By Jules

Author Notes - For this story, I created this particular scene for a reason, but want to extend the camping trip between Hoss and Joe and what they did while they were away. There will be mentions of stories that are yet to be written but are earlier than this one. This story was written a long time ago (over 17 years ago), but I felt there were parts that needed more and that were rushed or not complete enough, and I wanted some more scenes in certain areas that include some of my new arcs.

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

There are a lot of stories to come in the time line before this one yet, where events have shaped Joe's personality and caused him to have mixed feelings and emotions for someone of his age in different situations. There are other times where his usual cheeky self shines through as he gets a little older. But I am trying not to give the all of the plots away for those stories, so there are clues, but perhaps not the full story about some characters and events.

This chapter may seem a little out of place to the rest of the story, but please bear with me, the need for it will make more sense much later in the right spot. There have been quiet a few additions made to what was previously written.

Chapter Two – Pine Valley

from the end of the previous chapter:

Ben's mind started to take him back to a time several months ago when everything seemed to be going fine. If only he could go back there now.

Approximately a month earlier:

When the sun rose this morning, the sky outside was as clear and as blue as Ben Cartwright had seen it in quite a few weeks. Lately they had been having a few late autumn storms at night, leaving the mornings with the scatterings and remnants of wispy clouds. Today was perhaps a good omen to him about the impending trip that his two youngest sons were about embark on.

The weather was turning milder by the day. Another month and the pine trees would be covered with the first hints of snowflakes. The leaves on the trees were a myriad of colours in the trees and on the ground. Only the mighty Ponderosa pines kept their dark green colour.

For now the day time temperatures were pleasant, but the nights were turning colder, and it was the reason that the planned camping trip could not be delayed further.

Ben was seated outside on the front porch, sipping at his second cup of coffee of the day. The first he had enjoyed at the breakfast table with his eldest son Adam.

The serenity and quietness of the morning was soon interrupted though.

"Come on, Hoss!" an excited fifteen year old Little Joe shouted as he descended the wooden staircase two steps at a time. "We still have to saddle the horses yet."

The patriarch smiled to himself and hoped that the excitement inside Joe remained until the boy himself was an old grey man. It was this zest for life that kept rejuvenating the youth in all of them. 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.

The last few years had not been easy ones for any of the family. Joe had struggled with some difficult issues in his young life, and sometimes it still showed. When a shadow would appear on the boy's face over something he saw, an unshared bad dream, or a painful memory presented itself when he least expected it to. Adam and Hoss had tried to help where they could, and stood back when their brother demanded it from them, wanting to grow up on his own.

Self confidence for Joe had taken time to grow and shine through. The seed had been planted and carefully tended, but had been hard fought at times. Events concerning friends and strangers alike that had occurred that were out of his control. They had allowed doubts to grow and take root, push it down and kept it hidden at times.

And that was the reason Ben had readily agreed to this impromptu camping trip between his two youngest sons. Something had been eating away at Joe for the past few weeks, and no amount of cajoling or coaxing had brought the family closer to knowing what was bothering him.

From previous experience, heavy handed measures usually had the opposite affect, so Adam had suggested to his father that Hoss may have more success if it was just the two of them and there was a change of scenery.

With careful guidance, reassurance and a lot of patience and understanding, Joe now thrived and felt a little more comfortable now in sharing his feelings with his family, tell them what he was thinking, or dreaming about. Joe himself was starting to push the boundaries a little more when the situation allowed or presented itself. He was caught between growing from a boy and becoming a man, and his family were in no hurry to rush the journey.

Joe felt he was ready to prove himself to his family that he could look after himself, but Ben, Hoss and Adam often disagreed that he didn't need to be in rush to do this. They were not expecting him to do any of that, but Joe was trying to live up to the proud name of Cartwright.

There was a silent, unspoken pact between Ben and his two eldest sons to watch out for their younger brother, who still wasn't quite ready to tackle every adventure or do everything yet that he wanted to. Being smaller in height and very lean, he was unable to compete with his brothers for strength, stamina and endurance on all tasks or projects, but that didn't stop Joe from trying.

Joe wore his emotions on his sleeve and they were always bubbling just beneath the surface. At times he took things easily to heart when an unkind word was said about any member of his family or friends, and bristled when an idle threat was made. Being told that he wasn't old enough yet, or wasn't experienced enough yet, usually made him want to take a chance or greater risk and demonstrate to all that he could do it and would do it.

The good and the bad, his handsome, youthful and expressive face often showed what he was feeling and revealed what he was thinking, even if he didn't always want people to know. It had helped Ben and his boys determine that something might be bothering their son and brother on many occasions, or when he wasn't feeling well or hiding an injury. The source or underlying cause often had to be slowly coaxed out of him with love and encouragement.

Equally though, there had been times and achievements that made Ben's heart as a father swell with pride. Joe's high-pitched laughter would ring out when in the company of his two brothers. A cheeky grin would show that the boy was enjoying something immensely, and the spontaneous affection that he showed to his close family was something worth being grateful for. Ben would receive praise from the school teacher Miss Sarah Summers at how well his son had been doing at school. Something Joe was reluctant to share with his family at times.

The issue of Joe attending school for the next six months though was still a contentious issue that had yet to be resolved. Every time Joseph brought it up, the two of them seemed to lock horns. Ben was insistent that his youngest son would finish his schooling, even if some of his class-mates had not, with their own families needing them to work on their ranches.

All three of his sons getting a good education had always been a high priority for Ben. Adam had been the only one who wanted to pursue it further to college. He had tried to discuss the subject gently with Joe on a few occasions, but the answer had always been a resounding "no", but there was still plenty of time for him to change his mind.

Miss Abigail Jones was still the local school head-mistress, but since moving from underneath her supervision to Miss Summers class, a noticeable difference could be seen. Joe was much happier when he arrived home from school and his grades had improved significantly, with even Adam commenting on how well his brother was doing.

"Morning, Adam," Joe said to his eldest brother still sitting at the table finishing his coffee.

"Good morning, Joe," Adam said, pleased but as surprised as his father was to see the youngest member of the family willingly out of bed at this hour.

"Where is Pa?" the youth asked, noting his father's absence from the table.

Adam looked up from the paper he had been reading, and pointed towards the front door, smiling a few moments later as he heard his brother's greeting to his father.

"Morning, Pa," Joe declared loudly as he yanked open the door and spotted his father sitting quietly outside. "What are you doing sitting out here?" he asked, thinking it was a little out of character for the man.

"Joseph, do you need to shout so loud this early in the morning?" Ben Cartwright commented in mock annoyance as he watched the exuberance and eagerness of his youngest son.

"Good Morning to you as well, can't I enjoy an early morning sunrise?"

"Sure, I guess," Joe answered, but he looked back at his father, trying to gauge if something else was going on that he wasn't being told about.

"You feeling alright, Pa?"

'Now where did that come from?' Ben asked himself, but could see that there was a serious question going on around in the young man's mind that he had to put to rest.

"I feel completely fine, Joe," Ben said, rising from his chair to prove it and looping an arm around his son's slim shoulders as they both walked back into the house.

Joe's concern disappeared as his father took up his usual seat at the head of the table again.

Hop Sing came into the dining room from the kitchen, carrying dishes of eggs and ham, "Family come sit and eat," he encouraged.

Adam put the paper he had been reading aside, ready to enjoy a family breakfast. That was a rare occurrence this time of the morning.

As the delicious smells wafted from the table, another voice could be heard coming from Hoss as he descended the staircase at a much more leisurely pace than his brother. His focus was on breakfast first.

"I wish you were always this eager to get out of bed on the mornings when I try and wake you up for school, Joe," Hoss said, as he calmly walked down the stairs whilst putting on his vest.

"Morning brothers and Pa," the larger man greeted them, sitting beside Adam and about to serve himself. He looked over at his youngest brother, knowing that Joe would rather skip the first meal of the day just to get going.

"School isn't as exciting as this, Hoss," Joe explained as he sat down at the table to join the rest of the family for breakfast. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his father watching how much food he was putting on his plate.

"Joe, you will not be going anywhere this morning on an empty stomach. I am certain Hoss won't be leaving the table until he has made sure that he has a solid breakfast under this belt, so I would like you to do the same please," Ben requested.

"Yes, Pa," Joe answered, slumping a little more in his chair and putting another egg onto his plate.

"With a Hoss sized breakfast, that could be later this afternoon," Adam commented in fun.

To his credit, Joe had finished most of the food on his plate, but now he pushed the remainder aside and was not intending on eating any more.

"If I keep eating more, Pa, my stomach is going to hurt bouncing up and down in the saddle all morning," Joe said, rubbing his stomach for emphasis. He didn't like riding with too much food in his belly.

Ben decided the boy had consumed enough not to nit-pick this morning. He didn't want to dampen Joe's spirits before the two brothers even started out. He changed the subject of conversation from food, to making sure that they had enough provisions and had prepared sufficiently for their journey.

"Are you sure that you have packed all you will need, Joseph?" Ben asked, wanting to make sure that the two brothers had all the essentials they might need with them for their expedition. This was a camping trip that Joe was going on without his father or Adam, and 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 in general about the both of them being away from home.

"Yes, Pa, I checked again this morning before coming down for breakfast" 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. "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 began pointing out, 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 purchased the rifle for Joe himself approximately four weeks ago now, he didn't like the idea of a young inexperienced person having full use of a deadly weapon. Joe could be sensible to a fault, but it was that impulsive nature and the frequent mistake 'to act first and ask questions later' mentality that caused unspoken fear to dwell inside Ben, just as much as other father's did with their young sons and guns.

Over the past month, under Ben's and Adam's careful guidance, the boy had shown a genuine aptitude at handling a rifle, but attaining accuracy was taking time. Ben had watched the boy shoot at targets more than fifty meters away, and get a mixture of results for his efforts, but they were not always what his son had been hoping to achieve.

In the past his young son had heard all of the insults about being a 'southpaw' and he had been on the receiving end of some malicious remarks from some adults because of it. Ben had wondered whether Joe's left-handedness would prove an obstacle at first, but after a few brief practice sessions, it had become obvious that the fact that Joe used his left hand was more as an advantage than a disadvantage.

Hoss had finished his second helping of breakfast, and knew it was about time to start heading out to make the final preparations.

Joe had gotten up from the table, and was about to head outside to the barn, but stopped when he heard his father speak to him.

"Come over here for a moment please, Joseph" 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 declared, trying to mimic his father's authoritative voice.

"Joseph, don't ride too fast. Joseph, listen to what your brother tells you. Joseph, don't wander off alone. Joseph,…." he stopped and looked back slightly ashamed, knowing that his father only wanted to talk because he cared.

"Joseph, don't take that attitude with me," Ben added in the same tone of voice that his son had been trying to copy. "Or you won't be going anywhere at all, young man," Ben scolded sternly without injecting anger into his words and being at odds with his son this morning before it had scarcely even begun.

The boy nodded his head in acknowledgement, sufficiently chastised, knowing that he had been rude. He didn't want to argue with his father before he left on the trip.

"I want you and your brother to have a good time and enjoy yourself, Joe, but I also want you to do as Hoss asks and keep safe during your trip," Ben said in a gentler voice, running his hand through the unruly curls, knowing his son didn't want to be coddled in front of his brothers before heading out today. "Don't be in a rush to do everything. You will have plenty of time. Make sure you both come back in one piece, safe and sound."

"I promise I will behave myself, Pa," Joe replied giving his father a quick embrace, "And have a good time with Hoss as well."

Joe raced off the settee and rechecked that he had everything that he wanted to take with him.

Whilst he was outside saddling Cochise and made 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 fine, Pa," Hoss confirmed, trying to reassure his father that he would bring his youngest son back to him safe and sound. "Its only three days out and only two nights at that, we should be back no later than mid-afternoon on Sunday if everything goes smoothly enough."

"Where are you planning to take our younger brother on this camping expedition, Hoss?" Adam asked as he left the table. He asked the question for two reasons. One, for curiosity sake and with regret that he wasn't joining his brothers 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's whimsical and impetuous nature and his desire to grow up too fast. Occasionally he didn't think too far enough ahead and mistakes were made that could have been avoided with a little more forethought about the risks and consequences.

Hoss took his responsibility as protector and confidante of Joe very seriously, and would never allow his young sibling to come to harm if he could prevent it. This had been the case long before Joe had even reached his teenage years. Little Joe was a good person most of the time, but he had this quirky, almost uncanny ability to wrap almost anybody around his little finger to his advantage and this was even more so for his brother, Hoss.

Their father certainly wasn't exactly exempt from this ability either, and Adam had seen that determined, head-strong resolve crumple in an instant. Even Adam had to admit wryly to himself that he had found himself falling victim to it a time or two in the past. Adam secretly hoped that his larger brother would be able to see past those large expressive emerald green eyes and the irresistible smile that the kid brought out on display and flashed when he wanted to get his own way. Only time would tell if he will see past that, Adam told himself.

"Probably as far as 'Pine Valley', Adam," Hoss answered. "Its not totally off the Ponderosa, but far enough away for the boy 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 there is no other game to be seen beforehand. We can set a rabbit snare or two, they are always good eating this time of year with the cooler weather coming in."

Ben and Adam were both pleased with Hoss's assessment and knew the choice of venue 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.

Hoss walked over to the credenza and collected his gunbelt, buckling it around his waist. He picked his hat off the assigned peg, and donned it on top of his head, heading out into some bright sunshine. The sun was now much higher than when his father was watching from the porch.

"Come on, Hoss, or it will be dark before we even get there," Joe shouted from the barn doorway as he tried to hurry his brother along.

Charlie the yard foreman and a number of the ranch hands were now beginning to mill around the corral and barn, watching half of the family getting ready to depart. Some of them wished they were going fishing and camping too.

Joe mounted Cochise and held out the reins of Chubb for Hoss. He grinned back at his father and older brother as they watched from the front yard and then gave them a quick enthusiastic wave before nudging Cochise forward.

Apart from their own horses, Hoss was leading a pack mule that was loaded down with their food supplies, cooking pots and pans, the tent canvas, ropes and pegs and their fishing poles. There was too much for both their horses to carry in their saddle bags alone, and it was easy enough to gently lead the placid beast of burden with them and make sure they had enough of everything.

Ben watched the two riders until he could no longer see them. Many thoughts raced through his mind as he was reminded that this was a camping trip for Joe 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.

For the first part of the journey, Joe's excited chatter about what lay ahead was relentless. But Hoss was prepared to be patient today as he needed to be, keeping his horse at a steady pace, hoping his brother would match it with his own mount, without wanting to get too far ahead.

"What are we gonna do first, Hoss?" Joe asked, as he rode alongside his brother, a million different thoughts going through his mind about what they were going to be doing later this afternoon once they arrived at their destination.

"Whoa, wait until we at least get there, short shanks," Hoss said, as he chuckled at his brother's impetuous nature. Joe was already to set off at the drop of a hat if he allowed it. Nowadays it was often up to his family to see that he didn't stray too far from the straight and narrow, whilst failing to see what was up ahead of him.

"When we do get to 'Pine Valley', the first thing we will have to do is choose a good 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 this afternoon we can do a spot of fishing in the stream to catch us some supper," Hoss explained what he had mapped out in his head for the remainder of the day.

"We can set some rabbit snares too Joe, and catch us a nice plump rabbit for supper," Hoss said, licking his lips at the thought of a hearty stew to ward off the cold night they may be facing.

"Hoss, we only left home a couple of hours ago, and you already had two servings at breakfast, and you are thinking about food again," Joe commented, never knowing where his brother put the copious amounts he consumed.

"Tell me what you want to do when we get there, Joe?" Hoss asked, "This is your camping trip too."

Joe turned in his saddle and was genuinely pleased that his brother was asking that question. In the past, he had mostly gone along with the agenda that Pa or Adam set out for everyone. That is why this camping trip was going to be different. He loved Adam and his father with all his heart, but he and Hoss being a little closer in age, shared a special kinship when it came to wanting to doing more fun things outdoors without a schedule or set itinerary. Not just for work, but for relaxation and enjoyment.

Hoss would prefer to spend most of his days outside, either in the barn, or attending to animals. On days when it was raining too heavy or when it was too cold and the snow didn't allow for work outside, the larger man found it difficult to keep himself occupied. And if he was sick or injured and confined to bed, Adam had commented on more than one occasion that he was no better than Joe himself when it came to complaining about such restrictions.

"I was hoping we could practice doing some tracking whilst in that area since I haven't been that way before, Hoss," Joe replied, "And tonight maybe after supper, do some star-gazing."

"They both sound like great ideas, Joe," Hoss praised. There was no set time frame to do anything except enjoy the outdoors and each other's company.

He had been teaching his younger sibling for the last two years about tracking wild animals and how to recognize their tracks. Joe was getting better all the time, and was quite good at picking out some tracks now. But 'Pine Valley' may present a few different more opportunities to see some different tracks.

With star-gazing, he liked to look at the pretty twinklings too and try and catch a falling star or two to wish upon. He may not be as good as Adam telling Joe about what each and every star was called and their history, but that wouldn't matter tonight with just the two of them.

Their father had taught them all how to navigate by the stars at night, because he had been taught the same on the open ocean when sailing clipper ships many years before even starting the Ponderosa. The stars were your guiding friends he could remember hearing his father say. They always remained true and never lied. Their position in the night's sky changed at different times of the year, and had guided many a lost traveller over land and sea.

Another hour into their journey, and Hoss made them stop and take some water from the canteens they had brought. They would need refilling in the stream before they left for home again, but the cool, fresh mountain stream water would taste so much better on their return journey.

Hoss brought out a small parcel Hop Sing had handed him before he left the house, and he had stowed it away secretly in his saddle bags without Joe seeing it.

"What have you got there, Hoss?" Joe said as he tried peeking around his brother's larger hands.

"Something I know you are just going to love, little brother," Hoss said, pulling his hands back and allowing Joe to see for himself.

"Sugar cookies!" Joe exclaimed, quickly grabbing two, biting down on the first one with pure pleasure on his face. Hop Sing's sugar cookies were one of Joe's favourite treats as he had been growing up all these years, and he still enjoyed them now. The little Cantonese cook made batches every week, and they never had time to go stale.

"Better keep some for coming home, Joe," Hoss poked in fun, "What was it you said about thinking about food already today?" he added with a chuckle as the second cookie quickly disappeared after the first.

"I take back everything I said about it, Hoss," Joe said, quickly grabbing a third cookie before the parcel was put back into the saddle bag for later.

"Let's keep going," Hoss said, both of them were enjoying their time together immensely. No work or chores for a couple of days. The sun wasn't too harsh, and there was good food to eat.

The closer the two brothers got to their destination, the scenery had changed several times. Open flat grassland bathed in sunlight changed to woodland and forests of tall pine trees, where dappled light poked through indiscriminately. The straw coloured tall grass from the haying season was gone, but there would be plenty for the stock to eat when winter arrived.

Underneath the canopy of the pine trees, there was a thick carpet of autumn leaves, of every colour, from yellow, to sun-burnt orange, dark red and earth brown. A few squirrels had been spotted on their journey, making sure that their larders were being filled before the real cold snap began.

"Sure is pretty up in this area, Joe," Hoss commented, as he took in a large lungful of fresh air.

It wasn't often that he got to enjoy being outside and take in everything going on around him. Oh he was outdoors all the time, but there was always some chore to do or work that was waiting.

When Hoss didn't receive an answer, he turned in his saddle, just to check that nothing was amiss, but he chuckled to himself, as he observed Joe looking up into the trees, and taking in the beauty of their surroundings, just like he had been doing.

"Watch the ruts in this road, Joe," Hoss said as he gazed down where the horses were putting their feet and noticing some large gouged out areas where a horse's hoof could have trouble finding stable footing. Following directly behind, almost nose to tail with Chubb, he made sure that the pack mule wasn't having any trouble navigating the road either.

Cochise seemed to know what she was doing, and Hoss watched as the plucky pinto horse avoided a few softer areas, barely missing a beat. Joe hardly noticed the horse's stride at all, trusting his mount implicitly that she knew where she was going. His boots were not even in the stirrups. If their father had seen that, Joe could be assured that he would be warning him to ride with a bit more care and attention.

However the relationship between Cochise and Joe was different, even between the one he shared with Chubb. Sure he trusted his steadfast mount, but he was still watching the ground for unforeseen trouble, and he certainly kept his boots in the stirrups. The trust between Joe and Cochise had grown so much over the past three years, that most days the young man only needed to use a gentle nudge from his thighs to instruct her what he wanted to do or which direction he wanted to her to go.

Ben had said only three years earlier that the bond between them was special, and during that time, both rider and horse had gone on to demonstrate that many times over. There had been occasions where Joe had ridden her without a saddle or even used a bridle.

And the trust between his younger brother and horses in general was continuing to get better as Joe matured and got more experience. His sibling wasn't scared of getting aboard almost any horse, even the ill-tempered ones. In fact Joe often took it as a challenge and a battle of wits and who would come out on top. The boy had a gentle hand, and endless patience, but a stubborn streak that refused to give in at times.

Joe had been heard to say on more than one occasion that horses were like people, no two were the same, in colour, markings, temperament or personality. Some were gentle and kind, others were down right brutes that refused to yield and could become dangerous if they were not handled correctly or proved too wild to be tamed.

When he was younger, on more than one occasion, Ben had found Joe watching the horses from the corral as they were being broken by the ranch hands, or spending time in the barn, talking to them. He had told his family that he was just visiting with friends, and that is exactly how the boy saw the animals.

Rather than just work animals or beasts to be used to serve people, friends that would hear his troubles anytime of the day or night. To share his deepest held secrets with, knowing that they would listen without argument or judgment, nor break his solemn trust and reveal what he had spoken of.

Hoss knew that Joe shared a lot of things with their father, especially when he was injured or if he was sick. And both he and Adam liked to think that Joe had come to them on a number of occasions about different things that had been bothering the youngest member of the family. Just to talk and have someone listen and share a conversation with. The unspoken invitation was always there.

Joe made horses part of his extended family, and treated them as such. And just like friends or family, if a horse was injured or sick, then Joe would not rest himself until the animal was well again or healed. He had done just that on more than one occasion that had scared his family because he had put his own life at risk. Hopefully that was all in the past and times like that wouldn't happen again.

And when a horse that Joe was familiar with or cared for, died due to old age, sickness or injury, he felt physical pain and the mental anguish, like losing a human friend. Sometimes he tried to hide that more nowadays because he knew it worried his father to see him upset or depressed. Hoss could usually tell, but kept it to himself out of respect for his brother's feelings, knowing that Joe would cope with the loss in his own time. If not, then he was always there to talk through it with him.

Ben still liked to share the Clydesdale horse story often with visitors and new friends about where Joe's love of horses first began, even before his mother Marie had passed away. Only time would tell how much more involved Joe would be with horses during the course of his life.

Joe seemed to know and understand where to touch a horse, to make them feel at ease and calm them down. Between their ears or their face, he had taught himself to recognize that some horses needed more time to be handled and space to work out their frustrations. He was always patting them affectionately, and giggling with them as they blew warm air onto his hand from their nostrils, tickling his hand as he rubbed softly at their noses.

In the past, Joe had tried to use and apply the same principles with people, but that had not always gone in his favour or boded well.

Knowing about horses was something more instinctive in him rather than being taught or learned. Hoss was always looking forward to the next time that his brother displayed such a natural affinity to family and friends alike, often without even realising it. The opportunity usually seemed to present itself when everybody least expected it to, even Joe himself.

Hoss had seen Joe lie directly underneath Cochise's hooves or belly, and seen the horse not move a muscle, or hurt her rider. On the few rare occasions Joe had fallen from the saddle, she had stopped and not left his side. There had also been one or two times where Joe had not been completely sure which direction to get home due to bad weather, or clouding pain from injury, but Cochise had ensured that her rider safely reached the yard and help.

Hoss had seen Joe share a hat full of fresh water with his horse before quenching his own thirst, and Joe always took care of her needs first when arriving back at the ranch. The boy always made sure she was warm enough in winter time or dry when it was raining outside, and calm during the raging thunder of a storm.

There was a unique possessiveness from Joe about anybody else riding or handling Cochise, unless he was sick or injured. Their father might have been afforded the luxury of being allowed to ride her if he asked. But Adam and Hoss both knew that they wouldn't be given the same treatment unless they were injured or sick themselves.

The same could be said about Cochise, she rarely allowed anybody else to ride her unless given assurances from her owner to do so. A new ranch hand had tried to mount her once when Joe wasn't around to openly object, and the horse had turned her head and stomped her feet in displeasure. The head foreman, Charlie, had quickly informed him in no uncertain terms that no one was allowed to ride the black and white pinto except Joe Cartwright unless given explicit permission, and that was unlikely to happen most days.

When the ranch hand had ignored the warnings and tried to use a whip on the horse, Adam had quickly shown him the error of his ways about treating any animal on the Ponderosa with such harsh and unnecessary methods and promptly fired the man on the spot. Joe had been at home in bed that day, and thankfully had not seen the incident unfold and his horse had been unharmed.

Cochise could often sense the mood of her owner and rider, adjusting her gait and step to suit. Faster or slower, depending on whether Joe was excited and happy, or slower if he was upset or not feeling very well.

The 'plaiting and flowers' incident of the horse's mane and tail from a year ago was still brought up on the odd occasion, even though a third party had since come forth and claimed responsibility of having carried out such a dastardly deed. Cochise had paced back and forth about in her stall for almost a week and Joe had made extra trips to the barn during that time just to make sure that it had not occurred again.

The horse had moped about the ranch to show her displeasure and Joe had openly protested very loudly and made no secret that he still thought both of his brothers had a hand in allowing it happen somehow. He just couldn't prove it. At the time he was a fourteen year old boy with the easily bruised pride of one to match, even if his horse was female.

Hoss thought the saga was hilarious and had laughed himself silly on the day it happened and for many that followed afterwards when Joe couldn't see him. Adam and their father had laughed along heartily as well until they saw how defensive and riled Joe had become about the whole affair. So now he kept his mirth to himself, so as not to upset his younger brother, who had not been amused by it at all.

"What are you day-dreaming about, Hoss?" came the question from Joe, bringing the larger brother out of his trip down nostalgia lane.

"Thinking about you and Cochise, Joe," Hoss admitted honestly, with a genuine smile and with a brief guffaw of laughter that he couldn't hold back.

Joe looked back at his brother a little suspiciously, "What about me and Cooch?" he asked, wanting to know what was suddenly so funny.

"Nothing at all Joe, nothing at all," Hoss answered, unable to hide a wide grin at the scowl on this brother's face.

"Come on, we are nearly there. Let's start looking about for a good spot to set up camp," he now suggested.

Joe's expression soon changed back to a more friendly one, letting the subject of laughing at him and his horse drop away. He didn't to start arguing with his brother already.

"We are having a great time, aren't we," he commented, rubbing between the horse's ears. Cochise bobbed her head up and down, as though positively answering her rider's remarks.

A nice cool breeze was starting to blow through the trees as the temperature of the day started to drop away.

The two brothers came to a slight bend in the roadway, where the canopy of the trees overhead was a little thicker, Hoss slowed his horse down, and then stopped altogether, trying to gauge if the area would suit their needs.

"Hey, Joe, this looks like a mighty fine spot right here," the larger man said as he got down and started to survey the area on foot.

Joe brought Cochise to a halt, dismounting and joining his brother, "Lots of nice trees," he agreed.

Now that they had reached an area that was suitable to both of them to make camp, Joe's energy levels were high and he seemed to want to set up the camping area as quickly as possible. There was still plenty of daylight hours ahead, and they could get some good fishing done before the sun started to set.

Joe started off at first by trying to set up the tent all by himself. Hoss was going to ask him if he needed a hand, but waited patiently until his sibling got that message without intervention. Sometimes you just couldn't tell the boy, he had to learn the hard way for himself.

"Let's set the tent up a little higher here on the bank underneath these trees, Joe," Hoss suggested.

"All the way up there?" Joe questioned putting the poles down that he was carrying, and looking back at his brother, thinking that closer to the stream would be better. "Surely that little stream won't cause any problems tonight?"

Hoss could see that it was going to take some persuasion for the younger man to believe that camping closer to the water was too much of a risk, and could be dangerous. He knew from experience and teachings that Pa and Adam had given him long ago.

"It might only be a little stream bubbling away now, little brother, but it doesn't take much for one to swell overnight, and threaten to flood the camp area, if the tent is too close," Hoss explained. "The sky is clear today Joe, but you know yourself that there have been some late autumn storms in the past few weeks, and there has been rainfall higher up in the mountains. All that water still has to make its way down to these lower streams."

The expression on Joe's face was still skeptical about the stream having the ability to swell at all. There was no rainclouds about, and they hadn't come across any showers on their journey since leaving the house.

"Alright, I will start setting it up where you want me to," Joe said, wanting to get it done, knowing that his brother wouldn't steer him wrong.

If it had been just Adam and Hoss camping together, they probably would have just camped underneath the stars in their bedrolls, and used their saddles as pillows. But with the night time temperatures dropping, extra precautions has been taken, which included packing the tent amongst the supplies. There were blankets and Joe had brought his mint green sheep-skin lined jacket for the cooler evening weather.

Little Joe settled into putting up the tent in the shade of the large trees, but still being stubborn and determined to try and do it all on his own, he had trouble trying to get the main pole to stand up straight in one place and not want to topple over.

Hoss watched the younger man struggle with the tent until there was an expulsion of frustration by Joe from underneath the massive folds of the canvas fabric that engulfed him once the pole started to list badly and fall down.

Hoss made the mistake of letting out a lung full of laughter, only to have his brother find his way out of the avalanche of tent fabric, and give him a cold stare.

"Are you just going to stand all day there laughing it up, or are you going to do something useful?" Joe chastised him, before ducking back underneath and trying to find the main pole yet again.

"If you had asked for help in the first place, short shanks, then I would have helped you already by now," Hoss returned. When he thought to himself a little more about the situation, he hadn't thought far enough ahead. His brother's small size and lightweight frame was more of a disadvantage than he first anticipated.

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 this, when two sets of hands were better than one, and Hoss intended to take on most of the physical work himself. But being smaller, didn't make him less determined or wanting to take on just as much of the labour.

Another half an hour of struggling between themselves, and the small canvas tent was finally declared fit for sleeping in later that evening. With their sleeping quarters organised, next the horses were unsaddled, and settled, making sure that they would be secure until needed. They were watered and tethered to prevent them from leaving.

Cochise and Chubb were fairly reliable at sticking by their masters, but the mule added some unpredictability, and it was better to be safer rather than having them run off, only needing to chase them down later.

Hoss and Joe went about making sure that the food supplies were stored off the ground and out of the reach of native animals. The next step in the construction of their campsite was the fireplace in the middle. A small fire pit was dug that would enable them to boil the coffee pot and cook anything their caught for supper.

A couple of hours doing these little chores now when they first arrived, would give them more time to do the other activities that they wanted to, like fishing.

Hoss and Joe knew that they would need to keep the fire going once it had been lit, not only for cooking and warmth during the night. The heat of the fire and the red flames would also act as a deterrent to any wild animals that might wander into their campsite by accident.

With the campsite completed as much as possible, Hoss decided that it was time to stop working and have some of that fun that he had been promising his brother all day. He told Joe to get his fishing pole and that they would take a walk down to the stream and see what they could catch. He looked up above and was mindful to keep an eye on the sun and take stock of how much daylight they had left.

The mention of wild animals seemed to enthrall and scare Joe all at the same time. He was keen to see something as spectacular as a cougar or a large stag, but the thought of running into any dangerous animals out here in the woods also made him a bit more cautious. Part of him was really glad his big brother Hoss was with him to show him how to protect himself against such things if the need ever arose.

Hoss knew that they would only be able to be out for a short time this afternoon before they would need to start getting supper started. Hopefully, a couple of hours would be long enough to cook supper and settle in for the evening. With the walk and the lengthy ride from home this morning, both of them should enjoy a peaceful night's conversation around the campfire.

The younger man kept his gaze skywards during the walk, awed by the large trees and their canopy that darkened the forest floor. It was hard to see where they were going in some places and on two occasions, Joe had absentmindedly tripped over a protruding root that was unseen. Both times he had 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 returning jibed remark. Hoss however had a different look on his face this time.

Hoss wasn't laughing in the slightest bit at what he saw his brother step over. It wasn't a tree root this time or a piece of fallen branch from higher up in the pine tree. This time the very sight of this metal object made Hoss's temper flare and his inner calm to reach boiling point. 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 stand the thought of any animal lying hurt or injured at anytime, not 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 pain as it chews off it's own leg from the pain. At least when we go hunting, animals are killed properly and humanely. There ain't nothing more dangerous than an injured wild animal."

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

"Its alright 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. "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." The edge of the stick pushed the metal plate in the centre and the jaws snapped shut with a rusty sounding jerk.

Hoss then walked over to the trap and lifted it from it's position buried in the leaves and the 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 landing hard in the dirt over thirty metres away. The jaws were clenched together and a couple of the rusty teeth had bent from the impact. The whole trap itself was twisted out of shape, so it would be of no further use.

Hoss was at least a little relieved that the trap wouldn't be able to inflict any more pain. He would have preferred to take the trap back to the Ponderosa and dispose of it differently. The blacksmith in town could have melted it down in his forge, but that would mean adding more weight to the mule to be carried back.

"Come on, Joe, let's get to fishing so we can return to camp and get supper started," Hoss changing the tone of his voice.

Deep down, Joe knew that his brother was like a smoking volcano ready to explode when he knew an animal could have been deliberately been injured or left to suffer. Having to deal with something like that had taken the spring out of his step for a few minutes, but he didn't want to ruin the camping trip just yet because of one thing.

Joe was a bit on edge was they made their way down to the stream, not feeling much like walking too much further . Joe had rarely seen his brother so mad 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.

Joe knew that Hoss would never show that kind of anger towards him or another human being, but the whole episode had made his brother uneasy, and the boy made a point of keeping any conversation about other more pleasant topics for the rest of the afternoon. His efforts were eventually rewarded as Hoss began to relax and enjoy the fishing, his mood improving greatly.

Sitting by the stream and throwing fishing lines in had done both brothers the world of good. Hoss had caught two plump fish, and Joe had caught one. All three fish would be gutted and cleaned, and would be cooked whole by the fire.

Joe and Hoss set about cleaning the fish before they could cook them, although it was the worst part that Joe would never openly admit openly to. He knew it had to be done, and he wasn't exactly squeamish about the sight of animal blood and guts, but it wasn't a pleasant experience. Hoss didn't deserve to do all of the work though Joe told himself, willing to pitch in where he could. This trip was meant for Hoss to relax a little too.

"We will be eating well tonight, Joe," Hoss said as the reached their camp site.

The two brothers waited patiently for the fish to cook, the scent of the lemon herbs that Hop Sing had included with their supplies making their mouths water with anticipation as the pleasant aroma wafted up, making them hungrier. Once cooked, the meal was soon devoured, both boys very satisfied, and rubbing their full bellies.

With the last of the light fading from the sky, Hoss encouraged both of them to bring a pillow, as they made their way a short distance away from the campsite where the tree canopy wasn't so thick.

"We can set up here, Joe and still see the stars as they start coming out," Hoss urged, as he carefully selected a tree that was higher up and allowed them to see out over the darkening vista.

Joe followed his brother eagerly, happy enough to settle himself back against the trunk of the tree, using the pillow so that the bark wasn't digging into his shoulders. Hoss put his pillow up a little higher and behind his head, having removed his hat, leaving it back at the campsite.

One by one, the stars began coming out, as the boys talked about a few different topics to fill in the time. Both of them were happy enough to enjoy each the silent company and gaze up at the night sky.

"Nice to be up here this time of year, Hoss," Joe commented. "Look there is another one coming out," he remarked excitedly, pointing it out to his brother.

"Real nice, short shanks," Hoss agreed. "I see it, right nice watching them come out here like this without having to worry about anything."

"What do you think is up there, Hoss?" Joe asked, the pitch of his voice changing slightly as the question took a more serious tone to it.

"Up there, amongst the stars, Joe?" Hoss asked, sitting up and looking across at his brother.

"Yeah," Joe replied. "I mean most of the time we don't think about it, but those things come out night after night, even when the clouds are covering them up. What do you think it all means?"

Hoss felt a little out of his depth with the question, and wished his older brother or Pa were here to answer.

"Maybe you should be asking Adam this, or Pa, next time we see them, Joe," Hoss answered, voicing his feeling of inadequacy at being able to explain it to his younger sibling.

"I am not asking them, Hoss, I am asking you. I know that Adam would probably have some educated and long winded reason for them being there," Joe remarked.

"And if Pa was here, I am sure he would have something important to say about them, or how many times he has gazed up at them over the years. But tonight when it is just me and you here, I want to know what you think about them. Hoss Cartwright," Joe encouraged.

Hoss might have felt out of depth at first, but after Joe elaborated some more, he felt down right flattered what his brother wanted to know. His younger sibling was usually asking his father and Adam for advice or their genuine opinions on things that mattered. But with Joe adamant that he wanted to know his thoughts this once, he sat back and pondered a moment, wanting to give a good answer.

'What do the stars mean to me?' Hoss asked himself silently, thinking as the night sky gave up another shiny glow.

"Well, Joe... to me, they sort of remind me a lot about people," Hoss began, looking over and see that his brother was listening. "They seem so far away, and most of them you don't get to know all that much, they are sort of like faces in a crowd that you might see every now and then. Or even only once. But then there are the ones that are closer to us, those that guide us and lead the way, when they are a bit brighter in the sky, those are the ones you take the most notice of."

"That sounds real nice, Hoss," Joe responded. "I like that. "Sometimes I think a little like that," he added, giving his own thoughts about what the stars meant.

"I like to think that like people, they are all connected. Though you can't really tell when we are this far away, but from down here, everything looks to be peaceful, without any problems. Looking up at a sky like this at night makes us forget about what troubles any of us might have during the day. But think of the bigger picture, that the world is a big place, and we are all just a small part of the bigger plan. We might be small, but at times we all can be seen and shine through just like each of those stars."

"Wow, Joe, that there is some mighty heavy thinking right there. You sure you didn't hurt your head none?" he laughed, and felt the play punch to his arm that he had been fully expecting.

"Hey look, short shanks, a shooting star!" Hoss declared, getting to his feet as he watched the sudden display across the night sky. "Make a wish now."

Joe had not jumped to his feet, but had a smile on his face at his brother's belief in such things. He closed his eyes briefly and made a silent choice.

Hoss saw his brother close his eyes and the wishful look on his youthful face, "What did you wish for, Joe?"

"Cannot tell you, Hoss, or it won't come true," Joe answered mysteriously.

"Come on, let's head back to the campsite, the temperature is starting to drop. I don't know about you, but the warmth of the fire would be nice right about now," Hoss said, holding a hand out, ready to pull his brother to his feet.

Hoss had brought a lantern with him and now held it in one hand, as Joe ignored his offer of assistance, and stood up, grabbing both pillows and following his larger sibling back to the campsite.

"Better get some sleep tonight, Joe, lots to do tomorrow," Hoss suggested.

The two brothers settled inside the tent and shared a few more minutes of idle conversation before Hoss found he was talking to himself. Halfway explaining about some of the things that had been happening around the ranch whilst Joe was at school, he looked over and noticed that Joe had fallen asleep.

Hoss reached over, pulling the blanket covering his brother up further around his shoulders. The wind outside had picked up a little, and the larger man could detect some slight shivering running through his brother's thinner frame. Not wanting him to catch cold before they returned home, he added a second spare blanket to the sleeping form, tucking it in around him.

Joe seemed to detect someone nearby, turning his head, but not quite waking, "Alright brother?" he said with a sleep thick voice, before falling back asleep.

"Everything is just fine, short shanks," Hoss assured him and smiling at how young his brother looked when he was asleep.

Tonight his father wouldn't have to worry about the boy not eating enough at the dinner table, nor whether anything was bothering him. The trip so far had done just what the family had hope for, allowed the boy to relax and enjoy himself.

Hoss knew there were a few unspoken matters that his Pa wanted him to bring up, but tonight had not been the right time to do so. Maybe tomorrow would see the right time present itself. If not, then they would all have to wait.

Joe worked out things a lot better for himself if he didn't feel pressured into talking about them, was allowed enough time, and felt he had control over the outcome. Hoss knew from experience, if he felt threatened or backed into a corner, then his brother would be less inclined to reveal anything.

The next morning, Joe had risen to find his brother absent from the campsite, but wasn't worried. The fire was burning low, so he poked at the coals and set a pot of coffee on to simmer. He didn't remember falling asleep, but had not woken up during the night once. It had been a while since he was able to admit to that.

The day that greeted them was different, with some clouds forming early, and the wind blowing and gusting through the trees. The temperature was mild enough as the sun rose to forego wearing his heavier sheep-skin coat. He had been thankful during the night for the blankets they had brought with them.

Whilst waiting for his brother, Joe wandered over to the horses and the mule, making sure that their needs were being met. He spent some time with his own horse, rubbing at her velvety muzzle. Today their mounts could take a well earned rest too and not have to worry about carrying them anywhere. The two brothers intended to walk wherever they needed to go.

"Morning, Joe," Hoss said as he came into the camp twenty minutes later, his hat in his hands. "Lookie what I found us for breakfast, little brother."

"Morning, Hoss. What did you find?" Joe asked, peering into the wide brimmed hat. "Berries," he said in surprise, reaching out and picking out one of the small black fruits.

"Where did you find these this time of year?" he asked before throwing the berry into his mouth. The fruit was ripe, juice and sweet to the taste. "They are good," he vouched.

"They are too," Hoss agreed, reaching in and grabbing half a handful for himself. "I found them over there a ways, past a few of them trees. Not sure they are going to be left on the bushes too much longer at this time of the year. Lots of birds and critters about will be looking for these and will soon have those bushes stripped bare as the weather begins to turn colder."

"Their loss is our gain, Hoss," Joe declared happily, reaching his hand into the hat again.

The two brothers enjoyed their lighter breakfast of the sweet fruit and strong coffee.

"What do you want to do first this morning, Joe?" Hoss asked as he drained the last of his coffee, and made sure that their campsite would be secure.

"Let's do the tracking first, but take my rifle with us, so we don't have to double back here later," Joe suggested.

"Alright. Firstly though, before we leave here, why don't we set a couple of those snares and try and catch us something for supper later," Hoss planned ahead.

"Sure, I am getting better at setting them now, but my slip knot doesn't hold enough sometimes," Joe admitted. He didn't know if it was inexperience or being left-handed that caused the problem.

"Nothing to it, little brother," Hoss promised, "I will show you a trick that Adam showed me when I was not much younger than you. I had trouble at first too."

"You did?" Joe said, relieved to know that it wasn't only him that couldn't get it right after the first few tries.

"Nearly everybody does at first, Joe. It just takes patience and practice," Hoss assured him.

For next half an hour, Joe sat, trying to make the snares they intended to set. The slip knot was still giving him trouble, and frustration was beginning to creep in.

Hoss showed endless amounts of patience, letting his younger brother hold the snare, whilst demonstrating which direction the string should go in, and how to tie the knot so that it didn't keep failing. He showed the tip that Adam had given him many years earlier, and was pleased to see that Joe was trying hard to learn and control any impetuousness that he was often accused of having in spades.

"Bring your rifle, Joe. We can take these with us and set them a short distance away. I saw a good rabbit run amongst the trees when I was collecting the berries. "Make sure you carry it like you have been taught."

Joe did as he was asked, carrying the rifle with the barrel pointing at the ground, and taking the other safety precautions that his father and brothers were still instructing him in. The weapon had been a gift from their father, and had yet to see much use, and it was much lighter in weight than what Hoss or Adam normally carried or used when riding around the ranch. The wood of the stock was decorated, carved, and the metal etched with bronze markings as well.

A handsome weapon indeed, but deadly and having the possibility of causing serious injury to the user or someone else. Joe was still learning and was a little nervous with it in his hands, but he was keen to change that, and become confident with it. He wanted to show to his family and others that he could be responsible.

Some of the boys he had been going to school with were being taught by their own fathers or families. A couple of them had even been allowed to carry a weapon round with them for the last six months. But his father had been very strict about the circumstances in which his youngest son would be allowed to carry one or the circumstances in which he could shoot it until he was at least another year older.

Hoss and Joe walked to the place where the snares offered the best chance at catching supper. Although his slip know may need some more practice, due to his lighter weight and softer tread on the forest floor, Joe was able to set them without difficulty or making too much noise. However, the silence wouldn't last very long.

With the rifle a safe distance away and posing no risk, Hoss was about to congratulate his brother on a job well done, when suddenly the larger man found himself buried almost up to his neck in autumn leaves.

The pile surrounding the tree was large, but there had been no way of knowing how deep it was, or that the slope of the ground had allowed the collection to grow as autumn progressed. Hoss hadn't been hurt, and Joe had looked on with shock as his sibling gave a startled yelp of surprise as he took a stride forward.

Any worry about injury quickly disappeared, only to be replaced by unbridled laughter from Joe as his brother regathered his dislodged hat. Hoss removed the hat when something didn't feel quite right, reaching in and removing a handful of more leaves. Joe completely lost it again, his high-pitched laughter infectious.

"You should see yourself, Hoss," Joe said, giggling again at his brother's predicament. "Wait until I tell Pa and Adam about this when we get home."

Hoss had joined in laughing with his brother, not offended. "Lucky it was me, Joe and not you, otherwise we would have lost you amongst this pile."

Hoss could see that his brother was standing fairly close to him, and wasn't taking any notice of his own feet. Silently reaching out with a beefy hand, he grabbed a hold of Joe's right ankle, tugging hard, upending his sibling onto his back, and burying him amongst an avalanche of leaf litter.

Now is was Hoss's turn to laugh heartily at his brother's gasp of surprise, "Now you are going to get it little brother," he declared ominously.

Joe looked at his brother's face and saw the predatory look, but wasn't quick enough to get out of reach, "No, Hoss, No!" he shrieked, as his brother went about tickling him mercilessly whilst he was laying on the ground.

"I will teach you to laugh at me, short shanks," Hoss said, setting about repeating his torture technique that never failed to bring a smile for both of them.

Both brothers were laughing again, with Joe trying to get his brother to stop without much success, trying to roll away to protect his ribcage. By the time Hoss stopped the onslaught, Joe had a grin from ear to ear and was breathless from laughing and yelling for his brother to stop at the same time.

This trip has been great so far, Hoss," Joe said as they both climbed out of the leaves, brushing off their clothes as best they could, pulling a few leaves out of his curls and from underneath his shirt. Hoss was removing a few stray leaves that were caught underneath the vest he was wearing.

The laughter had done both of them the world of good, and Hoss secretly hoped there would be more from his brother before they had to leave and return home tomorrow.

With their rough play now out of their system, Hoss and Joe went further through the trees, intending to use the rifle if they could find a good target. Hoss chose an area of the forest where the trees were a little further apart and there were not so many obstacles in the way.

Joe had wanted to do some tracking first, but now was as good a time as ever do some shooting practice. Their plans had changed, but there was still plenty of time to do some tracking before supper time.

No animals were about that could be used at present, so Hoss went about teaching Joe to aim at a stationary target, helping him get used to holding the gun, and feeling its weight in his hands, without injuring himself as he fired it.

"Take your time, Joe, and remember to squeeze that trigger this time around, rather than pull on it," Hoss instructed in a calm voice. "Have you selected where you want to aim at?"

"That larger trunk there," Joe said, trying to keep his concentration, and remembering everything that he had already been shown in previous lessons.

"Alright, that is a fairly good distance for someone like you starting out," he praised, seeing that his brother was putting a good deal of thought into his actions, which he was proud to see.

"I am trying to get the stock tucked into the right position like Adam showed me," Joe said, but he was moving about as he spoke, still trying to find the better angle.

Hoss stood behind him, looking in the same direction as his brother, taking into account the younger man's overall height difference. Using two fingers, he tapped the stock lightly to the right a little more.

"I am ready," Joe announced, keeping his eyes directly on the tree trunk he had picked out.

"Keep your head still now," Hoss encouraged, nodding his head as he watched his brother's aim.

A moment later a deafening crack echoed through the trees, and the wood on the tree trunk splintered as the bullet struck with force.

"I hit it, Hoss," Joe said, lowering the barrel, but frowning a moment later when he saw that his trajectory was off by quite a bit. "A lot wider than where I was aiming for."

"Accuracy will come with time and a lot more practice, Joe," Hoss told him. "You ain't been out but half a dozen times so far. Nobody expects you to get it perfect for quite a ways yet."

"I guess," Joe agreed, but he thought he had been aiming right and taking enough time to make the shot better than he did.

"Why don't you try it again," Hoss suggested, "Try aiming a little higher and more to the left this time."

Joe nodded and set about setting up his concentration again, wanting to do better this time around. He chose the same tree trunk, but did as his brother suggested, aiming higher, but to his dismay, when the bullet struck this time around, it was almost in the exact same position. All he had managed to do was make the gouge in the bark and wood a little deeper.

Reloading twice, and five more attempts by Joe to improve his shooting skills at two other neighbouring trees had caused similar, if not identical marks. One tree had been set further back, the other closer, but all of his shots had been too wide.

"Let's head back for now and see if we can find what tracks are about, Joe," Hoss said, seeing that his brother was disappointed this his efforts overall.

"May as well, not doing any good here," Joe said harshly about himself. "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if I was standing directly in front of it."

"You will get the hang of it yet little brother, and one day not too far away, you will be great at firing that thing and hitting a target at any distance you want," Hoss said, slinging an arm of understanding around his brother's shoulders.

"Sure," Joe commented with a one word answer, clearly not believing a word of what his brother was saying. His Pa and both brothers were all very good at shooting, both with pistols or a rifle. He had seen all of them quite a few times. Seems he had quite a ways to go about living up to the Cartwright name.

Both brothers had begun to walk back towards the campsite, when Hoss stopped as the passed on the opposite side of a row of trees, looking intently at the ground.

He looked over at his brother and saw that Joe was looking elsewhere, lost in his own thoughts for a minute.

Hoss knelt down, using his fingers to brush away a few stray twigs and debris, confirming what he hoped he couldn't see... bear tracks. Judging for a few more seconds, he was confident that he was right, but a little worried about what it might mean. The tracks didn't appear to be fresh, a week or more older perhaps, given that they were almost covered on the forest floor.

"What did you find, Hoss?" Joe asked, seeing his brother's unreadable expression. It wasn't anger like it had been yesterday when they found the rusty trap, but it wasn't happy either.

"Tracks, Joe," Hoss answered. He had considered hiding the truth from his brother, not wanting to scare him unnecessarily, but his brother was at an age now, where he wasn't a little boy anymore and deserved to know.

Joe had often heard Charlie their head foreman, regale to the ranch hands back at the Ponderous how good a tracker Hoss had become over the years. Even out-classing Adam at times when they had been searching for lost people, stray animals or men wanted by the law, and that was always something to be proud of. The foreman had declared his older brother as being part blood-hound.

"What kind of tracks?" Joe asked, kneeling alongside his brother, and looking at them. He didn't recognize them, but the paw impressions themselves were big.

"Cougar or wild cat?" Joe asked, looking about the immediate area for any sign of an animal being nearby.

"No, Joe, these here tracks are at least a week old," Hoss answered, "They are much bigger than a cougar."

"Bigger?" Joe asked, "What could be bigger than that up here?" but he was able to deduce the answer for himself.

'Bear!"the younger brother identified to himself.

'Never let it be said that Joe Cartwright wasn't a smart little cuss at the wrong times', Hoss thought ruefully to himself. He would have preferred his brother hadn't guessed correctly.

"Would it still be around?" Joe asked nervously, not liking the idea that they could be so close.

"No, I don't think so, these tracks are old," Hoss confirmed. "Most bears are down in the lower streams, fishing for salmon and trying to fill their bellies to put on their winter fat stores. They won't be coming up here into these hills for a few more weeks."

Joe visibly relaxed at his brother's words, knowing that Hoss's knowledge about bears and other wild animals was much more superior to his own. If his brother said there weren't any in the area, then he believed him, without question.

"Let's go and check those rabbit snares," Joe suggested, as Hoss stood up and they prepared to keep walking.

"Hey look, Joe, we done got a fat one," Hoss said excitedly. The two brothers approached the snares that had been set earlier in the day. One snare had been set off, but was empty, the other held a large fat rabbit.

"Looks like my slip knot didn't hold again," Joe said dejectedly, bending down to take note of the failed snare.

"It held up just fine on this one, Joe," Hoss said, releasing the unfortunate victim and holding it up so that his brother could see its size. "We will have some good eating tonight."

Joe carried his rifle and both snares back to the campsite, whilst Hoss headed down to the stream intending to gut and skin the rabbit and prepare it for the cooking pot.

The rifle was securely stored, and the snares put into the packs to take back home. He went digging around, and brought out some potatoes and the pot itself.

Hoss had contemplated roasting the rabbit whole on a spit over the open fire, but after skinning it, he decided that a nice hearty rabbit stew was the order of the day, and set about cutting the rabbit meat into fairly large chunks. By the time he returned to the campsite, he was pleased to see that his brother had thought along the same lines about how to cook their supper, spotting the pot near the fire, and the potatoes that had been cut into large pieces.

"I kept the skin and will treat it when we get back home," Hoss informed his brother, trying to use as much of the animal as possible. Whilst the meat would provide them both with a good meal, the Cartwrights were normally not fur traders. Occasionally their father traded those that had been kept with some of the local Paiute tribes for deer meat or locally grown corn to supplement their own stores when they ran low. The smaller pelts of soft fur were often used to make shoes or smaller clothing items for the children.

Whilst the rabbit stew was cooking, the two brothers went about setting up their bedrolls for the night, and tending to the horses for the afternoon. Tonight there would be no star-gazing as clouds had continued to gather throughout the day. With the wind still gusting at times, sitting by the open fire to keep warm became their objective.

The sun was beginning to melt into the horizon, and the temperature began to drop a little due to the breeze. There was still the potential for some rain later on in the night so they would have to be vigilant in case they had to shift camp during the night.

Hoss handed his brother a bowl of rabbit stew, and was pleased to see his brother was attempting to eat again tonight.

It soon became clear though, that Joe's thoughts were not completely on food, and only half of the bowl was consumed. The remaining sugar cookies had been brought out to try and entice his appetite some more, but had been refused. Hoss didn't think that it was anything about today's activities that was causing his brother to be so quiet.

Joe settled himself near the campfire, looking pensively into the flames, accepting a cup of coffee from his brother and sipping at it.

"Something on your mind, Joe?" Hoss asked, starting the conversation.

"No, not really," Joe lied, but then looked up at his brother, and could see that his words didn't hold any weight tonight.

Hoss could see the inner turmoil on his brother's face and was willing to wait patiently, knowing that Joe was wrestling with himself more than anybody right now.

Up in the canopy of the trees, a large owl hooted into the darkening night sky, making Joe startle and spill the last mouthful of the coffee from the cup he was holding into the fire.

Hoss had seen his brother flinch at the sound, and showed a little concern. He thought that Joe had put that fear and those memories behind him quite some time ago, but he could see the tension across his shoulders briefly to know that there were remnants still left behind.

Joe looked across as saw that his brother recognized the moment of panic for what it was, but gave his best smile in return.

"Sometimes at odd times at night, outside like this at, I jump is all," Joe gave cryptically in explanation, not wanting to come directly out and say the word scared.

Hoss nodded in acknowledgment and unspoken support, Joe grateful for the understanding silence.

Joe shifted around a few more times, trying to find a comfortable seated position, or rather trying to come up with the right words.

"Can I ask you something, Hoss?" Joe asked, looking down as the words left his mouth, but looking up as he waited to see an honest answer given.

"You know you can any time, Joe," Hoss affirmed, "Ain't nobody out here tonight but you and me," he added.

"It's not like I don't want Pa and Adam to know," he began, his eyes downcast into the fire as he spoke, "Lately it feels like when I finally do get the courage to talk to either one of them, it soon disappears again, and nothing ends up being said."

"What are you finding so hard to talk to them about?" Hoss asked, "You know Pa will always listen to you."

"I know that," Joe said, using a stick to poke the embers of the fire, "The number of things I want to talk to him about seem to multiply until there are too many and I don't have a notion of where to begin. Pa already has enough on his plate to worry about, without me adding to them."

"Too many?" Hoss questioned, worried that the boy was working himself into a frazzle, but none the wiser about what.

"Start off slow then, one problem at a time," Hoss suggested. "Tell me, maybe I can help first."

Joe was about to forget the whole idea and find something else to talk about, but looking across at Hoss, he saw an opportunity that might not come up again anytime soon once they returned home tomorrow.

Taking a deep breath and then slowly letting it out, asked a question as the place to start.

"What do you think about me dropping out of school, Hoss?" Joe asked. "We are already more than half-way through the year. It's not like I don't know how to read or write enough by now."

The question seemed to come out of the middle of nowhere tonight, but Hoss knew better. It had been a subject that had been on Little Joe's mind for the last several months. Each time Joe brought the subject up around the dinner table, it only ended in an unwanted argument between 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 until the end of the school term. He had told his father that he wanted to work with his brothers and the rest of the ranch hands. He had proved over the last twelve months that he was more than capable of carrying out a good number of tasks around the Ponderosa that were expected of his older brothers.

Their father, on the other hand, was just as adamant that Joe would not be dropping out of school until he was finished with his education. Pa expected Joe to learn as much as possible during his school years, no matter how physically capable his youngest son thought he was becoming. There would be plenty of time to learn some of the other more demanding jobs.

Hoss and Adam often felt that they were in the middle of this continuous disagreement. Neither of them wanting to take sides, and that was again how the subject remained tonight as Joe asked his brother the question.

"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, expecting that Hoss would at least be his one true ally. "After all, 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 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 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 outweighed the time I spent at school. But its different with you, Little Joe"

"How is it different?" Joe asked his brother with a touch of jealousy in his voice.

He knew his father was often over-protective, he even understood why with being the youngest and reluctantly accepted that it would probably always be that way, no matter how old he became. Adam and Hoss were mostly the same at times, but their upbringing and schooling years had been so much different out of necessity and different circumstances.

He didn't want to voice out loud how much he chafed when his brothers were told to look out for him now that he was starting to grow older. There were other times Joe seldom admitted to being grateful for his father deliberately pulling him back, in an effort to prevent him from making mistakes when he didn't think enough ahead of the possible long term outcome.

"School work doesn't exactly suit me either, but every time I try and talk to Pa about leaving to help out more around 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 frustration, and Joe turned his face away in embarrassment at having revealed too many of his feelings out loud.

Hoss moved around the camp fire, closer to his little brother and put a comforting arm around his shoulders. "I'm sure if you just wait for your chance, Joe, Pa will listen. You gotta understand, though, that schooling is real important."

"Miss Jones is always on my case and drumming that into me at school. For the last six months anyway," Joe revealed. "Then I get home, Pa repeats it, and Adam weighs into it too and agrees with both of them. Three against one, maybe even four..." he trailed off, having just heard how Hoss thought about his education too.

"Miss Jones? I thought Miss Summers was your teacher for the last few years?" Hoss tried to clarify with confusion in his voice. He knew that Joe and his teacher shared a unique understanding between each other as teacher and student.

"Miss Summers is, and it has been great being in her class. But Miss Jones is still about at lunch time, before and after school. And all she ever wants to talk about is Adam."


"Yeah, about how great it is that he went to college, and how proud she is of all his achievements back when she was his teacher and now that he is graduated," Joe remarked.

"She keeps pushing me to be like him. Always telling me to think about going away to college next year, and how great it would be if I followed in Adam's footsteps," Joe recounted. "How much better I could be if I just tried to be like him."

"I love him as my brother, but I don't want to be like Adam and go away to college, Hoss," Joe pleaded, "I don't want to study more books like him."

Hoss was stunned, not knowing the pressure the school mistress Abigail Jones had been placing on Joe for a good part of the year. He had never been put under any such expectations by Pa, his teachers at school or anybody else.

"Is this what you have been trying to tell Pa about when you argue about leaving school early?" Hoss surmised. Joe had a great deal of respect for Adam, but he could also see a fierce independent streak beginning to emerge and wanting to break free from underneath the shadows as he started showing some maturity.

"Some, but every time I try and bring the subject up and talk to him, Pa won't listen, and the words come out wrong," Joe responded. "He probably thinks I want to slacken off before I start working full-time and go riding around on Cooch all day."

Hoss was fairly certain that his Pa had no idea what Miss Jones had been saying to Joe. The teacher was known for having more than a passing infatuation with his older brother, Adam, and not always about his academic abilities. It was unfair to both Adam and especially Joe who had plenty of time to decide what he wanted to do with his life. He knew what some of Joe's passions and interests were, and some of them were vastly different to the path that Adam had currently chosen.

This was something he might have to mention to their father when they returned tomorrow, when Joe wasn't around. These seeds that had been sewn by a teacher had been allowed to take root and were causing discord and anxiety where it wasn't needed. Joe's place for now was with living his family, whether he was at school or not.

For anybody to suggest that Joe should be looking to broaden his horizons away from the ranch, or leave their father's home and guidance any time soon, they would soon find themselves on the receiving end of an argument to the contrary. And that would be from any number of friends in and around Virginia City, not just the Cartwright family.

Hoss knew that his younger brother was more comfortable living on the ranch, than being in a big unfamiliar city. Joe's head could be turned occasionally by the notion of visiting larger places like San Francisco for the exciting sights and sounds they offered. Places like New Orleans drew out other emotions and connections entirely.

Joe's young heart was driven by strong ties and memories from the Ponderosa. Hope and love had been planted and allowed to flourish there from the day he was born, and he had no doubt that those same powerful forces would work collectively together and always call his brother back home.

"Did you fall asleep on me?" Joe prodded, jostling his brother's arm when Hoss hadn't said anything for a few minutes. Reaching over at the coffee pot, he poured himself another cup, wanting to starve off sleep for a bit longer yet.

"Pour me another cup too, Joe," Hoss requested, holding out his own cup, thinking that there was some more talking to do yet between them.

"Did you have any idea what you wanted to do yet when you finished school, Joe?" Hoss asked casually, since Joe had already brought up the subject about what their father and others were thinking about for his future.

"I already know what I want to do," Joe replied emphatically.

'Horses' Hoss thought to himself with a knowing smile. If anybody claimed to know anything about Joe Cartwright, then they should know what his true talents were and who his allegiances were with.

Joe smiled at his brother, as he drank from the cup. 'Did you even need to ask?'

"I want to do a lot more than just working with them, Hoss. I want to teach myself everything, and learn as much as you, Adam and Pa are willing to allow me to. More than just riding or breaking them. I want to learn about breeding good stock and knowing how to tell the good traits about an animal when I see them."

Hoss could hear his father objections and yelling out of worry already at hearing how eager his youngest son was with his long held desire of breaking horses. There was a skill involved that not every cowboy could master or learn, and some men ended up with serious injuries as a result. Unfortunately, in the past there had also been fatalities due to such a dangerous occupation, even on the Ponderosa.

In his spare time after chores were completed, Joe could often be found down near the corral, watching the wranglers and their head foreman with great awe and wonder. When it came to breeding, Hoss didn't declare himself to being any expert, but he had delivered a fair number of foals over the years and had tended to more injuries than he could count. He was pleased that Joe might be wanting to come to him for advice on those sorts of matters.

Their father had promised Joe that he could start learning after he had turned sixteen. There was still some time before that, but everyday, they were getting closer and closer until a time where they would run out of excuses, and there would be no holding the boy back from chasing his dreams. All of them would be nervously watching from the sidelines and be holding their breath. Chance would roll the dice, and there was no way to determine the outcome from any of life's players seated at the table.

Fate had extracted an awfully high price with his father's headstrong and beautiful third wife, Marie way too early in life and it had created a huge void in all their lives. More than ten years later her death still had a deep, lasting and profound impact that still invoked great pain and immeasurable loss. Ben Cartwright would never be able to forgive himself if such a curse involving horses returned to his family twice in one lifetime, only to cause irreversible and permanent damage or claim the life of their son.

Now that some things had been revealed, Hoss wanted to know what else his brother was reluctant to talk to any of them about.

Joe had moved again and was now sitting in front of their tent, with his back leaning against the support pole he had fought to put into position yesterday.

"What other things have been bothering you Joe?" Hoss wanted to know.

"Nothing much," Joe answered vaguely, "Things I want you and Adam to show me more I guess."

"Like what?"

"Shooting better with my rifle, and how to use a pistol when Pa finally lets me start learning that," Joe answered, looking up and waiting to see the refusal he was expecting from his brother.

"How come you want to learn all that in such a hurry, Joe?" Hoss queried, hearing Pa's voice echoing again, even louder at the thought of his youngest son wearing a deadly weapon around his waist. Adam and Hoss had both been allowed to do so from the age of sixteen and had both received instructions from their father. Hoss had the benefit of learning from his older brother as well.

"Everybody thinks I am always in a hurry, Hoss, but I am not. I just want to learn correctly and to be able to defend my family just as much as you or Adam," Joe explained.

"Adam has been showing me how to throw a good punch when I need to, and I can manage in the beginning, but need to learn how to make it count. I tire too quickly and cannot land too many after the first few."

"You haven't been fighting at school have you, Joe?" Hoss asked, "Because Pa will be making sure you don't go nowhere for a month if he finds out you have been or if you stumble home with a black eye or worse to prove it and need doctoring."

"No, I haven't been fighting in the schoolyard, Hoss," Joe said truthfully.

Hoss started thinking more about why his brother would be keen for Adam to show him how learn to fight with his fists. There was a time when most young men had to learn or fell into it by wanting to show off in front of their friends after too much to drink. In the back of his mind another reason started to come up that didn't sit well with him.

"Ain't nobody been giving you a hard time without a reason have they?" Hoss asked, knowing that being smaller and younger could cause some people to underestimate his brother or label him as an easy target for bullying and intimidation. He would not allow anybody to physically threaten or hurl insults at Joe if he knew about it.

"No nothing like that," came the half-hearted response, and the tone of it confirmed to Hoss that his suspicions were justified that someone had been recently doing just that.

"Tell me who?" Hoss demanded, a little more forcefully than he had intended.

"Just drop it, Hoss. It's nothing that I can't ignore, and most times they don't know I can hear what they are saying and I walk away like Pa would want me to. Otherwise it will only get worse," Joe answered.

'They' Hoss picked up, meaning more than one person.

"If I cannot defend myself well enough, or stand up enough when it gets rough, then when I do finish school, none of them are not going to respect me or listen to anything I say when I have to start working with them."

With that statement, Hoss knew who his brother was referring to, ranch hands. This wasn't the first time that his brother had suffered at the hands of one or more individuals. It was the reason that Adam or his father insisted now on doing any of the hiring and tried to find out as much about their past work history before they were allowed to start working on the ranch. Usually Adam made sure that there was a probationary or trial period where they were assessed and their ability to work with the stock or timber, but also getting along with other people.

Dan Toliver was one of the senior wrangler's at the ranch, and he could be trusted to be looking out for Joe's welfare too. Hoss would have a quiet word with him.

Joe relied on and used his own intuition and usually took quite some time to feel comfortable enough in the presence of any new men working on the ranch. Ben had learned to trust his son's instincts and if Joe felt uncomfortable or apprehensive around anyone, then they were usually kept away from the homestead and barn. No new hand was allowed to approach or enter the house without permission from Ben or Charlie the head foreman when Hoss and Adam were away working.

This was a system that was instigated to ensure that Joe was allowed to grow up without fear and feeling safe enough to carry out any of his chores, and come and go from his own home and the barn as he saw fit, without needing to look over his shoulder every minute. Family friends and other well known acquaintances that Joe had known during his life were usually exempt from such scrutiny.

Joe was still only fifteen, no matter how much he could or couldn't defend himself, and the fact or revelation that much older men were harassing or belittling him with unkind and unwelcome comments for any reason did not sit well with the middle Cartwright brother. The family had learnt the hard way that words could hurt the youngest member of the family more than he would ever admit to.

The hands that were working for them now had been doing so without change for quite a while, so it was disturbing to hear that fresh trouble could have been allowed to lurk about and fester again. Hoss thought he knew the men well enough, and was trying to figure out who might be responsible.

This was another matter that he couldn't hide from his father or older brother tomorrow. He would be keeping a more careful watch about the yard for the foreseeable future without alarming Joe or drawing attention to the unknown culprits. Hoss might be delivering some punches of his own.

Hoss could scarcely believe some of the burdens that his younger brother had been putting on his own shoulders over the past couple of months, and receiving from other people for that matter.

Joe had stopped talking and was still drinking his coffee, berating himself inwardly for having revealed more than he had wanted to tonight. "Sorry, Hoss," he said over the rim of the cup. "Didn't meant to sound like such a spoiled brat," he added in self reproach.

"We are used to it, Little Joe," Hoss said with a laugh, trying to lighten the mood and quickly dived out of reach before the playful punch that Joe released could find it's mark.

For the rest of the night, whilst drinking the last of the coffee, Hoss and Joe talked about many different, more positive things. It was at times like these that Joe felt most at ease. Maybe that was why he had decided to talk to Hoss about his schooling and other problems that he was wrestling with.

When he was with Hoss and it was just the two of them, he felt like he could talk about anything and his brother would listen without jumping in at the wrong moment like Pa and Adam could be known to do.

Half an hour later, Hoss had been talking idly when he looked down and wondered why his audience had been so quiet and was no longer joining in. He soon saw the reason and chuckled to himself. Joe had fallen asleep, with his head bowing towards his chest, with the now empty cup in hand.

Hoss moved silently and quickly, just in time to catch the tin cup as it dropped out of Joe's sleep-limp hand and threatened to hit the dirt ground with a clatter and wake his slumbering brother. Joe was still leaning against support for the tent.

Putting a large hand on Joe's back, easing his sleeping younger man onto his side underneath their canvas shelter. He was fairly certain that Joe wouldn't wake again before morning. The day's activities had been fun and long enough, encompassing a fair amount of walking.

A combination of the warmth from the campfire during the past couple of hours, rich, good and filling food and hot coffee, his brother had been able to slip more easily into sleep tonight. He had been able to share some of his troubles and lift the burden of them from his shoulders instead of keeping them bottled up, which is what he did far too often.

Hoss went about cleaning up the dinner dishes and securing their supplies for the night and then settled himself down onto his own bedroll beside his brother. Joe must have been tired, he told himself, because now that he was laying 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. The forest air was doing some good at improving his brother's sleeping pattern.

"Night, little brother," he whispered and closed his own eyes in sleep.

An hour before dawn the next morning, a strange noise startled Joe awake from his peaceful sleep. The younger man yawned widely as he sat up under their makeshift tent, trying to figure out what had woken him up. He looked over at his brother who was lying on his back and groaned loudly when another large snoring sound escaped from Hoss.

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 the first time repeated again. It was a low pitiful moaning sound. Whatever it was, it 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 perfectly sound 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, slipping his feet into his boots, and pulling on his sheep-skin jacket, creeping out of the canvas 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. The sound came again, and Joe tried to work out which direction it was coming from. After another low moan, Joe started heading down towards the stream. He was certain that this was where the noise was coming from.

Joe neared the stream, but at first he couldn't see anything that would have made such a low moaning sound. Just as he was about to head back towards the campsite, he heard the noise again. This time it was coming from his right. He looked over and could see a dark shadow approximately fifty metres away near the water's edge.

He was a bit apprehensive to approach the shadow until he could see clearly what it was, but finally he found his gut instinct telling himself that it might be somebody in trouble that needed their help. He built up as much courage as possible and started to walk towards the dark shadow.

As he got closer, the moaning started getting more frequent and persistent. Joe found himself about ten metres away when suddenly he could see two beady eyes looking back at him through the half-lit sky. He wasn't sure what it was at first. The sun wasn't visible and was only starting to rise, providing only a dull hue through the trees that gave him any sort of view of the area he found himself standing in.

Common sense caused Joe to stop where he was and wait until he could get a better look at the shape before approaching any closer. Gradually his vision improved, adjusting to the low light and he was finally able to see what it was. He blinked twice to make sure that what he was seeing 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 brown cuddly bear cub. Joe guessed that the cub was no more than six months of age, but he was bigger than Koda. The brown fur was still very fluffy in places, thick and long, getting ready for his winter hibernation.

The cub gave another low moan and Joe realised that it had been the bear cub making the noise this whole time. The animal sounded as if it was in pain. From where he was standing, Joe couldn't see why the bear would be in pain. He started to walk closer, Joe failed to note the possible danger that lurked out there. If the bear was this young, where was it's mother?

That question had yet to cross Joe's curious mind.

Joe reached for the bear cub, and 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 ensnared in a trap partially submerged in the mud and water beside the stream. Joe could see the rusty jaws biting into the soft furred paw of the cub. He quickly looked around for something nearby to help release the trap around the bear's paw.

Joe found a thick tree branch approximately a meter long. Nearing the cub, he softly spoke to the bear, wanting the animal to 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 from the trap's torment.

With his face now a mask of concentration. Joe tried to remember what he had seen his brother do yesterday afternoon before 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 within the jaws.

Joe carefully placed the thinner end of the stick into the small gap that existed between 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 could cause more pain to the bear cub. Although the cub was only half grown, the claws on the end of it's front and back paws were sharp enough to slice through clothing and cut into the soft flesh of a human arm.

Little Joe let out a cry of pain of his own when he felt the bear cub's paw scrape down his upper right sleeve. Even though Joe was wearing his thicker sheep-skin coat, the claws had easily cut into the layers of fabric and then into the white skin of Joe's arm. The wound was stinging as it started to bleed through the coat. Joe gritted his teeth through the intense, burning pain, but still remembered the bear, seeing that his efforts had worked to free the bear's paw from the trap.

The cub was now sitting partly in the water while nursing the wound on his rear paw. Joe was sitting on the grassy bank a few metres from the trap nursing his own wounds. He closed his eyes in pain as he gingerly touched the jagged cuts and blood started to stain his hand and fingers red. He called out towards the campsite, hoping his brother would hear him.

Hoss, who had been asleep when brother left him, instantly awoke to the sound of his younger brother's scream. He sat up in a hurry and briefly looked over to find the bed beside him empty. Rushing to put on his own boots, he dashed out of his tent to find his brother.

"Hoss! I need your help, please."

He heard the young man's call for help and quickly headed towards the stream, pushing aside any low hanging tree branches that were in his way. One flung back at him, almost hitting him squarely in the chest with force. Thankfully he had seen it at the last minute and barely avoided getting knocked to the ground.

Arriving within minutes, he could see his brother sitting in wet and muddy clothes on the grassy bank, holding onto his right arm, squeezing his eyes closed and grimacing in obvious pain. The bear cub was currently sitting in the water with its rear paw in his mouth.

"Are you alright, short shanks?" Hoss asked with worry as he knelt down beside his brother and tried to take a look at his injured arm.

"I was just trying to help him out, Hoss," Joe said, as he bit down on his lip to stop himself calling out again. Slowly he proceeded to tell his brother about what he had tried to do. He pointed to the tree branch discard at his feet, the partly submerged trap and then to the bear cub that still nursing it's injured paw in the water.

Hoss was scouting the immediate area for the cub's mother, knowing that a baby that young wouldn't wander far from its mother very often, alerting him the danger that Joe could have placed himself in. He didn't even want to even contemplate what danger his brother might have put himself in if the cub's mother had come across his innocent attempts to free her baby. The baby's claws had caused three deep enough slash wounds. The fourth gash was only a partial shallower wound.

He didn't even have a handkerchief or piece of cloth that he could use to try and slow the bleeding. He was about to ask Joe to take off his overcoat so that he could look a closer look at how bad the gashes were. Joe started to obey but winced as he tried to remove the thick coat, some of the material had become embedded into the wounds and was sticking to the surrounding skin.

"Let's head back to the campsite, Joe, so I can tie something around it to stem the bleeding," Hoss suggested calmly. He was trying not to panic for Joe's sake as he glanced at the wounds. The bleeding had slowed somewhat, but Hoss could see that the injuries were going to need some medical attention.

Hoss applied pressure to the sleeve of the jacket around the wound as he pulled Joe to his feet, wrapping his other arm around his brother's slim shoulders as they walked back to towards the campsite. He knew it was a good six hour's ride before they would be safely back at the Ponderosa. Being wounds from a wild animal, Hoss wanted to make sure they were seen to as quickly as possible to prevent infection setting in.

The sun had risen higher in the sky, and the temperature of the morning was growing warmer and the clouds were too far apart to do anything but pass by on the breeze. The wind was not blowing as hard as it had been the night before.

Taking one of the spare shirts from his saddle bags, Hoss tore the bottom of it into long strips and tied it securely around Joe's arm. Helping in heating some coffee, neither of them feeling much like eating. Joe's reason was more because of the physical pain he was experiencing, whilst Hoss's was more due to the worry about how he was going to explain the shortcomings to his father and brother when they got home. Thankfully the bleeding had slowed considerably, but the fabric of his shirt was soaked and stained red.

Hoss reached into the leather satchel tied to Cochise pulling out a spare pair of tan trousers. He walked over to where Joe was sitting and suggested that he should change some of his wet clothes, so that they were dry and he wouldn't be riding for a number of hours in the saddle with muddy pants. The blood-stained and torn jacket would have to remain in place for now.

Joe was showing signs of feeling a little light-headed, and assured his brother that he didn't feel nauseous due to blood, but he hadn't spoken a lot either. Hoss had seen enough wounds during his life to determine that Doctor Paul Martin's services would be required once they reached home. However, thinking in a positive frame of mind, the damage to his arm could have been much worse.

He had made one simple promise to his father, to bring himself and Joe home safe and sound. Ordinarily they would have been leaving to head back home in a few hours anyway with their trip almost over, but things had not exactly gone to plan.

Hopefully Joe would allow him to tell Pa nice and quietly what had happened before their father had a chance to get too mad. Hoss was feeling a little guilty, thinking about how he had promised to take care of Joe, and now his brother was returning home hurt. There wasn't anybody to blame, and it had been merely an unfortunate and inexperienced choice in judgment by his brother. He prayed that Pa would see it that way and accept it was an accident once he had spent enough time fussing over his youngest chick.

The coffee was ready, and Joe sipped at a cup when it was handed to him, and it was clear that the incident by the stream had shaken him a little. He sat sullen and subdued as Hoss went about gathering their belongings and supplies, and preparing their horses and the mule to depart. Joe had pondered protesting at having to leave and start the journey home, but he could see the worried expression on his brother's face and knew that he would have to help give a plausible explanation of what had happened.

"I will be fine until we reach home, Hoss," Joe asserted as he climbed into his saddle with assistance, keeping his right arm as still as possible, and using his left hand to hold onto Cochise's reins, guiding and pointing his horse in the direction they had came from.

"Sure you will, Joe," Hoss said positively, mounting his own horse and taking the reins of the pack mule. He wanted Joe to ride beside him or in front so he could keep a good eye on him. The water canteens were filled and he would need to make sure that his brother drank some water as they rode back, to compensate for the blood loss.

Half-way through the journey home, Joe had been nodding on and off in his saddle for the past several miles, with Hoss growing concerned that the boy could tumble out of the saddle and injure himself further. He brought both mounts and the mule to a stop, checking on the wound, before encouraging a docile Little Joe in front of him on his own horse.

Joe was rarely this quiet or still when riding any horse, indicating that he was hurting and the level of pain was increasing. The fact that he didn't loudly protest about riding with someone else when his own horse was nearby, spoke volumes. Hoss mounted Chubb once more, and urged him into a slower walk, leading Cochise and the mule together behind him. The rhythmic motion of the horse's gait had allowed Joe to gain some respite from the pain by slowly drifting off into a light doze.

As Hoss neared the outskirts of the yard and homestead, the guilt he felt about his brother was beginning to gnaw away at him. Joe's injury wasn't life threatening, but he felt responsible nonetheless with every grimace he saw and each gasp or groan of pain that reached he heard. It was now mid afternoon due to the slower pace maintained to make it home, as Hoss rode his big horse Chubb into the yard.

The clouds had been following them all day, and were now gathered overhead with more than the hint of an overnight storm. The smell of dust swirling upon the stiff breeze predicting rain sometime later in the night.

Hoss glanced down at his younger brother who was leaning against his shoulder. Hoss hated having to wake up the boy and risk jostling his injured arm, but he needed to get down and stretch his own stiff back and shoulders before going about fetching the doctor.

Over the last mile or two he had been rehearsing the lines in his head that he would say to his father, and be able to explain this accident that had befallen Joe. The makeshift bandage had managed to stay tied in place for the entire trip without needing tightening or further adjustment that could have restarted the bleeding.

Ben and Adam were standing near the hitching post outside the house as the two riders came into view.

"Little Joe," Hoss said in a quiet and gentle voice, placing his hand on his brother's uninjured opposing shoulder and nudging the boy to wake enough to climb down from the horse.

Joe opened his eyes at his brother's request, giving a brief smile before grimacing at moving too quickly.

Even from this distance, Hoss could see a frown, quickly followed by a concerned look on his father's face, questioning why Joe was seated aboard Chubb, and his own horse being lead instead of being ridden. Adam could see the dried, and blood-stain strip of fabric tied around his youngest brother's arm and had worry of his own forming. Both men increased their pace towards the two brothers.

"Don't you go fretting none too much, Pa, he will be alright, you wait and see," Hoss started to say, "We ran into a little trouble earlier this morning is all. Watch out for that right arm and someone needs to do to town and bring back the doctor. I reckon Doc Martin is going to want to take a good look at it."

"Joseph," Ben called out, dismayed to see the the bloody bandage himself, and note the pain showing on his young son's face. The fact that his son wasn't chattering away endlessly about the trip piqued his concern even more.

"Hi, Pa," Joe greeted with apprehension, as he slid down from the saddle and his feet touched the ground. He accepted his father's warm, but careful and supportive embrace, trying to judge how badly the boy was hurt. He was beginning to feel a little dizzy and light-headed, but didn't voice that out loud.

"What kind of trouble?" came the deeper baritone voice from Adam. He was looking at Hoss, wanting to make sure that he wasn't sporting any injury himself.

"Hey, Adam," Joe greeted his older brother, seeing that his attention was drawn to his torn jacket and bloody arm. He saw his brother swallow a large gulp of air, and noticed that the boy was somewhat unsteady on his feet.

Charlie came over, seeing the Cartwright family gathered together in the yard at an odd time of day. Ben asked him to take the mule and horses from Hoss, and send one of the hands for the doctor. The head foreman took the reins, and promised that the animals would be taken care of, including Cochise to Joe's high standards. He promised to ride for Virginia City himself once he had reached the barn.

"Let's all go inside the house and do what we can until Paul arrives," Ben instructed as Joe winced at fresh pain. With his hand on Joe's left shoulder, he could detect the tautness of the muscles underneath. The pain was still strong and his son wasn't trying to hide his discomfort.

Hoss entered the front door, he unbuckled his gun-belt, and removed his hat, intending to follow his father and brother without further delay and intending to do what he could. Ben paused long enough to remove his own gun-belt with one hand, surrendering it to his middle son as well as his hat, but not changing the position of his other arm that was wrapped around Joe's waist.

The temperature difference from the yard outside caused a shiver to run through Joe's body. He had been tempted to let the boy sit on the settee, but instead changed his mind, and walked with Joe towards the staircase and then to his bedroom. The boy had been riding for a number of hours with some significant blood loss, the less they had to move him before Paul arrived, the better.

Hop Sing had heard the footsteps and voices in the main room of the house, and gasped out loud at seeing the youngest member of the family being assisted as he walked up the stairs.

Ben estimated it may be another hour or more before the doctor could make his way to the ranch, but he wasn't willing to wait without doing what they could. Paul could have been out taking care of other patients, also delaying him further.

Adam interrupted the oriental man's demands to know what had happened by asking for a large bowl of warm water and some bandages to be brought up to Joe's room.

He removed his hat and gun-belt, leaving them downstairs before accepting the bowl and medical supplies and climbing the stairs.

Adam sat the large bowl of warm water down on the bedside table, and upon reaching the room, he went about making the room warmer and pulling the curtain back to allow more light through the glass.

Joe was seated on his own bed, the covers were pulled back, with a sense of disconnection to what was going on around him, he watched his father remove his muddy boots. Once that task was complete he pulled his legs up onto the cool sheets, closing his eyes and letting out a groan of pain, keeping his arm tucked into his right side as much as possible. With the increased sunlight bathing the room, the family had a better and clearer view of the reason for his pain and sympathized.

Pillows were placed behind Joe's back, allowing him to sit in a more upright position, with Ben sitting on the edge of the bedclothes, wondering how they were going to tackle his sheep-skin jacket.

"We are going to need some shears to cut this off him," Ben surmised, turning his head at Hop Sing bustling in with a tray laden with a number of different items. There was a fresh glass of water, and he handed this over so that Joe could take a drink.

Adam volunteered for this task, and left the room to find those implements, knowing that process was not going to be a pleasant one.

"You need to keep hydrated son," he urged, and was pleased when Joe moved and accepted the water with his left hand and drank most of the contents of the glass before returning it.

Ben placed the palm of his hand on Joe's forehead, noting a slight raise in temperature, but nothing to become too alarmed about yet.

"A slight fever, but that is to be expected I guess," he remarked. Running his hand through the boy's messy curls in a comforting gesture, as he noted the signs of pain pinching around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth.

"It happened at about first light this morning, Pa," Hoss informed his father, seeing his administrations and knowing what he was trying to determine.

Ben nodded his head in acknowledgement, calculating it had been about eight hours then since the injury first occurred until now.

"I didn't mean to ruin the coat, Pa," Joe said at hearing his father's voice.

"Don't worry about your jacket, Joseph," he soothed, but then turned to Hoss who began to speak up about what had happened. The loss of an article of clothing was irrelevant at this point in time.

"Tell us what happened out there, Hoss," Ben requested, seeing his larger son drop his gaze and suddenly finding the floor boards of his brother's room very interesting.

"The camping trip was great, Pa," Joe answered first as he tried to sit forward with the first trace of animation to his voice. "Hoss and I did some star-gazing on the first night, and caught some fish for supper."

"Sounds like you two boys started off having a great time," Ben commented casually.

Ben wanted to keep his son calm as possible while his injured arm as was tended to, as well as find out details of what had occurred, so combining the two together struck as the easiest way to achieve this.

Joe opened his eyes and looked directly at his eldest brother with his next statement, "Did some shooting practice yesterday with my new rifle, Adam, but didn't hit the targets I chose with much accuracy."

"Did you settle the stock against your shoulder like I have been teaching you," Adam asked, trying to keep his brother's thoughts off his discomfort.

"Yeah, done it mostly myself, but Hoss helped at the end," Joe replied. Tiredness was beginning to set in to his features and body language as he sank further down into the pillows.

"Joe, I am going to try and take your coat off and then your shirt, I will be as gentle as I can," he promised, using his fingertips to ghost gently across the boy's temple as he spoke, meant as an apology for the hurt he was about to cause.

Ben silently signalled to Adam to take up a position beside the bed, in case his assistance would be needed.

"Pa, there must have been some trappers traipsing through that area up there in the last couple of weeks," Hoss informed his father. "That first afternoon, Joe almost stumbled across a rusty old trap hiding underneath all the leaves."

"Hoss was mighty mad about that, Pa," Joe recounted, opening his eyes for a moment as he spoke, but didn't elaborate further.

"Lean forward for a moment please, Joseph," Ben instructed, tugging on the good sleeve of the sheep-skin jacket when his son complied. Thankfully that side of his body wasn't hurting as much and he managed to extract his son's left arm out of the coat.

"We might have to send a few of the men up into that area before winter sets in, Hoss," Ben commented, but keeping his eyes focused on Joe's face. He wasn't sure how much of the conversation his son was taking in.

The level of pain he was experiencing was plain to see though, as the boy leaned forward at his father's second request. There was no way they were going to be able to use the same method to free his arm on this side.

"Ow, that hurts, Pa," Joe exclaimed, trying to pull his arm away from his father and wrapped his own hand around the bloody bandage at the pain.

Adam placed his hand on top of Joe's slim right shoulder, and the second just below the elbow.

"Sorry Joe," Ben said, the frown on his face deepening, as he accepted the shears from Adam and started to cut.

Joe tried pulling away from both his brother and father, but took a sharp intake of air into his lungs at the restraint to keep him relatively still. He turned his face towards the window, trying to breathe through the pain. Words of encouragement were coming to him from his family, as they felt guilty about adding to the torment.

After more than a few tense minutes, Joe was allowed to lean back against the pillows, the jacket, shirt and bloody scrap of fabric lying in a discarded heap on the floor. He grimaced as the air was now able to reach the open wound. There were a few stray threads from the jacket still embedded into the wounds.

"Ouch!" Joe cried out as Ben's tried to examine the marks on his arm for the first time. The slash marks had stopped bleeding, but the whole upper arm was very painful to touch. The surrounding skin puckered and reddened from swelling.

"He was just a little one. A baby, and didn't mean to do it," Joe tried to explain, focusing more on coping with the pain rather than keeping track of the conversation going on around him, with some of his family not aware of the sequence of events yet that lead to his current situation.

Ben took a clean cloth, wetting it in the warm water, and very carefully rubbing it against the slashes to clean away the dried blood. Joe flinched at the first touch and tried to pull his arm away again, but Adam prevented him from being able to do so.

"I will be finished in a minute, son. I need to make sure they are as clean as possible," he said in soothing tones, but inside he regretted that such steps needed to be taken at all.

"All done, Joseph," Ben placated. "You just rest there a few minutes now until the doctor to arrives."

With him sitting on the bed and no longer wearing a shirt, Joe shivered. Ben pulled the top bed-cover up over him just below his shoulders, hoping that Paul would arrive soon and be able to prescribe something for the pain.

Hoss stood at the foot end of the bed, and proceeded to tell his father and Adam about hearing Joe scream earlier that morning, and then coming down to the stream to come across him attempting to rescue a bear cub from another trap, partially buried in the mud. Ben paled as he listened about the threat the mother bear might have imposed to his youngest son, and was grateful that Jose was now safe and sound in his own bed.

He reached out with the palm of his hand again to check if his fever had risen. Thankfully it didn't appear to have done so, although Joe had his eyes closed, was only contributing to the story of their camping trip in brief bursts. All of it had been about the fun he and Hoss had before finding the cub.

The sound of footsteps climbing the staircase brought the familiar and welcome face of Doctor Paul Martin to the door of Joe's bedroom.

"Good evening, Cartwright family," Paul greeted them, "I got here as quickly as I could, Ben."

"Thank you for coming, Paul," Ben returned, but remained seated beside his son. Adam and Hoss both shook hands with the friendly doctor, both stepping aside to give the physician all the room he needed to assess his patient.

"What have you been doing to yourself this time around, Joe Cartwright?" Doc Martin asked. The question was meant to do a couple of things, to let his young patient know that he was standing close, and to gauge his level of lucidity. He could already see fatigue etched on the boy's face, and the ugly gashes on his arm.

At hearing someone using his name, Joe opened his eyes and gave a brief smile back at the doctor, "I'm fine," he simple said, knowing the man would never believe a word he said anyway.

"Let me be the judge of that shall we," Paul gave in mock sternness, setting his bag aside on the night-stand, as Adam removed the bowl of water. He bent over and looked at the wounds themselves, making a number of non-committal sounds.

"Your foreman, Charlie, told me that he was attacked by a bear when he reached my office?" the doctor tried to confirm, addressing Ben.

"Hoss just finished telling us that he was trying to help a young bear cub in the stream. It's back paw was cause in a trap, and he was trying to release it when the cub struck out with his claws," Ben explained, giving a slightly different version of events. The size of the animal involved made a difference.

"How long ago did this happen, Hoss?" the doctor asked, turning his attention to the larger man standing up.

"A good eight or nine hours now, Doc," Hoss answered, "We had to travel back from there, and the tail end of the journey was a might slower."

"Well let's see what I can do about getting this young man patched up," Paul commented. "They are going to need stitches, Ben," he added.

The doctor opened his bag and brought out a number of the items he would need, laying them out, still glancing back at Joe on a number of occasions, knowing that what he was about to do would not be welcome by Joe or his family.

"Adam, you and Hoss head downstairs, I will talk to you all as a family over a cup of hot coffee when I am finished treating your brother." Paul instructed, "Ben you can remain, I may need you to hold him still and keep him calm a little while longer."

A slight smile appeared on the faces of everybody in the room except Joe. The mere premise of Ben Cartwright being ordered to leave an injured son, or the doctor even suggesting it was laughable to say the least. Paul had lost that battle in the past on quite a number of occasions, and with this boy, he dared not even contemplate trying to separate father and son.

By this time, Joe had turned his face to the side on the pillow and was slowly falling asleep, but it was restless and he couldn't get comfortable enough. The pain was preventing slumber from occurring and being peaceful. He forced his heavy eyes open again with a grimace, shifting his shoulders, only to groan at more discomfort.

Adam could see that Hoss was a little reluctant to leave Joe, but knew he wouldn't want to see the doctor stitching his brother back together either. His brother was already carrying enough guilt, so added to the doctor's sentiments and went about persuading him to go downstairs and wait.

"I will give him some medicine to ease the pain, Hoss," Paul assured the larger man. "He will be annoying you again to go fishing before you know it."

"Thanks, Doc," Hoss said as he went to leave the room, glancing at his brother and promising to return later.

Taking a glass and filling it with water, the doctor opened a satchel of pain medicine, pouring it into the liquid and swirling around for it to dissolve. The water turned cloudy, with Paul handing it to Ben to see if he could get the boy to drink the concoction without fighting them both.

"You need to drink some more water, Joe," Ben said to his son, holding out the glass.

Joe looked up at his father, and then over at the doctor, reluctantly lifting his head and accepting the glass. He drank the contents in two large swallows, handing it back to his father, keeping his attention on the doctor's face and voicing what he already suspected, "That was not water!"

"Can you swap places with me please, Ben," Paul instructed, wanting to be as close to his patient as possible while completing his task. Ben would be of more assistance that way, and still keep in contact.

"Now Joe, I am afraid I have to clean these out before closing them," the doctor indicated, knowing that the remedy would be painful.

"Hmmm?" came the dull and slow reaction from Joe, the medicine wasn't quite working yet, but it soon would be.

"Place your hand here please, Ben," the doctor demonstrated the boy's lower right forearm. "You might want to hold onto his other hand firmly, this is going to hurt him some," he forewarned.

Joe's alertness changed in an instant, when the swab of alcohol reached into the crevices of the slash wounds and began stinging. His grip on his father's hand tightened significantly, as he bucked at the intense burning sensation. He had to breath through his mouth to stop himself from vocalising how badly it hurt.

"You did fine, Joe," the doctor said in praise, as he stopped with the alcohol, noting that his patient was panting in short breaths and the cords in his neck were taunt from trying to escape the pain.

Ben kept one hand on Joe's forearm, but changed the other to running through his hair in a soothing motion. If he could have taken the pain himself, he would gladly have done so, like any parent would offer their child, instead of being force to watch them suffering.

By now, Ben had hoped the medicine would be helping his son as he watched Paul prepare the needle and suture thread. But it would seem that his son was determined to fight until the very step of the way. He almost turned his own face away at seeing the doctor sewing his son's arm together, but held strong. Joe's left arm was behind him, and his hand squeezed the edge of the mattress as the first of the stitches went into his flesh.

Twenty minutes later, Doc Martin was satisfied with his efforts, and went about placing a clean white bandage around Joe's arm, keeping out any dirt and protecting the injuries as much as possible. As he tied the ends together neatly, he gazed at the face of his young patient and pleased to see that stubbornness was finally giving way to his need to rest.

Both men stood up from the bed, the covers were readjusted over the near-slumbering form. Paul checked again for signs of a fever, but were pleased to note that there was only a mild warmth present. With any luck, that would remain the case.

Ben watched his son's eyes droop only to open again, the boy's features growing more lax and his breathing beginning to even out. His left arm was moved to lay beside him, "Go to sleep, Joseph," Ben whispered softly. He efforts were rewarded when those green eyes slowly drifted shut, and a soft sigh escaped his lips as sleep claimed him.

Paul and Ben left the room quietly, and headed downstairs to meet the rest of the family to hear the doctor's assessment.

"I think I will forgo that cup of coffee right now," the doctor said, "I had better head back to town and see what other matters need my attention. I promise the next time I come out I will set more time aside to enjoy one."

"How is he, Doc?" Hoss asked, as soon as the man reached the bottom of the stairs.

All four men gathered to talk, and Hop Sing took up a secluded position in the kitchen doorway to overhear the doctor's report and assessment.

"Joe should sleep for quite a while tonight, Ben," Paul informed him, "The medicine wasn't particularly strong, but should allow him to rest undisturbed now that the worst is over. I will leave you with two more satchels in case you should need them. Just dissolve the contents in a small amount of water like you saw me do. He could have one every four to six hours if the pain comes back and interrupts his sleep."

"Keep a sharp eye out for any signs of infection, but hopefully the alcohol will prevent that if everything is kept clean and covered," the doctor instructed.

"Your brother needs to rest now boys and was comfortable when I left the room," Ben informed them, allowing himself to relax a little. "No doubt he will be sore over the next couple of days."

"I know it looked like a lot of stitches that I put into his arm, but I deliberately increased the number and kept them small enough and close to each other to prevent any noticeable scarring. Joe is young and has a few more years of growth ahead of him yet. In seven to ten days I should be able to remove them, and everything should begin to heal nicely," Paul commented. "The bandage will need changing daily, and I will leave enough with Hop Sing. Try and prevent the stitches themselves from getting wet."

"I am sure you know what to look out for over the next day or two. During that time, I would restrict him from lifting anything heavy like his saddle or chores that require the use of that right arm too much," Paul continued. "But other than that, just allow him to rest tomorrow. You can judge for yourself if he is capable of attending school after that. As long as he feels up to it, there should be no reason why he cannot attend."

"I will return the day after tomorrow to take another look at him and make sure that everything is knitting together. You know where to find me before then if you need to. Some good food and rest are the only things he needs to concentrate on for the next twenty-four hours."

"Thank you for coming, and all that you have done," Ben said, giving the doctor the hearty handshake that he had wanted to do when he first entered Joe's room.

Doc Martin collected his hat before leaving through the front door. Hoss accompanied him outside and saw everything was in order until the man departed in his buggy towards Virginia City.

Once Hoss came back inside, Hop Sing brought hot coffee to the three eldest Cartwright's.

Hoss poured himself a cup of coffee, feeling the need to be doing something to keep his hands busy. Slowly he proceeded to reiterate his concerns to his father and Adam about finding the rusty old trap. Both sense the anger still present beneath the surface of his calm exterior as he spoke in a low tone about his intense dislike of such tools.

"Joe ate a bit better for the last couple of days, Pa." Hoss informed them, mentioning about the berries he found for breakfast after the first night and they had shared. "We didn't get to use all the supplies we took with us, and some of them we brought back. "The fresh fish and rabbit meat that we caught were plenty for the both of us.

"I didn't get the chance to bring out the remaining sugar cookies that Hop Sing made, on the journey home today. I got him to drink some water, but neither of us felt like eating riding back."

"You did the best you could, Hoss, and your brother is home thanks to your efforts to keep him safe," Ben stated with pride in his voice.

"There are a few important things you and Adam are going to want to hear about Pa, now the Doc has seen to Joe's arm and he cannot hear us none at the moment," Hoss revealed. "Joe did tell me some things that have been bothering him. Maybe a bit longer than any of us suspected, but I am not so sure you are going to be happy hearing about any of them."

Ben raised an eyebrow at this statement, and could see the mix of emotions over his larger son's face.

"What did he talk to you about?" Ben asked.

Hoss proceeded to tell them about what Joe had spoken about concerning the teacher Abigail Jones at school. He looked over at Adam and could see the troubled look on his older brother's face at hearing of the pressure the woman had been placing on Joe. Her intentions may have been good, but there were a few things he would need to talk to her about.

Ben was surprised to learn of it happening at all, like his son had assumed, but had yet to form an opinion of how to tackle the problem for the remaining school term. That was something he would have to give more consideration to and speak to Joe about when he was feeling better to do so. He was willing to make the time to listen this time around, and hoped some middle ground and compromise could be reached between them.

Hoss then brought up the problem about some of the ranch hands causing issues again, and all three of them were determined to stamp that trouble out as quickly as possible. Ben was pleased to hear that Hoss was going to talk to Dan Toliver and Charlie to help find out who was responsible and why.

The desire Joe had for learning to fight better and be able to shoot a weapon more accurately were subjects that they took on-board, trying to understand his point of view more, but still wanting to protect him due to his age and inexperience like they had always done.

Like Hoss, all three of them were concerned that Joe felt he had not been able to come and talk to any of them when he needed to. This was something that needed to be addressed carefully and dealt with as well. None of them wanted him falling back into old habits.

As the family sat in the living room and talked, Hop Sing went upstairs, checking on the youngest family member for himself. Number three son was sleeping peacefully. The little cook would make some food when he went back downstairs so it would be ready for his young charge later when he felt hungry.

Silently he went about making sure the room was warm enough and collecting any discarded, torn and bloody clothing and Joe's muddy boots. He would clean and put them back later. He too was relieved to see Joe back home safely, turning down the light emanating from the lantern as he exited the room.

Hoss finished his cup of coffee and was about to head up to bed himself after such a long day, leaving Ben and Adam to talk further about the lumber contract they needed to worry about tomorrow. There were still a few clauses of that contract that needed to be considered yet, before it was lodged and submissions were due in a few days.

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 released their burden.

To be continued …...

Author Notes - There are some clues in this chapter for other stories and plots.

The reason for this chapter and some of its themes will not become apparent until much later in the story.

The 'plaiting and flowers' incident mentioned will be upcoming in a future story Those Thompson Boys that has yet to be written.

The Clydesdale horse story that Ben likes to share, is yet to be told in full yet about where Joe's love of horses came from, I just haven't worked out which story to put it in yet. And there is a second incident much later in Joe's life that will include the larger breed of horse, also yet to be decided where I want to put it.

I did make the bear clawing a little worse in this new version, needing stitches from Doctor Paul Martin this time, as I have new specific scenes and outcomes planned at various intervals through the rest of this story. And the mentions of another bear cub chance meeting earlier in Joe's life is another new story yet to come to be called Koda

The cryptic explanation about panicking at hearing the sound of the owl will come up in a future story Wings.

Miss Summers will be mentioned in quite a few new future stories and also in a trilogy of stories and her involvement as Joe's teacher at different ages, inside and outside of school life, Teacher And Pupil, Teacher And Student, Teacher And Hero.