The evening was dark, peaceful, like many other nights on the Ponderosa. There was no moon to light up the ranch yard, so nobody saw the shadowy figure stumble out of the woods and up towards the house. Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright were all sitting around the fire, having just finished a nice hearty supper made by their Chinese cook.
"Hop Sing," Ben sighed to the cook. "I'd say that was the best meal I've ever eaten if I didn't know you were just going to make something even better tomorrow."
"Thank you, sir," Hop Sing beamed as he left the room.
"Yes sir," Hoss agreed with his father. "That Chinese is the best cook this side of the Mississippi."
"Aw, you'd say that about anybody if he put food in front of you," Little Joe said with a laugh.
"Well, you boys ready for the big party tomorrow?" Ben asked.
"Little Joe's ready, Pa," Hoss sent his father a large, toothy grin and slapped his little brother on the back. "It's been, what, a week since he's seen a pretty girl." Little Joe was known somewhat as a ladies' man and he smiled good-naturedly at his big brother.
"You'll dance just as much as Little Joe, Hoss," Adam said apathetically.
"And how about you, Adam," Ben laughed at his oldest son's remark. "Aren't you going to dance?"
"He thinks he's gotta take care of Hoss an' me," Little Joe answered for his bother.
"Yeah, he don't have time for girls," Hoss added. Adam was about to retort to these outrageous accusations when all of a sudden a loud thump from outside silenced all conversation.
"What was that?" Little Joe all but whispered.
"I don't know," his father was staring intently at the front door as if he could see right through it at what was out there.
"I'll take a look," Adam said rising from his chair and moving slowly towards the door. The other three Cartwright men joined him at the door. With their hands near their guns Adam opened the door and all four stared out into the darkness. They could see nothing.
Suddenly the silence was rent by an agonized moan and at last Hoss had the sense to look down. There, lying in a crumpled heap lay a man. By the light of a lamp they saw that he had dark brown hair that was caked with dried blood. His shirt was torn and through the holes they could see bruises on his back and arms. He looked to be in pretty bad shape.
Ben immediately took control of the situation. "Adam, Hoss, get him inside. Little Joe, get the guest room ready for him."
"Yes sir," all three said almost at once. Within minutes they had the man in the guest room bed and Little Joe had gone for the doctor. While they waited the other Cartwrights sat around the bed doing everything they could think of to make the man comfortable.
"Pa," Adam whispered to his concerned father. "He's hardly more than a boy."
"Still wet behind the ears I reckon," Hoss agreed.
"I wonder what he's doin' out here," Ben said, more to himself than his boys.
"And all alone," Adam added.
Not much else was said before Little Joe got back with the doctor.
"Where'd you find him, Ben?" he asked after finally leaving the room.
"Well, actually he found us. He collapsed right at our front door."
"How is he, doc?" Little Joe asked. "He sure looked pretty beat-up."
"I think he'll pull through. But you're right. It was pretty bad. If you keep him in bed and let him get his strength back he'll soon be good as new."
"Thanks for coming all the way out here," Ben shook the doctor's hand and led him toward the door.
"My pleasure, Ben. I think he'll be okay, but let me know how he's doin' in a couple days. Oh, and when he wakes up also try to figure out who he is."
"You think you know him?"
"Well, I'm not sure. He looks very familiar though."
"We'll do everything we can to help him," Ben assured the doctor.
"But Pa," Hoss asked as soon as the doctor had left. "How can we help him?"
"First we'll let him get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow he may feel a little better."
"Has he even talked yet?" Little Joe wondered.
"No," Adam replied from the guest room doorway. "He's too busy sleeping to talk."
"How is he, Adam?" Ben inquired.
"Sawin' logs like a lumberjack," Hoss said with a grin after peeking in on the boy.
"Well, there's really not much else we can do," Ben sighed. "Guess we might as well turn in." His sons mumbled their consents as they all trooped up the stairs and into their rooms.