By Jules

Author Notes - For this story, 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.

There have been a lot of additions made to what was previously written in this chapter. It has more than doubled in size, and I hope you like the new material. This chapter is long, but I couldn't split it any earlier. There was even more to come that I will now have to be included in Chapter Four.

Sentences from particular characters where the words are mis-spelt or where it looks like a connecting word or two are missing – are deliberate in some cases. The same thing I do when I write dialogue for Hop Sing. It is done for characters when they are under the influence of alcohol like Frank Richards, but also because that is the way that I have them speaking. Charlie the head foreman is one instance. It is also done in limited cases where I deem the character to have a lower level of education.

Chapter Three – Taken

from the end of the previous chapter:

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.

And now the story turns another page:

The nightly air temperature changed dramatically with the heavy showers of rain that had resulted from the approaching afternoon storm. Moisture was still in the air, but the humidity had dropped away, leaving behind the fresh scent of pine needles.

Ben Cartwright had quietly entered his youngest son's bedroom wanting to check on Joe. This was intended to be his last task for the evening before retiring to bed himself.

The storm outside was still producing bolts of lightning, and rumbles of thunder across the sky.

The thunder had been loud enough on more than one occasion to threaten to wake Joe from his sleep. It was no secret within their close knit family that Little Joe often reacted badly during thunder storms. Perhaps from even earlier when Marie was alive. Ben recalled a few nights when neither of them had gotten much sleep during the night until the noise and howling winds had settled down once morning came.

The fear had grown stronger from when he was very young, about six years old, but the cause had little to do with the absence of his mother. Instead it had come about mostly due to the actions of some ruthless men who had come to the ranch with wicked intentions. Their callous actions that night had set off a chain of events where nobody would have been able to predict the lasting outcome that came about. And those same feelings and emotions had endured and survived to resurface again on countless unsettled night's such as this one.

The Cartwright family had been assured by their doctor, Paul Martin, that time, support and understanding was what Joe needed. The best diagnosis he had been able to give to them was that Joe's anxiety would gradually subside and disappear on its own as he grew older.

Adam could see his father fighting his inner desire to get up from his desk and ascend the staircase. He had watched his father battle himself for the past twenty minutes with a mixture of wanting to give Joe space, but hating that the idea that his son may be suffering alone. Joe was a little older now at fifteen, and Ben tried where he could to allow Joe to grow in confidence at his own pace.

Hoss and Adam had both done the same, allowing Joe a little more freedom as he grew into a young man. Perhaps it was a little easier for them than it was their father. He loved all of his sons unconditionally, and wasn't afraid to show it. For Ben, Joe would always be the one to worry and fret more anxiously about because of him being the youngest.

Adam could see that his father was growing weary. After Hoss had gone to bed, the two of them had spent the remaining hours going over the figures and clauses of their bid by lantern.

"Pa, why don't you go up to check on, Joe," Adam suggested. "The lamp in his room has probably burned down now, then you can go get some sleep yourself."

Ben looked up at his eldest son, giving a warm knowing smile. Adam knew who had caused his attention to stray away from the books. They had all received a good scare today with Joe having to get stitches.

"I don't want to leave you down here finishing this contract off on your own, son," Ben replied, lifting his arms over his head and stretching at the taunt muscles. "I have been sitting too long at this desk though." He loosened the knot tying the neckerchief around his throat, and undid the top button of his shirt. It had been a very long day.

"There isn't much more to do," Adam reported. "The figures are all accurate, and the clauses that we want have been included. I am about to head up to bed myself shortly. I have a fairly early start in the morning myself if I want to see this document submitted on time."

"Alright, I might do just that," Ben acquiesced as he rose from the chair.

Ben clapped a hand on his son's black clad shoulder with heartfelt appreciation, wanting to say a few final words. "I must thank you, son, after everything that went on here earlier today with Joseph, you have been a pillar of strength. This contract needed to be finished tonight and you have put in an enormous amount of work to see it completed on time. I am very grateful for you sticking with it."

"With winter approaching in a couple of months, this ranch is going to need the extra financial stability that comes from such a new and important venture in the area," Adam explained. "All I did was my small part to add up some figures and try and sell our argument that we are ready with the man power, equipment and trees. The hardest part in all of this is yet to come if we win to actually see it through to fruition and we have to start cutting those logs."

"We can talk more about it in the morning at breakfast, but I just wanted to say 'thanks' tonight," Ben replied. "This isn't the first time you have taken on such a challenge with the timber operation, and I have every faith that you will help us achieve our goals on this occasion."

"Thanks, that means a lot to me," Adam remarked.

Adam watched his father head up the stairs, leaning back against the chair he was sitting in. Once upon a time he found himself in a similar frame of mind to where Joe currently was. He had wanted to prove himself and insist on how ready he was to others; when in fact it was very obvious how unprepared he was.

It really did mean a lot to him to have his father's unequivocal approval. When he first started with the responsibilities of the timber operation, he had made enough mistakes to cause him to doubt his own commitment to such a large undertaking on a full-time basis. With time, patience and experience, his efforts and aptitude were finally being rewarded from the men that he employed and his own family believing in him.

After reaching the landing at the top of the stairs, Ben made sure that his footsteps were a little softer as he approached the closed door to Joe's bedroom. Pulling on the handle, he pushed the wooden door open and entered.

Walking over to the bed he noted that the blanket was tangled beneath his sleeping son. He stood beside the bed for a few moments, pondering how he was going to solve the problem. Joe must have sensed someone else in the room, and turned over onto his right-side, towards his father. The boy's peaceful expression changed to a frown and he gave a soft whimper at the pain due to his injured arm and rolled onto his back, changing positions a second time.

The disturbance to his sleep was short lived and he began drifting back to sleep, and Ben was able to fuss with the bedclothes, laying them back over his slumbering son. He placed a gentle hand on his son's forehead and could feel the low grade fever that was present. Perhaps that was the cause of the blanket being in disarray in the first place. Joe leaned into the coolness of his father's hand and gave a contented sigh at the familiarity.

"Goodnight, Joseph," he whispered as carded his hand through those soft dark curls.

Ben padded over to the window, wanting to check that it was closed. As he adjusted the curtains, a distant rumble of thunder could be heard outside. His last task of the evening was to extinguish the small flame that remained from the lamp.

By three a.m., the house was very quiet inside, with all of the occupants sleeping. Ten minutes later, Joe sat up in bed, listening intently and trying to figure out what had awoken him so suddenly. He rubbed at his throat, grimacing at the dryness. His room felt claustrophobic and hot. The curls at the front of his hair were damp with sweat and stuck to his forehead.

Joe thought about calling out to one of his brothers, but decided that he could manage to get his own drink of water to ease his parched throat. Throwing back the covers, he was surprised to see that he was only wearing his pants and no shirt. It was fairly unusual for him to go to bed without changing into a night-shirt.

The stitches in his arm twinged, reminding him that they were there, and Joe turned his head to note the crisp white bandage adorning his upper right arm. Now that he was awake, it was hurting. Maybe that is what had caused his sleep to be disturbed in the middle of the night.

Standing up, he padded across the wooden floor boards, not bothering to put on his robe or any footwear. He was only intending to go downstairs long enough to get a drink of water. He didn't need to dress up for something so simple when he would be returning within a few minutes.

Opening his door, he listened intently again as he made his way over to the landing above the main stair case. The rest of the household was silent. For a brief moment he thought about going back to retrieve a robe when he shivered in the cooler morning air. Brushing the damp hair on his forehead aside, he continued down the stairs slowly as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

At the bottom of the stairs, Joe paused, holding onto the bannister, frowning a little at the disorientation he was feeling. Apart from his painful arm, he didn't have an answer to describe the change in his equilibrium. He had best get his drink of water and go back to bed. A few more hours sleep sounded good to him.

Making it to the kitchen, he stopped at the sink and water pump. Picking up a metal cup that hung from a hook on the back wall, he held it under the tap with his right hand, grimacing as his stitches protested at the movement. Joe used his left hand and pushed the handle up and down twice before he was rewarded with a splash of cool water. The majority of the clear liquid made it into the cup, but some split over the edges onto his hand.

The temperature of the water was much lower at this time of the morning, and helped to quench his thirst and sooth his dry throat on the way down. He finished most of the contents; some remained at the bottom as he set it aside. He should not have drank it so fast. The water was now sloshing about in his stomach uncomfortably and starting to make him a little nauseous.

Joe didn't remember having any dinner earlier that night, and maybe it was his empty belly that was reacting because he didn't have anything to eat. There were are few hours missing from his memory. He vaguely recalled Doctor Paul Martin being in his room and tending to his arm, but he didn't remember falling asleep. There was a bear cub and Hoss helping him, but after climbing into the saddle, the ride home back to the Ponderosa wasn't so clear.

Reaching up and brushing aside the sweaty curls again, he was beginning to feel too warm, but was confused because he was certain that he had been wearing his sheep-skinned lined coat when the bear had scratched him. He didn't know where it was, and now he was standing in the kitchen without wearing a shirt.

Tipping the remaining water down the sink, he rehung the cup in its proper position, his aim at the hook skewed, and he had to do it a second time. Walking slowly out of the kitchen, his intention was to go back to his room and lay down on the cool sheets and go back to sleep. He was hoping that his uneasy stomach would subside soon.

Before he could put together a coherent thought, Joe changed direction from the staircase, and laid down on the settee. His eyes slowly drifted closed despite there being no pillow supporting his head. Laying in this position, his body temperature began to climb, with his sleep not deep enough and becoming more restless.

The grandfather clock standing in the living room had just tolled four a.m. when Ben Cartwright woke up in his own bed. Not alarmed exactly, but something was amiss. He listened from the darkness of his room for a moment, trying to pinpoint the reason for his rest being disturbed. He couldn't hear anybody moving about on the second floor or on the staircase.

Curiosity got the better of him, causing him to get up and put on his burgundy robe and slippers before exiting his bedroom. He was about to head downstairs when he saw the door to Joe's bedroom ajar. He remembered closing it earlier in the night, maybe that was the sound he had heard. He went to investigate further.

Pushing the door open a little more, he noted that the bed was vacant, and the blankets had been thrown aside yet again. Joe should have been sleeping like the rest of the family at this time of the night. Leaving the room to go in search for his wayward son, Ben walked downstairs into the living room.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the cavernous room, he was greeted with an unusual and most perplexing scene. The very person he had come in search of, but not where he expected to find him. Joe was laying on his belly along the settee. Ben had forgotten about his son being only clad in his trousers when he had fallen asleep after Paul's administration and his pain medicine.

The boy was still wearing the same pair of pants, without a night-shirt or any kind of blanket to ward off catching a chill. The white bandage around his upper right-arm stood out starkly in the low light. The was no way to know how long ago Joe had come down here and fallen asleep.

"Joseph," Ben whispered softly, loathe to wake him, but wanting to move his son back to his room. The boy would be much more comfortable back in his own bed. He was tempted to just lift the boy's slender frame and carry him, but knew at fifteen, that his son would not want to be treated in such a manner.

When he was much younger, Little Joe had shared many special times of being carried to bed in his father's strong and loving arms. Nowadays the affection between them was just as strong and relished by both, but somethings had changed with the passage of time. Hoss taking on the task of carrying his brother, and Joe probably wouldn't object as strongly. With Adam or himself attempting the same act, it would be viewed very differently, with embarrassment and humiliation.

Joe was caught between growing out of his childhood years and beginning the journey to being accepted as a young adult. And that included everybody, including family. Unless he was sick or injured, and even on those occasions in the past he had tried to argue that point and prove himself.

Ben laid a hand on the exposed skin his son's back to try and rouse him, but frowned when he found it was much warmer beneath his touch. Very warm, and causing enough concern for him to put his hand on Little Joe's forehead. His suspicions were soon confirmed, and there was no mistake. Fever.

"Pa?" came the response from Joe as he felt his father's hand. He began to sit up, half-asleep and wincing in discomfort and reaching over with his with his left hand and rubbing above the bandage encircling his injured arm.

"What are you doing sleeping down here, Joe?" Ben asked calmly. "How long have you been laying on the settee?"

Joe blinked owlishly back at his father, trying to decipher the questions. The expression on his face was one of confusion, and Ben decided that any answer could wait. With his son sitting up, he put his hand on his forehead again, trying to determine how high his temperature was. Noticeably warmer than it had been when Paul was present, and probably why his son was acting more docile at the moment. Tired and feeling poorly; not an encouraging combination.

"Something woke me up...," Joe started to explain, pausing half way through the sentence as he gathered his thoughts. "I came down here to get a drink of water, but I don't know how I ended up here. I didn't have any supper and I don't even remember going to bed in the first place."

Joe used the palm of his right hand to rub tiredly at his eyes, and then looked about the room, trying to gain his bearings before glancing back at his father's patient face. His father had asked him a question, and would be expecting an answer. The boy was still trying to work out when exactly he had come downstairs.

"I don't know, Pa," he answered truthfully, a crease appearing on his forehead as he tried to force himself to think.

Ben used his hand to smooth out that frown, noting the dampness to his curls. Ben sat down on the settee beside his son and wrapped an arm him. A shiver ran across his slim shoulders, despite the presence of the fever.

"You fell asleep after taking Doc Martin's medicine for the pain in your arm, Joseph" Ben recounted for him. "Don't worry about anything else for the moment. You need to go back to bed and rest. When you have had some more sleep, you can have something to eat."

"I got some fresh water from the kitchen pump, but that isn't sitting in there so well at the moment," he complained, rubbing his stomach in a circular pattern gently with his hand. He yawned expansively, and then a second time in quick succession.

"Why don't you go up to bed, son," Ben suggested, feeling his son beginning to lean sleepily against his shoulder. Any further complex discussion could wait until Joe was feeling better. "Change into a night-shirt and I will be along in a moment."

Joe didn't give a verbal answer, but nodded his head, crunching his face up as such a motion caused his headache to spike. He cautiously stood up, waiting for the mild dizziness to subside and walked slowly to the stairs.

Ben watched his son ascend step by step at his own pace until he had safely reached the top landing.

Once he was certain that Joe was in his room, he went to the kitchen, filled a bowl with cool water from the pump. After grabbing a soft cloth, he went back into his son's room, hoping to do what he could to lower his temperature. He wasn't alarmed enough yet enough to send for the doctor, but wanted to monitor his son until he was satisfied that the fever has passed.

Upon entering the room, he walked over to the opposite side of the bed and set the bowl of water on the bedside table. Ben moved a chair closer to the side of the bed.

Taking the cloth and saturating it the water first, and then wringing out the excess, he set about trying to bring down his son's body temperature.

Joe had done what his father has requested about changing into a night-shirt and pyjama bottoms. The trousers he had been wearing were had been discarded haphazardly on the floor in front of his dresser. "You just lay there and go to sleep, Joe," Ben crooned softly, taking a hold of his son's left hand, watching his son open his eyes, following the sound of his voice.

Joe was laying on his back, the covers were still laying partially beneath his body. Caught somewhere between awake and asleep, he turned his head on the pillow as the folded damp cloth was laid on his forehead. The relief was almost instant, extracting an audible sigh in respite from the boy, but it didn't take long before Ben could feel the heat being absorbed through the fabric. He repeated the process of wetting the cloth again.

"Sorry Pa, now I am keeping you awake...," Joe apologized, his voice fading away, leaving the sentence incomplete. He wanted to say something else to his father, but as he words started to form on his lips, his eyes drifted closed. Ben gave his son's hand a gentle squeeze before laying it beside him.

As a father, he would continue this vigil for as long as he was needed. This task was one he had done many times in the past for all of his boys. Giving comfort and reassurance to any of them where he could, even at times when they openly protested about being able to manage without his fussing. Adam and Hoss had grown into confident young men, but over the past several years, like their younger brother, they had their fair share of illnesses and injuries. Each of those occasions had required him to take care of them, just like he was doing now.

Watching any of his children suffer during any kind of ill-heath was unpleasant. Even now, Joe was restless, constantly moving about, but unable to find a comfortable position. The fever had remained stubborn and it had taken another good half an hour before Ben had been able to feel a distinct change that his efforts were working and beginning to make a difference.

One hour later, Ben rose from the chair he had been sitting in, stretching his back muscles that had stiffened from being too long in the one position. He could do with some coffee and hoped that a fresh pot was brewing on the stove.

Joe's fever, though still present, was mercifully a great deal lower, but he wanted to remain vigilant for the rest of the day. Picking up the top end of the blanket, he covered his son partially to his waist, wanting to keep his feet warm, but not wanting him to become overheated by pulling it all the way up to his shoulders.

Thankfully, Joe had rolled onto his side and had fallen into a more restful and deeper sleep, his head sinking further down into the soft downy pillow. The water in the bowl was tepid and needed to be changed. He felt it was safe enough to leave his son alone and head down to breakfast. He would ensure that Hop Sing had something nourishing ready for his son when he awoke a little later during the morning.

Half an hour ago he had heard sounds coming up from the kitchen to signify that Hop Sing was awake and preparing breakfast for the family. Not long after that, Ben was certain he had heard the heavier footsteps of Hoss on the staircase. Some of the men were due to depart on a cattle drive this morning that would take over a week, and his larger son would want to make sure they had everything before starting his own day of work.

Glancing through the window, the sun had just begun peaking above the horizon to start a new day. The clouds in the sky had been scattered by the new, fresh breeze that teased the leaves of the trees.

Walking to the door, he glanced back towards the bed, and was pleased to see Joe was still sleeping peacefully. A hot cup of coffee sounded very good right now.

Carrying the bowl of water, Ben made his way into the kitchen, preparing to discard the contents. Entering the doorway, he was met by Hop Sing.

"Good Mornin', Mista Cartwright," the small man greeted him with surprise. "Why you have bowl water,?"

"Morning, Hop Sing," Ben answered. "Though it has not been an entirely good morning so far."

Seeing the questioning look on the oriental face, he went onto explain further. "I have been awake since four a.m. this morning."

"Why you wake so early?" Hop Sing queried.

"I came downstairs to find Joseph sleeping on the settee, with no shirt on. His temperature had grown much higher; from his injured arm I suspect. He was confused and complaining about an upset stomach and that he fell asleep without eating any supper," Ben reported.

"Lil' Joe get better?" the man asked, his concern for the youngest family member evident.

"He is sleeping a little better now then he was," Ben conveyed. "I was using the water in the bowl to cool him down for the past hour and a half."

"I make Lil' Joe something to eat." Hop Sing asserted as he took custody of the bowl. "Keep for later when he wake. Need to eat for arm to get better."

"Thank you, Hop Sing, that would be appreciated. I am sure that Joe will be happy with whatever you decide to prepare."

"Hot Coffee pot on table already. I bring breakfast out," Hop Sing said as he went back to bustling about the kitchen.

Ben smiled to himself, knowing that the small man would have everything under control. Sitting down at the table, he reached for a cup and saucer in front of his usual seat and filled it from the coffee pot. The aroma was strong and very welcome, he hoped the taste would be just as good. He needed a good kick start to what was already going to be a very long day.

"Good Morning," came the pleasant deep voice from Adam as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Most mornings, he made it to the breakfast table before anyone else.

"Morning, Adam," Ben greeted him with a smile as he put down the cup he had been holding.

Adam sat down on the right-hand side of the table, but as he was pouring his own first cup of coffee, he couldn't help but glance at his father and note the mild tiredness.

Although he was used to his father putting in a hard day's work and rising early to match the demands of the ranch, today he couldn't help but think that there was another reason for being at the table first. Adam decided to wait a little longer before broaching the subject further.

Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen with three large serving dishes, placing them in the centre of the table. "Morning, Mista Adam."

"Good Morning, Hop Sing. You seemed to have been very busy already this morning," Adam commented.

"Hop Sing busy, very busy," came the response, with no further details provided. The small man was muttering in his own language as he went back into the kitchen. His statement wasn't so out of place. Even on a quiet day, the small cook could be seen working away diligently in the kitchen at a furious pace.

Before any further conversation could be exchanged, the sound of the latch on the front door being opening drew the attention of both men seated at the dining room table. The wooden structure opened and was then closed again a few moments later. The direction of the footsteps signalled someone was entering the house.

From his position at the table, Adam saw his larger, younger brother, enter the house, remove his hat and place it on the credenza. Adam raised an eyebrow that another family member was up early today.

"Morning, Pa, Adam," Hoss said as he approached the table and took up his seat, ready for breakfast.

"Good morning, Hoss, what has you up and so active this early in the morning? Adam queried. "Hard at chores before you have eaten any breakfast doesn't sound like your normal routine at all."

"I had some things to sort out before I got started today that's all," Hoss replied. "Those fellas outside are getting ready to leave on that drive this morning, and I wanted to talk to Dan Toliver before they headed out."

"That yard out there is so muddy out there this morning after all that rain we had last night. The mules were having a hard time getting loaded up ready to leave. Their hooves are caked in the stuff not to mention everything else that touches the ground. Charlie was hollering at the men to make sure they were cleaning out the mud from each animal. Dan had the other men packing down the yard as best they could to smooth out the worst of the ruts. It is probably going to be slow going on the trail for the first few hours until that black soil dries out some," the large man reported.

"I will try and give you a hand when I get back from Virginia City, but that won't be until after lunch at the earliest," Adam offered.

"Morning son," Ben said as he started to put some of the hot food onto his plate. He held the platter out to Hoss who accepted it.

The comments Hoss made about the condition of the yard were no surprise to him. The problem arose from time to time with heavy downpours, and it made an awful mess. He may have to take some of the men off other less important work this morning to help.

"Thanks Pa, I am so hungry, I might have to eat the dish too," Hoss said, as he used his fork to serve himself a large portion. He was mindful to leave enough for Adam and his younger brother who was yet to make an appearance.

"You spoke to Dan Toliver, son?" Ben asked with a curious expression on his face, knowing that the head wrangler's name had been brought up only last night when the three of them were talking in the living room.

"Yeah, what Joe shared with me when we was camping, kept bugging me so much that I didn't want to wait until they got back to talk to Dan," Hoss answered, pouring his first cup of coffee for the day. "They will be gone for the best part of week taking those cattle up to that pasture before the weather starts turning colder."

"What did you say to him?" Adam asked just as curious as his father as to what was exchanged.

Dan Toliver had worked for the Ponderosa for a long time now, and was respected by the men. To those who were unfamiliar with him, he could come off as too surly or hard-nosed. He wasn't normally one to be swapping small talk with. You told him what needed to be done, and it was carried out. For the men who worked with the cattle, he was the one giving the orders and he didn't take kindly to anybody who wasn't about keeping their mind on the job at hand.

"I told him that someone, or maybe more than that, was harassing and causing trouble for Joe," Hoss stated. "I made sure to tell him that we wanted to find out who it was, and put a stop to it. I also mentioned to him that Joe didn't know anything me talking to him."

"That is probably a fairly good idea too, Hoss, about keeping everything low key until we identify the culprits involved," Ben said after listening to his son speak. "Joseph can be way too secretive when he wants to be, and if he thinks anybody is watching out for him, then we won't find out what has been happening at all."

"I sort of thought that too, Pa," Hoss agreed. "Even with only us knowing. Joe don't even know I have told you and Adam yet, and I ain't aiming to do that neither. I let Charlie know too of course, because he will be around the most during the next week outside and around the barn. He will keep a good look out against any of the men left behind from the drive who might be causing trouble."

"Dan said that most of the men he has now have been working here for a while, so he couldn't pick out who might be doing it yet. They will have a couple of campfires over the next few nights, and he was going observe their chatter from a distance. He wasn't very happy to hear that someone was doing it in the first place. He has a soft spot for Joe, always has done, since he was a little tyke," Hoss commented.

"Yes, Dan has looked out for Joe as long as the rest of us have done, and Charlie the head foreman too," Ben remarked, a small smile coming to his face as a memory or two came to him of a much smaller Joseph causing problems for both men. Charlie and Dan were two of their longest serving employees apart from Hop Sing, whom he had come to rely heavily on to keep the operation of the ranch as smooth as possible.

"Something tells me that your plan is going to backfire on you," Adam predicted with a wry grin after lowering his coffee cup. "If there is one certainty around this place, it is that secrets don't remain that for very long. I plan to do a little observing of my own with some of the men from today as well, and have a talk with Miss Jones. I want to impress on her, that although her intentions may have been for the greater good, they were only in her own mind, and have done some real harm."

"Whether she admits to it or not, she has played a pivotal role in eroding away our younger brother's self confidence involving his attendance at school. And none of us want that for what remains of his education. Joe should be able to make his own decision on going to college when he is ready to do so, and not because someone's perceived notion of that being the route that every student should take," the dark-haired man continued.

Adam glanced over at his father at his last statement, waiting to see what the reaction would be. He knew his father had been stubborn lately whenever the subject of Joe's schooling had been brought up, and it had only caused hurt feelings between father and son. Being Joe's father, it was expected that Ben would make the choice and determine when his youngest son's schooling years were completed. The decision about college was another matter entirely and should be a discussion that the two of them had together. Joe should have a large stake and the majority say in any final agreement that was reached.

Ben was pleased that Adam intended to address the situation with the teacher who was causing Joe's doubt in himself, and had been fuelling the disagreements that he had been part of. He sighed inwardly to himself that he had better give the matter a great deal of consideration in the very near future. He didn't want to argue or fight with his son over what he wanted to do with his life.

Hoss could see that the conversation had changed from finding out which ranch hands had been giving Joe a hard time. At the moment, that was the priority that he wanted to focus on.

"Dan did tell me about one other fella who might have been someone to watch out for," Hoss began. He was pleased to see that his words at the desired affect, and that both family members at the table now had his full attention.

"According to him, there was someone by the name of Frank Richards, don't know enough about him, and I can't recollect him all that much," Hoss explained. "Last night, Dan Toliver fired him, told him to pack his gear and get before sunrise. I guess that is the reason he hasn't had a chance to report what he done to you yet, Pa."

"Did he say why he fired this man? Ben asked, sitting against the back of the chair. He and Adam both had a large hand in employing the ranch hands that were employed on the Ponderosa, and scrutinizing their backgrounds and previous work experience. Loyal and long time people like Dan Toliver and the head foreman Charlie, had the full authority from Ben himself to dismiss any worker when there was a good enough reason.

"It wasn't because Dan suspected him of taunting Little Joe, just that he didn't work out," Hoss stated. "Been living in the bunk house for less than two months and one of the new starters. He was starting fights with some of the other hands at night over card games and didn't pick up working with the cattle very much during that time. Dan paid out his wages for his short time here, and he is probably going to be in town today at the local saloon, drinking it away,"

"Well then, based on what you said, I respect Dan's decision. We have enough work to do around here, without having men on the payroll who are not pulling their weight," Ben said firmly. "Dan didn't come to me to get any money, so he probably did it out of his own pocket. I will check next week when he returns and reimburse him if he did."

"Perhaps it might be time to give an overdue talk to all of the men, about the standard of conduct we expect when working around here and living in the accommodation that is generously provided," Adam suggested. "They have all been told before about conducting card games and causing trouble."

"You may be right about that Adam, it wouldn't hurt to remind them all of their responsibilities around here," Ben remarked with complete agreement.

"I will take care of it for those men left behind when I return later this afternoon," Adam offered. "The men that are leaving on the cattle drive this morning can have the rules reinforced for them later."

The grandfather clock behind them in the living room, chimed the new time of seven o'clock in the morning.

"Time to head up there I guess...," he said without finishing the sentence.

At this time every day, he took on the unenviable job of waking Joe to come down to breakfast and then proceed to get ready for school. Hoss started to rise from the table, but Ben stopped him from taking a step towards the stair case, already aware of the task his middle son has assigned for himself.

"Finish your breakfast, Hoss, you won't need to go up there this morning and wake Joseph for school," Ben informed him, placing a hand on his son's lower forearm to stop him from leaving the table.

"I won't, Pa?" Hoss asked with confusion written across his face, sitting back down.

"Your brother is the reason I was awake at four o'clock this morning," Ben told the two of them. Adam looked over at his father, and saw the signs of concern that were still visible and now had further details on why his father was looking a little tired.

"Nightmares from the storm last night?" Adam surmised. He had heard the sky rattle for a number of hours himself, and the rain had continued with abatement until well after he retired for the evening. He should have gotten up at least once to check on Joe himself.

"Not that I am aware of," Ben answered, "Though Joseph couldn't tell me what had woken him up at that hour, when I asked him. I was disturbed by a noise myself, and went to investigate, only to find his room empty, and the covers in their usual disarray. Then went I came down here to the living room, he had fallen asleep along the settee. He was still wearing the trousers we had left on him and no shirt."

"Getting a little cooler during the early morning hours to be down here dressed like that, Pa," Hoss pointed out. His own guilt about the injury to Joe's arm began to resurface.

"Yes, I know, but when I found him down here, his temperature was much higher," Ben said. "I spent the last couple of hours before coming down here, sitting beside his bed and bathing his forehead with a cloth and some cool water. When I tried to gauge what he was doing down here, the fever was only making his headache worse. Joe told me he gone into the kitchen for a drink of water, but didn't remember falling asleep. The water upset his stomach, and he went to bed without supper."

"I sent him back up to his room and then followed up after him to see if I could start bringing his fever down," Ben concluded. "At least now he is dressed better now for going to bed."

"Why didn't you wake one of us up?" Adam asked. "We could have given you a helping hand if you needed it and Joe was unsettled."

"I didn't want to disturb you two unnecessarily," Ben answered truthfully. "There was no point in all of us losing sleep. You both have important work to carry out today. I was prepared to send one of you into town this morning for the doctor at dawn if his fever rose too high or hadn't started to come down."

Adam was satisfied with the explanation given, and was aware that his father would have roused one of them if his concern over his brother's temperature had continued to grow.

"Joe feeling any better now, Pa?" Hoss questioned, but knowing that his father would still be seated upstairs if Joe was still suffering. Paul would have already been summoned if his brother's health had deteriorated further.

"Before I left his room, he fever was thankfully much lower and Joe had fallen into a much deeper sleep," Ben said with a small smile. "Hop Sing has been preparing some breakfast for your brother. Something that will be gentle on his stomach if it is still bothering him when he wakes up."

"Because of the time lost this morning before he was finally getting some decent rest, I thought I would let him stay home today from school," Ben said, as he lifted and drained the last of the coffee from his cup. He could see the amused glances from both sons over the rim.

Hoss and Adam both exchanged knowing looks with each other that said everything.

Laughing quietly to himself, Hoss remembered the conversation that Joe and he had shared around the campfire about him wanting to finish his schooling early and start working around the ranch. Little Joe had it all wrong about how hard he was finding it to get his father to listen to his side of the argument. All his brother needed to do was use his injured arm from yesterday, and add in a whole heaping of concern.

Their father could try and explain his actions as much as he liked, and they were definitely pleased to hear that Joe's fever had begun to turn around after a couple of hours. Both older boys knew that there was one other determining factor for keeping Little Joe home from school today. In addition to showing genuine concern for the boy; fussing like an old mother hen was the other reason was the man acting in this manner.

"You said yourself, Hoss, that the ground outside is completely saturated, slippery and muddy from the rain last night. The roads leading into Virginia City are going to be just as boggy in that direction. I would prefer it if Joe wasn't riding to school on his own in such treacherous conditions as that. His arm is going to be sore for the next few days, and he might come off Cochise on the way there and cause himself a more serious injury."

"After such a long tip back yesterday, and feeling poorly early this morning, I made the decision that your younger brother could use the extra sleep," Ben said. "You both heard Paul last night, he doesn't want Joseph lifting anything heavy today with his arm, and that would include his saddle."

"Right, Pa," Hoss said, his eyes crinkled around the edges with silent laughter, and he was unable to hide his wide grin on his face at the explanation given.

Hoss was fairly certain that Joe only needed to act the same part well enough, and his brother would be able to have his own way at almost any time and as often as he liked. There was a knack that Little Joe possessed, that enabled him to wrap his father around his little finger if he chose to. Unfortunately, he could also be counted amongst the growing list of people who often found themselves being persuaded or coerced by those same expressive green eyes.

"I am finished breakfast now, Pa," Hoss declared as he excused himself from the table. "I am going upstairs for a minute and take a peek in at Joe before I head back out to the barn to start my chores."

"Thank you son, that isn't really necessary, but thank you," Ben said, sharing a smirk of his own with Adam. They both knew that Hoss wouldn't be able to leave the house to start work until he was satisfied that Joe had been taken care of and sleeping peacefully.

"Adam, good luck today at submitting your contract. I know you have put a lot of effort into it. I will see you later on today. The mud will probably be caked onto my boots a foot thick by that time."

Hop Sing had appeared from the kitchen to begin clearing away the breakfast dishes just as Hoss made his comment about the mud being on his boots.

"Mud don't belong in house!" Hop Sing scolded him. "You bring mud home and put on floor and Mister Hoss not eat supper tonight."

"Now that ain't fair, Hop Sing," Hoss said in his own defence. "I ain't even done nothin' yet, but that ground out there is awfully muddy."

Hoss stopped talking, watching the cook scurry back to his own domain. He glanced back over at his father and brother who were quietly chuckling at the exchange they had just witnessed. Without further ado, he started up the stairs, with Hop Sing's words of warning following behind.

"Muddy ground where Mister Hoss sleep tonight if Hop Sing find mud in house," the little oriental man said, returning to pick up the remaining dishes before anything more further could be said on the matter.

Ten minutes later, Hoss descended the stairs, buckled his gun-belt around his waist and placed his hat on his head and walked out the front door of the homestead.

With Hoss attending to chores outside, and Joe still sleeping quietly in his room, this was the perfect opportunity for Ben to spend talking to Adam about the lumber contract that was being submitted later this morning. The two of them didn't get to talk together as much as they would like except for when it was quiet, and both were appreciative of the chance.

"That contract took a lot longer to finish last night than I originally anticipated, but I think collectively, we should be pleased as a family with the outcome should it end up being accepted," Adam told his father as they shared a second cup of coffee. "By the time I was finished pouring over those figures, adjusting and recalculating them, I was utterly sick of looking at numbers."

"From what you showed me last night, and over the past few weeks as you have been working on it, we are going to have to employ a lot more men to work for the timber operation," Ben stated. His predictions came about from a practical point of view and going over the demands that were going to be required of them in needing more man power.

"Yes, and the problem that we are going to face with that conundrum, is that some of the new start up mines around here are offering better money to compete with each other. From the couple of operations that I was able to view for myself first-hand, they are very unstable. And that is going to remain the case until they get timber from somewhere to strengthen the walls of those diggings that they are being excavated," Adam explained.

One of the new mines opening up that Adam was talking about on the Comstock, had been surveyed and registered within the last three months. The size of the land and scale of the operation proposed could see it deemed as one of the larger mineral claims being marked out in the district. The owner was a very wealthy man by the name of Rowland Collins.

At the discussion meetings that Adam had attended earlier the previous week, Collins made it abundantly cleared to all interested parties that the acquisition of timber that he required was much larger in volume than any of his previous ventures. Whichever company was successful in winning his lumber contract, could expect a lot of work to deliver the large amounts needed for the mine. The right bidder could also expect to make a handsome profit at the end of the day.

This was the sort of opportunity Adam saw as a great investment not only for the Ponderosa, but it would also allow the Cartwright family to extend the lumber mill they had up and running. Adam was astute enough to know that the Cartwright's would not be the only interested party submitting a bid this morning. He suspected there would be a great deal of interest in such a promising venture.

"Costs at the beginning may be higher, but if I have done the calculations correctly, the profits that come once the logging commences will outweigh those," Adam predicted. "My aim is to hire some more of the local men, but that may not be possible for the entire work force and numbers that I can estimate."

Adam glanced up at the clock and noticed the time, "I had better make a start," he stated, finishing his coffee and getting up from the table. "I suspect those roads into Virginia City are going to be boggy like you said. The deadline for tenders to be submitted is noon, and I still have to ride into town first. I want to leave from here by nine o'clock at the latest and still need to change clothes and double check one final time that I have everything in order."

"After you have finished doing everything you need to do in town, would you please stop by Paul's office and ask him to come out here when he has a spare moment," Ben requested. "I want him to take another look at your brother and those stitches, just to be on the safe side and give me peace of mind. I cannot pinpoint the cause of why his temperature would suddenly spike the way it did."

"That won't be a problem," Adam confirmed. "I was planning on checking up on Joe after I go upstairs to change and before I leave."

"Once you have seen Paul, you might want to drop by and give Joe's apologies to Miss Jones and Miss Summers at the school. Both of them will have noticed his absence by that time. Miss Summers can send any extra work home that he misses today. I will make a decision on him attending school tomorrow once the doctor has seen Joe and given his opinion."

"I will be sure to see both teachers," Adam promised. "And I won't leave Virginia City without alerting the doctor."

Ben smiled to himself as he watched Adam head upstairs. They were both laughing at Hoss when he mentioned about wanting to check on Joe before he left to start work. The apple didn't fall far from the tree, and Adam had admitted to wanting to do exactly the same thing. Having three boys who cared and looked out for each other like his sons did, was something to be very grateful for as a family.

Adam completed his morning ritual of shaving and getting dressed. This morning he was wearing a red long sleeved shirt, black trousers and a black vest to complete the ensemble. All of the paperwork that he needed was together in a leather pouch downstairs sitting on his father's large desk. It would be the last thing that he would collect as he left the house.

Before leaving his bedroom, he thought for a moment about the last thing he needed to do upstairs; checking on Joe. Going to a row of books that stood neatly on a shelf, he pondered which title and subject would suit his sibling. Something adventurous and stimulating to his senses and keep his mind occupied, and perhaps teach him something without Joe feeling it was like being forced upon him.

Approaching Joe's bedroom door, he softened his footsteps as much as he could and opened the door and walked through. With his keen observation, it didn't appear as though the boy had moved too much at all after his father had gone downstairs to breakfast. The blankets covered him to his waist, and he was laying on his left side, facing the window.

Placing the book on the bedside table, Adam was now able to see his brother's face, and was pleased that it was peaceful. Using a gentle hand, he laid it on Joe's forehead, checking if his fever was still present. Mild heat was still present.

Joe turned his head slightly on the pillow as he felt someone's touch and his brow creased with slight confusion as he tried to wake himself up. "Adam?" he called out, but his voice was barely above a whisper, and he was falling back asleep. For a moment, a thought started to form in his mind, but it quickly faded away and was lost.

A wry smile crossed Adam's handsome features, somehow Joe was able to distinguish the subtle differences between his hand on his forehead, checking for fever instead of his father's. Hoss' hand was much larger of course and would be even easier to identify. How Joe was able to do it when he wasn't fully awake would probably remain an unsolved mystery.

"Get some more rest, Joe," Adam urged quietly, but doubted that his brother had heard his reply. He made a mental note to himself to spend some quality time with his sibling later this afternoon. That would depend on how Joe was feeling when he returned from Virginia City.

Adam closed the door quietly behind him, and headed downstairs.

"Joe was sleeping just now when I looked in on him," he said as he buckled his own gun-belt around his waist and collected his hat. "I left a book on the bedside table in case he gets bored after he wakes. He still has a very low temperature."

"That was very nice of you, thank you for the thought, Adam," Ben said as he rose from the dining room table, and prepared to start his own day.

"Please ride safely this morning," Ben said to his eldest son as he collected the leather pouch from his desk. He couldn't keep Adam home because the roads might be bad, but that didn't stop him worrying any less.

"I will be back when I can," Adam promised and opened the front door before heading out to the barn to saddle his horse, Sport.

Adam noted that his larger brother had not been wrong about the amount of mud in the yard. The thick, cake-batter-consistent soil was clinging to his boots as he made his way across the ground. 'What a way to start the day' he thought to himself.

"Morning Adam," Charlie the head foreman called out as he entered the barn.

"Morning Charlie," Adam returned, gesturing a wave with his hand and approaching the man, intending to conduct a casual conversation between the two of them.

Charlie changed the topic to something more specific and troublesome. "I was sorry to be hearing about that nasty business going on again for Joe." Bad business all round. Hoss was telling me earlier this morning before the men set off on the cattle drive. I thought we had stopped that a while back and it was in the past now? "

"Yes, we did too," Adam said, his voice showing his displeasure that history was repeating itself, "We will all have to be vigilant around here again, because from what Hoss reported to us, there has not been just one isolated incident happening. From what Joe confided about to Hoss, it is safe to assume that it could have been occurring over some time."

Charlie lifted the hat off his head, scratching at his thinning scalp and greying hair, trying to figure out who might be responsible amongst the ranch hands.

"Did you work with this Frank Richards person that was fired last night?" Adam questioned.

"Naw, Dan had him working with the cattle as Hoss probably already told you. Apart from coming into the barn and retrieving the odd item of tack, and lead one of the horses out from the barn, I never spoke to him. Richards never did any work with the men that I am in charge of each day. Sorry I can't help you more about him," Charlie apologized, wishing he had information to tell Adam.

"I was hoping to talk to you a little longer this morning, but I got caught up inside and need to make up some time. I will come and find you when I come back. I estimate a little after lunch time," Adam said as he focused on getting ready to leave.

"I am sure I will be around here somewhere, probably up to my neck in mud by then," Charlie remarked as he headed off to continue his own work. He hadn't even put a dent in the list of chores and jobs that needed to be done after the rainy night.

Hoss was also inside the barn, set further back towards the stalls and using a pronged fork on a large mound of hay. He looked up as he saw his brother coming closer.

"I was going to saddle your horse for you older brother, but seeing how particular you normally are, I changed my mind," he poked in fun.

Joe wasn't the only family member who was very particular about their horse and how they were handled. Adam was the same when it came to his large chestnut stallion, especially when it came to saddling the animal. Everything had to be just right and the tack was checked twice and sometimes more before he was satisfied.

"So kind of you, Hoss," Adam quickly returned in jest. "Though he probably wouldn't have taken to kindly to you trying to handle him this morning anyway."

"Let me handle him!" Hoss declared with a laugh of mockery, leaning on the handle of the pitch fork. "All someone needs to do for the dang greedy, cantankerous mule of yours, is to put food in front of him. Maybe that way, he will start co-operating or doing what he is told."

"Unlike your valiant steed, who eats more of the grain bill every month than all the horses in this barn combined," Adam openly taunted. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but that huge horse didn't slow down when he was being fed.

"Chubb is a big animal, like me. Needs to eat a lot of good food," Hoss declared in his horse's defence, pulling his hat down for emphasis and not about to accept an argument to the contrary.

"Yes, and like his owner can be ornery and complain endlessly when he doesn't get enough, and then you cannot get a lick of work out of them for the rest of the day," Adam teased with a friendly grin.

"I had better make a start for Virginia City, or we will be here all day talking about the quirks each of our mounts," Adam commented. "I will see you later, Hoss."

"Yeah, be seeing you," Hoss said, turning his attention back to the mound of straw nearby that wasn't going to get any smaller just by talking about it.

Once Sport was saddled correctly, he carefully tucked the leather pouch into one of his saddle bags. Adam didn't want to waste any more time, and mounted his horse after bidding his brother goodbye with a wave. Holding the reins loosely, the animal's movements were instinctual, and very little guidance was required for him to respond.

They could continue their discussions about whose horse ate the most another time, but he had enjoyed the moment of playful banter. His horse did like his food too, and their father's horse Buck could be temperamental without even needing a reason. The proud animal beneath him, tossed his head upwards in objection and put on a burst of speed, as though being able to pick up on his rider's thoughts.

Adam knew he was cutting it a little fine by leaving the submission of their bid until the last minute. He was confident enough that the Cartwright tender would win the valuable contract when all the offers were compared with each other. The profit they could stand to make would set the Ponderosa up nicely for the next several months and hopefully see them successfully through a potentially difficult winter ahead.

With breakfast out of the way, Ben headed upstairs, intent on changing clothes and completing his normal morning routine. Once that was done, he would check in on his youngest son before making a start on some of the endless paperwork that was sprawling across his desk. The end of the month was fast approaching, and the men on the payroll would be expecting to be paid on time.

Thirty minutes later, Ben emerged from his own bedroom, dressed in his usual work clothes, including his distinctive tan leather vest. He went towards Joe's bedroom, only to see the door ajar and open like it had been several hours ago. With his own door closed, he hadn't heard Joe stir or his footsteps on the staircase.

Heading downstairs, he was confronted with his youngest son, sitting at the dining room table. He was still wearing a night-shirt, his hair was tussled and uncombed. The boy had his elbow planted on top of the table, and his head tilted to the side and heavily supported by the palm of his hand.

Joe opened his eyes, startled by a noise, and looked back at his father with bleary green eyes, and a slightly confused expression. Tiredness was clearly visible in his posture, body language and every other mannerism.

"Good morning, how are you feeling, son?" Ben asked, noting that he must have only been awake for a few minutes, given his disheveled and lack-luster appearance.

"I am fine, Pa," Joe answered as he lifted his head and lowered his arm, but immediately gritted his teeth at the discomfort from his stitches. "I must have been laying wrong on my arm in my bed," he offered in explanation, as fresh concern grew in his father's brown eyes that he was still experiencing pain.

"Why didn't someone come and wake me up in time to get ready for school this morning, Pa? Now I am going to be late and have to listen to one of Miss Jones' lectures about the need for being punctual."

Ben sat down on the chair beside his son, placing a hand over the boy's forehead as he answered, "Hoss wanted to come upstairs as usual and wake you, but I told him not to, Joseph."

Joe attempted to pull his head away from the offending hand, giving a momentary look of annoyance and was about to object, but his arm was hurting enough for him to change his mind. On second thought this morning he was willing to surrender to his father's caring and fussing, closing his eyes and leaning into his father's soft, soothing strokes of his hair.

Joe opened his eyes again, and looked back at this father, "Why did you tell him not to?"

Ben smiled inwardly at his son's brief moment of petulance, but paid no heed to it, "The fever you had early this morning worried me, Joe. Thankfully your temperature is much lower than it was earlier. Hopefully by this evening it will be almost back to normal, or gone completely by tomorrow with any luck."

"I didn't mean to keep you awake, Pa," Joe said, with guilt creeping into his voice. "I don't remember much after going back upstairs like you asked me to."

"You only had a few hours of sleep over all, and it looks to me like you could do with more," Ben said, taking his hand away, but relieved that his son was looking much better and talking to him. "I made the decision that you could stay home another day from school today and let your arm heal a little more."

Joe was about to open his mouth, but Ben spoke first.

"Don't tell me that you are fine, Joseph," Ben challenged with mock sternness. His son used that word far too much for his liking when giving any answer about his health or well-being. "I saw you in pain not a moment ago," he lightly scolded.

Joe gave his father a small but bright smile, knowing he had been caught out, "Well maybe just a little," he finally admitted, using his left hand to rub at the bandage. "It still smarts quite a bit this morning," he added ruefully.

"Doc Martin reported that your arm will be sore for a few more days, Joe. The stitches were only put in last night," Ben reminded him. "He left another satchel of medicine if the pain keeps on persisting?"

"No, that powder he prescribes tastes horrible, Pa," Joe replied categorically, scrunching up his face as he recalled the bitterness. "I don't need anything for the pain yet, honest."

Before there was any further discussion between father and son, Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of food, and placed it on the table in front of Joe.

"Hop Sing make with little extra salt, but good hot, and will warm number three son from inside out," the small man announced with eagerness.

Joe knew from previous experience that he would stand beside him until he tried the food and gave his opinion. His stomach wasn't feeling quite so uneasy at the moment, and growled at the enticing aroma that was wafting up from the table. He was feeling hungry.

The scrambled eggs were hot and soft, he put two forkfuls into his mouth and swallowed before giving a verbal critique. "Tastes great, Hop Sing," he asserted, taking another mouthful to prove that he was happy enough to eat more.

"Bring Lil Joe juice to drink," Hop Sing said as he returned to the kitchen.

"Mista Cartwright want more coffee?" he asked Ben.

"No thank you, Hop Sing, I need to make a start this morning or nothing will get done," Ben answered. "Good to see this young fellow is eating this morning."

"What am I supposed to do all day cooped up in the house?" Joe asked as he put down the fork. The bowl was not quite empty, but he had eaten all he wanted for now.

"Adam already thought ahead on your behalf in that area, and selected a book from his own collection," Ben replied. "He told me he set it aside on your bedside table, so you can do a little reading if you want to."

Joe didn't want to sound like he didn't appreciate his brother's forethought, but was playing with the end of the fork, showing total disinterest in that suggestion.

Ben decided to move onto the next idea, "Why don't you go upstairs, wash your face and change your clothes. I want to talk to Charlie out in the barn, you can come out there with me if you want to?"

Joe made a face at his father's offer. Going to the barn wasn't the problem, he had thought about heading out there himself for some fresh air. At fifteen he was plenty old enough to do just that, without anybody needing to accompany him. Stitches or not.

"Are those the only choices I have?" he asked glumly, looking down at the bowl on the table. Any sign of a smile had vanished and been replaced with a sullen look at the prospect of the rest of his day being filled with monotony.

Ben stood up from his chair. He wasn't about to put up with any measure of the boy walking around inside with his bottom lip touching the floor all day from boredom.

"Yes, unless you can think of something else?" he said firmly. "The doctor doesn't want you lifting anything heavy with your new stitches for a few days, so that would include your saddle. Joseph, you can choose between reading the book that Adam left for you, or find another one on the bookshelf. Doing something else quietly for a few hours, or going back to bed for some more sleep. Whichever of those selections you prefer."

"No, I don't prefer, Pa," Joe said, looking up at his father as he spoke. "I will go upstairs and get changed like you asked me. At least going with you out to the barn I can see Cochise. That has to be better company than any book from Adam."

Ben watch his son for a few moments before speaking briefly about a subject that until this morning, had been setting both of them against each other.

"Son, you have been asking me for months to stop going to school, so that you can work full-time on the ranch with the other men and your brothers," Ben pointed out.

"Yes, but at least when I do that, I won't be stuck inside like today with nothing to do. There will be plenty more to do outside and I won't get bored. I can spend the whole day with Cochise," he replied, flashing a brief grin at the mention of riding.

Ben was pleased to see the mention of his son's favourite pass-time going some way towards brightening and improving his overall mood.

"I know that would make you very happy, Joe, but you should already know there is much work that needs to be done around here? You won't be able to just ride your horse around for fun when you are given the opportunity to work full-time, young man. Hard work!" he teased, giving his shoulder a light squeeze of affection.

"I will come back down in a few minutes," Joe said, getting up from the table, accepting the offer of going out to the barn.

A short time after going upstairs to his bedroom, Joe met his father near the front door, dressed and wearing his boots. He had run a comb through his tangled locks enough to look presentable.

Walking away from the house and towards the barn, Ben and Joe both got their first view at the poor condition of the yard.

"Hoss was certainly right about the state of all this mud," Ben commented. The way it was now, working with cattle or horses would become more laborious and cumbersome. The animals themselves wouldn't like it much either.

The two of them avoided the worst areas in the center of the yard, skirting around the outer edges where it wasn't quite so thick or sloppy. Joe took a slightly larger stride over one patch of mud, but had to sidestep a bit shorter around the next one.

"How am I going to complete my chores today, Pa, if I am not allowed to lift anything?" Joe asked, being a little more careful on where he was placing his feet. "Collecting the eggs for Hop Sing shouldn't involve anything heavy, except a chicken or two when they don't want to leave the hen-house. Inside the barn, my other chores usually include mucking out the stalls and filling the grain bins."

"Hop Sing already collected the eggs a little earlier this morning, Joe," Ben answered, frowning with annoyance when he mistimed a step and his right boot was now a different colour to the other, and caked in a thick layer of mud. "He was talking about doing some baking this morning. The bread bin was getting a little low yesterday and he wanted to make a pie for supper tonight.

"As for your other chores, your brothers are more than capable of taking care of them this morning," Ben added, as he scrapped as much of the excess mud off as he could.

The two of them had reached the barn, and finished the conversation they were having before entering the large cavernous barn.

"I don't like having to do my chores, Pa. You know that and I am sure that my brothers would be quick enough to attest to that too," Joe remarked. "They have to be done though, and I like it even less when someone else has to do my share unfairly. Adam and Hoss have their own chores to take care of, and the work that they need to do after that. It makes me feel guilty when they have to do mine too."

"You have pitched in and done their chores when they have been recovering in bed from an injury or an illness before," Ben insisted. "They won't mind today. As for tomorrow, let's leave it until then to decide."

"Good morning, half of the Cartwright family," Charlie greeted them with a grin and a hearty handshake for his boss.

"Hope you are feeling a lot better this morning, young fella?" Charlie directed at Joe. "You certainly look a might better than you did when you came home with Hoss yesterday."

"Where is Hoss?" Joe asked, looking about the barn, expecting to see his larger brother. He had expected to hear him talking when he walked in with his father.

"Fraid' you just missed him Joe and Mister Cartwright. He was here afore you came in here, but he loaded up a wagon with tools and timbers and was headed down to a section of fence that needed attending to," Charlie told them. "He didn't right say what time he would be back."

The expression on Joe's face changed and it fell a little with disappointment that he had only just missed his brother. If he had come out to the barn sooner, he might have been able to persuade Hoss to take him in the wagon. He had been hoping to waste some of the excess time he had this morning with Hoss and watch him take care of the animals.

"Thanks for putting Cochise away for me, Charlie," Joe said in appreciation. "I hope she didn't give you any trouble?"

"No more than her owner on a regular day, Joe," Charlie said, giving Ben a cheeky wink.

Joe coped the jibe about himself well enough, and smiled in return, knowing that the man usually looked out for him and took extra great care of Cochise when he wasn't there to do it himself. "Did you change her water bucket this morning like I always do?"

"Yes, Sir, Master Cartwright," Charlie answered, holding onto the suspenders he was wearing with his hands. "Twice, just like you do...," he started to add, but Joe had already wandered away from both men towards his four-legged friend. "But I guess you will be checking up on me just the same."

Ben and Charlie watched Joe go over to the stall of his horse. It wasn't only the boy who was looking forward to seeing a friend today. They both laughed with each other as they witnessed the unique bond that the boy and horse shared. The horse had already begun making noise as soon as Joe had entered the barn, trying to gain his attention.

After entering the stall, Joe peered into the water bucket, and then back at Charlie and grinned with thanks, knowing that the man had carried out his normal routine. There was nothing but absolute trust as he looped his arms around Cochise's neck. He grimaced for a moment, as the stitches in his arm pulled and made themselves known.

"Doc Martin had to put a number of stitches into his arm," Ben spoke quietly to Charlie. He had seen his son's brow crease with the sudden flash of pain, and watched as he altered the angle of his arm that encircled the animal. His son didn't want to lose the connection and was willing to suffer a little discomfort, in order to spend time with his best friend.

Joe turned his head into the horses shoulder and spoke softly to her, sharing a conversation that nobody else was meant to hear. The horse responded in kind, lapping up the affection she was receiving, lowering her head over his shoulder. The boy had a contented smile his face, feeling her warm breath on the back of his shirt.

"Excuse me if I am speaking out of line, Mister Cartwright, Sir, but there isn't any better medicine for a boy Joe's age, for what ails him, then what he is doing right now," Charlie casually remarked. The love between this particular horse and rider ran deeper than any river, and spoke volumes to anybody who took the time to notice how much they meant to each other.

"No, you are not speaking out of turn, Charlie," Ben said with agreement, "I think you are right about her company being exactly what Joe needs."

Putting a hand on the back of his neck and pulling at the bandana that was tied around it, he wanted to talk about another subject. " I know Hoss already talked to you about someone causing fresh trouble for Joe that we don't know about yet. I trust that you will come to me if you see or hear of anything?"

"Hoss and Adam both, Mister Cartwright, and they were mad, just like one could expect for being kin. Adam said that he wanted to talk to me more about it when he returned from town," Charlie answered. He could see the concerned look on his boss' face and knew what was bothering him. There were those like himself and others close to the family, unhappy that they were having to deal with issues from the past.

"Good, good. Well thank you Charlie, I know the yard is a mess after the rain. I had better take this young scamp of mine back inside for a few hours and get on with some paperwork myself."

"I will check in with you later, Mister Cartwright," Charlie promised. "Hoss is already making enough noise about the mud for all of the men, but I suspect we will get everything done today that needs doing. Might take a whole lot longer, and need a bath at the end of it though," he added with a hearty belly laugh.

"Joseph, you had better come back inside with me now please," Ben requested.

Joe looked up at his father and was about to argue that very point, but then looked back at his horse, giving her another pat of affection, "Don't worry Cooch, I will find a way to come and spend some more time with you later." The volume of his voice was raised just enough for Ben to hear his comment to the horse.

"Oh really now, young man?" Ben challenged, folding his arms across his chest and confronting his son over that notion. "And what exactly do you mean by 'find a way'?"

"Come on, Pa, you have work to do at your desk," Joe teased, dodging the question aimed at him. He didn't know when he would make it back out to Cochise today, but he was confident it would happen.

Upon entering the house, Ben made his suggestion to Joe about how to fill in the next few hours, "Why don't you go and get that book from your room that Adam left you and bring it down here to read?"

"Fine," Joe said too quickly, his shoulders slumping at the thought of doing something so boring during daylight hours.

The boy went upstairs and retrieved the book, glancing down at the title. It didn't sound too bad, maybe Adam had actually chosen something worthwhile for a change. Too many of the books in his collection were filled with the words of William Shakespeare, and flowery pieces of poetry for his liking. His brother was often quoting from them to the ladies he was courting.

Ben sat down at his desk and started looking through the invoices that he needed to sort through. There was a large ledger on the desk underneath his right arm. Recording the figures in there legibly would take up the majority of his time this morning.

Joe returned to the living room with the book in hand, and sat down on the arm chair in front of the fireplace. Ben watched his son open the cover and smiled to himself. Joe needed to give the book a chance, he might be surprised and actually like it. Lord knows that he seemed to devour that dime store crime novel that was up in his own room with a lot more interest.

Half an hour later, it was clear though that the subject of Adam's book was not keeping Joe's attention at all. Several times Ben had looked up from his work, only to see his son squirming in the arm chair, fidgeting and constantly moving about, trying to find a comfortable position. There was nothing wrong with the chair, it was merely Joe unable to focus long enough to sit still and enjoy what he was supposed to be reading.

On the last occasion, Ben's patience was beginning to wear thin. "Joseph will you please find something useful to do for this morning or I will find some school work for you

to do," Ben threatened, knowing that his son was finding himself at somewhat of a lost end. Boredom was quickly setting in as it had been predicted.

Joe sat up immediately at that suggestion, looking back at his father. "I have been trying to do what you asked, Pa," he declared. "I can't help it if I don't like it."

Ben was trying to keep his temper from rising. Joe possessed an active imagination, sometimes a little too active if he were to be completely honest and recall some of the mischief his son had gotten caught up in. He let out an audible sigh though, thinking that perhaps it was too much to expect a fifteen year old to be quiet and keep occupied when he really wanted to be outside.

"Hop Sing," Ben bellowed towards the kitchen.

The small oriental cook answered his name being called, "Why Mista Cartwright yell like that? Want hot coffee?"

"I apologize for shouting, Hop Sing. Coffee sounds wonderful and would be appreciated, thank you. The reason I called out is to ask if you have any small chores in the kitchen, that Joseph could do that would keep him occupied for a couple of hours?"

At first, Joe didn't think that his father's suggestion was much of a better one, but kept silent. At least if he was in the kitchen, he would have company. He never had a problem spending time with Hop Sing and watching him cook. There was usually an apple or two within reach that he could munch on.

"Lil' Joe always welcome in kitchen," Hop Sing answered, and was gesturing with his hand for the boy to come and join him. Joe was happy to comply, and set Adam's book aside.

"Bring coffee back to you, Mista Cartwright," the man said as guided his young charge into his culinary world.

"Thank you, Hop Sing," Ben said quietly, pleased that he might be able to concentrate better now, knowing that Joe had something constructive to do and someone to talk to.

The time in the kitchen with Hop Sing had been progressing well for the first hour, as Joe began helping with the additional baking that was to be done.

Hop Sing usually did a week's worth of baking of things such as bread, cakes and biscuits that would see the whole family through until the end of the week. When he did this, there only became necessary to bake an occasional apple or apricot pie for dessert during the week.

And this is where he was now, baking a few extra items outside of his normal weekend schedule. Despite all of his culinary expertise, it was often the case that he ran out of pastries and sweet things early due to having to keep up with Hoss's appetite. Sugar cookies was another treat that Hop Sing made sure was always in ample supply.

Hop Sing didn't mind cooking extra for his family. From his unique position in the household, he was able to see all of the Cartwright family through his own eyes. He had been there almost from the time Ben Cartwright arrived on the site of the yet to be built Ponderosa homestead. He had seen young boys grow into strong, mature and responsible men.

In Little Joe's case, he would always have a special place in the little oriental man's heart. Hop Sing was present when the tiny curly haired baby demanded to greet the world three weeks early. From the moment he saw the little infant, he had sworn an oath in his own native tongue to the gurgling child in the crib, that he would always be there no matter what. As the baby grew into a toddler and then into a small, active boy, those feelings only seemed to grow stronger, until Hop Sing felt more protective than ever over the youngest member of the family.

These feelings had been tested and set aside this morning though after Joe had been invited to help with the baking, and walked into the kitchen. Within this first hour, there was more flour and sugar on the kitchen floor and on Joe himself, than in the mixing bowls or filling the pastry.

Ben had been diligently at his desk, adding up some payroll figures when he heard the initial tirade of Cantonese followed by Little Joe racing from the kitchen with Hop Sing close behind wielding a rolling pin.

"You keep boy out of kitchen! Lil' Joe too messy, floor all white with spilled flour. Father keep boy busy or no supper fixed tonight for anybody," he said with finality as he went back into the kitchen muttering a phrase in his own language.

"I was trying to help, Pa," Joe pouted, giving his best innocent and hurt look towards his father. He had tried to mix the batter the way he had been patiently shown. It looked so easy when he saw it being done at the beginning. Mixing the bread dough had required both hands, but after stirring for a few minutes, Joe had not wanted to tell the cook that his arm with the stitches was hurting from the action. Hop Sing only had to suspect that was true and he would have immediately tattle-tailed to his father.

Joe walked over closer to his father's desk, and reaching up with his uninjured arm, brushed some of the snow white flour from his curly brown hair. "What do you want me to do now, Pa?" He looked down at the shirt he was wearing and saw that they hadn't fared much better than his hair and had been showered with the fine white dust.

In Virginia City, not far from the saloon buildings and the mercantile agency, a man by the name of Henry Williams occupied a generous office space on the top floor.

Williams was a man of means and openly displayed his wealth in his wardrobe and mannerisms. His clothes were of the finest quality and made from fabrics that could not be purchased in this town. A pocket watch hung from his brocaded waistcoat by a heavy chain. He planned to improve his financial status over time, and sometimes that involved being prepared to be ruthless and decisive when it come to business dealings. There was a lot of money to be made in growing towns like Virginia City with people like himself knowing how to get it.

The man approached the door to his office, but stopped as he went to slide the key into the lock. Something wasn't quite right, the lock had been disturbed. In these troubling times, one could not be too careful about their own personal safety and how they maintained it. Pulling a small pistol from the waist coat he was wearing, he took a deep breath, he turned the door knob and burst through the door, keeping the barrel of the firearm pointed out in front of him.

Displeasure crossed his features as he surveyed his office, and came across someone unexpected. He was tempted to keep the weapon pointed at the man, but lowered it after a few moments, and placed it back into its concealed position on his person.

"You didn't really mean to come in here and shoot me with that puny thing did you," a voice challenged him. The man behind the voice didn't show one sign of being nervous or fearing Williams' or the firearm.

"What are you doing in here?" Williams demanded. "Yes, you were supposed to meet me, I agreed with that. But here in Virginia City, where you could have been spotted leaving my office? Not exactly the ideal situation that is called for on this occasion, or one that I would have wanted."

After exhaling a large plume of cigar smoke, the man asked a question of his own in return, "Don't tell me that you have gotten cold feet already?" the man accused casually.

Williams walked over to a small cabinet in his office, and pulled out a short decanter of a dark spirit. He retrieved a small tumbler glass nearby and proceeded to pour a measure for himself. His eyes flickered up towards his uninvited guest with annoyance, "Would you like one?" he asked, not really being in a charitable mood.

The man proceeded to lift up a matching glass that had been sitting beside him. He had already helped himself to a large drink when entering the office. The man was reclining back on a leather arm-chair, and had his legs extended out, with his muddy boots scuffing the edge of a rectangular coffee table. He was dressed in a long travel coat, with the tails showing signs of age and splattered with dried mud.

Williams huffed at the man's brazen attitude, "You know, I am already thinking that I may have made the wrong decision in selecting you for this particular task."

"Oh do tell," the stranger said with a mild laugh. He was amused at Williams' attempt of standing over him. "Be my guest if you think you can find anybody else from here to San Francisco that would take on your little 'task' as you put it."

"Thomas, I am paying you a substantial sum of money, and for that amount, I expect the job to be done swiftly and without the possibility of any of it being traced back to me," Williams retorted. "The plan must be put in effect within the next couple of days, before the outcome of the contract is announced. No later, or any advantage that may be possible to gain will be totally useless."

The other man in the room now stood up from the chair to his imposing full height, leaving his cigar butt in the ashtray. He approached Williams with purpose and grabbed a hold of the front of his fancy waistcoat, extracting a strangled gasp. He made sure that the words that he spoke had the maximum amount of impact.

"You will get your money's worth, Williams, I assure you. As for all the little details of what is carried out and how, ... well that is for me and only me to decide, get the point?" Thomas said, pushing on the knot of his thin tie upwards, and tightening it around the man's neck.

Williams was convinced that he had made a dangerous choice of who to complete the job, but he had not anticipated that his own life would be at put at risk. There was something about Thomas that unnerved the person he was talking to. Henry had been in the company of some questionable and vicious men before, but this man was cold and calculating. He could see right through you and know what someone was thinking before they opened their mouth.

Henry Williams didn't speak a verbal answer, but slowly nodded his compliance with the unwritten terms and conditions of their association.

"Good, I am glad we have an understanding between each other," Thomas said as he grinned and released his grip and the knot of the tie.

Williams coughed harshly, using his hand to rub his neck while he drew in fresh oxygen. This man that he had hired, Butch Thomas, was certainly someone not to underestimate. Maybe his methods would be a step too far in what he was trying to achieve. Perhaps he had better remind the man of that.

"I don't want there to be any killing, Thomas," Williams pointed out, regaining a little of his composure. "That is not what I planned or how I expect this to happen. Someone gets killed, and it is all going to blow up in both our faces. Yours included."

"Who said anything about killing?" Thomas chuckled at the mere suggestion. "Your instructions for me were to scare this family away from gaining the contract you want so badly, right?"

"Right! The Cartwright family around here are very influential. They have a lot of money invested around here and tied up not just in Virginia City, but in a lot of the ranches further out in any number of directions. A number of other business holdings too from timber, to cattle and horses, mining and freight haulage. From here to Reno, Carson City and Placerville, plus a number of other forgettable places. Ben Cartwright has some serious connections in bigger cities like San Francisco too. And he counts a number of powerful people amongst his friends, including Governors and quite a few Sheriffs and Marshall's in law enforcement," Williams explained.

"Sounds like he might be too much of a man for you to handle," Thomas taunted. "And if he has other kin..., Butch had heard the name of the family in a number of circles, but not enough about any of them individually to identify a weak spot that he could use to his advantage.

Williams was on the defensive and quick to interrupt, "I don't care about the rest of that for now. I want that contract! Your job is to stop them from getting that timber contract by any means it takes without resorting to killing anybody."

Thomas was prepared to toy with the man a while longer and listen to the methods he wanted to employee to achieve his goals. "How would you propose I proceed?"

"The less I know about your plans the better, but I can tell you that one of the Cartwright's will be coming into Virginia City in about half an hour to submit their tender for the contract. You probably won't be in time to stop that. Ben Cartwright owns a very large spread out of town, but they all come here regularly to conduct their other general business."

"One of their hands, a man by the name of Frank Richards was fired from there only last night," Williams revealed. "Given the right encouragement with the taste of liquor, you may be able to coax the right information out of him about the day to day movements of the family. I saw him down in the saloon a short time ago before coming up here. He is already drinking away his severance wages."

Thomas was intrigued by this little piece of news. Gathering valuable information about any impending target could be most useful.

"There is a whole family of them, Ben is the father and head of the household, and there are three sons. I am not about to do your homework for you. Bend one of their elbows or make them see reason by some other more persuasive means, I don't care. Find a way to make them change their mind," Williams emphasised.

Without waiting for permission, Thomas confiscated the pocket watch that hung around Williams' ample middle, and looked back at the man, daring him to object.

"I will head out now, but you had better be waiting here when I get back," Thomas ordered. "Because like it or not, I intend to make sure that you get full credit as well as myself for whatever happens to the Cartwright family."

Downstairs, Thomas waited in a secluded alley way, not far from the Mercantile agency, where people were gathering to watch the interested parties in bidding for the timber contract. Within the first few minutes that he had been standing there, the crowd mulling around the proceedings that were taking place had grown substantially. They were all too busy with their own comings and goings to notice anybody observing from his protected position.

Pulling out the pocket watch that he had taken from Williams, and opening the outer silver case, Thomas glanced down at the watch and noted that perhaps his silent partner had been wrong about the Cartwright's being a threat to him winning the prized contract. The tender closed at noon, but there was only five minutes left to go before that deadline. In the short time he had be standing here observing the other players, he hadn't heard any mention of the Cartwright surname.

The other bidders who had already submitted their quotes and documentation for the lumber contract, had started to gather outside the Mercantile agency, waiting to establish the identity of their prospective rivals. Due to the size of the contract, there were only a few serious contenders in the area who would be able to supply the large amount of timber being sought.

Bill Scruggs who had a forest of trees for logging timber over forty miles away from the Ponderosa. A second bid had been placed by a Mister Abner Taylor. Not much was known about his company or his logging operation. The third bidder had sent a proxy to do his bidding for him. The man wanted to remain out of the public eye as much as possible. And that was Henry Williams himself.

Collins' secretary, a Mister Eugene Nelson stepped out onto the wooden verandah and looked down at his own pocket watch. "Well gentlemen, it looks as though it is almost time to close the tender and start examining the bids." Nelson said over the bridge of his round spectacles. "Before I announce that the tender is officially closed, is there any last minute bidders yet to place their documentation before me for determination?"

The sound of a galloping horse drew the crowd's attention and could be heard coming down the street at a great pace. There were whispered conversations amidst the people gathered, speculating on who it could be.

Adam Cartwright soon came into view, pulling up at the hitching rail quite some distance from the agency and bolted down from his chestnut mount, Sport. He reached into his saddle bags and dashed towards Mister Nelson with the pouch containing the papers held out in his hand. By the time he reached the Mercantile, he was slightly out of breath from his efforts to make it on time.

The roads into Virginia City had been even worse than Ben had anticipated, or Adam had thought possible from only an overnight storm. Half way through his journey, he was thankful that his father had been cautious, and opted to keep his brother Joe home today and not allow him to ride along such roads on his own. There were large ruts in a number of areas of the road and some dangerous foot holes in places that would see a horse and rider come to grief if they were not totally concentrating.

"Mister Nelson, I apologize for my tardiness, this morning," Adam spoke with his smooth, deep baritone voice. "The roads from the Ponderosa into town are very bad in patches."

Thomas had been standing as far away from the crowd as he could, but made sure that he was able to hear what was being said. He took a step forward from his location, to peek at the last minute contender, observing the late arrival from beneath the brim of his own hat. The handsome and confident man was dressed in a red shirt, and was wearing a black vest and pants. The hat adorning his head was the same matching colour.

"That is perfectly alright, Mister Cartwright," Nelson returned with a smile as the two men exchanged friendly handshakes. The pencil thin man took the leather pouch containing the documents. "I must admit, I was a little worried that you were not going to make it on time before submissions closed. I am sure that all your papers are in order, Adam. Please give my regards to your father when you return home."

Nelson now took a few steps towards the rest of the crowd and addressed them as a whole group.

"Gentlemen, as you are probably aware and can appreciate, going over all of these papers is going to take time, and most likely more than one day. My colleague and I will look at all of your bids in turn and assess them according to merit. All of you are requested to return to this same place, one week from today, when my associate Mister Collins will announce the successful winner of the contract. I trust you all have a pleasant day," he concluded, and then turned to walk back to the temporary and makeshift office he had created inside the Mercantile Agency.

"Henry Williams is not going to be very happy about this at all," Thomas commented to himself with a chuckle. He watched the man identified as Adam Cartwright walk back to his horse, mount it and ride further down the street.

Thomas casually walked out of his concealed position, and travelled a short distance down the same side of the street. He would have to be careful in making sure that Cartwright didn't suspect he was being followed.

Williams was right, he would have to do his homework if any plan was going to be successful in altering their intentions. He may as well start gathering what information he could about this particular Cartwright, before returning to Williams' office.

Adam had not trotted very far down the road, but halted his progress when he saw the very person he was looking for, Doctor Paul Martin. He had been expecting and planning to go further towards his small office up on the second floor of another building. The doctor was walking past a row of stores down the other end of the street.

The doctor looked up when he heard his title and name being hailed by a familiar voice, and stopped to meet up with the man. He smiled as Adam Cartwright stopped his horse, and hitched Sport to the railing after dismounting from the saddle.

Neither Paul nor Adam noticed the stranger, Butch Thomas move close enough towards both of them to overhear their conversation. He knew very little about these Cartwright people, and much of what he heard was hearsay and word of mouth only, or provided by Henry Williams about their previous business dealings. Thomas wanted to find out for himself what sort of men these Cartwright's were.

This one identified as Adam Cartwright certainly looked like a good enough adversary. Strongly built, tall, and intelligent he would guess after submitting the contract. 'Was the rest of the family the same?' Thomas asked himself. Perhaps Williams had been underestimating his competition and gaining this contract may be a bit beyond his reach. Maybe he would need to alter his plan and increase the stakes substantially to affect any outcome.

"Good Morning, Paul," Adam greeted him, extending his hand and completing the handshake with the silver-haired gentleman known simply by many people in the town as Doc Martin.

"Good Morning, Adam," Paul said enthusiastically in return. "What brings you into Virginia City today?" The doctor knew there could be any number of reasons. The Ponderosa was a large place and required a lot of hard work from that family to keep it operating smoothly.

"I barely made it in time to submit a bid for a new contact for the timber operation," Adam informed him. "The roads coming in here were atrocious after all the rain last night."

"Thankfully, I was able to make it home safely after leaving your house, before that storm settled in for the rest of the night," Paul commented. "The rain was coming down in buckets. I have already located three leaks in the roof my surgery and office."

It was the next few pieces of information that he would overhear, that provided Thomas with a whole lot more insight into the family dynamics. And perhaps presented an opportunity to exploit.

"Last night, after you left, it seems that my brother became a little more restless and had trouble sleeping during the early morning hours, and his temperature soared. High enough for my father to become worried and for him to stay with him, trying to cool the boy down. He wanted me to find you in town this morning, and ask if wouldn't mind coming back out to the ranch to take another look at Little Joe," Adam explained.

"A fever developed you say?" Paul said, pursing his lips together and pondering the symptoms that were being reported to him. "Joe did have a low grade fever when I examined him, and that was expected to some degree. Hoss brought him back from that hunting trip yesterday, but those claw marks from that bear cub were certainly deep enough to cause trouble. I cleaned them out as best I could before putting those stitches in. Wounds made by any animal are unpredictable at anytime, and there is a risk of infection to watch out for."

"My father made the decision to keep Joe home from school today due to them both losing sleep, and as a precaution. You know how he feels about his youngest son," Adam remarked.

Paul Martin nodded his head in acknowledgement, knowing how much truth was behind those words. If there was anything more stable in this world of uncertainty, it was the unconditional love that Ben Cartwright showed any of his sons. Especially towards the youngest member of the family, Joseph, when he was sick or injured. There was no secret to the fact that Hoss, Adam, the workers at the ranch, or the residents of Virginia City that Ben looked out for the boy at every turn.

"I will just retrieve my bag from my office, Adam, and I will get out there as I make my way back from the Wilson farm," Paul replied. "That is where I was headed to in a few minutes. I hope my buggy can make it all the way out there, considering how badly you told me the roads already are. Rebecca is due to have her baby towards the end of next week, but may come at any time."

"I am headed back to the Ponderosa very soon; the yard there this morning is a mess too after all the rain. As a priority though, when I get there, I intend to put together a team of the men together and go out to fix the worst of the damage before we lose the sunlight light today," Adam reported.

"Drive carefully out there, Paul," Adam warned as he walked away from the doctor and gathered the reins of his horse and mounted. "I have one final errand to complete at the schoolhouse with the teacher, Miss Jones before I head back to the ranch."

"Tell your father not to worry, and I will see you both soon, and of course, Joe," Paul said with a small grin, and watched the man ride back down the street in the direction of the school.

Butch Thomas' mind started filtering some of the information he was hearing. When observing Adam Cartwright, he estimated the man's age to be a few years shy of thirty years old. The man had been speaking to the doctor about someone else in the family who still attended school. He had assumed from the brief clues given by Williams, that all of the Cartwright's were grown men. After listening to the short exchange moments ago, it appeared that was not the case.

Fortuity may have just presented an opportunity that he could use to gain an advantage over the Cartwright family. Real leverage, and he would have no qualms about putting to good use if he deemed it necessary. People often responded better to demands when something they cared greatly about was placed in peril. In this case, someone. Neither he or Williams were above providing the right amount of incentive by blackmail or physical force to obtain their objectives.

Williams used money to gain notoriety, and usually hired the people he needed to carry out any dirty work that was required for him. There may be a way to persuade the Cartwright family to withdraw their bid from the timber contract. Applying just the right amount of pressure would be crucial to enforcing that threat.

Thomas quickly withdrew from his current position in the shadows and walked down the street in the opposite direction that Adam Cartwright had taken. He remembered Williams' comment about the ranch hand drinking in one of the saloons.

The hour was just after lunch when Thomas entered the saloon through the two swinging doors. This watering hole was reserved for a much lower class of patron than people like Williams or the Cartwright family. The smell of tobacco smoke permeated the air and the stench of hard liquor was on every surface, from the bar to the floor.

There were no pretty barmaids to serve drinks in this establishment, and only one poor, down-trodden barkeep, who was pouring whiskey into filthy glasses. Thomas was almost knocked over by another man being hurled through the swinging doors onto the street outside. The result of a good hard punch to the face for being accused of cheating at cards.

Seated at the bar, holding to on an almost empty bottle of whiskey and with his head hanging low, one man drew Butch's gaze. He walked over to the bar, stood beside him, looking him up and down. He wasn't sure if this was the right person yet, but wasn't about to ask his name outright and draw attention to himself. He could be patient for a while longer.

Five minutes later, the man tossed a coin onto the bar beside his empty glass, "Give me another bottle," he slurred. There was still liquor at the bottom of the bottle he was holding, but he decided that he didn't want that.

"Don't you think you have had enough friend?" the barkeep asked, trying to get him to leave the saloon and fall down someplace else. But he picked up the coin and placed the new bottle beside the same glass.

"Hey, don't you be calling me your friend, I don't e-even know y-you," the man declared angrily, wavering his arm about in displeasure, but almost over-balancing and falling off the stool instead. "My money in here is just as good as a-anybody else's. And that's good money too. Come from those no-good cow-pokes, think they are better than anybody else, Cartwrights."

Thomas grinned to himself, confident with the mention of the name Cartwright, that he had found the right man.

"Steady there," Thomas said smoothly, keeping the man upright, and pouring a measure from the new bottle. "Your money is just as good as any man in here. The name is Smith," he said to the man, waiting to see if he would give his own name in return.

"Darn-tootin' it is," the man said, giving a wide, toothy grin to the stranger who had just poured his drink. He didn't notice that Thomas had poured himself a drink from the same new bottle. "Richards," he said, peering back through bloodshot eyes. "You can call me Frank."

"I heard you talking about them high and mighty Cartwright's," Thomas started talking, followed by drinking the shot of whiskey.

"Don't talk to me about them varmints," Frank shot back with anger surfacing again. He tried to take another drink himself, but ended up spilling more of the contents of the glass on himself. "That old coot of a boss told me I was no good working with them cows. Said I didn't know the front end of a cow from the back end. He ain't a Cartwright, but he works for them and is just as bad as them in my books."

"Let's move over to a table friend, where we can be a little more comfortable and talk," Thomas suggested.

"Why are we doing that for?" came the confused question, but Butch was already moving the bottle and glasses to one of the back tables.

"I don't like crowds much when I drink," Thomas replied. "Back here, I can see who is coming and going without worrying about anybody sneaking up on me."

"Good idea," Richards said, loosely following what was being said. Walking across the bar-room, he was very uncoordinated and almost sat down at the wrong empty table.

Thomas saw the merits of plastering him with more alcohol, but he wanted the man talking more about the Cartwright family before he lost the ability to think and passed out from being too drunk.

"So you worked for them and they just fired you for no reason?" Thomas asked, choosing his words carefully. "Do you get to talk to the youngest member of the family very much? Joe isn't it?" trying to remember what name the brother had used in front of the doctor.

"Little Joe they call him; heard some things about him from the other men in the bunk house, but never met him yet. Got told he is a real nice young fella; a little on the skinny side, but got l-lots of growin' up to do yet I guess," Richards answered. A few burps escaped his mouth, and he wiped the excess spittle from his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt.

"Those Cartwright's tend to keep strangers and people who haven't worked there for long away from the main house and that boy," Frank continued. "No idea why. I never did get to asking too many questions about the family out there. But I seen them coming and going often enough."

Thomas frowned at this new piece of information, thinking it was rather odd that someone had worked there for a couple of months, but hadn't personally met the boss's son yet. Especially after listening to William's account of how prominent the family were in the area.

"Maybe he is a spoilt rich man's son and they have been teaching him bad habits to their way of thinking," Thomas prompted.

"Don't rightly know for sure," Richards answered. "Them older two boys looks down on everybody, especially that eldest one. Would be a shame if the boy was nice like they reckon and they were looking to do that to him."

Butch listened to the man, thinking back to Adam Cartwright whom seen in the street. The way he was dressed and the fine animal that he was riding; could be who Richards was describing now.

"The b-big one, he is not so bad, and works hard with the rest of the m-men," Frank slurred about Hoss.

"Why do you w-want to know about them C-Cartwright's anyway? Richards asked, with his head hanging low over the glass he had just poured. "You ain't looking for a job out there now are you? Because I lost mine." Richards was rapidly losing track of the conversation.

Thomas was trying to get Richard to talk more about what secrets he knew about the family. He had gained a few clues, but he wanted more. By now the liberal amount of whiskey had pickled the man's tongue and he was having trouble following any further questions. He was taking too long to come up with any useful answers and Butch was growing impatient.

"Now I just need to find me some way to make some money," Richards commented out of the blue about having no job or way to earn a living.

Thomas looked about the bar-room and made sure that nobody was paying attention to the two of them still talking and drinking together.

Butch smiled widely, "I might have a new job for you, if you are interested?" he offered. "You would like a chance to get back at that Cartwright family wouldn't you? Take back a bit more of that money that they owe you for the time you worked out there?"

Butch clenched a fresh cigar stump between his teeth and lit it, leaning back against the back of the chair, waiting for Richards to make a decision.

"Does it pay any good?" Frank asked hesitantly. He wasn't risking his neck for a bag of beans like what he got from the old wrangler last night when he was tossed out.

"My friend... the payout I suspect shall be very good, so long as you do everything I say," Thomas confirmed with the hint of warning.

Richards looked up at Thomas for a minute, waiting for his brain to catch up with what was being said. "What do you want me to do?" The man was definitely being cautious, even with the copious amount of alcohol he had consumed.

Frank knew he had done some illegal stuff before. Pinching goods from stores when folks weren't looking, and a few other minor illegal things. Small time potatoes to some people probably. But the tone of this man's voice told him that something else was being waved under his nose.

"Nothing much," Thomas answered casually. "I don't aim to be working for the Cartwright's, but I am going to take the kid away from them. Keep him quiet for a few days and out of sight.

"Joe?" Richards squeaked out at such an outlandish idea. "You ain't going to hurt him none are you? He ain't even growed up full yet."

"No, I don't plan on hurting the boy," Thomas lied. "Just keep him out of town for a few days, then return him to his family, nice and safe like when they come up with some money. A lot of money," he said in proposal.

"Money is kinda scarce at the moment," Frank agreed. "I don't know iffn' they be hiring the likes of me at any of the new m-mines that are opening up. Working underground don't rightly appeal to me very much neither."

"All that dangerous work in one of those dark pits for a few measly dollars a week?" Thomas scoffed in jest. "No siree, not something I will be looking to do if something else came along that wouldn't require that amount of effort."

"I reckon Ben would pay anything to stop something happening to any of his sons," Richards pondered. "That old man Cartwright would probably pay plenty more to get that youngest boy of his back."

"You meet me five miles out of town on the road to the Ponderosa before sun-up tomorrow morning, nice and sober like," Thomas instructed. "Don't be late, or you will be missing out on your share of the loot."

Thomas was planning on explaining the finer details of his plan once the man was sober enough to understand them. Richards knew the layout of the Ponderosa and where the best section of the road would be to lay in ambush. He may also know of a place where they could stash the boy far enough out of town and away from the ranch without being spotted, once the trap had been set.

Butch made his way out of the saloon, leaving the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table in front of Richards who was now slumped across it. He would do some looking himself out at the ranch later on tonight, just to be certain. If Frank didn't turn up on time, or was still under the weather, then he would need to enact his own secondary plan to snatch the boy without the additional pair of hands.

Making his way back to William's office, he didn't want to stick around long enough to be noticed. Henry stood up as Butch Thomas loomed just inside the wooden door frame.

"Richards proved to be somewhat useful," Thomas told him. "Everything happens tomorrow, so make sure you go about your business as usual. Have my money ready."

Once he was alone again, Williams pulled out a checkered handkerchief and used it to wipe away the nervous sweat rolling down the back of his neck. There was no backing out now, he would have to sit back and wait to see what unfolded.

Thomas made his way to an small abandoned building in town where he had been squatting for the past few days. His horse was stabled there, along with the few meagre possessions he owned. His bedroll and saddle bags were there too.

Butch already had two other men in mind that he could use for the job tomorrow in addition to Richards. One, Robert Pierce he had worked with before. The man didn't talk very much, but was handy with a gun and he didn't ask a lot of questions about the work he was doing either. They weren't friends, but they both had been part of a larger group of men that had been used in a previous bank hold-up and stagecoach robbery. He was from the local area too which was a bonus, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut.

The second person, younger and much more prone to shooting off his mouth when he had too much to drink was Danny Griffiths. For now he would suffice well enough until the task was completed and the Cartwright's had withdrawn their bid for the lumber contract. In this business, there was no guarantee that he was going to share any of the ill-gotten spoils with them.

Thomas only needed these three men for the first part of his plan, he would talk to the other two men this afternoon before heading out along the road to the Ponderosa.

After that, he could make a decision on whether or not to keep any of them around, or split up and allow them to go their separate ways. There was the third option of not letting any of them to stay alive after he had collected the money.

Butch was aware that he wouldn't be able to rely on getting any of the supplies he needed from here in Virginia City. He couldn't afford to draw any heat in case someone remembered him later. He didn't want any of the men he was looking to hire, to being recognized after making a purchase in the local general store

Thomas knew that his associate, Henry Williams wanted this lumber contract badly. It was the only thing that Thomas had heard the man talk about during their infrequent meetings over the last month. Williams had made it abundantly clear that he wanted the contract no matter what. He had reiterated that very fact less than an hour ago in his office. The overweight businessman was supremely confident that his quote was the only one that posed any real threat to the Cartwright family winning outright.

When Collins had first demonstrated his interest in obtaining large quantities of timber within the area, Williams had been quick to pull the new mining entrepreneur aside and forcibly impress on the man, his desire and ability to fulfill the mine's needs. Collins had backed away from those bullish tactics and openly invited tenders from all over the district before making a final decision.

Thomas wasn't fussed who he worked for or what that work entailed. He was prepared to take on work that other men baulked at or backed away from. In places some distance from Virginia City, he had quickly gained a reputation of being a harsh man, with a mean fist and a quick draw with his pistol. Folks in this town knew him a whole lot less, and that suited him just fine. Being unknown, he could easily blend into a crowd and hide in plain sight, keeping the true nature of his activities undisclosed.

Outside of the schoolhouse, Adam had completed his last errand in town by talking to Miss Summers about any work that Joe would be missing by being absent today.

He then had a short and informal discussion with Miss Jones, about her attempts to sway Joe into making a decision about college.

When he first brought up the subject with the woman responsible, Miss Jones had clearly been taken aback by this new attitude she had not seen before in Adam Cartwright. She had assured him that the boy must have exaggerated the part she had played. She reminded Adam that Joe was a young man who needed a firm talking to at times, and often day-dreamed out of the window instead of paying attention.

Adam told the teacher that he didn't have the time this afternoon to stand there and debate with her about what he had learned. He wanted Miss Jones to allow Joe to enjoy what remained of his education, and not constantly make comparisons about what he had achieved as her student. They were two different people and deserved to be treated as individuals, even if they shared the same last name.

Miss Summers had been a very positive influence on Joe over the past several years, and Adam wanted to make sure that she was aware of what the headmistress was trying to do. He reported to her what Joe had shared with Hoss, and the impact that it was having on him wanting to attend school. Rebecca had promised to look into the matter and keep a closer watch on Joe's grades and aptitude when he was in her class.

Miss Jones was still convinced that she could talk more to Adam and get him to come around to her point of view, but that would have to wait as she watched him mount his horse and started riding away towards the Ponderosa.

Adam needed to get back and inform his father about the state of the road. Hopefully with enough time left in the day, he could get a group of the men together and do some repairs before the afternoon was lost and the sunlight faded. On the journey back, he made note of where the worst damage was, planning to repair those areas first.

After changing his flour dusted clothes, Joe came back downstairs into the living room, but was at somewhat of a lost end of how to spend his time. Within the space of half an hour, Joe had moved from sitting on the settee, to the armchair he had occupied earlier, back to the settee.

The boy had even gotten up and opened the front door, but closed it again, knowing that it was pointless and already guessing what his father's answer would be to his unspoken question.

Ben was having trouble concentrating on his own work, as his gaze kept watching Joe's forlorn expression as he examined each piece of furniture in turn. The boy wasn't deliberately being stubborn or wilful, but his continual moving about the room was distracting.

"Son, would you like to share an early lunch?" Ben finally asked, trying to get Joe interested in something else other than having to spend his time inside.

A few of years, before he turned fourteen years old, Joe had a creative outlet for when he was stuck inside healing from an injury or recovering after illness. From the age of seven he had shown some talent at drawing and spent a lot of his time practicing. Of course his favourite subjects to draw was horses.

Now those sketch books were kept on a shelf in his wardrobe upstairs. Tucked away where nobody could see them anymore and they hadn't been added to and the pages viewed by any member of the family for more than a year. The beautiful artwork contained within those pages would probably never see the light of day again unfortunately. Ben didn't have the heart to bring up such a poignant subject today, even if it would help his son pass the time constructively.

Joe let out an audible sigh to demonstrate the level of his boredom, and sat down on top of the coffee table that was in front of the large fireplace. "No thanks, Pa, I am not very hungry," he answered glumly.

Playing with a deck of cards in his hands, he shuffled them and then began spreading them out in an indistinct pattern. "I am bored, Pa."

Ben was trying not to raise his voice in exasperation at his son's disinterest and despondent mood. "Please don't sit on the coffee table, Joseph," he requested politely, trying to direct his brooding thoughts towards something else. "How are the stitches in your arm feeling now?"

Joe stood up, looking down at the bandage around his arm. The stitches still hurt quite a lot and he had been trying to ignore the discomfort for most of the morning. It hadn't been easy with his father being in the same room and continually watching from his desk.

"It's fine, Pa," Little Joe answered, but for his father, his answer came out a little too quickly. Ben was about to put down his pen and demand a more honest answer. Before he could do exactly that, Joe deflected any further comment by picking up the book from Adam for a second time. He walked over to the striped settee and sprawled himself on his back along the uncomfortable cushions and opened the cover.

The boy had taught himself over the years to hide his grimaces of discomfort and mask his aches and pains from everybody. A habit that Ben would prefer that he had not learnt quite so well. The family had tried to adapt as best they could and watch for the telltale signs that were often present.

Ben delayed getting up from his desk, not wanting to provoke an argument with Joe. He suspected that his arm had been causing him pain during the morning. When it came to being sick or injured, none of his boys liked the forced inactivity that usually followed. And Joe was certainly no exception, especially when it came to having to be examined by a doctor like Paul Martin.

Twenty minutes later, Ben was suddenly drawn away from his books and ledgers by the total silence of the room. This time he did rise from his desk due to his full view of settee being obscured. Approaching quietly from around the piece of furniture, he smiled tender-heartedly at the reason. Joe was laying on his side, with his knees bent and his legs drawn up in a slightly curled up position, sound asleep. The book had fallen down as he had turned over and was grasped precariously in one hand.

Hop Sing came into the room, silently standing beside him but holding a lightweight blanket he had fetched from the linen chest. Ben smiled at the man's uncanny ability to know what his family needed. He accepted the blanket and began spreading it over his son with thanks. Using the palm of his hand, he placed it gently across Joe's forehead, checking his temperature.

Much to his delight, only a small amount of residual heat was present. The fever was almost gone. Joe had frowned at his father's touch momentarily, but then faded back into a deeper state of sleep. His body was trying to regain some of the lost hours of sleep from last night, and Ben was very pleased with that. Reaching down, he rescued the book from Joe's sleep limp hand before drawing the edge of the soft blanket up over his shoulder.

Ben couldn't help but feel the lump in his throat, noting how painfully similar his son resembled his beautiful wife, Marie. The likeness was even more evident when those dark lashes closed over the boy's emerald green eyes in slumber. The soft brown curls behind his ears and at the back of his neck, made the boy appeared much younger than his age of fifteen years.

Before resuming work at his desk, Ben used the opportunity of his son not being able to note his absence to his advantage. He exited the back door through the kitchen to head out to the yard and speak briefly to Charlie the head foreman. He had forgotten to bring up one matter with the man when he had been out in the barn earlier.

As he started heading back to the house to begin his paperwork again, he heard the unmistakable sound of horses hooves approaching. A few moments later Adam rode into view, stopping short before the middle of the yard, trying to avoid the mud.

"Good to see you return safely, Adam," Ben said in a pleased tone, as he watch his son dismount and tie the reins loosely to the hitching rail. "Were you successful in getting to Virginia City on time?"

"Yes, I was as a matter of fact, with oh, moments to spare," Adam replied, his face displaying how close he had been to missing the deadline. From what little I could find out, there were three other bids lodged in addition to our own."

"Come on inside for a spell," Ben said, as the two of them walked towards the house. "Did you eat lunch yet?"

"No, but I want to make a start on putting a team of men together and heading out to fix some of the bad patches in the road. You were right this morning to keep Joe from riding on it; there are some treacherous sections," Adam warned. "I want to get as much done as possible before sundown."

Ben's brow creased into a frown at Adam's report on how bad the road was. By now the two of them were by the front door.

"Oh, before you head inside, please keep the noise down. Joseph is sleeping on the settee," Ben informed him. "He has been wandering around the house all morning complaining about having nothing to do. He even had Hop Sing chasing him out of the kitchen. His fever is almost gone. Finally tiredness won out not long before you rode in."

Adam entered the house alongside his father, removing his hat and gun belt, the two of them keeping any sound to a minimum. He would not have been surprised to hear raised voices upon his return instead. He laughed a little inwardly at the thought of his father admitting to having trouble in keeping an active fifteen year old boy entertained.

The two of them moved out of earshot towards Ben's desk and further away from Joe. "At least he was trying to read the book you left him. Twice."

"Oh, well that is good to hear that he is attempting to expand his reading repertoire," Adam said with a pleased look on his face, but it dropped again when he saw the smirk coming from his father.

"Why do you think he finally fell asleep?" Ben offered with a quiet laugh as the expression on Adam changed so suddenly.

"His arm has been causing him some discomfort," Ben commented with a change to his voice, and all joking put aside. "Not that he would tell me of course. When I asked him about it...,"

Adam interrupted before his father finished speaking, "Let me guess, he told you he was 'fine'."

"When I was in town, I managed to complete all of my errands. That includes talking to Miss Summers at the schoolhouse. She intends to talk to him about any work that he missed by being away today. More importantly, she is going to keep a closer eye on him after I told her what Hoss reported to us."

"That will he helpful at least. Joe likes that teacher and has thrived better under her tutelage, whereas he had been struggling under Miss Jones' methods of teaching before that," Ben remarked. He didn't like comparing the two teachers to each other. They were very different people, but the improved results of Joe's grades under one and not the other were undeniable.

"On that note, I spoke to Miss Jones and pressed on her that Joe had plenty of time yet to make up his own mind about college. Time was running short, and I wanted to get back here to get started on that roadwork. I suspect there may need to be another meeting with the head mistress yet with myself and perhaps even you to add our weight to any decision that is made," Adam explained. "She wasn't quite ready to accept that her actions were responsible for Joe being reluctant to keep attending school."

"Well, for now, those discussions will have to wait until another day," Ben responded. For now he hoped that Adam's talk with both teachers would be enough to let matters settled on their own accord.

"After submitting the contract, I did go looking for Paul at his office, but I didn't need to go that far," Adam stated. "He was walking down the street, not far from the Mercantile agency. I told him what had happened overnight with Joe's temperature. He promised to come out when he could, but he had to visit the Wilson farm first. Another baby is due out that way very soon."

"I don't need to see the doctor, Pa," came the well-known voice from the direction of the settee.

"And all this time you have been underestimating Joe's power of selective hearing," Adam poked in jest at his father with a sly grin. "How are you feeling this afternoon, Joe?"

"I thought you were asleep, Joseph?" Ben questioned. He was hoping that his son hadn't overheard the conversation he and Adam had shared about Miss Summers and the school headmistress.

Both men walked over closer to Joe, watching as the blanket that had been covering him, slipped down from his shoulders as he sat up and pooled in his lap. After seeing Joe rubbing tiredly at his face, Ben guessed that Joe had only awoken at hearing the mention of the doctor.

"Fine!" Joe announced with a slight scowl on his face. "I don't need to see the doctor," he repeated. He was most unimpressed on how this day was turning out.

How things had turned against him so much over the past few hours he couldn't fathom. He had already been chased by Hop Sing when he was only trying to help. He hadn't been allowed to do anything else before lunch except look at the internal walls of the house. And now, Adam had arrived home only to tell him that Doctor Martin would be coming out to the ranch as well. To prod and poke him no doubt, and tell his father that all he needed was some rest. He had just finished doing exactly that. In Joe's opinion, more 'rest' was the last thing he wanted to do right now.

Ben was about to say a few words, but Adam could see his brother's unhappy mood about being cooped up in the house and took it upon himself to help out both his brother and his father at the same time.

"I am about to head out to the barn and gather those men together and what we will need in a wagon," Adam directed at this father, but glancing occasionally at his brother as he spoke. "That road going to Virginia City needs some repairing today."

"There are quite a lot of dangerous ruts and crevices that have been created due to the deluge and subsequent water run-off from the storm last night," Adam continued, pleased to see that his brother was listening. "I want to backfill those holes before someone gets hurt. Somebody riding out along that road and not looking where they were going could be put at risk of having an accident. He was giving his father as many clues as he could about the proposal he had in mind by using Joe as an example of 'someone' without deliberately saying his name out loud.

On any normal day when he was riding to and from school, or anywhere else, Joe rode his horse at neck breaking speed. Usually when he was too far out of sight, and his father wasn't watching of course. Cochise could step into an unseen hole, or skid suddenly when Joe was racing her down that long, narrow stretch of uneven ground. Both horse and rider could be put be seriously injured or killed.

Ben was astute enough to pick up Adam's not so subtle suggestions. "I suppose you would like your younger brother to accompany you this afternoon, whilst you and the men complete this work?" He watched the immediate impact on Joe's face as he spoke.

Joe's head quickly snapped up at hearing that his brother might be willing to rescue him from his forced boredom. And there it was, the puppy dog look that Hoss often fell for and was known to quote about. "Could I really, Pa?"

Adam and Ben both rolled their eyes at the boy's antics and seeing those expressive green eyes and hearing that 'innocent' voice that all the Cartwright family knew oh so well.

"I don't see why not," Ben began, "As long as you stick with Adam, and listen to everything that he tells you to do, without giving him and argument to the contrary," he added with a warning. He saw a smile appear on Joe's face as he nodded his head in agreement of the rules that were being set.

Using his prerogative, he wanted to tack on one more condition in order to gain his permission. As a father, he made sure that going with Adam was only going to happen when one other task had been completed to his satisfaction. "After you have checked over by, Doc Martin."

Adam almost laughed out loud as he noted a scowl marring Joe's handsome face in an instant. The expression changed so dramatically and so quickly, it couldn't be missed. His father joined in as well as they chuckled at the performance.

Being left with no choice but to comply if he wanted any chance of going riding with Adam, Joe waited impatiently for another half and hour. Before long, the three people inside the homestead heard the sound of a horse outside in the yard.

Adam went to the front door and opened it, "The very person that you have been dreading, has arrived to save you from your fate, Joe," he announced. He watched the doctor climb out from his small buggy, walking towards the house with his small black bag in hand.

"Good afternoon, Paul," Adam greeted him with a handshake for the second time today. "Joe has been anxiously waiting for you."

"If Little Joe is waiting for me to come and examine him, then he must be much worse off than you reported to me earlier in town, Adam," Doc Martin retorted back with a knowing grin. "Thank you for warning me about those ruts on the road here. The wheels of my buggy were in danger of getting stuck on a couple of occasions."

"Afternoon, Doctor," Ben said as he stepped up behind his eldest son, and offered a friendly handshake in greeting as well. "Joseph, don't you have something to say?" he asked, turning his head back towards the settee.

"Your opinion and report will determine if Joe is allowed to leave the inside of this prison this afternoon and go riding with me," Adam informed Paul.

"Afternoon, Doc Martin," Joe said politely, but dropping his head in dismay, knowing that soon he would be poked and prodded by the family friend and physician.

"Now that is how I remember Joe greeting me during the last few visits," Paul said, not offended by the boy's downcast body language and lack of enthusiasm at his presence. He had many years of practice at treating this young man, and was able to spot when he truly wasn't feeling well or experiencing pain with some degree of accuracy.

"Adam tells me that you just came from the Wilson farm?" Ben asked, keeping the conversation light as the doctor came into the living room and set his bag down on the coffee table.

"Mrs Wilson is close to having her baby, but I am worried about her having some trouble during the delivery. I may have to make a few trips out there again in the near future," Paul answered with concern. "For the moment, let me take a look at this young man," he said focusing on the patient seated in front of him.

"Relax for me Joe, and I promise this will all be over in a few minutes," Paul spoke gently. He was able to detect some mild apprehension on Joe's part that wasn't part of being bored or having to stay inside. "Roll up your sleeve please, I should be able to reach the bandage without you needing to take off your shirt."

"Place this under your tongue please," the doctor instructed, holding out a small glass thermometer. He was pleased when the boy didn't openly object to its presence in his mouth.

Joe nodded his head, but didn't offer any small talk as he used his left hand to unbutton the cuff and do as the doctor requested. Paul carefully untied the ends of the white bandage, silently watching for any trace of discomfort or pain showing on Joe's face as he did so. He was half way through unwinding the fabric and the boy had jerked away in pain at least twice, giving a grimace and attempting to turn away.

The doctor used a gentle hand to hold the arm in place a little longer, and push the sleeve a little higher to gain better access to the wounds the bear cub had left behind. "I am sorry Joe, I know this is hurting you."

Ben and Adam had both seen Joe's reaction, and saw him briefly squeeze his eyes closed and grimace silently.

"Thankfully, I don't think there is too much for you to be worried about, Ben," Paul reported after examining the stitches and taking note of the wound. He took a fresh bandage from his bag and re-wrapped the deep scratches as he spoke. "The wounds still look nasty, but they are nice and clean and there is no sign of infection."

Paul removed the thermometer and looked at the reading critically, "Your temperature is back to normal, Joe. That is a very good sign of the healing process heading in the right direction."

"I am sorry if I was over-reacting and called you out here without a valid reason, Doctor," Ben commented. He was very pleased to hear Paul's report. "It was quite concerning earlier this morning. Joseph had a headache and acted a little confused when I noticed how high it was."

"No need to apologize, Ben," Paul answered. "I don't doubt that it was higher today than last night. I notice it being slightly raised myself yesterday before I left. I know you worry sometimes, but it is best to be cautious with any wounds made by an animal. Infection can set in and take hold in a very short period of time."

Paul finished tying the ends of the new bandaged, pulling down Joe's sleeve, and giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze. "Thank you, Joe, you did very well," he added in praise.

"Can I go riding with Adam, please?" Joe asked the doctor, with a hopeful look on his face. He had done everything his father had asked of him. Yes his arm was hurting when the doctor was checking it, but he didn't want to miss out on the chance to go outside because it was bothering him.

Paul looked at Joe for a minute, then up at Ben, before giving his final diagnosis. "I think you should be perfectly alright to return to school tomorrow, Joe. Although I suspect that your arm is still going to sore over the next couple of days. So long as you take care of yourself and avoid playing any rough games, you shouldn't have any problems. Promise me that you will let your teacher know if it is hurting at any time."

"I promise," Joe readily agreed, but he was still holding his breath slightly and waiting to hear about riding today, rather than the rules about returning to school tomorrow.

"In regards to this afternoon," Doc Martin continued, "I told your father last night, that I don't want you lifting or carrying anything heavy over that same couple of days. The stitches will give those deep scratches time to start mending, but not if you are using your arm too much. I think you can be released and allowed to join your brother."

"That really means a lot to me, Doc," Joe said giving a beaming smile, getting to his feet, and shaking the man's hand. "Thanks" he added, scurrying up the stairs towards his bedroom.

Ben, Adam and Paul all exchanged smiles at the improvement in Joe's mood at being told he could go riding.

"Other than his arm, Ben, he is fit as a fiddle," Paul said in conclusion, packing up his black bag and preparing to leave. "Goodbye, my friends. Let me know if you need me again."

"Thank you for coming at such short notice, Paul," Ben gave in genuine honesty. "I really do appreciate it, even if I dragged you out here only to quash my own concerns."

"You are very welcome," Paul replied. "I will check on the stitches in a few days, they should be ready to come out in about seven to ten days time. I will probably be travelling back out to the Wilson farm again during that time. Thank you for warning, Adam. Hopefully by the time you make it out there with your men, I will have made it back safely to Virginia City."

Ben and Adam returned inside after seeing the doctor depart in his buggy in time to see Joe coming back down the stairs and ready to go with Adam out to the barn.

Adam had been putting together a list of tools and equipment he would be needed to put together, as well as speaking to the men about the task. He wanted to depart within the hour if possible.

"I want you to heed the doctor's advice, Joe, and remember what he said about any heavy lifting," Ben said, placing his hands on Joe's shoulders and making sure he had his full attention. "Be careful, please," he added with a smile, giving the boy a small hug of affection.

"I will, Pa, and listen to what Adam tells me," Joe affirmed. He accepted that his father wanted to watch over him a little too much at times. Opportunities like the one Adam was offering him didn't come along very often during a school week. The chance to get out and do things on his horse was going to be great, and something that he didn't want to miss.

"Make sure that you take your other jacket with you, Joseph," Ben reminded his son. "The weather is growing cooler by the day in the afternoon, and that breeze may pick up considerably when you are out on that road. I will order you a new sheep-skin jacket next time I visit Mister Perkins store. The season is rapidly changing and snow isn't that far away."

"When you get out to the horses, Adam or one of the other men can saddle Cochise for you," Ben stated. "I know you can do it yourself, but not today," he added firmly, seeing that his son was about to argue that point.

The first sign of a frown appeared on the boy's face at the way he was being treated, but he erred on the side of caution about voicing any objections out loud. If he protested too much, his father may revoke any permission he had given. Joe plucked the blue jacket his father had mentioned from the peg behind the wooden door.

"I expect we will be back long before it gets dark and in plenty of time for supper," Adam told his father as he began directing his brother towards the barn. He was hoping the activity would help stimulate Joe's appetite at dinner, and he would be hungry enough to eat a little more.

"You can supervise and make sure that I am doing it right," Adam offered to his brother in compromise as he gathered his hat and gun belt. He grabbed Joe's smaller, brown hat, and placed it on his head whilst the boy was still talking.

"You don't do it right, Adam," Joe complained. "You always do the cinch up too tight, and Cochise doesn't like it. I have to stop and loosen it for her, before she starts showing me how unhappy she can be."

The boy was continuing to provide his list of what Adam didn't do correctly as the two brothers exited the front door. Crossing the yard, they were mindful of trying to avoid the worst patches of sticky, drying mud.

The wagon loaded up with tools and water canteens and some apples, biscuits and sandwiches courtesy of Hop Sing's kitchen, shuddering its way along the roadway. Three men followed on either side with their horses, another driving the cumbersome buckboard. Seven in total. Joe and Adam followed behind on their own horses.

Once Cochise had been saddled and they had started out, Joe had gone very quiet, not instigating any conversation with his brother as they rode side by side. Adam was watching him carefully enough from beneath the front of his black hat, but couldn't identify a reason. The boy had shared a few quite words with his mount, and plenty of friendly pats, but nothing else.

"Must be nice to be outside in the sunshine this afternoon, instead of being stuck behind four walls," Adam commented, waiting to see if he could strike up some casual small talk. When he looked in on Joe this morning, he had promised himself to spend from time with this brother. The way it was happening wasn't quite the way he had planned out, but would suffice for now.

"It is really nice out here today," Joe remarked. "Thanks for inviting me to come along, Adam."

"No problem at all," Adam replied, but Joe was content enough to be looking about. "Your job out here today is to hand out the tools to the men. And make sure that they bring them back when we are ready to start towards home again."

A few of the men in the group could be heard snickering together at the length of the leash that Adam placed around his brother in the way of restrictions. But one decisive and disapproving look from Adam had them falling silent. He had known these men for a number of years, and didn't suspect any of them were responsible for taunting Joe when he was on his own. They were running out of time and had no time for any shenanigans.

To his credit, Joe had nodded his head at Adam's instructions, and merely pulled his hat down over his ears, ignoring the men as best he could. On a different day, he might have said something back at them, but this afternoon he couldn't be bothered. Instead he quickened his horse's pace around the wagon and away from them.

Adam was proud to see that his brother didn't rise to the bait, and pleased to see a little maturity guiding his reaction.

Ten miles from the Ponderosa homestead, the wagon was pulled up underneath a thicket of shady trees. They followed on for quite some distance, and it was the perfect place to rest the horses whilst the hard labour part of the roadwork was carried out. Shovels and a lot of bending over at the waist were needed to compact the places where the ruts were deepest.

Two and a half hours the men worked, with only one short break to take a drink from the canteens. Joe had eaten two apples, and handed out the other treats to the men. Refilling the canteens would have to wait until he could use the water back at the house. There wasn't any stream running through this section of road.

Although the work was hard, Adam was pleased with the men and the amount of work that had been achieved in that short time. Surveying the section they had completed, he may need to ride further towards town tomorrow and identify any other bad patches.

Joe had carried out his task as his brother had requested. There was one shovel left and he had started working on one of the smaller areas of road. Adam had seen him put the shovel down and discreetly begin rubbing at his sore right arm after only a few minutes. He walked over to the boy and placed a firm but gentle hand around his upper good arm, and lead him back to the wagon, emphasising him to stay put.

"What did we discuss, little brother?" Adam warned. "Couldn't help it could you, just had to test out the limitations I set, didn't you?" he asked with annoyance. The task probably wasn't the most glamorous job to be handed out. He was trying to keep the doctor's words in the back of his mind, and give Joe something to do where he could feel like he was helping.

Joe had provided him with a suitably chastised expression, "Yeah, I suppose I did," he answered dropping his head down, not wanting his brother to berate him like a five year old in front of the other men. To be fair though, that was probably what he deserved. "I am sorry. I wasn't thinking about the consequences," said in genuine apology.

If word got back to Pa, he could expect to be on the receiving end of a lecture, laced with disappointment that he had already tried to push the boundaries. Some other form of punishment could have been headed his way with more even time being spent inside.

"Apology accepted. For now, I am willing to keep your disregard of my instructions between you and me," Adam offered in negotiation. "In return, I expect you to do as you are told until we return home. Understand? We are supposed to be working together, Joe, not against each other. That is what you asked of me six months ago, remember."

"I do remember, and want us to do that, Adam. I promise," Joe said with conviction.

Over the past twelve months, Joe and Adam had their fair share of differences of opinion. Their tempers and unwillingness to compromise for each others feelings and point-of-views had boiled over. Spiteful words had been exchanged in the heat of the moment that couldn't be taken back. Insults had been shouted in hostility and out of anger that couldn't be unsaid.

Both of them had made an unbreakable pact and agreed to act more like brothers to each other. That bond was unique and special and wasn't just because they shared the same last name and a father. They were not acquaintances, bitter rivals or strangers passing in the street.

Joe knew that Adam had taught him a lot of new things during that time, and he was grateful. The best skills he had learned were intangible, and couldn't be bought or paid for with money, silver or gold. They were family, and that had to count for something that couldn't be measured.

Adam could admit to Joe reminding him of some important lessons as well, and he was thankful. The things that really mattered in life could slip and easily fall through your fingers with an unkind or hurtful word. Their relationship could be shattered beyond the ability of ever getting it back or having the chance to make amends.

Adam looped an arm around his brother's shoulders. "Come on then, let's get this wagon loaded back up with the tools and head home to supper."

That evening, the family settled around the table to a generous supper from Hop Sing, complete with apple pie for dessert. He had managed to save enough pastry and filling from falling to the floor to make two large pies. The top of the pastry was golden and crisp. Hoss could smell them in the kitchen the whole time he had been eating his main meal.

The topic of conversation changed a number of times, as Hoss shared his triumphs and misfortunes with mud and fences. Adam gave his father a detailed report on the roadwork repair from the men. He made mention of having to travel further on the road tomorrow to check more areas. Ben had told Hoss about the doctor's visit and his decision about Joe returning to school tomorrow.

Ben and Adam both exchanged glances across the dining room table with the lack of chatter coming from Joe. The boy had been noticeably quiet and his lack of interest had definitely drawn a raised eyebrow of curiosity.

Adam told Ben that the road was now safe enough for Joe to travel on for school in the morning. In addition to those remarks, he also suggested that it might be a good idea if somebody rode with him as a precaution.

Hoss had expected to see his youngest brother's temper flair at the very idea of someone needing to ride with him. A journey he had taken back and forth to school on his own on many occasions. A small amount of independence that had been hard fought and won from his father at the beginning of the school year.

Much to the surprise of everyone seated at the table, only a token comment was made, with virtually no emotion involved.

"I will be fine, Pa," Joe simple stated rather than giving a sustained and vocal objection. "I don't need anybody to come with me." He then proceeded to move the food on his plate around some more.

Watching on for another few minutes, Ben could no longer hold back and wanted to address what was unfolding before him, "Joseph, are you going to continue to play with your food or are you going to eat some, please?"

Joe looked up at his father, and then over at each of his brothers in turn, before glancing down at the plate again. He laid the cutlery together, "No, I guess I am not. May I be excused, Pa?" and got up from the table and walked over to the settee before receiving an answer.

Ben waited for Adam and Hoss to provide an explanation, but received only a shrug of the shoulders from one, and a confused expression from the other. They didn't have a reason to offer for Joe's mood. Adam had only been talking fifteen minutes earlier about how his brother had enjoyed being outside riding on Cochise that afternoon.

"I think your brother can be trusted enough to be sensible and ride on his own in the morning, son," Ben proclaimed. He wasn't sure if Joe had heard his response to Adam's suggestion.

What he hadn't told any of his son's yet was that he was planning on accompanying Joe, and ensuring that he rode home safely in the afternoon. There were a number of business errands that needed his personal attention, and he planned to be in Virginia City until well after lunch.

After supper, Hoss offered to play three rounds of checkers with his brother. He had enjoyed the apple pie immensely. Hop Sing had offered a keep a slice for Joe when he was ready to eat it. Adam and his father were enjoying a small brandy in front of the fireplace and talking quietly to each other.

Half way through the first game, Hoss had been the first one to notice that Joe wasn't playing with any enthusiasm. He was barely watching the movements on the board.

With a smirk upon his face, the large man watched as Joe's eyelids slowly closed to half-mast and then open again. The boy was sitting up, but his posture was beginning to sag and relax.

Now they had half a reason for his pliant etiquette at the dinner table. And probably why he hadn't felt like eating very much. The short nap before lunch had not bolstered or done much to sustain his energy levels. The ride in the afternoon had used up the last of his reserves that he had been surviving on for the majority of the day. Joe was tired.

"Hey, Pa, take a look," Hoss quietly, waiting for his father to turn in his chair and take notice of Little Joe for himself. His brother wasn't going to make it to the end of one game, let alone three.

"Somebody is fading fast," Adam whispered as he watched his brother fight to the very end with steadfast tenacity. How many times had they all seen that before? Countless would a close estimate. The current time was much earlier than other school nights.

Tonight, the normal battle of wills between father and son over going to bed didn't look like it would eventuate. On previous nights, Joe would grumble and glance over at the grandfather clock and point out that it was half an hour earlier than the last time. A quick look at this father's stern, determined face and the boy knew better than to continue challenging his authority.

Ben got up from his blue arm chair, and walked over to the end of settee that his son was currently occupying. The eyelids drooped again as he watched, and was followed by an expansive yawn. As Joe used his hand to cover his mouth, he noted his father standing beside him.

"Hi, Pa," he said, giving a small smile.

Returning the smile, and resting a hand on his shoulder, "Joe, I think you should be thinking about heading up to bed," Ben suggested. "You had a very early start and a long day tomorrow."

For a brief moment, old habits tried to surface, and the words of protest formed on his lips. But they disappeared just as quickly, as Joe took stock of how much his arm was hurting and how sluggish he honestly felt. He wasn't about to admit to either out loud.

Joe nodded his head, "Sorry, Hoss, I will finish the game with you another time." He stood up and stretched, trying to loosen the muscles across his shoulders.

"No problem, short shanks, there will be plenty of other nights to follow," Hoss replied.

The family were unaware how much the hand of fate would step in and change all their lives. Quite some time would pass by, before the two brothers would be able to enjoy a simple game of checkers.

"Good Night, Pa," Joe said tiredly, rubbing at his face. That only accentuated his fatigue even more.

"Sleep well, son, and pleasant dreams," Ben replied.

Joe crossed the wooden floor, but then held onto the bannister as he turned and bid goodnight to both older brothers. Adam and Hoss returned the sentiments and watched as he ascended the staircase.

Several hours later, Ben was ready to retire to his own bed for the night. Hoss had already headed upstairs an hour ago. Adam was still downstairs, quietly reading by the fireplace. Before going to his own room to rest for the night, he wanted to make one final check on Joe first.

Quietly entering the room, he was pleased to see that Joe had taken the time to change into sleeping attire tonight. Tonight the covers were undisturbed and mostly in place. Joe's slumber must been deep enough to prevent him tossing and turning too much in the bed. The lamp on the bedside table was burning very low. The dim light bathing Joe's peaceful face in a soft, warm hue.

Ben couldn't help but feel a lump rise in his throat as he watched his youngest son sleep. There were times such as this, when the words to express how much he loved the boy just wouldn't come. He gently stroked the smooth skin on the boy's cheek before extinguishing the flame of the lamp and then closing the door as he left the room.

The next morning was Thursday, and Hoss found himself falling back into a familiar routine; needing to wake Joe so that he could get ready in time for school. Ben was also hoping that his son would eat some breakfast today before leaving. Joe had not eaten a whole lot for supper. Hop Sing would send along a good lunch, but there was no guarantee that he would eat at school either.

Hoss came back down the stairs a lot quicker this morning, and saw the curious expression on the faces at the table. There had been no raised voices or shouting coming from Joe about having to get up early.

"Joe says won't be long, Pa," Hoss reported. "Woke up in a better mood today too," he added, thankful that he hadn't needed to strong-arm his brother into doing what was required.

"That is good news to hear, Hoss," Ben commented, and then picked up his cup of coffee. Today may actually turn out to be a good and productive day for them all.

While the three men shared breakfast around the table, Adam brought up a fresh topic of discussion while they waited for Joe to make an appearance.

"I could be mistaken, but I thought there were a few unusual noises outside last night," Adam remarked. "When the sky is still too dark for anything but shadows. Less than half an hour before dawn and it sounded like though it was coming from the barn. I couldn't see any lights and there was no further disturbance afterwards that woke me up again."

Ben put down his cup, and had a puzzled look on his face as he listened. "I got up and checked the yard from my own window as well," he confirmed. "The horses in the barn were quiet from what I could hear, and they usually alert us if something is out of order. Charlie hasn't come to tell me the hands heard anything from the bunk house."

"I didn't hear a peep from anything all night," Hoss said, before taking another mouthful of food.

"How could you possibly hear anything last night over that breathing that can only ever be describe as snoring, Hoss?" Adam countered.

"I am afraid Adam is right there, son," Ben added. "I wish you wouldn't sleep on your back quite so much. There have been a few nights where I have tried to roll you over to help the rest of the household get some decent sleep. Luckily you didn't wake your younger brother."

The sound of footsteps on the stairs had them looking up and smiling as that very person in question made his way down to the table.

"Good morning, Joseph," Ben said cheerfully. His son was fully dressed, with his shirt tucked in neatly, and already wearing his boots. A comb had been used on his hair, and from all angles, he appeared ready for school and was carrying his small bundle of books. They would be placed in his saddle bags just before he mounted Cochise.

"Good morning, Pa and brothers," Joe answered politely. His greeting lacked any real enthusiasm, but he didn't look troubled or concerned about anything from the expression on his face. The books were set aside on the end of the credenza so he wouldn't forget them.

"I suspect you will be pleased to be at school today," Adam said after exchanging morning pleasantries. "How is your arm feeling this morning?"

"Stiff like yesterday, and hurts when I move it too much," Joe answered truthfully. "A good thing that I write with my left hand. I will be careful like the doctor said. I don't want anything knocking against it and causing the stitches to bleed."

"Hop Sing made extra for you today, Joe," Hoss proclaimed. In truth, he had been spotted trying to take a small portion of his brother's ample breakfast. His large hand had been smacked away with the back of a metal spoon by the diminutive cook.

Joe walked to the doorway of the kitchen, "Hop Sing, did you pack a lunch for me today?"

Hop Sing came into the dining room, handing him a small paper pouch, "Joe eat good today."

"Thank you," he said, accepting the bag. "Pa, I won't have time for breakfast this morning. I am going to be late if I don't leave very soon."

"Joe, I really don't like you leaving in a rush like this in the morning, and heading off to school without anything in your stomach," Ben commented with concern. "There are a few hours yet before you will even get the chance to eat."

At the dining room table, a friendly tussle had ensued between Hoss and Hop Sing over claiming Joe's uneaten breakfast. The larger man was determined that food wasn't going to waste. And the chef was making sure that Hoss wouldn't steal a single extra morsel.

Adam watched in silence, not wanting to get involved, but used the cup in his hand to hide his mirth at the dispute.

In the end, it was Joe who had inadvertently ended the war, "Hop Sing, let Hoss have it if he wants. I don't mind."

"Bless you little brother," Hoss declared, and was quickly munching away on the spoils. There hadn't been much on Joe's plate for him in the first place, Hoss justified.

Hop Sing had relented at Joe's request, but saved his best scowl for Hoss before he stomped back into the kitchen.

"Sorry I didn't mean to take so long getting ready upstairs. I will eat today," Joe promised his father. "I have to ask Charlie to saddle Cochise for me yet when I get out to the barn."

Ben was pleased to hear that Joe remembered about getting someone else to lift his saddle, but not entirely happy about him riding out without eating first. Looking at the time though, Joe was probably right. The ride into Virginia City may be slower this morning due to the road.

Miss Summers may be willing to accept a good reason for lateness, but Miss Jones would not. The family would be right back where they were before yesterday, with Joe getting berated by the headmistress and losing interest in attending school.

Standing at the front door, he handed his son the blue jacket. "Ride carefully today, Joseph, and I will see you this afternoon."

Joe picked up his hat and looked back over his shoulder as he stood on the verandah "Bye Pa," he said, waving and giving a warm smile.

…...and like the checker game, neither of them could have predicted what was about to come next.

"Morning, Charlie," Joe said as he entered the barn, but his face lit up with a grin as the foreman led his freshly saddled horse over to him.

"Thought you could be needin' her this morning, Joe," Charlie returned with a friendly smirk. "She has been waiting for you to come out from the house. Would barely stand still long enough for me to saddle her."

Joe tucked the bag of lunch from Hop Sing into the right saddlebag and after buckling up the strap, accepted the reins from the foreman.

"Thank you," he said and mounted. "I will need to give her a good brushing when I get back from school this afternoon."

The boy was about to encourage his horse to move forward, when a voice called out to him at the last minute.

"You forgot these, Joe," Adam said, handing over the bundle of books that Joe had left behind inside the house.

"I put them there so I wouldn't forget them," Joe said sheepishly with a laugh, as Adam slipped them into the left-hand saddlebag.

"Hoss and I should be both working around here in the yard when you get back later this afternoon," Adam told him. "Please be careful on that road, you saw some of the rough spots for yourself."

"Thanks, I will be," echoed back as Joe gave a wave in acknowledgement before riding out of the barn towards Virginia City.

Adam watched until he could no longer see his brother. He returned to the house to finish his morning routine. There was plenty on the agenda for them all to do today.

The sunshine on Joe's back was warm, with a gentle breeze blowing away from his face. The collar of his jacket flapped about, but the hat on top of his head stayed securely in place. For whatever unknown reason, he heeded the warning from Adam and the promise he had made to his father about riding a little more carefully along the road.

At the halfway point between the Ponderosa and Virginia City, the road curved around a little wider. The thicket of trees that the horses had rested beneath yesterday afternoon, continued even this far out.

Butch Thomas had settled himself in a secluded spot behind one of the larger trees. Robert Pierce was standing behind another larger bank of trees. He would lie in wait and make his move in with the ambush, when the signal was made. Danny Griffiths had been given the task of being the bait for the young Cartwright boy.

After he had sobered up from last night's heavy drinking session, any apprehensions Frank Richards had about his involvement in Thomas' plan had evaporated at the mention of money. If something was going to happen to the youngest Cartwright, then he wanted his fair share of the booty. He had provided Thomas enough clues about the movements of the family at the ranch on a typical morning.

The kid might be nice enough, Richards reminded himself. But living with those other Cartwright's, there was no doubt in his mind that it wouldn't belong before that would change. Sooner or later, the boy would be looking down his nose at other people, just like he had seen his father and brothers do. Frank came around to Butch's way of thinking and saw the benefits of using young Joe to teach the other family members a harsh lesson.

When asked a few months later, Joe wouldn't be able to provide a satisfactory answer to the question about why he hadn't raced to school on his horse. There were a lot of things about that day which would remain in his memory for a long time to come. There were a few details about that particular morning that he would never forget.

Cochise reacted to the smell of another horse in the vicinity, and returned a greeting of her own.

Approaching the bend in the road, Joe slowed his horse down to a walk, "Where are they Cooch? he asked, looking around and expecting to see a horse somewhere. He pushed the front of his brown hat back a little and scratched his forehead with confusion. Twisting and turning, but remaining seated in the saddle.

There was nothing. Joe started thinking that he was hearing things that were not really there, but Cochise gave another whinny at the unseen horse. He may have been losing his marbles, but he had endless faith in his best friend. Her sense of smell was much better than his own and he trusted her judgment.

Urging Cochise to increase her speed again, they hadn't travelled much further when Joe came upon a peculiar site in the middle of the roadway. "Stop here," Joe uttered softly to the horse, carding a gentle hand through her mane. The horse did stop, but he could feel her legs moving around with nervousness. A man was laying in the middle of the road.

Who he was, Joe didn't know. Looking around at the trees in all directions again, he was trying to find signs of the man's horse. The mount that belonged to this person could be the one Cochise had been reacting to. However, there was no sign of another horse, mule or animal of any kind. Maybe the man had accidentally fallen off or been thrown and was injured? From this distance, it wasn't so easy to tell. The man wasn't moving at all.

Should he head towards Virginia City and find the doctor? Or should he race back to the Ponderosa and get his father or one of his brother to bring a wagon out here? Maybe the first thing to do before any of that was to find out how badly he was hurt. He wasn't the kind of person who rode away and wouldn't offer any help; leave someone laying there if they were still alive.

Over in the thicket of trees, the two figures of Thomas and Richards watched the dark-haired young man stop his horse and dismount. They could see the boy craning his neck, trying to see if the unfortunate soul on the road was moving yet or not. Whether he sensed something being out of place, they couldn't be sure. Even if that was the case, it was too late to stop the plan being put into full swing now.

Joe released the reins of his horse, motioning with his hand on her nose to stay where she was. Walking the short distance, he kept his eyes on the man, trying to listen for any sound. Little Joe wasn't quite sure what his reaction would be if the man was already dead.

"Hey mister, are you alright?" he asked, bending down and placing his hand on the man's shoulder. He was startled and found himself falling backwards when the man did move. His eyes were drawn to the menacing barrel of a pistol as Danny Griffiths' rolled over and pulled himself up into a seated position.

"I am just fine, thanks for asking," came the reply. The man wasn't hurt or dead. This was all some kind of trick to get somebody to stop. Unfortunately Joe had come along and found that he was that 'somebody' without knowing that he was the intended target. He didn't have any money on him, and he wasn't carrying anything of significant value.

For a split second, Joe thought he recognized the man, but he couldn't remember where or when. He didn't have time to stop and think about the answer at the moment.

Joe had no gun with him or any other way of defending himself, except his fists, and he didn't know if he could deliver a hard enough punch to the man that would aid in his escape. His injured right arm was hurting after he extended both hands as he crashed awkwardly to the ground.

Keeping his eyes fixated nervously on the gun pointed at him, he made an effort to talk his way out of the predicament he found himself embroiled in. Maybe he could buy himself time if nothing else. "Look, I just stopped to make sure you weren't injured or sick. I don't want any trouble."

"Don't seem like this is your lucky day," Griffiths stated, smirking with a cruel grin, pulling himself up into a standing position, whilst pointing the gun at Joe. He used the fingers on his opposite hand to let out a loud whistle. Joe turned his head, and was alarmed to see two much larger men, emerging from behind the trees and making their towards him.

Frank Richards was set up as the look out to make sure their activities went unnoticed, and came into view as a fourth man. He was still mounted on a horse.

The adrenaline in Joe's muscles began firing, and his mind was shouting at him to run. He didn't know who any of these men were or what they wanted. With a gun being waved in his direction, he doubted they wanted to make friends or share the sugar cookies in his lunch bag. The two men were exiting the tree line, and first man holding the gun was distracted momentarily, watching them approach.

Quickly scrambling to his feet, Joe started to take off at a fast run in the opposite direction. His goal was to make it back to Cochise. Mounting his horse, he could be far enough away from these unknown assailants within a matter of seconds.

"Griffiths, you idiot, he is trying to make a run for it. Stop him!" Butch growled with anger. The task he had assigned had been so simple. Lay there and then hold onto the kid there until he and Pierce came out from the trees.

Thomas and Pierce saw the boy trying to make a run for his horse and immediately split up and pursued him. They couldn't afford for him to get away now.

This far away from home or Virginia City, Joe knew the chance for any of his shouts for help being heard were slim, but he had to try something. Maybe someone else would come along the road towards the ranch and he would be able to gain their assistance.

"Keep away from me. Leave me alone!" Joe shouted in panic, as he tried to quicken his pace. "Somebody help me, please!"

Due to the state of the road, an unseen rock would be his downfall, as he tripped and lost his footing, allowing the three men chasing him to quickly catch up. Joe landed painfully on his knees, and the fabric of his tan trousers was torn open. The skinned knees were stinging, but he tried to get back on his feet again in desperation. Two pairs of rough hands grabbed him from behind, lifting him up and dragging him backwards away from his horse.

"No! Please help! Let me go!" he screamed out a second time, this time louder.

Robert Pierce cut off the boy's pleas for help, placing his calloused hand over the boy's mouth and clamping down tightly. The kid was fighting against them as hard as he could. Joe was yelling through the hand as best he could, but his throat was too dry and his cries were being muffled and choked off.

"Danny, do something useful. Don't just stand there!" Pierce yelled out gruffly. "He don't weigh next to nothing, but I only have one hand free to move him, while I keep him quiet. We need to get him off this roadway and out of sight behind those trees before someone comes along and sees."

Once satisfied that the two men were holding the boy in their hands, Thomas walked further towards Cochise, snatching her reins and leading the horse to the tree line. Like her owner, the pinto was shying away from the unfamiliar rough handling and being difficult as well.

Joe continued to struggle against his attackers, kicking and fighting, trying to get free of their grip. His right arm felt like it as on fire, but he doubled his efforts. The two men were too strong and no matter how hard he fought, their hold around his chest tightened like a vice. The hand over his mouth remained firmly in place and Joe was having to draw enough air through his nose into his starving lungs.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cochise giving one of the men a difficult time in tethering her reins to a low branch. Even though he hadn't been able to make it back to her, his horse was much stronger. Maybe she could find a way to break free and his animal friend could find a way to help him.

Little Joe felt himself being slammed roughly against the trunk of a large tree, and a glancing blow to the temple, knocked his hat off onto the ground. His throat was burning, and his voice was becoming raspy. He didn't know if he could shout any louder, but tried one more time.

"Shut him up," Butch ordered bluntly, as he started to get impatient with the stubborn horse.

With Pierce still keeping the boy quiet and holding him against the tree trunk, Griffiths untied the bandana around his neck. He made sure that the boy was watching as he held it out tautly between his hands. There was no way of mistaking what his intentions were. Joe swallowed the lump of fear lodged at the base of his throat.

Danny nodded curtly to Pierce, signaling for him to remove his hand briefly. Joe didn't waste the opportunity, and as soon as the hand released from around his mouth, he drew in deep breath. He started to scream for help again, but was quickly silenced by a savage slap across his face that was brutal and stung from the ferocity.

The voice that spoke to him was cold and hard. The man deliberately blew a mouth full of smoke directly into Joe's face. The smell was nauseating. He tried to turn his head away, but Pierce grabbed a hand full of his curly hair, and forced him to face forward.

Joe looked up at the face that loomed in front of him, feeling tears welling up in his eyes, but gritted his teeth and refused to let them fall.

"You will receive much worse than that, if you scream again," the man promised. His voice was low and dangerous as he spoke, and something about it made Joe shudder inside and take note of what was being said to him.

"Open your mouth, you little bastard," Griffiths shouted. Pierce yanked on the kid's hair again, causing him to cry out.

Danny pounced and shoved the wad of fabric roughly into his mouth. He pulled his head to the side and knotted the ends behind his head to secure. The makeshift gag was very tight and the fabric was digging into the soft corners of his mouth. The cords of his neck were straining as Joe attempted to move and twist his head, groaning at the pain, but he was ignored as the discomfort continued to grow.

"Nobody will be able to hear you now, kid," Danny taunted, as he pulled out a length of course rope. "Now to make sure you can't run away anymore."

Joe could feel the rope being looped around his ankles. The man tying him up was right. There was no way he could run anywhere. He was trapped.

Pierce was growing a little uncomfortable with the length of time this was taking, and the disorganisation. Someone could come along here any minute, whether the boy was bound and gagged or not. Whether Richards was watching as look out or not.

"How are we gonna get him away from here now, Thomas?" he asked. "This wasn't very smooth at all. We have to ride out of here."

Thomas turned away from his captive and faced his accomplice, "You just leave the thinking to me. I already have this all figured out. It was Griffiths there that stuffed up, but it won't matter none now anyway."

"I agree, we do have to get out of here quickly. You two make sure that the horses are saddled and ready to go as soon as I give the word to leave," he instructed. "Somebody might come along here, but we will be long gone before that happens. There are a few things that need to be taken care of first."

Butch made sure that he was looking at Joe when he made his next statement, "Young Mister Cartwright here isn't going nowhere, unless I say so," he added ominously.

Joe heard the man address him by his family name. These men were strangers to him, but somehow they knew his name. What other things did they know about him? What were they wanting with him? Was the rest of his family at risk of being hurt? He had no way of warning them.

"Remove your jacket," Thomas demanded.

Joe didn't understand what the man wanted it for and gave a puzzled expression in return.

Thomas reached down in to his boot, and slowly dragged out a small doubled-sided blade. He made sure that Joe was watching his every move, and understood that the threat of using the knife was real enough. "You either take it off, or I will cut it from your body, myself. Your choice!"

Pierce released his grip enough to move, and Joe used a trembling arm to start sliding his arm out of the sleeve of his jacket. He knew he had no choice, but he didn't understand why they were confiscating it. He took a little more time with his right arm, and it was almost out when Thomas grew impatient and tore it down his arm. Three sets of eyes were drawn to the white bandage encircling the boy's arm.

"Well, what do we have here," Thomas said with a chuckle, running the tip of the blade over the white fabric in torment. "This must be the claw marks that your brother was talking to that quack of a doctor about in Virginia City."

Joe's expression said it all. How did this man know about his arm being injured in that fashion, and about Doctor Martin. And most of all, about Adam. He didn't want these men threatening his family and friends too.

Thomas could see the the curious looks from Pierce and Griffiths as well, and decided to elaborate a little more. "Oh yes, we are in the company of a lad here who took on a bear, and won. He got away with this as a souvenir." The man had omitted further details about the bear being a cub. The smaller claws had done enough damage.

Butch used the sharp blade to slice through the linen bandage, revealing the neat rows of stitches. Joe had squeezed his eyes closed as he felt the metal against his skin. He was fearful that the man would cut open the new stitches themselves. The bandage fell to the ground, but was already stained with dried blood.

The breeze blowing beneath the trees was now gusty, and had dropped the temperature outside by a few degrees. Joe felt his body shiver involuntarily, but the change in weather wasn't the only cause. These men that were holding him were ruthless and would use any method to achieve their wicked intentions.

The two men could see that Thomas was taunting the boy and driving his obedience by using fear and intimidation. "We will have to be on our toes now," Griffiths said with a laugh.

Although Joe was scared about his fate with these men, his anger began to surface at his forced captivity. His body was hurting, and he was trussed up with no way of escaping. He stared back at Thomas with defiance in his green eyes.

Butch watched the sudden change with interest. The boy had shown fear, but now he was attempting to challenge his authority. "Well now, do I see a spark of rebellion?"

Thomas stared intently back, "You listen and heed me well boy," he said with a foreboding tone. "I can see the questions that you want to ask written across your face. Who we are and what he are going to do with you."

"Don't ask too many questions, and you might live through this. You will get told what I want you to know, no more, no less," he gave in explanation. "For now we want your Pa and brothers to sit up and take note. After they do what we tell them to do, you might be allowed to return to them."

Somehow the words sounded very disingenuous to Joe, as he looked at the features of his captors worn faces. They hardly looked like the type of men who kept their word to anyone.

The sunlight caught the edge of the blade that Thomas was still holding. "Hold out his right arm."

Joe fought against Pierce again and tried to keep his arm tucked into his side, but a swift punch to his unprotected stomach, made him gasp out loud and bend over at the waist. Pierce was able to extend his arm out in front of him, and use the bulk of his weight to push Joe back more against the trunk of the tree.

"You may feel this just a touch," Butch warned with a cruel laugh. Using the tip of the sharp knife, he started at the inside of Joe's elbow, and dragged the edge along the soft underside of his arm. Joe shrieked and wreathed in pain through the gag with fresh tears welling in his eyes and then running down his face. The cut was shallow enough that it wouldn't require stitching, but it had definitely hurt a lot. Blood was welling along the length of the wound. A few droplets had fallen off his arm onto the leaves scattered at the base of the tree and their feet.

Pierce had strengthened his grip around the boy's waist, feeling his knees begin to weaken. The boy had clenched his teeth and was using all of his energy reserves to fight against the onslaught of light-headedness.

Joe was only able to take in part of the conversation from Butch about the reason behind cutting his arm, and taking his jacket. "You see, I need to prove to your family that you are still alive," he commented casually, taking the blue jacket and proceeding to run it across the fresh blood, allowing it to soak into the fabric. "Proof of life I think they have called it in other places."

"There, that will do nicely," Thomas declared, holding the jacket up to see that the front had been sufficiently stained red in a number of places. "I have to provide the right incentive for your family to do what they are told."

Thomas now agreed that they had stayed in the one place far too long, and they needed to complete the final part of their plan for leaving. He looked at the boy, and could see that he was much more docile and pliant. The knife wound and jacket stunt may have been a little over the top, but it was mostly for show. Not only would it make the boy comply, it would ensure that the Cartwright family, all of them understood that he meant business.

"Now my little friend, it is time for you to go to sleep for a while," Thomas declared, pulling out a brown bottle and a coloured handkerchief from his pocket. "And when you wake up, you will be in a nice new place far away from here. Now hold still a minute, because this stuff doesn't always work instantly and takes a minute to take effect."

As soon as the cap had been removed from the bottle and the cloth had been soaked liberally in the liquid, the pungent smell was unmistakeable. Ether

Even though Joe was only fifteen years old, he had learnt enough from Doc Martin over the years to know what the stuff was used for on people. And he knew what the outcome would be for him. Little Joe became even more afraid for his life and started to struggle against his captors again.

Joe gave one final burst of energy that he could muster to fight with and use to get away. Using both bound feet, he kicked out awkwardly at an unsuspecting Griffiths. His efforts were rewarded when Danny howled out loudly with discomfort and anger. The attacker reached down, grabbing at his foot where the boy's feet had made contact.

Griffiths was clearly very unhappy, and riled enough to want to extract an immediate chunk of pain and retribution from his younger assailant.

Thomas had let go a laugh at the boy's brazenness. "Don't worry about that now, you can get your payback against him later. He got you fair and square. Gather up his hat from down there, and take this jacket over to his horse."

Turning back to Joe, "You have some grit about you boy, but for now that won't do you any good," he chuckled as he slowly started descending the cloth towards his face.

Joe tried to turn his head in the opposite direction, away from the cloth in and attempt to avoid the intoxicating fumes. Pierce grabbed another handful of Joe's curly hair forcibly, and pushed his face closer. He could hear the three men laughing with relish at his plight and misery.

Despite the gag still being in position, Thomas held the cloth over Little Joe's mouth and nose. He bucked his hips and upper body forward, but he had no strength left to give, and his efforts to resist were futile. His groans of pain and cries for help were muffled and barely audible for anybody to hear him.

For a few seconds, Joe had tried holding his breath, but with only being able to breathe through his nose, his attempts failed. He was forced to released the air in his burning lungs and the sweet smelling aroma began invading his nostrils and sinuses. Joe could feel his head starting to swim very badly and he was feeling dizzy and light-headed. He was trying to keep a coherent thought and tell himself that he couldn't afford to fall asleep in the hands of these men. They were going to take him away from his home and family.

Thomas became impatient with the length of time that the stuff was taking to work and pressed the cloth even firmer against the boy's mouth and nose. It wasn't much longer that Pierce began to feel the kid's desperate struggles become weaker and weaker. Another few moments and they ceased entirely and he felt Joe's knees buckle and his body go completely limp. He had to adjust his hold around the boy's waist to prevent him collapsing to the ground.

Joe was now unconscious and totally unaware of what was happening to him. Butch held the cloth in place for another minute before removing it. From previous usage, he knew that the liquid was potent, but it only worked for relatively short periods of time. Recapping the bottle and placing it back in his pocket, he folded the cloth over. He tucked it in the same pocket, wanting to prevent and minimise any risk of being overcome by the fumes. It may be necessary to dose the kid again before they reached their final destination.

Once he had sobered up enough, Richards told them about a line shack he had learned about on Ponderosa land from living with the other hands in the bunkhouse. One that was located further out than the others but was usually kept well stocked up during winter. They could go there, some distance away and the Cartwright family wouldn't think to look for the missing boy there. They would be able to keep him there as a prisoner until the bid for the timber contract had been withdrawn. After that, the boy wouldn't be released until a substantial amount of ransom money had been delivered into their hands.

The ride to the shack from the road they were on was about four hours and Thomas had no idea how long the boy would be asleep. The boy's eyes were closed and his face had slackened, but he slapped Joe across the side of his face with an open hand twice to ensure he was unconscious.

Joe was deeply under the effects and didn't make a sound or stir at the slaps. Butch removed the bandana from around his own neck, and tied it securely over Joe's eyes as a blindfold.

"Get a piece of string and start tying his hands together," Thomas instructed Griffiths. "Then drag him over towards the front of my horse."

Joe never felt his wrists being held tightly and bound with tough fibrous string in front of him. The man failed to notice the discarded and blood stained bandage that had landed at the base of the tree.

Together, Pierce and Griffiths carried the limp figure between them over to a large grey mount. Thomas was seated astride his horse, and the two men tied the boy face down in front of him. He would be able to detect if the boy was waking up or trying to get loose at any stage of the journey. A blanket was placed over the top of Joe and there was no possibility of him being seen by anybody.

"Make sure that you attach that ransom note I prepared onto his saddle so there is no chance of being lost to the breeze. Leave the hat and the jacket where they won't be missed."

Pierce was mounted and ready to leave whilst Griffiths carried out the final instructions. The rolled up piece of paper was tucked underneath the front of the saddle, where it couldn't be shaken loose by the horse.

Cochise made a noise of displeasure, not liking the stranger being so close to her again. Looking at the nice leather saddle bags, Danny made a last minute decision to pilfer them for himself as a souvenir. Griffiths detached them and they were quickly removed from the horse. Chances were in his favour, and the boy wasn't going to be needing them again anyway.

Frank Richards rejoined the others as they rode out from beneath the thicket of trees. Four men rode with speed down a different trail with their hostage, further and further away from the Ponderosa.

To be continued …...

Author Notes - There are some clues in this chapter for other stories and plots. The scene where Adam is talking about six months ago and the words exchanged between Joe and Adam is a future story called Splintered.

The scenes mentioning Dan Toliver, are hinting at the rewrite of the episode "A Time To Step Down" that I intend to do a what happened instead story for "A Time To Step Up"

The mention of Joe's ability to draw is something that I have created for stories before this one, and will come up again in those. It is one of the new arcs that I wanted to introduce, but there is more to be explained yet in detail. Some of that will happen in Dead Man's Canyon. And the reasons why they are now stored in a wardrobe will be explained further in a future story Koda

The dime store novel thought from Ben, is a nod to the episode Joe Cartwright, Detectivewhere I wanted to explore where his like of such reading material began. Another story to come in the future.

A new chapter for River Boat Gambler has already been started and progressing nicely. Hoping to update that soon.

Thank you for reading and I would love to hear what you think about the new additions.

Need to go back under the ocean now and complete the next chapter for that fandom and a few others.