Welcome Readers and Visitors

Welcome to my page and the stories that I have written.

Writing for me is an escape from the real world and where I get to decide what happens to the characters.

I hope that as readers make their way through each chapter, they are drawn in and feel a connection with each of them.

Whilst I try to keep true to the original character as they were portrayed, I do bring my own influences, experiences and imagination into every one of my stories.  Some may depict certain scenes, others may show only a portion and give a possible alternative or different ending.

Please use the menu to the side to navigate my pages.

I have split them up into main categories for each different fandom and then separately for each story.

Chapters have been used to help, some are shorter, others longer and more involved, depending on the story.

Some stories are works in progress and will be updated as time allows.  There are many new stories that are planned out and have a synopsis.

Please subscribe so that you can be notified when this happens and don’t miss out on any of the action or drama as it unfolds.

Chapter Three – A New Plan Hatched

STOWAWAYS

By Jules 6

A SeaQuest story – Ben Krieg has hatched a new plan to try and make it up to everybody on-board for his earlier mistakes. The original title probably doesn’t suit the new chapters, but I decided to tie them in together. I am writing this out of order for the new time line.

Author Notes – I was going to write a new story, but instead added it onto what you have already read. There will be a few occasions throughout a couple of my stories after “Please Tell Someone” that has to do with Lucas experiencing headaches or migraines.

Most of the time any headache or migraine Lucas experiences will have a specific reason for the plot to that story, but there will a few scattered times where they are random and have no identifiable cause. This is all leading to a much later story “A Second Opinion” which will give a definitive answer, but it is not anything like cancer or brain tumours or any such other causes. Something new and totally different, and a few clues are already planted in place in “Please Tell Someone”.

This story is set two years after the events starting in Please Tell Someone so Lucas is a lot more comfortable around the crew and is currently sixteen years old. The adoption between him and Bridger has happened by this time. The origins for Krieg’s nickname of ‘Junior’ on very rare occasions will become known through other stories. And Ben is the only one Lucas will tolerate calling him that nickname and it is fairly infrequent.

The sensitivity to some specific types of medications and their ingredients that is mentioned for Lucas in this chapter, will be introduced and addressed a little more in the earlier chapters currently being written for the new and unpublished story “The Green Pen” and a few other follow up stories as to what that exactly entails. By the time of this story, it is an accepted fact for his medical history.

The story of the respiratory illness that Lucas has been suffering from will be part of the plot for an upcoming story A Packed Suitcase, yet to be written. Another new story yet to come called “The Accident” will follow on from this story. The mention of Lucas losing his voice will be explored more in another story set directly before and leading into A Packed Suitcase to be called A Silent Voice.

As I continue to fix older stories, there is always plotting afoot for new stories in the background.

I know a few people liked the last couple of chapters, so hopefully someone out there is still reading this new material.

Chapter Three – A New Plan Hatched

With the exception of Lieutenant Krieg, the remaining crew members who had found themselves caught up in the debacle that saw Lucas misplaced for several hours were currently standing in the launch bay area.

The time was approximately six a.m. in the morning, and the announcement had come over the loud speaker about the arrival of the launch carrying the new scientific personnel, their luggage and equipment.

As a myriad of new faces started to pour out of the now opened sea launch doors, the crew members stood ready to assist as instructed. All of them had had very little sleep in the last several hours and would rather be in their own quarters doing just that. None of them were looking forward to more of the wrath of Doctor Kristin Westphalen.

Commander Ford had other crew members assigned and standing by ready to help with unloading luggage, stores and the new passengers, having a little empathy for the men standing nearby.

Captain Bridger was waiting impatiently as well for a totally different reason, waiting to see for himself that Lucas was alright as Kristin had assured him.

Commander, have everybody gather in one of the science labs so that they can be assigned their sleeping quarters. I am sure that Doctor Westphalen is going to want to talk to them all as a group before allowing them to disperse throughout the vessel too much,” Bridger instructed his Second-in-Command.

Aye, Sir,” Ford agreed readily.

The guilt that some of the men carried about Lucas was only renewed when they could hear his hoarse voice before being able to see him. By the time he emerged from the launch bay area, walking with Kristin at his side, they could see for themselves how tired he looked.

The baseball shirt he was wearing had several different stains marring the fabric, and the garment had seen better days. “I want to have a shower first, please, before I agree to doing anything else,” came the croaky pleading from the teenager.

Bridger came up to the doctor and his young charge, very pleased to see him, but not the state he was in. He held back from embarrassing the boy in front of the other crew members and new staff members. Giving him a family embrace would have to wait until they were in a less public place.

Hi,” was the only cautious greeting Lucas gave him, realising that the Captain was probably looking to chew him out about leaving the SeaQuest.

Nathan had to be satisfied with putting a hand on his shoulder for the moment. But the teenager openly objected to even that, pulling away from the Captain’s supportive hand.

You might want to wait until after I have had a shower, the clothes I have on are a write off,” he said glumly. By the time he finished speaking, he was rubbing at his throat, indicating how raw it felt.

I need some water; it feels like a thousand little nails are stabbing my throat.”

Kristin’s temper appeared to have cooled considerably as she spoke to Lucas, “I will get you some water for your throat, and take a look at it, once you have had your shower,” giving in a little to his request. It had not been a fun experience riding back in the launch for him.

Lucas groaned out loud at the pain in his head as his headache spiked again, closing his eyes briefly and trying to turn his face in any direction away from the bright lights that were flooding the launch bay area.

The lights are too bright in here,” he grumbled in complaint, being forced to open them again, squinting and turning his face away in the opposite direction of the strong illumination. His eyes were bloodshot and displayed his level of tiredness.

Doctor Westphalen, I have arranged for your new staff to all meet in one of the science labs together,” Ford informed her. “I am sure you will be wanting to talk to them just as soon as you are ready,” repeating what the Captain had already pre-empted.

Thank you, Commander Ford, my new assistant, Annette, will be able to fill in for me until I get down there. Most of the new faces will be familiar enough with her,” Kristin replied.

Some of the new scientific staff were still filing past, down the corridor and heading away from the launch bay.

It should be a crime to be awake and that happy this early in the morning,” Lucas grouched, regretting he had spoken again with his inflamed throat. His headache was still very much present and growing more bothersome by the second.

From where he was standing, Lucas spotted Miguel and Tim standing off to the side. Both of them were dressed in their usual U.E.O. uniforms. They also looked a little tired.

What happened to you guys?” the teenager asked plainly, walking over to them, “I was waiting for ages outside that convenience store like I told you I was going to do.”

We went looking for you we promise, Lucas,” Tim began speaking first, not sure how much he should be revealing right now. “We had a few problems inside the store that took longer than we anticipated.”

You guys just ditched me and left,” Lucas said with a small amount of annoyance creeping in. “I had no way of getting back here to SeaQuest or even knowing where any of you went to.”

Miguel wanted to say something in their defence, but held back for a minute as the teenager continued to relay his whole sentiment about the misguided adventure. They could understand how he felt not knowing all of the details yet, but they had tried to find him before the bar-room incident.

Wait until I find Krieg,” Lucas added, and immediately started looking about the faces around the moon pool for his best friend, the missing-in-action morale officer.

I think any explanations of what went on last night can wait until you have had your shower and I have seen you down in med-bay,” Kristin suggested. Neither she or Lucas had heard the full version yet, but it could wait.

I want you to limit using your voice for the next few hours and maybe tomorrow to give your throat the chance to recover a little more,” the doctor said to him. “Otherwise you will risk losing your voice entirely again just like you did the last time. And I am sure you don’t want to repeat that couple of weeks.”

Lucas let out a wince of pain from his headache, rubbing at his temple with his fingertips, but then forced to swallow harshly and move his hand to his neck, trying to indicate how sore his throat was becoming again. Unfortunately he was inadvertently signalling how poorly he was starting to feel overall to her as well, nodding reluctantly and heeding her warning.

Commander Ford spoke to Kristin, “Doctor, I sent Lieutenant Krieg down to med-bay not long before you arrived. He should be waiting for you when you get down there.”

Something happened to Ben?” came the immediate question laced with concern from Lucas looking at O’Neill and Ortiz for an answer, forgetting about his own pain for a moment at hearing Ford’s statement. “Why didn’t anybody tell me there was a problem when we first arrived?”

Ford was kicking himself a little, looking at the Captain with an unspoken apology, knowing he should have spoken to the doctor quietly to one side away from Lucas first. It was no secret on-board SeaQuest that Ben Krieg was always looking out for the teenager’s best interests when they were together anywhere. It could also be argued that Lucas’ own loyalty could be just as strong as their friendship had continued to grow over the last couple of years. And Krieg wasn’t usually sick or hurt that often, which drew his attention even more.

You can see him for yourself when you arrive down there after your shower,” Kristin assured the worried teenager. She had not known that the Lieutenant had been injured either before now when she had been berating them over the video-link.

Use the Captain’s quarters if you like, but Nathan stay with him outside the shower, he still has some of that medication in his system,” she warned, not wanting to voice her concerns out loud about his earlier unsteadiness. “You can bring him back down to me in med-bay when he is finished to see to the cuts on his fingers.”

I will be totally fine on my own, I don’t need anyone to babysit me or to take me there afterwards,” Lucas objected, his croaky voice betraying him again as he spoke and not helping his declaration. His agreement to restrict the use of his voice broken already, but understandable given what he had just found out.

Come on, let’s do what Kristin asks and go from there,” Bridger negotiated, seeing and hearing that the teenager was less than well himself and needing some of the doctor’s brand of care.

Lucas started walking off away from the moon pool area with the encouragement of the Captain, still rubbing at his throat, “I want to know what happened to Ben?”


Once they had reached Bridger’s quarters, the teenager went about collecting a fresh set of clothes, and headed for the shower. He kept a few sets there now on a regular basis apart from his own cabin.

Bridger had taken up sitting on the couch while he waited for Lucas to take his shower. Thirty minutes later, he emerged with the fresh clothes on, using a towel to dry his hair, but making a face at the discomfort from his headache. The steam from his hot shower had done nothing to alleviate it, but rather had caused it to come to life more.

Starting to feel a little more like yourself again?” the Captain asked, but he could see the redness of his eyes and lethargic posture to answer his own question.

No, not really,” Lucas admitted, rubbing at his throat again, before tossing the towel aside.

It is good to have you back safe again and mostly in one piece,” Bridger declared, standing up and surprising the teenager with a heartfelt embrace that he had been wanting to give him when he first arrived back.

Lucas accepting and returning the gesture, “You weren’t too worried about me now were you?” he poked in fun for a moment, adding a smile. But one look at the Captain’s face and noting the spontaneous display of affection told him otherwise.

You were,” he pointed out with the simple statement, his smile fading.

No matter how many times it still happened, he was secretly grateful that someone was in his life who did that now. With both of them now comfortable and relaxed in each others company, it was still such a nice feeling to have someone show that they cared that much about him. On the odd occasion Lucas still needed to pinch and remind himself that it wasn’t all a dream.

You didn’t totally freak out did you?” knowing from previous experience that the Captain tended to get more than over-protective at times.

If he wanted to give himself any credit about knowing the man he was talking to at all, or learning anything about him in the past two years, he should have known how things would have turned out. Bridger could be known to be bordering on obsessive at times about knowing where he was, if he was in good spirits and if he was taking care of himself, even when he was on-board the vessel.

Some of the other crew members could be called out on doing the same thing from the Captain cues. And it wasn’t completely unheard of for Bridger to rope them into carrying out surveillance on his behalf so Lucas himself wouldn’t get suspicious. But most days the teenager prided himself with being able to tell what they were up to.

Lucas guessed that such tactics came from everything that the two of them had been through and weathered together, and he couldn’t be too critical when he thought of how bad some of the outcomes could have ended up from the past.

But then he answered his own question without needing to use his croaky voice. ‘Who am I kidding’ he silently admonished himself.

Bridger had suddenly found the carpet on the floor to his own cabin more interesting than wanting to be honest about just how much he had indeed ‘freaked out’.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to leave without telling you,” he offered as a poor excuse. “I just didn’t think head and it seemed like a good idea at the time when Ben first asked me. But then it started turning into nothing but an afternoon and evening to forget. I was only planning on getting some food and some fresh air.”

Commander Ford organized a search party with the security guards for you at the base on the mainland once we realised you were missing and had not made it back to the launch,” Bridger informed him, deciding he deserved to know.

A search party!” Lucas said in complete shock, thinking that such a move was going a little overboard. More guilt was starting to set in about causing anybody enough worry about his whereabouts. “I am sorry that you had to send other people out looking for me. Kristin knew where I was eventually, but I didn’t have any way of contacting anybody else before that.”

They couldn’t find you at first either. You were gone for over nine hours, and I didn’t even find out myself that you were with Ben until after 3a.m. this morning, when the others arrived back on-board. I thought you were still in your cabin sleeping. So did Jonathan.”

I wanted to go out and start searching for you myself, but there wasn’t any spare launches left to leave here,” the Captain told him, wanting to make it absolutely clear that he would always put aside anything else less important until he knew the boy was safe and sound.

I was with Miguel, Tim and Ben for the most part,” the teenager interjected, not realising just how long he had been absent until it was pointed out to him, “You usually don’t have a problem with me being in their company.” He had never intentionally wanted the Captain to worry about him so much.

And I wouldn’t have had one this time, except for a few small little details,” Bridger replied.

With his headache still throbbing, Lucas was waiting for the Captain to tell him what the answer was, because his brain wasn’t really switched on at the moment.

Commander Ford didn’t know about Tim O’Neill being roped in at the last minute and going on your little impromptu jaunt either. And then to make matters worse, Ben neglected to tell anybody that you were going with them, including myself and Kristin.”

Oh,” was the only response he could think of straight up at that piece of information. Being left to his own devices in his own cabin with very little company for the week, he had been unaware of any of the level of planning that Ben had gone to get the other crew members to accompany them.

He could safely assume that Ford would be chewing out Ben in the foreseeable future as well as the Doctor and the Captain. He would have to make it clear to those involved that he deserved some of the blame as much as Krieg, and wouldn’t let them all take the fall for his own poor choices.

How are the fingers by the way?,” Bridger asked, changing the topic of conversation to other matters. Kristin had told them on the video-link call that she would need to look at them.

Lucas looked down at his hand, almost having forgotten about the cuts from the glass inside the store, casting a critical eye over the marks that they would even need anything. “They will be fine. They were stinging earlier at the store when it first happened, but the bleeding has stopped now.”

Let’s go down to Kristin in med-bay and find out how Ben is doing,” Bridger said in compromise, wanting the doctor to look him over when she could. Mentioning Krieg’s name was more likely to gain the teenager’s co-operation than saying that he wanted the doctor to take a look at him instead.

Guess I have to face the firing squad sometime,” Lucas voiced, knowing Kristin’s fierce reputation at times. Thankfully he had not been on the receiving end of it too often, but it looked like his luck was changing for the worst again today. “I can hear her yelling at me already.”


By the time Bridger and Lucas reached the med-bay area, the Captain could plainly see how much the headache was bothering the teenager. He was almost ready to admit defeat and willingly submit to Kristin’s administrations just to gain some relief. Almost.

Ben Krieg was seated on a chair inside the medical facility, but quickly stood up and was looking over at his friend, incredibly relieved to see him. He didn’t like the pained expression the youth wore though, or the tiredness he could plainly see.

Before Kristin and the Captain could exchange words, the two friends spoke to each other first.

What happened to your face?” Lucas said with fresh concern growing, seeing the darkening bruise on Krieg’s cheek.

Then there was also the dishevelled appearance of his friend, with the torn Hawaiian shirt and the grimaces of pain from that Ben was trying not to draw attention to.

Don’t worry about me. Where did you get to?” Ben asked, frowning as he heard how croaky the kid’s voice was.

Are you alright?” knowing how stupid that sounded as soon as the words had left his mouth. “Someone said you were close to throwing up outside?”

I am fine,” the teenager replied but not elaborating and rubbing at his neck and grimacing, sitting down on one of the beds, lifting his legs up onto it and turning onto his side, demonstrating how “not fine” he was to those in the room.

You can take up residency in that bed beside him, Mr Krieg, now that we have established how bad both you are at admitting the truth,” Kristin instructed.

Lucas, I thought you might be looking for this to help ease your sore throat,” she said, waiting for him to turn over and face her, before sitting up, and then handing him a glass of water. “There are some other soothing remedies I can employ after you have had some more fluids.”

Bridger was standing next to Lucas’s bed, but monitoring what was happening to Ben at the same time. Lucas drank the water, giving an audible sound at the instant but brief relief. His head was throbbing and the coolness of the pillows was very inviting. He laid awake though, watching as Kristin went about talking to Ben.

Any headache present, Mr Krieg?” Kristin asked as she gently examined the bruise.

Yeah, actually there is,” Ben answered ruefully, running his fingers through his short black hair.

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Lucas reluctantly agreed as a secondary comment as his own headache spiked in response.

Kristin, Ben and Bridger all gave a surprised look towards each other at the teenager’s honest and open confession. The boy had missed the exchange between them entirely.

Would you like me to bring you a tray of food?” Kristin asked Ben.

Not unless you want to see it make a sudden reappearance,” Lucas answered, his eyes closing, not realising that the doctor had been talking to the other patient in the room.

Without any further conversation for a moment, Lucas was falling asleep before Kristin could even begin her assessment of him. The teenager already admitting to having a humdinger of a headache, and feeling nauseous.

He already told me he felt like throwing up earlier last night,” Kristin whispered, picked up his left hand and looked carefully at the cuts on his fingers. “As I mentioned, probably only a side-effect of the medication I provided, and not having something in his stomach when he took it.”

The teenager didn’t bother acknowledging what she was doing or even twitch at any of her procedures that involved her caring touch, though he did still frown on more than one occasion at the lingering discomfort. The residual effects from the medication she had left him with were causing the drowsiness to return, but no longer offering any significant decrease in relieving pain.

They look better now than they did a few hours ago, and they won’t need stitching,” she stated, placing small waterproof covers around them to keep them clean and dry. “Back at the lab when I first looked at them, I was concerned there might be some slivers of glass embedded in there, but thankfully that doesn’t seem to be the case either.”

I will keep an eye on his headache for the remainder of the day and check on him again over the next couple of hours,” she said to Bridger, seeing him visibly relax now that the teenager was being taken care of and finally sleeping peacefully where he could see him.

Nathan watched as Kristin laid a light cover over the youth, happy that he was comfortable enough and content to let him rest without further interference. Tomorrow she would recheck his recovery progress from the respiratory infection that had been plaguing him. She had been fairly optimistic with how he was fairing when she had checked him before she had left the vessel, but being outside on such a windy night when he was supposed to be indoors had not done the boy any favours.

When the doctor turned back to address Ben, and to ask if he was wanting any food or needing medication for his own headache, the man had thwarted those efforts, having fallen asleep as well, facing away from them during that short time of tending to Lucas.

Bridger and Kristin both shared a laugh at how alike the two friends could be at odd times without even realising it.

I think they can keep each other company in here for a few hours today, before I release them back to their own cabins,” Kristin commented, taking a second light cover and placing it over Ben’s sleeping form. She doubted that Lucas would want to stay where he was once he was more alert.

I think we could both use a few more hours sleep ourselves today,” Nathan commented, seeing tiredness on the doctor’s face too. She had been keeping long hours herself the past few days with the heavy burden of the new staff coming on-board. The crazy schedule of the day was going to keep both of them busy for the next several hours at least.


For the next two hours, Kristin was kept busy in her science labs helping with the new staff members and conducting the orientation meeting along with her assistant Annette.

The two ladies had finally been able to share a much needed cup of coffee in the small kitchenette before the next task of the day was to be tackled head-on.

Captain Bridger was currently arriving on the Bridge, and looking to give Commander Jonathan Ford a few hours rest until at least lunch time.

Captain, on deck,” came the announcement from the security officer as the dome doors opened and the siren wailed in the background.

Jonathan, you had better alter your duty roster for the remainder of today. Kristin has assessed both Lucas and Mr Krieg, and both are currently sleeping down in med-bay and I don’t expect that we will see either of them making an appearance for work any time soon,” Bridger instructed.

Both of them are sporting headaches, but should be fine a little later. Doctor Westphalen will keep tabs on them throughout the morning,” the Captain added to his report.

I have already pre-empted that a little, Sir, and removed both Krieg and Lucas from today’s duty roster of shifts. Mr O’Neill and Mr Ortiz have also been given time off today to get some extra sleep before their next shifts tomorrow,” Ford told his commanding officer.

You make sure you go and do the same thing now, and you can come back and meet me in the mess hall about lunch time. By that time, I hope Kristin can get some rest herself with the help of her own staff, and I plan on trying to catch up on some myself after checking on our resident computer whiz of course.”

With Commander Hitchcock absent for the next few days, Captain, rather than you and I having to soldier on throughout the day between the two of us, I intend of using a little back-up on the Bridge with your permission?,” Ford commented.

You certainly have my agreement to employ any staff changes you deem are suitable or necessary, Jonathan,” Bridger responded.

This morning is chaotic, but that should soon settle down, before we start our journey back into Pearl in three days time,” Ford surmised.

I will have more information about that for you by lunch time, Commander. Admiral Noyce is due to talk to me whilst I am on duty this morning,” Bridger stated.

Thank you, Sir, I will talk to you more then,” Ford agreed, giving a formal salute and proceeding to walk through the dome doors.


Back down in med-bay, Benjamin Krieg had turned over on the bed, not having remembered falling asleep, and noting that someone had covered him with a blanket. He went to turn over on his back, trying to work out what had awoken him. He listened intently again.

Looking around the room, he recognized that he was still in med-bay. His headache was gone, the bruise on his face, still tender to the touch, and he was missing several hours.

He looked over to the opposite wall, and noted that Lucas was occupying the bed, and currently facing him lying on his side. He heard another sound, and he realised that the noise was coming from his friend. The kid still had his eyes closed as though sleeping, but a sound of discomfort was definitely coming from that direction.

Krieg threw back the cover and got off his own bed, and padded across the tiled floor to the other bed.

Lucas, are you alright buddy?” he whispered, not wanting to wake the kid if he was trying to sleep.

Please make it stop,” came the barely audible plea from the teenager, as he wrapped both hands around the top of his head and groaned a little louder at the pain he was experiencing.

Hang in there, I will go and find someone to help,” Krieg promised.

Kristin had been tending to some slides in laboratory two when she came across Ben in the corridor, heading in her direction. To say she was surprised to see him wandering around was an understatement.

Mr Krieg,” she scolded lightly, “What are you doing out of bed before I have formally released you?”

I came to find you, I woke up and my headache is completely gone.” he started to explain, but concern soon started showing across his face. “Lucas was trying to sleep in the bed on the other side of the room, but he seems to be in a quite a bit of pain. I couldn’t tell what was wrong and wanted to come find you. I did try and find out by talking to him, but he didn’t answer.”

Kristin put aside the clip-board she had been writing on, and both of them quickly made the short distance back to med-bay.

Ben stood at the foot end of the bed, whilst Kristin put a hand on teenager’s shoulder, and spoke very softly to him. She could see the scrunched up expression on his face to indicate his pain level from the headache.

The doctor whispered a few words to him in a question, and Krieg saw the teenager slowly nod at her suggestion. “Stay with him for a minute, I will be right back.”

Kristin returned with some medication and a small glass of apple juice, hoping the drink would also help with his sore throat.

Regular strength Tylenol,” Kristin said to Ben as they both saw the teenager accept the tablets and wash them down. He turned over onto his opposite side and was trying to go back to sleep.

He was complaining about how bad his headache was before he came back on the launch with me. They should help and after a few more hours of sleep, he will be feeling much better,” the doctor informed him. “It must have been bothering him to be willing to admit how bad it was getting and wanting to accept the medication. He didn’t even want me to leave the ones with him that he took last night.

I knew his throat was bothering him some by the time we reached the convenience store, but he never said anything about having a headache,” Krieg remarked.

Are you planning to go back to sleep yourself?” she asked, “You could use some more I am sure. There isn’t much I can do about the bruising on your face except offer some ice.”

No, its fine. Still gives more than a little tickle if I poke it, but other than that, I will survive. I was planning on getting some more sleep, but back in my own cabin, unless you have any further objections?”

Kristin looked him over for a few more seconds, “No objections, but I am holding you to your word about the sleep,” she returned with a smile.

Do you want me to find the Captain and let him know about Lucas?” Krieg enquired as he headed towards the door.

He was going to be tied up on the Bridge for a few more hours, but I am sure he will get away just as soon as he can to visit,” Kristin answered.


The current time was closer to lunch by the time Captain Bridger had left his shift on the Bridge and headed towards the medical area. He was hoping to do two things, firstly get Kristin to take a well earned break and get some sleep if she hadn’t done so already. And secondly, visit Lucas before getting some sleep himself.

Noyce had not contacted them yet as promised about the matters he had spoken to Ford about, but no doubt the Admiral had merely been caught up and would be in touch as soon as he could. There was no rush and plenty of time.

Ford had taken over from the Captain for a few hours, promising to let Bridger know of any developments in his absence.

Nathan found Kristin just outside the science laboratory’s small kitchenette, looking more than a little tired. “I hope you are going to get some rest yourself,” he said with a little worry in his voice.

I was just about to head to the mess hall for a well-earned cup of coffee and some lunch, before I leave everything in the capable hands of my new assistant, Annette,” Kristin informed him with a tired smile.

I just have one more task, and you can join me if you like?” she enquired, knowing the reason why the man had wandered into her area in the first place.

One more?” he questioned, thinking anything else could wait a few hours surely.

I want to check on Lucas again,” she stated, and then saw his expression change to a puzzled one. She had expected him a little earlier and hadn’t informed him yet.

Mr Krieg awoke a couple of hours ago, and offered to inform you,” she began, “The headache Lucas was suffering from when he first arrived back, became worse.”

Worse? Is he alright now?” Nathan immediately asked, heading towards the room he had last seen the teenager sleeping in.

I offered him some medication, and he accepted. He was going back to sleep when I left the room,” Kristin assured him. “Ben promised to go back to his own cabin and rest.”

Upon arriving back in the medical room, the bed the teenager had been occupying was vacant.

Maybe he went back to his own cabin as well?” Nathan commented, knowing from experience that the boy liked his own company rather than being in down in med-bay when he wasn’t feeling well.

Let’s go and check on him, and then get that lunch,” Kristin suggested, speaking briefly to Annette as she left, promising to return after a few hours.

Upon reaching the small cabin located in Mammal Engineering, Bridger knocked out of courtesy, but tried the handle when no answer was received. The door was unlocked, but flicking on the light switch and peering inside, the bunk bed was empty and the teenager’s whereabouts remained a mystery.

I swear I have to keep tabs on that boy every minute…” Kristin started to say in mock anger as the two of them made their way to the next most obvious choice for where he was.

Both of them headed towards cabin A119, and knocked on the door. There was movement coming from inside, so somebody was behind the door.

The door opened, and a bleary eyed, Ben Krieg looked at both of them with confusion, he had swapped his torn Hawaiian shirt for a new one and had a shower himself upon returning from med-bay.

Hey, I was sleeping just like I promised,” he gave as the excuse for his lack-lustre appearance.

I apologise for waking you, Mr Krieg, I wish the same could be said for your wayward friend,” Kristin said, “He didn’t come here to visit you then obviously.”

Lucas?” Ben said, trying to clear his head, and rubbing at his face. “I thought he was still in med-bay with that bad headache?”

He is supposed to be,” the doctor relayed. “I went to check on him just now with Nathan, but he has left med-bay and is not in his own cabin.”

You lead, I will be right behind you,” Ben said, wanting to find the kid too, mumbling about starting to agree with Bridger’s sentiments recently about putting a tracking device on Lucas.


The three concerned adults entered the main entrance to the mess hall, and sighed in relief a little at seeing the missing teenager absconded on his own at one of the far tables.

Behind them, approaching footsteps revealed, Miguel Ortiz and Tim O’Neill who were heading to get lunch themselves.

Afternoon, Captain and Doctor Westphalen,” Tim greeted them.

Our young resident genius was missing for a few minutes,” Bridger informed them. “Kristin said his headache was worse.”

Good to see him trying to eat, at least,” Ben whispered, as the group made their way to join the teenager. Although better than it had been two years ago, it was still one issue that had not changed significantly for the better.

As they neared the table, they were able to see for themselves that the teenager was focusing more on keeping himself awake, rather than looking up at anybody in front of him.

Lucas,” Bridger said quietly, sitting on the bench seat beside him, and trying to gain his attention.

Oh, Hi,” Lucas greeted his new found audience, looking up and surprised at see more than one person. “What are you all doing in here?”

Some of us were looking for you,” Kristin scolded lightly, sitting down herself on the opposite side of the table. “Has your headache eased at all?” she asked, watching his facial expressions in case he was trying to mask anything from her.

Ben, Miguel and Tim took up a seat each on the other side of the table as well.

A little, but not a lot,” the teenager admitted, rubbing at his temple to emphasis the comment. “Throat is not as sore at the moment thought, which is a good thing. And I don’t feel like I want to throw up now. I thought the food and having something in my stomach might help.”

Your voice sounds a whole lot better than it did before,” Bridger agreed in response, noting that it didn’t sound croaky as the teenager spoke.

Kristin picked up the tub that Lucas had in front of him, eyeing his lunch choice with a questioning look. “Vanilla ice-cream?”

It doesn’t hurt going down, and it isn’t soup,” Lucas pointed out, not wanting to justify his choice of food.

He had only awoken twenty minutes ago, and wasn’t looking to engage in any meaningful conversation until his headache had gone away completely. But judging by the number of people now gathered at the table around him, that probably wasn’t likely to happen.

Feeling better, Ben?” Lucas asked, his friend seated directly across from him, the bruise having darkened over the last couple of hours, and standing out prominently.

Much better,” Krieg answered, “Just need a bit more shut-eye,” he complained. “Like everybody at this table, I can see.”

Bridger could see Lucas rubbing at his forehead, noting that the teenager had done so on a few occasions since they had joined him at the table.

Do you know where your headache came from?” he said, his voice laced with fresh worry.

No, but every little noise or sound is echoing inside my brain like it is being amplified tenfold,” Lucas complained. “I haven’t had a headache this bad very often before,” he admitted to Kristin.

The spoon there that Miguel is stirring his coffee with as it hits the side of the mug,” he added, Ortiz immediately stopping the action and giving an apology.

Ben shuffled about on the chair he was sitting on, “The sound of a chair scraping on the floor,” the teenager bemoaned as he put the lid on the ice-cream container, signalling that he had eaten what he wanted for now.


The sound of footsteps approaching them, saw Commander Jonathan Ford joining the group.

Good Afternoon, Captain, everybody,” the dark-skinned man greeted them.

Jonathan, I didn’t expect to see you here just yet?” Bridger questioned, thinking that his second-in-command had been taking over from him.

Well Sir, with Katie still away and us being a little short-handed on the Bridge between yourself and I, today is the best time to put my new training into place for someone who is trying to get a little experience and climb the officer ladder.”

Oh, that is what you were talking about earlier when we spoke,” the Captain answered with approval of the measures put into place, “Who did you start with?”

Lucas was trying to keep track of the conversation between Bridger and Ford, but after hearing Katie’s name mentioned, he could see the strained look that briefly crossed Ben’s face. There was genuine regret there about something, but about what he didn’t know. He would have to talk to his friend later on when nobody else was about to find out.

Lucas had tried to broach the subject with Ben briefly another day about what was bothering him, but his friend only mumbled something about her currently being away. It was clear that Ben knew a little more to the story than that, but the teenager respected his friend’s privacy, and recognized that it was something he didn’t want to talk about.

I decided to start with someone the regular crew is a little more familiar with, Sir,” Ford informed the Captain. “Wayne Watkins is the most senior person next to Commander Hitchcock, and has been patiently waiting for his chance.”

Watkins has been on the Bridge for some time and knows the protocols and procedures, but has not actually taken full control without supervision by one of us before,” Ortiz spoke up, “His style is a little different to both you Commander Ford, and Katie Hitchcock.”

He is, but hopefully it will give both the Captain and I the chance to recharge for a few hours,” Jonathan commented.

Lucas hadn’t said anything during this exchange, nor had Tim O’Neill.

Keep me informed on his progress, Jonathan,” Nathan requested.

Now that the formalities were over, Commander Ford looked about the table, trying to assess everybody’s mood and well being. He wasn’t entirely impressed by what he could see in front of him.

How are you feeling Tim and Miguel?” he asked casually, starting with those he was sitting closest to.

Needing sleep, Commander,” Tim answered truthfully, with Ortiz nodding in agreement. But at least neither of them were suffering from any injuries.

Krieg over there looks like he went a few rounds with a prize fighter in a boxing ring. The Captain and Doctor Westphalen both look like they could use some much needed sleep themselves as well. Lucas sitting at the end of the table there is sporting a bad headache,” O’Neill offered in assessment of those present.

Despite his own discomfort, Lucas couldn’t help but keep looking back at his friend Ben’s face, the guilt showing clearly on his own tired features.

Finally he couldn’t just sit and not ask the question, the silence that was enveloping everybody was grinding on his last nerve. “Are you going to tell me what happened or do I just have to guess?” addressing the question to Krieg.

Ben looked over at his teenage friend and then glanced at Bridger and Ford, trying to decide for himself how much to reveal. But he ended up making the choice of being completely honest. His friendship with Lucas from the start had been built on that foundation and he wasn’t about to change anything about that now.

The Captain and Commander Ford both seemed indifferent about how much to tell the boy, and they had yet to hear his version of events after exiting the store, so perhaps that is where they should start.

I am yet to hear much of anything about this little journey any of you took,” Kristin pointed out matter-of-factly, crossing her arms in a no-nonsense pose and looking at the faces around the table. “Anybody want to go first?”

Lucas turned his attention back to the table, swallowing and feeling her eyes on him and expecting him to start. He looked from Kristin then turned to look at the Captain, seeing the expectant look on their faces. He shrugged his shoulders a little resigning himself to telling them what had happened from his perspective.

After you left my cabin, the Captain did come and visit me too,” Lucas began, looking over at the doctor as he spoke. “I was still feeling lousy as you know, and by the time he left, was looking to spend a little time somewhere other than within those four walls. And to see some other faces for a while.”

Kristin was trying to keep her expression composed, but hearing his statement about feeling lonely, wasn’t helping that endeavour. She realised that he was willing to shoulder the blame away from Nathan.

The Captain said I should be getting something to eat, but during the last week, everything had been tasting like nothing but cardboard, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of any more soup again,” he continued. “When Ben came along and offered to take me up-world to get something to eat, I didn’t need much convincing.”

Ben wanted to add some explanation as well, but held off, letting his friend tell his version without interruption first. He could always embellish afterwards if needed. He hadn’t realised that being cooped up in his cabin for more than a week had been driving him a little stir-crazy. He wish the kid had of spoken up sooner, and he could have done something about his boredom.

By the time I followed Ben onto the launch, my head was just aching. I saw Miguel and Tim on-board, but didn’t question if either of them were supposed to be there or not.”

We arrived on the mainland without incident, and Ben said that he had someone arranged to pick us up,” Lucas stated.

This time around, Ben did interject into the conversation, “I was going to take you all to my Dad’s diner.”

The one you have been talking to me about for a few months?” Lucas enquired.

You know about this place, Lucas?” Miguel asked. The first any of them had heard about it was when Ben was standing by the moon pool giving his version of events to the Captain.

The rest of the crew at the table were surprised, but told themselves that they probably shouldn’t have been. Ben had often been Lucas’s confidante in the past about a whole host of matters, and it seemed that at least on this occasion, the premise was being reversed, and Lucas had kept some things shared from Krieg to himself.

Yeah, Ben told me about it, and how his Dad wants him to take over one day,” Lucas replied, glancing over apologetically at Krieg. Ben waved a casual hand gesture back at him to signal that there was no hard feelings about it being out in the open now for others to know.

Kristin was getting a little lost, this being the first time she had heard anything about Ben’s family or them owning any kind of food establishment.

I will tell you later,” Nathan promised, trying not to interrupt the teenager’s train of thought too much.

I still aim to take you all there one day,” Ben said good-naturedly, and meaning to do just that as soon as time allowed.

Next time I will not be going with Barry,” Lucas emphasised, annoyance creeping into his voice, and he rubbed at his head as his headache throbbed as a result. “I don’t care how we get there.”

Barry?” Kristin now prompted, seeing that his mood had changed very quickly.

The doctor wanted to know the reason for it. Vaguely she remembered Lucas mentioning something about a driver when he had turned up in the company of the security guards outside the research facility. At the time she had been more stunned and concerned about his own appearance at the time rather than who he was speaking about.

Lucas slumped a little more down in posture, and his face took on a very sullen expression as he recalled what the guy had said. It still bothered him, no matter how much he tried to deny it. And it bothered him more that he wasn’t able to block it out like others would have him believe after the length of time that had elapsed.

Nathan put a comforting hand on the teenager’s shoulder, having heard what the taxi-driver had inferred, knowing how any references to his father would have been received.

When it was clear that the teenager wasn’t going to repeat what had happened, Ben stepped in to explain what had happened to the doctor.

Barry wasn’t the regular taxi-driver, but wasn’t one of the most charming of personalities. He is ex-marine, and his cab was like a local sewer. He found out about us being sub-mariners and started making jokes at our expense. That part wasn’t a problem, and our resident genius here soon put him in his place with a few choice words of his own, defending us. But then the guy started in on Lucas, and made some wild, hurtful accusations.”

Lucas was almost ready to leave the table and bolt, but stayed at Nathan’s insistence, but kept his gaze focused upon the table. He knew that the teenager didn’t want to hear the driver’s words again.

With Lucas’s eyes fixated on the table in front of him, Bridger looked over at Kristin and silently mouth the name, Lawrence to inform her of the subject causing the teenager’s sudden mood swing. The man’s name had not been said out loud, but knew the doctor was smart enough to draw her own conclusions and understand what had occurred.

Kristin was able to lip-read fairly well, and her expression softened towards Lucas, but inwardly wanted to kick something hard on his behalf.

I let him get to me when I shouldn’t have,” Lucas said, looking up and apologising to the crew members who had been in the car with him. “I wasn’t really thinking straight when I tried opening the door and getting out of the car whilst it was still moving.”

Kristin almost gasped out loud at that statement, looking over at Nathan first, and then at Ben who displayed fearfully, and nodded in confirmation that it was the truth.


The next thing we know is that we are all standing on the road, after being dumped there, and have to make our way on foot for a while,” Ben continued where Lucas had left off. “There was civilisation somewhere nearby, we just had to find it.”

The efforts that Ben had made to negotiate with Lucas and preventing him from wandering away on his own were left out.

We didn’t have to walk too far before stumbling across a few shops and businesses, but most of them were closed,” Miguel added. “The first place we found open was the convenience store.”

Everything was fine in there at first, we were all in there looking at various things,” Ben recounted. “Lucas went to buy water at the counter.”

I still owe you for the water, by the way,” Lucas confessed. “I am sorry it slipped my mind and I forgot to bring my wallet.”

These nice girls come into the store, but our young friend here choked big time at a chance to score himself a date or a phone number. All he got for his efforts was a fleeting glance of concern, and a coughing fit,” Ben said, much to Lucas’s embarrassment.

It was you that was more interested than me, my throat was feeling too sore then to talk to them anyway,” Lucas shot back, his mood improving slightly. “I went looking for the good food you promised me, but there was only vending machines, and none of them had anything that was worth sampling. And I didn’t have any money anyway, so gave up on the idea of gaining food.”

At least Lucas would have only been attempting to say hello, and wasn’t trying to spy on those girls like you and Miguel were, Krieg,” Tim O’Neill pointed out.

Spying on them?” Bridger questioned, with a look of disapproval from anyone under his command, on or off-duty. He wanted more of an explanation for this, as some of it had been left out of the earlier report he and Jonathan had received.

Miguel and Krieg had the good sense to look contrite at their Captain’s disappointment in their behaviour. Boys will be boys as someone would probably tell him, but that didn’t let them off the hook.

I just wanted to know what they were doing,” Tim said to the people gathered at the table. “They were looking through the gaps in the shelves and trying to work out what to say to the girls to get their attention.”

Then you went and wrecked it for us by getting cold feet,” Ben pointed out, only to earn himself a dark look from Kristin at his antics.

I walked out of that aisle and turned around the corner, but didn’t realise that Lucas was approaching from the opposite direction. For a few minutes, I guess we all lost track of where he was even in the store,” Tim admitted. “Lucas and I didn’t see each other until it was too late and both of us crashed into each other and ended up sprawled on the floor.”

I tried to steady myself, but some of the larger glass jars were bumped off the higher shelves, and smashed onto the floor around us,” Lucas continued. “That was where I got the cuts to my fingers, I was trying to catch them before they broke, but couldn’t save them. The liquid stuff stank and was slippery.”

The smell was definitely offensive and powerful,” O’Neill agreed, knowing that the clothes he had been wearing were soaked in the contents as well.

You didn’t tell anybody you cut your hands from the glass when we came running and checking if anybody was hurt,” Ben scolded, “You said you were leaving the store and would be waiting outside.”

Yeah, well by then my headache had grown to monstrous levels, and my throat was killing me, and I just didn’t want to be there any more,” Lucas admitted petulantly. “I should have told you that at the time I guess, but I just wanted out of there. The whole afternoon had ended up a waste from start to finish.”

I left because I was tired, and my head was hurting too much, and I just wanted to make our way to the launch and back to SeaQuest.”

I wanted to follow you outside because I knew something wasn’t quite right, but the store owner was intent on keeping the rest of us inside until the damages were assessed and paid for,” Ben commented. “The girls must have left by that time as well, and headed over to Molly’s Palace.”

By the time we were allowed out of the store, it was dark and the breeze had picked up considerably,” Miguel interjected. “We tried to get the store owner to let us back in to contact someone from there to help find you, but the guy wouldn’t even hear us out.”

Molly’s Palace?” Lucas questioned, this was the first time he heard mention of the place.

A bar owned by the equally charming Carla. She and Barry would be the best of friends,” Ben quipped, giving a first-hand account of her acid tongue and overall sour disposition.

I couldn’t get the stench off my clothes, and my stomach was starting to feel more than a little queasy without any food in it. I thought I was going to throw up, so I tried to find the nearest bathroom,” Lucas said, explaining where he had gone after exiting the doors to the convenience store.

When I got back, I waited and waited, but nobody was coming out. By then the doors were locked and the shutters had been pulled down, so I thought you guys had ditched me, and headed back to the launch.”

I walked back where we had travelled with the taxi-cab. When I finally made it back to the base, there was nobody about because of the time, but as I was crossing the lawn section, the automatic sprinklers sprang into life, and I was drenched from head to toe. I had no way of knowing where you guys were, I was soaked to the skin, and no way of contacting the SeaQuest, so I sat down on the little bench feeling pretty miserable about everything.”

I was sitting there shivering from being wet, not heeding what you said about bringing a jacket, when I found the medication that Kristin offered me earlier and left in my shirt pocket. I took them with the last of the water I was carrying. The next thing I know someone is shining a torch light in my eyes, and asking for me by name.”

The security guards that the Captain and I sent out to look for you, Lucas,” Ford surmised.

The only thing I had on me was Kristin’s contact number,” the teenager remarked, “And that is when they brought me to you at the building where you were.”

The medication I left with you was a night-time blend. I had hoped it would alleviate your headache, but help you get some sleep too. Taking them on an empty stomach probably only added to your nausea and certainly would account for you being unsteady on your feet when you got to me,” Kristin informed Lucas.


We definitely didn’t ditch you,” Ben guaranteed the teenager. “We came out and you were gone. We started searching for you thinking you had gotten bored, and it wasn’t long before full scale panic set in.”

We were looking for you, Lucas, but went in the other direction towards Molly’s Palace, thinking you might have made gone in there out of the wind, looking for all of us,” Miguel chimed in.

You thought I went into a bar, Krieg?” Lucas said in surprise and gave a brief laugh. “The Captain would have had my head on a platter,” he added, turning his head and giving Bridger a small smile that promised he would not have gone into such a place, even if the situation presented itself.

Bridger playfully cuffed his head with a look of ‘You had better not!’ and returning a grateful smile of his own, thankful that the teenager was usually responsible.

Going inside there was a mistake, but we did,” Ben added. “Turns out that the place is run by some shrew of a woman named Carla, who looked like someone had run over her a few times and then put a cigarette in her mouth.”

Yeah, we had better check with Doctor Westphalen about our vaccination status,” Miguel said. “The place could have been carry all sorts of disease.”

The one main rat present was serving at the bar, to those girls,” Krieg commented, meaning the awful woman Carla they had encountered. “Her startling personality came to the forefront when we explained that we were only in there, looking for you,” Krieg remarked.

I tried again to use my charming personality to explain to her that we were only in there looking for you Lucas, but she was trying to throw us out,” Ben said.

That is where you went wrong in the first place, Krieg,” Ford commented, knowing that the Morale Officer could use his easy going nature when it suited him.

Oh ha ha,” Krieg shot back to Ford, but almost everybody at the table was laughing at Ben’s expense, knowing Ford’s accusation to be quite accurate.

Lucas had a smirk on his face, but was not laughing at his friend.

Then the troll at the bar accuses me of running down her place and chatting up the two girls, so she called over her Neanderthal of a bouncer, Charlie, from over in the back corner.”

Big guy?” Lucas asked in assumption at the description Krieg had given about the man.

Big, ugly, and a brick short of a brain cell. Leg and arm muscles built like tree trunks, but he made up for his lack of smarts in jealousy, when Debbie came out from the kitchen, and heard what we were doing in there,” Ben answered.

Debbie, a waitress come out from the kitchen, having heard everything going on,” Krieg continued. “At least she was willing to listen, so I explained why we were there to her, and gave her your description, Lucas. ”

Carla had poured drinks for the girls and wasn’t intending on letting them leave before they finished them,” Miguel recalled. “They were feeling more then a little intimidated and wanted to leave.”

That is when out gallant knight in shining armour, Tim O’Neill over here, came to their defence, and offered for the girls to come back with us,” Ben said, sharing a knowing smile at Tim, who was looking mighty uncomfortable himself now at being in the spotlight.

Bridger and Ford shared a chuckle again at hearing just how mixed up and out of control everything had become within a few hours. They knew that Ben and the others had never meant for things to get this crazy.

I started asking Debbie to contact you, Sir,” Ben addressed the Captain, but Charlie got hot under the collar and said she wasn’t doing nothing for us.”

I tried to diffuse the situation and was going to talk to Debbie outside, away from the bouncer,” Krieg explained. “The waitress told him to back off and take a hike. But unfortunately I ended up causing her to fall, and she ended up on the floor, taking the tray of drinks with her.”

The bouncer snatched up Krieg by the front of his shirt, and punched him twice before he even knew what happened,” Miguel told them. “That is how his shirt got torn.”

So that is how Ben ended up laying on the floor in a daze as well,” Ortiz filled in. “But then I saw the guy was intending to kick him when he was on the ground, so I jumped in and was ready to stop it.”

You were ready to take on the bouncer, Ortiz?” Ford asked with a whistle of pride. Hearing how big the bouncer was, it was clear that Ben might not have been the only injured party had tempers boiled over even further.

Thanks, Miguel,” Ben said, giving the Cuban man a hand-shake of gratitude. “I always knew you were the little bulldog of this crew.”

Lucas paled a little at hearing that Ben had been punched and almost kicked. The guilt about the bruising he could already see resurfacing. Hearing about Miguel’s near miss didn’t diminish his own culpability on the whole saga.

I am sorry you got hurt because of me, Ben,” the teenager voiced.

Hey, don’t beat yourself up, Lucas, you weren’t to know,” he said, trying to relay any fears his friend was having. “Sorry about your fingers and your baseball shirt.”

Luckily for all of us, Tim here came to everybody’s rescue,” Ben declared with relish.


Tim shrank away from the spotlight again, but gazed around and could see the looks and surprise on those at the table.

What did you do?” Lucas asked, wanting to know. The communications officer was normally not known for showing anger at any time, so the idea of him getting involved in any physical altercation was difficult to fathom.

I turned on the over-head fire sprinkler system that is inside the place,” O’Neill answered, but not really feeling that he attributed too much at all, like it was being retold.

Everybody in the room, us, the girls, Carla, the huge ape, everybody, including the inside of the bar and all furnishings, was drenched in gallons of water,” Ben said triumphantly. “So we all got a little wet just like you, Lucas.”


With most of the full version of events now out in the open, Lucas decided that now was just as good a time as ever to address Commander Ford about any impending punishment or sanctions.

So what is the damage bill from everything?” the teenager asked.

You don’t need to worry about that, Lucas,” Ben tried to assure him.

No, Ben, I am just as much to blame as any of you for whatever happened there and any breakages, and deserve the same treatment,” Lucas stated firmly.

Three thousand, four hundred and sixty-nine dollars, and twelve cents, was the estimate given to us before we heard the final report from law enforcement,” Ford informed him.

Lucas could scarcely believe the amount being quoted, and coughed out loud to mask his shock, thinking that he would be needing to make contact with his bank to gain some funds. His impromptu night out was turning into even more of a nightmare than he could ever have imagined.

That includes the breakages from the store of the jars, and the water damage to ‘Molly’s Palace’, Ford confirmed.

Bridger could see the downcast mood of the teenager darkening but he was also proud to see the boy’s maturity shining through with stepping up to the plate with the others involved.

Tell him what happened next, Commander,” he instructed.

Technically the store damages still need to be paid for, but they shouldn’t amount to any more than twenty dollars,” Ford reported.

I will split the damages with you, Lucas,” Tim offered, “Because we were the ones involved there, not Ben or Miguel.”

Done, I will get the money for you as soon as I get back to my cabin,” Lucas said, feeling the burden lift from his shoulders a little at what had to be paid for. And Tim was right about the two of them being liable.

Ben and the others have been exonerated from any of the other damages to Molly’s place for the water damage and other losses,” Ford shared.

Really, they have been let off the hook?” Lucas queried, unable to mask the skepticism in his voice. “Why?”

Debbie told the local police what had happened, and who was really to blame,” Ben announced cheerfully, hoping it would perk up the boy’s mood.

And then the authorities gave the Captain a little call to inform him that we were returning on the launch, with the new supplies, and we arrived back here just before 3 a.m. this morning,” Ben finished.

Well my little jaunt back here wasn’t any fun either,” Lucas pointed out. “I was nice and comfortable until Kristin came and told me we had to leave. It felt like I had just fallen asleep.”

Sitting at the table, Lucas yawned to emphasise that statement, his headache still making itself known.

I only wish I had some clean clothes for you to return in at the time, Lucas,” Kristin remarked, “You had only just fallen asleep, before I had to wake you up again.”

There was that one nice lady on the launch, I am not sure of her name,” Lucas remembered. “I am positive I have never met her before, but she seemed to know my name.”

That would be Annette, my new assistant. I will introduce you to her a little later, once you have had some more sleep,” Kristin promised. “I am finally getting one after all this time, and she has been a great help so far.”

Well, I don’t know about her, but the rest of the science people aboard the launch couldn’t get far enough away from me because my clothes stank from the pickled onion juice,” Lucas huffed. “I might have been standing up with my eyes closed, and there were too many people trying to talk over the top of each other at once. But I heard them gossiping amongst themselves and what they were saying. They wanted to get as far away from me as possible but couldn’t because of how tightly packed in we all were.”

I will probably hear them snickering every time they see me walk past one of them in the corridors over the next couple of weeks. I will hear them whispering, “There goes onion boy!”

Those at the table laughed good-naturedly at the teenager’s expense, and were relieved that he could joke about himself. There was a time when they walked around him as though on egg-shells, knowing that others had made poor and undeserved jokes in the past about him that had caused him to doubt his place on SeaQuest.

All jokes aside, next time you leave this vessel, I am putting a tracking device on you,” Bridger vowed. “Maybe I might have to think about putting one on all of you,” he added, turning to the other crew members.

Pftttt,” Lucas scoffed in jest, ‘I dare you’ on his face as he looked back at the Captain in challenge, but he couldn’t hold the expression very long, and it wasn’t long before he was frowning due to his headache again.

Lucas was thankful to be back on-board and amongst family and friends, and pleased that Bridger’s own fears about him missing, had been put at ease too.


I promise I will make it up to everybody at this table very soon for everything that happened,” Ben declared with sincerity.

His announcement though was met with audible groans and exclamations of not wanting to be involved in the next caper the Morale Officer tried to cook up.

Ben, I haven’t even had the chance to get over this ‘fun-time’ yet, Lucas implored, noting a nod of agreement from Miguel and Tim at his comment.

I promise it will be worth your while this time, Lucas,” Ben stated.

Lucas laid his head on the table and groaned out loud again, not from pain, but knowing that he would be the first victim of whatever Krieg had in mind.

Looking up at his friend, “Do me a favour next time around, Ben, don’t come calling or knocking at my door,” he pleaded. “Actually come to think of it, when I go back to my cabin, I am putting a heavy bolt on the inside of the hatch to lock you out.”

Now that hurts, Lucas,” Ben retorted. “How can you even think of doing that to a good friend like me?”

Favourite baseball shirt, Krieg, you owe me,” Lucas reminded him. “And no food like I was promised.”

The banter between the two friends was welcomed by everybody at the table, hoping that everything would soon return to normal on-board.

Now it was Kristin’s turn to intervene against Ben. “Don’t worry Lucas, I am start selling tickets today. Would you like to buy any?”

What are the tickets for?” the teenager asked, but could see her exchanging looks with Krieg, so he knew it couldn’t be good for his health.

Lucas’s smile widened as he saw Krieg lower his own head onto the table and groan out loud in abject misery at whatever fate Kristin had in mind for him.

Tickets to Mr Krieg’s imminent execution for his misdemeanour’s and his yearly physical evaluation which has been brought forward a few months,” Kristin answered with her own unique brand of sanctions in mind.

Oh come on, Doc, have a heart would you, I told you and the Captain I was sorry. The kid is here now, returned all safe and sound. I didn’t mean to temporarily misplace him, so there is no need to stoop to such underhanded tactics is it?”

Everybody at the table was now laughing at Ben’s expense and his impending punishment. He looked at each face at the table apart from his friend, looking at them with a hopeful expression, only to be give an exaggerated gasp of horror as each person shook their head negatively.

Come on, Lucas, you can help get me out of this, right?” Pal?? Buddy?”

Lucas looked at his friend briefly, before turning back to Kristin, “I will buy three tickets, thank you, Kristin,” Lucas asserted.

There was no way he was going to miss such an opportunity. “I assume the money is going to a good cause?” He didn’t really care where the money was being spent, if Ben was going to be on the end of one of Kristin’s legendary punishments, he wanted to be there with bells on.

Oh only the best cause, Lucas, new equipment for my science department. I assure you, the money will be well spent,” Kristin replied with a smile, looking over at Krieg as she spoke.

Three tickets!” Ben spluttered in indignation, hardly able to believe his friend would turn on him so quickly. “But there is only one of you.”

Yeah, but I am sure that there are a few other people around here wanting to watch too,” Lucas responded.

We will gladly take you up on that offer, Lucas,” Tim offered, pointing his thumb in Miguel’s direction.

Ortiz nodded his head in agreement, “We wouldn’t mind being part of the audience.”

You know, I never really liked any of you people,” Krieg huffed.

Ben looked over at Commander Ford and saw the man was joining in with the laughter and jibes, “Don’t worry, Commander, Sir. The Doc already has your number too,” Krieg revealed with delight. “Don’t forget revaluation!”

Bridger couldn’t help but laugh at Ben’s torment of Ford. Lucas was surprised by the man’s random outburst.

Revaluation of what?” Lucas asked innocently, missing the punch line somewhere.

His abilities to command this vessel when the Captain isn’t about,” Krieg answered with a air of superiority, pleased to see the scowl appear on Ford’s face at his own impending battle with Doctor Westphalen.

That is yet to be determined by someone else with a military background, and above the pay rate and extensive expertise of Doctor Westphalen,” Ford informed Krieg with authority. He had hoped that Bridger would take note of his protest as well at the assessment of his abilities, but seeing the amusement on the Captain’s face, he might be mistaken about that.

Everybody present thought Lucas said it best, what they were all thinking, but were too afraid to say out loud.

Man you must be crazy taking on Kristin on your own,” he said to Ford.

Ben couldn’t help but guffaw in fresh laughter, the teenager was probably the only one who would get away making such a statement to Jonathan’s face like that, in front of Kristin, unless it was Bridger himself.

That is what I have said to him,” Krieg commented. “And have done so on more than one occasion.”

What makes her think you were not up to the task, Commander?” Lucas directed at Ford.

But Krieg jumped in to answer before Jonathan could, “We all escaped the SeaQuest under his watch when his back was turned.”


Most of the crew at the table were laughing, but Lucas soon stopped as he realised that his actions may have gotten more people into trouble than he originally thought, and the guilt was only added to what he felt over Ben being injured. Ford should not have to bear any consequences when he was nowhere near the launch or the mainland.

My brain isn’t back to working just yet with this headache, Commander, but when it eases, I will put in a good word for you,” Lucas offered truthfully.

Thank you, Lucas, but I don’t think that will be necessary. I will let you know if anything develops,” Ford replied. Like the Captain, he could see the teenager’s genuine attempts at making amends for his involvement and was appreciative of his offer of shouldering any blame.

What about putting in a good word for me?” Ben queried.

Nope for you, I am going to be the star witness for the prosecution,” Lucas remarked.

I knew there was a reason I didn’t like you, ‘junior’,” Krieg taunted his teenage friend.

The use of that nickname got the desired response he was looking for.

I hate that nickname you deliberately gave to me, Krieg,” Lucas scowled.

Yes, I know you do, that is why I said it,” Ben teased.

You start calling me that one more time Krieg, and I am going to start calling you ‘Benny’ from now on,” Lucas said, knowing how much Ben detested that variation of his own name.

There had been an unwritten agreement between the two friends, that the only time Lucas could use the said awful name, was when he was in trouble and secretly trying to gain Ben’s attention.

Kristin was keeping an eye on the teenager, and couldn’t help but notice the fatigue and pain becoming more noticeable and prominent on his features, no matter how much he was trying to mask them. It was time to put a stop to everything for a few hours for everybody seated at the table. She was looking forward to getting some sleep herself and could see that Nathan was showing signs of tiredness himself.

Lucas, before you two get any further into that little area of discussion, I think you both should be going back to your cabins and trying to get some more sleep,” Kristin interrupted. “Apart from your headache, your body is still recovering from the respiratory infection you had before your little excursion.”

Oh that….,” Lucas said, taking stock of what she was saying, and silently agreeing. He had wanted to hear about what happened, and had enjoyed the banter between himself and Ben, but his eyes were feeling more than gritty and sore.”

Yes, oh that, and you still have a stern lecture coming from me yet about your latest wayward activities,” Kristin promised.

The others winced on his behalf at the mention of one of the doctor’s legendary ‘lectures’ for the teenager, but knew that he was getting off fairly lightly compared to others.

Lucas looked over at Bridger for a moment, hoping he would back him up about against Kristin’s edict, but the doctor spoke first. “He is still in trouble as well as you, and the other people at this table. Except for when he is being Captain,” Kristin confirmed.

You as well?” Lucas asked in complete astonishment, that the Captain was being lumped into trouble with Commander Ford, Ben, himself and the others.

Bridger was about to open his mouth in his own defence, but he erred on the side of caution, and kept any comments to himself, but nodded in answer to the teenager’s question.

The other men at the table laughed heartily at the Captain’s plight. Oh how the mighty had fallen, and in such a short space of time. They knew Doctor Westphalen well enough that she was more bluff than bark, but it was funny to see their fearless leader, quickly admitting his own defeat to her.

Wow, I missed out on a lot by the sound of it by being away for just one night,” Lucas remarked.

It certainly doesn’t get boring around here, Lucas,” Ford added with irony.

I am heading back to my cabin to sleep,” Lucas said, getting up from the table, and yawning again and rubbing at his forehead.

I will be by later to check on you,” Kristin informed him. “Let me know if your headache doesn’t improve beforehand if you need to.”

He gave a wave of acknowledgement to her as he trudged out of the doors of the mess hall, headed down the corridor towards his cabin.

Everybody else at the table soon departed company. Ben Krieg affirmed that he too was headed for some more sleep, as did the others. It should be a fairly quiet afternoon.


Two hours after leaving the mess hall, Lucas was still in his cabin, trying to get his headache to ease, without success. He kept tossing and turning, without being able to get comfortable enough for his headache to improve. He had fallen into a light doze not long after promising Kristin to get some sleep, but now the pain was making that virtually impossible.

The teenager was feeling fairly miserable, and just wanted the pain to leave him alone for a while. If that meant going to find Kristin to ask her for some medication, then so be it.

When he reached the science labs, there were a lot of new faces, and no Kristin about. He looked into the kitchenette, but she wasn’t there.

Annette, Kristin’s new assistant came across the young man she had been briefly been introduced back on the mainland. “Hello,” she greeted him politely, but was concerned when she saw him grimacing in pain.

Um, Hi,” he answered, squinting at the bright overhead lights, “I was looking for Kristin?”

I think she is still sleeping in her quarters,” Annette she informed him. “Did you want me to go and get her?”

Lucas thought for a minute, and considered it. He had wandered in this direction for that exact purpose, but upon hearing that the doctor was getting some sleep herself, he felt guilty about disturbing her.

I will catch her later. Can you please let her know I was looking for her?” Lucas requested.

As soon as I see her, are you sure you are alright? I can get someone else if you like?” she offered.

Kristin had been treating him when the security guards had brought him to her, and she knew he had been complaining of a sore throat on-board the launch when they arrived on SeaQuest.

No thanks, when you see her will be fine,” Lucas promised, and went to leave the area.

Upon leaving though, he didn’t want to go back to his own cabin just yet. When he was feeling this lousy, there was only one other place that he felt like going to that he wouldn’t be found by anybody else in a hurry. And that is where he headed now.

Knocking on the door first, he had expected a reply to come from the other side. When that didn’t happen, he turned the handle and pushed the door open, only to be greeted by silence and an empty room.

Drinking a glass of water, he removed the shoes he was wearing, and laid down on the soft surface, hoping that the quietness would help with his headache and allow him to drift off to sleep.

An hour later, Kristin had emerged from her own cabin, and made her way to the small kitchenette in the science department. Her sleep had been restful, but not as long as she would have liked. Hopefully if everything went smooth enough this evening, she would be able to call it an early night after dinner with Nathan.

Kristin,” Annette called out to her, as she spotted the red-haired doctor with coffee cup in hand. “I hope you had some sleep?”

A little, but looking for some more later on this evening, thank you,” Kristin answered.

I am glad I found you, because that young man you introduced me at the facility, was down here looking for you earlier,” Annette informed her.

You mean Lucas?” Kristin questioned. The science labs were a regular haunt for the boy, but she wouldn’t have expected him back down here today after chasing him from the mess hall, back to his cabin to rest.

Yes, he came down here asking for you in particular,” Annette confirmed. “I was a little worried about him at the time, he looked to be in some pain. I did offer to come and find you straight away, but he didn’t want to wake you, and asked me to let you know when I saw you next.”

Thank you, I will go find him now and see what is troubling him,” Kristin commented. She was pleased to see him a little more comfortable these days in coming to her when he wasn’t feeling the best. On this occasion she wished he had followed through until he had done so.


Kristin had made it past the moon pool, on her way to Mammal Engineering when she spotted Nathan coming in her direction.

He is not in his own cabin, if you are looking for Lucas,” he informed her.

He isn’t?” Kristin said, “Annette just same and told me he was down in the science department looking for me.”

I got a couple of hours sleep, but then Commander Watkins came to me, asking for my advice on a matter on the Bridge while Jonathan was sleeping. I left my quarters, and only just returned a few minutes ago to find I have a visitor.”

Both adults knew that Lucas going into Nathan’s quarters was not an uncommon occurrence to get away from too much distraction, and work away on one of his projects without interruption. They knew it was one of the sanctuaries he sought to get away from people when he wasn’t feeling well and was trying not to say so.

Kristin followed Nathan back to his own quarters, and together they both entered. Lucas was lying down on the Captain’s sofa couch, with two pillows, one underneath his head, and the other on top. She could hear a grimace of pain coming him as she approached.

Lucas?” Kristin said softly, lifting the top pillow a little, but finding that the teenager refusing to relinquish possession.

Turn down the lights, please,” Lucas begged, as the migraine continued to sap his energy and making him more miserable.

Nathan walked over to a wall, and pressed the dimmer switch for the lights, dampening the overall brightness in that section of the room. It was clear now why the teenager was using the pillow over his head for, to block out the light and make it as dark as possible.

It is hurting so much,” he complained to her. “Please do something so I can sleep.”

I will be right back with something to help,” Kristin promised him, knowing that the headache had been going on for far too long now.

Stay with him, I will return in a few moments,” she said to Nathan.

Bridger nodded his head in acknowledgement, but was worried himself about how long this headache had been holding on. Lucas had mentioned about having it when Kristin had examined him before going to the mainland with Ben.

Kristin quickly returned with an oral medication and a glass of water. “Lucas, can you sit up and take this for me, please.”

Reluctantly, Lucas lowered the top pillow, pulling himself up into a seated position and accepting the medication. “I don’t care what it is at this point, as long as it works,” he said. “Next time, an ice pick through my skull might be less painful.”

This is Sumatriptan and it should help with any nausea as well,” Kristin told him, but looking upon his pinched features and rumpled appearance, she didn’t know how much of her medical advice he was taking in. His eyes were terribly bloodshot. “It will take about fifteen minutes to start working.”

Lucas groaned out loud at that information, laying down again and turning onto his side, and putting the pillow back over his head, despite the lights being turned down.

Kristin sat beside him on the couch for a few minutes, massaging the back of his neck, and trying to get him to relax enough for the medication to wind its way into his system.

Thank you, that feels nice,” the teenager said in appreciation. A few more minutes and she could feel the tenseness start to ease, allowing himself to drift closer towards sleep.

When she was satisfied that he was finally dozing, Kristin stood up and the two of them moved out of earshot, not wanting to talk in case he heard them. From previous experience, he was a fairly light sleeper unless he was injured or under the influence of medication.

I will monitor him for the next couple of hours,” Kristin whispered. “But we don’t have to hover over him the whole time.

I plan to be up for quite a while yet, so I will call in and check on him as I can too,” Nathan said as the two of them quietly closed the door. “Why do you think this headache is holding on so badly?”

I am not sure. He has had one or two occur in the past without much explanation as to their source, but this one is probably one of the worst. I had previously put it down to dehydration and from lack of food, but he has eaten now, and had fluids, so it should have begun easing. I did give him a dose of Tylenol when he first alerted Ben in med-bay, but it didn’t seem to have much of an effect.”


Upon entering the mess hall, intending to share in an early dinner, Kristin and Bridger were met with Commander Ford and Ben Krieg also sitting at a table, talking quietly together.

Good evening, Captain, Doctor Westphalen,” Ford greeted them both formally. “I should be ready to take back over some of the duties on the Bridge now, Sir, and relieve both you and Commander Watkins.”

That would be great, Jonathan,” Bridger responded. “I did sleep a little, but Wayne came and wanted some help. I was happy to do so.”

Do you mind if we discuss a few matters over dinner, Sir?” Ford asked, not wanting to encroach on the man’s eating time, but there were quite a few issues that needed his personal attention.

No, Jonathan, just let me get us a plate of food and come back to the table,” the Captain requested. He knew the next few days aboard the SeaQuest were going to be busy ones. Whatever they could get out of the way now, would help immensely later.

Kristin was happy enough for Nathan to chose a plate for her, as she sat down opposite Krieg on the other side of the table. “You look much more rested than you did earlier,” she commented with a smile.

Yep, slept like a baby, and had a shower, and ready to put some food away now,” Ben said. He had already gained a plate from the kitchen, and was slowly making his way through what was in front of him.

Nathan now returned, having selected a small meal for both Kristin and himself. Both of them were still tired and wouldn’t be looking for a heavy meal. Strong coffee was definitely needed though, which he had also gained for both of them.

Is Lucas awake yet to be joining us for dinner?” Ben asked casually, hoping to just chat to his friend. “That kid really needs to eat more than ice-cream today.”

No, I am afraid he won’t be, Ben,” Kristin said, the tone of her voice changing enough to draw the attention of both the men they were seated with.

His headache got worse again after he left here,” she stated. “Annette came and told me when I woke up that he was looking for me earlier.”

Is he alright?” Ben asked, putting his fork down, knowing this was the last thing any of them wanted for the teenager.

He is in my quarters now, on the sofa couch. And he was actually admitting to us about not feeling great, or words to that effect. You know how often both of those things happen,” Bridger replied. “Not that I mind, I keep telling him he can go in there any time without needing a reason.”

Actually admitting it, and being in your quarters?” Krieg said with surprise. “He must really have been hurting.”

Nathan nodded his head affirmatively. Each of the crew members at the table were surprised that the teenager would openly admit such a thing to the doctor.

I have given him a specific migraine medication, and he finally started relaxing a little before we came in here to join you,” Kristin told them. “Hopefully by now it should be working enough to help him rest without pain.”

Don’t you still have to be careful what you use on him?” Krieg asked, knowing a little about the teenager’s medical history since coming on-board SeaQuest.

Yes, I made sure that the dose was carefully measured due to his sensitivity to the ingredients in some medications, but this one should merely help relieve his pain, and allow him some extra sleep. That is the only way he is finally going to beat off the last of his illness. I will monitor him for any adverse effects,” the doctor answered. “I don’t expect there to be any to worry about.”


Satisfied with Kristin’s prognosis, Ben went about continuing his own dinner, though he was listening to the topic of conversation around the table.

Captain, I am sure that you are aware of the preparations that Admiral Noyce has put into place for the U.E.O. joint exercise campaign that is due to start in three days,” Ford spoke.

I haven’t had a chance yet to hear everything Bill has planned, tell me what you know so far,” Bridger instructed.

Well, Sir, it is going to be a massive exercise, not just on our part, but all of those involved. Including all military personnel aboard this vessel, and all of your scientific staff, Doctor Westphalen, new and seasoned,” Ford stated.

The majority of those personnel, military and scientific alike will be absent over three days, leaving only a few people left on-board SeaQuest. You, and Doctor Westphalen will have an important conference with the Admiral during the first day, but would be free to return here that night.”

And I will be sitting back here, relaxing free as a bird,” Krieg stated, clearly very happy that he wasn’t going to be attending or participating at all.

You are not going?” Bridger said in surprise to Ben, but then looked at Ford for an explanation for him not being part of what was considered ‘mandatory exercises’

Unfortunately I have no idea how Krieg’s name was omitted from the list, Captain, his name must have merely been missed,” Ford said, eyeing Ben trying to catch a glimpse that he had anything to do with altering the system.

It’s not what you know, but who,” Ben said with a cheeky grin, finishing off his meal and pushing his empty plate and cutlery aside.

Actually it brings up the possibility of Ben being able to help out in another area,” Ford hinted, giving a grin of his own when he saw the Morale Officer’s unspoken objection.

Don’t worry Lieutenant, I am sure that what I am proposing won’t be too much to your disliking, and may even have the stamped approval of the Captain and Doctor here,” Ford taunted.

Bridger raised an eyebrow at Ford’s less than informative statement, wanting to know what his second-in-command was torturing Ben with.

Sir, during that time, the only other person that will be left on-board the SeaQuest on his own is Lucas,” Ford stated. “And I am not sure it is the sort of event that Lucas would ordinarily like to attend anyway.

So you were thinking?” the Captain prompted, thinking to himself what it meant for Lucas to be left to his own devices for a number of hours.

I was thinking he would be bored if he was made to attend, and with Krieg not attending, Lucas wouldn’t be entirely left on his own to work too much during the time you and the doctor were absent from the boat,” Ford suggested.

Any objection that Krieg had been thinking about, dissolved in an instant. He had no problems at all being in the teenager’s company for any length of time.

You are right, he would be bored,” Bridger agreed with the Commander’s assessment.

And if left to his own devices, he would be working non-stop without a break,” Kristin interjected, know full well about the workaholic habits of the teenager.

I think you might be the right person for the job, Ben,” Bridger commented. “And he is less likely to get suspicious about someone watching out for him if it was you.”

I would be happy to stay behind and hang out with him, Sir,” Ben offered.

No doubt if he was hearing this conversation, he would be declaring that he doesn’t need anybody babysitting him,” Bridger remarked with a laugh. “But I am not entirely happy with the idea of leaving him on his own for the whole day either, even in your company. He is still on the fringes of getting rid of and recovering from this recent bout of illness.”

Lucas wouldn’t want to go to the event or the dinner afterwards either,” Kristin surmised. “He doesn’t normally like those kinds of affairs, and rarely wants to stay in the luxury accommodation that is assigned specifically for you Nathan or any guests.”

I will work out something, Sir. Something fun to get him away from the computers and his programming as well as taking care of himself,” Krieg said, as he started planning in his head.

Alright, for now I agree, but we will have to talk more to Lucas about it when he is feeling better,” Bridger remarked, intending to talk to Ben more on the matter later.

I don’t know why the U.E.O. and Bill didn’t have this whole exercise before Kristin went to all of the trouble of moving the scientific staff on-board today. They could have had the campaign before they got here and save themselves a lot of double handling,” Bridger said with annoyance creeping in about bureaucratic red tape. “But that is U.E.O. logic for you.”

Only a handful of people will be able to return to the SeaQuest that first night, Sir,” Ford pointed out. “Mostly only a handful of senior staff members, including yourself and Doctor Westphalen should you choose to do so. The scientific community and military personnel will be staying on base over three days and two nights in assigned accommodations also.”

Commander Hitchcock has been doing something completely different for a few days and that will continue until after this event. That is the reason she is away now, and has been secretly doing a few other things outside of the SeaQuest lately as you are aware,” Ford commented. “Not many people know about anything about what she is involved with.”

Kristin looked over a Ben’s face and saw a similar troubled expression to what Lucas had noted earlier when her name was mentioned. She wanted to reach over and ask if he was alright, but the normally jovial man tensed up and went to grab a fresh cup of coffee to avoid anybody’s scrutiny.

The three people left sitting at the table, exchanged questioning glances after the dark-haired man, but none of them were aware of what turmoil was causing the distraction that they could see.


Ben returned to the table with his coffee, but wasn’t prepared to talk more about Katie or anything she was currently away doing.

Kristin, do you have any idea of how long Lucas might be out of action for?” Ford asked, clearing his throat a little, and realising how callous the question sounded, when they had just been discussing about him feeling unwell.

The Commander could see the questioning looks he was getting from all three people, and regretted having to do so, but he was running out of options.

Before the doctor could answer his question, the Captain jumped in first, asking a question of his own in return.

Why?” Bridger asked plainly, his one word answer demonstrating how he felt with the teenager’s name and work being brought up in the same conversation already.

I apologize to you both, and to Lucas, but some of the crew are actively voicing their needs for his help in quite a number of areas because they simply cannot keep up with the systems he has in place, or the pace he usually works at,” Ford commented. “They were already looking for him a week ago when he got sick with the respiratory virus and was confined to his cabin.”

Please don’t let Lucas know any of that right now, he is already going to be unhappy about the amount of backlog that is no doubt already waiting for him, since his absence for that week,” Bridger ordered, “It has been over a week since he has been able to work on the updates and glitches that surface on-board this place from time to time.”

You start letting people know too soon that he is on the mend, and he is only going to work himself day and night until he is sick again from over-working,” Krieg interjected. “You all know how passionate he gets. He will be putting more pressure on himself than anybody else can.”

Commander, I am putting everybody aboard this vessel on notice about the consequences from me should they even think about waking Lucas before he is ready to do so during the next twenty four hours. And I extend that to at least seventy two hours for any requests for work, even if he says he is better, until I give him the all clear,” Kristin warned.

Now I am glad that he decided to take refuge in the Captain’s quarters away from anybody trying to reach him.”

Understood, Doctor, I will inform them all that they will have to be patient a while longer,” Ford said, not wanting to ruffle any more feathers.

I am going back to check on him now, and then I will meet you on the Bridge briefly before you take over, Commander,” Bridger stated, as he finished the last mouthful of coffee.

Yes, Sir,” Ford said he got up from the table and headed to the Bridge. “Good evening, Doctor and Lieutenant.”

Ben, you keep any loiterers away from Lucas’s cabin for the next few days, and nobody else needs to know that he is currently in my quarters,” Bridger ordered.

No problem at all, Sir,” Ben promised. “I am heading back to my own cabin now. My next shift doesn’t start until tomorrow morning.”

Goodnight Sir, Kristin,” Krieg said as he too left the mess hall.


Bridger and Kristin left the mess hall a few more minutes later, after Kristin had finished her own meal, wanting to call in on Lucas.

Opening the door as quietly as possible, Nathan walked over to the couch, pleased to note that there were no longer any sounds of pain coming from between the pillows.

The teenager was no longer gripping the top pillow tightly in his hands to prevent any light from reaching him.

Kristin went one step further, gently lifting the top pillow away from the teenager’s head to reveal his peacefully slumbering face, and smiling that the medication was indeed doing its job. She put her hand on his forehead, trying to detect the temperature of his skin. He was laying on his stomach with his facial features completely relaxed.

No temperature at all, and he is sleeping at last,” Kristin quietly remarked, very pleased.

The Captain went over to the second bed that was in the room and removed the blanket, “I thought he would at least made use the bed, now that I have one put in here for him,” he whispered to her.

I don’t think he cares where he is at the moment, as long as he is comfortable and pain free,” she replied, taking the blanket and laying it down over Lucas and pulling it up to his shoulders. “And he feels safe in here.”

Whatever you gave him has really knocked him out this time around,” Bridger said, noting that Lucas had not stirred in the slightest at any of their administrations.

Yes, I suspect so. I did measure the dosage carefully like I told Ben, but the medication’s properties are still designed to have a sedating effect on the person using it. In his case, the sleep may last a little longer than normal. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at the moment. He could definitely use it.”

I have to head to the Bridge like I said to meet with Jonathan for a few minutes, but after that, I plan on coming back here, and doing nothing but reading quietly and catching up on sleep myself. I can keep a good eye on him, while you get some more rest tonight yourself.”

That would be very much appreciated,” Kristin said in gratitude. “You know where to find me if either of you need me.”

Kristin and Bridger left his quarters together, but parted company outside in the corridor.


Kristin returned to the science department, and carried out a few menial tasks before speaking one final time with Annette and then heading to back to her own quarters to wind down.

The few minutes that Bridger thought he would be spending with Jonathan Ford, turned into an hour before he was satisfied that everything was progressing as well as it could. Anything else that needed to be done could wait a few hours. He was more than ready to hand over to his second-in-command, and was happy to be heading back to his own quarters for the night.

Bringing with him, a hot cup of coffee, Bridger set that on a small table beside his reading chair, making sure that the lights over the sofa couch were still turned down. He adjusted the ceiling lights over his armchair to allow enough good light to read by.

Changing out of his uniform into pyjamas and a robe and slippers, he picked up the book he had been reading over several weeks and set it beside the coffee mug.

With his slippers on the carpet, he was able to approach the couch without making a sound. He didn’t know how the kid was breathing in there, and gave a silent laugh at the cocoon that being faced with.

The blanket was now pulled up and over both of the pillows, Bridger gently pealed back one corner, and smiled that Lucas was still asleep, and deeply so it would appear.

He was getting much better at being able to check on Lucas without waking him. A far cry from the boy’s first few days and nights aboard SeaQuest.

It was in private moments like this that he was able to take stop for a moment and take stock of the important things that had come into his life. Especially when that certain someone wasn’t in a position to be arguing those points with him. And be truly thankful to have this strong-willed, complex, but generous and brilliant individual challenging him every step of the way.

The Captain returned to the armchair and sipped at the hot beverage. He put on his reading glasses, and opened up to the place he had bookmarked.

He prayed that the remainder of the night was pain free for Lucas. Being in this room, Bridger would make sure that no-one disturbed him until he was ready.


The clock was about to turn 3.a.m. on the digital clock beside the bed of Ben Krieg, when the man suddenly sat bolt up in bed. In the middle of the night, the perfect idea had just presented itself of how he could make up for his ill-planned trip in the launch.

He had been trying to figure out how to do just that when he came back from dinner in the mess hall, and he started thinking about what Ford had mentioned to the Captain about the impending U.E.O. combined science and military exercises.

He would be able to make it up to everybody in one foul swoop, the Bridger, Doctor Westphalen, Ford, O’Neill, Ortiz and Lucas. And the best part about his epiphany was that it could all happen right here on SeaQuest, so there was not need to worry about anybody getting lost or misplaced this time around.

If his brilliant idea came to full fruition, then there would be plenty for everybody to eat, so that would give him plenty of brownie points with the Captain Bridger and Doctor Westphalen, for encouraging Lucas to eat more. The kid wouldn’t have to do much, just help out a little and would learn something new as a skill.

Bridger and Kristin would be doubly thrilled, and the teenager wouldn’t be over-tired or over-worked. They could both do it all in one day if they worked together, and he could shoulder most of the responsibility. Ford would be able to see his organisational skills.

Krieg knew he would have to talk to the head chef Don about using the equipment in his kitchen. That included the brand new stove and oven that the man kept raving about, that cooked virtually everything on its own if you believed everything he bragged about it.

Getting up from his bed, he grabbed a notebook and a pen, knowing he was going to have to start making many lists. He was going to need to talk to a few people, and work on getting Commander Ford to relax the duty roster for himself and Lucas during the next few days. That shouldn’t be too difficult considering Bridger and Kristin’s concerns about the kid getting too much work thrown his way already.

Some invitations would need to be designed and sent out, and most importantly, when Lucas was awake, he was going to have to sweet talk his friend into agreeing to help get the whole affair off the ground.

It would only be one day of preparation and a few hours that night. It was going to work, it couldn’t miss this time around.

Saturday was three days away, and would be the best time to have the event he calculated, on the first night of the U.E.O. campaign because there wouldn’t be many crew members coming back on-board. Which gave Lucas enough time for his migraine to go away and to be fully over his respiratory illness, and well on the way to feeling better.

And best yet Ben told himself, it all could happen before next Thursday, so he could still avoid Kristin’s threat of completing his physical evaluation.

The plan was almost fool-proof.

Planning to be continued………………………

Jules

Author Notes: Thank you for continuing to read. There wasn’t much happening in this chapter, but the next ones should mostly be fun and comical. I am leaving the angst and hurt stuff mostly aside (shocking I know – I am getting rusty). But there is enough of both coming in spades in other stories to make up for it, I promise.

I am still writing the first chapter to the new story in the adoption arc, The Green Pen but that is taking a lot longer than I originally planned, because there is so much happening in it.

As to all the secrecy surrounding Katie Hitchcock and what she has been up to, those answers will not come out in this story, but stay tuned.

I cannot update any of my 2nd season stories, new or old, until I have written Africa which deals with Ben Krieg’s departure from SeaQuest (yep still bugs me majorly to this day), and that one will be a long one, but have yet to put any words on a page.

So please bear with me, I have been planning that story for almost 10 years in my head since finishing The Perfect Christmas Present (which will be getting its own new major additions and changes)

Hope you enjoy.

Jules

Chapter Three – Gandalf’s Arrival

ESCAPE THE DARKNESS

By JULES

Author Notes – This story was begun a very long time ago, and it was never my intentions to leave it unfinished. This first was first published in 2003. I have twelve (12) chapters written – but want to add more to them and edit where necessary.

I will be going back through and editing a few scenes and adding to a few and fixing errors, now that I hopefully understand the Middle Earth world a little better since I first began. I hope to add a sprinkling of “The Hobbit” details in certain places where is needed. There will be a heavier saturation of this time period during the Rivendell scenes.

Real life just got in the way for a very long time and still is to a large extent.

I was going to add more to the synopsis, but for now I will leave you to read along and find out what happens along with Frodo and the rest of the cast as I take them out of the box. I promise to put them back when I am finished. If you think you know what might happen throughout and the ending, hopefully I have created enough twist plots and changes.

Strong friendship only – no slash. Very little romance (I am no good at writing that) – And plenty of angst, hurt/comfort. For those don’t know my previous work – this won’t be the Disney version.

This will be a very very long story, with many chapters, and many of those being long as well – just the way I write. And I usually try and describe from the viewpoint of multiple characters for any one scene. As well as describe every rock, tree branch and blade of grass along the way.

I have a very complicated plot planned, and some may not agree how I have altered the course of things, or that I introduce them and Frodo differently than the books or films. Hopefully you will continue to follow and read as the story progresses. If it hasn’t happened yet, or there isn’t enough information about something yet, that is usually deliberate on my part. Sometimes there are subtle clues that I put in chapters, other times I don’t.

This story explores the idea about what might have happened if Strider had come to the Shire to forewarn Bilbo Baggins about the Ring Wraiths that would soon come hunting for the One Ring. Commences a few days before Bilbo’s Birthday party and before Gandalf returns to the shire as well.

There are other changes that I will deliberately make to the story at a later date to explore how the journey may have changed as a result. “Hint Hint – some big changes that were the whole reason for starting this series”.

Strider had vowed to protect Bilbo when the Ring Wraiths are sent by the Dark Lord but he is unaware that the legacy of who is to carry the Ring to be destroyed falls upon a totally different Baggins hobbit.

In this story the corn fields in the shire are a little further away and I have added a lot extra between then and when the hobbit’s arrive at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Hoping to add a few funny, light hearted moments in this one in between the serious stuff.

All mention of herbs or treatments used in this story or others come about from a little research I did into some and what their effects were. Some of them have been around since ancient times so I have no problem using in this time frame but still am not sure if they would have been grown near Rivendell.

Disclaimer -I do not own any of the characters I write about. I write about those created by J.J.R. Tolkien and marvel at such a story-tellers ability to enthral us all. There are occasional quotes from the movie in this story, just to keep the continuity going strong and to add just at the appropriate time.

Chapter Three: Gandalf’s Arrival

this new chapter follows on from the last:

“Who does Frodo seek at such a pace?” Strider asked as he and Sam did their best to catch up with the more agile hobbit.

“I don’t rightly know for sure, but I be thinking that it might be somebody coming along the road in a wagon,” Sam said, trying to talk and keep up with the Ranger’s longer strides at the same time.

“For one so small, your master is swift on his feet,” Strider commented.

The Ranger and Samwise lost sight of Frodo for a short time as the terrain dipped into a grass covered gully. The grass was very tall and often reached high enough to tickle Sam’s nose. The fragrance was sweet though and the day was beginning to warm gently.

As Strider and his hobbit companion came out of the dip, they ascended a small grass covered hill where they saw Frodo standing. The grass on this embankment was an emerald shade of green and a little shorter than they had just run through.

Frodo stood beside the roadway, still listening for the approaching wagon. He could now hear distinct singing coming from the man driving the wagon. The language used would be indecipherable to most of the Shire, even Frodo himself could not translate every verse he heard.

Strider and Sam were standing only a short distance away from Frodo but did not disturb him. The Ranger could now see the wagon and its driver. The man was dressed in a long grey cloak that fell in deep folds about his body. His hands were visible beneath the long sleeves gently guiding the horse as they went.

The man’s face was one of somebody who had seen much in his lifetime but had become stronger because of it. The lines on his face were softened by his kind eyes and gentle outer expression. The man’s beard was a multitude of grey and white tones that were scarcely distinguishable from each other but blended together to match the man’s long hair.

The man wore a large, over-sized pointy hat that was made of the same hard-wearing fabric as his cloak and shimmered slightly in the dappled sunlight.

Frodo still had the smile on his face as he watched the wagon grow nearer. He now tried to change his facial expression and stood in an almost demanding pose. His arms were folded in front of him as if waiting for an explanation and there was an expectant look about him.

“You are late!” Frodo accused. The man was now pulling the wagon to a halt, still avoiding eye contact with the young hobbit.

“A wizard is never late Frodo Baggins…. nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to,” came the confident reply.

Sam seemed to be holding his breath at the moment as he watched his master and the wizard. Both of them were now intently staring at each other, neither one willing to give in first.

Strider found it most interesting that the young hobbit could show an almost defiant attitude upon will. When he had met the lad earlier he would have been mistaken to think the same thing back then.

The wizard found the corners of his mouth twitching first into a vague smile. His efforts to make Frodo waver first were mostly in vain, though it did not appear that way for long.

Both wizard and hobbit now gave each other a genuine smile of friendship before laughing heartily at each others stubbornness. Sam silently released the breath he had been holding and couldn’t help but have a grin of his own to see such pleasure on his masters face.

“It’s wonderful to see you again Gandalf,” Frodo exclaimed happily.

Before Sam could prevent it, with one leap, Frodo threw himself towards the wizard. Gandalf had no trouble catching the hobbit with his free hand, the other still holding onto the horse’s reins. The wizard now cast the leather straps to one side and returned Frodo’s show of affection with enthusiasm. Both of them were wrapped in an heart-felt embrace, and for the briefest of moments neither wanted to let go.

“And you too, Frodo, my dear lad,” the wizard replied as he pulled away slightly from the hobbit and tried to look at how much he had changed since last they had spoken to each other. It had been far too long indeed since their last face to face meeting.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to be here until after Uncle Bilbo’s birthday party,” Frodo said. The hobbit now sat on the bench-seat beside Gandalf ready to travel together to Bag End.

Until now, Sam and Strider had remained in silence, not wanting to disturb the rekindling of friendship. Frodo looked behind him and was some what surprised to see the two standing there. He had not noticed them before now. His brow wrinkled slightly as he tried to ask himself how Sam had come to find him.

Frodo could see a smile on each of their faces and he knew that they had taken quiet, reserved pleasure in seeing him happy.

“Have you two been following me?” he asked, directing his question more at Sam, than the Ranger. Frodo knew that Sam would not be able to look him in the eye and give him a false answer. There was an honesty about Samwise that Frodo had come to know a long time ago and trusted until this very minute.

“Sam was merely giving me a tour of your Shire, Frodo,” Ranger said, seeing the conflicting emotions within the hobbit that stood beside him. “We have seen many things this morning. Our paths cross again by chance and no other reason.”

“Rangers I have been told, Mr Strider are very resourceful people when they want to,” Gandalf said addressing the big person. “You are no exception to that rule and I suspect you have other motives for allowing our ‘paths cross’ as you say.”

“I am humbled by your knowledge, Gandalf the Grey,” Strider replied, a smile in his eyes as he bowed towards the wizard.

“You two know each other, Gandalf?” Frodo asked with genuine surprise, seeing the same question on Sam’s face. Up until just now, they had no indication that the wizard and the Ranger had come across each other before.

“I have travelled many places in my time, Frodo and so has Strider. While I have not known him as long as your dear Uncle Bilbo, his friendship has always been most welcomed. It is truly a surprise to see him here now I must say.” the wizard added, but the look on Gandalf’s face towards the Ranger said otherwise.

“Begging your pardon, Mister Frodo sir, but are you planning to travel back to Bag End in that wagon with, Mister Gandalf,” Sam asked nervously. He didn’t quite know how to come out and tell his master how uneasy the man made him feel at times.

Sam had only come to know of Gandalf during his infrequent visits to Bilbo and Frodo. The man had always seemed to have an air of mystery about him that the gardener could never explain in plain words.

“Would it be alright for Strider and Sam to travel back with us in your wagon Gandalf?” Frodo queried.

“Yes of course it would be alright, though I think Strider might find it a bit cramped for room with his longer legs,” Gandalf pointed out.

“Your horse travels at a very slow pace Gandalf, Sam would probably benefit from the wagon rather than I,” the Ranger said. Strider now helped Samwise into the back of the wagon.

Sam worked his way to the front of the wagon, careful not to trod on any of the crates or other cargo that seemed to cover the entire floor. There were a great many long poles poking out from underneath sheets of canvas. All of the strange looking shaped items only seemed to make the hobbit more uneasy towards the wizard.

Despite Strider’s comments, Gandalf kept the horse’s gait at a sluggish rate so that the Ranger would not have to keep to a faster pace. From where Sam stood in the wagon he was directly behind his master Frodo, just where he preferred it. At least he could keep a good eye on him from where he was positioned.

“You didn’t really think I would miss your Uncle Bilbo’s birthday party did you, Frodo?” Gandalf asked, keeping the topic of conversation casual.

“So how is the old rascal Bilbo? I hear the party its going to be a party of special magnificence.”

“You know Bilbo…. he’s got the whole place in an uproar. Half of the Shire has been invited,” Frodo informed Gandalf.

“Don’t be forgetting Mister Gandalf, Sir that it is Mister Frodo’s birthday party too,” Sam said proudly. He knew that most of the gossip about the Shire folk had been about how old Master Bilbo was going to turn. Sam was determined to make sure that Frodo’s special day was not forgotten in all of the chaos and atmosphere.

“True Samwise, I had not forgotten our young Frodo’s birthday. A special day indeed, coming of age at last,” Gandalf said, giving Frodo’s shoulder a light pat.

“With all that has been happening lately, I wish it would just come and go without any fuss,” Frodo admitted openly.

“Uncle Bilbo has had nothing but visitors for the past two weeks since he sent out the invitations. Some of them are telling him of coming to the party. Others are those folk who were either deliberately or mistakenly forgotten of the guest list.”

“I take it then that Bag End has not been quiet of late,” Gandalf commented, puffing away with his long pipe as they travelled.

“Uncle Bilbo is getting more fidgety by the day. Most of them have been decent enough to come at a suitable hour to utter their congratulations. Then there are those directly involved with the preparations and cooking, telling Uncle what dishes he should be serving and what not to have. But others who are a little upset at their being left out that they have little regard and often interrupt Bilbo’s writing or studying,” Frodo informed the wizard.

Although Gandalf grinned slightly at the image formed in his mind of how Bilbo would be reacting to his quiet time being disturbed, he could see that Frodo cared enough for the old hobbit that he too would be a little stressed about the party preparations.

Strider remained silent during the trip to Bag End although Frodo had not tried to put any other meaning into his words, the Ranger couldn’t help but think that he had only recently become one of those uninvited guests that turned up at odd hours.

“I hope your Uncle will invite me in once we arrive there.”

“Oh you don’t have to worry about that Gandalf, Uncle Bilbo has been looking forward to you coming for weeks now. What he needs to worry about later on today is the arrival of my younger cousins, Merry and Pippin. Uncle has agreed to let them stay with me at Bag End until after the party.”

“The appearance of those two should certainly be eventful,” Gandalf said. He had met Frodo’s cousins many times before, but because of their age and immaturity, together they had a tendency to cause trouble whether they were to blame or not. They usually took to playing practical jokes on unsuspecting folk which would backfire and only leave a mess to clean up or an explanation to be forthcoming.

“I am looking forward to them coming,” Frodo said as he thought about his cousins. He knew what the wizard was terming as ‘eventful’ but nevertheless at least they would someone familiar to him at the party. Frodo was a little nervous about the sheer number of relations that Bilbo had invited that he had never met before.

“Let’s talk about something else, Gandalf,” Frodo suggested. “I want to get away from all this chatter about parties and birthdays. It gives me a headache at times just thinking about what has to be done today and tomorrow.”

Sam now looked intently at his master, to see any signs of the headache that Frodo spoke about. He promised himself that he would make sure that Mister Frodo was relaxed a little by tomorrow.

“What news have you from the outside world?” Frodo asked with anticipation clearly in his words. The young hobbit was happy with his life in the Shire but often wondered what other places and peoples he would meet if he travelled outside it’s boundaries.

Whilst Sam had noted on a number of occasions his desire to stay in the Shire for what he perceived the foreseeable future, Frodo could not deny that often he had dreams about leaving for a time in search of a purpose in life.

“What do you wish to hear about, Frodo?”

“Tell me everything!” Frodo stated matter-of-factly, his eyes lighting up with a rare display of unbridled excitement.

Everything….. you become too curious for your own good my boy. It is an unnatural trait for a hobbit such as yourself be so eager to know,” Gandalf said with a light-hearted chuckle. The wizard had always known Frodo to convey a thirst for knowledge and learning. He would promote such a fine characteristic in one so eager, not thwart it for the sake of what others considered unusual or strange.

“What can I tell you my young friend, is that life in the wide world goes on much as it has this past age, full of its own comings and goings, scarcely aware of the existence of hobbits and the Shire, for which I am very thankful.”

Gandalf couldn’t how thankful he was that it was the case. In the past couple of weeks he had become increasingly concerned with matters that were beginning to appear that were best left alone and untouched. The appearance of the Ranger here today in the Hobbiton only seemed to add to his concern that such matters would not remain hidden for very much longer.

Frodo now looked back towards Sam and smiled at his friend. His eyes drifted towards the large amount of stuff that was laying in the wagon. Curiosity got the better of him as well, but he was confident enough to voice this to the wizard.

“What are you planning to do with all that you have brought, Gandalf?” Frodo enquired.

“Nothing to worry about Frodo, just a little entertainment for the Shire folk as I promised your, Uncle Bilbo.” Gandalf promised, giving the hobbit a sly wink.

“Why do I get the feeling that Merry and Pippin are not the only ones to be planning something? Seeing as you and Uncle Bilbo have been down that path before, Gandalf,” Frodo said with an knowing grin.

“Before your last ‘little bit of entertainment’, Uncle Bilbo and I were very well thought of in the Shire,” Frodo said, knowing that such a statement wasn’t entirely true. “We Bagginses never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.”

Unfortunately for Frodo, being heir to Bilbo Baggins left him with not only the older hobbit’s possessions, but also labels of stranger and unusual even before the Shire folk had gotten a chance to meet him and make a judgment themselves.

Shire folk were inclined to talk amongst themselves about matters that didn’t concern them or they had very little information about. The appearance of strangers like dwarves and Gandalf to Bag End over the years had continued to fuel the gossip and only confirmed to the folk what they had been told by others.

“If you are referring to the incident with the Dragon, I was barely involved. All I did was give your uncle a little nudge….” Gandalf began explained, not wanting to go back over the details of that most memorable of visits at this time.

“And as for adventures my dear boy, your Uncle Bilbo might have led a quieter existence for the best part of forty years, but there was a time when that hobbit could never stay in one place for his feet to take root,” Gandalf said.

“Whatever you did, you have been officially labelled a disturber of the peace,” Frodo remarked, trying his hardest to keep a straight and serious face, but soon failing and giving a little smile at the memory.

Frodo thought for a few seconds, not really confident about how to approach the next topic of conversation, and the happiness on his face disappearing to be replaced by an expression bordering on concern.

“I think Bilbo is up to something as well,” Frodo said, the words sounding more like a question to the wizard rather than a statement.

The hobbit knew that his Uncle and Gandalf had spoken often and in great detail about the comings and goings of each other by letter. Maybe Frodo couldn’t talk to Bilbo about what he had over heard the night before with Strider, but he might be able to gain some clues as to the truth through Gandalf.

Strider listened to the tone of Frodo’s words with interest. He could hear an almost underlying air of suspicion from the young hobbit. For not only the first or second time today, the Ranger found himself wondering about what thoughts.

“Really?” Gandalf replied in mock surprise. It was obvious to the wizard that Frodo knew much more about his Uncle than Bilbo realized. He would have to have a quiet word to his old friend before the party began tomorrow.

“Keep your secrets then.” Frodo answered, a little disappointment in his voice that Gandalf was unwilling to shed any light on the subject.

“I will see you back at Bag End soon,” Frodo said as he readied himself to climb down from the wagon and continue on his own way. “I will meet you and Sam back at Bag End before lunch,” he added, trying to hide the weight that his thoughts were putting upon his heart.

“But Mister Frodo you can’t… ” Sam wanted to protest.

To his dismay though his master was already heading through the trees on the other side before anybody could stop his progress. From where he sat in the wagon, he was unable to get down quickly enough to join Frodo.

“I think Frodo would rather think on his own for a while Sam,” Gandalf said, placing a reassuring hand on the hobbit’s shoulder, urging him to remain in the wagon until they reached Bilbo’s home.

Bilbo is going to have to tell him…,” Gandalf said to himself, barely audible enough for Sam and Strider to overhear.

Frodo had walked away from Gandalf’s wagon, but as soon as he was out of sight, the hobbit found himself running through the long grass and the trees. He felt slightly cross with himself for leaving so abruptly and silently berated himself for doing so, hoping that the wizard would understand and Sam wouldn’t be too upset.

His thoughts about the conversation he had overheard the night before between the Ranger Strider and his Uncle had re-ignite his fears about Bilbo leaving Bag End and the Shire.

The sudden reappearance of Gandalf to the area only made Frodo more unsettled about what the next few days would bring. Maybe Bilbo planned to leave after his birthday with the wizard.

Frodo could scarcely bare the ache in his heart if his Uncle did intend to leave. Tears had begun welling in his eyes about being left alone once more, but he refused to let them fall. Although it had been some years since his parents had left him, the feeling of abandonment didn’t take long to renew the seed of doubt in his mind.

Running prevented the unshed tears from being noticed by anybody else. There was a sense of freedom that couldn’t be ignored. Before he even realized it, Frodo had run the better of half a mile. He came to a halt and forced himself to take slow deep breaths in order to try and quell both the negative feelings he was experiencing as well as the exertion that the fast running had placed upon his body.

Frodo waited until he felt calm enough again and more composed. Putting away the fears that had resurfaced, he started to make his way back towards Bag End. If he delayed his return any longer, Sam would surely worry unnecessarily and come looking.


back at Bag End….

Gandalf, Strider and Sam were now arriving at Bag End. Sam got down from the wagon and offered to help unhitch the horse and put both the horse and wagon away safely until they were needed further.

While Sam went about these tasks, Strider and Gandalf approached the gateway to Bilbo’s home. The wizard observed the sign-age on the gate that Strider had seen the night before and chuckled to himself that the old hobbit’s personality seemed unchanged despite his age.

Gandalf proceeded to knock on the door using the bottom end of the staff he carried with him. He noticed that the dwarvish symbol that he had etched into the wood of the door a long time ago, was unnoticeable in the bright sunlight.

“No thank you…. we don’t want any more visitors, well-wishers or distant relations,” came a voice from inside. The wizard chuckled slightly as he heard the statement, assuming that Bilbo was speaking on Frodo’s behalf a little when he mentioned ‘we’.

“What about very old friends?” Gandalf asked through the closed door.

There was a distinct silence for a few seconds before the rounded doorway slowly opened. Bilbo walked forward to make sure that the sun wasn’t deceiving his eyes.

“Gandalf?” the elderly hobbit greeted cautiously, scarcely able to believe who he saw standing before him.

Until today there had been the smallest notion that the wizard would have more prevailing matters to attend to than a birthday party, even one celebrating one hundred and eleven years.

“Bilbo Baggins….” Gandalf said as he greeted his long-time friend with a warm and heart-felt embrace. The wizard could not have expressed in the words of any tongue he knew, how dear his friendship with this hobbit had become over many decades.

“You haven’t aged a day…..,” he added, noting that the hobbit carried his years excessively better than others. The old hobbit’s eyes had a gentle and kind appearance about them and his genuine smile shone through at meeting his old friend once more.

“Oh, I see you have met up with Strider,” Bilbo said as he saw the Ranger standing nearby. Bilbo now looked around for any sign of the younger companions that had journeyed out earlier that morning.

“Where is Frodo and Sam?” Bilbo enquired.

“Frodo and I have already spoken. I must say that he has matured much since I had the pleasure of talking to him. He informed me that he would be along shortly. Samwise has kindly offered to attend to my wagon and horse to aid a weary traveller,” Gandalf explained.

“Come in, come in…. where are my manners? Welcome, welcome. Can I offer you some tea, Gandalf, or something a little stronger?” Bilbo asked. “Would you join us as well Strider? It is almost time for elevensies.”

“Tea thank you,” Gandalf responded as he ducked his head and entered the smial.

The Ranger noted that the wizard had to show just as much caution as he, when walking through the lower ceilings. He had already avoided a few nasty knocks to the head by mere fractions of an inch and quick reflexes.

“I would prefer tea as well, Bilbo,” Strider said, answering the hobbit’s question.

“I’ve got a few bottles of the Old Winyards left…. 1296, a very good year. Almost as old as I am. It was laid down by my father,” Bilbo said as his two guests disappeared from sight temporarily as they took a different route to the kitchen.

“Just tea thank you,” Gandalf repeated as he and the Ranger sat down and waited patiently as Bilbo bustled about his kitchen, pouring hot water from a kettle into the teapot positioned on the table.

Gandalf noted that due to the fact that Frodo and his companion Sam had yet to return, now might be a good time to approach the subject about Bilbo’s intentions to leave the Shire. It had caused him a much concern to see the flickering emotions on Frodo’s face just a short time ago.

Before Gandalf had a chance to mention any concerns, there was another loud knock at the door. Bilbo up until then had been standing near a window, but upon hearing the knock at the front door, shrunk back from the glass panels, into the shadows that the walls provided, hoping that he wouldn’t be spotted.

“I am not at home,” Bilbo proclaimed out loud, forgetting that he had just alerted to person outside that he was indeed at home.

“I have got to get away from these confounded relatives. Hanging on the bell all day, never giving me a moment’s peace,” once again confirming some of the comments Frodo had mentioned earlier about the steady stream of unwanted visitors to Bag End recently.

The tea was now poured and Strider and the wizard remained silent as they watched the old hobbit move back and forth from the window, almost nervous as he spoke. Bilbo knew that this was the conversation that he had meant to continue with the Ranger from the previous night, as so continued.

“I want to see mountains again… mountains, Gandalf, and then find somewhere quiet where I can finish my book,” Bilbo declared, now ceasing his pacing back and forth and forcing himself to remain still by sitting on a chair at the table and facing the truth he had been trying to avoid for some time.

“So you mean to go through with your plans then?” the wizard asked cautiously, not wanting to put words into the hobbit’s mouth if he had not yet come to such a decision.

“Yes, yes, it’s all in hand. All of the arrangements have been made. I was only telling Strider the same thing only late last night,” Bilbo replied, but there was a air of uncertainty in his voice and an air of sadness as he came to realization of what he had decided to do.

“Frodo suspects something…..,” Gandalf brought up, trying to put the subject as delicately as possible to his long-time friend.

“He does?” Bilbo responded, already suspecting such to be the case. “Yes I suppose he might think something is going on the way I have been acting lately. He probably feels like I have been trying to avoid him.”

“You will tell him soon won’t you, before it’s too late,” Gandalf prompted, hoping the hobbit understood how urgent it was becoming.

“Yes, ….. I will,” Bilbo responded hesitantly, pausing a little as he answered.

“How do I do that Gandalf, without hurting him? Frodo has got such a gentle nature about him. Kindest lad I have ever come across. What will it do to him to learn that I am leaving?”

“It would hurt him more if it is your intention to leave without telling him first, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, seeing the emotions play out across the hobbit’s face like a clearly visible stain. “He is very fond of you.”

“As I am of him, Gandalf, as I am of him. I cannot put into words what that lad has come to mean to me over the years. For years and years all I did was sit here in my study writing about my travels, without anybody to share them with other than my ink and paper.”

“He would probably come with me if I asked him.”

“Do you think that is what Frodo wants to do with his life?” Gandalf asked, genuinely interested in Frodo’s future well being.

“I think, in his heart, Frodo is still in love with the Shire, the woods, the fields, little rivers…..,” Bilbo replied without finishing the sentence.

“I have no right to do that to Frodo, Gandalf. The lad came here with only sadness and uncertainty after his parents death. Living here at Bag End, I tried to change all that by trying to give him all the love, understanding and patience I could find. I wanted to give him all the love that his parents would have shed upon him, as well as my own.”

“Frodo is older now and more confident in his own self. He has friends that think the world of him, especially Samwise. He now has familiarity and firm connections with the Shire and those in it. I wouldn’t feel right asking him to give all of that up just for me and my wandering ways. It wouldn’t be fair to Frodo.”

“I am old Gandalf. I know you think I don’t look it but I am beginning to feel it in my heart,” Bilbo said feeling a little daunted by his own admission.

“I need a holiday, a very long holiday. I don’t expect I shall return, in fact I mean not to,” Bilbo uttered with an unmistakable tone of finality about the trip he was preparing to take.

The conversation did not continue much further as the three of them pondered on all that had been said. Both Strider and Gandalf couldn’t help but think of what mixed emotions Frodo might experience over the next couple of days.


Samwise had just been making his way back from finishing stabling the horse and putting away the wagon until the next day, when he saw Frodo approaching from the opposite direction.

To his surprise, Frodo looked as though he had been running. His master sounded a little out of breath and looked a little tired. “Hello, Mister Frodo, are you alright?”

“Yes Sam, thank you,” Frodo said as he forced his breathing to be deeper and slower. The brisk run had been invigorating and helped him over come some of the fears he held about his uncle’s possible impending departure. “I was running through the trees,” he admitted to his friend, who looked a little worried about him.

“Let’s go inside and get something to drink and eat then, Mister Frodo,” Sam suggested, a little perplexed as to why his master would be running in the first place. Sam knew that Frodo enjoyed daily walks and exercise but he couldn’t see a purpose to making himself out of breath unless there was a reason to.

Frodo and Sam opened the door and walked inside to the kitchen where Gandalf and the others were still drinking their tea.

“We are back, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo announced as he reached the kitchen.

“Did you enjoy the weather outside, Frodo, my dear boy?” Bilbo asked with interest, trying to push aside any of his earlier thoughts.

“Yes uncle, but I feel as though I might have spent too much time out there this day,” Frodo admitted, putting his hand to his temple and rubbing slightly at a headache that was beginning to form.

“Why is that, Frodo?” Bilbo queried, noting his nephew’s actions and the small grimace on his face.

“I did a lot of running back to here just now and I have a headache beginning. Maybe that or it is from too much sunshine overhead whilst I was reading earlier,” Frodo stated.

“Well running is good for you, but I hope you have not over done things. Why don’t you go and sit on the comfortable settee and I will bring your cup of tea when I have made a fresh pot. Sam can help me and I will put a few herbal leaves in it to help ease your headache,” Bilbo offered gently, putting a hand on the lad’s shoulder in an affectionate and comforting gesture.

“If is alright with you Uncle, I might have the tea in my room whilst I do some quiet study. I really think it was the running and not the reading that is the cause of the problem. It might help relax me along with the tea and go away,” Frodo countered in negotiation.

“Alright Frodo, let me know if you need anything else. Once I have finished with this tea, Sam and I can start on luncheon. Your cousins are due to arrive very shortly and the first thing they will be looking for apart from you is food,” Bilbo said.

“Let me know when Merry and Pippin arrive will you please Sam. Please excuse me Gandalf and Strider,” Frodo said as he turned towards his room and a little quiet time.

“Of course Mister Frodo,” Sam answered immediately, only to happy to help out as requested.

Strider and Gandalf both responded to the boy’s beautiful manners and hoped that his headache would not last too long. There was something about the lad that just made others warm up to him immediately and his honesty and sincerity were charms that he certainly possessed in abundance.


“You can take his tea in to him in a minute, Sam,” Bilbo said to the younger hobbit, seeing the frown of his face. Sam was being pulled in opposite directions at the moment, wanting to be with his master when he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent and the other direction because of his respect of Frodo’s privacy and need for solitude when studying.

Studying was something that Bilbo had never had to press on the lad, even from the very beginning of his stay at Bag End. Frodo seemed to drink up every book that the older hobbit had in his library and had a thirst for knowledge to match. Bilbo had taught Frodo to speak a limited amount of Elvish language and how to form the various symbol representations in writings and songs.

Once Frodo had a grasp of the subject material, he had taken it upon himself to further his own education through self-teaching methods. The lad preferred to do this alone for varying amounts of time, some days for hours on end, on other days, all but a few minutes before going to sleep at night to help him relax after a long day outside.

After a few minutes, Bilbo announced that Frodo’s tea was ready and Sam was more than willing to take it to his master if only to use it as an alibi to see if he still suffered from the headache.

Sam knocked respectfully on the door before hearing a quiet “Come In” from the other side and entering Frodo’s bedroom.

Frodo was seated at his study desk, with a large book open in front of him and another standing up leaning against the window. He seemed to be practising his writing skills and master the fine strokes needed to form the letters and symbols.

Sam put his master’s cup of tea down close enough for him to reach but far enough away to prevent it accidentally spilling on Frodo’s hard work. Sam couldn’t help but watch his master write with a slight twinge of envy. Frodo’s small hand made his grip on the quill quite tight to allow more control. The strokes were small but accurate and the page itself was very neat indeed.

Frodo now looked up from his work briefly and smiled at his friend, then reaching for the tea with his still bandaged hand.

“You have beautiful writing if you don’t mind me saying so, Mister Frodo,” Sam said honestly. “My fingers could never hold still long enough without smudging what I have already done,” he added, thinking back to past efforts when Frodo had been more than willing to be Sam’s tutor.

“Thank you, Sam, although I am grateful that my writing hand wasn’t the one that was scalded by the hot water or I fear that I would not be able to write at all today.”

“Does your headache still give you pain, Mister Frodo?” Sam found himself asking.

“Actually Sam, it has eased considerably even after only such a brief time. Maybe it is the tea that is helping me relax after all.”

“Would you like something to eat? Sam asked, hoping Frodo would accept. “Luncheon should be ready very shortly.”

Frodo could see the hopefulness in Sam’s eyes that he would agree to something to eat. He found himself not being able to refuse the offer. “I am getting a little hungry Sam, lunch would be nice as soon as it’s ready.”

Sam smiled broadly and went off to make sure that everything was just right for his master. Frodo watched his friend leave and then turned back to his books for a little while longer. He doubted that he would have much time tomorrow or the day after to indulge in such personal escapes.

Strider and Gandalf engaged in quiet, non-committal conversation as Bilbo and Sam went about preparing lunch for all.

Just before it was ready, there was a knock at the door, which Bilbo went to answer, muttering as he went, hoping it was not yet another visitor.

When he opened the door, he was somewhat delighted and relieved at who was present. He was met by the smiling faces of Meriadoc and Peregrin, bursting full of energy and barely able to keep still even as they waited to be invited in.

“Merry and Pippin, my dear lads, how are you and won’t you come in,” Bilbo said allowing them entry to Bag End. The two hobbits had a small suitcase each as they entered, taking in the sights and smells of Bilbo’s home.

Sam came forth and greeted Mr Frodo’s cousins. “How was your trip little masters? I will see to your bags and put them in the guest rooms,” he said, remembering duty had to come before enjoying their company.

“Hello Sam, we are fine thanks and hello to you too Uncle,” Merry said in a loud voice, speaking for his younger cousin Pippin as well.

“Lunch is almost ready, you can join us in a minute,” Bilbo said, already noting the delight that came to the youngest cousin’s face at such a statement. It was no secret that Peregrin was always hungry and ready to eat, no matter how long ago the last meal had been. There was always room for more Pippin had told his Uncle once.

“Where is Frodo?” Merry now asked, eager to see his older cousin again as he looked about the rooms for any sign of the dark-haired hobbit.

“He’s in his room studying a little before lunch. He said he had a slight headache and wished to relax a little before you arrived,” Bilbo said, hoping that would be enough of a deterrent for the two younger cousins to wait patiently until Frodo appeared on his own accord.

Merry and Pippin weren’t to be discouraged though, and both looked at each other and grinned devilishly that they knew of an alternative way to get Frodo’s attention without going to knock on his bedroom door.

“Come on Pip,” Merry said as the two left Sam holding their luggage and dashing back out the front door and around the side of the smial.

“They won’t do anything too terrible to Mr Frodo will they Master Bilbo?” Sam asked, a little worried about the two cousins who always seemed to have too much energy for their own good. They were always up to something.

“I shouldn’t think so Sam,” Bilbo said, putting a reassuring hand on the lad’s shoulder. “Frodo has been looking forward to them coming. He will put them straight if they look like getting out of control,” he added, knowing that Frodo often took on responsibility for his younger cousins whenever they visited.

In the past such loyalty had often landed Frodo in as much trouble as Merry and Pippin, but the happiness and laughter that the two cousins brought to Frodo couldn’t be replaced and Bilbo was often most grateful for that.

“Studying!” Merry said as he and Pippin moved around the side of the dwelling. Sometimes Frodo was too studious for his own good. Time to break that habit and get his cousin having some fun again.

Merry and Pippin could now see the window that belonged to Frodo’s bedroom. They could see a book of some description leaning up the bottom half of the glass and the older cousin immediately had a giggle of an idea about how to alert Frodo to his presence. No doubt they would scare him senseless, but they would have fun nevertheless.

Merry motioned for Pippin to sneak up beside the window frame like he and peer secretly through the glass. Both of them could see Frodo’s dark head bent forward as he continued what he was doing.

It took a few more minutes than Merry would have liked, but eventually they were rewarded with Frodo’s casual glance towards his book and spotting two faces leering back at him through the glass.

Frodo had been concentrating on the book but was startled by the faces at his window and tried to jump backwards away from the window. Unfortunately for Frodo, his chair was behind him and now both he and the chair fell backwards, knocking the cup of tea from the desk as well as the ink pot. It wasn’t until after this that he recognized who the faces belonged to.

“Merry and Pippin!” Frodo said in a mock annoyed voice as he surveyed the image of himself sprawled on the floor and the congealing mess not to far away on the rug of the ink and tea mixing together.

The two cousins had seen Frodo tumble backwards but knew he wasn’t hurt. They now made their way back around to the front door, hoping that neither Bilbo or Frodo would be too upset at their antics.

Sam had overheard his master’s startled cry as he fell backwards and couldn’t help but open the door to see if everything was alright. He immediately went to Frodo’s aid of helping him stand, he too concerned about the now black stain marring the rug.

“Are you alright Mister Frodo?” Sam said, seeing that the bandage on Frodo’s hand had also been stained by the ink. Looking upon his master’s clothes, they hadn’t faired much better and there was now a soaking blackened mark across the front of Frodo’s vest and trousers.

“Yes I am fine thank you, Sam,” Frodo said, trying hard not to laugh at how he must look at the moment. “Those two cousins of mine….,” he said, a smile creeping across his face.

“Frodo,” Merry said in a quiet voice behind Sam, the two cousins standing just outside the doorway, hoping to apologize for their behaviour.

“Just look at this mess you too created,” Frodo said sternly, the corners of his mouth twitching with a grin. Sam was sighing in relief that Frodo’s writing had not been spoilt by the ink. It seemed that the floor and Frodo himself wore most of what was spilt.

“We will clean it up cousin, promise,” Pippin said, feeling a little guilty as he looked at the spreading stain on Frodo’s clothes.

“Offering to do manual work now are you Pip, that’s certainly good to hear. Though I don’t think you sound like my cousin Peregrin Took,” Frodo said already seeing that they were remorseful for their childish actions.

“It’s great to see you Merry and Pip,” Frodo added and gave his cousins a warm greeting. “I really wanted that cup of tea though,” he poked in fun.

“I’ll get you another cup Mister Frodo,” Sam offered.

“That’s alright Sam, just let me get into some clean clothes and clear a bit of this mess on the floor and then we can go and see if lunch is ready,” knowing that Pip wouldn’t be needing a second invitation.

“I will get a little sugar from Master Bilbo to sprinkle over that stain. The sugar crystals should soak up most of the ink and then it can just be swept into pile and thrown away,” Sam said, explaining a little about what his mother had taught him about how to remove difficult stains from things.

“What about my clothes Sam, you don’t expect to sprinkle sugar over me to get the ink out do you?” Frodo said with a laugh.

“Oh no sir,” Sam said returning the grin to his master as such an idea. “But I can put it into a bucket of water laced with lemon and vinegar and that will certainly have your clothes looking nice again.”

“Dear Sam, you always have a solution for me when I am in need,” Frodo said.

“I hope so, Mister Frodo,” Sam said proudly that his master thought so highly of him.


Half an hour after Merry and Pippin announced their arrival to Frodo and everyone else, all were seated at the table now enjoying a leisurely lunch and gentle conversation.

Introductions had been made of Strider, though Merry seemed to be a little wary of the Ranger at first. Pip had been awed by the man’s height but gave a small smile and made sure that he sat safely on the other side of his cousin Frodo.

Sam had been about to excuse himself when Frodo asked that he stay and join them. Bilbo had also voiced that he wished for Samwise to join them at the table as had the two cousins. Sam felt himself out numbered and although he had been taught to mind his betters and remember his place, he had also been taught to be there as often as Frodo wanted him to be.

Sam couldn’t put into words how good he felt when Mister Frodo treated him no differently to other adults around him or indeed his own relatives such as Merry and Pippin.

Strider had not wanted to add to any fear that the two cousins might have over his presence but marvelled at how quickly the two seemed to forget their apprehensions and include him in their conversations around the table.

Pippin had gone into great detail about the scare that he and Merry had given Frodo a short time before and how his cousin had fallen off his chair and been smeared in ink and warm tea.

After hearing about this, Gandalf promised himself that he would need to keep a closer eye on the two mischief’s and keep them out of trouble as much as possible before the party.

“You should have seen your face, Frodo,” Pippin said with a giggle, remembering the startled look his older cousin had moments before toppling backwards.

“Don’t worry Pippin, my revenge will be swift and silent but most of all unexpected,” Frodo said in a voice so low that the younger hobbit believed every word. He couldn’t help but bait them a little and keep them guessing about what he might do to get back at them.

“You wouldn’t…..,” Pippin said in shock. In all the time he had known Frodo, he had never seen his dark-haired cousin retaliate for any of the mischief that they had caused.

“He wouldn’t do anything would he, Merry?” he now asked, seeking a little confirmation from his partner in crime.

Merry too was a little surprised at Frodo’s statement, and both had an ominous feeling as they watched their secretive cousin smile sweetly back at them. They would have thought Frodo’s comments to be baseless except for the gleam that they saw in his blue eyes.

Strider and Gandalf laughed at the sight of the two now uneasy and nervous cousins that kept looking back and forth between themselves and Frodo. He certainly knew had to get them on edge without any effort at all.

Merry had already asked why the Ranger was present, before receiving a painful kick to his shin under the table for not remembering his manners in somebody else’s house.

Bilbo had not been concerned over what he saw was Merry’s natural curiosity and gave him the same explanation as that to Sam earlier at breakfast about possible trouble presenting itself at the party.

Lunch had then continued for a time. Gandalf had asked that Strider and Bilbo assist him to unload his wagon of surprises after they had eaten and was pleased that his friends had readily agreed.

That would leave the four hobbits on their own but that didn’t present itself as such a problem. Sam had already offered to clear the lunch dishes so that Bilbo could go with Gandalf.

Bilbo had gotten up from the table towards the end of the meal and begun pouring milk into glasses for the four hobbits. He had been thinking of something else at the time and before realizing it, had half-filled Frodo’s glass with the white liquid.

Frodo’s displeasure was clearly evident on his face as he scowled at the substance in the glass as though it were a vile medicine he was being asked to drink.

“You don’t expect me to drink that stuff do you, Uncle Bilbo?” Frodo asked still eyeing the milk with disdain.

“Oh, I am sorry Frodo, I wasn’t thinking. No of course not. I know you don’t like milk. I will get you a fresh glass of juice or tea if you would prefer?” Bilbo said apologetically.

“I’ll drink it, Frodo,” Pippin said and grabbed at the glass before any reply could be given.

Sam glared at the hobbit a little, thinking that he was being very rude, but then relenting a little at Pippin’s enthusiasm. He knew that Frodo wouldn’t drink the milk anyway but he could have been more polite about it.

“I take it you do not like to drink milk, Frodo,” Strider said, noting the hobbit’s obvious dislike.

“No, Strider, there isn’t any threat that anyone could make that would force me to drink that stuff,” Frodo affirmed.

It was about now that Frodo noted how tired he was suddenly becoming. The headache that had eased earlier was beginning to resurface and he no longer had an appetite for his remaining lunch.

“I think it’s about time we headed out to help Gandalf,” Bilbo now stated. “How about you go and have a little lay down inside Frodo,” he suggested, noting his nephew grimacing slightly from the headache again.

“I might just do that, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo agreed, thinking that a nice soft pillow would be more than welcome at this point in time.

“What are we going to do if you are going to be boring and rest?” Merry said, not knowing about Frodo’s headache. Staying still for too long didn’t appeal to either Merry or Pippin.

“I think you and Pippin would be best suited to helping young Sam here clean up the dishes don’t you?” Bilbo said, not accepting no for an answer. “You can go out and play later on after your lunch has settled some.”

Merry and Pippin were not entirely happy with this idea, but though they had little choice since they would be staying under Bilbo’s roof for the next few days.

Sam was happy to see Bilbo take a little control of the situation and vowed that the two hobbits would keep their voices and games to a minimum if Mister Frodo was going to try and rest to ease his headache.

“We shan’t be long,” Bilbo said, noting the slightly disappointed looks on his visitors. “By the time you finish helping Sam we should have returned. Sam asked, hoping Frodo would accept. “Frodo can choose if he feels like going out or not later.”

Gandalf, Strider and Bilbo now prepared to leave and go to the wagon. Frodo had gotten up from the table and retrieved a pillow from his own bed before settling onto the settee in the sitting room. Somehow he didn’t like the idea of leaving Merry and Pippin unsupervised despite Sam being present.

Bilbo went to check on his nephew before walking out the door but was relieved to see Frodo already stretched out with his eyes closed attempting to doze off. He brushed a stray curl away from the lad’s forehead and smiled.

Frodo smiled at the gentle touch but didn’t open his eyes. Seeing his nephew’s face relaxed and carefree in sleep was something he could never tire of.

“Keep an eye on him for me Sam won’t you,” Bilbo said to Sam who saw them off at the door, out of earshot from Frodo.

“Don’t worry Master Bilbo, I’ll make sure he’s not disturbed,” Sam promised. Little did Sam know that his best efforts would not prove enough against Merry and Pippin.

After the others had left, Merry and Pippin had did as they were asked and for a time went about helping Sam as best they could. Their interest quickly waned though and the two hobbits soon found it more fun to play games with the plates and cutlery rather than drying then and putting them back in their rightful places.

Merry and Pippin were unaware that their game was beginning to get a little loud until they were harshly chastised by Sam to keep quiet. The sitting room was only a short distance away and Sam could see his master stirring slightly from the noise.

Merry and Pip put the dishes away as requested but although one game was quickly at an end, there was always another around the corner. Sam had now decorated the table with a large bowl of fruit. Apples and oranges, pears and grapes.

Pippin was most impressed and would have tucked in if he hadn’t been so full after lunch. He took two apples from the bowl and started to play around with them, tossing them into the air and catching them again.

It didn’t take much encouragement for Merry to join in and soon instead of throwing them up and catching them, they were tossing them backwards and forwards between each other.

Pippin had now taken a few steps away from his cousin to increase the distance of the throws, not taking any notice of which room he was standing in. The lack of walls in Bilbo’s home often made it difficult to tell which room was which.

Pippin was now standing directly in front of his slumbering cousin Frodo on the settee. He wasn’t making any excessive noise at present and Sam was forced to hold back any scathing words he might have had on the tip on his tongue.

Merry tossed a large apple at his younger cousin, but his throw was not as accurate as he hoped. A little too high and it sailed over Pippin’s head.

Merry and Pippin both cringed as they heard the unmistakable sound of the apple hitting Frodo.

Frodo woke with a fright and immediately sat up rubbing the his forehead. There was no mark but he looked at his two cousins, demanding to know why they were throwing pieces of fruit at him while he was trying to sleep.

If Merry and Pippin thought they could get any sympathy out of Samwise, they were gravely mistaken as they heard his shocked intake of breath as he watched the apple strike his sleeping master and then see Frodo sitting up with a frown on his face.

It was about this time that Gandalf and the others proceeded to walk through the front door. They heard Sam’s angry outburst and wondered what had happened to rile the normally gentle tempered hobbit.

When they entered the sitting room where the noise was ensuing from, they were greeted with Merry and Pippin looking very guilty about something and Sam threatening to do them bodily harm.

Frodo was by now wide awake again and trying not to laugh at Sam’s serious face. His headache seemed to have eased to a barely noticeable level once again but he was not impressed by the way he had been woken.

“Run!” was the suggestion that the two cousins said to each other with their eyes, a little afraid of being in the middle of both an angry Sam and a cross looking Frodo.

To be continued……..

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

I apologize for any mistakes I may have made about Lord Of The Rings history or any names I may have mis-spelled. I also hope that I have not wavered too far from people’s takes on the individual personalities of each character.

I don’t mean to make Strider and Bilbo out as so secretive. I just want to keep the idea about the Wraiths coming until later in the story. The fact that Bilbo knows that danger is coming and doesn’t do anything straight away is also not intentional and I humbly ask for readers to believe that’s what happened.

Any medicinal information is only from my own sources and not meant as true procedure to any injury or treatment that I may have used in my story so far or will in the future.

As you have probably guessed, I leave this chapter at the place where Gandalf arrives in the movie and hope that the sequence of events that I have included is at least logical.

Not much has happened yet. More to come. In next chapter, the party preparations take place that I envisaged happened prior in the movie. A few little incidents to come involving Lotho.

I know the appearance of a big person in the Shire would be out of place too, but I need that to make the story work. I just need both people, elves, dwarves and hobbits everywhere to suspend what they know to be true for a while and take what I write as happening.

I have also referred to Frodo as a boy in many parts – not intending for him to be called a human “boy” – just makes the story flow a little easier at times instead of constantly using “the hobbit” and similar descriptions.

Any information that I write in my Lord Of The Rings stories about eating flows on that in the two other fandoms I write – the main characters in each all are finicky eaters and just push the food around on a plate or go for long lengths without anything to eat or refuse to do so. The other two are like this in all stories that I know about them as well.

One other character also dislikes milk to the point of refusing to drink it – I am going to include this for Frodo later on – just something I dreamed up – nothing from the book or the movie. I wanted to write a close relationship between Bilbo and Frodo as well as friendship Frodo and Aragorn and Sam too.

Please review and let me know what you think. I will try and update as soon as I can, but please be patient as time is often not on my side.

Jules6

ESCAPE THE DARKNESS

By JULES

Author Notes – This story was begun a very long time ago, and it was never my intentions to leave it unfinished. This first was first published in 2003. I have twelve (12) chapters written – but want to add more to them and edit where necessary.

I will be going back through and editing a few scenes and adding to a few and fixing errors, now that I hopefully understand the Middle Earth world a little better since I first began. I hope to add a sprinkling of “The Hobbit” details in certain places where is needed. There will be a heavier saturation of this time period during the Rivendell scenes.

Real life just got in the way for a very long time and still is to a large extent.

I was going to add more to the synopsis, but for now I will leave you to read along and find out what happens along with Frodo and the rest of the cast as I take them out of the box. I promise to put them back when I am finished. If you think you know what might happen throughout and the ending, hopefully I have created enough twist plots and changes.

Strong friendship only – no slash. Very little romance (I am no good at writing that) – And plenty of angst, hurt/comfort. For those don’t know my previous work – this won’t be the Disney version.

This will be a very very long story, with many chapters, and many of those being long as well – just the way I write. And I usually try and describe from the viewpoint of multiple characters for any one scene. As well as describe every rock, tree branch and blade of grass along the way.

I have a very complicated plot planned, and some may not agree how I have altered the course of things, or that I introduce them and Frodo differently than the books or films. Hopefully you will continue to follow and read as the story progresses. If it hasn’t happened yet, or there isn’t enough information about something yet, that is usually deliberate on my part. Sometimes there are subtle clues that I put in chapters, other times I don’t.

This story explores the idea about what might have happened if Strider had come to the Shire to forewarn Bilbo Baggins about the Ring Wraiths that would soon come hunting for the One Ring. Commences a few days before Bilbo’s Birthday party and before Gandalf returns to the shire as well.

There are other changes that I will deliberately make to the story at a later date to explore how the journey may have changed as a result. “Hint Hint – some big changes that were the whole reason for starting this series”.

Strider had vowed to protect Bilbo when the Ring Wraiths are sent by the Dark Lord but he is unaware that the legacy of who is to carry the Ring to be destroyed falls upon a totally different Baggins hobbit.

In this story the corn fields in the shire are a little further away and I have added a lot extra between then and when the hobbit’s arrive at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Hoping to add a few funny, light hearted moments in this one in between the serious stuff.

All mention of herbs or treatments used in this story or others come about from a little research I did into some and what their effects were. Some of them have been around since ancient times so I have no problem using in this time frame but still am not sure if they would have been grown near Rivendell.

Disclaimer -I do not own any of the characters I write about. I write about those created by J.J.R. Tolkien and marvel at such a story-tellers ability to enthral us all. There are occasional quotes from the movie in this story, just to keep the continuity going strong and to add just at the appropriate time.

Chapter Three: Gandalf’s Arrival

this new chapter follows on from the last:

“Who does Frodo seek at such a pace?” Strider asked as he and Sam did their best to catch up with the more agile hobbit.

“I don’t rightly know for sure, but I be thinking that it might be somebody coming along the road in a wagon,” Sam said, trying to talk and keep up with the Ranger’s longer strides at the same time.

“For one so small, your master is swift on his feet,” Strider commented.

The Ranger and Samwise lost sight of Frodo for a short time as the terrain dipped into a grass covered gully. The grass was very tall and often reached high enough to tickle Sam’s nose. The fragrance was sweet though and the day was beginning to warm gently.

As Strider and his hobbit companion came out of the dip, they ascended a small grass covered hill where they saw Frodo standing. The grass on this embankment

was an emerald shade of green and a little shorter than they had just run through.

Frodo stood beside the roadway, still listening for the approaching wagon. He could now hear distinct singing coming from the man driving the wagon. The language used would be indecipherable to most of the Shire, even Frodo himself could not translate every verse he heard.

Strider and Sam were standing only a short distance away from Frodo but did not disturb him. The Ranger could now see the wagon and its driver. The man was dressed in a long grey cloak that fell in deep folds about his body. His hands were visible beneath the long sleeves gently guiding the horse as they went.

The man’s face was one of somebody who had seen much in his lifetime but had become stronger because of it. The lines on his face were softened by his kind eyes and gentle outer expression. The man’s beard was a multitude of grey and white tones that were scarcely distinguishable from each other but blended together to match the man’s long hair.

The man wore a large, over-sized pointy hat that was made of the same hard-wearing fabric as his cloak and shimmered slightly in the dappled sunlight.

Frodo still had the smile on his face as he watched the wagon grow nearer. He now tried to change his facial expression and stood in an almost demanding pose. His arms were folded in front of him as if waiting for an explanation and there was an expectant look about him.

“You are late!” Frodo accused. The man was now pulling the wagon to a halt, still avoiding eye contact with the young hobbit.

“A wizard is never late Frodo Baggins…. nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to,” came the confident reply.

Sam seemed to be holding his breath at the moment as he watched his master and the wizard. Both of them were now intently staring at each other, neither one willing to give in first.

Strider found it most interesting that the young hobbit could show an almost defiant attitude upon will. When he had met the lad earlier he would have been mistaken to think the same thing back then.

The wizard found the corners of his mouth twitching first into a vague smile. His efforts to make Frodo waver first were mostly in vain, though it did not appear that way for long.

Both wizard and hobbit now gave each other a genuine smile of friendship before laughing heartily at each others stubbornness. Sam silently released the breath he had been holding and couldn’t help but have a grin of his own to see such pleasure on his masters face.

“It’s wonderful to see you again Gandalf,” Frodo exclaimed happily.

Before Sam could prevent it, with one leap, Frodo threw himself towards the wizard. Gandalf had no trouble catching the hobbit with his free hand, the other still holding onto the horse’s reins. The wizard now cast the leather straps to one side and returned Frodo’s show of affection with enthusiasm. Both of them were wrapped in an heart-felt embrace, and for the briefest of moments neither wanted to let go.

“And you too, Frodo, my dear lad,” the wizard replied as he pulled away slightly from the hobbit and tried to look at how much he had changed since last they had spoken to each other. It had been far too long indeed since their last face to face meeting.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to be here until after Uncle Bilbo’s birthday party,” Frodo said. The hobbit now sat on the bench-seat beside Gandalf ready to travel together to Bag End.

Until now, Sam and Strider had remained in silence, not wanting to disturb the rekindling of friendship. Frodo looked behind him and was some what surprised to see the two standing there. He had not noticed them before now. His brow wrinkled slightly as he tried to ask himself how Sam had come to find him.

Frodo could see a smile on each of their faces and he knew that they had taken quiet, reserved pleasure in seeing him happy.

“Have you two been following me?” he asked, directing his question more at Sam, than the Ranger. Frodo knew that Sam would not be able to look him in the eye and give him a false answer. There was an honesty about Samwise that Frodo had come to know a long time ago and trusted until this very minute.

“Sam was merely giving me a tour of your Shire, Frodo,” Ranger said, seeing the conflicting emotions within the hobbit that stood beside him. “We have seen many things this morning. Our paths cross again by chance and no other reason.”

“Rangers I have been told, Mr Strider are very resourceful people when they want to,” Gandalf said addressing the big person. “You are no exception to that rule and I suspect you have other motives for allowing our ‘paths cross’ as you say.”

“I am humbled by your knowledge, Gandalf the Grey,” Strider replied, a smile in his eyes as he bowed towards the wizard.

“You two know each other, Gandalf?” Frodo asked with genuine surprise, seeing the same question on Sam’s face. Up until just now, they had no indication that the wizard and the Ranger had come across each other before.

“I have travelled many places in my time, Frodo and so has Strider. While I have not known him as long as your dear Uncle Bilbo, his friendship has always been most welcomed. It is truly a surprise to see him here now I must say.” the wizard added, but the look on Gandalf’s face towards the Ranger said otherwise.

“Begging your pardon, Mister Frodo sir, but are you planning to travel back to Bag End in that wagon with, Mister Gandalf,” Sam asked nervously. He didn’t quite know how to come out and tell his master how uneasy the man made him feel at times.

Sam had only come to know of Gandalf during his infrequent visits to Bilbo and Frodo. The man had always seemed to have an air of mystery about him that the gardener could never explain in plain words.

“Would it be alright for Strider and Sam to travel back with us in your wagon Gandalf?” Frodo queried.

“Yes of course it would be alright, though I think Strider might find it a bit cramped for room with his longer legs,” Gandalf pointed out.

“Your horse travels at a very slow pace Gandalf, Sam would probably benefit from the wagon rather than I,” the Ranger said. Strider now helped Samwise into the back of the wagon.

Sam worked his way to the front of the wagon, careful not to trod on any of the crates or other cargo that seemed to cover the entire floor. There were a great many long poles poking out from underneath sheets of canvas. All of the strange looking shaped items only seemed to make the hobbit more uneasy towards the wizard.

Despite Strider’s comments, Gandalf kept the horse’s gait at a sluggish rate so that the Ranger would not have to keep to a faster pace. From where Sam stood in the wagon he was directly behind his master Frodo, just where he preferred it. At least he could keep a good eye on him from where he was positioned.

“You didn’t really think I would miss your Uncle Bilbo’s birthday party did you, Frodo?” Gandalf asked, keeping the topic of conversation casual.

“So how is the old rascal Bilbo? I hear the party its going to be a party of special magnificence.”

“You know Bilbo…. he’s got the whole place in an uproar. Half of the Shire has been invited,” Frodo informed Gandalf.

“Don’t be forgetting Mister Gandalf, Sir that it is Mister Frodo’s birthday party too,” Sam said proudly. He knew that most of the gossip about the Shire folk had been about how old Master Bilbo was going to turn. Sam was determined to make sure that Frodo’s special day was not forgotten in all of the chaos and atmosphere.

“True Samwise, I had not forgotten our young Frodo’s birthday. A special day indeed, coming of age at last,” Gandalf said, giving Frodo’s shoulder a light pat.

“With all that has been happening lately, I wish it would just come and go without any fuss,” Frodo admitted openly.

“Uncle Bilbo has had nothing but visitors for the past two weeks since he sent out the invitations. Some of them are telling him of coming to the party. Others are those folk who were either deliberately or mistakenly forgotten of the guest list.”

“I take it then that Bag End has not been quiet of late,” Gandalf commented, puffing away with his long pipe as they travelled.

“Uncle Bilbo is getting more fidgety by the day. Most of them have been decent enough to come at a suitable hour to utter their congratulations. Then there are those directly involved with the preparations and cooking, telling Uncle what dishes he should be serving and what not to have. But others who are a little upset at their being left out that they have little regard and often interrupt Bilbo’s writing or studying,” Frodo informed the wizard.

Although Gandalf grinned slightly at the image formed in his mind of how Bilbo would be reacting to his quiet time being disturbed, he could see that Frodo cared enough for the old hobbit that he too would be a little stressed about the party preparations.

Strider remained silent during the trip to Bag End although Frodo had not tried to put any other meaning into his words, the Ranger couldn’t help but think that he had only recently become one of those uninvited guests that turned up at odd hours.

“I hope your Uncle will invite me in once we arrive there.”

“Oh you don’t have to worry about that Gandalf, Uncle Bilbo has been looking forward to you coming for weeks now. What he needs to worry about later on today is the arrival of my younger cousins, Merry and Pippin. Uncle has agreed to let them stay with me at Bag End until after the party.”

“The appearance of those two should certainly be eventful,” Gandalf said. He had met Frodo’s cousins many times before, but because of their age and immaturity, together they had a tendency to cause trouble whether they were to blame or not. They usually took to playing practical jokes on unsuspecting folk which would backfire and only leave a mess to clean up or an explanation to be forthcoming.

“I am looking forward to them coming,” Frodo said as he thought about his cousins. He knew what the wizard was terming as ‘eventful’ but nevertheless at least they would someone familiar to him at the party. Frodo was a little nervous about the sheer number of relations that Bilbo had invited that he had never met before.

“Let’s talk about something else, Gandalf,” Frodo suggested. “I want to get away from all this chatter about parties and birthdays. It gives me a headache at times just thinking about what has to be done today and tomorrow.”

Sam now looked intently at his master, to see any signs of the headache that Frodo spoke about. He promised himself that he would make sure that Mister Frodo was relaxed a little by tomorrow.

“What news have you from the outside world?” Frodo asked with anticipation clearly in his words. The young hobbit was happy with his life in the Shire but often wondered what other places and peoples he would meet if he travelled outside it’s boundaries.

Whilst Sam had noted on a number of occasions his desire to stay in the Shire for what he perceived the foreseeable future, Frodo could not deny that often he had dreams about leaving for a time in search of a purpose in life.

“What do you wish to hear about, Frodo?”

“Tell me everything!” Frodo stated matter-of-factly, his eyes lighting up with a rare display of unbridled excitement.

“Everything….. you become too curious for your own good my boy. It is an unnatural trait for a hobbit such as yourself be so eager to know,” Gandalf said with a light-hearted chuckle. The wizard had always known Frodo to convey a thirst for knowledge and learning. He would promote such a fine characteristic in one so eager, not thwart it for the sake of what others considered unusual or strange.

“What can I tell you my young friend, is that life in the wide world goes on much as it has this past age, full of its own comings and goings, scarcely aware of the existence of hobbits and the Shire, for which I am very thankful.”

Gandalf couldn’t how thankful he was that it was the case. In the past couple of weeks he had become increasingly concerned with matters that were beginning to appear that were best left alone and untouched. The appearance of the Ranger here today in the Hobbiton only seemed to add to his concern that such matters would not remain hidden for very much longer.

Frodo now looked back towards Sam and smiled at his friend. His eyes drifted towards the large amount of stuff that was laying in the wagon. Curiosity got the better of him as well, but he was confident enough to voice this to the wizard.

“What are you planning to do with all that you have brought, Gandalf?” Frodo enquired.

“Nothing to worry about Frodo, just a little entertainment for the Shire folk as I promised your, Uncle Bilbo.” Gandalf promised, giving the hobbit a sly wink.

“Why do I get the feeling that Merry and Pippin are not the only ones to be planning something? Seeing as you and Uncle Bilbo have been down that path before, Gandalf,” Frodo said with an knowing grin.

“Before your last ‘little bit of entertainment’, Uncle Bilbo and I were very well thought of in the Shire,” Frodo said, knowing that such a statement wasn’t entirely true. “We Bagginses never had any adventures or did anything unexpected.”

Unfortunately for Frodo, being heir to Bilbo Baggins left him with not only the older hobbit’s possessions, but also labels of stranger and unusual even before the Shire folk had gotten a chance to meet him and make a judgment themselves.

Shire folk were inclined to talk amongst themselves about matters that didn’t concern them or they had very little information about. The appearance of strangers like dwarves and Gandalf to Bag End over the years had continued to fuel the gossip and only confirmed to the folk what they had been told by others.

“If you are referring to the incident with the Dragon, I was barely involved. All I did was give your uncle a little nudge….” Gandalf began explained, not wanting to go back over the details of that most memorable of visits at this time.

“And as for adventures my dear boy, your Uncle Bilbo might have led a quieter existence for the best part of forty years, but there was a time when that hobbit could never stay in one place for his feet to take root,” Gandalf said.

“Whatever you did, you have been officially labelled a disturber of the peace,” Frodo remarked, trying his hardest to keep a straight and serious face, but soon failing and giving a little smile at the memory.

Frodo thought for a few seconds, not really confident about how to approach the next topic of conversation, and the happiness on his face disappearing to be replaced by an expression bordering on concern.

“I think Bilbo is up to something as well,” Frodo said, the words sounding more like a question to the wizard rather than a statement.

The hobbit knew that his Uncle and Gandalf had spoken often and in great detail about the comings and goings of each other by letter. Maybe Frodo couldn’t talk to Bilbo about what he had over heard the night before with Strider, but he might be able to gain some clues as to the truth through Gandalf.

Strider listened to the tone of Frodo’s words with interest. He could hear an almost underlying air of suspicion from the young hobbit. For not only the first or second time today, the Ranger found himself wondering about what thoughts.

“Really?” Gandalf replied in mock surprise. It was obvious to the wizard that Frodo knew much more about his Uncle than Bilbo realized. He would have to have a quiet word to his old friend before the party began tomorrow.

“Keep your secrets then.” Frodo answered, a little disappointment in his voice that Gandalf was unwilling to shed any light on the subject.

“I will see you back at Bag End soon,” Frodo said as he readied himself to climb down from the wagon and continue on his own way. “I will meet you and Sam back at Bag End before lunch,” he added, trying to hide the weight that his thoughts were putting upon his heart.

“But Mister Frodo you can’t… ” Sam wanted to protest.

To his dismay though his master was already heading through the trees on the other side before anybody could stop his progress. From where he sat in the wagon, he was unable to get down quickly enough to join Frodo.

“I think Frodo would rather think on his own for a while Sam,” Gandalf said, placing a reassuring hand on the hobbit’s shoulder, urging him to remain in the wagon until they reached Bilbo’s home.

Bilbo is going to have to tell him…,” Gandalf said to himself, barely audible enough for Sam and Strider to overhear.

Frodo had walked away from Gandalf’s wagon, but as soon as he was out of sight, the hobbit found himself running through the long grass and the trees. He felt slightly cross with himself for leaving so abruptly and silently berated himself for doing so, hoping that the wizard would understand and Sam wouldn’t be too upset.

His thoughts about the conversation he had overheard the night before between the Ranger Strider and his Uncle had re-ignite his fears about Bilbo leaving Bag End and the Shire.

The sudden reappearance of Gandalf to the area only made Frodo more unsettled about what the next few days would bring. Maybe Bilbo planned to leave after his birthday with the wizard.

Frodo could scarcely bare the ache in his heart if his Uncle did intend to leave. Tears had begun welling in his eyes about being left alone once more, but he refused to let them fall. Although it had been some years since his parents had left him, the feeling of abandonment didn’t take long to renew the seed of doubt in his mind.

Running prevented the unshed tears from being noticed by anybody else. There was a sense of freedom that couldn’t be ignored. Before he even realized it, Frodo had run the better of half a mile. He came to a halt and forced himself to take slow deep breaths in order to try and quell both the negative feelings he was experiencing as well as the exertion that the fast running had placed upon his body.

Frodo waited until he felt calm enough again and more composed. Putting away the fears that had resurfaced, he started to make his way back towards Bag End. If he delayed his return any longer, Sam would surely worry unnecessarily and come looking.

________________________________________________________________

back at Bag End….

Gandalf, Strider and Sam were now arriving at Bag End. Sam got down from the wagon and offered to help unhitch the horse and put both the horse and wagon away safely until they were needed further.

While Sam went about these tasks, Strider and Gandalf approached the gateway to Bilbo’s home. The wizard observed the sign-age on the gate that Strider had seen the night before and chuckled to himself that the old hobbit’s personality seemed unchanged despite his age.

Gandalf proceeded to knock on the door using the bottom end of the staff he carried with him. He noticed that the dwarvish symbol that he had etched into the wood of the door a long time ago, was unnoticeable in the bright sunlight.

“No thank you…. we don’t want any more visitors, well-wishers or distant relations,” came a voice from inside. The wizard chuckled slightly as he heard the statement, assuming that Bilbo was speaking on Frodo’s behalf a little when he mentioned ‘we’.

“What about very old friends?” Gandalf asked through the closed door.

There was a distinct silence for a few seconds before the rounded doorway slowly opened. Bilbo walked forward to make sure that the sun wasn’t deceiving his eyes.

“Gandalf?” the elderly hobbit greeted cautiously, scarcely able to believe who he saw standing before him.

Until today there had been the smallest notion that the wizard would have more prevailing matters to attend to than a birthday party, even one celebrating one hundred and eleven years.

“Bilbo Baggins….” Gandalf said as he greeted his long-time friend with a warm and heart-felt embrace. The wizard could not have expressed in the words of any tongue he knew, how dear his friendship with this hobbit had become over many decades.

“You haven’t aged a day…..,” he added, noting that the hobbit carried his years excessively better than others. The old hobbit’s eyes had a gentle and kind appearance about them and his genuine smile shone through at meeting his old friend once more.

“Oh, I see you have met up with Strider,” Bilbo said as he saw the Ranger standing nearby. Bilbo now looked around for any sign of the younger companions that had journeyed out earlier that morning.

“Where is Frodo and Sam?” Bilbo enquired.

“Frodo and I have already spoken. I must say that he has matured much since I had the pleasure of talking to him. He informed me that he would be along shortly. Samwise has kindly offered to attend to my wagon and horse to aid a weary traveller,” Gandalf explained.

“Come in, come in…. where are my manners? Welcome, welcome. Can I offer you some tea, Gandalf, or something a little stronger?” Bilbo asked. “Would you join us as well Strider? It is almost time for elevensies.”

“Tea thank you,” Gandalf responded as he ducked his head and entered the smial.

The Ranger noted that the wizard had to show just as much caution as he, when walking through the lower ceilings. He had already avoided a few nasty knocks to the head by mere fractions of an inch and quick reflexes.

“I would prefer tea as well, Bilbo,” Strider said, answering the hobbit’s question.

“I’ve got a few bottles of the Old Winyards left…. 1296, a very good year. Almost as old as I am. It was laid down by my father,” Bilbo said as his two guests disappeared from sight temporarily as they took a different route to the kitchen.

“Just tea thank you” Gandalf repeated as he and the Ranger sat down and waited patiently as Bilbo bustled about his kitchen, pouring hot water from a kettle into the teapot positioned on the table.

Gandalf noted that due to the fact that Frodo and his companion Sam had yet to return, now might be a good time to approach the subject about Bilbo’s intentions to leave the Shire. It had caused him a much concern to see the flickering emotions on Frodo’s face just a short time ago.

Before Gandalf had a chance to mention any concerns, there was another loud knock at the door. Bilbo up until then had been standing near a window, but upon hearing the knock at the front door, shrunk back from the glass panels, into the shadows that the walls provided, hoping that he wouldn’t be spotted.

“I am not at home,” Bilbo proclaimed out loud, forgetting that he had just alerted to person outside that he was indeed at home. “I have got to get away from these confounded relatives. Hanging on the bell all day, never giving me a moment’s peace,” once again confirming some of the comments Frodo had mentioned earlier about the steady stream of unwanted visitors to Bag End recently.

The tea was now poured and Strider and the wizard remained silent as they watched the old hobbit move back and forth from the window, almost nervous as he spoke. Bilbo knew that this was the conversation that he had meant to continue with the Ranger from the previous night, as so continued.

“I want to see mountains again… mountains, Gandalf, and then find somewhere quiet where I can finish my book,” Bilbo declared, now ceasing his pacing back and forth and forcing himself to remain still by sitting on a chair at the table and facing the truth he had been trying to avoid for some time.

“So you mean to go through with your plans then?” the wizard asked cautiously, not wanting to put words into the hobbit’s mouth if he had not yet come to such a decision.

“Yes, yes, it’s all in hand. All of the arrangements have been made. I was only telling Strider the same thing only late last night,” Bilbo replied, but there was a air of uncertainty in his voice and an air of sadness as he came to realization of what he had decided to do.

“Frodo suspects something…..,” Gandalf brought up, trying to put the subject as delicately as possible to his long-time friend.

“He does?” Bilbo responded, already suspecting such to be the case. “Yes I suppose he might think something is going on the way I have been acting lately. He probably feels like I have been trying to avoid him.”

“You will tell him soon won’t you, before it’s too late,” Gandalf prompted, hoping the hobbit understood how urgent it was becoming.

“Yes, ….. I will,” Bilbo responded hesitantly, pausing a little as he answered.

“How do I do that Gandalf, without hurting him? Frodo has got such a gentle nature about him. Kindest lad I have ever come across. What will it do to him to learn that I am leaving?”

“It would hurt him more if it is your intention to leave without telling him first, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, seeing the emotions play out across the hobbit’s face like a clearly visible stain. “He is very fond of you.”

“As I am of him, Gandalf, as I am of him. I cannot put into words what that lad has come to mean to me over the years. For years and years all I did was sit here in my study writing about my travels, without anybody to share them with other than my ink and paper.”

“He would probably come with me if I asked him.”

“Do you think that is what Frodo wants to do with his life?” Gandalf asked, genuinely interested in Frodo’s future well being.

“I think, in his heart, Frodo is still in love with the Shire, the woods, the fields, little rivers…..,” Bilbo replied without finishing the sentence.

“I have no right to do that to Frodo, Gandalf. The lad came here with only sadness and uncertainty after his parents death. Living here at Bag End, I tried to change all that by trying to give him all the love, understanding and patience I could find. I wanted to give him all the love that his parents would have shed upon him, as well as my own.”

“Frodo is older now and more confident in his own self. He has friends that think the world of him, especially Samwise. He now has familiarity and firm connections with the Shire and those in it. I wouldn’t feel right asking him to give all of that up just for me and my wandering ways. It wouldn’t be fair to Frodo.”

“I am old Gandalf. I know you think I don’t look it but I am beginning to feel it in my heart,” Bilbo said feeling a little daunted by his own admission.

“I need a holiday, a very long holiday. I don’t expect I shall return, in fact I mean not to,” Bilbo uttered with an unmistakable tone of finality about the trip he was preparing to take.

The conversation did not continue much further as the three of them pondered on all that had been said. Both Strider and Gandalf couldn’t help but think of what mixed emotions Frodo might experience over the next couple of days.

_______________________________________________________________

Samwise had just been making his way back from finishing stabling the horse and putting away the wagon until the next day, when he saw Frodo approaching from the opposite direction.

To his surprise, Frodo looked as though he had been running. His master sounded a little out of breath and looked a little tired. “Hello, Mister Frodo, are you alright?”

“Yes Sam, thank you,” Frodo said as he forced his breathing to be deeper and slower. The brisk run had been invigorating and helped him over come some of the fears he held about his uncle’s possible impending departure. “I was running through the trees,” he admitted to his friend, who looked a little worried about him.

“Let’s go inside and get something to drink and eat then, Mister Frodo,” Sam suggested, a little perplexed as to why his master would be running in the first place. Sam knew that Frodo enjoyed daily walks and exercise but he couldn’t see a purpose to making himself out of breath unless there was a reason to.

Frodo and Sam opened the door and walked inside to the kitchen where Gandalf and the others were still drinking their tea.

“We are back, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo announced as he reached the kitchen.

“Did you enjoy the weather outside, Frodo, my dear boy?” Bilbo asked with interest, trying to push aside any of his earlier thoughts.

“Yes uncle, but I feel as though I might have spent too much time out there this day,” Frodo admitted, putting his hand to his temple and rubbing slightly at a headache that was beginning to form.

“Why is that, Frodo?” Bilbo queried, noting his nephew’s actions and the small grimace on his face.

“I did a lot of running back to here just now and I have a headache beginning. Maybe that or it is from too much sunshine overhead whilst I was reading earlier,” Frodo stated.

“Well running is good for you, but I hope you have not over done things. Why don’t you go and sit on the comfortable settee and I will bring your cup of tea when I have made a fresh pot. Sam can help me and I will put a few herbal leaves in it to help ease your headache,” Bilbo offered gently, putting a hand on the lad’s shoulder in an affectionate and comforting gesture.

“If is alright with you Uncle, I might have the tea in my room whilst I do some quiet study. I really think it was the running and not the reading that is the cause of the problem. It might help relax me along with the tea and go away,” Frodo countered in negotiation.

“Alright Frodo, let me know if you need anything else. Once I have finished with this tea, Sam and I can start on luncheon. Your cousins are due to arrive very shortly and the first thing they will be looking for apart from you is food,” Bilbo said.

“Let me know when Merry and Pippin arrive will you please Sam. Please excuse me Gandalf and Strider,” Frodo said as he turned towards his room and a little quiet time.

“Of course Mister Frodo,” Sam answered immediately, only to happy to help out as requested.

Strider and Gandalf both responded to the boy’s beautiful manners and hoped that his headache would not last too long. There was something about the lad that just made others warm up to him immediately and his honesty and sincerity were charms that he certainly possessed in abundance.

______________________________________________________________

“You can take his tea in to him in a minute, Sam,” Bilbo said to the younger hobbit, seeing the frown of his face. Sam was being pulled in opposite directions at the moment, wanting to be with his master when he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent and the other direction because of his respect of Frodo’s privacy and need for solitude when studying.

Studying was something that Bilbo had never had to press on the lad, even from the very beginning of his stay at Bag End. Frodo seemed to drink up every book that the older hobbit had in his library and had a thirst for knowledge to match. Bilbo had taught Frodo to speak a limited amount of Elvish language and how to form the various symbol representations in writings and songs.

Once Frodo had a grasp of the subject material, he had taken it upon himself to further his own education through self-teaching methods. The lad preferred to do this alone for varying amounts of time, some days for hours on end, on other days, all but a few minutes before going to sleep at night to help him relax after a long day outside.

After a few minutes, Bilbo announced that Frodo’s tea was ready and Sam was more than willing to take it to his master if only to use it as an alibi to see if he still suffered from the headache.

Sam knocked respectfully on the door before hearing a quiet “Come In” from the other side and entering Frodo’s bedroom.

Frodo was seated at his study desk, with a large book open in front of him and another standing up leaning against the window. He seemed to be practising his writing skills and master the fine strokes needed to form the letters and symbols.

Sam put his master’s cup of tea down close enough for him to reach but far enough away to prevent it accidentally spilling on Frodo’s hard work. Sam couldn’t help but watch his master write with a slight twinge of envy. Frodo’s small hand made his grip on the quill quite tight to allow more control. The strokes were small but accurate and the page itself was very neat indeed.

Frodo now looked up from his work briefly and smiled at his friend, then reaching for the tea with his still bandaged hand.

“You have beautiful writing if you don’t mind me saying so, Mister Frodo,” Sam said honestly. “My fingers could never hold still long enough without smudging what I have already done,” he added, thinking back to past efforts when Frodo had been more than willing to be Sam’s tutor.

“Thank you, Sam, although I am grateful that my writing hand wasn’t the one that was scalded by the hot water or I fear that I would not be able to write at all today.”

“Does your headache still give you pain, Mister Frodo?” Sam found himself asking.

“Actually Sam, it has eased considerably even after only such a brief time. Maybe it is the tea that is helping me relax after all.”

“Would you like something to eat? Sam asked, hoping Frodo would accept. “Luncheon should be ready very shortly.”

Frodo could see the hopefulness in Sam’s eyes that he would agree to something to eat. He found himself not being able to refuse the offer. “I am getting a little hungry Sam, lunch would be nice as soon as it’s ready.”

Sam smiled broadly and went off to make sure that everything was just right for his master. Frodo watched his friend leave and then turned back to his books for a little while longer. He doubted that he would have much time tomorrow or the day after to indulge in such personal escapes.

Strider and Gandalf engaged in quiet, non-committal conversation as Bilbo and Sam went about preparing lunch for all.

Just before it was ready, there was a knock at the door, which Bilbo went to answer, muttering as he went, hoping it was not yet another visitor.

When he opened the door, he was somewhat delighted and relieved at who was present. He was met by the smiling faces of Meriadoc and Peregrin, bursting full of energy and barely able to keep still even as they waited to be invited in.

“Merry and Pippin, my dear lads, how are you and won’t you come in,” Bilbo said allowing them entry to Bag End. The two hobbits had a small suitcase each as they entered, taking in the sights and smells of Bilbo’s home.

Sam came forth and greeted Mr Frodo’s cousins. “How was your trip little masters? I will see to your bags and put them in the guest rooms,” he said, remembering duty had to come before enjoying their company.

“Hello Sam, we are fine thanks and hello to you too Uncle,” Merry said in a loud voice, speaking for his younger cousin Pippin as well.

“Lunch is almost ready, you can join us in a minute,” Bilbo said, already noting the delight that came to the youngest cousin’s face at such a statement. It was no secret that Peregrin was always hungry and ready to eat, no matter how long ago the last meal had been. There was always room for more Pippin had told his Uncle once.

“Where is Frodo?” Merry now asked, eager to see his older cousin again as he looked about the rooms for any sign of the dark-haired hobbit.

“He’s in his room studying a little before lunch. He said he had a slight headache and wished to relax a little before you arrived,” Bilbo said, hoping that would be enough of a deterrent for the two younger cousins to wait patiently until Frodo appeared on his own accord.

Merry and Pippin weren’t to be discouraged though, and both looked at each other and grinned devilishly that they knew of an alternative way to get Frodo’s attention without going to knock on his bedroom door.

“Come on Pip,” Merry said as the two left Sam holding their luggage and dashing back out the front door and around the side of the smial.

“They won’t do anything too terrible to Mr Frodo will they Master Bilbo?” Sam asked, a little worried about the two cousins who always seemed to have too much energy for their own good. They were always up to something.

“I shouldn’t think so Sam,” Bilbo said, putting a reassuring hand on the lad’s shoulder. “Frodo has been looking forward to them coming. He will put them straight if they look like getting out of control,” he added, knowing that Frodo often took on responsibility for his younger cousins whenever they visited.

In the past such loyalty had often landed Frodo in as much trouble as Merry and Pippin, but the happiness and laughter that the two cousins brought to Frodo couldn’t be replaced and Bilbo was often most grateful for that.

“Studying!” Merry said as he and Pippin moved around the side of the dwelling. Sometimes Frodo was too studious for his own good. Time to break that habit and get his cousin having some fun again.

Merry and Pippin could now see the window that belonged to Frodo’s bedroom. They could see a book of some description leaning up the bottom half of the glass and the older cousin immediately had a giggle of an idea about how to alert Frodo to his presence. No doubt they would scare him senseless, but they would have fun nevertheless.

Merry motioned for Pippin to sneak up beside the window frame like he and peer secretly through the glass. Both of them could see Frodo’s dark head bent forward as he continued what he was doing.

It took a few more minutes than Merry would have liked, but eventually they were rewarded with Frodo’s casual glance towards his book and spotting two faces leering back at him through the glass.

Frodo had been concentrating on the book but was startled by the faces at his window and tried to jump backwards away from the window. Unfortunately for Frodo, his chair was behind him and now both he and the chair fell backwards, knocking the cup of tea from the desk as well as the ink pot. It wasn’t until after this that he recognized who the faces belonged to.

“Merry and Pippin!” Frodo said in a mock annoyed voice as he surveyed the image of himself sprawled on the floor and the congealing mess not to far away on the rug of the ink and tea mixing together.

The two cousins had seen Frodo tumble backwards but knew he wasn’t hurt. They now made their way back around to the front door, hoping that neither Bilbo or Frodo would be too upset at their antics.

Sam had overheard his master’s startled cry as he fell backwards and couldn’t help but open the door to see if everything was alright. He immediately went to Frodo’s aid of helping him stand, he too concerned about the now black stain marring the rug.

“Are you alright Mister Frodo?” Sam said, seeing that the bandage on Frodo’s hand had also been stained by the ink. Looking upon his master’s clothes, they hadn’t faired much better and there was now a soaking blackened mark across the front of Frodo’s vest and trousers.

“Yes I am fine thank you, Sam,” Frodo said, trying hard not to laugh at how he must look at the moment. “Those two cousins of mine….,” he said, a smile creeping across his face.

“Frodo,” Merry said in a quiet voice behind Sam, the two cousins standing just outside the doorway, hoping to apologize for their behaviour.

“Just look at this mess you too created,” Frodo said sternly, the corners of his mouth twitching with a grin. Sam was sighing in relief that Frodo’s writing had not been spoilt by the ink. It seemed that the floor and Frodo himself wore most of what was spilt.

“We will clean it up cousin, promise,” Pippin said, feeling a little guilty as he looked at the spreading stain on Frodo’s clothes.

“Offering to do manual work now are you Pip, that’s certainly good to hear. Though I don’t think you sound like my cousin Peregrin Took,” Frodo said already seeing that they were remorseful for their childish actions.

“It’s great to see you Merry and Pip,” Frodo added and gave his cousins a warm greeting. “I really wanted that cup of tea though,” he poked in fun.

“I’ll get you another cup Mister Frodo,” Sam offered.

“That’s alright Sam, just let me get into some clean clothes and clear a bit of this mess on the floor and then we can go and see if lunch is ready,” knowing that Pip wouldn’t be needing a second invitation.

“I will get a little sugar from Master Bilbo to sprinkle over that stain. The sugar crystals should soak up most of the ink and then it can just be swept into pile and thrown away,” Sam said, explaining a little about what his mother had taught him about how to remove difficult stains from things.

“What about my clothes Sam, you don’t expect to sprinkle sugar over me to get the ink out do you?” Frodo said with a laugh.

“Oh no sir,” Sam said returning the grin to his master as such an idea. “But I can put it into a bucket of water laced with lemon and vinegar and that will certainly

have your clothes looking nice again.”

“Dear Sam, you always have a solution for me when I am in need,” Frodo said.

“I hope so, Mister Frodo,” Sam said proudly that his master thought so highly of him.

________________________________________________________________________

Half an hour after Merry and Pippin announced their arrival to Frodo and everyone else, all were seated at the table now enjoying a leisurely lunch and gentle conversation.

Introductions had been made of Strider, though Merry seemed to be a little wary of the Ranger at first. Pip had been awed by the man’s height but gave a small smile and made sure that he sat safely on the other side of his cousin Frodo.

Sam had been about to excuse himself when Frodo asked that he stay and join them. Bilbo had also voiced that he wished for Samwise to join them at the table as had the two cousins. Sam felt himself out numbered and although he had been taught to mind his betters and remember his place, he had also been taught to be there as often as Frodo

wanted him to be.

Sam couldn’t put into words how good he felt when Mister Frodo treated him no differently to other adults around him or indeed his own relatives such as Merry and Pippin.

Strider had not wanted to add to any fear that the two cousins might have over his presence but marvelled at how quickly the two seemed to forget their apprehensions and include him in their conversations around the table.

Pippin had gone into great detail about the scare that he and Merry had given Frodo a short time before and how his cousin had fallen off his chair and been smeared in ink and warm tea.

After hearing about this, Gandalf promised himself that he would need to keep a closer eye on the two mischief’s and keep them out of trouble as much as possible before the party.

“You should have seen your face, Frodo,” Pippin said with a giggle, remembering the startled look his older cousin had moments before toppling backwards.

“Don’t worry Pippin, my revenge will be swift and silent but most of all unexpected,” Frodo said in a voice so low that the younger hobbit believed every word. He couldn’t help but bait them a little and keep them guessing about what he might do to get back at them.

“You wouldn’t…..,” Pippin said in shock. In all the time he had known Frodo, he had never seen his dark-haired cousin retaliate for any of the mischief that they had caused.

“He wouldn’t do anything would he, Merry?” he now asked, seeking a little confirmation from his partner in crime.

Merry too was a little surprised at Frodo’s statement, and both had an ominous feeling as they watched their secretive cousin smile sweetly back at them. They would have thought Frodo’s comments to be baseless except for the gleam that they saw in his blue eyes.

Strider and Gandalf laughed at the sight of the two now uneasy and nervous cousins that kept looking back and forth between themselves and Frodo. He certainly knew had to get them on edge without any effort at all.

Merry had already asked why the Ranger was present, before receiving a painful kick to his shin under the table for not remembering his manners in somebody else’s house.

Bilbo had not been concerned over what he saw was Merry’s natural curiosity and gave him the same explanation as that to Sam earlier at breakfast about possible trouble presenting itself at the party.

Lunch had then continued for a time. Gandalf had asked that Strider and Bilbo assist him to unload his wagon of surprises after they had eaten and was pleased that his friends had readily agreed.

That would leave the four hobbits on their own but that didn’t present itself as such a problem. Sam had already offered to clear the lunch dishes so that Bilbo could go with Gandalf.

Bilbo had gotten up from the table towards the end of the meal and begun pouring milk into glasses for the four hobbits. He had been thinking of something else at the time and before realizing it, had half-filled Frodo’s glass with the white liquid.

Frodo’s displeasure was clearly evident on his face as he scowled at the substance in the glass as though it were a vile medicine he was being asked to drink.

“You don’t expect me to drink that stuff do you, Uncle Bilbo?” Frodo asked still eyeing the milk with disdain.

“Oh, I am sorry Frodo, I wasn’t thinking. No of course not. I know you don’t like milk. I will get you a fresh glass of juice or tea if you would prefer?” Bilbo said

apologetically.

“I’ll drink it, Frodo,” Pippin said and grabbed at the glass before any reply could be given.

Sam glared at the hobbit a little, thinking that he was being very rude, but then relenting a little at Pippin’s enthusiasm. He knew that Frodo wouldn’t drink the milk anyway but he could have been more polite about it.

“I take it you do not like to drink milk, Frodo,” Strider said, noting the hobbit’s obvious dislike.

“No, Strider, there isn’t any threat that anyone could make that would force me to drink that stuff,” Frodo affirmed.

It was about now that Frodo noted how tired he was suddenly becoming. The headache that had eased earlier was beginning to resurface and he no longer had an appetite for his remaining lunch.

“I think it’s about time we headed out to help Gandalf,” Bilbo now stated. “How about you go and have a little lay down inside Frodo,” he suggested, noting his nephew grimacing slightly from the headache again.

“I might just do that, Uncle Bilbo,” Frodo agreed, thinking that a nice soft pillow would be more than welcome at this point in time.

“What are we going to do if you are going to be boring and rest?” Merry said, not knowing about Frodo’s headache. Staying still for too long didn’t appeal to either

Merry or Pippin.

“I think you and Pippin would be best suited to helping young Sam here clean up the dishes don’t you?” Bilbo said, not accepting no for an answer. “You can go out and play later on after your lunch has settled some.”

Merry and Pippin were not entirely happy with this idea, but though they had little choice since they would be staying under Bilbo’s roof for the next few days.

Sam was happy to see Bilbo take a little control of the situation and vowed that the two hobbits would keep their voices and games to a minimum if Mister Frodo was going to try and rest to ease his headache.

“We shan’t be long,” Bilbo said, noting the slightly disappointed looks on his visitors. “By the time you finish helping Sam we should have returned. Sam asked, hoping Frodo would accept. “Frodo can choose if he feels like going out or not later.”

Gandalf, Strider and Bilbo now prepared to leave and go to the wagon. Frodo had gotten up from the table and retrieved a pillow from his own bed before settling onto the settee in the sitting room. Somehow he didn’t like the idea of leaving Merry and Pippin unsupervised despite Sam being present.

Bilbo went to check on his nephew before walking out the door but was relieved to see Frodo already stretched out with his eyes closed attempting to doze off. He brushed a stray curl away from the lad’s forehead and smiled.

Frodo smiled at the gentle touch but didn’t open his eyes. Seeing his nephew’s face relaxed and carefree in sleep was something he could never tire of.

“Keep an eye on him for me Sam won’t you,” Bilbo said to Sam who saw them off at the door, out of earshot from Frodo.

“Don’t worry Master Bilbo, I’ll make sure he’s not disturbed,” Sam promised. Little did Sam know that his best efforts would not prove enough against Merry and Pippin.

After the others had left, Merry and Pippin had did as they were asked and for a time went about helping Sam as best they could. Their interest quickly waned though and the two hobbits soon found it more fun to play games with the plates and cutlery rather than drying then and putting them back in their rightful places.

Merry and Pippin were unaware that their game was beginning to get a little loud until they were harshly chastised by Sam to keep quiet. The sitting room was only a short distance away and Sam could see his master stirring slightly from the noise.

Merry and Pip put the dishes away as requested but although one game was quickly at an end, there was always another around the corner. Sam had now decorated the table with a large bowl of fruit. Apples and oranges, pears and grapes.

Pippin was most impressed and would have tucked in if he hadn’t been so full after lunch. He took two apples from the bowl and started to play around with them, tossing them into the air and catching them again.

It didn’t take much encouragement for Merry to join in and soon instead of throwing them up and catching them, they were tossing them backwards and forwards between each other.

Pippin had now taken a few steps away from his cousin to increase the distance of the throws, not taking any notice of which room he was standing in. The lack of walls in Bilbo’s home often made it difficult to tell which room was which.

Pippin was now standing directly in front of his slumbering cousin Frodo on the settee. He wasn’t making any excessive noise at present and Sam was forced to hold back any scathing words he might have had on the tip on his tongue.

Merry tossed a large apple at his younger cousin, but his throw was not as accurate as he hoped. A little too high and it sailed over Pippin’s head.

Merry and Pippin both cringed as they heard the unmistakable sound of the apple hitting Frodo.

Frodo woke with a fright and immediately sat up rubbing the his forehead. There was no mark but he looked at his two cousins, demanding to know why they were throwing pieces of fruit at him while he was trying to sleep.

If Merry and Pippin thought they could get any sympathy out of Samwise, they were gravely mistaken as they heard his shocked intake of breath as he watched the apple strike his sleeping master and then see Frodo sitting up with a frown on his face.

It was about this time that Gandalf and the others proceeded to walk through the front door. They heard Sam’s angry outburst and wondered what had happened to rile the normally gentle tempered hobbit.

When they entered the sitting room where the noise was ensuing from, they were greeted with Merry and Pippin looking very guilty about something and Sam threatening to do them bodily harm.

Frodo was by now wide awake again and trying not to laugh at Sam’s serious face. His headache seemed to have eased to a barely noticeable level once again but he was not impressed by the way he had been woken.

“Run!” was the suggestion that the two cousins said to each other with their eyes, a little afraid of being in the middle of both an angry Sam and a cross looking Frodo.

To be continued……..

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

I apologize for any mistakes I may have made about Lord Of The Rings history or any names I may have mis-spelled. I also hope that I have not wavered too far from people’s takes on the individual personalities of each character.

I don’t mean to make Strider and Bilbo out as so secretive. I just want to keep the idea about the Wraiths coming until later in the story. The fact that Bilbo knows that danger is coming and doesn’t do anything straight away is also not intentional and I humbly ask for readers to believe that’s what happened.

Any medicinal information is only from my own sources and not meant as true procedure to any injury or treatment that I may have used in my story so far or will in the future.

As you have probably guessed, I leave this chapter at the place where Gandalf arrives in the movie and hope that the sequence of events that I have included is at least logical.

Not much has happened yet. More to come. In next chapter, the party preparations take place that I envisaged happened prior in the movie. A few little incidents to come involving Lotho.

I know the appearance of a big person in the Shire would be out of place too, but I need that to make the story work. I just need both people, elves, dwarves and hobbits everywhere to suspend what they know to be true for a while and take what I write as happening.

I have also referred to Frodo as a boy in many parts – not intending for him to be called a human “boy” – just makes the story flow a little easier at times instead of constantly using “the hobbit” and similar descriptions.

Any information that I write in my Lord Of The Rings stories about eating flows on that in the two other fandoms I write – the main characters in each all are finicky eaters and just push the food around on a plate or go for long lengths without anything to eat or refuse to do so. The other two are like this in all stories that I know about them as well.

One other character also dislikes milk to the point of refusing to drink it – I am going to include this for Frodo later on – just something I dreamed up – nothing from the book or the movie. I wanted to write a close relationship between Bilbo and Frodo as well as friendship Frodo and Aragorn and Sam too.

Please review and let me know what you think. I will try and update as soon as I can, but please be patient as time is often not on my side.

Jules6

Chapter Six – Questions Without Answers

RIVERBOAT GAMBLER

By Jules

Chapter Six – Questions Without Answers

Author Notes: This story deals with Joe’s wanting to be seen as grown up and able to make decisions on his own about his future. Understandably his family are a little concerned at how Joe plans to deal with his idea of responsibility.

Ben Cartwright has always taught his sons certain values that made them into the proud men they are today. Someone from Ben’s past wanting to seek revenge plans to take all of those values and the special bond forged between Ben and Joe and tear them apart.

I hope you enjoy the next chapter of this saga:

how the end of the last chapter:

Bonnie had given Seline the barest of outlines at to Joe’s mental state, saying that Joe didn’t remember who he was. Seline had scoffed at it being a stunt and had strode into the room, prepared to give the young Cartwright a lesson after his escape attempt.

Joe opened his eyes again, still squinting at the harshness of the light and swallowing hard to cope with the relentless pain in his head. He couldn’t put any coherent thought together that would give him any kind of explanation to his current situation.

Seline came and stood by the bed, fully prepared to be a sceptic and to make Cartwright reveal that he was faking the symptoms that Bonnie had explained.

“Come now, Joseph, you don’t expect me to believe this little performance do you?” Seline asked.

Joe had started a little at the voice, not hearing anybody approaching. He had tried to focus on the face talking to him, but it held no familiarity either. He couldn’t put a name to the well-dressed gentlemen at all, or how he came to know him.

“Who are you?” Joe asked, closing his eyes again briefly. He was tiring quickly and didn’t wish to deal with the pain and confusion any longer. He wanted the darkness to come and take him again so he didn’t have to ask questions that seemed to have no answer.

A resounding slap could be heard as Seline slapped Joe across the face without warning. Joe had yelped at the slap and looked back at the man with shock and surprise, but still no idea as to the reason for being struck.

“I promise you more of the same if you wish to play these foolish games, Joseph,” Seline said in a cold voice.

“Who is Joseph?” he asked not realising the man had been talking about himself. He didn’t really care at the moment, he just didn’t want to deal with any of it while the pain was so bad.

Seline had raised his hand in frustration, ready to deliver the second blow, but held his hand in mid-air as he watched the young man close his eyes and fall back to sleep. He still thought the stunt a ploy, but something in Joe’s eyes as he had rubbed at the redness on his cheek, made him stop and think a little.

There had been a look of uncertainty and one of fear. Surely the boy could remember his own name?

now the page turns and the story continues ….

Seline sat at the table, drink poured, but left untouched as he tried to go over what he had just seen in the other room.

On the face of it, Joe Cartwright appeared to be playing an elaborate game of charades. But there was a small part of him that thought perhaps the young man was not merely acting. Bonnie had clearly thought something more serious wrong with him, and that had been evident in her actions and clearly written on her face.

Seline remembered the conversation he had held with Bonnie about getting a new doctor to examine Cartwright when they arrived in New Orleans. It looked like it was time to make such arrangements, but in addition to examining the physical wounds inflicted, making a diagnosis on any long-term effects of the blows he had sustained.

Seline called Yeager, Edwards and Bonnie together to tell them of the decisions he had made about how to move Cartwright from the train once they reached New Orleans.

“We will wait for the other passengers to get off,” Seline instructed them, still seated at the table. “Once the coast is clear and there aren’t so many witnesses, we will move young Mr Cartwright to the steam boat. Everything there is in order.”

“But I thought you were going to get a doctor to look at him,” Bonnie blurted out.

“Calm yourself, my dear,” Seline said, giving her a sly smile. “I will arrange for a doctor to examine Joseph once we reach the boat. I considered the idea of a hotel in town, but I want to use his apparent lack of memory to my advantage.”

“How so?” Edwards asked, feeling like he was getting a little lost in the conversation.

“If he truly has a lapse in his memory of people and surroundings, then the first place he needs to become familiar with is the place is the boat. After all, this whole scheme revolves around the idea of taking him away from Ben Cartwright and the Ponderosa. To get him to believe that he has been raised somewhere else all his life,” Seline explained.

“The fallacy has to be as real as possible if this is going to work. Joseph has to believe that we are the ones who care about him. That we are his friends and that this is where he truly belongs,” Seline continued.

Edwards and Yeager had placed themselves at opposite ends of the train on the platform. Both casually standing and analyzing the surroundings and watching the faces of the passengers disembarking.

There seemed to be two porters who were currently run off their feet, fetching luggage for passengers. Edwards could hear one of them being berated by one impatient woman, saying that he was taking too long to carry her baggage. The fellow was doing the best he could, but by the high tone of the obnoxious woman’s voice, she wouldn’t have agreed with his assessment.

Looking away from that scene, Edwards noted that Yeager was signalling him, indicating that the commotion on the platform was the ideal time to be moving Joe Cartwright.

Although there were still a number of people in plain sight, most appeared to be pre-occupied with someone else or their own affairs to be taking particular note of anything that may seem out of the ordinary.

Edwards and Yeager appeared together before Seline, giving their candid report of the commotion and chaos that was on the platform at this time. Seline did agree that it did appear to be a good opportunity to remove the Cartwright boy and bundle him into a taxi towards the docks.

“Bonnie, you go and fetch us a taxi and make sure its waiting right outside the entrance to the railway station,” Seline ordered. “Yeager you give me a hand to stand him upright. He is still unconscious, but between us we should be able to disguise that enough until we reach the taxi.”

“Edwards you grab the baggage and put it up on top of the taxi,” Seline told the man.

Reluctantly, Bonnie rose from her bedside vigil, and made her way towards the door of the train. She took the one piece of luggage belonging to her, for two reasons. One so that she would not look out of place amidst the other passengers on the platform, and secondly, because she did want any of these men having access to the few items that were personal to her.

With Bonnie out of the room, and Edwards gathering the few pieces of luggage, Seline drew back the sheet that had been lightly covering Joe Cartwright, and tried to assess the best way to approach moving him.

“Is he going to wake up once we start moving him?” Yeager asked, the very question that was running through Seline’s mind.

“I don’t think so,” Seline said, trying to sound convincing, but not exactly sure himself. “He looks to be fairly out of it for the time being. Lets just get him off the bed and to the door. We can make it up as we go.”

Seline and were grateful for the fact that Bonnie seemed to think a little ahead of them and had dressed Joe in a shirt and trousers before she left, preparing for the intended move from the train. At least they didn’t have to do any of that.

Didn’t he have his own hat back in San Francisco?” Marchant asked, remembering vaguely seeing one on the boy at some point. The man brushed aside any further thoughts, knowing that time was not on their side. For now Seline would have to use his own hat to hide Joe’s face as he had done when boarding the train.

“Take him underneath the arm on your side and let’s lift him into a sitting position first,” Seline instructed Yeager.

Joe remained unresponsive during this process, his head leaning back a little due to him remaining unconscious. It was when Yeager and Seline lifted him to an upright stance on his feet that the fog in his mind began to clear slightly, and the first signs of conscious emerged.

At first the only response was a deep low groan from the base of his throat as his body was pulled upwards. Yeager and Seline were both surprised by the sound, looking intently at the young man’s face for any further movement.

“Let’s hurry, we may not have much time to spare,” Seline commented, unsure of how close the young man was from awareness of what was happening to him.

Yeager and Seline managed to manoeuvre and guide Joe awkwardly through the carriage’s narrow passage way towards the door. The hat was placed somewhat haphazardly on his head, but there was few attempts made to adjust it into a more suitable position due to it being too big. Seline pulled the brim down as much as he dared without causing it to fall from the young man’s curly head.

A final glimpse towards the platform to make sure that they drew no unnecessary attention to themselves from Edwards. Joe was lifted down to the platform, held upright on both sides from Seline and Yeager.

If enquiries were made, the story was to be that the young man was still suffering from an injury that needed attending by a doctor. Although not strictly a lie, they hoped they would not have to elaborate further to anyone who became too curious.

Joe had made several more moans, perhaps as a result of his body’s protests at being moved, but Seline was pleased to see that the level of unconsciousness did not improve to any great degree during their cautious walk towards the taxi.

Although his feet were touching the ground, it was by the support of Seline and Yeager on either side that held Joe upright and prevented him from collapsing entirely.

One woman had looked their way in concern, probably in motherly concern at seeing such a young man having to be physically escorted. But a charming smile from Seline ensured that she made no comment and no attempt to approach him to extend her assistance.

Bonnie was nervously pacing back and forth beside a taxi, just as she had been instructed. She tried to remove her emotions from the situations and not show any deliberate concerns about the manner in which he was being transported.

The taxi driver had only taken an interest upon seeing his intended passengers and noting that one needed a great deal of assistance.

“He not being sick now is he?” the driver asked, his accent strong.

“No,” Seline replied curtly, clearly getting impatient. “My assistant will tell you where we need to go. And please don’t stop to look at the scenery,” he added, signalling for

Edwards to climb up alongside the driver to give directions.

Within a few minutes, Seline, Bonnie and Yeager had bundled the mostly unconscious Joe Cartwright into the taxi and were slowly making their way towards the paddle steamer that had been made ready.


Bonnie kept a close eye on Joe Cartwright’s breathing and temperature signs during the journey, noting that his shirt was beginning to stick to his skin. She reached over and felt his brow in concern, Joe moaning at the sudden touch, and leaning into the fresh coolness that his body felt.

“His temperature is up a little again,” Bonnie remarked to Seline. “Probably only from moving him from the train so quickly,” she reasoned. She hoped that was all it was.

The journey to the boat was only a short one, but Seline seemed uneasy through it all, wondering if he had taken care of everything enough to cover up what he was attempting to do. It was the number of people at the train station that bothered him the most.

Bonnie was startled by the grandeur of the paddle steamer as she followed Edwards and Yeager, carrying Joe Cartwright to one of the rooms on-board. The furnishings were very luxurious and the fittings stylish. The interior of the rooms would have rivalled that of any of the fine hotels in the area.

Seline had clearly gone to a lot of trouble and expense to set up this elaborate hoax and until this moment, perhaps Bonnie had truly not understood how much he was prepared to gamble to see his desired outcome.

Edwards and Yeager were suitably impressed also by their surroundings, but neither make any comment as they laid Cartwright on the large bedspread. Seline had specifically picked this room for the young man. Being central to a lot of other areas of the boat, it should be fairly easy to track his movements during his captivity.

“Help her to get him settled into bed. I am going to find the doctor to look him over,” Seline stated.

Bonnie would have rather not have the two men in the room, but did not wish to voice any objections, knowing that Seline may not take so kindly to her petty reasons.

Once Seline had departed the boat, she had used them to help take off his boots, trousers and sweat soaked shirt, but had then told them she could handle the rest of his care on her own.

Edwards and Yeager did not push the matter and left her to tend to the young man until the doctor returned.

Bonnie found most of the items she needed within a short space of time, and went about bathing Joe’s chest in tepid water. She wanted to wash his sweaty body before dressing him a fresh shirt, but also relieve the fever that had flared from being moved from the train.

As she bathed him, Bonnie looked at his young face, and wondered what Seline had in store for this young man. She had yet to learn anything about him. He looked to be someone who enjoyed life, and no doubt could use his handsome face to make friends and go places.

Her train of thought about Joe Cartwright was cut abruptly short as Seline re-entered the room, this time with a doctor carrying a bag containing the tools of his trade.

Bonnie stood up and moved the basin of water away to allow the doctor access to his patient. The doctor was tall and thin, very different in appearance to the doctor that she had seen in San Francisco. His face was devoid of emotion and his features unreadable.

Placing his bag on a nearby table, he began to examine the unconscious man. He did not speak as he lifted the closed eyelids. His mannerisms were very practised and accurate, but looked too clinical and unfriendly to Bonnie’s eyes.

The doctor had barely enough time to do the basic checks on Joe, when Seline began demanding to know how the patient was.

“Can you give me an accurate prognosis of his condition?” Seline asked, pacing nervously back and forth, knowing that the outcome of his entire plan was in the balance.

The thin doctor, leaned over his patient and lifted an eyelid once more, ignoring the pressure to be quicker in his assessment. The pupil inside reacted sluggishly to the small amount of invading light. He allowed the eye to close before moving his attention to the young man’s head. He could immediately see the tell tale signs from the fresh injury sustained. There was an amount of bruising, but perhaps fortunately for the patient, no open gash as had occurred like the first time.

“There is some bruising here,” the doctor pointed out, voicing his observations to Seline. “It is not as bad as the previous blow that you can see here. But that doesn’t mean that the impact will be any less. Considering that the first blow was quite severe in itself and you mentioned about the bouts of dizziness and nausea that Miss Bonnie witnessed.”

During his examination, Joe showed no signs of waking, or reacting to any of the doctor’s probing of his injuries.

“When is he going to wake up?” Seline asked, his tone of voice revealing his growing agitation.

“There is no way to tell. That is individual with every patient. Some I have known recover with little evidence of their injury at all. Then there are some that awaken, but their personalities are completely changed from who they were before. They find themselves unable to relate to family and friends as they did before,” the doctor explained.

“I don’t want to know about every other patient you have ever seen,” Seline declared with impatience and frustration. “I want to know about this young man.”

The doctor was becoming increasing annoyed with Seline’s stand over tactics, and was not about to be intimidated, “Then there are those few patients that never wake up,” he said with emphasis.

“I am the one that hired you, doctor!” Seline said, his anger now becoming apparent.

“Yes, and I doubt that you could find another one in New Orleans who would be willing to carry out what you have asked of me. You have instructed me to tend to this patient and give you my diagnosis as to his recovery and the length of time it may take. I have given you that as best I can. It is too early to see what other effects of the injuries he may have until he wakes up and I am able to speak to him,” the doctor replied, calmly but in a stern tone of voice.

Seline now turned towards the back of the room, “Bonnie, get over here so this over priced quack can tell you what you need to do to keep Cartwright alive until he wakes up.”

Edward and Yeager both flinched and were just as surprised as Bonnie about the ferocity of Seline’s tone of voice. The girl timidly walked closer towards the bed, not wanting to cause the man’s anger to turn upon her.

The doctor ignored Seline’s outburst, but instead turned his attention to speaking to the girl whom was placed in charge of the young man’s medical care. “For now, and over the next few days, you had better keep a close eye on him for any signs of waking up.”

Bonnie nodded her head, but did not interrupt the doctor’s instructions.

“When he does wake,” he began, making sure that Seline was listing to his statement as well, subtly letting the man know that he thought young Cartwright would regain consciousness at some stage. “Be sure and note any increase in his temperature. If his fever continues to rise and develop more, you might need to add using ice and keep using damp cloths to bath him with cooler water.”

“What do I do if his temperature becomes too high?” Bonnie asked, worried that she would not be able to cope with such a situation if the young man’s health declined.

“I will be here regularly to begin with, at least over the coming week. If any fever is going to occur, it should show up during that time. If his temperature gets too high, then we may have to fully submerse him in a bath of cold water, but that is a rather drastic measure to take, and it may do more harm than good. His body could go into shock, unable to cope with the extremes of heat and cold,” the doctor replied.

“Should he be given food or any drink when he does wake?” Bonnie enquired.

“Keep his water intake going as much as possible now, especially if his temperature does start to go up. When he wakes he probably won’t be interested in eating very much, but a light broth could be given, with a little extra salt.”

“There isn’t much you can do physically for his head wound. It is bruising mostly, though the extent of any internal damage is yet to be seen. No doubt you might find he experiences some bouts of sever dizziness and nausea as he did in San Francisco. He might develop bad headaches as a result of the blows that were inflicted. I will give you some mild pain powders when this happens, but for the moment I do not want him taking any sedative until I am convinced that there are no complications with his injuries,” the doctor informed Bonnie.

“Alright, that should be enough for now. You said yourself that you will be back tomorrow, so she should be able to keep him alive until then. He isn’t a baby and I don’t intend wrapping him up in cotton wool. I need him awake for when Ben Cartwright gets here and can see for himself that his beloved youngest son no longer has any loyalty towards him,” Seline interrupted, cutting the doctor’s visit to as short as possible.

“Don’t forget my fee when I come back tomorrow,” the doctor remarked. “A little higher than you would like to pay I suspect, but you get what you pay for in this world nowadays.”

“You will get paid doctor,” Seline said curtly, though he had a good mind to shoot the doctor and be done with it. The doctor in San Francisco had not been as nearly so condescending and he had met an untimely fate.


Bonnie could see that now would not be a good time to cross Seline’s path. She would hold her tongue and do as she had been told, and look after the Joseph Cartwright.

“Edward, Yeager, come with me, we have some things to discuss,” Seline snarled. His tone of voice certainly left no doubt, and he did not wait to see if they hesitated or not before following him to another part of the paddle boat.

Bonnie looked down at her patient after everyone had left, and wondered how best to help him apart from seeing to his medical needs. They needed for him to wake to be able to assess how he felt.

Preparing a basin of water, and testing the temperature with her fingertips before sitting beside the bed, the young woman dabbed a soft cloth into the water and then as gently as she dared, began to gently touch it to Joe’s face.

She hoped it would do two things, one, help bring him back towards consciousness, and secondly, it would clean the area directly surrounding his head wound that was bruised and swollen. She didn’t dare put any pressure into her actions, but softly washed away the dried blood stains that were present.

After a few minutes, Bonnie was rewarded for her efforts with a low moan from Joe. She stopped her actions, waiting to see if the young man was trying waking up or only in protest about the pain from his wound that she had been carefully trying to clean.

Joe eyelids fluttered a number of times, indicating that he was trying to wake, but finding it difficult. Silently she was urging him to wake so that she could try and determine how badly he had been affected by the second blow to his head.

The young man lifted his hand to his temple, as though trying to show where he was feeling the most pain. His movements were somewhat slow and cumbersome, but Bonnie thought this might be a symptom of the head injury or due to his prolonged period of unconsciousness.

The hand lost its momentum, but rather than returning to his side, it came to rest on his chest. Bonnie looked at the door to the room, hoping that Seline or one of the other men were not about to walk into the room and see what she was intending on doing.

Bonnie lifted the young man’s hand and began massaging the fingertips and joints between her own to try and induced a more alert response.

Joe felt like he was swimming against a never ending tide of black that seemed to surround him on all sides. For a brief moment the black mass seemed to clear a little and he thought he saw a strange and distant light before him. He didn’t know where the light led to and he really didn’t know if he wanted to go towards it.

“Come on now, I know you can here me,” Bonnie said softly. “Can you open your eyes for me?”

The fluttering of his eyelids continued, but she could now see that he was making a more determined effort to open his eyes at hearing a voice beside him.

“I know you can do it,” she encouraged.

The young man finally managed to open his eyes a little, and glance back at the person speaking to her. But what frightened her the most was the lack of reaction that she saw in his lovely green eyes.

His brow began turning into a frown, and although she put it down to the pain he was experiencing from his injury, a small part of her could see the confusion in his gaze.

Joe tried to move his head from side to side, as though trying to clear the image before him and make more sense of what he was seeing. This only resulted in the headache that was present, reigniting with vengeance. So much so that he moaned deep and low in his throat at the sudden wave that assaulted him.

He closed his eyes again briefly, waiting for the spasm of pain to abate to a more tolerable level. It did not ease much, but he willed himself to open his eyes again and make more sense of his surroundings.

“Here, let me get you a drink of water,” Bonnie said, a little unsure about she should be doing. She retrieved a small glass of water and helped the young man to sit up enough to drink from the glass. He didn’t offer any word of thanks, but his eyes remained on her, even as she crossed the room to refill the glass from the pitcher.

Bonnie knew that Seline would want to know the minute he was awake, but part of her wanted to allow him time to adjust in his new environment before he was subjected to Seline’s presence.

She looked about the room and wondered what to do next. Part of her chastising herself for falling apart slightly, knowing that she had been in much more difficult circumstances before and able to display strength. She didn’t know why this time was different, or why this young man’s well-being seemed to be a high priority for her.

“You must be hungry?” Bonnie asked, knowing that he had not eaten any full meals for a few days. She had been able to feed him some nourishing broth before leaving San Francisco, but that would not have sustained him until now.

Bonnie was waiting for him to answer, but instead he only gave a small nod in answer to her question. She was glad that at least they had found common ground.

She was fortunate enough to have some food ready a short time ago. Bonnie had tried to adhere to the doctor’s suggestions and requested the light broth with extra salt. It had quickly cooled away from the paddle-boat’s kitchen, but it was still warm enough for her patient.

Bonnie helped Joe sit upright a little more before seating herself on the chair again, ready to spoon the soup to him. Placing some on the spoon, she held it close to his mouth, waiting for him to sip at the liquid.

“It is good,” Bonnie said, trying to reassure him, but noting that he made no attempt at opening his mouth. She was surprised when he lifted his own hand, trying to take the utensil from her hand.

“Are you sure you are strong enough to do it on your own?” Bonnie asked. He did not answer, but persisted in trying to handle the spoon. “Alright, here you are.”

The young man took the spoon, spilling some of the contents, but shakily drawing the spoon to his mouth and drinking the small amount of soup that remained. Still he never said a word, and his gaze was still focused on the young woman helping him.

For the next few minutes, Bonnie held the plate for the young man who took a few mouthfuls of the soup, spilling a little each time due to the unsteadiness of his hand. At one point he had tried to hold the plate too, but a stern look from her and a forceful hold on the bowl and he had unsuccessful in getting her to let go.

Part of Bonnie was pleased that he was showing such a stubborn streak after waking from a serious head injury. But she could see that his body was far from healed and that he would still need a good deal of rest and good food to see him well on the road to recovery.

After the sixth spoonful, the young man’s hand trembled from fatigue and he allowed the spoon to sink back into the soup. Bonnie offered to help him some more if he was still hungry, but he had turned his head away, indicating that he would not let her feed him.

Bonnie got up and put the bowl to one side briefly, before helping him to lay down once more in the bed. His eyes grew tired and began to droop. With a heavy sigh and a wince from the pain in his head, he allowed his eyes to close and faded off to sleep.

Bonnie knew that Seline would want to know about Joe waking and eating a little, but decided against it. The young man had been coherent enough to be stubborn about his eating, but still weak from his injuries and the past week of tiring travel.

She could tell Seline the next time he woke. The doctor would be back tomorrow. For the moment, she had enough compassion to allow him to sleep undisturbed.

For the next few hours, Bonnie kept her constant vigil beside the young Cartwright’s bedside. At times she found herself dozing in the chair due to the tiredness she was feeling, but she didn’t dare ask one of the other men to take her place.

She had pondered what the next few days might hold in store for their young patient and themselves as Seline carefully put his plans into place. She would be rewarded almost immediately though, as Seline now came into the room.

“Not awake yet?” the man said, seeing for himself that Joe was sleeping on the bed.

“No, but his condition has not deteriorated any since this morning, which is a good thing,” Bonnie commented.

“A fortunate thing indeed,” Seline responded, though there was no feeling in his words. “I wish to speak to you and the men together for a time. There needs to be cohesion to our story for when Mr Cartwright does regain consciousness and when he begins to ask questions.”

“But the doctor said not to leave him on his own, especially with his head injury,” Bonnie said, hoping that she didn’t have to hear what the man was planning against Ben Cartwright.

“The young man seems comfortable enough to me,” Seline remarked, barely turning his head to see if his statement were correct.

“I shall not waste much of your time, but I need for you to be able to regurgitate some of the background information that I have drawn up about how he comes to be here and his connection to this boat.”

Bonnie could see that Seline had no intention of leaving her out of these necessary discussions, and taking a look at her patient and noting that his sleep seemed peaceful enough for now. She reluctantly went towards the door, intending to follow her employer. Somehow she would have to put on a convincing mask and be a involved in this colourful charade.

Bonnie watched as Seline closed the door behind her, and then deliberately allowed her to see him locking the door from the outside. Joe Cartwright was to remain his prisoner and he was not about to take any risks.


It was about half an hour after Bonnie had left the room, and late in the afternoon, when the young man began to show signs of waking.

The world was coming back to Joe very slowly. He couldn’t tell if he was still asleep or awake, somewhere in between he guessed. On that higher plateau between consciousness and being unaware of one’s surroundings.

He tried to let the gray veil lift a little before trying to think any more. His head felt as though it was stuffed with cotton wool and everything around him felt incredibly heavy. He was still trying to figure out where he was and why and why the hell he hurt so bad.

Try and think of simple things first he pointed out to himself. First, ‘what is your name?’ His mind was totally blank. Inwardly he frowned and tried to concentrate harder on remembering something so easy as his o his head at any moment.

‘Where are you?’ asking the second question. Again no answer came, only more confusion and anxiety. When he forced himself to take a breath and think of where he last remembered, all he could see was a bright light.

I don’t know who I am,” he said out loud to himself and immediately snapped open his eyes to look around at where he was. The panic in him started to rise to the surface again as he fought to keep control of his fear.

I don’t know who I am,” he repeated, allowing his eyes to settle on the room be found himself laying in. There was no-one else in the room, and there was no recognition or familiarity of his surroundings.

Joe tried desperately to think of who he was but still, the answer didn’t come and his head now began to throb from the efforts of remembering. He put a hand up to the area where he thought the pain was coming from, and winced, withdrawing his fingers as he felt where he had been struck.

As Joe opened his eyes a little more, he could hear voices talking to him. They spoke to him, but he did not understand their words, the sounds reminding him of people talking while he used to swim underwater.

Joe forced his body upright on the bed and lowered his legs over the bed, preparing for his feet to touch the floor. He kept telling himself that if got up and began walking around, he might be able to clear the cloudiness of his head and remember who he was and where he was.

With his back turned towards the door, and his concentration centred on the dizziness that was assaulting his sense of balance. The room pitched to and fro and he had to swallow many times to keep from vomiting. His legs were visibly trembling and, much to his chagrin, the dizziness began to get worse, threatening to betray his body and send him back into the oblivion he had just awoken from.

From behind…..

“What in the world are you doing out of bed!” came a thunderous cry from behind startling Joe badly. He grappled for the edge of the bed clothes and was barely able to keep from spilling onto the fall.

Because his back was towards the people in the doorway, Joe did not see Bonnie whisper to Seline.

“Remember what you said….,” Bonnie warned.

A grimace seemed to work its way across Seline’s face briefly. His look of disdain obvious to the girl, but quickly replaced by that of someone with concern for the young man’s welfare.

The elaborate charade that Seline had to carefully laid out and put together, was about to be tested.

Joe vaguely felt hands trying to help him stand, and with his legs still trembling slightly and his confusion growing, he found himself laying back on the bed.

“Are you alright, Joseph?” Seline asked, his voice seemingly full of concern.

Seline had released his hold on the young man once the bed was underneath him.

Joe could hear a voice talking to him, and he lifted his head in response.

“You have had a nasty blow to the head, Joe. You need to rest until the doctor says you have healed enough to get out of bed,” Seline commented, noting the confusion on the young man’s face, and doubting if any of what he was saying was being taken in.

“W-who…..,” Joe began, his voice barely audible, and his thoughts not coherent enough to complete the sentence.

Seline didn’t know whether the young man was asking about his own name or not.

“Your name is Joseph. Joseph Dubois. Do you remember?” Seline asked, inwardly smiling at the reaction Ben Cartwright would have at his son’s sudden change of surname.

Joe didn’t respond right away, and Seline was about to ask the question a second time, when the young man shook his head in a negative answer. Anybody not paying attention would have missed the action entirely.

Watching from the side of the bed, Bonnie couldn’t help but notice the apprehension on Joe’s face and the lack of recognition of his own christian name, even after being prompted.

“It doesn’t matter for now, Joseph. The most important thing now is to get you better and then we can work on you remembering who you are,” Seline said, playing his role to perfection.

“Bonnie will get you a little more comfortable and then get you something to eat, and then we can get the doctor to take another look at you.” Seline commented, moving towards the door and preparing to leave the room.

Joe turned his head towards the young woman, but he didn’t remember who she was either. Her expression was one of sympathy towards him and she gave him a small smile.

Seline was about to close the door behind him, when he decided it was best to plant the seed of doubt earlier, rather than later.

“By the way, Joseph. I know it is difficult for you to remember who you are, but we will take good care of you, son.” Seline left before any questions formed on the boy’s lips.

Joe’s brow furrow at the mention of the word ‘son’, but he didn’t know he fully comprehended what was being said to him. Was the man who left the room his father? Why couldn’t he remember who he was. Why couldn’t he remember who these people were?

His stomach growled, telling him that the idea of a meal was a good one. Bonnie went to prepare a tray for him, promising to be back in a few minutes.

During her brief absence Joe leaned back against the pillow and closed his eyes, a combination of the pain from his head and the frustration of not knowing who he or anybody else was.


Once the train pulled out of the station, Adam and Hoss found themselves in a similar position to the one they had been when travelling on the stage coach. Their father was worried and desperate for news about his youngest son.

Neither of them could think of the right words to say, but knew they would be there to support their father and help in anyway they could. They were worried about their brother Joe and what could be happening to him when they always seemed to be a step behind his movements.

The train had pulled out of the station, and fortunately for the Cartwright family, it was a little less crowded than when Seline and his party had travelled on it.

Ben sat with opposite his sons, so that he was not facing any of the other few remaining passengers. Adam watched his father’s facial expressions, noticing the tightening of his grip on the brim of Joe’s hat.

The hat had been discovered at the train station on pure chance, but Ben held onto it, somehow seeking to reconnect with Joseph. It wasn’t until Ben turned it over, examining it more closely that he found a darkened stain on the inside.

“Adam, Hoss, look at this!” Ben exclaimed, showing them the upturned hat, and pointing to the stain. All three drawing the same conclusion that the stain was most likely blood. It was a dark rusty colour, again the much lighter material inside.

The stain was dry, so there was no real way of knowing how long it had been there. Ben was convinced it had not been there when Joe had left the Ponderosa.

“What do you think, Pa?” Hoss asked cautiously. “You think that Little Joe is laying hurt somewhere?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. There are too many possibilities. It has only been by luck that we are even on this train to begin with. Joe’s hat was at the train station, but anything else that might have happened is pure speculation.”

“Do you think we should ask the conductor if he remembers seeing Joe at all?” Adam suggested.

“I don’t know, but I guess it is worth a try. We have no other clues apart from this train?” Ben said, his voice sounding dejected.

“Conductor!” Adam said to a man approaching the part of the carriage where they were sitting. He was wearing a navy blue uniform and wore a hat that identified him as part of the staff aboard the train.

“Can I help you, Sir?” the man asked. “Do you have your tickets please?”

Adam handed over the three tickets that had been purchased, the conductor looking at them and then back at the Cartwrights, seemingly satisfied.

“I was wondering if you could tell me, you see we are looking for my son and we have reason to believe that he may have travelled on this very train before,” Ben interjected before Adam could speak.

With the conductor standing in front of them, none of them noticed a middle-aged lady sitting on the opposite aisle, being able to hear the conversation that was taking place.

“Is he travelling here on the train with you today, Sirs?” the conductor asked, looking for another younger passenger he may have missed for ticket inspection.

“No, you don’t understand,” Hoss stated. “Joe ain’t here with us today. But we think he might have been on this train a couple of days ago?”

“He is not with you here?” the conductor remarked, appearing more confused.

“My name is Ben. Ben Cartwright. These two men are my son’s Adam and Hoss. We are on this train looking for my youngest son Joseph.”

“How do you know he was on this train?” the conductor asked. By now Adam and Hoss had deemed the man to be a slow learner, hampering their need for information that might help find Joe.

“You see, we found his hat at the ticket office back at the train station,” Ben continued the story.

“Excuse me gentlemen,” a voice said from behind the conductor. The man turned, enabling the Cartwright’s to see the middle-aged woman who was addressing them.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt and of course I didn’t mean to overhear what was being said, but I couldn’t help but notice you said something about a young man named Joseph.”

The fact that the woman called Joe by his name caught the Cartwright’s attention immediately. Ben turned to face her and was keenly listening to anything she might have to say.

The woman was well-dressed Ben wanted to be sure that he didn’t scare away the one witness who claimed to have seen his missing son recently.

“My name is Benjamin Cartwright, ma’am. I am from Nevada territory, travelling with my two son’s Hoss and Adam,” the Patriarch said as he respectfully removed his own hat and introduced his sons to the woman.

“My name is Mrs Estella Ruby Martha Hopkins. My husband is a very important man you know. Stewart Hopkins, perhaps you have heard of him?” the woman commented with pride in her voice.

“My apologies, but I am relatively new to this area,” Ben replied. The woman seemed a little perturbed that her husband’s importance had not been noticed, and most of all her own name.

“Can you start at the beginning please, ma’am,” Adam asked, hoping their might be further clues about confirming who had taken Joe and where they had taken him to.

The woman appeared happy enough to oblige and seemed to take particular pride in telling the men how unjustly she had been dealt with by the young porter a few days before:

“Well, you know it all started with that young man at the train station,” the woman began.

“You mean the porter at the ticket office, ma’am?” Hoss interrupted, trying to put a face to people the woman was mentioning.

“That young man needs a good talking to. The only thing he had eyes for on the morning I spoke to him, was for the pretty young woman in another compartment,” Mrs Hopkins scoffed.

“Can you describe the young woman, ma’am,” Adam asked, hoping for more clues. He and Ben exchanged glances when the woman began to describe the same woman that had been described in San Francisco in the stage coach by the young police officer.

“More than a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, Pa,” Hoss remarked. Ben nodded his head in agreement, but continued to listen to Mrs Hopkins story.

“I had asked for a seat in the upper-class carriage. They have sleeping quarters you know,” the woman explained, her voice changing to note the unsatisfactory treatment she had received. “But that ticket man refused to note my husband’s status and told me that the entire compartment had already been booked out.”

“The whole compartment?” Ben asked, his curiosity quirked, thinking that this could mean quite a number of people.

“Well, I didn’t see anyone at all, he told me that they were already aboard. Sounded all very suspicious to me. I even told him that I was going to make a complaint to the Station Master,” Mrs Hopkins answered. “And I will too,” she added, as though just remembering what she had said to Harvey Reynolds that day.

“Did you see a young man, possibly wearing a hat that looked like this?” Ben probed, holding out Joe’s hat for the woman to inspect.

The woman looked briefly at it, but took a disinterest in such things. She began commenting to the woman sitting next to her about a new subject of conversation, “You know that young people today just don’t show enough respect.”

“Please ma’am, my youngest son Joseph is missing, and we are desperately seeking information about him,” Ben pleaded, his voice showing his exasperation at the woman’s self-interest and focus on what she had witnessed.

The woman stopped in mid-sentence, looking at Ben for a moment, and noting the genuineness of his face. She noted there were signs of weary on the gentleman’s face, her high and mighty attitude softening as she gauged the man was seeking information about a missing family member.

Adam could see that Ben’s words struck a cord, and tried to encourage the woman further, thinking a little of the truth would help the cause. “We have reason to believe that something has happened to my younger brother. He might be travelling with those who would want to hurt him.”

“Oh dear!” the woman exclaimed, placing a hand over her mouth.

Ben and Adam exchanged brief glances, not knowing if revealing their suspicions about Joe’s kidnapping would hamper their efforts further, but Ben nodded slightly towards his eldest son in reassurance that the right methods were being employed.

“I apologize to you all, I didn’t know the matter was so urgent. I do remember that a young man stumbled into the carriage we were sitting in that day. At first I thought he must entered by mistake, but he barely walked to the first row of seats before I could see blood running down his face,” Estella said, pausing to think if she had noted anything else on the day.

“There was another man behind him, because I remember chastising him harshly about not watching someone who was injured enough on the train,” the woman continued.

“Did you see how the blood came to be on his face?” Adam asked grimly, the fresh information about Joe being injured bringing no comfort to his family.

“No, but he seemed to be off-balance, and had tried to take hold of the seat to stop himself from falling. He did fall on his knees, and I that is when those other men burst through the door and helped him up,” Mrs Hopkins recalled.

“The man admitted that the young man had injured himself a few days before and that they were travelling to New Orleans for some medical treatment.”

“Do you remember how many of them there were, ma’am?” Hoss asked. The information about New Orleans matched the destination of the train they were on.

“Possibly three. I can’t remember what they all looked like, but the first one…,” Mrs Hopkins replied, remembering what features she could. By the end of her description, Ben Cartwright was in no doubt that the man who had been on the train with his son was Marchant Seline.

“There was his father and two other men that helped the young man up,” Estella stated.”

“His father!” Ben said, the words barely able to get the words out. He could feel the anger in him rising, barely suppressed by his overall concern that Joe had been injured. He could almost feel physical pain in his heart, the result that someone else would claim Joseph as their son.

Ben and Joe’s relationship ran deeper than any river, and was etched in stone. A sacred bond that was built on trust and love and that should never be broken.

Ben now stood up, caught up in his own thoughts at such an outrageous statement. That Seline had recklessly taken Joseph in the first place from the people who loved him was bad enough. What he couldn’t believe or stomach in any format was that Seline would have the audacity to call Joseph his son.

“Are you all right, Pa,” Adam asked, seeing that Ben was disturbed by this piece of news. It didn’t sit well on Hoss or himself either that someone would deliberately tell such devastating lies.

According to the woman’s statement, Joe was injured, probably concussed by the symptoms she had described. Seline had taken advantage of that at a time when Joe was more vulnerable, and would not have comprehended what was being said.

Estella could see Ben’s distress, having no idea that the man’s idle words at the time of her chastising him would not have been truthful. If she had known the young man was in danger or in the wrong company, perhaps she could have done more to help him.

“The man that was with him,” she began, he did say the young man’s name. She was trying to remember how the man had pronounced the surname. It was one she had not heard often.

“He said his name was Joseph…,” she told them, still mulling over the surname.

“Joseph….?” Ben prompted, knowing at least that the Christian name was right. This was the first real breakthrough they had had since San Francisco and any details might help find him.

“Cartwright?” Adam suggested, hoping for his Pa’s sake that Seline had used his brother’s real name.

“No…. is started with D…..,” Mrs Hopkins remarked, her brow furrowing as she tried to pull the name from her memory.

“D?” Hoss commented, confused that Cartwright name had not been used.

Adam and Hoss looked at their father as he opened his mouth to speak. He sighed audibly, as though he wished he didn’t know the correct answer. But somehow they could see the pain on his face that said he did indeed know.

Dubois,” Ben said, his voice barely above a whisper. He looked down at Joe’s hat once more, as though trying to stem the flood of memories from coming back.

Mrs Hopkins answered a little too enthusiastically at the correct name, “Yes, that was it.” Her smile quickly faded as she realized that she had unknowingly caused pain again to this family.

Adam drew a hand down his face, knowing that a whole new can of worms had just been opened up. Hoss couldn’t help but ball his fists in anger, wanting to strike out at something.

Not only had their brother been kidnapped. They were now on their way by train to a city that held a lot of memories for their father, good and bad. Now they were being told that as a final insult to their father and the memory of Marie, that Joe had been given the name of his mother.

The Cartwright family had suspected that Seline must have been using standover tactics to force Joe to come with them. They had already come to the conclusion and were forced to admit that he was probably using even stronger methods.

Hoss now asked the question that Adam and Ben were both thinking. “How come Joe didn’t say anything about his name being different. Or about Seline being his Pa?”

“It does sound odd, Hoss,” Ben admitted. “But I don’t have any real answer now. He has been hurt, and maybe he didn’t hear Seline using his mother’s name or telling Mrs Hopkins that Joe was his son.”

Adam and Hoss agreed that this sounded the most plausible situation, given that Joe was bleeding at the time. He may have been only semi-conscious and not thinking straight. Knowing their brother as well as they did, he would not have welcomed the casual use of his mother’s name.

Within his family and close circle of friends, it was quite a well known secret, but Joe’s memories of his mother and everything about her were treasured. There were many times that he could barely speak about her without feeling a sense of grief and loss, even from when he was very small. And even now many years later, that devotion to her memory only grew stronger and had never wavered.

“Thank you for your help, Mrs Hopkins,” Ben said, not being able to think straight for the revelations that he had just been told. “You have been most helpful.”

Mrs Hopkins reached over and briefly took Ben’s hand in her own, seeing his pain and wanting to offer what words of comfort she could, “I hope you find your son soon.”

Ben and his two sons retreated back to their own seats on the train, heavy with thoughts about what took place on the train that day and what might be happening to Joe now.

Ben knew of Seline’s affections for Marie, and that they had both known each other in New Orleans before she came to Nevada. He couldn’t help but think what irreparable damage Seline could do with false words about her or her family.

“Please help me find our boy, Marie,” Ben prayed silently as he resumed his own seat.


Over the next several hours, Ben Cartwright occupied a seat closest to the window of the train, his thoughts drawn outside and many miles away.

The information that they had learned over the past few days tumbled around in his head, swirling around in his mind. He lost track of time itself as he tried to focus on putting the pieces of Joseph’s disappearance together.

As the train continued along its journey towards New Orleans, Ben couldn’t help but be wrapped up in a cloak of perpetual anguish over what might be happening to Joe.

By now, he, Adam and Hoss had learned a lot of valuable clues and useful information, but Ben let out an audible sigh upon the stark reality that they were still no closer to finding and reaching his missing son.

When they left the Ponderosa and Virginia City, he had held onto the hope that they were perhaps only a short distance away from Seline and his devilish plans. Then they had discovered about his obsession in watching Joe over many years. And that was very unsettling in itself.

What kind of a man watches another man’s son, only to be plotting away at how to steal him away, causing nothing but heartache for all involved. Ben’s expression on his face turned to a frown, realising that he and his boys had no idea at this point in time that Joe was even aware what was happening to him.

Constable Hunter had been a witness to the fact about Little Joe having a head injury when he was taken by Seline from San Francisco. Evidence suggested that Marchant had killed a doctor who had been brought in to take care of Joe, in cold blood, with little regard for the man’s life.

They had seen for themselves how ruthless Seline was prepared to be to obtain his objectives. Ben gave a silent prayer and reminded himself that they had to be grateful for small mercies. From all accounts, Joe was still alive. He would take that small sliver of hope and hold onto it tightly.

Mrs Hopkins had confirmed for him just a short while ago that Joe was still suffering by mentioning that she had seen fresh blood on his face before he had been taken away by Seline’s men.

For Ben, despite the many hours of torturous, monotonous travel ahead of him and his boys, the time was filled with a sense of worry and anguish and of a helplessness that was almost tangible. He wanted so much to find Joe and bring him home to where he belonged, but so far, Seline had been the ultimate orchestrator and was always a few steps ahead of them.

Ben couldn’t help but try and work out the mysterious and dark man that called himself Marchant Seline.

Yes there was history between them concerning Jean, Marie’s first husband. But the patriarch had never considered the threats that she had received from the man to evolve into desperate hatred and strong revenge. Marie was gone, yes, but there wasn’t anything neither he nor anyone else could have done to prevent the tragic accident all those years ago. If Ben had been able to find a way to turn back the hands of time, he would have done so…willingly.

Ben recalled the words that he had spoken to Hoss and Adam on the first stage, explaining about Seline and his encroachment into their lives. He needed to understand what drove the man to such acts, like kidnapping Joseph and manipulating those around him. Someone looking at all the clues could rightly assume that the latest events were caused as an intended act of revenge. However, the lengths to which this elaborate hoax was being taken suggested an even darker side to Seline’s personality than any of them ever dared to contemplate.

Marie had been fearful of him once, and had reluctantly spoken to Ben of such feelings, when she felt she couldn’t hide it from her new family any more. It had taken a lot of courage on her part after a long battle of silent torment for her to do so and she had proven herself to be a very strong-willed person. Her spirit and sense of adventure had drawn Ben to her like a moth to a flame, even on that first day they had crossed paths.

Whilst dwelling on past memories as a way to pass the time as the train rolled along the long track towards New Orleans, Ben hoped they may prove to be the very key in helping find Joe. Instead of being one step behind, anticipate Seline’s next move and prevent it. With an uncomfortable and unforgiving stiff seat, Ben drifted deeper into his own thoughts, knowing in his own heart that he was still some distance from finding Joe and retrieving him safely.

Ben had known bad men before during his life, and had known bad men before that had done terrible crimes. He had seen vindictiveness and wickedness at its very core, where some men’s answer to a problem was a hand on their sidearm before asking a question. But never to the level that Seline seemed to have stalked his prey, or the preparation he was willing to employ in getting back at Ben. Cold and calculating. In some towns the value of a person’s life was not very high.

From where he is currently sitting, Ben didn’t notice the crease in Adam’s forehead become a little deeper with light anxiety and concern for the closed off stiffness of his father’s back. Hoss’s face was a mixture of tenseness and apprehensiveness, his body posture fidgety and barely able to keep still. His larger frame is brimming with the questions he wants to ask, but for now he holds back.

The ultimate goal that Seline wanted to achieve was obvious to a certain extent. His almost tangible need for revenge for the losing Marie to someone he considered well beneath his class, and her intention to start a lifestyle that he clearly didn’t approve of. It was like a cold hard slap to his face and his ego that needed to be publicly avenged.

The amount of planning and cunning that was being employed to achieve this was being revealed every day with each different stop they made and with each accidental clue or deliberate footprint left to be followed.

Putting aside the man’s personal vendetta against him, Ben found his thoughts coagulating together in search of what else his old nemesis intended to achieve. If Seline was hell-bent on tearing down Joe’s individual traits and retraining any kind of power or authority over the young man, than the man didn’t know Joe’s personality very much at all. Or the strength and courage of his mother that became intertwined with him since the day he had been born.

Whilst Ben might be able to guess or use his detailed knowledge of his son to determine what Seline’s next move would be, but up until now, the evidence had clearly shown a set trail to follow. Manipulation has certainly played a large part as well, and the chorus of people involved in Joe’s disappearance seemed to be growing with each new clue they stumbled across.

The next destination, New Orleans brought with it a whole array of new possibilities of mystery and danger. With the people and the largeness of the city, and the vast differences in culture and ethnicity. A labyrinth of vibe and activity where one could easily entice themselves with the aromas of restaurants, to the gaiety of festivals. Or on the other side of the coin, become lost in shipping docks and wharfs and encounter folk who were not so welcoming of strangers. Where making a living was a hard day’s work for little reward except a meagre existence.

Joe wasn’t naïve and Ben had always ensured that all of his boys understood how fortunate they were to have a successful ranch and live in a warm and loving home. With plenty of good food and clothes to wear. But Joe had perhaps been the more privileged of the three brothers and had not endured the harsher times that Adam and Hoss grown up in.

With wanting to find fault in his son at this hour, Ben knew that Joe could be lured into doing some things by a pretty face, or for the chance to join a game of poker at the local Saloon. Alcohol was abundant in many places and cheap enough to make a good man forget about his obligations for a time. Is this what Seline hoped to achieve by bringing the young man to such a city?

Seline had the advantage of knowing that one of Joe’s great weaknesses, and a long time held curiosity that stemmed from wanting to know more about his mother, Marie. Her family’s origins and how she had grown up. To a young boy, her city sounded thrilling and adventurous. Out of desperation to keep her memory alive in his mind, he often fought so hard to hold onto every shred about her because he had been too young to remember much more than a few cherished moments

Perhaps this long term obsession about Marie and Joe that Seline carried out now caused his own sanity to become unstable. His motives unclear except for the need to make sure that Joe was separated from his family.

Without knowing, perhaps they as a family had set up the perfect opportunity for Seline to strike like he now has. Allowing their over-protectiveness of Joe to work in his favour and cause him to pull away from them and seek out new horizons.

Shifting around on the uncomfortable bench style seat, Ben began thinking back to the conversation that he and Joe had shared that day after the Saloon. Or the argument Ben thought a little more ruefully, recalling each and every word that had shouted or spoken to each other.

Hindsight would say that dragging his son away from his friends from the saloon might have been a little hasty. That maybe he should have waited until Joe was home and spoken calmly to him about he felt about what he saw as brash behaviour.

Joe, you were supposed to load the supplies, collect the mail and then get a haircut,” Ben said using a softer tone, hoping it would help cool Joe’s temper “Instead I find you hours later inside a saloon, drinking beer and having young ladies hanging off your arm like trophies.”

At nineteen, Joe was still young enough to be wanting to try and find his place, not only within the family, but the world in general, and prove himself more and more every day. Didn’t he understand that he had nothing left to prove to his family?

In Ben’s eyes, his youngest son had already been through so much adversity and been forced to endure too many soul destroying times during the last few years, and suffered more than any one person should have to. And that just made this whole scenario harder to bear from a distance and not being there in person when his son needed him the most. That more torment and heartache could be happening right now, when Joseph had already experienced way too much of both in life.

The whole idea of breaking the horses for the army had been Joe’s idea from the start. Something separate from Adam and Hoss on the ranch, and something he was good at, but wanting to gain as much independence as he could.

Going back over the events they were aware of that had happened so far since leaving on the drive to San Francisco, Ben had to admit that his son’s judgment about the right number of horses to break and how to do it was without fault. That Joe had taken all the correct precautions for the long journey and had even handled men like Douglas on the trail as good as any seasoned leader from what they had learned.

Joe had pleaded with his father and Adam about trying to let him experience life for himself and wanting to do the right thing.

Past and present events that seemed to have very little if any connection at all, were now swirling around and becoming entangled together to put Joe in mortal danger from predators like Marchant Seline.

What Ben wouldn’t give now just to have Joe safe and at home, chastising Hoss from trying to take too long at an innocent game of checkers.

Standing up to stretch his aching back, Ben moved to other side of the train, seating himself closer to Adam to Hoss. “Boys, we need to talk about a plan of action once this train arrives in New Orleans. With the confirmation that Joe is hurt, it will be up to us to find him. We cannot let Seline keep leading us around, keeping us were he can keep watch.”

“What do want to do, Pa?” Hoss sat up a little straighter in his own seat, seeing a glint of the Ben Cartwright that he knew people of Virginia City looked up to.

This was a father who wanted to protect one of his own cubs more than anything else, even if that child deemed themselves almost fully grown. This was the determination that normally saw any of his sons sit up and take notice immediately and not want to question the reasons why.

“This is what I want you and Adam to do…..”


Back aboard the Steam-Boat:

With fresh pain blossoming at the base of his neck, Joe rubbed with the palm of his left hand, trying to massage it away so he could think straight.

The young woman who had been in his room a few minutes ago had promised to return. The man who had been present had left again, leaving more questions than answers as his words continued to echo in his mind; ‘Your name is Joseph. Joseph Dubois. Do you remember?’

The trouble was that he still didn’t remember, any more than he did when he first awoke. There was no way of knowing if this was all some strange and weird dream.

The man claimed to know him, and called him by name. No that wasn’t quite right, told him his name. Said that he was his father. And why would the man do that if he wasn’t? He had been afraid of the man at first, the stinging slap to his face a reminder. But this time when the man had entered the room, his mood had changed and he had mentioned something about him being hurt, sounding concerned.

Continually rolling the name around in his head, Joseph Dubios….Dubois…. or even saying it out loud, didn’t mean anything to him.

The hurt part he could definitely agree with at the moment, leaning forward to try and relieve the non-stop headache, wincing out loud at the discomfort. He was sure his brain was clashing against at least one side of his skull.

Dragging his legs over the side of the bed in an attempt to stand up to see if it would help, he was startled by the door opening. The young woman who had been in the room earlier was holding a covered tray.

Bonnie was balancing the tray over her forearm and turning the door knob with the other hand, but gasped in surprise at seeing the young man trying to get up off the bed. She had no way of getting to him I time to stop him hitting the floor if he suddenly fell.

“You really shouldn’t be doing that a lot just yet,” Bonnie admonished softly, settling the tray on a nearby bedside table.

“I just want the pain to stop,” Joe declared hotly, grabbing onto his head with both hands, the room spinning a little.

Bonnie placed a restraining hand on his shoulder, noting that there was still some heat from his fever present, “Just take it a little slow,” she urged, watching as he bent at the waist and flopped inelegantly onto the bed. He was now seated and in no danger of falling onto the floor, but he was still too pale for her liking and his pain was very evident.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so gruff,” came the whispered apology as he lowered his hands and lifted his head up towards her.

For a brief moment, Bonnie held a breath at the vulnerable figure young man who was gazing back at her, silently asking for her held with his green eyes and heavy lashes. His mussed hair completed the look and she could feel her insides all but melting at wanting to help him.

“Take it much slower moving about and you won’t feel so dizzy,” she lightly chastised, putting on a harder exterior. She reminded herself that she was here simply because Seline and Doctor told her to take care of him.

Joe tried to nod his acknowledgement, but closed his eyes and rode out the pain as best he could, letting his hands fall idly in his lap. Having his eyes closed, forced his other senses to take stock of his surroundings, and what assaulted him now were delicious smells wafting from the covered tray beside him.

Bonnie looked to where he was drawn, “I think if you eat a little of this, you will feel much better. Sit back and I will help you.”

Reluctantly, Joe forced himself to sit back against the headboard of the bed, pausing briefly at the pain that flared intently for a moment. He opened his eyes as he felt the tray placed over his legs, and was greeted with an assortment of aromas as the fabric cover was peeled away.

“I didn’t know what you would like, so I made a few light things for you. You can try something else later when you feel a little more like yourself,” Bonnie informed him, tucking the cover into the front of his shirt.

Joe glanced up at her remark ‘feel a little more like yourself’ but didn’t comment further. He had no idea how he should to be feeling or just who he was supposed to be, but left if unspoken.

Looking down at the platter before him, Joe went from plate to bowl, naming for himself just what each one was, to prove to himself that he at least knew what foods she wanted him to eat. Bonnie took it one step further though at seeing his hesitance in eating, and pointing to each, named each for his benefit.

“Lightly buttered toast with a touch of cinnamon. Just a little. And a soft-boiled egg. Freshly squeezed orange juice, I thought it might be a bit too much for strong coffee just yet.”

Joe picked up one corner of toast in readiness to put it in his mouth, noticing that this appeared to please the woman greatly.

“You eat just as much as you can, and I will be right back with your clothes for the day. Mr …I mean, your father wanted you to join him as soon as you were awake.” And with that she exited the room, thinking she had enough time and thinking that he would be able to manage feeding himself for a few minutes.

Joe watched out the door as the last swish of the woman’s heavy blue skirts signalled that she had left the room, putting the piece of toast back on the plate uneaten. Although his sense of smell wanted him to at least taste a few morsels of food, his queasy unsettling of his stomach disagreed with those intentions.

Picking up the glass of juice, he sipped at the tangy liquid, the coolness wetting the back of his throat. A little bitter, but not too much, and he managed to drink quarter of the contents before putting it back on the white saucer. The next test was to prod the yellow top of the soft egg with the prongs of a fork, watching the gooey centre rush out through the incision. That made his stomach lurch a little more in forewarning.

A turn of the doorknob, and Joe quickly picked up the corner of toast and took a bite as the woman returned with an armful of clothes and other items. Joe went to slide the tray aside as if wanting to help, “No need, you need to finish that breakfast,” Bonnie interjected, looking down at the plate as she neared the bed and looking with dismay at the mostly full plate.

“That won’t do at all, Joseph. You need to eat a little more and then get into these clothes that I have laid out here,” Bonnie asserted, seeing out of the corner of her eye that his attention was now on what she was doing rather than eating.

“I have had enough,” Joe informed her, hoping she would not press him into eating more. He didn’t want this stomach rebelling on him as well as the pounding head.

With interest though, he watched as the woman laid out a pair of dark coloured trousers, a tan coloured long-sleeved shirt, and a coat. Black shoes were placed beside the assemble.

“Are those for me?” the young man found himself asking before he realised he had spoken his thoughts out loud.

“Well, I don’t see anybody else in this room that would be wanting clothes, now do you?” Bonnie said with a small laugh. She could see the confusion on his face and more questions mirrored in his eyes.

“Do I wear clothes like that?” he blurted out, looking down at the clumsy attire he had on and not even knowing they belonged to him. Clothes were a necessity of course, but not knowing who you are meant you didn’t know what you would normally wear either.

“Headache still bothering you, is it?” the woman asked as she saw his concentration on the clothes increase. She really wanted him to eat more before facing Seline, but it didn’t look like she was going to be successful with that task just yet. His colour was still too pale and he looked like he could do with a few more pounds on his lithe frame.

Joe looked up at her question, pausing as if to assess and then nodded, regretting as he did so with a wince. The headache had grown a little less noticeable, but not much.

Moving too quickly was still proving to be a bad thing to do. Once again on the edge of the bed, he did as she suggested and bided his time before attempting to stand. The second time around and he was able to pull himself up, one hand still hovering over the edge of the bed in case his legs betrayed him.

“I can give you something for your pain a little later, but right now we have to get you into these clothes so you can meet with your father.

Joe walked cautiously took a few steps around the bed, hand still remaining close if needed, making his way to stand in front of the pants and coat. He looked at the woman who stood ready to help him and didn’t recall what she had said her name was.

“What was your name?” he asked, slightly embarrassed that he didn’t remember if she had told him.

The woman looked back him and answered, “Bonnie,” with a quiet voice. Joe didn’t recognize the slight sad tone of her voice for the guilt it caused her, but gave her a shy smile in return.

Turning away from Bonnie and taking a closer inspection of the clothes she had chosen for him, he reached out and picked up the pants, giving them a critique. The fabric was softer than it looked, and they felt nice to the touch. The colour was very dark.

“I can help you if you still feel unsteady,” Bonnie offered, reaching out to help him remove the simple trousers and loose shirt he was wearing.

A little nervous and startled, Joe took a step back, away from her, “Um, no thank you, I think I can manage.”

Bonnie wasn’t convinced but could see him turning an interesting shade of blush at her prying hands, but against her better judgment, gave him the privacy he was asking for.

“I will be right outside the door if you need me. Let me know when you are done, so I can make sure it all fits properly.”

Joe sighed audibly in relief when the woman left, thankful she was giving him a little space. He could see that she didn’t really want to leave the room, fearing he was still dizzy when standing. He couldn’t argue with that assessment as his headache peaked sharply once more, but he was determined that he could at least dress himself, even if he didn’t remember his own name.

Deciding to start with the soft trousers in his hand, Joe undid the front of the pair he was wearing and carefully pulled out one leg at a time. By the time he had taken them off, he was using one hand to lean heavily on the bed covers. It appeared that just getting undressed was requiring more strength than he would have thought necessary today.

Slowly sliding on the pair of dark pants, he was surprised at how well they fit. The fabric was just as soft and they laced up at the front. He didn’t know how Bonnie knew what would fit him. Maybe she was just guessing or perhaps she was a seamstress. On the whole, the choice met with his approval, the fabric allowing movement but was neither restrictive or cumbersome.

Pausing for a few moments, he then picked up the shirt that lay on the bed. The fabric was white in colour, but felt as though it had a rougher texture to it.

Once he tucked it in, he looked down at himself. Neat and tidy perhaps. He wanted to walk across the other side of the room to the mirror, but it was only small as he recalled and he wouldn’t be able to fully see himself to make judgment.

A soft knock at the door made him look up too quickly, and regret it as he winced out loud at the spike of pain that protested profusely. The young woman who had taking care of him, entered.

“Sorry, I wanted to give you more time, but Mr… your father is getting rather restless and waiting to speak to you,” Bonnie apologized. “My you are starting to look more like your old self again,” she praised, but the lie was like a bad after taste.

Joe felt a little awkward under the woman’s gaze, “You really mean that? That I look like me?”

The genuineness of the question made Bonnie pause before answering, seeing that the young man was trying to find any shred of the person others thought himself to be.

“You look fine,” she muttered, not wanting to plant ideas into his head any more than Seline required of her. “Put those shoes on that I left for you so we don’t keep your father waiting too much longer.”

“A stickler for being on time is he?” Joe queried as did as requested and put on the black shoes. They felt a little too big, but he didn’t want to sound like he was complaining too much.

“You could say that,” she answered, not wanting to elaborate any further.

Joe looked back towards the bed frowning slightly.

“Everything alright?”

Joe seem to be lost in his own thoughts for a moment, and startled at her voice, “No, I just feel like something is missing.”

“Missing?”

“Like I have forgotten to put something else on that I would normally wear,” Joe explained.

“Like what? You have your clothes and shoes?”

“That’s just it, I don’t know, and I can’t put my finger right on it. But just a feeling.”

“I think its all just been a bit much with your head injury, and you are not thinking straight quite enough yet,” the woman responded.

“You think that is all it is?” Joe asked, clearly not convinced and a little uncertain as to why she didn’t want to hear about what he might be feeling or remembering, if that is what it was.

“I do, come on, lets go. A little gentle exercise and some fresh air out of this room will do you the world of good,” Bonnie replied, taking a hold of his upper arm and pulling him towards the corridor.


Finding himself in the corridor, Joe couldn’t sense any familiarity with this place any more than he had with anything else yet. If this was where he was used to living, one would think that it was an automatic instinct which direction to walk in to where he wanted to go. But sadly it wasn’t. There was a sense of vulnerability that he was trying

harder to quash, but also a growing sense of frustration.

The pain in his head had only decreased a little, and ebbed with each decision he tried to determine for himself, but failed to make on his own.

“This way,” Bonnie ushered.

Whether he approved or agreed or not, Joe found himself being pulled to the right. “Slow down a little,” he begged, putting a hand to his head as pain flared again. The walls were panelled on either side and painted white. At various intervals, a decorative lamp was positioned to provide some lighting. Though with the limited glow that they provided it wasn’t easy to gauge what time of day it was.

Joe had no idea of how far they had to walk, or even which room he was being taken to, his headache was beginning to protest more and more. Another corridor intersected, and upon turning to the left, he gasped out loud to see what he thought was water. The fact that he could see anything at all meant that it was still daytime. The passage of time had been swept away with the rest of his memory.

“Is that water out there?” trying to pull away from the woman’s grip on his arm to stop and take a longer look. But Bonnie didn’t answer his question. In the back of his mind, his off-balance shuffle was becoming more noticeable, but he couldn’t attribute it all to his unsteadiness.

Just where was he that he could see water? After waking in that room he hadn’t gotten much of a sense where he was. He tried listening for familiar sounds or smells that would help him identify but a sharp tug on his arm almost had him stumbling to the floor. Could the gentle slope of the floor under his feet mean he was on a boat? Was that a secret she was deliberately keeping from him?

“Where are we going? he asked, “Wait, I can’t go as fast as you,” he snapped, hoping the woman would stop tugging on him like some lost puppy that she was trying to keep a hold of.

Before he could ask about the water again, up ahead, he could see a door. Upon hearing footsteps approaching, the two of them were greeted by a large man holding it open for them to enter.

“Good afternoon, Mr Dubois,” the man greeted Joe.

The tugging on his arm became more insistent and the grip tightened, as he turned his head to try and take a closer look at the man that had opened the door.

The headache was preventing him from thinking straight, but there was definitely a brief flicker of recognition. By the time he had frowned in concentration though, it speck had disappeared, and the man’s face became a stranger once more.

“Joseph!” was called loudly from across the room, startling the younger man as he turned to see who was angry with him.

Seline forced the volume of his voice to drop after the short outburst, reminding him of how he was supposed to be portraying himself. As a someone who was worried about his son’s health. Walking over to a serving tray, he began to make himself a drink with ice to calm his nerves. He hadn’t realised how much effort he had to put into to just appear nice. It certainly wasn’t all everybody lead you to believe he silently thought to himself.

Rather than addressing the man, Joe found his attention draw to the opulence of the room and the expensive furnishing and fittings that adorned the large expanse. There were a number of large timber credenzas spaced evenly throughout the room. Each displaying crystal glassware or silver goblets and ornaments. There was a large polished grandfather clock standing proudly to his left. The large brass pendulum swinging back and forth in typical hypnotising fashion.

“You can come a little closer, Joseph,” Seline invited, seeing the reluctance not only on the young man’s face, but in his body language and nervous stance.

Joseph obliged by taking a step forward, but the self-confidence that could normally be associated with Joe Cartwright was very obviously lacking. The figure standing in place now, was unsure of his place and much too quiet for his charm to be noted.

“Thank you for the clothes, they fit just fine,” Joe uttered cautiously, looking over at Bonnie as though wanting her to give him prompts about what to say.

The woman had crossed to the living area of the room and was seated on a long striped settee and didn’t see his silent unspoken pleas.

“No need to thank me, Joseph. They are your clothes after all. Not what you would wear at night when working of course, but I have seen you wear them often enough after hours,” Seline answered, his tone of voice sounding like the comment was of annoyance. “You have had a trying time, I am sure, but you are back with us now.”

Joe didn’t know how to respond, as though he had only been away for a few days and now returning to his normal routine. But for him, everything was as far from normal as it could be, and he didn’t know how he was going to voice that so that these people understood.

If this man was his father, one would think that even with memory loss, the man’s face would be familiar to him. But it wasn’t. When he looked towards the man at the door, he had felt something stirring, like he was sure they had met somewhere before. But with the man who was his father, there was something entirely else. No familiarity or recognition, or feeling like they had met. It was as if he was masked from Joe mind by a thick black cloud. Concealed and mysterious.

“Bonnie tells me that you have eaten today, so you should be feeling well again soon,” Seline mentioned casually, walking around the table and seating himself on a single thickly padded armchair in the living area. “I must say, this it isn’t like you to be this standoffish.”

The off-hand remark rolled off Joe, forcing himself to push the frustration once more, “I don’t know what to tell you,” he admitted truthfully, thinking that honesty might be the best choice for the moment. “I don’t remember coming here or anything else,” clenching his fists a little too tightly and releasing them when his fingernails began to dig into the palm of his hands.

“Come on in and let’s talk shall we?” Seline gestured with his hand, sporting a false welcoming smile. “Edwards, get Joseph a drink of iced water, he looks like he could use it right at the moment.”

“Are we on a boat?” Joe queried, wanting to get the most pressing question out of his aching head. He moved closer to the middle of the room, still looking back at the man standing near the door. The man speaking had just called him Edwards’ but that meant nothing to him.

“You hear that, Bonnie?” Seline laughed, as though Joe was asking something very simple, “Joseph wants to know if he is on a boat?” but the laughter soon stopped as he young man neared, his face very open with expression and his desperation to know visible to all.

Joe stood down the opposite end of the long striped settee, not too sure if he was over-stepping the mark by sitting down before he was told to. Something about the man seated in the armchair made him appear a stern person who expected the rules to be followed. The fine clothes and furnishings of the room seemed to demand good manners and etiquette.

“Sit down, Joseph, before you fall down,” Seline said calmly and firmly.

The sentence was barely out when Joe looked up sharply at Seline, a memory triggered. The feeling of deja vu was very strong.

“Take a seat, you look a little pale still after your ordeal,” Seline remarked, giving Edwards a small wave of his hand to indicate that he may need to help him make it to the settee, but then quickly waving him back when it was clear that the words had struck a chord.

Joe silently very relieved to be able to conceal how rubbery his legs had felt crossing the short distance from the door to his current position. Somehow he surmised that the other man sensed he wasn’t feeling the best yet. The familiarity of having a conversation with this man had not diminished, but he tried his best to quash any emotional response until he could think more clearly for himself.

Edwards arrived with the iced water in a tumbler, handing it to him. The man looked as though he wanted to say something. “Let me know if you want any more, Mr Dubios.”

“Thank you,” but it was the Mr Dubios’ that caught his attention the most. Did the man really address like that all the time?

“This is indeed a boat, a Paddle Steam-Boat to be more precise, and it is your home and mine and has been for quite some time,” Seline proclaimed.

“As I told you earlier in your room, your name is Joseph Dubois, and I am your father. The young woman seated there is Bonnie, and the man by the door is Edwards, both have worked for us satisfactorily for years.”

The information reached his ears, but Joe had trouble keeping it all straight. He did remember the man telling him that his name was Joseph earlier in the day. The surname he didn’t quite recall, but he couldn’t say to the contrary for now. He didn’t know Edwards and he didn’t know what it was that either of these two people did aboard the boat, even though it was suggested that he should know.

“You have been recovering from a head injury,” Seline informed. Joe reacted by feeling for the area and wincing at the pain he felt and the swelling he could detect underneath his fingertips. The whole feeling of deja vu had just multiplied again.

“The doctor has informed me that you need to rest, and in a few days, you should have no memory lapses and no further headaches.”

“Really, I should know who I am again!” Joe exclaimed, grasping onto that concept with hope. “The headaches are really bad.”

“The doctor will arrive again tomorrow morning and examine you. He advised that you may experience bouts of tiredness, dizziness and headaches. They are all to be expected with such a nasty head injury as you have sustained.”

“What time is it now?” Joe grimaced, thinking that he was going to be experiencing the pain for quite some time. The doctor must have already examined him at some point according to what he was being told.

“Three o’clock in the afternoon. Plenty of time for us to talk a little more and then perhaps a look around the boat to help you recover your memory,” Seline suggested, sipping at his drink almost constantly to keep himself in a relaxed mood.

“Do you really think that will help?”

“Yes, I do. I have seen it happen before with folks who had lost their memory. Show them some familiar places or things they do everyday and they begin to remember on their own.

Joe couldn’t help but look a little sceptical at the theory, but kept any comments to himself.

“I can see you are not ready to accept my diagnosis just yet. Ask anything you like and I will do my best to answer all your questions, Joseph.”

Deciding to take on that challenge, “Alright, I’ll admit it, I don’t remember any of this at all,” Joe freely admitting, the emotion flowing through him, making him stand up. He quickly regretted it though, as dizziness briefly assailed him for getting up too quickly.

Bonnie stood up, ready to steady the young man if that was required, but Seline quelled any attempt she made with a curt wave of his hand.

“Please stay seated, for your own sake. Any conversation we are going to have can be done sitting down,” Seline chastised.

Joe gave a glare of disapproval at being treated like and ill-trained child. “I find myself at a distinct disadvantage, when everybody seems to know the answers before I even know what questions to ask.”

“From the beginning, because I seemed to have missed a few pages,” Joe retorted back as frustration at the man’s casual attitude began to multiply

“Perhaps we can find a little more recent common ground than that. You came to talk to me a few days ago about a few matters regarding your mother.”

“My mother?” Joe repeated in a soft voice. Had he really been talking about her only a few days ago? Strange as he couldn’t even conjure a mental image of such a person in his mind, no matter how hard he tried.

Seline smirked inwardly at the nerve he had struck with the subject matter. Enough to rattle the younger man when he was trying to gather some self-confidence. “There are no secrets being kept here from you, Joseph. Where do you want to start?”

Joe felt at a distinct disadvantage, noticing an attentive audience as he looked about the room. He almost wanted to have Seline send the other people out of the room, but he pushed down that thought. Thinking to himself that if he wanted to find out if this man was speaking the truth, then perhaps watching those around him would provide that more so.

“Do you remember your mother, Joseph?” Seline asked, this tone of voice deliberately softer.

Joe glared back at the man’s question, “You already know full well that I don’t. Otherwise I wouldn’t even be here.”

Without even realising he was, Joe ran his hand across his forehead in a soothing motion, knowing that the tension in the room was only exacerbating his headache. He still felt on the edge of dizziness, and didn’t know if a bombardment of information would help him or merely confuse him further.

Seline could see the pain etched on the young face, and the desperation in wanting to grab a hold of anything tangible to who or what he was. Marchant need only to widen his web of intrigue and mystery further, and the young man would be firmly under his control. He began to push just that little bit more.

“I am sure lots of people before must have commented on how much you resemble your mother,” the remark sounding partly like a confirmation and also like a question.

“Well since I cannot even recognize my own face in the mirror, I have nothing to base that on.”

“But there is more of Marie in you then just appearance. Her spirit burns strong within you. Your mother was a little wilful at times and didn’t take kindly to being chastised.”

“Wilful? You make it sound as if that was a bad thing?” Joe countered, not enjoying tagged with such an exact description.

“You misunderstand. Your mother for the time that I knew her, was a gentle person and a loving woman. She was generous and kind,” Seline began to divulge. “But after a time things began to change…” leaving a heavy silence at the end.

“What sort of things changed?” Joe asked, leaning forward more and finding himself drawn into the man’s words.

“Your mother, she was from a wealthy family with a very reputable background. She met a man, who took a fancy to her and filled her head with stories of travelling and tales of what else she could experience outside of New Orleans. Someone who came into town and offered her dreams. Wanted to take her away from city life and offer her vast countryside and meadows of flowers.”

“Didn’t you try and stop this man if he was trying to trick her?” Joe blurted out, his temper beginning to rise.

“Yes, I did, even going so far as confront the man myself.”

“What did he say, what did you do?”

“Joseph, I am a man of peace and I don’t believe in violence, so I tried to keep them apart. I tried to keep your mother safe and persuade her that she had a family here with you and me and that she was needed in our lives,” Seline explained. “But all that I did was in vain. Despite my wishes, Marie went riding with this man one day…”

Despite the weakness he was still experiencing, Joe found that he was too restless and couldn’t remain seated, abruptly standing and forced to hold onto the arm of the settee.

The sudden rush of blood away from his head caused his headache to throb relentlessly.

“All of this news may be too much to hear at once. We can continue when you are feeling a little stronger?”

“No…!” Joe blurted out, now standing behind the settee, and digging his fingers into the striped fabric as he tried to gain control over the dizziness washing over him.

Frustrated and in obvious pain to all those in the room, but refusing to let his current weakness to thwart the chance of finding out more.

“Hmph!” Seline uttered in mild disgust, “this stubborn streak is a most unbecoming trait from your mother, Joseph.”

Seline inwardly kicked himself for allowing his own snide attitude to creep into the persona he was attempting to play.

Joe gave an indignant almost demanding glare, daring the man to name his perceived faults and weaknesses, but Seline quickly caught his mistake and changed his tone to a much softer one, of regret and remorse.

“Forgive my unusually gruff exterior, Joseph, you don’t understand. It was that part of Marie that caused her to pull away from our marriage and wanting to spend time in less attractive company.”

Joe’s dropped his eyes to the floor, feeling a little humbled and embarrassed at having behaved in such a way to a man who was merely trying to help him understand better.

The right words to ask the most important question that he wanted to know the answer to still eluded him. What had happened to his mother?

An opportunity had just presented itself that Marchant Seline had been looking for. The seed to plant in the young man’s mind as to what had happened. To coerce a series of events and their outcomes that were presented in a fashion that allowed the real truth to be masked, painted and moulded to his advantage.

“Your mother went riding that day, she was a very experienced rider. Marie must have been distracted by the charms and false hopes of the man who was accompanying her,” Seline made sure that he had the young man’s full attention before completing the tragic story.

“Her horse was startled and Marie was thrown. Witnesses on the day say that there was nothing that anybody could do. She was killed instantly.”

Joe gasped out loud, a low moan rolling from deep down as he sucked in a deep breath through his mouth, as all other noise and senses within the room around him stopped suddenly. His knees threatening to betray and buckle from under him, and although he opened his mouth to speak, no sound escaped his lips. It was if someone was gripping him by the throat and slowly squeezing.

Joe flinched briefly as he felt someone touching his arm. Looking up in confusion to see Bonnie standing next to him beside, and having a firm but gentle hold of his upper arm. The sound of footsteps to his right, and Seline stood nearby.

“I am truly sorry that you had to hear such dreadful news from me. Even after all this time, I know how painful it is to think of her taken from me.”

“You were only a small boy of five when it happened, and you are not at fault or to blame.”

“Are you certain you should not be sitting down?” came the worried question from Bonnie. “You are very pale and I can feel your arm trembling even now.”

Joe briefly shook his head, knowing that she was concerned for his health, but still trying to come to terms with what he had just been told, barely able to speak with the emotions than currently swirling inside of him.

“Come now, Joseph, you are still recovering, and this has no doubt been a very bad shock for you. Once you have rested, I assure you, we will talk further and you can ask any questions you may have.”

Joe could feel his body begin to agree with the symptoms they were describing, reluctantly, he found himself being lead towards the door. He wanted to say more, demand more, ask more, but the headache was now echoing loudly and he winced out loud at the sharpness of the pain now assailing him.

“Who?” was the single word that he asked, but Seline guessing that he had really meant to ask, ‘Who was the man with my mother when she died?’

“I am not sure you are ready to hear his name now, but his name was Benjamin Cartwright,” Seline replied, watching very intently for the reaction that such a name might cause to the young man. It may even trigger his memory.

Joe stopped walking, running the name over and over in his head. But the disappointment on his face at the lack of recognition only making Marchant Seline smile inwardly like a cheshire cat, as he followed behind Bonnie and coercing the younger man back to his room to rest.

Later that day, Joe would not remember whether he had walked the entire distance back down the corridor or not. At one point he thought he could feel his body shivering. The flicker of the lights made him deliberately drop his head and squint away from their harsh glow.

Someone’s soft voice echoed in his ear, “You can sit down on the bed now.”

“Just relax and lay back,” the voice chided gently, feeling his legs being raised onto the bed, and his shoes being removed.

Joe didn’t appear to notice Seline standing just inside the doorway, holding a glass in his hand. He watched as Bonnie gently guided the confused and hurting young man to sit on the edge of the bed.

Bonnie saw the glass in his hand, turning her head away with guilt as she saw Seline remove a small packet of powder from the pocket of his waistcoat, and dissolve a small amount of white powder into the water. She had done the same thing to Joe’s food back in San Francisco, and her face burning with shame.

Tiredness began crashing over him in great waves. Joe felt a cold glass pressed into his hand and then lifted to his mouth. The liquid tasting odd, and having a distinctive after taste as it swished around in his mouth before swallowing.

“It is just water,” the voice urged as he found himself taking another mouthful. Wanting to protest that the drink wasn’t water, he wasn’t sure if the liquid would stay in his stomach. The glass was pushed towards his lips again, but he turned his face away, shaking his head slightly in refusal, but instantly regretting such a movement as pain assaulted him again.

Joe did not feel the softness of the fabric that his head was resting on. The only thought on his mind at present, was escaping the torment of his pounding headache.

Grabbing at the bed clothes with clenched fists, Joe tried to raise his upper body, frustrated with feeling so weak and restless.

“Oh no you don’t, just sleep,” Bonnie admonished mildly, noting that she didn’t have to use any additional force to prevent Joe from getting off the bed.

Whether he heard her words or not she couldn’t be sure, the young man fighting sleep. Rubbing her hand gently down his arms, she was attempting to relax his body enough to allow the laced drink to do its work.

“No, I don’t want to…s-sleep,” came the slurred response. But soon all control was taken away from him as his eyelids fluttered closed and his breathing slowed and deepened. One final brief attempt to open his eyes failed again and he was asleep.

Seline was satisified that his young captive would remain still for the next few hours. The sedative he had administered would see to that. The man had wanted to embed his charade about Marie’s past and reinforce Joe’s new identity, but clearly the head injury was proving a little more troublesome than he had envisaged.

“Tell Edwards or Yeager to keep watch on this room at all times. I want to be told when he is awake again,” Seline ordered, turning away and leaving the doorway as soon the instructions were delivered.

Bonnie used the back of her hand to test the young man’s temperature, and frowned a little when she detected heat on his skin. Secure in the knowledge that he would do no more than sleep for now, she left him laying on top of the bed clothes without the need for any additional blankets. She would monitor him carefully and could change this later if his fever showed signs of breaking.


With the train pulling into the New Orleans Station, Ben Cartwright was very grateful for the halt to the slow winding motion of the train. On longer trips such as the one that he, Adam and Hoss had just endured, the hours tended to dull the senses and relax the body a little too much. Rubbing at his right shoulder, hoping to relieve some of the stiffening muscles, the trio of men were confronted to a very different scene to any they were used to seeing closer to home.

Apart from the large crowd on the station platform, the first thing to note was the vast array of aromas, good and bad. Stepping down from the train with their minimal luggage, the Cartwright men found themselves surrounded by strong smells of overly sweet perfume from ladies disembarking from the train.

Then there were the smells of food from local venders who had stationed themselves near the entrances and exits, hoping to tempt those getting on-board or getting off.

A short rotund man with ‘Station Master’ stitched on his navy shirt walked past Adam at one point and looked distastefully at the small oriental man and his small wagon of steaming pots. The aroma of delicious food reminded them that they had not eaten in some hours.

Adam had tried to gain the man’s attention for a few seconds, but all too soon, the man was distracted once again by a foursome of young men who were beginning to hurl punches at each other and cause further disruption to the chaotic crowded platform.

Ben had made it quite clear when back on-board the train before they had pulled up at the station, that the main priority had to be finding Joseph or any clues that might help find him.

On two separate occasions, Hoss found himself being rudely shoved aside as a late passenger tried to hurry their way to the ticketing counter. He had tried to step aside from one robust fellow, only to have a slim man brush past his opposite side, tipping his hat in apology, scuttling away with his tattered brown satchel tucked under one arm.

“Folks sure are in a hurry round these here parts, aren’t they, Pa?”

“Courtesy in this sort of environment is hard to come by these days, Hoss. Let’s just try and keep level heads, but keep to the plan,” Ben responded barely able to hear his son speak with so many conversations going on around them at the one time.

“Reynolds back in San Francisco would be lost in this mixture of people that is for sure,” Adam added, remembering how vacant that platform had been when they arrived.

Towards the entrance of the Railway Station, music could be heard, played by a group of men. Some seated playing, one or two standing, all wearing clothes that had seen much better days. But the melody that could be heard above the crowd was rhythmical and enthusiastic. A beat that encapsulated the working lower-class, welcoming newcomers to the city of New Orleans.

With so many sounds echoing in their ears and so many faces peering back at them, the Cartwrights had to double their efforts in making it to the entrance of the Railway Station and out of the crowd. A large archway stood as a point of reference to steer towards. Upon walking beneath it to the other side, not one of the three was quite prepared for the grand expanse of the city that was New Orleans.

Even within the vicinity of the Railway Station entrance, there were coaches and buggies arriving by the dozen, people climbing into carriages and being helped down from wagons of all shapes and sizes. There were men and horses in great numbers. Many of the men travelling by horseback in the street were dressed in very fine clothing. Top Hats and Tailed-Coats no less. Some of the ladies were also dressed in beautiful dresses adorned with lace and ribbons.

The air outside was damp and warm, with thunderclouds beginning to form and threaten for a storm later in the day. Any breath drawn in almost made strangers to cough and clear their heads. Dust was swirling around from horses, wagon and people carrying on their daily business. The humidity hanging over the city like an unwelcome blanket and causing the dust to stick and settle on clothes and other surfaces. Rain would visit the centre before the end of the week Ben suspected.

Hoss removed his hat, feeling like he was not in the same class of people, but he relaxed when he glanced over at Adam and saw his older brother adjusting to the dramatic change of scenery much better. “So many people all trying to go about their business a might too fast for my tastes, Adam,” Hoss whispered, not wanting anybody nearby to hear of his awkwardness.

Adam had the benefit of being in cities like this before, a lot more than his younger brother, but upon seeing Hoss’s genuine unease, helped to deter any anxieties that his younger sibling had. “Just think of it as being Virginia City on Flap Jack Contest Day.”

Hoss exchanged a dubious look with his brother, and tried to do just that, but the loud shouting of a nearby teamster as yet another wagon pulled up close to the street curb, took away any such similarity. The mention of food though soon had his stomach loudly reminding him that it had been many hours since any of them had eaten.

The chance of any further conversation was over-shadowed by the sight of a Taxi-Driver pulling up behind the wagon team, but coming in at too fast a pace, causing the horses hitched to the wagon to become restless and jerk at the reins.

“What in tarnation!” the man was heard to shout in frustration at the careless disregard for the safety of passengers and animals alike.

The team driver quickly had to pull sharply on the reins to bring the team under control and calm down the nervous horses. The expression on his face was a grim one as he handed the reins of the now settled team to the man who had been seated beside him.

“I am going to give that fellow a good talkin too,” they heard the driver say as he let go of the leather.

“Don’t go causing any trouble, Pete,” the other man urged in warning, but the driver ignored anything said and walked accusingly up to the Taxi Carriage.

“What just do you think you are doing?” the driver spewed angrily at the Taxi Driver, as the passenger disembarking from his buggy, ran through the crowd towards the entrance, muttering about being late and missing his next train.

The sudden raise of voices made many of the people standing nearby stop and stare to see what was going on.

“I was doing my job. You and your wagons have no business being here delivering goods to the main platform in the same place where passengers are getting on and off,” the driver yelled in returned, jumping down from his carriage, and ready to enforce the rules by physical force if the wagon driver needed some more reminding. His thick Irish baroque accent made it more difficult to convey his angry tirade.

“We have just as much right as you,” the teamster driver demanded, though the confidence of his voice faltered a little, and the dropping of his eyes away from the intense gaze of the other man, signalling that perhaps Pete knew what was being said to be true. “You were coming in way to fast and spooked my team!”

“I will more than spook your team, I should be boxing your ears some,” the Taxi-Driver threatened, taking up a boxing stance and putting back the sleeves of his shirt and raising his fists.

A few gasps could be heard coming from the gathered crowd as it was clear that the argue was quickly going to degrade into a physical fight between the two men. The teamster driver backing down none and preparing to give a licking in turn to the Taxi-Driver.

One man was shouting to find one of the local police constables, but none could be seen anywhere near the Railway Station. A few other men seemed quite pleased to see two men taking a more primal approach to sorting out their differences of opinion.

With little warning, the first punch came from the teamster driver, landing squarely on the Taxi-Driver’s shoulder and setting him off balance for a moment. He growled in return and quickly gained firm footing before swinging a meaty arm at the Irish dog. Whilst his arm had strength behind it, his built up emotions caused his aim to go awry and miss the other man by a good inch and a half.

A smirk from the Pete, the wagon driver was short lived as the Taxi-Driver swung again, this time making contact just above the hit. He let out a surprised gasp of air, both hands falling to the struck area. The Taxi-Driver used this to his advantage, grabbing the other man around his middle and toppling them both awkwardly to the ground.

Pete used one of his feet to lunge out at the Taxi-Driver, and was rewarded with a startled yelp as he made painful contact with his opponent’s lower leg.

The crowd surrounding the warring parties began to swell in number, with Ben and his boys finding themselves standing amidst a large group and being jostled about as spectators tried to gain a better vantage point closer to the scuffle.

With both men now faltering on the ground, on one occasion, Ben found himself losing his own balance momentarily, and almost finding himself sprawled on the ground, except for Adam standing directly behind his father and able to use a supporting arm to prevent an embarrassing fall. “Thank you, Adam,” Ben said in gratitude, dusting down his waistcoat.

Hoss had seen his father’s stumble, and now pulled the brim of his hat down firmly, glaring at the two men. Adam had seen the indignation on Hoss’s face, wanting to prevent the fight escalating, “I don’t think we should…,” but his sentence was left unfinished as he watched on with a hidden mixture of pride and admiration.

“Alright, I think you two have just about done enough,” Hoss hollered, grabbing the Taxi-Driver by the scruff of the neck and holding him in place, whilst he grabbed a fist full of Pete’s black hair. “Stand still now,” he warned with a yank and a shake of the pair.

Pete’s hands both came up automatically and as he tried to extradite his locks from the stranger’s hand pulling on it, “Yeow, that hurts. Let go!”

“Hey, I wasn’t finished punching him in the nose yet,” the Taxi-Driver implored, irked that he was being manhandled. “Who ask you to step in, cow-poke?”

The crowd around who had been boisterous a few minutes before, now quietened and turned to look at the large man who had stepped in to stop the fight. Hoss felt the weight of everyone’s stares and swallowed a little as he tried to search for the words to explain himself. A couple of them nodding in agreement with the Taxi-Driver’s question.

“If you two gentlemen are fixing to finish this, then do it somewhere else,” Hoss emphasised, making both of them look at him and then each other.

“Alright, Alright, everyone out of my way. Why are all of you people blocking this area now?” a voice called out and then a whistle blew shrilly and loudly.

A long thin policeman weaved this way through the onlookers and bystanders, getting ready to blow on his whistle again.

“Naw, nothing going on here,” Peter shuffled with his feet, wrenching his hair free and rubbing at the spot, now missing more than a few hairs no doubt, he thought to himself.

But he wasn’t about to draw the law into the problem, surrendering whatever ground he had made on behalf of all the wagon drivers and teamsters.

Despite their argument, the Taxi-Driver appeared to be in complete agreement on this particular point, and wanted to avoid any interference from the police just as much.

“No problems officer, just unloading my wagon,” Pete said as he scurried to the back of his covered wagon and began unloading the boxes and barrels from inside. By starting to unload, he made it clear that he wasn’t about to move his wagon until it was completely empty to everyone, including the Taxi-Driver.

“No idea what you mean, officer, these good people were just flagging me down for my next fare,” the man said cheekily, now taking a hold of Hoss’s collar and trying to drag him closer to his own vehicle.

The crowd had thinned out fairly quickly and the bystanders and witnesses to the fight were now walking away down the street, and deliberately making themselves scarce from any further involvement.

The police officer looking at both men and the Cartwright’s suspiciously and was about to take down more information from all of them, when a woman could be heard calling out to him. Ben and his boys had to keep from laughing when they turned and saw what the young constable was about to become embroiled in.

“Officer, Officer, I demand you act immediately,” came the announcement from none other than Mrs Hopkins from the train. “I will not idly stand by and let this atrocity go unpunished. You must come with me now!”

Hoss tipped his hat as a sign of sympathy at the officer’s puzzled expression. “Almost doesn’t seem fair,” he whispered quietly to Adam as the brothers shared a knowing smile with their father about the long story that he would soon endure.


“Come on now, hurry and all, cannot keep a busy driver like myself waiting you know,” the Taxi demanded, trying to draw attention away from all that had happened as much as possible.

“How do you know we even want a Taxi?” Ben asked, noticing the man’s accent, but not liking the distracted and casual attitude that oozed from him.

“You folks are from out of town I can see, stands to reason you have places to go. I shall get you there. I take all the passengers from the trains I do, so don’t let anybody else tell you differently. I notice everything that goes on around here I do.”

“Notice everything, do you?” Ben parroted back, looking back at Adam and seeing the same questions going unanswered.

“You see all the passengers who come out of here?” Adam asked.

“Most of them, yeah. So what of it?” the driver shrugged his shoulders, knowing that there were times that he arrived late, but now wanting to openly admit it to his possible next fare.

“I haven’t got all day to stand about here, answering your questions I already told you I knew.” The man paused briefly after that statement, thinking that it ma not have come out sounding quite right.

“You can have a fare, and I will even pay you a handsome tip, in turn for some information,” Ben promised.

The man’s eyes lit up at the mention of money, but he urged on the side of caution, “What sort of information are you needing?”

Ben hesitated for a moment, trying to gauge just how much to tell the man about their travels and troubles. “Can you tell me if you saw a young man come out of this station a few days ago? He might have been wearing a green jacket, Ben prodded with vital clues that might help identify Joe’s presence.

Now that the driver had to recall specific people, and despite his grandeur of how much business he had, he found himself concentrating and trying to remember faces or attire.

“There has been so many…,” the man started to say when his expression changed to one of triumph, “Oh you mean those folks that were in too much of a hurry?”

“Too much of a hurry?” Adam questioned, pleased that they might be closer to finding Joe, and noting the sheer relief reflecting on his father’s face at the man’s exuberant response.

“Yes, a few days ago, three or four, I cannot be sure, but there was this young woman, with blond hair, pretty little thing,” he started to explain. The Taxi-Driver almost stopped when he saw the express on Ben’s face change to one of missed chance.

“But with her, there were three other man and this one younger lad they were taking with them. He had on a hat of some description, but it was pulled down too low over his forehead, and I can’t be sure if he was wearing a green jacket or not.”

“It could be Joe,” Ben exclaimed, but knew that the could have been any number of young men arriving at the railway station with a hat.

Adam appeared to have the same unspoken question as his father, “Where did you take them, and why do you remember him in particular?”

“Did you hear any names?” Hoss chimed in.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t remember much like I told you,” the man answered truthfully, seeing that these men were desperate for information.

“The reason I remember is that the young fellow looked sick and I told them that I wasn’t taking any chance in case he was catching or something. Can’t be too careful these days,” the man added contritely when he admitted how selective he could be of his potential customers.

Adam prodded a little more, confident that a stroke of luck had come their way, “Could he have been injured instead of sick?”

“Could be, I suppose. I didn’t get a real good look at him. Like I said, the hat was pulled down too much, but what I did see of him, he was a might pale and sleeping,” the driver filled in the events after leaving the station with Seline.

“They wanted to go as fast as possible, down to the coast and didn’t want me to stop for anything. That young fellow never woke the whole time, although the young woman seemed a might fussy about him and whispering about needing a doctor. But I don’t listen in on conversations like that.”

“I am sure that you don’t,” Ben replied, shaking the man’s hand but thankful that the man had done just the opposite. “You have helped more than you know,” he added, hope at finding Joe soon once again rekindled and giving him determination to press on.

“But wait, you still owe me a fair and that tip you promised.”

Adam handed over 5 coins to the driver, who briefly looked at them in disgust, knowing that he had not really earned a fair at all, since the people hadn’t even gotten into the Taxi. Grumbling, the man turned and continued to voice a complaint as he walked away from the Cartwright’s, uttering something about not picking up cowboys as passengers in the future.

“Hoss, find a livery stable and see about getting us some horses for a few days,” Ben instructed.

“Adam go with him, but then we need accommodation for us and Joe when we find him. Make it a suite that is large enough for us all. Put everything in my name, I will sort out the bill a little later.”

“What are you going to be doing, Pa?” Hoss asked, not wanting to come outright and admit his apprehension of three of them splitting up in a large city.

“I want to go and check on a place, there is a little tavern on the coast called the ‘Captain’s Nest’,” Ben replied, deliberately avoiding any forthcoming information where he was headed. “I will meet you there in two hours and we can put our heads together and decide what our next move is.”


Despite Seline’s instructions about Edwards and Yeager keeping watch on the room where Joe was sleeping, the two men wandered back towards the gambling lounge of the paddle boat, and starting a round of poker.

A little sharing of the boss’s liquid refreshments, and all thoughts of the young man who they were supposed to be watching fled.

Seline had returned to his own cabin, attending to ‘important matters’ and asked that he not be disturbed for several hours unless absolutely necessary.

Bonnie could be found in the kitchen preparing lunch for all those on-board, taking into account that the young man may not be wanting anything substantial due to his headaches. But if his body was to start healing properly, then the first step needed to be regular good food.

The small galley kitchen and Seline’s cabin were situated on the other side of the paddle-boat, some distance from being from the other sleeping quarters.

Back in the room where Joe was laying, his sleep was beginning to become very restless.

His legs tangling in the bedclothes and his temperature rising with fever. But it was pain that caused Joe to wake and refused to allow him to rest, despite the aid of the sedative in his system. He shifted and groaned as the pain began to grow from different parts of his body, his ribs, back and head.

Joe winced out loud as he willed his body to stop fighting against him and leave him alone. Nausea plagued his stomach, but he swallowed the feeling as the insidious tendrils of pain began to merge together.

With little warning, Joe sat up abruptly in the bed, his head exploding with a fresh onslaught of stabbing pain. He gasped out loud, feeling disoriented and uncertain of his surroundings. He tried to wait for the cloud over his mind to pass, but the headache was intense and brutal.

Forcing his legs over the side of the bed only increased his dizziness, but he was determined to make his weakened body move. His memory didn’t got back far enough to remember a time when he felt well and without pain. Using a shaking hand to grab at the tangled sheets, he tried to pull himself into an awkward standing position, but only remained up for a few seconds before dizziness assailed him once more and had him sitting on the edge of the mattress.

He pulled himself upwards a second time and managed to maintain a bent-over stance still gripping the blanket with his fist. A cold shiver washed over him and his shivered as droplets of sweat ran down the the small of his back.

Who am I!’ he demanded of himself. Frustration driven by the anxiety that he couldn’t hold back and fuelled with pain that he couldn’t overcome, and an emptiness inside his mind that consumed everything else about himself.

Shuffling his feet and feeling the wooden floorboards beneath him, Joe tried to push the dizziness aside and break through the cloudiness of his amnesia.

To prevent himself from losing his balance, he stretched his arms out praying that what little strength he had in his limbs would let him reach the mirrored dresser table on the other side of the room.

Those clouds of darkness refused to answer his unspoken questions as he slowly lifted his head and gazed into the mirrored glass that silently taunted him. He scrubbed a hand down one side of his face seeking something that alluded him. He felt as though he was trapped within some dream that was sewn around him so seamlessly that he couldn’t avoid it. Nor know what was real and what was an illusion.

An empty ceramic bowl and jug were position to one side of the dresser. Using one hand to keep his balance and one to pour the water, he half filled the bowl. After setting the jug down, Joe couldn’t help but look down into the water and frown as he splashed angrily at the image of that stranger’s face before it rippled away.

Compelled to overcome the physical weakness that plagued his body, Joe used his free hand to dip into the water and bring it to his face, savouring its cool temperature. Then in complete contrast due to the confusion in his mind and the fever coursing through him, appeared for a moment to cause the water to burn and sting his face and hand. He told himself that it was all in his mind.

He coughed at the sensation feeling a strong charge of anger build up within him again, shaking his head and keeping his eyes shut tightly as he reached for a cloth to dry his face.

‘Fool!’ he screamed back at the image before him. Eyeing the stranger before him with suspicion and a scowl on his face. The glass mocking him that he was seeing his own reflection.

In his mind, the troubled young man could hear the woman’s voice gently admonishing him, ‘Don’t try so hard to remember.’

He choked, fumbling back a step. Pain. Fear. Confusion. All flooding him with vivid and potent images that he couldn’t put into context or a time frame on. The young woman who had brought him food and clothes. The man telling him about his mother. He felt like a stranger among the very people who claimed themselves to be friends and family.

Struggling with his body and the memories, a single thought struck him like a physical blow and left more questions than it answered. Perhaps the reason he didn’t remember was because it was a self-defence mechanism. That somewhere deep down, he must know that he wanted and needed to protect himself.

Maybe due to the injury he had received, the amnesia had not been a conscious act on his own part, but that his mind has decided that repression was the only good explanation for repressing who he must have been. And that he was better off not knowing who Joseph Dubious had been.

In desperation, wrapping both hands around the frame of the mirror, until he could feel his fingertips hurting and then beginning to go numb. His headache continued to throb mercilessly, intense with heat that needed to escape but had no outlet.

And then an image struck him that didn’t have any meaning. Instead of holding onto a wooden frame, he could feel his fingers curling around a hand-gun. There was nothing familiar about this place. Nothing about the faces or his surroundings and some things that made absolutely no sense at all. He wanted answers. Not questions and subterfuge.

Anger and frustration multiplied exponentially and then exploded all at once as he pushed himself away from the dresser table, and towards the door. Pure adrenaline was the only thing keeping him upright as he pulled at the door knob, struggling with it before shoving it open and stumbling into the corridor.

The long narrow walkway, offered no further clues and with no knowledge of which direction to go, Joe turned right, picking up the pace and began to run from everything. From those unfamiliar faces, the mirror, those images and mostly from himself.

Bonnie had just finished preparing lunch and heading towards the sleeping quarters, when she was astonished to see the young man trying to run down the corridor. Wiping her wet hands, she wondered how on earth he could be on his feet given the drug Seline had given to him only hours earlier.

She quickly followed him, expecting to find him sprawled on the floor within a few metres, but worried about what could have occurred for him to be on his feet when he was less than well.

In the lavishly decorated gambling room, Edwards and Yeager were about to deal out another hand of cards, when the two of them heard someone approach the room. Both had put the cards down, thinking that Seline had come in unannounced and caught them slacking off, but surprised to be met with the figure of Joseph Cartwright, running into the room, with no shoes on his feet and his shirt only partially buttoned.

There was a wild-eyed expression to his face that they didn’t immediately recognize. Yeager could see that he was unsteady on his feet, and in danger of falling to the floor at any moment.

Joe was almost at the end of his strength when his feet crossed the plush carpet, almost coming to a complete stop and bending at the waist to account for the stabbing pain in his head. Two men were seated at a table halfway across the room. They both got up, but only one started to walk towards him.

An odd ringing sound in his ears, made it impossible for Joe to understand what the man was saying, but his sense of danger was raised and he took a few evasive side-ways steps. This only increased the dizziness tenfold and new images began to assail his mind.

When looking at the man, the distinct sound he could make out was one of horses hooves. Just just one horse, but many hooves, and the smell of dust and animals in a large group. Horses… yet another piece of the puzzle that just didn’t fit.

Joe felt his anger rising once more, and even with his confusion, it seemed that it was directed specifically at the man confronting him and coming closer.

He held out his arm as though to ward off any advance from the stranger, “No!” all the time moving further away in the opposite direction.

Edwards could hear the harsh, laboured breathing, but upon trying to get closer, the young man screamed, “No!” again and backed away towards the other side of the room.

At first, it was the sound of hurried feet that broke Marchant Seline’s attention from his current task. But just as he was about to ignore it as one of the men, a shout of pain mixed with anger that drew him from his cabin. It was continued raised voices that drew him to the gambling room and the scene that currently greeted him.

A dishevelled and angry Joe Cartwright standing deliberately away from everybody else, using a table to support himself.

Bonnie followed Seline into the room, dismayed, but not totally surprised at the sight before them all. The young man looked like a caged animal, gripped by fear and pain.

“Will one of you please make him stop all this nonsense,” Seline gruffly ordered.

“Can’t you see, he is scared and in pain,” Bonnie pointed out. “He shouldn’t even be awake,” purposefully reminding him of his deception.

Seline was about to deliver a stern word of warning at her forthrightness, when he paused and took heed of her words, but not before showing his displeasure at her attitude towards him. Especially in front of the other men.

“Joseph, we are here to help you,” Seline tried to soothe.

More unexplained feelings and images assaulted him without warning, and they were different again. A sharp pain from a needle and hurtful words being delivered by a voice with a flat neutral tone. To Joe, a knot of warning began to ball in his stomach, he just couldn’t put his finger on the reason.

When Edwards and Yeager both took a step towards Joe at the same time, instead of pulling away from them, he took a forceful stride forward, pointing an accusing finger at them both, “You were hired by me!”

The sudden outburst leaving him leaning heavily against the table for support once more. He had no idea why he needed to yell that to either of them or what sparked him to feel such animosity towards either man.

The statement had a totally different effect on Edwards and Yeager though, with both of them stopping and exchanging a knowing glance with each other.

Looking over at Seline, they could see that he didn’t know what the young man had shouted out for.

With four people in the room apart from himself, Joe looked back and forth between them all, trying to remember what he knew about each. But despite the brief flashes and images, it was what he didn’t know that stood out in stark contrast.

Joe voiced his barrage of accusations towards all of them, but kept his gaze fixated on the one person who had been taking care of him, Bonnie.

“All of you keep telling me who I am. But I have nothing to base any of that one. I can’t remember any of the things you say that I have done. I don’t know what or who to believe any more.”

“Joe, let us help you,” Bonnie answered softly, seeing the distress in his body and etched on his face.

“You might remember, but I don’t!”

With the last word being emphasised, Joe’s legs would no longer hold him up and he folded into a unceremonious heap to the carpeted floor.

Somewhere in the background he could faintly hear a soft soothing voice talking to him, but could not make out the words. He was too tired, and the pain too great to try and fight his way back up.

This small fleeting amount of comfort began to soak deep into his bones. The soft tones continued but he didn’t try and listen to the words. Only moments ago, he had been praying for a touch or smell, a reaction that would help him remember his life as Joseph Dubois.

Joe surrendered to the soothing silence and blackness that now engulfed his body and mind. The blackness took him away from the images and his pain and cradled him gently in its grasp. All thoughts fled as he lost himself in a haze of nothingness.

Bonnie bent down and gently ran her fingers along he head and neck, detecting the heat and fever still present. Sighing, she looked down into his face and saw that his eyes were closed and his features lax with unconsciousness.

Seline interrupted the silence, “What was all that about?”

Somehow he was thinking that the young man was carrying out some contrived, over-dramatic and elaborate charade.

Bonnie wasn’t about to coddle him into any false sense of accomplishment, “I think we just saw his first few memories of being Joseph Cartwright.”

Marchant Seline’s narrowed his eyes with a piercing gaze levelled at Bonnie, and then his unsuspecting and reluctant prisoner. His carefully set out plans against Ben Cartwright were quickly becoming tangled if not unravelled.

To be continued……….

Author Notes: The distances and places are totally made up as are the various modes of transportation, so please just believe them as they are for the sake of the story.

DUBOIS is the name I have used for Marie’s maiden name. I believe this may not be entirely correct, but now I had used it once, I will have to stick with that for the remainder of the story. It does play a significant part in the story as you will see later.

There are still little clues all the time for future things that will happen or things that have already happened that will be left for Ben and the others further down the storyline.

I don’t want to update for the sake of updating. I want the story to flow well and for readers to be able to follow it with some logic and enjoy reading it.

Please let me know what you think so far.

Thanks for reading

Jules

Chapter Two – Pine Valley

FALSE WITNESS

By Jules

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two – Pine Valley

from the end of the previous chapter:

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

Approximately a month earlier:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The patriarch smiled to himself and hoped that the excitement inside Joe remained until the boy himself was an old grey man. It was this zest for life that kept rejuvenating the youth in all of them. Even Hop Sing seemed to have an extra hop in his step these days just to keep up with the youngest member of the family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Pa?” the youth asked, noting his father’s absence from the table.

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

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

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

“Good Morning to you as well, can’t I enjoy an early morning sunrise?”

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

“You feeling alright, Pa?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure that you have packed all you will need, Joseph?” Ben asked, wanting to make sure that the two brothers had all the essentials they might need with them for their expedition. This was a camping trip that Joe was going on without his father or Adam, and therefore Ben was just that little bit more nervous. He knew he could trust Hoss better than most people, but that security didn’t stop him worrying in general about the both of them being away from home.

“Yes, Pa, I checked again this morning before coming down for breakfast” Joe answered in an exasperated tone. He knew that his father was worried about him and Hoss going off hunting on their own without their father or Adam to supervise. “I’ve got three changes of clothes. Hoss has already loaded all of the supplies including my rifle and the fishing poles,” he replied.

“And that’s another thing, young man,” Ben began pointing out, as he caught the tone in his son’s voice. “You are only to use that rifle when Hoss is watching you and instructing you, is that understood?” he asked sternly.

Although Ben had purchased the rifle for Joe himself approximately four weeks ago now, he didn’t like the idea of a young inexperienced person having full use of a deadly weapon. Joe could be sensible to a fault, but it was that impulsive nature and the frequent mistake ‘to act first and ask questions later’ mentality that caused unspoken fear to dwell inside Ben, just as much as other father’s did with their young sons and guns.

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

“Come over here for a moment please, Joseph” Ben asked, as he sat down on the settee and indicated to his youngest son to join him. “There are just a few things that I want you remember before you leave.”

Little Joe made a face as he knew what was about to come. “Aw Pa, I already know what your going to say before you say it,” he declared, trying to mimic his father’s authoritative voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whilst he was outside saddling Cochise and made sure everything was tied on properly, Ben had a little heart-to-heart chat with Hoss as well, as to what he expected of him and Little Joe this weekend.

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

“Where are you planning to take our younger brother on this camping expedition, Hoss?” Adam asked as he left the table. He asked the question for two reasons. One, for curiosity sake and with regret that he wasn’t joining his brothers in a nice couple of days off from work on the ranch.

Two, whilst he had no qualms about Hoss’s ability to handle most situations that might arise whilst they were out there alone, Adam was also only too well accustomed to his youngest brother’s whimsical and impetuous nature and his desire to grow up too fast. Occasionally he didn’t think too far enough ahead and mistakes were made that could have been avoided with a little more forethought about the risks and consequences.

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

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

“Probably as far as ‘Pine Valley’, Adam,” Hoss answered. “Its not totally off the Ponderosa, but far enough away for the boy to enjoy the scenery and camp underneath the tall trees up there. We can camp near one of the small streams up there and catch some small fish for supper if there is no other game to be seen beforehand. We can set a rabbit snare or two, they are always good eating this time of year with the cooler weather coming in.”

Ben and Adam were both pleased with Hoss’s assessment and knew the choice of venue was right. Although ‘Pine Valley’ was in one of the far corners of the Ponderosa lands, it was more than half-a-day’s ride away and definitely far enough away to make a camping trip out of the expedition.

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

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

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

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

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

Ben watched the two riders until he could no longer see them. Many thoughts raced through his mind as he was reminded that this was a camping trip for Joe without him alongside. He kept telling himself that everything would be fine, but deep down inside he couldn’t wait until Sunday afternoon again when he saw them arrive safely back in the yard at the house.


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

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

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

“When we do get to ‘Pine Valley’, the first thing we will have to do is choose a good camping spot near the stream for tonight. Once we have unpacked everything and secured the supplies from the native wildlife, we can go out and have a look for what might be around. Later this afternoon we can do a spot of fishing in the stream to catch us some supper,” Hoss explained what he had mapped out in his head for the remainder of the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe had always been smaller than his brothers. Hoss had always been there to help him along and would continue to do so. But it was at times such as this, when two sets of hands were better than one, and Hoss intended to take on most of the physical work himself. But being smaller, didn’t make him less determined or wanting to take on just as much of the labour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The younger man kept his gaze skywards during the walk, awed by the large trees and their canopy that darkened the forest floor. It was hard to see where they were going in some places and on two occasions, Joe had absentmindedly tripped over a protruding root that was unseen. Both times he had looked embarrassed rather than hurt and Hoss had ribbed him about watching where he was going.

After another five minutes through the tree line, Joe had almost tripped over something else hidden in the dirt. He managed to side step this obstacle and was about to look at his brother for the returning jibed remark. Hoss however had a different look on his face this time.

Hoss wasn’t laughing in the slightest bit at what he saw his brother step over. It wasn’t a tree root this time or a piece of fallen branch from higher up in the pine tree. This time the very sight of this metal object made Hoss’s temper flare and his inner calm to reach boiling point. He was looking at a rusty old steel trap that some tracker had carelessly left behind.

“Step away from that thing, Little Joe,” Hoss asked in a calm but serious voice. He picked up a large stick from the forest floor in an attempt to stop the potential injury to anybody else or any other living thing. The fact that these things even existed went against everything that Hoss saw as good and right.

Hoss couldn’t stand the thought of any animal lying hurt or injured at anytime, not even the ones that people often despised like wolves and foxes. The fact that men laid these vicious things around so that some animal could be trapped in one and live out its last few minutes or hours of life in absolute agony didn’t sit very well with the big man at all.

“What are you going to do, Hoss?” Joe asked in a quiet voice. He knew his brother’s feelings when it came to injured animals.

“It might look old and rusted, Little Joe, but I’m gonna make sure that this evil thing can’t hurt anything else ever again,” Hoss answered. “I’m gonna set the trap off so that no animal can get it’s leg caught in it and bleed to death or scream in pain as it chews off it’s own leg from the pain. At least when we go hunting, animals are killed properly and humanely. There ain’t nothing more dangerous than an injured wild animal.”

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

“Its alright Joe, I know what I’m doing. I’m just going to release the jaws by sticking this big stick on the plate,” he explained. “If an animal did get it’s leg caught in something as rusty as that, then the animal would probably die more from infection to the wound than from getting caught in it at all.” The edge of the stick pushed the metal plate in the centre and the jaws snapped shut with a rusty sounding jerk.

Hoss then walked over to the trap and lifted it from it’s position buried in the leaves and the dirt on the ground. He swung the trap around as hard as he could and then released it, allowing it to sail through the air landing hard in the dirt over thirty metres away. The jaws were clenched together and a couple of the rusty teeth had bent from the impact. The whole trap itself was twisted out of shape, so it would be of no further use.

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

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

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

Joe was a bit on edge was they made their way down to the stream, not feeling much like walking too much further . Joe had rarely seen his brother so mad about anything. Hoss was always the calm and rational one. He was the one ready to hear the other side of the story before judging a man. This was the brother who forgave others’ mistakes more easily.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cannot tell you, Hoss, or it won’t come true,” Joe answered mysteriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep your head still now,” Hoss encouraged, nodding his head as he watched his brother’s aim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Bear!”the younger brother identified to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question seemed to come out of the middle of nowhere tonight, but Hoss knew better. It had been a subject that had been on Little Joe’s mind for the last several months. Each time Joe brought the subject up around the dinner table, it only ended in an unwanted argument between Ben and his youngest son.

The tension between them over the subject was so thick at times that you could cut it with a knife. Joe made it more than obvious that he didn’t see any point to continuing his education until the end of the school term. He had told his father that he wanted to work with his brothers and the rest of the ranch hands. He had proved over the last twelve months that he was more than capable of carrying out a good number of tasks around the Ponderosa that were expected of his older brothers.

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

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

“Well, Joe,” Hoss began uneasily, trying to pick his words carefully so as to explain what he thought his brother should do without setting of that infamous Joe Cartwright temper, “I think you should try and learn as much as possible from school.”

“Your just like Pa,” Joe retorted back, expecting that Hoss would at least be his one true ally. “After all, you that dropped out when you were my age,” Joe accused his brother.

“Yes, that’s true, Little Joe, but it was different in my case,” Hoss said, trying to explain why he had been allowed to finish school early. “In my case school work wasn’t meant for me. No matter how hard I tried, I just never seemed to fit in. The kids were all much younger and much smaller than me. I seemed out of place.

“Some of the ranch hands talked to Pa and told him how much they needed my help with the stock and after a time my work around the yard just outweighed the time I spent at school. But its different with you, Little Joe”

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

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

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

“School work doesn’t exactly suit me either, but every time I try and talk to Pa about leaving to help out more around the ranch, he just yells until we both get angry and stop talking to each other. I don’t want it to be that way, Hoss. I just want him to understand my point of view and listen to what I want for a change.” The anger had now been replaced by frustration, and Joe turned his face away in embarrassment at having revealed too many of his feelings out loud.

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

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

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

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

“Adam?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I haven’t been fighting in the schoolyard, Hoss,” Joe said truthfully.

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

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

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

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

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

‘They’ Hoss picked up, meaning more than one person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoss went about cleaning up the dinner dishes and securing their supplies for the night and then settled himself down onto his own bedroll beside his brother. Joe must have been tired, he told himself, because now that he was laying down, he saw that the boy had barely moved. Even the blankets that Hoss had secured around the sleeping figure were more or less still in the same position. The forest air was doing some good at improving his brother’s sleeping pattern.

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


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

At first he thought it must have been this sound that woke him up, but just as he was about to lay back down again and close his eyes, the noise he had heard the first time repeated again. It was a low pitiful moaning sound. Whatever it was, it wasn’t coming from Hoss this time.

Joe thought it best that he get up and investigate. Hoss was still asleep and he felt silly waking his brother up from a perfectly sound sleep over hearing a strange noise in the dark. Hoss would probably call him silly as well and tell him to go back to sleep anyway.

Joe got up silently, slipping his feet into his boots, and pulling on his sheep-skin jacket, creeping out of the canvas tent. He walked over and started to stoke the dying embers of the fire while he waited to hear the sound again. He didn’t have to wait long. The sound came again, and Joe tried to work out which direction it was coming from. After another low moan, Joe started heading down towards the stream. He was certain that this was where the noise was coming from.

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

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

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

Common sense caused Joe to stop where he was and wait until he could get a better look at the shape before approaching any closer. Gradually his vision improved, adjusting to the low light and he was finally able to see what it was. He blinked twice to make sure that what he was seeing was real.

When he looked again he could see the same thing again, and he started to smile as he looked back at a cute brown cuddly bear cub. Joe guessed that the cub was no more than six months of age, but he was bigger than Koda. The brown fur was still very fluffy in places, thick and long, getting ready for his winter hibernation.

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

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

Joe reached for the bear cub, and he could now see the reason why the animal was in pain. The cub must have wandered away from it’s mother. One of it’s rear paws was ensnared in a trap partially submerged in the mud and water beside the stream. Joe could see the rusty jaws biting into the soft furred paw of the cub. He quickly looked around for something nearby to help release the trap around the bear’s paw.

Joe found a thick tree branch approximately a meter long. Nearing the cub, he softly spoke to the bear, wanting the animal to know that he didn’t mean it any harm. He gingerly placed his hand on the bear’s soft fur coat in order to gain it’s confidence. The bear seemed calm enough at the moment although in pain as it again moaned from the trap’s torment.

With his face now a mask of concentration. Joe tried to remember what he had seen his brother do yesterday afternoon before setting off that other rusty trap. The problem was that the trap Hoss set off had been empty while this one still had an animal trapped within the jaws.

Joe carefully placed the thinner end of the stick into the small gap that existed between the jaws and used all his might to try and pry the metal teeth apart. Joe had been concentrating on the trap too much and failed to realise that once the jaws loosened their grip, they could cause more pain to the bear cub. Although the cub was only half grown, the claws on the end of it’s front and back paws were sharp enough to slice through clothing and cut into the soft flesh of a human arm.

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

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

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

“Hoss! I need your help, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean to ruin the coat, Pa,” Joe said at hearing his father’s voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he talk to you about?” Ben asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside, the gentle spots of rain started to fall and within a few minutes became heavy soaking rain with flashes of lightening that danced across the sky and rumbles of thunder as the clouds released their burden.

To be continued ……….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two – Breakfast At Bag End

ESCAPE THE DARKNESS

By JULES

Author Notes – This story was begun a very long time ago, and it was never my intentions to leave it unfinished. This first was first published in 2003. I have twelve (12) chapters written – but want to add more to them and edit where necessary.

I will be going back through and editing a few scenes and adding to a few and fixing errors, now that I hopefully understand the Middle Earth world a little better since I first began. I hope to add a sprinkling of “The Hobbit” details in certain places where is needed. There will be a heavier saturation of this time period during the Rivendell scenes.

Real life just got in the way for a very long time and still is to a large extent.

I was going to add more to the synopsis, but for now I will leave you to read along and find out what happens along with Frodo and the rest of the cast as I take them out of the box. I promise to put them back when I am finished. If you think you know what might happen throughout and the ending, hopefully I have created enough twist plots and changes.

Strong friendship only – no slash. Very little romance (I am no good at writing that) – And plenty of angst, hurt/comfort. For those don’t know my previous work – this won’t be the Disney version.

This will be a very very long story, with many chapters, and many of those being long as well – just the way I write. And I usually try and describe from the viewpoint of multiple characters for any one scene. As well as describe every rock, tree branch and blade of grass along the way.

I have a very complicated plot planned, and some may not agree how I have altered the course of things, or that I introduce them and Frodo differently than the books or films. Hopefully you will continue to follow and read as the story progresses. If it hasn’t happened yet, or there isn’t enough information about something yet, that is usually deliberate on my part. Sometimes there are subtle clues that I put in chapters, other times I don’t.

This story explores the idea about what might have happened if Strider had come to the Shire to forewarn Bilbo Baggins about the Ring Wraiths that would soon come hunting for the One Ring. Commences a few days before Bilbo’s Birthday party and before Gandalf returns to the shire as well.

There are other changes that I will deliberately make to the story at a later date to explore how the journey may have changed as a result. “Hint Hint – some big changes that were the whole reason for starting this series”.

Strider had vowed to protect Bilbo when the Ring Wraiths are sent by the Dark Lord but he is unaware that the legacy of who is to carry the Ring to be destroyed falls upon a totally different Baggins hobbit.

In this story the corn fields in the shire are a little further away and I have added a lot extra between then and when the hobbit’s arrive at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Hoping to add a few funny, light hearted moments in this one in between the serious stuff.

All mention of herbs or treatments used in this story or others come about from a little research I did into some and what their effects were. Some of them have been around since ancient times so I have no problem using in this time frame but still am not sure if they would have been grown near Rivendell.

Disclaimer -I do not own any of the characters I write about. I write about those created by J.J.R. Tolkien and marvel at such a story-tellers ability to enthral us all. There are occasional quotes from the movie in this story, just to keep the continuity going strong and to add just at the appropriate time.

Chapter Two:

the story begins: Breakfast At Bag End

“It’s alright Frodo, my lad,” Bilbo said as he tried to reassure his young charge who was still in pain from the hot water on his hand as well as dealing with his being startled by the Ranger. “Come on, let’s get you up off the cold floor and I will take a look at your hand,” the elderly hobbit added.

Frodo demonstrated a small amount of independent stubbornness, insisting and choosing to stand on his own two feet, and then proceeding to sit on one of the kitchen chairs.

Thank you, Bilbo,” making sure to acknowledge his Uncle’s offer of assistance to stand with gratitude.

Bilbo turned around and saw Sam still trying to break free from Strider’s grip on his clothes.

“Give me the fork please, Samwise,” Bilbo instructed, holding out his hand. Sam was a little reluctant to give up his trowel at first and looked back towards the Ranger a few times before handing over the small hand tool.

Bilbo was aware of the smaller hobbit’s fierce loyalty to Frodo and decided to make a choice that would suit both. “Samwise could you please get me a large bowl and pour some cold water into it please.”

“Yes, Master Bilbo,” Sam said, and was grateful when Strider set him down on the floor before releasing his grasp. The young hobbit did as he was asked without so much as a questioning look.

Strider was still standing close by, observing the interactions of these curious little people. He knew that he wasn’t being ignored. Bilbo would make the necessary introductions when he had seen to Frodo’s injured hand.

“Here you go Master Bilbo, nice and cold,” Sam declared as he brought back an over-sized ceramic bowl filled almost to the brim. When he set it on the table some of it sloshed over the sides and onto the table cloth. “I am sorry Master Bilbo,” Sam gave in apology.

“That’s alright Sam, the water will do nicely for Frodo’s burn,” Bilbo said, taking the conversation away from the mishap entirely. “Cold water is the best medicine for this sort of thing, takes the sting out of it right away and the longer you leave the burn submerged, the better the results.”

Frodo had yet to say anything to anybody in the room after answering his uncle the first time. He eyes wandered on a few occasions over to where the Ranger was standing. He still had a small amount of unsettled fear about the man inside of him, but that was mostly due to the Ranger’s size. When he looked into the man’s eyes, they seemed to portray a difference that wasn’t immediately noticed from the outer appearance or demeanour.

“Now let’s take that hand out Frodo,” Bilbo suggested gently, trying to pry it out from underneath the lad’s coat. He didn’t want to pull too much and cause any more discomfort than was already apparent on his nephew’s face.

Frodo wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen, but he had enough faith and trust in his Uncle Bilbo to let the old hobbit attend to his injury as he deemed necessary. He couldn’t suppress the wince of pain that escaped his lips as his Bilbo’s fingers came in contact with the reddened and blistered skin.

“My apologies again little one for causing you this pain,” Strider commented as he watched the young hobbit. By now he too had had time to observe a little more of Frodo’s facial features and he was amazed at the colour of the boy’s eyes. He had never seen such a colour in a hobbit’s eyes before in his travels.

Most hobbits he had come to meet within the Shire, either had hazel eyes or ones of deep brown. To the ranger, they had always spoke of warmth and hospitality that the little people were known for. They also spoke of truth and honesty in what they did for the livelihoods and how they raised their families.

Looking at Frodo’s vivid blue eyes, Strider wasn’t quite sure what qualities this lad would possess. If the lad had been under Bilbo’s tuition he was in no doubt that all of the other characteristics he knew of would be present, but there was something else compelling about Frodo that the Ranger couldn’t quite put into words at the moment.

“I am sorry too, for acting so rashly Sir, but you startled me and I lost my balance and the caused most of my own injury.” Frodo said in response. His injured hand was now relaxing in to cool water and it did feel quite good. Some of the stinging sensation was already easing due to the temperature of the water.

“I think it is long overdue for some introductions,” Bilbo announced as he sat on a chair beside his nephew, carefully monitoring the burn on Frodo’s hand. He could see a reddened area spreading across half of the small hand but would wait until the water had done it’s job to take a more careful look at the damage.

“Frodo, my lad, this man is called Strider. We have known each other a great many years and you have no reason to be afraid of him. His a man as you can see but he means no harm to us here in the Shire,” Bilbo explained.

“Strider, this gentle lad is my nephew Frodo Baggins. His more correctly in a cousin, but the lineages from my family tree are too complicated to explain so it is easier that he call me Uncle,” Bilbo continued.

“Nice to meet you, Sir,” Frodo said in a most polite and formal manner.

“As it is to meet you, Master Baggins,” Strider replied, his manner also polite but almost regal sounding.

“This other young hobbit you have already met by other methods,” Bilbo stated, hinting at the forked trowel, “Samwise Gamgee.”

“Hello, Sir,” Sam said in a small voice, wondering if the man was going to ask for some sort of punishment for such rude treatment. “I apologize not acting proper, but I thought you meant to hurt Mister Frodo here, and I couldn’t let that happen,” Sam explained.

“Your apology is not necessary Master Gamgee when you are defending or protecting somebody you care for. It is a fine thing you look out for you friend, even when he doesn’t ask,” the Ranger commented.

Sam sighed audibly in relief at the man’s words and now took up a seat of his own at the table once Bilbo gestured for him to do so.

“You let that hand soak in that water while I start making breakfast Frodo, and then I will take a better look at it,” Bilbo said as he added a pinch of a herb into the water, allowing it to infuse. It usually worked better if the water was hot or boiling, but a small amount should show some benefit.

“I must have been away longer than I thought Bilbo. I had yet to learn that you had another family member staying with you,” Strider said as he watched the older hobbit hover around the assortment of pots and pots.

“It has been too long since we last seen each other, Strider,” Bilbo admitted, still talking with his back to the Ranger. He turned around to make a large pot of tea as he continued the conversation.

“I brought Frodo back with me from Brandy Hall and adopted him as my own. He is the now my heir and the heir of Bag End when that time comes.”

“Here you go Frodo, tea just the way you like it and I added an extra spoon of honey just for you this morning,” Bilbo said as he placed the cup in front of the lad’s good hand.

“Adopted? May I ask where your parents are?” Strider asked not realising that particular topic was one that Frodo was not ready to discuss at any time, including the breakfast table with someone he had only just met.

Strider quickly regretted his question as he watched Frodo stare intently into his cup of tea, his face and cheeks turning a few shades redder, refusing to look at the person directing the question.

Bilbo now gave a curt shake of his head to the Ranger that indicated the subject was better to be discussed when such tender ears were not about to over-hear about such matters.

“I humbly apologise again little one. It seems that I have hurt you a few too many times already this morning even with just simple words,” Strider remarked.

“It’s alright Sir, even after all these years, the memories are still hurtful,” Frodo said as he looked up, unshed tears barely visible against the blue background. “My parents were accidentally drowned in the Brandywine river when I was twelve years old,” he recalled, at least completing half of the Ranger’s question.

“Please forgive me for my curiosity,” Strider asked formally.

“You were not to know,” Frodo returned, giving the Ranger a small smile in return.


“Sam would you like to join us in breakfast?” Bilbo asked Frodo’s friend sitting across the other side of the table. Bilbo thought Sam’s company would be most warranted this morning.

Sam looked a little shocked at first to the Ranger. He knew very little about the hierarchy that the hobbit society abided by, only what his Gaffer and older brothers had insisted that he understood to carry out his daily tasks. Sam couldn’t deny that he felt a little out of place in doing so when Master Bilbo was entertaining visitors.

“If you think that it would be alright, Master Bilbo,” Sam finally answered, not really wanting to leave Mister Frodo at this point in time. “My Gaffer would not think it proper unless an invitation be given first.”

“Well I will need your assistance with Frodo’s hand in a few minutes and he may require some help during his own breakfast,” Bilbo said with a sly wink towards his nephew.

Frodo was grateful that Bilbo had asked Sam. He would be more at ease with his young friend joining them for breakfast. He gave an appreciative smile to his Uncle and in return got a slight squeeze on his shoulder that spoke volumes. There were times when he and his Uncle needed to use very little words to convey how they felt towards each other.

“I would like you to stay please, Sam,” Frodo said in a gentle voice.

“For you, Mister Frodo anything,” Sam said honestly. “Just tell me what I need to do Master Bilbo.”

“Well Sam, I have just about finished cooking breakfast,” Bilbo said as he laid out an array of dishes that would suit both man and hobbit down the opposite end of the table from Frodo.

Even from that short distance away, the aromas were tantalizing and they looked much better than what the Ranger had been living off before arriving in the Shire. Strider couldn’t be anything else but impressed with Bilbo’s culinary talent.

“Now they are a little hot so while they cool slightly to enjoy I will take a look at this hand now, Frodo,” Bilbo said. He walked to the pantry and from one of the bottom shelves, produced a small cloth bag that contained some medicinal herbs and bandages.

Laying the bag on the table he now gentle removed Frodo’s hand from the water. It was now tepid to the touch and would be of little benefit. Bilbo carefully dried the small hand on a clean towel and closely examined the redness and blistering.

Bilbo could feel the Ranger’s eyes on him and Frodo’s hand the entire time, knowing of the Ranger’s healing abilities and skill, but choosing not to reveal them for such a minor incident. Frodo would come to know everything about the Ranger when it needed to be known.

“Well I think you have been most fortunate, Frodo,” Bilbo said, voicing his own relief that the burn had not been as serious as it could have been.

“Will he be alright, Master Bilbo?” Sam asked, seeming to be the only one not yet fully convinced.

“We will have to keep this area of the hand wrapped for a few days where the skin is most blistered. If the blisters are allowed to burst, then they may become infected if they are not kept extremely clean,” Bilbo explained to Sam and Frodo.

“Other than that and a few applications of a moisturising salve once the blisters have burst to keep the skin soft, then you should be just fine, Frodo,” Bilbo said as he now dug into the bag and gathered what he would need.

Not less than ten minutes later, Frodo’s hand was bandaged from the wrist to just above his thumb. The bandage was firm enough to prevent any foreign objects or dirt from entering but still allow Frodo almost full use of his hand without it being too tight. He would need to be careful about how he picked up things for a day or so until the soreness went away, but then he should just need to keep it clean and it would heal on it’s own without too much trouble.

Frodo was happy that he didn’t lose the use of his hand. He wouldn’t not have been very pleased to have to rely on somebody else to help him out with certain tasks. One trait Strider was yet to learn about the shy young hobbit was his fierce sense of independence. It had been instilled into him from a very young age when most children perhaps were not expected to display the same attributes.

“Now, is that all that needs looking at Frodo?” Bilbo asked, knowing his nephew had a tendency to hide pain from him in the past on occasion.

Frodo was about to answer negatively to his Uncle when Sam answered on his behalf, “I think he might have cut his knee on the broken cup Master Bilbo,” he informed the older hobbit. Frodo inwardly groaned and didn’t think that such a minor scratch would need any attention.

Bilbo could see the quick change in facial expressions on Frodo that confirmed at least part of Sam’s theory to be truthful. Frodo was forced to pull his chair away enough from the table to allow Bilbo to judge for himself if there was any medical attention needed.

Fortunately for Frodo though, Bilbo erred towards his nephew’s thoughts upon looking at the three or four scratches that had occurred from the shards of broken cup and saucer. He briefly gave the area a swab with clean water on a cloth to clean the small amount of blood but would leave such minor abrasions to heal on their own.

“When did you arrive in the Shire, Mister Strider?” Sam asked innocently, trying to think of a way around coming and out to ask why the Ranger was here.

“I knocked upon Bilbo’s door late last night, Sam,” Strider answered. He knew there would be a lot of such questions asked about his sudden presence in the Shire. Some he was prepared to answer, others would be left for only those whom were directly involved.

Strider looked over at Frodo after answering Sam’s question and couldn’t help but think that the expression on the lad’s face gave him away. Frodo could have guessed that he had arrived the night before just by his appearance at breakfast. Something told the Ranger that Frodo knew exactly when he had knocked on the door last night.

‘Had I awoken Frodo with my arrival?’ Strider thought to himself. ‘If that was so, how much more information was he aware of that he had perhaps overheard?’

Bilbo came to the Ranger’s rescue, “I can see you are most interested in why Mister Strider is here, Sam,” he commented. He had to come up with a plausible explanation for Frodo too. Sam would take anything he was told upon face value. Frodo, however would not and he was astute enough to see through any deception that Bilbo might be concealing.

Strider tried to hide the smile that had formed on his lips at the older hobbit’s remark. He didn’t know how Bilbo expected to explain himself out of this, but he was certainly going to let him try first before the question was asked squarely of him again.

Frodo of course was now just as curious about Strider’s reason for being there as Sam’s. He just wasn’t as confident in asking the affairs of someone else.

Bilbo thought for a few seconds, “I asked Strider to come to my birthday party, Sam, for two reasons. Firstly because it is my birthday and he and I have known each other a very long time. Everyone thinks I am mad anyway so the appearance of a man at my party will certainly get the tongues waging for quite a while in the Shire I should think,” he said with a grin.

Bilbo certainly knew of the various rumours and idle gossip that circulated about him and Bag End and his adoption of Frodo. He didn’t usually listen to them except when they inadvertently hurt Frodo’s feelings or if something was said out of nastiness or pure spitefulness.

“As you know Frodo, my other dear long time friend Gandalf is also due to come today or tomorrow for the party as well. I have heard from certain sources that will remain secret that there may be some people at the party who are willing to cause some trouble either before, during or after the party. Therefore, I am taking all the necessary precautions in case these troubles eventuate,” Bilbo said, explaining his second reason.

“This is the second reason I have asked for Mister Strider to attend. I am hoping that he will be able to spot any trouble before it starts and deal with it accordingly without disrupting everyone else,” Bilbo informed the two younger hobbits seated at the table.

“You certainly look like you would be able to help out there, Sir, if you take my meaning, no offence intended,” Samwise commented. He seemed satisfied enough with the explanation for the Ranger being in the Shire. With the man’s size, he doubted there would be a hobbit daring to put a foot out of line.

Strider didn’t make any comment but looked intently at Frodo to see if he bought the same explanation as easily as Sam. Frodo’s face though was paused with a frown at present. Not because of the reasons given, but the announcement that somebody might be out to make trouble for his Uncle’s birthday.

Frodo preferred to stay away from many of the shire folk that spoke ill of his Uncle or himself but he would be determined to stop such foolishness and nonsense such as trouble if he knew if was about to take place.

Frodo knew that there were a great many people invited to the birthday party. His Uncle had shown him the guest list a number of times and had included a lot of distant relatives for his benefit even though he had told Bilbo it wasn’t necessary to invite them. Some of the names on the list Frodo couldn’t even put a face to and many of them would be travelling a great distance.

Frodo of course hadn’t even considered the idea that he was the primary person Bilbo had asked the Ranger to help protect from the trouble. He was only concerned about his Uncle and assumed that if Bilbo had thought there was going to be trouble then such information couldn’t be taken lightly.

“Don’t worry Uncle, I will make sure that nobody interrupts the celebrations,” Frodo said with determination in his voice.

“Oh Frodo, my boy, I know you will look after your Uncle,” Bilbo said with a proud laugh as he gave his nephew’s hand a quick squeeze to signify his gratitude.

“And I will be there watching out for you too, Mister Frodo,” Sam said as he realized that Bilbo’s concerns were mostly for his master than himself.

“And if this morning is anything to go by, then you have nothing to worry about, Frodo,” Strider said as he rubbed absentmindedly at the part of his rump that Sam had stabbed with the garden fork.

All four around the table laughed together in mirth and breakfast was commenced, even though a little late.

Strider had filled his own plate sparsely as he did not require large amounts of food as hobbits were known to consume. He didn’t quite understand the custom they had of partaking in a meal more than three times a day. He supposed because of their stout bodies they needed more food more often to keep themselves going.

The differences in physique between Sam and Bilbo to Frodo had been apparent even after only brief glimpses at the boy earlier that morning. Whilst Bilbo and Sam had the normal short, rotund build that was associated with hobbits, Frodo was as thin as a pencil, not an ounce of extra weight to him.

Sam’s plate was quite the opposite from that of the Ranger’s. His plate was full with a little out of each dish, as too was Bilbo’s plate. They both were enjoying their breakfast with rejuvenated vigour. Frodo’s plate was quite sparse in helping as Striders. He had only taken a few samples of his favourite dishes and now only picked occasionally at the plate with his utensils.

“If it is alright with you Uncle, I think I will go for my walk now,” Frodo announced, pushing aside his barely eaten breakfast and getting up from the table.

Sam looked a little disappointed at how much his master had consumed but didn’t let Frodo see it openly. His own plate was only half finished and he rather have preferred to eat the rest.

“That’s alright Sam, I can go for the walk on my own, you can catch me up after you have finished,” Frodo suggested. The thinner hobbit cherished his friendship with Sam but also treasured the times when he was left to his own devices and wander at his own leisure.

“That’s alright Frodo, off you go but be careful. Sam you can finish your breakfast and then be so kind as to show Strider around the Shire for a few hours and then meet up with Frodo later while I attend to some necessary business for the celebration,” Bilbo said. He could see his nephew’s wish for some solitude and was happy to cater to both Frodo and Sam.

“Of course, Master Bilbo,” Sam said in respect. He didn’t want to get his Gaffer’s master cross but he didn’t feel right leaving Frodo alone for too long either. Bilbo’s idea would work out for all involved. Sam often wondered if Bilbo wasn’t more educated than most shire folk gave him credit for.

“Are you certain that you have had enough breakfast Frodo,” Bilbo asked, a little worried about how much his nephew had left on his plate. Frodo’s eating habits were always a source of concern for the older hobbit but all of the methods he had employed to change them so far had either failed or not had the desired effect.

“I will see you a little later than Sam, hopefully with yourself Mr Strider,” Frodo said, his manners and politeness again shining through. He failed to answer his Uncle’s question or decided to avoid it.

“Good day to you Mister Frodo, I trust you will enjoy your walk,” Strider replied.

“No rough play today with that hand, Frodo,” Bilbo softly admonished as his nephew opened the door and prepared to leave.

“I only plan to go as far as the trees Uncle and maybe read a little,” Frodo responded with a smile and then closing the door behind him.

“Read?,” Strider asked questioningly of Bilbo. “You have a young scholar for a nephew then my old friend.”

“Yes, Frodo has always preferred quiet reading under a tree to more physical interests that other boys his own age participate in,” Bilbo answered. “He learns well and very quickly so be on your guard Strider,” he added with a smile, knowing that his nephew’s thinking might even match that of the Ranger himself.

“Sam, why don’t you get ready to show Mister Strider around the Shire whilst we wait for you in the sitting room,” Bilbo said, indicating to the Ranger that he wished to say a few words out of earshot of the younger hobbit.

“Yes Master Bilbo, Sir,” Sam replied, not reading any more in the request.

Strider and Bilbo moved to the sitting room to continue their whispered conversation. “Strider, I don’t want to seem like an overbearing old fool, but I can’t tell you how much Frodo has come to mean to me since moving here. It would disturb me greatly if harm of any kind was to befall him, even if accidental.”

“You wish me to keep an eye out for the lad whilst I am here, Bilbo,” Strider surmised, almost as though he read the old hobbit’s train of thought. “I would be honoured to do so and you need not ask. I must say he already is a very likeable young hobbit and I have only just met him.”

“Don’t get me wrong Strider, Samwise has always looked out for Frodo and he can tell you some of the harshness that my nephew faces every day from folk who have nothing better to do than say an unkind word. But if what you say is true about a darkness coming to this area soon, then there is all the more reason to be extra vigilant against things that neither Frodo or Sam have come across before,” Bilbo stated as he voiced his worst fears to the Ranger.

“Frodo wouldn’t like the idea of him being watched over constantly by someone such as yourself. That is why I suggested that you and Sam meet up with him later, that way you could still appear to be observing from a distance without crowding his individual space. He enjoys his hours alone and I don’t want to put a stop to his wishes, but I need to make sure that he is safe too,” Bilbo added.

“Understood Bilbo. I won’t alert the lad to anything other than friendship between himself and me,” Strider replied.

Any further discussions between the Ranger and Bilbo were interrupted by Sam’s appearance at the sitting room doorway, signalling that he was ready to leave upon their tour of the Shire.

“I’ll leave you in Sam’s capable hands Strider. I will be here in my study if you require anything. I trust you too enjoy your walk. Sam make sure you take Strider by the field that I intend using for the birthday party celebrations. The marques and tables won’t be erected before tomorrow afternoon, but at least he will have an overview of the area,” Bilbo instructed.


An hour after Samwise and Strider had left Bilbo’s house together in company, the Ranger was still fascinated by the young hobbit’s knowledge of local history and current events.

Sam had barely stopped talking to take a breath and his knowledge of who lived in what dwelling with whom and each scandal that presented itself was in depth and made for very interesting conversation as they walked.

“Would you mind telling me a few more things about your master Frodo, since you seem to know him better than most?” Strider asked as Sam stopped his last sentence.

“I would tell you what I can without Mister Frodo being cross at me for telling, Sir,” Sam replied.

“Alright then, you just tell me if I ask the wrong type of question or one that you will not answer for fear of what Frodo might do if he finds out,” Strider said with a chuckle. He was quietly amazed at the loyalty that the young hobbit was displaying towards Frodo. It did seem that there was very little, if anything that he wouldn’t do for the dark-haired lad.

“Why does Frodo not look like most hobbits for instance?,” Strider said as he asked his first question.

“Mister Frodo has never been one to eat very much, as long as I can remember. Just seems to take a little and that’s enough to keep him going. He is a lot smarter than most others in the Shire too,” Sam added. “I think that comes from reading all those books with Master Bilbo and learning all those different words.”

“You mean other words that he doesn’t speak,” Strider commented, taking that as what Sam meant by “different words”.

“Yes, Mr Bilbo has taught him to read some other languages such as the elves talk and the like,” Sam said, giving a more detailed answer.

Strider found this fact to be most interesting. He knew that Bilbo had learned a great deal about many different races through his travels. The fact that Frodo was willing to learn such difficult languages in the first place spoke highly for the lad and his ability to take in information.

“What is this Brandy Hall place that Bilbo speaks about?” asking his second question.

“Don’t rightly know a real lot about that place. Never been out of the Shire myself, and Mister Frodo never did really like talking about it. That was the place where Master Bilbo went to get him from when he adopted him. Master Bilbo thinks that they didn’t always treat him properly and let him be himself,” Sam explained.

“And seems as you know so much about your Master,” Strider now said, holding back on the rest of his questions until later. He didn’t want to ask too many questions all at once.

“Where do you think he is right now?” he added, noting it had been quite a spell during their walk and they had yet to see any sign of Frodo in their travels.

“That’s an easy question,” Sam said with a grin and promptly started leading Strider along a different pathway to that they were currently travelling. The Ranger soon found himself following the young hobbit through the trees and tall grass to an area dotted by very large shade trees.

Sam put his fingers to his lips when he stopped, “He’s over there, but I don’t like disturbing him when he is reading.” The hobbit held out his arm and pointed towards one of the more central trees in the field and a small figure sitting underneath it and leaning back against the trunk.

From where Strider was standing, he could see Frodo was relaxed and calm, quietly reading a small brown covered book which he was holding in his uninjured hand. There was a long stalk of grass protruding from his mouth as he looked as though he was totally engrossed in the literature that was in front of him.

That relaxation seemed to be shattered in a brief second as Frodo suddenly jerked his head up and scanned the immediate area. It looked to Strider and Sam as though he had been struck by some sort of object. Frodo had looked at the particular area on his arm where he felt it strike him. It hadn’t hurt him, just alerted him to the fact that somebody else was nearby.

Frodo didn’t seem to notice Strider and Sam where they were standing. Thinking that maybe a seed from the tree above was responsible he returned to reading his book.

A few seconds later his attention was drawn again from something striking his shirt, this time the projectile had hit him with a little more solid, making him gasp out of surprise rather than feeling any pain.

There was now a pause in anything striking Frodo and the hobbit seemed to be satisfied enough to go back to his reading once again. He couldn’t see the cause and so didn’t think much about it.

“What is going on?” Sam asked himself, realizing that his Master’s relaxation was being disturbed by an unseen party.

Strider was beginning to think that maybe Bilbo had a reason to be worried about Frodo. He used his keen eyesight to look amongst the long grass to track down the reason for Frodo’s disruption.

“I should have known,” Sam said in a slightly angry voice as he spotted the responsible party before the Ranger. “Lotho Sackville-Baggins,” he said between his teeth, pointing to the shielded figure of a hobbit trying to conceal himself in the long grass, a short distance away from Frodo.

Sam could see the questioning look on the Ranger’s face about who Lotho was. He decided to give the shortest but more correct account he could for a family that seemed to want to taunt his Mister Frodo no matter what he was doing or where he was.

“His parents Lobelia and Otho Sackville-Baggins take any chance they can to remind Master Bilbo that Mister Frodo doesn’t belong here and should be sent back to Brandy Hall. They like it even less that Mister Frodo has become Master Bilbo’s heir and they are out to take any opportunity to change that,” Sam informed Strider.

“They are awful hobbits, if you beggin my pardon, Sir. I try not to find fault in most, but they say cruel things behind Mister Frodo’s back and to his face that hurt him. Lotho and his parents think nothing about making idle threats to Master Bilbo and Mister Frodo about what they would do if they inherited Bag End,” he continued.

“Mister Frodo tries his hardest to ignore the harsh words and threats. Even so much as to act just as polite as always to then when they turn up unannounced at Bag End for afternoon tea. But it just isn’t right what they say about him all the time. I wish they would just leave him alone. Maybe they are the ones that Master Bilbo talks about making trouble at the birthday celebration,” Sam now thought.

“The party is also for Mister Frodo who is becoming of age and maybe they aim to spoil things before it becomes official for my master to inherit Bag End,” Sam said to Strider. “It would be just something that they would do to hurt him,” he said, not able to hide the dislike that he felt towards the Sackville-Bagginses.

Sam could see Lotho holding a sling shot which he was using to hurl small stones at Frodo. Sam wasn’t going to stand for this nonsense and was about to go towards the other older hobbit when he felt a gentle restraining hand from Strider.

It was Strider’s turn to put his fingers to his lips, signalling that he would sneak up on this other hobbit nuisance and stop him from annoying Frodo with any more stones.

Lotho had another stone in his hand, a little larger than the first few and was about to fire it at Frodo when he was startled by a hand grabbing the sling shot and stone from behind him.

“What do you think you are doing?” Lotho demanded angry before turning around and facing Strider. He couldn’t help but swallow as he noticed it was a big person. He was determined not to show his fear though and decided to demonstrate his usual arrogant and self-assured side to the stranger interrupting his fun.

“What do you think you are doing Lotho?” Samwise said, tapping his foot towards the older hobbit, trying to intimidate him a little. It didn’t work though as there was a considerable age difference between him and Lotho, not to mention his height.

“Well if it isn’t a lowly little Gamgee hobbit come to take care of his master,” Lotho jibed towards Sam. It was clear to all that he was looking down at Sam to indicate their social statuses within the Shire.

“I believe Samwise asked you a question young ruffian,” Strider said in a low but deep voice that demanded respect.

“I don’t believe I have had the pleasure,” Lotho said cheekily trying to see if the stranger react to such taunting. The grin was wiped from his face though as Strider’s grip on his hand was made a little tighter, making the hobbit wince at the vice-like pressure.

“And I don’t believe you will, but you listen and do so well my young hobbit,” Strider began to warn, “You need not to know who I am or what I have to do with Frodo Baggins other than I plan to make sure that he comes to no harm. If you do such much as even look at him the wrong way and I find out about it…, he paused briefly to gauge if he had the hobbit’s full attention. Or you attempt any unplanned or unnecessary physical contact with him, then you and I will meet again under less friendlier circumstances.”

“Don’t you threaten me,” Lotho declared as he pulled his hand out of the Ranger’s grasp. “I will not have you speak to me in such a fashion,” he added, his voice no longer able to hold the arrogant attitude.

“My mother will hear of such an outrage,” Lotho said, looking directly at Sam as he spoke the words. Sam knew all to well that any retribution would of course be directed at Frodo rather than the big person.

Lotho now stormed off in the opposite direction of Strider and Sam and Frodo, heading back towards the town, mumbling to himself that such insults would not be tolerated without a response of some kind from him or his family to that hateful Frodo Baggins.

From where Lotho was, any conversation between Sam, Strider and him would go unnoticed by Frodo. Just like Bilbo wanted.

“Thank you Mister Strider,” Sam said in genuine thanks as he watched Lotho walk away. He was grateful to see that the Ranger was ready to assist his master where possible. They needed to be more alert over the next few days and at the birthday celebration.

“No need to thank me Sam, I have come to like your master Frodo, even in such a short time. I would not like to see him hurt or upset either,” Strider said.

From where they were standing, Sam and the Ranger could still see Frodo buried in his book under the tree, seemingly oblivious to anything going on around him after the stones stopped striking him.

But after a few seconds another sound entirely could be heard coming towards them. It sounded like it was coming from the roadway rather than amongst the trees.

Sam and Strider waited where they were to see if they could see what was coming. Frodo had also heard the noise. At first his brow had wrinkled as he too tried to listen more intently, trying to judge if what he was hearing could be true.

When he was certain, Frodo jumped to his feet in excitement, and as he looked towards the roadway, Sam and the Ranger noted a large grin on the lad’s handsome face. Recognition was obvious but before Sam could alert his master to their presence nearby, he and Strider were both amazed to see Frodo now running as fast as he could towards the roadway.

To be continued.

Author Notes: This story was started a long time ago (over fourteen 14 years ago), but I felt there were parts that needed more, and I wanted some more scenes in certain areas and include some of my new arcs.

I apologize for any mistakes I may have made about Lord Of The Rings history or any names I may have mis-spelled. I also hope that I have not wavered too far from people’s takes on the individual personalities of each character.

I don’t mean to make Strider and Bilbo out as so secretive. I just want to keep the idea about the Wraiths coming until later in the story. The fact that Bilbo knows that danger is coming and doesn’t do anything straight away is also not intentional and I humbly ask for readers to believe that’s what happened.

Any medicinal information is only from my own sources and not meant as true procedure to any injury or treatment that I may have used in my story so far or will in the future.

As you have probably guessed, I leave this chapter at the place where Gandalf arrives in the movie and hope that the sequence of events that I have included is at least logical.

Not much has happened yet. More to come. In next chapter, the party preparations take place that I envisaged happened prior in the movie. A few little incidents to come involving Lotho.

I know the appearance of a big person in the Shire would be out of place too, but I need that to make the story work. I just need both people, elves, dwarves and hobbits everywhere to suspend what they know to be true for a while and take what I write as happening.

I have also referred to Frodo as a boy in many parts – not intending for him to be called a human “boy” – just makes the story flow a little easier at times instead of constantly using “the hobbit” and similar descriptions.

Any information that I write in my Lord Of The Rings stories about eating flows on that in the two other fandoms I write – the main character in each all are finicky eaters and just push the food around on a plate or go for long lengths without anything to eat or refuse to do so. The other two are like this in all stories that I know about them as well. One other character also dislikes milk to the point of refusing to drink it – I am going to include this for Frodo later on – just something I dreamed up – nothing from the book or the movie. I wanted to write a close relationship between Bilbo and Frodo as well as friendship Frodo and Aragorn and Sam too.

Last note – I am Australian – there will be spelling differences for a number of words. I write as I normally would in my own style and apologize if this offends anyone. Please keep reading despite these differences.

Please review and let me know what you think. I will try and update as soon as I can, but please be patient as time is often not on my side.

Jules6

No Way Back

NO WAY BACK

By Jules

Author Notes – This short piece was written about three years ago – and has been mostly hidden away. So I thought I would bring it out and dust it off.

…the muscles in my legs are burning, my lungs are on fire and I cannot catch my breath. There is no time to stop, not even for a second. I push my body further over the edge of no return.

The sense of urgency coming from the very pit of my stomach grows until the unmistakable and awful taste of bile reaches the back of my throat, and throwing up becomes a real threat.

An unseen worn board gives way under my weight, and I struggle to maintain my balance. The battle ends when my knees cracks painfully against the wooden floor. I feel a multitude of large splinters in my left-hand that was used to prevent my fall, but failed.

My green jacket provided little protection from my attacker and is shredded in many places. The shirt I am wearing sticks to my back due to the dirty sweat running down the back of my neck.

I force myself to stand back up again, despite my body’s exhaustion that is coming in stronger waves. A hot flame of pain sears and curls around my side where the flesh has been torn open. Blood is running freely down and soaking into the waist-band of my pants.

I feel dizzy and light-headed, my steps becoming shorter, erratic and confused.

With barely contained relief, my hand grips the round door knob, turning and pulling at the same time. But to my abject horror it is locked. It refuses to open.

“I was trying to do the right thing. I only wanted help. I didn’t ask for any of this!”

But my outraged cries of unfairness are drowned out within the echoing chasm. The room is oppressive, the very walls oozing pain and exuding anguish, like a heavy cloak weighted around my shoulders. ‘Something’ is here and doesn’t want me to leave.

The faint scents of lavender and vanilla I had smelt earlier, are much stronger now, and linger in the very air that I am trying to draw in.

The image of the young woman I saw in the window was either a cruel facade or terrible hoax. She had been beckoning me in to help her.

“Let me out!” I yell hoarsely, the end of my futile plea is choked off with desperation.

Suddenly the door swings open, and I gasp out loud with relief, not caring how weak I sound. I scramble to my feet again and barrel through the door frame, only to be greeted with more choices.

Two different directions, two different staircases. Choose the wrong one and I could remain trapped here. I could be lost in this house forever and not able to get back.

A hollow laugh from behind and my subconscious makes its own choice, causing me to race down the stairs, two at a time. A painting of a previous resident hangs on the wall, a sign that I had chosen correctly. I had been this way before. But the man in the portrait is now mocking me.

Once back outside, time itself has been altered. What had felt like minutes inside the house, has now been lost and unaccountable hours.

Gripping the mane of Cochise, I have her racing like the very devil is closing in on both of us. A put the lip of a canteen to my mouth, but instead of drinking cool refreshing water, it feels like I am swallowing sand. I toss it aside, swiping the edge of a torn sleeve across my forehead to keep the sweat from running down the side of my face.

Coming to a familiar bend in the road and I am almost home……..freedom is a reward with its own euphoria.

But my horse jerks abruptly with a gut-wrenching shriek, crashing to the ground. Her beautiful neck lies twisted at an awkward angle. She is dead. No!

I sit upright in bed, trembling as a bolt of pure terror strikes at my very heart, freezing and ripping apart my very soul.

The scream wants to escape the back of my throat, but is interrupted by a soft knock and a silhouetted figure standing in the doorway to my bedroom. Thankfully the darkness of the room, masks the fear that oozes out of every pore.

“Are you alright, Joseph?” my father asks with concern lacing his voice. A light curtain flaps around from the breeze outside.

I promise him that I am alright and that it was only a bad-dream. I am not called ‘Little Joe’ very often now, and cannot seek my father’s company each time a nightmare chills me to the core.

He understands me better than anybody, and accepts the need to show maturity and my unspoken request for space.

Darkness and silence returns to the room once the door is closed.

A shard of moonlight shining through the window is enough to see the mirror that stands across the other side of the room.

The girl from the window glares back at me with a sullen and morose look. It hadn’t been a dream. She has followed me here. The escape wasn’t real!

I clap my hands over my eyes and pray that it is all in my imagination.

The atmosphere in the room has changed, and I lower my hands……… No! No! No!

I am back in that room again.

“Let Me Out!” I scream.

Standing in the window, slapping my open hands against the glass pane, but nobody can see or hear me?

Upon reflection when I first saw her, the girl had been warning me to stay away!

I have saved her from eternity, only to doom myself and replace her until the next lonely soul comes along the deserted road outside and this abandoned house.

There is no way back…………..

the end …….

Chapter One – Coming Home

DEAD MAN’S CANYON

By Jules

Author Notes and Important Information –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hide And Seek

Blessings

Dead Man’s Canyon

Imaginary Friend

Sled Ride

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One – Coming Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“The apple was real good, Pa. I don’t feel very hungry after eating it,” Joe replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good Afternoon, Cartwright family,” came the pleasant familiar voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe?” came the hopeful, whispered single word response.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roast chicken is one of my favourite dinner’s too, Joe,” Adam replied honestly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Mr Ben, sit please,” Hop Sing respectfully asked, pulling out the man’s chair.

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

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

“Oh boy, Hop Sing, you out did yourself tonight,” the larger boy said with anticipation. He sat down on the chair to his father’s right.

Ben looked curiously over at this choice, it would seem that the seating arrangement for tonight’s supper was different to normal. Discussions must have taken place between the two younger boys whilst he was talking in the living room to Adam.

Adam seem to notice the change too, but kept quiet for a moment. He didn’t mind.

All three older Cartwright family members looked on with amusement though, as the youngest, didn’t sit on the chair he had chosen, but instead, was trying to pick it up and move it. The boy was having a little difficulty with the size of the piece of furniture, but the look of determination on his face showed that the would not be swayed from his current task.

“Joseph, do you need some help?” Ben enquired patiently. He knew that the boy could be stubborn enough at times not to come out and ask, unless someone else did first.

“No, Pa, I can do it,” Joe answered, frowning a little more, and trying again to lift the heavy chair. But the only sound that could be heard was the scraping of the legs on the dining room floor.

“Let me give you a hand, Joe,” Adam offered, finally realising what his brother was trying to achieve, and touched by the unspoken gesture.

Adam got up from his own chair, and moved the one Joe was trying to drag, closer to his own. His pre-emptive efforts were rewarded with a beaming smile from his younger brother. Ben was very pleased that his eldest son was intuitive enough. Hoss was happy overall to have all of his family sitting down to enjoy supper together.

“Now hop up here and sit down properly so we can take a look at what Hop Sing made,” Adam suggested.

Joe readily obeyed, being able to sit closer to his brother on the first night back was all he was focused on. The youngster gazed around the table, looking at each dish.

There were roasted carrots drizzled with honey. Hop Sing knew he liked those sometimes. There was a dish of green beans, with melting butter. Those he didn’t care that much for, but didn’t voice his objection out loud. Long cobs of yellow sweet corn were displayed on a large serving plate. There was a platter of the roast chicken, all cut into smaller pieces with lovely crispy skin. There was a gravy boat nearby.

“Would you please all bow your head for grace boys,” Ben asked, putting his own hands in front of him.

The three boys did as requested, as they waited for their father’s warm voice, “Dear Lord, thank you this day for Adam’s safe return home. And may we be truly blessed for the bounty we are about to receive as a complete family once more.”

“Help yourselves boys,” Ben instructed, as he unfolded his own napkin and placed it over his lap.

Hoss didn’t need any further encouragement, diving in and filling his plate with a good helping of everything on display. The smell of the hot delicious food was making his mouth water, choosing to tuck his napkin to this shirt collar to cover down his front.

Joe was a little more reserved, but his eyes were alert. He kept looking back between his father and older brother, waiting for them to dish up their own plates. He wanted to see what they would choose first.

“Would you like me to serve you tonight, Sir,” Adam played with his brother, changing his voice enough, and adding some sophistication to it like they would do in a fancy restaurant.

Joe giggled out loud, and looked down, at the two plates that were set before him. He quickly made his decision and handed Adam the smaller bread and butter plate, rather than the proper sized dinner plate.

Adam and Ben exchanged a brief look, and thought about saying something to Joe about his choice, but since the child was still keen on joining in eating, Adam continued his little play.

“And what would the young gentleman such as yourself like to dine on tonight?” Adam asked, adding a formal bow as he stood up, ready to accept his brother’s requests.

Joe loved every minute of his brother’s impromptu performance.

“The chef tonight recommends, the roast breast of bird,” Adam said, placing a small amount on the plate. “Followed by…” he started to say, holding the serving spoon over the carrots and spotting the consenting nod.

“Some glazed vegetable of carrot, smothered in a sweet sauce,” Adam continued. “Would you like some green beans sautéd in a light butter, young Sir?”

Joe was still smiling at his brother’s antics, but shook his head negatively. “The chef will not be pleased with your refusal. “Would you prefer the long-eared cob of corn perhaps?”

“Yes please,” Joe.

“Would you like a little gravy to coat your chicken, Joe?” Adam asked, changing back to his normal deeper voice.

“Only a little please, Adam,” Joe said, and happily accepted the plate back from his brother.

Adam went about dishing up his own plate, followed by Ben. Both of them watching Joe slowly consume the small amounts on his plate. Adam had wanted to put more on his plate, but erred on the side of caution. A little at a time wouldn’t overwhelm him, and he could always come back for more later.

Hoss was helping himself to seconds, when Joe put his fork and knife down on his plate, to signal that he had enough. To his credit most of his plate was empty, but Adam decided to push for the last few mouthfuls to be consumed.

“You know, Pa, upstairs in my bag I have a lovely treat instead of dessert tonight,” Adam started to say, making sure Joe was listening. “But I couldn’t really share it with just anybody unless they had eaten all of their supper.”

“What sort of treat?” Joe asked with a little suspicion creeping into his voice. He thought he had eaten plenty tonight. All he wanted anyway.

“You might have to finish wants left on your plate to find out, Joe,” Ben said, looking at his son and seeing that tiredness was beginning to resurface.

Joe folded his small arms across his chest showing a distinct scowl, still not intending to eat any more. Ben could see the battle about to begin, and it didn’t look like the promise of any kind of treat was going to change his mind.

By now, Hoss had finished and was about to ask for permission to leave the table. Adam saw the perfect opportunity to put a few things into motion at the same time.

“Hoss, would you like a game of checkers tonight?” Adam asked, changing the topic of discussion that was looming over the table. He had also finished his own meal, not wanting a second helping.

“Sure, Adam. May I please be excused, Pa?” Hoss asked politely.

“You may be excused, Hoss and Adam,” Ben said, but kept his face upon his youngest child as he spoke. “But not you yet, young man.” he said to Joe, as the child thought he would have been allowed to do the same.

“Please finish your supper, Joseph, then you can join your brothers in the living room,” Ben said, but it was clear that his son was less than impressed.

Joe was about to say something in challenge to his father, but any annoyance he was trying to display to his family was lost when he had to unfold his arms, and cover a loud yawn into his shoulder with his hand over his mouth.

Inwardly Ben sighed, it was difficult to be stern with the boy about eating and encouraging at the same time. Joe was growing tired after such a long emotion packed day, but he decided to try persevere for a few more minutes.

Reluctantly, Joe decided tonight he would comply, and ate the last few morsels of food without any further complaint.

“You may be excused, Joe, if you have had enough supper,” Ben said quietly. “Why don’t you go and change into your night shirt?”

“No Pa, I am not ready for bed yet,” Joe declared, grateful to be released from the table. He wasn’t about to agree to being ready for bed just yet.

Hop Sing went about beginning to clear the dishes, whilst Ben also moved tot he living room, and poured himself a drink.


Across the room, Hoss was setting up the checker board, whilst Adam had taken the opportunity to use the bath-house. The day had been long for him too, but he couldn’t disappoint about the game of checkers just yet.

Whilst he was up in his room combing his hair, Adam retrieved the box of treats that he had hinted at during supper, intending to keep his promise.

Coming down the stairs, his father was seated in his blue arm-chair with a glass of whiskey in his hand, enjoying the warmth of the fire place. He had turned the chair so that he had full view of the living room.

“I set the board for us, Adam,” Hoss said with excitement, spotting his brother coming down the staircase.

“That is great, Hoss,” Adam said, carrying a decorative box in his hands.

Joe was currently sitting on end of the settee closest to Hoss, watching the game of checkers being set up. He was still learning where to put all the pieces and which colour was set on which side of the board.

“What have you got there, son?” Ben asked, curious about the box that his middle son had also noticed.

“This is the treat that I mentioned to you earlier that I brought back with me, Pa,” Adam answered, watching as Joe moved so he could take up his seat on the end of the couch. The youngest Cartwright was kneeling on his knees, trying to look over his oldest brother’s shoulder.

“Want to see what is inside the box?” he teased both younger brothers.

“Yes, please,” Hoss said with anticipation. Joe nodded his head silently, changing positions and sitting down correctly on the settee.

Without further torment, he lifted the lid, “Now you cannot buy this in any store in Boston,” Adam informed them. “These are only made at this time of the year, and once they are sold out, there are no more made until next year. They are made by a very good friend of mine.”

“Wow,” Hoss exclaimed, peering inside at the colour rainbow of sugary sweets on offer.

“These are special boiled sweets,” Adam said holding out the box for his brothers to make their choice. “You may have two pieces each boys, the rest we will save for another day. There are plenty there to share tonight, and other nights.”

Hoss quickly chose a honey coloured one and a darker purple one. “Honey and Grape flavoured,” he declared after happily sucking on them together.

“Make sure you don’t try and bite down on them when you first try them, or you will hurt your teeth,” Adam warned.

“Which flavour would you like, Joe?” Adam said, shaking the box again to disburse the colourful assortment. His younger brother was taking a little longer to make his choice.

“This one, please,” Joe said, grabbing a green coloured square. “Thank you, Adam.”

Adam watched as the boy put the treat in his mouth, and swirled it around with his tongue, but it soon became apparent that the taste was not to his liking at all.

Joe face changed to one of utter revulsion as he spat out the now sticky square, getting off the chair and taking it out into the kitchen to wash his hands.

“I think that one might have been lime flavoured,” Adam said to Hoss and his father. “It can be quite a strong after-taste to that one. Much more than what Joe might be used to.”

“Would you like some, Pa?” he asked politely.

“No thank you, Adam, but thank you for sharing with your brothers,” Ben commented.

Joe came back to the settee, and Adam held out the box again, willing to make the offer again for something more pleasing, but the boy shook his head, not wanting to try that again.

“Let’s start the game, Hoss,” Adam suggested, putting the lid on the box and putting it away. He would take it back to his room when he retired to bed.

“I will get you some of Martha’s lemon drops when I go into town next, Joe,” he said in compromise.

For the next twenty minutes, Ben watched the game of checkers between his two eldest sons. Hoss was trying to out think his brother, but Adam was a much better player.

The third game saw Adam give Hoss a little leeway, as he allowed the younger boy to make a few better moves that gave him confidence to win the game. Adam didn’t need to win every game, he just wanted to spend time with Hoss doing something he liked.

Joe had started the game laying on his tummy, with his head next to his older brother’s thigh, along the length of the settee. With his lower legs and feet casually swinging in the air, holding his chin up by the palms of his hands, watching both brothers intently, and trying to learn. He didn’t ask any questions, just content be within close proximity to Adam.

Before the fourth game could commence. Ben smiled at the very different position he could see his youngest son in. Joe was still laying along the length of the settee, but his curly head was now pillowed on top of his folded arms, and he had lost interest in watching the game.  His legs were now stretched out behind him.

Adam watched the expression on his father’s face, and turned his head to look over at his brother.  Hoss looked up from the move he just finished and clamped his own hand over his mouth to prevent himself from making a sound.

Little Joe’s eyes were at half-mast, slowly closing. Just when it appeared that the battle was about to continue, the small boy dragged his heavy eyes open again, fighting to the very end. This happened twice more with the same result. On the fourth try, his eyes closed, and there was half an effort to raise them again, but that didn’t happen, and the child’s face relaxed into slumber.

Adam lowered his voice, “Do you want me to take him to bed, Pa?” he asked, knowing it had been a while since he had the chance to do so.

“No, thank you son,” Ben whispered, but they all froze again, as Joe’s heard his family talking and tried to wake again.

Another moment, and Joe returned to sleep. From previous experience, sleep for Joe was sometimes hard earned, and it was easily disturbed. It was only once he was deeply asleep that true rest came, and they would be able to move him successfully to his bed.

Ben put aside the whiskey glass and stood up, once he was satisfied that he would be able to move his son without waking him. The trouble tonight was him laying on his belly. Joe fell asleep on the settee quite often, but usually curled up on his side.

“Let’s get you to bed, young man,” Ben whispered softly. “It has been a big day for you.”

Very gently he lifted the boy under his shoulders from the settee, holding him and nestling his son against his shoulder with practiced ease. With a strong arm around his tiny waist and upper body to secure him and make sure he wasn’t being held awkwardly; he had carried Joe like this many times, when he was upset or needed to go to bed. The feeling of complete trust that Ben was afforded each time he was able to offer comfort and security never waned.

Joe’s curly head fell softly against Ben’s shoulder and his heart could not have swelled with more love as he gazed upon the sleeping face that burrowed against the collar of his shirt with barely an audible sigh of contentment.

Adam and Hoss started the fourth game of checkers whilst their father took their younger brother upstairs and put him to bed.


Reading a story had become a joy to Joe, and still was most nights. Even Hoss had taken to giving a story for Joe before bed-time, but often his stories came in a different format. Hoss chose to talk about the various baby cows and horses that were being born on Ponderosa and the two of them coming up with names for them, rather than reading from a book.

Ben’s stories were usually about Joe’s mother Marie and their times together in New Orleans, and he was the only one that was given that privilege. Joe didn’t exactly know where this place was that his mother came from, but he promised himself secretly that he would go there when he was much bigger. He would ask his father and brother for directions on how to get there and even take them with him if they wanted to go with him.

Joe was still sensitive about hearing his mother’s name or seeing any of her possessions. The only exception was a framed photograph of Marie that sat on the window sill behind Ben’s desk. There was also one for Elizabeth and Inger, and they were all cherished and held pride of place for father and sons alike.

Adam didn’t feel cheated that his father had refused his offer, and he partially understood why his father now deemed it his sole responsibility.

There was a ritual involved, that may or may not have been there in the past before the strangers had come to house. Before that and going away to college, Adam had put his younger brother to bed on a number of occasions.

Joe was first earlier in the night, and usually again just as Ben was retiring to bed himself. From experience he knew that blankets and covers would often need readjusting and it was to give the man peace of mind that the child was in bed where he was supposed to be.

Before Adam had left for college, his father would politely knock on his door at night to check if everything was alright. He checked on Hoss next, asking the same question. He felt that need to check on them just as much as Joe. Ben told them frequently that he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night until he had made certain that everybody in the household was taken care of and settled.


Ben walked into Joe’s room, still holding his sleeping son. He pulled back the covers and laid the boy on his back. The next task was to put on a night shirt that Joe was adamant he hadn’t needed, but his father now wished he had heeded. It would have made his efforts tonight a little easier.

Joe hadn’t bothered to put any boots back onto his feet after exiting the bath-house. Ben’s touch was familiar enough to Joe that he barely stirred at his father pulling the night shirt over his curly head. He pulled the covers up over the boy, gauging the temperature of the room. Too cold and the chance of him waking before morning was a strong possibility. Making sure the window in the room was closed and locked formed part of his nightly checks.

Joe turned over onto his side, as his father finished his fussing, his breathing deepening and evening out. Ben allowed a low flame to burn in the lantern on the bedside table across the room, and would extinguish it fully before he went to bed himself.

Brushing a gentle hand through those unruly curls one last time, tonight he prayed that his son’s dreams would be peaceful ones.

“Goodnight, Joseph, sleep well.”

Ben left the room to join his other two sons. He would give Hoss and Adam another hour together to play checkers, before he would chase Hoss to bed as well.

Tomorrow would be a brand new day, and full of unknown possibilities.


To be continued………………….

Author’s Notes: This chapter is totally new material, and set before the events that are in the original version. The parts from that chapter will be included in Chapter Two. Mr Perkins was a character that I introduced in False Witness except that I have now given him a wife Martha, who will become a new character in quite a few earlier plots along with her husband Thomas.

Thank you for reading, please let me know what you think. More to come soon.

Jules