Adam and Hoss were already seated at the dinner table when Joe walked into the house with his sodden trousers and his sodden boots. He was more worried about what Adam's reaction would be and so almost jumped out of his skin at Hop Sing's voice berating him for walking his wet and muddy boots all over the floor.

"Lil boy all wet and dirty. No supper to get washed up and clean. Lil' Joe always make mess for Hop Sing to clean up" the little oriental man said. He turned around and stomped back into the kitchen muttering to himself about having to reheat meals.

Little Joe had been startled at his little cook's words, but now decided he best do as he was told and get cleaned up so he could eat. He hadn't even reached the bottom step of the staircase when he heard another accusing voice behind him yet again:

"And just where do you think you are going?" came the voice dripping with sarcasm. Joe turned around and

looked full on into the angry face of his big brother Adam. Joe proceeded to roll his eyes at Adam in response

to what he knew was inevitable.

The look on Adam's face when he saw the gesture only made the lines in his face deepen with frustration at the

young boy. His eyes narrowed and he widen his stance and placed his hands on his hips in a demanding pose.

"I asked you a question Joe. Where have you been all afternoon?" Adam now asked putting aside

the wet and muddy clothes for the moment. When he had first discovered his young sibling missing he went through

the various stages of anger for the boy's disobedience, fear about where the boy might by and worry about what

sort of trouble he might get himself into all alone. Now it was back to anger as he could see Joe standing before him,

obviously less than hurt but deciding to be rude and obstinate instead.

Little Joe suddenly turned his attention to the flood boards and mumbled his reply "Just went fishin".

"What was that, and stand up straight and face me when I am talking to you" Adam now barked back. Joe stood

there for a minute tracing a pattern on the wooden floor with his muddy boots. Finally he looked back into the

brown eyes of his brother and repeated "I just went fishin' with a friend, that's all".

Adam could feel his temper boiling over and knew that he would need to cool down before dealing with this

child any further tonight. "Get upstairs and when you are cleaned up Hop Sing will bring your supper to your room.

You can wait for Pa to come home and explain your behaviour to him" Adam said as he made himself turn and

walk away from the scene.

Joe was now angry too. He knew he was wet and muddy, but didn't think that was enough cause for Adam to

be so cranky at him. He made his displeasure known by beginning to stomp loudly up the wooden stairs one at

a time and making sure that the noise sounded out hollow from each one as he went.

Adam knew what the kid was doing and could see the kid's defiant manner as turned at the stomping noise:

"And you are restricted to the yard for the next week" he said harshly back at the mop of curly hair. He really

want to say "For the rest of your life" but refrained.

"So what else is knew" Joe said in an uninterested tone. It wasn't as if he had any free time off the ranch lately

anyway. He was always being restricted to the house or yard. What made today any different? Adam could

see that the boy was determined to undermine him at every turn and so ignored any more attempts to rile him.

About half an hour later he noticed still cranky but somewhat calmed down boy walk down the stairs to the bathhouse.

Joe had taken about twenty minutes to scrub the dried mud from his body. He gave his hair a wash too

because he could feel the bits of grit and sand through it as he ran his hair through the curls.

Joe walked from the bathhouse in his nightshirt and spotted Hoss and Adam sitting in the living room. His father still

wasn't home and he started to worry in the back of his mind about why his father might be so late. He looked from

brother to brother before climbing the stairs once more. Adam wouldn't even give him the satisfaction of looking at

him. He got a quick and concealed wry smile from his brother Hoss which said volumes without hearing the words.

Joe could even see the disappointment in the one brother he thought would stand-by him no matter what.

"Night Hoss" Joe said loud enough to emphasis that he had no intentions of saying goodnight to his older brother Adam.

Joe's attempts to give him the cold shoulder treatment actually brought a slight chuckle to Adam's lips and he fought

to keep it in until the kid's bedroom door was closed again.

Joe sat on his bed with his hands behind his head for a long time that night. His meal tray sat where Hop Sing had

left it, untouched. He really had no stomach for any food tonight. He had too many thoughts going around his head.

About an hour after Little Joe went to bed, the front door of the house opened and in came Ben Cartwright. He had

a little mud on his own boots and was dog tired. All he wanted was a hot meal, a hot bath and a nice bed before

going out again in the morning.

Hoss and Adam could see the tiredness etched on their father's face as he hung his hat on the peg behind the door.

Ben had only just managed to unbuckle his gun belt and place it on the credenza when he was greeted by the same

tirade from Hop Sing that Joe had come home too.

"Boss walk mud all over Hop Sing's floor just like son. How son get in trouble when Boss do it too. Nobody

listen to Hop Sing. Move back to China and cook for clean family" he said and went back into the kitchen to

heat Ben's dinner.

Ben was really tired and in no mood for the little oriental man's lectures he did however catch something about

his son getting into trouble. It didn't take much nous to work out which son Hop Sing meant as he looked over

and could see Hoss and Adam sitting in the living room. He sighed loudly and walked over to hear all about the

day's events involving his youngest son Little Joe. He could see from the way Hoss tried not to look at his father

and the less than impressed look on Adam's normally handsome features that something else had happened earlier

in the evening.

"Okay, out with it" he said in a no-nonsense tone. "What's being going on here while I have been gone?"

"Hoss you care to start the conversation" Ben said. Hoss never was good at hiding his feelings or emotions. His

facial expressions gave him away immediately.

"Better ask Adam Pa. I ain't coming between those two at the moment. Liable to get my head taken off by them

both" Hoss said genuinely.

"Well Adam?", Ben said now standing in a similar fashion as Adam had done with Little Joe earlier. Hands on hips

and in a questioning stance.

"Little Joe and I just had a little disagreement Pa that's all. I left things alone because I was too mad. I'll talk to him

again in the morning when he's cooled down some." Adam said in exasperation. He really didn't know how his father

coped all the time. Adam thankfully only had to do it every now and then. His relationship had been a positive one

up until now, but with his absence at college looming, the two could barely look at each other without arguing.

"And just what do you need to talk to him about in the morning may I ask?" Ben said getting cranky himself about his

two eldest son's dancing around the problem instead of just coming out plain and saying it.

"He took off from the ranch this afternoon without telling anybody and when he walked in the door he was dripping

with mud" Adam said as he explained the scenario.

Ben sighed out loud again and now guessed at why Hop Sing had gone off at him walking mud onto the floor as he

walked in. He rubbed at his temples tiredly and then glanced up the staircase to the closed door.

"I'll go talk to him son" Ben said and started climbing the stairs. Hop Sing had just laid Ben's hot meal out onto the

table when he saw his Boss climb the stairs towards Little Joe's room. Once again he went off into a tirade of Cantonese

as he pulled the plate off the table again and mumbled out loud as he took it back into the kitchen to keep it off.

He knew of course that Ben wouldn't take anytime for himself until the problem with his youngest son was sorted out


Adam had also mumbled some words under his breath about Ben babying his brother too much. He wasn't too annoyed

though and was a little grateful to have someone willing to take the responsibility for a little while. Hoss and Adam soon

retired to their own beds knowing that the following day would be a full one if not a tiresome one.

Ben now carefully opened the door to his son Joseph's room to check if the boy was awake or not. He looked over

and could see the boy turned on his side towards him, appearing to be asleep. Truth was, Joe still had not succumbed

to sleep and heard his father climb the stairs. He evened out his breathing and closed his eyes so as to act asleep.

Normally Joe would crave his father's touch and presence, even just to say goodnight. But tonight, Joe was still feeling

angry with every one in the world. He didn't feel like being cuddled and babied just to make things better.

Ben quietly closed the door behind him and walked towards the bed. It was now that he could see the full tray of food

left behind by the ever faithful Hop Sing. He sighed wearily at the uneaten food and knew that it was another battle

yet to be won with his son. The battles at the moment just seemed never ending.

Ben could see that he wasn't going to have much conversation with the boy tonight. He had no intentions of waking

the sleeping boy. He sat on the bed giving his tired legs a rest, being careful enough not to disturb Joe. He was

still close enough to be able to reach out and brush back the few stray curls that hung over the boy's forehead.

It took all Joe's inner concentration from opening his eyes and tumbling into the embrace that his father would no

doubt offer. He was determined not to let his weakness show. He knew that Adam would have told his father

everything that happened today. He knew that his father would be unhappy and disappointed in his behaviour

once again.

"Help me Marie" Ben said as he gently placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Tell me were I am going wrong with

our son. What do I have to change to make things better?"

Joe could scarcely hold back his tears as he heard his father's words to his mother's picture on the bedside table.

"I need your help too O Lord. Hold my hand as I guide him through the years. Show me the patience and understanding

that I need to learn to help Joseph overcome these troubled times." Ben then gently kissed his sleeping boy and

left the room to go to his own bed for the night.

Early the next morning a still tired but awake Ben sat at the breakfast table sipping his coffee whilst discussing the

day's events with his eldest son Adam.

"I'll have a talk with him when he comes down to breakfast son" Ben told Adam. But I'm afraid with all the problems

at the lumber yard at the moment, I probably won't be back until late tonight again."

"How long do you expect the delays to continue Pa" Adam now asked.

"Well with one of the blade's broken and some of the men refusing to compensation with some extra work, the

schedule is getting further and further behind. I have tried to hire more men, but there just aren't many men willing

to do the work. I'm sorry son but I need you to run things here at the ranch for the next couple of days." Ben

said with genuine gratitude in his voice. There were many times in the past that he wondered what he would have

down without the steady guiding hand of his son Adam.

"Don't worry Pa, we'll manage here. Hoss has been a great help. As much as any full grown man" Adam admitted

thinking about his 13 year old brother. He might be only a teenager in years, but Hoss's willingness to put in a good

day's work matched his size and strength.

"I know you will son, but I hate to leave all of the responsibility to you all the time. This trouble with Little Joe

isn't helping any either." Ben said.

Adam and his father were now joined at the breakfast table by Hoss. "Morning Pa, Morning Adam" Hoss said

in his usual cheery voice. It took a lot before Hoss showed his grumpy side. Something which the rest of

the Cartwright family sadly lacked.

"Morning Hoss" came the reply from both men. "How did you sleep son?" Ben asked Hoss. This was his usual

question to his son's in the morning.

"Great Pa, I'm hungry though" Hoss replied and started to fill his plate with bacon and eggs. Ben smiled to himself.

He knew that the only time he needed to worry about Hoss in this house was when the boy said he wasn't hungry.

The boy ate a grown man's size meal and a bit more almost every day and was still growing. Sometimes Ben wondered

if Hoss was eating for himself and his little brother Joseph. Considering how much the youngest Cartwright brother

ate, he could very well believe it sometimes.

Ben looked towards Little Joe's closed bedroom door a number of times whilst sipping at his coffee. He tried to hide his glances but knew Adam was intently watching what he was doing. The look on Adam's face told Ben that his eldest son wanted the problems with Joe sorted out by his father.

"Hoss will you go and rouse your younger brother for school please" Ben said as he glanced yet again at the closed bedroom door. He could not hear any noises on the floor above signalling that Joseph had awoken on his own and taken the initiative to get dressed before anybody came looking for him.

"Sure Pa" Hoss said in a cheery voice. Hoss had forgotten about most of the trouble his brother had been in the night before. Hoss was one to easily forgive and forget and get on with life as though nothing had happened. He was ready to start the new day afresh with everybody being friendly towards each other again.

Hoss was surprised though when he did knock on Little Joe's room and opened the door to see his brother pulling on his socks and shoes. "Morning short shanks" he said happy that he didn't have to go through the almost daily routine of pulling the bedclothes back and yanking Joe to his feet.

"Morning Hoss" Joe said in reply but his voice was already full of annoyance and frustration at the day. It wasn't even 8.00am and already Little Joe was in a bad mood. The bad mood came from being away a great majority of the night trying not to think about the things that had been happening between him and Adam lately.

"Pa is waiting to talk to you downstairs and he ain't about to take any of your sass this morning Joseph" Hoss warned his brother before they exited the room and headed down the stairs towards the breakfast table. Joe just proceeded to poke his tongue out at Hoss as though telling him that he didn't need to be told what to do.

Hoss just sighed to himself and rubbed the bridge of his nose knowing how Adam lost his temper sometimes with this most of wilful of children. He just hoped that Joe knew better than to act badly in front of his father. Tired or not, Ben Cartwright never did put up with back chat or saucy words from any of his sons and they had all come to know it. Joe just like to push the limits as far as he could at his age. Hoss could never remember acting the way that Joe had been lately. Sure he had gotten into his own fair share of trouble when he was younger but never to the extent that his brother did. Joe just seemed to have a knack to attracting trouble.

Joe reached the bottom of the stairs and seemed to drag his feet as he walked to the table with his head hung low. He knew that his father was about to talk to him about his adventures yesterday and he wasn't very happy about getting a dressing down this early in the morning. He looked at his older brother Adam briefly and thought he saw a scowl about the dragging of the feet and the overdrawn out walk to the table.

"Morning Little Joe" Ben said in a greeting voice. He did want to have a talk with his youngest son about his latest behaviour, but he also wanted to start the day out on the right foot. He could see the unhappy expression on Joe's handsome boyish features and the efforts the boy used to avoid direct eye contact with everybody seated at the table.

"Mornin" came the barely audible mumble as Joe took his seat. He pulled the empty plate in front of him closer as though to put some food on it. He glanced briefly at Adam again and muttered the same mumble of "Good Morning" to his brother.

Adam responded in kind with a bare mumble of his own but his voice betrayed his annoyance slightly and his face still bore the scathing words that he was thinking about saying to Joe about his trip to the lake and his disrespectful tones when he returned home.

Ben waited a few minutes for Joe to have some breakfast before he asked him any questions. He knew that if an argument started from it then Joe would be too upset to eat anything and he would go to school skipping meals again.

Adam thought this ploy merely a delaying tactic on his father's part but didn't say anything out loud to anybody.

Joe had eaten half a dozen mouthfuls of food before setting his fork down on the half-empty plate and picking up his glass of milk to wash it down. It was now that Ben decided to start the conversation.

"Do you have anything to tell me Joseph?" Ben asked, wanting to know if Joe realised the effects of his own behaviour yesterday. Hopefully the boy would realise that he couldn't continue on in the same manner he had been. If he could see the wrongfulness of his behaviour then half of the result had already been achieved.

"About what Pa?" Joe said using his best angelic face. When all else failed, Joe always resorted to using his boyhood charms and puppy dog eyes on his father. They had worked for him many times in the past on both his father and brothers, especially Hoss. He could only hope that they would work for him again today.

Ben sighed aloud and told himself that Joe wasn't really playing mind games with him. Now he decided to use the direct approach to show his displeasure at Joe's vague answer.

"Tell me about what happened to you yesterday when you left the ranch when you weren't supposed to" Ben said in a sterner voice.

"Hoss told me I could" Joe said with all the innocence he could muster. He knew that he had gone about getting his brother's approval in a round about manner, but it had worked and that was all that mattered. All he had to do now was get Adam and his father to believe his story.

Hoss looked the most confused at the mention of his name. He could feel the questioning glances of his father and brother Adam on him as if to dare him to say that he had given the younger boy permission to leave the Ponderosa on his own. Hoss knew that Joe wasn't allowed to go off on his own without telling anybody. He was trying to think back to the various conversations he had with Joe yesterday and when he exactly came out with this agreement he knew nothing about.

Ben wasn't fooled though. One look at Hoss's face and Ben knew that Joe had taken advantage of Hoss's good nature and twisted it to his own gains. Adam just shook his head slightly and also knew that Hoss had been taken in by Joe's cunning and sly game.

"Just exactly what did your brother Hoss say to make you think you could go off without anybody?" Ben now asked of his youngest son, trying not to loose his temper at the child.

Joe however just put on the same angelic mask as he had done before. He too was determined not to loose his temper this morning. Loosing his temper would not only cause his father to get angrier at him, but to Joe would also make the story he was trying to weave fall apart and admit his knowledge and guilt in the whole affair. If he looked genuinely innocent enough and told his father just how he saw the words spoken to him, there was nothing to say that his father wouldn't believe him.

"I asked Hoss if I could go off and play after I finished school and he said that I could do whatever I wanted as long as I finished my chores" Joe said.

Ben smiled inwardly as he could plainly see that Joseph had intentionally left out certain bits of information to Hoss that would have shed more light on what the smaller boy exactly planned to do after school.

"That's not what I meant and you know it Joe" Hoss said a little annoyed at his brother.

"What did you exactly mean Hoss?" Adam asked with a voice that dripped of cynicism. Adam looked at Hoss with a face that shouted he was just itching to know what Hoss had meant when he said the words.

"I think we all know that Joe knew all to well that Hoss didn't mean for you to be wandering off on your own, don't we Joseph" Ben said and looked at his youngest son with scolding words in his tongue.

The look was enough though and Joe felt himself shrinking into the seat trying to avoid his father's intent gaze.

Ben now changed the tone of the conversation all together and now spoke in a very gentle voice. One that sounded like he was more worried that angry. "Joseph," he said and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder for emphasis "You brothers and I just want to make sure you are safe. That's why there are rules about where you can go and where you can't on your own. It's not that we want to keep you from playing or meeting your friends. There are many things that could happen to you when we don't know where you are. You might get into trouble and nobody will be there to help you because we don't know where you are. Do you understand son?"

The softer touch had done it's job as Ben watched tears trickle down the young boy's face in remorse. The idea that Joe worried his family was a better weapon than threatening the boy for lying and conniving against them.

"Yes Pa" Joe said as he tried to choke back his tears. He wiped them onto his sleeve and then shyly said he was going to be late for school.

"See you this afternoon Joseph" Ben said as he gave his son an awkward hug.

Hoss felt just as awkward as Joe after a while and excused himself saying that he would go with Joe to make sure he got to school okay.

Adam and Ben sat at the table for a while without saying anything. Both of them had different approaches as to how they handled the youngest member of the family, but Adam had to admit that his father often got the better results. His method might be more flawed or be gentler and softer in punishment, but they had the same impact almost as the boy getting a stern lecture or spanking.

"I have to be going too son" Ben now said to his eldest son. He apologized a few more times about being away from the ranch for such long periods of time and leaving Adam in charge again. He promised he would let Adam know how things were going later in the day.

Adam sat at the table sitting at his coffee and trying to figure out how to mend the relationship between him and Little Joe. He was planning to go away to college very soon and different want to leave the current tension between them all that time. He finally made himself get up and attend to the work that needed to be done outside. These thoughts were never far from his mind the entire day though and he went about the chores.