How Simple Can You Get? (by Laura Brodie)

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Summary:  A comedy with Hoss and Joe showing just how risky it is to team up together to get a reward. Getting rich was never supposed to be simple!

 Rated: K (9,780 words)

How Simple Can You Get?

Little Joe Cartwright leaned against the mercantile building waiting for his brother, Hoss, to finish lusting after the various sweetening the store had to offer. The youngest Cartwright had wanted to grab a beer and check out the latest saloon girl, but had agreed to wait for his brother. He was regretting that decision as Hoss lingered, gazing longingly at the desired confections that made his mouth water and his stomach growl.

“Will you please come on?! They ain’t gonna talk to ya and ya got enough already to feed every hand on the Ponderosa!”  

Hoss stood tongue out, wringing his hands over the desired candies, but knew he had spent all the money he could afford. He had needed his saddle re-stitched and it had cost him to do it. He would have to hold off and pray he had purchased enough of the sugary treat to hold him until his next trip to town. Eventually allowing his body to leave the store, Hoss vowed he would return as soon as his dwindled savings were restored. He only hoped Mrs. Phillips, the creator of his beloved treats, stayed healthy and free from harm.

Joe pushed off the building with his shoulder, as he placed his hand on the back of his downtrodden brother. “S’okay, Hoss. You’ll be back soon. I’m sure they’ll miss you, too.”

The two Cartwright brothers made their way down the street, eventually ending in front of Joe’s most coveted establishment. As the saloon doors opened, Joe fell into character. He was no longer the youngest, the little brother of the Cartwright clan. He was Joe Cartwright, handsome cowboy and man about town. Joe added more of a swagger to his walk as he moved. He pushed his hat back, just far enough to where he thought it looked best. Arriving at the bar, he propped one foot on the brass railing and leaned in on one elbow. He was in his element. He knew it and he wanted the saloon girls to know it, too.

As Joe ordered a beer, Hoss moved in beside him, counting the few coins that remained in his pocket. “Uh, Joe? Can you help me out? I seem to be comin’ up a might short an’ I’m powerful thirsty. You spare some money?”

Joe rolled his eyes at Hoss. He had hoped his brother had saved a few dollars, so he could bum some for a hand or two of poker. “Leave it to you to throw your money away,” Joe chastised, as he ordered up a beer for his big brother and then settled back to look at the girls.

Alfonso Contracarda de la Conception and Delbert Delahoussay, known as Al and Double Del respectively, sat glaring at the two figures standing so casually at the bar. The two Cartwrights had bested them in every challenge, tournament, competition and sporting event to be found in Virginia City and the two friends were tired of looking like fools.

There they stand, our archenemies, the thieves of glory, Double Del thought. He and his sidekick sat wondering when it would be they would finally champion the two low-down, conniving Cartwrights.

The peace of the Cartwright boys’ respite was disturbed when a small, elderly man sidled up to the bar. He was out of breath and gasping and it took a while for him to settle. After he had calmed, he spoke quietly, not wanting to give his news away to the entire saloon. As the man leaned in to the young men standing at the bar, their eyes became trained on him. “Have ya heard, young fellas? The Royal Prince of Arabie lost his most prized gen-u-ine Arabie stallion near here. Seems the horse broke loose from ‘im. They say five grow’d men tried ta hold it, but that dang fool horse wound up hurtin’ one poor fella, knockin’ ‘im in the head. They say it’s got hooves that move like swords, it does! The Prince’s offerin’ a re-ward of $200 to the fella who rounds up that stallion. Sounds ta me there’s money t’be made. I plan on gettin’ me that there money. I can find me one horse. Don’t reckon on many others willin’ to track one miserable beast, not when life an’ limb are at stake. But me…I lived a full life…and plan on drinkin’ me to my death. That stallion’s gonna get me there…$200 cash money…for a horse!”

Joe and Hoss looked at each other. Both had a thought…rounding up a horse? We do that all the time. How simple can you get? Joe’s thoughts then turned to the money. He could use some to play poker. And Hoss? His thoughts were of sweetening – miles and miles of yummy candy.

*********

“A HORSE!” Ben Cartwright’s voice boomed. “You two’re tellin’ me you want time away from your duties here to chase a horse?! What? We don’t have enough of ‘em here for the two of you – or are ours not good enough?!”

As both sons sank further on the couch, Joe mumbled, “None worth $200 pay.”

Ben’s head jerked to his youngest. “Oh, so now you are gonna complain about pay, are you?”

“N-n-no, Pa. Just talkin’ ‘bout the reward. Hoss an’ I’ve finished the list of chores you gave us to do and we did ‘em just the way you like. We sure did. You’d be proud.” Joe gave his best award-winning smile and wink to his father, hoping to soften the man’s mood.

“I don’t see why you two have to go runnin’ round the countryside looking for work! We have thousands of acres for you to find plenty to do on, but you both seem to find work elsewhere.”

“Well…that ain’t quite true, Pa,” Hoss piped up. “That stallion’s probably on our land and all we need’s a bunch a yahoos comin’ in and scarin’ the herd and tramplin’ the rye grass. Joe an’ me, well, we’ll help the ranch out by roundin’ up this horse right quick and makin’ sure we don’t end up with cattle spread from here to Carson City.”

Joe smiled at his brother and shook his head in agreement. Hoss’s right! That’s a terrific argument! Boy, Hoss, I’m teachin’ ya right. I’m proud of ya, brother! Joe thought, his expression offering support.

“You two are going to protect the Ponderosa?” Adam chimed in. He had been sitting back listening to his brothers’ latest scheme, becoming amused at the justifications they tried to pass by their father. “Now I’ve heard everything.”

Joe and Hoss scowled. They didn’t need their elder brother’s two cents added to cloud the waters. A command of “Stay out of it!” was heard from both, as they attempted to cut Pa from the herd and tire him down. Adam merely shook his head and covered his grin with his hand.

Ben eyed his two youngest boys. “Hoss, I’m so pleased you’re concerned about the ranch and the well-being of our cattle. I know I can rest assured that money has nothing to do with that concern…And Joseph, your payment for hard work is a glad heart, son. I know you know that. You boys don’t need to go chasing Arabian stallions. We have plenty of stallions here to occupy your time.”

“But, Pa…” Joe attempted to interject.

“No, Joseph, you both are needed here. End of discussion.” Ben had been standing in front of the fireplace, towering over his sons. With this final proclamation, he moved to his chair, pulled out his pipe and opened the Press Enterprise. He said quietly before turning his attention to the paper, “Arabie stallion, indeed.”

Joe motioned with his head for Hoss to join him upstairs. As the two left the room, Ben and Adam looked first to their retreating figures and then to each other. Ben shook his head at his eldest, as Adam chuckled. However, the eldest brother was not about to miss out on what Joe and Hoss were cooking up. He waited until his brothers were securely in Joe’s room and then followed safely behind. He had to hear the logic the two would use to try and outfox their father. It was certain to be good for a laugh or two!

*****

Once in Joe’s room, Hoss and his little brother began a discussion as to how they could get their work done on the ranch and still be able to hunt down their treasure. While Hoss sat on the bed, his head in his hands, Joe paced the room. The youngest Cartwright thought he could figure it out if he only had a few minutes to think. Think, come on, there is a way around this, he told himself. The movements back and forth across the floor allowed his mind to focus. He had often outthought his Pa before…well, sometimes he had…okay, it usually didn’t work, but he knew this time he could develop the right plan to allow Pa to stay blissfully unaware and for him and Hoss to get that $200.

As Joe paced, Hoss contemplated his own question. When he couldn’t figure it out he decided to ask his worldlier brother. “Uh…Joe, can I ask you a question?”

“I’m trying to think here…what is it?”

“What exactly is an Arabie stallion? Now I know the kinda horse we have here in Nevada, and some from Arizona and even Kentucky, but Arabie? What is that?”

“Well, you know, Hoss, Arabie…like from Arabia.”

“I got that part, Joe. But is it different than our horses? Do we do anything special to catch it?”

“Well, uh…yeah…they’re big horses, gotta be ‘cause they have them princes to carry around with all ‘em robes an’ gold an’ stuff. They’re big ol’ sturdy things that can go days and days without water. You know – it’s desert there an’ all.”

“So holdin’ up at a water hole ain’t too smart of us then?”

“Not our first option, no…This horse’ll be hard to catch, Hoss. I feel it. You know, it’s a royal breed…hmm…royal and smart…an’ Pa’s a clever man…Very clever…What to do, Hoss? What to do…? I think we show a façade, Hoss. That’s it…a façade!” Joe snapped his finger at the realization of solving his problem. “We say we’re doin’ one thing…and underneath…we’re doin’ another! Like them buildings they’re always tryin’ to make look bigger…We’ll give a different picture to Pa! He’ll see one thing and we’ll be doin’ another! Oh, this is brilliant! An incredible plan! We make it seem we’re doin’ for Pa…you know, doin’ our chores…We get our stuff done round here, Pa has no idea what we’re up to, and we get money in our pockets to boot!”

“I don’t really get the plan, Joe. Could ya tell me ‘gain?”

Joe placed his arm around Hoss’s shoulders as he sat next to him on the bed. “Hoss, have I ever steered ya wrong? Have I?”

“Uh…” Hoss scrunched up his face in concern. “Well, not really wrong, Joe. But you’ve gotten us in some trouble with Pa.”

“Nah! Not me, Hoss…circumstance…just circumstance. This plan’s foolproof. Now…if we just control…circumstance.” Joe sat next to his brother while he played out the capture of the stallion in his head. Hoss sat as well, trusting Joe to iron out the details. He gave a few hesitant looks to his little brother, but had to admit he was glad it was not his burden to figure out the complexities. He’d like the extra money and it seemed Joe had a knack for creating it from nothing. He decided he’d go along with the plan. It was only a horse. After all, it was what they did every day.

Adam stood outside Joe’s door, trying not to burst out laughing as he heard Joe’s description of an Arabian horse. Here it was again, Joe’s grand scheme to make a quick buck – and Hoss’s willingness to fall right off the cliff with his little brother. It’s truly scary to think of the trouble those two can generate simply by talking to each other, Adam thought to himself. Joe sure was good at the con – and if he continued on the same path he’d be great at it…all he needed was better cons around to teach him. Oh, now that was a truly scary thought!

*****

The only thought that persuaded Joe to leave his warm bed was the money. Two hundred dollars cash money to be specific – and capturing one four-legged creature would give him half of it. One hundred poker playin’, drink buyin’, woman wooin’ dollars! He already had what was needed – a lariat and skill – so his expenses were nil. He was certain they would track the horse and capture it easily. Did he dare think they could complete the task that day and be richer by sundown? Sure…nothing to it, he said to himself and forced his body to leave the warm blankets.

Joe made his way down the stairs still tucking in his shirt, his boots in his hand. The great room was dark as he called out in a whisper, “Hoss? Hoss, you here?” The touch on his shoulder made him jump and release a small scream.

Hoss was quick to put his hand over Joe’s mouth. “Ssshhh! Hush, Joe! You’re gonna wake the house!”

Joe attempted to mumble something through the hand over his mouth, but only muffled words were heard.

“What?” Hoss questioned, no idea what his brother had said.

Joe glared as he pointed to the hand that covered his mouth. His older brother gave a sheepish look and Joe slapped the hand and scowled as it was removed. “You scared me, you idiot! Don’t do that! Are you ready to go?”

“Yep. Got some grub and my gear.”

Joe looked disgusted at his brother, but shook his head and moved to the door. He thought, This is what I have to work with! Get centered, Hoss! Would you please focus?!

The air was fall crisp and it was evident winter was threatening to intercede. The two rode in relative quiet to the fences they were assigned to mend. Joe finally shared with Hoss his reasoning of why he felt they might just conveniently be in the right area to spot the rogue horse. “Hoss, here’s my thinkin’. If you were a foreigner in town, where would you go?”

“Uh…maybe the hotel or uh…how ‘bout the rest’rant or a saloon?” Hoss said as he scrunched up his face in thought and scratched his head.

Joe shook his head. “I’m sittin’ here thinkin’ like this horse…See, ya gotta get in his head…I think I’d go and check out the local females if I was him…And I do believe we’re headed right at ‘em.” Joe was speaking of the local herd of wild horses that ran the Ponderosa. “Think of it, Hoss, an Arabie prince has his harem of women…so an Arabie stallion might just attempt to cut in on the local stallion’s harem. It’s what I’d do if I was him.”

“You know, Joe, you just might be right! Hot diggity, I think you’re on t’somethin’!”

Joe smiled a cocky grin. It was like taking candy from a baby. “We’ll work fence a while and then take a look around. We need to get somethin’ done ‘fore we go for him so Pa don’t suspect. The façade, Hoss, the façade; never forget the plan.” Hoss gave his brother a serious look of concern. He didn’t really get the plan, but he was sure Joe had got it and that was all that really mattered.

The two men settled in and began the arduous, never-ending task of repairing the boundaries that separated the herd from peril and Cartwright land from others’. They worked without stopping until midmorning and were about to call it a break when a man on a horse approached. It was the same elderly man who had been in the saloon the previous day and, as he rode up, Joe and Hoss remembered him.

“Howdy,” the man greeted them.

“Hey,” Hoss and Joe chimed in together.

“Hee, hee. That stallion’s near, I tell ya…found me some signs.” The old-timer smiled a gap-toothed grin.

“Signs? What kinda signs?” Joe perked up, interested in anything that could give a clue to the horse’s whereabouts.

“Well, I can’t go givin’ ‘way my secrets now can I? Let’s just say there’s some tellin’ signs…That horse had him some riggin’…Arabie riggin’ for sure – fancy and got all ‘em do-dads, you know. Got me some signs, I do. All I need ta track me one mean ol’ ornery critter. See ya, boys…and don’t you be workin’ too hard now, ya hear? Ya might put yourselves in an early grave.” The elderly man gave a laugh and was then away. His face held a certain worry, though, if you looked real close. Had he said too much and was his treasure now at risk?

Watching the man ride away, both Cartwrights felt the need to follow. Joe eventually looked at Hoss, who was looking at him. “Signs?” both said in unison. That meant the stallion was still nearby, maybe? Both dropped the fencing where it was and mounted up, willing to leave Pa’s firm directive for the promise of money. After all, the old-timer said the stallion was near and they could grab it and be back in no time.

*****

Hoss and Joe scoured the land for several hours as they searched for the Arabian’s hoof prints. They found signs of the old man’s horse, but no stallion. However, neither was quite sure what the hoof prints of a desert horse would look like when compared to a regular horse. Joe simply assumed they would know them when they saw them and Hoss was content to trust Joe. They were about to give up the search when Joe saw something glimmering in a thicket. Both moved their horses over and dismounted quickly. Joe was the first to the shrubs and, as he reached in, he found a piece of purple silk cloth and, attached to it, a gold buckle. He turned them over in his hands several times before showing them to his brother. The bigger man also studied the clues closely and then smiled. “Purple? Ain’t that royalty colors, Joe?” Hoss inquired.

“I think so. You know, when that king of wherever came through here, he seemed kinda partial to purple. He wore an awful lot of it. I kinda thought it was a bit much, but, he bein’ a king an’ all, well, I guess he can get away with it.”

“It did seem a little overdone. I’m sure, though, him bein’ a king he could do just ‘bout anythin’ he wanted to. Joe, you ever think ‘bout bein’ a king?”

The two stood many minutes musing over the kingdom of Joe and the kingdom of Hoss. Each man discussed his own domain and was very predictable in his choice of pleasures. Joe’s consisted of poker tables, pretty girls and endless amounts of beer. Hoss’s kingdom was one of sugary treats, large multiple course meals and a few animals to nurse to health. Finally the daydreams shared and enjoyed ended, as both realized they needed to get back to work. They allowed themselves to give another quick look around, then mounted up to return to their fencing.

Both rode along feeling excited they had at least found a sign. They felt certain it would be only a short matter of time and the stallion would be on the end of one of their ropes. The festive feelings were quickly doused in cold water as the two rounded the corner to see their father – on foot and looking disheveled. Ben was covered in mud, a swollen area just under his lip and, worst of all, he was glaring at them. “Where in tar-nation have you two ruffians been for the last three hours?!” he yelled.

The booming voice was enough to make both horses and riders jump. “Uh, hey, Pa,” Joe started.

“Don’t you dare ‘hey, Pa’ me! I come out here to check on you two and not only are you not here, there is no fence up! What is the meaning of this?!”

Hoss scrunched up his face and looked at his father. “Uh, Pa…where’s Buck?”

Ben scowled. “Probably most a the way back to the house, thank you very much!”

“Uh, Pa…um…can I, uh…ask what happened? Why’d ya lose Buck?” Joe asked, continuing to deny his father was angry.

“Why did I lose Buck? Why did I lose Buck?! I LOST him because there was no fence! And there was no fence because my sons had not built one yet!”

“Uh…you needed a fence?” Joe asked meekly.

“YES! It helps to stop stampeding cattle!”

“Stampeding cattle?” Hoss asked as he swallowed hard and looked toward Joe, whose fingers were in his mouth as he nervously chewed his thumbnail. Hoss let go a low, “Oh, Lordy.”

“I was out to check on you two and saw a few head…strays. Thought I would get them rounded up. A bee stung me…” Ben unconsciously touched the swollen area under his lip, “and, well…I…yelled…it, uh…spooked the cows. They headed towards the fence…BUT THERE WASN’T ONE!”

Hoss and Joe winced.

“The fence was needed for a reason, boys. Do you know what that reason was?”

“To keep the cows in?” Joe asked as he cowered away from his father.

“To avoid the bog behind it!” Ben spat back.

The picture was becoming clearer for the two brothers – and it wasn’t good!

“The cows and Buck were bogged down. I worked to free them, but they were jumpy and…well…my yelling at Buck didn’t help matters. My horse freed himself and left me in the bog. I finally pulled myself free…had to use the bushes around me, but I made it. No thanks to you two!”

Joe and Hoss both looked ill. This wasn’t good and they knew their father would make them pay. “Uh, Pa, we were…” Joe began.

“I know what you two were doing. I want this fence fixed and I want it done NOW!” Ben commanded. “And while I’m thinking about it, give me your horses.”

“Our horses?” the two asked in unison.

“Yes, I need one to ride and it wouldn’t be fair to choose between you. You seem joined at the hip, anyway, so I will let you both walk back to the ranch.” Ben had thought of his punishment as he had stood waiting for the boys to return to their duties.

“Walk? Walk back home? Pa, that’s a long way!” Joe tried to protest as he dismounted Cochise.

“Yeah, and it will give you time to ponder the error of your ways, after you’ve fixed that fence!” Ben barked as he took the reins of his sons’ horses.

Joe and Hoss could only watch as their father rode out of sight. Hoss couldn’t help but turn and glare at his younger brother. “You’re idea ain’t workin’, Joseph!”

“Oh sure, doubt me now!” Joe rolled his eyes. “You know, you always do this! We run into a little bit of trouble and you’re blamin’ me! Always blamin’ me! If you weren’t my brother I’d say you had problems with loyalty!”

****************************************

Joe and Hoss worked to string the fencing and then started the slow journey back to the ranch house. They had initially been quiet with each other, as their anger at the situation burned. Eventually, however, they reunited in their quest for money and by the time the two reached the big house they were the best of friends once more. As the heavy door opened, a sad sight stopped the brothers in their tracks. Their father sat in his chair, covered in a strange slimy mixture that reeked. His face was now even more swollen just below his bottom lip. The boys smiled a forced smile and nodded at their father as they entered, trying not to react to the sulfur smell that filled the room. Neither looked to the other, as they somehow knew their father’s plight had to do with their latest venture.

Joe thought, Don’t ask. Pa’ll just yell. He looked at his father, still smiling. “We got all the fencin’ done ya wanted, Pa. It’s all strung up like a Christmas goose.” Joe then nodded, hoping to ease his father’s wrath.

Ben looked at his two youngest sons. Why did they insist on chasing rainbows? He had started itching on the ride back and the itches covered his face and hands with a harsh rash before he arrived home. He realized only too late that the plants surrounding the bog were poison ivy. He had been exposed and was covered with the itch and pain of the red inflammation.

Hop Sing had moved in to cool the heat and itch of the patriarch of the Ponderosa’s skin with foreign herbs and several creams. He had slathered and dabbed as Ben Cartwright allowed, but the itch was still there and Ben was uncomfortable. He was covered with slimy goo and the sensation left him feeling less than dignified. The smell was repulsive and he wondered how he would stand living with himself.

Ben looked at his boys through the herb mask wrap that surrounded most of his exposed body. His sons had brought on the itch and the thought spurned him to yell. The yell was muffled and somewhat hard to understand, as Ben’s swelling made it hard to talk. “Go to your rooms! Outta my sight! You two are a plague! Oh Lord, what did I do to deserve this?”

Hoss hit Joe hard as they headed up the stairs and Joe cried out, “Ow! Boy, you hit hard! I hear it…I do…’kay, so Pa ain’t real happy right now. We make sure Pa’s okay with us – we just lay low a while before we try again,” Joe said as his brain worked overtime. “Gotta be a way to get that horse. Gotta be a way!”

****************************************

Joe and Hoss gave their father a wide berth for the next few days and worked hard to do nothing to anger him. It was easy for them to stay away, given the smell of the treatments Ben was receiving. As a matter of fact, Ben found himself alone a great deal of the time and he spent a lot of his time in the fresh air, the smell driving even him out of doors.

One morning, before going out into the open air, Ben had by habit checked the date on the calendar on his desk. He noted he was expected to perform a great service for Virginia City on that very day. He sighed as he felt the rash over his hands and face; the swelling below his lip felt enormous. He could not allow himself to be seen by the townspeople looking so silly or smelling so badly. He was at a loss to figure out what he could do. Adam was at the lumber camp or he would send him to attend to the business. As he walked slowly outside, he saw his other option. Joe and Hoss stood tightening their cinches, getting read to ride out. Ben looked at his boys and knew he had to do it. He had to hope they could stay focused.

“Joe, Hoss, hold up a minute,” Ben called out as he walked up to his sons. His words came in a lisp as he tried to negotiate the bee sting.

“Hey, Pa, what ‘cha need?” Hoss asked, wanting to please his father any way he could. As Ben approached, both Chub and Cochise reared and pulled away from the hitching post. The startled horses moved closer to the barn and away from the offensive smell.

Ben scowled at the animals’ insult and then turned to his sons. “I have a chore for the two if you…if you think you can handle it. The Virginia City Chamber of Commerce has commissioned a silver pocket watch to be made for the President of the United States. I’m in charge of making sure that pocket watch gets on a stage bound for Washington. I can’t go to town today…I have other things to attend to round here…”

The brothers looked at each other, knowing that to laugh at the thought of their father in town as he currently appeared would probably get them horsewhipped. “Sure, Pa. We can make sure the watch gets where it needs to be. That should be simple ‘nough,” Joe assured him.

“This is very important. I want that watch on that stage, understand? Go pick it up at the Chamber of Commerce and get it on the stage bound for Washington. You both understand that, don’t you?”

“Sure thing, Pa. We’ll get it on that stage. You can count on us!” Hoss patted his father’s shoulder, then moved towards his horse. Ben went to move as well and Hoss cautioned, “Uh, Pa, maybe you should stay right there. We can talk to you from over here.”

Glaring at Hoss, but more so at the disrespectful horses, Ben gave his final command. “See that you don’t let me down, boys. Don’t make me sorry I sent you.” Ben whipped around and marched back into the house, attempting to keep the remainder of his dignity intact.

The two men mounted up and rode off, neither willing to discuss their father’s state until they were certain they were out of earshot. After deciding two miles was a good way away, both looked at each other and began laughing hysterically. Eventually the tears of laughter subsided and Joe was the first to speak. “Oh, Lordy, Pa smells bad! And that sting…that’s some kinda swellin’!”

“You ain’t kiddin’. All I could do t’stand there. We gotta do this right though, Joe. Pa is already madder than two wild cats with their tails tied together.”

A sneaky grin covered Joe’s face as he spoke. “We’ll do it, don’t you worry, and we just might have some time to look for that horse, too.”

Hoss gave Joe a cautious look. “We get that watch on its way though first, Joseph. I can’t stand Pa mad at us.”

“Yeah, I know. ‘Bout as hard as puttin’ up with that stink,” Joe quipped as he kicked Cochise and was off. Hoss fell in and they loped their way to town.

Upon arriving in Virginia City, Hoss and Joe were able to secure the gift for the President easily enough. It was when they made their way to the stage that their hearts sank. The sign was posted and both read it twice: no stages in or out of Virginia City for the next week. Upon reading, it was evident the stage line was experiencing some profit negotiation difficulties and was determined not to service the town until its price was met. The men looked at each other when they saw the nearest stage service was running out of Carson City. Both knew the disposition of their father and it would not sit well with Ben if they gave up easily. Joe looked at Hoss and both said “Carson City!” at the same time. They were to their horses and away, the package securely in Hoss’s saddlebag.

The ride was quiet until they were an hour from their destination. Both saw the old man from the saloon stopped up ahead, looking at the ground. As they rode up to him they stopped as well, determined to see what it was he was up to. The man nodded and smiled, his expression hard to read. “You boys are good, very good. You have the same sense as me.”

Hoss and Joe looked at each other as Joe asked, “Same as you?”

“You fellas feel him near, don’t cha? You know horses. That you do. You’re after that Arabie, sure as the world. I’ll curse my name for ever mentionin’ him to ya. You’re after my purse, I know it, but I’ll fight ya, a will!”

Joe heard the man’s concern and decided to proceed with caution. “Uh, the stallion’s around? He’s near by? I thought he was with the Ponderosa herd.”

“Looks like that Ponderosa stallion fought him off. He seems t’be travelin’ to the sand. Makes sense though when ya think of it, him bein’ Arabie an’ all.” The old man held out a partial shoe, showing them the metal and shaking his head.

Hoss took the evidence and examined it as he looked at his little brother. “Large hoof my eye, Joseph! This pony’s a small one.”

Joe looked a bit flustered, but quickly recovered as he looked back at his brother. “Uh, so who knew they had small hooves?! Hoss, when was the last time either of us was in Arabia?”

Hoss thought a moment and realized Joe did have a point. However, his little brother had been so sure of Arabie stallions. Was he wrong? “But Joe…you said they had big hooves…”

“So I got ‘em mixed up with Egypt horses. You gonna go an’ back out on me now?” Joe whispered as he used his head to point to the old-timer.

Hoss looked between his brother and their competitor. He thought a moment and concluded Joe was right; he had expected too much. “Uh, this here shoe looks Arabie and I know my shoes. We’ll be moseying along, I guess. We’ll see you ‘round town.”

The old man looked at his young competitors and seemed a bit worried. “You boys leave that stallion be. He could hurt you, but good!”

“We’ll do that mister. We’re just riding to Carson City,” Joe said, wanting to lessen suspicion.

The old man talked casually to the two a while longer and then rode away, attempting to pursue a dream of money. Joe watched until the man was out of sight before he turned to Hoss and smiled. “We’re near once again, Hoss, dear brother! Two hundred dollars will soon be ours! I smell that horse in our grasp!” Joe was rubbing his hands together as he spoke.

Hoss looked at his little brother, knowing they had a job to do. “Joe, we gotta get that package off to Washington. You heard Pa!”

“Uh…yeah, I did, but Pa didn’t really say when. Uh…tell you what. We check out a little on the whereabouts of that stallion and then we get the package off. We got time, Hoss. Come on, we can get $200!”

Hoss thought a moment. They had plenty of time to get to the stage; it was not leaving until late. The money sounded good and he was soon enticed. He needed to refresh his dwindled savings. “We just look ‘til we gotta go for the stage? Promise me, Joseph! You agree?”

Joe looked at his older brother and nodded. “We’ll have that horse ‘fore you can say, ‘this goes to Washington on your first stage!’” Joe was then gone, pursuing the dream of a stallion. He kicked Cochise hard to the sand dunes, the tiny hoof prints of the Arabian giving him his only guidance.

Joe rode cautiously so as to not miss any sign of the renegade animal and Hoss moved closely behind. They worked their way through the sand until the ground became rocky and all signs of the horse disappeared. Both dismounted and began searching on foot for a sign, but the going was slow and the signs remained hidden. Finally they decided to split up to cover more ground. Time was running out and they needed to hurry along.

Hoss walked Chub through the area slowly, as he looked for prints. He was busy working when his stomach began to growl and it became a distraction. Remembering he had left some sweetening in his saddlebag, his normal custom in preparing for adversity, he dug through the bag and located the candy easily enough. He carried the stick in his hand as he moved, taking a lick every few steps. The hunger was momentarily quelled and Hoss was once again able to focus on his exploration.

The big man soon felt himself in luck when he saw there was a ledge he could walk out on to have a better view of the canyon below. The ledge was somewhat narrow and Hoss had to move carefully. He moved out and looked over, hoping to see the Arabian below. As he looked down, he moved his feet, unaware of where he was putting them. Before he knew it, he had stepped firmly into a crevasse and his foot was caught.

No amount of wiggling or jiggling seemed to free Hoss’s foot and he knew he would need his brother’s help to get himself unstuck. He looked around, hoping Joe was within shouting range, but soon realized he would not be able to get his brother by yelling. Hoss reached for his pistol and went to fire it in the air. The next series of events were only a blur in his head. Drawing the gun caused a shifting of rock and Hoss suddenly lost his balance. His flailing, while focusing on the candy, made the gun discharge. The candy fell in the dirt as he tried to re-correct his balance. The bullet fired made Chub rear and the horse was off, running fast and furious, away from the threat.

“Dadburn it!” Hoss exclaimed, as he reached down to free his foot. “Dropped my sweetenin’, scared my horse…”

“Why’re you shootin’ and what’s wrong with your foot?” Joe asked as he appeared and saw his brother’s contorted face. “You hurt?”

“Dawgone it, Joe! I ain’t hurt. I’m stuck! Help me out here!”

“What in the blue blazes have you done now?” Joe dismounted and moved over to his brother to study the situation. “Leave it to you to get your big ol’ fat foot stuck!”

Joe and Hoss worked to free the ensnared limb and time escaped them. They were finally able to release the rock’s grasp and Hoss fell back free, his hand landing on the candy. Joe reached out to give assistance and soon his hand, too, had the sticky substance on it. “Oh jeez, Hoss! Look what ‘cha done now! Thanks a lot!” Joe wiped his hand on Hoss’s shirt and then walked away shaking his head. He suddenly noticed from the sun’s position in the sky that they would have to get a move on to get to the stage on time. “Come on, Hoss, the day’s wasted. We gotta get that package off. Where’s Chub?”

“He ran off when I shot my gun. I think I came close to him.”

“Great! You almost shoot your horse! I swear you’re more trouble than you’re worth. I’ll go get Chub and you just stand there. Don’t move! Probably go fallin’ off that cliff next!” Joe continued to mutter as he rode away to fetch Chub. He found the animal grazing lazily. Joe grabbed the reins and quickly got back to Hoss, knowing they would now have to hurry to make it to town.

Hoss saw his horse and noticed his saddle was askew. Briars and brambles and sand all over it told him Chub had tried to rid himself of the saddle. As he began carefully picking away the debris, Joe barked, “Will you just get on and come on? We gotta get this to the stage. You used up all our free time with your stupid foot.” Joe was then off at a gallop towards town, no longer willing to assist his brother. Hoss muttered something about it not being his fault, then jumped on his horse and followed. The two rode without speaking.

Once at the stage, Hoss dismounted and reached for his saddlebag. He noticed a distinctive hole through the bag and quickly lifted it to check and see if his horse was hurt. Joe stood watching with no idea what Hoss was doing. He saw his brother studying his horse’s flank and then appear relieved as he moved to open the bag.

Seeing no blood or harm to Chub, Hoss slowly opened the bag and looked inside. He then looked at his little brother, his face suddenly appearing quite ill. He held open the bag and Joe looked in as well. The only thing said was, “Oh, Lord…do we have to go home? We can build a new life. Really, it might be best.”

****************************************

Morning broke over the ranch and Ben was up with his coffee. He had been concerned the previous evening when Hoss and Joe had not arrived before he had retired for the night, but eventually he heard them come in sometime very late. It was then he could rest easy and allow himself to sleep. Adam soon came down to join his father, but sat on the far end of the table. He found his appetite dwindling as he smelt Hop Sing’s potion for itching. The two men sat quietly discussing the day’s work as Adam attempted to resist the urge to cover his nose. He knew his father would not appreciate the gesture, but it took all his effort not to do it. They had settled into a discussion about branding records, when both Hoss and Joe descended the stairs and moved to the table.

“Mornin’, Pa,” the two said in unison as they sat.

Ben was immediately suspicious. He knew it was rare for Joe to be up as early as he was without significant pressure to do so and both boys were behaving as if they were one being, a sure sign something was amiss. “Mornin’, Hoss. Mornin’, Joe. You boys got in awfully late. You stay in town the whole time? And my package, did it get off okay?”

Joe and Hoss exchanged looks, as neither wanted to speak. They knew it would be bad and they diverted their eyes to their plates. Ben saw the reaction and immediately felt nervous. His voice grew louder. “You did get that package off…didn’t you?”

No answer was given and Ben was enraged. “Answer me! The package!”

Joe and Hoss sank in their chairs and Hoss was the first to respond. “Why don’t you fill Pa in…Joseph?”

Joe scowled at his brother and, for a moment, the room was deadly silent. He could see his father’s swollen face out of the corner of his eye and he knew this was indeed very, very bad. “Well it’s like this Pa…” Joe could not look at his father as he told the story.

Ben sat listening to the tale and felt his temples beginning to throb. He heard about the boys in Carson City and held up his hand. “Stop! Why did you not put that package on the stage like I told you to do?”

“Uh…um…you know when I told you Hoss shot his gun to get my attention?” Joe asked in a very quiet voice.

“Yes?” Ben asked, afraid to hear the explanation.

“Uh…well…uh…um…that bullet…it went into Hoss’s saddlebag…and uh…Pa, you ain’t gonna believe this…it…it…uh…right dead center…it hit…the watch.” Joe closed his eyes as he said the final few words. He was quick to add, “But Chub’s okay, Pa. The horse is just fine.”

“You shot the watch?! Why? You thought it was going to hurt you?! I can’t believe this!” Ben was beyond anger as he slammed his fist down on the table.

Adam sat looking on, seeing the humor in the whole ordeal. He dared not say anything, though, knowing it would not help the situation.

“Uh, no, ‘member I told ya…? Hoss was stuck…He needed to get me…so I could help him….’Member his foot? Hoss’s foot?” As Joe spoke his voice became softer and softer. He knew he was going to receive further yelling and he kicked Hoss under the table.

Hoss jumped at the blow, but kept his eyes diverted. He prayed over and over in his head, Don’t let Pa kill us. Please, God! Don’t let Pa kill us.

The explosion was enormous. “THAT’S IT! I have had it with you two buffoons! It is very hard to believe I’m your father right now! As a matter of fact I’d be relieved if someone else claimed you! You two have managed to make my life miserable, ruin a gift to, of all people, the President of the United States and can’t catch one silly horse!

“I tell you what, though: you two are riding into town with me. You will march into the Chamber of Commerce office and you will explain what you’ve done! All of it! You will pay not only for the old watch, but the new watch as well! Do I make myself clear?!”

“Pay?” Joe timidly questioned, realizing too late that it was a foolish thing to say.

“You have a problem with that, young man?!”

“Uh, no, sir…um…how much was the watch?”

“I don’t care how much it was, you WILL pay for it! Every penny! Now I suggest you both get ready to ride to town!”

Hoss and Joe dejectedly stood and walked to the front door. Joe’s thoughts were on the loss of money and trying to figure out how it all went so wrong. Hoss’s thoughts were on how angry his father was and how he had been unable to indulge in a decent breakfast.

The ride to town was a sober one, as Joe and Hoss focused on the ground in front of their horses and Ben tried to focus on resisting the urge to throttle his boys. He was still showing the effects of his tangle with the poison ivy plant and the ferocious bee, but he knew he had to accompany his sons if they were ever going to complete the now utterly disastrous mission. Adam had made the excuse he had business in town as well, so as to travel with the family and watch how the rest of the ordeal played out.

The Cartwrights rode into Virginia City four abreast. Joe and Hoss were in the middle, appearing as if they were wanted men being brought in by the law. Ben steered them directly to the Chamber of Commerce office and marched them through the door. He had momentarily forgotten what he looked like, as he carried himself in a very dignified manner into the office.

Tobias O’Doole was working over his desk when he looked up to see Ben Cartwright and his sons enter. He was taken aback by the smell that traveled with them and found himself quickly breathing from his mouth. “Benjamin, what brings you here?” the man asked as he extended his hand out to Ben and nodded to his sons.

“My sons are here to tell you something. Go ahead, boys, tell Mr. O’Doole what you have done.”

Joe and Hoss shuffled their feet and looked at the ground. Hoss swallowed hard and held up the saddlebag in his hands. His younger brother, in almost ceremonial fashion, reached in and took out the contents, handed them to the man and said very quietly, “It was a bad thing we did. A very bad thing.”

The man looked confused as he took the proffered item. He saw sand begin to fall from it, then his eyes fell on a hole in the center of the package. Slowly he opened and unwrapped the specimen, pulling away the outer brown paper and string. The wooden box that held the gift for the President lay crushed in the paper. That was not the greatest abomination, however. As the man reverently lifted the silver watch and held it up to the two Cartwright brothers, he looked at them through the bullet hole – and was at a complete loss for words. They had shot the town’s gift. But why? What had it done to them?

Hoss and Joe winced as the man stared at them. They had no excuse…well, none that made a lick of sense. “We’re right sorry ‘bout the watch, Mr. O’Doole, and we’ll pay for it, every penny,” Hoss said as he looked at his father. Ben nodded for him to say more and Hoss continued, “And we’ll pay for a new one. Won’t we, Joe?”

Joe saw hours of labor ahead of him as he concurred. “Uh…how much we owe?”

“The watch was of Comstock Lode Silver, commissioned specially. It cost the town $200 between the silver and the workmanship.” Mr. O’Doole was in shock. Why shoot a watch?

“My sons will head to the bank and have $400 to you this afternoon. Won’t you, boys?” Ben held each son by the back of the hair, making them stand up straight as he gave a yank.

Joe thought, Why didn’t Hoss listen to my plan yesterday? I still say we shoulda gone ahead an’ put that box on the stage. Let the President believed it got shot in some holdup. Give him somethin’ ta talk about…Four hundred dollars! My back hurts jus’ thinkin’ ‘bout the work Pa’s gonna give us. He said, “Yes, sir. You’ll have your money.”

Hoss mumbled a similar response and the two looked back down at the ground. Mr. O’Doole could only accept the money offered – as he thanked God he had no children of his own!

The Cartwrights left the Chamber of Commerce office, two members of the family having sad, dejected looks. As they made their way down the sidewalk no one spoke. Several women walked by and all three Cartwright brothers smiled and watched them. However, the women quickly covered their noses with hankies as soon as they caught a whiff of Ben. The eldest Cartwright held his head high, pretending the stench came from elsewhere, but he was secretly longing to ride out to the shelter of his home, vowing he would not return until his wounds had healed.

The four men went to the bank, but only Hoss and Joe entered. As they stood in line for the teller, Hoss leaned over and spoke. “This is all your fault, Joseph. Ever’ bit a it!”

“My fault?!” Joe’s voice rose an octave. “As I recall, I didn’t shoot a defenseless watch! Oh, this is just great Hoss! Just great! See if I ever include you again! From now on we’re brothers, nothin’ more!”

“Fine with me, you two bit conniving gofer snake! I’ll never trust you again!”

“Oh, yeah! Well, see that you never ask to be a part of one of my plans again! And that reminds me – where’s my squirrel gun, anyway, you thief?! You’ve had it goin’ on two months! Give it back, if ya know what’s good for you!”

“You’ll get your sorry ol’ gun back!” Hoss glared. “And give me back my good rope. You’re always stealin’ my stuff!”

“I ain’t got your dumb ol’ rope and if I did…” Joe’s last insult was interrupted by a pretty blonde teller. “May I help you?”

“Uh…yeah.” Joe’s eyes caught hold of the teller. Gone was the angry brother and in his place was the smooth talking man about town. “I need to make a withdrawal. I bet you could help me.”

The pretty girl and Joe stood flirting while the rest of the bank waited. Finally, the teller handed him the money, their hands touching for a brief moment. Joe gave a smile and a wink and then turned and swaggered out. It was only when Joe was out of the bank that his stomach knotted. He had had to take his half of the money owed from his special fund…the secret stash he used to woo with. He was now flat broke.

Hoss had watched his brother operate and rolled his eyes. Joe’s behavior was a disgusting display. The big man moved up to the teller and smiled brightly. He felt shy and it was hard to look her in the eye, but he did – and she smiled at him. As he conducted his business, the teller responded sweetly, and she gave him a pat on the hand when she gave him the money. Hoss left the bank walking tall. Joseph wasn’t the only man in the Cartwright family who could woo a woman.

Hoss joined the rest of his family outside and they traveled further down the sidewalk. Suddenly, Ben remembered something he needed to do and said, “Boys, while I’m here I need to go see the attorney a moment. Adam, come with me, please. You two…do I need to tie you to a hitching post?”

The two just shook their heads and diverted their eyes as Ben stood staring at them for a moment. He finally turned away from them and moved across the street, Adam alongside. From there they moved into the attorney’s office and out of sight. The two youngest Cartwrights watched as the two oldest ones departed. Joe took up a position leaning with his hip on the hitching post, while Hoss stood arms crossed, determined not to look at his little brother. There was tension in the air as the brothers waited.

Joe’s eyes were traveling the street, watching nothing in particular, when all of a sudden he saw the old man. He had a rope and was sneaking around, his actions suspicious. Joe instinctively slapped his brother and pointed. Hoss watched as well, still feeling the sting of dwindled savings. The two looked at each other and their thoughts were the same: $200!

Joe and Hoss crept across the street after their prey, staying in shadows and behind posts as they moved. What they did not know was that Adam had been watching them and saw the mysterious antics of his brothers. He moved across to his father and whispered something into his ear. Ben perked up and concluded his business. He would catch the boys red-handed. Would they never learn?

The scene was strange: the old man was creeping down an alley shadowed by two young men; behind them two others trailed, watching. The caravan moved down the alley and then stopped, Joe and Hoss holding back. They heard a horse kicking against wood; the fighting sounded fierce. The old man pulled away from the noise and shook his head. He held in his hand another metal shoe, several shredded pieces of purple cloth and, the final piece of evidence, a fancy bit.

The old man looked at his hands as if trying to convince himself that it would be worth risking life and limb for the capture of the stallion. He paused and waited, then shook his head. He couldn’t do it. He threw down the evidence along with his lariat and walked out of the alley.

Joe and Hoss exchanged looks. It was now theirs to claim. The reward was theirs! They would be able to recoup half their losses and for that each was more than willing to tangle with the Arabie stallion. After all there were two of them. How simply could you get?

Joe grabbed the rope and gestured to Hoss to move to the other side of the alley. They would then close in around the corner and the horse would soon be on the end of the rope. Joe and Hoss watched each other, working together on timing. They watched each other’s eyes and then nodded – it was time to grab the horse.

The two men rounded the blind corner, Joe with the rope out and swinging and Hoss ready to make a distraction, his arms high in the air. All of a sudden Hoss’s arms fell and Joe’s swinging of the rope stopped. Both men stood frozen. They could not believe their eyes. No! It couldn’t be! What the heck?

Ben and Adam stood looking on when they saw the two youngest family members move from tense anticipation to limp confusion. Joe and Hoss stood shaking their heads from side to side and a cackle was heard coming from nearby. Ben and Adam moved in to see and the sight made them laugh. There at the end of the alley stood…a jackass. It was dressed in a crown and covered with purple cloth. Three men then emerged from a doorway to the alley; their laughter was the cackling that had been heard. Al and Double Del had finally reaped their revenge. They could hardly stand as laughter overwhelmed them. They held out $200 to the third man there – the old-timer. He took the money and, through tears of laughter, said, “I thank you, boys, indeed!”

Joe and Hoss knew immediately they had been the subjects of a horrid practical joke. They consoled themselves quietly. “Ha, ha! Very funny! I oughta pound you both!” Joe said, trying to maintain control.

“Ah, ah, ah, Joseph, that would not be good manners. Take your lesson like a man,” Double Del taunted.

“Dadburn you both! Consarn it all!” Hoss exclaimed. “Very funny, fellas! Come on, Joe, Pa’ll be lookin’ for us. We can at least stay outta trouble there. After all, no one else saw this little stunt.”

“Think again, Hoss!” Al broke out laughing once more as he pointed all around him.

Joe and Hoss looked at each other, shaking their heads and fearing the truth. They slowly turned and saw a most terrible sight: there were people in windows and doorways, hanging out and watching the capture of the “stallion.” The laughter was deafening as the town enjoyed the prank. Soon money was being exchanged. The bet had been who would win in the end – the ass or the asses.

What was worse, though, was when Hoss’s and Joe’s eyes fell on their loved ones, the ones they had hoped had not witnessed their shame. It was soon evident that all been seen! There stood behind them their father and older brother, shaking their heads and laughing hysterically. It was Joe’s and Hoss’s fate to endure the ridicule.

Finally Ben spoke, though it was hard through the laughter. He gave his boys his final words of wisdom as he draped his arms around their shoulders. Feeling relieved the ordeal was now over and his sons could now focus on the ranch, he had to rub it in a bit. The situation deserved it. Ben looked each boy in the eye, trying not to laugh as he spoke. “If either of you wanted to rope an ass, you could have simply roped each other!”

 

The End

 

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