By Jules

Author Notes and Important Information -

This relates my stories and writing for the fandom Bonanza. When I write about the Cartwright family, I like to include the family element as much as possible, through the good and the bad. Through their achievements and triumphs. I have at least 100 stories planned and titled with plots so far and more grow by the day. Mostly long ones, but a couple of shorter pieces. I cannot write shorter stories now, and my chapters are getting longer.

The biggest arc that I will be introducing with my stories as I re-write older ones and introduce new ones, is that Adam Cartwright, never permanently left the Ponderosa. I have no problem with him going to college and coming back home at various times during those years and then leaving for some lengths of time, actually some of my plots count on that.

Even though I am huge Joe fan, I need all of the family as a whole for my plots and stories, and that includes Adam Cartwright. But the only brothers that I include are Joe, Hoss and Adam, with Ben being Patriarch of the family.

There are many many stories to come and already planned out – that cover quite a variety of story lines, including What Happened Next to certain episodes, or What Happened Instead. Some of the older episodes that I would like to write about, I will be changing Joe's age in those to suit my plot. For example Bushwacked, which is one that I always wanted to be a younger Joe. I will not be writing chronologically, or episode by episode. Some plots will be totally different from the episodes from the show altogether.

Some earlier and new stories will have Joe Cartwright start out younger, later stories will have him growing a little older. None of them should see him older than 20 or younger than 6 years old – at this stage anyway – that too could change over time. There are a quite a lot of already invented original characters that will be used – and a quite a few new ones to introduce to you.

But now I find myself wanting to improve a lot of my stories for a few reasons including errors, but as a whole with pacing and lack of detail. Some of these which have already been written, whilst finishing off ones that have been left incomplete for a long time due to personal reasons. I hope that my writing time has improved a little over the years, but my passion for the characters and show has never died.

I will building a few arcs, including Adam not leaving and the reasons why he stayed, which is not a new one, but one that I want to introduced into all my stories as the norm. How that comes about will be explored in one particular story, and mentioned in others before and afterwards. Using the characters we know and I like.

There are my usual exceptions to that about cast who I don't include that I will explain in each story. There will not be any references, story plots of characters and story-lines that occur with Jamie Hunter in any of my work. I don't mind Candy, but I haven't decided on how much he will be included or not yet in my stories.

One plot that I have planned will revolve about Clay Stafford from the episode First Born.

I want to try jumping in with both feet, describing the array of possibilities that will follow from everyone involved, canon and non-canon. What obstacles will stand in the way of this happening, both foreseen and unforeseen.

Extra important notes – with my version of abuse, it will never ever be about sexual content or under-age situations or homophobic content. Any violence will suit the plot of that particular story. Some racial tensions may be explored for that time period, but no offence is intended to any one specific group of people or religion. A lot of content is merely my own interpretation of what might happen.

There may be large and small clues or hints throughout. Some obvious, others less so noticeable, and some deliberately left for you to find out at another time, on another page of a different story.

There are a couple of other arcs that I also want to introduce, multiple and a couple of very large ones, and these will encompass several similar themes but also some very different plots, events and recurring characters. I will explore more about certain characters, more than others. What makes them who they are, their triumphs/downfalls/backgrounds/and original traits that I introduce as necessary.

Not all stories will focus on the new arcs either, with some of my stories already having their own individual plots. Those will mostly stay the same, but there may need to be tweaks in places, minor changes or additions to some time-lines and other situations within them as I need to. I will usually include this information in my Author Notes before and after the actual story or chapter so you won't have to bother about remembering.

My older stories, incomplete and complete will be edited and a lot more content added, including those caught up in this new venture of mine, except for a small number of short one-shot pieces. None of my stories have ever been abandoned and they will be finished – although it may look like that to readers given the amount of time that has lapsed between updates.

In the past I normally didn't have a chronological order for my stories and I will not be progressing according to episode by episode, and each story should still be able to be read on its own, but some of them do have events happening that affect earlier or later stories. I will advise where they slot into the time line.

The date for Marie Cartwright's death is totally made up except for the year.

I think at this point, I should give you the first few stories – four are new ones that have events that will effect later stories. The first one will have quite lot more content added as time permits.

Hide And Seek


Dead Man's Canyon

Imaginary Friend

Sled Ride

My biggest hope is that people enjoy my work and will continue to do so. Thank you all for reading my stories.

This story was written a long time ago (over 17 years ago), but I felt there were parts that needed more, and I wanted some more scenes in certain areas and include some of my new arcs.

For this plot, it is assumed that Adam Cartwright has returned to the Ponderosa during one of his breaks through his college years. And I want to include some good and caring scenes between Adam and Joe as well as some of the other times.

I have one or two stories to write before this one yet, where events have shaped Joe's personality and caused him to have mixed feelings and emotions for someone of his age in different situations. There are other times where his usual cheeky self shines through as he gets a little older. I just wanted to explain why he may appear a lot more apprehensive and reserved in some parts of this story than he did in the original version.

The first story 'Hide And Seek' will give a full account of why. 'Blessings' should be a relatively short one piece story.

Chapter One – Coming Home

Today was Saturday, but that wasn't the only reason that Joe Cartwright thought this day was going to be one the best ever. Sure there was no school today, or tomorrow and they were good reasons for being in good spirits too. This Saturday was going to be extra special.

Ben Cartwright chuckled to himself, watching his youngest son pulling on his boots, ready to leave a couple of hours before lunch time. He had no doubt that nothing would come close to dampening the boy's mood. Not unless the stage coach arriving in Virginia City was going to be late anyway.

"Come on, Pa, we don't want to be late," the energetic boy pleaded with his father, tugging at his jacket sleeve.

"Wait just a minute please, Joseph," Ben instructed his son, taking his son by the arm gently and making him stay seated on his bed.

"Hoss is already getting the wagon ready, Pa, we don't want to keep him waiting," Joe persisted, trying to evade his father's restraint.

Ben smiled at the exuberance, and was ready to be patient enough to indulge the youngster. Though the start to the day had been a whole lot earlier than he would have preferred. On any other day, this child in particular was difficult to rouse out of bed to get ready for school. Today, Joe had been up to greet Hop Sing as he went about making breakfast.

"What are we waiting for, Pa?" Joe asked, frowning as he saw his father start kneeling beside his bed.

The small boy watched as his father bent down and started tying the shoelaces on his boots. A task that he couldn't do all by himself yet. Normally he didn't take the time to worry about them so much. Hoss was always doing them up for him too because he had forgotten or they didn't stay tied. He had been practising, but he still couldn't always get the loops the right way around with his small fingers of his left-hand.

"We have plenty of time, son," Ben soothed as he finished and stood up again. "Quite a few hours in fact. I know you are excited, but we have to get to town first. And even then we may have to spend a bit of time finding something to keep you occupied with before the stage arrives."

Joe gulped a little and swallowed, looking up at his father. Pa always seemed to know what he was feeling or thinking without him admitting it out loud.

"I just don't want to miss it," Joe admitted in a small voice, the fear of doing so, clearly written across his face.

Ben put a gentle hand on his son's shoulder, and could see the mixed emotions rallying and quickly coming to the surface. "I promise we will be right there, Little Joe."

The man could see that his son was tired and could have used a little more sleep before they left the house. Bringing up the idea of a nap would not bode well.

"Let's go and check if Hop Sing needs anything in town from the general store, and go and meet your brother outside," Ben suggested, and smiling back as the brightness returned to the boy's face and warmed his heart.

Joe dashed out the door, racing down the staircase and not stopping until he made his way into the kitchen.

"Everything ready, Hoss?" Ben asked as he exited the front door of the house, and approached the waiting buck-board wagon that had been hitched by the ranch hands, with his help of his larger middle son.

"Yes, Sir," Hoss answered his father, the teenager patting the neck of one of the horses. "Charlie checked the harnesses and even showed me what to look for, Pa."

"That's great son, it won't be long before you will be able to do it just fine by yourself," Ben praised. For his age, Hoss was already larger than a lot of the other children his own age at school. Despite his larger frame, he had a gentleness in handling animals that was rarely seen from someone with such large hands and feet.

"Pa, this is a list that Hop Sing gave me," Joe yelled as he came running from the back door, and grasping a piece of paper in his hands. Ben retrieved the listed, perusing it and then folding it and tucking it inside the pocket of his shirt.

"Thank you, Joseph, we should be ready to depart in a few minutes. Go to your brother and let him help lift you into the buck-board and get settled."

"Are you ready to go, short shanks?" Hoss asked his brother as he easily caught his smaller sibling and hoisted him up into the wagon.

"I have been ready all day, Hoss," Joe declared, wriggling from his older brother's grip as soon as his feet could touch the wooden bottom of the wagon. He sat down, knowing his father would be making sure that he was seated properly before the journey could start.

Ben climbed up into the driver's seat and took a firm hold of the reins, looking back and making sure both of his younger boys were seated, he urged the horses into a slow, steady pace. And just like his two sons, his own excitement about what this day would bring was beginning to grow as well.

An hour later, and Ben guided the buck-board along side the general store. There was still time to fill in before the stage coach arrived, and this was the easiest place to start the few errands he intended to carry out.

"Joseph, I want you to stay with Hoss whilst we are in town please," Ben ordered. "I have one minor task to carry out, then we can see about having some lunch at the hotel."

"Yes, Pa," Joe promised, not waiting for his brother this time, and climbing down onto the step of the wagon and taking a last minute jump onto the wooden decking outside the row of buildings and shops.

Ben watched his son's two-footed leap, and gave a mild look of disapproval. Joe saw his father's expression, and took Hoss's hand, looking contrite.

"I will just drop off Hop Sing's list, Hoss, then we can make our way down the street," Ben said.

"We will wait right here, Pa," Hoss affirmed. No sooner had the words left his mouth, Joe had let go of his hand, and scooted inside the store after his father.

Ben turned to hear his son's footsteps behind him. He should have known that Joe would have wanted to follow him inside.

"Good morning, Ben, Little Joe," the store owner greeted them. "I am sorry that Mrs Perkins is not here herself today."

The small boy was looking around the store searching for the face of the lady store keeper that he was more accustom to seeing. He remembered her being at home helping her Pa last year and he had seen her on several occasions since when they came to town. He remembered her mostly because of her vibrant red hair.

"Good morning to you too, Thomas," Ben greeted the balding man. "Please use your best manners for Mr Perkins, Joseph."

"Hello," came the voice, of the small boy clinging to the leather belt around his father's pants, hiding behind him, and only peeking out very briefly with expressive green eyes and a head full of dark curly hair.

"Good Day to you too, Little Joe," the man said, seeing that the lad was a mite skiddish and shy.

"I have something for you, they taste real good this year" he said kindly, holding out a shiny red apple.

"Thank you," Joe said, sneaking out and taking the tempting piece of fruit, and taking a bite. It was good, and the smile on his face at the sweetness was the only thing in return the man was looking for.

"Here, take one out to your brother too," he offered, seeing Hoss standing just outside his large front window.

The boy held out his hand again, accepting the fruit, quickly exiting the store and handing the second apple to his brother without hesitation, "Hoss, I got this for you."

Ben Cartwright and Thomas Perkins shared a knowing smile with each other. The general store keeper knew that this precocious child was the apple of his father's eye.

Sometimes the boy would be a ball of energy, asking dozens of questions about everything he could see, touch or smell inside the store. Other times, like today, he was softly spoken and didn't ask a single thing. They both remembered how much of a scare he had given everyone less than a year ago.

"Make sure you add those apples to my monthly account please, Thomas," Ben said neighbourly, fully expecting to pay for any samples that were generously given to his boys.

"Pfttt, Ben Cartwright, if I did that for things like that, Martha wouldn't let me forget it for a week and she would take a horsewhip to me. You know how both of us feel about your family. You have always been a good customer to us. A few treats here and there for your boys, and seeing them happy and healthy makes up for what we missed out on in life," Mr Perkins returned with fortitude.

"Thank you again, Thomas, I will be in to collect the items from you in a day or two. There isn't any rush," Ben stated. "I better catch up with those two scamps of mine for lunch."

"Be seeing you again soon, Ben," Thomas Perkins bid farewell.

Ben Cartwright walked out into the bright sunshine, smiling at the two boys munching on their apples. "What do you boys say to getting something a little more substantial to eat over at the International Hotel for lunch?"

"That would be swell, Pa," Hoss answered quickly. Breakfast had been quite a number of hours ago, and he was feeling a might bit peckish.

"What about some lunch for you, young man?" Ben gauged from his youngest.

"The apple was real good, Pa. I don't feel very hungry after eating it," Joe replied.

"Well perhaps you might change your mind when you take a look at what they have on offer," Ben suggested. "Let's find a table. The hotel is not far from where we need to meet the stagecoach either."

With this statement, Joe was a little more receptive to going with his father and brother. He really didn't want any more food at the moment.

The three members of the Cartwright family made their way down the main street of Virginia City, there were a number of people in the street going about their daily lives. Quite a few stopped to talk to Ben along the way, and spoke to both boys, pleased to see the positive influence the single father had on them.

Once they had made it past the bank, they would need to cross the road to the other side, and the International Hotel. The building was much larger than the buildings on either side, and had an imposing mostly white exterior.

Hoss made sure that he kept a good hold on his younger brother's hand. There were a number of wagons being loaded with good on both sides of the street. There were horses being ridden along the main road and there were buggies and buck-boards just like the one they arrived in.

Ben had observed Hoss escorting Joe safely across and was pleased at how mature his middle son was demonstrating himself to be. Little Joe had startled twice by the snap of reins as a buggy pulled out all too quickly by the driver. He didn't perceive the real danger that could present itself in such a short space of time if someone was not paying attention on where they were walking. For the most part though, the little boy was wide-eyed and trying to take in everything all at once.

Reaching the double doorway of the hotel, Joe's apprehensiveness grew substantially, and he quickly changed allegiances, breaking free of Hoss's supportive hand and instead putting his small hand into the one offered by his father. Ben noted the mixed feelings of entering such a large space, but took up the initiative, wanting his son to be feel free enough to walk into any establishment of the town without fear or reservation.

"Good Morning, Henry," Ben greeted the clerk behind the reception desk. He looked briefly at this pocket watch and edited his words, "I should say, Good Afternoon. It has just passed twelve noon. Time for lunch."

"Good Afternoon to you and your family, Mr Cartwright. It is always a pleasure to see you in our humble establishment," the man gushed. "You and your charming family are planning to dine for lunch?"

"Afternoon, Sir," Hoss said to the man, removing his hat. His brother wasn't wearing a hat for the moment.

"Hello," came the same small greeting from Joe to the unfamiliar man.

"Yes, please. Hoss here is looking for something good off your lunch-time menu, and perhaps we may be able to find something for his brother," Ben replied, trying to pry his shy son from around his leg.

"Follow me please, Mr Cartwright, and children, and I will get you seated right away," Henry promised. "I hope this table will be to your liking, Sir. There are menus there for you to tempt your taste buds, and I am sure the Chef in the kitchen would be pleased to make anything you may wish to order." With that said, the clerk excused himself and left the family in the hands of the waiter staff.

"What would you boys like to drink with your lunch?" Ben asked as the boys took up seats on either side of him at the round table. They were seated in one corner of the room, and there were only two other gentlemen talking quietly at another smaller table on the opposite side of the dining room.

"I nice tall glass of milk please, Pa," Hoss said, he knew that the kitchen made the milk cold. "What do you want, Little Joe?"

Ben turned his attention to his youngest son, and waited for him to answer his brother's question. "Maybe some juice. No milk please, Pa."

"Good Afternoon, Mr Cartwright," came the voice from the waiter. "My name is Peter, and I will be serving you today. Please let me know what you would like to order for lunch."

"Thank you, Peter, my sons are requesting a glass of juice, and a tall glass of milk. I myself would like a small glass of your finest whiskey, please," Ben requested. "I will let the boys take a look at the menu and then place our order for the food."

Ben looked over at Hoss, and saw a strange look on his middle son's face. Not apprehension or fear, but definitely wariness. "Are you alright, son?"

"Yeah, I reckon I am, Pa. Just feels funny being in a fancy place like this in the middle of the day, ordering from one of these here fancy menus on paper," Hoss admitted. "Hop Sing may not be too happy with us to hear we visited here."

"I am sure Hop Sing will not begrudge your food being served a little differently for this once, Hoss," Ben said with a slight chuckle. "He does serve our food on the table at home after all."

"Yes Sir, he does at that. Still feels odd is all," Hoss replied.

"Have you decided what you would like to eat?" Ben enquired, watching as Hoss put the menu aside, still feeling guilty at betraying their little cantonese house-keeper.

"Some steak and potatoes, please Pa," Hoss declared. He wanted food, but he didn't want it any different to what he got at home.

"I may just join you with that order, Hoss," Ben agreed, not wanting to order anything fancy either. "And what about you, Joseph?"

Joe was sitting against the back of the seat, his feet only reaching just over the edge of the ornate chair. He had seen his brother put the menu aside, and decided that he was following suit and not looking either.

For a moment Joe wanted to repeat that he wasn't hungry, but looking at his father, didn't want to upset his good mood. "A beef sandwich, please Pa," came the small voice.

Ben was about to address his son's selection, but since the child was at least attempting to try and eat, he nodded his head at the choice.

"Excuse me, Peter, we are ready to order now, please," Ben said, calling over the waiter. "Two steak and potato meals, and a beef sandwich."

"I will have chef prepare those for you now, Sir," Peter replied with a polite bow of respect. Hoss and Joe snickered into their hands at the man's formal manners.

The food and drinks took a few minutes to come. Hoss and Ben had started talking about a few different topics to fill in the time. Ben watched his youngest son, his attention continually drawn away from their current location, knowing that there was only one place Joe wanted to be right now. Waiting for the stagecoach.

When the food did come, Ben and Hoss went about eating their lunch.

Joe quickly drank the apple juice that was provided, smacking his lips at the taste. The plate containing the sandwich had been placed in front of him. He was on the last bite of the first half when he gulped and swallowed as he looked at the figure standing behind his father.

"Good Afternoon, Cartwright family," came the pleasant familiar voice.

Ben saw the slight scowl on the face of his youngest, and turned to see who was responsible. "Paul, nice to see you this day." Now he knew why Joe had shrunk away from the table.

"Hello, Doctor Martin," Hoss greeted the physician, almost finished his meal.

"Take a seat, Paul, please," Ben gestured at the vacant chair at their table.

"Enjoying your lunch?" the doctor asked the larger boy, shaking his head negatively at Ben's request to join them. "I haven't had time today. I need to leave soon to go and visit a patient out of town."

"It was real good, Doc," Hoss stated, setting his cutlery on top of the empty plate.

"And how are you, young man?" Paul asked, turning to the youngest Cartwright. He knew that the youngster didn't always appreciate his presence. In town or out at the Ponderosa. He used a well trained eye to look over the boy from a distance. Something he was used to doing, and knew that Ben appreciated without saying so out loud.

"Fine, thank you," Joe said, knowing his father would want him to answer the man politely.

"Its good to see you eating too, Joe," the doctor praised. "I hope you are going to finish the other half of your sandwich? You know you can come and visit me any time at my office. Even if it is just to say hello," he added, trying to bolster the boy's confidence.

Joe nodded his head at the doctor's invitation, but not giving a verbal response.

"I am sorry I cannot stop longer, Ben, but I had better head out to the Peterson's place," Paul said, shaking the hand of his long-time friend. The two men shared a look, knowing that there would be other times for them to talk further.

"We have to be going ourselves, now that we are finished lunch," Ben said in farewell. "You will have to come out to the house one night very soon and stay for supper."

"That would be wonderful, Ben. So long as my visit doesn't require me in a professional capacity," Paul joked, knowing that he was a regular visitor to the ranch, but rarely as a social guest.

"Let me pay for our meal, boys. You two can wait just inside the main front door, and when I am finished, we will continue down to meet the stagecoach," Ben instructed. "Not too long to go now."

Joe got up excitedly from the table and made a dash for the door, with Hoss quickly following and trying to catch his shirt tails. Ben got up from the table, and saw that his boy had only finished half of his lunch. It was better than nothing he surmised, hoping that Hop Sing's cooking tonight would tempt his son to eat a little more.

As the three members of the Cartwright family made their way towards the Mercantile building, the number of people walking in the opposite direction to them increased. The excitement from Joe had briefly evaporated as the small boy clung to his father's arm and hand tightly. Ben was almost ready to pick up his smaller son, to help him escape the growing crowd.

Then without warning, Joe's small hand slipped from his grip, and father and son became separated.

"Joseph," Ben called out, trying to see the curly head amidst the other people. "Hoss do you see him?"

Hoss could hear his father calling his brother's name and his own worry multiplied. He had heard his brother's voice once, but couldn't find where he was.

"Ben and Hoss Cartwright, everything is fine. Joe is here with me," came a second familiar voice a short distance away.

Moving closer to the buildings, Ben sighed in relief, as he spotted the very person he was looking for. Holding hands safely with the local Sheriff, Roy Coffee.

The patriarch of the family was pleased to see that his efforts over the past year to get Joseph used to feeling comfortable around the middle-aged lawman, and to understand what his official job entailed, were not in vain.

"Thank you, Roy," Ben said in gratitude, as he looked down at Joe's teary face. He wasn't openly crying, but the boy was holding back a few tears of fright from the minor separation.

He knew that his youngest son had bouts of shyness when it came to being around lots of people and unfamiliar faces. Something he had spoken with concern about with Paul on a few occasions. The physician had assured Ben that Joe's reaction was perfectly normal for the lad after what had happened to him. Patience and time was the best prescription the doctor could write for the youngest Cartwright member, added with a dash of reassurance, a helping of attention and lots of love.

Six months ago could have turned out so very differently for the whole family, and Paul shuddered at the very thought of what could have happened to the family. He had been privileged in taking care of, in body and spirit of all the Cartwright's. After the death of his third wife, Ben had become a virtual shell of a man. It had taken the keen observation and a long supportive talk from an outside friend to convince the proud man that life was indeed worth living again, and that he needed to do his best to go on for the sake of all three of his boys.

Joe was now in his second year of schooling, and the regular teacher Miss Abigail Jones had been pulled aside by Adam and Ben as a precaution. They advised her of some of the apprehensiveness that the younger Cartwright family member may display at being away from home and his family during a school day due to several complex reasons.

The woman had assured the family, that whilst she would not be allowing any special privileges in the class-room, she would maintain a watchful eye over him and report any distress that she may notice. She also thought that more socialisation with children his own age over time would help him overcome his shyness and make friends.

"Are you alright, Joe," Hoss exclaimed as he clapped eyes on his younger sibling, and his own fear dissipated.

Joe willing let go of the lawman's hand and quickly sought security with his larger brother.

"No harm done, Ben, he just got a tad turned around for a moment. You and your boys here to wait for the stage?" the Sheriff enquired.

"We are waiting for the coach to come with all the horses, Sheriff," Joe announced with a short bout of renewed energy.

"You might have a bit longer of a wait, Ben," the Sheriff warned, "I just got word from down the telegraph line, that the stage was delayed for a bit."

"But it has to come today," Joe pleaded with the lawman. Pa had told him that he could always trust this man if there was ever trouble and his family were not around to help him. The man wasn't allowed to tell a lie was he?

"It will, Joe," Coffee promised, seeing the slight distress his piece of news had caused. "Shouldn't be too long. I will wait right here with you."

"Only by an hour or so, Ben," the Sheriff conveyed, happy to see the boy relax a little at his guarantee.

Ben Cartwright was one of his oldest friends in the town, and had even helped get him elected into his current job as Sheriff of Virginia City. There had always been loyalty shown that he didn't always feel like he deserved. Similarly to Doctor Paul Martin, Roy knew there were incidents and tragedy in the lives of the Cartwright family over the last couple of years.

Ben was a staunch believer in law and order, and was often called upon in town to settle disputes over land claims and mining rights. The people of Virginia City judged him to be a fair and honest person, and thus giving him a good reputation covering a large area of the district. He had willingly given up his time freely to accompany Roy on quite a few posse's over the years before they had provided him with a deputy.

Ben gave respect, but also demanded it, not only from his workers and competitors, but from his three son's too, no matter how old they were. Rigid discipline and routine were used to teach his sons the important lessons in life, the good and the bad.

The death of Ben's young wife, Marie, had a detrimental affect on the whole family, but Ben had used his boys to see him through those dark days. The sheriff knew that it wasn't easy raising three sons on his own. Joe thrived on the security of his family and didn't want to go far away from them. The boy wasn't always so shy back at home, rather the cheeky son and brother that brought them all closer together as a family.

Roy was also aware of other current happenings that caused Joe anxiousness, and there were times in the recent past that had scared the boy so much. There was no doubt that he was bound to be a little more clingy and reliant on his family. The Sheriff knew with as much time and patience as Ben gave, that the boys would continue to grow into fine young men. Ben had fears of his own that made him stick closer to Joe these days, and always wanting to know where he was, hence his sudden unfounded alarm a short time ago.

"Here, Joe, lets sit up on top of these here boxes, they will be a good look out point to see the stagecoach coming down the street," Hoss suggested, knowing that an hour to Joe was a long time to wait and boredom would soon set in.

Joe climbed up onto two large wooden tea chests, and sat down, waiting for his brother to join him. The crates were waiting outside the Mercantile along with a number of other trunks and boxes. Probably all due to be loaded onto the stagecoach again before it headed out again to the next destination.

Hoss sat down on a wooden crate next to his brother, and the two siblings spoke quietly to each other, under the watchful eye of their father and the Sheriff.

"Has your brother been teaching you to play checkers like we discussed, Joe?" the Sheriff asked.

"Only sometimes, I still get it wrong a lot," Joe admitted, happy enough to admit his losses.

"Joe has been trying real hard too, Sheriff," Hoss praised his brother, earning him a smile from his sibling.

"That is great to hear, Hoss. Next time your Pa has you two boys in town on a Sunday after church, Joe, you are welcome to come and join me over at the jail-house. I will help you learn a little more," Coffee offered.

But a firm negative shake of Joe's head in answer told him that the boy wasn't ready to go anywhere near his office just yet. Joe was old enough to know that Roy's job in town was to lock up the bad people. The jail-house was where they lived sometimes.

"Don't worry, Joe, I can come out and visit your Pa at home instead, and we can still play a few games together." That answer rewarded him with a smile too.

"I hope there is never a time that I find either of you two boys over at the jail-house, unless visiting Sheriff Coffee, is that understood?" Ben warned with a slight sternness to the tone of his voice.

Both Hoss and Joe appeased their father by telling him that they had no intentions of ever doing something wrong enough that would need them to be locked behind the cell bars. They got themselves into trouble sometimes with Pa about their chores or running inside the house, but never that bad.

The boys turned their attentions back to talking about what was going on at school, especially with the holidays only a week away. Both of them were trying to agree on what they could do during the day after breakfast and their morning chores were done.

This allowed Ben and Roy to converse quietly with each other and fill in the time.

"Has it been very quiet around town lately, Roy?" Ben asked out of curiosity and to make small talk.

"Not nearly a peep of trouble for weeks now, Ben, just the way I like it. The mining camps have been busy keeping everyone employed, so there have not been as many men in town at the saloons drinking or gambling. I have had it nice and easy lately, and hope it continues," Roy answered.

"Yes, it has been fairly busy up at the timber camps too. The men are leaving the logging camps of my timber plantations for the mines who are paying higher wages. I need to hire a few more men myself, but there hasn't been many looking for jobs recently," Ben informed the Sheriff.

"You know why I come down here for each stage each time it arrives. Just to keep an eye on the people coming and going from Virginia City."

"And we should be grateful that you do, Roy, because one day we might need to know," Ben commented casually.

Over an hour later, any further conversation between the town Sheriff and Ben Cartwright was interrupted by the triumphant declaration from Hoss, "Here it comes, Joe!"

The smaller boy stood up on the box he had been seated on, trying to get a better look as the cloud of dust in the street got closer. "It really is coming, Pa!" he cried out excitedly over the top of his brother. He tried jumping up and down on top of the box, but he was just too short.

Hoss grabbed a hold of both his brother's legs when he saw him jumping, to prevent him from falling off.

"Here, Joe, climb down here and stand still, it is pulling up now," Hoss said with glee, waiting for his brother to come down again onto the wooden decking.

By the time the boy gained his own balance and let go of his brother's beefy arm, the group of people surrounding the area was increasing again, as people started gathering. They were all there like the Cartwright trio, to meet and pick up passengers and any packages and mail that they had been waiting for.

Roy Coffee was about to grab a hold of Little Joe as the boy became disorientated by a few taller people standing in front and either side of him. The lawman was afraid that Joe might be pushed and shoved closer to the street by people too concerned about their own affairs to take notice of anyone much smaller than themselves.

The Sheriff's efforts were for nought though as Joe only had eyes for one place, seeking sanctuary behind his father and holding on tightly to his belt as he had done earlier. He was now able to hear the stage driver shouting loudly at the team of horses. He turned away from the choking dust that blew into his face as the animals came to a complete stop, hiding his dry itchy cough into his father's shirt. He felt his father's arm settle across his shoulders.

Both the lawman and his father were using the neckerchief's tied around their throats to cover their mouth and noses to wipe the dust away. Hoss had taken his hat off and used it as a shield against the dry shower of dirt that was affecting everybody standing within the vicinity of the Mercantile.

The driver pulled on the brake, still holding onto the reins of the team of horses. The animals were snorting loudly from their exertion, their bodies lathered in sweat and dust and attracting flies. The man who had been riding shotgun on top of the stage-coach next to the driver, jumped down in one swift motion, stretching his back.

"Virginia City, folks," the man announced as he saw one of the passengers pulling aside the curtain of the small window. "All your luggage will be unloaded in just a few minutes," he added, opening the door of the coach and holding it open.

The crowd took a step backwards and waited for the first passenger to disembark; a young woman, who was helped out by the man beside the door.

"I hope you enjoyed your trip, ma'am," he said, knowing that the journey had been long, dusty and not without its problems.

"Thank you," the young woman said in response, before she spotted some of her family, and smiled at them, grateful to be home, and that the bumping along dreadful washed out dirt roads had finally stopped.

Hoss looked a little disappointed that he didn't see the face yet they were all eager to see. And his expression didn't improve when the next passenger to get out was that of a rotund, but tall middle-aged man, with a stern frown on his face.

The man stepped out, looking at the man beside the door, and sneered that he had been subjected to the horrendous ordeal of riding in such an awful mode of transport, to somewhere he would rather not be. The man surveyed the crowd briefly before turning back to the driver and demanding that his single piece of luggage be handed down at once from the top of the stage-coach.

As he waited for the bag, he could be seen to strike up a brief conversation and offer a handshake to the sole passenger still seated in the coach, "Thank you, young man for making this journey somewhat less loathsome. It is rare to meet a person such as yourself who has a grasp of the kind of education that young people should be following, but rarely do."

"The pleasure has been all mine," came the deeper voice from inside the coach. "I will be still in Virginia City for almost a month, I hope we cross paths again and get to talk more."

"I highly doubt it," the man snorted with derision, "I plan to be out of this town by the stage-coach that leaves late Friday afternoon and not a minute longer."

The travelling carpet bag that belonged to him was handed to him, and he snatched it up without a further word of appreciation, intent on finding his temporary lodgings at the International Hotel as soon as possible.

Ben and Roy both raised an eyebrow at each other over the gentleman who seemed less than pleased to arrive in the town.

As the last passenger started to step off the coach, the young man dressed in black was grabbed tightly around the waist by a very happy Hoss Cartwright, "Adam!"

Adam Cartwright met the bear hug of his sibling with relish, surprised though at how much height he had gained in the months since his last visit. "Great to see you too, Hoss, returning the embrace, stepping off, but still clasping his brother. "You have grown so much since the last time I was home."

Hoss stepped back, a little ashamed that he had shown such a display of affection for his older brother. Adam was adjusting the black hat on his head, but smiling broadly.

"It is great to be home," Adam declared. He looked over and saw Roy keeping a quiet vigil, stepping forward and greeting the man cordially, "Nice to see you, Sheriff Coffee."

"Very good to see you too, Adam, your family will be surely glad to see you after all these months," Roy returned. "A long trip I suspect?"

"You have no idea," Adam said ruefully, rubbing at his lower back with one hand, trying to reach the knot that had settled there from sitting too long in the same position.

Adam turned his attention away from the Sheriff, looking for the rest of his family. He saw the face of his father, and grinned, ready to shake the man's hand.

Ben didn't step forward though, his arm still around the small trembling shoulders standing behind him.

Adam had started looking for his other sibling almost as soon as he let go of Hoss. Now that the people had started to disperse a little more, he could see the reason why his father had yet to meet him with a handshake and the warm welcome he had been expecting. Their reunion could wait a little longer.

Adam and Ben shared a knowing look, with Ben nodding his head at his eldest son, and trying to encourage the smaller figure to come out. The excitement was still there, he could sense it, but he could also feel the child holding on and only peeking out as he heard the familiar voice.

Adam crouched down on his haunches, one knee resting on the wooden decking, pushing his hat back further on his head, and watching as his father coaxed the boy out from the shadows.

"I sure am missing someone around here, Pa and Hoss," he said in a quiet voice. "Do you know who it could be?"

"Joe?" came the hopeful, whispered single word response.

Without any further incentive needed, the small figure took a tentative step sideways and then flung his smaller framed body out from behind his father, only to be willingly caught in Adam's strong arms. The older son closing his eyes, drawing in a deep breath and making a memory of this very moment. Six months was a long time to be away and from being able to be a part of the daily lives of his younger brothers.

It brought a tear to Ben's eyes to see such jubilation from all his sons at seeing each other again. He was a very lucky man and he could not hold back the swell of enormous pride in his heart.

Adam stood up, still holding onto Joe, snuggling him against his shoulder, but it was soon clear that any bravery the younger boy had been holding onto all day about his brother's return dissolved in an instant. The nineteen year old started rubbing his hand gently up and down Joe's back, as the boy let go the tide of unspent emotions he could no longer contain, burying his face deeply into the side of his brother's neck. Adam could feel the fresh dampness of his shirt collar.

Ben was ready to step forward and take his upset son from his older brother, but Adam shook his head, "Its fine, Pa, we are just fine, aren't we Joe?"

Hoss, Ben and Sheriff Coffee saw the small nod of Joe's curly head, still hiding his tear stained face, and wrapping both arms securely around his brother. Adam continued to rub his back until he was certain that the crying had slowed. A few hiccups managed to escape, before he whispered something softly into the boy's ear, that only the two of them shared.

Joe nodded silently again, laying his head down on his brother's shoulder, so happy to have him home.

Adam's two pieces of luggage were unloaded from the stage-coach, with Hoss quickly grabbing one, intending to carry it back to their wagon.

When Adam was certain that Joe was a little more composed, he set his young brother back down on his feet, waiting to make sure that he had made the right decision. Joe held onto his hand briefly before letting go, but stayed close by his side, determined that he was not going to be carried back to the buck-board like a baby.

Adam handed a dark brown coloured coat to his younger brother, and Joe did not disappoint, latching onto his brother's soft sheepskin lined jacket with both arms and holding onto it tightly. He had promised his brother to keep it safe until they reached home, and that was what he intended to do.

Ben was now able to step up to his eldest son, shaking his hand firmly and drawing his eldest son a welcoming embrace. "Welcome home son, you sure are missed around here when you are gone," he declared with unabashed love and conviction.

"Thanks, Pa, I have been looking forward to it for weeks," Adam replied.

After attending college for the past two years, Adam thought he could admit to himself and his family about not needing the same level of affection that his father was not ashamed to show any of his sons. But sometimes being away from home too long changed a person's perception and made a man thankful for having a family that cared. Today he felt very grateful for the love he was being showered with.

"I hate to interrupt your homecoming, Adam, but did you happen to catch the name of the fella who got off before you?" Sheriff Coffee asked politely.

"He introduced himself as Thaddeus Watson, Sheriff, and told me that he is coming out here as the substitute teacher for a few days. Miss Jones has to travel back East before the end of the school term begins this week," Adam answered.

"From what little he shared along our journey, the Board of Education sent him out here, though I am not entirely sure why. I learnt, or rather it was pointed out quite forcefully, that he is more suited to teaching older students before they start heading off to college. You saw for yourself what a charming personality he has," Adam explained with a touch of sarcasm.

Hoss and Joe had both heard the mention of their teacher's name, Miss Jones, but there was a rule about listening in on other people's conversations. And Pa insisted that it was never polite to interrupt. Both younger boys didn't heed what their brother was telling the Sheriff about one of the passengers on the stage-coach.

"Thanks for the information, Adam. We can catch up on your travels again before you go back East. I am sure that the situation to allow us to do so will present itself," Roy said, intending to complete his casual rounds of the town streets before returning to his jail-house.

"Take care, Sheriff Coffee," Adam replied, picking up the second piece of his luggage.

"Good-bye, Ben, Hoss and Little Joe," the Sheriff farewelled. "I will be seeing you all again soon too."

Ben and the younger two boys said their good-byes and watched the Sheriff cross the street head away from the Mercantile building.

"Come on boys, let's go home. Hop Sing is bound to have a special welcome home dinner on the table for Adam tonight," Ben said, his mood delightful as he walked down the street with all of his family.

During the short walk back to the buck-board, Hoss and Joe stayed on either side of their older brother, with their father following behind. On one occasion, he had asked Joe if he wanted to relinquish Adam's coat. But his small son had shaken his head emphatically with a negative response, gripping the sheep-skin coat tighter.

Adam commented to Hoss about how tall he was getting, noting how his brother stood close to shoulder height, and still only thirteen years old.

"Pa had to buy me new clothes to fit twice this season," Hoss told Adam. "Soon I will be just as tall as you and him," he added proudly.

By now they had reached the buck-board and Hoss was loading in the luggage and getting ready to climb inside the wagon.

"What about me. I am growing too," Joe said with small scowl on his face, still holding onto the coat. He didn't feel any bigger at all compared to his family.

Adam surrendered his second piece of luggage to Hoss, and then proceeded to lift his brother and coat up together, "Your time to grow bigger will come, Joe. Don't rush it too much, I love you just the way you are," he placated, scarcely able to believe how much his younger sibling had changed already.

With the finer bone structure and features of the petite Marie, it was difficult to know how tall Joe would eventually be. Adam doubted he would ever compete with Hoss for size or height. As long as he was happy and healthy, that was all that mattered to all of them.

Joe let the subject drop, focusing on getting settled in the wagon before his father started their journey home. He sat directly behind his father, closest to the front, with Adam in the middle, and Hoss seated on the tail-end. As he horses were guided into a slow walk, Adam put an arm around each brother and pondered what the next few weeks at home would bring.

Half-way through the journey home, Adam noted how quiet Joe was being. He was still holding onto the coat, but his face was displaying his level of tiredness. The softness of the sheep-skin lining almost becoming the perfect pillow as his eyelids grew heavy. Stubbornness prevailed though, and the small boy refused to give in or allow himself to fall asleep.

When the breeze buffeted around the wagon, Adam could feel his brother use the coat and his own body to shield himself from the temperature change. It was after 4.00 p.m. in the afternoon before the wagon was driven safely into the yard.

A number of the ranch hands, including Charlie, the head yard foreman were gathered around the corral and barn, and waved to the family, and in particular Adam. But they decided to wait until the family had spent time together before intruding further.

With renewed energy, Joe waited until his brother had lifted him down, he handed the coat to his brother, completing his end of the agreement to carry it home safely. Without waiting further, he began running towards the back door of the expansive house, alerting the cook of their return from town.

"Hop Sing! Hop Sing!" the youngster called out as he entered the kitchen. They could hear an answer from the little Cantonese man to the boy, but were too far away to hear the complete exchange of words.

Ben and the two older boys laughed together as they watched on with enjoyment and relief. For Hoss and Ben it was the most energetic they had seen Joe since earlier that morning, perhaps longer than that. Any sign of tiredness had quickly been extinguished.

"A minute ago he was almost falling asleep beside me," Adam remarked as he lifted the one of the bags from the wagon.

Hoss had taken charge of the other bag again and started carrying it into the house.

"We can see to the horses and wagon for you, Ben," the foreman offered for his boss. "You take your family inside. Welcome home, Adam," he added, taking the reins and leading the horses towards the barn.

"Thanks, Charlie, I will talk some more with you tomorrow," he said in return.

"Let's go in and get settled around the fireplace, and we can share a cup of coffee, son," Ben suggested. "Supper will be a little while yet I suspect."

Ben and Adam entered through the front door of the Ponderosa homestead, removing their hats and placing them on the designated pegs. Adam had not been wearing a gun-belt on the stage. Ben removed his own holster and weapon and placed it on the credenza.

"Number one son come home," Hop Sing greeted them eagerly, using both of his hands to shake Adam's. "Bring coffee, please sit," he directed towards the chairs of the living room.

"That would be appreciated, Hop Sing," Adam replied, gazing around the room, and quietly observing.

"Not much has changed around here since you left, son," Ben commented, watching his eldest son and predicting the thoughts going on inside his head.

Before Adam could say anything further, a set of loud footsteps could be heard.

"I can take that one up for you too, Adam," Hoss said as he came down the staircase. He had already put the first bag in his brother's room.

"Thank you, Hoss, and I am sure you can manage, that one is not too heavy," Adam said in appreciation.

"Hoss, once you have finished putting Adam's bags in his room, collect your brother from the kitchen and both of you can use the bath house before supper time," Ben instructed.

Little Joe came dashing out of the kitchen, "Roast chicken, Pa! Hop Sing is making my favourite dinner. But I thought it was supposed to be special for Adam."

"Roast chicken is one of my favourite dinner's too, Joe," Adam replied honestly.

Ben was pleased that Joe was excited enough to be talking about what the family would be enjoying for supper, hoping the child would eat a little more this evening.

"Is it truly?" Joe asked. He knew that Hoss liked pork chops and mashed potatoes more. Pa liked steak and ham. He couldn't quite remember what Adam's favourite supper was. He was sure that Hoss and his father would both like most of what was on the table too, even if it wasn't their favourites tonight.

"Yes, so the faster you go and get some clean clothes and go with Hoss for your bath, the quicker the time will go for Hop Sing to finish making it, and we can all sit down at the table and enjoy supper together," Adam negotiated.

Joe paused for a minute at what he was being asked to do. He thought it was a little too early to be taking his bath yet, and Adam just got home. He wanted to spend time with him and Pa talking some more.

"Do I really have to go now, Pa?" Joe enquired.

"Yes you do young man, no arguments. There are plenty more days to come to spend talking to your brother yet. Adam will still be here when you come out," Ben answered.

Joe was looking over at his older brother and chewing his lip as he frowned slightly. Ben could see that the boy was trying to decide if what he was being told was true.

"I promise I will be right here when you come back," Adam told him, seeing the beginnings of anxiousness and knew that his long bouts of absence was something that Joe had struggled to come to terms with.

Finally Joe seemed happy enough to do as he was being asked, not wanting to be in trouble on the first day when Adam was coming home. Otherwise he might be sent to his room in trouble before supper and he could miss out on time with his brother.

"Hoss, Pa and Adam said we have to take our bath now before supper," Joe announced as he headed up the stairs to his own room.

Sure enough the two younger boys gathered what they needed and were talking to each other as they made their way towards the bath house. Ben was confident that Hoss would watch out for his younger sibling and Hop Sing would see to the hot water, towels and soap they needed.

"Mista Cartwright, coffee now for you and number one son," Hop Sing said as he carried out a tray carrying a coffee pot and two cups. He set them down on a small table in the living room. "Come sit, while still hot," he invited both of them.

"Thank you, Hop Sing," Ben said with gratitude, taking up residence in his blue arm-chair. Adam sat in the one on the opposite side of the table.

"Hop Sing go check on boys in bath-house, then bring supper to table," the cook stated.

"Looks like we can have a few moments of peace to talk, son," Ben said with a smile, as he raised the cup to his lips.

"Everything seems to be mostly the same, and running smoothly enough around here," Adam lead off the conversation. "The letters that I have been receiving from you each month, have been a wonderful source of news about what is going on here at the ranch and around Virginia City."

"Good to know that you are at least getting them. I wasn't so sure for a while, when you took a little longer to reply to a few of them," Ben remarked. "The ones your brothers have been writing to you have been a great help to them too, when they have started missing you too much."

"Hoss certainly has grown hasn't he," he commented with a short laugh. "Are you sure there will be enough to feed him tonight?"

"It is not Hoss that we need to be concerned with about eating tonight," Ben answered with a touch of concern creeping into his voice.

Both men knew that the topic of conversation had changed to be about the youngest Cartwright.

"Still having problems?" Adam asked, knowing that he had not been able to help much. He had lain awake restlessly on quite a few nights himself over the past few months, wondering how Joe was coping with everything that had happened. His father's letters had been informative, but words on a sheet of paper didn't show the rainbow of emotions that they were all experiencing.

"Some days are better than others," Ben remarked. "On good days you would hardly notice anything was different now. At other times, we have to go hour by hour, at a pace he is comfortable with. I have spoken to Paul, and he comes and assesses your brother and gives his best opinions on what steps to take next."

"You saw it yourself today, at the stage coach and then outside just now, one minute he is hiding in the shadows. The next he can barely be contained and is running to get everywhere," Ben continued.

"Does he still display anxiety around strangers and other people?" Adam questioned. That particular issue had been a problem before he left six months ago, and it was something he thought about often during his study.

"Attending school has helped enormously for him to become socialised with other children his own age, and to be away from the house during the day. But yes, he is still afraid to be apart from myself or Hoss for too long and becomes easily distressed. He missed you terribly of course. Most of the time he understands why you are away for such long periods of time. Other times when I go up to his room at night to tuck him in, he has cried himself to sleep because it all becomes too much and he remembers," Ben explained with a little sadness.

"Martha Perkins and her husband Thomas have continued to be a great source of help in that regard. And Sheriff Roy Coffee has become part of the inner circle of people he knows he can trust. Charlie, our head foreman and the ranch hands. The school mistress Miss Jones as well, but not too many other people yet. He is still very sensitive about hearing anything to do with his mother, even hearing anyone mentioning her name," Ben continued.

"He just shies away too much lately; thunder storms, being in his room in the dark at night and heights are just a few things on the list. I can not bring myself to forgive those men for coming here that dreadful night yet, and for what they did to him and how badly they frightened him, Adam."

"We all almost lost him, in more ways than one, and I don't think I have fully accepted or recovered from that myself. It was too close after losing Marie," Ben admitted, draining the cup and looking for something a little stronger to drink. Instead he poured a second cup. He would wait until after supper to enjoy a whiskey at a more suitable hour.

"Before they came here, Joseph was a happy, normal boy who dreamed about ponies, and missed his mother. They took away some of that childhood innocence and trust of the good things and were instilled into him by a loving family. Replacing them with the horrible reality that there are bad things and people in this world."

"Nightmares?" Adam asked simply, having witnessed quite a few distressing nights himself.

"Yes, on occasion," Ben nodded. "Perhaps not as frequently as before thankfully. The letter writing has helped too as I mentioned. Writing a short one every few weeks, so that he can tell you what has been happening around here at the ranch. Just like he would be able to do if you were here in person for him to talk to. Sometimes it is not a letter at all, and just a picture he drew, trying to express his feelings in a different way."

"For the first two months after you went back to college, he was still regaining his strength back day by day. Encouraging him to eat was a bigger battle than it has ever been," Ben went in to detail. "You got to witness for yourself that week before leaving, after being in town, just how much his energy levels were depleted."

"I remember that day," Adam said with a small smile on his face. "Reminds us all how much we should be grateful that he was slowly starting to show signs of getting better."

Ben nodded his head at the memory, 'very grateful' indeed he agreed with his eldest son.

"I am sorry I had to leave again so soon after that again. It would not have helped," Adam apologized.

"Paul said there were tonics and elixir's from the city that could be used on him, but there was no guarantee that they would help. In some cases, they cause side-effects and might do more harm than good with a boy Joe's age. They could rob him of his appetite altogether rather than improve it."

"For now, an easier method has been to let Joe tell us what foods he likes to eat, and make sure that there is plenty in supply. Even if his meal times are a little unorthodox. He is more likely to eat when he is not being pressured to do so. You know yourself how much coaxing he needed before all that trouble even began. He needs to gain weight, but he also needs to trust and gain confidence enough to want to eat."

"I will do what I can to help him to eat a little more tonight, Pa," Adam promised. "I may even be able to resort to a little bribery with a sweet treat I brought back with me for both of them," he said cryptically.

Ben raised an eyebrow of curiosity at that statement, wondering what his son had in mind for his two younger brothers at supper time.

"How have you been managing with the ranch hands and the timber camps for workers?" Adam asked.

"I was just speaking to Roy Coffee about that very matter before your stage pulled in. He was mentioning how quiet it is around Virginia City at the moment with all the men tied up in the mining camps," Ben recounted. "I was telling Roy as we were standing there waiting for you to arrive that we could do with a few more hired workers at the timber camp this week."

"There is a new ranch hand helping with the cattle at the moment, Tom Withers. He is working out fine since he arrived. Proven himself to be a great asset to Charlie and to the rest of the men. He may even work out to be foreman one day. From what I have witnessed myself and Charlie has told me, the man has a good head on his shoulders and likes working with the livestock."

"I am only back for about four weeks, Pa, but I can pitch in and give a hand while I am here," Adam offered.

"Thank you, but not straight away please, son. For tomorrow to start off with and for the next few days, I want you spending time with your brothers. They have been waiting so patiently for weeks and you are only here for a short period of time," Ben commented.

"Yes, I guess you are right, the time won't take long to go, before I have to be back on that stage again," Adam pondered, knowing that his next visit would be even longer way than this time.

"I will speak to one of the men up at the timber camp on your behalf tomorrow and let him know you are interested though. It might help with your architectural studies, getting a hands on feel for things," Ben negotiated. "George Callow is the name of a new foreman I hired up there when the timber season began. Not sure how he is going to work out yet. He is a little older than the other men, but seems keen to work. Only time will tell."

"Thanks, Pa, that would be appreciated," Adam said, finishing the last of his coffee.

An hour later, Hop Sing announced to the family that supper would soon be ready, and to begin gathering at the table.

"Hoss, Little Joe, supper time," Ben called out to his younger two sons.

The little Cantonese man was busy bringing out quite an assortment of dishes to the table. The crockery and cutlery were all carefully laid into place. The table had been set lavishly with napkins to complete the fancy look.

"Mr Ben, sit please," Hop Sing respectfully asked, pulling out the man's chair.

"This all looks wonderful, Hop Sing," Ben declared, the enticing aromas wafting up him and Adam as they prepared to sit at the table.

Two sets of footsteps could be heard coming down the staircase, as Hoss appeared, quickly followed by Joe.

"Oh boy, Hop Sing, you out did yourself tonight," the larger boy said with anticipation. He sat down on the chair to his father's right.

Ben looked curiously over at this choice, it would seem that the seating arrangement for tonight's supper was different to normal. Discussions must have taken place between the two younger boys whilst he was talking in the living room to Adam.

Adam seem to notice the change too, but kept quiet for a moment. He didn't mind.

All three older Cartwright family members looked on with amusement though, as the youngest, didn't sit on the chair he had chosen, but instead, was trying to pick it up and move it. The boy was having a little difficulty with the size of the piece of furniture, but the look of determination on his face showed that the would not be swayed from his current task.

"Joseph, do you need some help?" Ben enquired patiently. He knew that the boy could be stubborn enough at times not to come out and ask, unless someone else did first.

"No, Pa, I can do it," Joe answered, frowning a little more, and trying again to lift the heavy chair. But the only sound that could be heard was the scraping of the legs on the dining room floor.

"Let me give you a hand, Joe," Adam offered, finally realising what his brother was trying to achieve, and touched by the unspoken gesture.

Adam got up from his own chair, and moved the one Joe was trying to drag, closer to his own. His pre-emptive efforts were rewarded with a beaming smile from his younger brother. Ben was very pleased that his eldest son was intuitive enough. Hoss was happy overall to have all of his family sitting down to enjoy supper together.

"Now hop up here and sit down properly so we can take a look at what Hop Sing made," Adam suggested.

Joe readily obeyed, being able to sit closer to his brother on the first night back was all he was focused on. The youngster gazed around the table, looking at each dish.

There were roasted carrots drizzled with honey. Hop Sing knew he liked those sometimes. There was a dish of green beans, with melting butter. Those he didn't care that much for, but didn't voice his objection out loud. Long cobs of yellow sweet corn were displayed on a large serving plate. There was a platter of the roast chicken, all cut into smaller pieces with lovely crispy skin. There was a gravy boat nearby.

"Would you please all bow your head for grace boys," Ben asked, putting his own hands in front of him.

The three boys did as requested, as they waited for their father's warm voice, "Dear Lord, thank you this day for Adam's safe return home. And may we be truly blessed for the bounty we are about to receive as a complete family once more."

"Help yourselves boys," Ben instructed, as he unfolded his own napkin and placed it over his lap.

Hoss didn't need any further encouragement, diving in and filling his plate with a good helping of everything on display. The smell of the hot delicious food was making his mouth water, choosing to tuck his napkin to this shirt collar to cover down his front.

Joe was a little more reserved, but his eyes were alert. He kept looking back between his father and older brother, waiting for them to dish up their own plates. He wanted to see what they would choose first.

"Would you like me to serve you tonight, Sir," Adam played with his brother, changing his voice enough, and adding some sophistication to it like they would do in a fancy restaurant.

Joe giggled out loud, and looked down, at the two plates that were set before him. He quickly made his decision and handed Adam the smaller bread and butter plate, rather than the proper sized dinner plate.

Adam and Ben exchanged a brief look, and thought about saying something to Joe about his choice, but since the child was still keen on joining in eating, Adam continued his little play.

"And what would the young gentleman such as yourself like to dine on tonight?" Adam asked, adding a formal bow as he stood up, ready to accept his brother's requests.

Joe loved every minute of his brother's impromptu performance.

"The chef tonight recommends, the roast breast of bird," Adam said, placing a small amount on the plate. "Followed by..." he started to say, holding the serving spoon over the carrots and spotting the consenting nod.

"Some glazed vegetable of carrot, smothered in a sweet sauce," Adam continued. "Would you like some green beans sautéd in a light butter, young Sir?"

Joe was still smiling at his brother's antics, but shook his head negatively. "The chef will not be pleased with your refusal. "Would you prefer the long-eared cob of corn perhaps?"

"Yes please," Joe.

"Would you like a little gravy to coat your chicken, Joe?" Adam asked, changing back to his normal deeper voice.

"Only a little please, Adam," Joe said, and happily accepted the plate back from his brother.

Adam went about dishing up his own plate, followed by Ben. Both of them watching Joe slowly consume the small amounts on his plate. Adam had wanted to put more on his plate, but erred on the side of caution. A little at a time wouldn't overwhelm him, and he could always come back for more later.

Hoss was helping himself to seconds, when Joe put his fork and knife down on his plate, to signal that he had enough. To his credit most of his plate was empty, but Adam decided to push for the last few mouthfuls to be consumed.

"You know, Pa, upstairs in my bag I have a lovely treat instead of dessert tonight," Adam started to say, making sure Joe was listening. "But I couldn't really share it with just anybody unless they had eaten all of their supper."

"What sort of treat?" Joe asked with a little suspicion creeping into his voice. He thought he had eaten plenty tonight. All he wanted anyway.

"You might have to finish wants left on your plate to find out, Joe," Ben said, looking at his son and seeing that tiredness was beginning to resurface.

Joe folded his small arms across his chest showing a distinct scowl, still not intending to eat any more. Ben could see the battle about to begin, and it didn't look like the promise of any kind of treat was going to change his mind.

By now, Hoss had finished and was about to ask for permission to leave the table. Adam saw the perfect opportunity to put a few things into motion at the same time.

"Hoss, would you like a game of checkers tonight?" Adam asked, changing the topic of discussion that was looming over the table. He had also finished his own meal, not wanting a second helping.

"Sure, Adam. May I please be excused, Pa?" Hoss asked politely.

"You may be excused, Hoss and Adam," Ben said, but kept his face upon his youngest child as he spoke. "But not you yet, young man." he said to Joe, as the child thought he would have been allowed to do the same.

"Please finish your supper, Joseph, then you can join your brothers in the living room," Ben said, but it was clear that his son was less than impressed.

Joe was about to say something in challenge to his father, but any annoyance he was trying to display to his family was lost when he had to unfold his arms, and cover a loud yawn into his shoulder with his hand over his mouth.

Inwardly Ben sighed, it was difficult to be stern with the boy about eating and encouraging at the same time. Joe was growing tired after such a long emotion packed day, but he decided to try persevere for a few more minutes.

Reluctantly, Joe decided tonight he would comply, and ate the last few morsels of food without any further complaint.

"You may be excused, Joe, if you have had enough supper," Ben said quietly. "Why don't you go and change into your night shirt?"

"No Pa, I am not ready for bed yet," Joe declared, grateful to be released from the table. He wasn't about to agree to being ready for bed just yet.

Hop Sing went about beginning to clear the dishes, whilst Ben also moved tot he living room, and poured himself a drink.

Across the room, Hoss was setting up the checker board, whilst Adam had taken the opportunity to use the bath-house. The day had been long for him too, but he couldn't disappoint about the game of checkers just yet.

Whilst he was up in his room combing his hair, Adam retrieved the box of treats that he had hinted at during supper, intending to keep his promise.

Coming down the stairs, his father was seated in his blue arm-chair with a glass of whiskey in his hand, enjoying the warmth of the fire place. He had turned the chair so that he had full view of the living room.

"I set the board for us, Adam," Hoss said with excitement, spotting his brother coming down the staircase.

"That is great, Hoss," Adam said, carrying a decorative box in his hands.

Joe was currently sitting on end of the settee closest to Hoss, watching the game of checkers being set up. He was still learning where to put all the pieces and which colour was set on which side of the board.

"What have you got there, son?" Ben asked, curious about the box that his middle son had also noticed.

"This is the treat that I mentioned to you earlier that I brought back with me, Pa," Adam answered, watching as Joe moved so he could take up his seat on the end of the couch. The youngest Cartwright was holding kneeling on his knees, trying to look over his oldest brother's shoulder.

"Want to see what is inside the box?" he teased both younger brothers.

"Yes, please," Hoss said with anticipation. Joe nodded his head silently, changing positions and sitting down correctly on the settee.

Without further torment, he lifted the lid, "Now you cannot buy this in any store in Boston," Adam informed them. "These are only made at this time of the year, and once they are sold out, there are no more made until next year. They are made by a very good friend of mine."

"Wow," Hoss exclaimed, peering inside at the colour rainbow of sugary sweets on offer.

"These are special boiled sweets," Adam said holding out the box for his brothers to make their choice. "You may have two pieces each boys, the rest we will save for another day. There are plenty there to share tonight, and other nights."

Hoss quickly chose a honey coloured one and a darker purple one. "Honey and Grape flavoured," he declared after happily sucking on them together.

"Make sure you don't try and bite down on them when you first try them, or you will hurt your teeth," Adam warned.

"Which flavour would you like, Joe?" Adam said, shaking the box again to disburse the colourful assortment. His younger brother was taking a little longer to make his choice.

"This one, please," Joe said, grabbing a green coloured square. "Thank you, Adam."

Adam watched as the boy put the treat in his mouth, and swirled it around with his tongue, but it soon became apparent that the taste was not to his liking at all.

Joe face changed to one of utter revulsion as he spat out the now sticky square, getting off the chair and taking it out into the kitchen to wash his hands.

"I think that one might have been lime flavoured," Adam said to Hoss and his father. "It can be quite a strong after-taste to that one. Much more than what Joe might be used to."

"Would you like some, Pa?" he asked politely.

"No thank you, Adam, but thank you for sharing with your brothers," Ben commented.

Joe came back to the settee, and Adam held out the box again, willing to make the offer again for something more pleasing, but the boy shook his head, not wanting to try that again.

"Let's start the game, Hoss," Adam suggested, putting the lid on the box and putting it away. He would take it back to his room when he retired to bed.

"I will get you some of Martha's lemon drops when I go into town next, Joe," he said in compromise.

For the next twenty minutes, Ben watched the game of checkers between his two eldest sons. Hoss was trying to out think his brother, but Adam was a much better player.

The third game saw Adam give Hoss a little leeway, as he allowed the younger boy to make a few better moves that gave him confidence to win the game. Adam didn't need to win every game, he just wanted to spend time with Hoss doing something he liked.

Joe had started the game laying on his tummy, with his head next to his older brother's thigh, along the length of the settee. With his lower legs and feet casually swinging in the air, holding his chin up by the palms of his hands, watching both brothers intently, and trying to learn. He didn't ask any questions, just content be within close proximity to Adam.

Before the fourth game could commence. Ben smiled at the very different position he could see his youngest son in. Joe was still laying along the length of the settee, but his curly head was now pillowed on top of his folded arms, and he had lost interest in watching the game. His legs were now stretched out behind him.

Adam watched the expression on his father's face, and turned his head to look over at his brother. Hoss looked up from the move he just finished and clamped his own hand over his mouth to prevent himself from making a sound.

Little Joe's eyes were at half-mast, slowly closing. Just when it appeared that the battle was about to continue, the small boy dragged his heavy eyes open again, fighting to the very end. This happened twice more with the same result. On the fourth try, his eyes closed, and there was half an effort to raise them again, but that didn't happen, and the child's face relaxed into slumber.

Adam lowered his voice, "Do you want me to take him to bed, Pa?" he asked, knowing it had been a while since he had the chance to do so.

"No, thank you son," Ben whispered, but they all froze again, as Joe's heard his family talking and tried to wake again.

Another moment, and Joe returned to sleep. From previous experience, sleep for Joe was sometimes hard earned, and it was easily disturbed. It was only once he was deeply asleep that true rest came, and they would be able to move him successfully to his bed.

Ben put aside the whiskey glass and stood up, once he was satisfied that he would be able to move his son without waking him. The trouble tonight was him laying on his belly. Joe fell asleep on the settee quite often, but usually curled up on his side.

"Let's get you to bed, young man," Ben whispered softly. "It has been a big day for you."

Very gently he lifted the boy under his shoulders from the settee, holding him and nestling his son against his shoulder with practiced ease. With a strong arm around his tiny waist and upper body to secure him and make sure he wasn't being held awkwardly; he had carried Joe like this many times, when he was upset or needed to go to bed. The feeling of complete trust that Ben was afforded each time he was able to offer comfort and security never waned.

Joe's curly head fell softly against Ben's shoulder and his heart could not have swelled with more love as he gazed upon the sleeping face that burrowed against the collar of his shirt with barely an audible sigh of contentment.

Adam and Hoss started the fourth game of checkers whilst their father took their younger brother upstairs and put him to bed.

Reading a story had become a joy to Joe, and still was most nights. Even Hoss had taken to giving a story for Joe before bed-time, but often his stories came in a different format. Hoss chose to talk about the various baby cows and horses that were being born on Ponderosa and the two of them coming up with names for them, rather than reading from a book.

Ben's stories were usually about Joe's mother Marie and their times together in New Orleans, and he was the only one that was given that privilege. Joe didn't exactly know where this place was that his mother came from, but he promised himself secretly that he would go there when he was much bigger. He would ask his father and brother for directions on how to get there and even take them with him if they wanted to go with him.

Joe was still sensitive about hearing his mother's name or seeing any of her possessions. The only exception was a framed photograph of Marie that sat on the window sill behind Ben's desk. There was also one for Elizabeth and Inger, and they were all cherished and held pride of place for father and sons alike.

Adam didn't feel cheated that his father had refused his offer, and he partially understood why his father now deemed it his sole responsibility.

There was a ritual involved, that may or may not have been there in the past before the strangers had come to house. Before that and going away to college, Adam had put his younger brother to bed on a number of occasions.

Joe was first earlier in the night, and usually again just as Ben was retiring to bed himself. From experience he knew that blankets and covers would often need readjusting and it was to give the man peace of mind that the child was in bed where he was supposed to be.

Before Adam had left for college, his father would politely knock on his door at night to check if everything was alright. He checked on Hoss next, asking the same question. He felt that need to check on them just as much as Joe. Ben told them frequently that he wouldn't be able to sleep at night until he had made certain that everybody in the household was taken care of and settled.

Ben walked into Joe's room, still holding his sleeping son. He pulled back the covers and laid the boy on his back. The next task was to put on a night shirt that Joe was adamant he hadn't needed, but his father now wished he had heeded. It would have made his efforts tonight a little easier.

Joe hadn't bothered to put any boots back onto his feet after exiting the bath-house. Ben's touch was familiar enough to Joe that he barely stirred at his father pulling the night shirt over his curly head. He pulled the covers up over the boy, gauging the temperature of the room. Too cold and the chance of him waking before morning was a strong possibility. Making sure the window in the room was closed and locked formed part of his nightly checks.

Joe turned over onto his side, as his father finished his fussing, his breathing deepening and evening out. Ben allowed a low flame to burn in the lantern on the bedside table across the room, and would extinguish it fully before he went to bed himself.

Brushing a gentle hand through those unruly curls one last time, tonight he prayed that his son's dreams would be peaceful ones.

"Goodnight, Joseph, sleep well."

Ben left the room to join his other two sons. He would give Hoss and Adam another hour together to play checkers, before he would chase Hoss to bed as well.

Tomorrow would be a brand new day, and full of unknown possibilities.

Author's Notes: This chapter is totally new material, and set before the events that are in the original version. The parts from that chapter will be included in Chapter Two. Mr Perkins was a character that I introduced in False Witness except that I have now given him a wife Martha, who will become a new character in quite a few earlier plots along with her husband Thomas.

Thank you for reading, please let me know what you think. More to come soon.

The chapters here on Fanfiction will be a little out or order whilst I keep the original parts of the story posted - but hopefully I have labelled them now enough to be able to read in the correct order. Please note that there will be significant changes and additions to those earlier chapters.