One of Those Days


Helen Adams  


Monday: The Fun Begins 

Did you ever have one of those days when you never should have bothered getting out of bed? Ever have a whole week like that? Well, let me tell you, if I had last week to do all over again, I’d tie myself to that mattress so tight that a full grown team of draft horses in harness would not be able to move me until it was all over! 

Not that it started out so bad. It was just your typical Monday morning. I was out checking a few miles of fence-line with Hoss. It was a nice sunny day, the temperature was mild and the air had that sweet fresh scent that comes after a nighttime rain. We were just riding along, sort of companionable-like, and I was talking my brother’s ear off about an upcoming dance.  Mostly I was talking about which gal I wanted to take with me but I was also trying to convince Hoss to ask the new bank teller he’s so sweet on to be his date.  I had no clue that that day and every other day following it would turn out to be… 

One of Those Days 

Things first started going really wrong around noon. I’d managed to talk Hoss into making a trip to town with me that afternoon, since it looked as though we were going to get lucky and not have any repairs to make.

Just about that time, I spotted a section of wire that had been yanked right off of the posts it had once been attached to. The posts themselves were kind of splintered up, partway driven into the ground and part way sagging toward it. Likely some lazy steer tried to lean against the fence and went flying horns over hoofs for his trouble. Whatever had caused it, though, I was none too happy to see it.  I knew it would have to be fixed before we could move on to the next chore and pulling and replacing those posts, then restringing a good 5 yards of wire around them, was going to take enough time to throw off my whole day's plan.

I could tell by the look on my brother’s face that he’d seen the thought that flitted through my brain, just for an instant, of asking him to finish up without me so I could get into town to buy the new shirt I wanted for the dance. He was having none of it and made it clear in no uncertain terms.

We've been a little short-handed on the Ponderosa lately.  We have a couple dozen ranch hands on the payroll but my brothers, Adam and Hoss, my Pa and I have still been putting in extra hours to keep up with everything. I wanted to take a break but I could just picture the long line of other things I was putting off to do this one job.  It set the sound of Pa's voice, when he had given us a reminder of how much work there was to do that morning at breakfast, ringing in my ears.  He had treated us all to one of those veiled lectures he's so good at, where he makes it sound as if he's just passing on news to all three of us but where I just know he's really looking straight at me, warning me not to slack off and screw things up. 

I can't help resenting it some, when Pa does that. After all, I'm not the only one who ever messes up. Hoss has done some loo-loos and even Adam, the ever superior, has been known to make a mistake now and then.  Somehow, though, I'm the one whose goofs always seem to make the biggest impression on Pa. I don't get in half as much trouble now as I did a couple of years ago but unfortunately, he can never seem to remember that, any more than he remembers that at 21, I'm not a kid anymore.

Thinking back, though, I doubt it was the bad mood Pa's lecture had put me in that got my week started off so wrong. In fact, I had worked myself into a pretty happy frame of mind before the fence problem cropped up. But the more I sweated and twisted and worked over that busted string of fence, the more everything in the whole world seemed to annoy me. Pulling that first section of fencing had caused three more sections to collapse, just like when you set up dominos and push the first one so they’ll fall over in a long row and it was clear to see that the trip to town was going to be a lost cause by the time we were halfway through.

My mood dropped from bad to truly foul when I took a break for lunch and discovered that big brother had already helped himself to my share of the food along with his own. When I cast it up to him, he looked surprised and said he thought Hop Sing had packed us two separate bundles. I couldn't decide whether to trust that innocent face of his or not. There was no way to prove it, either way, so I tried to satisfy my hunger pangs with a few gulps of water and went back to work.

What happened next still seems like a dream.

Like I said, I was pretty well irritated with everything and everyone. I was grumbling away, mostly about how I’d be lucky if I caught up with my work in time to ask any of the girls I’d had in mind to that dance. I figured Hoss felt the same way, so when he told me to quit jawing and start doing my share of the work, it was like sparks in dry tinder.

It was Hoss’ attitude when I reminded him that we were going to miss our opportunity to go into Virginia City and mark a little time with the girls that afternoon that really chapped my hide. Hoss is normally our family peacemaker and everyone's favorite shoulder to cry on but he really knows how to needle a guy when he feels like it. He told me he wasn't sure he wanted to take anybody to the dance and that it wouldn't hurt me any to go stag for once in my life, either. That doesn't sound like much, I guess but if you could've heard him and seen the look on his face when he said it, you'd understand why I got mad.

I said a couple things to him and he said a couple things back and the next thing you know we were yelling at each other loud enough to scare off every bird and animal within half a mile's hearing.

It all probably would've blown over pretty quickly if I'd just had the brains to back off and keep my mouth shut when I saw that Hoss' temper was rising. But, if you know me at all, then you know I sometimes have a problem with my mouth not waiting for my brain to catch up before it starts in saying things it shouldn’t. I was hot, sweaty, tired and hungry and I made the mistake of relieving my feelings by saying a few really nasty things to Hoss.

It’s funny, actually. I don’t even remember what it was I said that finally pushed him over the edge but the second the words hit the air, I knew I’d made a big mistake.  Hoss has never been one for taking advantage of his size and strength against me. As a matter of fact, he’s pulled my bacon out of the fire more times than I can count, both back when we were kids and later when the schoolyard bullies turned into roughneck miners and gamblers in Virginia City. I’ve always been able to count on him to take my side and not get too riled by anything I say.

Guess this time, I’d crossed the line. The last thing I remember about that afternoon was seeing a fist nearly as big as my head coming straight toward my face.

And that was just the beginning.


The first thing I can recall after I started to regain my senses was a strange, heavy feeling of coldness against my face.  I opened my eyes to find out what it was, then jumped so far back from the shock of seeing Hoss' face looming just a few of inches above mine that I smacked my head hard enough to see stars on something behind me.  I yelped, he hollered, I cursed, then for the first time I realized we weren't alone when I heard Pa say my name.

"Joseph, just lie back and relax," he said.  "You've been out for quite awhile."

"How…" I began, but Pa interrupted me.

"You've got to hold still and keep this ice pack on to help the swelling go down."

Now that my vision was finally clearing a little from that knock on the head, against what I was just beginning to realize was my own headboard, I figured out that I was at home.  For the life of me, I couldn't figure how I'd got there or what had happened to me but Pa's words suddenly made me very much aware that my face hurt like the dickens.

"Wha's goig od?  Wha habbent?" I stopped talking as I heard my own words coming out sounding as though I had the world's worst head cold.  It had hurt saying them; my whole face feeling as if it were stuffed with cotton that had been dipped in cayenne pepper.  I reached up to touch my nose and yelped again.

Pa grabbed my hand and forced me to lie back, gently placing the ice bag back over my face. 

"Lie still," he commanded me.  "It’s too swollen to tell for sure right now but I think you’ve broken your nose.  It's going to start bleeding again if you don't settle down."

I gasped and rolled off the bed away from him before Pa could stop me, moving as fast I could over to the mirror above my dresser.  The sight that met my eyes would've made me cry if I hadn't been so shocked by it.  My nose looked like it had been replaced by a big red lump of clay and there was blood crusted on my nostrils and upper lip.  Both my eyes were also puffed up, the skin having already taken on an ugly bluish purple tinge all the way across my cheeks that just made the red nose look that much more grotesque. 

Pa had been right about the motion causing the blood to start flowing again.  I watched it drip with a weird sense of fascination for a second, then I turned away, unable to look at myself any longer.  I've had plenty of black eyes and bruises in my time but this had them all beat.  Had Pa said my nose was broken? I looked at his face as I slowly sat back down on the bed and allowed him to settle me against the pillows and tilt my head back.  Pa had broken his nose a couple of times in his young days and it still showed.  Not that it hurt his looks any, that flattened out bridge.  I've always thought of my Pa as a handsome man and that small imperfection never seems to drive the ladies off when they see him.  As I tried to picture my own nose taking on that shape, though, I could hardly stand it.  I know there are those who think I'm pretty vain for a man and right at that moment I'd have had to admitted that it's a little bit true. 

I felt Hoss pat my shoulder with an awkward touch. 

"I'm real sorry, Little Joe," he said.  "I shouldn't have lost my temper that way, no matter how riled I was at you for saying those things."

Suddenly, it all came back to me.  The argument, the name-calling and that first and final blow and I instantly felt angry all over again.  My own brother had sucker punched me!  He had also very effectively ruined not only my ability to go to the dance that had started our whole fight but maybe any future ones as well.  I pulled away from him.

“Please, Joe,” he said and I could hear the begging in his voice.  He held out the ice bag I had dropped and said, “I just want to help you.”

I couldn’t even look at him.  I just pointed to the doorway, ordering him out of my sight and said in the most sarcastic tone I could muster, given the limitations on my speech at that moment, “I think you’ve helped enough.”

Hoss pulled away liked he’d been stung.  I heard Pa trying to comfort him, telling him I was just hurting and didn’t mean it and scolding me at the same time but I wasn't listening.  I just took that ice bag Hoss had placed on the bed, put it back over my aching face and shut out everyone and everything except my own misery.


Despite the earlier hunger due to my stolen lunch, I skipped dinner that night.  My face, right down to the roots of my teeth, hurt too much to even consider it. 

Doctor Martin stopped by in the early evening to check on one of our ranch hands who’s got a broken arm and Pa sent him upstairs to check me out. The ice had brought the swelling down enough by then that I could stand to let him touch my nose and fortunately, it turned out not to be broken.  The blow had just damaged a little tissue on the inside and as result it was bruised really bad and sore as hell.  He gave me some painkiller to allow me to sleep and for once in my life I was glad to have it.


Tuesday:  Good Intentions Gone Wrong.

I awakened feeling much better than I had expected to.  A check in the mirror showed that I still looked like a circus clown's nightmare but some of the swelling and most of the pain were gone. 

I’d woke up still thinking about my fight with Hoss but by that time my conscience had been working on me for a while and I was willing to admit to myself that what had happened had been as much my fault as his.  I decided to go downstairs and patch things up, so that maybe I’d have a shot at a better day.

When I got downstairs, Pa and Adam were still having breakfast but Hoss was nowhere in sight.  As I took my seat and filled my plate, Pa asked how I was feeling.  I told him I was okay then looked over at Adam, just waiting to see what kind of comment he was going to fire off about the way I looked but he didn’t make one.  All he said was “Hoss will be glad to know that.”

Now, there are a couple of things you have to understand about my brother Adam.  The first is that he hardly ever says anything without it having some kind of extra meaning underneath.  The other is that he won’t tell you what that meaning is without making you think about it awhile first.  Damned annoying habit, if you ask me.  In this case, though, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was driving at.

“I’m sorry I snapped at him yesterday,” I told them.  “I was going to tell him that as soon as I came down but he wasn’t here.  Where is he?”

“He went out to finish fixing that fence you two were working on yesterday,” Pa told me, his voice so toneless that I knew he was urging me to go help but trying not to sound scolding about it.  That and the way he was looking at me, sympathetic to my injury but not overly so, told me right away that Hoss must’ve given him the whole story and Pa wasn’t very happy with either of us.  That pretty much killed the idea I’d been toying with of playing up my pain to get out of working.  I could tell Pa wasn’t going to buy it, especially when he added, “After he brought you home yesterday, there was no time to go out and finish it.”

Up until that moment, I hadn’t given any real thought to how I’d gotten home the day before, and finding out did nothing to ease my conscience.  I reached up to rub my face, a habit I’ve got when I’m sort of worked up about something, then flinched hard when I pressed against the tender area.  Adam surprised me again by smiling and wincing along with me.  I was suddenly reminded that he had been on the receiving end of a punch from Hoss a time or two himself and that he probably remembered both what it felt like and what it took to drive our brother that far. 

“If you’re up to it, I’m sure he’d appreciate some help patching things up,” he suggested.

Something told me that brother Adam wasn’t just referring to the busted fence.

“I’ll go right after breakfast,” I promised and was rewarded by seeing Pa’s face relax into a smile, even as he warned me to take things easy, as the doctor had advised. 


I found Hoss right where I had expected to.  He was struggling to pull a section of wire into place while holding a new fence post steady and trying to nail everything into place besides.  Clearly, he needed an extra hand and I decided to provide it.  I walked up and steadied the post for him, smiling at him as he looked up with startled eyes.  He took a long hard stare into my face and I could see the regret but all he said was, “You shouldn’t have said that to me yesterday, y’know.”

Like I said, I don’t have any idea what set him off but I figured he was right.  “I know.  You did start it, though."

"Yeah," he drawled.  "Reckon I was a might jealous when you kept going on about all them gals you could pick for the dance, when I don't hardly have a shot at one."

"Sure you do," I objected.  I was surprised.  Sometimes I forget how shy my brother is and how low his opinion of his own appeal to the opposite sex is.  I've known lots of girls who thought Hoss was a great catch.  I told him so and followed it with, "I didn't mean to push you about asking Amy to the dance."

"I shouldn't have been so touchy," he admitted.

I decided to test him and see if I was truly forgiven.  "You shouldn’t have tried to get back at me for all that complaining by helping yourself to my lunch.”

Hoss began hammering with great concentration on the nails but I could see the twinkle in his eyes.  After a minute, he grinned at me and said, “I guess that was kinda mean.  You ever stop to think that maybe you weren’t the only person having a bad day?”

“Not until I woke up with a potato where my nose used to be,” I said, helping to wrap the strand of wire around the post so he could add another nail.  I saw shame flicker over his face at my joke and stopped working, laying my hand on his shoulder.  “It'll mend, Hoss.  No hard feelings?”

A great big smile answered my question.  “Let’s get this done quick, okay?  Pa told me we could have the afternoon off to go into town today if we got it done.”

My face was still feeling pretty sore and I didn’t relish the idea of being seen in public looking the way I did but all I said was, “How did Pa know I’d come out here, or for that matter that I wasn't going to hold a grudge?”

“Same way he always knows, I guess.  He's Pa."  Hoss’ wry comment made me laugh and I decided right then that all the stares and questions in the world couldn’t keep me out of Virginia City that afternoon.

That was my second mistake.


We got our work on the fence done in plenty of time. Unable to believe that Pa would be willing to let us off the hook after just that one little job, I suggested we stop by the house to see if he needed us to pick up anything while we were in town. Hoss looked at me a little funny when I said it and I knew what he was thinking. Normally, I'd have been off like a shot with no thought of checking in but I suppose I was still feeling a little guilty and wanting to show Pa what a responsible son I was.

We stopped in just long enough to find out that Pa didn't have anything he needed from town, though he did ask I'd mind checking for any mail or telegrams that might have come in and I could tell he was pleased with me for asking. Made me feel downright smug as Hoss and I started out and I guess Hoss could sense it 'cause he decided to take me down a peg.

"So, you made up your mind who to take to that dance on Saturday?" he asked casually.

I snorted at the question and right away wished I hadn't when a twinge of pain passed through my nose. "You know I can't go to that now."

"Why not?" he persisted. "You told me just a while ago that looks ain't important to every gal."

He was testing me, I could tell and unfortunately he had me dead to rights. I decided to counter with a little teasing. I drew myself up to look as self-important as I could manage and said, "It's different when you're as handsome as I am."

Hoss laughed, just as I'd hoped he would but I couldn't seem to muster up much humor of my own. I sighed and touched my nose, wondering how long it would be before it got back to normal.

Hoss rode closer and patted my shoulder. "It's like you said, Little Joe. It'll mend."

"I know," I told him. "It's just that I'd kinda been counting on asking Beth Thomas to that dance. All that stuff I was telling you yesterday about not being able to make up my mind was just talk. She's the only one I want to go with but she's got Johnny Parks playing up to her, too. What kinda chance have I got against him looking like this?"

Johnny and I have been rivals over one thing or another since we were kids.  He's the only guy in town that can give me any real competition as a lady's man and for some reason the biggest attraction for him with any girl seems to be my seeing her first. 

Hoss could tell that I was pretty upset and he didn't answer me right away. "If Beth won't go with you, there's plenty of others that will," he said finally.

We both knew Beth to be a very proper young lady; one who would never be seen in public with somebody who'd obviously been in a fight. Somehow, Hoss' words of comfort only made me feel worse. Maybe he could tell that, because after another stretch of silence he nudged me to get my attention.

"Lookee over yonder, Little Joe. I think I just found the perfect gal for you. Want me to go ask her to the dance for you?"

I looked, froze in indignation for a second, then started laughing so hard I nearly fell out of the saddle. My 'perfect' date was a cute little raccoon standing up on a stump just outside of the woods to our left, stretching her little paws up as though she was waving at us. I waved back at her and Hoss winked at me in a way that suddenly made me feel like everything was going to be all right.


My good mood lasted until we were a couple of miles outside the Virginia City limits, where my horse stumbled and started limping. I've been trained from the time I could walk to take good care of any horse I ride but Cochise has always been extra special to me. I dismounted and checked him over carefully. He wasn't injured but he had lost a shoe. Hoss and I searched around for it but it was nowhere in sight and I knew I'd have to have it replaced before Cochise would be fit for riding again.

I stood there in that road fretting and fussing for a good ten minutes before Hoss held out a hand and said, "You walkin' or ridin'?"

I didn't care much for the idea of riding up behind my brother. By necessity, he rides the biggest horse on the ranch and Chubb is a little too wide to make a comfortable ride for somebody my size, especially sitting behind the saddle on his rump. As I considered my options, though, walking two miles into town seemed even less appealing, so I accepted the hand up and fixed myself as comfortably as I could.  Even with my legs spread as wide as they would go, my knees just barely cleared the expanse of Chubb's back and I had to put my arms around Hoss' middle to keep from sliding off, making me feel like a little kid again.

I couldn't help being a little humiliated as we rode into town and I spotted several folks nudging each other and grinning at the sight we made.

"Howdy, Hoss. Howdy, Little Joe."

I cringed when I heard the familiar voice of Sheriff Coffee. He was smiling; a teasing twinkle in his eyes that I just knew didn't bode well for me.

"Hi, Roy.  How's it going?" Hoss asked, tipping his hat a little.

"Jest fine, Hoss."  Roy walked up closer and patted me on the leg. "You look awful cute riding up behind your big brother that way, Little Joe. You gonna make Hoss buy you some candy at the General Store if you're a good boy?"

He roared with laughter, clearly remembering several years ago when I used to do just that and Hoss laughed too. I didn't think it was a bit funny but I tried to smile anyway.

Hoss explained about Cochise and I noticed Roy studying me, taking in the bruising on my face and I tried to duck my head so he couldn't get a good look. I shouldn't have bothered.

"Doc Martin was telling me you came within a hair of getting your nose busted yesterday, son," he said. "Some kinda accident out on the range?"

"That's right," I told him, knowing by the way he asked the question that he already knew all the details and wondering why I never seemed to qualify for any of that famous doctor/patient confidentiality stuff. "I'd better get Cochise over to the blacksmith's. Nice talking to you, Roy."

He smiled at me, not bothered a bit by the all-too-obvious fact that I was trying to get away from him. In my haste to dismount, I wasn't watching where I was landing. I felt the squish of a fresh pile of horse droppings under my boot a moment before Roy burst into even louder peals of laughter and walked off down the street toward his office.

I shot Hoss a look that warned him he'd better not follow Roy's example. I could tell it was a struggle for him but he managed to keep a straight face long enough to tell me he would take Cochise over for me while I went to check the mail for Pa.

I tried to wipe some of the muck off my boot, then went to do my errand. There was nothing for us at the mail or telegraph offices, so I decided to head on over to the saloon for a beer.

As I went down the boardwalk on C Street, I caught a look at my reflection in the window of one of the shops. I think I must've groaned out loud, cause a couple of folks gave me strange looks, but I couldn't help myself. I normally take pains to look my best in public, even if it only extends to washing up a little. Women always appreciate stuff like that and I always try to do what women appreciate. This time, I hadn't done a thing and I already regretted it. My bruises had taken on a whole rainbow of colors in the last few hours and my nose still looked about three times bigger than normal. I hadn't shaved that morning; I rarely have to but of course this was the one time that I actually had visible stubble, making the non-bruised portion of my face look like I needed to wash it. On top of that, it was a hot day so I hadn't worn my jacket and the dirt and sweat stains from my morning's work were there for the world to see.

That was the picture I presented as I continued on up the street, just in time to see Beth Thomas and two of her friends walking straight toward me.

Now, this is not something I'm proud of but I flat out panicked at the thought of Beth seeing me like I was. Without a thought, I dove through the first open doorway I came to, intending to hide out until they walked by. The very feminine murmurs of surprise that greeted me told me I'd picked the wrong haven.

Embarrassed to realize I was standing in a ladies' clothing shop, I turned to leave and bumped right into a display dummy wearing just a corset. When it started to tip over I grabbed it in a way that would have gotten me slapped if it had been a real woman and several of the ladies in the shop giggled. I turned bright red and let go, then made for the door, only to see Beth and her friends coming inside.

Still hoping to escape without being recognized, I ran for the back door. I'd nearly made it when I tripped right over the train of one of those ladies' dresses and went flying head-first into the curtain that covers the dressing-room. Think I was lucky enough to find it empty? With the day I was having?

A scream like nothing I've ever heard in my life cut through the room. I was tangled up in the curtain and couldn't see a thing at first but when I finally pulled it off, I found myself looking straight up at Mrs. Amelia Pembroke, who was dressed about the same as that dummy I'd knocked into.

I guess I must've been in shock or something, cause the next thing I knew a slap darn near knocked my head off.  A flash of agony went off like a firecracker through my face and it snapped me back to reality.  I made a hasty apology and resumed my course for the back door. I didn't see Beth anywhere but I decided to assume she was still there someplace and scrambled out the back on my hands and knees. I could hear those ladies shrieking and hollering all the way down the street as I took off in a dead run for the safety of the Bucket of Blood.

Hoss was sitting at a table sipping on a beer when I came through the door. There was another one beside him for me and I drained it in one long gulp as I threw myself down into a chair. Hoss asked what had happened to me but there was just no way I could think of to tell him.

It wasn't too busy in town that day, being a midweek afternoon and other than a few curious questions about my face, we didn't attract any undue attention. I was grateful and finally began to calm down. Hoss and I were discussing whether to get something to eat before heading home, when I heard someone open the swinging doors of the saloon hard enough to make them crash against their support walls.

Hoss whistled. "I don't believe it! It's Tom Pembroke and he looks madder than a wet hen. Wonder what's got him so riled."

I laid my arms across the table, put my head down and just waited for it.

"Cartwright!" Pembroke grabbed me by the collar and hauled me to my feet.

I hate, more than almost anything in the world, being hauled up by my shirt-collar and it was all I could do not to take a swing at him right then. The only reason I didn't do it was that he believed he was defending his wife's honor and I was still hoping to explain my way out of things.

"Tom, it's not what you think!" I told him. "I walked into that shop by accident and I tripped over something and fell into that dressing room."

"That's not the way I heard it!" he snarled and I could see that he wasn't in the mood to be reasonable. "You lousy peeping tom!"

He raised his fist to take a swing at me and I figured all bets were off and swung first. I caught him a glancing blow off the right cheekbone that only served to make him angrier. He threw his fist at me so hard he went off-balance and I managed to get out of the way just in time.

Unfortunately, Hoss didn't. He fell back a couple of steps, then came back and threw a punch at Tom that knocked him off his feet. A couple other fellas jumped into the middle of things, obviously having been looking for an excuse to liven up a dull day. I got in a couple of good shots and took a couple as well but with a little fancy footwork, I somehow managed not to get punched in the nose a second time.

"Get out of here, Joe! I'll take care of this," Hoss shouted to me. He was already making good on his promise, so when Tom got in another hit to the gut that knocked me clean out of the saloon, I stayed out.

Figuring that the only safe company for me at that moment was horses, I walked down to the blacksmith's shop to see how the work on Cochise's shoe was coming along. It wasn't ready yet and Hans told me to come back in an hour.

I spotted Hoss coming out of the saloon, dusting off his hands. When he invited me to have lunch at Nellie's café, I could tell he wasn't going to be satisfied until he had the whole story. We sat down and had a cup of coffee while I explained. Hoss interrupted me several times to laugh but I was starting to see the funny side of the whole thing by then, so I didn't really mind.

We were looking around for Nellie so we could place our order, when I spotted Amy Jackson sitting at a nearby table. In return for the favor Hoss had done me by getting those fellas in the saloon off my back, I decided to help him by arranging his date for the dance.

She came right over in response to my calling her name but I wasn't counting on Amy being more interested in me than in my brother.

"Oh, Joe, you poor thing! What happened?" she demanded, sitting right down next to me and brushing her fingers over my bruises.

Believe it or not, I'd actually forgotten all about the way I looked but when Nellie came out from the kitchen and joined Amy in cooing and fussing over me, I wished that I'd kept quiet. It was getting downright embarrassing after a while and I could see that Hoss wasn't too happy with me. He kept trying to get Amy's attention but she never even noticed.

Those two women just kept going on and on, asking me what had happened and I finally got so exasperated that I told them. "Hoss and I got in a little tussle yesterday and he hit me. It was nothing."

I never expected what came next.

"Why you big brute!" Nellie said, whirling on Hoss. "I've always thought you were a kind man but you're nothing but a bully!"

Nellie started laying into Hoss with a vengeance and Amy looked like she would cry.  Poor Hoss was trying his best to explain but neither one of those girls was listening. I spoke up, trying to set them straight and they started going on about how sweet I was to try and defend Hoss!

Clearly we were in a no-win situation, so Hoss and I got out of that place as quick as we could.

Outside, I did my best to apologize to him but Hoss was hurt over what the girls had said and upset with me for having provoked the whole thing. He told me I could just go on home by myself and marched off toward the livery. I stood there gaping after him, expecting him to have second thoughts and come back for me right up until I saw him bring Chubb out of the stable and head toward home at a gallop.

For a long while, I just stayed where I was, unable to make up my mind what to do.  I decided that I had nothing to lose by trying one more time to explain things to Amy when I saw her coming out of the café, so I blocked her path and asked her to sit with me for a while.

It took a while to get the whole story out. I really played up what a great guy Hoss is and how he never would have laid a finger on me if I hadn't provoked him. Probably made myself look like a total jerk but she was buying it and that was all I cared about. When she finally started to look sympathetic enough toward Hoss, I told her how much he'd wanted to be her escort to that dance and deliberately made it sound like his heart would be broken forever if she didn't forgive him. I must've been really good, because I actually had Amy in tears again by the end of my recital. She begged me to tell Hoss how sorry she was and I promised I'd have him back in town to see her, first chance I got.

Cochise was finally ready when I got back to the blacksmith's shop and I figured I'd had enough for one day. Just as I was leading him out of the smithy, I heard my name being called. I sighed and shook my head. I'd almost made it.

"Hello, Beth."

As I turned around to face her, I braced myself. Whether she had actually witnessed the dress shop fiasco or not, I had a feeling that the news of it had to be all over town by now.

Sure enough, there she stood with hands on hips and a glare in her eyes. "So it's true," she said, taking in the details of my appearance. "You've been brawling in the saloon. Johnny told me you'd started a fight in there."

Whatever I had been expecting her to say, that wasn't even close. Silently cursing Johnny Parks for rushing to take advantage of my streak of bad luck, I protested, "I didn't start that fight! Tom Pembroke started it. I was just trying to keep from getting clobbered."

"Tom Pembroke is the most peace loving man in this whole town," she countered. "Why would he want to pick a fight with you?"

"It was a mistake. He thought I'd insulted his wife or something but it was all a big misunderstanding."

Beth's lips twitched and it occurred to me that she was hiding a smile. As I leaned forward to get a closer look, she broke into giggles. "I heard about what happened in the dress shop. I just couldn't believe it. You mean to tell me it's true?"

I felt so relieved to realize that she wasn't mad that I hardly knew how to react.  I let my guard down, which of course meant that I was destined to say the wrong thing again. "It's true. This is great, Beth! I never thought you'd believe me so easily, especially after I just spent an hour talking Amy around so she'd agree to go to the dance on Saturday."

"Amy! You mean Amy Jackson? You're taking HER to the dance?" In a split second I remembered that Amy and Beth had been bitter rivals since school days. I thought about trying to explain that I'd set up the date for Hoss rather than myself but what was the use?

Before I could even turn around, I heard yet another voice calling out my name.  It looked like our meeting in the saloon hadn't satisfied Tom.  He was heading straight for me and this time I didn't have my brother to stand beside me.

I had flat out had it with that whole crummy day by then. I brushed by Beth and went to meet Tom halfway. I punched him, he decked me and before you knew it we were rolling through the dirt in the middle of the main street, hammering on each other as hard as we could. I felt a couple of blows connect with my face and the pain just made me fight harder.

Tom was no match for me in that mood and before long I had him flat on the ground, sitting on him to hold him down.  I shouted in his face, "I did not look at your wife on purpose! I walked into the dress shop to get away from Beth and tripped and fell into the room where your wife was. It was an accident, okay? Now, unless you plan to start a fight every time you see me, or hide out someplace and shoot me over an accident, then this is over!"

Tom was considerably the worse for wear by that point and he finally decided to accept what I was saying. I don't think he much liked the idea that I had seen his wife half-naked, truth is it's an experience I could've lived without myself but it had happened and there was nothing either of us could do. I've got to give him credit, though. He backed off gracefully, holding out one bruised hand and saying, "I believe you, Cartwright. It's over."

I got off his stomach and helped him up, then suddenly realized that Beth was still standing there, looking mad enough to bite herself and that she had heard me telling Tom why I'd gone into the dress shop. I saw the slap heading for my cheek and I just squeezed my eyes shut and took it, then watched as she turned heel and stomped off down the street.

About that time, I noticed Roy Coffee standing on the sidewalk; taking in the whole spectacle like it was the most entertaining thing he had seen in a month of Sundays. Hell, it probably was! I walked up to him and held out my hands. I didn't really care for the idea of going home and facing Hoss and my Pa and by this time I wasn't sure I'd make it that far anyway, so I said, "Take me to jail, Roy."

"Why would I want to do that, boy?" he asked, grinning at me.

"Haven't you heard? I'm a peeping tom, I started a brawl in the saloon and you just witnessed me disturbing the peace. Isn't that enough to earn a man one quiet night behind bars?"

Roy laughed and took hold of my arm. "I reckon the county can afford to put you up for the night.  Maybe even buy you something to eat and the services of the Doc and if ever'body's cooled down by mornin', I'll let you go without filing formal charges. How does that sound?"

"Like the sweetest words I've ever heard," I told him. "Let's go."


My night in jail passed fairly quietly. There was the usual noise from saloons and from people shouting about one thing and another but not enough to really bother me. If I hadn't been so sore, I probably would have had a good night's sleep.

Roy made good on his promise to get me something to eat and while I was having that, Doc Martin stopped in to see me. My two fights and the slaps from the ladies had been enough to earn me a fat lip, several new cuts and bruises and a black eye that had swelled shut on the right side. Doc said it wasn't too bad, though. He was a little more concerned about my nose.  Said it was a miracle that it still wasn't broken. So, probably as his way of warning me to stay out of trouble, he stuffed wads of cotton up my nostrils and sealed a plaster over the bridge. Between that and the extra guests Roy had living in his jailhouse bunk, I chose to sit up and stare out the window with my good eye for most of the night.

Wednesday: The Calm Before the Storm 

Pa arrived with the morning light. I'd finally managed to fall asleep in the wooden chair Roy had brought in for me and I woke to the sounds of my Pa blustering at the sheriff for locking me up. Their voices rose and fell for a couple of minutes, then the outer door opened and both of them came inside.

Roy pointed to me. "See there, Ben? The Doc looked him over and I ain't heard a peep out of any of the parties involved in yesterday's little fracas, so he's free to go any time he likes. The cell door ain't even locked."

As he opened the door and walked in, I could see Pa gearing himself up to start a lecture and I couldn't quite stop the groan that came at the thought of starting off another day as rotten as the last two had been. Oddly enough, it was that little sound that saved my ears from getting blistered. Pa heard it and took a long look at me and I saw all the irritation and anger just drain right out of him. He shook his head and brushed his hand over my hair. "I guess I'd best get you home where you can't get in any more trouble for a while," he said and started to smile in a way that let me know I'd been forgiven for whatever worry I'd caused him.

"I'm all for that, Pa," I told him. I was feeling a little creaky from all the punishment my body had taken over the last 24 hours but I was anxious to get moving. I shook Roy's hand and thanked him for locking me up, which earned me a real peculiar look from Pa and went outside. I found Cochise waiting for me at the hitching rail. Obviously Pa had not intended to leave Roy's without me.

"The Sheriff sent somebody out to the Ponderosa last night to tell me you wouldn't be home," Pa told me. "If it hadn't already been dark when he arrived, I would've come then. I tried to get the story from Hoss but he seemed pretty upset with you. All he'd say was that there'd been a fight in a saloon and that if you were in jail, you probably deserved it."

"He said that?" I couldn't believe it. I felt just like I'd been punched in the gut, only unlike yesterday, when Tom Pembroke had done just that, this blow really hurt.

Pa patted my back and gave me a helpful little push as I stiffly got up into the saddle. "Maybe you'd better start at the beginning and tell me the whole story."

As we rode toward home together, I filled Pa in on everything that had happened, from the time my horse had lost that shoe until the morning. I kept watching his face to gauge his reaction, wondering if he could believe a story that I wouldn't have believed myself if I hadn't been there.

For the longest time, Pa did his best to keep a straight face and just nod in understanding as my tale spilled out but I could see his jaw quivering and finally he snickered and then started flat out laughing. Of course, he apologized right away for doing it but once he got started, he just sat there on Buck and laughed until the tears ran down his face.

I was mighty put out at first, thinking that Pa could've been a little more sympathetic. Then he asked me to go back over a few points, most notably the part where I asked Roy to throw me in jail and I started laughing too. "Just do me a favor, Pa. Find me something to do that won't put me anywhere near other people for a couple of days."

Pa chuckled and clapped me on the shoulder. "We've got us a couple of water holes in the north section that could use a good cleaning out. Why don't you take it easy today, then get started on those tomorrow morning?"

Wondering when I would ever learn to keep my mouth shut, I sighed. "Yes, sir."


Wednesday was a great day by the standards of the rest of the week. Hoss had already started to soften up toward me by the time Pa and I got home and when I repeated my story for Adam and him and mentioned that I'd fixed things with Amy Jackson, Hoss forgave me right away.

Adam had a field day teasing me and lecturing me about not thinking things through before I did them. Much as I wanted to shoot back a few smart comebacks, the fact that Pa was sitting there, warning me with his eyes not to, kept me quiet.

Hop Sing was happy to fuss over me, scolding me about my banged up face the whole time he recleaned and treated the injuries. After a few derogatory remarks about the quality of the food in Roy's jail, he fed me enough breakfast to satisfy Hoss twice over, then he and Pa both insisted that I go upstairs and have a nap. I was more than happy to oblige and spent the whole of that day just resting, reading and otherwise doing my best to avoid any kind of trouble.


Thursday: Double Exposure

By Thursday, I felt almost human again. My bruises were fading fast and Doc Martin had told me I could take the plaster off after 36 hours if I wasn't feeling any excessive pain in my nose by then. Of course, I still wasn't getting out of cleaning those water holes but even that seemed a small price to pay for getting things back to normal.

I felt even better when Hoss told me that he'd been into town and made up with Amy. She had agreed to be his date for the dance and his spirits had been so high after they spoke that he'd tracked down Beth for me and tried to repay the favor I'd done him.

"You mean, she's willing to talk to me?" I asked him.

"Better than that," he answered; looking like a cat who'd just got the cream. "She's gonna be out this way visiting her Aunt Lillian this afternoon and I invited her to stop by and have supper with us. That way you two can talk things out."

Soon as I heard that, I tried to talk Pa out of the water hole duty, so I'd have time to clean up and make a good impression on Beth. He wouldn't hear of it.

"Joseph, you'll have plenty of time to impress this young lady," he told me. "Those water holes need to be taken care of and they aren't going to take all day."

"Unless you dawdle your way through the job like you usually do, looking for short-cuts that wind up taking twice as long," Adam threw in, his lip curled up in that snide way that always makes me want to punch him. "If you just do the job the way it's supposed to be done, that should leave you your normal three or four hours to primp in front of the mirror before she gets here."

I glared at him and he just laughed. Pa gave us both a warning look and went back to his breakfast. It looked like everything was back to normal.

Of course, looks can be deceiving.


Adam rode out with me as far as the first water hole. That was where he needed to make the turnoff toward the lumber camp, where he was supervising a contract job. Much as I was not looking forward to starting my day's work, those muddy, smelly, muck-filled water holes were beginning to seem like a real appealing alternative to Adam's unending advice on how to get the job done.

Why does he do things like that? I've asked myself that about a million times and I still haven't figured it out. It's not like I'd never done the chore before and it wasn't as if Adam was going to be stupid enough to wade in and show me the 'right' way to do it if I acted ignorant enough. I know my way around pretty much any job on the Ponderosa by now and Adam knows it, just like he knows I have my own way of doing things. Somehow, though, he always feels the need to deliver a sermon.

"Adam, if you don't quit talking and let me get to this, I'm not gonna finish in time to get cleaned up for Beth. If I don't make it home in time to get cleaned up for Beth, I'm gonna be in a real bad mood and you know who I'm gonna take it out on, don't you?"

Adam didn't look too impressed by my implied threat but he waved me on and rode off whistling toward the timber camp. I watched him go for a couple of minutes, wishing with all my might that I could switch places with him but finally I gave up watching and went to look over the first hole. It was in even worse condition than I'd thought. I groaned out loud as I realized that those two muddy holes were take a lot longer than I'd planned on.

I unloaded the shovel I'd brought out with me and took off my boots. You can take the top layer of muck out of a dirty water hole without too much contact but if you want to allow the fresh water to surface without it getting immediately fouled again, you have to take a more personal approach. I looked down at my clothes, wondering what had possessed me to put on one of my favorite shirts instead of something older and more worn out that I wouldn't mind just tossing out when I was finished. 

My ears were already starting to ring with the sound of Hop Sing's complaining when he got a look at the clothes next laundry day and I wondered whether I should just make things easy on myself and take my clothes off until I was done.  It wasn't like anybody was around to know about it. Adam would be busy all day and even if Hoss dropped by to tease me a little about getting stuck with the job, he wouldn't really care. There was even a stream not too far away and unlike the water holes which were for cattle to drink from, that stream was clean and reserved for human use.  It was one of Hoss' and my favorite swimming and fishing spots and I knew it would also make a fairly decent bathtub, which would shave quite a bit of time off my cleanup when I got home.

As you can guess, I talked myself into the idea without too much trouble.

There was a small cluster of bushes nearby, not much more than little shrubs really but I figured they'd probably look fairly appetizing to Cochise.  I looped his rein around the base of one of them and after I shoveled away the top layer of mud off the first water hole, I went back to my horse and stripped, hanging my gun and clothes over his saddle.

Unable to put it off any more, I waded in. There are few things in this world that are more disgusting than stepping into a pit of cold, squishy, muddy water, then sinking in it up to your chest but knowing that the only escape was to work quickly, I grabbed my shovel and got to it.

By the time I finished the first hole, the sun was high in the sky and that cold water had heated up considerably. Even if I hadn't already been sweating from the exertion, I'm sure that water would have gotten me started. The second hole wasn't far off, so I didn't bother moving my things as I walked over to it.

I don't know if was getting tired, or careless, or if fate just wanted another belly-laugh at my expense but as I started wading into that second hole, I slipped in some fresh mud and went down faster than a lead weight. I came up spitting and spluttering, filling the air with all kinds of words I know my Pa wouldn't have approved of. I tried to wipe off some of the filth that was stuck through my hair and on my skin but it was useless. I continued my litany of swearing and dug that shovel in as hard as I could, wondering all the while just what, exactly, I had done to deserve the week I was having.

Finally, the job did come to an end. I pulled myself up onto the grass and stood, more than ready to retrieve my clothes and go take a cool bath in the stream. As I trudged back toward the first water hole, though, something strange occurred to me.

"Cochise?" I called, kinda tentatively at first, then louder and more frantically as I realized the truth. The brush I'd hitched him to was gone, pulled up by its skimpy little roots and my horse was nowhere to be seen. I'd been so busy I hadn't even noticed him wander off. A breeze rose up and gave me a good tickle all over, just as if the air itself was laughing at my predicament and I was forcibly confronted with the very unpleasant truth. My horse was probably half way back to the house by now; all my clothes, my gunbelt and my hat with him. All I had in the world was a pair of boots, a layer of mud and a shovel.


I couldn’t tell you exactly how long I stood there, feeling like the world's biggest fool but it was quite a spell.  Long enough for the beating sun to dry most of that mud into itchy grit, anyway.  I still couldn't believe what was happening.  I had done something that the very greenest greenhorn would probably never do.  Knowing that it was totally my own stupid fault that I had lost Cochise and had to walk home was bad enough.  Knowing I would have to do it buck-naked was just insult on injury!

That dried mud was starting to itch like crazy, especially in certain unmentionable areas and the sun was high and hot.  I was starting to sweat hard again, which didn't help any.  It was a good three or four miles back to the house but that stream I'd been so intent on was only about a mile up, heading in the same direction, so I figured I might as well stop there and wash off. 

I put on my boots and grabbed up the shovel, just in case I might need to defend myself against some curious critter who couldn't resist seeing all that fresh meat on open display.  Having run out of excuses to avoid it, I started walking, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t run into anybody I knew.  Most of the men would be split between helping Adam at the timber camp and helping Hoss with the cattle.  Pa might be home but I know lots of ways of sneaking into the house without being spotted, even in broad daylight, so I thought there was a chance I might be able to get out of the situation without having anybody know about it.


When I finally got to the stream, I was so hot and uncomfortable I could barely stand it.  The parts of me that never get any sun were putting up a special amount of protest and I had a nasty feeling that this day wasn't one my body would allow me to forget in a hurry.

The stream looked like a regular oasis in the desert to me as I dropped that stupid shovel, yanked my boots off and plunged in.  There were trees and bushes enough to shade me from every angle and the water felt incredible.  I scrubbed away as much dirt and grime as I could manage without the aid of soap, then just stretched that sore, sunburned carcass of mine out on a pile of smoothed out rocks and lay back, letting the water stream over my skin like ice-cold heaven.

Even after everything that had already happened to me that week, I couldn't help feeling hopeful that it was all over.  There just didn't seem like much else that could happen.  I guess should have known better than to be an optimist but somehow, even in my wildest imaginings, I'd never have predicted that I'd owe my next round of embarrassment to Hoss' generous nature. 

I was half-dozing in the water, trying to decide if I ought to get up and start walking again, when I heard a rustle in the bushes and the sound of voices.

I probably should have dove for the deeper water, or maybe rolled into the bushes and hoped they'd pass by without seeing me but I didn't have a whole lot of time to think about what I ought to do.  It was pure thoughtless instinct that made me scramble to my feet to confront them.

Right at the same second that I stood up, Beth Thomas walked through the bushes in front of me.  She gave a funny little squeak and backed up a step, running straight into an older lady, whom I knew without asking had to be Beth's Aunt Lillian and knocking her back into my brother Hoss.

Aunt Lillian took one look at me, gasped, put a hand to her chest and passed out cold, the way I guess a proper lady should when unexpectedly confronted with a naked man.  Hoss just gaped, switching his eyes from her to me a few times, then dropping down to fan the old lady with his hat.  Beth seemed to be in shock, the same as I was, 'cause neither one of us moved a muscle for the longest time.  Then her eyes sort of traveled over me and she turned bright red and spun away to help Hoss tend her aunt. 

I finally gathered my senses enough to duck behind a bush.  I'm not completely sure if I was more embarrassed that Beth had seen me in the all-together, or that she had seen me after I'd just spent an hour in an icy stream.  Not a real gentlemanly thought but I knew that if that story ever made it to town, it sure wasn't gonna do my reputation any good! 

Aunt Lillian finally came around and she took one glance at me, still crouching behind that bush and grabbed Beth by the arm, dragging her out of that glade so fast I'm surprised her skirts didn't catch fire.  Hoss followed and I could hear him calling out for them to wait, that it must all be some kinda mistake and so forth but I could tell it wasn't going to do any good. It looked like Beth and I were through before we'd ever even got started.

I flopped over to lie in the grass and closed my eyes, just flat giving up for the moment as I waited for Hoss to return.  He did soon enough, towering over me and blocking out the sun as he glared down at me with hands on hips and demanded, "What in tarnation are you doing here?  I ran into them ladies comin' over to our place a couple hours early and tried to divert 'em with some scenery so you'd have time to finish your work and get cleaned up back at the house!"

Low as my spirits were by then, I couldn't help but laugh.  "Well, you sure did show 'em the sights, big brother, but I don't think this was quite the scenery they were expecting."

Hoss laughed loudly and gave me a hand up.  "I'm sure them gals are long gone by now, Joe.  You come out of these here bushes and get dressed, so we can go home, though I guess there ain't no hurry about getting there now."

"Uh, Hoss?"


Fifteen minutes later, Hoss' horse had sacrificed his saddle blanket so I could wrap it around my middle and I was once again stuck riding behind my brother like a dumb little kid.  If I thought riding Chubb had been uncomfortable before, it didn't hold a candle to doing it wearing nothing but a scratchy old blanket!

We were almost home when I spotted the next phase of my nightmare. Pa, Adam and about a half-dozen ranch hands riding straight toward us at a gallop, Cochise in tow.  I closed my eyes and laid my forehead down against Hoss' back with a loud moan, wishing I could just disappear.

The look of worry on Pa’s face as he pulled up beside us just about undid what little composure I had left. I don't want to give anyone the impression that I'm some kinda sissy but for the briefest moment I had a strangest urge to just fling myself onto Pa's shoulder and bawl my fool head off.  Fortunately, I resisted the temptation.

I ducked my head and averted my eyes when Pa asked, "Son, what happened?  Are you all right?  Adam was on his way back to the house when he found Cochise roaming loose.  The reins were all tangled with brush and weeds and your gunbelt was draped over the saddle.”

I looked back up at that. “My gunbelt? Just my gunbelt?”

Adam came up to join us and caught my question.  His eyes traveled from the top of my head down to my boots, taking in all that exposed skin in between.  His mouth curled up into a smirk and I could tell he was already piecing things together.  “Why do you ask, Joe?  Should there have been something else?  Like maybe your clothes?”

That sly little question seemed to snap Pa out of his concern and for the first time he took a good long look at me.  His eyes narrowed and I started talking before he could get started.  "It's a long story, Pa.  Can it wait until we get back to the house?"

"No, Joseph, I think you'd better start explaining yourself right now," he snapped, exasperation starting to show.

I flinched and my eyes wandered over to the men.  They were all keeping a respectful distance but I could see them beginning to grin as they took in the scene before them. 

"I'm sorry, Pa, but I'd rather not have what happened spread all over the ranch, if you don't mind," I muttered, doing my best to look as pleading and pitiful as I could.

Adam snorted. "I'll bet!" 

I gave him a look that should've knocked him clean out of the saddle, then fixed the begging eyes back on Pa.  I've been perfecting that look over a lot of years and it was good to see I hadn't lost my touch as Pa caught my meaning and ordered the men to go back to what they'd been doing.  He handed me the reins of my horse without a word.  Hoss turned around to help me down and I grabbed hold of his arm and let him lower me down to the ground as easy as if I'd weighed no more than a feather. 

All the way home my family kept their distance but I could hear Hoss' voice murmuring and figured he was filling them in for me.  I knew for sure when Adam, the guy who isn't much prone to getting a laugh out of anything, started guffawing loud enough to make my ears burn hot. 

Not far from our own yard, I spotted my hat lying in the grass where it must've blown off the saddle-horn.  I looked around but my shirt and pants were nowhere in sight.  We haven't seen a sign of them to this day and Hoss thinks those clothes are probably making some animal a nice cozy nest by now.

I was considering whether to get off my horse and get the hat, or leave it until later, when Adam hopped down off of Sport and grabbed it for me.  He walked up beside me and handed it up with a big grin.  "You'd better put this on, Little Joe.  Wouldn't want you getting sunburned."  He glanced down toward my saddle, where I admit I was sitting kinda gingerly and started busting a gut again.

"Thanks."  I bit the word off and started riding again.


It was starting to feel like I never would reach the house.  Between the physical pain and the mental irritation of hearing Adam's laughter start my pa on another round, I was pretty miserable.  The only person who really seemed to have any sympathy was Hoss.  That kinda surprised me, actually.  Not that Hoss' isn't a sympathetic guy but teasing his kid brother has always been high on the list of his favorite pass-times and I couldn't deny that I'd given him more than enough material to tease me with until we're both old and gray.  He didn't, though.  He just came up next to me as we reached the front yard and scrambled to help me off my own horse.

"How come you're being so nice?" I asked him.  Since everything and everyone seemed to be out to get me, I wasn't taking any more chances.

Hoss smiled at me and slapped me on the shoulder, instantly looking contrite when I gasped.  I realized that the sunburn had to be worse than I'd thought if I could feel it through the build-up of tan I always have from working outdoors.  I just didn't want to think about how bad it might be in other places.

"Sorry, Joe," Hoss said.  "I just don't think it's right to make fun of you when it's my fault you're in this fix."

Puzzled, I asked, "How is it your fault?"

He sighed real big and shook his head.  "I'm the one that brought them ladies out to the stream today.  Not to mention that if I hadn't clobbered you the other day, you wouldn't have tried to avoid Beth and got in all them other messes in town.  Pa wouldn't have even punished you for getting thrown in jail by making you clear out the water holes today if I hadn't got mad and deserted you."

Though everything my brother said was absolutely true, I found that I couldn't be mad at him for any of it.  "Don't worry about it, Hoss.  If it hadn't been you, I've got a notion it would've been somebody else.  Fate just painted a big 'ol target on my back and there ain't nothin' I can do until it's gone."

By the look he gave me, I knew I'd lost him but I didn't feel like explaining.  Pa and Adam had caught up by then and they looked equally confused.  I looked at the three of them and said, "If anyone wants me, I'll be in my room." 

I didn't wait for an answer.  Just turned around and started limping toward the front door.  Since I wasn't hanging on to it, the horse blank started to slip off almost immediately.  I put up a hand to stop it, then shrugged and let it fall. 

Pa had the most flabbergasted look I've ever seen on his face when I glanced over my shoulder and added, "Thanks for the loan, Chubb."

I walked into the house, flung my hat on the hat rack, then shocked the hell out of Hop Sing as he came bustling out of the dining room and saw me.  I strolled right on past him and said, "Hey, Hop Sing.  Would you please bring a bucket of ice up to my room when you get a minute?"

As I hit the staircase, I heard somebody, not sure if it was Adam or Pa, mutter, "Sunstroke.  Has to be."


Thanks to my strange behavior downstairs, I'd barely reached the threshold of my bedroom when Pa, Hoss and Adam all came stampeding up after me. I made for my bed and sat down and all three of 'em kind of checked me over with their eyes, wincing in unison when they got the full measure of my sunburn. When they noticed me noticing what they were looking at, they all darted their eyes away from me, becoming intent on studying the various corners of my walls and furniture. Probably would have made me laugh if I'd had any humor left in me by then but their behavior was easy to understand. There are some places where you just don't stare at another man, no matter how close of kin you are.

I didn't much care if anybody was embarrassed by then. As much as my skin was starting to sting, getting dressed was the last thing on my mind.  In fact, I felt inclined to let 'em all squirm a little as payback for all the laughing they'd been doing. Finally, though, I took pity on them and flipped the bedspread over my lap as I scooted back against my pillows.

Sitting was more than a little uncomfortable but the blisters I'd started by walking a mile in boots with no socks under 'em made standing feel just as bad.  I was struggling to get my boots pulled off when Pa sat down on the end of the bed and helped me. His eyes took note of the red spots where the blisters were forming and then traveled up my body, no doubt cataloging all the bruises I'd picked up in Virginia City, as well as the glow of the sunburn. They settled on my face and he reached out to brush his thumb over the discoloration still very much present around my eyes and nose.

"You've had yourself one hell of a week, haven't you, Joseph?"

It's hard for me to figure just how he does it but there's something about Pa's touch that always has a real soothing effect on my disposition. I found myself smiling at him and some of the frustration and tension that had been tying me into knots drifted away. "Sure have, Pa but what scares me is that it's not over yet. I started this bad-luck streak on Monday. That means I've still got three days left."

Adam tried to offer a little light at the end of the tunnel. "At least nobody knows what happened to you today other than us."

"Beth and her aunt know about it," I reminded him.

For just a second, I thought sure he was going to start laughing again but he held it in. "You know how the Thomas' are, Joe. They're not gossips and even if they were, I'm not sure that's a story either of them would be likely to spread around."

"Yeah, but even if nobody knows about that part, the story about you losing your horse and gettin' stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no clothes on has gotta be all over the bunkhouse by now. It's probably gonna be all over town by sundown," Hoss said, shaking his head.

I sighed and closed my eyes, plunking my head back against the headboard. "See what I mean, Pa?" I suddenly felt really depressed. "It just won't end."

"Well, maybe you'd best just take it easy for a couple of days and let things blow over," he told me, surprising me a little, cause Pa isn't really the type to let a little bad luck slow him, or any of us, down.

"But, what about all that work you were talking about the other day, Pa," I asked him. "We've still got a lot to do and you're going to need me, aren't you?"

He saw the look on my face and read my thoughts, I guess, because he spoke them out loud. "You're not going to be in any shape to work tomorrow, son. I doubt you could even sit a horse, much less wrangle, brand or break any right now."

The reminder that I was going to feel a lot worse before I felt better pretty much killed any enjoyment I might have felt over wangling my way into an extra day off. I could already feel the stinging where I was making contact with the mattress getting worse.

"That boy will do anything to get out of an honest day's work," Adam drawled, nudging Hoss in the ribs as he saw me shift and fidget.

Hoss flinched a little, watching me but grinned at Adam's deadpan comment. "Won't he, though? Seems to me there's got to be easier ways to go about it."

Adam nodded, all too obviously enjoying my predicament. "Given a choice, I'd rather do the work, myself."

Hoss laughed. "Yep, me too."

"Get outta here, will you?" I snapped.

"Better watch that tone, kid, or I might not be willing to explain your appearance to any of the ladies we run into on Saturday."

I knew what Adam meant. There was a barn-raising going on that Saturday afternoon and the dance that had already caused me so much trouble would be held afterward.

"Why should I care about that? It's not like there's gonna be anyone there who'll want to spend time with me, even if I feel up to going."

I was trying to sound tough, like it didn't matter what anyone thought but inside I was cringing at the thought of what people would be saying about me. When the tale our ranch hands had to tell caught up with the dress shop story I was going to branded a ruffian or a klutz at best, a pervert at worst. There were no plans in my head to set foot outside the borders of the Ponderosa for a long time to come.

"Aw, c'mon, Joe. Ain't nobody gonna take any of that stuff seriously," Hoss told me. "They might tease you a little but you can take it."

I disagreed, but the two-man comedy team that pass themselves off as my loving brothers didn't seem inclined to take the hint from my silence and go away. They spent a good five minutes coming up with all kinds of strange excuses I could give folks about what had happened. Everything from a concussion, to a gypsy curse, to an evil twin!

Pa was chuckling over the banter but when he saw me grab one of my boots and try to decide which of my brothers I'd have a better chance of hitting before they could get away, he took pity on me and ordered them both out.

I chucked the boot at their retreating backs anyway, just to relieve my feelings. I knew I hadn't heard the last of them as they went laughing down the hall together. Pa promised to send Hop Sing right up with some ointment for my burns as he followed them out.

Once the room had cleared, I couldn't get up off my stinging rear fast enough. I didn't want to just stand around with nothing on until Hop Sing showed up, so I dug through my wardrobe and found the bathrobe he gave me last Christmas. It's green silk with all kinds of funny looking dragons and symbols painted on it. I don't like robes much and this one has always struck me as looking kind of girlie but it's really comfortable and I wear it now and then just to keep Hop Sing happy.

After what seemed like ages, Hop Sing arrived carrying some rags and a bucket of ice chips in one hand and the ice bag and a little jar in the other. He grinned at me in that knowing way he has and said, "Hop Sing guess Missy Beth not show up for dinner tonight."

"'Fraid not," I said, wondering how much of the story he'd overheard or guessed. It must've been enough, cause he chuckled to himself the whole time he was helping me slather some of his homemade ointment over my skin. I'm not sure what's in that stuff, it doesn't smell too sweet but it goes a long way toward easing the pain and itch of burns.

While I was spreading the stuff over my more tender areas, Hop Sing filled the ice bag and added some water to the bucket for cold compresses. He laid some dry towels over the bedding and laid the compresses on top of them, gesturing that I should lie down. I thanked him and assured him that I could take care of the rest myself.

"Little Joe, you want supper brought up on tray?" he offered.

I said I wasn't hungry and he started ranting about all the trouble he'd gone through to make a special dinner for guests who didn't show up and about how his busy schedule had been interrupted to make ice compresses for ungrateful boys who didn't have enough sense to find shade on a hot day. He was really getting up a full head of steam, so I apologized as fast as I could.

"I bring dinner in one hour?" he asked, suddenly calm again.

"That'd be great, Hop Sing," I said and he bustled out of the room, muttering all the way down the hall about all the trouble he has to go through for me. I ignored him.

I closed my door and lay down as carefully as I could on the cold towels. Then I picked up the ice bag and debated for a minute over whether I was really in enough pain to put it where I needed it most. It wasn't a real appealing thought but in addition to the sunburn all that jouncing I had taken on Hoss' horse had me worrying over the fate of my future children. So, I just took a deep breath and did what I had to do.

Pa tells me that the sound I let out was so loud it carried clear down into the dining room where he was talking with Hop Sing. I was just glad nobody came up to investigate.

I never did eat that dinner Hop Sing had insisted on bringing to me. After I got all the rags in place and lay there for a couple minutes, I fell asleep and stayed that way clear into the next morning.


Friday: Pain and a Little Gain

I got out of, or should I say off of, my bed on Friday morning feeling like my skin had shrunk two sizes during the night. My head was pounding, I was too hot, I could feel the blood pulsing underneath my skin and I had several blisters that told me right off I wasn't gonna be doing much sitting for a couple days.

All I could do was sigh when I saw myself in the mirror. The part of my skin that had already been tanned was starting to recover a little but it still had a strange bronze-red color and the parts that hadn't had any tan were practically glowing.

My face was a pretty sorry sight, too. The swelling from the fights had finally gone away but I had bags under my eyes that proved I hadn't had a very restful sleep and the bruises along my cheekbones had faded into long yellow and green streaks. It was easy to see I wouldn't be doing much courting for a while, even if I could find a girl who'd still talk to me.

For a minute, I thought about just lying back down and letting the day go on without me but the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs caused my stomach to start growling, reminding me that I hadn't eaten since the morning before. Despite the noises from my belly, I was more queasy than hungry but I knew I'd feel better if I had something.

Hop Sing had left the jar of ointment on my dresser and I slathered some more of that on, then put my robe back on. I knew there wasn't any point in trying to get into my pants.

Still barefoot, I went out into the hallway and made for the stairs, wondering how I was going to get down them when just walking a straight line on a flat surface was proving to be tough going. I could hear my family sharing the usual morning banter across the breakfast table and bit back a curse. The last thing I wanted at that moment was an audience. There was no help for it, though.

Gasping and grunting, I limped my way down the steps. Nobody tried to help, which surprised me some until I realized that they must've known there wasn't anyplace they could grab hold of me that wouldn't make things worse.

"Morning, son," Pa said when I finally got to the bottom landing.

"Morning, Pa," I muttered back. Hoss jumped up and ran into the guestroom, coming back with a big fluffy pillow to put in my chair. "Thanks," I said. I meant it sarcastically but Hoss beamed and started plumping it up for me, so I didn't say anything else.

I must've been a fascinating sight as I lowered myself onto that pillow at a snail's pace, 'cause nobody even made a pretense of doing anything but watch. Hard as I tried, I couldn't keep from moaning as I made contact.

Hoss and Pa both shook their heads and grimaced, while Adam just sat there with his arms crossed and a strange little smile on his face. "You sure are a sight," he said finally. "Do you have any idea what you look like?"

My body tensed as I laid my palms flat across the tabletop and glared at him and I could see Pa and Hoss both getting set to intervene if things got nasty. It took a few seconds for me to decide that getting mad at Adam for pointing out the obvious would've been useless, especially since all I really wanted was for everybody to quit staring at me. So, instead, I very slowly brought one hand up beside my face and said, "How, white man."

Caught off-guard by my response, Adam and Hoss both laughed and I could see Pa relax a bit, apparently taking it as a good sign that I was recovering. "How about some breakfast, Joe?" he asked, already loading my plate before I could even answer.

I was almost finished eating when Hop Sing came bustling in. He grinned at me as he poured out some fresh coffee. "Little Joe need more ointment?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess I've about used up what was in that little jar," I told him. "You got anything that's good for blisters?"

Everybody kind of winced when I asked that and I knew they knew exactly why I was asking. Hop Sing nodded and went back into the kitchen for a minute. He returned with another jar of salve and a second one that I recognized as holding medicine he'd used on all kinds of scratches and scrapes over the course of my life and a small sharply pointed knife.

"What's that for?" I asked, eyeing the knife nervously.

"Must drain blister to let medicine get inside," he said, confirming my worst fears. "Little Joe behind not feel so sore after."

I blushed, though I doubt anyone could tell, at his blunt diagnosis of my problem. "But how am I supposed to…"

I stopped, realizing with a sinking feeling that there was no way I could open those blisters and rub that medicine in by myself. I sprang out of my chair faster than I would have thought myself capable of and backed toward the wall. "Oh, no. No way!"

Pa put his napkin down and approached me. I backed up another step, only stopping because I had nowhere to go. His voice was stern as he said, "Joseph, thus far I have not sent for Doctor Martin as a concession to your dignity but those are some serious burns you've got and if they're starting to blister you need treatment, so you might as well let us help you."

I stared him down for a while; already knowing I was going to lose, especially since I hadn’t missed that "us" part but I just couldn’t give in easy. "I don't need it. I’ll be fine, Pa. I just need a little time, is all."

"Oh, of course," he said sarcastically. "We can all see how well you’re getting along. Joseph, you will get those blisters treated and you will get them treated this morning. Now, do Hop Sing and I help you or do I send for the doctor?"

I held my ground for a few more seconds, sending a pleading look my brothers' way but they weren't any help. They just grinned at me, Adam making stabbing motions in the air and Hoss making popping noises with a finger in his mouth. Pa stopped them with a look but I could tell he wasn't going to give in. I retook my seat, still not willing to concede but because I was still mad I sat down a lot harder than I’d intended to. That's what finally convinced me to let Pa win the argument.


"Stop squirming! We’re almost finished," Pa ordered, holding me still with a hand across my back. He was sitting on my bed with me bent across his knees, a place I hadn’t been in quite a few years. I think Pa was thinking the same thing, ‘cause he kept smiling at me every time I’d look up at him. He acted pretty nice to me though, considering what a fuss I was making and thanks to Hop Sing’s gentle touch it wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d been anticipating. That medicine was really doing a lot to numb out the bad spots but the humiliation of lying bare-ass across Pa’s knee was killing me!

"Where do you want this, Pa?" Hoss’ voice said. I’d thought he and Adam were already gone for the day and I wasn’t too happy to twist around and see them both standing in my doorway, watching.

"Just put it over in the corner and fill it, would you, boys?" Pa answered and that’s when I saw that they had lugged the big bathtub up the stairs all the way from the washhouse outside.

Watching my brothers carry buckets of cold water back and forth gave me some distraction for a few minutes and by the time they were done so was Hop Sing, finally. "Little Joe give medicine time to soak in then take long cool bath. Hop Sing help with more medicine when you finished."

Pa gave me a hand straightening up and spared me any more embarrassment by checking his watch and saying, "We'd better be heading out to work, boys; it's getting late. You stay as long as you need in that tub and get to feeling better, Joseph. We'll see you at supper."

They trooped out without another word and Hop Sing followed as soon as he was sure I didn't need anything else.


I felt a lot better by the time I'd taken a long cold soak and applied another coat of salve. I got in a little nap and went back downstairs where I could stretch out on the sofa with a favorite book. Hop Sing had anticipated my return with plenty of pillows on the sofa and lunch on a tray and I happily settled down to eat and read. It looked like things were finally going my way.

That's when I heard the knock on the door.

I waited a few seconds to see if Hop Sing would answer it.  When he didn't come, I figured he must be in the cellar or some other place where he couldn't hear the knock.  Calling out for whoever was on the other side to wait a minute, I climbed out of my nest of cushions and went to answer it myself. 

Not too keen on being seen by anyone in my silk robe, I opened the door just a crack and peered around it to see who was there.

Beth and her aunt, the last two people I had ever expected to see on my front doorstep, stood there tapping their toes impatiently, both looking just as starched and proper as ever they had. As soon as I'd managed to scrape my jaw off the floor I said, "What are you doing here?"

It wasn't the most polite thing I could've said, I guess, but it pretty well summed up the entire content of my thoughts.

Beth's aunt shot me a look that I'm sure has turned many a school-kid into a quivering wreck and I wasn't too far off myself.  I only knew Lillian Thomas by reputation.  She was Beth's maiden great-aunt, who had just moved out to Nevada from somewhere back east, where she'd been teaching school since God was a boy. Given how prim Beth acts sometimes, I'd just naturally expected her aunt to be the same way.  I'd thought she'd be like the old-maid schoolteachers I'd had growing up; all stern glances and disapproving airs and it looked like the reality might prove even worse than the expectation.

"Young man, are you going to make us stand out here all day, or invite us in so we can tell why we've come?" Her voice had that sort of whip-crack nasal quality that seems to come natural to old lady school marms and I straightened my spine and pulled the door open before I could even give a thought to coming up with an excuse not to.

They swept inside and brushed past me toward the couch.  Beth still hadn't said a word but she seemed to be having trouble looking directly at me.  Her aunt had no such problem.  She looked me up and down, causing me to tug my robe into place just a little more securely before I stuck my hands behind my back, not knowing what else to do with them. 

"Uh, um, do you want to sit down?" I asked, sounding every bit as uncertain as I felt.  "I could have our cook bring you some lemonade or something, if you're thirsty."

Lillian Thomas declined, her eagle eyes not missing one detail of my appearance. They took another long look, starting at the top with my uncombed hair, traveling down past the bruises and scaly redness of my face, taking a good long stop over those stupid curlicue dragons on my bathrobe, then down past my bare legs to my feet.  I found myself scuffing one foot behind the other and curling my toes under, just like I used to when Pa was dressing me down for something as a kid.  I'll bet that old lady just loved every second of seeing me standing there blushing and stammering like a fool but I couldn't help myself.  Her whole demeanor made me feel like a naughty ten-year-old! 

"I'm sorry about this," I said finally, gesturing at myself.  "I wasn't expecting visitors.  I got kinda sunburned yesterday and…" I shut my mouth, remembering that both of them already knew exactly how much exposure I'd had to the sun.  Beth blushed at the reminder and Aunt Lillian surprised me a little by getting a decidedly amused twinkle in her eye. 

"Young man, there's no need to explain," she said crisply, finally accepting my invitation to sit. "Though should you feel like sharing the entire story one day, I'll admit I'd be very interested in hearing it.  Right now, though, my niece and I are pressed for time, so I'll get right down to the reason for our call."

"Yes, ma'am," I said automatically.  I couldn't sit since they'd taken my cushy spot on the sofa, so I went around behind Pa's chair and leaned on it instead.  It hid most of me from their sight and even though it may be a little cowardly, I felt a lot more comfortable back there.

The old lady cleared her throat and I jumped.  "My niece and I feel that we owe you an apology for yesterday afternoon."  She pursed her lips and looked at Beth in a way that told me that she didn't actually feel that she owed me anything of the kind but had allowed herself to be pressured into it.  Just the same, I about fell over from the shock.

"Miss Thomas, I'm the one who should apologize!  I'd spent the whole morning digging out muddy water holes and I was just trying to get cleaned up.  Hoss didn't know I was there and I thought I was alone, or it never would've happened.  I never had the slightest intention of anyone seeing me…well, you know.  Certainly I never expected a couple of ladies to see me!" 

I was talking so fast in my haste to get the apology out that I'm surprised they understood a single word of it but Aunt Lillian nodded, even unbending enough to smile at me a little.  "So, we can rest assured that it was all an unfortunate mistake, then?"

I breathed the biggest sigh of relief you ever heard.  "Yes, ma'am!"

She looked at Beth again.  "Beth tells me you wished to escort her to a social function tomorrow evening."

Unable to believe what I thought I was hearing, I nodded so hard I'm surprised my head stayed attached.  "Yes'm.  There's a barn-raising out at the Barnett place tomorrow and a box social and dance afterward.  I've been wanting all week to ask Beth to go with me but things just haven't been going very well for me and I never got the chance."

"Yes, I heard about some of your activities this week," she said.  The disapproving tone was back.

Beth finally spoke up.  "I told you, Auntie, Hoss explained about all that.  It was all just a big misunderstanding."  She turned to look at me and smiled so sweetly that my heart skipped a beat. 

Miss Thomas did not look completely convinced.  "For the sake of my niece's happiness, Mr. Cartwright, I am willing to overlook all of that.  However, I do not think it would be proper for you to escort her unchaperoned.  If you wish to meet her at the social and share a few dances I have no objection but that is as far as I am willing to go."

A few really biting comebacks flew to the tip of my tongue but I clamped down on them and bared my teeth in what I hope looked like a smile.  I started to walk around the chair but I wasn't watching what I was doing and accidentally scraped my front against the back of it.  Normally that kind of contact would have been a little uncomfortable but nothing more.  This time, I gasped out loud, nearly falling over with the shock of pain that coursed through my lower areas. 

Beth flew off the couch and over to my side.  "Joe, you're injured!  Did you hurt your leg while working yesterday?"

Though it had sort of been work-related, I wasn't about to tell her what I'd actually injured!  So, I just nodded and leaned against the chair.  The pain was starting to fade but I relished the fuss she was making as she drew me over to take her place on the sofa and perched on the arm next to me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Beth's aunt shooting daggers at us over her glasses.  When Beth drew my head over to rest on her bosom and started stroking her fingers against my cheek, it was all I could do to resist sticking my tongue out at the old gal.

"You poor baby!"  Beth sounded like she was going to start crying. "Here I was worrying over who you were taking to some silly social, while you were home all alone, suffering."

If this was suffering, I figured I could handle it! 

For the first time that week, I actually managed to say the right thing at the right time.  "There's no amount of pain I wouldn't face if I thought you'd be at that dance waiting for me tomorrow." 

Okay, so it wasn't exactly Shakespeare.  It worked.

"You're still planning to go?" she said hopefully, pulling back to look into my eyes. 

"Only if you'll say you forgive me for the rest of this week," I told her. "I just couldn't stand it if I thought you wouldn't." 

I swear I sounded just like one of those sticky, romantic heroes in those corny plays Adam likes to drag me to for culture whenever we're in the big city together.  I was nearly making myself sick but Beth was drinking in every word.

"Oh, Joe, of course I forgive you," she said.  Guess she was pretty caught up in the moment to do what she did next.  She leaned over and kissed me on the mouth.

"Elizabeth Cornelia Thomas!"  Aunt Lillian found her tongue again as she observed her niece's bold move.  "Behave yourself!  We are going home right this instant!"

She stood up and grabbed Beth by the arm.  Beth was full of vinegar by then and she called out, "I'll see you tomorrow evening, Joe.  I'll bake you something special in my charity basket.  Bid on the one with the red ribbon on the handle!"

I grinned like all get-out when the front door slammed on Beth's final words.  The dance was to be started off with a box-social benefit for the orphanage and none of us fellas were supposed to know whose basket we'd be bidding on.  That settled it.  I didn’t know how I was going to get properly dressed but I was going to that dance if I had to borrow Hoss' extra pants to do it! 


Saturday: Hell in a Charity Handbasket

My family didn't quite know what to make of the uncomplaining, docile patient who put up with their advice and help over the next day and a half.  I think Pa was about half-convinced I'd suffered a concussion and not told him about it.  Truth to tell, I hated every second of those sunburn and blister treatments but I had made up my mind that nothing was keeping me away from that social, so I just put up with it.

The patience paid off.  By Saturday evening I was feeling so much better, I could hardly believe it.  I still had to be a little careful how I sat and such but I was able to get dressed in my own clothes again.  Adam had given me a real nice fancy blue shirt for my last birthday and I decided to wear that with my dark brown pants and black boots and tie.  The color of the shirt sort of set off the green in my eyes, making them look lighter than usual, though part of it might have been that the redness on my skin had darkened into a real nice tan.  Whatever it was, it gave me a sort of exotic look that I liked a lot. 

I had intended to keep my plans for the evening to myself but when Pa caught me flashing smiles and winking at myself in the mirror as I tested out the effect I would have on Beth, I had to come clean.  He laughed at me a little but he did offer to ride his horse to the Barnett's instead of riding in the buggy with me as we'd planned.

Things were only just getting well gathered when Pa and I arrived.  Hoss and Adam had taken part in the barn raising earlier, so they were waiting to greet us.  In thanks for the help of their neighbors, Jim Barnett, his wife Emma and his son Jack, had arranged a bunch of games and events for the folks who came out.  Hoss showed off his blue ribbon he'd gotten for eating more of Mrs. Barnett's cherry pies than any man around and Adam had one to show for a little roping exhibition.  I wished I could have been there to see it but seeing those bright blue ribbons pinned on their shirts was enough. 

I looked around for Beth but she was nowhere in sight.  The worry must've shown on my face, cause Hoss told me he'd seen her earlier fussing over the charity baskets.

"Any idea what she's got inside?" I asked him.  Like I said, the contents were supposed to be a secret but Hoss always seems to find out what's in 'em anyway.  Not sure how he tells the difference from basket to bundle but he always sniffs out the good ones. 

Sure enough, he licked his lips and his eyes lit up like big blue diamonds.  "I didn't see which one it was but I hear she's got a blueberry cobbler in there that'll just about send you clear to heaven, with just a taste.  Why little brother, you planning on bidding?"

He and Adam winked at each other.  Adam said, "I hear she won a blue ribbon three years running at the county fair with that cobbler, Joe.  It'll be a lucky man who gets it.  Maybe I'll even bid on it myself."  I took a step toward him and he grinned at me.  "I'm just kidding!  I've already promised to bid on Millie Ross' basket.  Hers is the one with the gingham ribbon on the top."

Hoss nudged me.  "Might make for a real nice gesture if you were to bid high when Beth's basket comes up.  Might make her forget all about certain other things that've happened this week."

"Any idea which one is hers?" Pa asked, squinting over at the podium where about two dozen baskets were waiting for the bidding to begin.

I suddenly felt a little worried as I noticed the number of lunches on display.  All of them seemed to have some kind of fancy frills and things on them.  What was it she had told me to look for?  "I know her basket is supposed to have something on the handle," I told him, trying to remember what it was.

"Look, Joe, there she is!" Hoss announced.  I turned and spotted Beth waving at me.  She was gorgeous in a blue print dress with matching ribbon bows in her hair.  The ribbons were the same color as her eyes and as I heard the first call for all the gents to come bid on the ladies' baskets, I felt myself smiling.  Now I remembered!

Hoss had said that Beth had been fussing with the baskets and I could see a big one nudged right out in front, in plain sight.  That had to be the one, cause sure enough, it was the only one adorned with a big blue ribbon bow.


Everybody was gathering close for the bidding. I moved away from my family to get a good close-up spot, just to be sure I didn't lose track of the basket I wanted.

Mr. Barnett got up on stage and started taking bids. He did the smaller baskets first and I heard Adam try for and win the one he'd had his eye on. I was happy for him and cheered when he came up to pay for it. He doffed his hat to me and the squeal I heard from Miss Millie told me that she was mighty happy to see him win the bidding too.

There were only three baskets left by the time the one with the blue ribbon finally came up. The crowd was pretty thick by then. Not that many folks were interested in snapping up those last few lunches but the big baskets always pull in a pretty good amount of money and everyone likes to see who wins what. I put in the first bid right away and somebody over on the other side of the stage immediately countered it. A fella off to my left asked what was inside, then put in a pretty hefty bid when Barnett peeked in and announced that he could see fried chicken and dumplings right on the top. Several men bid over the next couple of minutes but finally it came down to me and the fella on the other side of the crowd.

Just as I was starting to worry that I hadn't brought enough cash with me and would lose out, my rival bidder ran out of money first and gave up. The crowd let out a huge cheer as I crossed to the front of the stage to get my prize.

Beth was standing near the remaining baskets when I hopped back down and I walked over to her, swinging it up in my hand. Instead of the hug or kiss I was hoping for she stamped her foot and demanded, "Joe Cartwright, how could you?"

"Beth, honey, what's wrong?" I asked her. "You told me which basket your stuff would be in."

"So you did remember!" she gasped and her expression turned scarlet ugly in the blink of an eye. "You did it on purpose!"

This time, I never saw the slap coming until it dang near spun me clean off my feet.

The watching crowd got kind of quiet and I saw lots of head-shaking from some and grins of amusement from others as I stood there, holding a hand to my cheek and gaping like a landed fish. Hoss walked up to me as Beth brushed past him and stalked away. I turned to Hoss, intending to ask if he knew what had just happened but to my surprise he looked mad too!

"You just don't know when to quit, do you, Joe?" he said. "All that time, pretendin' you was talkin' Amy around for me and you was really after her for yourself, all along!"

"Amy!" I said. "What are you talking about? I'm not interested in Amy!"

"Well, you just bid me right into the ground to get her basket, so you sure must be interested in somethin'!"

Seeing the look in his eye, I backed up a couple of steps, thinking he was about to slug me again.

"Hoss, I didn't! I bid on Beth's basket, not Amy's."

"No, you didn't, Little Joe." I turned around and found Amy behind me. She looked a little put out, probably having just realized that the bidding war that she had witnessed over her basket had been a mistake. "That's mine in your hand. Beth has the basket with the red ribbon. She was bragging to us all a while ago that she'd put it on there special so you'd know which was hers. Said she told you yesterday."

I think if I could've sunk into the ground at that moment, I'd have done it. The visit from Beth and her aunt suddenly came back to me with perfect clarity. The ribbon was supposed to be red! All those blue ribbons I'd been seeing, plus seeing Beth decked out all in blue had put that color in my head. I had just swiped my brother's date and blown my own, right in front of the whole population of Virginia City and beyond and all because of a stupid ribbon!

The anger was fading from Hoss' face as he looked from the basket, to Amy, to my face, which I'm sure must have looked as though I'd been poleaxed. "Joe, you ain't tellin' me you messed up, again."

Hoss' voice was loud enough to carry over the whole crowd as he asked his disbelieving question and it started off a riot of laughter. I looked around and saw everyone nudging each other, pointing and laughing. I was sure that every single one of them must've heard at least one version of my weeks' misadventures and had enjoyed them a hell of a lot more than I had.

I shoved the basket into Hoss' hand. "Here. Take it. Have a real nice time." Shoving my hands in my now-empty pockets, I turned and walked away.

"Joe! Joe, wait! Where you goin'?"


Behind me, I could hear the laughter dying down as the bidding got back underway. I made it to the buggy and climbed in. Despite what I'd said to Hoss, I didn't even bother picking up the reins. There was no point in going home. I had nothing to do there except sit around feeling sorry for myself and I could do that just as well where I was already at.

I must've sat there for a good fifteen minutes, staring off into the night, when I heard Pa's voice at my side. "Johnny Parks bought Beth's basket."

I sighed. "Figures."

He climbed up into the seat next to me and leaned forward so his arms rested on his knees. "Got a real good deal on it," he told me conversationally. "Seems like nobody else wanted to chance spending the evening with her; the mood she's in."

"Guess she's got a right to be upset," I muttered.

He just grunted, sat back and stretched his legs out, then tapped me on the leg so I'd quit staring at my boots and look him in the eye. "If it makes you feel any better, I don't think Johnny is going to enjoy his date very much. He started bragging about how easy it had been to outshine you and how cheaply he'd gotten the basket and Beth pulled that prize-winning blueberry cobbler out and shoved it right in his face."

"You're kidding," I said, not sure if he was just saying it to make me feel better or not.

"No," he told me, his mouth starting to twitch. "Last I saw, she was marching off toward her aunt's buggy and he was chasing her with blueberries dripping all over his shirtfront."

At the picture that filled my mind, I had to grin, though I still couldn't quite work myself up to the laugh I knew Pa was fishing for. "She's got a temper, all right."

"We'll go along with that."

I looked up at the sound of Adam's voice, surprised to see Hoss and him walking up to join us. "What are you doing here? Aren't you two supposed to be with Millie and Amy?"

"We'll go back in a minute," he told me. "The girls have been filling us in on some pretty interesting news while you've been out here admiring the night."

Almost dreading what they would say, I went ahead and asked anyway. "What?"

Hoss glanced back at the stage area, where the dancing was just getting underway. "Seems that Beth has been making herself mighty unpopular for a while now, flaunting your interest in her in the other girls' faces."

Adam nodded. "Seemed to think she had you wrapped around her little finger. She's even been using all the trouble you've been in this week as a bragging point. Said you begged her to let you be her date tonight in spite of all the, what was it, Hoss?"

"Pain and hardship," he supplied with a big grin.

"Ah, yes! All the pain and hardship you'd endured for the privilege of being her escort."

"You gotta be kidding!" I said. I knew I hadn't come on that strong when I was playing up to her the day before. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that this wasn't the first time I'd heard about the other girls not getting along with Beth. I suddenly wondered if I might have been wrong about a whole lot of things where she was concerned. Would a prim and proper girl really have given me the once-over the way she had at the lake, then come back the next day and get her aunt to practically demand that I be her date for this dance? Would a shy and demure lady gossip and lie about me to her friends? Was it possible that something good could have come out of my week of disasters, after all? "She say anything else?"

"Couple things," Hoss told me. "Did you know you was fightin' with me and Tom Pembroke in town 'cause you was defendin' her honor?"

"From what?" I demanded. "She didn't have anything to do with that. At least not directly."

Adam started to laugh. "I don't know what you're supposed to have been defending her from but apparently all the girls were jealous of your most noble behavior. Now that the fair maiden Elizabeth has shunned your stalwart company, the rest of the court is dying to soothe the wounds of your knightly heart with a dance."

For once in my life, I actually understood what my brother meant when he broke into one of those fancy speeches. "You mean nobody's mad at me?"

"Well, Beth ain't too happy," Hoss reminded me with a chuckle.

"But nobody else? What about all the rest of the stuff that happened to me this week? They know about it, don't they?"

They shrugged at each other and Adam said, "I ran into Tom Pembroke and his wife a while ago and they both asked after you. Doesn't look like either of them are planning to hold a grudge."

Pa smiled. "I have had a few folks asking me if it was true what some of our ranch hands were saying about you parading around the Ponderosa in nothing but a pair of boots but I don't seem to recall anything like that happening. You, boys?"

Hoss and Adam shook their heads. "Not me, Pa," Adam said. "Must be some kind of malicious gossip."

"Can't imagine why anybody'd make up a story like that," Hoss agreed.

Adam slapped me on the back. "Let's go start collecting those dances before the girls think we've all gone home for the night. What do you say?"

Sometimes they're a pain but whenever I really need 'em, I've got the best family a guy could ever ask for. I got down off the buggy and wrapped an arm around each of my brothers, shooting Pa a grateful look at the same time. "You guys are really something. Let's not keep the girls waiting."

I don't think I've ever enjoyed a dance more.


Sunday: Passing the Buck

It was raining on Sunday morning. A nice, gentle rain that made me want to spend some extra time with my pillow. Instead, I got myself up and dressed and saddled Cochise up for a ride into Virginia City.

Churchgoing isn't something I do as a general rule, not unless there's some special reason and the whole family is going but this time I thought it might be a good idea to earn a few points for the week ahead, just in case. When the preacher told us to bow our heads and asked God for forgiveness for any sins we may have committed and to lead us forward into a brighter day, I put my whole heart into that Amen.

On the way back out of town, I spotted Beth on the other side of the street. Johnny Parks was trailing along behind her, toting a bunch of boxes and bundles that was so high he could barely see over the top. I grinned when Beth stepped into the general store and came out with another box, which she added to the top of the load. Looked like she had a new fish firmly on the line and you know what? I didn't mind a bit.

Just as I was about to kick Cochise back into motion, I saw Beth stop to admire something in a shop window. Johnny couldn't see a thing with all those boxes in front of his face and he walked right into her. She shoved him away and the boxes went flying in one direction while Johnny went flying in the other. He stumbled and reeled like a drunk for a second, then lost his balance and went clean over the hitch rail and into a water trough. Beth just stood there, shrieking at him, while a whole crowd of people joined me in the biggest laugh I'd had all week.

On the way home it started to rain. I'd been half-expecting it and started to reach into the saddlebag for my slicker. Then I stopped and took a glance back over my shoulder at the Virginia City road, remembering the scene I had just witnessed. Instead of getting out my rain gear, I changed my mind and took off my hat and jacket, just letting the drizzle pour right over me. I could almost feel that bulls-eye getting washed right off my back.


The End

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