Summary: After discovering he has only one week left to live, Little Joe, in an effort to be remembered fondly, turns it into a week that no one will ever forget.
Rated: Family Friendly / Word count: 17,175
Joe Cartwright walked briskly down the boardwalk toward Doc Martin’s office on a crisp December afternoon. The weather had been getting increasingly colder, but the absence of snow so far had made it possible for the Cartwright’s to make a few trips into Virginia City.
Although Joe hadn’t really planned on going to town today, it was turning out to be a pleasant trip. He had already seen the beautiful dark-haired Millie and the new girl in town, a striking blonde named Janice, managing to set a date with each of them; on separate nights of course. When he had stopped in at the local mercantile he’d found out that the new hunting knife he had been saving for was marked down, and he could now afford to buy it. Yes sir, it was turning out to be his lucky day.
The last thing on his list was to check back in with Doc Martin. His visit had been interrupted when one of the local shopkeepers had come in with a broken ankle and the doctor had kindly asked Joe if he would come back later. Joe was anxious for the doctor to give him a clean bill of health so he could head for home, but he’d ageed.
One of the local Indian tribes had recently had an outbreak of smallpox and the doctor had been advising the homesteaders in the area to come in for a checkup. Little Joe, at his father’s insistence, had gone into Virginia City early that morning for his turn with the good doctor. He tugged his coat a little tighter around his neck and knew he’d have to hurry if he wanted to get some use out of his new knife on the way back. His thoughts turned to the conversation he had had with his father that morning.
“Come on, Pa! I don’t see why I have to go see the Doc, and not Adam and Hoss,” complained the good looking, yet hopelessly incorrigible twenty-one-year old.
“Joseph, how many times do we have to go over this? Adam and Hoss have just returned from a month long trip to San Francisco,” replied his father with exaggerated patience. “They haven’t had contact with anyone here for quite a while so there is no need for them to go see the doctor. You, however,” Ben rose formidably from his red leather chair and pointed a long accusing finger at his youngest son, “have been roaming the countryside day and night for weeks instead of staying around the ranch where there’s work to be done.” he then folded his arms across his chest and gazed reprovingly at his son.
Little Joe, looking somewhat uncomfortable, tried weakly to defend himself. “Pa, you know I was out looking for strays and . . .”
“Strays!” Ben interrupted, trying very hard not to lose his temper. “With the amount of time you have spent gallivanting all over creation you could have collected every stray from every ranch in the whole Nevada Territory!” Ben pressed his hand to his forehead and forced himself to stay calm. “Son, I understand that at times you’re restless, and you feel the need to spread your wings. That’s what vacations are for.”
Little Joe was about to roll his eyes over this last statement but, given his close proximity to his father, he decided against it. Instead, he inwardly sighed as his father continued the lecture.
“You,” Ben continued, “seem to think that it’s okay to take a vacation whenever you feel like it. Well, Son, all actions have consequences and one of yours is that you have to go and see Doc Martin.”
“One of the consequences?” Joe gulped, not liking the sound of where this was heading.
“Yes, one,” answered Ben, as he took a step closer to his son. “The other will be checking in with me on a daily basis. I don’t want you leaving this ranch in the morning until I’ve given you your assignments for the day, and when you’re through you will report back to me.”
Little Joe was about to protest. After all, he was no longer a child, but his father’s next words caused him to remain silent.
“And before you say one word, young man,” his father continued sternly, “let me remind you who gives out the paychecks around here. If you wish to continue receiving a salary, then you will do as you’re told. Is that understood?”
Several possible answers floated through Little Joe’s mind before he settled on the appropriate, not to mention safer, “Yes, sir.”
Joe came back to the present as he neared the door to the doctor’s office. He decided to push the unpleasant memory of that morning’s discussion to the back of his mind. Anyway, he was sure he’d find a way to get around Pa’s restrictions. As he approached the office, Joe suddenly stopped short. He could hear a conversation going on through the half-open door, and someone had just used his name.
“No, I’ve definitely decided,” he heard Doc Martin tell someone. “I’m not going to say a word. They’ll all find out soon enough, and a man has a right to a little normalcy before the inevitable happens.”
“But it just doesn’t seem right, Paul.” Little Joe decided the other voice belonged to Doc Martin’s wife, “at least you should let his father know.”
“If Joe’s father finds out it will kill him. You know how he feels about that boy,” came Doc Martin’s melancholy reply.
“How much time did you say there is left?” sniffled the Doc’s wife.
“They can’t be talking about me,” Joe thought, trying not to become concerned. He strained his ears to see if he could hear anything more. What he heard made him wish he hadn’t.
“One week,” Doc Martin answered his wife. “Such a young man, and only one week left for all the freedoms of youth.”
“Oh, Paul,” his wife’s voice trembled slightly, “isn’t there anything you can do?”
“I’m afraid not,” he replied. “Once the symptoms take hold there’s nothing that can be done.”
“And you’re sure you shouldn’t at least tell his father?” his wife tried one last time. “Somehow it just doesn’t seem right to me that he not know.”
“I’ve known Joe’s father for a long time, dear,” the doctor said. “I think after the boy is gone he’ll appreciate that the last week they had together was peaceful. If I tell him now, the small amount of time they have left will be spent in sadness.”
“I suppose you’re right,” his wife conceded. “Poor Joe, all those symptoms can be quite aggravating: Restlessness, change in appetite, forgetfulness, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath. Oh, I don’t envy the young man.”
“Now, dear,” warned the doctor, “promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone. Everyone will find out for themselves one week from now, and I certainly don’t want the family to hear it through the grapevine, so to speak.”
Mrs. Martin answered quickly, “Of course I won’t say anything, Paul, you know that.”
“Yes, dear, I know,” he answered. “Now he’s due in here any minute, so you just run along and make yourself a cup of tea. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind you bringing me one.”
Joe allowed any further conversation to fade into the background. In a daze he weakly fell back onto the bench behind him. “One week.” He kept repeating the words over and over in his mind. One week to live? Try as he might, he couldn‘t wrap his mind around the idea. This morning he had been feeling so good . . . What was it that they were saying about symptoms? That first one . . . restlessness, that was it. Hadn’t his father just accused him of being “restless” that very morning? He had to admit he had been neglecting some of his work, going out for long rides, and not coming home till late in the evening. He had attributed his wanderlust simply to growing up and wanting to be out on his own, but now . . . maybe it meant something more. He decided not to go into the doctor’s office after all. He’d already heard what he had been coming to find out. Joe slowly turned toward the livery to pick up his horse, Cochise. His last thoughts as he headed out of town were of his family and what this information would do to them.
Joe sat listlessly beside the clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe. He had detoured here to one of his favorite spots, needing time to think. The gentle lapping of the waves always managed to provide strength and comfort whenever he was troubled.
In the short amount of time he had been sitting on the shore, he had made two definite decisions. He agreed with the doctor that his father should not be told. He knew Pa would be distraught and he didn’t want their last moments together to be filled with pity and sorrow. The other decision he made was to enjoy life as much as possible in what little time he had been given. This left him with a bit of a conundrum. He desperately needed to stay on good terms with Pa, but he certainly didn’t want to spend his last week of life doing nothing but chores. After a bit longer Joe decided that if he was going to be able to enjoy the little bit of time he had left, and yet keep things a secret from Pa, he was going to have to bring in an ally.
“I’ll have to tell Hoss,” he thought, releasing a heavy sigh.
Hoss would understand. Oh, he’d be hurting in his own way, but he would put that aside for Joe. Little Joe had always been able to count on his big, middle brother. Friend, confidant, sidekick, Hoss would always be there for him.
“Even to the end.” Joe blinked away his tears and quickly mounted his black and white pinto.
As Joe brought his horse into the yard, he took a moment to survey this place he called home. He had lived here all of his life and, yet he felt as though now he was seeing everything through a different set of eyes. Their strong, solid log cabin had always been a place of happiness and security for him. Many events had taken place inside of those walls throughout the years but always, whether celebrating a triumph or surviving a trial, his family had remained close. Little Joe tied Cochise to a nearby hitching rail and entered the house.
“Well, Joe,” his father’s deep baritone voice greeted him, “I’m glad to see our talk yesterday has made some impression at least. I thought for sure I would have to send one of your brothers into town to fetch you, but you’ve proven me wrong. You’re right on time.”
Joe basked in his father’s praise. This was how he wanted things to be . . . here toward the end.
“Have you seen Hoss?” Joe asked. “I’d like to get out there right away and start on those chores.”
“He’s just started out with the buckboard,” answered his father. “If you hurry you should be able to catch up with him.”
“Ok, Pa, I’ll go right now.” Joe hesitated for a moment before deciding to throw caution to the wind and, abruptly springing across the room, embraced his father.
“Something wrong, Joseph?” his father questioned, taken a little off guard.
“Nah,” answered Joe as he released him, “just wanted you to know I think you’re the best Pa a guy could ask for is all. I’ll see you tonight.”
At that statement Joe quickly turned and left the house leaving behind a very flattered but bewildered figure.
Joe spurred Cochise into a gallop, and soon caught sight of Hoss a short way down the valley. He had come up with a plan to get Hoss and himself out of work for the rest of the week and was anxious to get started. Riding Cochise alongside the wagon he smiled warmly at his large sibling.
“Hey, Hoss,” Joe started tentatively, “the weather’s been nice so far today and I’ve been thinking we should go down to the lake and get in some fishing, and then”
“Joe, ain’t you been in enough trouble lately?” Hoss interrupted. “Pa wasn’t foolin’ yesterday when he said he’d cut your pay. You’d be smart to quit pushing your luck.”
“Don’t worry, Hoss,” Joe answered smoothly. “I’ve got a plan that will . . .”
“Just stop right there, little brother,” Hoss again interrupted. “I’ve had enough of your plans to last me a lifetime. Now, you just get them ideas out of your head ‘cause you and me are going to fix those fences.”
Little Joe was slightly hurt over Hoss’s insinuations, and turned away shrugging his shoulders.
“All right, fine! Be that way!” Joe spoke harshly. “I just thought you might want to spend some time having fun with me before it’s too late is all.”
“I didn’t mean I don’t want to spend time with you,” Hoss consoled. “You and I will be spending plenty of time together today. The job can be fun if you put your mind to it, and what do you mean before it’s too late?”
“Hoss,” the sudden softness to Little Joe’s voice caused Hoss to pull the wagon to a stop and look at Joe. “I don’t know quite how to tell you this.” Little Joe turned to his brother his eyes pleading for understanding. “I’m . . . dying.”
“You’re what!” Hoss stared at his younger brother as if he’d lost his mind.
“Now, I know it’s hard to accept,” Little Joe continued, “but it’s true. You know how I went into town today to see Doc Martin?” He was getting no response from his bewildered brother so he continued. “Well, I went in and the Doc says I have one week to live.”
“Joe, what are you talking about?” Hoss asked. “You ain’t even been sick.”
Hoss was starting to look a little peaked himself as he mulled over what Joe was saying.
“I know,” replied Joe, “but I’ve got the symptoms. The first one, you won’t believe this, he said it was being ‘restless’. Now you heard Pa saying that to me just yesterday. Didn’t you, hmmm?”
“Yeah, but Joe,” Hoss swallowed hard before continuing, “why haven’t you told Pa? There’s gotta be something we can do, get you some kind of medicine, or to a different doc. Maybe, one of them new Sacramento doctors Adam’s been readin’ about in the paper.”
“There isn’t enough time for that,” Joe answered patiently. “I mean think about it, one week. Before anyone could get here or I could get there, it would be over, and I want to spend the time I have left living life. If there was any kind of medicine don’t you think Doc Martin would have told me already? I don’t want Pa to find out because I want our time together to be . . . you know, normal.”
“Joe, you sure?” Hoss asked. “You ain’t joshin’ me, are ya?
“Hoss, I wouldn’t joke about something like this. I can hardly believe it myself,” Joe answered with a slight shudder.
“No, I didn’t think you would.” Hoss wiped his hands over his eyes and then stared lifelessly out over the dull, brown vegetation sweeping valley.
“Hoss, I know this is hard for you to accept,” Little Joe said as he laid a hand on his brother’s broad shoulder. “I only told you because I need your help with my plans, and because, well because I’ve never kept a secret from you before and I wouldn‘t want that to change now.”
Hoss sniffed and reached into his back pocket to pull out his handkerchief.
Little Joe continued gently. “I need you to be strong for me, Hoss. You’ve always been there for me when I needed you and I need you most right now. I want us to spend this time together laughing not with both of us blubbering like idiots all over the place. What do you say?”
He smiled and reached out a hand toward his brother.
Hoss looked at Joe’s outstretched hand for a moment, and then sniffing once more, he gave a lopsided grin as he shook it.
“Sure, Joe, you just lead the way. I’ll do whatever you say.”
Joe knew, that on the inside, his brother’s heart was breaking, but he also knew that Hoss would put his feelings aside in order to be what his brother needed.
“Okay,” he said clearing his throat, “now here’s what I’ve got planned.”
About an hour later, Hoss and Joe sat down beside the river and threw in their baited fishing lines. They had managed to convince the Jones brothers to do any extra work for them that week. The Jones brothers didn’t exactly have the best reputation when it came to getting work done, but they didn’t ask for much more than beer money as pay. Hoss and Joe had been fishing for only a short time before Little Joe began to get restless.
“Hey, Joe, you doing alright?” Hoss asked, noticing Joe’s fidgeting.
“It’s that restless symptom the doctor was talking about,” answered Joe. “I just can’t seem to sit still for very long.”
“Is there something else you’d rather be doing?” Hoss inquired anxiously.
“Well, now that you mention it,” Joe paused, he’d been waiting for this moment, “I think I’d really like to go to town, maybe get a drink.” He looked up at his brother hopefully.
“Whatever you say, Little Joe,” Hoss answered. “You’re the boss.”
“Alright!” Joe jumped up and clapped his hands together. “Let’s get going, there’s no time to waste.”
The two brothers cringed over Joe’s choice of words and then forcing a smile on their faces headed for town.
A little while later, Little Joe tilted his chair back and put his feet up on the table at the local saloon in Virginia City.
“Things couldn’t be better,” he thought. “I have the day off in town, a nice warm drink, and my best pal to spend time with me.”
He set his mug down on the table and gave a contented sigh; he hadn’t had hot chocolate in a long time.
Hoss grinned at Joe across the table, raised his own mug in salute, and took a huge swig. The next moment Joe was bathed in Hoss’s coffee and saliva as he spewed his mouthful across the table.
“What in the world?” Joe stammered.
Hoss pointed behind Joe and lowered his voice as he said, “We’ve got a problem Joe. Uh . . . make that two problems”
“What problems?” Joe asked, not daring to turn around.
“Well, the first one is the Jones brothers just walked in, and I’m guessing they haven’t finished the fencing.”
Joe paled slightly. “What‘s the other problem?” he questioned.
“Well, the other problem would be that Adam just walked in behind them.” Hoss ducked his head as he said this last statement.
“Has he seen us?” Joe asked in trepidation.
“Oh, yeah,” Hoss answered. “You sure you don’t want to let Adam in on the secret too, Joe? If you don’t, you may not even have a week left. He looks pretty mad.” Hoss pulled at his collar and swallowed nervously.
Joe nearly jumped out of his seat a moment later as Adam grabbed a chair, turned it around and abruptly sat down, crossing his arms on their table. He pushed his hat back on his head as he rotated his gaze between his two culpable brothers. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, Joe decided to try and break the ice.
“Can I buy you a drink, Adam?” he grinned halfheartedly at his eldest brother.
“Can you buy me a drink?” Adam repeated. “No, thank you, brother, I don’t want anything to drink right now. What I do want is to know why, when I went to see if you boys needed a hand with the fencing, I found those two” Adam hesitated and forced himself to lower his voice. “Those two hoodlums out there instead, with a quarter mile section of fencing torn down.”
Adam finished off his sentence by slapping his open hand onto the table, causing Hoss and Joe to nearly jump out of their skin.
“Adam,” Hoss spoke up, “you mean to tell me they were tearing down the fencing?”
“That’s exactly what I mean to tell you,” Adam answered, his voice dangerously low. “And when I questioned them about it they said something about you two asking them to replace all the fencing.”
“Oh, no,” moaned Joe. “Adam, you gotta believe us! We never told them to replace the fencing. They were just supposed to repair it.”
“Yeah,” Hoss joined in, “it’s all just a mistake.”
“A mistake that wouldn’t have happened if you two had been doing what you were told, instead of pawning off your responsibilities onto someone else.”
Adam’s voice was once again rising in volume.
“Now, you two get on your feet and come with me, we have a lot of work to do.” He grabbed Little Joe by the arm and hauled him out of his seat giving him a slight push towards the exit then, looking to Hoss, he jabbed his thumb in the direction of the door.
“Adam, take it easy on Joe. He’s . . .” Hoss began, but Joe stopped him short with a sharp look and a shake of his head.
“I’ll start taking it easy on him,” Adam replied as he yanked his arm from Hoss’s grip, “when he starts shouldering up to his responsibilities. Honestly, I’m surprised at you, Hoss. At least you should have known better.”
With that last statement, Adam roughly brushed past his two brothers and headed outside.
“Whew, he’s mad,” Joe exhaled as he reached for his hat that had been knocked to the ground.
“That’s for dang sure,” replied Hoss. “Look, Joe, if you don’t tell him the truth not only will we be working for the rest of the day, but he sure is gonna be a bear to live with.”
“Hoss,” Little Joe reasoned, “if I tell Adam you know the first thing he’ll do is insist that we tell Pa. I’d rather spend the day working. Besides, if we work hard and get it all done at least that will be one of the last things he remembers about me. Now, come on before he comes back in here with a bullwhip.”
Joe, Hoss, and Adam worked steadily for several hours and Little Joe found he was actually enjoying himself. He was starting to feel a real sense of accomplishment, and was glad to be in his brother’s company. Joe was oblivious to the fact that Hoss had been going out of his way to make sure his little brother didn’t do anything too strenuous.
“Hoss,” Little Joe said, watching his brother with concern, “maybe you should take a break for a few minutes. You look a little tuckered out.”
“I just might take you up on that, little brother.” Hoss sat down with a groan and used his handkerchief to wipe some of the sweat off his face.
Little Joe picked up one of the fence posts and dropped it into the hole Hoss had just finished digging. He was startled when he heard Adam come up behind him.
“That’s what I like to see, little brother, you hard at work,” said Adam, then looked over at Hoss and clicked his tongue. “What’s gotten into you today, Hoss? Are you going to let this young kid here out work you?”
Thanks to Hoss’s back breaking efforts they had been making good progress, and Adam’s mood had improved considerably.
“No, no,” replied Hoss as he struggled to stand, “wouldn’t want, Short Shanks, here to show me up. I’ll get right back to work.” Hoss winced as he stretched, trying to soothe the muscles in his aching arms.
Adam clapped Hoss on the back, winked at Little Joe, and then headed back to the area of fencing he had been working on.
“Now Hoss,” said Little Joe, “I insist you let me do more to help out. Here I’ll hold this post up straight for you while you fill in the hole.” Little Joe flashed Hoss a winning smile, feeling quite pleased with himself.
“Thank you, Joseph,” Hoss answered mirthlessly. “I appreciate that.”
“Pa, would you please pass the bread?” asked Little Joe at supper that evening.
“Son,” his father said, passing the plate, “You haven’t given me your report for the day. Did you and Hoss get all the fencing repaired?”
Joe looked nervously over at Adam who was busy ignoring them.
“Well that’s a good sign,” thought Joe. Out loud he answered. “Pa, I think you’ll be real pleased. See we didn’t waste time worrying about all those little repairs.”
“Oh no?” his father questioned, seeming puzzled.
“No, sir,” Joe continued. “See, we thought it would be better to just replace the fencing—you know that quarter mile down by the creek?”
“The quarter mile down by the creek,” his father repeated.
“Yep, replaced the whole thing,” Little Joe grinned broadly.
“Joseph,” his father said, slowly folding his hands on the table in front of him, “we just put up that fencing last spring. I really don’t think it was necessary for you to replace it.”
Joe gulped down a quick drink of water and then looked anxiously over at Hoss for support. No help would be coming from that direction however; as Hoss, with his head leaning on his hand, was sound asleep.
“Well, Pa,” he tried pathetically, “we just didn’t want to take any chances. There could have been termites and it rained an awful lot last month ,so some of the wood could have rotted and then . . . there’s the . . . the birds . . .”
His father raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes, Joe. What about the birds?”
Adam had been clearing his throat quite a bit during Joe’s explanation, and Joe shot him a withering glare.
“Well, you see there’ve been an awful lot of birds out their lately pa, and they . . . you know . . . well they sit on the fence and everything.” Joe finished lamely.
“An awful lot of birds.” Ben’s face was starting to turn a deep shade red. “So what you’re trying to tell me is that you replaced an almost brand new section of fencing because it might have had termites, the wood might be rotted, and some birds sat on it!”
As Ben’s fist hit the table Hoss suddenly jerked awake, saving him from ending up with his face in his mashed potatoes. Joe withered slightly under his father’s fierce gaze and again looked to Adam. This time for support.
“Adam,” Ben snapped, “What were you thinking letting your two brothers pull a stunt like that?”
“Now, Pa,” Adam quickly defended himself, “the fence was already torn down by the time I got there. I just helped them put up the new one.”
Ben sat back and folded his arms over his chest. “Hoss, do you have anything to add to this?”
Hoss having missed most of the earlier conversation just shrugged helplessly.
Ben sighed and looked again to his oldest. “Adam, it seems I can’t trust these brothers of yours to complete a job properly without some supervision. Now, I’ve made a list of the jobs I want completed during the rest of the week. Instead of having Joe report to me, I’m going to put you in charge of him and Hoss both. They’ll be checking in with you for their orders, and I want you to make sure everything gets done satisfactorily.”
Adam, looking none too pleased, raised his hands in surrender. “Alright, but keeping these two in line is about as easy as trying to lasso the moon.”
“Hey!” both Little Joe and Hoss objected at the same time.
“Adam,” Ben interrupted, rotating his gaze between his two youngest sons, “I think you might have an easier time if you did try to lasso the moon.”
He rose after this statement, gave one last intimidating look to Hoss and Joe, then walked toward the front door.
“If you’re going out, Pa, I’ll join you,” said Adam as he too rose to leave.
After they had gone Joe looked across the table at Hoss.
“Why didn’t you say something?” he demanded. “Now, we’re stuck with Adam for the rest of the week. My last week, may I remind you?”
“Dad-burn it, Little Joe,” Hoss answered. “I’m so tired I don’t know even know what’s going on. I think you need to just tell them both. I still say there’s gotta be something that can be done.”
“No, Hoss,” Little Joe stated emphatically. “If Pa finds out he won’t even let me leave the house, and I don’t intend to spend my last days stuck indoors with Pa and Adam fussing over me like some sick little kid. Now, would you please just relax and trust me. I’ll come up with something.”
“Well, alright,” Hoss answered, “But I think you need to take it easy at least. If you only got a week left I want the whole week with ya, no sense rushing things by doing anything reckless.”
“You’re a pal, Hoss,” Joe said. “I knew I could count on you. Now eat up quick, we’ve got some planning to do.”
Later that night Hoss sat on the end of Joe’s bed as they talked of their plans. Tomorrow’s job was to spend the day marking trees to be cut for a new timbering contract. Joe hated these kind of jobs, he viewed them as tedious and boring. He would much rather be out roping or herding than counting trees.
“Well,” said Hoss, “at least tomorrow won’t be any real hard work, mostly just riding and marking up in the hills.”
“We’ll have to be reporting back to Adam every hour or so to give him the count,” replied Joe, “so I don’t think there’s any way we can get out of it, but Hoss I’ve got to get away at some point tomorrow. I promised Millie Henderson that I would come courting and you know how her brother gets if anyone upsets her.”
“Yeah, I remember the last time you didn’t show up when you were supposed to,” answered Hoss as he rubbed his cheek. “Seems like I ended taking most of the punches for you too.”
“Well,” Little Joe whined, “her brother Dan is huge. He would’ve killed me if you hadn’t stepped in.”
Hoss nodded and said, “Yeah, well let’s just come up with a way for you to make that date so I won’t have to step in again. That Dan’s even bigger than me.”
Little Joe scratched his chin and raised his eyes to the ceiling as he tried to think of something.
“I’ve got it!” he snapped as he jumped off the bed.
At the sudden unevenness Hoss lost his balance and tumbled onto the floor with a thud.
“What’s going on up there?” Ben yelled from downstairs.
Joe cringed and quickly hollered out the door, “Nothing, Pa, Hoss just fell off the bed is all.”
“Well, help him up and tell him to be more careful,” Pa shouted back. Little Joe thought he heard him mumbling something about not bringing the house down, but couldn’t quite make it out.
As Little Joe turned back into his room he continued, “I’ve got it all worked out. Now, when everyone goes to sleep, you’re gonna sneak out and take one of our cattle up to the Henderson place”
“Now, hold on just a dang minute,” Hoss interrupted. “in the first place, Dan Henderson would shoot me if he caught me sneaking around in the middle of the night over there. In the second place, Joe, I’m so doggone tired I couldn’t even sneak into my own room, let alone out in the dark tonight.”
“Well, how do you like that?” said Joe, ignoring Hoss’s pitiful expression. “here I am dying, with only six days left to enjoy life and all I ask is one little favor, but oh no, you’re too tired. Well, you just stay here, Hoss I, the sick one, will go out into the cold dark night so that you can get some sleep.”
Hoss rolled his eyes and let out a tremendous sigh. “Okay, Joseph,” I’ll do it. Just tell me the rest of the plan.”
Little Joe beamed and gave Hoss a playful punch. “I knew I could count on you big brother and I sure do appreciate it. Now, listen carefully so you don’t mess anything up . . .”
The next day went smoothly. Little Joe had cornered Hoss first thing that morning to make sure the plan had gone off all right during the night.
“Yes, Joe,” Hoss had answered through a gaping yawn. “I delivered that bull just where you said to. It‘s all tied up and waiting for you.”
“Good, good.” Joe clapped Hoss on the back on his way down to breakfast.
The marking and tallying went smoothly throughout the day with Joe mostly enjoying riding his horse through the magnificent trees, and Hoss making the numerous trips back and forth to report to Adam. It was just after one o’clock when Joe decided it was time for him to make his escape. He went over once again with Hoss what he was to tell Adam.
“Okay, Hoss, repeat it to me one more time,” Little Joe told his by now bone tired middle brother.
Hoss blinked a few times and then focused intently on Joe’s face. “Let’s see, I tell him we saw Pa’s prize bull heading over towards the Henderson place and that you went to fetch it before old Dan gets any ideas.”
“Right,” said Little Joe enthusiastically. “Now, you think you can remember that?”
“Sure, Joe, sure,” Hoss yawned again, waving weakly as his brother took off.
Little Joe quickly made his way back to the ranch to get ready. He knew Pa had gone into town that day complaining of meetings and paperwork and Hop Sing had gone along as well to pick up some supplies, so he wasn’t worried about running into anyone. After a nice leisurely soak in the tub he dressed in his finest gray suit, polished his dress boots and then, sneaking into his brother’s room, he rubbed on a little of Adam’s new cologne.
“Mm, Mm,” he said to himself as he checked his image in the mirror. “You’re one handsome man, Joe Cartwright.” He smiled at his reflection and then sobered as he remembered that this could be one of the last occasions he would get all dressed up for. Of course, there would be one final occasion, but he wouldn‘t be dressing himself for that one. “It’s so strange,” he thought. “I’ve never felt better.” He picked up the picture of his mother that lay on the nightstand next to his bed and tenderly traced the outline of her face. “You know, Mama,” he talked to her picture, “there have been so many times I wished I could remember the sound of your voice. I guess I’ll be hearing it again soon. I can’t say I’m sorry about that.” He gave a soft smile as he gently placed the picture back in its spot.
Leaving the house to meet with Millie his only concern was of how his family would manage once he was gone.
Little Joe tied Cochise to the rail outside of Millie and Dan Henderson’s house. He smoothed some of the wrinkles out of his suit and grabbed the flowers he had stopped to pick for Millie on the way over. He approached the steps with an air of confidence which quickly vanished as he caught sight of Dan standing tall and menacing off the side of the porch.
“Dan,” Little Joe nodded toward the over-protective older brother.
“Joe,” he answered with a nod of his own his. “Glad to see you could make it on time. I hate for my little sister to be kept waiting.”
Joe could feel the hostility radiating off Dan’s solid figure. Dan Henderson had never gotten along with Joe Cartwright. At least, not since the time Little Joe had beaten him in a high stakes marble game when they were both in school. Dan was several years older than Joe and had not taken losing to a “kid” well at all. Joe swallowed lightly and approached the steps.
“Is . . . is Millie inside?” his voice cracked.
“Here I am, Joe,” answered a musical voice as Millie rounded the side of the house.
Upon seeing Millie, Joe momentarily forgot all about her watch dog brother on the porch. She was wearing a white dress with little pink and yellow flowers adding a nice splash of color. Ever since he had first seen Millie, in the fifth grade, he had been mesmerized by her big blue eyes. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold, and her gentle smile was enough to melt any man’s heart.
“I was just out back taking a look at the new bull Dan rounded up this morning,” she said cheerfully.
“Oh, you got a new bull did you?” Joe asked as he handed Millie the flowers.
“Yep,” Dan spoke up. “Found it roaming the hills on my land just to the east of here. Nice looking animal.”
“You want to see him, Joe?” Millie asked.
Joe was willing to do whatever it took to appease Dan so that he could have some time alone with Millie.
“Sure, I’d love to,” he answered.
The threesome walked around the back of the house toward the barn. In a small holding pen just off to the side was the bull. When Joe saw the creature his legs nearly buckled beneath him. Dan hadn’t been exaggerating when he said it was a nice looking bull. It was indeed a beautiful specimen; beautiful and expensive.
“Hoss must have brought the wrong bull,” Joe thought desperately.
Joe worried that his week might be up when he felt his heart start to race and his breath started coming in short wheezing gasps. He felt as if he was going to faint. Somehow his perfectly thought out plan had gone horribly wrong. Hoss hadn’t grabbed Pa’s prize bull that they entered in the fair every year. He had brought Pa’s new bull, the one Adam had gone all the way to Texas for, the one that hadn’t even been branded yet, the one Pa had paid fifteen hundred dollars for.
“Joe, are you all right?” exclaimed Millie.
“I’m not really feeling so well all of sudden,” Joe replied hoarsely.
“Well, come sit on the porch.” Millie gently took his arm and helped him back to the house. “I’ll go in and get you a nice cup of tea.”
“You don’t have anything catching do you?” asked Dan as he approached Little Joe. “I wouldn’t want my sister coming down with anything.”
“Oh no,” replied Joe. “Just had a long day on the ranch and I guess it’s catching up with me.”
Dan eyed him closely for a few minutes and then turned and slowly walked off.
“I’ll be close by.” Dan called over his shouler. Joe wasn’t sure whether Dan meant that in a helpful way or not.
As he waited for Millie with the tea he thought about his father’s new bull now in back of Millie’s house. How was he going to explain this one without letting everyone know his secret?
“Here you are, Joe” said Millie holding a tray out to him with tea and some gingersnaps.
“Thank you,” he said and grabbed a few cookies, popping one into his mouth.
“Joe, you’ll never know what a bit of luck it was my brother finding that bull. Our old bull, the one Daddy bought before he died a few years ago. Well, it got colic last week and my brother had to shoot it. We weren’t sure where we were gonna get the money for another one, and with winter coming on it would’ve been quite a while before Dan could have gone anywhere to purchase another animal.”
“Well, Millie,” Joe gently interrupted, “you know that’s an awfully nice looking bull out there. Don’t you think maybe, I mean just maybe mind you, that he might belong to someone else and maybe just got loose or something?”
“Why, Joe Cartwright, are you accusing my brother of stealing?” huffed Millie. “That bull was wandering out in the hills and there’s no brand on it.”
“No, Millie! I’m not saying that at all. It’s just that such a nice looking bull must belong to somebody, and…” Little Joe was cut off as Millie abruptly rose out of her seat; confronting him with just as much of a temper as her very large older brother was famous for.
“Why, Joe! You are accusing us of stealing that bull! Of all the…” She ended her tirade by dumping the rest of the contents on the tray all over Joe’s suit. “I think you better leave, now!” She stamped her foot and pointed towards his mount.
Joe was about to try and defend himself when he noticed Dan making his way swiftly across the yard. He looked mad enough to spit nails, and Joe didn’t want to take any chances. He swiftly hopped over the porch rail, jumped on Cochise and made his way toward home, leaving a flurry of dust behind him.
When Little Joe was sure he wasn’t being followed he slowed Cochise into a walk and tried desperately to come up with some way of making a considerable amount of money, fast. He had briefly considered turning around and just telling Millie and her brother that the bull was his and had just escaped but, putting his own worries for his safety aside, he knew he couldn’t ask for the bull back after the story Millie had told him. He was just going to have to come up with a way to replace the money his father had spent. He knew that when fate took its course and he was gone, the bull would be the least of his father’s concerns, but he didn’t want to leave this world knowing he had cost his father fifteen hundred dollars.
Joe managed to make it back to the ranch before the rest of his family, and was changed and waiting in the barn when Hoss and Adam arrived.
“Hey, Joe,” greeted Adam. “I saw the bull out in the field on the way over, so I guess you must have tracked him down. Good work on the tree tallying by the way. I think Pa will be pleased with our progress.”
Joe smiled nervously. “At least Adam hadn’t noticed that the new bull wasn’t in the field.” out loud he said, “You know me, Adam, wouldn’t want to shirk any of my responsibilities.”
“Sure, Joe.” Adam replied with amusement.
“Well, boys, I’m plumb tuckered out,” Hoss joined in. “I think I’m gonna go in the house and get in a few winks before dinner.
“You feeling alright, Hoss?” Adam questioned with concern. “You sure do look tired.”
“Oh, he’s fine,” Little Joe answered for his exhausted older brother. “He’s just gonna help me clean out a few stalls and then I’ll see that he gets some rest.”
“But, Joe” Hoss tried to interject.
Joe shushed Hoss with a deadly glare, and the dejected figure sat roughly down on a bale of straw.
“Well,” Adam said, “You boys do what you want I’m going to my room and read. See you at dinner.”
After Joe was sure Adam was out of ear shot he marched over to Hoss and demanded to know what in the world he had been thinking last night.
“Joe, I wasn’t thinking much of anything except hurrying to deliver that dad-blamed bull and getting home to bed. I haven’t had but a few hours of sleep, and I’ve been working like a mule besides.”
Joe sighed and dropped onto the bale beside his brother, then explained the whole mixed up mess to Hoss. When he finished he wearily let his head fall into his hands.
“Well, Little Brother,” said Hoss not without some compassion. “You’ve got yourself into another fine mess. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You need to just tell Pa the truth. He won’t care a lick about that old bull when he finds out you’re…you’re…” He couldn’t bring himself to say the words.
“Hoss, I can’t tell Pa.” Joe raised his head and looked imploringly at his big brother. “Especially now. I can’t leave knowing that I’ve caused Pa all this trouble. I want to go with a clear conscience.”
Hoss suddenly started chuckling, and Joe looked at him inquiringly.
“If you really want to leave with a clear conscience, little brother, than there are a few things you should be confessing.”
“What do you mean?” asked Joe.
“How about the time you took that apple pie Hop Sing had just put in the window, and Pa thought it was me. I wasn’t allowed to have dessert for a whole week ‘cause of you.”
“Hoss!” Little Joe looked at his brother incredulously. “I was seven-years-old! Are you still holding a grudge?”
“little brother, when it comes to losing out on food I take things pretty seriously.”
“Oh yeah,” started Little Joe getting into the spirit of things. “If we’re really gonna start dragging up the past; how about the time you tried to hide those baby porcupines in the outhouse, and Pa thought I had put them there as a joke on Adam.”
Hoss almost rolled off his seat as he howled with laughter. “If I remember correctly neither you nor Pa were sitting very comfortable for a while. I’ve got the topper though, Joe,” Hoss continued. “How about that time when you thought for sure that new ranch hand Pa hired was a criminal from one of Sherriff Coffee’s wanted posters.
Joe groaned and rolled his eyes.
“You convinced me to set up that trap for him. Only instead of catching him I caught Adam. I never did figure out where you slinked off to.” Hoss finished his story and unconsciously put a hand over his eye. “Boy was Adam mad.”
Little Joe and Hoss chuckled softly and then, seeming to remember the same thing at the same time, they quickly sobered.
“Little brother,” said Hoss placing an arm around Joe’s shoulder. “I’d take a punch for you any day. I just want you to know that.”
Little Joe sniffed and wiped his sleeve across his eyes. “Yeah, I know Hoss.”
The two sat quietly for a few moments enjoying the time with each other, and going over old memories in their minds.
“Hey,” Little Joe suddenly shot up; snapping his fingers. “That’s it.”
“What’s it?” asked Hoss looking confused.
“You gave me the perfect idea for getting the money to pay back Pa when you mentioned that old ranch hand. Roy’s got dozens of posters down at the jail, and some of those criminals are worth as much as ten thousand dollars.”
Joe was really starting to get excited now and his eyes gleamed with anticipation.
“Whoa there, Joe, just hang on a minute. You’re not in any shape to be going after some old criminal; besides you told me yourself you’ve got less than a week. That ain’t enough time to be trying for one them rewards, it‘s not like one of them is just gonna walk up and say, “Hey, can you bring me over to the local jail?”
“No,” Joe wasn’t going to be stopped. “It’s the perfect plan. Not only will I be able to leave Pa the money for that bull, but I’ll be going out with a bang.”
“Yeah, the bang from a gun most likely,” Hoss interrupted.
Joe ignored his pessimistic brother and continued. “I can see it now, at my funeral they’ll all say. Here lies Joe Cartwright. He died a hero.”
Little Joe paid no heed to the exasperated sigh coming from Hoss. He had a plan and not many things could change Joe’s mind once he made it up to do something. He was a Cartwright through and through, and Cartwright’s were nothing if not stubborn.
“Joe,” Hoss spoke up trying a different tack. “How are you planning to do this when we’ve got Adam standing guard over us all week? You know he takes his responsibilities from Pa seriously, and I don’t think he’s about to let you go traipsing all over the countryside.”
Joe thought about this statement knowing Adam would be the biggest obstacle to overcome.
Hoss continued. “Pa’s list says were supposed to spend tomorrow doing repairs around the house and yard. It’s not gonna be easy to slip away.”
“Alright,” said Joe. “We’ll just have to work real hard to impress Adam tomorrow, if we can get him on our side than maybe he’ll help us convince Pa to let us go into town the next day. The stage carrying the mail is due in on Saturday. Someone‘s gonna have to go get it, so it may as well be us.”
“Wait a minute,” said Hoss holding up a hand. “When did this become us? This is your idea. I have no ambitions for going out in a blaze of glory.”
Little Joe turned his most intense puppy dog expression onto his brother and spoke softly. “I thought we were a team Hoss. All the way through, to the end.” He turned away from Hoss slowly; shoulders drooping.
“Okay, Little Brother, you win” said Hoss remorsefully. “I did say I was with you. You lead the way and I’ll follow. Guess there’s worse ways for a fellow to go than trying to be a hero.”
Little Joe swung around to face his brother; his smile stretching from ear to ear. “Let’s get inside and start going over that list of repairs. Maybe we can even get started after supper. That will really impress Adam.”
“Joe,” Hoss said stifling a yawn, “It’s just about dark outside now, and I’ve got to get some sleep.”
“We can work with the lanterns,” answered Joe. “You’ll be in bed soon enough; now will you quit worrying?”
As they left the barn Hoss whispered under his breath, “I’ll try, Joe. I’ll try.”
Little Joe and Hoss managed to get a good start on some of the repairs the night before and now after a good night’s rest Joe was ready to start the new day, and he skipped, whistling down the stairs to breakfast.
“Morning, Pa, Adam,” he said merrily to the two already seated at the table.
“Well, and to what do we owe the pleasure of such cacophonous shrieking this early in the morning?” queried Adam.
Little Joe, figuring Adam was referencing his whistling made a face and started to make an equally sarcastic reply when Ben interceded.
“Now, Adam, just because your brother’s in a good mood doesn’t mean you have to patronize him.” He turned to Little Joe and smiled. “Joe I just wanted to say how impressed I was with your work yesterday. You really put forth some effort and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
Little Joe felt slightly guilty accepting the compliment as he knew Hoss had done most of the work tallying yesterday, but he had worked hard last night and he in intended to do so today also.
“Thanks, Pa,” he replied.
“Yep, the squirt does good when he puts his mind to it.” Adam added with a grin.
Little Joe decided to ignore his brother’s comment and started piling his plate with food. All that hard work sure had made him hungry.
Hoss sauntered down the stairs a few minutes later feeling refreshed after getting full night of sleep. He sat down at the table and reached for the biscuits then scowled when he noticed there were only two left.
“Hey,” he protested. “Who done ate up all the biscuits? And the gravy bowls nearly empty too.”
“Sorry, Hoss” Joe garbled around a mouthful of food. “I was just real hungry this morning.
“Joseph,” his father scolded. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. And Hoss I’m sure Hop Sing has more biscuits in the kitchen.”
“Well, I hope so,” Hoss pouted. “I won’t be able to make it for even a few hours on this measly amount of food.”
Joe joined in the chuckle with the rest of his family at Hoss’s expense, and graciously offered him a couple pieces of his bacon.
“Well boys,” said Ben, “nature has put off giving us any snow so far this year, but that won’t last I’m afraid. Now there’s lots of work to be done in order to get this place battened down for the winter.” Ben pulled his infamous list out of his vest pocket and looked to his eldest.
“Adam, I’ve persuaded the extra hands you hired for the fall round up to stay on a few more days to help us get everything ready. I’m putting you in charge of checking the structural integrity of all the out buildings as well as the barn and house roof. Take a few of the hands and make up a crew. Any small repairs I want you to give to Hoss.” Turning to Hoss he continued. “I want you to take one man and get as many of those repairs done as possible in the next few days. Make a list of any supplies you might need for repairing, and I’ll send someone into town tomorrow to get them.”
Joe and Hoss exchanged glances. This could end up working in their favor.
“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss answered.
“What am I gonna be doing, Pa?” asked Joe.
“Joe, I’m putting you in charge of getting us prepped for winter.” Ben answered.
Joe knew what that meant. He would be in charge of making sure they were stocked well for the winter season. He would be doing inventory and stocking. There had to be plenty of hay stored in the barn, and the woodshed would need to be piled high with firewood. It was tedious work, but he had already determined to do his best at whatever jobs his father had lined up for the day.
The family all went their separate ways after breakfast each working diligently at their tasks. Ben had gone out with a few hands to make sure the stock were all secure and to bring in a load of lumber that could be used throughout the winter for emergency repairs. Adam, who had diligently been working on the barn roof, had told Joe to go ahead to lunch without him as he wanted to finish the roof before it got dark.
Little Joe was already seated at the table with a huge pile of sandwiches on his plate when Hoss walked in for lunch.
“Boy, Little Joe, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat so much before. You keep this up and you just might grow to be as big as me.” Hoss laughed casually at his own joke, but something about what he said made Little Joe suddenly lose his appetite.
“What’s wrong?” asked Hoss in concern. “Your face just went all green.”
“I just realized, Hoss,” he answered weakly, “this morning at breakfast and now this. It’s another symptom.”
“What is? What are you talking about.” questioned Hoss.
“Change in appetite. The Doc said that was one of the symptoms. I’ve been feeling so good I had almost forgotten that I’m… I’m dying.” He gulped loudly suddenly turning pale. “Great that’s another symptom. Forgetfulness. It’s happening fast Hoss. I thought I was ready, but…” He didn’t finish his statement as he shoved his plate of food towards Hoss. Hoss pushed it back looking almost as ghostly as Little Joe.
“I didn’t mean to upset you. You go ahead and eat.” tried Joe.
“Nah, I ain’t that hungry. Guess I’ll just go get back to work.” He paused then turned back to Joe saying softly, “You coming?” With Pa being out and Adam busy Hoss had insisted that Little Joe let him help with the heavy lifting of the hay bales for the barn.
“I’ll be there in just a few minutes,” responded Joe, “there’s something I want to do first.
When Hoss had gone Little Joe slowly climbed the stairs and made his way to his oldest brother’s bedroom. There was something he had been planning on doing before it was time to meet his Maker, but with the symptoms catching up to him so quickly he figured he shouldn‘t put it off much longer. He made his way to his brother’s book shelf and scanned the titles until he found the one he was looking for “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Joe took the book into his room and set it on his desk. Pulling out a piece of paper he started writing a letter to his oldest brother. Joe knew that if he put the letter into this book it wouldn’t take Adam too long after he had gone to find it. This book was always one of the first ones Adam read when they got snowed in. A short while later Joe gave a soft sigh and leaned back in his chair going over the letter one last time.
If you’re reading this letter then you know that I am gone. Please forgive me for keeping you in the dark, but when the doctor said I only had one week left to live I wanted things to be the way they’ve always been. I know that you and Pa would have been trying frantically to find some way to save me and I didn’t want our last moments together to be spent in sadness. I know how much reading means to you and I thought a good way for me to say my goodbyes to you would be to do so in writing. I know we don’t always see eye to eye and that I argue with you a lot, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you and respect you. You’re more than just my oldest brother. You’ve been like a second father to me all my life. You taught me to fish and skip stones when I was little, and as I grew older you taught me to shoot, and rope, and how to bust a bronc. I’ve watched you all my life and I’ve always tried to copy you. Thank you for being an example for me and for always taking time out for your annoying “little” brother. Please take care of Pa, but most especially Hoss. You know how easily he lets people talk him into things. He’ll need someone watching over his shoulder. Now, you should consider yourself pretty special as this is the longest letter I’ve ever written to anyone. (Other than Santa, of course) Take care of yourself.
Little Joe was satisfied with his work and carefully folded the letter adding Adam’s name on the outside. He put it carefully between the pages and snuck the book back on the shelf. He felt better knowing this task was behind him. He planned to spend as much of the time he had left with Hoss, this was his parting gift to the best friend he had. For his father he had something else planned, and he desperately needed to get into Virginia City tomorrow if he was going to be able to accomplish his plan.
“Well, I best get moving if I want to get into town tomorrow,” he thought to himself.
It was four weary men that fell into their beds that evening. They had all accomplished a lot that day and had mutually agreed to call it an early night. When Little Joe had presented his request that he and Hoss be allowed to be the ones to go into town the next day he had been both surprised and pleased when Adam quickly took up their side.
“Whoa, boys,” Ben said holding up his hands in surrender. “I had already planned to let Joe go into town tomorrow. You’ve been working hard and this may be the last chance for you to get some of your rambling out of your system before the first storm hits. I don’t see any reason why Hoss shouldn’t accompany you.”
Little Joe smiled as he remembered his father’s statement. Now if some criminal would just cooperate and show his face in town tomorrow things would be perfect. Joe snuggled down into his blankets and happily fell asleep; dreaming of daring deeds, medals for bravery, and sentimental epitaphs.
The next morning Hoss and Joe bundled up and left before it was even light outside. They planned to eat breakfast at their favorite hotel. Little Joe had made this request and Hoss had been only too happy to oblige. After a leisurely breakfast the two boys split up with plans to meet at the saloon around eleven o’clock. Joe made a few stops before hurrying down the street to the little watch shop where his friend Pete worked.
“Hey, Joe,” greeted Pete as Joe briskly walked in; he looked at Joe and then whistled before continuing. “Boy you sure do look nice. You meetin’ a girl or something?”
“Actually I am,” Joe answered, “but that’s not why I went by the barbers. I want you to take a picture of me with that new camera you got a few weeks ago.”
“Well, I’d be happy to Joe,” his friend beamed. “I’ve been wanting to take practice shots with it, but most people won’t hold still long enough.”
“Well, I’ll hold still as long as you want,” Joe said, “as long as you do me a favor with it once you get it developed.”
“Whatcha wanting me to do with it?” Pete asked curiously.
Joe pulled a beautiful gold plated pocket watch from inside his coat and handed it to his friend. “I want you to put that picture of me in this pocket watch. See, if you open it up, on the side here is a little place to slip in a picture. I want to leave it…er, I mean give it to my, Pa, for Christmas.”
Pete held the pocket watch up near the light of the window examining it closely. “Where’d you get this Joe? It sure is a nice one.”
Little Joe took back the watch and admired it lovingly for a moment. “It was a gift to me from my Pa, when I turned sixteen. It had a picture of my mother in it. He had it engraved on the back, see.” Little Joe carefully turned the watch over to show his friend the inscription.
Always on my mind;
Always in my heart.
Never far away;
Though we are apart.
“And you’re giving it back to him?” asked Pete incredulously.
“Is there something wrong with that?” said Little Joe getting slightly defensive.
“Now calm down,” his friend soothed. “It’s yours to do whatever you want with. I’ll tell you what, you promise to let me practice with my camera for a half hour and then I’ll choose the best picture of the bunch and have Harvey over at the general store put a gold edge around it to match your watch. He owes me a favor.”
“That’s sounds great,” cried Joe, his disposition instantly improved.
Joe’s family would have been impressed if they could have seen how patiently he sat for his friend, the cameraman. After what seemed like an eternity to Joe; really just over thirty minutes, his friend declared that he had enough pictures to work with. Joe made arrangements with Pete to have him deliver the watch to his father as soon as it was finished. With this task having been completed Joe left the shop and headed for the saloon. He had just about put all of his affairs in order.
“Last thing on the list,” he thought, “Catch a criminal. Oh, and meet Janice at three o’clock.”
Little Joe made a point of stopping over at the jail just before meeting Hoss, to take a look through the wanted posters. Strangely enough, there were only a few of them. Joe, when he was sure he had memorized all the faces and facts, left the office and entered the saloon. Hoss was already seated at the counter and Little Joe joined him. He was pretty cold, so he asked Sam to just pour him a cup of coffee.
“Did you get all the supplies?” Joe asked as he sat down.
“Yep, I sure did.” replied Hoss jovially. “Made the deposit for Pa, got the mail, and even managed to track down that special spice Hop Sing’s been looking all over for. I thought I might give it to him for a Christmas…” Hoss stopped abruptly and suddenly became very interested in his drink. He swallowed hard and Joe could see tears starting to form in his eyes. He waited a moment then reached over and squeezed his brother’s arm.
“Come one, Hoss,” Joe said sympathetically. “You promised to keep it together for me, remember?”
Hoss sniffed then loudly cleared his throat. “Just got a little piece of dust in my eye is all. Now what are your plans’ cause I’m gonna need to”
“Hoss!” Little Joe interrupted, “over there; over there in the corner. That’s one of the men from Sherriff Coffees posters.”
“Aw come on, Joe,” replied Hoss skeptically. “You can’t be serious. There’s no way we’re actually gonna find one of those wanted men. You must be seeing things.”
“Seein’ things.” Little Joe retorted. “Well, take a look at this!” Joe pulled a folded and slightly wrinkled poster from his jacket pocket and smoothed it open onto the table.
“You took one of Roy’s posters?” Hoss accused. “You know how upset he gets when you do that.”
“I didn’t take this poster just now.” Joe defended himself. “I haven’t taken any since the last time he told me not to. I’ve had this poster since last August.”
“And you’ve been carrying it around with you all that time?” Hoss asked.
“No, I haven’t been carrying it around all this time.” Joe repeated sarcastically. “I thought it would be a good idea to bring it with me this morning. It wasn’t likely that we were gonna find us a fresh criminal. Oh no, they’d be hiding out somewhere until the coast is clear, but an old criminal might just be starting to feel comfortable enough to show his face.” Little Joe leaned back and smiled, amazed at his own cunning.
“And you say this man is here now, in the bar?” asked Hoss.
“He’s over in the corner talking to another fellow,” answered Joe. “He’s grown a mustache and his hair is longer, but I’m sure that’s him.”
Hoss started to turn around, but Joe quickly reached over the table and grabbing hold of his vest whispered frantically, “Don’t turn around. We don’t want him to get suspicious.”
“Well, Joe,” Hoss whispered back. “Are you sure that’s the man?”
“Hoss, I’d stake my life on it.” He grimaced at his poor choice of words and then again pointed to the poster. Hoss leaned over to read what Joe was pointing at.
“Five thousand dollars!” he shouted.
Little Joe hastily clamped a hand over Hoss’s mouth and shushed him. Quickly scooping up the poster and shoving it into his pocket, Little Joe looked around to see if anyone was watching them. Thankfully there weren’t too many men in the bar due to the early hour. One drunk asleep across the room, and five men in a very serious poker game. From the looks of things Joe guessed the game had been going on for quite a while; probably all night. He slyly stole a glance over his shoulder and was relieved to see that the suspect hadn’t seemed to hear Hoss’s outburst.
“Alright,” Little Joe said as he released Hoss. “Here’s the plan. I go over to their table see, and distract them. Then you come up from behind and pull your gun. Then we’ll calmly walk out of here and over to the jail where we’ll collect the reward money.”
“Joe,” Hoss started, “I don’t like this. I think if that man really is a criminal we need to go get the sherriff.”
“Hoss,” Joe replied becoming irritated. “The reward is for the “capture” of the criminal, not for telling the sherriff where to find him. Besides he may try to leave before we get back, now come on, you said you would follow my lead didn’t you?”
“Okay, Joe,” Hoss relented, “but you just better be dang sure that’s the right guy.”
“Hoss, I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.” replied Little Joe with confidence. “Now stop worrying.”
Hoss looking rather distressed said, “Joe, somehow whenever you say, “don’t worry,” that’s when everything seems to go wrong.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, brother,” said Joe assuming and injured air. “Just follow my lead; everything will be fine.”
With that last statement Joe put on his hat and stood and slowly sauntered over to the table in the corner.
“Morning gentlemen,” he greeted.
He was rewarded with an icy stare from the suspect and, the man to whom he’d been conversing, seemed suddenly very agitated.
“Do we know you?” came the husky voice of the suspect.
“No, gentlemen. I don’t think so,” Joe replied.
The man slid his glass aside and rose threateningly. “Well, then unless there’s something we can do for you; I think it’s time for you to be moving on.
As the man said these words Hoss had stolen silently up behind him and drew his gun.
“As a matter of fact mister,” he said, “we’d be right obliged if you’d come on over to the jail with us.”
Joe saw that the man was about to turn on Hoss, but before he could shout out a warning the man’s sidekick suddenly rose from his chair and lunged at Joe. Joe fell backward against a table; his assailant right on top of him. The two combatants rolled onto the floor with Joe landing on top and placing a solid blow to the side of the man‘s face. The man was much stronger than he had anticipated, however, and with a quick move he returned Joe’s punch and rolled them both over once again so that he was now on top. The man placed his hands on Joe’s throat and began squeezing with all his might. As Joe fought to release himself he could see from his awkward position that Hoss was winning the fight against his opponent, but when Hoss looked over and saw Joe in a strangle hold, he let go of his victim and went to assist his brother. Hoss roughly grabbed up the man trying to kill his brother. He held him by the middle squeezing him hard in a bear like wrestling hold. Joe grabbed a nearby chair as he saw the suspect coming up behind Hoss.
“Hoss, duck!” Joe yelled and flung the chair.
Hoss did duck, but so did the suspect and the chair landed with a horrific crash right in the middle of the heated poker game. The men that had been playing leapt up from their seats and in a rage joined in on the fight. Soon the entire bar erupted into a world class brawl. Joe was abruptly thrown over a table. He stood up shaking his head. Feeling slightly disoriented he observed the scene before him. Hoss was holding his own against three of the rather large men from the poker game, and the man that had tried to strangle him was pinned against a wall by the other two poker players. Little Joe was about to come to Hoss’s aid when he noticed the suspect stealing silently out one of the side doors into the alley. For a moment he hesitated, wondering what to do. He was both alarmed and surprised when Adam suddenly entered the bar. He too, quickly took in the scene and ran to Hoss’s aid. Joe now knowing Hoss would have some help made his decision, and followed the suspect out into the street.
Outside Little Joe blinked rapidly as the bright sunlight hit his eyes. He saw the suspect rounding the corner towards the main street and moved to follow. He quickly took note of the fact that the suspect was still armed and that his own gun must have fallen out sometime during the fight. He decided to follow him for now and see where the suspect was headed. He carefully crept along; ducking behind boxes and into doorways. When the suspect entered the livery Little Joe guessed he was getting a horse and quickly made his way back to Cochise. He noticed Sherriff Coffee entering the bar just as he turned to leave, and momentarily felt a pang of guilt over having left Hoss. He wasn’t sure yet whether Adam having shown up was something to be glad about or not. He was going to have to come up with a pretty good story to get out of trouble with his big brother on this one. He urged Cochise forward and arrived just in time to see the suspect heading down the road out of Virginia City.
Joe approached the cabin cautiously. He had followed the suspect for about thirty minutes, and watched as he made his way into an old abandoned farm house. Joe tied Cochise up out of sight and walked stealthily on foot toward the house. He noticed as he drew nearer that there were three other horses tied up near the barn. He took a chance and ran a dozen feet or so across the open yard and slunk down under a half open window. Ever so slowly he moved his position until he could see inside. The window was to a small bedroom and through the open door of the room he could just make out the figures of four men.
“I’m telling you, we have to get out of here, now.” Joe recognized the voice of the man he’d been following.
“And I’m telling you were staying put,” came another much deeper, authoritative voice. “You said no one saw you leave, and this is the perfect place for us to hide out until Sunday”
“We can’t risk robbing that bank now! If the kid goes to the Sherriff, they’re gonna know to be on the lookout.” This statement came from yet another voice.
“Now look!” Shouted the deep voice. “I’m still in charge of this here outfit and what I say goes.” Joe wondered what was going on when after a few minutes he still heard nothing, then suddenly the leader continued with a loud sigh.
“Alright, Curly, I guess we better make a run for it. We can’t afford to take any chances. Jack you and Chip get our gear together. We should be able to make it to California before the snow comes if we leave right away.”
Joe knew something had to be done quickly, and that he was the only one available to do it. Not even taking the time to formulate a plan he jumped up and slid into the bedroom through the window. He made his way across the room and managed to hide behind the open door before being spotted. He looked through the small crack trying to see if there was anything he could use to his advantage. He spotted his one chance leaning against a wall in the other room; a rifle. Saying a quick prayer he dove out from his cover and jumped the man closest to him. Knocking him down he swung around and landed a hard punch to the man he had seen in the bar. He was across the room before the other men even had a chance to blink and grabbed the rifle. Taking aim he shouted his demands. “Everyone throw down your guns and move over to the table.”
Joe was shocked when the men, staring wide eyed, suddenly started laughing hysterically.
“Go ahead and shoot kid; see what happens,” said the man with the deep voice.
Joe had a horrible sinking feeling as he looked down at the rifle he was holding. It was only now, that he noticed just how old it was. The trigger was rusted and one of the barrels had a huge crack down the side. He doubted it was even loaded and if it was, it was much more likely that he would be the one injured should he choose to fire. He slowly lowered the gun and awaited his fate. He had to admit that if he could choose a way to go this was much more appealing than dying of some sickness.
“Tie him up, Jack,” the leader said to the man Joe had followed. “We’ll leave him here and by the time anyone finds him we’ll be long gone. That is if anyone finds him.”
Jack tied him, none to gently, to a chair and Joe watched helplessly as the four criminals made their escape. As soon as they shut the door he started working at the ropes. After what seemed like an eternity Joe stopped, gasping for breath. He looked around the room for something to help him escape and let out a whoop when he saw some broken glass lying on top of the table. He managed to bounce his chair over and get hold of one of the larger pieces; within moments he was free and ran outside. He jumped on Cochise and galloped toward Virginia City. He knew there was no chance of catching the men now, but he wanted to tell Sherriff Coffee about them anyway. The sheriff could at least send out a wire to all the nearby towns, and maybe someone else would be able to apprehend them.
Back in town Joe headed for the bar; he wanted to find Hoss before he went over to see the Sherriff. He was just about to enter the establishment when he heard a high shrill voice call his name.
“Joseph Cartwright!” cried Janice Collins.
“Uh oh,” thought Joe. He’d forgotten all about her.
“I’ll have you know, Joseph Cartwright,” snapped Janice, “that I waited over at that hotel for more than an hour for you.”
“Now Janice,” interjected Joe, “You have to give me a chance to explain.”
“Oh really, well I just happened to run into the most interesting person while I was waiting in the lobby.”
“You did?” squeaked Joe.
“Yes,” she answered coolly. “Does the name Millie Henderson mean anything to you?”
“ M…M…M…Millie” Joe stammered.
“Yes, and don’t think for one minute that she didn’t tell me all about the “date” you had with her the day before yesterday. Honestly, Joe, I don’t know whether to be insulted that I’m your second date of the week, or to be relieved that she was first so that she could warn me about you.”
“But Janice, I swear to you it’s not what you think.” Joe tried unsuccessfully to defend himself.
“Not one more word, Joe Cartwright. I don’t ever want to see you again,” and with that she spun herself fully around and stalked off down the boardwalk.
Joe stood dejected for a few moments and then suddenly remembered why he was standing there in the first place. Putting all thoughts of Janice out of his mind he entered the bar.
“Hey, Sam,” Joe called to the bartender after glancing around the room. “Did you see where my brothers went?”
“Over to the jail with Sherriff Coffee,” he’s keeping them there until your father has a chance to come in and pay the damages. Neither of them had much money on them, and until the damages are paid I don’t want any of you Cartwright’s coming in here.”
Little Joe couldn’t exactly blame Sam for being angry. The inside of the bar looked like a herd of cattle had stampeded and then an Indian war party had raided soon afterwards.
“Boy, Sam,” he said giving a weak grin. “I sure am sorry about the mess, I’m sure we’ll get everything settled real soon.”
Joe backed quickly out the door and headed for the jail. He had no idea how he was going to explain things to Adam or Pa for that matter. Things were not going at all the way he had planned. Now not only did he have no money to pay Pa for the bull, but he had the added damages to the saloon to pay for. He had ruined his last opportunity for a date with a pretty girl, and Adam had gotten mixed up into the fight at the bar. He let out a heavy sigh and realized he might have to let the rest of his family in on his secret. He half- heartedly hoped that Hoss had already told Adam so that he wouldn’t have to face what he was sure to be a very angry oldest brother. Joe took a deep breath and entered the Sherriff’s office.
“Well, so you decided to show up and take your licks did you?” Sherriff Coffee greeted him, looking slightly amused. “I don’t suppose you have the money on you to take care of those damages over at the saloon either, do you?”
“Well, Roy, not exactly.” Joe answered looking sheepishly at the sherriff.
“You can just join your brothers in the next room then, until your pa gets here,” Roy said. “I sent my deputy after him already, so until then you can just make yourself comfortable in one of my cells.”
Joe reluctantly followed Sherriff Coffee into the next room and immediately noticed the bad shape his brothers were in. Adam and Hoss were sharing a cell with one of the men from the poker game. Joe assumed the others must have been able to pay their share of the damages. Sherriff Coffee opened the cell next to them and Little Joe stepped inside. He glanced over at his brothers who were both giving him the evil eye and swallowed uncomfortably. He gave them a small wave and a lopsided grin which he quickly wiped off his face when Hoss suddenly stepped up to the bars. Joe instinctively backed away.
“Joe,” began Hoss his voice etched with anger. “Where’ve you been?”
Joe took off his hat and nervously began rolling it around in his hands, “Where’ve I been?” he repeated, “Well, you see the…the man I told you about; you know from the poster…well see he slipped out the side door, so I sort of followed him.”
“You sort of followed him,” repeated Adam sarcastically. “And just why were you sort of following this man?”
“Well, because uh…because…” Joe stammered helplessly.
“Just tell him the truth, Joe,” Hoss said.
Joe sighed and then began to tell Adam the whole miserable story. When Joe had finished his tale he looked at Adam and tried to read his reaction. After getting nothing but cold stony silence; he slowly sank to his bunk and tossed his hat on the bed next to him.
“So you’re telling me that not only are you dying from some mysterious unknown illness, but that because of this same illness you have less than a week left to live, is that it?” asked Adam his voice even.
“Right,” said Joe, glad that Adam seemed to be comprehending.
Adam continued, “And because of this pre-conceived idea that you were dying you came up with this half-cocked plan to come into town today and catch yourself a criminal.”
“Well, yeah,” said Joe defensively; maybe Adam wasn’t catching on as fast as he had thought.
“Joe, needed the money, and besides that, he didn’t want to go with people feeling sorry and bad and all that, he wanted folks to remember him as a hero.” chimed in Hoss.
Joe gave him and appreciative smile.
“A hero.” Adam mimicked, “You say Joe needed the money. Could that perhaps have anything to do with a certain missing bull?”
Little Joe looked at Adam in alarm, “How do you know about that?” he questioned.
“Well, you see, little brother,” Adam answered, “that was the reason I came into town looking for you two. Pa went by the Henderson place this morning to invite them to our annual Christmas party, and was rather surprised to see our new bull penned up in their yard. He started to ask Dan about it when Dan suddenly up and punched Pa in the jaw. It seems he was getting a little tired of us Cartwright’s accusing him of stealing. Pa sent me into town to fetch you, as I’m sure you can guess he has a few questions for you.
“I most certainly do,” came Ben’s booming voice.
All three brothers shot to attention as their father made his way over to the cells.
“Now, Ben, your questions are just gonna have to wait until I ask mine.” interrupted Sherriff Coffee. “Now, what were you boys saying about Joe going after some criminal off of a wanted poster?”
“Well, Roy,” began Little Joe, “you see I needed to catch a criminal for the reward money so I could pay Pa back for the bull.”
“And you took one of my posters again, is that what you’re saying?” the Sherriff crossed his arms over his chest looking none to amused.
“Oh no,” squeaked Little Joe, “see this was an old poster. I recognized one of the men in the bar and Hoss and I tried to get him over here to the jail, and that’s what started the fight. Well, the man we were after snuck out one of the side doors and so I took off after him.”
“Let me see that poster,” the Sherriff interrupted with urgency.
Joe took the poster out of his pocket and handed it to the Sherriff. Roy unfolded it and suddenly went white as a sheet.
“Joe, you didn’t follow him to his hide out did you? Did this man see you following him?” Sherriff Coffee asked desperately.
Joe slunk back in his cell afraid to answer. “Well, I guess I sort of did follow him all the way, and he sort of did see me; as a matter of fact he kind of tied me up after I tried to capture him and the other men with him.”
Roy Coffee nearly shook with rage, “of all the stupid, lame-brained, idiotic…”
“Roy, what is it?” Ben demanded
Roy reeled around toward Ben releasing his wrath on him, “I’ve been staking out this man, Jack Marauder, and his gang for more than two weeks. I knew him and his boys had been around and were probably going to try and rob the bank. I’ve had the bank under surveillance night and day waiting for them to make a move. Jack and one of the other fellows he’s with are wanted, but to get the other two I’d have to actually catch them in a crime. Now it seems your boy here has single handedly undone weeks of work.” Roy turned his angry countenance back to Joe. “I don’t suppose you happened to notice which way they was going?” he asked sarcastically.
Joe grimaced slightly then answered, “They said something about making it to California before the snow comes.”
“California,” repeated Roy, “boy, you just better hope I can get a wire out in time for someone to catch them; because the way I’m feeling right now I just might end up charging you with aiding and abetting those criminals.”
Roy turned to leave and Ben called after him. “Roy, send the doctor over to take a look at Adam and Hoss will you?”
Roy mumbled something unintelligible in return; slamming the door shut on his way out.
The room was suddenly very quiet as three pairs of accusing eyes aimed at Joe. Little Joe didn’t dare try to return any of the gazes; instead he decided to concentrate very hard on a crack in the floor. After several minutes of interminable silence Hoss suddenly spoke up.
“Ah, Pa, you know he didn’t really mean any harm.”
Joe shot Hoss an appreciative glance and then chanced a look at his father. That was a mistake. His father’s fiery glare sent chills down his spine and he suddenly felt like he was twelve-year- old again.
“Whether or not Joseph meant to cause any harm, Hoss,” His father answered, but kept his piercing gaze on his youngest son. “Doesn’t make much difference; because whether he meant to or not, he most certainly did cause harm. What do you have to say for yourself, Joseph?”
“Oh, didn’t he tell you?” Adam interrupted, “It seems he’s dying. He has only a few days left to live; if I understood him correctly. Isn’t that right, Joe?”
Joe, wounded by his brother’s sarcasm was about to speak up when once again Hoss rushed to his defense.
“Adam, how can you talk to Joe like that at a time like this? He was just trying to earn that reward money so he could pay Pa back for that bull; besides that bull being over there is just as much my fault as it is his.”
“What’s all this talk of dying?” Ben interrupted.
“Who’s dying?” came the voice of Doc Martin as he entered the room.
“It’s okay, Doc, the jig is up,” said Little Joe despairingly. “Go ahead and tell them.”
“Joe, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” came the doctor’s puzzled reply.
“Doc,” said Hoss, “Joe overheard you telling your wife that he only had a week to live, and how you didn’t want to tell nobody about it.”
“I never said any such thing,” retorted Doc Martin.
Five very confused faces looked back and forth between each other.
“Joe,” Adam finally spoke, “You didn’t actually go and talk to Doc Martin, did you?”
“Well, no.” he replied, “When I was walking up to the office the door was open and I heard the Doc telling his wife that I had only a week left. You even mentioned all the symptoms I’ve been having.” Joe turned to the Doc looking for an explanation.
“What symptoms?” Doc asked.
“You know. Restlessness, change in appetite, forgetfulness…”
“Oh no,” groaned Doc Martin. “Joseph, I wasn’t talking about you. I wasn’t even talking about anyone dying for that matter. I was talking about Joe Candles from Carson City. I’ve been friends with his father for a long time and since his wife died a few years ago he just smothers that boy. Well, it seems Joe has decided to elope with a young girl he’s been secretly courting. They’re leaving at the end of the week for Sacramento where they’re getting married and then heading for Oregon. Those symptoms you overheard me describing were of a young boy in love. He confided in me last time I was in Carson and I was telling my wife that I had decided not to tell his father; after all the boy has a right to live his own life.”
During the exchange a great change was coming over Little Joe Cartwright.
“I’m not going to die?” he asked himself. “I’m not actually dying?”
He let out an ear piercing whoop and then ran to the bars toward Hoss.
“Did you hear that, Hoss,” I’m going to live!” he said joyfully.
Joe looked at Hoss’s face and his happiness started to drain. Hoss did not look excited. As a matter of fact he looked angry; very angry.
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Little Brother.” Came Hoss’s menacing response.
Joe slowly backed away from the bars, suddenly very glad that he was in his own cell.
Just then Sherriff Coffee walked back into the jail.
“Well, it looks like them criminals have gotten clean away. The lines are down at the telegraph office for at least two days. They’re making some kind of dad-blame repairs.” Roy took off his hat slapping it roughly against the side of his leg.
Joe looked solemnly around the room at a sea of faces in varying degrees of anger. Just the tiniest part of him was wishing that the doctor had confirmed his story. He looked to his father and awaited sentencing.
His father stood tall and silent, his mouth set in a grim line. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, he spoke. Not to Joe, but to Sherriff Coffee.
“Roy,” he said decidedly, “one week.”
“Come again,” said Roy.
“One week,” Ben repeated. “That seems to be the theme for all the trouble Joe has managed to cause. I think one week in your jail here will help him to learn a lesson.”
“You’re leaving me in jail,” Joe whimpered. “But…but…but”
“But nothing, Joseph,” his father replied firmly, “This whole thing wouldn’t have happened if you had gone to see the doctor like I told you to instead of eavesdropping. Honestly you should know better than that by now.” Ben turned away from his sorrowful youngest and turned again to Roy. “How much do Hoss and Adam owe for damages?” he asked.
“Oh, about two hundred dollars should cover their share I think.” Roy answered.
Ben took his wallet out of his jacket and paid Roy.
“I’ll pay Joe’s fine when I come to get him in a week.” Ben said.
Roy unlocked the cell and let Adam and Hoss out. Even as Adam was wincing from the pain of standing he still managed to give Joe a small smirk.
Joe waited for Hoss to give him a cold stare or some cutting remark, but his older brother wouldn’t even look in his direction. He once more sat dejectedly down on the cot as his large sad eyes followed his family out of the room.
Two day later Adam entered his room holding his arms tightly to him. His family had followed Doc Martin to his office after leaving Joe at the jail. The Doc had told Adam that his ribs had been badly bruised during the fight, and was lucky that they weren’t broken. He wasn’t feeling very lucky at the moment though. His father had insisted he take some time off to recuperate and he was beginning to go stir crazy. He hated to admit it, but he missed having Joe around the house. His youngest brother was always up to something or other and with Joe’s energy and zest for life, things at the ranch were rarely dull. He sighed and looked around his room for a project to work on and decided to read a book. With Christmas just three weeks away he went for one of his favorite wintertime novels. He was surprised when he opened the book and saw a letter there. It had his name on it. Adam knew Joe had written it; he would recognize his younger brother’s scrawly handwriting anywhere. Openig the letter and began to read…
“Pa, hey, Pa,” Adam shouted running down the stairs. “You’ve got to see this letter Joe left for me.”
Ben had been sitting at his desk with some paperwork, trying very hard to ignore the icy stares coming from the direction of the leather chair in the living room, and the incessant banging and clanking that kept coming from the kitchen. Hoss being, well Hoss, had been ready to go and get Joe almost before they had gotten back to the ranch house, and Hop Sing had not taken the news that Ben’s number three son would be spending a week in jail very well at all. Ben was determined to see his son’s punishment through, however and so far had managed to ignore the ill feelings being directed at him by the more sensitive members of his family. He was about to take his papers up to his room for a little peace and quiet when Adam’s shouts interrupted him. He met Adam near the settee and took the letter. Hoss had also jumped up and began reading over his father’s shoulder. They finished reading at the same time and both looked at each other with teary eyes. Before any of them could make a comment on the letter there was a knock at the door. Ben quickly went to the door and was surprised to see one of Joe’s friends from town.
“Come in, come in.” he said to the boy.
“Oh thanks, Mr. Cartwright, but I can’t stay,” said Pete. “I just came to deliver this for you. Joe said it was a Christmas present for you, but that you should open it as soon as you got it. I don’t think he figured I would finish it so quickly, but I’m getting real good with developing my pictures and everything. Well, I better get back to town or my folks will worry. Have a merry Christmas, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben waved goodbye to Pete and shut the door. He wasn’t sure whether he should open the gift or not, but curiosity got the better of him and he quickly tore open the paper and lifted the lid of a rather plain box. He was puzzled when he saw Joe’s pocket watch that he had given him. He lifted the item out of the box and carefully opened it. Tears sprang to his eyes when he saw the picture there. He had been expecting to see an image of his wife, but in its place was a picture of his boyishly handsome young son. Somehow the cameraman had managed to capture a gleam of mischief in his eyes and they seemed to sparkle and his smile radiated his charming personality. He turned the watch over to once again read the inscription he knew was there, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw that Joe had added his and his mother’s initials to the bottom.
“Well, what are you two waiting for?” Ben asked.
“Where we going, Pa?” Hoss questioned.
“To get that scamp of a brother of yours out of jail,” He responded jovially, reaching for his jacket.
Adam smiled and made his way to the coat rack.
“Hot Diggity!” exclaimed Hoss.
Hop Sing who had made his way out into the living room to see what all the commotion was about hurriedly turned back to his kitchen. He quickly made a mental list to make sure he had everything he needed to make all of Little Joe’s favorite foods.
As the family made their way into town their thoughts were as one. They couldn’t make it without Little Joe; not even for one week.
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