As the wagon bumped along the road back towards the Ponderosa, Ben Cartwright looked down

at his fifteen year old son who was laying down beside him in a deep sleep. The sleep was not a

natural one however. It came as the result of the drug combination that Doc Martin had

administered only a few hours ago. It was supposed to help Joe not feel any physical pain from

the injuries he had sustained.

But what about the emotional and mental scars that had been left behind. What about them Ben

asked himself.? How long would they take to heal? Would they ever heal? Would his young son

ever recover from the torment that he had suffered at the hands of Butch Thomas over the last


If he could turn back the hands of time over the last few weeks and foreseen what would befall

his youngest son, Ben would have taken the boy out of harms way. He would have simply

packed up Joseph and one of his other sons Adam or Hoss if necessary and made sure that

Joe was safe in another town away from the dangers that lurked.

Ben caressed the boy's soft curls but his son didn't respond to his touch. It was like a brick

wall had been built between them and it was getting harder and harder to reach in and find

the real Little Joe.

The boy had changed so much over the past few weeks. Going from the confident, full of energy

and laughter young man that filled the house with love and joy. Now the boy was sullen,

withdrawn and rarely spoke unless asked a question and even then it was a battle to get

some sort of answer.

Ben swore to himself that he didn't care how long it took, he and his eldest two sons would

be there every minute of the day and night if necessary to bring the boy back from the brink

and back into the safe and loving arms of his family.

"He alright back there Pa?" Hoss asked as he guided the wagon team as slowly as he could

over the rough dirt road back to the Ponderosa.

"As well as can be expected I guess Hoss" Ben replied in a voice that held no emotion at all.

"We will just have to see how he goes over the next couple of days. It is going to be a difficult

time for us all."

Hoss nodded and turned his attention back to the wagon team. As they pulled up outside the

ranch house, Adam came outside followed by Hop Sing. Adam had ridden on ahead of the

rest of his family making sure everything would be ready in time when Hoss and his father

arrived back with Little Joe.

Adam looked at his father also before attempting to take his younger brother out of the wagon.

He hadn't heard the tone of Ben's voice just a few hundred metres back, but he saw the tiredness

etched on his father's face and he saw the worry embedded deep into his father's brown eyes.

His father almost looked a broken man. The thing that allowed the man to go on lay beside

him wrapped up in the blankets. Adam didn't want to contemplate how his father would have

gone on if Joe had not come back home. He couldn't put it into words himself how he would

have felt. One fifteen year old boy held the magical golden key to all their hearts and kept them

all united together. Now when this same boy had fallen along the way and looked to be headed

away from his family, it was up to that family to make sure that the boy knew they all loved

and needed him endlessly.

The dark thunder clouds above once again threatened to bring down the heavens in torrential

rain. They needed to get the boy inside and into his bed before the rain started. The last

thing he needed with all his injuries at the moment was to get sick on top of it. Hoss thought

back a moment and thought that it had been raining a few days before this all started to happen

as well. Funny how history had a way of playing on your memory wasn't it he thought to himself.

"Take it easy Adam" Ben said knowing that his eldest son was already aware of Joe's injuries.

"We have to check that those stitches are still in place in his side when we get him settled

upstairs. Heaven knows what that rough road had done to exasperate the pain and agony

his son felt.

Ben managed to move the still sleeping Joe into a half-sitting position so that Adam could

wrap his strong arms around the fragile boy and lift him out of the wagon. Ben could

feel a little warmth emanating through the cotton shirt that Joe wore over the top of the

heavy padding and bandages around his chest.

A few spits of rain began to fall just as Adam made it to the porch with Joe nestled in his

strong arms. The boy had lost so much weight from injury and stress over the last few

weeks, he barely weighed anything his brother noted with dismay. Ben picked up the

tails of the blankets from behind Adam and followed his eldest son as he carried Joe into

the homestead.

Adam had already made sure that Joe's room was already warm enough before the wagon

pulled up outside. He walked into the house and climbed the staircase carrying his precious

burden that failed to make a single sound.

Adam laid his unconscious brother on the clean sheets and made sure that he was resting

comfortably on the pillows while his father started to take off his shoes and socks.

Hoss had volunteered to put the horses and wagon away but both Adam and Ben knew that it

was eating the middle Cartwright up inside to see his younger brother like this. It went

against the very grain of things in Hoss's eyes what had happened to his brother. He hated

the men who had done this to Joe. He hated the Judge who had put the boy through so

much humiliation in front of everyone. He hated the justice system that put it's sole trust in the

opinions of ten of Virginia City's men jurors. He hated himself for being so angry.

Inside, Joe had not awakened as such, but seemed to be having a battle against unseen demons

again. The demons had probably been created from the memories of the real monsters that

had stalked the teenager and then caused him so much hurt and pain. Suffering and fear that he

had hidden from his family. A deep gnawing fear that bit into the boy's very soul and stole his

spirit with it.

Ben sat on the edge of the bed, forgetting all about undressing the boy. For now, the only

real important thing was to let the boy know that his family was right here with him and

that he was loved.

Ben spoke softly to the boy, reminding him of how much his family had missed him and

how proud they were of him today. While Ben talked, Adam went about finishing the task

of undressing the boy from his good clothes he had worn to court. The jacket had been

left back at Doc Martin's due to the damage caused to it. Ben had declared it beyond repair

or salvage and could no longer bear to look upon the garment and see it stained with his

youngest son's blood.

Adam unbuttoned Joe's trousers once the boots were removed and had to keep his own anger

in check as he saw the bruises and scratches that marred the boy's pale flesh. The trousers

had been a little stubborn at first due to the thick bandages still adorning the boy's left shin.

The bandages would remain for at least another month or two Doc Martin had informed them

before it could be removed and Joe allowed to put full weight back on that leg.

Hoss had returned to the house and now came into the bedroom carrying the other reminders

of Joe's injuries. He propped the two wooden crutches up against the wall in the far corner

of the room. It was doubtful that the boy would be leaving his bed anytime soon in the next

few days.

The crutches told the story that Joe needed more than his family's love and caring at the moment

just to stand. The boy had stumbled a number of times while trying to manoeuvre back and forth

from the witness stand. To Hoss and the rest of the family they only seemed to confirm

their fears about how badly Little Joe had been hurt.

Joe was sleeping soundly upstairs and was probably due to stay that way for several more

hours to come. After Adam had managed to get one of Ben's shirts over the boy's head

and bandages, they tucked the blankets in around the boy. Adam and Hoss had bid their

younger brother good night and left their father to a more private time alone with his son.

Ben had continued to talk soothing words to his son as he slept. He caressed his face

then bent down and gently kissed the boy on his bruised cheek before leaving the room.

About an hour after the Cartwright's had returned home, the three eldest now sat downstairs

in the living room. All three lost in their own thoughts about the events that had taken place

over the last month.

Ben's mind started to take him back to a time about a month ago when everything seemed

to be going okay. If only he could go back there now.

About a month earlier

"Come on Hoss!" an excited Little Joe shouted as he descended the wooden staircase inside two steps at a time.

"Joseph, do you need to shout so loud this early in the morning?" Ben Cartwright said in mock annoyance as he

watched the eagerness of his youngest son. Inside he smiled to himself and hoped that the excitement inside

Little Joe remained until the boy himself was an old grey man. It was this excitement that kept rejuvenating the

youth in them all. Even Hop Sing seemed to have an extra hop in his step these days just to keep up with the

youngest member of the family.

"I wish you were this eager to get out of bed on the mornings I try and wake you up for school Short Shanks" Hoss

said as he calmly walked down the stairs whilst putting on his vest.

"School ain't as exciting as this Hoss" Joe explained as he sat down at the table to join the rest of the family for


"Are you sure that you have packed all you will need Joseph?" Ben now asked wanting to make sure that the

two brothers had all the essentials needed with them for their expedition. This was the first hunting trip that

Joe was going on without his father, so therefore Ben was just that little bit more nervous. He knew he could

trust Hoss better than most people but that security didn't stop him worrying.

"Yeah Pa" Joe answered in an exasperated tone. He knew that his father was worried about him and Hoss

going off hunting on their own without their father or Adam to supervise. He rolled his eyes a little at the sense

of over-caring he was getting. "I've got three changes of clothes. Hoss has already loaded all of the supplies

including my rifle and the fishing poles." he replied.

"And that's another thing young man" Ben said as he caught the tone in his son's voice. "You are only to use

that rifle when Hoss is watching you and instructing you, is that understood?" he asked sternly. Although Ben

had bought the rifle himself about a year ago now, he didn't like the idea of a young inexperienced person having

full use of a deadly weapon. Joe was sensible to a fault, but it was that impulsive nature and the often mistake to

act first and ask questions later that made Ben more afraid than most father's with their young sons and guns.

Over the past twelve months, under Ben's and Adam's careful guidance, the boy had shown a genuine adeptness

in handling a rifle. Ben had watched the boy shoot at targets more than 50 metres away and get a result that would

make any adult proud. Ben had wondered whether Joe's left-handedness would prove an obstacle at

first. But after only a few brief practice sessions it became obvious that the fact that Joe used his left hand was more

of an advantage than a disadvantage.

"Come here Joseph please" Ben asked as he sat down on the settee and indicated to his youngest son to join

him. "There are just a few things that I want you remember before you leave."

Little Joe made a face as he knew what was about to come, "Aw Pa, I already know what your going to say

before you say it" he said in an over exaggerated voice. "Joseph don't ride too fast. Joseph listen to what your

brother tells you. Joseph don't wander off alone. Joseph…."

"Joseph don't take that attitude with me" Ben said in the same type of voice as his son used. "Or you won't be going

anywhere at all young man" Ben said sternly without injecting too much anger into the words and put a

dampener on the morning before it even began.

"I want you to have a good time and enjoy yourself Little Joe, but I also want you to do as your brother Hoss asks

and keep safe during your trip." Ben said in a gentler voice. "Don't be in a rush to do anything. You have plenty of

time. Make sure you both come back in one piece and safe and sound."

"I promise I will behave myself Pa" Joe replied. "And have a good time with Hoss as well". Joe then raced of the

settee and rechecked he had everything that he wanted to take with him. Whilst he was out with Cochise and making

sure everything was tied on properly, Ben had a little heart to heart chat with Hoss as well as to what he expected of

him and Little Joe this weekend.

"Everything should be okay Pa" Hoss said trying to reassure his father that he would bring his youngest son back to

him safe and sound. "It's only two days out and only one night at that, we should be back by about mid-afternoon

on Sunday if everything goes smoothly enough."

"Where are you planning to take your younger brother on this hunting expedition Hoss" Adam now asked. He

asked the question for two reasons. One for curiosity sake and the regret that he wasn't joining his two siblings

in a nice couple of days off from work on the ranch. Two, whilst he had no qualms about Hoss's ability to

handle most situations that might arise whilst they were out there alone, Adam was also only too well accustomed

to his youngest brother Joe's whimsical nature and his often bad misjudgement about things. Joe was a good

kid most of the time but he had the quirky ability to wrap almost anybody to his advantage and this was even more

so for his bigger brother Hoss. Adam just secretly hoped that his larger brother would be able to see past the large

emerald green puppy dog eyes and the irresistible smile that the kid flashed when he wanted to get his own way.

Only time would tell he told himself.

"Probably as far as "Pine Valley" Adam" Hoss answered. "It's not totally off the Ponderosa, but far enough away

for the kid to enjoy the scenery and camp underneath the tall trees up there. We can camp near one of the small

streams up there and catch some small fish for supper if no other game is seen beforehand."

Ben and Adam were both secretly pleased with Hoss's choice of venue and knew that Hoss was right. Although

"Pine Valley" was in one of the far corners of the Ponderosa lands, it was more than half a day's ride away and

definitely far enough away to make a camping trip out of the expedition.

"Come on Hoss, or it will be dark before we even get there" Joe shouted from the front porch as he tried to hurry

his brother along. Joe then mounted Cochise and held out the reins to Chubb for Hoss. He grinned back at

his father and other brother as they watched from the front doorway and then gave them a quick enthusiastic wave

before nudging Cochise forward.

Ben watched the two riders under he could no longer see them. Many thoughts raced through his mind as he was

reminded that this was Joe's first hunting trip without him alongside. He kept telling himself that everything would

be fine but deep down inside he couldn't wait until Sunday afternoon again when he saw them arrive safely back

in the yard at the house.

"What are we gonna do first Hoss?" Joe asked as he rode alongside his brother with a million different thoughts of

his own going through his mind.

"Whoa, wait until we at least get there short shanks" Hoss said as he chuckled at his brother impetuous nature.

Joe was already to set off at the drop of a hat. It was often up to his family to see that he didn't stray from the

straight and narrow whilst failing to see what was up ahead of him.

"When we get to "Pine Valley", the first thing we will do is choose a camping spot near the stream for tonight.

Once we have unpacked everything and secured the supplies from the native wildlife, we can go out and have

a look for what might be around. Later towards the afternoon we can do a spot of fishing in the stream to

catch us some supper." as Hoss explained what he had mapped out in his head for the remainder of the day.

Once they had reached the area where Hoss intended to make camp, Little Joe seemed to want to do everything

in a hurry. He started off at first by trying to set up the tent. But unfortunately he tried to set the tent up too

close to the stream that bubbled along beside them. It took a lot of persuasion from his big brother for Little

Joe to believe that camping too close to the water was dangerous. Little Joe couldn't see how such a little

stream could possible swell overnight and threaten to flood their camp area but Hoss knew from experience

and teachings that his Pa and Adam had given him long ago that due to the rainfall they had over the last couple

of weeks, the chance was too great to take.

Little Joe settled to setting up the tent in a open spot just the other side of a large tree. He had trouble trying to

get the main pole to stand up straight. On a couple of occasions, Hoss had watch the youngster struggle with

the tent until there would be a slight cry for assistance underneath the massive folds of the tent fabric that engulfed

Joe once the pole started to bend and fall down inside. After about an hour of struggling between themselves

the tent was finally declared fit for living in for the night. Hoss hadn't thought far enough head to see his brother's

small size being more of a disadvantage than he first thought. Joe had always been smaller than his brothers. Hoss

had always been there to help him along and would continue to do so. But it was at times such as these when two

sets of hands were better than one that Hoss realised he would have to take on most of the physical work himself

during this hunting trip.

The next step in the construction of their campsite was the fireplace in the middle of the camp area. Hoss explained

to a curious Joe that they needed to keep the fire going not only for cooking and warmth during the night. But the

heat of the fire and the red flames would also act as a deterrent to any wild animals that might walk into their campsite

by accident. The mention of wild animals seemed to enthral and scare Joe all at the same time. He seemed anxious

to see something as spectacular as a grizzly bear or a large moose but the thought of running into such a dangerous

animal out here all alone in the woods also made him a bit afraid. He was really glad his big brother Hoss was with

him to protect him against such things.

With the campsite completed as much as possible, Hoss decided that it was time to stop working and time to have

some of that fun that he had been promising his brother all day. He told Joe to get his rifle and they would take

a walk through the forest and see what they could find. He looked up above and was mindful to keep an eye on

the sun and take stock of the time. He knew that they would only be able to be out for just over an hour before

they would need to start getting supper started. Hopefully an hour would be long enough to wear his Little brother

out enough for time. With the walk and the long ride from home this morning, both of them should enjoy a peaceful

night's sleep.

Joe kept his gaze skywards for the majority of the walk. He was awed by the large trees and their canopy that

darkened the forest floor. It was hard to see where you were going sometimes and on two occasions, Joe had

absentmindedly tripped over a protruding root that was unseen. Both times he had just looked embarrassed rather

than hurt and Hoss had ribbed him about watching where he was going.

After another five minutes through the tree line Joe had almost tripped over something else hidden in the dirt. He

managed to side step this obstacle and was about to look at his brother for the returned snide remark. Hoss however

had a different look on his face this time. Hoss wasn't even the slightest bit laughing at what he saw his brother

step over. It wasn't a tree root this time or a piece of fallen branch from higher in the tree. This time the very sight

of this metal object made Hoss's temper flare and his inner calm to boil over. He was looking at a rusty old steel

trap that some tracker had carelessly left behind.

"Step away from that thing Little Joe" Hoss asked in a calm but serious voice. He picked up a large stick from

the forest floor in an attempt to stop the potential injury to anybody else or any other living thing. The fact that these

things even existed went against everything that Hoss saw as good and right. Hoss couldn't bear the thought of

any animal lying hurt or injured at anytime, even the ones that people often despised like wolves and foxes. The

fact that men laid these vicious things around so that some animal could be trapped in one and live out its last few

minutes or hours of life in absolute agony didn't sit very well with the big man at all.

"What are you going to do Hoss?" Joe asked in a quiet voice. He knew his brother's feelings when it came to

injured animals.

"It might look old and rusted Little Joe, but I'm gonna make sure that this evil thing can't hurt anything else ever

again." Hoss answered "I'm gonna set the trap off so that no animal can get it's leg caught in it and bleed to death

or scream in agony as it bites off it's own leg from the pain." At least when we go hunting, animals are killed

properly and humanely. There ain't nothing worse or more dangerous than an injured animal."

"Be careful Hoss" Joe said as his brother moved closer to the trap with the stick held high in the air.

"It's okay Joe, I know what I'm doing. I'm just going to release the jaws by sticking this big stick on the plate."

he explained. The edge of the stick pushed the metal plate in the centre and the jaws snapped shut with a rusty

sounding jerk. "If an animal did get it's leg caught in something as rusty as that, then the animal would probably

die more from infection to the wound than from getting caught in it at all." Hoss then walked over to the trap

and lifted it from it's position buried in the leaves and dirt on the ground. He swung the trap around as hard as

he could and then released it, allowing it to sail through the air and then break into a few big rusty pieces as it

landed hard in the dirt over 30 metres away. Hoss was at least a little relieved that the trap wouldn't be able

to inflict any more pain.

"Come on Joe, let's go back to camp and get supper started" Hoss said in a glum voice. Having to deal with

something like that had taken the spring out of his step suddenly and he didn't feel much like going for a walk

any further now.

Joe was a bit on edge when they returned to their camp site. Joe had rarely seen his brother so made about

anything. Hoss was always the calm and rational one. He was the one ready to hear the other side of the

story before judging a man. This was the brother who forgave others mistakes more easily. Although his

brother had appeared deadly calm this afternoon talking about the metal trap they had seen. Deep down,

Joe knew that his brother was like a smoking volcano ready to explode when he knew there was an animal

that had deliberately been injured or left to suffer.

Although Joe knew that Hoss would never show that kind of anger towards him or any other human being,

the whole episode still made Joe uneasy and he made a point of it to tiptoe around his brother for the rest

of the afternoon until his brother's mood had improved.

It didn't appear that Joe would have to wait too long for this to happen though. By supper time, Hoss's

mood seemed to be much improved at they both talked idly about thing whilst Hoss prepare their evening

meal of beans and bacon and coffee.

The sun was beginning to melt into the horizon but the temperature remained warm due to the humidity.

There was still the potential for a storm later on in the night so they would have to be vigilant in case they

had to shift camp during the night if it began to rain.

"What do you think about me dropping out of school Hoss?" Joe asked. The question seemed to come

out of the middle of nowhere. It had been a subject that had been on Little Joe's mind for the last couple

of months. Every time Joe brought the subject up around the dinner table, it only ended in an argument been

Ben and his youngest son. The tension between them over the subject was so thick at times that you could

cut it with a knife. Joe made it more than obvious that he didn't see any point to continuing his education.

He told his father that he wanted to work with the rest of the ranch hands. He had proved over the last twelve

months that he was more than capable of carrying out any of the work that was expected of his older brothers.

Ben on the other hands was just as adamant that Joe would not be dropping out of school until he was finished

his education. Ben expected Joe to learn as much as possible during his school years no matter how physically

capable his youngest son thought he was.

Hoss and Adam felt that they were in the middle of this continuous argument. Neither of them wanted to take

sides and that's how the subject remained tonight as Joe asked his brother the question again.

"Well Joe" Hoss began uneasily, trying to pick his words carefully so as to explain what he thought his brother

should do without setting of that infamous Joe Cartwright temper. "I think you should try and learn as much

as possible from school."

"Your just like Pa" Joe retorted back as he expected Hoss would be his one true ally "After all it was you

that dropped out when you were my age" Joe accused his brother.

"Yes that's true Little Joe, but it was different in my case" Hoss said trying to explain why he had been allowed

to finish school early. "In my case school work just wasn't meant for me. No matter how hard I tried, I just

never seemed to fit in. The kids were all much younger and much smaller than me. I just seemed out of place.

Some of the ranch hands talked to Pa and told him how much they needed my help with the stock and after a

time my work around the yard just out weighed the time I spent at school. But it's different with you Little Joe"

"How's it different" he asked his brother with a touch of jealousy in his voice "School work doesn't exactly

suit me either but every time I try and talk to Pa about leaving to help out at the ranch, he just yells until we

both get angry and stop talking to each other. I don't want it to be that way Hoss. I just want him to understand

my point of view and listen to what I want for a change" the anger had now been replaced by tears and Joe

turned his face away in embarrassment at having revealed too many of his feelings out loud.

Hoss moved closer to his little brother and put a comforting arm around him. "I'm sure if you just wait your

time Joe Pa will listen and understand. You gotta understand though that schooling is real important. Let's

talk about something else tonight huh! Joe tried to get himself under control and cursed himself inwardly for

revealing more than he had wanted to tonight. "Sorry Hoss" he said through the sniffles "Didn't meant to

sound like such a spoiled brat" he added.

"We are used to it Little Joe" Hoss said with a laugh and quickly dived back to the fire and dinner before the

playful punch that Joe released could find it's mark.

For the rest of the night whilst eating their meagre meal, Hoss and Joe talked about many different things. It

was at times like these that Joe felt most at ease. Maybe that's why he had decided to talk to Hoss about

his schooling. When he was with Hoss he felt like he could talk about anything and his brother would listen

without jumping in at the wrong moment like Pa and Adam often did.

About half an hour after the meal, Hoss had been talking idly when he looked down and wondered why his

audience had been so quiet. He soon saw the reason and chuckled to himself. The boy had fallen asleep with

his empty plate in hand. Hoss moved silently and quickly, just in time to catch the tin plate as it dropped out of

Joe's sleep limp hand and threatened to wake the slumbering boy with a clatter as it hit the dirt ground. Joe

had fallen asleep sitting against one of the supports for the tent. Hoss put a large hand on Joe's back and eased

the sleeping boy to a laying down position underneath the primitive looking shelter. He was fairly certain that Joe

wouldn't wake again much before morning. The ride although not exceedingly long had been long enough and that

encompassed with the walk earlier in the day, the boy was just plumb worn out.

Hoss went about cleaning up the dinner dishes and securing their supplies for the night and then settled himself

down on the crude bed beside his brother. Joe must have been tired he told himself for when he laid down, he

saw that the boy had barely moved. Even the blankets that Hoss had secured around the sleeping figure were

more or less still in the same position. His brother must have really been worn out. "Night Little Brother" he

whispered and closed his own eyes in sleep.

It was just before dawn the next morning when a strange noise awoke Joe from his deep sleep. Hoss had been

right about the boy's tiredness, he yawned widely as he sat up under their make shift tent and tried to figure out

what had woken him up. He looked over at his big brother Hoss and groaned loudly when another large snoring

sound escaped Hoss's lips. At first he thought it must have been this sound that woke him up, but just as he was

about to lay back down again and close his eyes, the noise he had heard earlier came again. It was a low moaning

sound. Whatever it was, wasn't coming from Hoss this time.

Joe thought it best that he get up and investigate. Hoss was still asleep and he felt silly waking his brother up from

a perfect sleep over hearing a strange noise in the dark. Hoss would probably call him silly as well and tell him to

go back to sleep anyway.

Joe got up silently and crept out of the tent. He walked over and started to stoke the dying embers of the fire

while he waited to hear the sound again. He didn't have to wait long though.

The sound came again and Joe tried to work out in which direction it was coming from. After another low moan,

Joe started heading down towards the stream. He was certain this was where the noise was coming from.

Joe neared the stream but at first couldn't see anything out of place that would have made such a low moaning

sound. Just as he was about to head back towards the camp site, he heard the noise again. This time it was

coming from his right. He looked over and could see a dark shadow about 50 metres away near the water's


He was a bit apprehensive at first to approach the shadow until he could see clearly what it was, but finally

he found his inner voice talking to himself and telling him that it might be somebody in trouble that needed his

help. He built up as much courage as possible and started to walk towards the large bulky shadow.

As he got closer the moaning started getting more frequent. He was about 10 metres away when suddenly

he could see two beady eyes looking back at him through the half-lit sky. He wasn't sure at first. The sun

wasn't fully up yet and there was only a dull hue over the mountains giving him any sort of view of the area.

He stopped where he was and waited until he could see the shape more before approaching any closer.

Gradually his vision did improve and he finally could see what it was. He blinked twice to be sure that what

he saw was real. When he looked again he could see the same thing again and he started to smile as he

looked back at a cute cuddly bear cub. Joe guessed that the cub couldn't be more than six months of age.

His fur was still very fluffy in places and long from his winter hibernation.

The cub gave another low moan and Joe realised that it had been the bear cub making the noise the whole time.

The animal sounded as if he was in pain. From where he was, Joe couldn't see why the bear would be in pain.

He started to walk closer. He had failed to note the possible danger that lurked out there. If the bear was so

young, where was it's mother. This question had yet to cross Joe's curious mind.

As Joe reached the bear cub, he could now see the reason why the animal was in pain. The cub must have

wandered away from it's mother. One of it's rear paws was now snared in a similar trap partially submerged

in the mud of the stream bank. Joe could see the rusty jaws biting into the soft furred paw of the cub.

He quickly looked around nearby for something to help release the trap and the bear's paw.

Joe found a thick stick about a meter long. He neared the cub and softly spoke to it in order to let the bear

know that he didn't mean it any harm. He gingerly placed his hand on the bear's soft fur coat in order to

gain it's confidence. The bear seemed calm enough at the moment, although in pain as it again moaned at

the trap's torment.

Joe's face was now a mask of concentration as he tried to remember what he had seen his brother do only

the afternoon before in setting off that other rusty trap. The problem was that, the trap Hoss set off had been

empty, while this one still had an animal trapped in it's jaws. Joe carefully placed the stick in between the

small gap that existed in the jaws and used all his might to try and pry the metal teeth apart. Joe had been

concentrating on the trap too much and failed to realise that once the jaws loosened their grip, they would cause

more pain to the bear cub. Although the cub wasn't even half grown yet, the claws on the end of it's front and

back paws were sharp enough to cut into the soft flesh of a human arm.

Joe let out a scream of pain of his own when he felt the bear cub's paw scrape down the top of his right arm.

Even though Joe had a thick coat on, the claw easily cut into the thick material and then into the white skin

of Joe's arm. The wound began to sting as it started to bleed through the overcoat. Joe remembered the

bear though and saw that his efforts had worked enough to free the bear's paw from the trap.

The bear was now sitting partly in the water while nursing the wound to his rear paw. Joe was sitting on

the grassy bank only a few metres from the trap nursing his own wound. He tried to hold back the tears

of pain as he touched the jagged cut and blood started to stain his fingers red.

Hoss, who had been asleep as his brother had left him, instantly became awake when he heard his little

brother's scream. He sat up in a hurry and briefly looked over to see his brother's bed beside him empty.

He dashed out of his tent to find his brother. He heard the boy's cries again and headed towards the

stream a few metres away.

He could see his brother sitting on the grassy bank, holding onto his right arm and grimacing in pain.

He could also see the bear cub sitting in the water with the paw in his mouth.

"Are you alright punkin" Hoss said with worry as he knelt down beside his brother and take a look at his

injured arm.

"I was just trying to help him out Hoss" Joe said as he bit on his lip to stop the tears. He then proceeded

to tell Hoss about what he had tried to do. He pointed to the partly submerged trap and then to the bear

cub that still nursed it's injured paw in the water.

Hoss soon realised about the cub's mother, knowing that a cub that young wouldn't be far from his mother.

This alerted Hoss even more to the danger that Joe could have been in. Hoss hated to even contemplate

what sort of danger Joe might have put himself in if the cub's mother had come across his brother's innocent

attempts to free her baby. Even the baby's claws could have made a deeper wound than it did.

Hoss took out his handkerchief and asked Joe to take off his overcoat so he could look at the gash. Joe

obeyed but winced as he tried to remove the overcoat. Some of the material had become stuck to the wound

due to the bleed and stung a bit as it was pulled off the skin.

Hoss tried not to look worried for Joe's sake as he glanced at the wound. The bleeding had slowed down

somewhat, but Hoss could see that the injury could use some medical attention. Hoss wrapped the material

around the wound and told Joe to put his over coat back over the top. It would be a good six hours ride

before they would be safely back at the ranch. Being a wound from an animal, Hoss just wanted to make

sure that the wound was clean and free from infection.

Hoss helped Joe to stand up and they both headed back to the camp site. Hoss hurried in heating some

coffee and a few beans for breakfast, but neither he or Joe felt much like eating. While Joe's reason was

more because of the physical pain he felt, Hoss's was more due to the worry about what he was going

to tell his father when they got home. Hopefully Joe would let Hoss just tell Pa nice and quietly what had

happened before Pa had a chance to get mad at him. Hoss felt as though he had let both Joe and his father

down. He had promised to take care of Joe and now Joe was injured, although not entirely anybody's fault.

He doubted Pa would see it that way.

Joe sipped at a cup of coffee, but the incident at the stream had shaken him a little. He sat sullen and subdued

until Hoss had gathered all of their belongings and supplies and told Joe that they were ready to start the journey

home. Joe didn't want to start for home so early, but knew that Hoss was worried and knew that he would

have to help his brother explain what had happened to his father.

Half-way through the journey home, Joe had dozed off in his saddle and Hoss was concerned about the boy

falling out of the saddle in his sleep and injuring himself further. He brought both mounts to a stop and very

carefully transferred the sleeping Little Joe in front of him on his own horse. Then he started Chubb on a slow

walk again, leading Cochise behind him.

As Hoss neared the Ponderosa homestead, he felt the worry about his brother begin to lift from his shoulders.

He knew that Joe's injury wasn't life threatening, but he still felt responsible none the less.

Due to the slower ride home, the sun had begun to set a few hours ago leaving only a soft hue in the sky as Hoss

rode his big horse Chubb into the yard, leading Cochise behind him.

Hoss looked down at his young brother who was snuggled up close to his large chest. He hated to wake up the boy

but he needed to get down and stretch his weary body from the long ride in the saddle.

Over the last mile or two he had been rehearsing the lines in his head that he would say to his father to explain the

little mishap that Joe had fallen prone too.

The bandage had managed to stay in place for most of the trip and was hidden from view at the moment by Joe's

warm coat.

"Little Joe" Hoss said in a gentle voice as he nudged the boy awake enough to get off the horse.

Hoss looked up to see his father and big brother Adam walking towards the pair of them. Joe seen the two of

them as well and this put a spring into his step.

Little Joe ran and launched himself into his father's waiting arms and relished the warmth and security that only that

embrace could offer.

Almost immediately Joe was off into a tirade of words at an impossible speed. He barely took a breath as he tried to

fit the entire trip into one long unbroken sentence for his father and brother Adam.

"Slow down Little Joe" Ben said gently as he put his hand on Joe's upper arms to try and get the boy to calm

down some.

"OUCH" Joe cried out as Ben's hand encircled the bandaged cut on his arm. The wound had stopped bleeding,

but was still rather tender to the touch. "That hurts Pa" he admitted and pulled himself away from his father to

rub at his arm.

Ben now frowned, firstly upon his youngest son as he heard the cry of pain escape his son's mouth. Secondly at Hoss

would suddenly found the ground at his feet very interesting.

It wasn't that he didn't intend on telling his father about Joe's little encounter with the bear cub. He was just hoping for a

more opportune moment.

That chance had been just blown to pieces by Joe's sudden exclamation as Ben touched the sore arm.

Adam's expression changed as he leaned back with his arms folded in front of him waiting for his younger brother's

explanation to their father.

"What happened to your arm Joseph" Ben asked as he tried to grab a hold of his son gently so as not to hurt him.

Joe gulped a little as he looked back at Hoss and realised that he had blurted everything out before Hoss had a

chance to smooth things over.

"Let's go inside first Pa" Hoss said in a nervous voice as he gave a quick smile back to Joe to say that it was

okay. "Joe's real tired after our trip Pa, he went to sleep in the saddle. If we go inside, I'll explain what happened

and you can tend to Joe's arm."

"And just what happened out there for me to need to attend to Joe's arm Hoss" Ben asked again, trying to get

the answer he desired before they went inside.

Hoss took Joe by the arm and started to lead him into the house. Ben and Adam were left to follow with a

million questions on their minds.

Outside, the sky threatened with a storm as a result of the hot conditions throughout the day. That combined

with the humidity and the cool breeze that now blew would result in thunder and lightening before dawn.

Joe now sat on the settee and started to remove his overcoat. It was only now under the lights of the house

that Ben and Adam noticed the torn fabric on the sleeve of the coat. They could also see some blood stains

on the coat as well.

"Oh Joe" Ben said as he spotted the handkerchief wrapped around the wound. "What happened son" he said

in gentler tones. Adam had gone to get a basin, some water and a cloth to clean the wound. Ben tried not

to look worried as he finally got to see the cause of his youngest son's discomfort.

"How does it look Pa" Hoss asked anxiously. He wanted to know that his little brother was going to be alright.

Ben looked up and saw the concern on his middle son's face and forced him to wait until Joe was settled before

finding out exactly what happened. Although he knew Joseph was quite capable of telling him. Hoss would

be less dramatic and wouldn't leave out any vital bits of information during his explanation. By the look of

Joe's tired eyes, it looked as though the boy was ready for bed anyway.

Ben moistened the corner of the cloth in the warm water from the basin and gently dabbed at the wounded

area. Joe turned his head away, biting his lip and trying not to let his tears fall as a result of the stinging sensation.

Ben tried to be as gentle as he could, but he also needed to check that the gash had no signs of infection.

He needed to make sure that all the dirt and cloth had been removed from the wound.

Ben would have like Paul Martin to have a look at the wound as well. But he had seen the sky himself earlier

and knew that there would be quite a downpour before dawn. The wound looked clean enough. He would

get Adam to see Paul in the morning when Adam went into Virginia City to place the bid on the new lumber


Ben dried the wound and when he was satisfied that everything was in order, he wrapped a clean white bandage

around the gash. He looked down at his son and noted that the boy could barely keep his eyes awake. He

was quite certain that the boy wasn't suffering from any ill effects of shock or blood loss or any other more serious

ailment. The long ride home had simply worn him out. Completing the same distance in under two days also

made for a long arduous journey for any rider.

"Okay young man, let's get you settled in your own bed" Ben said. Joe barely opened his eyes to his father's

request and obeyed completely as he found himself being lifted off the couch by his father and carried up the

stairs to his bed. Adam and Hoss had followed, just to make sure that Joe was okay. Ben laid the already

sleeping boy on the bed and then covered him with a light quilt. He brushed the stray hair out of the boy's

eyes and gently kissed him on the temple before bidding him goodnight.

Ben gestured Adam and Hoss out of the room and the three of them went downstairs ready for Hoss to relay

what had happened.

Hoss poured himself a cup of coffee from the kitchen and then proceeded to tell Ben and Adam about finding

the rusty old trap yesterday. Ben and Adam could both sense the hidden anger slowly starting to bubble to

the surface as Hoss spoke in low tones about his dislike of such tools. Hoss didn't think it was the time or

place to discuss what Joe had said about dropping out of school. He would leave that for another day.

Hoss told them about hearing Joe scream early this morning and then coming down to the stream to see

him rescuing a bear cub from another trap in the mud. Ben had paled as Hoss told him about the threat

the mother bear might have posed to his youngest son and was grateful that Joe was now safe and sound

in his own bed.

Hoss retired soon after finishing his cup of coffee leaving Ben and Adam to talk further about the lumber

contract they needed to worry about tomorrow.

Outside, the gentle spots of rain started to fall and within a few minutes became heavy soaking rain with

flashes of lightening that danced across the sky and rumbles of thunder as the clouds came together.

Adam was due to put in the bid for the lumber contract tomorrow morning. He had spent most of the

day before Hoss and Joe returned pouring over the figures, adjusting them here and recalculating them here

until he was utterly sick of looking at numbers.

There was a new mine opening up on the Comstock. The owner was a very wealthy man by the name

of Rowland Collins. At the discussion meetings earlier in the week Collins made it abundantly cleared to

all interested parties that whoever took on his lumber contract, could expect a lot of work to deliver the

large amounts of timber required for the mine. On the other hand, the right bidder could also expect to

make a handsome profit at the end of the day.

It was just the sort of opportunity Adam saw as a great investment not only to the Ponderosa, but also

to extend the lumber mill they had running and employ some more of the local men. However, the

Cartwright's new that there was at least half a dozen other people interested in bidding and winning the

contract. They were unaware of the methods that some of them would implore to get their own way.

Adam was part the way through telling Ben about his bid and the figures he had carefully worked out

for the contract, when there was a huge flash of lightening outside followed by a very loud clap of thunder.

The thunder had been loud enough to wake Joe from his sleep and Ben immediately got up from the table

and ascended the stairs as he heard his son's whimpers of fright. It was no secret that Little Joe was afraid

of storms. It had been something that started when he was very young, even when Marie was still alive.

The Cartwright's had assumed that given time the fear would gradually subside as the boy grew older and

more accustomed to the noise. This was not to be though and to this day on stormy nights, Ben and Adam

could be assured of spending at least some time during the night consoling the frightened lad until he finally

went back to sleep.

The next morning, Hoss and Adam were seated at the breakfast table with their father as usual. Hoss was

just about to complete his morning ritual of waking his younger brother for school when Ben put a gentle

restraining arm on Hoss's forearm as he got up from the table.

"I thought I'd let him stay home today Hoss" Ben said as he lifted his coffee cup to his lips. He could see

the questioning glances from both sons over the rim of the cup and knew that he would have to explain his

reasons to them both.

"I want Paul to take a look at that wound just to be on the safe side" Ben said "And besides, after such

a long trip I figured your younger brother could use the extra sleep. Those roads leading into the city

are going to be very boggy today and I don't want him riding to school on his own in conditions such as

that. He might come of Cochise on the way to school and cause himself a more serious injury".

Hoss and Adam gave each other looks that said everything. Ben could try and explain his actions as much

as he liked, but both of his older boys knew that keeping Little Joe home today from school today was just

him showing his concern for the boy and basically being an old mother hen.

Hoss had to laugh to himself about the conversation he and Joe had about him dropping out of school. Apparently

all Joe needed to do was show a little blood and give his father that sad puppy dog look to win him over and

be allowed to stay home from school. Hoss was fairly certain that if Joe acted the part well enough he would

be able to have his way almost as often as he liked. There was just something Joe possessed that enabled him to

wrap his father around his little finger any time he wanted to. Unfortunately Hoss knew all too well that there were

other family members who often found themselves being persuaded by those same big green puppy dog eyes

when it suited Joe.

"I'd better make a start Pa" Adam announced as he got up from the table. "As you say those roads into Virginia

City could be pretty boggy today and I only have an hour before the tender closes on that lumber contract."

"Be sure that you see Paul Martin before you make your way home and tell him that I would like him to stop by

when he can and take a look at your brother." Ben reminded him. "And you might drop by and give Joe's apologies

to Miss Jones this morning as well. Tell her that Joe can collect whatever extra work he missed out on tomorrow."

"I'll be sure to tell her Pa" Adam said "And I promise that I won't leave before seeing Paul".

Adam bid his good mornings to his family and made his way out to the barn and his mount Sport. He had carefully

folded the bid documents and tucked them into his jacket pocket. He was cutting it a bit fine by leaving the bid

until the last minute but was confident enough that the Cartwright tender would win the valuable contract when all

the bids were compared with each other. The profit they could make would set the Ponderosa up nicely for the

next few months and hopefully see them successfully through the difficult winter ahead.

While Adam was riding along the road to Virginia City, the other bidders for the lumber contract had started to

gather outside the general store for the closing time. Due to the size of the contract, there were only a few serious

contenders able to supply the large amount of timber sought. There was Mr Bill Scruggs who had a forest of

logging timber over forty miles away from the Ponderosa. A second bid had been placed by Mr Abner Taylor.

The third bidder had sent a proxy to do his bidding for him. The man wanted to remain out of the public eye as

much as possible. Butch Thomas was the man hired to be his right hand man. Being that right hand man meant

doing everything that his boss normally would have done. Butch Thomas didn't care who he worked for or what

the work entailed. So long as there was a healthy pay packet at the end of every month he would do as he was

asked. In a few of the towns just outside of Virginia city the man had quickly gained a reputation as being a harsh man

with a mean fist and quick draw. He had rarely been seen in Virginia City and that suited him just fine. If he was

unknown, he could blend into the crowd easier and hide his true dealings.

Thomas knew that his boss Henry Williams wanted this lumber contract. It was the only thing that Thomas had

heard the man talking about over the last month. Williams made it clear that he wanted the contract no matter

what. He had warned Thomas about the Cartwright family and their influence over much of the Virginia City

population. Thomas had yet to met any of the so-called Cartwright's, but from what he had been told, they

were the only ones that posed a real threat to Williams winning the contract outright.

When Collins had first demonstrated his interest in obtaining timber in the area, Williams had been quick to take

the new mining entrepreneur aside and forcibly impress his offers to fulfil the mine's needs. Collins however

had backed away from the bullish tactics of Williams and openly invited tenders from all over the area before

making a final decision.

Thomas looked at his watch and noted that perhaps his boss had been wrong about the Cartwright's being a

threat to his contract. There was but five minutes to go before the tender closed and he hadn't heard any mention

of the Cartwright name this morning.

Collin's secretary Mr Eugene Nelson now stepped out onto the veranda and looked at his watch also.

"Well gentlemen, it looks as though it is almost time to close the tender and start examining the bids." Nelson

said over the bridge of his spectacles. "Before I say tender closed, is there any last minute bidders yet to

place their documentation before me for determination?"

The sound of a galloping horse could be heard coming down the street now at a great pace. Adam Cartwright

bolted off his roan mount Sport and dashed towards Mr Nelson with his papers held out in his hand. By the

time he reached the veranda, he was slightly out of breath from his dashed efforts to get there on time.

The roads had been even worse than Ben suggested and Adam was glad that his father opted to keep Little

Joe home today and not allow him to ride along such roads on his own. There were large ruts all the way

down the road and some dangerous foot holes in places that could see a horse and rider come to grief if they

were not totally concentrating.

"Sorry I'm late Mr Nelson, but the roads are very bad today after the storm last night" Adam said in his deep

baritone voice.

Thomas had been standing furthest away from the crowd and now peeked a look at the new contender from

underneath the brim of his hat.

"That's alright Mr Cartwright, I was a little worried that you weren't going to make it on time. I'm sure that

all your papers are in order Adam. Please give my regards to your father when you return home." Nelson said

as he took the bid documents from Adam.

"Gentleman as you are probably aware, going over all of these papers is going to take more than one day. My

colleague and I will look at all your bids in turn and assess them according to merit. If you would all return

one week from today at this same place, my associate Mr Collins will announce the successful winner of the

contract. I trust you have a pleasant day." he added and then turned to walk back to their makeshift office

behind the General Store.

"Mr Williams isn't going to like this very much" Thomas said to himself as he watched Adam Cartwright mount

his horse again and ride off back down the street.

Adam had only travelled a few metres down the road when he saw the person he was looking for walking along

the row of store fronts. He hitched his horse at the nearest railing and went to speak to the silver-haired

man known as Doctor Paul Martin.

Thomas had seen Adam meet with the middle-aged doctor and moved closer to the pair so as to try and over

hear the conversation. He knew very little about these Cartwright people and much of what he had heard

was by word of mouth only. He needed to discover for himself what sort of men the Cartwrights were. The

one known as Adam Cartwright certainly looked a good enough adversary. Was the rest of the family the

same. Maybe Williams had taken on a family a bit more out of his league. Maybe he would have to forget

about this contract and look for another opportunity down the track.

It was only after hearing the conversation for a few minutes that Thomas began to gather information that

might prove very useful.

"Pa wanted to know if you could come out and take a look at Little Joe Paul" Adam said. "He and Hoss

returned from their hunting trip yesterday but it seems Joe got clawed by a bear. It's not too serious and

Pa cleaned it out as best he could and kept Little Joe home from school today but he wanted you to come

and take a look and make sure that there was no risk of infection. You know how Pa feels about his

youngest son" Adam added.

Paul Martin nodded his head in agreement. If there was anything more stable in this world of uncertainty,

it was the unconditional love of Ben Cartwright towards his sons but especially towards his youngest son

Joseph. It was no secret to Adam, Hoss or the rest of Virginia City that Ben looked out for the boy

at every turn. "I'll just get my bag from my office Adam and I will get out there as I make my way to

the Wilson farm."

Thomas's mind started filtering some of the information he was hearing. Looking at Adam Cartwright he

guessed the man's age to be about 27 or so. But here he was talking about somebody else in the family

who still attended school. He had assumed from the information given that all the Cartwrights were grown

men. Listening to this conversation it appeared that this was not the case. Maybe there was some possible

leverage here that might work to his boss's advantage. Neither he or his boss were above such things

as blackmail or physical force to obtain their objectives. Williams normally just hired somebody else to

do the dirty work for him. Maybe there was a way to persuade the Cartwright's to withdraw their bid

from the tender with just the right amount of pressure and the right amount of threatening.

Thomas quickly withdrew from his current position in the shadows and walked down the alley way in the

opposite direction to avoid being seen. He had to go back and tell Williams about the Cartwright's putting

in a bid, but maybe they could discuss an alternative way to win the contract back.

Adam mounted his horse again and started riding towards his last errand before returning to the Ponderosa.

He needed to get back and inform his father about the state of the road. Hopefully with enough time left

in the day, they could get a group of ranch hands together and do some repairs to the road before the afternoon

was out.

As Adam entered the house he could hear his father's voice echo throughout the room. By the sound of things

his father was having trouble keeping an active 15 year old boy entertained by himself.

"Joseph will you please find something useful to do for the afternoon or I will find some school work for you

to do" Ben threatened. The morning had progressed relatively okay due to the boy sleeping in until after

9.00am. After a small breakfast, Joe had attempted to keep himself occupied by helping Hop Sing in the

kitchen with his weekly baking.

Hop Sing usually did a week's worth of baking of things such as bread, cakes and biscuits that would see

the whole family through until the end of the week. If he did this, there only came the necessity to bake

an occasional apple or apricot pie for dessert during the week. Despite all of his culinary expertise, it was

often the case that he ran out of pastries and sweet things early due to having to keep up with Hoss's appetite.

Hop Sing didn't mind cooking extra for his family. It was exactly through these eyes that he saw the Cartwright

family. He had been there almost from the time Ben Cartwright arrived on the site of the yet to be Ponderosa.

He had seen the young men grow from young boys into mature and responsible adults. As for Little Joe,

well he would always have a special place in the little oriental man's heart. Hop Sing had been there the little

curly haired baby demanded to greet the world three weeks early. From the moment he saw the tiny infant he

promised himself and the gurgling child in the crib that he would be there no matter what. As the baby grew

into a toddler and into a boy, those feelings only seemed to grow stronger until Hop Sing felt more protective

than ever over the youngest member of the family.

All these feelings though had been pushed to the limit this morning when Joe first walked into the kitchen and

offered to help with the baking. Within only an hour there was more flour and sugar on the kitchen floor and

on Joe himself than in the mixing bowls.

Ben had been busily working at his desk on some payroll figures when he heard the initial tirade of Cantonese

followed by Little Joe running from the kitchen with Hop Sing close behind wielding a rolling pin.

"You tell little boy to keep out of kitchen or Hop Sing get mad. Floor all white from split flour. Little Joe

too messy in Hop Sing's kitchen. Father keep boy busy or no supper fixed for tonight for anybody." he

said as he stomped back towards his kitchen still muttering some incoherent words.

"I was only trying to help Pa" Joe said giving his best innocent and hurt look towards his father. He had

tried to mix the batter the way Hop Sing showed him. It looked so easy when he saw it being done.

Joe reached up and brushed some of the snow white flour from his curly brown hair and walked over closer

to his father's desk. "I'm bored Pa" he finally admitted whilst sitting on the edge of the table.

"Don't sit on the table please Joseph" Ben said trying to keep his temper in check. He knew that the boy

meant well and didn't want to hurt his feelings. "How's your arm feeling this morning?" Ben said attempting

to change the topic of conversation.

"Um, oh it's fine Pa" Joe answered too quickly. Joe usually tried his best to hide how he was feeling physically.

He didn't like being sick or injured, but the threats of getting a doctor were even worse to Little Joe, so he had

learnt over the years to hide his grimaces and keep his aches and pains to himself.

Joe knew it was pointless to ask his father about going outside, so he stretched himself out on the couch and

tried to look as though he was reading one of Adam's books. Truth be known, Joe's arm had begun to

ache a little from all the mixing in Hop Sing's kitchen. Ben was suddenly drawn away from his books and

paperwork by the total silence of the room. He got up from his desk and smiled tender-heartedly at the sight

of his young son curled up on the settee sound sleep.

He couldn't help but note how painfully much his son looked like Marie. It was even more evident when those

dark lashes closed over the boy's emerald green eyes in slumber. The boy looked no more than thirteen, much

younger than his actual age of sixteen.

That is how Joe remained for over an hour before Adam came into the living room and heard his brother arguing

with his father.

"How'd you go in town son?" Ben enquired as he glanced up to see Adam walking in.

"Fine Pa" Adam replied "Got the bid in just in the nick of time. I think we should really well if we are lucky enough

to win the contract. I also ran into Doc Martin and asked him to come out." he added and instantly knew he had

gotten the expected scowl from Joe. Joe now sat on the couch in a huff looking at the floor. How things had turned

against him so much in a day he couldn't work out. He had been yelled at and chased by Hop Sing with a rolling pin,

he wasn't allowed to do anything but look at the four internal walls of the house and now Adam was telling him that

Doc Martin was on his way as well. Probably to only prod and poke him a bit and then tell his father that all he needed

was rest. Rest, in Joe's opinion was the last thing he needed right now.

Adam could sense Joe's unhappy mood at being cooped up in the house all morning and decided to help out both

his brother and his father at the same time. "Pa, that road going to Virginia City sure needs some repairing today.

There are lots of dangerous ruts and crevices since the storm last night. I want to take a few of the ranch hands and

fill in a few of those holes before somebody gets hurt. It would only take somebody riding along that rode and not

looking at where they were going, to have a serious accident occur." Adam gave his father all the clues in the world

to indicate that he actually meant his little brother. It was no secret that Joe rode his horse at neck breaking speed

anytime his father wasn't watching. Joe would only need to race along the narrow stretch of dirt and have Cochise

step into an unseen hole. Both horse and rider could be seriously injured or killed.

Ben did get the meaning of his son's suggestions. "And I suppose you would like your younger brother to accompany

you this afternoon as well Adam?" he asked whilst looking in Joe's direction. Joe's head quickly snapped up at hearing

that he may be indeed rescued from his boredom.

"Could I really Pa?" Joe said in his most innocent voice. He gave a certain puppy dog look that all the other Cartwrights

only knew so well and both Adam and Ben rolled their eyes in mock disgust as the boy's antics.

"I don't really see why not" Ben began "So long as you stick with Adam and do as you are told. And after you

have been seen to by Doc Martin" he added and noted another scowl marring his son's handsome face in an instant.

He and Adam chuckled at loud at Joe's performance.

Waiting impatiently for another hour, Joe was soon being poked and prodded like he guessed by the family's physician

and friend Doctor Paul Martin.

"I don't think there's too much to worry about Ben" Paul said as he rewrapped the gash on Joe's arm in a fresh

bandage. "The wound looks nasty, but it's nice and clean and there is no sign of infection. I think he should be

right to return to school tomorrow although it wouldn't hurt for you to alert the teacher to the injury. I wouldn't

suggest he play any rough games for a couple of days and he shouldn't be lifting anything too heavy."

"Other than that he's fit as a fiddle Ben" Paul said getting off the couch and preparing to leave again.

"Thanks for coming at such short notice Paul" Ben said as he shook the doctor's hand. "I appreciate it".

"Goodbye Adam and Joe" Paul said as he exited the front door. "Let me know if you need me again Ben".

Ben returned inside and noticed Adam getting ready to go back out and fix the road with the hands. "You

be careful Joseph and remember what the doctor said about heaving lifting."

"I'll remember Pa" Joe said a little exasperated. He knew that his family meant well and cared for him, but

sometimes he just wanted to be let alone to do things on his own.

Adam and Joe spent a good three hours out on the road helping the hands to fill in some of the holes on the

dirt road. Joe had been restrained in doing too much by Adam and mostly watched as the men worked, but

at least he was outside. A couple of times he had been able to shovel in some dirt into the holes, but after only a

few minutes, he discreetly put the tool down and rubbed at his aching arm. He resumed his earlier position of

watching from near the horses until they were ready to head for home.

That night the family settled at the table to a fine table for supper. The topic of conversation changed a number

of times from Hoss's day with the stock to the progress of repairing the road. Adam told Ben that he thought

the road was now safe enough for Joe to go to school tomorrow. Adam had suggested that maybe somebody

should ride with him in the morning, but Ben could see the temper flair in his son at this idea and calmly said that

he was sure that Joe would be sensible and careful enough to ride on his own. What he didn't tell Joe was that

he planned to be in Virginia City towards the end of school and could see to it that the boy made it safely home.

After supper Joe and Hoss played three rounds of checkers before Ben announced that it was time for Joe to

go to bed. Joe grumbled at the time as he looked and noticed it was half and hour earlier than usual. A quick

look at his father's stern, determined face told Joe he had better think again about arguing and he reluctantly bid

his older brothers goodnight before climbing the stairs.

Ben retired to his own bed about two hours later but made sure that his young son was sleeping soundly first.

He crept into the room as was the custom each night and turned down the lamp beside the bed. The dim light

now bathed Joe's face in a soft golden light. Ben couldn't help but feel a lump rise to his throat as he watched

his youngest sleep. There were times such as these when the words to express how much he loved the boy

just wouldn't come. He gently stroked the boy's cheek and closed the door as he left the room.

The next morning saw Joe rushing around at the last minute trying to get ready for school again. He had gotten

dressed and was putting his boots on at the breakfast table and still have enough time to finish his eggs before

he had to leave.

"Sorry Pa gotta go" he said as he raced out through the front door towards the barn. He quickly saddled Cochise

and was about to mount his horse and ride off when Adam appeared at the doorway to the barn with something

in his hand.

"You forgot these Joe" Adam said as he held up Joe's school books. He let Joe mount and then proceeded to

tuck the books in the boy's saddle bags. He buckled up the strap on the bag and give his brother a quick wave

as the boy started riding towards the school. At this rate the boy would still be about 10 minutes late for school

but at least he would have something to learn from when he turned up there late.

"Thanks" was the reply and Joe rode out of sight.

Adam returned to the house and to the table, ready to discuss his day's work with his father.

For whatever reason, this morning Joe had heeded his father's words about taking it slowly and carefully along

the repaired road. When asked a few months later, he would not be able to come up with a satisfactory answer

to the question of why he didn't race to school as normal. There were a lot of things about that particular

morning that would remain in his memory for a long time to come. There were a few things about that morning

that he would never forget.

As Joe neared the halfway mark between the Ponderosa and Virginia City, he came upon a peculiar site on the

roadway. He stopped his horse Cochise a few metres from the spot until he worked out exactly what he was

looking at.

It appeared that a man was laying in the middle of the road. Who he was or why he was there Joe didn't know.

Normally he would have been riding too fast to stop and take note, but something inside him told him that he

should stop and check that the man didn't need help or anything. From the way it looked at the moment the man

could be hurt or dead because he wasn't moving at all.

Over in the trees along the roadway, two other figures watched the young curly-haired man stop his horse and

dismount. The boy was craning his neck trying to see if the man was moving or not. He dropped the reins of

his horse and started to walk a little closer to the man. He was now at the man's feet and he still showed no

signs of moving and so decided he best try and shake the man awake.

Just as he bent down and placed his hand on the man's shoulder, the figure on the roadway moved. He not only

moved but Joe now found himself falling backwards and looking straight down the barrel of the man's gun as the

man rolled over and pulled himself into a sitting position. The man wasn't hurt or dead, it was all a trick to get

somebody to stop. Unfortunately Joe said to himself, he was that somebody.

Joe had no gun with him and so no means of defending himself if necessary. "Look mister, I just stopped to see

if you were alright, that's all" he said nervously whilst still maintaining his sight on the gun pointed at him.

"Looks like this just ain't your lucky day kid" the man said as he now moved himself into a standing position while

still pointing the gun at Joe. He let out a whistle and now Joe turned his head towards the two other men who

appeared from behind the trees and started to walk towards him.

It was now that Joe told himself to run. He didn't know who these men were or what they wanted, but he knew

it couldn't be good for him. He hastily tried to get to his feet and take off at a run in the opposite direction. If he

could just make it back to Cochise, he would be safe. He could mount Cochise and be far away from his would-be

attackers in a matter of seconds.

The two men to Joe's left saw the teenager trying to make a run for it and get to his horse and immediately began

to pursue him. They couldn't afford to let the kid get away.

Joe knew that he was too far away for his screams of help to be heard by his family but that didn't stop him from

trying to alert somebody to his situation. He started yelling for somebody to help him and for the men to leave him

alone as he ran. Due to the state of the road, it was an unseen rock that Joe tripped over while trying to get

away that allowed the men to catch him. Joe had come down painfully on his knees and was just starting to

scramble to his feet again in desperation when he felt a pair of hands grab him around his chest and start dragging

him backwards.

He was now scared and it made him try and scream louder for somebody to help him. His cries of help were

quickly cut off by one of the assailant's placing his rough and calloused hand over the boy's mouth and clamping

it down tight. Both of the men now started to drag the still struggling boy off the roadway out of sight behind

the trees. The third man tried to catch a hold of the reins of Cochise and led him behind the thicket of trees as


Joe struggled and struggled to get away from his attackers, but the men were just too strong and no matter how

hard he kicked and fought, their grip still remained vice like around his chest. The hand over his mouth still

remained firmly in place and Joe thought he would pass out from the lack of oxygen.

Joe now felt himself roughly pushed against the trunk of a tree and the men tried to get the upper hand and

restrain him. Joe was still trying to yell through the hand over his mouth. He could see Cochise giving the

third man a hard time and hoped that somehow his animal friend might find a way to help free him.

Joe felt his wrists being bound together tightly by rough fibrous string out in front of him. His ankles were

next. There was no way he could run anywhere now. He was trapped. It was now that the hand over

his mouth released briefly. Joe took this opportunity and tried to scream for help again. He was quickly

silenced by a savage slap across his face that stung from the force. Joe now looked towards the face of

the man in front of him and he could feel tears welling up in his eyes.

"If you scream again, I promise you worse than that" the man said. The voice was cold and hard and although

barely above a whisper, something about it made Joe take note of what was being said to him.

"How we gonna get him away from here now Butch?" one of the other men asked the leader standing in front

of Joe.

"You just leave the thinking to me. I've got this all figured out." Thomas said. "You two just make sure the

horses are saddled and ready to go in a few minutes. We have to get out of here quickly. Somebody might

be coming along here in a minute and I want to be long gone before that happens. This kid ain't going nowhere

I assure you" he added and looked directly at Joe as he said the words.

"Who are you and what do you want with me?" Joe asked nervously.

"Don't ask too many questions kid and you might live through this" Thomas answered. "We just want your

Daddy to sit up a listen for a minute. After he does what we tell him, you can go back to him" Somehow the

words sounded very fake to Joe as he looked upon his captors. They hardly looked like the kind to keep their


"And now my little friend, it's time for you to go to sleep for a while" Thomas said "And when you wake up,

you will be in a nice new little place far far from here. Now hold still a minute, this stuff takes a minute to actually

work." he said as Joe watched him pulled a coloured handkerchief from his pants pocket.

The checkered cloth had a pungent smell to it that was unmistakeable: ETHER. Even though Joe was only sixteen,

he had learnt enough from Doc Martin over the years to know what the stuff was and what it's effects were when

used on people. It was now that Joe became even more afraid for his life and started to struggle against his bonds

and captors once more.

"That won't do you any good kid" Thomas said with an evil chuckle as he started descending the cloth towards the

boy's face. Joe tried to turn his head away in an attempt to avoid the intoxicating fumes. One of the other men

grabbed Joe's head by his curly hair and forced his face towards the cloth. Thomas was now able to secure the

cloth of Little Joe's mouth and nose. The kid had started to scream for help again, but the cries were now muffled

by the cloth and barely audible for anybody to hear him.

Joe tried to hold in his breath in an attempt not to breath in the fumes. His attempts failed however and as soon as

Joe released the breath, the fumes began to invade his nostrils and sinuses. He could feel his head beginning to

swim from the drug and he began to feel very light-headed. He told himself that he couldn't afford to fall asleep while

in the hands of these men. They wanted to take him away from his family.

Thomas became impatient at how long the drug was taking to work and pressed the cloth even firmer against the

boy's mouth and nose. By now the kid's struggles had become weaker and weaker. Soon they ceased all together

and he felt Joe's body go completely limp. The boy's knees began to buckle and he had to grab the kid around

the chest again to prevent him collapsing to the ground. The boy was now unconscious. Thomas held the cloth

in place for a few more minutes before removing it. He placed it back in his pocket knowing that it might be necessary

to dose the kid again along the way. The ride to the shack was about six hours and he had no idea how long the

kid would be asleep. He slapped the kid on the face a couple of times just to be sure that he was unconscious.

Joe was deeply under the effects of the Ether and didn't even stir at the slaps. Thomas now secured a blindfold

over Joe's eyes and then tied him face down over the front of his horse. A blanket was placed over the top of

the kid to avoid the possibility of him being seen as the men rode.

Thomas now mounted his horse along with the other men. Cochise was tethered to one of the low hanging branches

of the trees.

"Make sure that you tuck that note into his saddle somehow" Thomas said to the third man before they started their

journey. The man did as he was asked but decided that he would like to have Joe's saddle bags as a souvenir.

He unbuckled the saddle bags with Joe's initials and then tucked the rolled piece of paper in the front part of the

saddle. The trio now rode off down a different trail towards their hide-out with their hostage.

Joe's family assumed he should have been at school today. It wouldn't be until much later in the day that they would

discover the boy's forced disappearance. By that time the three men with their hostage were almost at their intended

destination. The trip had been a long one for all. Mostly because they had kept the pace up during the whole journey

in fear that the boy would be discovered missing sooner rather than later. They wanted to make sure that if any search

party were looking for the kid that they had a sufficient head start.

The small shack came into view and the three men almost sighed relief at the sight. They were lucky that their kidnap

victim had remained under the effects the Ether for the entire trip. Joe had made a few inaudible moans during the

arduous ride face down on the horse, but the sound of the hooves racing along the dirt road muffled them to the extent

that his assailants never even knew that the unconscious boy made them.

The horses stopped out front of the shack and started breathing hard to slow down their heart rates and regain some

of their lost energy. Their masters wearily climbed down from their backs and walked forward to open the door

to the abandoned dwelling. The front door swung open with a creak and revealed a sparsely furnished two-roomed

shack. It was obvious that not only had the place been abandoned a very long time ago, the infrequent visits during

the year by squatting trappers had seen the little shack fall into a state of disrepair. There were a few hand-made

rickety chairs. Enough for one each for the men. They all looked like they were ready to fall apart as soon as someone

sat on their unsteady frames.

There was a small pot belly stove in one corner of the larger room, but it was of no use as part of the chimney was missing

from the top. They wouldn't be able to start a fire without suffocating themselves in all the smoke that would result.

The floor was rock hard dirt that had been worn down with years of continual trampling over it. The men were now

thankful that they had all brought along their bedrolls. At least they would be grated a little comfort from the cold that

would permeate the floor during the cool nights with their blankets and saddles.

There was very small room to the left of the larger one. It was probably used as a single bedroom when the shack

was permanently occupied, but for now Butch Thomas surveyed the area and marked the room as a cell for his

hostage. At least with the kid in there, escape would be almost impossible without the three of them seeing his attempts

to flee first.

The man had brought a few days supply of food and water with them. They would just have to endure the rest of

the primitive conditions for a few days until Cartwright came to the party and withdrew his bid for the lumber contract.

Butch Thomas untied his saddle and bedroll from his horse first. He set them up inside so that he would soon be able

to get a few hours sleep. He knew that the next few days would be long and tedious until they got word from Williams

or Cartwright.

Thomas had instructions that no matter what the probable outcome, he was to make sure that Cartwright

was taught a lesson through his son. Thomas was told that he had to keep the kid alive until the ransom note was

received, but other than that Williams put Thomas in complete charge. He and Thomas had discussed that the

way to hurt Ben Cartwright the most was through one of his treasured sons. Thomas had assured Williams that

although he wouldn't kill the boy, he wanted to make sure that the boy never forgot the name Butch Thomas.

He wanted the boy to fear his very presence no matter where he was. He would become the kid's ultimate

nightmare. One that was real and came back to haunt the boy time and time again, even once the kid was back

with his family.

Of course there would be the physical injuries to remind the boy as well. He intended to deliver a few so called

"bumps and bruises" to Little Joe, but after a time they would heal and the kid would eventually forget that he

had ever been under the control of Butch Thomas. What Thomas intended to inflict on the boy mentally was a

life time of torture and torment that would scarcely leave the boy alone. He wanted to make sure that the kid would

never ever forget.

Butch Thomas walked out to his horse for a second time and pulled the blanket from the limp form still bound

over the front part of the horse. The boy was still unconscious. Thomas was mentally kicking himself thinking that

he had over done things with the Ether and the kid would already be dead before he could have some fun with him.

He was brought back to reality with the small groans that escaped the boy's cracked lips as he hauled Joe's body

from the horse and dumped him unceremoniously on the hard dirt floor of the smaller room inside the shack.

It looked as though the kid might prove to be a tougher nut to crack than he first gave the kid credit for. The kid

might turn out to be a challenge after all. He would just have to wait and see he told himself and grinned devilishly

at the thought of the days ahead.

Thomas didn't bother to remove the blindfold from Little Joe's eyes. He looked at the crumpled form laying on

the hard dirt floor. The kid didn't move or make any sounds. It was enough to assume that the kid would continue

to sleep for a few more hours. Time enough for the weary kidnappers to get some shut-eye of their own.

Thomas closed the door to the small room and went about laying down on his bedroll. He didn't bother to spare

their hostage a blanket for warmth. He only had one and he wasn't about to give it up for any kid, no matter what

the kid might be worth money wise. Thomas now closed his eyes and drifted off into a dreamless sleep. The other

two men were already asleep in their own bedrolls. The little shack was completely silent once again.

Ben Cartwright had filled his day with a few menial chores around the ranch. It was about 2.00pm, after lunch that

he rode into Virginia City. He had a few odd errands to run before he would conveniently turn up at his son's school

in time to accompany him home. Although his boy was now sixteen years old. The incident with the bear on the

camping trip reminded Ben of just how vulnerable his youngest son could be at times.

When he finally collected the mail at the post office, Ben looked at his watch and saw that he had a spare ten minutes

before Joe would be finished school. He told himself that this would be the perfect opportunity to sneak up on the

boy and see first hand how he was performing in Miss Abigail's class. He was reminded about the constant stream

of arguments that he and Joe seemed to be having lately about him leaving school early to work on the ranch with his


Ben was firm though and told Joe that he would not be leaving school for another year no matter what. He

secretly wished the boy would follow in Adam's footsteps and show some interest in attending college, he knew that

Joe had demonstrated on more than one occasion that he had no intentions whatsoever of attending college. Partly

because Joe feared leaving his family and familiarity behind. Joe would be lost in the big city and Ben would feel like

a piece of his soul had been taken away if Joe left the Ponderosa even for a short time. No Joe's home was with his

family on the Ponderosa and always would be.

Ben tethered Buck at the hitching rail outside the school. He briefly glanced at the stalls where the children kept their

horses during class. He was a bit disturbed when he didn't see the familiar black and white pinto amongst the other

animals. He started to wonder if school had been let out early and Joe had started off towards home on his own.

As Ben neared the front door to the school room, he could hear the deep even voice of the school teacher Miss

Abigail Jones as the children recited their multiplication table. This information told him that school had not been let

out early for the day. Where was Joe? he asked himself secretly. He started to imagine all sorts of reasons why

Joe wouldn't be at school. He told himself that he would be delivering a severe lecture and possibly a tanning to go

with it if one son had defied his wishes and actually skipped school today.

Ben's train of thought was interrupted by Miss Jones greeting him at the door. All the children giggled at the door

as they saw the school teacher making conversation with the eligible Cartwright. It was not secret in Virginia City

that Abigail Jones was a spinster on the hunt for a husband. A fine upstanding and wealthy citizen like Ben Cartwright

who was also a widow would be an excellent choice.

"Good Afternoon Mr Cartwright" Miss Jones said to Ben. "I trust that Joseph is feeling a little better today. I suspect

you have come to collect his day's work instead of Adam today?"

"Isn't Joseph here?" Ben said, asking the most obvious question. Already knowing the answer as well.

"I sorry Mr Cartwright, I don't understand" Miss Jones said a little perplexed. "Adam came by yesterday and

told me that Joseph had a minor accident whilst camping and wouldn't be attending yesterday. When Joseph didn't

turn up this morning, I just assumed that he still wasn't feeling the best and you had decided to keep him home another


"Miss Jones, Joseph left for school this morning like any other day" Ben said trying to hide the worry and anxiety starting

to build up inside him. "You say you haven't seen him all day?" he enquired.

"No Mr Cartwright I haven't. I trust everything is alright and Joseph hasn't done anything foolish" she said avoiding

Joe's sometimes flippant attitude towards his schooling. It was no secret to her either that Joe wished to be working

with his father and brothers rather than sitting in a classroom all day.

"I'm sure it is Miss Jones" Ben said as he prepared to go and start looking for his wayward son. "Don't worry,

Joseph will be here first thing in the morning and I will make sure that he catches up the lessons he had missed for

the last two days. Good day Miss Jones" he said and turned and quickly mounted Buck to head for home.

Ben tried not to think the worst of his son as he tried to work out why Joe hadn't attended school today. Maybe

there was an explanation for his absence. He was always ready to give his sons the benefit of the doubt, but he

also knew that if he found that Joseph had lied to him, the boy would be on the receiving some sort of punishment.

Ben failed to note that the quicker he got to the house, the quicker his pace. Something told him deep inside that

his son had not deliberately disobeyed him. A feeling of dread started to settle in the pit of Ben's stomach.

Adam and Hoss had been working on their chores when they heard the sound of pounding hooves approaching

the ranch yard. Both of them expected it to be the sound of their younger brother. They were both surprised when

they turned and saw their father gallop into the yard aboard Buck. They had seen their father continually chastise

their younger brother for running into the yard at such a pace. All of them remembered too well the day Joe's

mother Marie had been killed. Why was Pa running into the yard at such frightening speed?

"What's wrong Pa" Adam asked as he and Hoss walked over to their father as he dismounted from his horse.

Buck was lathered with sweat and they could tell that the horse had been running for some time. Something was


"Have either of you seen your younger brother today?" Ben demanded while he tried to catch his own breath.

Adam looked at Hoss and both of them shook their heads at one another. "No neither of us has seen him since

breakfast Pa" Adam answered for the both of them. "Why what's wrong?" he asked as he felt the worry and

concern radiating from his father.

"I just came from the school" Ben paused whilst he tried to scan his older boy's reaction "Joe never turned up

there today" he then added. "His horse wasn't in the stalls when I went past either. I don't think he even got

there this morning." he said trying to portray his concern as calmly as possible.

"Where would he have gone Pa" Hoss now asked. Ben could sense that Hoss was instantly worried about his

younger brother. Hoss wouldn't even have thought about the boy missing school. He just wanted to protect his

baby brother and make sure he went through life okay.

Ben was taken aback by Adam's reaction though. He knew that Adam was normally the first to dismiss the boy's

actions as careless and self-destructive. Ben fully expected Adam to come out saying that this sounded exactly

like something Joe would do lately. It certainly wasn't the first time that the boy didn't turn up at school.

This time however, there was immediate concern in Adam's reaction that made Ben's own worry divide and multiply.

"Has anybody seen him today?" Adam said as he logically tried to work out where the missing boy might have gone.

"I haven't had the chance to talk to anybody yet. Maybe that's where we should start first" Ben said secretly praising

his eldest son's ability to be calm at the time of a crisis. It was always Adam who steered this family through difficult

times and it looked as though this might be another such time. "Let's get saddled up and go back into town and ask

around and see if anybody has seen him today" Ben instructed. "Hoss you better saddle me one of other horses.

Buck's about done in for today from that ride home." Hoss gave a simple nod and headed into the barn to saddle

a horse for his Pa and his own horse Chubb.

Within twenty minutes the three of them were mounted on their respective horses and started down the road towards

Virginia City. All three of them rode in silence to begin with. They were lost in their own thoughts about what might

have happened to Joe. Ben felt a little uncomfortable on the unfamiliar horse. The animal moved okay, although not

as smoothly at his own horse Buck. The animal shied away from a few of the remaining ruts in the road and it took

most of Ben's concentration to control the nervous animal as they travelled. The rest of his concentration was directed

towards his youngest son and the whereabouts of the boy.

Adam's horse Sport was closest to the line of trees as they made their way towards the city. They had made some

basic plans about splitting up when they got to town to cut down the time frame and speak to as many people as

possible who might have seen Joe this morning on his way to school.

They were almost at the point where Joe had been taken from when Adam's horse began to slow down and

act strangely. Adam tried to talk to the horse calmly but still Sport moved one way and then the other. Ben and

Hoss had slowed their own horses down to try and assist Adam.

"What's wrong with him Adam" Hoss asked as Adam still struggled to get Sport to behave.

"I don't know Hoss" Adam said as he shortened the reins and tried to get the horse to stop his strange behaviour.

It was only then that they all heard a familiar whinny from underneath the line of trees to Adams's right.

Sport gave a reply and it was only then that all three of them realised why Adam's horse Sport had started to

act up as they rode past this particular spot.

Ben's hopes soared that they had found his son Joseph and all of them quickly rode towards the tree line.

When they neared the tree, Adam was the first to spot Joe's horse Cochise. The pinto again gave a whinny

as Sport and Chubb approached. The horses had been stable mates for a long time and hence the whining

when they where near each other.

Adam dismounted and walked over to the black and white painted horse. He was quickly glancing about

trying to see any signs of the rider, perhaps fallen and that was the reason he had failed to make it to school

today. His theory was quickly falling apart as neither of them could find any sign of Joe in the nearby area.

Cochise appeared to be unhurt. The horse seemed very calm and relaxed. Breathing was normal and not

laboured, indicating that the horse had been tethered to the tree for a number of hours. If the horse had

been here for some time as things suggested, where was Joe?

"Where could Joe be?" Ben asked out loud as he too began to scan the nearby road and area behind the

trees. Hopefully finding his son, maybe hurt from a fall of his horse, but found nonetheless. Still he couldn't

see the boy and his hopes quickly waned, being replaced by fear once again.

"Something don't add up Pa" Hoss now said to Ben, voicing his concern. "Joe would never leave Cochise

unattended for this length of time." Joe was careless at times but not this careless with Cochise.

Adam had walked around to the opposite side of Cochise to scan the area in the other direction for a sign

of his missing brother. He had moved his hand along the horse's rump towards his head whilst he walked

and it was only now that he spotted the rolled up piece of paper jutting out from the front of the saddle.

He seemed to be fixated to the spot for a few minutes as he tried to figure out what the piece of paper might

mean to his brother's whereabouts. His own fears began multiplying increasingly and he nervously took

the piece of paper out of it's hiding place.

"PA" Adam said in almost a whisper as he shakily handed his father the piece of paper. For just a moment,

Adam's deep brown eyes met those of his father. Words didn't need to be said as they could each read

the fear in the other man.

Ben nervously took the slip of paper from his eldest son. For a few seconds all he do was hold it in his hands

and wonder at what might be written on it. Could it hold a clue as to his son's disappearance. Something about

it told him that it held a much more sinister clue to Joe's whereabouts. He felt his heart pounding in his chest and

the his heart suddenly weighted very heavy as he thought of his youngest son.

Ben could feel the eyes of his son's looking at him. He knew that they wanted to see what was written on the piece

of paper as well. With hands as shaky as Adam's, he began to unroll the note.

At first the handwriting was so messy that Ben started to think that the note might actually be written by his left-handed

son. Maybe Joe was in some trouble was able to write a note to his family to tell them where he was to come and

help him. As Ben's eyes read down the piece of paper, his heart began to constrict even more at the words he

read and the threat that they held towards his youngest son.

Adam and Hoss wanted to shout at their father to read the note out loud. But something about the older man's

pale complexion caused them to become worried about their father. Ben suddenly felt as those his legs were too

weak to hold him up and without warning he fell to the hard ground on his knees. He still held the piece of paper

out enough to read the contents. Somehow he was trying to convince himself that what he was reading was a terrible

hoax. This couldn't be happening to his son he told himself. It was all a bad joke.

Adam and Hoss had gasped out loud as they saw their father overcome with emotion and fall to his knees as the

burden obviously became too much. They were about to try and help their father stand when they saw him gaze

back up at them. They could see that their father was barely holding back his tears. He handed the note to Adam

and motioned that he read it out aloud.

Adam looked at Hoss and then his father. His father seemed to be gaining control of himself but as Adam started

to read the note, Ben put his head in his hands as the words echoed in his mind.









The words were now echoing to Adam and Hoss and they trying to contemplate what sort of danger

their brother was in. Adam's thoughts were about the lumber contract. He was trying to figure out who was

desperate enough to get the contact. Who would stoop so low as to hold a boy's life up against the profit to

be gained by the felling of a forest of pine trees. At the moment with his mind still a whirl from the note, he couldn't

put a face to anybody that he immediately thought might be involved.

"If they hurt Little Joe" Hoss said as he tried to hold back the tide of anger within him. "I'll….I'll

I don't know what I'll do." he said in exasperation. He couldn't find the words he match the anger he felt.

"I know how you feel Hoss" Adam said putting a comforting hand on the big man's shoulder. "We all

feel that way right now" he added trying to justify the way his brother felt. In all honesty no matter how much

he denied it, he did feel that way, probably a whole lot more. He didn't know what he would do if he come

face to face with the men who held his baby brother. The fact that men used something as precious as a human

life, and a boy at that sickened him. From the wording on the note it seemed that there was at least more than

one person involved.

Ben was lost in thoughts about what might be happening to his young son at this very moment. Suddenly

his face of worry and pain turned to one of anger as his brown eyes darkened and he let the anger that they all

felt show openly. Adam and Hoss had rarely seen the flames of rage in their father's deep brown eyes that they

saw now. It made then take a step back and truly fear for their father. Ben had always taught his sons to avoid

revenge and retribution when it involved family. He had taught them to turn the other cheek and let the law handle

it. But right now Ben was having trouble finding comfort in his own words.

"Come on, we've got a lot to discuss back home" Ben said in a low and deadly voice. He mounted his

substitute horse and started to ride back towards the Ponderosa before Hoss and Adam had even swung into their


Once back at home, Ben walked over to his desk and leaned over the front of it whilst holding him up.

At first he said nothing as his sons walked through the door prepared to listen to Ben's plan about how to get

Little Joe back.

Adam and Hoss sat on the chairs behind their father, waiting for him to say the first words of his plan.

They could see that Joe's kidnapping deeply worried their father. They all wanted to see the youngest

member of the family back safe and well.

"What ever we decide to do, we have to keep the plans to ourselves" Ben said as he started the conversation.

It was only now that he turned around to face his other two sons. They both could see the pain and anguish

written all over the man's face.

"Adam, I want you to go to Mr Nelson and tell him that we are withdrawing our bid for the lumber contract."

Ben said.

"Do you think that's the best move" Adam asked without spelling out that he thought his father was giving up

too quickly. He knew how his father felt about Joe but maybe there was a way to draw out the kidnappers

and rescue Joe before they had to do anything hasty about the lumber contract.

"Yes" Ben said curtly expecting that his reply would be taken seriously. "I will word a carefully written letter

to Mr Nelson" Ben said as he gave a particular look to Adam.

Hoss had not cottoned onto Ben's idea about how to alert Joe's kidnapping to Sheriff without alerting their

intentions to Joe's abductors. If someone was watching them as the note suggested, they would have to be

very careful about what they did out in the open for everybody to see. They would have to conceal their plans

in order to carry out their goals without putting Joe's life in any further danger.

"Do you want me to write it Pa" Adam asked.

"Yes Adam, but I am going to tell you exactly what to say" Ben said. Hoss now knew how they planned to

alert Roy Coffee. Ben came over to the settee between his two eldest boys as they sat down to write the letter

that would look as if they were withdrawing their bid to the lumber contract as demanded. In addition to that

they had carefully concealed lines in the letter that would alert Mr Nelson and his employer to the predicament

the Cartwright's found themselves in. The letter asked for Mr Nelson to secretly give the letter to Roy Coffee

so that he could make careful note about Joe's abduction. The letter was strictly worded to tell Roy Coffee that

he wasn't to come out to the Ponderosa unless urgent. They told Roy about the family being watched and the

consequences threatened towards Joe if the kidnappers thought the law was involved in some way.

Half an hour after they arrived back home, Adam found himself back aboard Sport on the road to Virginia City.

At some point during the journey he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He knew that his follower

wasn't far behind. He just hoped that the plan they had worked out would help secure his brother's safe release.

He just wished they had some sort of clue as to the place where Joe was being held. At the moment they had

no idea.

When Adam arrived at Nelson's makeshift office behind the General Store, he made sure that his actions were

as deliberate as possible for his follower to see. He wanted the man to think that they were doing everything they

were asked to do.

Eugene Nelson looked up surprised to see Adam Cartwright walking into his office. He hadn't expected to see

any of the contract bidders for another couple of days.

"Adam Cartwright" Nelson greeted him as he got out of his chair and went to shake Adam's outstretched hand.

He could see Adam's deliberate actions and could see the younger man looking nervously about. He knew that

something was wrong. He didn't know what, but experience told him that whatever it was couldn't be good. He

told himself to play along with Adam for the time being and he was sure that the younger man would reveal the

true reason for his visit in due course.

"Just came to give you this letter of withdrawal for the lumber contract Mr Nelson" Adam said in a normal but

clear speaking voice. A volume that everybody would have easily been able to hear. He had heard the door

to the General Store open a few times since he walked in. He tried not to look back and see if he saw anybody

that might have information about his brother. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a smallish figure lurking

towards the back of the store looking aimlessly at some of the products on the shelf.

"Are you sure you want to withdraw your bid?" Nelson asked as he saw Adam's expression. The brown eyes told the man

not to ask too many questions.

"Yes I am sure Mr Nelson. Everything you need know is in that letter" Adam said. He briefly held Nelson's

gaze as the man tried to take the sealed envelope from his hand. Something about Adam's eyes told Nelson

that whatever was wrong, he would find the answer reading the letter.

Nelson tried to keep up appearances by quickly glancing at the letter as though it were a short note to withdraw

the bid. Upon looking at the letter he could se that there was much more detail to the letter, but he felt that he

would need to read the remaining contents of the letter in the safety of his office away from prying eyes.

Adam kept his meeting with Nelson as short as possible. He could see by the man's body language that Nelson

understood the secondary nature to the letter. He just hoped that Nelson wouldn't take any longer than necessary to

alert Roy to the family's loss.

Adam now rode back to the Ponderosa while his mind remained on what might be happening to his younger

brother. He still felt the company of his follower behind him until he was almost back at the ranch. He didn't

know exactly when the man stopped following him. He was too afraid for Joe to look back and try and discover

the direction of his travel.

Back in Virginia City Eugene Nelson had gone to his office and locked the door behind him. He had seen a

smallish man leave the store right after Adam and assumed that he must have been the reason for Adam's secrecy

and urgent behaviour. He had pulled out the folded letter once again and now read the letter word for word

very carefully. As the got further and further down the page his eyes widened at just how much trouble the

Cartwright's were in and what terrible danger Ben's youngest son Joseph was in. He made sure that he made

note of all the things in the letter he was supposed to see, especially the part about alerting the Sheriff but telling

him that he must under no circumstances come out to the ranch. Nelson slipped the letter back into his pocket

and calmly walked out the back door to his office and casually walked to the Sheriff's office as though to make

idle conversation.

Roy Coffee gave the man a brief greeting of hello as Nelson walked into his office. He could see the man looking

back and forth and all around as though somebody might be watching him.

"Can I help you there fella" Roy asked. It was now that Nelson walked over to the middle aged Sheriff and

whispered into his ear that he needed to talk to him in private.

Nelson had been diligent enough to close the door to Roy's jailhouse behind him as he walked in and now he

made sure that the door was locked. He pulled out the folded letter from Ben Cartwright and gave it to the

Sheriff to read.

Nelson remained silent as the Sheriff read the content to the letter. He too grew more concerned the further

down the page he read. He found his throat constricting with emotion at the thought of Little Joe being held

by people willing to hurt him.

Joe had been coming in and out of his jailhouse since the man could remember. The boy had been about

6 years old when he used to say a cheerful hello to the lawman. Nowadays the visits were less infrequent but

that didn't stop Roy's feelings towards the handsome young boy. He had read the lines from Ben about him

not going out to the Ponderosa. He knew why he must stay in town and put up a front but it struck at everything

that made him become a lawman and his very own soul to know that people he cared deeply about were being

threatened or hurt and he couldn't lift a finger to do anything about it. He told himself that he would keep an

eye on every drifter and stranger in the town over the next day or so, just to be sure that he couldn't find out

some information about Little Joe's whereabouts. After that he couldn't promise himself that he wouldn't go

out to the Ponderosa and start a search party or posse. For the moment he would abide by his friend's request

and just keep his eyes open.

Back at the Ponderosa, Adam and Hoss were buckling on their gun belts and getting their horses ready to ride

out and try and find some evidence that might lead them to their little brother. Ben had argued about him going

out as well until Adam reminded him about all of them being watched.

Adam proposed that if just he and Hoss went out and then split up, at least Ben would be at home if any further

notes came from the kidnappers or if they actually let Little Joe go. Hopefully the man who had

been following Adam had seen the transaction between himself and Nelson and was now well on his way to telling

his kidnapper friends that the bid was withdrawn and they would be soon making arrangements to release Little

Joe unharmed. Something in the back of his mind told him that this wasn't something that was going to happen

anytime soon, but he needed to hold onto the belief even if it was only for a little while.

Ben had finally and reluctantly agreed to stay at home in case there was further news about Joe. He watched

his eldest boy's ride off with an even heavier heart and he prayed that by morning he would have all of his

sons back at home safe and sound.

Back at the shack, the three men inside the larger room were just beginning to stir after three hours of solid, undisturbed

sleep. Thomas was the first to wake and stretched his tired and stiff muscles. He needed a strong cup of black

coffee, but even that luxury would be denied him and the others until they got a fire going outside the shack. He cursed

out loud at the conditions he was forced to endure and promised that he would be demanding a bonus from Williams

for his discomfort when he returned to collect the rest of his money. He had demanded half of the money before he

even took on the job, but now he knew that he should have asked for at least double before agreeing to staying in

run down lodgings such as these.

He had even played with the idea of asking the boy's father for ransom money in addition to the contract withdrawal.

With the information he had been given about how much the Cartwright family was actually worth, surely the father

would gladly part with a few measly thousand dollars in return for his youngest son. It's not as if he didn't have the

money. Thomas could kill two bird at the same time, collect his money and the proposed bonus from Williams and

also gain a few thousand extra from the boy's father unbeknown to his boss. Williams didn't have to know every

detail of the boy's return Thomas told himself. If he decided the boy was worth a little bit extra, then that was his


Thomas got up and went outside to start the fire needed for that cup of coffee. He grumbled the entire way and

ended up shouting at his two colleagues to get their lousy carcasses out of bed and earn their keep.

Inside the second room, Little Joe had been dragged from his deep sleep by the shouting that Thomas was doing

towards the other two men. At first he couldn't work out why he could hear raised voices. Maybe Pa and Adam

were having one of their arguments downstairs.

Then all at once, the truth struck him full force as he tried to open he eyes and couldn't. The pain from his bound

wrists and ankles crept up him slowly at first and had been nothing more noticeable than dull aches when the boy

was first coming to inside the shack.

Joe felt the fear in him start to rise as he realised that the reason he couldn't see was due to a blindfold tied tightly

over his eyes. And the reason for the now stinging sensation in his wrists and the numbness in his ankles was due

to the strong rope that bound him hand and foot.

Joe tried to force back the tears that started rolling down his face at his captivity. He didn't know where he was.

He could only remember the face of the man who had placed the ether soaked cloth over his face when he was

dragged off the road. He could remember the man and his friends laughing at the boy's plight as he desperately

struggled to get free of his assailants. After that he remembered nothing. He felt a hard floor underneath him and

the coldness of the floor had begun to seep into his bones, making them ache even more. But he didn't know

where the floor was or what it belonged to. He had no idea if his family knew he had been taken or even how

far away they might be in order to rescue him. The thoughts of his helplessness just seemed to overwhelm him

even more and he fell into a deep state of depression at his situation. Something about the man who had drugged

him told Joe that no matter what promises the man made, he doubted that the man meant to return him to his

family unharmed as he had said.

Joe was trying to get his bearings but the blindfold over his eyes made him even more disorientated. He started

to rub his face back on forth on the hard dirt floor in an attempt to remove the blindfold. After what seemed

like hours, Joe managed to pushed the material up further on his forehead, but he also rewarded himself with a

number of scratches to his cheek and temple area due to the rubbing action on the dirt floor. The cuts weren't

serious, but Joe could feel the small amount of blood running down his face and mixing with his tears. The perspiration

on his face made the scratches sting a little.

With the blindfold now displaced enough for Joe to see inside the room, his elation at being able to see

were quickly dashed by the dim and barely lit room that he found himself in. The room was almost totally dark,

just like it had been with his blindfold on. Joe's attention was quickly diverted to the doorway by the sound

of the door opening and a narrow beam of light coming into the room.

The thing that made Joe almost jump out of his skin was the voice that stood in the doorway and was now

talking to him.

"Glad to see your finally awake kid" Thomas said. "Think it's time to get you out here and explain a few

things to you" he added and roughly grabbed Joe by one arm and started dragging him towards the doorway

into the other room. Joe tried to stand up to avoid the man's actions from hurting him any further, but he

couldn't quite get his stance before feeling himself being dragged across the hard floor. He just hoped that

his pants were made out of tough enough material to hold up to the dragging action. He dreaded to think about

what the dragging might do if the skin on his upper legs was to come into contact with the hard ground and receive

the same treatment.

Joe now found himself being thrown into one of the rickety chairs in the larger room. He had closed his eyes briefly

as the light from a few lanterns shone into his eyes. He opened them slowly and cautiously allowing them to adjust

to the harsh light. He worried that he might be restrained to the chair, but for the time being it seemed that his

captors were happy enough with his hands and ankles being bound in front of him. Joe looked around the room

and knew that he needed to take in each and every inch of the room in order to put together an escape plan.

Thomas watched Joe for a few seconds and saw the boy's gaze dart around the room trying to work out where he

was. He laughed heartily at first but then delivered a hard slap to the boy's face

"Don't even think about trying to escape kid or you will regret it" Thomas said only an inch from the boys face.

He could see the fright in the boy's eyes and was pleased that his mere presence was enough to terrorise the boy

into submission. "That's right boy. You had better be afraid. Be very afraid. I am going to be your worst

nightmare for the next twenty four hours. You only have to breath wrong and I will make you pay for your

disobedience. Do you understand me boy" he snarled at Joe again.

Joe couldn't find the words to speak as the tears ran down his face. He simply nodded his head as he looked

up at the man.

"What do you want with me?" Joe finally got the courage to ask. His question was rewarded with a blow to his

stomach that caused him to double over and almost pass out. He struggled to get his breath back.

"I'll ask the questions boy. You will not speak unless I give permission. Is that understood?" Thomas said as

he yanked Joe's head up by his curly hair.

"Yes" Joe got out between sobs and was again given a blow to the stomach that threatened to spill him to the

floor. It was only the fact that Thomas was literally holding him upright in the chair that prevented this.

"You're a slow learner boy. I told you not to talk until I gave you permission" Thomas repeated. "You do

as you are told and nothing else boy. What we want you for is not really your concern right now. You just

be a good boy and when your Pa does what I tell him, then maybe and only maybe you'll get to go back to

him. But if you try to escape or don't do as you are told, then I can promise you a lot of pain and misery."

Although Joe was scared of the man towering over him, it was the laughter from his two friends that started

to rile the infamous Joe Cartwright temper. He wanted to know why he was being treated so harshly and

unjustly. He could feel the anger swelling beneath him. He wanted to break free from his bounds and make

a run for it. Maybe if he could just get a good head start then he could make it on foot. He was known as

a good runner at school. He didn't know how reliable his feet would be after being bound up for so long

but they were his only asset to this point.

Thomas had his face turned away briefly from Joe as he joined in the laughter of his two friends at the captive

in the chair. Both of the other two men knew better than to take on Butch Thomas. The man had earned himself

a reputation and they knew that crossing him would cause them to have a bullet with their names on it. They had

been promised a large pay packet at the end of this little job. All they had to do was watch the kid for a couple

of days until his father did what Thomas wanted him to do. Then it would be all over and they could go about their


Thomas failed to see the tears dry up from Joe's face and see them quickly replaced by anger. The boy didn't know

exactly what he was going to do but he figured if he could just make it to the front door, he could make everything else

up along the way.

With Thomas's face turned in the opposite direction, Joe saw his first opportunity to put his plan into action. Joe

silently brought his bound feet up as high as his bounds would allow and then without warning, Joe unleashed his

bound feet into the crotch of the man in front of him. The trick actually worked and Joe was stunned into shock

for a brief second as he saw his captive almost double over at the pain to his groin area. Joe quickly shook himself

out of his trance and desperately tried to make it to the door and escape outside.

Thomas had roared at the other two men to stop Joe's escape while he stood with his hands protectively over

his assets and waited for the pain to subside so he could think straight. Joe had almost made it to the door with

a hopping motion when he felt himself being yanked roughly backwards by the two men in pursuit. He tried

desperately to gain a hold on the handle of the door and hopefully turn it to allow his escape. However his attempts

were in vain. The fact that his hands were bound together made the gasping even harder and he missed more than

twice before being reefed backwards.

Joe was thrown hard against the chair again and felt a couple of good swift kicks to his unprotected ribs for his

troubles. He moaned out loud at the pain that erupted through his entire chest as the boots came into contact.

The pain brought fresh tears to his eyes and it was only now as he looked back at Butch Thomas that he became

truly afraid. The man's face had changed from one of sneering and mockery when he was bullying Joe to one

of utter rage and colourless anger. The man was beyond anger. The other two men in the room feared that

Thomas would kill the boy right there and then and it would be all over before they could get their hands on any

money from the boy's family.

Thomas picked the struggling boy up by the scruff of his shirt and held him about an arm's length from his own

body. Thomas pulled back his arm so that Joe could see what the man intended to do. Then without warning

and without any concern for the boy's age he let go his hardest punch into the boy's stomach. The boy doubled

over and thought that he would be sick. He had barely time to raise his eyes and look back at Thomas when

he felt the blows start to rain down on him. They not only connected with his stomach this time but his ribs, his

chest, his arms and anywhere Thomas could reach without letting the boy go. After a few minutes

if became obvious that the boy was unconscious due to the severity and frequency of the blows.

Thomas let the boy go and Joe slumped unconscious in the chair, blood coming from a number of fresh cuts on his

chest and arms. There were already bruises starting to form from the man's punches.

Thomas looked down at the kid. When the boy kicked him, he had a hard time trying to comprehend

the boy's bold moves. He thought he had scared the kid enough for him to be afraid. Obviously his

previous warnings hadn't been enough of a warning. Thomas assured himself and his young captive that the

next time the kid was awake, the boy would truly come to fear him.

"Leave him where he is, but I want to know the minute he starts to come awake" Thomas warned as he walked outside

and tried to attend to his own pains. He started to think of a way that would scare the kid next time he was awake.

Little Joe took over an hour to awaken from his unconscious state. The long he had to wait the more impatient

Thomas became. He had tried to hasten the boy's stirring by a few light kicks to the boy's shins, but still the boy

remained unconscious.

During this hour Thomas had devised himself a fear campaign that would ensure the boy would truly know the meaning

of the word fear.

Little Joe came back to the world very slowly. His first awareness was pain. Every inch of him seemed to ach

where he had been beaten by Thomas and his men. Joe let out a few moans as he tried to move. It was these

pitiful moans that alerted Thomas's men to the fact that the boy was coming to.

"Boss, I think he's coming awake" Frank Richards shouted outside as they continued to watch the kid struggle

to move and heard him whimper with the occasional groan of pain.

Thomas walked into the room with loud and determined footsteps. Without even bothering to check and see if

the kid was indeed awake, Joe felt himself being lifted up by the front of his shirt and dumped once again harshly

into the chair from earlier.

Joe forced himself to open his eyes to see his assailant. He immediately regretted it as he came face to face with

the angry face of Butch Thomas. He recoiled a little and tried to push himself further back into the chair as if trying

to get out of the man's reach.

"So you think you're pretty clever don't you kid" Thomas spat at him. "Well I am going to make you regret the

day you ever met me. I don't take nicely to anyone making fun of me. I guess you need to learn a few lessons

the hard way boy."

"Start making that noose Danny" Thomas said to the younger kidnapper in the room. The young blond haired man

scrambled into one of his saddle bags and pulled out a length of coarse rope and began fashioning a hangman's loop

on one end of it. He made sure that he held it out in full view for the kid to see just to scare the kid that little bit more.

Thomas looked at Joe watching the loop and could see the fear rising within the young man at what might happen.

He smiled to himself as he knew that he was gradually winning the upper hand. "You think you're afraid now kid"

Thomas said as he shook the kid roughly in the chair. He pulled the kid closer just to emphasize his next sentence

"Trust me you haven't even begun to know what afraid is yet boy. I want you to fear me more than any other

man you have ever come across. I want to become so much a part of your fear that you have nightmares about

me when you sleep. I want you to see my face when you're awake in the middle of the night screaming.

I will become such a part of your fear that after a while you won't know the difference between what's real

and what's not any more."

Joe tried to divert his eyes from the man's face as he spoke to him, but something prevented it. The man's words

instilled fear that was so overwhelming. He tried to struggle within the man's grasp to get away but he only succeeded

in receiving a few more forceful slaps to his face.

Joe could no longer hide the tears that welled up in his eyes. He just wanted to go home. He wanted this all to be

a bad dream and wake up soon in the safety of his own home with his father's arms wrapped securely around him

and keeping him safe. Another slap to his face alerted him to the fact that this was actually a bad dream, but a

real one that he was living through every minute of.

"It's ready Boss" Danny Griffiths said as he help up his handiwork for Thomas to approve.

Joe could see that Griffiths had turned the coarse length of rope into a cruel looking noose. The hairs on the back

of his neck began to rise at the thoughts of what may lay in store for him at the hands of this brutal man named

Butch Thomas.

"Now boy, we see if we can't knock some of that fight out of you" Thomas said as he now reached down towards

Joe again and grabbed a fist full of his shirt.

Thomas now used his grip on Joe's shirt to lift the struggling boy out of his chair into a standing position.

Joe tried to get his shirt free from the iron grip but he didn't have too much of a chance with his ankles still lashed

together and his wrists tied together in front of him.

Joe had thought for some reason that Thomas intended to dish out a few more of the painful blows he had incurred

earlier, but his blood almost stopped frozen in his veins as he watched Danny throw the noose over the large supporting

beam overhead. The noose was now suspended over the beam from a long length of similar rope and was now just

about Joe's head.

Thomas now jerked the boy up higher again so that he was forced to stand on the seat of the chair. He gave a few

short slaps to the boy as he continued to struggle and try and get away from the man. Thomas held Little Joe with

one hand and now snaked out with his other hand and grabbed a hold of the noose. Joe knew what was coming and

tried to shake his head back and forth to prevent the noose being placed over his head, but Thomas let go of Joe's

shirt and proceeded to hold the boy's head still by grasping a handful of his curly hair. Once the rope was over his

head, Thomas then tightened the knot so that it rested painfully against the base of Joe's slender young neck.

"NO you can't do this please….." Joe said as he tried to plea for his life.

"Oh but I can boy" Thomas laughed as he noted the fear leeching out of every pore in the boy's skin. "What's more

there will be no witnesses to even say who done it." he added and then nodded his head towards Danny.

Danny now secured the end of the rope around another smaller beam that made up one of the walls of the small

shack. As he tightened the rope, he could see the boy try and move his head in an attempt to release the choking

loop from around his neck. The boy was almost standing on tippee toes to stop falling from the chair and hanging

himself right then.

"Please, just let me go" Joe said again in a pitiful sounding voice as he fought to keep his emotions under control

in front of such hardened criminals. He knew now that Thomas was the sort of man that wouldn't even bat an eyelid

at the killing of a boy his age.

"Not sounding so tough now are you?" Thomas spat at the boy. He now moved away from the chair and went and

stood towards the front door of the shack. Danny and the other man now stood a little to the right of their boss

against the front wall of the house.

"Now boy's time for some shooting practice for the both of you" Thomas announced, making sure that his young

captive heard every word of his conversation. "You can practice on the legs of that chair there" he said as he

pointed to the chair that Joe was standing precariously on.

Joe could no longer hold back the tears that ran down openly over his cheeks at the thoughts of how unjustly he

was being treated. He had every reason to suspect that these men were about to cause him to fall from the chair

and then depending on how good the noose was tied, he would either die quick when the rope became taunt and

snapped his neck like a chicken bone. If he was unlucky and the rope wasn't so tight he would hang from the beam

and the rope and slowly suffocate as the rope cut into his throat, cutting off his air supply.

Joe watched as all three men in the room drew their guns from their holsters. All three of them made sure that the

boy looked on as they pretended to check their weapons over for a few seconds before firing them. All the waiting

just made the injustice even more harder to bear and caused the fear inside Joe to grow to infinitely within him.

"I'll take the first shot" Thomas said to everyone in the room and then pointed the barrel of his gun at the front left

leg of the wooden chair. The sound of the gunshot in the room was deafening as Thomas fired and the three men

watched with satisfaction as the wooden leg was splintered into a dozen pieces by the force of the bullet.

Joe was unable to see the bullet strike the chair leg, but he felt the chair become unstable and therefore had to adjust

his standing position on the chair towards the back to stop the chair from toppling from the front towards the floor.

He knew that he had to remain as still as possible no matter what happened, because if he moved to much either side

or to the front of the chair then it would fall.

The three men were laughing out loudly and congratulating Thomas on his accurate shooting.

"Now you boys, I want you two to do it both together" Thomas said "Make it quick for the young fella" he said

as they watched the trembling and sobbing boy standing on the chair.

By now, Joe's legs felt like jelly and he didn't know how long he would be able to remain upright from his fear.

It was sheer willpower that was holding him erect at this very moment and preventing his own demise.

Danny Griffiths and Robert Pierce now aimed their guns at the rear legs of the chair. Even a bad shot would

result in the chair collapsing from underneath it's helpless young victim. Once they were both set to fire, they

looked back at Thomas and awaited his approval.

Thomas had not raised his gun again, but also had not put it back in the holster as his side. He left it loose in his

right hand and nodded to the other's to fire at will. He had a different idea up his sleeve about what was to happen.

Griffiths and Pierce both fired their weapons and Joe felt the chair fall out from underneath him. He could feel the

rough coarse rope around his neck slowly suffocating him and restricting his airway. Just as he thought blackness

would close around him forever, he heard another gun shot coming from within the room.

Thomas had fired his own weapon a split second after the chair had collapsed and the noose became taunt around

the boy's neck. As the rope tightened, his bullet sliced through it just above Joe's head. Joe now found himself

falling for a brief moment. He never felt his body hit the hard ground due to him fainting from the lack of oxygen.

Joe's body hit the ground with a soft thud and the three men now gathered around the prone form laying unconscious

on the floor at their feet.

"What do you want us to do with him now Boss?" Pierce inquired.

"Haul him over to the corner of the room until he comes too. Next time he's awake I got a different game in mind."

Thomas said with an evil grin.

"In the mean time, I want you Danny to go into Virginia City and check out that Cartwright has done what he was

told and withdrawn his bid from that contract." Thomas now said. "Make sure you don't give yourself away" he

warned at the end.

Danny Griffiths nodded his head at Thomas's words to indicate he knew what was expected of him. He went over

towards his bed and grabbed the saddle bags he had stolen from Joe's horse and walked out the door towards his

horse. He thanked himself lucky that he wasn't going to be around to witness whatever Thomas had in mind next

time for the kid. He knew better than to say anything and cross Thomas in the process, but something about what

he was doing to the kid's mind just didn't quite site well with him. He wasn't a law biding man himself, but going

out of your way to make someone's life a misery wasn't something he wanted to be a part of. Once this was all

over he promised himself that he would go out on his own and start afresh somewhere down south of the border.

Danny Griffiths made the long arduous ride into Virginia City whilst Joe was still unconscious on the floor of the old

shack. The other two men Butch Thomas and Pierce were now taking a cat nap themselves whilst they waited for

their young captive to awaken.

As Danny rode into town, the words of his boss about keeping a low profile seemed to echo in his mind and he

kept looking around just to make sure that nobody was taking particular notice of him.

For the next hour or so he spent his time sculling a few ale's at the Bucket O' Blood saloon. He told himself that

he needed to think up a story so that he could ask about the lumber contract. He needed to find out whether or

not Cartwright had taken warning from his youngest son's abduction and withdrawn his bid as told.

After three of four beers, he had enough alcohol in him to give him a false sense of confidence in asking about the

contract. He started riding down the street on his way to the General Store and the small office behind it.

About halfway down the street he spotted a local second hand shop which had a sign out front offering to pay

good money for second-hand goods. He looked down at his horse and spotted the saddle bags he had taken

from Joe a few days ago. He really didn't trust Thomas into getting his fair share for the kid's return so he told

himself that if he was able to hock the saddle bags and make a few extra dollars on the side for himself, Thomas would

be none the wiser.

He tied his horse to the hitching rail outside the store and grabbed the saddle bags from his horse before walking into

the store. Upon walking inside and allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkened room, he spotted a older man on the

other side of the shop counter. He went over towards the man and dumped the saddle bags down on the wooden

counter with a loud thud.

Roy Coffee, Sheriff of Virginia City was out and about on one of his routine walks around the town, just making sure

that everything was in order. Truth be known this day, the subject that was more on his mind was the abduction of

Little Joe Cartwright. So far they had not been able to do anything about searching for the boy due to the threats

made on the boy's life if the law was involved. Sheriff Coffee was also refraining from visiting his long term friend

Ben at the Ponderosa as an added precaution. He was hoping that the walk around town today would clear his mind

a little and help him come up with an idea to help.

Roy was just about to walk past the door of the second-hand store when he heard a lot of shouting coming from inside.

He put his thoughts about the Cartwright's to one side for a moment and went to see what all the yelling was about.

"How do I know that these belong to you?" the old man Mr Perkins said from behind the counter. "You could have

gotten them from anywhere."

"What has it got to do whether or not they belong to me?" Griffiths now shouted back without seeing the Sheriff

enter the store. "All you gotta decide is what your gonna give me for them. These here a fine quality. Not many

others around like them."

"That's what makes me question the ownership of them" Perkins retorted after seeing the Sheriff standing there.

"That's a fair question don't you think Sheriff" the old man now added as he indicated the lawman standing in the

room listening to the heated conversation.

Griffiths turned around at the mention of the word Sheriff and could scarcely hide his sudden nervousness towards

the new person in the room. "Hi Sheriff" he said as casually as possible whilst rubbing his mouth with the sleeve

of his shirt in an attempt to hide his true intentions.

"Howdy friend, Mr Perkins" Roy said greeting each of them. It was now that Roy quickly glanced at the saddle

bags that the man was trying to sell. It was now Roy's turn to try and hide his gasp of shock. He had seen

those particular saddle bags a number of times before. The fact that they had JFC carved into the right hand

corner also gave away who they really belonged to. Somehow, Roy knew that this man might be just the missing

link they were looking for to find Little Joe.

Danny Griffiths was now just plain scared that he was going to be found out. The Sheriff hadn't indicated that he

had any knowledge of the boy's kidnapping, but that didn't stop Danny from thinking the worst straight way.

Suddenly he found himself leaving unmistakable tracks without even realising it. He could almost feel the walls

closing in around him and he found at the claustaphobic feeling that he was feeling.

"Listen you gonna buy these bags or not? Griffiths now said through gnashed teeth as he attempted to grab the

old man by the front of his shirt. He was panicking and he knew it but he couldn't help it.

"That's about enough" Roy said now grabbing a hold of Griffiths. This attempt to assault the old man gave him

enough cause to hold the man until he could figure out how to find out what he knew about Little Joe.

"You want to press charges against this here fellow Mr Perkins?" Roy asked the elderly shop keeper.

"You bet Sheriff. I'm not having some ruffian walk in off the street and threaten me in my own place. You just

let me know when and I will come and made a full statement" Perkins said. Secretly inside, he was just glad

to get out of the heated situation. Had things gotten out of control without the Sheriff to step in, anything could

have happened.

"I'm placing you under arrest for attempted assault and battery" Roy said with his best official sounding voice.

"You can't do that" Griffiths now spluttered as he attempted to remove Roy's grip from his arm "This is just

something you and this old geezer here cooked up. You got nothin on me Sheriff and you know it"

"We'll just let you sober up a little first and then decide the facts of the matter" Roy said as he detected the smell

of alcohol on the man's breath. "You gonna come quietly or do I have to force you?"

"You got nothing on me I said" Griffiths repeated harshly.

"Let's go" Roy said as he threw the saddle bags over his shoulder and now pulled his pistol from it's holster and used

it as a gentle persuader. "Start moving."

Griffith's reluctantly started walking towards the door still pleading his innocence and his unjust treatment. He somehow

needed to persuade the Sheriff that it was all a mistake and let him go so that he could get back to the shack before

Thomas heard about his unfortunate run-in with the law.

Roy kept his gun pointed at Griffith's while they both made the short walk to the jailhouse. Once inside, Danny was

pushed into an empty cell and the door locked behind him.

"Now you just sit tight and sober up for a while" Roy said "I'll be back to talk to you later about Mr Perkins" he

added. In actual fact, Roy thought that he needed to get to the Ponderosa as quick as possible. "My deputy

will be back in a few minutes to keep an eye on you" Sheriff Coffee warned him as he walked back out the front

door towards his horse.

Roy saddled his horse as quickly as possible trying not to hurry to much. He knew that he might have some valuable

information about Little Joe sitting in his jail cell, but he needed to keep a cool head about this and take things easy

until they had a little more to go on.

Roy mounted his horse and guided him down the street in the direction of the Ponderosa. He knew that he was

taking an awful risk if this man didn't have any connection with Joe's abduction. As he rode, he tried to think of

a plan to try and get the man to give himself away without even knowing it.

The next time Little Joe started to come too, he was confused. His had thought that he would be dead now. If

he was dead, why was he feeling so much pain in his arms and legs from the restraints that had been in place for

so long. The circulation in his limbs had been constricted now for over 24 hours and they were becoming numb

from the constant ache.

Finally as he started to gather his thought, he realised that he must not have died like he thought as he felt the chair

go from underneath his feet. The last feeling he had was the tautness of the rope around his neck cutting of his

oxygen so that he was gasping for breath to feed his starving lungs. Now as he coughed he felt the harshness of

his throat as a result of the rope as it had cut into his neck. He tried to put his other thoughts together as in his mind

he watched Griffith's and Pierce point their weapons at the chair he was standing on and casually fire at the legs.

He didn't have to long to think about what had just happened though as the pain in his limbs had caused him to moan

out loud. Joe had heard footsteps approach him and he tried to feign unconsciousness once again to avoid whatever

punishment awaited him when he awoke.

His feeble attempted failed though as he felt his hurting body hurled into an upright position again and he came face to

face with his tormentor Butch Thomas.

"I guess we'll just have to try something a little different this time, huh kid?" Thomas said as he blew a plume of cigar

smoke into Little Joe's face causing the boy to cough. His lungs and throat had already begun to burn and the smoke

seemed to irritate them even more.

"Why don't you just kill me" Joe croaked out through his sore throat and burning lungs. His head hung limp on top

of his shoulder as his neck muscles no longer had the strength to hold it up.

"That would be no fun at all kid" Thomas said with a laugh as he heard the boy's weak pleas. "Besides, I got a new

game for you to play. This time you have a five to one chance." he said with a sarcastic grin to match.

Thomas hauled Joe over towards a second rickety chair in the room. The other still lay in pieces in one of the corner's

of the room as a reminder of how close Joe had come to death last time. Joe didn't have the strength or even the

courage to put up any sort of struggle this time. He allowed himself to be forcibly moved wherever his captors


Pierce stood back against the wall as before, not wanting to get involved with this particular game at all. There was

something evil and sinister about that made his blood run cold at the very thought of the outcome. He wanted very

little part of this game.

Joe was now sitting in the chair with no real interest in what was about to happen to him. He just wanted these men

to leave him the hell alone. The tears welled up in his eyes again and he inwardly scolded himself for being such a

big baby in front of Thomas and Pierce again.

He heard Thomas pull his pistol from his holster again and thought that the man might actually take his words and

shoot him right now. The next sound puzzled him though as he heard Thomas first spin the barrel of the weapon

and then one by one allow the bullets to fall from each individual chamber to the hard floor. They all landed with

a metal sounding click at they hit the floor and Joe's mind counted every single one of them as they fell: One

Two Three Four Five ….. a little bit of a pause and a bit more of a shake from Thomas's hand Six.

Six bullets had fallen from the chamber.

Little Joe now looked up at the man and wondered why he had emptied the chambers if he meant to use the gun

to kill him. It didn't make sense at the moment.

Thomas could see the questions written all over Joe's face, so he made sure that the boy could clearly see his next

few hand movements.

Thomas now pulled the last remaining chairs in the room to within two feet from Little Joe. He sat down first and

then bent down slightly, enough so that he could reach the floor where the scattered bullets now lay. He carefully

picked up one of the bullets. Dusted it of with his shirt and then ever so slowly pushed it back into one of the chambers

of his empty pistol. Once the bullet was in place he reset the weapon and began spinning the barrel at random


It was only now, upon seeing the lone bullet loaded into the gun that Joe realised that Thomas meant to play a crude

game of Russian Roulette. He had never seen the game played before, but basically knew how the game worked.

He had heard stories from the ranch hands about such a game being held in the back streets of some of the larger

cities where people were bought cheap and life meant nothing.

Thomas looked up with a gleam in his eyes. He could see that the boy had the general jist of what the game was

all about. "Like I said kid, you have a five to one chance." Butch started to explain to the tense boy in front of him.

"I'll spin the barrel first and fire. If the chamber is empty you live. If not then we won't have to worry about you

having a turn then will we. If you live, then you'll get to spin the chamber once. And so on and so forth until your

luck decides to win out."

"Shall we get started?" Thomas asked his captive.

"Do I have a choice?" Joe accused him with a some of his anger from earlier returning.

"I'm afraid not" Thomas said. Joe had no time to give a smart reply as he felt the barrel of the weapon forced

roughly against his left temple. He could feel the cold hard steel against his skin. It was almost as if the throb

in his temple matched the beating of his heart. He had all sorts of thoughts coming at him at once. It was almost

getting to loud to think. When Joe heard the spin of the barrel though, all those thoughts seemed to instantly

disappear. He swallowed hard despite his raw throat as he realised that his life could be finishing right hear and now.

Thomas put his hand on the trigger, but he wanted his victim to sweat just that little bit more. Every movement he

made was as slow as he could make it. He wanted the whole process drawn out as long as possible. As the

barrel spun, Joe's mind was trying to hear if the chambers were hollow or not as they went past. He thought that

he had counted four empty ones, but he couldn't be one hundred percent sure.

Thomas started to squeeze the trigger ever so gently with his index finger. Joe was trying to look sideways to see

the gun, but his vision wouldn't quite allow for that angle. He felt his pulse become more rapid and his palms became

more sweaty with each passing second.

"Say your prayer's kid" Thomas said "This might be the last time you take a breath" as he pushed the barrel of the

gun that much harder against Joe's temple.

Joe didn't know how long has passed from when Thomas finally managed to fully squeeze the trigger. He did know

however, that for that fleeting minute, his own heart beat actually stopped from the fear that ran through him like

a raging river. Joe was waiting for that final rushing sound that would indicate that Thomas's spin had been wrong.

"Click" the weapon said as the chamber came up hollow. There had been no bullet this time.

Thomas smiled as he heard the sound and watched the boy's face turn from one of absolute terror to one of deathly

white. The boy looked as though he was ready to pass out any second. The kid had one this time. But Thomas had

a plan up his sleeve for the next round.

"I guess you lucked out that time kid" Thomas said in a calm voice. "Let's see if it is as good this time. I want you

to spin the barrel this time."

Joe was almost too busy getting his lungs breathing again after the last attempt to heed the man's words. It wasn't

until he felt the barrel of the gun being painfully forced against his head that he heard Thomas's threats to spin the

barrel himself this time.

Joe didn't want to do this, but knew he had very little choice at the moment. He reached up towards the gun with

his hands still tied together. Even that effort was painful as his tired muscles protested at the movement.

With a shaking hand his fingertips only just touched the barrel of Thomas's gun. The first attempt they missed

making the barrel spin. Thomas now barked a second and final warning at Joe and the boy once again painfully

reached up to the barrel of the gun. At least this time he was able to get the barrel to spin some. It wasn't a very

determined effort and he didn't have much faith that he had avoided his own execution.

Joe closed his eyes this time as he hands fell back limply into his lap and he waited for Thomas to put him out of

his misery and squeeze the trigger again. He knew that he lacked the courage and strength to pull the trigger himself,

no matter what threats Thomas made to him.

Joe could feel the wetness of his own tears as they slid down his face once more. He was hurting and tired and

didn't really have any thoughts. He tried to fill his mind with his family one last time in case this was the last time.

He tried to see his brothers, but due to the pounding in his head their images seemed distant and far away in his

mind. He desperately tried to see his father's face one last time. He didn't know if he would have the chance

to say goodbye in real life, so he had to try and say it now. But his father's image although closer seemed little

more than a shadow to him at the moment. He saw a stronger image in his mind but his scared him even more

into thinking this maybe his last few minutes on this earth. He could make out the image of his mother Marie.

She was very close to him and whispering soft encouraging words to him. Maybe this was the way it was meant to be.

Maybe she was here to take him away from all of this torment and pain.

Butch Thomas could see Joe had his eyes closed at the moment. He took this opportunity to put his alternative

idea into place. He really had no real need to keep the kid alive but he would have to wait until he got the word

from Danny about the lumber contract. When Griffiths got back they could depart the dismal run down shack

and do away with the kid then. For now his only real intentions was to scare the boy.

Thomas motioned for Pierce to give him his gun. Pierce walked over silently and handed the gun to him,

wondering what he intended to do with it. Thomas now had two weapons in his hands. One still seemingly

playing the game and pressed firmly against the boy's left temple. The other one he put in his left hand and

brought back over his shoulder behind the boy's head.

Thomas once again took his time squeezing the trigger, but this time just at the last minute before the chamber

clicked into place. The boy seemed to be dreaming and lost in his own misery long enough to notice what was

going on around him. As the chamber locked into place Thomas brought the butt of the second weapon down

onto the back of Little Joe's unprotected head.

Joe wasn't sure what he heard, but there was a bright flash of light in his head and then a deafening sound that

seemed to be getting louder and louder. It was only a second later that the boy fell unconscious in the chair

from the blow. There was a small laceration to the back of his head with some bleeding, but not enough to

get overly concerned about.

Pierce inwardly sighed in relief as he saw his boss strike the boy unconscious rather than shoot him. "You sure

had him fooled Boss" he said with a false grin. "What you gonna do with him now?" the man asked.

"Nothing for now. Wait for that fool Griffith's to get back from Virginia City and then we get the boy's Daddy

to deliver a few extra dollars nearby and then scoot before anybody suspects a thing." Thomas explained.

"Throw him in that back room for a while and be sure to put a cup of water in there for when he wakes up

later. We don't want the kid dying on us before we get our hands on the money."

Pierce did as he was told and unceremoniously threw Little Joe's limp body over his broad shoulders like a

sack of grain. He was a little bit more gentle when laying the kid down in the room out of the sight of Thomas.

He went back into the main living room and found an unused tin cup. He filled the cup from one of the canteens

nearby and set it down beside the unconscious youth and then locked the door behind him. The kid would be

caught before he could make any escape out the door anyway. And the shape the kid was in right now, it didn't

look as though he would be moving about in a hurry anyway.

Thomas and Pierce didn't expect Griffith's to get back from Virginia City much before morning, so they both

decided to roll themselves up in their bedrolls and get some sleep. There wasn't much else to do around here.

Back at the Ponderosa, Sheriff Roy Coffee was hitching his horse to the railing outside the house.

He walked up to the front door and knocked. His thoughts were of what they family what might think when they

saw him.

Inside, Ben and his boys were all sitting down in the living room trying to think of somewhere else to search for

the missing Cartwright. Adam and Hoss had taken off in opposite directions earlier this morning but came back

without any clues. The cloud of depression had started to descend upon them all.

Adam got up to the knock at the door. They all wondered who could have been calling to the house so late in

the day. He opened the door, but could scarcely hold back his gasp of shock at who the visitor actually was.

"Sheriff Coffee" he said aloud to warn his father and brother of who exactly was knocking at the door. He didn't

really need to though as Ben had gotten up shortly after Adam also curious as to who was at the front door.

"Roy, you can't be here. Somebody might be watching you" Ben said in alarm as he hurriedly yanked the lawman

into the house. He had taken a brief second to look around out in the yard to see if he could see anybody watching.

He assumed though that if somebody was watching, they were probably well hidden out of sight.

After Roy had regained his balance he was quick to dispel the fears of the three eldest Cartwright's "Hold your

horses Ben. You know I wouldn't come out here unless I had a good reason. I know I took an awful risk with

Little Joe's life when I rode out here this evening, but I believe I have just arrested somebody who might be able

to give us some information on where they are holding Joe."

Ben stood back looking at Roy for a minute trying to decide if his explanation was good enough. "Sorry Roy, I'm

just at my wit's end as to how to get Joseph back safe" Ben now said as his shoulders once again slumped with

exhaustion from the long sleepless nights and worry that had plagued them all.

"I know you are Ben, I can see you are all a little worse for wear. If you just sit down and let me explain, I think

we might have the first signs of a break through" he said as all of them moved to the living room to hear Roy's

story. All of the Cartwright's as well as Roy knew that behind the kitchen door there was another silent audience

member listening to everything that they said.

"You better tell us Roy before we all bust" Hoss said trying to put a little humour into the conversation. Lord knows

the house had been devoid of any kind of laughter or gaiety since Joe's abduction.

"I was just walking down the main street of town when I heard an argument going on in Mr Perkin's second hand

shop. I went in and stood behind a youngish fella. Looked like a stranger to these here parts. Anyways he was

trying to sell some saddle bags to Mr Perkins. Was asking a mighty high price for them too" Roy said as he continued

with his story.

Ben was getting a little impatient and wanted to know when the idea about rescuing his son was coming up.

"What so darn important about them saddle bags Roy, we need to find Joe" Ben said putting his hands to his head

to ward off the headache he could feel coming on from all the stress.

"I'm coming to that Ben" Roy said calmly. He could see that his old friend just wanted his youngest boy home again

safe and sound. "The saddle bags are important because I recognised who they belong to. Down on the right bottom

corner they had three initials carved into the leather" he knew by the time he finished this part of the sentence that he

had everybody's attention. They all held their breath as they waited for the confirmation of their unspoken thoughts.

He looked at the three faces and knew that they all wanted to know the answer desperately. "The initials were

J.F.C." he said and left it at that.

"Where is this man now Roy?" Ben demanded almost jumping out of his chair with anticipation.

"He's in my jail cell at the moment Ben" Roy answered.

"Well we will just go down there and beat him until he tells us what we want to know" Hoss said determinedly.

He was more than ready to make this fellow talk and tell the family where his baby brother was being held against

his will.

"No Hoss, I think that's exactly the opposite of what we want to do." Roy now said. "Normally I wouldn't

hesitate in getting the man to speak, but if we scare him and he clams up he might never tell us where Little Joe

is being held. At the moment he is the only clue we have to go on."

"What do you propose we do then Roy?" Adam asked sensing that Roy had already thought of an idea before

he came out to the house.

"If it's alright with you Ben, my idea is to go back into town and let this fella go…. " that's all Roy could

manage to get out before he was barraged from both Hoss and Ben.

"LET HIM GO" they said almost in unison with disbelief in their voices. "How can you even think of letting

him go Roy" Hoss now shouted.

"Now wait just a cotton pickin' minute you two. Hold on there you two before I leave you out of this rescue plan"

Roy said with a hint of a smirk. He got the instant reaction he was looking for when both men stopped speaking

and allowed Roy to explain his idea.

"Like I was saying before I was interrupted" he said with emphasis "If we let him go and then follow him back

to the place where they are holding Joe" Roy suggested.

"He might lead us to the rest of his gang "Adam now said as he worked out Roy's plan in his own mind. He had

to admit that the idea was a pretty sharp one. He just hoped that it worked out to their expectations. If anything

should go wrong then he feared that Joe would possibly be the one to feel the consequences.

"That's my aim Adam, but the most important thing of course is that we find Little Joe and bring him home safe

and sound." Roy replied.

"My boys and I can be ready to ride in an hour Roy" Ben stated firmly. He wanted to waste little time when he

knew they could be out searching for his missing youngest son.

"I know your anxious to get going Ben, but we have to give the fellow a little bit of a head start. If we don't

then we might make the mistake of letting him know that he is being followed. He might lead us to Little Joe at

all after that. I will head back into town now and let the fella go. I will meet you and your boys outside my

jailhouse at sun-up. Hopefully with the muddy roads, his tracks should be easy enough for Hoss to track" Roy

said as he looked to the big man with pleading eyes.

Anybody that was familiar with the Cartwright family knew that Hoss had this uncanny ability to hunt down almost

anything or anybody even without much of a trail. Roy was just hoping that the rain soaked roads would aid in

their search for the missing boy. Heaven knew what condition the boy was being kept in. He had been missing

for two whole days now.

"I hope this idea of your works Roy" Ben said as the two men got up and shook hands. Roy headed for the door

"I truly hope so too Ben" he answered.

"See you at sunrise" Ben added as he tried to work out in his head what they would need for the next day ahead.

Trying to put his mind to work on their supplies was the only way he could stop thinking about all of the things that

might go wrong with Roy's plan. Everything seemed to hinge on somebody that they haven't even heard of or met

yet. He was putting his son's life in the hands of a stranger and that didn't sit very comfortably with him at the

moment. They had very little choice in the matter however.

Roy road back into Virginia City to put the beginning of the risky plan into effect. He too thought like Ben that

everything came down to the man being currently being held in his cells to lead them to the missing boy. He just

hoped for Ben's sake and his brothers that Joe would be found safe and sound. He couldn't even contemplate

how Ben would go on living without the one person who keep him young at heart.

The Sheriff tied his horse to the railing outside and walked into the jailhouse. He could see his Deputy seated

at the desk in the main part of the jail house. The cells were on the other side of a closed door. Roy took of

his hat and placed it on the peg mounted on the wall for just that purpose. He gave a curt nod to his Deputy

and opened the door to the cells.

"How you doing fella?" Roy asked trying to act as casually as he could. Inside his stomach was twisting and

turning into huge knots about what he was about to do.

"How do you reckon I'm doing cooped up in this God forsaken jail house of your's?" came the reply full of


"Well now, I was going to tell you about a change in events that might just see you walk out of here, but if you

are going to be nothing by snarly, maybe you don't want to hear what I've got to say" Roy said trying to bluff

his way through the conversation.

There was silence from the prisoner himself but a look of doubtfulness and confusion written all over Danny's face

as he wondered what the Sheriff was getting at.

Roy thought that the silence was a signal for him to continue with his explanation. "Seems Mr Perkins, the man from

the second-hand store has had a change of heart all of a sudden and decided not to press any charges against you.

I can't say as I am happy about it, but there don't seem to be much else to be holding you in here on, so for the moment

you are free to go." Roy said officially.

"Your kidding right?" Danny said trying to work out if the Sheriff was really telling him that he was free to go.

"No I'm not, but you listen here young fella, I want you saddled and on your horse in less than fifteen minutes when

I set you free from this cell or otherwise I will find something to hold you on. You understand me?" Roy said sternly.

"Yes Sheriff I understand" Danny said. Roy unlocked the cell door and swung it open for the former prisoner to walk

out. "Can I have my saddle bags back Sheriff?" Danny asked.

"Get out of here" was Roy's response to the question. He knew that if they did manage to find Little Joe, then the

rightful owner of the saddle bags would indeed be looking to have them back.

Danny did as he was told and quickly walked from the jail cell. He could hear Roy's warnings to be out within

the hour as he walked down the street. Although it was now in the dead of night, the horse that he had rode into

town on was still hitched outside the saloon were he had enjoyed his beers before heading down the street to the

second-hand store.

As he walked the horse out of town, he made sure that he rode directly past the jail cell so as to alert the Sheriff

as to his doing what was asked of him. He knew that there was a long ride ahead but was in no particular rush.

If all went well he should be back to the shack before lunch time. He had six hours to try and come up with an

excuse for Butch Thomas as to why he was so late in getting back. He was confident that he would find something

to tell him.

Griffith's was aware that he was being watched as he rode out of Virginia City. He was just unaware as to how

long the Sheriff kept his eyes on him and noted the direction of his travel. It would only be two hours until Ben

and his boys would turn up. Hopefully that would be enough of a head start without losing track of him altogether.

Back at the abandoned shack, Little Joe was beginning to regain consciousness after the pistol incident with

Butch Thomas. At first he wondered if he were dead and this was what happened after death. The pain that

echoed in his head however soon brought him back down to earth and reminded him of his predicament.

If his body had hurt before then it now was beyond hurting. He tried to move slowly and in small increments,

but even these minor movements caused great waves of pain to swirl around in his head. The muscles in his

legs and arms had not eased any either, but at the moment with the agonising pain that he felt in his head, the

aches from his limbs paled into insignificance. Each time he attempted to lift his head from the floor he was

greeted by the feeling that his head was about to explode.

It took almost half an hour for him to gather his thoughts enough through the pain to work out where he was.

He finally assumed that he was back in the room he had been dumped in when they first arrived. He didn't

have the gag in his mouth his time. At least that was a plus. There weren't too many things to be thankful for

a the moment.

The room was particularly dark, another thing that would have caused shivers to him in any other situation but

for the moment he knew that if he was to survive this terrible ordeal then he would need to forget all about his


His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness and enabled him to make out dark shadows within the room. He

could make out that there was very little if any furniture in the room. He couldn't see any light coming into the

room that would suggest the presence of a window or such. His hands were still tied together in front of him

and his feet were also bound.

With a monumental effort he managed to pull his screaming muscles and body into a sitting position. He was

light-headed from the ferocious headache and had to allow the dizziness to pass before regathering his thoughts

again. He started to pull and tug at the ropes around his ankles. They were tied very tight and he didn't know

if he had the strength to loosen them at all.

The pain he was feeling from both his head and body made him want to cry out, however he made sure that each

moan and groan was suppressed by his clenched teeth and between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. He knew

that he couldn't afford to alert the men in the other room to the fact that he was conscious again. At one point he thought

he heard one of them moving around. He had held his breath for a good minute or so until he thought it was safe

again to continue.

His fingers ached from his efforts to loosen the ropes and the rough fibres of the rope rubbed painfully against the

insides of his wrists as he desperately tried to set his feet free. If he could only get his feet untied, he might actually

stand some sort of chance to escape. He doubted that he would be able to get very far with them still tied together.

After what seemed like hours his efforts were rewarded by the ropes loosening enough for him to be able to pull

each foot through. He removed his shoes first and then one at a time slipped them through the loop made in the rope.

Once free, he put his boots back on and started to work on the ropes on his hands. The ropes on his hands seemed

a little easier to stretch, probably from his efforts to untie his feet he assumed.

He rubbed at his very raw and chafed hands. Some of the skin had worn away in parts where the ropes had been

extremely tight. He saw a cup of water just inside the room and crawled over to it. He drank the first mouthful

to moisten his dry and parched throat. He used the vast majority of the water on his ankles and wrists to try and

put some moisture back into the raw skin. His ankles faired the best due to his long trousers he wore. Hopefully

they wouldn't slow him down any if he did manage to escape.

Escape was his next priority. He knew that so far his luck had held out and he had been able to get himself free

before anybody came into the room. He didn't want to think about what might happen to him should one of the

men from the other room walk in and find him free from his bonds.

He started to look at the walls of the room he was locked away in and determine what they were made of. The

shack itself from what little he had been able to observe, seemed to have been neglected and forgotten about over

a long time. Maybe the timbers in the walls were loose or rotten enough for him to create a means of escape.

Joe listened carefully for any signs of the men in other room moving about and when he was satisfied that he was

safe for the time being, he moved painfully and silently over to the farthest corner of the room. He put his hands

on the timber and tried to find if any of the nails were loose or missing. He had thought about tapping on the timber

to try and find a hollow spot, but dared not risk it for fear of being heard and caught.

Little Joe put both hands onto the bottom of one of the planks of timber that made up the wall. He sat in front of

it with his legs spread apart to act as a counter balance. With a few short jerks and tugs he tried breaking off the

bottom part of the timber. He was in luck due to the heaviness of the rain over the last few weeks that the timber

was still very sodden on the outside. To his relief and amazement the timber broke off fairy easily and without much

noise being created. He moved along to the next plank of wood and repeated the same process. He was equally

pleased when he obtained the same result.

Due to his slimness, it only needed four of the planks to be broken off at the bottom for a hole to be made large enough

for Joe to slither through. He had to get down on his belly and was covered with mud by the time he reached the

outside, but he managed to do it. He had never felt such relief when he felt the stillness of the night upon him. His

rejoicing was short lived however as he realised that he had little time to sit down and catch his breath. He needed

to make sure that he ran and ran hard. He needed to make sure that there was enough distance between him and

his kidnappers when they discovered his escape. He knew it was only a matter of time before they checked on him

and found the hole in the wall. He had little idea of the terrain he was about to go through and he had little clues

to give him any sort of bearings as to wear he was. At the moment, the sky was still dark. There was a small

amount of lightening just on the horizon, signalling that the sun would make it's appearance within the next hour or


Without much more hesitation Joe decided to follow the direction in which the sun would rise. He knew that meant

he would be heading in an easterly direction. At the moment he cared very little about what direction he was headed

in, only that he needed to get away and get away fast.

Joe started walking ….

At the jailhouse, Sheriff Roy Coffee was just loading the last of his supplies into the saddles bags on his horse when

he heard riders approaching from behind him. He looked around and smiled when he saw the ominous looking

figure of Ben Cartwright mounted on his horse Buck followed by his two also formidable looking sons Hoss and

Adam on their mounts. Neither of them looked in the mood for idle talk. They all had one thing in mind, finding

their missing Little Joe.

"Mornin' Ben, mornin' boys" Roy greeted them cheerfully. He got a nodded response from Adam and Hoss

and a grunt of a hello from Ben.

"Ready to go Roy?" Ben asked in a no nonsense voice

"Yep, just as about ready as I'll ever be" Roy answered. "I let him go about two hours ago, he headed west out

of town. Should be able to start following his tracks right away" Roy said as he now mounted his own horse.

"Let's ride" Ben announced and headed in the direction that Roy had stated. Hoss lead the way and picked up

Danny's easy to follow trail almost immediately. He leant over the horse as they went, followed by Ben, Adam

and Roy. There wasn't much conversation while they rode and the silence echoed as they continued on the


After about two hours or so of travelling, Hoss stopped his horse suddenly and started to look about the landscape.

He looked as though he was trying to get his bearings, but was actually taking in the surroundings. He had an idea

about where they were heading about twenty minutes earlier, it was only after a few more files and a few more

familiar looking landmarks that he was triumphantly able to announce his discovery out loud to the rest of the search


"What's wrong Hoss?" Ben asked a little worried at Hoss's sudden halt in progress. Maybe his large son had lost

the trail or maybe they were headed in the wrong direction.

"I think I know where he's headed" Hoss said with a smile to his father and the others.

"Are you sure Hoss?" Adam asked with a little disbelief in his voice. He didn't doubt his younger brother's tracking

ability, but he himself was not familiar with the area that they were in.

"Yeah Adam, I thought I had seen some of these trees a while back, but I wanted to make sure before I said

anything. I didn't want to give anybody false hopes or nothin'" Hoss replied.

"Where is he headed Hoss?" Ben now enquired barely able to contain the anticipation.

"Well I can't be one hundred percent certain Pa, but I think this roads leads up to "Pine Valley. You know

the place where Joe and I went camping just last week" Hoss said.

"Well let's keep at it then shall we, don't want to lose too much time" Roy said as he noted the amount of

time that was between them and Danny Griffiths. They needed to be as close to the kidnappers as possible

without being detected. If they got too far behind, the kidnappers might very well move onto a different

place altogether before the search party could rescue Little Joe.

Hoss and the others restarted down the current trail. There was a renewed sense of hope now that they all

had some sort of idea where they were headed. They all just secretly hoped that Little Joe would be able

to hold out until they could reach him.

Danny Griffiths had been riding for about three hours when Little Joe was able to make his escape from the

shack and the cruel treatment of Butch Thomas.

Little Joe had headed off in the direction of the sun, but tried to remain as close to the trees as possible to

avoid being seen out in the open, should Thomas and Pierce try to track him down. He had been walking

for about an hour when Hoss and the others figured out where they were headed.

Joe had not been travelling long enough to work out where he was yet. All the trees looked the same to him

as he forced his aching body to keep at a reasonable pace. His head was nothing short of torturous and he

found himself stopping a few times just to try and let the pain decrease slightly before starting out again. He

had been fortune about half an hour ago to come across a muddy pool of water. He had gratefully wet his

mouth with the murky looking liquid but refrained from drinking too much for fear of upsetting his empty

stomach. He hadn't eaten in almost two days and didn't know how even water would react once consumed.

He couldn't risk feeling sick on top of all the aches and pains he was already experiencing. Vomiting would

only serve to sap what little strength he had and hold him up further from his escape.

Joe kept walking for the next half an hour. Each minute saw his gait slow and become more unstable due to

the weakness in his muscles. He seemed to be just willing himself to walk without really knowing why or where

he was headed. The throbbing pain in his head made it difficult to think straight.

By now the sun was up and allowing him to see the terrain in which he was walking. He had narrowly missed

causing himself a nasty injury from a large tree root. The mud on his clothes had now dried and cakes in large

patches on his shirt and pants. His hair was limp and fell in his eyes, often making him push it back with his hand

so that he could see where he was going.

Now, as Joe walked he could see that he was coming upon a small stream. What he failed to note due to his

confused state of mind was that it was the same stream that he had come across only days earlier and freed his

bear cub friend from the metal trap.

His steps were more deliberate now and it took all of his strength just to put one foot in front of the other. His

energy was waning quickly and he didn't know how long he could successfully hope to remain on his feet. He

kept telling himself that Butch Thomas was only a short distance behind him and that if he dared stop, even for

a moment to catch his breath, then Thomas would catch up with him and he wouldn't be able to escape again.

Joe could see that the stream was running as he stepped his foot into the shallow water. He wasn't thinking about

what the temperature might be and almost pulled his foot out in shock at the coldness that enveloped his leg as

his toes touch the wet surface. The water was cold, not freezing, but cold enough to bring back a certain level

of alertness. He knew that he didn't have much choice in avoiding the water. The stream continued on in both

direction for some time and he lacked the strength to try and find a drier crossing place further up or down stream.

The briskness of the water made Joe's skin come out in gooseflesh as he took another two steps across the narrow

stream. Only three or four more steps and he would be on dry land again he told himself.

He wrapped his hands around his chest tightly, trying to warm his body from the effects of the cold water. He started

to take the next step forward.

Joe's booted foot came in contact with what he assumed was the earthy and rocky bottom of the stream. He was

about to lift his foot and take the next step when he felt something grabbing at his ankle. It only took a few more

seconds for the pain to erupt in his ankle and travel the entire length of his leg to his hip bone. The pain was

so sudden and ferocious that Little Joe now found himself face down on the muddy bank of the stream with his

feet still in the water. He lifted his head slightly from the ground. He tried to turn around and look behind him at

the watery surface, but had to concentrate on gritting his teeth to hold back the scream that was his tongue.

The water around his foot was now staining crimson and mixing with the brackish water of the stream.

Joe gathered the last of his waning strength and tried to pull on his ankle to set it free from it's entrapment.

He could feel something sharp like digging into the soft flesh, but his addled mind told him that his foot must be

wedged between two rocks on the bottom of the stream bed.

Joe would never remember hearing his heart wrenching scream echo through the trees when he tried to set

his foot free. Underneath the surface of the water there was a terrible tearing of flesh and more blood.

Joe Cartwright fell unconscious where he lay partly submerged in the water.

A hawk perching in the canopy of the nearby trees now screeched in fright at Joe's scream and took off in

flight up into the sky. It was now the only sound to be heard as the youngest Cartwright lay oblivious to the

world around him.

Later when he tried to recall what he had felt at that moment, Joe would only be able to remember how cold the

water was. Little did he realise at the time that it was the coldness of the water that would save his life.

An old forgotten trapper's metal jawed trap had dug into Joe's ankle without mercy. It had laid undisturbed

and rusty in it's watery grave, waiting for an unsuspecting animal or person.

Ben and the search party had not heard Joe's cries of anguish at the pain left behind from the rusty trap hidden in

the stream, but like his son, over the last hour or so his heart had been growing heavier and heavier with the worry

of finding his youngest son alive and safe.

Their hearts had soared with Hoss's recognition of the local landscape and they had thought to be on the right

track. But now, after miles and miles of nothing but trees and rocks, their earlier hope was waning with every

stride of the horses.

Sheriff Roy Coffee had become increasingly worried over the last few miles, but rode in silence, not wanting to

unduly alarm the Cartwrights about what he feared might be happening. He now made the decision that he

couldn't keep those fears from them any longer. They would have to make a bold move or risk losing the trail

left by Danny Griffiths.

Roy brought his horse to a pause again and seemed to be surveying the tracks left behind by Griffith's horse

when Adam and Ben came up behind him. Hoss had been travelling ahead of Roy and now turned around

to see why the others had stopped.

"Ben, I think we have got trouble" Roy said throwing caution to the wind and not sugar-coating the problem.

"What is it Roy?" Ben asked with a little dread in his words.

"I think this fellow knows he is being followed" Roy answered and pointed the tracks on the ground. The long

serving lawman had noticed that over the last 10 miles or so, Griffith's looked to be deliberately changing the gait

of his horse constantly, altering the tracks that were left behind for the search party to follow.

"Do you think he's on to us?" Adam now asked, worried that they would lose their hope of finding Little Joe.

"Yes, I do" Roy replied "See those tracks. He's trying to make it so they can't be followed." he added.

"What do you think we should do?" Ben asked, hoping that the suggestion wouldn't be to lose any more time

and allowing Griffith's to get further ahead. Ben didn't want to waste any more time than necessary. They didn't

even know how Joe had been treated up until now. He could be desperately waiting for his family to come and

find him right this minute.

Roy could see the anxiousness on Ben's face and knew that his old friend did not want to wait things out. He knew

he had to come up with another solution to their sticky situation. "I think we should split up" Roy announced after

thinking deeply for a few more minutes. "You and Hoss head in that direction Ben" Roy explained as he held out his

hand and pointed in a northerly direction. Adam and I will keep going along this road. That way he won't be able

to double back on us and get away."

Ben looked further up the road that they had been travelling in and then looked in the direction that Roy had pointed

to. "Okay Roy, but please be very careful. Fire two shots in the air if you find anything" he said trying to stress the

"anything" part.

Adam had nodded his agreement to the alteration in plans and now watched in silence as his father and younger brother

Hoss headed off in a different direction. He knew that Roy meant for the pair of them to wait a little longer before

proceeding. Adam knew that Roy was doing his best not to upset Ben by wanting to delay their progress any further.

Danny Griffiths was still a little way in front of Adam and the Sheriff and although he couldn't see anybody when he

looked behind him. The wind made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, warning that there was something

out there. He didn't know what it was, but he spurred his horse into a gallop and picked up the pace dramatically.

It shouldn't be too long now before he was back at the shack where Butch and Pierce were held up with the kid.

Roy and Adam tried to let as much time pass as possible before restarting their ride. After only ten minutes however,

they both gave each other a certain look and quickly mounted their horses and started out again. Although they had

been trying to let Griffiths get a little further ahead. That same sense of warning made them start to canter their

horses a little faster as well.

Griffith's could see the old shack in front of him. He never thought that he would be glad to see such a run down

place. As he got closer though, his curiosity started to rise again. Something was wrong. He dismounted and

left the horse to wander loose for a minute in his haste to open the door and work out why the place was so eerily

quiet. Maybe they were all sleeping.

Griffith's turned the knob on the door but got a very hollow sounding reply as the door swung open and exposed

the now vacant shack. Thomas's and Pierce's horses had been tied up out back when he left, so he wasn't overly

concerned when he didn't see the horses as he rode up. His heart began racing now however when he couldn't

find anybody inside.

It had been about two hours after Joe's escape that Butch Thomas and Robert Pierce discovered their little captive

gone from his prison. Thomas had roared with anger when he spied the broken planks of wood in the corner of

the room. He had shouted and vowed to grab a hold of the kid when he found him and shake the living daylights

out of him.

The two had made quick and not very diligent search for the kid outside, but it soon became apparent that he had

been gone for some time and they weren't likely to find him in a hurry. They both had thought that he was too

scared from Thomas and too injured to try something as daring as an escape. Their minds started to wander now

as to what might happen if the kid did make it back to civilisation and tell them about who had kidnapped him.

Thomas wasn't overly worried about being caught. He was livid to think that a scrawny, bag of bones kid had

gotten the best of him and escaped. He was equally as sure though that the kid would be dead soon anyway.

The kid was not likely to be able to walk the number of miles to find help with no food or water and very little

sleep over the last two days. He told himself that he would hang low for a week or so, just until the dust about

the kid's death settled in Virginia City. That way he could then just turn up in town and talk to Henry Williams

about what happened without any fear of being blamed for the kid's disappearance or death.

Robert Pierce however was just plain scared about being caught. He didn't have the cockiness that Thomas openly

displayed and started to feel nervous about the mere mention of the kid being found dead along the roadway.

Within twenty minutes, Pierce had his bedroll and few meagre possessions packed up and secured on his horse.

He rode away from Thomas headed for New Mexico telling himself that he would be better going someplace new

like he wanted to. He could make a new start and forget all about Butch Thomas and the Cartwright kid.

It wasn't too long after Pierce that Thomas himself rode out. He didn't even give Danny Griffith's another thought

about returning from Virginia City. It made little difference now about the lumber contract because his ace was now

out of his grasp. He promised himself a week of drinking and relaxing in Carson City before returning to collect

the rest of his money from Henry Williams. After all, he had fulfilled his part of the deal and kept the kid as the

bargaining chip as arranged. It wasn't his fault if the kid got away and then dropped dead out in the woods. The

money still rightfully belonged to him. He was just damned mad that the kid got the better of him.

Griffith's had lost track of time whilst standing in the doorway trying to figure out where his two partners had

gotten to with their hostage. He heard a noise behind him and assumed it to be one of them. He was badly mistaken

as he felt himself driven up against the wall of the shack by a large fist.

"Where is my little brother?" a very ominous looking Adam Cartwright demanded. He held Griffiths with his left hand

and held his right out in a clenched fist as a warning of what was to come should be give the wrong answer.

"Now, now Adam" Roy said as he tried to prevent the eldest Cartwright from doing something he might regret later.

"I know your worried about Little Joe, but we have to do things properly" he said and then turned back towards the

cringing Griffiths.

"Mr, you got about thirty seconds to tell us where Little Joe Cartwright is before I let this man do what he is threatening"

Roy now growled at the man. Adam couldn't help but smirk at Roy's response.

"I don't know where the kid is honest Mr" Danny said in a meek voice. "I just got here before you and the place

was empty."

"Where are your friends?" Roy asked trying to get some information on the other kidnappers. "I would be better

for you if you co-operate. The judge might decide to go easier on you." Roy said knowing that the man had just

unwittingly dobbed himself into being involved in Little Joe's abduction.

"Judge, what Judge. You haven't got anything on me Sheriff. You said I was free to go back in Virginia City.

You said that the old guy had dropped the charges." Griffiths said, a little sarcasm creeping into his voice.

"That's what I said about Mr Perkins alright. I don't believe I said anything about you being in trouble over a

kid. Now what kid would you be talking about?" Roy asked still acting dumb. He could see another smile creep

over Adam's lips as he realised what game the Sheriff was playing.

"Kid, did I say kid?" Griffiths now said trying to change his story halfway through. He knew that he had incriminated


"You don't have to say anything to me at all Mister" Roy now calmly said. "Those saddle bags you tried to sell

back in Virginia City give me all the proof I need. Those bags belonged to Little Joe. The only way you would have

them was if you took them from Joe. I think you know more about Joe's disappearance then your telling us."

"Adam, would you kindly escort this man to his horse. Make sure his hands are secured behind his back too.

I believe you and me have a prisoner to escort back to Virginia City." Roy said.

"I want to look around before we head back Roy" Adam said as he started to glance around the run down shack.

Roy now took a grip on Griffiths to prevent him getting away. This allowed Adam to make sure that the place was

deserted. Adam was now feeling a little helpless. He had expected to find Joe and his kidnappers upon finding

Griffiths, but now as he looked around the empty rooms, he didn't know where to start looking for his missing

brother. What was he going to tell his father?

Adam could see the missing boards in the room Joe had been kept in. They meant little too him because he failed

to realise that the broken bits of timber signalled the escape route of Little Joe. Adam lightly kicked the pieces of

broken wood with his foot and left the room to got back to the front of the shack.

"If I were you, I wouldn't worry about looking for you brother in here" Griffiths said with a laugh. "If I were you,

I would be looking for a hole outside that he's buried in" he retorted. Adam calmly walked over to the man and

without warning struck the man hard in the stomach with his fist. Roy had not bothered to stop Adam inflicting the

blow. He secretly wished he could have given Griffith's one himself for making a comment like that about someone

he cared for.

Adam and Roy were soon mounted and ready to start the journey back to Virginia City with their unwilling prisoner

when they heard two distinct gun shots fired into the air. This was the one signal that they had been praying to hear

since starting the search.

Adam gave a quick look towards the Sheriff that held the question. Roy smiled briefly and knew that he would be

making the journey back with Griffith's alone. "Go on" Roy said simply and watched as Adam kicked his horse

into a gallop and rode towards the sound of the gun shots. He didn't know how far away his father and brother

were when they fired the shots, but he could only hope that they had found Little Joe.

As luck would turn out for Ben and Hoss, the trail that they had chosen almost by accident would lead them in the

same direction that Hoss and Joe had travelled from Pine Valley.

Hoss had suspected as much quite some time ago and voice his thoughts to the others, but now that he and his father

were separated from Adam and the Sheriff, he know started voice his recognition of the local area again.

"This is the same road that Joe and I came on when we went camping last week, I'm sure of it" Hoss announced

to Ben. These few words were the first spoken between the two men for quite a few miles. Both were lost deep

in thought about whether they were making the right decision or not to take this different trail.

"Maybe we are headed in the wrong direction then" Ben said "Why would Joe be way out here again? We don't

have the slightest idea that this is the right way to be going. We could be getting further and further away from

Joe" Ben said with frustration starting to creep into his voice.

"Don't worry Pa, we'll find him soon" Hoss said trying to give Ben some sort of hope to cling to. Deep down he had

the same fears as his father though.

"Hey Pa, this is were we were camped that night" Hoss said as they reached the bottom of a hill. He knew that over

the other side was the small stream that had run beside their campsite. It had also been the same stream that the little

bear cub had fallen victim to that long forgotten metal trap hidden on the muddy edge of the bank.

Hoss and Ben then rode up the slight slope in the road and were about to ride down the other side when they suddenly

stopped on the crest of the hill and tried to take in the sight that lay before them.

Ben was certain that his heart had stopped beating when he spotted the pathetic and thin looking creature laying

partly in the water of the stream and partly on the muddy bank. He willed his body to move so as to get as quick as

he could but his muscles wouldn't obey his brain. He scarcely recognized the pale unconscious form of his youngest

son that lay unmoving. He had even opened his mouth to try and shout the boy's name, but the sound of his voice

had been taken away with the air from his lungs.

Hoss had stood frozen to the spot much as his father was. Now he fought hard to hold back the tears he felt welling

up in his eyes as he looked upon the sight of his brother laying in the stream. When he finally came to his senses and

just before he made the desperate dash to catch up with his father, Hoss took his pistol from it's holster and fired the

two important signalling shots into the sky to alert the Sheriff and Adam that they had found Little Joe. He couldn't

be sure now how far away Adam was, but he knew that they would all be needed to help get their brother home

safe and sound.

Ben had already started to run and jumped slightly at the sound of the gun going off. It only delayed his pace for a

short second as he ran towards Little Joe.

Ben reached his fallen son and suddenly found his voice and began whispering the boy's name in vain to try and get

a response from him. As he tried to rouse the unconscious boy, his eyes were scanning over his body trying to see

any visible signs of injury. The boy looked painfully thin and had his shirt was now torn almost to shreds. The thing

that worried Ben mostly apart from the unconsciousness, was the coldness of Joe's skin. Whilst it was only his feet

submerged in the water, his whole body trembled as Ben lay a gentle hand on his back. The flesh was cold to the

touch and shivers ran up and down the lengths of the muscles in his limbs.

"Is he okay Pa" Hoss said knowing full well that his question sounded stupid even before he uttered it.

"I don't know Hoss" Ben answered softly whilst continuing to check his son over for signs of injury. "He's just so

darned cold. Go and get your bedroll Hoss, quick. We have to get him out of this water and get him warmed up.

His skin is freezing cold."

Hoss turned and raced back to his horse for the warm blankets tied to the back of Chubb. While Hoss went back

to the horses, Ben tried to pull his unconscious son out of the cold water of the stream. This was when the problems

really began.

Ben, unaware of the trap that encircled his son's ankle below the water line, gently place his hands underneath Joe's

arms and with short deliberate tugs, tried to drag his sodden son from the muddy water.

Up until now, Joe had been completely oblivious to his father and brother's presence. As soon as his father tried

to pull him from the water though, the jaws of the metal trap bit deeper into his ankle causing him to awaken to a

semi-conscious state and scream hideously at the pain that plagued his body.

Ben immediately stopped at the sound of his son's scream. He knew that he was hurting the boy. He tried to calm

the boy and now stepped into the cold water himself and try to lift the boy out without hurting him further. He now

tried to put his hands underneath the boy's knees and shoulders and lift him out but as soon as he pulled the boy more

than a few inches, the chain that held the trap to the bottom of the stream became taunt. Once again the jaws bit into

the softened flesh of Joe's ankle and caused fresh bleeding and pain. Joe screamed out in agony again as fire and

ice seemed to coarse through his veins. Ice from the coldness of the water. Red hot pain from the trap around his leg.

At least now Ben could see the hidden problem to his son's torture. It failed to bring him any relief from worry though.

Ben could see upon closer inspection that the trap was old and rusty and knew that it would take some effort to remove

it from the boy's leg. Whichever way they tried to do it, he doubted that it would be possible to remove without causing

his son unbelievable pain.

By now Hoss had returned with the blankets, but upon hearing his brother's pitiful screams of agony, he dumped them

onto the muddy bank of the stream and entered the water to try and help his father.

"He's got some sort of trap around his ankle" Ben now informed Hoss. Hoss immediately groaned as his thoughts

went back to this same stream only a week earlier when it had been the bear cub who had fallen victim to one of

these vicious tools.

Hoss and Ben now traded places so that Hoss could get a better look at the trap. He too could see the corrosion

of the metal. He went to try and find a large stick to help release the trap. Ben was now holding his youngest's

boy as best he could from the muddy bank. As he held the boy, he rubbed at his arms and chest, trying to get

some warmth back into him. The boy was just too cold.

Hoss had been heading back into the water with the stick when Ben and Hoss both heard another rider approaching

the stream from the opposite direction. For a few seconds the stranger was too far away to see who it was and they

immediately became apprehensive about something else coming closer. Ben gave a large sigh of relief though when

he could finally make out the black clad figure of his eldest son Adam on his horse Sport.

Hoss smiled briefly at the sight of his brother as well but then firmly set his mind to the task at hand of releasing

his brother from his iron shackle.

Upon seeing his father and brother in the stream, Adam pulled his horse to a sudden stop and bolted towards them

with worry and concern etched all over his face. His gaze became fixated on the slim figure shrouded by his father's

embrace and his heart almost stopped beating for a few seconds.

Ben could see the fear and dread on his son's face as Adam walked forward and gently pushed back one of the

mud-caked curls from the unconscious boy's forehead. "How long has he been here?" Adam asked in a barely

audible whisper.

"I don't know son, Hoss and I just found him a few minutes ago ourselves. He has a trap around his ankle. Hoss

is working on getting it off now. This water is so cold." Ben answered.

"I'll help Hoss" Adam said knowing that he would be more help to his brother that way. He too just wanted to hold

the boy and tell him that everything was going to be alright, but that luxury was afforded to their father at present.

Ben nodded at Adam's statement as he continued to rub the cold flesh of his son's arms and chest.

The trap turned out to be harder than they first thought to remove. Joe had made a few moans of pain through the

whole procedure, but the exhaustion combined with the cold and the pain caused him to revert mostly back to his

earlier state of unconsciousness.

"Ah finally" Hoss exclaimed as he managed to slip the thin stick between the metal jaws of the trap and release their

grip on Joe's ankle. Once the jaws were loosened however, the horrible looking puncture marks began bleeding

again. Adam now held his brother's leg and tried to use the boy's sodden trousers to help compress the wound

and slow the flow of blood.

On Ben's orders, they now carefully carried the unconscious youth between the three of them and headed up the

muddy bank. Hoss immediately grabbed one of the blankets around his brother's shivering body, the other he

passed to Adam. Adam proceeded to tear a large strip from this one and use it as a bandage to tightly wrap the

torn leg. Unfortunately any repairs to the leg or any other part of Joe's body would have to wait until they could

get him back to the Ponderosa and into the expert physician's hands of Paul Martin.

Ben wondered whether they should rest a while and allow Joe to get some rest before starting to head back the

way they came. A few more moans of pain and shivers from Joe however quickly convinced him that they needed

to get the boy to medical help as soon as possible. They already had quite a few hours of riding ahead just to

complicate matters even more.

Adam gave his father one of the blankets from his own bedroll and proceeded to wrap it over the first around Little

Joe. Adam held his brother's frail form while his father mounted Buck. He then passed the boy to his father who

wrapped him as tightly into his embrace as possible. He hoped that his own body heat would help the boy over

the next couple of hours on the ride home.

"Hoss, I want you to go as fast as you can and get Doc Martin to meet us back at the Ponderosa. If you see

Roy along the way, tell him about finding Joe and that we will need to talk to him as soon as Joe is able to. Go

quickly son" he emphasised.

Hoss briefly walked over to his father while mounted on Chubb and looked down at his sleeping brother "You

just hold on there punkin'" he said. "Ol' Hoss is going to get the doctor for you and he will fix you up good as

new Ya hear?" Hoss quickly tried to smile at his father and older brother and then turned his horse around and

galloped off in the direction of Virginia City.

"You okay with him Pa?" Adam asked not knowing what other words of comfort to say to his father at a time

like this. It was obvious to all of them that Little Joe's condition was serious if not life threatening. They just had to

get him home and pray that lots of rest and good food would see the usually full of life kid bounce back to his

normal self.

"I'll be fine Adam" Ben said gently as he looked back down at the child nestled in his coat. "Let's get him home"

he said and started Buck into a slow walk. At the moment that was all he was willing to risk. Hopefully they

would be able to pick up the pace as they got closer to home.

Ben's thoughts were interrupted by the meek sound of his son's voice coming back at him. He only barely caught

the words and asked the boy to repeat what he said. Little Joe's eyes were once again closed but he repeated

the sentence "You ….. finally … found me" he whispered and was then lost to sleep again.

AUTHOR'S notes:






Please note that the idea of the trap had been used recently by a few people. I have had this idea since

last year but it is only coming out now due to the length of time it has taken me to write this part of my

story. I have gotten permission off a number of people including the wonderful Joan Sattler who had a

story recently using the same idea. Thanks to all who helped me out on this story.

Please read and let me know if you like this story. You may need to read it a couple of times due to the

complexity of the story. The next part will be even more so and you may have to re-read this part before

reading it when it is finally posted.