Growing Pains    
Helen Adams  
(February 2000)

Chapter 1 

               “C’mon, Hoss, leave a few bites for the rest of us!” complained Joe Cartwright.  His 20 year old brother paused in the act of shoveling a huge mound of mashed potatoes onto his plate, seeming to realize only then that his two brothers did not have any yet.  Sheepishly, Hoss passed the bowl to 14 year old Little Joe, who helped himself to a healthy portion before handing it to his eldest brother, 26 year old Adam.  The rest of the dishes followed suit one by one.

                “Now, Joseph, I expect you to eat that food if you’re going to take it,” admonished Joe’s father, Ben Cartwright.  He was well used to his youngest son’s capricious eating habits and suspected that the overflowing plate was merely a protest of Hoss’ infamous appetite.

                “Yes, Sir.  No problem,” Joe answered with a grin.  He picked up his fork and dug in with enthusiasm.  Ben was surprised, but pleased since he had been expecting the usual mealtime battle.  Dinner progressed in companionable silence for several minutes before Ben glanced back to check on Joe’s progress.  What he saw gave him pause.  Adam had stopped eating and a look at Hoss revealed that he too was staring with fascination at his younger brother.  Little Joe was completely oblivious to his family’s scrutiny as he inhaled his dinner.  The chicken and green peas were long gone and the potatoes and bread were disappearing with equal rapidity.

               Ben exchanged amused looks with his two eldest sons as Joe finished his meal, sopping up the last tiny droplets of gravy with his bread before popping it into his mouth and settling back in his chair, lacing his hands atop his stomach with a contented sigh.  “That was great!”  A loud burp suddenly erupted from the boy, startling him and he looked up, ready to apologize, when he noticed his family all looking at him with wide grins on their faces.  “Um…’scuse me,” he said uncertainly.  What were they all staring at?

               “Want some more, little brother?” Hoss offered the plate of chicken with a twinkle in his laughing blue eyes.  “There’s a few more chickens runnin’ around out back if this ain’t enough for you.”

               Little Joe grinned self-consciously.  “Guess I was kinda hungry tonight.”

               Kinda hungry,” teased Hoss.  “I thought you was gonna eat the plate too!”

               Everyone laughed, then Ben asked,  “Didn’t you eat the lunch Hop Sing packed for you to take to school this morning, Joseph?”  He was aware that Joe was often less than alert in the mornings and had a tendency to forget things such as his lunch, his books, and on one memorable occasion, his boots.  The boy had been halfway to the barn before he realized that something didn’t feel quite right and had turned around to find Adam standing on the front porch holding his boots out to him with a sardonic grin.  It had taken weeks for the family to get over that particular incident.

               Joe’s brow puckered into a puzzled frown at his father’s question.  “Yeah, Pa, I did eat my lunch.  I had breakfast too, but lately it seems like I’m always hungry, no matter how much I eat.  By suppertime I’m starving to death.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

               Adam smiled broadly.  “I do.  Congratulations, baby brother.  Unless I’m very much mistaken, you are about to experience a major growth spurt.”

               “You really think so, Adam?”  Joe’s eyes lit up with pleasure.  His voice had squeaked up on the question, as it seemed to be doing so often lately, but for once Joe didn’t care.  His diminutive stature had long been a source of great irritation to him, but never more so than before this school year.  Seating in the school was traditionally sorted by grade level.  Joe’s new teacher, Miss Grady, had assigned him to sit with Billy Hanson on the first day of school, mistakenly assuming them to be in the same class.  Billy was only 11 years old and though Joe didn’t hold the mistake against Miss Grady, it had stung.  The teacher had apologized when Joe told her that he was in fact, 14, and had quickly rectified her error by reassigning Joe to sit with his friend, Mitch, but not before the entire school had gotten a good laugh at Joe’s expense.  It hadn’t bothered him so much to have the boys laugh.  He was accustomed to them joshing him about his height and he knew he could whip any one of them in a fair fight, despite his size.  It had, however, been unexpectedly humiliating to hear the giggles coming from the girls.  Every single girl within a year of Joe’s age was taller than he was, and always had been.  He had begun to lose hope of ever growing any taller.  “Do you think Adam is right, Pa?” he asked eagerly.

               Ben thought a moment and realized that Adam had been about 13 when he’d begun to experience the majority of his growth, while Hoss who had always been a large boy, had started seriously sprouting up at age 11.  Joe was more than due.  Smiling at the hope shining clearly in his youngest boy’s green eyes, Ben nodded.  “Yes, Joe.  I believe Adam is correct.  Both of your brothers did some serious growing when they were about your age.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you did too.”

               Joe brightened even more at this revelation.  Somehow it had never occurred to him that his older brothers had once been in his place.  To him, they had always been big.  “Do you suppose I’ll catch up to the rest of the guys by the time school is over?”

Joe was thinking about the annual end of school picnic.  The whole community always turned out to make a day of what was usually a highlight in the lives of the young folks.  Today at school, Miss Grady had announced that a square dance had been added to the festivities.  Joe felt sure that it would be a lot more fun to attend if there were a chance he might actually be able to look a girl in the eye while dancing with her.  He had only been to a couple of dances before, church socials attended by the whole family, and then he had not been interested in anything except laughing with his friends and sampling all the wonderful desserts brought by the townswomen.  The only time in Little Joe’s life that he could recall actually dancing with anyone was a vague but closely guarded memory of his mother.  She had been laughing and holding her hands down to her small son as he did his best impression of the box step she had shown him.  Joe could almost remember the sound of her lovely sparkling laugh as she had circled him around the room, delighted with his accomplishment.  Dancing with an actual girl his own age had never occurred to Joe until this morning’s announcement.  Now, he was both excited and apprehensive about the prospect.  A lot of the girls in his class had suddenly started filling out in new and delightful ways this year, both to the wonder and embarrassment of their male classmates.  Lately, Joe had found himself looking at them in a whole new way and while it was rather nice from a distance, he did not relish the idea of spending his first dance standing face to chest with a girl. 

Ben’s smile softened as he heard the question.  Though he did not realize the direction of his son’s thoughts, he knew how much Little Joe longed to stand equal to his friends and brothers. “Well, son, I don’t know if you’ll catch up or not, but you’ve got two months left until school lets out, so I’d say you’ve at least got a fighting chance.” 

               Just then, Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen with a freshly baked apple pie in hand.  Beaming his warmest grin at the youngest Cartwright son, he placed the dessert in front of Joe.  “Hop Sing glad you finally eat more.  Soon you grow big like Mr. Adam and Mr. Hoss.”  The small Chinese cook cut a generous triangle out of the pie and placed it in front of the grinning boy.

                “Thanks, Hop Sing!  I just hope I only grow big as Hoss in one way, though.  Up!”  With a sly hitch of his eyebrows toward Hoss, Little Joe forked a huge bite of the savory cinnamon spiced pie into his mouth and smiled.

               Hoss guffawed and helped himself to a large slice of pie as well.  “Looks like I’d better get busy before Little Joe eats all the food,” he declared with a wink.  “After all, you wouldn’t want me wastin’ away to skin and bones just cause you’re finally plannin’ on fattening up, now would you, Joe?”

               Ben smiled, enjoying his sons’ banter.  “Well, Adam, it looks like you and I are the ones who’re going to waste away if we don’t act quick!”

               With a laugh, Adam distributed the remainder of the pie, and the family dug in before retiring to the great room to enjoy a quiet family evening.


Chapter 2

               Little Joe stood in his underwear before his bedroom mirror, eyeing his reflection with disgust.  It had been nearly two months since Adam had theorized his growth spurt and in all that time he had made no progress whatsoever.  Hoss had made a small notch on one of the supports in the barn as he had carefully measured Joe against it that night. Joe had stood against that mark every single night since, hoping for some major change, and in all that time he figured he could credit maybe a quarter inch of new height.  He was beginning to doubt even that tiny bit of progress, though.  It had come early on and he was starting to wonder. Maybe Hoss had simply measured wrong that night and he had not grown at all.  Worse yet, Joe could see that he was beginning to look chunky.  He had always been rather compact and had possessed very little baby fat.  Just enough to cause normally rational women to coo over how cute he was as they reached to pinch his cheeks.  Oh, how he had hated that!  It was worse than the constant ruffling of his curly hair by seemingly everyone he had ever met.

               Joe turned in a slow circle, examining himself from every angle.  There was no denying it; he definitely looked pudgy.  His face had become rounder too and there was a little roll underneath his chin.  Great!  It wasn’t enough that he had to be short, Joe thought.  Now he had to be short and fat!  It wasn’t as if he could help it either.  For the last two months he had eaten voraciously everything that was set before him, prompting Adam to remark that he must be trying to make up for the other 13 years when he never wanted to finish a meal.  When Joe had realized that he was putting on weight, he had tried his best to slow down but it was no use.  His stomach would simply gnaw and grumble until he gave in and fed it.  The boy sighed heavily as he rubbed at his chin, trying to wish away the extra flesh.  All his life, Joe had been considered too thin by his father and the doctor and he had often wondered if a little extra weight might somehow make him appear older, but it didn’t look like that would be the case.  Somehow, it only made him look younger and that was the last thing he felt he needed.  He had planned on asking Susie Miller to the picnic and dance today, but now Joe was not so sure. 

               Susie Miller had been sweet on Joseph Cartwright almost since the first day they had met when they were both eight years old.  Joe liked Susie, but he had never taken her outrageous flirting to be anything more than joking around.  Girls always flirted with him, women too, for that matter.  It was not something he could explain, but Joe had been popular with women of all ages since the day he was born and he took it for granted.  This past year, though, things had started to change.  The fluttering eyelashes and sidelong glances had suddenly become something to be desired and dreamed about.  With Susie, it had become even more.  She had changed seemingly overnight from the scrawny little girl of Joe’s memories into a lovely young lady and now her winks and smiles made Joe feel weak in the knees whenever they were directed his way.  Unfortunately, they were not directed his way very often any more.  When Joe had begun to notice Susie, every other boy in school seemed to notice her too and she was clearly enjoying the experience.  It seemed that her self-confidence was growing at exactly the same rate that his was flagging.  Joe knew there was a possibility that if he got up his nerve and asked Susie to the picnic, she might say no.  She had her pick of boys to go with, but Joe was hopeful that her past interest in him would work to his favor.  He had never been on a date or asked a girl out before and the mere thought of doing so had kept him up nights lately, worrying how Susie would respond. 

               Joe leaned closer to the mirror, looking himself in the eye.  “Come on, Cartwright,” he whispered to himself.  “If you don’t say something soon, somebody else’ll ask her and you’ll always wonder what would have happened.  Don’t be a coward.  Just do it!”  The mirror did not answer, but Joe set his jaw in determination.  The idea made him feel a little queasy but Joe made up his mind he would not back down. He would ask her to that dance if he died in the attempt!

               “Joe?  Are you up? Breakfast is waiting and I don’t want you to be late for school.”  The sound of his father’s voice outside the door broke into Joe’s awareness and he scrambled to get dressed before his father decided to open the door and check on him.  The thought of being seen by anyone as he stood there preening in his underwear was more humiliation than Joe thought he could bear.

               “Comin’, Pa!” he called, rolling his eyes as his voice cracked yet again.  “I’ll be down in just a second.”

               Five minutes later, Little Joe came thundering down the stairs and slid into his seat at the dining room table.  Everyone else was already there and they handed him the platters of eggs, bacon and toast without commenting on his tardiness.  They were quite used to his being late for breakfast.  Soon, though, Ben noticed that his son was staring off into space with a distracted look as he stirred his eggs around and around on his plate.  “Joseph, are you all right?”

               Joe came back to earth with a start, flushing as he began to eat.  About half the meal disappeared and then the boy was right back to daydreaming again, causing his father to shake his head and reach out to place a hand over Joseph’s left one to stop the annoying staccato rhythm of his tapping on the plate.  “Sorry, Pa,” Joe mumbled.

               Ben looked at him carefully, concern evident in his dark eyes.  “Son, there is clearly something bothering you this morning.  This is the third time I’ve had to get your attention from wherever you were wandering in just the last 30 minutes.  Now, I don’t want you daydreaming your way through your lessons all day, so out with it.  What’s on your mind?”

               “It’s nothing, Pa,” Joe tried.  “I just have something to do today and I don’t know yet how I’m gonna do it.”

               Joe’s brothers had not missed the dreamy half-smile on his face or the guilty flush to his cheeks when their father had interrupted his thoughts this last time.  Hoss reached over and slapped Adam lightly on the arm.  “Hey, Joe.  This something of yours wouldn’t have to do with a certain upcoming dance, now would it?”

               Joe didn’t answer, but the reddening cheeks and stricken eyes of their baby brother were all the confirmation the two young men needed.  Adam’s eyebrow rose and a look of mischief entered his brown eyes as he said, “Oh, Ho!  So that’s it.  I’ve been wondering what’s had you so jumpy lately.  So, tell us, Joe.  Who’s the lucky young lady you’re going to give the honor of being your first sweetheart?”

                “I didn’t say nothing about any sweetheart,” Joe muttered with a scowl.  His eyes were fixed on the table in front of him. 

               “Ah, but you are planning on asking somebody to the picnic, aren’t you?”  Adam persisted.  He really was genuinely interested to know, but he could not help the teasing tone that had automatically crept into his voice.  Joe was such an easy mark because everything he felt was always stamped all over his face for the world to see.

               “Come on, Shortshanks,” Hoss encouraged.  “Tell us who she is.”

               Squirming uncomfortably in his chair, Joe opened his mouth just barely enough to mumble, “Susie Miller.”  Then he crossed his arms in front of him and stared even harder into the pattern of the red checked tablecloth, completely unable to look anyone in the eye.

               Hoss whistled low.  He had seen the way the boys always seemed to follow Susie around like puppy dogs, whenever he had been in the vicinity of Joe’s school.  Personally, Hoss did not particularly like Susie Miller.  He remembered her from his own school days as a rather prissy and self-interested little girl, but perhaps she had changed a lot in four years.  Certainly she had blossomed into quite a little beauty. The gangly child with the straw blonde pigtails and brown eyes that always looked too big for her face had disappeared.  In her place was a tall, flaxen-haired girl who, at barely 15, had only begun to reach her full potential. Hoss had not even recognized her at first sight.  “Aimin’ kinda high, ain’t you, little brother?”

               Adam snickered then spoke before he thought.  “Yeah, about a foot and half too high!”

               The color drained from Little Joe’s face, then returned in the form of blazing green eyes and two bright red streaks that burned into the boy’s cheeks.  Without a word, Joe shot out of his chair and brushed past his father before the surprised man could even make a grab for him.  Joe’s chair fell over backward in his rush to get away, but the boy never heard it fall as he stalked out, stopping only long enough to snag his hat off the credenza before bolting out the front door.  The resounding slam of the heavy door seemed to echo in the silence that descended over the rest of the family.  Both Ben and Hoss stared accusingly at Adam.  “Nice goin’, older brother,” Hoss said, glaring at him.  “I know you was only teasing, but you know how sensitive Little Joe is about his size.”

               Adam looked back and forth from his brother to his father.  Shame shone vividly in his face.  “I never meant to hurt him.  The comment just slipped out before I even realized it was coming.”  He rose from his seat.  “I’ll go talk to him.”

               The sound of receding hoof beats stopped Adam in his tracks.  He grimaced and slowly sat back down with a defeated sigh.  His father placed a hand on his wrist to get his attention.  “I don’t think it would help to talk to him right now anyway.”  Ben fixed his sternest gaze on both of his older sons. “Boys, you’re going to have to tread lightly around Joe right now.  He’s reached a very painful stage of adolescence and it’s not going to take much to set him off.  Now, you could both see just as clearly as I could that he was nervous about something.  While I thank you for figuring out what that something was, you had no place riding him about it.  It seems to me it was not so very long ago that you two were going through the exact same phase that Joseph is going through right now.  How would you have liked it if someone had done to you what you just did to him?”

               Both Adam and Hoss seemed to shrink in on themselves as they heard their father’s somber tone and remembered their own younger days.  Adolescence had not been an easy ride for either of them and they had not had to put up with teasing older brothers on top of everything else.  Adam had been pestered a bit by his curious younger brother, Hoss, who had not understood why Adam suddenly preferred watching girls to going fishing, but he had been easy to put off.  Hoss had not had to worry about any teasing from Adam, who had been off at college when Hoss’ own interest in the opposite sex had developed.  Suddenly, Hoss remembered with a pang of guilt that Joe had been very supportive of him in those days.  He had not entirely understood the blushing and stammering reaction of his older brother whenever there were girls in the vicinity, but he had willingly used his considerable charm to lure them over and had helpfully initiated conversations.  Amazingly, the boy had possessed an instinct for knowing just when to melt into the background and leave Hoss to his own devices as well.

               “What should we do, Pa?” Hoss asked earnestly.  “We owe it to Joe to help him, or at least let him know how sorry we are for twitting him that way.”

               “Yeah,” agreed Adam.  “But knowing Joe, he may not cool off enough to let us in.”

               “Maybe,” said Ben, smiling a little as he realized that they did indeed understand and sympathize with their brother’s plight.  “But I think he’ll appreciate your support as soon as he decides you actually are sorry.  Just wait until he comes home this evening and talk to him.”

               “We will, Pa,” Adam said, resolving to corner Joe and apologize the minute he saw his little brother.  Hoss nodded in agreement.

               Ben smiled fully and stood, wiping his mouth with a napkin.  “Good.  Now, let’s get to work.”


Chapter 3

               Little Joe rode hard away from the ranch house, allowing the blowing wind to cool his hot face and the steady rhythm of Cochise’s smooth gait to ease his tumbling emotions.  How could Adam have said something like that to him!  He didn’t understand; Adam could practically get any girl he wanted with just a snap of his fingers.  Joe scowled as he thought of his brother.  Tall handsome Adam, with his books and music and lady-killer smile, who never lacked just the right thing to say to a woman.  What right did he have to rub those things in Joe’s face?  Suddenly, a rush of despair washed over Joe, replacing his anger.  Adam had not been far off the mark with his jibe and that was what had really hurt.  Susie towered over Joe, even more than some of the other girls did. What right did he have to expect her to want to be seen at a social with him?

               “I can just hear her, Cooch,” he said aloud, watching as the pinto horse’s ears twitched, listening to his voice.  “She’ll say, ‘I wish I could go with you, Joe, but somebody else already asked me.’  Then she’ll find an excuse to be someplace else just so I won’t see that she’s only telling a white lie.”

 Joe fell silent, considering the likelihood of his speculation, then unexpectedly he could hear his father’s voice ringing through his imagination.  “You can’t make up someone’s mind for them, son.  All you can do is present your case and let the other person decide what to do for themselves.”  Joe had heard Pa say that on a couple of occasions and as the words filled his head, his confidence began to make a comeback.  Still, he could not help asking, “You think Susie would be insulted that I even asked, Cooch?”  The horse snorted and tossed his head, as if he understood and was chiding his boy for such a silly notion.  Joe couldn’t help laughing.  He patted the animal affectionately on the neck.  “You and Pa always know just the right thing to say, don’t you boy?”

              Throughout the day, Joe waffled back and forth in his decision to ask Susie to the picnic.  He started to approach her at morning recess, then changed his mind.  Three different times, he wrote her notes then crumpled them up before he could decide to pass them to her.  By the time school was dismissed for lunch, Little Joe was a nervous wreck.  As he rose to go outside, it occurred to him that he’d been in such a hurry to escape the house that morning that he’d left without his lunch.  It was just as well, though. The way his stomach felt, Joe was not sure he could have eaten it without throwing up.  He had just about made up his mind to forget the whole idea of approaching Susie when she turned and looked across the schoolyard at him.  It was a moment suspended in time, then Susie smiled and Joe felt his heart begin to pound wildly.

               Almost without his conscious will, Joe’s legs began to propel him across the yard.  Susie was standing under a tree, a little away from the other girls.  With her smooth blonde hair and blue print dress ruffled by the breeze, Joe thought Susie looked very picturesque and he was suddenly afraid that he would not be able to summon enough breath to get the words past the knot in his throat.  “Susie,” he said softly. “There’s something I been wanting to ask you?”  Was that really his voice?  Joe wondered.  It sounded so strangely far away.

               Susie leaned forward, a smile playing at the corners of her perfect pink mouth.  Joe could actually feel her breath on his cheek as she said, “Yes?”

               Joe’s knees suddenly felt so weak he was afraid they were going to buckle.  “I, uh…S-Susie, would you go with me to…to…to the end of school party?”  He cursed himself for stammering as he waited for her answer. 

               The girl’s smile widened and Joe felt hope beginning to rise in his heart, then like something out of his worst nightmare, her face crinkled up and Susie Miller began to laugh.  She laughed so hard that her breath was coming in gasps.  The other girls came closer, curious to know what was so funny, and then the boys came as well.  Little Joe stood stock still in utter mortification as Susie looked down her nose at him (So damnably far down!), and shook her head.  She turned amused eyes upon her schoolmates and said, “Little Joe asked me to the end of school picnic, girls!  Isn’t he funny?!”  She turned to Joe and said, “I’m sorry, Little Joe, but I’m afraid I don’t date children.”  Laughing again, she pushed past him and flounced off to stand next to Teddy Johnson.  He was almost as big as Hoss, and was probably Little Joe’s worst enemy in the entire world.  Teddy grinned and linked arms with Susie as they moved off together.

               Joe stood immobile, watching their retreating backs, feeling his world crumbling around him.  Some of the other kids had laughed too when Susie made her declaration.  It had been the nervous laughter of people who are shocked and uncomfortable and do not quite know what to do, but Joe did not realize this. All he could hear was that they were laughing. The entire school had seen him make an utter fool of himself.  For what seemed an eternity, Joe remained standing there surrounded by a group of equally frozen classmates, feeling wave after wave of pain and humiliation crash over him. Then, with a strangled sound he pivoted and ran to Cochise, mounting in a single motion and galloping away.  He would not stop until he reached the Ponderosa.


Chapter 4

               Adam Cartwright was whistling a cheery tune as he came down the stairs of the empty ranch house.  He had finished breaking in a string of new horses his father had purchased to sell to the Army, with time to spare and Adam was feeling good.  He had come back to the house to change clothes, then he planned to take a ride into Virginia City to drop off a couple of telegrams and get the mail. He was thinking that he might have time to stop off for a beer and a quick visit with the new serving girl at the Silver Dollar saloon on his way back.  Adam was buckling on his gun belt when he heard the sound of a horse galloping into the front yard.  He frowned and opened the front door just in time to see his youngest brother’s unmistakable black and white pinto disappear into the barn.  Automatically, Adam pulled out his pocket watch, wondering if it was later than he had thought.  The hands read a quarter to one.  What on earth was Joe doing home from school so early in the day? 

               For nearly fifteen minutes, Adam waited, expecting his brother to come through the door and explain his early presence.  When Joe did not show up, Adam began to be concerned and walked out to the barn to find him.  What he saw made his heart ache.  Little Joe had gotten no further than removing Cochise’s saddle and blanket when his emotions had finally caught up with him.  He had collapsed against the horse’s side, weeping with utter despair into the silky mane.  Adam walked up to him slowly, not wanting to upset Joe any further by startling him.  “Joe, are you all right?  What’s wrong, buddy?”

               Despite Adam’s best intentions, the boy jerked in surprise at the sound of his voice.  He had not expected anyone to be home at this time of day.  Pulling away from Cochise, Joe hurriedly wiped his eyes, not wanting to seem babyish in front of Adam.  Gulping back his tears, he turned to face his brother.  “What are you doing home?” he asked, trying hard to sound casual.

               “I could ask you the same thing.  I just finished work a little early today,” Adam told him.  Remembering his earlier vow, he placed his hands on Little Joe’s shoulders and looked straight into his eyes. “I want to apologize for what I said to you at breakfast this morning.  I didn’t mean anything by it.” Adam could see fresh tears welling up in Joe’s eyes, his lower lip beginning to wobble in spite of his tightly clenched jaw.  Joe tried to turn his head away, but Adam placed a knuckle on his chin to prevent him.  His voice was very gentle as he asked, “What are you doing here, Joe?”

               In spite of his best efforts, a choked sob broke free from Little Joe and the tears began to pour from his eyes.  “Oh, Adam, you were right!  I never should have asked Susie to that stupid ol’ picnic.  Now I can never show my face at school again!”  His words were barely understandable through the sobs, but Adam caught enough to recognize that something had gone horribly wrong with his little brother’s plans.  Wordlessly, he gathered the boy into his arms and maneuvered them both over to sit on a hay bale.  Then he just held Joe tight and let him cry.

               When the sounds of weeping began to lessen some, Adam peeked down into Joe’s face and offered him a handkerchief.  Joe accepted it and blew his nose, pulling back from Adam’s embrace and trying once more to distance himself from the scene.  Adam gave him a few minutes to collect himself, then asked him.  “Can you tell me what happened, Joe?”

               Joe sniffled and swiped at his eyes a couple more times.  “I…I asked Susie,” he began, then stopped, swallowing hard. 

               Adam nodded in sympathy.  “She turned you down, huh?”

               Joe squirmed, not wanting to say the words, but as Adam continued to watch him with that unexpectedly understanding expression, he felt the tears burning behind his eyes again.  “She laughed at me, Adam,” he whispered.  “She…she called me a ch-child and she laughed and made fun of me, right in front of the whole school.  Everybody was laughing at me!”  Joe’s voice gave out at that point and he hid his burning face in his hands, not wanting to cry again in front of Adam.

               Adam closed his eyes, flinching in sympathy.  He tried to think of what he could say to make Joe feel better, but there were no easy words to assuage the hurt of such blatant cruelty.  So instead, Adam simply sat and rubbed Joe’s quivering back, offering whatever comfort his presence could provide. It was enough, and eventually, Joe spoke again. “How could she do that to me, Adam?  I thought Susie was my friend.  Even if she didn’t want to go to the picnic with me, why did she have to be so mean?”

               Joe’s eyes were dry now, though still red and swollen from crying.  They implored Adam for answers he could not provide.  “I don’t know, buddy,” Adam sighed.  “For some reason, there just seems to be a need in some folks to hurt others.  Maybe Susie thought she had a reason and maybe she didn’t need one, I just don’t know.  All I do know is that you didn’t deserve to have this happen to you.”

               “But it did.” The words were sad and hollow, reflecting the expression shining deep down in Joe’s eyes.  He looked away from Adam and stared outside into the yard.  “I ain’t goin’ back to school, Adam.  I just can’t.”

               “I understand how you feel, Joe,” Adam told him, “but I don’t think Pa will let you stay home, even if there is only one more week left.”

               Joe shrugged.  “He can make me go, but he can’t make me stay.  I won’t do it.”  Adam recognized the quiet determination in his brother’s voice.  Joe was going to be stubborn about this and Adam wisely chose not to press the issue.  He would let their father handle that one, especially since he was not entirely sure he himself would make Joe go back to school. 

               “Let’s not worry about that for right now, okay?”  Adam leaned forward until Joe consented to look at him.  “Today is Friday, so you’ve got the whole weekend before you have to worry about what you are or are not going to do.  For right now, what do you say you ride into Virginia City with me to pick up the mail, then I’ll buy us a drink.”

               Despite himself, Joe smiled a little.  “Beer for you and sarsaparilla for the kid, right?”

               Adam smiled back. “Well, I’d buy you a beer, but you know Pa would skin me alive if he found out about it.  Tell you what, though.  If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll join you in a sarsaparilla.”

               “You hate that stuff,” Joe pointed out. He sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve, ignoring the handkerchief still clutched in his hand. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

               “So what do you say?” Adam asked. “Shall we?”

               Joe stood, twisting the cloth in his hands, and looked at his brother. “Thanks, Adam, but I don’t really feel much like being around people right now.  Maybe some other time, okay?”  He turned back to Cochise, picked up a currycomb and silently started brushing his horse’s shiny coat.

               Adam remained watching him for a while, but Joe ignored him and finally he sighed and saddled his own horse for the ride to Virginia City.  As he was heading out of the barn, he heard Joe quietly ask a question. “Do you think Pa will punish me for leaving school without getting permission?”

               Adam knew Joe well enough to recognize the question behind the question.  What he really wanted to know was if Adam was planning to tell their father what had happened today.  “I’m afraid he’ll have to know the reason you left, Joe, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it.  Pa will understand, same as I do.”  He saw Joe nod as he returned to brushing his horse.  Adam gave his brother’s shoulder a supportive squeeze and slowly left him to his thoughts.


Chapter 5

               Supper that night was a very quiet affair.  Adam had not yet had a chance to explain what had taken place that afternoon, but he had managed to warn his father and Hoss not to ask Joe how school had been that day, under any circumstances.  Both of them were curious and concerned, but Joe had walked in the house just as Adam had delivered his warning, so they waited patiently.  Little Joe was not in the mood to talk to anyone.  His dinnertime conversation consisted of exactly four words, “Pass the bread, please.” Then he fell silent once again and excused himself to do his evening chores the moment he was finished eating.

               Hoss watched him go with worry etched in every line of his face. It was obvious that Joe was hurting and that in turn hurt Hoss. “Poor little kid.  What’s wrong with him, Adam?”

               Adam smiled sadly.  “Actually, you just pinpointed what’s wrong, Hoss.  Joe’s is a little kid and he was forcibly reminded of that today at school.”

               “What do you mean?” asked Ben.  “What happened to him?”

               Adam told them exactly what Joe had told him, then added, “He asked me if you were going to punish him for coming home early and skipping class.  I think he was really afraid you might think less of him for running away, but I told him you’d understand.  You do, don’t you, Pa?”

“I’m afraid I understand all too well,” Ben said sadly.  “My poor boy.  He really seemed to like that little girl.  He must have been devastated.” 

Adam grimaced.  “I’m afraid so. He just couldn’t face the other kids after that and I don’t blame him.  We may be able to do something about his not wanting to go back to school, though. I went into Virginia City this afternoon and ran into Joe’s friends Mitch and Danny.  They told me basically the same thing Joe did with one major difference.  Everybody wasn’t laughing at him, though I can see how Joe must’ve thought they were. In fact all the kids are apparently pretty much on Joe’s side in this.  Danny said everyone was giving Susie the cold shoulder the rest of the afternoon and Laura Crawford actually slapped her for calling Joe a runt.” 

               “That’s something, anyway,” muttered Hoss.  “If I wasn’t a gentleman I might be tempted to ride on out to the Miller place and take a belt to that girl’s backside myself.” 

               Though Ben secretly sympathized with his middle son’s sentiment, he said, “Now, Hoss, that’s no way to talk.” Ben fell silent a moment, staring into the fireplace with his clenched hands drawn tightly against his mouth.  What could he possibly say to ease Joseph’s pain?  He had felt his own heart breaking as he listened to Adam tell of Joe’s humiliation.  How much worse must Joe himself feel?  It seemed as if that boy had been in a hurry to grow up all his life and his naturally petite frame had only made the waiting harder to endure.  And now this.  Ben was incensed that anyone could so casually trample on Joe’s very tender heart and worried over what it might do to the boy.  Joe had always been sensitive to emotion, whether it was his own or someone else’s.  He felt everything deeply and would never deliberately cause pain or distress to anyone, no matter how many scrapes he got into unintentionally.  Ben sighed deeply.  How it must have hurt to have Joe’s friends laughing at him!  “Boys, we’re going to have to do our best to minimize what happened today and try to convince Joe to go back to school on Monday.  I’d rather not have to order him back.  It would almost certainly be counterproductive to force him when he needs our support so badly.”

               Hoss nodded thoughtfully.  “You ought to tell him what Mitch and Danny said, Adam.  Joe needs to know that his friends are behind him too.  Then I think maybe we should try and convince him to go to that picnic.”

               Ben was surprised.  He had expected Hoss to advocate keeping Joe at home until he forgot the incident.  Certainly he had not expected him to want Joe to attend the event that had precipitated the entire incident.  “Do you think that’s wise, son?”

               “I do,” Adam said.  “Hoss is right, Pa.  We shouldn’t force him, but Joe’s pride will ultimately suffer a lot less if he shows up at the picnic and at least appears to have some fun.  I think his friends will rally around him, if what I saw today is any indication, and with luck he’ll forget some of the sting of today and have a good time.  You know how Joe is.  If we don’t get him right back into circulation, he’ll withdraw and it’ll be that much harder for him to face his friends.”

               “As for school,” Hoss added. “I just don’t know if one last week is worth the fight it’ll take if we tell him he has to go.  Maybe it’d be better if we don’t mention school for the next couple days, then just make it clear next week that he’s expected to go as usual.  Don’t make a big deal out of it, in other words.”

               Ben nodded.  Both his sons were making a lot of sense.  “Joe should be back any minute now.  I’d like to talk to him alone for a little while.”

               “Sure, Pa.  Me and Adam will go gather up that wood Hop Sing wants chopped into kindling,” Hoss volunteered.  Adam grimaced but nodded his agreement and the two young men left the great room together.

               When Joe entered the house a little while later, he spotted his father standing next to his large pine desk, staring out the window, apparently lost in thought.  His brothers were nowhere in sight and Joe was grateful.  He just did not feel up to much conversation after spending the entire evening replaying the events at school over and over in his mind.  Joe sighed softly and plopped down on the sofa to stare disconsolately into the fire.  He was not surprised when his father took a seat next to him and asked, “Want to talk about it?”

               Joe shrugged. “Did Adam tell you?”

               “Yes, he did,” Ben told him gently.  “I’m not upset with you for leaving school early under the circumstances.  Your brother told me you were worried about that.”

               For a moment it looked as though Joe would not answer.  He continued to look into the huge fireplace, then all at once he turned to Ben and blurted, “Oh, Pa, why couldn’t I have been big like you?  I mean, I know you’ve said I take after Mama and all, but why do I have to be so small?”

               The tragic, frustrated look on Little Joe’s fine boned face and the tears shimmering in his expressive golden green eyes caused a spasm of pain to spear through Ben.  He could remember seeing that exact look on his late wife Marie’s face.  She had been having trouble with Adam then, when he was determined to dislike his new stepmother. Marie had come to Ben with this exact look on her face, fearing that her best would not be good enough to conquer the heart of Ben’s stubborn eldest son.  Now, here it was again, mirrored in the face of his youngest son.  The resemblance was uncanny.  Ben’s hand reached out automatically to brush back a lock of downy chestnut hair that was straying into Joe’s eyes. “Joseph, you won’t always be the size you are now.  It is true that you look incredibly like your mother; a fact for which I am ever grateful, and you may not ever grow as tall as your brothers, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Your mother was a very petite woman, true, but she was also quick and strong and stubborn enough to back down men twice her size.” Ben smiled absently at the memory of his tiny wife doing just that with some of the men working on the Ponderosa.  “She’d give a man a glare and he’d snap to before he realized it, then she’d turn on that sweet southern charm and have him eating out of her hand before he even had time to realize it.  That’s what you’re like, Joseph.”

Joe looked a little uncertain.  “I’m not sure I know what you mean.  I’m like what?”

        “You have a way with people,” Ben said simply.  “I’ve seen it all your life.  There’s something about you that causes other people to feel happier just for having spoken with you, and you seem to possess a gift for talking most folks around to your way of thinking.  Just ask Hoss if you don’t believe that!” 

Joe bit his lip, his face a picture of concentration.  Then he frowned and said doubtfully, “You mean, maybe it don’t matter to most folks that I’m little cause they like me for who I am?  That kind of stuff?”

Ben smiled.  Joe was always a little distrustful of anything that sounded like a pithy platitude.  “Yes, I mean exactly that kind of ‘stuff’. A person’s physical size has nothing to do with the size of their heart, Joseph.  Your friends, your real friends, understand that.  Adam ran into two of your friends in town this afternoon and they both wanted you to know that the rest of the students feel badly about today.  They all took your part over Susie’s, apparently.”

Joe’s head whipped up, his startled eyes meeting his father’s.  “They did?”

 Ben nodded.  “Evidently, they agree with your brothers and I that you were treated callously and unfairly.  You have no reason to feel ashamed to face them on Monday, son.  You did nothing wrong and you are not considered a laughing stock by your friends.”

 For a long moment, Joe stared at his father, wondering how he had known what part of the whole fiasco was worrying Joe the most.  He did not doubt that Pa was telling him the truth, but he was a little worried that his father might be mistaken.  After all, it was unlikely that anyone from school would walk right up to Adam and tell him that his little brother was the school joke.  But Joe felt hope stirring in his chest anyway.  Even if Pa was wrong about the other kids, at least Pa and Hoss and Adam still supported and believed in him. “You really think things will be okay, Pa?”

 Ben reached out to cup Joe’s cheek in his palm.  “Have a little faith in yourself and in your friends, Joseph, and just remember one thing.  There’s no shame in being small on the outside, as long as you never become small on the inside.  It sounds simplistic, I know, but it’s true and I don’t think you’re in any danger of ever becoming small on the inside, son.  Everything will be fine, you’ll see.”

 Impulsively, Joe surprised his father by leaning closer and laying his head upon Ben’s shoulder.  He nestled into his enfolding arm, as he had not done in several years.  At 10, Joe had decided that such gestures were babyish, but somehow this time he did not mind.  Comfort was more important than dignity and he snuggled contentedly into Ben’s willing embrace.  “I love you, Pa.”

“I love you too, boy.” Ben hugged his son tight and dropped a kiss on top of his curly head.

They sat together in silence for a long time, staring into the fire, content in each other’s company. Then Joe spoke again, very softly. “Pa, have you ever been laughed at by a girl?”

A deep sigh filled Ben’s chest as an unwelcome memory filled his mind.  “Yes, I’m afraid I have.  When I was just a little older than you are now, I had a crush on a girl named Hannah Smith.  My, but I was sweet on her!”  He laughed a little over the memory.

“What happened?” Joe wanted to know.

“Well, unfortunately, my friend James felt the same way about her,” Ben said ruefully.  “He and I actually came to blows over who would get to escort her to a birthday party!  Turns out, though, that Hannah was already going with another fellow and she was just enjoying watching Jim and I fight over her. When we demanded that she make her choice, she laughed and told us she wouldn’t go with either of us if we were the only two boys in town.”

“Wow,” Joe said softly.  It seemed impossible that anyone could ever do anything like that to a man like Ben Cartwright, but Joe suddenly felt reassured knowing that his Pa really did understand how he had felt today. “How long did it take you to get over it?”

Ben’s arm tightened around him in a quick squeeze. “The memory of it stung for a long while.  In fact, I guess it still does a bit.  It’s not easy to forget the first time someone deliberately hurts you, but all in all, I got over Hannah pretty quick.  You’ll be surprised how quickly your heart can rebound when you’re young, son.  It only took a week or two for me to become smitten with somebody new and of course a few months later I joined Captain Stoddard’s ship and everything in my life changed.  I didn’t have much time to be worrying about chasing girls.  Then, a few more years after that I fell in love with Adam’s mother.”

Joe gave a small grunt of acknowledgement, trying to imagine his father as a lovesick teenager.  Somehow, he could not quite manage it.  “What was she like, Pa?  You’ve said that Hoss and I each take after our mothers, but what about Adam?  Is he like his Ma too?”

Ben smiled.  “Very much so.  He not only looks a great deal like her, but he gets that romantic poetic soul of his from his mother as well.”

Joe made a face and shifted into a more comfortable position on his father’s broad shoulder.  “I suppose all that flowery stuff would sound better coming from a lady.  She was probably real nice in spite of that though, huh, Pa?  Do you think she and I would’ve liked each other if it was possible for us to have met?”

 Ben chuckled, amused by his son’s lingering disdain for romance.  “Tell you what, Joe.  Why don’t I tell you a little about my Elizabeth and you can decide for yourself.”  He felt the boy’s head nod against him and proceeded to outline a wealth of memories.  Pretty little Elizabeth, only 12 to his 15 when they had first met, laughing and teasing her father’s new cabin boy playfully.  He told of the wonderful young woman Elizabeth had become and of the good times they had shared in their all too short time together.  As he talked, memories of sights and sounds and dreams they had shared together came back to Ben, animating and enhancing the quality of his stories.  He had told Adam these stories many times, but to Joe they were new.  The interested noises and occasional questions by Joe kept Ben talking far longer than he had intended to, but he was enjoying the telling.  There was no doubt in Ben’s mind that each of his sons and each of his wives would have liked one another a great deal.  It was right that the boys should know more about each other’s mothers and he hoped Joe would pick up the subtext of his stories.  That there were plenty of good-hearted young women in the world who would never dream of hurting anyone the way Susie Miller had hurt Joe today.  At the very least, Ben hoped the stories would distract Joe from his troubles.  As Joe’s responses grew less and less frequent, Ben began to pitch his voice lower and to speak in a more monotone rhythm and soon he felt the head on his shoulder grow heavy as Joe relaxed.

 Joe fought the pull of sleep valiantly, not wanting the comfort and reassurance he had found in his Pa’s embrace to end.  As the demands of the ranch had become bigger and Joe had grown out of childhood, it had become rare that he would get to enjoy quiet time alone with his father.  He was enjoying the stories as well.  He did not know much about Pa’s life before he himself had become a part of it and was interested to know more.  Finally, though, he could not help himself.  The flames within the fireplace seemed to waver and blur before Joe’s eyes, making it even harder to keep his heavy eyelids from dropping. Even after he gave in and closed his eyes, Joe imagined that he could still see the cheery flames dancing.  He listened to the steady thrum of his father’s heartbeat and the deep echo of his rich voice rumbling through his chest as he talked and sleep overcame the boy at last. 


Chapter 6 

               Adam and Hoss had long since finished their wood-stacking chore, but they had spent an hour by the corral fence, shooting the breeze and allowing their father and Little Joe some extra time together.  In truth, they did not mind at all.  The spring night was nippy enough to make the fire inside comfortable but not so cold as to require more than a light jacket outside. 

“You reckon it’s safe to go inside now?” asked Hoss.  “Joe’s probably gone up to bed and I’d kinda like to know how Pa handled the trouble today.” 

Adam agreed with a nod and they turned to go inside.  “Talk about something unimportant when we go in, just in case Joe and Pa are still talking,” he warned.

 Hoss complied readily, saying loudly as he opened the front door, “Boy, I tell you, Adam, this is going to be one fine summer for sure.  I can feel it in the air.”

 “Boys, keep your voices down, please,” they heard Ben call softly.  Curious the two young men came around to the front of the sofa.  Both smiled at the sight of their peacefully slumbering youngest sibling.

 “Guess he’s feelin’ a little better about today, eh, Pa?” Hoss whispered.  “What did you tell him?”

 “We talked about today and I think I made him see that what happened wasn’t his fault,” Ben said evenly.  He smiled then at his eldest son.  “Then the conversation wandered and I wound up telling Joe stories about your mother until he nodded off.”

 Adam took a seat on the coffee table across from his father and brothers, looking at Ben in surprise. “My mother?  Wouldn’t Joe have rather heard stories about Marie?”

 “Actually, he was very interested in knowing more about your mother.  I think it made him feel a little closer to you to hear about her.”  Ben noted the look of surprise on Adam’s face.  “Don’t you know that you’re still his hero, son?  Joe looks up to you and always has, and I’m sure your understanding today helped too.”

 Adam stroked Joe’s hair lightly.  “I’m glad I was here to help him.  I’d hate for Joe to have had to go through what happened today all alone.”  Adam saw his father grimace as he shifted, trying to adjust his position without waking his sleeping son.  Little Joe responded to the motion of his human pillow with a muffled grumble of protest, flinging his left arm out to encircle Ben’s ribs possessively as he settled back into deeper sleep. Adam could feel the tender smile he saw upon his father’s face mirrored in his own expression as they watched Joe.  “Why don’t you let me take him upstairs to bed, Pa?”

 Ben hesitated, not wanting to let the evening end.  He had greatly enjoyed this closeness with his youngest son, but his arm was already asleep and Ben knew that if he did not move soon he would be facing a night of muscle cramps.  Reluctantly, he nodded.  Hoss assisted Adam in disentangling the sleeping child from their father and Adam easily scooped him up, transferring Joe’s head to his own shoulder.  At 14, Joe was really too old to be carried up and put to bed like a baby but a long held sense of protectiveness had come over Adam that afternoon and it felt right to him to do so.  Besides, Joe had not moved a muscle as he was being passed into Adam’s arms, a sure sign that he was gone for the night.  It was far easier to carry him than to try waking him up just to send him to bed. 

 The boy’s light weight was no hardship for Adam as he moved up the double staircase and into Joe’s room.  Setting his brother down upon the bed, Adam lit a lamp then got Joe out of his clothes and into his nightshirt, tucking him into bed with the efficiency of long practice.  Just as he was about to extinguish the light, Adam was startled to hear a sleepy voice say, “You were right, Adam.  Pa did understand.”  He moved back to Joe’s bedside and was amused to see the effort the boy was making to force his eyelids open. In only a few seconds, Joe gave up the fight and rolled onto his side, nestling deep into his pillow as the pull of slumber overtook him once again.

 Adam stood looking down at his brother for a long time, not wanting to leave. He had always rather enjoyed seeing Joe still and peaceful.  It didn’t happen very often.  Adam could still remember the very first time he had ever laid eyes on his newborn brother.

 Only hours old, Joseph had been lying wrapped in a blanket on the bed next to his proud mother.  He had been fussy, grunting and snuffling in infant displeasure, his eyes blinking in confusion at the world around him. Hoss had stood in front of Adam, eyes big as he beheld the new arrival.  Looking at their father for approval, Hoss had reached out a finger to stroke the baby’s dark downy hair.  Little Joe had gurgled then, his unhappiness seeming to vanish at Hoss’ touch and Hoss had smiled joyfully when he had touched a little hand and felt baby Joseph’s fingers wrap around his own.  The boy had kissed the baby carefully and then run out, tears of joy streaming down his face. As Adam had leaned closer, intending to kiss the baby’s cheek as well, he had received a poke in the face from a tiny fist as it waved aimlessly around.  He had reared back in surprise, then laughed delightedly and caught the little hand in his own.  The baby had opened his eyes wider, staring up at Adam and going suddenly quiet.  Adam had felt incredible awe as he stared down into those innocent eyes and a sense of protectiveness had filled his soul.  As years passed, the two of them had their ups and downs, many good times and many fights, but that need to protect Little Joe had never left Adam’s heart and he knew it never would. 

 Smiling at the memory, Adam wondered if he should have known that Joe’s first meeting with both himself and Hoss were a portent of things to come. Checking to make sure that Joe was truly asleep and that his father and brother were still downstairs, Adam leaned down and kissed Joe on the temple.  “I love you, buddy,” he whispered. “Sleep well.”


Chapter 7

               On Monday morning, Little Joe rode slowly into the schoolyard, dreading the thought of facing his friends.  Especially Susie Miller, not that she deserved the title of friend anymore. He could still see that mean smile on her face and hear her mocking laughter ringing in his ears.  His face flushed hot just thinking about it, as it had every time he had thought about it all during the past two and a half days.  He had been gratefully surprised that his family had left him alone to lick his wounds, never demanding that he talk more about it or giving him extra chores to help him ‘forget’.  They had respected his desire to be by himself, only offering plenty of understanding looks and comforting touches whenever they would pass.  By Sunday evening, Joe had made up his mind to go back to school as usual.  Anger had started to override the hurt and even though she had seen him run away, Joe did not want to give Susie the satisfaction of staying away.  Now, though, with the school building in sight, Little Joe was not sure he could go through with it.  Fighting the urge to spur Cochise back to the safety of home, Joe dismounted and tied the horse up to graze beneath a large shade tree.  Drawing himself up with a deep determined breath, Joe pulled his lunch and books out of his saddlebag and walked up the school steps.  He faltered again when he reached the entry, but he had arrived a few minutes earlier than usual and to his relief, the room was empty except for the teacher, Miss Jennifer Grady. 

               “Why, hello, Joseph,” Miss Grady said in surprise, surreptitiously checking the clock above the chalkboard.  She could not recall the last time Joseph Cartwright had arrived at the school early.  “What happened to you on Friday?” 

               For an eternal few seconds, Joe froze.  Surely he would not have to confess the whole horrible ordeal to his teacher!  Then he remembered that he had given no excuse for leaving early Friday afternoon and relaxed.  “I wasn’t feeling too good, so I went home,” Joe replied honestly.  “I’m sorry I forgot to ask permission, ma’am.  My Pa gave me a note.”  He pulled a piece of heavy paper from beneath his book strap and handed it to her.  He was still vaguely astonished that his father had written it, handing the note to Joe with a compassionate smile and a warning not to leave school early without asking permission again. 

               Miss Grady accepted the paper and read the words written in Ben Cartwright’s bold decisive script.

               Dear Miss Grady,              

               Please excuse my son’s absence Friday afternoon. Joseph was not feeling well and came straight home from school.  He went to bed early and took the weekend easy. I have spoken to Joseph about leaving school without obtaining your permission and I assure you that the incident will not be repeated. 

               Yours Sincerely, 

               Ben Cartwright.

                Having heard something of what had transpired Friday afternoon between Joe and Susie, Miss Grady had already been inclined to overlook the absence. After reading the note and noticing how both Joe and his father had carefully omitted mentioning any specific illness, she was certain she knew the truth behind Joseph’s class cutting and her heart went out to the boy.  “Very well, Joseph.  Your absence is excused.  Please take your seat.  You have 15 minutes until class begins and I’d like you to spend it working out the problems on pages 39-41 of your math text.  That was the assignment you missed last week.” 

               “Yes, ma’am,” Joe replied, relieved that she had not told him to run outside and play until the bell rang.  Normally, he would have preferred to spend as much time outside as possible, avoiding the confinement of his desk until the last possible second, but the assignment offered him a few extra minutes respite before he would have to face his classmates.  He willingly took his seat and pulled out the book and his writing slate, determined to work hard and just get this final week of school over with.  He finished the math problems in just under 10 minutes, surprising himself.  They normally took far longer because he was daydreaming or whispering with other students.  Hesitating just a bit, Joe raised his hand and cleared his throat to get Miss Grady’s attention. 

               She looked up, smiling her lovely smile and said, “Yes, Joseph?” 

               “Uh, I’m finished, ma’am,” Joe said shyly, returning the smile.  He secretly thought that even his dread of coming back to school might be endurable if he could get Miss Grady to smile at him like that more often.  He thought she was wonderful, much nicer and prettier than any teacher he had ever had before.  She was 22 years old, small and dainty looking with big blue eyes and hair the same color as Adam’s horse, Sport.  Joe did not see anything insulting in the comparison, as he thought Sport a very handsome animal.  He was not as showy as Cochise was but pretty just the same.   It was rumored that Miss Grady was engaged to marry a young man in Carson City and would not be back next year.  Joe hoped the rumor would prove false. 

               Joe rested his chin on his fist, watching with enraptured eyes as Miss Grady nibbled on her full lower lip while looking over his schoolwork. The boy sighed dreamily at the sight, absently wondering what it would feel like to kiss her.  He had been kissed twice before, once when he was10 and curious to know what was so great about it, and once last year at Nancy Coffee’s birthday party when Mitch bet him ten cents that he wouldn’t have the nerve to give the sheriff’s daughter a birthday kiss.  Joe had enjoyed both, but thought them nothing special.  He bet, though, that Jennifer Grady’s kisses would be worth having.  Miss Grady cleared her throat softly and Joe came back to reality, eyes widening as he realized where his thoughts had taken him.  Miss Grady’s eyebrow arched delicately, curious to know where he had drifted off to and Joe had the ridiculous notion that she knew what he had been thinking; that she could somehow read his mind.  His face instantly colored a bright pink and he tried to think of something neutral to say.  “Are…um, are they okay?” 

               She smiled and laid the slate back down upon the desk. “Congratulations, Joseph.  These are all correct.”  The teacher touched his shoulder gently and leaned a little closer, causing Joe’s breath to catch in his throat.  “I told you you’d get it if you kept trying hard.  I’m proud of you, dear.” 

               Little Joe beamed with pleasure, releasing a mute sigh of relief as he realized that she had not guessed the nature of his daydreaming. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I’ve been trying to keep up.” 

               “Well, it looks like you’ve succeeded.”  She checked the clock again. “I’d better go ring the bell.” Miss Grady’s smile faded into a look of sympathy as Little Joe’s cheery grin faded and was replaced by a wary expression. 

Joe’s eyes were fastened to his desk, refusing to look up as the bell rang and the room filled with students.  A chorus of whispered greetings and slaps on his shoulders and arms surprised Joe into raising his head and seeing that his desk was surrounded.  For a moment, nobody said anything, each of them waiting for someone else to speak, then at last Mitch said, “We talked after you left last week and we want you to know how rotten we thought Susie was for laughin’ at you like that.” 

“She wasn’t the only one who laughed,” Joe muttered, scowling as he felt his ears begin to burn in tell tale embarrassment.

 Mary Hicks touched his arm. “We’re sorry, Joe.  It seemed sort of funny at first, when we thought you’d just flare up and tell Susie off.  I guess we were all kinda shocked by what she said.  We didn’t mean to hurt you even more.”

 “Besides, most of us didn’t laugh,” chimed in Laura Crawford.  “We thought Susie was just plain awful and I told her so to her face!”

 Danny grinned, his smile seeming to stretch clear from ear to ear.  “Yeah, I’ll say!  Laura told her so plain that Susie is probably sporting a black eye today and Mitch and I saw to it that her ‘boyfriend’ Teddy has one to match.”

 Joe gave an astonished laugh.  “Adam told me you just slapped Susie!”  Laura winked and huffed on her fist, polishing it against her shirt nonchalantly.  Joe’s warm giggle filled the air.  “I can’t believe you did that!  My Pa would whomp me good if I ever punched a girl!”

 Laura laughed.  “That’s cause you’re a boy, silly.  Besides I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t called you a runt.  She had it coming to her and I ain’t sorry!”  She tossed her black braids defiantly, as if to say, ‘so there’”.

 Joe scowled at the word ‘runt’ but said, “Thanks, Laura; you too, guys.”  Seeing that the teacher was watching them, Mitch slapped Joe on the back and motioned to the other kids. They all winked or smiled supportively as they moved to their own desks and Mitch took his seat on the opposite side of the desk he shared with Joe. 

 “Don’t mind it much, Joe.”  The soft, timid voice at his ear startled Joe.  It was Sally-Ann Miller, Susie’s 12 year old sister. She glanced uncertainly at Mitch, who was rummaging in his book-bag, then placed a thin hand atop Joe’s.  “Susie’s gotten awful mean and stuck-up ever since she thinks she’s grown up.  She only sparked up to Teddy to make you sorry you never noticed her before.  She says you’re too little for her now that she’s been growing and changing some, but she’s wrong and I know she’ll be sorry when she has to spend all day with Teddy.” Sally-Ann looked down at her shoes, biting her lip, then she seemed to come to an inner resolution and quickly kissed Joe’s cheek, whispering so softly he almost couldn’t hear her, “I wish you’d asked me instead of her.” 

Blushing to the roots of her blond hair, Sally-Ann scurried away to take her seat.  Joe touched his cheek in mute astonishment, staring after her with open mouth.  He had never heard Sally-Ann Miller string even ten words together at a time and he had certainly never expected the ones she had finally chosen. 

Mitch laughed quietly and whispered.  “Close your mouth, Joe.  You’ll catch flies.”  Joe’s jaw closed with a snap as he turned questioning eyes upon his friend.  Mitch elbowed him in the ribs.  “You should think about it, you know.  I think Sally-Ann really likes you and she’s way nicer than her sister is. Besides, it’d really frost Susie if you showed up at the picnic with her baby sister.” 

“All right, children, settle down,” commanded Miss Grady.  She had seen the cluster around Joseph’s desk and had decided to grant him a few minutes in hopes that it would prevent further incident.  The class quieted at once and Miss Grady frowned as she noticed several empty desks.  She picked the sibling of one of the absentees at random. “Sally-Ann, where is Susie, today?” 

“She’s sick, ma’am,” Sally-Ann said softly.  “Ma kept her home.” 

Further questioning revealed that three other students had stayed home sick as well and the remaining four had no brothers or sisters to answer for them.  Miss Grady wondered if there was something going around or if there might possibly be some sort of secret end of school event that she was not privy to. “Well, I certainly hope everyone is feeling better tomorrow,” she said, deciding to give the missing students the benefit of the doubt.  “Please open your readers to the chapters written on the board.  Review the material and I will hear the first class recite in ten minutes.”


Chapter 8 

               Ben Cartwright nodded in satisfaction as he finished applying his signature to the last of a large stack of legal documents.  Business had been good this year and he had just used a large chunk of the capital to add another parcel of prime timberland to the western border of the Ponderosa.  As he reread the document, Ben shook his head in amazement.  This purchase would bring the total acreage of his property to nearly half a million; a truly Herculean accomplishment for only 15 short years.  Strange, how good luck and prosperity had seemed to smile upon the Cartwright family almost from the very day Marie had announced her pregnancy with Joseph, Ben mused.  That boy, with his ready smile and impish ways had been the joy of their lives ever since, even when they were ready to whale the hide off him for some of his pranks.  Ben smiled as he realized it must almost be time for the boy to arrive home from school, then he frowned, wondering how his son had fared with his schoolmates today. 

               As if conjured by his father’s thoughts, Joe cantered into the yard on Cochise.  Ben stood to get a look out his window as he heard the hoof beats.  At least the boy hadn’t come dragging home, which his father took to be a good sign.  A few minutes later, the front door opened, followed by the sound of soft footsteps and a heavy crash.  Ben rolled his eyes.  “Joseph, don’t slam the door!” 

               “Sorry, Pa,” Joe replied automatically, as he had the last thousand or so times he had received that particular admonishment.  He detoured to the side table to snag an apple out of the bowl Hop Sing kept handy and took a huge bite as he wandered into his father’s study.  “Hi, Pa.  Finishing some paperwork?” he said around the food, plunking down into the chair next to the big desk. 

               Ben automatically said, “Joe, don’t talk with your mouth full.”  He knew it was useless, but he kept hoping that someday the boy would actually listen and swallow before he began speaking. “How was school today, son?” 

               Joe bobbed his head from side to side in a so-so gesture as he finished chewing the apple, gulping it down with a loud swallow.  “It wasn’t bad.  Better than I expected actually.” 

               “Oh?  How so?” Ben pretended to shuffle his papers in search of a document as he casually asked the question.  He knew Joe would be more forthcoming about the events of his day if he did not feel pressured to respond. 

               Joe munched his apple thoughtfully.  “Well, Susie and Teddy were both absent today, for starters.  Then with the other kids, I guess it’s like you said, Pa.  My real friends did stick by me.  They definitely seemed to be on my side, anyway.  Everybody was real nice to me all day and…” He cut himself off, abruptly leaning forward and placing his elbows on the desk, resting his chin in his hands.  “Pa, can I ask you about something?” 

Ben smiled and set his papers aside, giving Joe his full attention.  “Of course, son.  What’s on your mind?” 

               “Well, I found out something today that I didn’t expect, about somebody I never really thought about before.  The thing is, I want to believe what I found out is true but now I’m not sure if I should trust what I was told because the person might have just been trying to make me feel better by saying it.  I don’t know what I should do, or if I should do anything at all.”  Joe finished his cryptic speech by staring his father in the eye and asking, “What do you think?” 

               Ben was silent a moment as he digested the boy’s speech.  He was quite used to Joe’s habit of dancing around any subject he did not feel comfortable discussing and he calmly got to the heart of the matter. “Exactly what did you find out?” 

               Diverting his gaze, Joe shrugged and said, “Well, Sally-Ann…You know, Susie Miller’s sister?” He paused, peeking up at Ben, who nodded for him to go on. “Well, um, I guess Sally-Ann has sort of a crush on me.  I didn’t know it, but Mitch says she really likes me, and, uh, well, Sally-Ann told me she wishes I’d asked her to the picnic instead of her sister.  Then she…well, she sort of kissed me, Pa.  Then she wouldn’t look at me for the rest of the day.”  Joe was blushing uncontrollably by now and wishing he had just kept his mouth shut about Sally-Ann. 

               Ben hid a grin behind his hand.  “She ‘sort of’ kissed you?” 

               Joe squirmed.  “It wasn’t much, Pa.  Just a peck on the cheek really.  It’s not that I minded it exactly, but I don’t know if I should say anything to her about it or not.  Maybe she only wanted me to feel not so bad about what her sister did, but if she does like me than why wouldn’t she look at me?” 

               Contemplating the matter with all due gravity, Ben suggested, “Perhaps the little girl was embarrassed or thinks you might not feel the same way about her that she feels about you.  How do you feel about her, Joseph?   Do you think you might like to take her to the picnic?" 

               Shrugging, Joe studied the desk surface and mumbled, “I dunno.  Like I said, I’ve never really thought much about her in any way before, Pa.  She’s only 12.” 

               Ben’s grin broke through to the surface and he chuckled, making Joe look up in surprise.  “So, Sally-Ann is too young for a man of your advanced age?” 

               Sensing that there was only affection in his father’s gentle teasing, Joe laughed.  “I’m just wondering if she was feeling sorry for me.  Sally-Ann has always seemed to get along better with animals than people.  She’s hardly ever said a word to me before today, even though I’ve seen her petting Cochise a couple of times.  She’s kind of soft hearted, always taking in stray critters and looking after the little kids.”  Joe raised a thoughtful eyebrow.  “Come to think of it, if she was a few years older, she’d be a good match for Hoss.” 

               “Who’d be a good match for Hoss?” Adam asked, having come through the door just in time to catch the last of Joe’s sentence. 

               Joe debated whether to include Adam in his conversation with Pa, then sighed.  He’d find out anyway.  Somehow his brothers always found out every detail of his life.  “I found out today that Sally-Ann Miller likes me and want to go to the end of school picnic with me and I told Pa she’d make a better match for Hoss.” 

               Adam grinned as he followed Joe’s example and snagged an apple out of the bowl before perching on the back of the sofa.  “She’s a little young for Hoss, I think.  Besides, how come you don’t want to take her?  Is it because she’s Susie’s kid sister?” 

               “Maybe,” Joe admitted.  “The whole way home I kept asking myself if Sally-Ann could have been setting me up for another blow from Susie.  I don’t think Sally is mean enough to do anything like that, but before Friday, I didn’t think her sister was either.”  Joe’s voice softened.  “I don’t think I could take that again.” 

               For a moment, silence filled the room as each of the Cartwrights considered the possibility of the Miller sisters working together, then Ben said, “No Joseph, you can’t think like that.  You can’t go through life assuming people are out to get you or you’ll make yourself miserable.  I can’t promise that no girl will ever deliberately hurt you again, but you mustn’t let the possible hurt keep you away from the possible good times.  Why don’t you just think on it awhile, maybe sleep on it tonight, and then in the morning you can make your decision what to do about Sally-Ann.” 

               “Okay, Pa,” Joe agreed, happy to let the subject drop for now.  He stood up and moved past Adam to grab another apple.  He saw his father’s raised eyebrow and tossed the piece of fruit in the air, catching it with a grin. “It’s for Cochise, Pa.” 

               Ben shook his head.  There was no horse in all of Nevada who got more pampering than Joe’s black and white pinto.  “Go ahead, but be sure you don’t spend so much time with that horse that you forget about doing your barn chores, young man.” 

               “Yes, sir,” Joe said, ducking quickly out the door.  He knew dinner wouldn’t be ready for at least another hour. Plenty of time to get the chores done and still spend a while tending Cochise.  He wanted some time alone to think about what he should tell Sally-Ann and brushing Cochise would be a perfect diversion while he did it. 

               The moment he reached the barn, Joe heard the welcoming whicker of his pony.  They had only parted company 20 minutes before, but the horse was always as glad to see Joe as he was to see him.  Joe took a moment to rub Cochise’s soft nose, murmuring softly all the while and Cochise responded by snorting into his hair and lipping at his collar.  “I brought you something special,” Joe said, pulling the apple from behind his back.  The horse eyed the treat eagerly, stamping a hoof in demand as Joe cut it in half with his pocketknife and held out a section.  “Here you go, boy.  You want a brushing before I do my chores?” 

Cochise accepted the other half of the apple then shook his handsome head proudly and nudged Little Joe toward the hay rake.  Joe giggled.  “Hey, I thought you were on my side!  Okay, okay, I’ll do my chores first, then I’ll brush you. How’s that?”  Cochise snorted, giving the boy another soft push with his nose.  Still grinning, Joe grabbed the rake and began to muck out the stalls.  “You been talking to Pa when I wasn’t around, Cooch?”  The horse turned its head toward him and blinked placidly.  Joe shook his head in amusement and finished his evening chores.

Half an hour later, Joe was done with his work and had started giving Cochise the promised grooming.  He brushed the gleaming black and white coat in long strokes, occasionally dragging his fingers through the horse’s mane to check for tangles.  “So, what do you think about that party, huh, Cooch?” Joe asked after a while.  “You think I should take another chance and ask Sally-Ann if she wants to go, or just forget the whole thing?  I’d kind of hate to miss it, even if I don’t take anybody with me.  The picnic is always a lot of fun and I don’t have to stay for the dance afterward.  I’m sure Pa would let you and me go home early if we wanted to.”  

He brushed silently for a few minutes, weighing his choices.  “On the other hand, I’d hate to miss my first real dance.  Hoss and Adam always seem to have a real good time at those things and it wouldn’t hurt to have a partner.  I just don’t know about Sally-Ann, though.  She’s kind of nice, I guess, but I ain’t sure it’s right to date somebody whose sister would do what Susie did.  Susie’s enough to make me sorry I ever met any of the Miller family, but is that fair?  If Adam was mean to a girl that I liked then I wouldn’t want her to hate me just because she don’t like him anymore.”  Joe sighed deeply, feeling that he was no closer to a solution than he had been when he came out here.  “What should I do, Cochise?” 

Before the pinto could impart his wisdom on the subject, Joe heard a sharp painful sounding cough.  He turned to see Hoss dragging into the barn, leading Chubb by the reins.  His face was flushed and he looked tired.  “Hoss!”  Joe ran to his brother’s side.  “Are you all right?” 

Hoss smiled reassuringly, though it was clear that he was not all right.  “Guess I must’ve caught something while helpin’ out over at the Lazy ‘R’ these last couple of days,” Hoss said, referring to the neighboring ranch where he had been helping to brand some spring calves. “I feel a might woozy.” 

“Let me take Chubb and you go on inside,” Joe insisted, taking the reins from his brother’s hand and leading the large black horse to a freshly cleaned stall.  Hoss stood and watched while his baby brother struggled to remove Chubb’s heavy saddle and place it and the matching bridle on their waiting pegs, then fill the feed and water stations and brush out the sweat and dirt from Chubb’s coat.  Joe worked quickly and was almost done before he realized that Hoss had not moved and was simply staring at him with a slightly vacant expression.  Alarmed, Joe put away the currycomb and grabbed Hoss by the arm, tugging him until the big man snapped out of his reverie and walked with him to the house. 

“Pa!” Joe yelled as soon as he got the door open.  “Pa, come quick!  Hoss is sick!”  Joe was relieved to see his father and eldest brother charging downstairs. Hop Sing made equally good time from the kitchen and all three of them immediately took charge of Hoss, helping him to the sofa. 

“Boy, how long have you been feeling sick?” Ben asked with concern as he felt Hoss’ forehead and found it hot to the touch.

 Hoss brushed the hands away.  “I guess I was feelin’ a might poorly yesterday, Pa, but it was just a little sore throat, then when I woke up this morning I was all right so I didn’t say nothin’.  I didn’t think nothing of it until a few hours ago when I got so dizzy I almost fell off my horse.” 

“You want me to go get the Doc, Pa?” Joe asked anxiously.

Ben nodded grimly.  He was inclined to tell Joe to just send one of the hands for the doctor, but he knew how much better Joe would feel if he could be doing something useful. In addition, though only 14, Joe was one of the best riders on the ranch. “I think that would be a good idea.  Tell him Hoss has a high fever and has been experiencing dizzy spells and a sore throat since yesterday.” 

 “I’m on my way, Pa,” Joe called, grabbing his hat and sprinting out to the barn to resaddle Cochise for the ride into Virginia City.  Cochise looked surprised at being readied to ride again so soon, but pranced excitedly, always ready for a run.  As soon as they’d cleared the barn, horse and rider took off like lightning as they headed for the road to town.  Joe was surprised to meet Doctor Paul Martin heading toward him when he was only halfway to town.  “Doc, I was just coming to find you.  Hoss is sick with fever and dizzy spells.”

 The doctor shook his head grimly.  “I just came from the Lazy ‘R’ and they said Hoss had been working over there.  Half their people are sick too and there are several cases around Virginia City.”  The doctor urged his horse to pull his small black buggy faster as Joe pulled up and cantered alongside.

 “Several cases of what, Doc?”  Joe raised his voice to be heard over the horses.  “Do you already know what’s wrong with Hoss?”

 The doctor hesitated, seeing the wide eyes and fearful expression in the young face above him, but since he had already let the cat out of the bag in part, he knew it would only make the boy more anxious if he tried to put him off now.  “Since this morning, I’ve treated a dozen children and nearly as many adults for measles, Joe.  There’s no telling where it started, but I am sure the illness incubated in your school.  The Richardson boys both have it and so do several of their ranch hands.”

 Joe’s face registered surprise and fear.  “So, that’s why so many people were absent today?  They all have measles?  Doc, do I have them too?  Did Hoss get them faster by being around me?”

 Doctor Martin held up a hand to stop the barrage of questions.  “Yes, several of your classmates do have measles, but no, your brother didn’t catch them from you.  You already had measles when you were about three years old.  You, and your mother and your brother Adam had them at the same time, so neither of you is any danger of catching them from Hoss.”

 “What about Pa?” Joe wanted to know.  “Will he get ‘em?  Do you think Hoss will get very sick?”

 “Why don’t I answer that after I’ve conducted my examination?” the doctor said with a smile.  Joe smiled back sheepishly and took the hint, riding a little way ahead and leading the buggy back to the Ponderosa. 

 They made good time and the doctor immediately hurried upstairs, ordering Joe to wait below.  There was no one downstairs to wait with him, and Joe spent a long lonely hour alternating between sitting in the big chair by the fireplace and hopping up to pace the floor. He tried listening carefully at the base of the stairs for any sound that would tell him what was going on, but it was no use. 

 At last, Adam descended the staircase and Joe immediately sprang to his side, his fearful eyes asking the question for him.  “It’s okay, buddy,” Adam said gently.  “Young and strong as he is, Doc thinks Hoss will have a fairly light case of the measles.”

 Joe breathed a sigh of relief.  “What about Pa?”

 “Funny thing about Pa,” Adam said, a little frown gathering his eyebrows together.  “He’s been exposed once before, years ago when he was about Hoss’ age, but he didn’t catch measles.  Maybe he’ll get lucky again.  He doesn’t show any symptoms.”

 “And with any luck, you won’t see any,” announced Dr. Martin as he came down to join them.  “I don’t know why Ben has escaped infection the other time he was exposed, but possibly he possesses some sort of natural immunity.  Just in case, though, I’d advise you two to keep an unobtrusive eye on him for the next week or two and watch for any symptoms like Hoss has.  For now, your father is fine.  He and Hop Sing are making Hoss comfortable and I’ve left instructions for his care.”

 “Can I go up and see him, Doctor Martin?” Joe asked hopefully.  “I promise I won’t tire him out or anything.”

 Dr. Martin smiled and ruffled the boy’s curls.  “Hop Sing said he has some stew sitting on the stove that he was going to bring up to Hoss.  Why don’t you save him a trip?”

  Joe grinned and took off for the kitchen and Adam shook the doctor’s hand.  “Thanks for everything, Doc.  Not just for Hoss but for reassuring Joe as well.”

 “Glad to do it, Adam,” Martin said.  “I’ve got to be going now.  I have a feeling I’m going to be on the road quite a bit over the next few weeks, but I’ll stop back in two or three days.”  Putting on his hat, the doctor started towards the door then stopped.  “Oh, by the way, tell Joe that the last week of school has been cancelled and the town placed under quarantine until further notice. I’d prefer to keep everyone in their own homes until this passes, then with any luck it will be just a small outbreak.”

 Adam indicated his understanding, and then he smiled wryly.  “I’m sure that missing a few days of school won’t break Joe’s heart, but he’s not going to like being confined to the ranch, especially knowing he’s not in any danger of becoming sick.”

 The doctor laughed.  “Just tell your Pa that he’s got himself a volunteer nurse for Hoss and that I said to let the boy coddle his brother as much as he pleases, as long as he makes sure Hoss gets plenty of rest.”  With a tip of his hat, the doctor hurried out the door.

 Adam was still smiling, knowing that the doctor had just found the perfect solution for keeping Joe out of trouble and that Hoss was suddenly in immanent danger of being killed by kindness, when Joe came back into the main room.  He was walking very carefully, his tongue sticking out between pursed lips as he balanced a heavily laden tray of stew, bread, milk and several of Hop Sing’s fresh oatmeal cookies in his hands.  “You need some help getting that upstairs?” Adam asked, seeing the tray wobble as Joe reached out a foot to feel for the bottom step.

 “I got it, Adam,” Joe said determinedly.  “Could you go up ahead of me, though, and make sure Hoss’ door is open and nobody is in the way?”

 “Sure thing,” Adam replied with a grin.  It was a sensible request, and though he really did have his doubts about Joe’s ability to get the heavy tray upstairs without a catastrophe, he knew to insist on doing it for him would only make his brother mad.  Running lightly up the stairs, Adam waited until he saw the boy reach the first landing and pause to readjust his load before moving down the hall to Hoss’ bedroom.  “Gangway!  Supper coming through!” he shouted, pushing the door open and gesturing his father and Hop Sing aside.  They exchanged a puzzled glance at seeing him empty handed, then both men smiled to see Joe come creeping into the room, his face the very image of concentration as he moved to his big brother’s side and carefully deposited the tray on his lap.

 Hoss broke into a broad smile at Little Joe’s entrance.  His face was lightly flushed with fever and there were dark circles of fatigue beneath his eyes, but an eager gleam still brightened Hoss’ blue eyes at the sight of food.  “That looks mighty good,” he said his voice sounding a little hoarse.  He reached out and tousled Joe’s curls.  “How you feelin’ yourself, Shortshanks?  Doc says a lot of your friends have got measles too.  You sure you oughta be in here?”

 “Sure, Hoss,” Joe answered with a grin.  “You can’t measles more than once and I already had ‘em when I was just a kid.”

 “Wish I had,” Hoss said with a sigh.  “Doc tells me I’m gonna be mighty uncomfortable for a couple of weeks.  Just my luck I had to be off on a hunting trip with Pa the last time measles struck the area.  I could’ve done without getting them now when there’s so much work to do.”

 Understanding filled Joe’s face.  “Oh, so that’s why you and Pa didn’t get sick when Adam and I did.  I wondered about that.  But, there is one good thing about this.  I heard Doc Martin telling Adam that there ain’t gonna be any school this week.  They had to cancel it because so many folks are sick and they probably won’t bother having us make it up since there were only four days left anyhow.”  His happy expression made the men laugh.  There was nothing Joe liked better than a valid excuse to avoid school.  Then his face turned wistful.  “It’s too bad I didn’t get to say goodbye to Miss Grady, though.  Having her as a teacher almost made it worth missing everything to go to school.  I suppose the party will probably be cancelled too, with everyone either sick or confined to home.”

 “Well, cheer up, son,” Ben said, clapping him lightly on the back. “I’m sure the picnic will be rescheduled once everyone is back on their feet, and you can say goodbye to Miss Grady then. Meanwhile, let’s all get out of here and let your brother eat his supper in peace.”

 “Pa, is it all right with you if stay for a little while?” Joe pleaded. “ Just until Hoss finishes, then I can bring the tray downstairs.  I’d hate to make him have to eat all by himself.  You want some company, right, Hoss?”  He wanted to reassure himself that Hoss was going to be all right and his bright green eyes begged Hoss to agree.

 “I ain’t very hungry, but I reckon I would like a little company, Pa, if you don’t mind,” Hoss said willingly.  He actually felt rather tired and wanted nothing more than to have a long nap, but Hoss also wanted to make his little brother feel better and he supposed a little company wouldn’t hurt.

 Ben smiled indulgently. “All right boys.  Just don’t stay too long, Joe.  Your brother needs to rest.”  The beaming face of his youngest and the sweet smile of his middle son convinced Ben that he’d made the right decision. 

 Hop Sing grinned at the brothers. “Little Joe, you make sure he finish supper, then you come down, eat supper too.”

 “Okay, Hop Sing. I’ll be down in just a little while,” Joe promised.  His father and the Chinese cook left the room, but Adam stayed.  Joe gave him a questioning look.  He wanted to spend a few moments alone with Hoss, but knew he could hardly order Adam out of the room.

 Adam reached behind Hoss and adjusted his pillows more comfortably, then checked his fever with a hand placed upon Hoss’ forehead.  He saw the patient smile on his brother’s face and shrugged. “Sorry.  I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable before I went downstairs.  I’ll come see you tomorrow, okay?”  Hoss nodded.  “Feel better,” he added, ducking out the door.

 Joe sat down on the foot of the bed.  “Do you feel awful bad, Hoss?” he asked sympathetically.

 “Nah,” Hoss said, waving a hand dismissively.  “I’ve felt worse.  Not that I’m exactly hale and hearty, but Doc says that once my spots show up real plain and the fever goes away, I’ll feel a whole lot better.”

 Joe grinned.  “Just itchy, huh?”

 Hoss made a face.  “Probably.  Though if measles spots are anything like chicken pox for itching, I think I’d rather keep my fever!”  He shuddered dramatically.

 Joe automatically scratched his arm at the reminder.  He and Hoss had both picked up chicken pox five years earlier and neither had enjoyed it one bit.  “If the itching gets that bad, let me know and I’ll get Hop Sing to make up some of that oatmeal goop he spread on us before.  It’s messy and it kinda stinks, but it sure does take the itch away.”

 “And makes you feel like a dadblamed statue within an hour after it dries,” Hoss reminded him grumpily.  “Thanks, but unless I just can’t stand it no more, I’ll pass.”

 “Well, one thing you have to do right now is eat,” Joe said briskly.  He picked up the napkin off the tray and offered it to Hoss, then sat silently for the next 15 minutes, keeping a stern eye on Hoss’ progress at finishing his dinner until the last spoonful of stew and the last crumbs of bread and cookies were gone.

 Hoss was greatly amused to see his baby brother doing such a fine impression of their father during the times when he would stubbornly wait for Joseph to finish unwanted meals.  Hoss drained his milk glass then snapped a salute to his brother, his blue eyes twinkling merrily.  “All finished, sir!  Permission to get some sleep?”

 Joe laughed and hopped off the bed.  He removed the tray from Hoss’ lap and set it on the dresser, then reached over to crack the window open a couple of inches.  He remembered hearing the doctor tell his father once that a sick person’s room should be well ventilated.  Since it was nearly summer, the air outside was warm and sweet and it moved the curtains gently.  “I promised Pa I wouldn’t stay too long, but if you want, I’ll stay and tell you a story until you fall asleep.”

 Hoss grinned.  He had performed that rite for Joseph enough times.  He supposed it was only right that Joe get the chance to do it for him.  “All right.  What do you say you turn the lamp down dim and tell me one of them stories of yours about the magic wishing cave.”  He was referring to a set of tall tales Joe had made up over the years, detailing the wonderful happenings inside a small abandoned cave located on the eastern ridge of the Ponderosa.

 Joe happily complied, spinning a wildly convoluted story about a mouse found in the wishing cave that by night would turn into a large winged creature and give rides through the clouds to anyone strong and clever enough to wrangle it.  He detailed his own exploits to find a way to catch the winged mouse and get a ride with shining eyes and plenty of illustrative gestures.

 Despite his original intention to just listen until he fell asleep, Hoss found himself riveted by the story and by his brother’s mesmerizing narrative.  “What happens if you wrangle that ol’ flying critter and keep riding until daybreak.  Does he turn back into a mouse and let you fall back down to earth?” 

 The question brought Joe up short.  He had not really thought that far ahead yet.  Abruptly, he recognized that his story-telling was not having the desired result of putting Hoss to sleep, so he said, “No, once the winged mouse has been successfully ridden, he belongs to the rider for all time, but even the rider isn’t allowed to watch the transformation.  They fly so far up that the rider gets sleepy, like when you climb real high up into the mountains and you start to yawn.  After he falls asleep, the winged mouse brings him safely back to his own bed, then goes back to the cave to become a mouse again and wait until the rider comes for another visit.”  Joe stood and picked up the tray from atop his brother’s dresser.  “I’d better go now before Pa comes to chase me out.  Try to sleep, okay?”

 Hoss smiled and settled down further into bed.  “I reckon I’ll see if I can have me a dream about catching a ride on that flying mouse of yours.”  He closed his eyes and made himself comfortable on the pillow.  “Good night, Little Joe.”

 “Night, Hoss,” Joe said softly.  He blew out the lamp and crept quietly out the door.  Joe was surprised to see his father standing in the hallway waiting for him.  Ben reached out and took the bed tray, allowing Joe to close his brother’s door and Joe asked, “Were you coming to get me, Pa?”

 Ben smiled kindly.  “I was going to, but I heard your bedtime story and I have to confess that I’ve been standing out here listening for the past few minutes.  I wouldn’t mind riding one of those flying mice myself.”  He chuckled at the embarrassed half-smile on his son’s face as he returned the tray and swung an arm around Little Joe’s shoulders.  “Hop Sing is starting to work himself into a state over your dinner getting cold, so you’d better take these dishes to the kitchen and go eat.  I’m putting you in charge of keeping up your brother’s morale for the next couple of weeks, so you’d best keep your strength up.”

 Little Joe’s face brightened at hearing he wasn’t going to be shut out of Hoss’ recuperation.  “Yes, sir!  I’ll go right down.” 

 As Joe clambered down the stairs, Ben stopped to listen at his middle son’s door.  Already, the sounds of snoring were beginning to fill the air.  Ben smiled in satisfaction and followed his youngest down the stairs.


Chapter 9

               At the end of three weeks, Hoss was doing much better. He had caught a much more severe case of measles than the doctor had first anticipated and was still confined to bed, but he was definitely on the mend.  Unfortunately, a week into Hoss’ illness, Hop Sing had unexpectedly become feverish and had rapidly progressed to being covered with red spots, then Ben had taken ill.  Doctor Martin had confined both of them to bed under loud protest.  Hop Sing had suggested that he go stay with his relatives in Chinatown to ease the burden on the young Cartwrights, but the measles epidemic was raging full force in Virginia City and the doctor insisted that he was better off staying right where he was. 

               “I’m sorry, boys,” he had said to Adam and Joe.  “I know this is a lot of work for two people, but there really isn’t anyone to be spared to help right now, unless a couple of your ranch hands have been previously exposed to measles.” 

               Adam had shaken his head.  “There’s no one.  Every one of the hands is either sick, already been recruited to help out with the epidemic, or quarantined against exposure.  The few we have left are just barely enough to keep the Ponderosa running.  Joe and I will just have to make due alone.” 

               “Don’t worry, Doc,” Joe had said confidently.  “If Adam can take care of the Ponderosa by himself, I can take care of three grouchy sick people by myself.  Besides, as soon as Hoss is better he can help me with Pa and Hop Sing.” 

                Doctor Martin had reluctantly agreed, mostly because he knew there was no other alternative.  Adam had agreed partly because he wanted to show that he had confidence in Joe but mostly because he hated nursing duty. Besides, the Ponderosa really did need his attention badly with his father and brother and half the hands unavailable.  So, for two solid weeks, Joe had spent every waking moment on the move, cooking, making endless trips up and down stairs and doing his best to keep everything as neat and normal as possible. He had learned to make ice compresses, mix the herbal teas that Hop Sing recommended for sore throats and coughing, and make vast amounts of Hop Sing’s soothing oatmeal salve.  In rooms kept half darkened to avoiding hurting light sensitive eyes, he grimly administered sponge baths and applied coats of the salve to ease the itchy rash covering each patient. 

            As time went on, Little Joe’s temper grew shorter and shorter.  He did his best to hold it in check while around his father, Hop Sing and Hoss, but some days it was all he could do not to snap Adam’s head off in the few brief minutes they spent together.  It did not help one bit that each of his charges was sure they would be better off getting up and helping than staying in bed where Joe had been told to keep them.  For the first time he was beginning to develop a degree of sympathy for all the times he had driven the family to distraction, wanting to get up when he himself was sick or injured. When Joe walked into his father’s room one morning with a breakfast tray and caught him out of bed and gathering his clothes to get dressed, no one was more surprised than Joe when he barked, “Get back in that bed and stay there!” 

For a long moment, Ben and Joe just stared at each other in shock.  Joe was shocked by his outburst, clapping a hand over his mouth and wondering just how much trouble he had gotten himself into.  Ben was shocked as much by the fact that had actually jumped guiltily and sat down before it occurred to him to reprimand the boy for his insolence. Joe broke the moment first, blushing as he moved to kneel beside his father.  “I’m sorry, Pa.  That just slipped out.  I meant to ask if you would please stay in bed until Dr. Martin says it’s okay.  I know you want to get up, but you’re still sick and if you get worse it’ll be my fault for not keeping you here.” 

The genuine worry and unmistakable weariness in the boy’s pleading eyes were more than Ben could stand.  Wordlessly, he got back into bed and vowed to stay put and try to make things as easy on Joseph as possible, no matter how hard the waiting was.  Besides, he really did feel awfully tired and staying in bed for a few more days was beginning to sound like a fine idea.  Ben’s fingers strayed to brush his son’s tousled curls back from his face, and he smiled to see Joe lean into the familiar gesture, understanding that he was forgiven for his outburst.  “You could use some nap time yourself, young man,” Ben said gently.  “You look as though you haven’t seen your bed in days.” 

Joe stood, sighed and rubbed his tired eyes.  “I’d love to, Pa, but I can’t do it just yet.  Doc’s supposed to come by tomorrow and I think he’ll clear Hoss to get out of bed.  If he does then I’ll ask him to take over for a little while and I’ll get some sleep.  Right now, though, I have to finish passing out breakfast and make up some more oatmeal stuff for you and Hop Sing.” Ben looked dubious and Joe smiled and leaned over to give him a quick hug.  “Don’t worry, Pa.  I’ll be all right.  Eat some breakfast and I’ll see you later.”  

Ben watched his young son leave the room, deliberately adding some missing spring to his step in a show of wellness for his father.  For a split second, Ben considered getting back out of bed and putting on a show of his own to insist that he was well enough to look after things while Joe got some rest, but he knew it would only distress his son more.  Joe was doing his best, which was actually very well indeed, to prove that he could be responsible for taking care of his family while they needed him.  To take that away from him now would be a slap in the face.  No, Ben realized with a sigh, he would just have to let Joseph have his own way on this one, but there was no way he could help worrying about the boy just the same.  He vehemently wished that he could erase the last few weeks, so that Joe’s biggest problem was still a school dance and the perils of teenage romance.  He was just too young to be taking on as much work and responsibility as he had been lately.  Ben shifted uncomfortably, scratching at his rash spotted arms after a quick peek toward the door to make sure that Joe was not still out in the hall, then he stopped, laughing at his own precaution.  Joe had handled him like a pro recently, making him feel intensely guilty every time he disobeyed one of the doctor’s orders by scratching or moving around too much, and he had handled Hop Sing and Hoss with equal firmness. Maybe the boy was tougher than they had been giving him credit for, Ben thought.  Anyway, he had been right.  The doctor was due tomorrow and everyone expected him to clear Hoss for getting out of bed and back to his regular routine.  Joe would be all right until then.  Still smiling at the memory of how he had snapped to his 14 year old’s command to get back into bed; Ben picked up his fork and began to eat.  After all, he thought in amusement, it wouldn’t do to be caught disobeying another order so soon.

 Meanwhile, downstairs, Joe’s face was burning as he too relived that moment in his father’s room.  He could not believe he had actually snapped at Pa!  Really, it was a tossup as to which was more amazing.  His snapping or Pa’s graceful acceptance of his doing so.  Joe sighed and paused in his filling of Hop Sing’s breakfast tray, allowing himself to lean into the kitchen counter and rest his aching head on his arms for a few brief seconds. Pa had been right, he thought.  He was tired and he was looking forward to this particular visit by the doctor with more enthusiasm than he had ever looked forward to one before.  He wanted everything back to normal, to have everyone well again and laughing and teasing and working together like usual.  He wanted to ride Cochise and spend time with his friends and just have time for his own thoughts and dreams again.  Joe sighed again and stood up straight.  There was no time for feeling sorry for himself now.  There was work to do. 

 “Hi, Hop Sing,” Joe greeted with a smile, as he carried in the last tray.  “Feeling hungry today?” 

 Hop Sing put aside the book he had been reading and smiled widely at Little Joe.  His eyes had been very sensitive to any extra light for the first week of his illness, but they were much improved now and the cook had been enjoying getting caught up on his customary reading.  Still, a visit from Little Joe was always worth interrupting any activity for.  As the boy’s father had, Hop Sing instantly noticed how tired Joe was looking, with no color except for dark circles beneath his dulled eyes.  He seemed much too thin as well; a mere shadow of the boy he had been only three weeks earlier.  “Little Joe need slow down and rest,” the Chinese man said severely.  “You wear yourself down to thread.” 

Joe made a sour face.  “Boy, I really must be looking bad.  Pa was just on me about getting some rest too, but like I told him, the doc is due out here tomorrow and after he clears Hoss, I’ll get some sleep, but until then you’ll just have to put up with me.”  He placed the tray across Hop Sing’s lap. “Now, you eat that and I’ll be back in about half an hour after I put some more of that salve on Pa’s rash, okay?” 

“Little Joe, Hop Sing no mean to criticize,” apologized the cook, hearing the testy tone in the youngest Cartwright’s voice.  “I just worried.  You doing good work for family.  Hop Sing appreciate all you do for them and for me.  I eat all good breakfast, you see.” 

 “I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Joe said with a weary smile.  “I can’t seem to help snapping at everyone today. Hoss is just lucky he was still asleep when I went in to deliver his tray or I probably would have taken his head off too.  Tell you what, though, as soon as I finish these morning chores I’ll take a nap for a couple hours.  Will that make you feel better?”

 Hop Sing nodded happily.  “Little Joe feel better, Hop Sing feel better.”

 Joe nodded, knowing that his family, including Hop Sing, probably would feel much better if they were not worrying about him so much. He doubted he would have time to nap, but Hop Sing didn’t need to know that. “Okay, then.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”  

He left the room and Hop Sing stared after him for a long moment, love and concern for his little boy, for that was how he always thought of Joe, flooding his heart.  He knew, however, as had Ben, that to try and help at this point would only upset the boy.  The best way to help would be to stay put and be patient, no matter how much it chafed him to stay in bed when he was no longer feeling sick.  Hop Sing was willing to temporarily sacrifice his freedom if it would help Little Joe. Not bothering to look at it first, Hop Sing took a bite of his breakfast and grimaced.  The oatmeal was lumpy and a little scorched and Joe had put way too much cinnamon and sugar in it, the way he himself preferred it, but which Hop Sing never used.  The little cook sighed and took another bite.  Yes, keeping Joe happy would definitely take sacrifice.  Hop Sing made a mental note to start giving Joe cooking lessons as soon as everything got back to normal.


Chapter 10

                It was nearly seven o’clock in the evening before Adam Cartwright managed to finish his afternoon’s work and he was dragging as he rode toward the welcome lights of the ranch house.  He lifted his hat up to swipe a few beads of sweat off his brow, blowing out a weary breath.  Adam had been in charge of the ranch from time to time while his father was away on business.  He had always imagined that if he were given complete control of the Ponderosa, that it would be as easy to keep everything running smoothly as Pa always made it look.  Now, after three weeks with no one to help him maintain order and delegate the day to day tasks, Adam was beginning to realize just how much work his father really put into his job and how much he appreciated having his brothers to share his own work with.  He missed them, both of them, for though Joe spent most of his days at school, he was always around on weekends and in the evenings to help wherever he could.  Adam made a face, thinking that Joe had got off with the easy job this time.  What was a little fetching and carrying compared to managing a property as huge as the Ponderosa? 

               The sight of the doctor’s buggy pulling up in front of the ranch house brought Adam out of his reverie and he brought Sport up beside the vehicle quickly.  “Doctor Martin, we weren’t expecting to see you until tomorrow.  Is there something wrong?” he asked with concern. 

               Paul Martin smiled reassurance.  “No, Adam, there’s nothing wrong as far as I know.  I just finished making a call out this way and decided to save myself a long trip tomorrow.  I think this epidemic is just about over.  I haven’t had a single new case in the past week and no fatalities since the second week.” 

               Adam nodded, relieved to hear it.  One of the miners from the Gould & Curry and one of the hands from a neighboring ranch had succumbed early to the measles epidemic. A few days later two small children and an old man, a newcomer to Virginia City who had come out hoping to find a cure for consumption, had died as well.  Sorry as he was that they had died Adam could not help being glad that none of the fatalities had hit close to home.  “Well, doctor, I know Hoss will sure be glad to see you a day early.  He’s been champing at the bit to get up and around.” 

               “I expect I’ll be making him a happy young man then,” laughed the doctor.  “From what I saw last time I was out here, I’ll be surprised if I have to keep him in bed any longer.” 

               Together, the two men walked in through the front door, just in time to see Little Joe nearly drop his tray of beef broth and medicinal tea as he stumbled on his way to the stairs. Adam sprang forward, catching his brother and somehow managing to still the tray with his other hand.  “Steady, boy,” said Dr. Martin.  He drew Joe over to sit in the blue chair as Adam set the tray down on the coffee table.  “You’re not getting sick too, are you?” 

               “No sir, I’m all right,” Joe said quietly, trying to smile. “I’ve already had measles, remember?” 

               Looking into the boy’s pale thin face and tired eyes, the doctor harrumphed.  “I’m not worried about measles.  When was the last time you ate a good square meal, son?  Or had a full night’s rest?”  Joe thought, considering the question far too long for either the doctor or his brother’s taste, his eyes momentarily losing their focus.  Doctor Martin shook his head.  “If you have to think that hard about it, then it’s been too long.” 

               Adam felt a strong stab of guilt as he recalled his thoughts of a few minutes before.  His opinion that Joe had gotten the easy side of the deal, taking care of the family rather than working the ranch.  In his own preoccupation with the Ponderosa, he had neglected to make certain that Little Joe was taking proper care of himself while he cared for the others.  The list of Joe’s responsibilities scrolled through Adam’s mind as if the doctor’s words had pushed a button to release them.  For weeks Joe had tended three very sick and very difficult patients single-handedly, and Adam suddenly recalled a few nights when he had been awakened briefly by noises in the hall, only to realize it was just Joe moving across to his father and brother’s bedrooms.  Had he been doing that every night, neglecting his own much needed rest?  On top of all the nursing duty, Adam realized that Joe’s regular chores had been kept up, the house had remained relatively tidy and there were always sandwiches and coffee available whenever Adam had gone searching for something to eat, no matter what time.  Joe had done all of it, never saying a word on his own behalf, and Adam had been thinking that the kid had it easy.  He stared at the exhausted child in wonder.  Why had he not noticed how much Joe had taken on?  When had this small boy, always so difficult to rouse from his bed, always so stubborn about doing extra chores, always needing looking after, grown up so much?  Adam felt as though he were looking at a stranger, yet knew in his heart that these changes had been building for a long time, so gradually that they had not hit him until now. 

               The doctor spoke, breaking into Adam’s thoughts.  “Adam, why don’t you take that tray upstairs, while I examine your brother,” he advised.  “I believe Joe is simply exhausted, but I want to look him over to make sure.”  Adam complied, and by the time he returned the doctor was well into his examination.  He had taken Little Joe’s temperature and pulse and was now looking clinically down Joe’s throat, having already peeked into his eyes, ears and nose.  Adam knelt next to Joe, who rolled his eyes to express his disgust with being poked and prodded.  Somehow, the sight of that small rebellious gesture made Adam feel better.  At last, the doctor removed his tongue depressor from the boy’s mouth and smiled.  “Well, you don’t appear to be ill, Joseph.” 

               “See, I told you I wasn’t sick,” Joe stated, feeling relieved at the confirmation just the same. “I just lost my balance for a second.  I fall over stuff and knock things over all the time.  It’s no big deal.  Pa says it’s something I’ll grow out of.”  He waved the incident away nonchalantly. 

               Doctor Martin smiled.  “Well, he’s right about that.  I’m afraid lack of coordination is one of the primary symptoms of adolescence, and time is the only cure, but I can do something to make you feel a bit better than I think you have been lately.  When I told your brother you were exhausted, I meant it.  You need some sleep, young man, and I’m sure you haven’t been eating properly.” 

               Sensing the possibility of some sort of horrible tasting medicine on the horizon, Joe hurriedly said, “But I’ve been eating lots more than I used to, doctor.  Haven’t I, Adam?”  He turned pleading eyes on his older brother, hoping for rescue. 

               “Actually, that’s true, Paul,” Adam said reluctantly.  “For the past couple of months, he’s been giving Hoss some competition in practically eating us out of house and home.  Though, lately, since Pa’s been sick…” He trailed off, ashamed to admit that he didn’t know whether his brother had been eating or not. 

               Fortunately, Joe took the silence as a rebuke.  His face flushed and he admitted, “I guess I have been kinda forgetting to eat sometimes.  I’m real hungry at first but pretty soon I get so busy it just goes away and I never get around to eating like I meant to.” 

               The doctor clucked his tongue.  “I suspected as much, though I must say I’m pleased to hear that you’ve finally developed an appetite.  You can thank your age for that too, I’m sure.  Now, here are your orders, Joseph.  You’re to go in right now and get yourself something to eat, then I want you to go to bed and take a good long nap.”  He cut off Joe’s budding protest with a stern look.  “I’m going up right now to have a look at your brother Hoss and I have no doubt he’ll be well enough to get up and look after your father and Hop Sing while you get some rest.  All right?”  His tone brooked no argument and Joe nodded meekly, heading obediently toward the kitchen as soon as the doctor let him up. 

               The moment he was out of sight, the doctor turned to Adam.  “How are you holding up, Adam?” 

               Adam smiled.  “I’m a little tired, doc, but not as bad as Joe.  I’ve been getting food and sleep a lot more regularly than he has.”  The last was admitted reluctantly and the doctor picked up on it immediately. 

               “Don’t go beating yourself up, Adam,” Paul said kindly.  “You’ve both been far too busy to check up on each other.  Joe just overdid it a little and with a little food and sleep, he’ll be just fine.  Tell you what.  Why don’t you go in there and have supper with him, then spend a little time with him before he goes to bed.  I think you could both use it.” 

               “And, just incidentally, I can make sure he follows your orders and gets some sleep, right, doc?” Adam asked with a wry grin.  Paul shrugged, but the twinkle in his eyes confirmed Adam’s suspicion. 

               “Go on,” Paul said, giving him a little push.  “I’ve got patients to see.” 

               Joe reappeared from the kitchen, balancing a plate of ham sandwiches in one hand and a glass of milk and two of Hop Sing’s homemade dill pickles in the other.  He set them down on the dining room table and took a seat, then noticed Adam still standing in the main room, alone now.  Joe gestured to him with a pickle.  “Want some supper, Adam?  It’s just sandwiches, but they’re pretty good.”  He felt pleased when Adam nodded and went to get a slightly less well loaded version of Joe’s plate.  

They ate together in silence for several minutes, neither having know how hungry he was until confronted with food.  Finally, Adam spoke.  “Joe, there’s something I want to say to you.” 

               Joe had just been reflecting on how much he had missed having someone around to eat and talk with in the evenings, but Adam’s solemn tone and serious face gave him pause.  He began wondering if he might not have been better off eating alone.  Was he in some kind of trouble?  Was Adam going to tell him that Pa or Hoss was sicker than they’d thought?  Joe’s brain raced to provide an answer, his speculations growing wilder by the moment, until the reality of Adam repeating his name and waving a hand in front of his face brought him back to the present.  “Huh?” 

               Adam raised an eyebrow, giving his little brother a half smile.  “Boy, Joe, the doc is right.  You really do need to get some sleep.” 

               “Sorry,” Joe mumbled, flashing his brother an embarrassed grin.  “What did you want to say?” 

               “Just that I’m sorry I’ve left you to take on so much lately,” Adam said earnestly. “I didn’t intend to get so tied up with the ranch that you were left doing everything else.  I just want you to know that I’m proud of how well you’ve handled everything and I promise that things will get better from here on out.” 

               Warmth filled Joe at his brother’s words of praise.  He often felt as if nothing he did was good enough to please his demanding eldest sibling, and the sincerity in Adam’s tone surprised him.  “I didn’t hold it against you that you were busy with the ranch.  I wanted to help out however I could, Adam.  I just wanted to prove that you could count on me.” 

               They smiled at each other, rare understanding passing between them.  Heavy footfalls on the stairs interrupted the moment before it could become awkward and as one they turned to see Hoss descending to join them.  He grinned at the sight of his brothers sitting together at the table.  “Hey, you two got any grub left for me?” 

               Little Joe grinned, and it was as if the sun had broken through a cloudy sky.  Unable to contain his joy at seeing Hoss up and well, the boy let go a loud whoop and launched himself at Hoss, nearly knocking him off his feet with a wild hug.  Adam laughed and steadied his middle brother, then stiffened in momentary surprise when Joe impulsively hugged him as well.  Hoss chuckled at both of them.  “Doc said you were real tired and asked me to spell you to get some rest, Joe, but it looks to me like you still got plenty of energy to spare.” 

               “I just feel a lot better all of a sudden,” Joe explained happily. 

               Hoss ruffled his hair fondly.  “I know you do, Shortshanks, and so do I, but from what I heard ol’ Doctor Martin sayin’ about you, I think you’d better do as you’re told.  Finish your supper and get to bed before this burst of enthusiasm fades out and you fall asleep standing up.  I might be feeling well again, but I don’t think I want to test it by carrying you all the way up the stairs!” 

Hoss’ sparkling eyes belied the warning in his tone, but Joe agreed easily and returned to eat his second sandwich, happy to have most of his family around him once again. “Sure wish Pa was well again, too,” he commented, taking an enormous bite.  “I’m gonna go see him and say goodnight before I turn in.”

 “Well, Doc’s in there right now, so take your time,” Hoss advised, helping himself to a portion of the simple supper from the kitchen. 

 When Paul Martin came down the stairs 15 minutes later, he smiled at the sight of all three Cartwright brothers sitting around the table chattering amiably over the few remaining crumbs of their repast.  It was clear that they were all happy to be together again and the physician was pleased to note the increased color and animation in the youngest member’s face, even as he watched him yawn repeatedly, trying to keep up with the conversation.  “Looks like this family is just about back on track,” Paul greeted them.

 “Is Pa doing better too?”  Joe asked eagerly.  “Will he be able to get up soon?”

 The doctor moved closer to lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “As a matter of fact, he’s doing extremely well, thanks to your excellent care, Joseph.  I told him he has to spend another two days in bed, then I’m releasing him to normal activity, though I did warn him to take it easy for the first couple of days.  The same warning I gave Hoss here.  As soon as I check on Hop Sing, I’ll be on my way back to town, but if he’s doing as well as your brother and father are, then I expect you’ll be able to get back to your regular schedules inside of a week.” 

Joe blew out a gusty breath of relief and Adam grinned.  “That’s great, Doc!  How long do you think it’ll be before everyone else in and around town is well?” 

The doctor rubbed his chin.  “Well, I’d say another couple of weeks or so.  Fortunately, the epidemic seems to have been fairly light and most folks are pretty well on the mend.  Oh, by the way, that reminds me, Joe.  I have a couple of messages for you.  The first is that your school picnic and dance have been rescheduled for a month from Saturday.  As for the second, I have it here somewhere.”  Doctor Martin rummaged around in his pockets and came up with a piece of much folded pink stationery.  It had a clearly feminine look to it and Adam and Hoss exchanged an interested glance as he handed the note to Joe.  Joe took it between two fingers, looking as if he thought it might blow up, but slowly he opened it and read the contents silently.  “Normally, I’m not in the habit of playing courier, but the little girl asked so nicely when she heard I was coming out here that I couldn’t say no,” Paul explained, smiling to see the pink rising in Little Joe’s cheeks as he read his message.  He headed back to see Hop Sing, leaving the boy to whatever privacy he could manage with his two brothers in attendance. 

“Who’s the note from, Little Joe?” asked Hoss, craning his neck to try and get a peek at the writing.  Joe pulled the paper closer to his chest with a scowl at his nosy brother.  “Don’t tell me you managed to get yourself a sweetheart right in the middle of a measles epidemic!  I thought Adam here was the only Romeo in the family.” 

Remembering what had happened the last time he and Hoss had teased their little brother about his romantic pursuits, Adam decided to take the diplomatic route.  “If you’d rather not tell us, it’s all right, Joe.  We’re just curious.” 

Joe looked surprised that Adam was willing to let him off the hook so easily and the defensive shield that had started raising almost visibly around him dropped.  “It’s from Sally Ann Miller,” he confessed.  “She just says that her family is over the measles and that she hopes that mine is too.  Then she says that her Pa bought her a new horse for her birthday and that she wants to race with me and Cochise sometime if I want to.  That’s all.”  He shrugged, wondering why he suddenly felt so embarrassed.  It was not as if there was anything mushy written in the note. 

Hoss whistled.  “That little gal must really like you, little brother.  I remember Sally Ann and she wouldn’t normally say boo to a goose, much less write a letter to a boy.” 

Adam looked equally impressed.  “Isn’t that the girl you were worrying about that day after school, Joe?  The one your friend said had a crush on you and wanted you to take her to that dance?” Joe nodded.  “Well, this seems like a pretty clear sign that Mitch was right about how she feels anyway.  Looks like she didn’t forget about you this whole time, no matter how sick her family was.” 

A pained expression came over Joe.  “And I haven’t spared her so much as a single thought since the night Hoss came home sick.  I ain’t even thought about Susie except for a nightmare once.  Guess Sally Ann’s been kind of wasting her time bothering with me, huh?” 

“Nah,” scoffed Hoss.  “It wasn’t a waste as long as it made her happy.  Besides, Joe, the doctor told me that all three Miller young’uns had the measles, which means that Sally Ann had plenty of idle time on her hands for daydreaming.  Whereas, you’ve been pretty busy lately as I recall.  It’s okay if you didn’t have any time to spare worrying about a dance that never took place.”

 “I guess you’re right,” agreed Joe, relieved by the logic in his brother’s statement.  He looked again at the letter in his hands and smiled.  “Maybe I will take Cochise over some time, just as friends, and then see what happens.”

 “Good idea,” approved Adam.  “Then with the picnic rescheduled maybe you’ll find you want to go with this girl, even if it is just as friends.  After all, you could do worse.”

 “I already have,” quipped Joe.  “Right there in the same family, remember?”  Joe’s brothers laughed and he felt surprised by his own ability to laugh over something that had seemed so completely devastating to him only weeks before.  It still stung to think about his humiliation at the hands of Susie Miller, but somehow Joe no longer felt that it was quite the tragedy it had seemed before. 

 Joe had relaxed considerably during the time he had spent talking with his brothers and that, combined with a now pleasantly full stomach, was lulling him to sleep fast.  He jerked upright suddenly as the world began to fuzz out around him and he felt himself tipping forward.  “I think maybe I’d better go see Pa now, before I fall asleep sitting here.”

 “Why don’t we all go?” suggested Hoss with a grin.  He had seen Joe catch himself awake and wanted to make sure he made it up the stairs and into bed without incident.  “I haven’t hardly seen Pa at all in the last couple of weeks, and I’d better let him know we’re changing the guard.” 

 Adam and Joe willingly complied, Adam just popping his head into Hop Sing’s room for a moment to speak with the doctor.  “We’re going to look in on Pa and get Joe settled, Doc.  I’ll be back down in a few minutes to see you out.”

 “Don’t bother, Adam,” the doctor said easily.  “Hop Sing and I are just about finished and I know my way out.”

 Hop Sing smiled at Adam.  “Doctor say Hop Sing good and well.  Get out of bed tomorrow.  Fix breakfast for family.”

 The doctor sighed and shook his head fondly.  “What is it about you people here at the Ponderosa that makes you unable to stay in one spot and rest?  Yes, I did say that you could get up tomorrow, Hop Sing, but I want you to promise you’ll take it easy at first.”

 The cook nodded his agreement.  “Hop Sing no clean house or tend garden tomorrow, but meals must be fixed for family.  I take easy but family eat on time.  Everyone better mean very special occasion.  Hop Sing have extra time, fix very good supper.” 

 “Okay, Hop Sing, have it your way,” laughed the doctor.  “Just don’t overdo it.”  Following Adam out the door, Doctor Martin tipped his hat and was on his way, still smiling over the stubborn Cartwright household.

 The three brothers made their way up the stairs and into their father’s room.  Ben had fallen asleep, but the sound of his sons’ exaggerated quiet as they tiptoed around the room roused him.  “Boys?”

 “We just came in to say goodnight, Pa,” whispered Joe.  “Hoss is all better and I’m gonna go get some sleep like I promised you.”  Ben smiled, nodded and reached out an arm to give Little Joe a hug.

 “We’ll see that he gets settled in okay, Pa,” said Adam, as Joe finished saying goodnight and let go a big yawn.  “Sleep well.”

 “Night Pa,” added Hoss.  “I’m on duty now, so you need anything, you just let me know.”

 “Good night, boys,” said Ben, settling in comfortably, much relieved to know that Hoss was well and the others would be getting some rest.  “Pleasant dreams.”

 Adam closed his father’s door quietly behind them as they left, he and Hoss both determined to escort Joe to his own bed now that he had gotten his visit with Pa.  As they watched Joe shuffle toward his own room, the two older Cartwright brothers exchanged a concerned glance.  “Joe, why are you limping?”

 “What?” Joe was puzzled by the question.  He went in and lit the lamp, then sat down on his bed.

 Hoss knelt down next to him.  “You were limping just now.  I noticed you was doing it downstairs too.  Did you hurt your legs somehow and not tell anybody?” 

 Joe looked down at his legs in surprise.  “No, my legs are fine, as far as I know.”  He flexed an ankle and grimaced.  “Now that you mention it, though, my feet have been sore all week.”

 “Take his boots off, Hoss,” Adam ordered, already starting to pry off the left one.  “Socks too.”

 The moment Adam touched his bare toes, Joe flinched and tried to pull away, but his brother held firm, massaging the foot with a brisk but gentle touch.  “No wonder your feet hurt, Joe,” Adam observed.  “They’re crammed so tight into your boots that the circulation is being cut off.  Why didn’t you say something?”

 “I didn’t know,” Joe said in surprise.  “They fit all right last week.”  He could see for himself that Adam had been right, however.  His feet were pinched looking from lack of blood flow and the toes were cramped and a little red from being shoved so far into the ends of his boots.  He flinched again as Hoss joined Adam in rubbing circulation back into the foot he held in his large hands.  There was a little pain, then tingling as the muscles relaxed.  Joe breathed a sigh of relief as the discomfort gave way to pleasant warmth. 

 The moment they released him, Joe pulled his legs up and sat Indian style on the mattress. “Thanks, that feels a lot better.”

 Adam rummaged in Joe’s top dresser drawer and pulled out a nightshirt, which he tossed at Joe’s head.  “Here, put that on.”  As Joe got undressed and struggled to get the nightshirt down over his head and shoulders, Adam smiled ruefully.  “Looks like those boots aren’t the only thing that needs replacing.”

 “What do you mean?”  Joe’s head finally popped into sight as he succeeded in getting the garment down into place. 

 Hoss grinned.  “He means, little brother, that you’ve been growing like a weed these past few weeks and we’re gonna have to start replacing your clothes before you rip right out of them.” 

 Joe’s eyes widened and he looked to Adam for confirmation.  Adam smiled and nodded.  “Haven’t you noticed that your pants legs barely meet the top of your boots anymore, or that your shirts won’t stay tucked in and the cuffs are up halfway to your elbows?”  He laughed at the boy’s dumbfounded expression. “Joe, that nightshirt barely reaches your knees!  I told you a major growth spurt was coming.”

 Jumping off the bed, Joe stood closer to Adam, looking at the two of them in the mirror over his dresser.  To his amazement, he was chin-high to his brother, where he had never before been more than chest-high.  “Adam, when did it happen?  I can’t believe I finally grew and I missed it!”

 Adam threw back his head and laughed heartily at Joe’s disgusted pronouncement.  “Oh, Joe, you’ve probably been growing a little each day over the past few weeks.  We’ve just all been too busy to notice.”

 “I gotta go show Pa!” Joe said eagerly.

 Hoss caught him before he could reach the door.  “Oh, no you don’t, Little Joe.  Pa’s sleeping and that’s just what you’re supposed to be doing now.  Doctor’s orders, remember?”

 Joe protested as Adam pulled back the covers and Hoss gave him a small shove onto the mattress. Adam smiled as he pulled up the blankets and tucked his brother in.  “Joe, I promise you won’t shrink if you wait a few hours to show Pa.”  Joe grumbled under his breath, but complied by turning on his side and tucking an arm under his pillow.  Adam cracked open the window while Hoss blew out the lamp.  They stood, silhouetted in the light of the hallway and Adam pointed a finger at Joe and firmly ordered, “You get some sleep now.”

 The door closed, leaving Joe alone.  He stretched beneath the covers, enjoying the cool darkness and the luxurious softness of his bed.  For years, Joe had liked to spend his first few minutes in bed just thinking over his day and indulging in a daydream or two within the welcoming solitude of darkness. He hadn’t had time for that in a long while, but this had been a day worth spending some time reliving.  His family was getting well, Hoss was taking over his extra duties and he, Joe, had finally grown. He sighed in satisfaction, grinning to think that after all his worrying and careful measuring against that mark in the barn; he could have finally grown and been totally ignorant of the fact.  Life sure was funny sometimes.


Chapter 11 

It was well past noon the next day before Joe finally stirred.  He was shocked to find his bedroom filled with a wash of bright afternoon sunlight when he at last opened his eyes.  Blinking in the harsh glare, Joe rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling, feeling no particular urge to rise and greet the day.  It was far too comfortable where he was and the fact that neither of his brothers had apparently made any special effort to get him up on time implied that he was being allowed to spend today however he wished.  For a moment he toyed with the idea of spending the entire day lazing in bed, but the combined protest of a full bladder and an empty stomach dashed that notion quickly.  Joe rolled out from between the covers and went to take care of his first need, then came back and sat on the bed, considering his next move.  It was then that he spotted a smile pile of folded clothing sitting on the seat of his rocking chair.  Curiously, Joe picked up the stack, smiling when he recognized a pair of faded blue jeans and a black cotton shirt that could only have come from his brother Adam’s wardrobe, and a pair of new looking brown boots which he did not recognize.  He tried on the new clothes and grinned at his scarecrow reflection in the mirror, remembering how much he had loved to dress up in Adam’s clothes as a little boy.  The image had not changed that much in 10 years.  He’d had to belt the jeans tightly and roll the cuffs a couple of times to make them fit and the shirt was far too big as well.  Joe was pleased to note that the chunkiness that had been so distressing to him a few weeks earlier had melted away, causing his clothes to hang loosely on his once more thin frame.  The boots were a little bit large for him, but they fit better than the clothing and Joe decided he could live with them.  At least they didn’t pinch! 

A thumping knock sounded outside the door, prompting a curious Joe to open it.  His brothers never bothered knocking, so he was considerably surprised to see Hoss standing in the hallway carrying a generously filled tray in his hands.  His elbow was poised to knock again, but he put it down and grinned when he saw his baby brother. “Howdy, Little Joe.  I thought I heard you stirring around up here, so I brought you some lunch while I was bringing Pa’s.  Figured you two might like to have it together.” 

“Gee, thanks Hoss,” Joe said, eyes lighting up with eagerness at the sight of food.  “But what about you?” 

“Oh, I ate nearly an hour ago with Adam,” Hoss told him.  “I was gonna come get you then, but Adam said you was plumb tuckered out and that you’d wake up and come down when you were ready. Oh, by the way, do those boots fit?  It took me a good hour to remember where I’d stashed ‘em, but Adam didn’t have any to spare.”

 “You mean these are yours,” Joe asked in astonishment, holding out one foot to reexamine the brown boot covering it.  “How old are they?”

 Hoss thought a moment.  “Let’s see, now.  I think Pa bought me those when I was 10 and I got to wear ‘em for all of three weeks before he had to get me another pair.  I just saved those in the back of my closet in case you could get some use out of them some day.  Lucky thing for you Adam remembered my putting them back there, cause I’d plumb forgot.”

 “Oh. Yeah, I guess that is lucky.” Joe frowned as he followed his brother out into the hallway.  “Hey, Hoss.  Why the heck is Adam being so nice to me all of a sudden?  Ever since what happened with Susie and me at school, he’s been acting so kind and understanding it’s almost creepy.  He hasn’t yelled at me in ages, even when I was bein’ deliberately disrespectful to get a rise out of him.  What do you suppose is wrong?”

 Hoss chuckled, pausing outside his father’s door to look down at Little Joe.  “I wouldn’t worry about it too much, if I was you.  I think ol’ Adam is just remembering how it felt to be 14.  He had a pretty rough go of it and I reckon he’s just feeling kind of mellow towards you cause you’re bringing back some of those memories.  Give him a little time and I’m sure you two will be going at it as bad as ever, dragging me into the middle like always.  Now, open up that door for me, will you?  Pa’s probably getting mighty hungry by now.”  Hoss gestured toward the door with his chin and Joe obligingly opened it, grinning to himself over his brother’s ‘reassurance’ that he and Adam would soon be fighting again. 

Ben Cartwright was sitting up in bed, attempting to distract himself from the need to scratch by reading a book.  His eyes felt fine today and the last remnants of his headache and scratchy throat were gone, leaving only a mild fever and the ever present itching caused by his peeling rash.  The softly glowing sunlight filtering in through his curtains had suggested reading as a pass time, but it was difficult to ignore the discomfort of his body long enough to get interested in the novel he had chosen.  The knock on his door heralding the arrival of his two younger sons was the welcomest sound Ben could have heard.  “Good afternoon, boys,” he said jovially.  “Well, Joseph, I’m glad to say you’re looking better today.”

 “So are you, Pa,” Joe said sincerely.  He pulled a chair over next to his father’s bed and plunked down, accepting a plate of steak and potatoes from Hoss, which he dispatched half of before his father had even finished tucking his napkin into his collar.  Joe nodded happily at his father and brother; his cheeks bulging as he shoveled in more potatoes and washed them down with the milk a grinning Hoss handed to him.  His father was watching him wolf down his lunch with obvious amusement and Joe deliberately made himself slow down.  “Hey Pa, guess what?” 

Ben had felt his spirits rising by degrees from the moment his boys had entered the room, and the eager sparkle that had returned to Joe’s green eyes improved them even further.  “What?”

 Joe set down his plate and glass on the bedside table and bounced up to stand in front of Hoss, preening like a peacock as he stretched himself up to his full height.  “Notice anything different?”

 For a moment, Ben had no idea what Joe was driving at.  Then he noticed the baggy clothes, which he was certain belonged to Adam and took a closer look.  His eyes widened when he realized that his smallest son was standing nearly shoulder high to Hoss and a delighted smile spread across Ben’s face.  “Congratulations, son, you’ve been growing!”

 Joe sat back down.  “Isn’t it great?  I didn’t even know until Hoss and Adam pointed it out to me.  None of my clothes fit right all of a sudden, so Adam and Hoss gave me these to wear.  Do you reckon I’ll keep on growing until I’m as tall as you or Adam, Pa?”

 Ben and Hoss grinned, enjoying the enthusiasm in his voice.  Hoss gave his brother a soft slap on the shoulder.  “Who knows, Joe.  Maybe you’ll keep on until you’re taller than me!”

 For a moment, Joe stared up, intrigued by the idea of being taller than Hoss, but then he laughed and shook his head.  “Nah, there ain’t much chance of that.  Pa’s always told me that Mama was a little thing and that I take after her in looks, but even if I’m always the shortest one in the family I guess that’s okay.  I just don’t want to be the only short kid in school anymore.”

 “Well, as a matter of fact son, right now you’re taller than your mother was, so I’m sure you’ll at least be able to hold your own with the girls even if some of the boys are taller than you are.”  Ben smiled at the pleased look on Joe’s face as the boy resumed attacking his lunch.  He could almost visualize the pride, probably mixed with a little sadness, which would be shining in Marie’s eyes at this moment if she could see her son.  She would have reveled in her baby’s new height.  “By the way, Joseph, I’ve agreed with your brothers that you deserve to have the next couple of days free for a little fun and relaxation.  You’ll still have to do your regular chores, but the rest of the time you may do as you like.”

 Surprise and delight filled Little Joe’s face.  “I can do whatever I want?”

 “Within reason,” Ben said wryly, knowing that there was probably very little his son could do to get in trouble with most of his friends still confined to their homes, but also knowing how good the boy was at finding trouble in unexpected places.  “Got any ideas?”

            “Gosh, Pa, I don’t know.  Would it be all right if I took Cochise out for a run and maybe went into town later?”  Joe asked, secretly hoping that maybe some of his friends might also be there.

             Ben nodded.  “There probably won’t be much going on there today, but I don’t see why not.  Tell you what, I was going to send Adam into town this afternoon for a few supplies.  Why don’t you go ahead and have your fun, then meet with him at the general store to buy you some better fitting clothes.” 

               “Okay,” agreed Joe.  He did not mind the idea of shopping for clothes with Adam.  His brother had pretty good taste and was more willing to indulge some of Joe’s liking for flair than their father.  Pa preferred clothing that was plain and sturdy to the handsomer, more stylish clothes that Joe liked.  Looking good had recently become very important in Joe’s mind and while Adam’s hand me downs were fine for the ranch, he really did not relish wearing them in public.  “It’s almost one o’clock now, so how about I meet him next to the Silver Dollar around 4:30.”  Joe grinned.  “He owes me a sarsaparilla.”

                “How about until then?” Hoss asked with a sly grin.  “You figurin’ on taking up that little gal on her offer to go riding?”  Joe’s instantly reddening cheeks gave him away and Hoss chortled.  “Hey, Pa, guess you ain’t heard the news.  Joe here’s got himself a sweetheart.  That little Sally Ann Miller sent him out a note by Doc Martin asking if he’d like to go riding once we was all better.  You’d better go wash your face and try to tame that wild hair a might afore you go though, Joe.  Gals like a fellow to be presentable when he comes calling.” 

             There was no malice in Hoss’ delighted teasing, but Joe looked as though he might like to sink through the floor and his face was flaming crimson.  Ben doubted there was anything to worry about if Joe went to see Sally Ann.  In truth, he was glad to hear that his youngest boy had managed to get over his recent heartbreak enough to even consider it.  Seeing Joe squirming, he decided to let him off the hook. “That’ll do, son,” Ben admonished Hoss.  “If your brother wants to go riding with the young lady, that’s his business. Go on now, Joe, if you’re finished eating.”

            Joe hopped up, grabbing his father’s hand in passing as he headed for the door.  “Thanks, Pa. I’ll see you later.  See you Hoss.”  He paused in the doorway and flashed his father a saucy grin.  “Be good, Pa.  I’ll have to take over as head nurse again if Hoss can’t handle you.”  With a wink he was gone, leaving his family chuckling over his playful impudence, glad to see that their Joe was feeling like his old self again.


Chapter 12 

               Cochise frisked and cantered, begging Joe to grant his wish for a gallop over the long stretches of grassland between the Ponderosa and the Miller ranch.  There had been no mistaking the pleasure the animal felt at being brushed and saddled and readied to ride after three mostly idle weeks stuck in the barn.  He was used to being petted and cosseted often by his beloved young rider and the enforced lack of exercise in addition to being all but ignored had not suited the black and white pinto at all.  He had stamped and whinnied like a young colt when Little Joe had come into the barn, demanding that the boy pay him some attention and Joe had finally given him his due, hugging the much beloved horse around the neck before getting out Cochise’s tack.  The sight of the tack had increased Cochise’s eager pacing and now he wanted only to share a run with the boy he had missed. 

               Joe laughed as he felt Cochise straining against the bit, begging to go faster.  “Not just yet, boy.  I’m trying to work out what I’m going to say to Sally Ann and I don’t want to get there too soon.”  The horse’s ears twitched and he snorted to show his disapproval.  He tossed his mane and pranced a bit, making Joe laugh harder.  “Just be myself and it’ll come to me, huh?  Okay, Cooch, I’ll give it a try.  Hey yah!” Joe leaned forward and kicked his horse lightly against the flanks, giving Cochise his head.  The horse happily surged forward into a fast gallop and the two of them became as one, loving the familiar feel of the wind whipping around them as they moved.  Joe whooped and hollered and laughed, feeling the tension of the last weeks rolling away from him by degrees as he rode, allowing the world around him to shrink until it was just Cochise and him, running free. 

               All too soon, they reached the outer perimeter of the Miller property and Joe slowed Cochise back down to a brisk walk.  The horse resisted a bit at first, not wanting to stop running, but Joe was in control and with gentle but insistent command he slowed them down.  Susanne Miller was sweeping the front porch when they rode into view and she waved to Joe as he came into sight of the main house.  Joe reined in his mount and jumped down, tipping his hat politely to Sally Ann’s mother.  “Afternoon, Mrs. Miller.  Nice day, isn’t it?” 

               Susanne smiled warmly at him.  Like most folks around town, she was very fond of Little Joe Cartwright, and it showed.  “Hello, Little Joe.  Yes, it is a very fine day.  What brings you by?” 

Joe shrugged, looking down as he scuffed the toe of his boot through the dirt.  “Sally Ann sent me a note asking me to bring Cochise out for a run with the new horse her Pa got her.  Is she well enough to go?  I mean, is she even here?”  Joe scowled internally at the nervous sound to his voice, feeling a little foolish.  Especially when his voice cracked on the last word.  Why did it always have to do that at the most inopportune moments? 

“Yes, she’s here and I’m sure she’d love to go for a ride with you, dear.”  Susanne smiled kindly, catching on to the boy’s discomfort.  She had seen a son of her own through puberty and remembered the embarrassment Nick had suffered over every little thing.  “I understand the sickness hit you folks at the Ponderosa pretty hard.  Is everyone all right?” 

               Joe tied Cochise to the hitching post and joined Mrs. Miller on the porch.  “Yes’m. My Pa is still not completely well, but Doc says he can start being up and around tomorrow.  My brother and Hop Sing are much better though.  How about you folks?”  

               “Everyone is fine now,” she replied.  “George and I had already had measles and the children are all back to normal again.  Nick and Susie are in town with their father and Sally-Ann is out back with that new pony of hers.”  Susanne’s motherly eyes had not missed the way Little Joe had stiffened at the mention of Susie, then relaxed to hear she was not at home.  She had been appalled to learn from Sally-Ann about the cruelty inflicted on this boy by her older daughter and she admired his pluck in coming out here to see Sally Ann. 

               “Um, would it be all right if I went to find Sally-Ann, ma’am?”  Joe had removed his hat and begun twisting the brim for something to do with his hands.  He did not wish to seem rude, but exchanging small talk with Mrs. Miller was not what he had come out here for. 

               “Of course, Joe,” Susanne said with a smile.  “Just go around to the corral.  You can tell Sally-Ann I give her permission to go for a ride as long as you don’t go too far.” 

               Joe beamed.  “Thanks, ma’am.  We won’t go far.”  He flipped loose Cochise’s reins and sprang up into the saddle, trotting past the house to the corral where he immediately spied Sally-Ann up on the fence rails petting the nose of a small speedy looking bay mare.  He whistled one sharp note and when Sally-Ann turned to look, he signaled Cochise to bow, a trick they had been working on for months.  This was the first time he’d had a chance to use it on anybody and Joe hoped his horse would remember the signal.  Cochise obliged by dipping his foreleg and dropping his head toward the ground, pretty as a picture, and horse and rider were rewarded by the delighted applause of Sally-Ann.

                “Hi, Joe!” Sally-Ann’s eyes lit up and she grinned, giving her face more animation than Joe had ever seen there before.  He was surprised to see that she was actually prettier than her sister was when she smiled.  “That was wonderful!  How did you ever teach him to do that?”

                Joe shrugged.  “It was nothing, really.  Cochise is a really smart horse.  I thought we might go for that ride if you still want to.  I asked your Ma and she said it was all right.”

                Sally-Ann brightened still further.  “Okay!  Come down and meet Blossom while I go get my tack.”  She gestured to the mare and took off like a shot toward the barn. 

                 Joe dismounted and stepped up onto the bottom fence rail, clucking his tongue softly to the little horse.  It trotted right up to him, examining his extended hand for sugar cubes.  Joe laughed and reached into his pocket for one of the cubes he habitually carried for Cochise.  Blossom accepted the treat eagerly then consented to a nose rub from the stranger boy.  Cochise stamped one hoof delicately and reached his head over Joe’s shoulder to snuffle at his pocket.  Rolling his eyes, Joe obliged by producing more sugar then reaching up to pat his pinto on the neck.  The two horses blinked smugly at each other through the fence, each contentedly receiving the attention as their due. 

“Looks like Blossom likes you,” said Sally-Ann as she returned, carrying a saddle blanket and a new saddle and bridle in her arms. 

 Joe grinned at her.  “She just likes the sugar I brought with me.  Hey, that’s some pretty nice tack you’ve got there,” he observed, taking the saddle to look it over with expert eyes.  “I’m surprised your Pa didn’t get you a side-saddle though.”

 Sally-Ann laughed.  “Ma wanted him to.  She thinks 13 is too old to be doing something as unladylike as riding astride, but I hate sidesaddles and I begged Pa to buy me a regular one.  I don’t ask him for things very often, so I knew he’d say, yes.”

 Joe nodded his approval of her tactics.  “Pretty sneaky.  I do that sometimes.  You know, save up on asking for anything for a while, then spring a request on Pa when he’s not expecting it.  It works every time, or nearly.”  Joe saddled Blossom for Sally-Ann in his best gentlemanly style and led the mare out to stand beside Cochise, then he remembered to assist the girl into the saddle before swinging up himself, the way he knew his Pa would approve of.  “Let’s go.”

 The two youngsters rode for nearly two hours, alternately racing and just walking their horses and talking.  Joe was surprised to find Sally-Ann so open and friendly with him. He found that he really liked her once she opened up and began talking and laughing with him like his other schoolmates did.  The contrast to her usual manner was so pronounced that he finally could not resist asking her about it.  “Sally-Ann, how come you’re so different now from the way you are at school? You always seem so shy and everything there, but out here you’re not.”

 Sally-Ann looked down at her saddle horn and blushed.  “I feel different when I’m with you.  The other kids are kind of scary.  I can’t ever think of anything to say around them, or else I feel like they’ll laugh at me if I do talk, but with you I feel like I can say anything and you won’t make fun of me.”  She cast him a shy smile.  “That’s why I talked to you the last day of school.  I wanted you to know how bad I felt about what my sister did to you, cause I know you’d never do something like that to anybody.”

  Sally-Ann’s blonde braids had come loose while she and Joe galloped across the countryside and the sight of her pretty, blushing face half hidden by a curtain of tousled hair was causing a strange funny feeling in Joe’s chest.  Her words of faith in him made the feeling even stronger and Joe knew what he had to do.  “Sally-Ann, um, would you mind if we got down for a minute.  There’s something kind of important I want to talk to you about.”

 Hope shining bright in her brown eyes, Sally-Ann dismounted quickly and stood waiting, clasping her hands in anticipation.  “What is it, Joe?”

 Joe cleared his throat, suddenly a little nervous as he recalled the last time he had tried this.  He only prayed his voice would hold steady and not crack while he did it.  “Well, you see, Doc Martin told me last night that the picnic and dance are back on a month from today.”  He dared a glance at her face.  What he saw there gave him the courage to keep going.  “I was just wondering, if you haven’t already decided to go with somebody else…well, would you maybe like to go with me?”  He shifted his weight, hoping he had not sounded foolish, and praying that Sally-Ann would not laugh.

 Sally-Ann could not speak for happiness, but when she saw Little Joe’s downcast eyes lift to shoot her a worried glance, she nodded enthusiastically.  Joe’s bright smile restored her powers of speech and Sally-Ann said, “Oh, Joe, I wanted so much for you to ask me, but after what Susie did, I was just sure you never would.  I’d love to go with you!”

 Joe breathed a great sigh of relief.  “Good.  I’d better get you back to your house now.  I promised your Ma I wouldn’t take you too far away and I’ve got to get into Virginia City to meet my brother, Adam.” 

 They rode back together, not saying very much, but both feeling extremely happy.  When they reached Sally-Ann’s front steps, Joe hesitated, then leaned over and delivered a quick kiss to Sally-Ann’s cheek.  “I’ll see you,” he said.  “Thanks for saying, yes.”  He turned Cochise and rode away before she could see the new surge of color in his cheeks. 


Chapter 13 

               Joe and Cochise made record time into Virginia City, but Joe scarcely noticed the journey at all. He was elated and the road seemed to fly away beneath him as swiftly as if Cochise had suddenly been endowed with wings, like the magical mouse in his bed time stories to Hoss.  Just as he reached town, he saw Adam driving up in the buckboard and was surprised to realize that it must be nearly 4 o’clock already. “Adam!  Hey, Adam,” he shouted, waving his hat when his older brother turned and saw him.

               “Hey there, buddy.”  Adam’s eyes widened curiously at the sight of the huge grin on Little Joe’s face.  “What’s got you so happy all of a sudden?”

                Joe swung down and tied up his horse in front of the General Store.  Grabbing Adam by the arms, he said excitedly,  “Adam, guess what?  I asked Sally Ann to the dance next month and she’s going with me!  She really wants to go with me, Adam!”  He was so excited he could hardly contain himself and Adam responded to his enthusiasm with a laugh and a congratulatory slap on the back.

                “Way to go, little brother,” he said.  A twinkle filled his dark eyes as he suddenly pretended to be upset, snapping his fingers in mock frustration.  “Dang, I guess this means I owe Hoss a dollar.  He bet you’d ask her today and I bet it would take you at least another week to work up the nerve.”

               Joe looked shocked, then he laughed as he caught on to the teasing.  “Thanks for you confidence in me, brother.  Let’s go get that drink you owe me and I’ll tell you all about it.”

               The two brothers went into the General Store, Joe talking a mile a minute and Adam laughingly trying to make him slow down.  The whole time they shopped for Joe’s new wardrobe, the boy never paused for more than a minute or two, and then it was usually to let Adam answer a question from the storekeeper, who was as amused as Adam by the chatter.  By the time they emerged, Joe had finally run out of words, but the spring in his step was caused as much by the residual glow of his achievement as by the handsome new clothes he was wearing.  The smile on his face dimmed a bit as they walked onto the main street and Adam looked to see what had caused the change. 

               Susie Miller was approaching from the direction of the Post Office and her eyes widened as she saw the Cartwright brothers. She sauntered up and smiled, dipping into a shallow curtsy for Adam.  He smiled tightly and tipped his hat.  She turned to Joe and her eyes widened.  His eyes and cheeks were bright with the color caused by his excitement of moments before and the wind was lightly ruffling his curly hair as he adjusted the band on the brand new dark brown hat in his hands.  His clothes were brand new, well fitted and very handsome on his now lean frame and what really made Susie take notice was that he was standing just slightly taller than she was.  Susie had just heard the news about the reinstatement of the school dance and was thinking to herself that maybe Little Joe Cartwright deserved a second chance to be the one to take her.  She stepped very close to him and batted her eyelashes.  “Howdy, Little Joe.”

               Joe stared at her distastefully.  There was no mistaking the flirtatious look in her eyes.  It was the same one she had been giving him for all those years when he thought she had been sweet on him.  Now he knew those darling glances meant nothing at all.  “Susie,” he said curtly.  “Let’s go, Adam.”

               “Wait a minute, Joe,” Susie cooed.  “You don’t need to act so cold to me, do you?  After all, you can’t still be mad over that little misunderstanding we had in the school-yard, can you?”  She laughed and dismissed the incident with a wave of her hand.

               Fury blazed up in Joe’s green eyes.  “Misunderstanding!  You laughed and made fun of me in front of the entire school!  I wouldn’t treat a mangy dog as bad as you treated me.”

               Susie fell back a step, genuinely surprised by his attitude.  “Joe, you’re overreacting.  It wasn’t like you were serious, after all.  You can take me to the dance now, but you couldn’t have expected me to be seen there with a…a…” She paused, groping for the proper word.

               “A runt?” he asked acidly.  “Well, as a matter of fact, I was serious, but you know what?  I’m glad you turned me down.  Now I won’t be stuck with you all day when I could be having fun.  Besides,” he smiled suddenly, his very sweetest smile, which he knew was guaranteed to set female pulses fluttering.  “I already have a date for the dance, with a really great girl.  Why don’t you just go find Teddy and see if he still wants to take you?" 

               Susie’s mouth had fallen open.  She had only walked away with Teddy Johnson as a ploy.  That big oaf wouldn’t do to be seen at a dance with!  Joe was the best looking boy in the whole school and she had been sure he would jump at being given another chance to be seen with the best looking girl.  She had only turned him down to show him what he had been missing all the years he had ignored her advances.  Now he was taking somebody else?  “Who are you going to the dance with?”  she demanded.

               Joe looked at her as if she had just asked the stupidest question on earth.  “Sally-Ann,” he said simply.  The look of blatant outrage that had Susie suddenly gaping like a landed fish brought a cheery smile to Joe’s face.  “You know, if you hadn’t humiliated me like that, Sally-Ann would never have found the nerve to talk to me and I might have never known what a great sister you have.  Ain’t it funny how things work out?”  He donned his new hat at a rakish angle and winked as he brushed past Susie to join Adam, who had watched the exchange with amusement bright in his brown eyes.  “See you, Susie.”

               The Cartwrights sauntered off down the board sidewalk, heading for the saloon, leaving Susie standing there with an expression of utter shock. 

               “You know something, Adam?” Joe asked, hooking his thumbs through his belt and grinning as he moved down the street.  “Pa was right.  He always told me that growing up meant facing your fears and not letting people get the best of you.  He said if I remembered that I’d come out on top in the end.  Guess I’m finally growing up, huh?”

               Adam reached out and tipped Joe’s hat over his eyes, hugging his little brother’s neck in the crook of his elbow.  “You’re getting there, baby brother.  You’re definitely getting there.”


                                                                           The End

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Helen Adams

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