The Easterner – Part 1 of a Series – Easterner, Tenderfoot, Westerner (by Harper)

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Summary: A summer visitor brings nothing but trouble for Joe.

Rated: K+ (19,380 words)

The Easterner, Tenderfoot, Westerner Series:

The Easterner

The Tenderfoot

The Westerner

The Easterner

 

 “So, Joe, I’ll expect your help with our visitor,” Ben said, stretching his legs toward the fireplace.“Me, Pa?” Joe looked up, startled. He had been staring hard at the checkerboard balanced on the settee between his and Hoss’s knees.“Martin is closer in age to you than to Hoss or Adam.”

“Martin who?” Joe said, moving his black checker to the far side of the board. “King me, Hoss!”

“Martin Lindsay, our visitor for the summer.”

“We’re having a visitor for the summer?” Joe looked up from the game.

Adam rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair.

“Pa’s just been telling us-his friend, Mr. Lindsay, wrote asking if his son can stay with us for the summer. He feels his son’s health may benefit from a change of climate.”

“Oh.” Joe turned back to the checkerboard, barely listening as he planned a complicated series of jumps.

“When is he arriving?” Adam shook his head at his youngest brother, and turned back toward his father.

“On Saturday’s stage from Denver. School is out after tomorrow, so I expect Joe will be able to introduce Martin to his friends, take him fishing, show him the ranch-all the things that he may not get to do living in the city.”

“Is he able to get about all right?” Adam glanced at the two heads bent over the checkerboard. “Joe and his friends can be, well, lively, to say the least.”

“Well, his father writes that although he was sickly as a child, his disorder is more of the nervous variety. He has no real restrictions on his activities now. His father asks that I treat him as one of the family, including assigning him regular chores. He intends this to be a working visit for Martin. His letter hints at some, well, some trouble, and he feels the discipline of ranch work may help. He also asks if we’d see to it that he maintains his studies. He is to attend college in the fall.”

“I’d be happy to help tutor him, Pa.” Adam eyed his younger brother. “Joe could benefit from extra studies as well, and studying along with Martin will help keep him company.”

Suddenly Joe was hearing every word of the conversation.

“Aw, Pa, schoolwork is over! This is my summer to work with Charlie breakin’ horses!”

“There will be time for studying, Joseph, and for showing Martin around. The horses are not going anywhere. And Hoss, maybe you can help me with determining which daily chores best suit Martin’s abilities.”

“Sure thing, Pa. HA!” said Hoss, jumping three of Joe’s men. “King me, Little Joe!”

**********

Joe slouched in the buggy, watching the horse in front of him twitch away a few flies. The stage was late, as usual; he sighed and tied off the horse, deciding to stretch his legs as he waited for Martin Lindsay.

Martin had written a letter to Joe’s father, a letter that had so impressed Ben that he gave Joe a lecture on manners and maturity. In his letter, Martin had spoken admiringly of the Ponderosa and his father’s memories of his friendship with Ben, even quoting some famous poet or something, according to Adam. Ben told Joe he could benefit from the influence of this charming, well-spoken, polite, young man. Martin Lindsay’s not even here yet, and Pa already thinks I’m not measurin’ up, thought Joe. 

Late spring was a busy time on the ranch. Adam and Ben were needed at the timber camp, and Hoss was working with the cattle crews, so Joe was to be the sole Cartwright welcoming their guest. Joe had received another lecture this morning from his father, and later one from Adam, on how to treat Martin and not to be late and to mind his manners. It’s like they expect me to get in trouble, he thought. 

Joe wished for the hundredth time that he had been paying attention and had protested more during that initial conversation. Martin Lindsay was sixteen years old-two years older than Joe-and obviously much more interested in books than horses. Joe didn’t think they would have much in common. Plus, Martin had some kind of ailment; Joe wasn’t clear on what Martin’s health problem was, but it sounded like he wouldn’t be much fun to be around.

Joe usually relished a trip to town, but as he wandered around his usual haunts, his mind was on the horses Charlie would be working. Showin’ Martin around is already takin’ more time than I planned, thought Joe. If the stage doesn’t get here soon, I won’t get back in time to help Charlie today.

**********

The stage finally pulled into Virginia City three hours late. Joe had been killing time in Sheriff Coffee’s office, poring over the latest wanted posters, warrants, and other official papers. Joe was sure this knowledge would come in handy some day-he had imagined recognizing and single-handedly capturing a bank robber or a rustler, and pictured the admiring looks on his brothers’ faces as he collected the reward. 

Roy Coffee stepped away from the window. 

“Joe.” 

Joe turned over another poster. The sheriff smiled at the boy’s intent study. In a while, he thought, my “junior deputy” will be too old for my stories and wanted posters.

“Little Joe.” He nudged Joe’s knee. Joe was reading an old warrant, wondering how a simple piece of paper could lock a man up for years.

“Hmmm?” he looked up at the sheriff, who for some reason seemed amused. 

“The stage is in. Ain’t you waitin’ to meet someone?”

“Oh. Thanks, Sheriff.” Joe grabbed his hat and bolted out the door. Roy followed at a more sedate pace. He usually met the stage when he could, keeping track of the comings and goings of the people of his town. From the lack of enthusiasm displayed by the youngest Cartwright, he was curious about their visitor.

**********

Joe hurried down the street, his boots thumping across the boarded sidewalk. Pa wouldn’t be happy if he wasn’t there to greet Martin Lindsay. Ahead of him, he could see the stage passengers were already stepping out of the vehicle and collecting their baggage. 

The stage had been full, and Joe winced in sympathy. He’d ridden on the floor of a crowded stage before, and remembered the stiff muscles and bruised backside from that trip. He counted seven passengers, two women and five men, and looked them over as he approached. Although he hadn’t really expected to have much in common with the king of manners and education who had written the flowery, high-falutin’ letter to his father, he had hoped that the real life Martin Lindsay would prove more likeable than the stuck-up, proper gentleman suggested by the letter. 

Of the five male passengers on today’s stage, there was only one who was the right age to be their visitor. Joe’s footsteps faltered a few yards away, until he came to a complete stop, and he tightened his mouth in disappointment. Martin was worse than he could have ever imagined.

Martin was tall, as tall as Adam, but much, much thinner and paler. Everything about him was pale-his face, his hair, and as Joe got closer, he could see pale gray eyes, too. Martin was being helped out of the stage by one of the lady passengers-that alone made Joe stare-and he held a snowy white handkerchief to his mouth as he thanked his benefactress for her help. He was thin, and moved deliberately, as if he considered every motion before he performed it. His clothes were dusty, as were all the other passengers’ and Mrs. Cooper, who had helped him down the steps, was brushing him off solicitously. He wore a pale gray knee-length coat and matching trousers, a white shirt trimmed with ruffles at the neck and wrists-Ruffles! thought Joe in disgust-and a daffodil-yellow waistcoat. He looked much older than sixteen, but there was an air of fragility about him. 

The driver, pausing while tossing the luggage from the roof of the stage, spit a well-aimed stream of tobacco-juice near Martin’s foot, a sure indication of disapproval, but Martin seemed not to notice as he gazed at his surroundings. Martin reached into his waistcoat pocket, pulled out a small lens on a long handle, and gazed through it, surveying first the driver, then the dusty Virginia City street. His head tilted back and his nose wrinkled. He’s not impressed, thought Joe. 

Martin’s gaze eventually came to Joe, passed over him, as it had over the other uninteresting objects on the street, then came back to Mrs. Cooper. 

“Thank you, dear ma’am.” Martin bowed slightly. “Your attentions are most appreciated.” 

Mrs. Cooper preened and fluffed. Joe continued to stare. The driver spat again.

Joe stepped forward.

“Mister Lindsay?” Joe just couldn’t call this gentleman by his first name.

Martin Lindsay turned and, bringing his lens to his eye, looked down to focus on Joe’s face.

“Yes?” One word, but it held all the refinement, disdain, and weariness in the world.

Joe suddenly felt dusty and clumsy, even though his clothes were clean and he was standing still.

“I’m Joe Cartwright. Welcome to Virginia City.” Joe held out his hand, but realized too late that it was ink-stained from reviewing the wanted posters.

Martin Lindsay looked at his hand for a moment, and then said gently, “Pardon me if I do not shake your hand, Master Cartwright,” and he waved his glass and handkerchief as if to indicate his hands were occupied. 

Joe flushed.

A flowered carpetbag landed in the street at Martin’s feet. Martin made no attempt to pick up the bag.

“You wanna catch these bags, Little Joe?” the driver called down. 

“Sure, Hank.” Joe stepped forward to catch an unending number of bags and small cases, even a small trunk. All of them, it seemed, belonged to Martin Lindsay.

“I hope I will see you at the social gatherings this summer, Mister Lindsay,” Mrs. Cooper said, twirling her bonnet string. “I’m sure the Cartwrights will be happy to bring you to the Spring Cotillion, won’t you, Little Joe?”

Cotillion? thought Joe. What’s a Cotillion?

“Er, um, yes ma’am,” Joe replied weakly. He picked up as many bags as he could carry as Roy Coffee introduced himself to Martin. 

It took Joe three trips to bring all the bags to his buggy, and several more minutes to tie them all down. Martin did not seem to notice Joe’s activity, chatting politely with the Sheriff and a few other curious townsfolk.

When Joe was ready, he headed back to the small group surrounding Martin.

“Uh, excuse me, Mister Lindsay?” Joe didn’t like the sound of his voice-uncertain and tentative. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Ready to head out to the Ponderosa?”

Again, Joe was on the receiving end of that disdainful gaze. “Of course. Ladies, gentlemen, I hope to see you again soon.”

Joe pushed his hat back and watched as Martin kissed Mrs. Cooper’s hand. Martin Lindsay sure is polite, Joe thought.

**********

Joe headed the buggy out of town, providing cheerful descriptions of what he felt were the prominent sights of Virginia City. Martin spoke only to ask how long it would take to arrive at the ranch. After a few minutes of this one-sided conversation, Joe lapsed into silence. 

Joe was normally outgoing, and usually enjoyed showing visitors his home. He nearly always found some common topic of discussion with most people, but somehow he felt that he had nothing to say to Martin Lindsay. He wished his genial brother Hoss were here with his friendly smile, or better yet, Adam, with his sophisticated ideas and conversation. 

He’d have to talk to Pa about someone else showing Martin around. Though they might be close in age, this elegant stranger made him feel very young and inexperienced. He had caught snatches of conversation as he was loading the buggy-Martin had apparently just returned from Paris, France, and had lived in New York, Washington, and San Francisco. He would be attending college in the fall. Joe had never been farther east than Carson City. Joe tolerated school only because his father made him attend. He felt more at home outdoors than indoors, and where Martin enjoyed “the life of the mind” as Adam sometimes called it; Joe liked nothing better than the physical side of ranch life.

“Do you ride, Mister Lindsay?” Joe asked at last, trying for a subject he felt comfortable with.

“Of course, Master Cartwright,” Martin Lindsay replied. “And you may call me Martin. I brought my kit.”

“Call me Joe. Uh, what kit would that be?”

Martin looked at him in surprise. “My riding kit, of course.”

“Oh.”

The silence continued long enough for Joe to wonder what was included in a riding kit, and the lack of conversation became uncomfortable again. He gave it another try.

“You can have your pick of the remuda for your riding horse, if you like.”

“I take it that ‘remuda’ is a group of horses? That would be satisfactory.”

Silence again.

“Do you like fishing, Mister-um Martin?”

“Perhaps. I have never been fishing, so I do not know.”

“How about swimming? When the weather is warm my friends and I like to swim in Lake Tahoe…”

“I’m sure you and your friends find this activity entertaining, but I have a health condition that does not allow exertion and requires quietude.”

Joe wasn’t sure what quietude entailed, but he was sure that it wasn’t something that he and his friends ever spent time doing.

“What to you do for fun? Back home, I mean?” Joe was curious. 

“I enjoy reading, and I attend social functions, like the opera, plays, soirees.”

Joe let “soirees” drift past him. “Virginia City has an Opera House….”

“Yes, you pointed it out as we passed. However, I don’t expect that this-this wilderness will provide any of the entertainments to which I am accustomed.” Martin’s bitter, abrupt tone did not invite further discussion, but Joe kept trying.

“Well, we don’t often get much in the way of theater here, but we do have dances and picnics and Founder’s Day, and the Fourth of July celebrations….”

“I see.”

Joe looked down at his hands-hands roughened by chopping wood and mending harness and handling branding irons, dirtied by working with horses, and currently, ink-stained. Martin’s hands were thin and white, like the rest of him, and looked like they had never, ever been dirty.

“I hope you enjoy your stay,” was all Joe could think of to say, but his tone implied this was doubtful.

**********

Martin spent the remainder of the afternoon in the bathhouse and his room, and when he emerged for dinner he wore a dove grey suit and smelled of subtle cologne. 

“Very elegant,” Adam whispered in Joe’s ear as Martin stepped deliberately down the stairs. Ben stepped forward to greet Martin.

“I hope you are rested after your journey, Martin,” Ben said, smiling and motioning him towards the dining table. “Hop Sing has prepared something very special for dinner to welcome you.”

Martin smiled a sweet smile, and sat down in Joe’s chair. Ben lowered his eyebrows as Joe opened his mouth to object. With a scowl, Joe settled into the “guest” chair. 

Martin, Ben, and Adam carried on a lively conversation about sights back east, and Hoss interspersed admiring comments and questions. Normally, Joe would have been eagerly questioning a guest who had seen as much of the world as Martin, but the condescending tone in reply to Joe’s initial questions dampened any curiosity he had for Martin’s travels. The awkwardness that Joe had felt when he met Martin at the stage returned, and Joe didn’t raise his eyes from his plate until Hop Sing brought in the dessert.

By the time they carried their coffee cups to the living room, Martin had agreed to call Ben “uncle,” and he and Adam were deep in a laughing comparison of eastern and western styles of riding, and the merits of the English vs. the western saddle. Hoss listened and watched, then winked at Joe. Joe grinned in response and immediately felt better.

“There are so many things that are different between the East and the West. The newspapers and novels all document a wildness, a-barbarity-that I am not accustomed to,” Martin was saying as Ben passed the cream.

“Well,” said Hoss, with another wink at Joe, “What may be a serious offense back east might be just a little mix-up out here.”

“That is exactly what I mean, Erik!” Martin dabbed at the corner of his mouth. “The degree of lawlessness increases the further west one travels. Suddenly everyone is armed. Gunfire is commonly heard in the streets. Arguments that would be viewed as a falling out of friends in Boston may cause an armed battle west of St. Louis!”

Ben laughed in an attempt to lighten the mood.

“It sounds like your impressions are colored by dime novels,” he said.

“Well, I note that, with the exception of Young Joseph” -Joe scowled- “you and your employees wear sidearms. One would suppose that a man wearing a weapon is prepared to use it? And, considering the unrefined types I have met so far in my journey, it is hardly surprising that simple arguments result in bloodshed. I find the possibility of daily violence very-well, daunting.” Martin sipped his coffee. “My father is concerned about my health, as you know. While the dry climate is agreeable, I’m not sure the, well, the society, is quite the best for my nerves.”

Adam kicked Joe’s ankle and Joe’s mouth snapped shut abruptly. Joe glanced at his brother, ready to protest, but Adam merely raised his eyebrows at Joe, his eyes dancing with suppressed laughter.

“Many people do come west for their health,” Adam said in a mild tone that did not match the merriment in his eyes. “Many people wear sidearms for protection. But I’m sure you will find that our everyday society does not reflect the violence you may have read about in novels.” 

Hoss sipped his coffee. 

“You won’t be in any danger, Martin,” he said kindly. “Now tell me about this new sugar plum candy you was mentionin’ to Hop Sing.”

**********

“Would you like me to show you the lake, Martin?” Joe asked the next day at lunch. 

“I’m sorry, Young Joseph, what did you say?” Martin gazed at Joe in a kindly way that made Joe grit his teeth. Joe was well aware of his father’s expectations of him, and had spent the morning waiting for Martin to come down from his room so he could show him around the ranch. However, between sleeping until eleven and his insistence on calling Joe “Young Joseph,” Martin wasn’t making it easy.

“I asked if ya wanted me to take you to see the lake.” Joe saw his father glance his direction, and kept a friendly look on his face.

“Oh, the lake. Well, actually, I’d rather not spend too much time in the harsh wind today. Perhaps a trip into town?” Martin addressed his answer to Ben. “Mrs. Cooper asked me to tea if I wasn’t too worn out from traveling.”

“You may ride in with me, Martin,” Ben said. “Joseph, since you won’t be showing Martin around, you can get started on cleaning the tack room.”

“But Pa, I was gonna meet Mitch at the lake….”

“Now you don’t need to go to the lake,” Ben said. “Martin can see the lake another day.”

“But…”

“You wanted to earn some money this summer, as I recall, Joe. That means you work according to what needs to be done, not your own whims.” Ben’s tone was mild, but the rebuke felt worse because of Martin’s smile.

“It’s all right, Joseph,” Martin said in a kindly tone. “You can introduce me to your little friends another day.” 

Joe nearly bit through his cheek holding back the reply he wanted to make. Instead, he mumbled something about getting started on the tack room, and left the table.

**********

Ben’s assumption that Joe would be the most likely companion for Martin proved to be incorrect; for the first few days of his stay, Martin spent time with Ben or Adam every afternoon, reviewing ranch operations. Ben seemed quite taken with the Easterner, and included Martin in some of his business meetings as an expert on “the state of things back east.” Adam introduced Martin to the prominent families of Virginia City, and the resulting invitations promised a busy social life for the Easterner. Martin also seemed to like Hoss; he even bought lunch for him in Virginia City one day. However, Martin somehow never spent any time with Joe.

Joe was used to being liked by most folks; he even knew how to deal with outright dislike. But Martin ignored him. When Joe tried to talk with him, Martin brushed him aside as if Joe were dust on his sleeve. Joe, used to the attention lavished on him as the youngest member of a loving family, didn’t know how to react.

I guess he figures I got nothin’ to offer, Joe thought.

**********

A few days after Martin’s arrival, Adam established a regular study time for Joe and Martin, with readings and assignments. Joe argued and whined about study time, but he sat with books in front of him most days. In the evenings, Adam reviewed his papers, corrected his math problems, and then assigned more work. 

Martin’s studies consisted of reviewing the newspaper and lecturing Joe about literature. He hadn’t brought any textbooks with him, and all Adam’s efforts to interest him in his old textbooks fell flat. In a low-voice comment to Adam, Martin made it clear that he felt that Joe’s assignments were too elementary for him. Adam adjusted the lessons; Martin began to skip the study sessions entirely. 

When Adam confronted him at dinner about the lessons, Martin stated that his nerves required that he rest periodically throughout the day, asking if “Uncle Ben” didn’t agree that his health was more important than studying. Uncle Ben agreed, ignoring the glares from Joe and the “Pa, don’t you think…” from Adam. After that, Joe sat down to study alone.

**********

At breakfast on Sunday, Joe offered to take Martin fishing after church. With a glance at Ben, Martin agreed enthusiastically. However, once Adam and Ben had headed off to the Watson’s to look at a stud they were trying to sell, Martin suddenly changed his mind, stating he needed to “review his correspondence.” Joe shrugged. Martin hadn’t been there long enough to receive any mail, but Joe accepted Martin’s choice gratefully, and went off on to meet Mitch at the lake.

No one but Joe seemed to notice that after a week of what was to be a “working” summer, Martin was rising each day at whatever time suited him, and spending his time any way he wished.

**********

“Joseph!”

Joe’s head snapped up from his books. He had taken the arithmetic book to the front porch so he could listen to Adam play his guitar as he studied. He could not suppress the automatic guilt he felt at his father’s tone. He rapidly reviewed his recent behavior, trying to find the source of his father’s displeasure. He caught the look on Adam’s face, and knew from the amused smirk that his brother knew exactly what he was thinking.

“Joseph! Come in here!”

Joe stood quickly, but hesitated.

“Better get in there,” Adam said, reaching for one of the tuning keys on his guitar. “He doesn’t sound like he wants to be kept waiting.”

Joe stepped gingerly through the front door and around the corner to his father’s desk.

“Yes, sir?”

“I thought you were going to take Martin fishing today?”

“Yes, sir, but-“

“Then imagine my surprise when I am told that you and your friends were racing your horses on the Virginia City Road, interfering with traffic and causing Mrs. Henry’s horse to bolt-“

“Aww, Pa, Mrs. Henry’s horse never bolted, just sort of woke up a little. That old horse knows the road so well it sleeps on the way home-“

“That’s not the point, and you know it! You were supposed to be watching out for Martin, not running wild with your friends!”

“But Martin-“

“And Martin, left to his own devices, nearly got lost trying to find his way through Virginia City by himself!”

“But Pa, Martin said he didn’t want to go fishing-“

“Just because Martin is too polite to insist on the outing doesn’t mean you can shirk your responsibilities! I know how much he was looking forward to that fishing outing, yet as soon as I am out of sight, you go off with your friends and do as you please! If Adam and I hadn’t come along, Martin would have ended up on D Street, exposed to-” he paused as he considered his young son’s knowledge of the seedier parts of Virginia City, “-to who knows what!”

Joe gritted his teeth and looked away from his father’s anger. Martin was standing near the kitchen, a slight smile on his face. 

“That is not the behavior I expected from you!” Ben continued. “Mrs. Henry could have been seriously hurt! I am ashamed of you! You will apologize to Martin, and to Mrs. Henry, and from now on, when you are not working, you will place yourself at Martin’s disposal for whatever he chooses to do!”

Joe hung his head to hide the tears that sprung to his eyes. He didn’t trust his voice, so he remained silent.

“Joseph! Did you hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I suggest you get your horse and head over to Mrs. Henry’s now, before it gets dark. You can speak to Martin once you get back.”

“Yes, sir.”

When Joe went out to saddle his horse, he realized that Adam’s position under the open porch window had allowed him to hear the entire conversation.

**********

Mrs. Henry clearly regretted getting Joe in trouble with his father. She offered to speak to Ben on Joe’s behalf, but Joe was sure that would only make his father angrier, so he declined the favor. He felt a little better having made the visit, though. 

The sun cast his shadow a long way in front of him as he walked his horse home. He couldn’t ever remember his father saying he was ashamed of him before. Pa thinks Martin is better than me, he thought. Martin’s manners are polished and he never raises his voice; somehow he seems sad and weak so that folks start doin’ for him all the time.

Joe spent the trip back thinking about what it would mean to be at Martin’s “disposal.” The smile on Martin’s face made him sure that Martin would not receive his apology as graciously as had Mrs. Henry.

**********

“Thank you, Joseph. I’m sure you will do better.” Martin’s tone made Joe clench his fists. “Meanwhile, I have some errands in town, and I need you to accompany me so your father won’t question the details of those errands.”

Joe narrowed his eyes at this statement, but went out to saddle the horses.

Martin appeared after an hour or so, dressed in riding clothes-“kitted out” he called it. Joe had never seen shinier boots or a tighter jacket, and he had to admit Martin looked impressive. He felt like calling him “Mister Lindsay” again.

Martin swung calfskin gloves from one hand. “Ready, Young Joseph?”

Joe had saddled Bob for Martin, using the English saddle that had been part of Martin’s luggage. Bob was a gentle gelding that Hoss sometimes called Slow Bob, more for his tendency to need lots of signals from his rider than a comment on his speediness. Martin had no trouble making the horse understand what he wanted. You’d have to be a good rider to sit that saddle, Joe thought, reluctantly. Martin’s pretty good on a horse.

When they reached town, Martin led the way unerringly to D Street. 

“Um, Martin, that’s the wrong way,” Joe said, but Martin dismounted in front of the Bucket of Blood saloon.

“I have some medicine to pick up,” Martin said, looking serenely at Joe. “For my nerves. You may wait for me outside.”

Smirking at the look on Joe’s face, Martin stepped into the saloon.

Time passed; time in which Joe was subjected to comments from laughing cowboys and miners passing by-comments he didn’t quite understand, but that made his face turn red anyway. He couldn’t leave without Martin and risk another punishment from his father, but he sure couldn’t go inside and hurry Martin along. So he waited, worrying and fuming, until Martin finally appeared.

Martin’s smile indicated he was quite pleased about something, and he carried a silver flask as he strolled toward Joe and the horses. He placed the flask in Joe’s saddlebag “so as not to spoil the line of his coat.”

“Let’s go, Young Joseph,” Martin said jauntily, but instead of heading out of town as Joe expected, he turned toward another saloon, further down the street. 

Martin visited three different establishments on D Street that afternoon with a confidence that made Joe sure that he had been to all those places before. After the third stop, Martin was stuffing money into his pocket as he came towards Joe. He agreed readily to return to the Ponderosa, much to Joe’s relief. 

“I expect you will not speak to your father about where we have been today. I wouldn’t want him to think that you have led me astray.” Martin smiled at Joe-a very unpleasant smile.

To Joe, a visit to D Street could mean a tanning. Besides, he was never one to carry tales. As uneasy as it made him feel, keeping quiet about Martin’s activities seemed the best way to keep himself out of trouble.

**********

The next day and several days after that found Joe sitting through unending teas with members of the Ladies’ Society, listening to Martin’s stories of Eastern Society. Joe, who usually welcomed opportunities to visit the young ladies of his acquaintance, found himself in Martin’s shadow, ignored in favor of the exotic Easterner. He’d had to listen to Martin’s cultured voice, doing what amounted to fancied-up bragging-all about what a good horseman he was, how accurate he was with a rifle, and all the exclusive parties he held. All his talk, it seemed to Joe, compared Virginia City unfavorably to every other place Martin had seen. And the worst of it was, the ladies lapped up Martin’s stories like kittens lap up buttermilk.

After each tea party, Martin led the way to D Street, and Joe again waited for him outside various saloons. Then they would return to the Ponderosa in time for dinner.

**********

“Joseph!” 

“Uh oh, Joe,” Charlie said. He and Joe were leading horses toward the corral, where Joe had spent the morning. “Your Pa sounds mad. Did you forget a chore or something?”

“Something,” Joe said. Tired of Martin’s “social activities,” Joe had left before Martin made his appearance that morning. Joe had decided that Martin was on his own today.

Ben strode toward them, anger showing in every staccato step.

“Joseph! I thought I told you to stay with Martin!” Ben took the halter rope from his son and handed it to Charlie. Charlie and the horses moved discreetly out of earshot.

“Pa, he doesn’t need my help any more-“

“He needed your help today! I found him in the barn with a sprained ankle!”

Joe stared, not sure what to say.

“He needed to ride to town for his medicine, and you were no where to be found. He attempted to catch and saddle that brute of a horse himself!”

Brute? thought Joe. Bob? Joe wondered at his father’s choice of words. Sounds more like something Martin would say. 

“Martin doesn’t feel it is serious enough to require a doctor, but he must stay off his feet for a few days. I want you up to the house to apologize to Martin, and then you are to help him with anything he needs, including his chores.”

“Pa, that ain’t fair!” Joe burst out. “I been doin’ for Martin! I helped him get his medicine every day this week! Hoss already does his chores for him! Martin’s the one who- “

“Joseph, I will not argue with you about this! Your first responsibility is to Martin! Now get up to the house!” 

“But Pa, he’s been- “

“Joseph! Another word and you will spend the rest of the day in your room!”

“No, Pa you gotta listen, Martin’s been- “

“You leave me no choice, Joseph.” Joe shut his mouth at his father’s low tone. “Get up to your room until I tell you differently.”

Breathing hard, Joe stared back at his father, then strode angrily back to the house, muttering under his breath.

**********

Between not being allowed to leave his room and the demands of Martin’s ankle, Joe never left the house or yard for the next three days. He endured Martin’s superior smile, helped him to and from the settee, fetched his meals to his room, and even brought him the flask from his saddlebag when his father wasn’t looking. He wasn’t surprised when Martin sometimes limped on the wrong foot. 

Joe’s dreams of working with Charley breaking horses were fading away. He had one bright spot to look forward to-soon Hoss and Adam were going to need every skilled hand available, and Martin would have to amuse himself when Joe joined the branding crew.

**********

Mrs. Cooper’s invitation to the Spring Cotillion arrived; remarkably, at the same time, Martin’s ankle began feeling better. Ben read the invitation aloud at lunch, to a mixed reaction. Adam smirked in amusement; Hoss and Joe looked at each other in puzzlement. Martin looked as if he were calculating something.

“What’s a Cotillion, Pa?” Joe said. 

Martin said gently, “Don’t you know, Joe?” Joe’s face turned red.

“Hmmm? What’s that, son?” Ben picked up some paperwork, glanced through several pages, and then handed the pages to Adam. 

“We was wonderin’-what’s a Cotillion?” Hoss spoke up, after glancing at Joe’s hunched shoulders and downcast eyes.

“Oh, it’s a type of fancy-dress party, with dancing and food and such.”

“Hear that, Joe?” Hoss said. “Fancy dress and fancy food! When is it, Pa?”

“Oh, um….” Ben picked up the invitation again. “Saturday evening, at the schoolhouse.” Ben smiled at Hoss. “It appears that the ladies of Virginia City are anxious to meet our guest.”

There it is, Joe thought. For all the talk of Martin working like the Cartwright boys this summer, Pa still considers Martin a guest. There’s no point in resentin’ the fact that he gets to sleep late, or that Hoss does his chores. He’s Pa’s guest.

**********

Mrs. Cooper and her Committee would look back on the only Spring Cotillion ever held in Virginia City as less than successful. 

First, although it was called a Spring Cotillion, it was held on a hot summer evening that dried throats and simmered tempers. Second, like Joe and Hoss, most people weren’t sure what a Cotillion was supposed to be, and therefore there was a wide interpretation of what constituted “fancy-dress.” Third, although it was held in the schoolhouse to rule out any alcohol and the livelier behavior that alcohol caused, alcohol and lively behavior somehow still found their way to the dance.

Saturday evening found all the Cartwrights, even the notoriously slow-to-get-ready Joe, sitting by the fireplace, awaiting Martin. Although they waited a long time, when he did finally appear at the top of the stairs, all thoughts of impatience went out of their heads at the sight of him.

He wore a beautifully cut black suit, with a long tailed coat and high collared white shirt. His waistcoat was elaborately embroidered in red and gold; he carried a walking stick with a gold handle, white gloves, and a tall beaver hat. Joe gaped in astonishment, but he noted the eye-rolling, suppressed grimace of Adam, and the wink Ben gave Adam in reply. That made him feel somewhat better; his father and Adam recognized Martin’s appearance as ridiculously overdressed, too. Hoss’s guffawed exclamation made Joe giggle, but it only made Martin stand straighter and brush an imaginary speck of lint from his sleeve. 

“Everyone ready?” Ben asked, and without waiting for answer, added, “Let’s get into town before the dance is over.”

Joe rode into town, happy in the expectation that Martin would not fare well with the folks at the dance. Wearing that suit, Martin would be a laughingstock, and Joe leaned across his saddle horn to whisper as much to Hoss. 

“He sure is purty,” Hoss agreed. “Too purty for Virginia City by a long shot. He’ll be like a peacock in a flock of jaybirds! We’ll have to ride herd on him to be sure that he makes it home in one piece.”

Joe laughed. “No one would dare tangle with him-that ‘purty-ness’ might be catchin’!”

Hoss’s delighted guffaw rang out again. Ben glanced his way from the buggy, clearly wondering what set off his sons’ merriment. Martin sat perfectly relaxed and still, his head high, his nose pointing straight ahead. Joe caught a glimpse of a twinkle in his older brother’s eye as Adam turned his horse to follow in the wake of the buggy.

**********

The music had started and schoolyard was full of vehicles when they arrived. 

“Being late is a good way to make an entrance,” Adam commented dryly. “But I have a feeling no one is going to notice the Cartwrights once Master Lindsay walks in.”

“Speak for yourself, Adam. Bessie Sue is waitin’ for me,” said Hoss as he stepped down from the saddle and tossed his reins towards Joe with a broad wink. “You behave yourself, little brother.” And with that he walked toward the lighted open door of the school.

Ben and Martin were strolling towards the school by the time Joe unsaddled his and Hoss’s horses and turned them into the school corral. Adam grabbed Joe’s arm and held him back as Ben and Martin stepped through the door.

“Wait,” Adam said, and stopped just outside the door.

The noise of the crowd and the music suddenly stopped. There was a silence for several moments, then a squawking sound that Joe finally recognized as the excited greeting of Mrs. Cooper and several other Committee members. Feminine sounds increased in volume, and Martin was pulled inside, leaving Ben on the threshold alone. 

Adam laughed and pointed out Bessie Sue among the women surrounding Martin. 

“Looks like Hoss’ll have plenty of time to eat while Martin sorts out his dance partners.” 

Joe had been counting on seeing Lorena Gray, a girl from school, and was dismayed to see her amongst the ladies surrounding Martin. He looked past Adam at the remainder of the crowd around the room. The same stunned expression was seen on nearly every male face as the men watched all the females in the room join the group around Martin Lindsay.

“At least we had some warning,” Adam murmured. “They don’t know what hit them.”

**********

Joe didn’t get to talk to Lorena for quite a while. He bided his time, knowing that he wouldn’t do well in a comparison with Martin Lindsay if he approached her now. Mitch Devlin joined him at the food table, glumly watching the group of ladies near the punch bowl, buzzing around Martin.

“That’s the Easterner everyone’s been talking about?” Mitch asked. 

Joe nodded.

“I was hopin’ to dance with Becky Watson, but she’s joined all the other moths flutterin’ around that-that overdressed lantern!”

“Yeah, looks like I won’t be talkin’ with Lorena anytime soon, either,” said Joe. “Might as well get somethin’ to eat. Once the dancin’ starts again, things will get back to normal. He can only dance with one girl at a time.”

Mitch brightened at that comment. 

“Yeah, you’re right!” Mitch began to fill up a plate.

**********

Thinking about it later, Adam was pretty sure he knew about when it happened. He had tasted the punch soon after their arrival, and it was just fruit punch. By the time Martin had chosen his third dance partner, some of the younger men were laughing a little too loudly. Sometime before the music started again, someone had added spirits to the punch. 

Adam watched the loud young men curiously, watching to see whether they were sneaking out to a bottle stashed somewhere outside. They never left the building, yet they were getting louder and louder. As soon as he realized the source of their “joy,” he looked around for Joe. Hoss he didn’t worry about. Hoss could be counted on to recognize spiked punch when he tasted it; besides, he could drink older men under the table. However, Joe was a kid, and probably wouldn’t recognize the bite of liquor mixed with fruit punch until it was too late.

He spotted Joe and Mitch chatting with Lorena Gray and Becky Watson. Joe and Mitch were holding two punch glasses each; all four of them were laughing a lot. Adam watched his little brother for a few moments, and decided that while he had undoubtedly drunk some of the spiked punch, he had not had enough to be anything more than very happy. Mitch was in a similar state. Adam didn’t know the young ladies well enough to make a guess as to whether they had drunk any of the punch, too. 

Adam looked around for his father, and spotted him chatting with Mrs. Cooper and her Committee near the food tables. He didn’t seem to notice anything was amiss. Yet.

Adam started towards Joe and the others, but before he had taken more than two steps, Dave Watson, Becky’s older brother, knocked a glass of punch from Mitch’s hand before Becky could take it from him. Adam couldn’t hear what was said, but he saw Joe step up with Mitch to square off to Dave Watson. Dave was big, and a full five years older than Joe and Mitch.

Moving quickly, Adam placed himself between Dave Watson and the two younger boys.

“Whoa, hold on, Dave-” Adam began.

“Let go of me, Adam! This little b-” Dave glanced around, “-boy tried to get my sister drunk!”

“Dave, I don’t think Mitch or Joe had any idea that punch was spiked.” Adam kept his voice low, and tried to hold his temper.

“Shpiked!” said Mitch. “That sh-spike isn’t punched!”

Joe giggled. Adam felt Hoss step up beside him.

“Look at ’em Dave, these two don’t know firewater from ditchwater!” Hoss said with laughter in his voice. “Come on little brother, we better get you outside before Pa notices.”

“Mitch Devlin!” Becky Watson said through gritted teeth. “Do you mean to tell me you offered me punch with liquor in it?”

Adam glanced around. Any hope of keeping this encounter quiet was rapidly disappearing. Several people were watching them, including his father and Martin Lindsay. Ben glared at them, but stayed put; he had apparently decided to let Adam and Hoss handle it. Martin looked-well, odd, thought Adam, for a man who claimed to abhor violence. He almost looked like he was enjoying himself.

The room suddenly grew silent at the sharp crack of Becky’s open hand meeting Mitch’s astonished face. Hoss pulled Joe away toward the door, as Joe protested feebly. Adam pulled Mitch toward him, but released him when he saw Mitch’s father approaching. Dave Watson saw Mr. Devlin too; without any further words he grabbed Becky’s hand, turned on his heel and walked away. Once Mitch’s father had marched Mitch away, Adam was left with Lorena Gray, who stared at him in some bewilderment. She’s definitely had some punch, Adam thought, and offered the girl his arm to lead her back to her mother. 

Slowly, the people remaining in the room turned back to their own conversations. Martin Lindsay continued to smile. Adam watched him as he gazed after Joe and Hoss as they made their way to the door.

The punch bowl was empty by the time Adam got back over to the table.

**********

“Joseph, if I thought for one minute you knew anything about how that liquor got in the punch bowl, I’d-“

Joe suddenly wondered if Martin’s flask was still in his saddlebag.

“Pa, how could Joe have known?” Adam protested. “He had no idea it was there, even after he tasted it!”

“Pa, Joe wasn’t all that drunk-” Hoss said.

“Hoss, you’re not helping!” Adam said in a low voice. 

After Hoss had taken Joe outside, there had been two fights at the Cotillion, both caused by drunken cowhands. The second fight destroyed the food table, and knocked down the Cotillion Committee like dominos. Mrs. Cooper had no choice but to faint dead away of embarrassment. 

“I don’t know about your behavior lately, young man!” Ben continued. “You don’t see Martin acting this way! He’s been a polite and respectful young man, as I expected you to be!”

Joe slouched miserably on his horse. Martin studiously pretended to ignore Ben’s praises.

“You’ve neglected our guest,” Ben continued, “Embarrassed us all, and to top it off, Bill Watson tells me he’s seen you on D Street, hanging around outside saloons! If I hadn’t known you were with Martin, I might think-“

Martin hastily interrupted. 

“Joe can’t be expected to live up to eastern standards, when he’s never been exposed to them before. Consider what happened tonight!” He shuddered artistically. “If all Joe sees is barbaric behavior, then is it not surprising that he would behave like a barbarian!”

“Now hold on, Martin!” Hoss said angrily.

“I think you overstate-” Adam said.

Joe couldn’t listen to any more; he kicked his horse into a lope and headed home. He put up his horse and made it to his room and into bed before the others returned, feigning sleep when he heard his father’s step outside his room.

**********

In church the next day, the preacher spoke on the evils of drink. Joe slumped down in his pew and failed to look nonchalant. His head hurt, and his father’s lecture on the ride home still rang in his ears.

No one was sure who had spiked the punch, but during the preacher’s sermon, many glances were sent toward Mitch and Joe. 

Once the disapproving looks turned away, Joe tried to think about who could have put the liquor in the punch. The punch bowl had not been very full when he and Mitch had taken their first glasses. Joe had been near the food table most of the time since they arrived, biding his time until Lorena was no longer in Martin’s group of admirers. He remembered everyone who had been nearby, and of all the possible choices, Martin seemed the most likely. Martin could have emptied one or two of his “medicine” flasks into the punch while waiting for the music to start. 

Trouble is, thought Joe, no one would believe it. He’s got everyone, especially Pa, convinced he’s “polite and respectful.”

**********

On Monday, to his relief, Joe was allowed to join the branding crew. Like the other hands, Joe began riding at daybreak. Hoss, conscious of the 14-year-old’s slight stature as well as his pride in being asked to do a regular hand’s work, made sure that Joe’s work periods were broken by running errands and carrying messages. About mid-morning, Hoss sent him back to the house to pick up more supplies. Joe was loading a wagon with ropes, branding irons, and cook tools when Martin wandered out into the yard. 

“Where is everyone this morning?” Martin asked, stifling a yawn behind his hand. Joe glanced up at the sun’s position before answering. It was obvious that Martin hadn’t been out of bed very long.

“We’re branding in the south pasture,” Joe replied. 

Martin appeared to be considering Joe’s answer. 

“I would like to see branding,” Martin said after a long moment, stifling another yawn. 

He makes it sound like some theater piece or somethin’, thought Joe. 

“It’s one of those aspects of ranch life my father mentioned. He used to participate in branding when he lived out here.” Martin looked at his nails. “He told me he got to be quite good at it. ‘A good hand,’ I think he called it.”

Joe wondered what Martin’s father was like. He couldn’t picture Martin doing any rough work; it was hard to imagine his father would be any different.

“I need to get back with these supplies. You can ride along with me, but I’ve got to leave now if I’m gonna get back there before dinner time.”

“I’ll change into my riding clothes, then, while you prepare my horse.”

Joe stared after Martin as he headed back into the house, startled by his statement. Not statement, order, thought Joe. He just ordered me to saddle his horse. I don’t think he’s saddled his own horse since he’s been here. He scowled in resentment, but his father’s expectations had been drummed into his head, so he turned back toward the corral to catch the gelding Martin had ridden last week.

By the time Martin came back, Joe had caught Slow Bob, saddled him with Martin’s English saddle, finished loading the wagon, and was silently fuming at having to wait yet again. Joe watched as Martin adjusted the girth and mounted, then smiled pleasantly in Joe’s direction, waiting for Joe to lead the way. Joe clicked to the team, and trotted them to the south road at a brisk pace.

They didn’t talk during the hour ride to the pasture. Neither was enjoying the other’s company. Joe kept his eyes on the team, and concentrated on deciding how he was going to spend this summer’s pay.

Once they reached the branding camp, Joe unloaded the wagon, helped Hop Sing haul the cook pots over to the fires, and set out the rest of the supplies he had brought from the house. Then he resaddled his cowpony and grabbed up a rope. He forgot all about Martin as he trotted back out to the herd. 

Martin had a mild interest in the workings of the ranch, not because he wanted to perform any of the chores, but because of his father’s stories of his summers working as a cowhand. He admitted, only to himself, that he wanted to be able to match his father’s stories when he returned in the fall. Part of him also wanted to prove he was a better horseman than the style-less Cartwright brothers. 

Martin waited at the camp for someone to guide him, but no one paid any attention to him. Everyone had a job to do, and everyone seemed to know what needed to be done. No one was giving orders; the men were just doing the work. He dismounted and walked toward the fire that seemed to be the center of activity. 

Hoss was standing near the fire, occasionally handling a branding iron, but also checking a tally-book. Several cowhands, Joe among them, were riding among the herd, roping calves. Martin watched as Joe’s rope snaked around a bawling calf’s neck. Joe’s horse stood braced as Joe dallied the rope around his saddle horn, and then backed up, dragging the calf toward the fire. 

A cowboy on foot grabbed the calf, flipped its legs out from under it, and knelt on its neck while another man pulled the calf’s tail out straight and braced his leg against the calf’s rump. Another cowboy held the hot iron to the calf’s left shoulder while yet another wielded a knife near the calf’s rump. Stepping closer, Martin realized the man with the knife was castrating the calf, and he quickly stepped back, his stomach lurching. Martin could smell burning hair and snatched his handkerchief to his nose, feeling the bile rise in his throat. Once the iron had been applied and the man at the calf’s rump had straightened up, the bawling calf was released toward the holding area, stumbling its way back to its mama.

Hoss finally noticed Martin, and strolled over to greet him. He took in the younger man’s posture and white face, but merely said, “Howdy, Martin.”

Martin nodded. 

“I know you’ve prob’ly never seen brandin’ before, so you just stick here by me ’til you get the feel of it.”

Martin closed his eyes. Did Erik-he still couldn’t bring himself to call him “Hoss”- expect him to take some part in this-this gruesome task?

“Brandin’ don’t hurt ’em much,” Hoss said quietly, stepping closer to Martin’s side. “Leastways, not if you do it right. So I’m sorry but I can’t let you hold the iron. Takes a skilled hand for that job, and we got several ranches representin’ today-that means several different brands are needed.” Hoss added as he saw the lack of comprehension on Martin’s face.

When Martin did not reply, Hoss glanced around. He and his tally book were needed back at the fire. 

“You just watch, for now,” Hoss said lamely. “Stay here by the fire and you’ll be outa the way ’til you get your bearin’s.” Hoss was sure that Martin would never “get his bearin’s” when it came to branding, but he kept that thought to himself. 

Martin turned quickly, trying to concentrate on anything other than the sounds and smells of branding. His eye lighted on Joe as he hauled another reluctant calf toward the branding crew. 

“Joe!” Hoss yelled as the waiting crew grabbed the calf and released Joe’s rope. Joe turned in the saddle as he coiled the rope. 

“Git that one!” Hoss yelled, pointing toward the slight rise, where a yearling calf was running away toward the edge of the pasture.

Joe waved and wheeled his horse, racing after the calf. Martin watched as Joe swung his horse in a wide arc, not chasing the calf, but heading it off and redirecting it back to the herd. He rode fast, leaning over the neck of his pony, perfectly balanced with his horse. Despite himself, Martin was impressed-he was enough of a horseman to acknowledge the boy’s nonchalant skill as he turned that reluctant calf back to the main herd.

“Kid rides light and tight as a cocklebur, don’t he?” Hoss said from beside him. Martin glanced at the big man. Hoss’s face was split in an uncomplicated, joyful grin. He winked at Martin.

“Sometimes I send Joe after strays, even if he ain’t the closest, just to watch him ride.” 

Martin looked from Hoss to the now-distant Joe. Hoss turned back to the fire, his good humor spilling over to the crew as he rejoined them. 

Martin clenched his fists angrily. His face burned as he remembered how he had criticized western riding styles that first night at dinner, stating how much more difficult the English style was to achieve. Adam had known, he realized now; Adam had to know the difference in styles and the subtleties of both, but had not commented other than to discuss the latest in eastern saddlery.

Martin had always prided himself on his horsemanship, had even participated in competitions at school, but he knew he could not have ridden after that calf the way Joe had. Joe’s boots hadn’t even been in the stirrups! What made him even angrier was Hoss’s admiration for his little brother-uncomplicated, heartfelt, genuine admiration. No one, especially his father, had ever praised Martin’s skill like Hoss had praised Joe’s, even when he had come home with a blue ribbon. Even though Joe hadn’t been near enough to hear his brother’s praise, Martin gritted his teeth in resentment.

**********

Hoss tried to interest Martin in branding by explaining the tallies and the various brands identifying the cattle of the Ponderosa and its neighbors. After a few more calves were branded and castrated, Martin’s sickly pallor made Hoss suggest he get on his horse and help hold the branded calves for one of the neighboring ranches.

“Holding,” Hoss explained, was merely keeping his horse in between the calves and freedom. But Martin found the task more difficult than he expected. 

For one thing, his horse only sluggishly responded to his commands. Bob was a docile, reliable gelding, but he wasn’t used to thinking for himself, and therefore did not anticipate the moves of irritated, frisky calves and their angry mothers. It never occurred to Martin to ask for the use of a different horse, a trained cow pony, to work with the cattle.

For another, Martin himself reacted far too late to stop any escaping calf. He found himself concentrating on staying out of the cowhands’ way as they tore around him to head off calves he allowed past. They dodged so quickly, turned in such seemingly random patterns, that Martin more often than not turned right into a cowboy’s path rather than out of his way. After the third near-collision between Martin and an annoyed cowboy, Hoss asked Martin to come back into the camp and help keep the fires built up. Martin came back and sat near the cook fire, but made no attempt at any camp chores.

As the day wore on, Martin saw Joe rope calves, chase strays, hold cattle, ride various “green-broke” horses, and jump into the brush on foot to free trapped calves. Joe’s skills made the hands treat him as an equal, and he worked hard. He was small, but his size made him very fast, and he was willing to dart into the brush after the most “ornery critter,” as Hoss put it. He heard more than one hand remark on the boy’s “sand.” He watched as they took advantage of Joe’s eagerness by sending him out again and again to chase a calf or run a message out to the riders on the edge of the herd. 

By contrast, once they recognized Martin’s lack of skill and unwillingness to try to learn, the hands ignored him, politely stepping around him to get their various tasks completed. 

The more Martin watched Joe, the more his resentment towards him grew. He had amused himself at Joe’s expense, stirring up trouble for the younger boy with his father while making sure his own behavior appeared above reproach. Martin felt good when Ben Cartwright praised him, and felt even better when Ben praised him while he reprimanded Joe. Out here, however, among real ranch hands doing real ranch work, none of his usual ploys worked. Joe was well liked by men that Martin secretly feared. Out here, Joe was getting the praise and Martin was barely tolerated. 

As the sun set and the hands wandered toward the fire for the evening meal, Martin suddenly realized they intended to spend the night at the branding camp. Aside from the comforts he would miss, Martin dreaded spending more time with men who were not impressed with his refined manners. He had never been ignored before, and did not like the feeling. He wasn’t sure why it mattered so much that these men were not impressed with him, but it did. He filled his plate and ate with the rest of them, not wanting to draw attention to himself, but as the twilight deepened he approached Hoss.

Joe heard the argument as he dozed over his supper plate. Hop Sing sure is mad, he thought, yellin’ at Hoss like that. He wondered what Hoss had done-tried to take an extra piece of pie, maybe? Hop Sing’s pie was worth tryin’ for, but the last thing Hoss wanted to do would be to make the feisty cook mad. 

“No time to go back to house!” Hop Sing was saying. “Have to clean up from supper and get ready for breakfast! I have no time to show lazy boy way home!”

“Well, I am not staying out here overnight!” Martin’s voice was a little shrill, and several pairs of eyes were drawn to him. “This night air is very detrimental to my nerves! I must get back to the house!”

Martin, Joe thought. Pa’s gonna kill me. 

Joe jumped up, scraping his half-full plate into the scrap bucket.

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Joe stammered. “I forgot that Martin needed to get back. I’ll take him.”

“Number three son needed here for help with breakfast! Up early! No time to go back to house now!” Hop Sing tried to push Joe back to his seat.

“You’re tired, Joe. I’ll take him back,” Hoss said quietly, putting on his hat.

“You’re in charge, Hoss, you can’t leave the camp.” Joe was feeling very uncomfortable, seeing more and more trouble because he had forgotten about his guest. Now Hoss was suggesting special treatment for Joe that sounded suspiciously like he was being treated like a kid. In a lower voice, he said to his brother, “He’s my responsibility. Pa’s gonna be mad enough at me as it is for forgettin’ about him. The sooner I get goin’, the sooner I get back.”

Hop Sing began to protest again; he had seen Joe drooping in the saddle when he returned to the fire. Joe saddling up again and taking Martin back was not his idea of the solution to the problem. Martin’s whine joined the discussion and Joe stopped listening. He picked up his saddle, dropped it near the rope corral, and quickly caught and bridled Cochise and Bob.

Hoss came up behind Joe as he slung his saddle over Cochise’s back.

“I don’t like the idea of you comin’ back up here in the dark by yourself. You just stay home and come back up in the mornin’.”

Joe considered this, and then nodded. “OK. I’ll be in for another lecture anyway, from the sound of things. Might as well get it over with.” He quickly saddled Bob. 

Leading the two horses closer to the fire, he waited until Martin paused for breath, handed him the gelding’s reins, and said simply, “Let’s go.”

Hoss gripped the back of Joe’s neck briefly. “You be careful, little brother.”

Joe grinned and twisted free. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Martin glared at them. Hoss switch his grip to Martin, grasping Martin’s elbow and helping him mount his horse. He slapped the gelding’s rump and Joe led the way from the camp.

**********

Martin concentrated on following the white patches of Joe’s horse as they walked back down the trail. The wagon road had not seemed particularly steep or treacherous on the way up, but Joe led the way down a narrower horse-track, barely visible through the wooded hillside. Now that it was growing dark, Martin’s apprehension made him grip tightly with his knees and hands. Slow Bob, normally content to follow the tail in front of him, grew restive at his inconsistent signals.

“Ease up, Martin,” Joe said quietly. “The horses know the trail. Just let Bob do the work.”

Martin bristled, but did as Joe suggested. Bob settled back to walking the trail calmly.

“You did this on purpose, didn’t you?” Martin said, after a while.

“Huh?” Joe replied. He was nearly asleep in the saddle.

“Keeping me so late that we would have to camp out overnight. That would have been very amusing for you!”

Joe tried to concentrate on what Martin was saying. “I just forgot about you, Martin,” Joe said wearily. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. We’ve just been busy today.”

“So busy that you forgot about your father’s guest?” Martin seemed to find this incredible. “I heard him tell you myself, several times, you were to be at my disposal. I’ve been ready to return to the house since this afternoon. But you were off somewhere, riding around, ‘too busy’ to notice that I might need help!”

“Well, you were at the fire, and Hoss was there, along with about ten other hands. What more help did you need?”

Martin became somewhat agitated. “That’s hardly the point. The point is, you abandoned me among those ruffians, and went off without a word!”

“Now wait a minute!” Joe reined his horse around to face Martin. “They ain’t ruffians! They’ve been nothin’ but polite to you. Besides, you wanted to see what branding was all about! You asked to come up here! If you wanted to go back, why didn’t you speak up? Hoss would’ve seen that you got back.”

“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To have your older brother let you off the hook?” Martin’s voice rose, and he stopped his horse completely. 

“What?” Joe stopped too. “I don’t get you. Was the only reason you came up here to get back at me in some way? ‘Cause I don’t get why you’re so mad about this. We’re goin’ back, like you wanted. I’m gonna be in trouble when we get there, somethin’ else you wanted. You’re gettin’ everything you want, like usual, ain’t you?”

“Yes!” Martin shouted. His horse threw his head up, startled. “And you will be in trouble when we get back! I’ll be sure and tell your father just how you’ve treated me! My health has been endangered! Camping out could have been fatal! And this night air is very bad for my lungs!”

Joe could only stare. An angry child had replaced the sophisticated, disdainful Easterner. Martin was wound up and there was no stopping his ranting

“You’ve been riding around, enjoying yourself, and I was left to wait until you were good and ready to return to the house. And your brother, praising you to the skies while you do whatever you please! I see how it really is! I am not used to being treated this way!”

“Martin,” Joe said through gritted teeth. “I’m tired and hungry, and tryin’ hard not to remember that you are the reason I ain’t curled up in my bedroll right now with a full stomach! I’m headin’ down this trail now. You can follow me if you like, or you can sit there and whine about how I been treatin’ ya. I don’t much care which you do!” 

Joe turned his horse and started again towards home. Martin continued to complain, but when Joe continued down the trail, he allowed his horse to follow Joe’s, even more agitated at the thought of losing sight of his guide. His diatribe lasted until they reached the turn-off for the house.

**********

Adam heard the horses in the yard, and stepped out to see who was there. Ben had been delayed in town, and had just come in himself; he and Adam were sitting companionably by the fire. They had assumed that everyone else was spending the night at the branding camp. 

“Joe?” Adam walked up to his brother’s horse. “You’re coming in kind of late aren’t you? Why didn’t you just stay up at the camp?”

“Ask him!” He slid off his horse and walked over to hold Martin’s horse as the other boy dismounted. When Martin’s feet hit the ground, Joe led the horses to the barn. Adam looked after Joe, but followed Martin into the house, only half listening to the litany of complaints. 

Once he had settled Martin in a chair near the fire, he promised a hot drink, and headed to the kitchen. He hurried straight out the kitchen door and went back to the barn, in time to see Joe hoist Martin’s saddle onto a stand, and then begin to brush down the gelding. 

“Give me that, little brother. You’re so tired you can hardly see.” Adam took the brush from his hand and took over brushing the gelding. Joe didn’t protest, just turned to unsaddle Cochise. His abrupt movements and muttered comments under his breath told Adam all he needed to know. The two worked in silence and then headed back into the house together.

By tacit agreement, they entered by way of the kitchen, where Adam filled a mug with coffee, handed it to Joe, filled another, and with a hand on his brother’s shoulder, steered him into the great room.

Ben was seated on the settee, Martin in the blue chair near the fire with a blanket around his shoulders. Martin stopped speaking when they entered, and his eyes narrowed. He noted that Adam got Joe seated with his coffee before offering Martin a coffee mug. 

Joe kept his head down. He wanted to get this over with and go to bed. He had no doubt that his father would be angry once he heard what Martin had to say. 

“Joseph, it seems that Martin feels he has been neglected today, and through your oversight, you left him on his own all afternoon. He also says you deliberately rode away and left him on the trail in the dark.”

Joe’s eyes flashed up at this, but he said nothing. If there was one thing he had learned from Martin’s visit, it was the futility of arguing with his father about anything Martin said.

“Martin has suggested that a lesson in eastern manners might be in order,” Ben continued wearily. Still Joe said nothing, but his breathing rate increased and his lips tightened.

Adam took in Martin’s smug expression and Ben’s exasperated glance at Joe. Joe’s hands gripped his mug with whitened knuckles. To everyone’s surprise, Ben merely added, “Martin, I will consider what you have suggested. Joseph, finish your drink and head up to bed. We’ll talk about this another time.” Then, before anyone else could move, he stood, finished his coffee, and went up the stairs to his own room.

**********

At sunrise the next day, Joe was up and on his way back to the branding camp. It was a relief to get away and go back to work, without having to worry about Martin making him look bad in front of his father.

Branding kept him away from the house for the next several days. That suited Joe just fine. He had worried about the “lesson in eastern manners” his father had mentioned, but so far, no punishment had been decreed. Coming home from the camp one afternoon, he cringed in anticipation when Ben beckoned to him from the house, but he merely asked Joe to drive Martin into town to send a telegram to Martin’s father. Joe was so relieved he almost felt cheerful about accompanying Martin again. He headed to the barn to hitch up the buggy.

“I find it difficult to believe that you are satisfied with this type of life, Adam.” Martin’s hint of a whine carried his words out the open barn door. Joe stopped outside and waited, afraid of what his brother would reply.

“What do you mean, ‘this type of life’?” Adam sounded annoyed.

“This, this…ranch-work! Associating with common cowhands, working with smelly, stupid animals, the shear physicality of so-called chores! Your father can afford to hire laborers for this work-why does he require you to do it? Your brother Erik I can understand, he is suited for physical labor, and Joseph is too wild and ignorant to aspire to anything else, but you, you’ve been to the east, you have sophisticated tastes….”

“Watch what you say about my brothers, Martin.” Joe knew that tone and smiled; Martin had better keep out of Adam’s reach.

“You can’t claim that you don’t realize that you are better than them? You could….”

“Shut up!” 

Martin unwisely kept talking. “You know I’m right, Adam. Your brothers will never be anything but uncivilized peasants who-” 

Joe heard the thud of something hitting the barn wall. 

“Get out! Get out of here before I forget you’re a guest in our home!”

Martin hastily rushed out of the barn, heading toward the house. 

He stopped, however, when he saw Joe standing just outside the door. Martin’s eyes narrowed; Joe had undoubtedly heard what Adam had just said, and Martin’s fear of Adam turned quickly to anger at Joe. He stepped close to Joe, leaning over him, and spoke in a low voice.

“Your brother may take your side, but I’ve got Uncle Ben believing everything I say!” Joe stood his ground, saying nothing, but his stiffened shoulders told Martin his words were having an effect. “Just remember that!”

Joe gazed after him as he stalked toward the house, and then waited another moment or two before entering the barn. Adam was shoveling out a stall with short jerky movements of his shovel; he was as angry as Joe had ever seen him.

“Adam,” he said quietly, trying not to stoke the fires. Adam didn’t even look up.

“I thought you were supposed to be studying.”

“I was going to, but Martin wants to go to town.”

Adam muttered something under his breath that sounded like “pretentious trouble-maker,” but Joe wasn’t sure.

“You’d better hitch up the buggy, then,” Adam said, more loudly, but Joe didn’t move.

“Well? What are you waiting for?”

“Adam?”

“What is it?” Adam tossed another shovel load into the wheelbarrow with some force. 

“Nothin’.” Joe took a step back and turned to leave the barn. 

Adam sighed. “Wait, Joe. Did you need something?”

Joe hesitated. He didn’t want to bother his brother when he was already mad, but he did want to know. “Adam, do you-” he drew a deep breath. “Do you think I’m wild and ignorant?”

Adam put down his shovel. “You heard what that little snob said?”

Joe nodded. 

“He’s an arrogant ass. Don’t be concerned about his opinion.”

“I’m not-he’s said worse. I wanna know what you think.”

Adam looked at his brother for a long moment, and then sat down on a water barrel. “Come here, buddy.”

Joe walked over and leaned against his brother’s shoulder. 

“I might complain about your behavior, but I don’t think you’re wild or ignorant.”

“But you’re always yelling at me ’cause I’m ‘runnin’ wild,’ and you want me to study or go to school. Are you…do you wish….” Joe’s voice was so low Adam had to lean towards him to hear.

“What is it, Joe?” Adam said, matching Joe’s tone.

“Are you ‘shamed of me?” Joe said even more softly. He sounded much younger than his fourteen years. 

Adam tightened his arm around his brother’s slim waist, and gave him a little shake. “Of course not! I’m proud to have you as my brother. Just because I want you to be the best you can be, doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of what you are!”

“I thought-Martin said I was a disgrace to you and Pa, and that everything would better for you if I was smarter or better mannered.”

“Don’t listen to what that-that pretentious boob says! He doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s best for this family. He’s the ignorant one! He doesn’t know what it means to work hard, or to respect and trust your family, or to recognize the difference between surface polish and true depth of character. I almost feel sorry for him!” Joe didn’t move, but kept his eyes on his boots.

“Joe?” Adam shook his brother again.

“He makes me so mad sometimes!” Joe whispered. “He gets me in trouble, and Pa only sees his side of things! All he has to do is to call me an ‘untutored barbarian,’ like he feels sorry for me, and Pa believes everything he says! Ever since he came here, Pa’s been unhappy with me-comparin’ us all the time. I know Pa is ashamed of me, but I didn’t want you to be ashamed, too.”

Adam was silent as he thought about the truth of this. Pa did seem to be favoring Martin, and it did seem that he was far less tolerant of Joe’s high spirits than usual.

“Pa’s not ashamed of you, Joe….”

“He is.” Joe shook his head. “He told me he is. He wants me to have eastern manners, like Martin, but I can’t, Adam! I can’t act like him, no matter what Pa thinks!”

Adam couldn’t think of anything to say to this.

“Adam?”

“Yeah, buddy?” 

“I wish Martin had never come here.”

Adam sighed. “I know what you mean. But Martin’s father is Pa’s good friend, and Pa told him he could stay as long as he liked. So, as long as Martin wants to stay, we’ve got to put up with him.”

As long as Martin wants to stay- a thought sparked in Joe’s mind. Wild and ignorant? Untutored barbarian? Maybe if Martin were proved right….

Adam realized he had lost his brother’s attention. “Joe?”

“Hmm?”

“Hadn’t you better hitch up the buggy?”

“What? Oh, yeah. Thanks, Adam!” Joe ran towards the corral with the tearing speed that signaled everything was right again in Joe Cartwright’s world.

Adam stared after him, then smiled and picked up his shovel.

**********

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Little Joe?” Hoss paused while loading the wagon with another sack of grain. Joe had run into Hoss at the general store, and waited with him while Martin sent Ben’s telegram.

“Where would ya get blanks?”

“Blanks? You mean shells without no bullets?”

“Yeah.” 

Hoss looked at Joe, waiting for more of an explanation.

“I heard someone talking about using them for the Fourth of July,” Joe said, and held his breath as he fingered the harness leathers, trying to appear nonchalant about the question.

“Well, I don’t think the gunsmith carries blanks in the shop-no real call for ’em. You could make ’em, I guess.”

“How?”

Hoss was looking at him intently.

“You could take the bullet off of the shells and replace ’em with paper wads. Cigarette papers would do, I guess. You’d get the bang, but nothing dangerous fires out of the gun.” Hoss set the sack of grain down. “Why’re you askin’, Little Joe? You ain’t supposed to be handlin’ no guns by yerself yet, and just ’cause there weren’t no bullet wouldn’t make it right.”

“I know. I just want to know how to do it.” Joe looked up at Hoss with as guileless an expression he could muster. 

Hoss shook his head, obviously not quite believing his brother, but not sure why.

**********

Mitch emptied his pockets, dropping handfuls of cigarette papers into Joe’s lap. 

“That’s all my brother had. Joe, you’re gonna be in so much trouble…” 

“I’ve been in nothin’ but trouble ever since he came here! One more reason for Pa to be mad at me ain’t going to make no difference! But it might get rid of old snobby-britches once and for all.”

Mitch thought about this. He had been a willing participant of Joe’s schemes in the past, and had taken his share of the punishment for them, too. But what Joe had in mind this time sounded, well, dangerous.

“It ain’t dangerous! I explained all that!” Joe sounded impatient, startling Mitch out of his thoughts. Mitch hadn’t realized he had spoken aloud. Joe sensed he was wavering.

“Look, Hoss told me how to do it. The shells’ll be all noise-like firecrackers. But it’s gonna take two of us-you see that, don’t you? Besides, it will give us a chance to practice our quick-drawin’.” Joe’s grin was contagious.

Reluctantly, Mitch nodded. He still didn’t feel right about it, but Joe was expecting him to help. Besides, he still couldn’t show his face at Becky Watson’s door after the fiasco at the dance, and Joe said he was sure that spiked punch was all Martin’s doing. He tightened his fists at the thought.

“All right,” Mitch said. “Tell me what you want me to do.”

**********

Martin shifted in the saddle uneasily. He’d felt something was off-balance, but couldn’t put his finger on it. 

He’d agreed to accompany Joe out to check one of the line shacks after seeing how unhappily Joe reacted to Uncle Ben’s suggestion that Martin ride along. Martin didn’t want the outing so much as one more chance to annoy the boy-he had felt he could play the little bumpkin like Erik played a fish on his line. But something wasn’t quite right. Once they were away from the ranch house, Joe did not lapse into the sullen, unhappy expression that he usually wore when forced into Martin’s company. No, he was talking away, chattering like he had when he picked up Martin from the stage that first day-before Martin had successfully put him in his place. Joe’s confidence was back, and it made Martin suspicious.

Joe pulled up near a fork in the trail and stopped. He got down from his horse, and made a great show of checking hooves, tightening the cinch, drinking from the canteen. Martin watched him carefully. Joe’s studied nonchalance made him positive Joe was up to something.

They waited quite a while, with Joe whistling idly, tying and re-tying saddlebags. Just as Martin was going to ask the reason for the delay, he heard the clip clop of a horse along the side trail. In a moment, Mitch Devlin had joined them.

“It’s about time,” Joe said. “Mitch is ridin’ with us to the line shack. Now that he’s finally here,” he added in a harder tone. 

Martin and Joe remounted, and the three boys started down the wide trail, Joe and Mitch keeping each to their own side, with Martin riding uneasily in between them. 

“I told ya I would meet ya and I’m meetin’ ya,” Mitch said sullenly, glancing at Martin.

Martin had the feeling they were continuing an argument started at an earlier time. 

“Not that I want to be here to help the likes of you, anyway,” Mitch continued.

“Shut up!” Joe flared up, his chattering mood gone in an instant. “It’s all your fault I have to check the line shack! I could be fishin’ or Martin here could be in the Silver Dollar with a beer. If you hadn’t tried to get Becky to drink that punch….”

You shut up, Joe Cartwright!” Mitch’s hostility had a distinct edge to it. He stopped his horse, and he leaned forward to look past Martin, his left arm resting on his saddle horn. “You made me a laughingstock in front of Becky and her family…”

“Me!” Joe’s voice rose in pitch as he reined in his own horse. “Oh no, you did that all by yourself!”

Martin pulled back on his reins, trying to back his horse from between the two angry boys.

“Just ask Martin, here!” Joe said, putting a hand on Martin’s bridle. “Tell him what a fool he made of himself, Martin!”

“Don’t go hidin’ behind your dandy friend!” Mitch was starting to warm up to his argument, and put some of that heat into his words. “You never was one to own up to anything! Blamin’ everyone else for trouble you done your ownself!” Mitch leaned farther forward, and Martin could feel the hiss of his breath. “Come to think on it, you probably put that liquor in the punch yerself, just to get me in trouble! Every time I listen to you, something bad happens! I’m sick of putting up with ya, Joe Cartwright! You can just go to hell!” 

To Martin’s horror, Joe pulled a gun from the back of his belt.

“I was saving this for target practice when we got to the shack. But nobody tells me to go to hell! You take it back Mitch, or you’ll be sorry.” Joe’s voice was low and hard. His gun was pointed unsteadily at Mitch, and Joe’s left-handed grip included Martin in its menace.

“Joe,” Martin said, his voice unsteady. “Be careful with that thing. You’re not supposed to carry a gun.”

“Yes, Little Joe,” Mitch said, and he suddenly had a gun in his own hand. “You better run back home before you get hurt.”

Martin’s eyes grew wider, and he frantically tried to pull his horse away. He was right between the two boys-both angry and both waving their guns at each other.

“You’re the one who’ll get hurt!” Joe spat. Somehow, his horse’s rear swung over to block Martin’s horse from backing away.

“You ain’t got guts enough to shoot a tin can without your daddy’s permission, let alone something that’ll shoot back at you!”

“Are you calling me a coward?”

“Anyone can see that you’re just about wettin’ yourself, yer so scared…” and Mitch’s gun went off, right under Martin’s horrified gaze. Mitch looked as surprised as Martin. This wasn’t the plan, Joe thought; they were supposed to do a fast draw after getting to the ground, but Mitch’s finger must’ve slipped. Recovering quickly, Joe shouted, “I’ll show you who’s scared!” and fired back. Mitch stared for a moment, then artistically clutched at his belly and flipped back over the cantle of his saddle, landing on his side in the dirt. 

Martin stared at Joe, then at Mitch lying still on the ground, and then back at Joe as the smoke from the gunfire rose around his head. Joe glanced at Mitch and confirmed that he had been able to rupture the small bladder of chicken blood against his shirt. That had been the part he had worried about when Mitch’s gun went off-would Mitch have the presence of mind to carry on with the “shootout?” But Mitch had kept his head, and it looked all too real. 

Joe leaned forward and stared down at Mitch with what he hoped was a killer-like scowl. He had to look away and bite his lip to prevent the laughter that sprang up at the expression on Martin’s face-like that of a rat just before a snake devoured it. And suddenly, Joe thought of a better way to end the little play.

“Course I’m gonna have ta say you did it.” Joe spoke in a flat tone, not entirely sure of his voice, but he was rewarded when Martin shuddered. 

“Once people find out it was you that made Mitch look bad at the dance, won’t take much more convincin’ that you two had a fight. And you been talkin’ all over town about what a great shot you are….”

Martin opened his mouth, but only made a garbled sound. Joe glanced his way but had to bite his lip again.

“They’ll believe me when I tell ’em what happened,” Joe said, opening his eyes wide and assuming the innocent expression that had gotten him out of trouble with teachers in the past. No one who knew Joe well would have been fooled, but Martin was horrified at the angelic expression on Joe’s face as he wiped the barrel of his pistol against his sleeve.

With a strangled cry, Martin turned his horse, laying his heels into its sides with all his strength. By the time Joe grabbed the reins of Mitch’s horse and turned, there was no sign of Martin other than a small cloud of dust settling on the road.

Joe dismounted, and found Mitch standing behind him, brushing at the dirt that clung to the wet, red spot on the front of his shirt. The two boys grinned at each other, and Joe collapsed back against his horse, laughing. 

“Did you see his face?” Joe said. “He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker!”

“I near believed ya myself, Joe Cartwright!” Mitch was clutching his stomach as he leaned against his patient horse. ” ‘I’m gonna say you did it.’ Ya shoulda warned me! I near busted a gut keepin’ still on that one!”

Joe was quite proud of his improvisation, but tried to remain modest. “Yeah, it just come to me to blame him for all this…he must feel awful guilty if he thinks they’ll believe any of that story.”

The two boys laughed harder, and Mitch sank to the ground in his mirth. After few minutes, Joe spoke.

“We’d better clean you up and get to the line shack like nothin’ happened. We’ve got to be where we’re s’posed to be, doin’ our chores, not knowin’ anything about what might have happened to Martin. With any luck at all, he and his nerves will be on the next stage back east.”

Mitch nodded as Joe pulled him to his feet. “Good thing I brought a spare shirt with me.”

**********

Adam and Hoss were both in the barn when Martin rode his sweating horse into the yard. His shouts were incoherent, but his alarm was unmistakable.

“Wasn’t Martin with Joe this afternoon?” Adam asked.

“Yessir, he was,” Hoss answered, and they ran out into the yard.

“Erik!” Martin shouted as he caught sight of Hoss. “Your brother has killed the Devlin boy! Shot him down in cold blood, and he will be trying to blame it all on me!”

“What! What the Sam Hill are you talkin’ about, Martin?” Hoss said, catching the horse’s bridle.

“That evil murderer, that little brother of yours, killed the Devlin boy, right in front of my eyes!”

Adam grabbed Martin’s arm. “Slow down, and tell us what you think you saw.”

“Of course, I might have guessed that you would doubt my word,” Martin said, but Adam brushed the comment aside.

“Just tell us what happened.”

“I was nearly killed, that’s what happened! Those two boys had a gunfight, with me in between them! Your brother shot the Devlin boy, knocked him right off his horse! Then he said, cold as ice, that he would blame the killing on me!”

Hoss looked puzzled. “Are you sayin’ Little Joe and Mitch Devlin had a shootout? That can’t be right! They’ve been best friends since they could walk. Besides, those boys ain’t allowed to handle sidearms!”

Adam helped Martin off his horse. “Tell us again. With as much detail as you can remember.”

By the time Martin had told the story a third time, Hoss remembered his discussion about blanks with Joe, and he was pretty sure he knew what his brother had done. When Martin spoke about “murderers in our midst” and stated he would be leaving the Ponderosa on the next stage, Adam was pretty sure he knew why his brother had done it. He waited until Martin had fled into the house, and then he told Hoss what he suspected.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other for a long moment, lost in admiration for Joe’s ingenuity. 

“Well, looks like his plan worked,” Hoss finally said.

They burst into laughter.

“I can’t believe that little cuss! That explains what he was workin’ on in the barn so late the other night,” Hoss said, wiping his eyes. Suddenly he sobered. “He or Mitch coulda been hurt, makin’ those blank shells, or shootin’ at each other. What if they hadn’t a done it right?”

Adam’s grin faded. “It was a very dangerous thing to do. Not to mention the fact that he snuck out of the house with guns and ammunition.”

“Well, Pa’ll have the hide off him for this one, for sure.”

“I’m sure he thought of that. He must’ve decided it was better to be on the receiving end of Pa’s belt than put up with Martin for the rest of the summer.” Adam idly ran his hand down the horse’s neck. “I didn’t realize he was that desperate.”

“Martin has gotten him into trouble a good bit. Pa seems to be bothered by things Joe does that never bothered him before Martin was around for comparison. I guess he figured he had nothin’ to lose.” Hoss looked toward the house. “I can’t say as I blame him for wantin’ Martin to go home. That Martin is about the most selfish, useless critter that ever lived. He’s so jealous of Joe, he can’t see straight.”

Adam considered Hoss’s insight. “Well, undoubtedly Joe had provocation, but he’s got to be taught a lesson for this. It was a very dangerous thing to have done!”

“If he thought it through like you said, he knows what to expect, and it won’t make no difference if Pa tans him. He won’t learn nothin’ from a tannin’.”

Two more horses entered the yard, interrupting their discussion.

“Howdy, there, Hoss, Adam!” Roy Coffee called. 

“What brings you out this way, Roy?” Adam held out his hand in welcome.

“Got official business toward Carson, and I thought I’d bring my new man around to meet ya. This here’s Josh Simon, my new deputy.” The serious young man beside Sheriff Coffee touched the brim of his hat. 

“Official business, huh?” Hoss said. “Can you light down?”

“Well, I s’pose we can sit for a spell. We just got some warrants to execute. Just wanted to show Josh around the area, meet some folks.”

“Adam?” Hoss looked back at his brother as the rest of them headed for the porch. “You comin’?”

“Hmm? Oh yeah.” Adam tied Martin’s horse to the hitch rail. “Roy, I was wondering if you and your deputy would like to do us a favor.”

“Well, I will if I can, Adam, you know that,” Roy said.

“It has to do with a prank Joe pulled….”

**********

Joe and Mitch sat by the trail with the lunch Hop Sing had sent spread out between them.

“How bad do ya think it’ll be?” Mitch asked.

“Bad,” Joe said, dropping the untouched sandwich. “I took guns and shells I ain’t allowed to touch, and shot a gun after aimin’ it right at you! Adam drummed it into my head ever since I shot my first bird gun never to aim a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. Not to mention gougin’ the bullets out of the shells and turnin’ ’em into blanks. There’s gotta be somethin’ wrong with me doin’ that.”

“Once we ride in, everyone will know we tricked him.”

“Adam and Hoss will know it’s a prank as soon as he opens his mouth. He’ll have told them by now.” The resigned look on Joe’s face made Mitch bite back any further comments.

Joe continued. “Once everyone sees you’re okay, you’d better head on home. Pa’ll likely tell your pa, but I’ll make sure they know it was my idea, and that I got the guns and made the blanks.”

“Thanks Joe, but I went along with it, so I’ll take my medicine. ‘Sides, I don’t know as I’ve seen a better executed prank.” Mitch grinned at his friend.

Joe smiled back. “It was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

Their grins held more than a hint of pride.

**********

Mitch and Joe met Roy Coffee and his new deputy on the road home.

“Joe Cartwright! Hold it right there!”

“Hey there, Sheriff Coffee!”

“Just hold it right there, Joe!” Roy repeated. Joe pulled up his horse obediently.

“Joe Cartwright, Mitch Devlin, I have warrants for your arrest for the attempted murder of Martin Lindsay.”

Joe’s jaw dropped. Roy stared at the air above Joe’s head. Even though Roy had promised Hoss a full report on the look on Joe’s face when he said those words, he couldn’t continue to look at Joe without giving something away. 

Josh Simon held up the warrant, along with a set of handcuffs, and stared at the boys with his most menacing stare. Josh was enjoying himself immensely.

Joe swallowed once, twice. He’d seen plenty of warrants in the Sheriff’s office, and the warrants the deputy was holding up looked official. 

“Sheriff, it was just a prank!” Joe said, finally finding his voice, squeaky though it was. “We was just playing a prank on Martin!”

“Yeah, Sheriff,” Mitch said, and his voice wasn’t any steadier. “It wasn’t attempted murder! Nobody was hurt. It was just a prank!”

“Well, Martin Lindsay has filed charges, and I’m afraid I have to take them seriously.”

A sudden set of images ran through Joe’s mind, from coming home in handcuffs to his father’s face as he looked down at him from the gallows. He closed his eyes, but the images stayed with him. 

Roy decided to take pity on him. He was all for learning a lesson, but the poor kid was positively white with fear.

“I didn’t count on running into you boys so soon. We’ve got business in Carson.” Roy paused. “As a favor to your fathers, I’m willing to wait a day or two. Can I trust you two to head on home and wait for me? You can consider yourself under house arrest. I’ll pick you up on my way back. That way, you’ll have a chance to square it with your folks before I take you in.” 

The sheer relief on Joe’s face made Roy feel guilty. Only his promise to Adam kept him from giving the boy a hint.

**********

Numbly, Joe and Mitch watched the sheriff and his deputy continue on the road, before they turned reluctantly back to their own fate. Joe’s sluggish brain could only think of how he would have to face his family with the news that he would be going to jail.

“Wait a minute.” Joe stopped his horse.

Mitch continued on the road. “My father’s going to kill me! He’s going to chew me up and spit me out! You are talkin’ to a dead man!”

“No, wait. Something isn’t right.”

“I wish you really had killed me-it would have been a lot quicker than what my father is going to do when I’m arrested!” Mitch realized that Joe wasn’t next to him and looked back. “What’s not right?”

“Why would he arrest us for attempted murder?”

“Maybe ’cause shootin’ at someone is considered attempted murder, and we shot at someone!”

“No, I mean why would he have warrants to arrest us for attemptin’ to murder Martin and not for me murderin’ you? How did he know it was a fake? As far as Martin knows, you’re dead, or at least shot. We haven’t seen anybody since Martin took off. If he found out what happened from Martin, why didn’t he act surprised when he saw you? And how did he get warrants so fast? It takes days to get them warrants, sometimes. It’s only been a coupla-three hours since Martin ran away. He wouldn’t have had time to go to town and swear out a warrant. They looked real, but he didn’t let us read ’em, did he?” 

Mitch had no answers to these questions, so he waited.

“Adam!” Joe whispered.

“What?” Mitch asked.

“Adam!” Joe repeated. “He and Hoss woulda known it was a prank as soon as they heard Martin’s story. But warrants for our arrest-that’s Adam, trying to teach us a lesson. It’s got Adam written all over it-he might as well have signed the warrants himself!”

Mitch thought about it, and began to smile. “Sure. He’s tryin’ to show us the error of our ways in a way that we won’t ever forget. That does sound like your brother.”

Joe was staring off toward home, anger tightening his jaw. Again, Mitch waited. Finally, Joe turned towards Mitch.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do.”

**********

Adam sat alone on the porch, idly strumming his guitar. Hoss was at the corral, but within earshot-they both wanted to enjoy the moment when Joe came in to “give himself up.”

Mitch raced into the yard, and reined his horse dramatically, as Joe had suggested, so that the bay pony reared as he was brought to a halt. Nothin’ like a rearin’ horse to grab someone’s attention, Joe had said. Judging from the way Adam jumped out of his chair and Hoss came running from the corral, Joe was right.

“Adam!” Mitch shouted before Adam or Hoss could say anything-another of Joe’s suggestions. Seeing the effect his entrance was having, Mitch spun his usually docile horse around. 

“Adam! Hoss! Joe’s been shot!”

“What!” Adam leaped towards Mitch. Hoss grabbed at his horse’s reins. Mitch quickly wiped his hand across his eyes, further rubbing the horse liniment into his lower lids. The irritant forced him to blink and his eyes began to tear. They had argued about the necessity of sneaking into the tack room to get the liniment. It was a good thing Joe suggested this, too, Mitch thought, or I’d never be able to keep a straight face.

Adam grabbed Mitch by the shirt and hauled him off his horse. Hoss gripped Mitch’s arm.

“What are you saying?”

Hanging in Adam’s convulsive grip, Mitch didn’t have to fake his stammer.

“The dep-deputy shot Joe! He and Sheriff Coffey came to ta-take us in for attemptin’ to murder Martin! They was gonna put us in jail for shootin’ at him! We tr-tried to tell ’em it was just a prank, to scare that troublemaker Martin!” Mitch paused to wipe dramatically at his eyes once more. “The deputy said we was under arrest! Joe didn’t want his Pa to know about the guns or goin’ to jail. He said Roy would never shoot at us for a prank, so we tried to run, but that new deputy, he did shoot at us, and Joe was hit-I think he’s dead!”

Joe had insisted Mitch say “dead,” but when Mitch saw Adam’s pale face and the tears in Hoss’s eyes, the prank didn’t seem so funny anymore. Adam closed his eyes and released Mitch, who dropped to his knees on the ground.

“We done this, Adam!” Hoss said. “We done this to Joe!”

“It had to be an accident! They were never supposed to shoot at the boys!” Adam’s voice broke. He looked down at Mitch, who was still on his knees next to his horse. “Tell me where he is!” Adam said in a strangled voice, clenching and unclenching his fists.

“In the draw near the Cedar Creek line shack. “

“We gotta go get him, Adam!” Hoss said. “He could be all right-hurt maybe, but surely Little Joe ain’t dead!”

Adam took a shaky step towards the barn, then paused. Something wasn’t right. 

The deputy was a new man, but he had agreed to the plan to scare the boys as readily as Roy. Surely he wouldn’t have shot at two boys, especially knowing ahead of time it was all a hoax? He looked back at Mitch. The boy had his head down, and he was sniffing and wiping his sleeve across his eyes-something in the way he did it, and that distinctive, pungent odor-Adam remembered that from somewhere, something that Joe had done. The teary eyes, that same gesture, the same smell-Joe had looked and smelled just like that when Hoss had rubbed horse liniment on Joe’s nose when they were cleaning the tack room. Adam felt a shudder of relief, followed by the searing heat of extreme anger. He turned back to Mitch.

“You had better think carefully about your answer, Mitch,” Adam said, his low voice steel-hard. His tone snapped Mitch’s head up. “Where is that lying, prank-pulling brother of mine?”

Mitch folded like a badly balanced house of cards. “How’d you know?” he whispered.

“Never mind that! Where is he?” 

Mitch’s eyes glanced to the side of the barn. Adam rounded sharply, in time to see the back of a blue jacket dart around the barn’s corner. Adam started after him, but Mitch grabbed his arm. Hoss ran after his little brother with a bellow of relieved rage.

“Adam, wait!” Adam tried to shake Mitch off, but Mitch clung like a burr, putting all his weight into holding Adam back. Adam was the more dangerous of Joe’s brothers, and Mitch knew it was better to let Hoss catch Joe than let Adam near him, as furious as he was.

“Let go!” 

“Wait, Adam, please. We only done it ’cause you scared us so bad, sending the sheriff out to arrest us!”

“Let go! When I get my hands on that little-“

“He was just fed up with everyone thinkin’ bad of him all the time! ‘Sides, he knew we probably couldn’t fool you for long-that’s why he followed me in. He wanted to see if we could fool you as good as you fooled us.”

Mitch hoped the indirect flattery would work, and it did, to some extent. Adam stopped pulling against Mitch, and both of them heard Joe’s voice from behind the barn, hollering to be turned loose. Adam turned to Mitch.

“You’re in trouble, too, young man!” 

“I know,” Mitch said. “But no more trouble than before I rode in.” Adam rolled his eyes at this Joe-like answer. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was the cheekier-Joe or Mitch.

“Come on,” Adam said, pulling Mitch to his feet, suddenly not so angry anymore. “We’d better stop Hoss from turning Joe inside out. Then we’re going to see what your pa has to say about all this.”

**********

By the time Joe and Mitch had pulled themselves up from the water of the horse trough for the second time, Martin reappeared on the porch. Hop Sing followed behind him, carrying as much of Martin’s luggage as he could and trying not to grin at the three brothers.

Martin posed, haughtily impeccable, dressed in his traveling clothes. He looked at the two older Cartwright brothers, and then caught sight of Mitch and Joe as they stood knee-deep, dripping and shivering in the water trough. Martin’s chest heaved; his mouth quivered, and a gobbling sound came from his throat. Fascinated, Mitch and Joe stared back. 

“You, you-” Was all Martin seemed to be able to say.

“Good news, Martin!” Adam said from his perch on the hitching rail. “Mitch isn’t dead! Joe isn’t an evil murderer after all!”

Hoss guffawed, pushed both Joe and Mitch back down into the trough, and headed to the barn to hitch up the buggy to take Martin to the stage.

**********

Taking Adam’s advice, Joe waited on the front porch for his father to return from town. He had put on dry clothing, but his hair was still wet, and he twisted a towel between his hands as he waited.

He had squared everything with his big brothers, he thought, although with Adam it was hard to tell. 

He’d endured Adam’s shouted lecture, recognizing it for what it was-release of the fear that his brother had felt for those few moments when after Mitch arrived at the house. Joe regretted having Mitch say he was dead, but the “shootout” had gotten rid of Martin, and he felt justified in what he had done-although he would never say that to anyone but Mitch. 

Joe remembered fear, too; Adam wanted him to remember it. Hoss had confided that Adam admired his little brother’s cleverness in countering his “lesson.” He was also very sure that Adam would never say that to anyone but Hoss.

Hoss had taken Martin to town; he was the only Cartwright brother that Martin would tolerate near him. Adam had escorted Mitch home after Mitch had changed into a set of Joe’s dry clothes. Hoss, seeing Joe’s downcast face after Adam’s harsh words, whispered in his ear that he would try to speak to Pa while he was in town. Joe was grateful to Hoss, but no matter what Hoss said, their father was going to be very angry with his youngest son. 

He wondered what Martin would tell his father. Ben had seemed to admire the Easterner’s manners and polish; why wouldn’t he believe every word he said? Even so, Joe smiled when he remembered the look on Martin’s face as he confronted Joe “The Evil Murderer.” 

A new word Adam had taught him during his lessons this summer tumbled around his mind. Craven, that was it. Adam had laughed at Joe’s attempt at a definition. 

“Not a bird, Joe. Craven! It means weak, cowardly, fearful.”

If ever a man seemed craven, it was Martin Lindsay. Pa couldn’t really want me to be like Martin, could he? Joe wondered. Adam didn’t think so, but Pa had been so disappointed and angry with him lately….

The sound of the buggy and Hoss’s cheerful voice stopped any further thoughts. Ben rode into the yard on horseback beside the buggy, his expression solemn. Joe stood slowly, and squared his shoulders. Hoss grinned at him and winked, to signal that he had tried to smooth the way with Pa, but Joe didn’t feel any better. He just hoped he didn’t make things worse by crying like a baby. Hoss took the reins of Ben’s horse, turned the buggy and headed toward the barn.

Ben stood and looked at his youngest son for a long moment. I haven’t handled this well, he thought. His chest had constricted in fear when Hoss described Joe’s “shootout.” Although Hoss had made light of the chances Joe had taken, he knew just how dangerous the prank had been. He had realized that Joe was struggling to deal with their guest. But for Joe and Mitch to point guns at each other….

“Joseph,” he said, “come here.”

Joe walked over to his father, eyes on the ground.

“Pa, before you say anything, I want to tell you that I know what I done was wrong,” Joe began.

“I am very sure you do,” Ben replied.

“And I’m ready to take whatever punishment you see fit to give me, ” Joe continued. He wanted to get through his speech before he lost his nerve. “But I want you to know why I did it.”

“Let’s sit down, son,” Ben said, and led the way to the porch chairs.

“I know that it’s wrong to treat a guest the way I treated Martin,” Joe continued, standing his ground. “But he had it comin’. He’s been lyin’ to you all along, and he’s been causin’ trouble ever since he got here. I know you took him at his word, Pa, but-“

“I know he’s been lying, son,” Ben said quietly. “I’ve known it all along.”

Joe’s carefully rehearsed speech dried up in his mouth.

“Come and sit down, Joe,” Ben said. Joe sat on the porch step, near his father’s knees.

“Martin grew up an indulged only child, living with his mother while his father traveled the world for the export business,” Ben said. “He learned that he could use his childhood ailments to get the attention he wanted, or avoid doing anything he didn’t want to do. His mother found it easier to let him have his own way than disrupt the household with arguments. 

“His father asked me to help the boy, to try to get him to think of someone other than himself. That’s why I wanted him to spend so much time with you, Joe. I know the two of you don’t have much in common. Even though you sometimes get into trouble yourself, you’ve always tried to do what is right. You’re a hard worker, too, when you put your mind to something, and you have a good heart. That’s what I wanted Martin to see.”

Joe stared at his father in dumbfounded surprise. 

“Martin’s got excellent manners and polish,” Ben continued. “I praised those manners, because I thought he needed to hear something positive about himself. His character is pretty fragile-likely to crumble at the least criticism-or so his father told me. Turns out, his father doesn’t know him very well at all. The only thing fragile about him is his moral judgment. A more self-centered, lazy, good-for-nothing boy I have yet to meet. But I promised his father I would try.

“I realized as soon as I met him, I could not treat him like one of my sons-it wouldn’t have been fair to expect him to live up to standards he’d never been exposed to before. I thought if I eased him into ranch life, he would learn what was expected of him. That was my mistake. I shouldn’t have let him set the pace. I left it up to you boys to set a good example, and you did. Trouble is, he wasn’t capable of seeing the value of that example. Martin’s biggest problem wasn’t recognizing how he was expected to act. His problem was he knew he couldn’t live up to your example. It was easier to make you look bad than risk looking bad himself.

“I talked to Martin in town. You scared him pretty thoroughly, Joseph.” Ben paused. “He’s also ashamed that he fell for your prank.”

Joe smiled a little at this, but the smile disappeared at his father’s next words.

“You scared your brothers, too, Joseph,” Ben added quietly. 

Joe hung his head.

“Adam and me, well, we made each other mad, and I guess we got a little carried away, tryin’ to outsmart each other.”

Ben took in a deep breath, and Joe bowed to the inevitable. “No matter how provoked you were you had no business sneaking around with a sidearm! My blood runs cold at the idea of you altering those shells! You might have been killed or injured! And have you thought about how you would have felt if you had killed your best friend?”

“I know it was wrong, sir,” Joe’s face was flushed. “And I’m real sorry. But Pa, Mitch was safe-I told him to shoot first! That way, if the shells didn’t work it would be me that got hurt, not him! Besides, we tried ’em out before we shot at each other.” 

Ben closed his eyes at logic of a foolhardy fourteen-year-old. Joe could see his father’s jaw clench and he heard him counting under his breath.

“You’d better head up to your room,” Ben said in a low voice. “I will decide on your punishment when I am not so very angry! And punished you will be, have no doubts about that!”

Joe headed toward the front door. Risking further reaction from his father, he turned back.

“Pa, what about Martin?”

“What about him?”

“Is he-I mean, where is he?”

“You mean was your little prank successful?” 

Joe nodded, sorry he hadn’t gone straight to his room. Pa sure had a funny look on his face.

“I think I would call it successful,” Ben continued, with that gleam in his eye. “And since we are considering your punishment, I am going to let part of the punishment fit the crime. Martin will be back shortly, as soon as he and his father purchase a few things in town.”

“His father?” Joe croaked.

“Yes, I wired him after you and Martin returned from the branding camp that night. I realized then that Martin’s sense of what the world owes him, and his jealousy of you, were getting worse. His father was…concerned, at my report. At my suggestion, he agreed to come and spend some time with his son. They will both be our guests for as long as they care to stay. Part of your punishment, Joseph, will be that you will put yourself at Mr. Lindsay’s disposal-as will Martin-as he reacquaints himself with Martin and ranch life.”

Looking at the expression on his son’s face, Ben felt for a moment-just a moment-that he had recouped part of the debt of fear his son had caused with his latest prank. With no further words, he pointed toward the front door. Joe turned to enter the house.

“And Joseph?”

“Yes, sir?”

“I never wished you were like Martin, son. I might not always like your choices, but I don’t want you to change or be anyone other than who you are.”

Joe straightened slightly, as if the weight he carried was suddenly lighter. His mouth curved slightly.

“I’m glad, Pa. I don’t think I could ever be much like Martin, even if I tried.”

As Joe closed the front door behind him, Ben murmured, “Thank God.”

The End

January 2006

Author’s note: The prank that Joe and Mitch pull on Martin, Adam’s counter-prank, and Joe’s counter-counter-prank were based on true incident described in No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland.

 

Next Story in The Easterner, Tenderfoot, Westerner Series:

The Tenderfoot

The Westerner

6 thoughts on “The Easterner – Part 1 of a Series – Easterner, Tenderfoot, Westerner (by Harper)”

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