Disclaimer:  I do not own Bonanza or its characters.  I am not profiting from this story.  It is for entertainment purposes only.

Author's Notes:  This is my first Bonanza story and I hope you all enjoy it. 

The Whipping Boy

By:  Kaitlyn Rose

Nine-year-old Little Joe opened his eyes to see just who was shaking his shoulder.

"Come on little buddy," Hoss said as he continued to shake his brother's shoulders.

"All right, all right," Joe mumbled.  "I'm up."

"Good, Pa wants you downstairs now for breakfast."

"Okay."  Joe rubbed his eyes with his small fists and let out a big yawn.

Hoss stepped out of the room and Joe walked over to the dresser and tossed some of the room-temperature water on to his face.  He didn't understand why Pa was so worried about him coming down to breakfast anyway.  Pa didn't even know Joe existed anymore.  Ever since Adam had come home a month ago it was as if Joe had just disappeared. 

At first Joe had been so happy to have his big brother come home.  He had spent the past three years missing him terribly.  He had really believed that life would be just as perfect as could be with Adam coming home.  Boy had he been wrong.

Pa spent every waking moment with Adam now.  Joe could understand Pa spending so much time with Adam at first, like Joe he hadn't seen Adam in three years either, but Adam had been home for weeks now and he was still taking up all of Pa's time.  Joe had tried to get Pa to pay attention to him but every time Joe came around Pa would ask him to be quiet, or to go do his chores, or to go see if Hop Sing needed any help in the kitchen.  Joe was just plum tired of being told to go away.

Last night had been a perfect example.  Every night for the past three years Pa had read Joe a story before bed, often downstairs by the fire.  More often than not Joe would fall asleep in his Pa's lap.  But last night when Joe went to Pa for his nightly cuddle and story he had been told later.  Pa was showing Adam something in the ledgers and talking about the ranch.

Joe waited patiently, sort of.  He had made a point of sighing loudly, and had sat in Pa's leather chair by the fire, book in hand.  Several times Adam glared at him in annoyance.  Joe's heart had fallen into his stomach when Pa looked up at the grandfather clock and told Joe that it was way past his bedtime.  When Joe had said, "But Pa," Ben had simply told Joe to do as he had been told.

Joe had been so hurt that when Ben came in to tell Joe good night he had pretended to be asleep so he wouldn't have to talk to him.

Joe finished getting ready and walked down the stairs to the table.  For once he wasn't in a hurry to get there and see his family.  As he expected, Ben, Adam, and Hoss were all already sitting at the table.

"Well, it's about time you get to the table Joseph," Pa said.

"Sorry Pa," Joe said and had a seat.  He put a single pancake on his plate along with one slice of bacon.

"Is that all you're going to eat?" Adam asked immediately.

"I'm not that hungry," Little Joe replied, upset that Adam was drawing unwanted attention to him already.  He couldn't understand why Adam had to point out every little thing that he did.

"Joseph you need to eat more than that," Ben insisted.

Joe sighed and tossed a second pancake on his plate.  His usual response would have been to put up a fuss, but since Adam came home it just didn't seem worth it anymore.  Adam would side with Pa and Joe couldn't charm Adam the way he could Pa.

Ben saw that Little Joe was looking a little down this morning.  "Joe, are you feeling okay?"

"Fine sir," Joe replied with his mouth full of pancake.

"Joseph, we don't talk with our mouth full," Ben reprimanded.

Joe swallowed and then responded, "Yes Pa."

Ben wasn't convinced that Joe was really okay but he decided not to push the boy.  Instead he turned to Hoss.  "Hoss, I want you to stop at the Post Office today after school.  I am expecting a letter to arrive."

"Sure Pa," Hoss said.

"Adam, I want you to come with me to my meeting at the Cattleman's Association today.  I want you to become familiar with how the association conducts business."

"Fine," Adam said.

 Once more Joe was green with envy.  Adam was going to spend the day with Pa, while he was stuck in a classroom.  Pa hadn't even included him in the day's events.  He knew he would go to the Post Office with Hoss, but still, Pa didn't actually say for Joe to do it.  It was just another reminder that now that Adam was home Joe simply wasn't important to his Pa anymore.

When he felt his eyes start to grow moist Joe excused himself quickly to go to the bathroom.  He knew Pa would never let him leave the table otherwise since had only taken three bites of his breakfast.  Joe just couldn't eat at the moment.  The sorrow he felt had his tummy all tied up.

Joe hurried out to the outhouse and wiped away the tears in his eyes.  He wished Adam would go away again.  Maybe if Adam went back to Boston his Pa would love him again.  Joe did his business in the outhouse and then walked very slowly back to the house.

"Joe!  Come on!  We got ta go ta school!" Hoss yelled from the porch.

Joe hurried inside and grabbed his books and ran back to the yard and mounted Midnight.  Just before Adam had come home Pa had been talking about getting Joe a new pony.  Midnight was a good horse, but she was very old, and very slow.  Now Pa was too busy to think about a new pony for Joe.

Hoss noticed that Joe was awfully quiet as the rode to school.  "You feelin' okay short shanks?"

"I'm fine," Joe replied automatically.

"You didn't eat much breakfast," Hoss said.

"Don't you start too!" Joe quipped.  "It's bad enough I got Adam always telling me what to do, how much to eat, and basically putting his nose into my business."

"Joe, Adam means well," Hoss said right away, always the peacemaker of the family.

"Well I wish he'd just leave me alone," Joe said.  He gave Midnight a small nudge and hurried ahead of Hoss, not wanting to talk anymore.

_________________

"Joseph!"

Joe's head snapped up.  "Wha!"

"Young man I have called your name three times already," Miss Jones said.

"Sorry Ma'am.  I guess I didn't hear you," Joe mumbled.

"Is your paper finished yet?"

"No Ma'am."

"Well then I'm afraid that you can not go outside for lunch.  I want that assignment done.  If you don't finish during lunch you will have to stay after school and complete it," Miss Jones insisted.  "The rest of you may go to lunch now."

Joe sulked at his desk as he watched all of the other students head for the door.  Hoss walked up to him.

"Joe, what's the matter with you?" Hoss asked.  "You ain't been yourself."

"Then who am I?" Joe smarted and rolled his eyes.

"You don't have to be a brat," Hoss replied.  "I was just seein' if yous was okay is all."

"Well I'm just fine, so go to lunch already so I can get this done, or else I'm going to have to stay after school.  Pa'll tan my hide if that happens again."

"Okay.  Hurry up so you can have some time to eat."  Hoss turned and left.

Joe turned back to his assignment.  He sighed and put his head down on his arms for a moment.  He just couldn't concentrate on the addition problems in front of him. 

Miss Jones had been outside to watch the children during their recess.  She stepped back inside to check on Little Joe's progress and was surprised to find him asleep at his desk.  She gently shook the boy's shoulder.

Joe sat up with a jolt and his pencil rolled to the floor.

"Joseph, are you feeling okay?" Miss Jones asked.  "You fell asleep."

"I'm sorry," Joe mumbled.  He looked up at the clock and saw that lunchtime was almost over and he still hadn't done his assignment.  "Please don't keep me after school," Joe begged, tears welling up in his eyes.  "I didn't mean to fall asleep."

Miss Jones was surprised by Joe's reaction.  Having him fall asleep in class was very unusual, seeing him on the verge of tears was even more unusual.

"I won't keep you after class," Miss Jones said.  She placed a hand on Joe's forehead to check for a fever and was relieved to see he was cool to the touch.  Still, she could see plain as day that something was troubling the child.

"Joe, go out back and throw some water on your face.  It'll help you to wake up.  Are you feeling sick anywhere?  Does your stomach hurt?"

Joe really didn't know what to say.  The truth was he didn't feel good, but it wasn't because he was sick.  He hung his head down, at a loss for what to say.

"Joe, I'm going to send you home.  I don't think you feel well.  You sit here and I'll call Hoss in to take you home."

Joe simply nodded his head and lay back down across his desk.  A moment later Hoss was by his side.  "Hey little buddy.  Heard you ain't feelin' so good."

They waited while Miss Jones wrote a quick note to Ben and then they walked to their horses.

"Hoss, can I ride with you?" Little Joe asked.

"Of course you can punkin," Hoss said.  He lifted Joe up on to Chubb and then climbed up behind him. 

"The other way," Joe mumbled.  Hoss helped him to turn around in the seat and Joe wrapped his arms around Hoss' wide girth and cuddled up to his big brother.  More than anything Joe craved love right now.  He really wanted his father's love, but Hoss' would do.

Hoss gave Joe a tight squeeze and motioned for Chubb to get going.  He held Midnight's reins as they headed for home.

____________

Ben and Adam had just returned home from the Cattleman's Association Meeting when Charlie came running up to the door.

"Ben!  Adam!"

"What it is?" Ben asked.

"You're needed in the north pasture.  A couple of the hands are hurt.  We came up on two men trying to rustle some of your cattle.  There was a shoot out.  Clancy and Jim both got shot.  Clancy took one in the arm and Jim in the leg."

"Adam and I will get the buckboard.  Charlie ride out and get Doc Martin here and bring him to the bunk house."

"Sure thing Ben."  Charlie ran in the barn and grabbed a fresh horse and headed out.

Ben and Adam drove off in the buckboard about five minutes before Hoss and Joe got home from school.

_____________

Hoss steered Chubb and Midnight into the yard.  He dismounted and then helped Joe off of the big horse.  Joe started to lead Midnight into the barn but Hoss told him to just go inside and he would take care of the horses.

Joe hurried inside to find Pa.  He saw that Buck and Sport were in the barn so his father was home.  Joe was sure Ben would sit with him and cuddle and read a story if he thought Joe was sick.

"Pa?" Joe called when he saw that the main room was empty.  "Papa?"

"Fadder not here," Hop Sing said, coming out of the kitchen.  "Fadder and Mista Adam go on buckboard.   Hop Sing not know where they go.  Why you home Wittle Joe?"

Little Joe suddenly gave way to the tears that had been threatening to fall all day.  Hop Sing saw Joe starting to cry and hurried over to him and pulled him into a hug.

"What's the matter with my Wittle Joe?" Hop Sing asked.

Joe didn't answer.  He didn't want to tell Hop Sing that his Pa didn't love him anymore.  Instead he buried his face into Hop Sing's neck and cried.

Hoss entered the house.  "Mista Hoss, what's wrong?  Why boy so upset?"

"He was feelin poorly at school.  Miss Jones sent us home so Joe could rest," Hoss said. 

"Get boy up to bed.  Hop Sing make him some tea.  Make feel bedda."

Hoss stepped up to Joe and pried the boy off of Hop Sing and lifted him up into his arms and carried him like a baby to his room.  Upstairs Hoss helped Joe to change into a nightshirt and then tucked the boy into his bed.

"Hoss, don't go," Joe said.

"I'll stay for a little bit," Hoss replied.  He picked up Joe's teddy bear, Jojo, and handed it to Little Joe.  Joe clutched the small bear to him.  "Hoss, when will Pa be home?"

"I don't know.  You know as much as I do little buddy.  Don't worry, I'm sure he'll be back soon though.  What's hurtin ya Little Joe?"

"My…my tummy," Joe answered.  It wasn't a lie really.

"Are you hungry?  You didn't eat breakfast, and then you missed lunch today too.  Maybe you'd feel better if you ate something?"

"I don't want to eat.  I want Pa."

"I know you do, but I don't even know where he is to go get him.  Like I said, I'm sure he'll be home soon."

"I wish mama were still alive," Joe whimpered.

Hoss didn't know what to say.  Words didn't always come easy to him.  He watched Little Joe hold his teddy bear tight.  Marie had made the bear for Joe.  She had even been the one to name it.  She had called the bear joujou, the French word for toy.  Joe couldn't make the word sound like Marie said it, so he simply called it Jojo.  Hoss was rescued when Hop Sing entered Little Joe's room. 

"Sit up," Hop Sing ordered.  "Tea make better."

Joe took the hot cup and sipped at it carefully.  When the tea was gone Hop Sing settled Joe down in his bed and tucked the covers around his shoulders.  Between the emotional stress he was feeling and the warm tea inside of him Joe quickly fell asleep.

Hoss gave Joe a kiss on his forehead and said, "Sleep well punkin."  Then he left Joe's door open as he left to go do his chores.

______________

Joe finally woke up about three hours later.  Still clutching Jojo in his arms he padded his way down stairs in his bare feet.  He went straight to the main room and looked at Ben's desk.  His Pa still wasn't home, and neither was Adam.  He figured Hoss was probably outside doing his chores or something.

Joe climbed up into Ben's chair behind the desk.  He wanted to feel close to his father.  The chair smelled like his Pa's pipe tobacco.  Joe reached over and touched the things on the desk.  Pa's books and ledger was there, along with his favorite pen and the ink well.  The room was rather dark since it was cloudy outside.  Joe decided to turn the lamp up some.  Hop Sing must have lit it in preparation of Pa coming home.  As he reached over his arm hit the ink well and knocked it over. 

Joe gasped.  He quickly used the arm of his nightshirt to try and wipe it up, but he only succeeded in smearing the ink across the page in Pa's ledger.  Joe was on the verge of panic as he saw the terrible mess he had made.

"JOSEPH!"

Little Joe almost jumped out of his skin at the sight of his very angry looking father standing at the doorway.

"I…it…I didn't…Pa…" Joe was actually starting to shake with fright.

Ben marched over to the desk and his blood began to boil as he took in sight of the mess.  The last several entries he had made into the ledger couldn't even be read now.

"You have been told to never touch the things on my desk!  What did you think you were doing?"

"I'm sorry Pa," Joe said, already starting to cry.  "I didn't mean to make a mess.  I tried to wipe it up but it made it worse."

Ben was in no mood for his youngest son's disobedience.  He had just come from the bunkhouse.  Two of his hands were injured and would be laid up for several weeks.  He'd lost four head of cattle, and now Joe had ruined the ledger.  He didn't think this day could possibly get any worse.

"I am very cross with you young man!"  Ben lifted Joe up from the chair immediately placed the boy over his knee.  Usually Ben tried not to spank his children in the heat of the moment.  Ben was a strong man and he preferred to wait until he had calmed down before dishing out punishment, but Ben was to upset to think clearly at the moment. 

Joe began to wail as his Pa gave him one of the worst thrashings he'd ever been given.  Joe stopped keeping track when he got up to eleven smacks.  Finally Ben set Joe back on his feet.

"I want you in your room for the rest of the night.  There will be no dinner.  Now get!" Ben demanded.

Joe hobbled across the room slowly and made his way upstairs crying and sniffing the whole way.  All he had wanted all day was for his Papa to hold him, to tell him he loved him, but instead he'd gotten a whippin and was once more sent away from his beloved Papa.

He got to his room and saw that he was covered in black ink, and he had left Jojo downstairs in the main room, so he couldn't even cuddle his teddy bear his Mama had given him.  He pulled his dirty nightshirt off and dropped it to the floor.  Then he went to the basin in his room and tried to wash some of the ink off of his arms and hands, but they were already stained.

He put on a clean nightshirt and laid on his stomach across his bed sobbing into his pillow.

_______________

Adam entered the main room.  He had been standing on the porch when Joe got his whippin.  He had stayed outside on purpose, figuring his Pa needed a moment alone.  He saw his father standing at his desk trying to clean the mess Joe had made.

"Hop Sing!" Ben bellowed.

"He and Hoss are in the garden," Adam said, finally stepping into the house.  "I just saw them carrying a basket of vegetables over to the root cellar."

"Adam, go in the kitchen and get some rags so I can wipe my desk.  Thank god I still have the bills of sell here.  Joseph completely ruined these two pages in the ledger!  I'm going to have to tear them out and do them all over."

Adam went to the kitchen as told.  He saw Hoss and Hop Sing enter the kitchen through the back door.

"Oh Adam I'm glad you and Pa are finally home," Hoss said.  "Little Joe has been asking for Pa big time."

"Why?" Adam asked.

"He's been sick.  Miss Jones even sent him home early from school.  He's slept most of the day away.  I'll go wake him though.  I know he wants to see Pa."

"Joe has already seen Pa," Adam said.

"Oh good," Hoss said.

"No, not really," Adam said.

"Huh?"

"Well, Joe spilled the ink all over Pa's ledger.  He ruined several pages of it.  Pa just gave Joe a serious thrashing and sent him upstairs with no supper."

Hoss looked horrified.  "But Adam, he's sick.  He's been begging for Pa."

"Adam, what's keeping with those rags?" Ben demanded as he entered the kitchen.

Hoss looked up at his father.  "Pa, I knows you're upset that Joe spilt the ink, but he's been sick Pa.  Miss Jones sent him home early.  He's been waiting all day for you to get home and be with him."

"What's wrong with Joe?" Ben asked, suddenly concerned.

"His stomach was hurting.  He even fell asleep during lunchtime.  Miss Jones wrote you a note."  Hoss quickly pulled the folded up note out of his pocket and handed it to Ben.

Ben read the note and then folded it back up. "Tell Hop Sing that I'll be down in a little bit for dinner.  Oh, Adam, can you please clean my desk."

"Sure Pa."

Ben turned and headed for the stairway.  Joe had deserved his spanking, but yet Ben was feeling incredibly guilty.  Had he known Joe was sick he never would have spanked him, at least not right then.  He hurried up the stairs and walked to Joe's door.  He knocked lightly at the door and waited for Joe to answer.  After getting no response he turned the knob and went inside.  He found Joe asleep, lying on his stomach on top of his covers, his face still wet with tears.

Ben sighed.  Part of him wanted to wake Joe and tell him he loved him, but then if Joe was sick like he'd been told then he guessed sleep was the best thing for him.  He managed to get Joe under the covers without waking him and then he gave his son a kiss before closing the door.

He went downstairs to have supper with his other two sons.  He would put things back to rights with Joe in the morning.

______________

Having slept most of the day yesterday, Little Joe was the first person to wake up the next morning.  He was surprised to find that a lot of the hurt he had felt the day before had now turned to anger.  Pa never came up to see him last night.  Surely Hoss and Hop Sing had told Pa that he had been sick the day before, and still his Pa didn't come up to see him.  Now Joe knew…he just knew…his Pa didn't love him anymore.  Now that Adam was back Joe wasn't needed.

He got dressed and went downstairs.  He was a bit surprised by how early it was.  Actually, that was a good thing.  Joe didn't want to see Adam or Pa.  Hop Sing was already up.  He gave Joe a glass of milk and told him that breakfast would be served when the others were up.  Joe didn't care.  He drank his milk but had no desire for breakfast. 

"Hop Sing, I'm going to school now," Joe said.

"No, no.  Much too early.  You wait for fadder and brothers."

"I can't," Joe said.  "I have to go and do the assignments I missed yesterday.  Hopefully I can get them done before school starts.  I don't want to be in more trouble."  Joe hurried to the door, grabbed his books, and then ran to the barn to saddle Midnight before Hop Sing could protest.

When Joe got to the schoolhouse he was surprised to find that he was so early even Miss Jones wasn't there yet.  He had a seat on the steps and ignored the rumblings of his stomach.  He had run out of the house so quick that he didn't even think to grab a lunch.  Oh well, he'd just have to wait until supper.

______________

Ben came down the stairs and poured himself a cup of coffee.  He wanted to have a moment to himself before he went back upstairs to talk to Little Joe.  He wanted to make sure that he fixed things between them before the boy left for school.

He looked up to see both Adam and Hoss coming down the stairs.

"Good morning boys."

"Morning pa," Adam and Hoss replied.

Hop Sing came out of the kitchen carrying large platters filled with eggs, fried potatoes, and ham.

"Hop Sing that smells wonderful," Hoss beamed.

"You eat good.  Hop Sing have more if you need."

"Hoss, with two of our hands being laid up in bed, I'm going to keep you home from school today.  It's Friday, so hopefully you won't miss much.  I'm going to need your help here.  Adam, I want you to go to town, see if you can hire a couple of men to fill in so Hoss can go back to school come Monday."

Both Adam and Hoss nodded.

"What about Joe?" Hoss asked.

"I guess I'll let him stay home too.  If all he had was a stomach ache I'm sure he's better today, but with you working with the hands, I'll need him to help with your chores."

"Wittle Joe no here," Hop Sing said as he came in to refill the coffee cups.  "He alweady weave for school.  Say he had to do work he miss yesterday.  I try to stop, but he no listen to Hop Sing."

"How long ago did he leave?" Ben asked.

"Not long, maybe fifteen minutes 'for you come down stairs."

"I can't believe Joe got up early and then went to school to do work," Adam said, shaking his head.  "That just doesn't sound like our little brother."

"You have no reason to think he's lying," Hoss insisted.  "Ya know, you've been awfully hard on him since you came back."

"That's not true," Adam replied.  "Besides, Joe practically gets away with murder around here.  He does what ever he pleases, he's rude and disrespectful.  Just look what he did to Pa's desk.  Not only are the ledger's ruined, but the desk top has to be striped, sanded down, and refinished.  The ink permanently stained the varnish." 

"He's just nine-years-old," Hoss replied.  "I'm sure what happened last night was an accident.  Joe would never ruin Pa's things on purpose."

"I swear Hoss, that child has you wrapped around his finger," Adam said, disdain in his voice.

"Stop it, both of you," Ben scolded.  "I will not tolerate arguing at the table.  Adam, when you go to town to hire the men I want you to go to the school and check on your brother.  Make sure he is feeling well, and that he really is at school."

"Fine," Adam said.

"And Adam, I don't appreciate the things you have to say about your little brother.  I admit he's high strung, and that sometimes his mouth does run away from him, but he has a good heart and he loves his family.  More importantly, I love him as much as I love you and Hoss.  I wouldn't allow Joseph to sit here and bad mouth you, and likewise I won't allow you to sit here and bad mouth him."

"I'm sorry Pa," Adam said.

"Apology accepted.  Now eat your breakfast.  We have a lot of work to do today."

______________

Yesterday Joe was more heart sick that really sick, but today he was really sick.  It was lunchtime and he was starving.  He had planned on asking Hoss for some of his lunch when he got to school, but Hoss never came, which really surprised him.  Even worse, Mitch wasn't in school either.  Mitch would have shared his lunch with Joe if he had been there.

Joe was feeling positively faint.  He got up from the log he was sitting on and walked on wobbly legs back into the school.  Miss Jones was sitting at her desk grading papers.  She looked up and smiled when she saw Little Joe.

"What can I do for you, Little Joe?"

"Miss Jones, I really don't feel well.  Can I please go home?"

Miss Jones looked at Joe skeptically.  She felt his head once again looking for fever.  "Joe, what's hurting you?"

"My tummy," Joe said.  "It hurts real bad."

Miss Jones usually would have been hesitant to say yes, but Little Joe was not known for lying.  In fact he was always truthful, even when it got him in trouble.  Plus, the boy really did look miserable.

"Fine, I'll write a note for your father.  Can you get home by yourself since Hoss isn't here, or should I send someone to fetch your father to come and get you?"

"I can make it home by myself.  Midnight is a real gentle horse."

"Alright then, but I expect you to go straight home.  I am going to write the time that you leave here on the note.  I'm sure your father knows exactly how long it takes to get home, so he will know if you stop somewhere along the way."

"Yes ma'am," Joe said.  He had no intention of stopping.  He wanted to go home and eat Hop Sing's good food.  He wanted a sandwich and some soup, and a whole lot of cookies.  He even wanted a big glass of milk.

He took the note from Miss Jones and then picked up his books.  He waved good-bye to Miss Jones and walked out to Midnight.  He stuck the note and his books in his saddlebag and then mounted Midnight.

As Joe went along he was starting to wonder if maybe he should have had Pa come and get him.  His head was really spinning.  As he rode past the creek he stopped Midnight and got down.  He stepped over to the creek and got down on his knees to get a drink of water.  Maybe some water would stop the cramps in his tummy.

Adam was coming from the other direction.  He was on his way to town to hire some men and check on Joe.  His eyes opened wide when he saw Joe's horse and then Joe himself playing next to the creek.  It was nowhere near time for school to be out.  Joe had lied.  He had snuck out of the house and skipped school.

Adam had been right all along about Joe's actions today.  He stopped his horse and dismounted.

"Joseph, what are you doing?"

Joe jumped up and sighed when he saw Adam.  "Hi Adam," he said.

"Don't 'Hi Adam' me!  Just wait until Pa hears that you skipped school today.  He's going to tan your hide for sure!"

"I didn't skip school," Joe said, shocked at the accusation.  "I swear."

"Don't lie to me!  School doesn't let out for another two hours!  I told Hoss that he and Pa were too soft on you.  I doubt if even you can talk Pa out of this whippin."

"But Adam, I didn't do anything wrong.  I went to school today.  Miss Jones…"

"Get on your horse.  I'm taking you home right now," Adam said.

Joe was sick with hunger and it made him crankier than usual.  "I want to go home!  That's what I'm trying to do.  I wish you had never come home.  I wish you'd go back to Boston and leave me alone!  I hate you!"

"That's it!" Adam said.  He unbuckled his belt and pulled it loose.  Joe just stared with wide eyes as Adam reached to grab him.  Then next thing Joe knew Adam had him by the arm and was swatting him with his belt across his behind.

"Adam!  No!" Joe cried.  "Please."  The belt hurt much more than Pa's hand did, and his behind was still tender from the thrashing he had gotten the night before.

After five licks Adam stopped and released Joe.  Joe glared at him as he watched Adam put his belt back through the loops on his pants.  Suddenly Joe bolted.  He'd had enough.  He took off running towards home, leaving Adam behind.

"Little Joe!" Adam yelled.  Joe ignored him and continued to run for home.  "Damn," Adam mumbled to himself.  He knew what Joe would do.  He would run to Pa and cry on his shoulder telling him that Adam had whipped him.  Actually, Adam shouldn't have whipped Joe.  It was okay when Pa was away, but Pa had said before that he would dish out the discipline when he was home.  So Joe got to misbehave and skip school, but Adam was the one who was going to get yelled at.

He let out a deep breath and got back up on his horse.  Great, now he would have to go back home to put Midnight in the barn, plus he would have to face his father.  He turned Sport around and headed home at a slow pace.  He needed some time to calm down, plus to prepare himself for talking to Pa.

____________

Joe ran as fast as his little legs would carry him.  Luckily he had been pretty close to home before he ran in to Adam, so he didn't have to run all that far.  He entered the main room and was relieved to see that Pa wasn't there.  He must have been out working with Hoss.  Hop Sing was probably in the kitchen.  Joe hurried up the stairs and went into his room. 

He grabbed his carpetbag from the closet and stuffed some clothes in it.  Hop Sing must have put Jojo back on Joe's bed.  He put his teddy bear in his bag.  Joe went to his bottom dresser drawer and opened it.  He took out the small box he kept his money in.  He had three dollars and seventeen cents.  He had been saving his money to buy Pa a nice present for father's day.  He guessed it didn't matter now, since he wouldn't be here come Father's Day.

He made his way downstairs and snuck over to the kitchen.  Hop Sing wasn't there.  He was probably outside in the garden or feeding the chickens.  Joe quickly grabbed some cookies and put them in his bag.  He found some jerky and some biscuits left over from breakfast.  They also went into his bag.

Joe went to his father's desk.  He knew he shouldn't touch anything but he needed to leave his Pa a note saying good-bye.  Pa might not love him any more, but Joe still loved him more than life itself.  He picked up the pen and took a clean sheet of paper.

Dear Pa,

I'm going to go away.  You have Adam now, and you don't need me no more.  I know you love Adam more than me. Ever since he came home you never spend any time with me anymore.   All I seem to do is get in to trouble, even though I don't mean too.  It'll be better for you and Adam once I'm gone.  I won't get in your way anymore.  I'm going to miss you and Hoss, and even Adam, but I know you don't want me here anymore.  Bye Papa.  I love you.

                                                                                                Little Joe

Joe left the note on top of Pa's ledger.  He would see it there tonight.  Joe hurried to the front door and quickly headed away from the house, and not a moment too soon.  He could hear Adam and the horses approaching.  He hid behind some trees and waited for Adam to go in the barn before he took off running.

Tears fell down his face and he hurried away from the only home he had ever known.

______________

Adam took the saddle off of Midnight once he got her in her stall.  He gave her some oats and then put Little Joe's saddle away.  He picked up the saddlebags and carried them towards the house.  He entered the room expecting to see Joe but he wasn't there.  He placed the saddlebags on the table next to the door and called out for Joe.  He went upstairs to Joe's room and again saw that Joe wasn't there.

Maybe Joe had gone out towards the herd to see Pa.  He was pretty upset.  Oh well, he didn't have time to go chasing after his little brother.  He still had to get to town and hire some men.  He left the house never even noticing the note Joe had left on the desk.

______________

Ben had been out with Hoss working with the herd when he realized that the mail had never been picked up yesterday.  Hoss didn't get the chance because he brought Joe home.  He was still very much aware of the fact that he had yet to speak with Joe since his tanning last night. 

He left Hoss with Charlie and headed for town.  He'd get the mail and pick up Little Joe and come home with him.  They could talk on the ride back.

Once he got to Virginia City it only took a moment to fetch the mail and then he rode to the schoolhouse.  It was still a bit early but Ben figured Joe could miss the last half hour on a Friday.  He entered the building and Miss Jones greeted him immediately.

"Little Joe is okay isn't he?" she asked.

"I thought Joe was here," Ben replied, scanning the room.

"He was, but around lunch time he became sick again and I let him go home.  I gave him a note to give to you."

"I'm sure he went home then.  I came from the fields and didn't see him, I'm afraid.  I'm sorry to interrupt your lessons."

"That's quite all right.  I hope Joe is better come Monday."

"I'm sure he will be.  Good day."  Ben hurried outside and mounted Buck.  He needed to get home and check on his baby.  Joe had now been sick for two days and he had barely seen the child.  Only long enough to spank him.  Ben suddenly felt very ashamed.

He had just reached the city limits when he saw Adam approaching.  "Pa, what are you doing here?"

"I came to get the mail and pick up Joe."

"Joe skipped school today.  I found him by the creek."

"Joe didn't skip school.  I just spoke with Miss Jones.  She sent Joe home because he was ill.  I'm on my way home right now.  Joe's been sick for two days now and I don't even know what's wrong with him."

Adam could hear the self-loathing in Ben's voice.  Pa wasn't going to like what Adam had to say next.

"Joe isn't at home."

"What?"

"I…uh…like I said.  I found Joe next to the creek.  I thought he skipped school today."

"Adam, what happened?" Ben asked.

"I whipped him Pa.  It wasn't because he skipped school.  I was upset about that, but he started saying awful things to me.  He said he wished I'd never come home, and that he hated me.  Well…I guess I lost my temper."

"Didn't he tell you he was sick?" Ben asked, not believing what he was hearing.

Adam hung his head in shame.  "I think he tried.  I don't think I gave him the chance to explain."

"Adam, I'm very upset with you, but I don't have time for this right now.  You said Joe isn't at home.  Then where is he?"

"I don't know.  I thought he went out to the herd to look for you.  I figured he'd go to you to tell you that I whipped him."  Adam could see his father's anger towards him at the moment.

Ben didn't even know what to say.  His son was sick, and wandering around somewhere, and Adam had just left to come to town.  Plus, Joe had been whipped yet again.

"Yah!" Ben called to Buck and he headed for home at a gallop.

Adam turned and followed his father back to the Ponderosa.

_____________

Little Joe was heading west, away from the Ponderosa and the family he loved so much.  Even though he had only been gone for about two hours he was already feeling more alone than he could ever remember.  At least his stomach wasn't hurting as much as it had been earlier.  He had eaten the two biscuits he had swiped.  He was still hungry but he held off from eating the jerky or the cookies.  He realized that he didn't have very much food with him at all.

He had been in such a hurry to go that he had just grabbed things at random and really hadn't put any thought in to what he was doing.  Hopefully he could do some fishing later.  He felt tired, after a good cry he was always tired, and he had spent the first hour he'd left the Ponderosa crying his heart out.

He didn't stop for a rest though.  He really doubted his family would care that he had left, but still, there was the possibility that they might actually come looking for him.  Joe really hoped that they would come and get him, but he just didn't think that they would.  Adam was probably delighted that Joe was gone, maybe even Pa too.  Hoss was different.  Hoss would be upset that Joe had left, but Hoss' love just wasn't enough.  Joe couldn't stand being home knowing day after day his Pa and his eldest brother were just plain sick of him.

Joe smiled when he came up on the river.  He could do some fishing now.  He ran the rest of the way.  He dropped his carpetbag and started looking for a good stick to use as a pole.  He found a stick and then ran back to the water's edge. 

"Oh no," Joe moaned.  He sat down on the ground and buried his face in his hands.  "How could I have been so stupid?"

Joe was just now realizing that he didn't have any line or hooks.  He always kept some in his saddlebags, but he didn't have his saddlebags.  He also realized that he didn't have his pocketknife.  He hadn't even thought to grab some matches when he ran out of the house.  He was alone and he had absolutely no supplies to help him survive.

For the first time Little Joe wasn't just feeling lonely or sad, he was feeling afraid.  How could he have been so reckless?  Well, he did have some money on him.  Maybe he could buy matches and finishing line.  He couldn't go to Virginia City though.  Everyone knew him there and they would tell Pa where he was.  No, he would have to go to Carson City.  He tried to figure out which direction Carson City was from where he was currently standing.  When he had gone to Carson City before he had always went with his Pa or Adam or Hoss, plus they took the road that branched off from the house.  He wasn't completely sure how to get there from his present location.  He guessed that he needed to go north.  He picked up his carpetbag and started walking.

______________

Ben dismounted and left Buck in the yard.  He ran into the house.  "Joseph!  Joseph!"

"What all yelling for?" Hop Sing said.  "Wittle Joe no here.  Wittle Joe at school."

Ben ignored the cook and ran upstairs to Joe's room.  It was empty.  He ran back down.  Adam was just entering the house.

"He's not here," Ben said.

"I know," Adam replied.  "I told you that."

"What going on?  What has happened to my Wittle Joe?" Hop Sing demanded.

"He's missing," Ben said.

"Pa, you're jumping to conclusions," Adam said.  "He's probably in the hayloft, or maybe fishing at the lake.  For that matter he might be with Hoss, having gone looking for you."

"Adam!  I'm surprised at you.  How can you act so casual?  Your baby brother is sick and we have no idea where he is at the moment."

"Pa, the rascal is probably just hiding.  He probably thinks he's going to be in trouble with you and he's afraid of a tanning."

"I don't want him to be afraid he's going to get a tanning!  The only person who should be tanned right now is you.  Count yourself lucky that you are too old to be put over my knee.  You had no right to spank Joseph.  By your own words you said you never even gave him the chance to tell you why he wasn't in school.  You saw him and you assumed the worst."

Adam had the sense to at least look sorry for his actions.  He had assumed the worst.  Ben just happened to walk over to his desk.  He spotted a note written in Joe's distinctive writing.  He picked it up and felt his whole body go cold with fear.

"Dear Lord," Ben exclaimed.

"What?" Adam asked.

"Joseph.  He's run away.  He says we don't love him anymore."  Ben handed the note to Adam and took off to find Hop Sing.  He needed Hop Sing to get some food together.   He had to find his baby.

Adam reread the note three times, the power of Joe's words sinking in to his brain.  So that was why Joe had yelled at Adam that he'd wished he'd never come back, why he hated him.  In Joe's mind Adam had stolen Pa away from him.  As he thought back on the past month he realized that he and Pa had been stuck like glue to each other.  Joe really was feeling alone and unloved.

Just then a dusty Hoss stepped into the house.

"Hoss, help me saddle up some fresh horses and get some gear together," Adam ordered.

"Why?  What's happened?"

"Joe's run away.   We have to go find him."

Hoss looked like he'd been slapped.  "Why would Little Joe run away?  What did you do to him?"

Ben walked back into the room to hear Hoss' accusation.  He was about to stop the conversation but Adam was already asking questions.

"What do you mean what did I do to him?" Adam asked.  "Why do you say that?"

"Because, since you've been back all you do is pick on him, correct him all the time," Hoss explained.

"I…I didn't realize I was being that hard on him," Adam whispered.

"Hop Sing is packing the food," Ben interrupted.  "Let's get the horses."  There was a big rift in his family, but he would work on fixing that once he had Joseph safe in his arms.

___________

Joe's feet were hurting really bad.  He had been walking forever it felt like.  He was so tired and thirsty.  Plus it was getting dark and the setting sun wasn't warm.  It was fall and the nights were getting very cold, and Joe didn't have any blankets.

His heart perked up a little bit when he saw a pond ahead of him.  At least he could get a drink of water.  He ran down the hill he had just climbed and hurried to the water's edge.  The sides to the pond were rather steep and muddy.  Joe's boot slipped on the mud and suddenly Joe fell right into the water. 

"Whoa!" Joe gasped as he stood back up.  The water was freezing.  Joe sloshed his way out of the water and climbed up the muddy embankment.  He was shivering.  He knew he needed to get out of his wet clothes before the sun completely went down.  That was when he saw his carpetbag floating in the pond.  He walked back down and stepped back into the cold water and retrieved his bag.  Once more he climbed out.  He opened his bag and saw that his others clothes were every bit as wet as the ones on his body.  Even worse, his cookies were all soggy.  At least the jerky had survived the plunge in the lake.

He put a piece in his mouth but couldn't chew it because he was crying so hard.  He was cold, hungry, and alone, so very, very alone.

"Papa," he sobbed.  "Papa."

______________

It had taken Hoss over an hour to find Joe's tracks leading away from the house.  For the last several hours they had followed Joe's small boot prints, stopping along the way to make sure they didn't lose them.  They saw that Joe had started out going west and then abruptly turned north.

Ben's heart sank when Hoss said the words he'd been dreading for the past hour.

"Pa, we have to stop.  It's getting to dark and if we lose the tracks and get turned around in the night then we might never find them again."

"Hoss is right," Adam said.  "Let's set up camp and then we can get going at first light."

Ben sighed and reluctantly agreed.  He had hoped to find Little Joe before nightfall.  He hated the thought of his precious baby alone in the dark.  Joe was afraid of the dark.

Adam started working on a campfire and Hoss tethered the horses.  They unrolled their bedrolls and Ben opened a can of beans to heat next to the fire.

Ben stared at the flames.  He wondered if Joe was cold, if he had anything to eat?  What if he ran into Indians, or a mountain lion?  What if Joe tried to keep walking after dark?  He could fall, break a leg, or his neck.  Ben felt a shudder run through his body.  How could he have not seen how much his baby son was hurting?  How could Ben not have realized that he was neglecting him?  Joe thought Ben didn't love him anymore.

Ben suddenly looked at Hoss.  Hoss was fifteen, and looked like a grown man at over six foot, but at heart he was still just a boy too.

"Hoss, I'm sorry if you felt that I haven't been paying any attention to you lately," Ben said.

Hoss looked a bit surprised, but his eyes said that he had been feeling overlooked.  "It's okay Pa.  You were just so excited about having Adam back.  I understand."

"I was excited to have Adam home, but that's no excuse.  I never meant for you or Joe to feel like I didn't love you anymore."

"I know you love me Pa," Hoss said.  "You've just been real busy teaching Adam all about the ranch is all."

"Did Joe tell you that he thought I didn't love him anymore?" Ben asked.

"No, sir.  He never told me that, but I think I kind of was starting to figure it out.  Yesterday when he was sick, he was real clingy like.  I had to cuddle him the whole way home, and he kept calling for you.  He wanted you so bad, but then when you got home he got in trouble before you could be told about him being sick. I know he was real upset two nights ago too.  He kept waiting for you to finish with Adam, but you never did, and then you sent him to bed.  I imagine he doesn't understand why you don't have time for him now."

Adam felt like digging a hole and crawling inside.  Hoss hadn't actually accused Adam of anything, but he felt responsible for everything that was happening.  If he hadn't whipped Joe today he probably wouldn't have run off.  If he had set up shop in Boston Joe and Hoss wouldn't have felt abandoned by Pa.  Ben must have sensed Adam was feeling guilty.  He put his strong hand on Adam's shoulder.

"Son, don't blame yourself," Ben said.  "It's not your fault that I suddenly showered you with attention when you came home."

"I admit I had no control over that, but Pa, I basically called him a liar today, and then I tanned him for no good reason.  At the time I thought I had a right to tan him because he was being so disrespectful to me, but now I realize he was just letting out all the hurt he's been feeling since I came home.  He didn't run away, I chased him away."

"We've both made mistakes, but we'll find him, and hopefully we can fix the damage that's been done."

"He told me he hated me.  I guess I deserved that," Adam muttered.

"He don't hate you Adam," Hoss said.  "The whole time you was gone he missed you so dang much.  He couldn't wait for you to come home.  It's just that after having Pa pretty much all to himself he wasn't ready to share him again."

"I hope you're right," Adam replied.  "I really do."

"I say we get to sleep boys.  I want to be up at the crack of dawn.  We need to be well rested if we're going to find him."  Even as Ben said the words he knew that none of them would sleep well tonight.  There wouldn't be any real sleep until Little Joe was safe once more.

________________

Little Joe sat shivering at the base of a large boulder.  The sun had long since gone down and the cold darkness surrounded him.  The sky was overcast so there wasn't even any moon light for him.  He felt surrounded by blackness. 

He had stopped crying, not because he felt like it, but simply because there were no tears left in him to be shed.  He held tight to Jojo.  The bear was soaking wet, but at the moment Joe didn't care.  It was all he had left of the home he once knew. 

Joe could hear noises all around him and they terrified him.  Part of his brain tried to tell him that they were just squirrels, raccoons, and possums, but the child part of his brain pointed out that it was too dark to know that for sure.  He had heard stories of monsters and trolls, and big, bad wolfs.  There were always things in the woods ready to snatch and gobble up children.

He wished once again for a match.  If only he could have started a fire.  Then he would be warm, and the light would chase away all the bad things out there just waiting to get him.

He blew a warm breath over his fingers.  They were numb with cold as was the rest of him.  His clothes were still wet since there was no fire or sun to dry them.  He had wondered if he might not be warmer if he had simply taken them off, but he liked the idea of being naked in the woods even less.

He tried to go to sleep.  If he could sleep then he wouldn't be scared and by the time he woke up the sun would be rising, but he was too uncomfortable for sleep to come.  He wanted his Papa so bad.  He wished he were home, sitting in Papa's lap, listening to a story.  He would give anything to be able to fall asleep in his Papa's arms.  He wondered if Papa missed him right now.  Did he even care that Little Joe had run away, or was he simply sitting with Adam, talking about ranch business like nothing had happened?

_____________

Ben was the first to awake the next morning.  He quickly made a pot of coffee and heated some beans.  By the time Adam and Hoss opened their eyes he already had his bedroll and his gear back on his horse.

"Morning sons.  Eat up, have some coffee, and let's get going," Ben ordered.

Adam and Hoss mumbled good morning and set about to doing what Pa had told them.

Twenty minutes later they were all on their horses after Hoss found Joe's trail once more and continued to head north.

____________

Joe opened his eyes slowly.  The sun had risen and was currently blinding him.  At some point during the night exhaustion must have finally claimed him.  Joe groaned as he pulled himself up.  His body ached and his chest hurt.  He stretched and took a deep breath and suddenly was consumed by a fit of coughing.  Joe squeezed his arms around his chest to absorb the pain as he coughed. 

Great, he was coming down sick.  He wasn't surprised, having spent the night cold and wet.  He noticed that his clothes were still a touch damp, but the sun would take care of that soon enough.

He picked up his carpetbag and looked inside.  There was no food in it.  He had eaten his bit of jerky the night before, and the cookies had been ruined.  Joe was so very hungry, but there was nothing he could do about it.  He would just have to keep walking and hopefully he would reach Carson City before nightfall.  He had no idea how far away Carson City was.  He had only gone there a few times with his Pa since Ben felt Carson City wasn't really a safe place for a boy Joe's age, but they had followed the road that led from the house.  Joe was out in the woods trying to find it.  Joe was surprised to see that he didn't recognize where he was even though he suspected he was still on Ponderosa land.  He had never been this far away from the ranch house on his own before.

He picked up his bag and started walking.  He was disoriented and didn't even know that he was no longer walking north.  Once more he was heading west.  He saw the mountains in the distance.  Maybe Carson City was just past those mountains.

_____________

An hour later Ben, Adam, and Hoss were at the place where Joe had slept for the night.  Hoss took the horses to the water's edge to get a drink.  That was when he noticed it.

"Pa!" Hoss called.  "Joe was here."

Ben hurried over to see what Hoss was talking about.

"Look Pa, in the mud.  Those are Joe's footprints."

"You're right," Ben said.  "Those prints are too small to be anyone but Joe."

"Looks like he fell in the lake," Adam pointed out.  "You can see over there where his boots slipped down the bank."

Ben realized that Joe would have been soaking wet and the temperature last night had dropped significantly.  "He must have been so cold."

Ben and Hoss both started looking for more tracks, trying to figure out where Joe was heading next.  Ben took off running when he spotted something lying next to a large rock.  He reached the boulder and picked up Little Joe's teddy bear.  It was dripping water.  Ben held the threadbare toy to his chest and closed his eyes.

"Well, at least we know that Joe slept here last night," Hoss said encouragingly.  "There's no doubt we're closing in on him."

"He didn't even have a fire to keep warm," Ben mumbled as he looked around.  "We need to find him."

"From what I can tell he's heading west again.  Towards the mountains," Hoss said.

"We have to find him before he reaches them.  As soon as he hits that rocky ground there won't be any more tracks to follow."  Both Adam and Hoss heard the urgency in Ben's voice. 

______________

Joe was finding it harder and harder to keep walking.  His head was pounding and he just didn't feel well.  On the other hand, he was no longer cold.  In fact, he was feeling a bit warm.

He had been walking up hill for some time now and the deep breathing he was doing from the physical exertion kept making him cough.  Suddenly Little Joe stumbled on a rock and fell down, skinning his hands and knees in the process.  Joe hissed through his teeth at the stinging pain.  Both his hands and one of his knees were bleeding, but it wasn't all that much.  He wiped his bloody hands on his pant legs and stood up to keep going.  Tears began to fall once more.  He was tired, hungry, hurting, and more than anything in the world, he was lonely.  He longed for his Pa to be there, to hold him and make him feel better.  He wondered if he could go home.  Maybe Pa and Adam would be glad to see him, or…maybe they would be so mad at him for leaving that they would spank him again.

No, he couldn't go home.  He didn't think he could stand it if Pa whipped him again.  He left his carpetbag lying on the ground and started walking.

Joe managed to walk about another fifty feet and then he started to feel dizzy, really dizzy.  He closed his eyes and held his head in his hands.  He took several more steps and fainted.  As he fell he rolled down into a small ravine.  It was only a three-foot drop, but it was deep enough to completely hide Joe from view.

______________

Hoss led Ben and Adam along Joe's trail.  Even though they were still away from the mountains the ground had changed.  It was much more rocky and twice Hoss had lost Joe's tracks and they had to go back and search for them.

"Pa, I got a bad feeling about this," Adam said.  "He's no longer walking in a straight line.  It's like he's wandering around aimlessly."

"He's probably exhausted," Ben replied.  "He doesn't know where he's going."  Ben could only hope that was all that was wrong with his baby.

They guided the horses through the large rocks that scattered the ground. 

"Pa!" Hoss exclaimed.  He hopped down from his horse and ran ahead.  "It's Joe's carpetbag!"  Hoss opened the bag and found nothing but wet clothes inside.

Ben hurried over to Hoss and also looked.  "Boys, spread out.  Start searching.  JOE!  JOE!  WHERE ARE YOU?" Ben yelled.

They waited for a response, a sound, anything, but all they heard was the wind.  The three of them began to search.  Hoss continued on ahead on foot.  He couldn't find any more tracks, but then the ground was hard so he couldn't tell if Joe had continued or not.

Adam and Ben searched behind boulders and trees.  Finally it was Adam who walked over to the slight drop off and spotted Little Joe laying face down on the ground below.

"PA!" Adam yelled and quickly slid down the small ravine on his heels to reach Joe.

"Oh God!  Joseph!" Ben gasped as he saw Joe's still body.

Adam felt Joe's neck for a pulse and was relieved to find it beating nice and strong.

Ben arrived, as did Hoss.  Ben gently felt Joe's arms and legs, looking for any breaks.  Feeling none he rolled his son over and cradled his head in his lap.

Joe's face was dirty and everyone could see where his tears had left paths down his face.  A light sheen of sweat was across Joe's brow.

"There's blood on his pants," Hoss said.  "His knee is hurt."

"So are his hands," Adam added. 

"Joe?  Joe can you hear me son?" Ben pleaded.  "Wake up for me."

Joe heard the voice calling to him, and he felt the hands that were holding him.  Could it be?  Maybe it was a dream?  Slowly Joe opened his eyes and squinted as the sun blinded him for a moment.  Once he could focus he saw his Papa's face staring down at him.

Joe raised his arms and gently touched Ben's face.  He could feel the stubble on his father's cheeks.

"Papa?" Joe whispered.  His eyebrows and forehead scrunched up and he looked confused.  "Are you real?"

"Yes, son, I'm real," Ben grinned, his eyes filling with tears.

"What are you doing here?" Joe asked.  Part of him still couldn't believe that his Pa was really there with him.

"Oh son, I came looking for you.  I've been so worried about you.  I thought I'd never see you again.  How could you just run away like that?"  Ben made sure to keep his tone of voice light.  Joe had already been through enough, he didn't want to frighten him by making him think that he was in trouble.

"I…I thought you didn't want me no more," Joe replied.  "You only cared about Adam, and I was getting in to trouble.  I didn't want to be tanned again."  Once more Joe began to cry.  "Please don't spank me Papa."

Ben's response was to pull Joe to his chest and hold him tight.  Both father and son shed tears.  "I'm not going to spank you, sweetheart.  I love you so much.  I'm so sorry that I ignored you, and I promise that I won't do it again.  Please forgive me Joe.  Forgive me for making you think that I didn't love you.  You're my baby and I will always love you, forever and ever."

"I forgive you Papa.  I'm sorry I run away.  I love you too."  Little Joe's voice was muffled since his face was buried in Ben's chest as he cried, but everyone had managed to understand what he was saying.

"Joe, I forgive you for running away, but promise me, PROMISE ME, that you will never, never do it again.  If something is bothering you, or if you're hurting, please come tell me.  I promise to try and make it better.  Anything could have happened to you.  I couldn't bare to lose you."

"I promise.  I won't run away no more."

Adam and Hoss had been watching Joe and their Pa.  Both realized that Joe and their father needed to talk, to clear the air, but neither could wait any longer to talk to their little brother.

"Little Joe, you plum scared me half to death.  How could you go and do that!" Hoss said.

"Sorry Hoss."

"Joe, I want to apologize to you," Adam said.  "I'm sorry that I spanked you.  I was wrong.  You didn't skip school, and I had no right to tan you."

Joe knew that he should say something to Adam, but the truth was he was still hurt by what Adam had done to him.  Plus, he was feeling sick. 

"Papa, I don't feel good," Joe mumbled.

Ben felt Joe's head and realized that the boy had a slight fever, plus he had dark circles under his eyes.  "Joe, have you eaten anything?"

"No.  I'm so very hungry Papa."

"Let's get you up to the horses and we'll make camp and get you fed.  I think you need to get some rest before we try to head home.  Also, I want to clean those cuts so they don't get infected."

Joe allowed his Pa to carry him out of the ravine and to the horses.  He could have walked, but right now he wanted to be babied.  He didn't want Pa to let him go just yet, and Ben was only too happy to oblige.

Adam gathered some firewood and Hoss laid out a bedroll for Little Joe.  Ben laid Joe down and asked Hoss to grab the canteen.  Ben used his bandana to carefully clean Little Joe's hands and his knee.  He wet it once more and used it as a compress for Joe's brow.  The boy's fever wasn't too bad but Ben wanted to keep an eye on it.  They were still a day's travel from home, and from the doctor.

Thirty minutes later Little Joe's tummy was filled with warm beans, jerky, biscuits, and even a cookie that Hop Sing had packed especially for him.

"I swear Punkin, I ain't never seen you eat that much," Hoss commented.

"I was really hungry," Joe replied, stating the obvious.

"Joe, I want you to take a nap and then we are going to start for home," Ben said.

Little Joe climbed into his Pa's lap.  "You'll stay with me," Joe begged.  "You won't go away?"

"Wild horses couldn't drag me away," Ben told him and kissed him on his cheek.  "Boys, why don't you get some rest, too.  I know none of us slept very well last night."

"Sounds, good to me," Hoss said as he finished stuffing the last biscuit into his mouth.

They all stretched out on their bedrolls.  Ben shared his with Joe.  The little boy cuddled up next to his Pa and rested his head on Ben's chest.  Ben wrapped a protective arm around him and held him tight as they both fell asleep.

Adam got as comfortable as he could on the rocky ground, but he couldn't fall asleep.  It hadn't escaped his attention that Joe hadn't spoken to him directly since they had found him.  It was obvious that he was still upset with Adam.  Adam understood why.  Joe had been jealous of him for the past month, but the final straw had been Adam calling Joe a liar and spanking him.  He hoped that in time Little Joe would forgive him.

_____________

Ben awoke when he heard his name being called.  "Pa.  I'm sorry Pa.  I'll be good."  He quickly realized that Little Joe was having a nightmare.  He shook the boy's arm and tried to rouse him.

"Joe.  I'm right here.  Pa's got you.  You're safe."

Joe's eyes popped open with a start and he sat up so quick that he almost cracked his forehead into Ben's.

"Whoa, calm down," Ben comforted.  He held his son and waited for the boy to stop shaking.  He rubbed Joe's back soothingly and gave him a kiss on the cheek before he let him go.  Ben looked over and saw that Adam and Hoss were awake.

"He okay?" Hoss asked.

"Yes, he had a bad dream," Ben replied.  "Boys, let's pack up and head for home.  Hopefully we can make it back by tonight." 

"We'll get back faster since we can go home in a straight line," Adam said, "but we still might have to make camp tonight."

"I want to go home," Joe mumbled. 

"I know you do sweetheart," Ben replied.  "We'll try our best to get back tonight.  I want to tuck you in to your own bed tonight.'

Since they were traveling light it didn't take very long before Hoss was handing Joe up to Ben on his horse.  Ben wrapped a blanket around Joe's shoulders to help keep the boy warm.  He was concerned about Little Joe's cough and the slight fever he was running.  He really did want to tuck Joe into a warm bed tonight instead of having his child sleep on the cold ground.

The rode at a steady pace for the rest of the day, only stopping occasionally to water the horses and take a fifteen minute break.  Joe slept off and on during the ride home.  Ben was relived that Joe didn't seem to be getting any worse as the day slowly turned into night.

The sun finally set but there was a three quarters moon in the sky and they were close enough to the house that they all knew the way by heart.  Around ten that night four weary travelers rode into the yard and were greeted by a very animated cook.

"Wittle Joe!  Is boy okay?" Hop Sing asked.

"Hi Hop Sing," Joe replied with a yawn.

"Hop Sing can you heat some water so Joseph can take a bath," Ben asked as he dismounted his horse and then lifted Joe out of the saddle.

"Water awlweady weady," Hop Sing told him.  "Have hot stew and bread too."

"Hop Sing what would we do without you," Hoss sighed.  All he wanted was a hot meal, to kiss his baby brother good night, and to crawl into his bed and close his eyes.

"Pa, I'll take care of the horses," Adam offered.  "You go ahead and get Joe inside."

"Thank you son," Ben said.  He handed the reins to Adam and lifted Joe up onto his hip and carried him into the house.

Hoss went with Adam into the barn.  He might not be very book smart, but he was a very intuitive person, and as such, he always knew when his brothers had a problem.

"So, you want to tell me about it?" Hoss coaxed.

"Tell you about what?" Adam asked with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Aw Adam, don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.  You've been blue ever since we found Joe.  What gives?  You are happy we found him aren't cha?"

"Of course I'm happy we found him!  What kind of a question is that?" Adam demanded.  "Do you really think I would want Joe out there alone."

"Calm down big brother.  I meant no disrespect, but ya got ta admit that you haven't exactly been overjoyed today."

Adam took a deep breath to try and calm his nerves.  Hoss was right.  He had been quiet today.  "I guess I'm just afraid that Joe isn't going to forgive me for what happened.  I don't know if you noticed, but he hasn't said so much as a word to me since we found him.  I made a terrible mistake, one that could have had dire consequences.  I mean, anything could have happened to him while he was on his own."

"But he's fine except for a cold and a few scrapes.  Yeah, I admit, you were wrong to tan Joe yesterday, and I was mad at you myself for awhile, but I know you love him, and you didn't hurt him on purpose.  And you ain't the only one to be makin mistakes.  Pa's made a few himself these past weeks.  Most of Joe's hurt came form Pa, not you.  What you did just happened to be the last straw for Joe.  He just couldn't take it anymore.  But then maybe that's a good thing."

"A good thing!  How is me tanning Joe a good thing?" Adam asked.

"Simple.  Now Pa knows how much Joe misses him.  If you hadn't done what you did yesterday, Joe probably would have kept all that hurt inside and who knows when things would have gotten fixed.  But now Pa can start helping Joe tonight."

Adam gave Hoss a big grin.  Hoss had a way of making something so complicated into something so simple.  "I guess that makes sense.  Tomorrow, I'll talk to Joe.  There are some things I need to fix too."

______________

Ben was finishing washing the mud from Joe's hair.  He picked up the pail of warm water and poured it over Joe's head to rinse the soap from it.  Joe quickly wiped the water from his eyes with the washcloth Ben handed him.

"Pa, I really am sorry that I ran away," Joe said quietly.

"I know you are," Ben replied.  He helped Joe to stand up in the tub and then he wrapped the large towel around Joe's body before lifting him out of the tub. 

"Are you going to punish me?" Joe asked.

"No sweetheart.  I'm not going to punish you."  Ben carried Joe into the kitchen next to the fire so he would be warm and to fetch his nightshirt that was warming near the stove.  "I am partly to blame for what happened.  I just hope you know that I love you, and I would be devastated to lose you.  I'm sorry I ignored you.  It wasn't because I stopped loving you or needing you.  I was so excited to have Adam home that I didn't realize that you and Hoss were feeling left out."

Joe let out two sneezes before asking, "Hoss felt like I did?"

"Yes he did.  He told me yesterday when we camped for the night."  Ben pulled out his handkerchief and held it to Joe's nose.  "Blow."

Joe blew his nose and then lifted his arms so Ben could slip his nightshirt over him.  He gently dried Joe's hair with the towel before tossing it onto the pile of muddy clothes Hop Sing had placed in the basket to be washed.

"Believe me though," Ben continued, "I'm going to make it up to you and Hoss.  I never want for any of my sons to think they have to run away from home ever again.  Now let's get you to the table and get some of Hop Sing's hot stew in you."

Joe smiled and threw his arms around Ben's neck.  "I love you Pa."

The smile that spread across Ben's face stretched almost from ear to ear.  "And I love you."

At the table everyone seemed to be lost in their own thoughts about the events of the last few days.  Everyone was also exhausted.  Even Hoss found himself choosing to go to bed instead of having a second helping of stew.

Everyone said their good nights and Ben walked up the stairs behind Little Joe.  Suddenly Joe stopped at his door and turned around to face Ben.

"Jojo!  He's in my bag.  I have to get him."

"I'm afraid you can't sleep with Jojo tonight.  He's soaking wet and coated in mud from where you left him lying on the ground."

"But Pa, I can't go to bed without Jojo.  I need him."  Joe had been sleeping with the teddy bear ever since he had been an infant.  Joe knew he was too old to still sleep with a stuffed bear, but Mama had made the bear for him herself.  When he hugged the bear he liked to imagine that it was his mother who was hugging him back.

"I'm sure Hop Sing will get Jojo washed up good as new tomorrow," Ben comforted.

"But how am I going to sleep tonight?"  Joe was almost on the verge of tears once more.

Ben let out a deep sigh.  He should have seen this coming.  He knew how important the toy was to Joe.  "How about a compromise?  You can't sleep with Jojo, but you can sleep with me instead."

"Really?" Joe gasped.  Joe hadn't slept in his Pa's bed in well over a year.  Pa had insisted on breaking the habit just before Joe had turned eight years old, even though several times Joe had climbed into Hoss' bed after a nightmare.

"Really," Ben answered.  He led Joe into his room and tucked the boy in before he changed into his own bedclothes.  As Ben crawled in to his bed he was amazed at just how exhausted he was.  His pillow felt like a cloud under his head.  Joe instantly rolled over and made himself comfortable next to Ben's side.  In less than a minute they were both asleep.

________________

The next morning was Sunday, but Ben figured God would excuse them if they missed church this once, so he let his sons sleep in and he took advantage of the opportunity to simply hold his youngest and watch him sleep.  He did take a moment to thank God for watching out for his baby and keeping him safe, and for making sure that Joe was returned to him relatively unharmed.

Ben had checked Joe and found that he no longer had a fever even though he continued to cough and sneeze occasionally in his sleep.  He would make sure to keep Joe warm and dry today to make sure that his cold didn't get worse.

He looked up when he heard a knock at the door.  He wasn't surprised to see Adam coming in to his room.

"Pa, aren't we going to church today?"

"I decided we needed to stay home today.  Besides, Joe has a cold and I rather him not go out in the cold.  Is Hoss awake yet?"

"No, not yet.  I was going to go wake him though.  I can hear Hop Sing in the kitchen.  He won't be too happy if the entire family is late coming down for breakfast."

"No, I guess not.  Go wake your brother and I'll take care of this rascal," Ben chuckled.  He disentangled himself from Joe and stood up to get dressed.  He saw that Adam was still standing there.  "Is something wrong?"

"Pa, I'm really sorry.  I promise I'll never do what I did to Joe ever again.  From now on I'll listen to him before just assuming something."

"Adam, I know you're blaming yourself for what happened, but you need to stop now.  You made a mistake, one you won't make again I'm sure.  Now go wake your brother before Hop Sing threatens to quit again."  Adam gave his father a quick grin before stepping out of the room.

Ben dressed and shaved before waking Joe.  Then he stepped over to the bed and gazed at his precious little boy.  Joe was breathing through his mouth because his nose was plugged up, and his breathing was a little wheezy, but Ben was comforted by the fact that Joe's skin was cool to the touch.  His child had a cold, but that was all.  He ran a hand through Joe's curls and smiled when Joe suddenly opened his eyes.

"Hi Papa," Joe said, releasing a giant yawn.

Ben smiled at Joe's use of Papa.  For the past couple of years Joe had called him Pa, trying to imitate Adam and Hoss, but whenever he was ill or frightened, or simply needed some loving, he would slip back into calling Ben Papa.

"Good morning sweetheart," Ben replied.  "It's time for you to get up.  We aren't going to church today, but Hop Sing will still be serving breakfast as usual."

"My head hurts," Joe said in a nasally voice.  "And I can't breath too good.  My nose is all stuffed up."

"That's what happens when you sleep outside soaking wet," Ben told him.  "But I bet Hop Sing will be able to help you feel better.  I'll ask him to make you some of that tea he makes when we're sickly.  I know it always helps my head feel better."

"'Kay," Joe whispered.  "Papa, I really am sorry I ran away.  It's just that you and Adam were so mad at me, and you're always so busy now.  I…I…I just…"

"Just what?" Ben coaxed.

"I don't know," Joe said.  "I can't put it in to words.  It's just that my heart hurt so much that it made my tummy feel sick.  Does that make any sense?" Joe asked.

"Yes son, it makes perfect sense.  You thought I didn't love you anymore, and you were so upset about that, that it made you physically sick.  Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

Joe was afraid to speak so he simply nodded his head up and down.

"Joe, you don't still believe that I don't love you, or that I love Adam more than I love you?" Ben asked.

"I guess not," Joe answered.  "You came for me.  I didn't think you would."

"Oh," Ben said.  "So it was a test?"

"Huh?  A test?  You mean like when I take a spelling test?"

"No Joe, not a test like that, but it sounds like you didn't just run away from home to get away from me and Adam.  It sounds like you ran away to see if I would come and look for you.  You wanted me to prove to you that I love you, and to prove it I had to come and find you."

Joe looked at his hands and clutched Ben's quilt tightly between his fingers.  He didn't think that was the real reason he had run away, but he remembered thinking about what his father had just said several times while he was on his own.

"It didn't start that way," Joe spoke up.  "At first I was afraid, cause Adam was going to tell you I lied, that I skipped school.  He spanked me with his belt.  It really hurt, and I thought if he told you that I skipped school you'd thrash me too.  I didn't skip school, honest.  Miss Jones let me come home cause I was sick."

"I know, I talked to Miss Jones and she told me you weren't well.  Was it cause your tummy was hurting?"

"Uh huh," Joe nodded his head.  "The night before I was sent to my room without supper, and that morning I left for school before Hop Sing cooked breakfast, and I didn't have lunch.  I was feeling really bad by the time I asked Miss Jones to let me come home."

"Joe, I'm sorry I spanked you that night and that I sent you to bed without supper.  I had a bad day that day and I lost my temper when I saw the ink spilled on the desk and the ledger.  If I had known you were sick I never would have punished you, at least, not right then."

"That's okay, Papa.  I was bad, and I deserved it.  What was the worst was that you didn't come up and see me afterward.  You always come and talk to me after you punish me, but not that night, and I wanted to talk to you so bad."

"I did come up to see you, sweetheart, but you were asleep, and Hoss told me you had been sick earlier, so I decided to let you sleep.  I planned to talk to you in the morning, but you deliberately left the house early that morning, so I never had the chance to make things right between us again."

"Oh."

Ben couldn't help but grin at Little Joe's expression.  He could see that his son was deep in thought. 

"Papa, I did something bad."

"What ever it is I'm sure I can help you work it out," Ben said.

"I told Adam that I hate him.  I don't really, but sometimes he makes me really mad."

Ben didn't get the chance to reply, there was a knock at his door.  "Yes," Ben called.

The door opened and Adam peered inside.  "Pa, breakfast is ready and Hop Sing is threatening to quit if you two don't get down there soon."

"Hop Sing is always threatening to quit," Ben chuckled.  "Adam, come here please."  Ben motioned for Adam to have a seat on the bed with him and Joe.

Adam looked hesitant at first, but then finally walked over and sat down.

"Joe, why don't you repeat what you just told me," Ben ordered softly.  Joe looked a little afraid.  "Go on son, you're not in trouble."

"I...I said that I don't really hate Adam, but that he makes me mad sometimes."  Joe quickly hung his head in shame.  He sniffed hard as his nose started to drip down to his lip. 

Ben pulled out his handkerchief and ordered Joe to blow.

"Now why do you get mad at Adam?" Ben asked.

"'Cause, he's always picking on me.  I never seem to do anything right to him.  I hate feeling like I'm always wrong."

"Joe, I'm sorry little buddy.  I never meant to be so hard on you," Adam said.  "It's just that I came home and you were so different, and in all honesty, you haven't exactly been very welcoming to me either.  I promise to try and be a little more understanding from now on."

"But you called me a liar, and you hit me with your belt," Joe protested.

"Joe I'm sorry I did that.  I'm sorry I didn't give you the chance to explain.  It's just that when I saw you next to the creek when I knew you should still be in school, you have to admit that it looked like you had skipped.  Then you started yelling at me."

"I was just getting a drink of water.  I hadn't had any food in a long time and I was hungry and thirsty.  All I wanted to do was get home and eat something, and…and I wanted Papa."  Suddenly Joe started to cry as he remembered how sad and lonely he had felt during the past few weeks.

Ben pulled Joe into his lap and rocked him comfortingly.  Adam reached out a hand and rubbed Joe's back.  For the first time in a long time Joe felt loved and secure.  Unfortunately all the crying had made his already hurting head hurt even worse.

"Papa, I don't feel good.  My head really, really, really hurts."

"Come, let's get downstairs and get some of Hop Sing's tea in you.  Besides, if we spend much more time up here Hop Sing really will quit," Ben said.

"Come on buddy, I'll give you a piggyback ride downstairs," Adam offered.  He raised his arms out to Joe and waited.

Joe stayed put in Ben's lap and for a moment it looked like he wasn't going to go with Adam, but then he flung himself into Adam's arms and hugged his tight.

Adam returned the hug just as tightly and said, "I love you Little Joe.  I promise that no matter what ever happens I will always love you."

"I love you too Adam," Joe sniffled.

Ben sighed.  The rift in his family was finally closed.  He knew that Joe and Adam would surely but heads in the future, but there would be no question that the love would always remain.  He watched Adam swing Joe up and around to his back and they walked out of the room and down the stairs.  Ben said a quick prayer of thanks to God and who ever else may have been watching out for them the past couple of days, and then he walked downstairs to have breakfast with his family.