"Little Joe you better get up, Hops Sing already has breakfast ready," Hoss Cartwright advised as he shook his sleeping younger brother.

When he got no response, Hoss started lifting his smaller and lighter brother off the bed. Little Joe opened his eyes and began squirming in protest. "Let me go Hoss!" Joe shouted in protest.

Hoss unceremoniously dropped Little Joe onto the younger brother's bed. "Now that you're awake it's time to get dressed. We gotta get into town and catch the stage so that means we gotta eat breakfast now."

"I'm not hungry. I just wanna sleep," Joe informed before turning over and pulled the blanket over his head.

"Hoss, Joseph, Hop Sing has breakfast waiting for us." Ben Cartwright announced in a commanding tone as he stood in the bedroom doorway..

Little Joe immediately jumped out of bed and stood in front of his father. "I was just gettin ready Pa."

Ben studied his 9-year-old son with suspicion. "You were getting ready under the covers were you?"

Little Joe wore a contrite expression as he looked up at his father. "No Pa, I just meant that I was gonna get ready."

"Then start getting ready now young man," Ben ordered.

Little Joe stared down at his naked feet. "Yes sir."

Ben put an arm around the 15 year-old Hoss and led the teenager out of the bedroom. Joe quickly dressed himself and joined his family downstairs for breakfast.

Hoss typically downed his breakfast of pancakes and bacon, along with two glasses of milk in quick fashion. Ben looked over at his middle son in amazement. Hoss was always a big eater, but now that he was in his teens, the boy seemed to eat even more, if that was possible.

Little Joe on the other hand, ate a much smaller breakfast, befitting a boy of his age. Even Joe grinned when he looked over at the amount of food on his older brother's plate. Hop Sing watched on as well with a smile on his face. The Chinese cook seemed pleased that at least one of the Cartwrights was enjoying his cooking.

As he speared another pancake with his fork Hoss glanced up and saw three sets of eyes on him. Hoss paused momentarily asking, "Is somethin' wrong?"

"No son, I just noticed that you seem to have a larger than normal appetite lately," Ben commented.

"I know what ya mean Pa, I'm hungry all the time an' what I used to eat doesn't seem to fill me up no more."

"That because middle son a growing boy. He need to eat more. Do not worry Mista Cartlight, Hop Sing cook plenty to feed Hoss," Hop Sing assured his employer.

Ben Cartwright turned to face his cook. "As long as you don't mind cooking enough to feed this growing boy of mine I'll make sure you have enough food in the pantry."

The cook smiled and bowed his head at his employer. "Good. All settled then. Now I go pack meals for journey," Hop Sing announced before heading for the kitchen.

"I hope he packs us some fried chicken," Hoss stated while wiping off his mouth with a napkin. "Hop Sing makes the best fried chicken."

Little Joe cackled in response, "You think any food Hop Sing makes is the best."

"It happens to be the truth," Hoss shot back.

Ben smiled in amusement at the banter between his two sons. The friendly banter between Hoss and Little Joe had all but disappeared soon after their older, brother Adam left to attend college in Boston. Hoss and Little Joe eventually came to accept their brother's temporary absence and settled back into their normal routine once again.

Little Joe was a bundle of energy after breakfast, running upstairs to pack as soon as he finished the last bit of food on his plate. Hoss wasn't far behind in heading to his room. Both brothers quickly packed for their trip, despite becoming distracted by several minor arguments and one pillow fight.

As soon as Hoss and Little Joe finished packing they brought came downstairs with the things they had packed. Ben checked what the boys had packed to make sure they didn't forget anything or try to bring things that were unnecessary for the trip.

Ben frowned as he pulled a small wooden horse from Little Joe's satchel. The boy looked down at the wood floor of the ranch house with a guilty expression. Ben's features softened as he looked at his son and put the toy back in the satchel. "You can bring the horse but next time I expect you to ask if you want to take extra items. Is that clear?"

"Sure Pa," Joe replied with relief in his voice.

"Good. Now let's get in the surrey so we don't miss the stage," Ben instructed as he put an arm around Hoss' shoulder.

"Is Adam really gonna be in Denver when we get there Pa?" Joe asked as he climbed aboard the surrey.

Ben Cartwright tousled his son's hair answering, "Adam will be in Denver the day after we arrive."

Both Hoss' and Little Joe's faces beamed when they heard their father's confirmation. Their father allowed himself a soft chuckle at the enthusiasm.

As the horse pulled their surrey forward Little Joe remarked, "I don't remember much what Adam looked like."

"That's okay Short shanks. You'll see what Adam looks like soon enough," Hoss reassured.

The 9-year-old looked up hopefully at his older brother. "Ya think Adam will stay home this time?"

Ben pulled his youngest son next to him and gave Joe a hug with one arm. "Of course Adam will stay at the Ponderosa this time."

"I'm bigger now so if Adam tries to leave I won't let him," the youngster pronounced.

Both Ben and Hoss laughed at the boldness of the youngest Cartwright, earning them a frustrated glare from Little Joe. Ben playfully tousled Joe's dark hair, which caused the boy to squirm in an attempt to get his head out of reach.

"You're forgettin' that Adam is bigger now too little brother," Hoss pointed out as he playfully shoved his younger brother.

Once the Cartwrights were on the stage from Virginia City, Hoss and Joe started up a game of counting the jackrabbits they saw along the way. Ben engaged in a conversation with the two other passengers, a traveling salesman and a woman traveling to visit her sick aunt.

In Carson City the Cartwrights got off the stage and took a train east. As soon as the Cartwrights took their seats on the train, Hoss put a hand on his stomach. "Pa are we gonna get something to eat soon? My stomach is rumblin'."

"Your stomach is always rumblin' Big Brother," Joe teased. Hoss playfully grabbed his younger brother and began tickling Little Joe.

Ben shot his sons a stern look. "Boys settle down." Hoss immediately let go of Little Joe and the brothers settled down. ."

"We're sorry Pa," the boys apologized in unison.

"I suppose it is time we had some of the food Hop Sing packed for us," Ben remarked before opening up the basket of food Hop Sing had given him.

Broad grins lit up the faces of the boys as they leaned over the basket to look inside. The three Cartwrights wasted no time in eating the sandwiches and apples from the basket. Hop Sing had wisely packed three sandwiches for Hoss, who finished two of them before Joe had finished his one sandwich.

After lunch, Little Joe gradually fell asleep to the motion of the train and the sound of the wheels rolling along the track. Ben and Hoss chatted amongst themselves and with their neighbors, trying not to disturb the youngest Cartwright.

The Cartwrights got off the train in Denver where Ben bought tickets for another stagecoach. "How come we're gettin' on another stage Pa? I thought we was gonna meet Adam in Denver?" asked a confused Hoss as they walked away from the ticket office.

"Adam won't arrive here for another few days and I have some business to attend to in Leadville in the meantime. That's why we're meeting your brother here instead of Virginia City," Ben explained as he put the stagecoach tickets in his billfold. "We'll stay here in Denver tonight and catch the stage tomorrow."

"Oh now I remember you sayin' that Pa. In the excitement of knowin' we was gonna see Adam I plumb forgot," Hoss replied with a sheepish look on his face.

Ben put a sympathetic hand on his middle son's broad shoulder. "That's alright Hoss; I know you and Little Joe are just bursting to see your oldest brother."

Joe jumped up and down replying, "We sure are Pa!"

The next day the Cartwrights took the stage to Leadville. When they got into the stagecoach, Ben introduced himself and the boys to the other two passengers. The other passengers were two brothers who gave their names as Hank and Steve.

Ben quickly sized up the brothers, watching as they made small talk with Little Joe and Hoss. Little Joe proudly described the Ponderosa with the beautiful views of Lake Tahoe. Hank had a skeptical look on his face as he glanced over at Ben. "Is your ranch really as big as your boy says?"

"Yes and just as beautiful," Ben informed, wincing slightly at his prideful boast.

Steve had a smile on his face as he leaned his head against the back of the seat. The young man in his 20's had a far away look on his face, as if picturing the Ponderosa in his mind. "Sounds like a real hum dinger of a spread ya got Mr. Cartwright. Me and Hank are out in between jobs now so I don't suppose ya could use a couple hands could ya?"

There was a brief period of silence as Ben considered the request. "I'm assuming you both have had some cowhand experience?"

"Yes Sir Mr. Cartwright," Steve quickly responded as he leaned towards the rancher. "Me and Hank worked on a spread for a few months just last year. The owner of the ranch let us go 'cuz he kinda fell on hard times and couldn't afford so many hands around."

Ben studied the two men with a skeptical look on his face. "Have you had any other experience as cowhands?"

Hank glanced down at his boots before looking up at the ranch owner. "No Mr. Cartwright that was our first job as cowhands, but we learned a lot on the job and we'll both give you an honest day's work."

"With my oldest son Adam returning home from college I'm not sure I could use two new hands," Ben stated with sympathy in his voice. "However, I'll still give you two careful consideration."

Hank exchanged glances with his brother before replying, "I'd appreciate that Mr. Cartwright. I ain't too proud to say that me and Steve could use a job right about now."

Little Joe squirmed in his seat, waking Hoss who had dozed off. "Hey Hoss, wanna play a game?"

The teenager yawned and tussled his brother's hair. "Not right now Little Joe, I'm kinda sleepy."

Suddenly the stagecoach sped up, causing the passengers to look out the windows. Little Joe giggled as he and the rest of the passengers bounced off their seats when the stage bounced sharply. Hoss instinctively put a protective arm around his younger brother moments before the stage lurched to the left. Ben called out to the driver just as the stagecoach tipped over, sending the passengers tumbling.

Ben Cartwright opened his eyes and blinked several times. The rancher let out a groan as he tried to sit up, reflexively putting a hand to his left ribcage. Ben looked around and found Little Joe lying right next to him.

"Joseph, are you hurt?" Ben asked as he leaned over his son. Ben picked up a piece of wood off his son, tossing it aside, revealing a small trickle of blood running down Joe's right cheek.

Little Joe moaned softly as his eyes fluttered open. "Pa? I'm okay. What happened?"

Ben began carefully checking Little Joe for injuries. "The stage must have gone out of control and overturned. Are you sure you're not in any pain son?"

The boy bolted upright before Ben had a chance to stop him. "I'm sure Pa. Is everybody else okay?"

"I'm okay Little Brother," Hoss announced as he crawled up next to Joe. Hoss's right shirtsleeve had a tear at the cuff but showed no signs of injury.

Little Joe flashed a smile at his bigger brother. "Good we wouldn't want Adam to see us all busted up."

Ben and Hoss chuckled at the youngest Cartwright's joke. "Now I know you are okay Joseph," Ben responded. "Hoss help your brother out of here and I'll check on Steve and Hank."

The teenager nodded his head. "Sure thing Pa." Hoss and Joe crawled on their knees over to the window where Hoss lifted his younger brother through the window. Once Joe was safely outside the stage, Hoss pulled himself through the window.

As soon as Hoss was outside, he stood next to Little Joe and began examining the boy's cut more closely. Hoss pulled at a piece of his right shirtsleeve that hung down and tore the fabric free from the shirt. Little Joe winced slightly as Hoss dabbed the cut with cloth. "Well, it don't look so bad Shortshanks. Just a small scratch. You got worse falling off your bed at home."

"I'm not gonna have a scar?" Joe asked with disappointment.

"Nope, no scar at all. Now let's see if we can find the driver Little Brother," Hoss suggested as he put an arm around his brother.

Little Joe didn't budge. "What about Pa? He's still inside the stagecoach," he reminded.

"You saw Pa, he's okay. He's probably helping Steve and Hank right now," Hoss reassured as he gently led Joe around to the front of the stagecoach.

Inside the overturned stagecoach, Steve and Hank began helping each other out through the window. As soon as the two brothers were outside Ben exited the window and stood next to Steve and Hank.

"Hoss! Joe! Where are you boys?" Ben called out in his booming voice.

Little Joe came running towards Ben and hugged his father. "Hoss and me were trying to see if we could find the driver."

Ben frowned down at his youngest son. "You mean Hoss and I."

Joe looked up at his father sheepishly. "Yes sir, Hoss and I were trying to find the driver."

"Did ya have any luck?" Hank asked.

As if on cue, Hoss approached the group. "Pa I need to talk to you for a minute."

Ben put an arm around the teenager and the two walked a short distance from the crash site. The expression on Hoss's face caused Ben to put a comforting hand on the young man's shoulder. "You have some bad news don't you son?"

"Yes sir, me and Joe found the driver but he's dead. I didn't tell Joe anything and just sent 'im over to you."

Concern briefly flashed across Ben's face but he quickly recovered. "You did a good job handling Little Joe."

Hoss' face beamed with pride before turning serious again. "Do ya want me to wait to help bury the driver after you had a chance to break it to Joe?"

Ben's arm was still on Hoss' shoulder so he gently led the teenager back towards where the others were standing. "I'll ask Steve and Hank to do that Hoss. We'll stay with Joe."

"Ask us what Mr. Cartwright?" Steve asked when Ben and Hoss returned. "Do ya need help tryin' ta right the stagecoach?"

"We could try but it looks like the horses broke free and ran off," Ben replied as his eyes scanned the horizon.

Steve turned around in a circle, stopping in front of Ben. "Yeah, I guess you're right about the horses Mr. Cartwright. A stagecoach wouldn't do us a lick of good right now."

"What do you need us to do then?" Hank asked.

Ben quickly glanced over at Hoss before answering, "I need you and Steve to go with Hoss and check on the driver."

Steve gently slapped his brother in the stomach. "Come on Hank lets see how the man's doin"

Little Joe started to speak but his father cut him off. "Joseph I want you to take a little walk with me." Ben led his youngest son away from the wreckage before continuing. "Joseph, you saw the driver just a little bit ago didn't you?"

"Yeah, sure Pa. I hope he's gonna be okay," the boy replied with concern.

Ben knelt down in front of Little Joe and put his hands on both of his son's small shoulders. "Son, there's no easy way for me to say this but the driver isn't going to get better."

A hurt expression spread across Little Joe's young face. "You mean he's dead don't ya Pa? I'm sorry he's dead."

"Me too son," Ben stated quietly. "I know it's a shock for you since you haven't really seen any folks get killed like this. Do you want to tell me anything or ask me anything?"

Little Joe looked into his father's dark eyes before speaking. "Do ya think the driver had any kids of his own?"

"I don't know son, but we'll give the driver a proper burial," Ben replied.

"Pa, how are we gonna get where we're supposed to be going to?" Joe asked, quickly rushing through the question while his lower lip quivered.

Ben frowned as he looked over at overturned stagecoach. "Your brother Adam and I walked most of the way from Boston to the Ponderosa, so I don't see why we can't do a little walking to the nearest town or stage depot."

Joe seemed to forget the stage accident as his green eyes brightened. "Hey you're right Pa, and Adam was younger than me when you both started the trip west."

The rancher forced a smile. "That's right, you'll be able to tell Adam he's not the only one in the family to make a long trek as a youngster."

"Yeah, won't Adam be surprised." Little Joe crowed before running off to the stage. The boy waited with Ben next to the stage while Steve, Hank, and Hoss buried the driver.

As soon as the burial was complete the group stood around the grave as Ben led them in a short funeral service. Once the impromptu service was finished, Hank and Steve approached Ben as Hoss and Joe waited a short distance away. The rancher met Hank and Steve's gazes, which caused the brothers to shift uncomfortably.

Ben frowned at the two men before him. "Is there something you two wanted to say?"

"Well, me an Steve was wonderin' if ya know anything about this territory Mr. Cartwright," Hank haltingly spoke up.

"I been out this way before although it was some years ago," Ben admitted.

"Are there Indians out here Pa?" Joe asked with excitement as he skipped towards his father.

Ben smiled down at his youngest son, but it appeared to lack conviction to anybody who knew Ben Cartwright. "I don't know son, we're not going to go looking for them anyway."

Little Joe's face showed his disappointment. "Oh I was hoping we could see some friendly Indians."

"There is no such thing as a friendly Indian," Steve stated. A stern glare from Ben Cartwright made Steve think better of saying anything more.

Hoss ambled over to his father with two canteens in his hands. The large teenager held the canteens in front of him. "I found these here canteens on the stage. I figure the driver musta carried these."

Ben took one of the canteens and handed it to Hank. "The water in these might come in handy. Hank, you and your brother take care of this canteen and I'll take this one, but whatever water is in these two canteens will be shared equally among the five of us. Is that understood?" Steve and Hank nodded their heads in agreement.

Hoss put an arm around Little Joe who had just wandered up to his big brother's side. "I checked the canteens already Pa and they are all nearly filled up," Hoss announced.

"Good" Ben replied with relief. "Steve and I rescued some of the food Hop Sing packed for us so suppose we should get started walking now that's we've got everything we'll need."

"Aren't we gonna take all our luggage pa?" Little Joe asked as he walked alongside his father.

Hoss laughed at his little brother. "Now don't tell me you wanna lug all your stuff all the way ta the nearest sign a civilization Shortshanks?"

"Nah, but I don't wanna leave Roy behind. He might get hurt," Little Joe replied with worry as he his gaze fell upon the overturned stage.

Ben put a reassuring arm around his youngest son. "I don't see why Roy can't come along. He's doesn't way much."

Little Joe's face beamed while Steve and Hank looked on with confused expressions. Hoss noticed the confusion and chuckled. "Roy is Little Joe's wooden horse. It was given to him by the sheriff where we live. Little Joe takes it everywhere." Steve and Hank smiled in unison.

"Joseph, go ahead and find Roy, but be quick about it," Ben instructed. The words were no sooner out of his mouth before Little Joe dashed off in search of the wooden animal.

After a few minutes of rummaging around in the luggage that was scattered around the stagecoach, Little Joe produced Roy. The boy held up the wooden toy as he ran back to Ben. "Hank and Steve this is Roy," Joe introduced as he held Roy in his outstretched hands.

"Well now, that's a right fine lookin' horse," Steve remarked as he tipped his hat back on his head.

Hank nodded as he rubbed his right hand up and down the horse's muzzle. "It sure is fine woodwork. Hey Steve, remember the time we both tried whittlin pieces of wood when we were kids?."

"Okay, is everybody ready to head out?" Ben asked as he surveyed the surroundings.

Steve and Hank cut their conversation short and shrugged their shoulders in unison. "Yeah guess so," Steve answered. The Cartwrights, Hank, and Steve began their trek towards civilization.

The Cartwrights walked with Steve and Hank for several miles when Little Joe began lagging behind. Ben and Hoss noticed that the youngest member of the family appeared to be struggling a little to keep up with the rest of the group. Ben put a hand on Hank's left arm, causing the other man to stop. Steve also came to a halt next to his brother.

Hoss trotted back to Little Joe while the others waited a short distance ahead. "Hey Shortshanks, want me to carry you on my shoulders?"

A look of relief flashed in Little Joe's hazel eyes. "If ya want to."

"Sure I want to give ya a ride," Hoss responded with a broad grin on his face. "Now hop on." Hoss knelt down and Joe immediately put his arms around his older brother's neck. Hoss stood up and put his hands under Joes' thighs

"Smart kid, he knows how to travel in style," Hank quipped as he winked at Ben.

Ben grinned at the dark haired man. "You won't get an argument from me on that point. That youngest boy of mind has a way about him."

The party continued their journey with Ben and Hoss taking turns carrying Little Joe. Eventually Little Joe began squirming in his father's grasp. Ben stopped walking and looked over his shoulder at his Little Joe. "Do you want to walk now son?" Ben asked.

"Uh huh. I'm not so tired now," Little Joe stated as he slid down to the ground and began walking beside his father.

After the group advanced a mile farther, gunshots ring out. Steve and Hank became alert and instinctively reached for the pistols each had hanging in holsters around their waists. Ben reflexively pulled Joe close to his side to protect his young son. Hoss and Little Joe exchanged concerned looks before turning to their father.

"Hoss, you stay here and keep an eye on your brother," Ben ordered before turning his attention to Hank and Steve. "You two come with me and we'll see if we can see who fired those shots."

Ben also wore a holster slung low on his hips, and instinctively rested his right hand on the handle of the pistol sitting in his holster. Ben took one last look over his right shoulder and gave his sons a confident smile.

Little Joe started to voice his protest but when his father shot him a no nonsense look, the boy kept quiet. Hoss put his hands on Joe's shoulders as Joe stood in front of him. The young brothers watched Ben, Steve, and Hank disappear into the rocky terrain.

Little Joe pulled out of his brother's grasp and began waving Roy around in the air. "Whadya think the gunshots were all about Hoss?"

"I dunno Little Brother. Maybe somebody was just shootin' at a rabbit or somethin."

"I hope it wasn't some bad guys," Little Joe stated as he moved his wooden horse along the ground.

Hoss walked over to a medium sized boulder and sat down to watch his younger brother playing with Roy. "Little Joe why don't you come over here and sit down. We're gonna be doing some more walking soon so you might as well sit a spell and rest up."

Little Joe paused from his entertainment, appearing to consider the suggestion. "Yeah I guess you're right big brother. I'm too old to have you carrying me the rest of the way."

A mock frown crept across Hoss' round face. "Okay Old Timer."

"If I'm an old timer than what does that make you?" Joe retorted with a twinkle in his eyes.

Hoss lightly tapped his Joe on the back of the head. "Hey, respect your elders Little Brother."

A few hundred yards away from Hoss and Little Joe, their father, Steve, and Hank took cover behind large rock outcropping where they began surveying the terrain ahead. "Looks like we found the folks who fired the guns," Hank commented as he pushed his hat towards the back of his head.

Ben took his bandana from around his neck and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he studied the terrain ahead. "I'd say so. One of the men looks to be soldier."

"The other's an Indian," Steve added. Ben nodded his head in agreement.

Two hundred yards ahead were two men; one was an Indian, dressed in buckskin trousers and jacket wrestling with another man dressed in a blue Army uniform. Both men seemed to be too engrossed in their battle to notice the trio watching them.

Steve and Hank briefly glanced at each other before rushing into the open. The brothers ran towards the Indian and pulled him off the soldier. The soldier lay on the ground, panting from his battle with the Indian. The Indian glared at Hank and Steve, his piercing brown eyes showing his anger.

Ben trotted up to the group and came to a halt in front of the soldier. "Are you alright Sergeant?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," the sergeant answered as he allowed Ben to help him to his feet. The soldier turned to Hank and Steve. "Thank you men for your help."

The brothers shrugged their shoulders in unison "You're welcome Sergeant," Steve replied.

"I'm Sergeant Ankers," the soldier introduced as he shook hands with Ben.

"I'm Ben Cartwright and this is Steve," Ben said as he put a hand on Steve's right shoulder. Then Ben gestured a hand towards Hank, "and this is his brother Hank."

Sergeant Ankers shook hands with Hank and nodded his head at Steve, who had a hold of the Indian. "This is Wabushka," the sergeant informed. "We were transporting Wabushka when some of his friends showed up to help him. The soldiers who were with me got killed, but not before Wabushka's men were killed too. One got away and will probably be back with reinforcements."

Steve whirled Wabushka around so they were face to face before Steve slammed his fist into Wabushka's jaw. The Indian barely flinched and was about to react when Sergeant Ankers grabbed the Indian.

Ben pulled Steve away from Wabushka and shoved him towards Hank. "You keep your temper under control!" Ben shouted at Steve.

Hank stepped up to defend his brother. "You can't blame Steve; this fella just killed some soldiers. He's a mean one."

"Mean or not he's the responsibility of the United States Army, not yours," Ben pointed out.

The brothers gave Wabushka one last glare before walking off from the rancher. Sergeant Ankers let out an audible sigh of relief. "Thank you Mr. Cartwright. As much as I despise what Wabushka has done, I can't allow him to be killed out of revenge. I have to bring him in, alive if at all possible."

"I understand Sergeant," Ben replied. "We should get Wabushka into restraints again."

Sergeant Ankers nodded his head in agreement. "I'd like to know how he got out of his restraints. They should be on the ground about 50 yards that way," the sergeant informed, pointing to his left.

With Steve and Hank keeping an eye on Wabushka, Ben walked in the direction Sergeant Ankers pointed, searching for the shackles. The rancher found the shackles and returned to the sergeant.

Wabushka stood silently with a scowl on his face as Ben secured the shackles around the Indian's wrists. "You should not have helped the soldier. You will only die with him," Wabushka warned as glowered at Ben.

"The soldier represents the law of the leader of this country, Wabushka. I'm not afraid to help enforce the law," Ben countered as he matched the Indians glare.

Wabushka spat at the dirt next to the ranchers feet. "That is what I think of your law."

Sergeant Ankers gripped Wabushka's arms more firmly. "That's enough out of you!" The sergeant looked at Ben and then at Hank and Steve. "I'm going to need you men to assist me with Wabushka. I don't have a horse any more and need to borrow your horses. The Army will pay you for the loan of your horses."

Ben pursed his lips together and cast a glance down at the dusty ground before looking the sergeant in the eye. "I'm sorry but we have no horses. We were traveling on a stage when it was involved in an accident. We've been walking towards the stage depot."

"Oh I see. I'm sorry about what happened," Ankers replied. "Why don't you come with me instead? The fort isn't much further than the stage depot and I could use some help."

"I can only speak for myself but I have two son who are waiting a ways back and I don't want to put them in any danger," Ben informed with regret in his voice.

Hank and Steve approached Ben and Sergeant Akers with an eager look in their eyes. "Sergeant Ankers, me and Steve just talked it over and we'll go along to help you take the Indian to your fort," Hank offered.

Sergeant Ankers paused a moment as if considering the offer, given what Steve already done to Wabushka. "If you come along you will follow my orders to the letter, is that clear?"

"It's clear sir," Steve and Hank answered in unison.

Ben offered his hand to Sergeant Ankers. "I should get back to my sons. Good luck Sergeant."

Sergeant Ankers didn't respond to the rancher. Ben delayed his departure as he studied the sergeant with concern. Ankers had a pained expression on his face as he swayed to one side. Ben quickly put his hands each of Ankers' shoulders to steady the sergeant. Suddenly, Sergeant Ankers' legs gave out from under him and he slumped to the ground. Ben managed to ease the sergeant's fall and ended up kneeling beside Ankers.

Steve and Hank moved next to Ben and grabbed hold of Wabushka before there was time for the Indian to escape. Ankers reached over and clenched Ben's tan vest in his left hand. "I got snake bit a couple days ago. I thought I got all the poison out but guess I was wrong," Ankers stated in between raspy breaths.

"Don't try to talk any more. I'll check your wound," Ben instructed. "Where did were you bit? On the leg?" he asked.

The sergeant let out a weak raspy reply. "Yeah, my leg."

Ben rolled up Ankers' left pant leg. Seeing no sign of a snakebite, he rolled up the right pant leg and saw the tell tale snakebite on the sergeant's calf.

A brief smile flashed across Wabushka's dark features as he eyed the wound. "You waste your time Cartwright. The sergeant will die even with your help."

"Shut up!" Steve shouted as he shoved Wabushka away from Ben and Sergeant Ankers. Hank followed his brother and Wabushka to a small rock where he sat down. Steve stood beside Hank while the two guarded the Indian. Ben continued tending to Sergeant Ankers who's breathing was becoming more shallow.

"Wabushka's right," the sergeant gasped out. "I'm as good as dead." Ankers took a brief pause to catch his breath before continuing. "I want you take over for me. See that Wabushka gets to Fort Delaney alive."

Ben frowned at the ill sergeant. "I can't do that Sergeant. I told you before I have two sons and I won't put their lives in danger."

Sergeant Ankers leaned his head back against Benn's arm. "I know and I hate to ask you to do this," he acknowledged before lowing his voice. "but I don't trust Steve and Hank to control their tempers long enough for Wabushka to get to the fort alive."

The rancher bit at his lower lip as he contemplated his decision. Sergeant Ankers broke the silence in spite the difficulty it took him to talk. "You know your sons might be better off with us. You just might end up running into Wabushka's friends and frankly, you'd have more protection with Hank and Steve around."

"You have a point," Ben reluctantly agreed.

The sergeant offered a weak smile before losing consciousness. Ben put an ear to Ankers' chest to listen for a heartbeat. Hearing no heartbeat, Ben looked over at Hank and Steve and stated, "He's dead."

Hank and Steve's expressions became solemn and determined. A warning look from Ben and the brothers kept their tempers in check, settling for giving Wabushka harsh glares.

"I'm going to fetch my sons," Ben announced. "I won't be long so see to it that Wabushka doesn't meet up with an 'accident' of any kind. Do you two understand?"

"I understand," Steve and Hank replied in unison.

Satisfied the brothers would keep their tempers under control, Ben left to retrieve Hoss and Little Joe.

Ben walked at a quick pace as returned to his sons. Hoss and Joe were both sitting down on a rock and talking to each other, as their father approached. Hoss and Little Joe cut short their conversation and gave Ben with welcoming smiles. Little Joe slid down from the rock and gave his father with a hug.

"I'm glad you're back Pa. Hoss and me waited some time for you. I was startin to worry that somethin happened to you," Little Joe blurted out in one breath. The youngest Cartwright took in a deep breath before he once again hugged his father.

"I apologize if I worried you boys. We found a soldier who needed our help," Ben explained. "I need you both to come with me back to where I found the soldier."

Hoss' expression registered his concern. The teenager was old enough to conclude that something serious was happening, but hid any worry from Little Joe. "Sure pa," Hoss replied good naturedly.

The rancher took Little Joe's small hand and the trio headed for Steve and Hank's location. Little Joe's eyes lit up with excitement when he saw Wabushka sitting cross-legged on the ground. Before Ben or Hoss could grab Little Joe, the youngster rushed to the Indian.

Little Joe held out his right hand as he introduced himself. "I'm Joe Cartwright, what's your name?" His friendliness was met with a cold stare from Wabushka.

Ben was immediately at Joe's side and the rancher grabbed Little Joe and pulled the boy away from Wabushka. "Joseph, you are to keep your distance from this man, is that clear?"

"Yeah Pa," Little Joe replied with hesitation.

Ben hastily escorted his youngest son away from Wabushka and over to Hoss. "Joseph stay with your brother. The rancher looked Hoss in the eye as he rested his hands on Little Joe's small shoulders. "Hoss, please keep an eye on your brother and don't let him near Wabushka. You stay away from Wabushka as well."

"Sure Pa," Hoss immediately replied. Hoss grabbed Little Joe right hand in his as he looked down at his younger brother. "Little Joe don't give Pa or me any trouble now and do like we say."

Little Joe rolled his eyes in frustration. "Okay, okay I'll listen to what you say."

Ben leaned over and gave Little Joe a hug. "Son I know it's hard for you to always do what I or your brothers tell you but right now it's very important that you listen to us."

The youngest Cartwright nodded his head in acknowledgement. "Sure Pa. I'm sorry I talked to the Indian without waiting to be introduced."

The rancher looked at his sons and then at Hank and Steve. "We still have a couple hours of sunlight so we should about making some progress towards Sergeant Ankers' fort."

"That sounds like a good idea Mr. Cartwright," Steve agreed.

Ben put Hoss in charge of Little Joe before the group continued their journey. Hank walked in front while Steve guarded Wabushka, with Little Joe and Hoss behind them. Ben walked behind the group, holding Sergeant Ankers' Army rifle at the ready.

Before it got too dark, the group stopped and made camp for the night. Ben and his sons broke out some of the food had Hoss was carried, sharing with Steve and Hank. Ben offered some of the food to Wabushka, but the Indian kept his defiant attitude and refused to take any. The rancher managed to convince Wabushka to drink some water, after considerable debate.

After everybody finished their meal, Hoss turned to Little Joe and tousled the boy's dark hair. "Well Little Joe, it's time for you to get some sleep.

The youngest Cartwright was reluctant to turn in for the night without trying to get something in return. "Hoss, ya gotta tell me a story before I go to sleep."

"Okay, what story do ya wanna hear tonight Shortshanks?" Hoss asked good-naturedly.

Little Joe bit at his lower lip a few moments as if trying to decide before informing, "I wanna hear about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table."

Hoss sighed at the choice of stories. "Now why'd ya have ta pick one of those kinda stories for? Ya know I ain't as good at tellin' them as Pa or Adam. Are ya sure ya don't wanna hear a story about somethin' else? How 'bout I tell ya a story about a bear?"

"Nope, I wanna hear a story about knights," Joe insisted as he sat down on the section of ground he had claimed as his for the night.

"Okay, but don't complain if ya don't like the story I'm gonna tell ya," Hoss countered as he sat down next to his brother.

Hoss spent a half hour reciting a story to Little Joe, one which Adam had told both Hoss and Joe many times over the years. Just as Hoss was finishing the story he looked down to see Little Joe fast asleep, with his head resting on his jacket. It was a warm enough night that the Cartwrights, Hank, and Steve used their vests and jackets for pillows. Wabushka merely sat with his back against a large rock and watched his captors.

Ben instructed Hank to stand watch at the perimeter of the camp before handing Sergeant Ankers' rifle to the man. Hank in turn, handed his rifle over to the rancher. Once Hank had left, Ben took Steve aside to talk where Wabushka couldn't here them.

Meanwhile, Hoss dumped handfuls of dirt onto the flames in order to put out the campfire. Once the campfire was extinguished, the teenager sat next to Little Joe. Before long, Hoss had dozed off, sitting next to his brother.

After allowing Steve a few hours of sleep, Ben woke Steve up and sent him to relieve Hank on the perimeter of the camp. Ben continued standing guard near Wabushka while Hank grabbed a few hours of sleep. Ben sat facing Wabushka, who continued to sit in stony silence, despite the rancher's efforts to make conversation. Ben finally gave up any attempt at conversation with Wabushka and watched his sons instead.

Shortly after midnight, something caught Wabushka's attention and the Indian's eyes shifted ever so slightly. Ben quickly rolled around to get a look at what was behind him, ending up on his stomach with his rifle aimed directly ahead. Ben eyes were wide with shock as he saw dark-haired boy standing not more than 10 feet away, watching the inhabitants of the camp.

Ben carefully stood up and circled around so Wabushka was still in his view. "What are you doing out here young man?" Ben asked the newcomer who appeared to be around Little Joe's age.

"I was walkin' and heard you folks here, so I thought I'd come into your camp," the boy answered, as if it was the most natural thing for him to be walking around in the middle of the night.

"Where are you folks?" Ben quickly questioned with concern as approached the boy.

The young boy briefly looked down at the ground before returning his gaze back up at Ben. "They're not here mister."

Ben's face showed his surprise. "You mean to tell me that you are out here all by yourself?"

"Yup. I did have my horse but he died a ways back," the boy began explaining. "I had to leave my saddle behind because it slowed me down."

The talk had woken up Hoss, who now approached his father and the youngster. "You're lucky you didn't get hurt. This country is no place for a fella to be walking alone at night, let alone one as young as yourself."

The boy's jaw clenched showing his discomfort at being chastised. "I wasn't planning on walking at night alone, but I figured I wouldn't be seen as easily by folks like him," he said, gesturing towards Wabushka.

"You could've gotten lost young man," Ben cautioned with a concerned look on his face.

"Not me, I know my way around this area real good," the stranger boasted with pride.

Ben and Hoss raised their eyebrows as they exchanged glances with each other. "What's your name young fella?" Hoss asked, good-naturedly.

The boy hesitated a moment before speaking up. "I'm Candy, and I'm kinda hungry so would you mind sharing some of your peaches?"

"Candy huh?" Hoss nearly laughed. "That's an unusual name.

"Pretty soon it won't sound any different than Steve or Hoss," Candy retorted as he flashed a smile at Hoss.

Hoss vainly tried to hide his amusement. "How did you know our names and that we had peaches?"

The boy shrugged his shoulders. "I heard you folks talkin."

Ben nodded his head. "I suppose that makes sense."

"How'd a little feller like yourself get past the man we have on guard?" Hoss asked with interest as he grabbed a canteen. The teenager offered the canteen to Candy who gratefully accepted it.

Candy took a small swallow before answering, "You mean the one on the perimeter of your camp? He was asleep and I didn't wanna wake 'em so I just walked by."

"That's not funny young man," Ben warned in his non-nonsense baritone.

Candy didn't flinch at the commanding voice. "Sir, if you don't mind, do ya think you could spare some of your peaches?"

Ben's expression softened at the second request for food. "Of course, you must be starved." The rancher motioned for Hoss to fetch an open can of peaches that was half full.

Little Joe woke up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The youngster's eyes opened wide when he saw Candy standing near Ben. "Hey we got company!" Joe shouted with excitement.

"Not so loud, Shortshanks," Hoss cautioned as he handed Candy the peaches. "Sorry we don't have any silverware to eat with."

Candy shrugged off the inconvenience. "That's okay. I got a knife." The boy reached down and pulled a knife from his pants leg. "I figured I might need it if I ran into trouble." Candy used the knife to spear a peach, carefully sliding the knife into his mouth before skillfully eating the peach off of the knife without cutting himself.

Ben and Hoss shared concerned glances at the youngster putting himself in danger , while Little Joe grinned in appreciation of Candy's flirtation with danger. Joe got up and approached the newcomer. "I'm Joe, what's your name?"

Candy paused from eating his peaches and smiled politely at the youngest Cartwright . "Hi Joe. I'm Candy."

"Do your folks let you eat with a knife like that?" Little Joe asked. "My pa would tan my backside if did that with a knife."

"My folks ain't here to tell me different," the newcomer remarked between bites of peaches.

Ben's moved over to Candy's side. "Where are you parents?"

A hint of sadness briefly flashed across Candy's youthful face. "They're gone."

"Are you sayin your folks are dead?" Hoss pressed.

The boy shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not exactly sayin anyting."

Ben gave Candy a stern countenance that caused Hoss and Joe to exchanged knowing looks. "Young man, I'm not one for this kinda talk. I expect straight answers."

Candy appeared unfazed as he stood under the rancher's gaze. "I was told not to say too much to strangers."

Ben frowned at the boy replying, "You're right about that but I want to make sure we can get you home so I need to know a little more about you."

The sound of an owl hooting in the distance cut short the questioning by Ben and Hoss. Candy's head jerked up and he cocked his head to listen more closely to the hooting noise. After listening a few moments Candy turned to Wabushka and studied the Indian.

Wabushka tilted his head back and began to make the sound of an owl hooting, as if talking to the bird. Candy's eyes opened wide moments before the boy, brandishing his knife, dropped the can of peaches and rushed Wabushka. Hank had woken up and grabbed hold of Candy before the boy got to Wabushka.

"Don't stop me!" Candy pleaded. "That wasn't an owl we heard, it was one of his Indian friends!"

Ben and Hoss stared at the boy in disbelief. "How do you know that?" Ben asked after he regained his composure.

Candy shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny of the three Cartwrights. "I know a bit about Indians," was all he admitted.

"Hoss, you look after your brother and Candy while I go look for Steve," Ben instructed.

Hoss nodded his head in agreement. "Sure Pa." Hoss smiled at Candy and Joe as put his large arms around the two boys. "No how 'bout you tow younguns get some sleep." he suggested as Ben walked off.

A scowl crossed Candy's face at the mention of going to bed. Before Candy had a chance to protest, Joe grabbed Candy's arm. "Candy, you can bed down next to me."

Candy shrugged his thin shoulders as he started following Little Joe. "Okay but I hope ya don't snore."

"Don't worry, Hoss is the one in the family that snores," Joe quipped as he rushed to his sleeping spot before Hoss could exact revenge.

Adam Cartwright stuffed his pocket watch back into his jacket pocket as he approached the Denver stage office. Adam waited patiently while the clerk wrote on a piece of paper. When the clerk finished writing he looked up at the raven-haired 21-yearl-old asking, "Can I help you sir?"

Adam offered a polite smile as he leaned his left arm on the counter. "Yes, I was told that yesterday's stage never came in. Is that true?"

"Yeah," the clerk replied without any further elaboration walked over to a small wooden chair behind the counter and plopped down into the chair.

Cartwright pursed his lips and continued. "Do you know why the stage was delayed?"

The clerk gave his head a slight shake. "Nope, just know it ain't come yet,"

"Has anybody tried to find out why the stage is delayed?" Adam questioned in a carefully controlled tone.

A fly buzzed in front of the clerk who waved his right hand in an unsuccessful attempt to swat the offending insect. "Nobody's tried to find out. The stage gets delayed a lot in this territory."

Adam leaned over the counter to where his face was inches in front of the clerk. "I don't suppose you'd tell me where there's a sheriff's office here in town?"

The clerk sat up, grabbed a newspaper from the counter and rolled it up in his hands. "Of course."

"Of course what?" Adam questioned with irritation.

"Of course I'd tell ya where the sheriff's office is," the clerk answered as he slammed the newspaper down on the counter, killing the fly.

Cartwright put a hand on the clerk's collar and pulled the man closer. "I assume you have a law officer here in Denver, so would you tell me where is his office?"

A look of alarm crossed the clerk's gaunt face. "No need to get violent Mister. The sheriff's office is down the street to your right."

Adam let go of the clerk's collar and began straightening the man's shirt. "That's much better. Thank you Mister." Adam turned on his heels left the stage office, leaving the clerk to tackle the flies.

A gust of wind tugged at Adam's black hat as he walked along the street towards the sheriff's office, forcing him to put a hand on his hat to make sure the wind didn't blow it off. Cartwright entered the sheriff's office with his posture exuding confidence.

Behind a small desk sat a man, not much older than Adam, who was going through wanted posters. The sheriff looked up and offered a polite smile. "Can I help you?"

Adam removed his hat and held it in his left hand as he stood in front of the desk. 'I'm Adam Cartwright and I would like to know if you are going send out a search party for the stage that was supposed to arrive yesterday."

"I'm Mort Walker, deputy sheriff," the man replied, introducing himself. "We don't normally send out a search party for a stage unless it's more than two days late."

"Look Sheriff, I've got family on the stage from Leadville so you'll forgive me if I seem overly worried," Adam began explaining. "I'm aware that stages are often delayed but I can't help feeling that something has happened to the stage and my family."

Walker's expression became sympathetic as he watched the concern on the face of the young man before him. "I can't say as I wouldn't be a tad worried if it was my family on that stage but you're most likely worrying over nothing."

Adam nodded his head in agreement, but his slightly stiffened body posture showed he still wasn't convinced. "Yeah, maybe I am worrying over nothing but I think I'll take a ride out the area where the stage came through just to make sure."

Sheriff Walker shrugged his shoulders. "Suit yourself Cartwright, but let me give you a word of warning first. That territory is pretty rough, it's not any place for somebody unfamiliar with our territory."

"I've lived out west most of my life Sheriff so I believe I know what to expect," Adam retorted sharply.

"I didn't mean any offense Cartwright," Walker quickly apologized. "I just don't want you, or anybody else, running off without knowing what they're getting into."

Adam's features softened as he considered the sheriff's explanation. "Thank you for your concern Sheriff Walker but I'll be fine. It's my father and brothers I'm worried about."

"You and your family sound like you're really close," Walker commented. "

As he slipped his hat back on his head, Adam briefly allowed his vulnerability to show. "Yes we are. We've always depended on each other and I don't intend to let them down."

Sheriff Walker leaned forward in his chair toward Adam before replying, "Something tells me you won't let your family down."

Adam let out a sigh. "Thank you Sheriff Walker. Well, I should head out and look for the stage."

The sheriff stood up and shook hands with Adam. "It's been nice meeting you Mr. Cartwright and good luck."

"Thank you Sheriff," Adam replied before leaving the office.

Candy walked next to Joe, who chatted nearly non-stop with his newfound friend. Little Joe eagerly described the Ponderosa, proudly detailing his part in running the ranch. Candy seemed to enjoy listening to Joe's stories and kept asking questions of the youngest Cartwright, while never revealing much about himself in return.

"So Candy, how did you manage to get out here?" Ben asked in a friendly tone as the group walked along.

The boy didn't take his eyes off Wabushka as he answered, "I was riding a horse and it died."

Ben frowned at the lack of information in the answer. "Why were you riding a horse all by yourself in this territory? As Hoss and I said last night, this is no place for a boy your age to be out in alone."

"I'm not out here alone Mr. Cartwright, you all are here with me," Candy countered with a cocky smirk, which earned him a stern scowl from the rancher.

Cartwright put a firm hand around Candy's left arm and they both stopped walking. The others took that as their cue to rest for a few minutes. Steve and Hank went off with Wabushka and kept guard of the prisoner. Hoss took a reluctant Joe over to a small rock outcropping where they searched for quartz rocks.

"Now young man, I want you to answer me fully, and don't hold anything back," Ben warned as he stood over Candy. "Why were you out here alone and where do you live? Your folks must be worried about you."

Candy pursed his lips together giving himself a determined expression. "My folks aren't worried about me and I'm not going back where I live," the boy nearly shouted out.

Ben kept his composure and was about to speak when Little Joe approached with Hoss close on his brother's heels. "I'm sorry pa but Little Joe's took off before I could stop him," Hoss announced as he pulled up next to his father.

"It's okay Hoss, I'll handle Little Joe," Ben reassured before turning to his youngest son who was standing next to Candy. "Joseph, I'm talking to Candy and please don't interrupt," Ben instructed in a calm but non-nonsense tone.

"But we was talkin' Pa," Joe replied as he put an arm around Candy's shoulders. "Can't ya wait 'til we're finished talkin' like I always have to do when you talk to the adults?"

The rancher rolled his eyes at Joe's persistence. "No I can't wait. It's very important that I find out where Candy lives and why he's alone out here."

Little Joe shot Candy an apologetic glance. "Sorry Candy, guess I'll have to tell ya about my big brother Adam later."

"Okay, I'd like to hear about your other brother," Candy replied, seeming to be more calm with Joe nearby.

Hoss and Little Joe left Candy alone with their father as they walked back to where they had been resting. Candy nervously shifted his weight from one leg to the other as he avoided the rancher's severe gaze.

Ben cupped Candy's chin in his right hand and gently pushed the boy's upward. "Now young fella, let's start with one question at a time. Where do you live?" Ben asked calmly

The boy hesitated for a few moments, took one look into Ben's sympathetic dark eyes and eventually relented. "I live at Fort Delaney."

Ben arched an eyebrow in interest. "That's quite a ways for you to have traveled from home all by yourself. Since we're already heading that way, we'll see that you get back safe and sound."

"But I'm not goin back," Candy protested.

"Why not?" the rancher asked. "I'm sure your family misses you. I know if any of my sons left without me knowing about it I'd be worried."

Candy's jaw jutted out in defiance. "Who says I left without anybody knowing?"

The rancher flashed a knowing smile. "Because I'm a parent and I wouldn't give permission to Little Joe for him to be out here on his own."

"I won't go back," Candy proclaimed with a determined look in his vivid blue eyes.

Ben studied the boy for a moment, as if trying to draw on his experience as a parent. "Are you afraid of anything at Fort Delaney?" he asked with concern.

"What's there to be afraid of? Candy responded. "There's lots of soldiers guarding the fort. I just don't wanna go back there."

"Why don't you want to go back to your home?" the rancher continued questioning.

Candy frowned in frustration. "I just don't wanna," he replied succinctly, as if he had given enough of an explanation before pointing towards Wabushka. "Mr. Cartwright, you should stop talking and get walkin' if'n ya wanna get your prisoner to Fort Delaney.

A scowl formed across Ben's serious face. "You too young to be telling me what I should or shouldn't do."

Undaunted by the large rancher's booming voice, Candy continued. "I was just sayin', Sir, that Wabushka's braves are out there looking for him, so the sooner ya get to Fort Delaney the better."

"Okay, we'll talk while we walk," Ben remarked. "You seem to think you know a lot about the Indians and what they're doing don't you?"

Candy flashed a wide grin as he nodded his dark head. "Yup, I knew Wabushka was talkin' to his braves last night didn't I?"

Ben nodded his head at the boy. "Yes you did, I'll give you that much. Now tell me why you don't want us to take you back home? If there's something that's bothering you, you can tell me."

"Nah, you're a grownup and you'll tell other grownups," Candy reasoned before rushing off to join Little Joe.

The group continued walking while Ben kept an eagle eye on the new addition to the group. He smiled as watched the two youngsters enjoying each other's company. Without being told to do so, Hoss took responsibility for looking after the two youngsters, allowing Ben to give his attention to Wabushka. Ben and Hoss looked at each and commented with amazement at the easy way with which Candy and Little Joe had each accepted each other.

Two hours later the group paused so each person could have a small sip of what was left of the water. While Ben and Hank kept watch on the horizon while Steve guarded Wabushka. The Indian was given a chance to drink some of the water but stubbornly refused.

Just as Ben announced it was time to continue on, Hoss and Joe came running up to their father. "Pa, Candy done run off!" Hoss exclaimed breathlessly.

Ben's eyes widened in surprise and worry. "How did that happen? You were supposed to be watching Candy and your brother."

"I'm sorry Pa, but that Candy's a sneaky little fella," Hoss genuinely apologized. "I just turned my eyes for a second to get after Little Joe for doin somethin' and when I looked back Candy was gone."

"We'll have to go look for him then. We can't let a boy his age wander around in this territory," Ben replied. Then the rancher turned to his middle son who looked miserable. "Hoss, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be harsh and I know you did your best to look after your brother and Candy."

Hoss nodded his head and offered a brief smile. "It's okay Pa, I know I shoulda been more careful. We'll find the little fella."

Candy scrambled up a formation of large rocks and lay on his stomach, watching the surrounding terrain. The youngster flashed a self-satisfied smile as he studied the figures of the Cartwrights and the rest of their group below.

Steve and Hank grumbled at the idea of waiting while Ben went off in search of Candy, but eventually became convinced that the boy could be in danger. Ben turned to his middle son and put an arm on the teenager's broad shoulder. "Hoss, I'm going to try to find Candy. You keep your brother occupied until I get back."

Hoss face betrayed his conflicted feelings. "I hate to see you go off by yourself Pa, but that boy could get himself inta a whole mess o trouble. I'll make sure Little Joe minds."

"Thank you son," Ben replied quietly before leaving the group.

"Why'd that kid hafta run off anyway?" Hank groused to his brother. Steve merely shrugged his shoulders in response.

Even though he was far away that nobody could see him, Candy flattened himself against the rock as one of the men separated from the group. Candy quickly made his way down the rocks and began walking farther away from Ben Cartwright's group. The boy moved his tan hat down lower on his head to keep the sun out of his eyes. Even with his hat providing some shade, Candy's eyes still squinted to see into the distance.

The raven-haired boy tried to walk as fast as he could away from the direction where Ben Cartwright was heading. Candy managed to go a half mile before he saw rider on a horse on the horizon. The boy's blue eyes frantically scanned the terrain. Candy changed his previous direction, choosing one that took him away from the rider as well as Ben.

"Ya think Pa will find Candy?" Little Joe asked Hoss as the younger brother sat playing with his wooden horse.

"If anybody can find him our pa can, that's for sure," Hoss reassured his younger brother with a pat on the youngster's right knee.

Little Joe set his horse down on the ground with a sigh. "I hope Pa finds him okay. I like Candy."

Hoss tousled his brother's mop of dark brown hair. "I hope so too Buddy."

"Hey kids, how ya doin over there?" Steve called out from his position some 25 feet away.

Both Cartwright brothers looked across at the man who was guarding Wabushka. "We're fine Steve!" they called out in unison.

Steve nodded his head slightly before replying, "Don't worry none about your pa, he'll be back soon."

"Thanks Steve," Hoss replied as he put an arm around Joe.

Little Joe merely sat next to his brother, staring at his wooden horse. After a few moments of silence, the youngest Cartwright spoke up. "Did I do somethin to make Candy run off?"

Hoss pulled Little Joe into an embrace. "No Shortshanks, it didn't have nuthin to do with you. It musta been somethin else that made Candy think he had to run off."

The younger Cartwright wiped his nose on the sleeve of his left shirt. "Maybe we could help Candy, ifn' he's in some kinda trouble."

"I'm sure Pa's already thinkin that Buddy, and won't let anything happen to your new little friend," Hoss reassured his brother.

Ben tried following the trail that appeared to have been left behind by Candy. He followed the tracks for several hundred yards before slowly turning around in a semi circle. The rancher put his hands on his hips as sighed. "Wait until I get my hands on that boy. He'll think better of making tracks that go in circles," Ben muttered to himself.

The rancher searched for any other sign of Candy, but the boy had covered his real tracks too well. Unable to find any further trace of Candy, Ben headed back to his sons and the rest of his group.

Little Joe saw Ben approaching and rushed up to greet his father. "Pa I'm glad you're back. Where's Candy?"

"I'm sorry son but I couldn't find him out there," Ben answered with sadness.

"Oh, well what if we all went out lookin for Candy?" Little Joe quickly suggested. "Maybe with more people lookin we can find him easier."

Ben shook his head. "I'm afraid that's not possible son. We have no idea which way Candy went and we can just go blindly wandering out in this territory."

Little Joe's lips began to quiver as he stood in front of his father. "But what if Wabushka's people catch Candy? What'll happen to him?"

"Don't worry Little Joe. Candy's probably on his way back to Fort Delaney," Ben replied. "We should be on our way there too. If Candy's hasn't gotten to Fort Delaney when we get there then I'm sure the commander of the fort will send out a search party for your little friend."

Little Joe didn't appear convinced but offered a meek reply of, "Okay Pa."

Reluctantly Ben told the rest of the group that it was time to move on. As they walked together, Ben quietly spoke with Hoss. "Son, I'd like you to keep Little Joe occupied and keep his mind off of Candy," Ben whispered.

The teenager barely nodded his head in response before catching up to Little Joe. Hoss kept Little Joe engaged in conversation. At first Little Joe hardly said a word to Hoss, the younger boy's mood seemed to brighten when the conversation turned to meeting Adam. Ben glanced over at Hoss Joe and smiled as his sons were engaged in an animated conversation about what they wanted to ask Adam about Boston and college.

"I'm gonna show Adam the picture I drew of Granite," Joe announced.

Hoss chuckled lightly as he walked alongside his brother. "I'm sure Adam will wanna see that picture. He didn't see Granite as a young foal so you drawing will show Adam how big Granite's gotten since then."

Little Joe smiled broadly. "That's what I figured. And you can show Adam all of Mollie's kittens too."

"I plan on doing just that Shortshanks," Hoss replied.

Candy smiled walked at a fast clip as his eyes constantly scanned the horizon all around him. The boy came to a sudden halt when a flash of light in the distance to his right, caught the youngster's attention. Then Candy saw dust rising up from where the light had flashed. The boy immediately began running in the opposite direction of the dust cloud.

Candy's hat flew off as he picked up speed, stopping only when he came up to a formation of large boulders. Candy took time to take a brief glance over his left shoulder before studying the rough textured rocks that blocked his way for nearly a mile.

The youngster smiled when he saw a narrow opening between the piles of rocks that appeared to lead straight through to the other side. Candy turned sideways and squeezed himself into the opening.

As Candy scrambled out the other side of the passage, he felt a hand grab his shoulders before twisting him around. The youngster reflexively took a big gulp of air and held his breath as he saw a man, dressed in black, standing in front of him.

"Where did you come from young man?" the stranger asked with a clipped tone.

"I, I saw some dust and figured it might be some Indians lookin for trouble," Candy stammered out.

The dark-haired stranger narrowed his eyes as he held his grip on the boy's arm. "I noticed the dust too. Get up on my horse we'll try to put some distance between us."

The stranger mounted his horse, then leaned over and held a hand out to the boy standing below. Candy grabbed the man's hand and was swung up onto the saddle in front of the stranger.

"What's your name fella?" the man asked as he urged his horse away from the direction of the cloud.

The youngster kept his gaze forward as he answered, "I'm Candy. Who are you?"

"I'm Adam, Adam Cartwright," the man introduced himself. Candy's head whipped and he stared at the man in black. Adam arched an eyebrow at the boy's startled expression. "What's the matter?" Adam asked as he urged his horse to go faster.

Candy blinked once before answering, "I know your dad and brothers."

Now it was Adam's turn to look surprised. "Is that so? How do you know my family?"

"They're taking an Indian named Wabushka to Fort Delaney," the youngster informed before turning his head around to the front.

Adam studied the back of the boy's head a moment before continuing his line of questioning. "Where did you meet my father and brothers?" There was silence until Adam gently tapped Candy's right shoulder.

Candy took a deep breath before answering, "A few miles away from here. Little Joe said their stage had an accident and they had to walk."

"Which way are they?" Adam pressed. "They may be in trouble if that dust cloud was made by Indians."

Candy pointed to his left and said, "That way. They should be gettin' close to the fort now. "

Adam let out a sigh and replied, "Let's hope so kid."

After riding a mile Adam and Candy looked at each other with concern as a dust cloud appeared several miles ahead of them. Before they could speak, a loud scream erupted from the direction of the cloud.

"You sure can hear sounds a long way off out here," Candy commented softly.

"I'm gonna get us moving pretty fast in a few seconds. Think you can hold on?" Adam questioned, ignoring the boy's comment.

Candy nodded his head while boasting, "I can hold on as long as it takes."

Adam smiled at the back of the boy's head and spurred the horse into a full gallop. "While you're doing that, pray that we'll be in time to help."

Candy held onto the saddle horn as Adam guided their horse. Adam kept his arms around Candy while he held the reins, which kept the boy from falling off the fast moving horse. There were no more gunshots after the few that had hurried Candy and Adam towards the sound of the shots.

Suddenly, Adam stopped the horse and stretched out his right hand, pointing towards some rocks several hundred yards ahead. "It looks like my family is holed up in those rocks."

"It looks like they're fightin off Wabushka's men." Candy observed, "Wabushka's men can just wait out you pa and Steve and Hank. They didn't have much ammunition."

Adam put a reassuring hand on the boy's right shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll come up with something."

Candy looked over his shoulder and smiled at Adam with a twinkle in his blue eyes. "I'm sure ya will. Little Joe says you're real smart."

As Adam brought the horse to a stop he flashed a confidant smirk at the boy. "I see my little brother's told you quite a bit about me."

"Uh huh," Candy mumbled as he jumped down from the horse under his own power. "But if you had a lot of book learnin then you should know the the soldiers at Fort Delaney woulda sent out a search patrol once the soldiers that were bringin Wabushka to the fort didn't show up."

Adam scowled at the boy before making sure his rented horse stayed put. Adam then ushered Candy up a large rock. Once Candy were on top of the large boulder, Adam lay on his stomach and watched Wabushka's men continue to shoot at where the Cartwrights and Steve and Hank had taken cover.

Candy lay next to Adam, taking in the same scene on the horizon. To the right of Ben Cartwright's group, another large cloud of dust appeared. As the dust cleared, soldiers on horseback became visible.

Adam looked over at Candy and saw the boy's expression was a mixture of relief and self-satisfaction. "I gotta hand it to ya kid, you were right."

"Of course I was," Candy remarked. "The Army always does things according to the manual."

"Is that so? How do you know that?" Adam asked as he carefully sat up.

The boy turned his gaze from man next to him. "I just picked it up somewhere," was all Candy would admit.

The man in black arched an eyebrow at the comment but let the subject drop. "Come on Candy, it looks like the cavalry has things under control right now." Adam moved on his hands and knees to the edge of the boulder took a glance down at the horse below.

Candy remained sitting on the boulder, making no move to follow Adam. The eldest Cartwright son glanced over his shoulder at the boy and frowned.

"Come on Candy, I'll go first and you follow me. I'll make sure you don't fall," Adam encouraged.

"No, you go on," Candy replied, "I'm not going with ya." The boy sat there with a determined look on his face.

Adam put a hand on Candy's left arm, matching the boy's determination. "I'm not leaving you out here all by yourself."

The youngster pulled his arm from Adam's grip. "I'm not going with you. The quick flash of a frown on Adam's face caused Candy to quickly try to reassure the man. "Don't worry, I'll be fine."

As he climbed back up onto the top of the boulder, Adam sat down next to Candy. The dark-haired boy gave Adam a wary look before scooting away from the oldest Cartwright son. Adam held his position, allowing Candy to keep the space between them.

"I couldn't help but worry about you if I just rode off without you," Adam stated. "I can't understand why you would want to be out here alone."

"There's nothin to understand Mr. Cartwright," Candy replied. "I like being by myself."

Adam rubbed his chin as if contemplating what to say next before he finally announced, "When you're on your own there's nobody to tell you what to do right?"

"Right." Candy quickly agreed. "I guess ya are pretty smart after all."

Adam grinned at boy's compliment. "It's good to see I've redeemed myself," he remarked before motioning for Candy to begin climbing down the boulder.

Candy offered a sheepish smile as he made his way down. "Yeah, you're okay I guess. You at least now realize why I can't go with ya."

"No, I don't understand why you'd rather be out here by your own than with your family and people that care about you," Adam stated while grabbing the horse's reins. The man in black offered Candy a hand up onto the horse.

The boy suddenly turned and ran away. Adam sighed as he encouraged his horse to head off after the boy. Moments later Adam had the horse alongside Candy, allowing Cartwright to lean over and push the boy to the ground.

Adam quickly dismounted and ran up youth, immediately pulling Candy to his feet.

Adam kept his grip on Candy while imitating Ben Cartwright's stern features. "You must be the most stubborn youngster I ever met, and that's saying something considering Joseph Francis Cartwright is my brother."

The youngster hurriedly stifled a laugh and resumed his defiant expression. "Then let me be on my way!"

In one swift motion, Adam lifted the boy off his feet. Candy made a vain attempt to kick Adam in the shins but Cartwright was too quick and tucked the boy under his right arm.

"Lemme go! Put me down! I ain't a prisoner!" Candy screamed as his arms and legs flailed about.

"Not as long as insist on staying out here alone," Adam stated as he pulled out a piece of rope from his saddlebag. "Since you won't come along peacefully I'll just have to tie you up," he announced before tying the rope around Candy's thin wrists.

Adam lifted the boy up and laid him on his belly across the saddle. The man in black then climbed up into the saddle behind the boy and grabbed the horse's reins. "Now we're ready to go." Candy let out a grunt in response.

Ben Cartwright was busy handing over Wabushka to the Army patrol when Adam and Candy approached. The rancher's eyes opened wide as he saw his oldest son approach. "Adam! Son it's good to see you," Ben greeted as Adam pulled the horse up alongside his father.

Adam dismounted the horse and allowed his father to give him a warm hug. "It's good to see you too Pa and Hoss and Little Joe too. I was worried when the kid told me you all were walking around here, taking an Indian named Wabushka, to a fort."

The rancher grinned as his gazed moved to squirming Candy, still astride the horse. "Yes, I see you've met Candy and managed to contain him."

"Yup, it wasn't easy but I've had years of practice with Little Joe," Adam replied with a smirk.

"Hey, no fair!" Little Joe protested as he ran up to his oldest brother.

Adam gave his youngest brother a hug and then hugged Hoss, who had walked up behind Joe. Adam then turned to help Candy down from the horse but saw that a cavalry sergeant had already help the boy down.

"Private Canday I want a report!" the sergeant ordered after he had untied the boy's wrists.

Candy immediately stood at attention and began detailing his adventures with the Cartwrights and Steve and Hank. When he was finished, Candy looked up at the older sergeant and asked, "I'm going to be punished aren't I?"

The sergeant glared down at the boy as he replied, "Private, you abandoned your post. What do the Army regulations state is the punishment for a soldier who abandons his post?"

Candy's face became ashen. "He faces a Court Martial, Sergeant."

"That's correct. However, Mr. Cartwright has informed me that you helped him bring in a prisoner named Wabushka," the sergeant stated before looking over at Ben. "That means I should make an exception and offer you a certain amount of leniency."

Candy's body relaxed as the color came back into his youthful features. "I'm sorry Sergeant Ordy."

Ordy's expression softened and he took a deep breath. "I believe you private, but you still deserve punishment for abandoning your post and causing Colonel Purcell and the rest of us to worry about you. You also caused Mr. Cartwright and his sons and Hank and his brother Steve to worry about you as well. Now you will apologize to them."

Candy slowly turned and faced Ben and Adam. The boy's face was downcast as he began his apology. "I'm sorry Mr. Cartwright and Adam. I didn't mean to make ya worry bout me. Thanks for being nice to me Mr. Cartwright." Then the boy turned to Hoss and Little Joe. "I'm sorry we can't play anymore guys."

"What're they gonna do to ya for punishment Candy?" Joe asked sympathetically.

"Not sure, but I'm guessin' I won't like it," Candy answered before apologizing to Hank and Steve. Once he had made his apologies, Candy turned to Sergeant Ordy. "Sergeant, do I have at go back to the fort?"

Sergeant Ordy offered his young charge a severe glare. "Now what kinda question is that? You know you can't wander around here alone."

The youngster stood in front of the sergeant and folded his arms across his chest. "I don't' wanna go back to Fort Delaney. Colonel Purcell's gonna send me to an orphanage and I won't live in an orphanage!"

Ben and his sons visible cringed at the mentioned of an orphanage. Even Steve and Hank turned their heads to look over at the sergeant. Meanwhile, Sergeant Ordy had a pained expression on his craggy face.

"Who said the Colonel was sendin you to an orphanage?" the sergeant patiently asked with great concern in his voice.

Candy began to sniffle as he explained, "I got no folks so that means I gotta go to an orphanage. The Colonel doesn't like me anyway."

"Yur not goin to an orphanage," Ordy assured. "Me and the rest of the men asked the Colonel to look after you ourselves."

The boy's face brightened before he eyed Sergeant Ordy with suspicion. "You're not just sayin that so I'll go back with ya?"

Sergeant Ordy knelt down in front of Candy and put a hand across his heart. "On my honor as a soldier in the United States Army, you are not going to be sent to an orphanage."

A huge grin swept across Candy's face as he wrapped his arms around Sergeant Ordy's neck. "Thanks Sergeant. Let's go back."

The Sergeant lifted Candy up and turned to the Cartwrights and Steve and Hank. "It's time we headed for the fort now." Ordy then faced his men and shouted, "Mount up!"

Ben glanced over at Hank and Steve before ushering his sons over to two soldiers who had just mounted up. Seconds later Hoss and Litle Joe were seated on Army horses. Once he saw his sons safely mounted on horses, Ben rode double with Adam on the younger man's rented horse. As soon everybody was on horseback they started on their way to Fort Delaney.

When the troopers and Ben Cartwright's group arrived at Fort Delaney, Colonel Purcell greeted them as he stepped outside of his office building. The commanding officer stood before the group as he waited for the soldiers to dismount. Sergeant Ordy offered a crisp salute to the Colonel who returned the salute.

"You brought in the renegade Indian, good work Sergeant," Purcell commented as he studied Wabushka.

"Thank you Colonel," Ordy replied. "This is Mr. Cartwright, he was put in charge of bringing Wabushka here after Sergeant Ankers and his men were killed," the sergeant informed as he gestured towards Ben.

Colonel Purcell dismissed his men and shook hands with Ben, who introduced the colonel to his sons. Colonel Purcell invited the Cartwrights, Hank, and Steve into his office. Sergeant Ordy took Adam's horse and walked to the stable with Candy.

Once inside his office, Colonel Purcell moved behind his desk and faced Ben and his sons. "Sit down gentlemen," the colonel stated as he motioned towards several chairs. Ben moved to chair on his left and sat down, while Adam, Little Joe, and Hoss remained standing next to their father. Steve and Hank sat in the remaining two chairs.

"Mr. Cartwright, Hank, and Steve I want to thank you men for your help in bringing Wabushka here to Fort Delaney," the colonel began as he sat down in his chair behind the desk. "I'm glad that none of you were injured and I am sorry Mr. Cartwright that your sons had to become involved."

Little Joe straightened up and puffed out his chest. "That's okay Mr. Purcell, I was glad to help."

Ben immediately pulled Little Joe against the chair, wrapping an arm around his son. "Joseph, Colonel Purcell was not speaking to you. You know not to speak unless spoken to."

"Yes pa," Joe replied before turning to the colonel. "I'm sorry Mr. uh, Colonel Purcell."

The colonel nodded his head slightly towards the boy. "I just wanted to bring you all in to thank you gentlemen. You are free to go now. You're all welcome to spend the night here. As you leave you can ask Captain Wilbanks to show you to your accommodations."

Steve and Hank immediately stood up. "Thanks Colonel, that's right kinda of ya to let us bed down here for the night," Steve remarked, offering an appreciative smile to Purcell.

"Mr. Cartwright, before you leave I'd like have a word with you alone," Colonel Purcell announced, stopping Ben's movement towards the door. Ben exchanged a look with Adam who put a hand on Little Joe's back and ushered his brothers out the door.

Ben pulled a chair up closer to desk and waited for Colonel Purcell to speak. The colonel leaned forward in his seat and rested his arms on the desk. "Mr. Cartwright, I won't beat around the bush. I have a favor to ask of you."

Ben's questioning eyes met the colonel's gaze. "Of course Colonel. What is it you need?"

The colonel inhaled a deep breath before beginning, "I'd like you to become Candy Canaday's guardian." Ben remained silent, his expression unreadable, so Purcell continued. "Candy's mother died about five years ago as she was bringing him out here from the East. The boy's father was one of my sergeants, and a good one too. Sergeant Canaday was killed a few months back while on a routine patrol. "

"I'm sorry to hear about the death of Candy's parents. I heard Candy mention that he didn't want to go to an orphanage. I thought that you would have found relatives willing to take the boy in," Ben replied.

Colonel Purcell pursed his lips, pulling out a handkerchief from a pocket on the inside of his tunic. "I've had Sergeant Ordy sending telegrams back East but he couldn't find any of Candy's living relatives. I was in the middle of writing up an official request to the Army asking for permission for my men and me to become the boy's guardian. When you arrived here with your sons it gave me the idea to put forth the idea of you becoming Candy's legal guardian instead."

Ben leaned back in his chair and ran his right hand through his silver hair. "I'm flattered that you think I would make a proper guardian for Candy and I would give the boy a loving home."

"Mr. Cartwright I'm sure you'll agree that a frontier fort is no place to raise child and I'm confident that you and your family would get along with Candy and vice versa," Purcell reassured. "Any man who could raise three boys would have no trouble raising another child."

The big rancher's expression was dubious. "Don't misunderstand me Colonel Purcell, it's not that I don't want to become Candy's guardian, I just want to make sure that you are certain the boy has no living relatives before becoming his guardian."

The colonel nodded his head in understanding. "I agree with your concern Mr. Cartwright. If you and your sons would remain here at Fort Delaney for another week, I will make further attempts to locate Candy's relatives. If no relatives have been found by then, would you agree to take over guardianship of the boy?"

Ben's right hand thoughtfully rubbed his chin before he answered, "Okay Colonel Purcell, I'll assume guardianship of Candy if you are unable to locate any of his living relatives."

Colonel Purcell stood up behind his desk, offering his hand to the rancher. "Thank you Mr. Cartwright. Now I'm sorry but I have some work to get done, so if you'll excuse me."

Ben shook the colonel's hand saying, "Of course I understand you're a busy man Colonel Purcell. Thank you for your hospitality. I'll speak to Candy and see how he feels about the whole idea." The rancher left the office and joined his sons outside in the compound.

Little Joe was busy peppering the soldiers with questions while Adam and Hoss sat on a bench in front of Colonel Purcell's office. The middle Cartwright brothers caught each other up on their respective activities since Adam left for college.

"I see your youngest brother is up to his usual antics," Ben remarked as he approached Hoss and Adam.

"Yeah, Little Joe's got all kinda questions about the Army, but the soldiers said they don't mind," Hoss replied as he tipped his large hat back on his head.

Ben let out a grunt in agreement, as he sat down next to his sons. Adam leaned back on the bench and folded his arms across his chest. "So Pa, what did Colonel Purcell want to speak to you about?" Adam asked as he looked over at his father.

The rancher swatted at a fly buzzing in front of him. "Colonel wanted me to become Candy's legal guardian if the colonel is unable to find any of the boy's relatives."

Hoss's blue eyes opened wide. "You realize Pa, that you would then have two Little Joes ta contend with instead o just one?"

"And by my calculations, one nine-year-old boy added to another nine-year-old boy equals four times the mischief," Adam commented drolly with a gleam in his hazel eyes.

"I'm sure we can all manage to keep Joseph and Candy in line," Ben countered. "After all, I managed to keep a nine-year-boy in line three times so far."

Adam and Hoss chuckled as Hoss put a hand on his father's left knee. "You're right Pa. We was just funnin."

Ben smiled back at the teenager. "I know son," the rancher replied. "Now I should go find Candy and let him know our plans." Ben stood up and walked towards the private who was speaking to Little Joe. "Private, do you know where I would find Candy?"

The private smiled politely and pointed over his shoulder. "I saw Sergeant Ordy and the boy head towards the non com bunkhouse," he informed.

"Thank you private," Ben replied before turning to Little Joe. "Son, the private here has work to do so why don't you go to your brothers and see if they'll play with you. I need to speak with your friend Candy for a little while."

Little Joe looked up at his father with a mixture of confusion and concern. "Are you gonna give Candy a 'necessary talking to' Pa?"

Ben raised a hand to his mouth, stifling a chuckle. "No Little Joe, I have a feeling that Sergeant Ordy has already had a "necessary talk' with Candy.

"Oh," Little Joe breathed out with empathy in his voice. "I hope Sergeant Ordy wasn't too hard on him."

The rancher reached down with his right hand and tousled Little Joe's hair. "I'm sure Sergeant Ordy has had plenty of experience in handling Candy."

"That's what I'm afraid of Pa," Joe retorted.

Ben scowled at Little Joe. "You better go to your brothers before I have to have a 'necessary talk' with you, young man." Little Joe took one last look at his father before skipping off to Adam and Hoss.

Ben walked into the bunkhouse, his gaze searching out Candy. He eventually spied the by lying on his stomach on one of the top bunks. Candy had his had buried in the pillow and remained still, not acknowledging Ben's presence.

Sergeant Ordy moved from around one of the bunks and approached Ben. "Howdy Mr. Cartwright. Take your pick of one of the bunks behind you at the end of the row," the sergeant helpfully suggested.

"Actually, I'd like to speak to Candy alone if I may," Ben replied as Ordy approached him.

The sergeant snuck a quick glance over at Candy before responding, "Sure thing Mr. Cartwright, but I don't think the boy is in a talkative mood right now. I had to have a little talk with him about running away."

"I understand Sergeant, I've had to have a few of those kinds of talks with my sons over the years," Ben said with a wry grin.

Ordy grabbed his Army hat from on top of a bunk to his right and scrunched it down on his head. "I've got work I should get to so I'll be seeing you later Mr. Cartwright."

Once Sergeant Ordy was outside, Ben slowly walked over to Candy, who quickly buried in his pillow. Ben stood next to the bunk and gently put his right hand on the Candy's back. Candy jerked his body as if trying to shake off the rancher's hand.

"Candy, I came here to ask your opinion on an important matter," Ben stated.

The rancher waited a few moments for a reaction from the boy. Candy slowly rolled onto his right side, resting on his right elbow. The youngster's eyes were red-rimmed and he used the back of his left hand to rub his eyes dry. "You want my opinion?" Candy asked in disbelief. "What's the matter?"

Ben grinned at the boy. "Yes, Colonel Purcell has informed me that you lost your parents and he's trying to find your relatives. If Colonel Purcell is unable to find any of your relatives I'd like to know if you would like to live with me and my sons on our ranch."

Candy at first had a confused expression before his features became thoughtful. Candy and Ben remained silent, studying each other for a few moments. Candy eventually cocked his head to one side and shrugged his shoulders. "Yes sir, I think I'd like to live with you and Joe and Hoss. I even wouldn't mind being around Adam."

"That makes me feel proud that you would let me be your guardian," Ben replied before embracing the boy.

"I'd miss Sergeant Ordy, and the other soldiers, and Ann," Candy stated.

Ben's eyes widened at the mention of a female. "I'm sure you'll miss everybody here. Who is Ann?"

The youngster's face blushed as he looked intently at the blanket on his bed. "Ann is Colonel Purcell's daughter."

"Oh I see," Ben responded, letting the subject drop. "Shall I tell Little Joe that there is a chance you might be coming with us to the Ponderosa to stay?"

Candy nodded his head. "Yup! Can I be the one to tell Little Joe instead of you?"

"Alright, I think Little Joe would like hearing the news from you personally," Ben agreed.

The rancher put his arms under Candy's shoulders and lifted the boy down from the bunk. Candy dashed ahead of Ben and rushed outside. Ben chuckled to himself at the boy's sudden exuberance.

Candy ran outside the barracks where he lived and rushed up to where Little Joe and Hoss were sitting on top of a hitching post. "Hey Little Joe, there's supposed to be a patrol heading out soon. Wanna go watch the patrol leave the fort?"

Little Joe shot his friend a confused look. "I thought you were on, what is the word?"

"Restriction? Yeah I was on restriction, but Sergeant Ordy let me off a little early so I could keep you company," Candy explained as he leaned against the hitching post.

"How come he wanted you to keep me company?" Little Joe questioned. "I'm not lonely."

"Sergeant Ordy said it was because you need somebody your own age to play with, but I think he just wants me to play with you so you won't be under foot," Candy replied with a smile.

Little Joe jumped off the hitching post and stood directly in front of his friend. "Whadya mean? My pa taught me manners."

Candy was unfazed by the other boy's aggressive posture. "Yeah, but you're pa and brothers are busy talkin to Colonel Purcell and the other soldiers." Before Little Joe could reply, Candy continued. "I wonder what they're so busy talkin about?" Little Joe merely shrugged his shoulders, prompting Candy to make a guess. "They're probably talkin about me,"

"You always think people are talkin about ya. Adam calls that para… somthin or other," Little Joe replied.

Candy's expression gave him the appearance of having just taken a bite out of a lemon. "He uses a lot of big words doesn't he?"

Little Joe nodded his head in agreement. "Yeah but he didn't useta. I guess goin to college filled him full of big, fancy words."

"I don't think I wanna go to college," Candy stated as his eyes scanned the compound.

"Me either" Little Joe agreed "I don't think I could ever leave the Ponderosa for four years like Adam did."

Candy's expression became serious before remarking, "He sure doesn't make sense. If I had a pa like yours and brothers like you and Hoss and a big spread of land to live on, I don't think I'd ever wanna leave home for more than a couple weeks."

Little Joe tilted his head and looked around, as if searching for someone or something before responding. "Adam's always been a bit different."

Candy kicked at small stone on the ground with his right foot. "Instead of watching the patrol, you wanna go see what Ann is doing?"

"Do you like her?" Little Joe asked with a twinkle in his green eyes.

Candy stared at his boots as he answered, "Ann's okay for a girl, I guess."

"Well, at least she's doesn't mind playin games we like playin," Little Joe stated as he began walking towards Colonel Purcell' office.

Candy shoved his hands inside his pants pockets and walked alongside his friend, "Uh huh, she's pretty good at marbles."

Little Joe grimaced at the mention of the young girl's prowess at the child's game. "Yeah, I lost my favorite marble to her already."

The two boys walked together for a few feet before Candy picked up a stray stick from the ground. Candy immediately began dragging the stick along the ground, causing a line to mark his trail in the dirt.

About halfway to Colonel Purcell's office, Little Joe spoke up. "When is Sergeant Ordy coming back?"

Candy began holding the stick against his right shoulder as if it was an Army rifle. "I dunno, he should be back soon, maybe today or in a couple days." The sound of a bugle call caused both boys to perk up their heads in unison. "It's lunch time. The bugler's plain the call to mess," Candy announced with gusto.

"I don't even notice the difference in the calls. I bet ya know all the bugle calls, don't ya Candy?" Little Joe replied with a wide grin.

Candy returned his friends grin with one of his own. "Yup, I should since I've heard 'em often enough," he stated proudly.

Little Joe chuckled aloud. "I bet call to mess would be Hoss's favorite bugle call if he was in the Army." Both boys laughed at the joke before Little Joe looked up ahead and announced, "Hey, there's my pa and Colonel Purcell."

Ben motioned for Hoss and Adam to wait while he and the colonel walked up to the boys. As the two adults stood in front of Little Joe and Candy, both boys exchanged concerned looks.

"Candy, would you come with me into my office? Mr. Cartwright and I would like to speak with you," Colonel Purcell announced as he gently put his right hand on the boy's left shoulder.

"Can I come too?" Little Joe asked with his usual enthusiasm.

"You can't come this time, son. It's time for lunch so Hoss and Adam are going to take you to the mess hall to get something to eat," Ben informed, redirecting his son's attention.

"See ya in the mess hall then, Candy," Little Joe stated.

Handy responded with a quick wave of his right hand. "Okay, don't let Hoss eat all the food before I get there."

Little Joe scowled at his young friend. "Hey, that's my brother you're makin fun of." Little Joe's face quickly broke into a grin, letting Candy know he wasn't really offended. Ben put a hand on his youngest son's back and moved the boy on his way towards Adam and Hoss.

When Candy arrived in Colonel Purcell's office the boy stood at attention, in imitation of the soldiers at the fort. Colonel Purcell sat down in his leather chair behind the desk and paused to stare in wonder at Candy who was still standing at attention.

Candy looked back at Colonel Purcell in befuddlement. "Did I do something wrong Colonel?"

"No Candy, you haven't done anything wrong since you got back here," Purcell reassured. "Before I tell you why I brought you in here, I first want you to know that you don't need to stand at attention since you're not in the Army."

The youngster instantly relaxed his posture. Candy opened his mouth as if to defend himself but merely replied, "Yes sir."

The colonel swiveled his chair to the left but kept his gaze on the boy. "It's hard for me to see with the desk between us, come on around here." Candy cautiously moved around the large wooden desk until he was standing in front of the colonel. "Now that's better," Purcell stated before continuing. "Today is the seventh day since you returned here to Fort Delaney after running away."

Candy's eyes opened wide as the meaning of the colonel's words sank in. "Permission to ask a question, Colonel."

Colonel Purcell frowned at the youngster. "You don't need to ask so formally but go ahead and ask your question."

After a brief moment of hesitation, Candy quietly asked, "Have you found any of my relatives?"

"No I haven't been able to locate any relatives on either your father or mother's side," Purcell calmly informed. "Ben Cartwright has reaffirmed that he is willing to become your legal guardian."

A wary smile crept across Candy's face. "Do you really mean it?"

"Of course I meant it," The colonel answered with authority.

"Colonel Purcell, may I go and tell everybody?" Candy asked, his eyes pleading as the boy bounced on the balls of his feet.

The colonel gently patted Candy on the head, ruffling the boy's hair in the process. "Okay permission granted. Go ahead and relay the message." Purcell watched as Candy promptly turned on his heels and bolted out of the office.

Candy ran across the compound, making a beeline for the mess hall. The youngster stopped in the doorway to the mess hall as his eyes scanned the room. Ben and his sons were seated at one of the long tables at the far end of the building. Little Joe turned his head and waved at Candy.

Once Candy had gotten through the chow line, he carried his tray of food to the where the Cartwrights were seated. Little Joe elbowed Hoss in the ribs, prompting the big teenager to glare at his younger brother. Hoss looked up and saw Candy approaching, causing Hoss to scoot over on the bench to make room for Candy.

"Guess what Colonel Purcell told me?" Candy asked as he took a seat next to Little Joe.

"What?" Joe asked between spoonfuls of carrots.

Candy looked nervously across the table at Ben. Candy looked into the rancher's kind dark eyes and smiled. "Colonel Purcell couldn't find any of my relatives. Now I can live with you Mr. Cartwright."

"Hey that's great!" Little Joe enthused as he pat on his back.

Ben shot his youngest son a severe look. "We're sorry that the colonel wasn't able to find any of your relatives, Candy, but we're glad to have you living with us."

Hoss reached across the table and playfully squeezed Candy's nose between his right thumb and forefinger. "We'll do everything we can to make ya feel like the Ponderosa is your home, stringbean."

Candy looked at the teenager with an expression of genuine gratitude. "Thanks Hoss. As long as there's lots of room outdoors I'll be happy."

"You'll find plenty room outdoors on the Ponderosa," Adam stated before finishing off the last of the potatoes on his plate.

The Cartwrights and Candy stood in front of the Army wagon that would take them into town where they could catch the next stage. Hoss lifted Little Joe onto the wagon while Adam mounted his rental horse.

Sergeant Ordy approached the group and stopped in front of Candy. Ordy knelt down in front of the boy, looking into the young blue eyes. "I just wanted to tell ya I'm gonna miss ya Candy," Ordy stated as he blinked away that had formed in his eyes.

Candy's lips quivered as he stood silently in front of the sergeant. Candy abruptly opened his arms and hugged Sergeant Ordy. "I'm gonna miss ya too Sergeant Ordy," the youngster choked out.

Sergeant Ordy held onto Candy for a few moments before gently prying the boy out of a hug. "You behave yourself with the Cartwrights now. I don't wanna hear any reports from Mr. Cartwright that you're causin him any grief."

"I promise, but only if you promise to write me," Candy offered with a sly grin.

"Hey now, I'll do better than that. I'll even promise to visit the first chance the Army lets me get away," the sergeant pledged. Ordy stood up and turned to Ben. "Thank you Mr. Cartwright for giving Candy a good home."

Ben shook hands with Sergeant Ordy. "No need to thank me Sergeant, Candy's a good boy."

Candy puffed out his chest upon hearing the compliment, earning a gently nudge from Adam. "Don't get too cocky kid," Adam cautioned with a wink to his father and Sergeant Ordy.

When the Army wagon began pulling out of the fort with Adam rode alongside the wagon on his rented horse. Candy turned in the wagon to see Sergeant Ordy waving goodbye. Candy sadly waived back at the sergeant.

Ben put an arm around Candy and pulled the boy close to him. Candy looked up into the rancher's dark eyes and stated, "I'm going to Sergeant Ordy and the other troopers at Fort Delaney proud of me."

"I'm sure you will," Ben agreed as they left Fort Delaney. "You've got four Cartwrights who will see to it."

On the stage to Denver, Candy and Little Joe played with Joe's wooden horse, pretending to be soldiers and then cowboys. Ben, Adam and Hoss briefly chatted with the blond male passenger who appeared a few years older than Adam. Eventually the conversation died down and Adam pulled out a book of poetry and began reading.

"You sure like readin Adam," Candy commented as looked across at the eldest Cartwright brother.

Adam paused from his reading to peer over the book. "There aren't many pastimes that are better than reading a good book.

Candy tipped his brown hat back on his head and appeared deep in thought. "I don't know 'bout that. It seems to me those fancy authors think they know everything when they don't."

The eldest Cartwright brother slipped thin red ribbon between the pages of his book, marking his place, before setting the book down on his lap. "It's true all authors don't know everything you fella, but that doesn't mean what they write has no meaning. I enjoy reading other people's ideas on different subjects, even if at time I disagree with those ideas."

"You mean you read stuff people write even when you think they're wrong?" Candy questioned with surprise.

Adam nodded his head. "I enjoy reading stuff I agree with, but I'm not afraid of reading about ideas I don't agree with."

"Doesn't it make ya mad to read stuff ya don't agree with?" Candy inquired as he arched an eyebrow in interest.

"Yes I do get mad reading things that people write that are wrong, mostly when the writing says something hurtful and wrong about somebody," Adam explained. "The great thing about this country is that people have a write to say things, even things that are wrong or foolish."

Candy grinned at the dark haired young man sitting across from him. "My dad used to say the same thing whenever I got mad because somebody said something bad about one of my friend Jimmy cause he was an Indian."

Adam picked up his book of poems before replying, "Your dad was right." Candy's scowl was lost on Adam who had returned to reading his book.

Upon arrival in Virginia City, Sheriff Roy Coffee greeted the Cartwrights. The middle-aged sheriff ambled up to Ben and immediately shook the rancher's hand.

"Ben it's good to see you and the boys," Coffee greeted before turning to Adam. "Adam you've filled out some since you left for college. It's good to see you back home son."

Adam smiled as he shook hands with the sheriff. "Thank you Sheriff Coffee. I hope I can use some of what I've learned in college to help improve the Ponderosa."

Sheriff Coffee nodded his head at the young man. "Well, I'm glad ta hear that you'll be puttin your knowhow to good use." The sheriff's gaze fell on Candy who had a suspicious look as he stood next to Little Joe. "Well now, who do we have here? What's your name young fella?"

Before Candy could answer, Ben put an arm around the boy's shoulder and moved Candy towards the sheriff. "This is Sheriff Coffee. He's a very good friend of ours. Roy this is Candy Canaday. He's going to be staying with us."

Roy offered his hand to Candy, who hesitated in shaking the sheriff's hand until Ben nudged the boy. "Nice to meet ya young Canaday. I'm sure you'll enjoy your stay with the Cartwrights. Ben and his boys a right fine family," the sheriff assured as he shook Candy's hand.

"Nice to meet ya Sheriff Coffee. I figure I'll like livin with the Cartwrights seein as how I got along with 'em so far." Candy replied.

Upon seeing Sheriff Coffee's inquiring look, Ben quickly explained, "We met Candy on our way to meet up with Adam. Candy has no living relatives so I was asked to become his guardian."

The sheriff smiled down at Candy and patted the boy on the head. "Ya couldn't have a better guardian as far as I'm concerned. You're in good hands Candy."

"Well Roy, we better get along or Hop Sing will have my hide for being late for dinner," Ben announced.

Sheriff Coffee continued on his way while Candy and the Cartwrights headed towards the livery stable. Who's Hop Sing?" Candy asked as he walked next to Little Joe who was walking alongside his father.

"Hop Sing is our cook," Ben informed.

"He's the best cook around," Hoss boasted, patting his stomach for emphasis.

Candy bounded along with boyish enthusiasm. "Oh I don't remember ya mentioning you had a cook. I hope he makes peach and rhubarb pies for dessert sometimes."

"Hop Sing has been known to make peach and rhubarb pies on occasion," Ben informed as they entered the livery stable. "I bet Hop Sing has already made one the other for dessert tonight."

Candy sported a puzzled expression as he leaned against the wall inside the livery stable, next to the entrance. "Now how would he know to make a peach or rhubarb pie? I didn't tell ya I even liked 'em until just now." All of the Cartwrights laughed, causing Candy to stare at them in bewilderment. "I'm sorry if I asked a dumb question Mr. Cartwright."

Ben walked up to Candy and put a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. "You didn't ask a dumb question Candy. I apologize for making you think you did. We were just laughing because Hop Sing has a way of always knowing what kind of food to cook on any given day. That's how I'm sure he will have either a peach or rhubarb pie for dessert tonight, even though we haven't mentioned your preference to him."

A chuckle escaped from Candy's mouth as he took in the explanation. "Oh, that's good he knows what to make before ya even ask him."

"Now that we've got that straightened out, I better rent a buggy so we can get home," Ben suggested.

Some two hours later Candy and the Cartwrights approached the Ponderosa ranch house, looking tired from their trip. In the back of the buckboard, Candy got up on his knees and stared at his new home. "You were right Little Joe, your home is big."

Little Joe's face beamed with pride. "Did ya think I was tellin ya a fish story?"

Candy shrugged his small shoulders. "I don't know ya do kinda like to exaggerate your tales a tad."

The youngest Cartwright's green eyes opened wider. "You're startin to sound like Adam, usin a big word the way ya just did."

"Adam had nothing to do with it, I learned some words from the Army manual and stuff like that," Candy explained in his defense. Adam pulled a face at the two youngsters when Ben pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the ranch house.

Ben climbed down from the buckboard and announced in a booming voice, "Hop Sing we're home!"

Adam and Hoss jumped down from the buckboard, followed by Little Joe and Candy. Hoss' face beamed when the Chinese man appeared in the doorway. Hop Sing stared at Candy as he finished wiping his hands off on his apron. The cook then walked up to Candy and squeezed both of the youngster's upper arms.

"You bring boy just in time. He skinny as a rail but no worry. Hop Sing fatten you up," The cook assured with a smile as he quickly ushered Candy inside the ranch house.

Candy stopped inside the great room and surveyed the furnishings. "You've got a really nice place Mr. Cartwright."

"I'm glad you like it Candy," Ben replied as he ushered the boy into the dining room.

Adam, Hoss and Little Joe followed them to the table, each brother taking his customary seat. Candy took a seat next to Little Joe who was sitting next to Hoss. Adam sat at one end of the table, opposite his father. Candy's eyes lit up when he saw Hop Sing bring in the main course of roasted chicken with vegetables. The Cool quickly scurried back into the kitchen and returned with a large bowl of mashed potatoes and a pitcher of gravy.

Candy studied Cartwright boys and followed suite when they waited for their father to say grace. As soon as Ben said grace, Hoss enthusiastically attacked the mashed potatoes, scooping two large spoonfuls onto his plate. Ben began cutting up slices of the two chickens that Hop Sing had prepared. Ben put several slices of chicken onto Candy's plate, which the boy eagerly held out.

Once the meal was finished, Candy and Little Joe were cajoled into taking baths. Both boys protested, but Ben's authoritative voice soon squashed the protests. Candy and Little Joe walked downstairs, dressed in nightshirts. Little Joe rushed over to Ben, who was sitting in his favorite leather chair, and climbed up onto his father's lap. Ben gave Little Joe a big hug and kiss, while Candy waited patiently in front of Ben and Little Joe.

"Good night Little Joe and good night Candy," Ben said as picked his pipe from the small table next to his chair. "Little Joe's nightshirt fits you just fine."

"Yes sir, it does," Candy agreed.

Ben lit a match and began lighting his pipe. "You two boys go right to sleep and don't stay up all night talking you hear me?" Both boys had twin frowns on their faces and reluctantly nodded their heads in agreement. "I'll be up shortly to hear you say your prayers."

Little Joe and Candy said good night to Adam and Hoss before rushing upstairs. The boys entered Little Joe's bedroom and sat down on Little Joe's bed. They were making plans for the following day when Ben arrived. Without needing to be told, Little Joe knelt beside his bed while Candy hopped off Joe's bed and knelt beside a second bed that Adam and Hoss had moved into the room.

Once Candy and Little Joe had said their prayers, Ben hugged them and tucked the boys into their beds. "Sweet dreams both of you," Ben whispered as he kissed each boy on the forehead.

"Mr. Cartwright, thanks for lettin me stay with ya. Ya got a nice place here," Candy said as he looked up into the rancher's dark eyes.

"You're welcome Candy. I know I can't take the place of your father, but I will love you the same as if you were my own son," Ben assured with a genial smile.

Candy returned Ben's smile with one of his own, reached up and hugged the rancher. "Good night," Candy said before snuggling under the covers. Ben quietly made his way out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Candy woke up early to begin his first full day on the Ponderosa. The youngster sat up in bed with a yawn and stretched his arms up over his head before hopping out of bed. Candy padded over to Little Joe's bed to find the youngest Cartwright fast asleep.

"Hey Little Joe, it's morning. Whadya say we get dressed and go downstairs and see if Hop Sing's started breakfast," Candy suggested as he stood next to Joe's bedside. After a few seconds of silence, Candy put his right hand on Little Joe's left shoulder and shook Joe. "Come on wake up sleepyhead," Candy encouraged.

Little Joe mumbled in response to being shaken, and then turned onto his left side. Candy sat down on Little Joe's bed and shook his friend more vigorously. "Come on Little Joe! The early bird catches the worm."

"Go away!" Joe demanded; sleep muffling his words.

"Not a chance," Candy insisted.

Little Joe turned onto his back and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. "Okay pest, I'll get up. I don't see why ya wanna get up so early."

Candy bounced twice on his friend's bed replying, "I don't wanna miss breakfast and then there's lots of things I wanna do today."

"What kinda things do ya wanna do today?" Joe asked as he sat up in his bed.

Candy got off Joe's bed and moved over to the chair where he had carefully laid his clothes the night before. "I think I'd like to see more of the Ponderosa and maybe we can go fishin, if it's okay with your father."

A broad grinned erupted across Little Joe's young face. "That sounds fine. Fishin's just about my favorite pastime."

As he grabbed his pants and sat down on his bed, Candy grinned back at Little Joe. "It's one of my favorite things to do too. Ya think your father will let us go ridin and fishin?"

Little Joe pulled his gray shirt over his head before answering, "Sure, Pa doesn't mind us havin some fun, so long as we get all our chores done first."

"Speaking of chores, when you boys are finished dressing, come see me and I'll tell you what chores you both have for today," Ben instructed from the doorway.

Candy and Little Joe whirled around to face the rancher. "We will," the boys assured in unison. Satisfied, Ben turned and walked away.

"We better hurry and get dressed. Pa doesn't like anybody dilly dallying when there are chores to be done," Little Joe recommended.

"I'm already dressed Little Joe," Candy informed as soon as he finished pulling on his boots.

Little Joe scrunched his face up in mock disgust. "Alright Speedy."

Candy tossed a pillow at Little Joe who ducked as the pillowed flew harmlessly by his head. Adam and Hoss appeared at the doorway and peaked inside Joe's bedroom. The two oldest Cartwright brothers exchanged mischievous looks with each other before charging towards Little Joe and Candy.

Before the younger boys had a chance to react, Adam had wrestled Candy to one bed as Hoss wrestled Joe to the other bed. Adam and Hoss began tickling their young captives until Candy and Little Joe were crying with laughter and eventually surrendered.

Adam and Hoss stopped their assault on the young boys, allowing Little Joe and Candy to catch their breaths. Hop Sing entered the room, shouting in Chinese. Adam stood up and turned to the cook. "What's the matter Hop Sing?"

"Hop Sing go back to China. Breakfast get cold while boys play upstairs." Hop Sing chastised.

"We're sorry Hop Sing," Adam apologized. "We'll come right down."

Hoss quickly moved beside the diminutive cook. "Yeah, Hop Sing we're plum sorry. Don't go back ta China, I don't know what I'd do if you left."

Hop Sing scowled up at the large teenager. "Mista Hoss probably lose weight if Hop Sing go back to China."

Hoss' immediately appeared panicked. "I'd waste away to nothun Hop Sing. Ya can't go back ta China."

The cook nodded his dark head at the taller teen. "Okay, Hop Sing stay, but you boys be on time for meals."

"We will," The Cartwright sons and Candy agreed in unison, before following Hop Sing downstairs.

Candy and Little Joe quickly at breakfast, and then asked Ben to be excused. The rancher was about to give his answer when Hop Sing spoke up the kitchen. "Mista Candy no leave yet. He no eat enough yet." The cook came to the table and stood next to Candy, waiting for the boy to eat.

Candy looked over at the Chinese cook. "Aw come on Hop Sing. I'm about stuffed to the gills right now. I ate enough for two meals already."

"No matter, you eat more vegetables. You growing boy," Hop Sing ordered as he waived his arms at the Candy.

Candy shot Ben a pleading look but to no avail. The youngster reluctantly piled a scoop of scrambled eggs onto his plate and began eating. Hops sing let out a grunt of satisfaction before returning to the kitchen. "He's a tough commandant," Candy remarked between bites of egg.

"Yes he is," Ben agreed. "You'll do well to remember that and mind Hop Sing."

Without a word Candy finished off the eggs, set his fork on his plate and called out, "I've eaten more now Hop Sing, may I be excused?"

The cook entered the dining room and walked up to Candy's seat. Hop Sing put his hands on his hips as he studied the boy's empty plate. "Skinny boy eat enough for breakfast. Now you have energy to start chores."

Candy smiled up at the cook before slyly flashing a relieved look over at Ben. "Thanks Hop Sing. The food was real good."

Hop Sing bowed slightly at the compliment before returning to the kitchen. Ben gave out the chores for the day to Little Joe and Candy before excusing them from the table. The rancher put a hand on Candy's left arm as the boy got up from his chair. "Candy, when you're finished with your chores for the morning I need you to come with me to Virginia City."

"Can I go to Virginia City too Pa?" Little Joe eagerly questioned as he stood up from his seat.

"No Little Joe, this time only Candy and I will be going to town. You stay here and help your brothers around the ranch," Ben instructed. "Joseph you may start on your chores, but make sure to thank Hop Sing for breakfast before you do."

Candy had a puzzled expression on his face. "Why do ya want me ta go to town with ya Mr. Cartwright?"

"We need to see a lawyer about me becoming your legal guardian," Ben informed. "I want to make sure that everything is done all proper and legal. I'm also going to buy you some new clothes while we're in town."

Candy boy appeared satisfied with the answer and left with Joe to start on their chores. Once in the barn, Candy walked up to Sport, who was in his stall. Candy gently rubbed the chestnut horse behind the ears and turned to Joe. "Hey Little Joe, which of these horses is yours?" .

Little Joe moved over to Cochise's stall, getting a friendly horse nose in the face from the pinto. "Cochise here is mine. That one you're pettin is Sport. He's Adam's horse."

Sport shook his head up and down next to Candy who gently rubbed the horse's nose. "They're both fine lookin horses. Did you and your family catch them yourselves?"

"Yup, we round up some wild horses each year and keep some of the special ones for ourselves. Some we sell to the Army," Little Joe explained as he picked up two pitchforks from against the wall on his left. Joe walked over to Candy and handed one over one of the pitchforks to Candy. "We better get started before Pa comes to check on us and thinks we're just loafin."

"The Army calls it 'goldbricking," Candy informed before he started cleaning up Sport's stall. "Ya think I might be able to have a horse of my own?" Candy asked with hesitation.

Little Joe paused from cleaning Cochise's stall and poked his head outside the stall. "You're part of the family now so I'm sure Pa would let you pick out one to ride until we catch some new horses. Then you can pick out one to break and keep."

Candy walked out of the stall with a far away look on his face. "That'd be something else. I've never broken a horse."

"Well, ya wouldn't be able to break a horse alone. When I broke Cochise I could only do it when Pa or Adam or Hoss were with me," Little Joe quickly explained.

Candy shrugged his shoulders in response. "That's okay by me. So long as I get a horse of my own to break and ride."

When Joe and Candy finished with their chores in the barn, they moved on to their next chore. Little Joe helped Hoss shoe several of the horses while Candy helped Adam fix a wheel on the buckboard.

Ben approached Adam and Candy as they were finishing the repair. The rancher offered a broad smile to Adam and Candy. "How is the work getting along?"

"We're finished with the wheel now Pa," Adam informed. "Candy's been a big help."

Ben gazed down at Candy who's face was beaming with pride. "I'm glad to hear you were a big help to Adam. Now Candy, it's time we got going to Virginia City."

"Okay Mr. Cartwright," Candy replied.

In front of the law office of Daniel Barnes, Candy hesitated following Ben inside. Ben turned and knelt down in front of the boy. "What's wrong Candy?" the rancher asked.

Candy delayed answering, looking unsure as to his what to say. "Mr. Cartwright, do you think this lawyer will let you be my guardian?" the youngster finally asked.

"I don't see why not? I'm a respected member of the community and I've got three sons of my own," Ben reasoned. Candy's expression was cautious but the boy seemed to relax. "Are you ready to see Mr. Barnes now?" Ben asked.

The youngster drew in a breath. "Yeah, I guess so."

The process of initiating the legal paperwork went smoothly with Ben signing some forms that needed to be filed in court. Daniel Barnes perused the paperwork before declaring it acceptable for filing. Ben shook hands with the lawyer before leaving with Candy in tow.

As they walked along the street, Ben gazed down at the boy next to him. "Candy, all that time spent with "Mr. Barnes made me hungry. How about we get something to eat?" Ben suggested.

"Sure I'm hungry too," Candy agreed with enthusiasm.

After a filling meal, Ben took Candy to a store up the street where the boy tried on several shirts and pants. Ben studied Candy, who sported a pair of brown pants and a gray shirt. "Those will do," the rancher announced to the female clerk. "Add those to the other shirt and pair of pants,"

Candy looked relieved as began unbuttoning his shirt. "Am I finished trying on clothes now?"

Ben nodded his head saying, "Yes but now you need to try on some shoes."

The boy scrunched up his face as he looked up at Ben. "Okay Mr. Cartwright." Candy waited while the clerk pulled several pairs of shoes from one of the store shelves. Candy took the shoes, sat down on a crate near the door, and tried on each pair of shoes.

"Which pair of shoes fit the best, Candy?" asked Ben.

Candy seemed to think for a moment before he picked up a pair of dark shoes that were sitting at his feet. "These fit the best," the boy proclaimed as he held the shoes out in front of him.

"Fine, well take the clothes and the pair of shoes," Ben announced to the clerk.

As he sat next to Ben, on buckboard on the ride back to the Ponderosa, Candy's faced beamed. The boy was holding the package with his new clothes and shoes. "Thank you for all the stuff ya bought me Mr. Cartwright, it's real nice of ya," Candy said as the buckboard moved along.

Ben put his right arm around Candy's shoulders and pulled the boy closer. "You're welcome Candy. I'm glad you like the clothes and shoes."

"I like them just fine Mr. Cartwright," Candy enthused. "I'll take real good care of all the clothes and shoes and not get them dirty."

"If you're anything like Little Joe, I think you'll have your work cut out for you," Ben teased.

Candy put on a mock expression of indignation. "Hey I learned to be neat from the troopers at Fort Delaney," he defended.

Ben chuckled as he pulled his arm from the boy's shoulders. "Well, you'll get a chance to prove how neat you can be. Maybe you'll be a good influence on Little Joe and he'll learn to keep his room tidy."

"I dunno, I kinda like the idea of not having to be so neat," Candy replied with a mischievous glint in his blue eyes.

"Now don't get any bright ideas young man," Ben warned with a grin.

Candy thoughtfully looked up at the rancher next to him. "Mr. Cartwright, do ya think I could have a horse of my own? Little Joe said he caught Cochise and tamed him."

Ben pursed his lips together as he studied the boy momentarily before responding, "If you would like to gentle a horse for your own use, then we'll try to find a special one for you. There's one condition though."

The youngster showed disappointment on his features and allowed his posture to slouch. "I know what a condition is and… well, if I'm asking too much then it's okay Mr. Cartwright."

"No, it's not too much trouble," Ben quickly informed. "You may look for a horse to gentle, but not until you have shown you are responsible. That means you do your chores and don't get into fights with anybody or get into any other kind of mischief."

A sigh of resignation came from Candy. "Okay ya got a deal Mr. Cartwright. HHow long will it be until I can pick out a horse to break?"

Ben appeared to briefly consider the question before answering, "In about a month we'll be able to get up to some of the high country where we've seen some mustangs before." The rancher peered over at Candy who frowned back. "I know a month seems like a long time, but right now there's much work to be done on the Ponderosa and I need to see that you are responsible enough to handle the job of gentling a horse."

"Oh I'll be good, you'll see, Mr. Cartwright," Candy assured with conviction.

A broad smile flashed across the rancher's face. "I'm sure you will Candy. You'll have your own horse before you know it."

"Thank you Mr. Cartwright givin me the chance to have my own horse, even if I don't got one yet," Candy stammered out. "My dad never let me have a horse of my own. I had to borrow one from the stable at Forty Delaney if when I wanted to ride."

Ben nodded his head in understanding. "I'm sure there was a good reason your father didn't want you have a horse of your own. Your father was an Army soldier. He could have been transferred to another fort and you would have had to leave your horse behind. Your father might have felt that it was better if you didn't get too attached to a horse that you might have to leave behind some day."

"I didn't think of it like that, Mr. Cartwright," Candy admitted. "Guess grown ups gotta think about stuff us kids don't, huh?"

"Yes, we grownups have to think about more things than children do," Ben agreed. "Children should be free to be children."

"Uh huh, that like a good plan," Candy replied as he shifted closer to Ben on the buckboard seat for the rest of the ride back to the Ponderosa.

When Candy dressed the morning after returning from visiting Mr. Barnes in Virginia City the previous day, the youngster put on one of his new shirts and pair of pants. Joe sat on his bed after pulling on his own shirt and stared at Candy with an amused expression. "Your new clothes look pretty good on ya Candy," Little Joe commented.

Candy offered his friend a sheepish grin. "Ya think so Little Joe?"

Little Joe hopped off of his bed and playfully punched his friend. "Yeah the shirt and pants suit ya."

"It was real nice of your dad to by me some new duds. He even said I didn't have to pay him back," Candy stated as he and Little Joe walked out of the bedroom.

Little Joe chuckled at his friend. "Of course ya don't have to pay Pa back for the clothes. He's gonna be your guardian so it's like you're his son. Didn't ya know that's what a guardian does?"

Candy flashed his friend an exasperated glance as the boys walked downstairs. "Yeah, I know what a guardian is, but I wasn't sure your dad really meant he was gonna treat me like you, Adam, and Hoss."

A puzzled look spread across Little Joe's youthful features as he walked next to Candy. "Why wouldn't Pa mean it? He doesn't lie."

"I dunno," Candy shrugged.

"Well, now ya know," Little Joe stated emphatically.

Candy put an arm on Little Joe's right arm and stopped his friend halfway down the staircase. "Little Joe, don't tell your dad what I jest told ya."

Joe flashed his well-known impish grin before his expression turned serious. "Hey you really mean it dontcha? Okay I won't say anything."

Candy's posture relaxed. "Thanks Little Joe," he said before continuing down the stairs.

After breakfast the Cartwright went about their chores. After cleaning out the stalls in te barn, Candy and Little Joe rode out to help Adam and Hoss mend a section of fence. Candy and Little Joe were given the job of pulling the smaller supplies from the buckboard driven out by Adam and Hoss.

"Hey Adam, you goin to ask Melissa Peterson to the dance next Saturday?" Hoss asked as he set a fence post down in a hole next to Adam.

Adam gingerly leaned against the post, keeping a watchful eye on Little Joe and Candy. "I don't know Hoss. Melissa has been seen with Jake Moreford lately so maybe not."

"Aw, gee Adam I didn't know Melissa's been seein another fella," Hoss replied sympathetically. "I think I'll ask Sue Ann Clancy," he announced, quickly changing the subject.

Candy and Little Joe approached the two older Cartwrights with sweat running down their faces. Adam and Hoss looked at each other before. "You two look like you've been working hard digging post holes so how about taking a break for a few minutes," Adam suggested.

Little Joe and Candy wiped their foreheads with neckerchiefs they pulled from their pants pockets. "I could use some water," Candy stated.

"Me too," Joe piped up.

"Well then, let's mosey on over to the buckboard and get some water," Hoss said as he nodded his head in the direction of a water barrel on the buckboard.

The Adam and Hoss allowed Joe and Candy to use the dipper first to get a drink. Adam leaned against the buckboard and asked, "So Candy, how do you like the Ponderosa so far?"

Candy took a long swallow of water before answering, "I like it here just fine Adam."

Hoss picked Little Joe up and sat his younger brother on the edge of the buckboard. "Ya don't mind havin' ta do chores, Candy?"

The youngster wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his right shirtsleeve. "Nah I don't mind. I had to do chores when I was at Fort Delaney."

"You've been doin good real good job with your chores so far Candy," Hoss praised as he took the dipper from Adam and scooped up some water from the barrel.

"Thanks Hoss," Candy replied before looking down at his now dusty shirt and pants. "I sure hate getting these newe clothes dirty."

Adam stopped leaning against the buckboard and put a reassuring hand on the boy's left shoulder. "Don't worry about the clothes. You can use this pair for work and keep the other new set for Sunday and special occasions."

Candy's looked up at Adam with a thoughtful gaze. "I guess that's as good a solution as any," he stated.

Hoss and Little Joe chuckled at the brash comment by their new friend. Before the two older Cartwrights could comment, Candy nudged Little Joe and the two youngsters rushed off to start digging more post holes.

"That Candy sure is a pistol ain't he?" Hoss remarked with a broad grin.

"He better watch out though," Adam said with mild concern in his voice. "That mouth of his is liable to get him into trouble."

Hoss' head nodded in agreement. "Yup, he's a lot like Little Joe when it come to that."

Adam let out a sigh. "I guess we'll just have two mischief makers to look after instead of one." he stated with a smirk.

The big teenager rolled his eyes towards the pale blue sky. "Tarnation, yer right, Older Brother. Looks like we got our work cut out fer us," he said while slapping a meaty right hand on Adam's left shoulder. "Guess we should get back to work. We can't let those two shortshanks out work us."

"Good idea Younger Brother," Adam replied before the two brothers headed back to fence mending.

The Cartwright brothers and Candy returned to the ranch house for dinner to find a female visitor had arrived during their absence. Little Joe blanched at the sight of the unexpected guest.

"Why Adam, it's so nice to see you again," Abigail Jones greeted as she advanced towards the eldest Cartwright.

Adam offered a polite smile. "Thank you Miss Jones. To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?"

Abigail blushed slightly at Adam. "Why Adam, you are even more gallant than I remember. I came by because I was informed that there is a young boy who has come to live on the Ponderosa."

Ben moved beside Candy and placed his right hand on the boy's back. "Yes, Abigail Jones, this is Candy Canaday, my new ward," the rancher introduced before turning to face Candy. "Candy, Miss Jones is the schoolteacher in Virginia City."

Candy's face dropped as soon as the word schoolteacher came out of Ben's mouth. "Oh you're a schoolteacher Miss Jones?"

"Yes I am, Candy. Joseph is one of my students and it looks like you will be as well once school starts up next month," Miss Jones replied as she glared down at the youngest Cartwright. Little Joe shifted under the unwavering gaze of the schoolteacher.

"It's nice to meet you Miss Jones," Candy said with a polite smile.

Abigail returned the boy's smile. "It's a pleasure to meet you Candy. I hope you will be a positive influence on Joseph."

Candy looked over at Little Joe who feigned an innocent smile. "Yes ma'am I'll try my best," Candy assured.

Adam and Hoss each covered their mouths with their hands, but couldn't hide the amusement showing in their eyes. Ben shot his two oldest sons a warning glance.

"Adam you must tell me all about your college experience," Abigail insisted. "I'm sure your studies must have been immensely fascinating."

"Yes, I learned quite a bit in my classes," Adam informed. "I have some plans for making some improvements to the ranch house and the Ponderosa in general."

The schoolteacher's eyes widened as she advanced on Adam. "Oh how Adam, you always were a young man who wanted to improve things and make them better."

Adam blushed at the compliment as Hop Sing scurried into the grand room. "Dinah all ready," the cook announced before returning to the kitchen.

With a quiet sigh of relief Adam followed the others to the dining table. As the group approached their chairs, Hoss elbowed Adam on the right side of his ribs. Adam turned and glared at his middle brother who had a mischievous glint in his blue eyes.

Ain't ya gonna help Miss Jones to her seat Adam?" Hoss inquired.

Abigail Jones blushed slightly while Adam shot Hoss a deadly glare. Little Joe covered his mouth but not enough to completely muffle his giggle.

"That's enough out of you Joseph," Ben cautioned. "There is nothing wrong with having manners and helping a lady to her seat before dining."

Adam made his way over to the seat where Abigail Adams stood beside and pulled the chair out, allowing the teacher to gracefully sit down. Abigail had chosen the seat to the right of Adam's spot directly across from Ben, who was seated at the head of the table. Hoss sat at Abigail's left while Little Joe and Candy took seats together opposite Hoss and the teacher.

After dinner, Ben convinced Adam to offer to drive Abigail Jones home. The schoolteacher enthusiastically agreed to allow Adam to escort her home. As soon as Adam and Abigail were out of earshot, Little Joe and Hoss burst out in laughter.

"What's so funny?" Candy asked in puzzlement as he plopped down on the red leather couch in the great room.

Little Joe stopped laughing and tried to catch his breath before explaining, "Me and Hoss are laughin cuz Miss Jones is sweet on Adam and he ain't sweet on her."

"Yeah, and our older brother is gonna have to take a moonlight ride with Miss Jones," Hoss added as he sat down in the blue chair near the fireplace."

Candy still maintained his perplexed appearance. "I don't see why that's so funny? Is Miss Jones' company all that bad?"

Little Joe put an arm around his friend and said, "Candy, Miss Jones is a schoolteacher."

"Joesph, that'll be enough," Ben cautioned before turning his attention to Hoss. "That goes for you two Eric. Now Joesph and Candy, it's time you two got ready for bed." Little Joe and Candy immediately rushed upstairs without protest.

Ben went upstairs after giving Candy and Little Joe fifteen minutes to get ready for bed. As Ben began tucking Candy into bed the boy placed his right hand on Ben's left shirt sleeve. "Mr. Cartrwright?" Candy tentatively spoke up as he leaned back on the seat. "Can I ask you a question…in private?"

Ben looked over at Little Joe and directed the youngster to go downstairs and say goodnight to Adam and Hoss. With Little Joe gone, Ben leaned over Candy asking, What is it you want to know?"

Candy wore a timid expression as he appeared to collect his thoughts. "Do you really want to be my guardian?" he asked softly then immediately studied the ceiling.

The rancher frowned and let a out a long breath before looking Candy directly in the eyes. "Yes I do but why did you ask? Do you think I don't want to be your guardian?" The youngster merely met Ben with silence. "You can tell me Candy."

"I dunno Mr. Cartwright," Candy replied, shifting in his bed.

"What's on your mind? What's bothering you?" the rancher pressed. "I won't be mad at you."

Candy rubbed the edge of his bedspread between his right thumb and index finger. "You been real nice to me and I'm grateful, but I dunno," he paused a moment before continuing. "I guess I just wanna make sure ya really wanna take me in. I don't want ya to be my guardian cuz ya think ya hafta."

"Candy, why didn't you ask me this before we left Fort Delaney?" Ben inquired firmly, but gently as he pulled the buckboard to a stop.

"I figured I wouldn't like it on your ranch. I figured I wouldn't belong here, but Sergeant Ordy and the other troopers were happy that you were gonna be my guardian, so I went along. I figured I find someplace else to settle down out here," Candy began explaining. "But now I like living with you and Little Joe and Hoss and Adam so… well, now I don't wanna leave," he blubbered.

Ben pulled Candy into a hug and patted the boy's back. "I'm glad you like living with me and my sons and we all like have having you live with us. I really do want to be your guardian Candy and the Ponderosa is now your home as much as it is Adam's, or Hoss', or Little Joe's. So get any idea out of your head about us not wanting you or you not belonging on the Ponderosa."

"Yes sir, Candy replied before snuggling further under the bedcovers.

The End