderson and told you I was coming back for you later that day.” Adam needed his brother to understand, “I was coming back for you, Joe, just like I promised.”

I know, Joe wrote, It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known what she would do. I’m glad I had you looking out for me. All of you. Joe looked at his family, wanting them to know he didn’t blame them at all.

There was a knock on the door and Adam opened it to find Daniel Anderson standing there. Adam stepped back and allowed him to enter the room. Dan cleared his throat, not finding the words easy to say. “I know I have no right to ask any of you for anything but I have to ask for Laura’s sake.” He looked at Adam, “I know you wanted me to go to jail because you thought it wasn’t fair that I got away free after what I’d put you all through. It wasn’t free, Adam. I’ve paid a price every day. Every day I feel the guilt of what we did. Laura spent two years in the asylum and from when she got out, she has prayed that one day she would be able to, at least in a small way, try to make up for what she did. I’ll regret what we did until the day I die.” Dan Anderson turned to Joe, “She just wants to know that you don’t hate her. Please don’t leave here with things the way they are. Please.” He walked from the room and shut the door behind him, leaving the family to think about what he’d said.

Adam took a deep breath and blew it out. “Although I’ll never forgive them, I guess if I’m honest, in the last couple of days my feelings have softened a little towards them both.”

“Same for me,” Hoss agreed, “And they have helped us out this last week.”

Joe looked questioningly at his father, wanting to know what he thought.

Ben had always taught his sons not to hang on to hate but despite the passage of years this was something Ben had never been able to forgive.

“I will never forgive either one of them for what they did,” Ben looked at his youngest son, “the distress they caused you because you couldn’t understand why we didn’t come and get you that day. The pain they caused your brothers and I by allowing us to believe for a week that you,” Ben drew in a deep shuddering breath, the words painful to say, “were dead.” Ben looked into Joe’s eyes. “They were the worst days of my life. I blamed myself for not keeping you with me, for not keeping you safe. I’m sorry I allowed her to keep you away from us.”

Tears pooled in Joe’s eyes at the obvious pain his father still felt at remembering those days. He wrote the words, You didn’t allow it, Pa. I know without a doubt that had you known I was there you would have come for me. The three of you have always done the best you could for me. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without you.

Ben read the words and looked into Joe’s eyes. “I found it so hard to let you out of my sight after we got you back,” he glanced at Adam and Hoss and then looked back at Joe, “your brothers were the same. For years we wouldn’t let anyone other than Hop Sing look after you. We’d take you out on the range with us rather than risk leaving you with someone else.”

“You put a stop to it though,” Adam told his brother, “You were about nine and you wanted to spend the night at Mitch Devlin’s house. You begged and begged until Pa finally agreed. Poor Mrs Devlin, after Pa took you over he spent about two hours questioning her before he left you there,” he laughed.

Ben laughed too at the memory of that day but then he looked at Joe and quietly said, “I needed to be sure you were going to be safe.”

I understand, Joe wrote and reached out to lay a hand on his father’s arm.

Ben put his hand over Joe’s. “I said I’ll never forgive them and I meant that but I am grateful for their help here. We’ll probably never see them again and I think it would be a kindness to both of them if we left without bad feelings.” He looked at each of his sons. “But that’s up to each of you to decide for yourselves.”

**********

The next morning, Daniel and Laura Anderson were waiting as the Cartwright family started to carry their gear out.

Adam and Hoss put the saddlebags they were carrying down on a table. Adam held out a hand to Mr Anderson. “Goodbye, Uncle Dan,” the couple’s eyes lit with hope at the use of the word uncle. After shaking hands, Adam hugged Mrs Anderson, “Goodbye, Aunt Laura.”

Laura hugged the young man tighter and whispered, “Thank you, Adam.”

“Bye, Uncle Dan,” Hoss followed his brother’s lead and shook the older man’s hand.

“Goodbye, boys,” Dan looked at both Adam and Hoss, “It’s been so good to see you again.”

Hoss hugged Mrs Anderson. “Goodbye, Aunt Laura.”

“Goodbye, Hoss,” Laura fought hard to hold back the tears.

Adam and Hoss picked up the saddlebags and went outside.

Ben shook hands with his former friend. “Thank you for letting us stay here, Dan. We really do appreciate it. I’m sorry about the trouble with the Wilson gang.”

Daniel waved the apology away. “Like I told you before, Ben, we’re just glad we could help. It’s been wonderful to see you and the boys again.”

Ben turned to Mrs Anderson. “I appreciate you helping us to look after Joe, Laura.”

“It’s been no trouble at all, Ben. I wish you’d consider staying here longer. Joe….”

Ben broke in softly, “No, Laura. It’s time we went home. Goodbye.” He stepped away and went to wait at the door while Joe made his goodbyes.

Joe held out his hand but Dan gently pulled him into a hug. “I promised your father that Laura and I would stay away from you. As hard as it was for both of us we kept our promise but I’m so pleased we’ve had this chance to see you again.” Dan Anderson released the young man and stepped away, allowing his wife to take his place.

Laura tenderly laid her hand on the side of Joe’s face and then pulled him to her, holding him tightly. As she hugged him, she said, “I’ve prayed everyday that God would lead you to my door one day. I am going to miss you so much, Little Joe. It’s been so good to have you here. To see what a wonderful man you have turned out to be.” Laura swallowed. “I know I did a dreadful, dreadful thing but I….”

Joe pulled back from her and held up his hand to stop her. He reached into his pocket and handed Laura a piece of paper with six words written on it. I don’t hate you, Aunt Laura. After what she’d put his family through, he couldn’t bring himself to say he forgave her, this was the best he could do.

Laura pulled him into a hug again. “Thank you, my dear. Thank you.”

Joe gently pulled away, made the sign for goodbye and walked away from the couple. When he reached the door, his father put a hand around his shoulders and they walked out together. Crying, Laura started to follow after them but her husband put his hands on her shoulders, stopping her. “Let him go, Laura.”

**********

Ben helped Joe into the wagon, insisting he lay down in the back. Ben climbed into the back with him. Hoss pulled himself up onto the seat to drive, slowly he started down the street.

“See you, Joe,” Sheriff Luke Taylor called from the door of his office. He had a bandage around his head but apart from a headache he was suffering no other effects from being knocked out by Willis. “Get ready for a visit from me soon!” Joe smiled and waved back.

Adam on his horse, rode beside the wagon, leading his family’s horses.

Laura Anderson watched them leave from the window. She kept looking down the street long after they had gone from her sight.

**********

Four months had gone by since the Cartwright family had returned home to the Ponderosa Ranch. In those months, Joe had never gone into town alone. He only went in if his father or one of his brothers was going as well. His family knew that Joe was still embarrassed when he was asked something and had to write his answer down or try to make himself understood by signs.

Around the ranch, Joe was managing well. There had been no trouble with the hands. Joe was well liked and respected. Some of the hands had even started learning how to sign.

Although his brothers had tried many times to get Joe to accompany them into town for a social or for a night at the saloon, Joe always refused. Ben hated to see that change in his normally gregarious son. He knew that Joe still hadn’t truly accepted that the loss of his voice was permanent. The truth was, none of them had. Ben knew the time was coming though when they would no longer be able to pretend to themselves that it was only temporary. He hoped that with more time, Joe would accept the way his life was now and not feel uncomfortable around people outside of the family.

The family had just started eating their evening meal and Ben was trying to think of a way to convince Joe to go to the next dance with his brothers.

“Pass the potatoes please, Pa,” one of Ben’s sons asked.

Ben picked up the bowl and then dropped it in shock when he realized which one of his sons had made that request.

Hoss’ hand froze with a fork half way to his mouth.

In the process of having a drink of water, Adam sprayed a mouthful across the table.

Three pairs of shocked eyes stared at Joe.

“Joseph,” Ben reached over and clutched his youngest son’s arm. “When did this happen?”

“I’ve been trying everyday,” Joe said quietly, his voice was weak but Ben couldn’t stop smiling at the sound of it, “There was always nothing but yesterday it started coming back. It was so hard to talk at first. I could hardly say anything. I went to see Doc Martin today. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t imagining things,” Joe laughed self consciously.

“What did Paul say?” Ben asked, gently squeezing Joe’s arm.

“That it should come back as good as it was before. He said it just sounds funny now because I haven’t used it for so long.”

Hoss grinned. “I don’t think it sounds funny, little brother. I think it’s the best sound I’ve ever heard.”

“Definitely!” Adam agreed.

“It’s already a lot better,” Joe said happily. “I was talking to Cochise all the way home,” he laughed.

Hop Sing was standing at the door, listening. Finally he decided it was time for the family to start eating again. He came into the room, “Look at mess,” he said, pointing at the table covered with the broken dish, splattered potato and water. “Hop Sing clean up. You eat before food get cold.” The voice sounded angry but there was no mistaking the tears of happiness in the little man’s eyes. He picked up the broken dish and before going back to the kitchen, paused at Joe’s side and put a hand on his shoulder. “Hop Sing very happy,” he said before hurrying away.

“Well, you heard the man,” Ben said, “Let’s eat. And Joseph,” he looked at his youngest son, “Just this once, I won’t mind if you talk with your mouth full.” Everyone laughed and started to ask Joe questions just to hear him talk. Ben rejoiced at the sound of the voice he’d feared he would never hear again.

 

The End

May 2006

Note. The characters of Annie Croft and her father are from the Bonanza episode “Silent Thunder.” The character of Danny Kidd is from “The Friendship.” The Character of Mitch Devlin is from “Between Heaven and Earth.”

 

137 total views, 1 views today

4 thoughts on “Door to the Past (by HelenB)”

  1. Secrets never stay secret forever. What a horrible way to find out something that had been buried for so long. Another great story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.