Hi, everyone! This is my absolute first fan fic, and I hope that you like it. I will try to post updates regularly, but I will admit that I get distracted reading everyone else's stuff too!

Disclaimers: I don't own any of the main characters, just some of the supporting cast and, of course, the emotions.

Twenty one year old Adam Cartwright was nervous as the stage continued on. 'Why am I so nervous?' he wondered. He was going home!

It had been four years since he'd been home, but it had been worth it. He had learned so much while he was away at school, learned so much about his grandfather and his mother. But he was so glad to be going back. He couldn't wait to show his father how much practical knowledge he had gained, how much of a help around the Ponderosa he could be. 'I'll make you proud, Pa,' he thought. 'I'll make you proud.'

But it wasn't just seeing his Pa that made Adam nervous. He realized that he was anxious to see his younger brothers, too. 'Hoss'll probably be about a foot taller than me now,' he grinned to himself. He had been gaining on Adam fast four years ago, and now, being 16, Adam was sure he had surpassed him in size.

Then there was his little brother, Joe. Adam remembered the day he had left for school, and the memory still made him a little sad. Joe had only been six years old when Adam had left, with his big green eyes full of tears—he'd made Adam feel as if he was abandoning him. And, in a small way, he had been abandoned. Adam had almost exclusively taken care of the small boy before he left, after his mother had died and his father had been unable to deal with his grief for a time, leaving his sons to in some ways to fend for themselves. They had grown so close in that time. A part of Adam's heart had been left back at the Ponderosa that day, and it was a part that he was hoping he would be able to get back today. Oh, how he couldn't wait to see that little guy again!

Adam leaned back in the seat of the rocking coach, tipping his hat forward to cover his eyes. There was still some time left before he arrived in Virginia City, and he found himself becoming lost in the memories. So much had happened through the years…

XXXXXX

Eleven year old Adam Cartwright was not a happy young man. His pa had just returned from a business trip to New Orleans, but he was not alone. A woman was with him, a woman who his pa had just had the nerve to tell him was his new mother!

'I don't need a new mother!" he had stated sternly, his dark brown eyes glaring angrily at his father. He had no recollection of his own mother, as she had died in childbirth, and the only mother he had ever known, his stepmother Inger, had died six years ago in an Indian attack. No, he certainly did not need a new mother. Especially not a woman like this.

Adam stared disdainfully at the woman in front of him, causing her to blush slightly and turn up her button nose with a frown. She was young, and pretty enough in her own way, but had an air about her that Adam found irritating. She had a look in her eyes that suggested that she was used to getting what she wanted. Her lips curled in a slight pout, but even at eleven years old, Adam could read the defiance in her eyes. He already had her figured out, so he thought. 'An opportunity seeker!' he thought to himself. Suddenly, the look in Marie's eyes changed too.

'Adam!' Ben admonished, rather surprised that his usually well-mannered boy was being so disrespectful.

'Oh, darling, do not worry,' Marie gushed, trying to soothe her new husband. The sing-song voice she employed only succeeded in causing the young boy in front of her to bristle with more irritation. 'It is a big change for him. It will surely take some time.'

Ben turned away and Marie gave the young boy in front of her a fierce grin, showing him her displeasure with him. Adam rolled his eyes and turned away in disgust.

Ben went into the other room, and Marie then grabbed the boy by his arms and spun him around to face her. 'Now, you listen to me, cherie,' she said fiercely, her eyes staring down hard into the young face before her. 'I married your father, and there is nothing you can do about it! We will have an understanding!' She smiled sweetly at the boy, but her eyes were still hard. She then turned to follow her husband into the other room. The boy seethed to himself and vowed he wouldn't be fooled.

'No,' Adam thought to himself as the coach rocked on, 'I wasn't very easy on Marie when she first came.' They had been at odds almost constantly. His six year old brother Hoss, however, had practically worshipped this new mother, the first mother he had ever known. Marie, for her part, had taken over as her young stepson's mother whole heartedly, giving the little boy much attention and love. Things had settled into a normal, if slightly tense, routine.

That routine had changed about eight months later, on a cold fall night. Adam still shivered when he thought about it. Marie had been expecting a baby, but it was too soon and it wasn't going well. There had been so much screaming going on in the house that Adam had had to take his small brother away from the house so they could escape it. His pa had stayed with Marie, so the two young boys were on their own. Adam had taken his young brother fishing and they had stayed at the pond until he thought they would both freeze.

After many hours, Adam and his young brother made their way back to the house. It was quiet, and Adam hesitatingly brought his young brother inside the warm house. They had been freezing, but he couldn't let his little brother hear all that noise. The little boy had already been worried about his ma. And in all honesty, Adam himself had been quite worried too, having slowly started having some affectionate feelings for his stepmother. She actually wasn't all that bad when it was all said and done.

The two boys went through the quiet house, up the stairs to the bedroom at the end of the hall. Pushing open the door, Adam and Hoss were met with the warm glow of the lamp and happy smiles from their pa and Marie. A small bundle was cuddled in Marie's arms.

'Adam, Hoss!' Ben smiled at his boys. 'Come meet your new brother, Joseph!' He led them over to the side of the bed, where Marie pulled the blankets back from the small bundle to reveal a tiny baby.

'Well, what do you think?" Marie whispered, directing her question at both boys but with her eyes on her oldest stepson.

Hoss stared at the little baby and laughed when he stretched his tiny mouth into a yawn. Adam could do nothing but stare in awe at the tiny form in Marie's arms.

'He shore is tiny!' yelled Hoss, laughing. He reached up and gave his ma a hug.

'Yes, yes he is,' Marie whispered, hugging the child to her. 'We'll have to take good care of him to make sure he gets big and strong!' She looked up at Adam again, waiting for his response.

Adam reached out his finger and softly rubbed it against the small cheek. He felt the softness of the skin and saw the absolute helplessness of the tiny life in front of him. His eyes filled with tears as he gazed with complete adoration at the small baby. He had never felt so much love before. 'Oh, he's beautiful,' he whispered. 'I love him already. Can I hold him please?'

Marie hesitated just a moment, but, glancing at her husband and then back to Adam, she gently lifted the small bundle into the boy's arms. Cuddling the tiny child to his chest, the boy felt something he had never felt before-a sense of completion came over him. He felt his life was complete now, and he never wanted to be without this completeness again.

As the coach bounced again over another rock, Adam's musings drifted ahead, this time five years after his brother had been born. It had been a few days after Marie's horse-riding accident. The days had been terrible. After the funeral, his father had shut down completely, staying in his bedroom drinking brandy. He didn't come out to work or to see his grieving children; he just didn't function at all. Sixteen-year-old Adam had taken over the responsibilities of running the ranch, and was trying to help his two younger brothers cope as well. He too felt the loss of his stepmother; after his young brother had been born they had gotten along quite a bit better. Their adoration for Joe had brought them together.

Hoss had been devastated at the loss of his stepmother, but Little Joe had been inconsolable. A five year old does not understand death, and it was hard for Adam to explain, especially with his own heart breaking, to this young child that his mama was not ever coming back to be with him again. Daily, Joe would ask where his mama was, and daily Adam would have to explain again, and daily Joe would start crying and it was so hard each day that Adam could hardly bear it.

That night, Adam crawled warily into bed, his heart heavy. He, too, was grieving, but there was just so much to do around the ranch. And with his father not around to do it, it was all up to him. He didn't know how much more he could take. As he turned to face the wall, praying sleep would come, a small hand touched his back.

He turned around, and saw his small brother standing in front of him. The little boy was rubbing his eyes with the back of one hand and the thumb of his other hand was firmly in his mouth. Adam's heart melted at the tear-stained cheeks and the tousled curls. He knew what the boy needed, so he stretched open his arms to him.

Joe fell into the outstretched arms, burying his face in his brother's nightshirt. He clung to him as sobs racked his small body. Adam held him tight, and through the tears that fell down his own cheeks, he whispered comfortingly to the little boy. 'It's ok, little buddy. Sshh, I love you. It's ok.' Gradually, the tears subsided and the little boy grew quiet. Just when Adam thought the little boy was asleep, Little Joe whispered softly, 'I love you, Adam.'

Adam felt emotion rush over him as he clung even tighter to the little boy. 'I love you, too, little buddy.' Joe shared his brother's bed that night. It would be the first of many nights that Joe would do this, his little arms hugging his brother's neck tightly, knowing that he was safe. These were the nights that Adam got the most sleep, the nights when he was comforting and being comforted by the little boy next to him.

'But there had been a few times when Joe wasn't waiting for an opportunity to hug his older brother,' Adam thought ruefully as he stretched his aching body and tried to find a comfortable position in the rocking coach. He remembered one explosive day, when he himself had been the subject of his youngest brother's now-famous wrath. Eight months after his mother's death, a new tragedy had struck the newly six year old boy—the first day of school.

His pa had resumed most of the fatherly tasks, finally putting behind him the intense grief that had kept him locked in his bedroom for months. But he had asked Adam to speak to his brother about school. Adam had always been passionate about learning, and Ben had hoped he would be able to coax his younger brother into at least being agreeable to the whole thing. But, regardless of what Adam said, there was no change in the young boy's temperament about the idea. Joe screamed, cried, begged, kicked, and even tried to bite once, but to school he was to go. It had been the first time that Joe had avoided his older brother, and Adam had felt the slight sharply.

The morning came. Joe was sullen, refusing to look at his pa or his brothers, even Hoss couldn't cheer him. He sat at the table staring at his plate. Adam felt slightly sorry for the boy; he knew he was scared and his anger was the way he was lashing out at the fright.

'Time to go, Joseph,' Ben said sternly, reaching down to put his hand on his son's shoulder as Joe began to lash his head back in the now daily show of rage. Adam cleared his throat and looked at his father, 'Let me, Pa.'

Ben agreed, as he was getting angry with the behavior of his youngest son. Adam lifted the small boy from his chair and was rewarded for his efforts with a sharp kick to the shin. Adam tried not to shout and laugh at the same time as he held the boy firmly in his grasp.

'Joseph, apologize to your brother now!' Ben roared, lunging near his young son, threatening him with a swat to his behind.

'Sa..sorry, Adam,' Joe stuttered, not really sorry but scared enough of the thought of his Pa's big hand on his small behind. Adam just shook his head as he marched his little brother outside to his horse.

Adam boosted his brother onto the horse and got up in the saddle behind him. The ride was a quiet one. Adam bit his tongue and kept quiet as he felt the rigid pose of a very angry little boy. He knew the boy well enough to know he would talk when he was ready.

Suddenly, Joe spun around in the saddle, putting his arms around his brother's waist. His sobs caught Adam by surprise. He had expected anger, but this desperate fear, as he now knew it was, was unexpected. A wash of love and concern crossed his face as he gasped at his brother, 'Joe!' He tried to soothe the distraught boy, stopping his horse and cuddling the boy to his chest. 'What's the matter?'

'Don't leave me, Adam!' he cried, sobbing harder. 'Don't leave me!'

'Oh, Joe,' Adam whispered, realizing why the boy was so upset. He hadn't been alone since his mother had died. There had always been someone with him, and today he would be alone. Sure, Hoss would be joining him at school in a few weeks, once some work at the ranch was done, but today the small boy would be all alone. Tears threatened in Adam's eyes as he hugged the boy. 'I won't leave, I promise. It'll be ok, little buddy.'

Adam waited until the tears had subsided, then smiled down at the small boy. 'You know I can't go in there today with you, right?' The small boy nodded sadly, tears threatening again. 'But, hey, listen,' Adam smiled, lifting his brother's chin so he could look straight into the shimmering green eyes, 'I'll be right here today when you're done. Maybe we can stop at the fishing hole on the way home?" Joe managed a small smile.

Adam rode Joe into the schoolyard and lowered his brother to the ground. Dropping to his knees in front of his brother, he looked Joe in the eyes again. 'Remember, I'll be waiting,' he smiled. 'Don't forget!'

'Ok,' Joe said, turning towards the schoolhouse door. He hesitated and ran back to his brother. Throwing his arms around him, he cried, 'I love you, Adam!'

'I love you too, little buddy,' Adam whispered, the lump in his throat returning. 'I love you too.'

Adam was jolted from his memories by a thud and the sudden stillness of the coach. 'Virginia City!' called the driver.

Adam could feel the nervousness return as he waited his turn to exit the coach. He wasn't sure why he was nervous, but it was there. 'Oh, let it be like it used to be,' he pleaded silently. Taking a deep breath, he stepped down from the coach onto the dusty streets of home. He was back.