The Silver Dollar (by JoanS)

Summary:  Just how deep of a hole will Joe dig for himself?  And when the consequences of being restricted from the Silver Dollar seem unjust…  Could it get any worse?  This is Joe we’re talking about.

Rating:  K+  (14,030 words)

The Silver Dollar

Ben Cartwright gave his youngest son a frustrated look. “Joseph, I just don’t understand you,” he said in a weary tone. “How many times have you been told that you’re not to go into the saloon when you’re supposed to be working?”

 

Joe shrugged and tried to look contrite, but it was difficult in view of the rather nice memory he had of the few hours he’d managed to spend in the Silver Dollar that afternoon. “I dunno,” he said.

 

“You don’t know!” repeated his father. “I’m not surprised you have no idea, because frankly Joseph, neither do I! I lost count a long time ago.” Joe gave his father an understanding look … for he knew what it was to lose count of something. He did it quite often. His look was lost on his father though, for Ben merely sighed wearily and rubbed his temples. “It’s not that I mind you having the occasional drink,” he continued. “Everyone deserves to have a bit of relaxation now and then and you’re old enough to have the occasional drink, but not in the middle of a week day and not when you have work to do!”

 

Joe’s head shot up. “But I’d done my work,” he said, a touch defensively and then swallowed at the look his father shot him at the remark. “Well … sorta ….” he acknowledged as Ben continued to glare at him.

 

“Sorta,” sniffed his father. “When you’re sent into town to get supplies young man, that includes bringing them back home again.”

 

“I did!” interrupted Joe, his remark causing Adam, who was seated on the sofa, to raise an eyebrow and wonder why his youngest brother could never learn to keep his mouth shut. It seemed that Joe was bound and determined to rile their father as much as possible today and Adam wondered just how many beers the youngster had polished off before making it home. However many he’d had … it seemed to be one too many … for Joe was trying to stare down his father in a way that he never would have done without alcohol in his system.

 

“Yes … you did!” thundered Ben, pounding his fist on the table and making everyone in the room jump slightly. “You brought the supplies home … but three hours late! Now you tell me what you were doing in the Silver Dollar for three full hours!” He pointed his finger under Joe’s nose and his son swallowed again and made a face.

 

“Just having a drink,” Joe muttered.

 

“Just having a drink!” repeated Ben.

 

Hoss turned from the fireplace where he’d been steadily poking at the fire for the past ten minutes since Joe had come through the front doorway. He’d listened to every word of the exchange between his father and brother, wincing each time Joe had managed to dig himself further into the hole he was making. Hoss shot Adam a look of frustration and Adam rolled his eyes at him, before looking down and pretending to read the book that was on his lap.

 

“Just having a drink!” repeated Ben again. His dark eyes bored into the bland face of his youngest son and he wondered for a moment if Joseph in fact even understood how angry he was. The youngster’s eyes had a slight far-away look in them and Ben gathered that it was induced by the beer he’d imbibed that afternoon. “And nothing else?”

 

Joe screwed up his face for a moment and tried to focus on exactly how he’d spent the three hours in the saloon. A brief vision of a scantily-clad blonde girl sitting on his knee crossed his mind, but for the life of him he couldn’t recall her name. “Not really,” he said, shrugging again.

 

Ben’s eyes narrowed as he stared at his son and wondered just how true his statement was. In the interests of his impending headache, he decided to drop that line of questioning, for sometimes he knew that it was better not to know the answer to certain questions. A quick glance across the room at Adam and Hoss, who were studiously trying to appear as if they weren’t listening to the conversation, reminded him of that fact, for many times in years gone by he’d learnt to only ask what was necessary.

 

Ben lowered his voice slightly as he tried to keep control of his emotions. “Joseph, I don’t want a son of mine making a fool of himself in public,” he said and then held up his hand as Joe opened his mouth to speak. “Don’t try to deny it son,” he continued. “Every time you go into the Silver Dollar you end up in some sort of trouble,” he said. “Now in view of your transgression today …”

 

“What’s transgression mean?” interrupted Joe and Adam shook his head slightly in response to the remark. This time it was Hoss’ turn to roll his eyes at Adam.

 

Ben checked his rising temper. “A transgression,” he said. “Is a wrongdoing.” He sat down at his desk and folded his arms in front of his chest. “In view of your trans … wrongdoing today, I’m afraid I have no choice but to not allow you in the Silver Dollar for a while Joseph. Perhaps that might encourage you to have a bit more common sense in the future.”

 

Joe’s eyes widened for a moment and then he shrugged. “OK,” he said. “I guess that’s fair Pa.”

 

Ben raised an eyebrow as he considered that fact that perhaps Joseph was finally growing up and accepting his judgements. Normally the youngster would have argued the point with him, but perhaps the alcohol within him had caused him to be less volatile today? “Go and get the buckboard unloaded for Hop Sing,” he added, waving his hand in the direction of the front door. “He’s been waiting for those supplies all afternoon.”

 

Joe gave his father a lopsided grin. “Sure thing Pa,” he said as he turned towards the door. “And don’t worry bout me missing the Silver Dollar too much. I reckon I’ve had my fill of beer for a while.” He winked at his two brothers as he passed them. “Sides,” he added as an afterthought. “There’ll be plenty of beer and … other stuff … at the Gala Night next weekend. I’ll save up until then.”

 

Adam closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose in disbelief at his youngest brother’s words, marvelling as he did so just how stupid Joe could be at times.

 

“You’ll do what?” asked his father.

 

Joe stopped at the front door and shot his father one of his broad smiles. “I said that I’ll save up for the Gala Night next weekend Pa,” he said in a louder voice. “I reckon after a week or so of not drinking, the beer’ll taste right sweet by then.”

 

Ben stood up again. “Joseph, I said that you’ll not be going into the Silver Dollar for quite a while,” he said. “Gala Night or no Gala Night.”

 

Joe’s eyes widened and he took his hand off the doorknob. He stared at his father in disbelief for a moment before opening his mouth. “You ain’t serious Pa!” he gasped.

 

Ben walked over the fireplace and held his hands out to warm them. “I’m deadly serious Joe,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll be missing the Gala Night, young man.”

 

Joe took a few steps towards his father. “But … but it’s the Gala Night!” he said in dismay.

 

Ben nodded his head slowly. “Yes, it’s the Gala Night,” he said. “And you won’t be attending it.”

 

Joe continued to stare at his father for a moment, his jaw dropping as he then glanced at first Adam and then Hoss. Adam simply looked back at him and shook his head slightly before picking up his book and turning a page. Hoss gave his younger brother a sympathetic smile. “Pa …” he began

 

Ben put up his hand to stop him. “Don’t you start pleading for him Hoss,” he said. “I’ve made my decision.”

 

“But Sam at the Silver Dollar has had the place all done up for it,” said Joe. “He’s bringing them show girls all the way from San Francisco for it. It’s gonna be one hell of … I mean …. It’s gonna be one great show!”

 

“So I believe,” said Ben mildly.

 

“And …” Joe swallowed as he tried to think of something … anything … to change his father’s mind. “And … everyone’s going,” he added.

 

“Everyone except you,” said Ben.

 

Joe’s eyes narrowed. “But that ain’t fair!” he shouted.

 

Ben turned from the fireplace. “Don’t you raise your voice to me boy,” he said in a low tone. Joe immediately shut his mouth and took a step backward, for all three Cartwright sons knew that in spite of the volume their father’s voice was capable of achieving, it was when he lowered his voice in that way that they knew to be wary.

 

“I’m sorry Pa,” he said, trying to sound contrite. “But it’s just that I’ve been looking forward to the Gala Night for weeks. There ain’t never been one in Virginia City before and I really wanna go.”

 

Ben sighed. “Joe, I know all that son,” he said. “But I also know that you haven’t exactly been fair to a lot of people lately either. You’ve been spending too much time in the Silver Dollar these past few weeks, neglecting your work and making others make up for it. Letting Hop Sing down with those supplies today was just the final straw. You’re not going to The Gala Night next weekend and that’s all there is to it.” He shot his angry son a frustrated look. “Perhaps this might just get some common sense into that head of yours in the future.” He turned back to the fireplace again. “Now go and unload those supplies as you were told to do.”

 

Joe’s head shot up again. “I don’t believe it!” he shouted. “You ain’t being fair Pa! All my friends are going!”

 

“Joseph, you have caused this yourself,” said his father. “Now please go and unload those supplies for Hop Sing before I really lose my temper with you!”

 

Joe stood for a moment clenching his fists and his eyes blazing. After a moment, he turned on his heel, strode to the door and went outside, slamming the door behind him with an intensity that shook several of the glasses that Hop Sing had placed on the dining room table in readiness for supper. Ben, Adam and Hoss all winced at the sound.

 

There was silence in the room for two minutes before Hoss broke it. “Pa,” he began.

 

“I’ve made my decision Hoss,” interrupted his father, trying to forestall the inevitable pleading that he knew would follow. “There’s no point in you trying to change it.”

 

Hoss put his hands into his pockets and looked at his feet as he shuffled them slightly. “But he’s been looking forward to the Gala Night for weeks,” he said.

 

“Then he should have had some consideration for other people,” said Ben in a tight voice. He did feel slightly guilty at his punishment for Joseph, for if the truth were told he’d forgotten all about the Gala Night until his youngest son had mentioned it. However, once he had decided on a punishment for one of his sons he felt it important to stick to it and … Gala Night or no Gala Night … Joe had to learn to do the right thing. After all, it was his job as his father to teach him. Much and all as his heart went out to the youngster, he had to stand firm with his decision for Joe’s own good.

 

“Adam?” said Hoss, turning to his brother in the hopes of creating an ally in him. “You know how much he’s been looking forward to it.”

 

Adam nodded. “Yes I do,” he acknowledged. “We’ve all been looking forward to it. But Pa’s right, Hoss. Joe has to learn a lesson and I reckon that this might be just the thing to teach him.”

 

Ben stared into the fireplace and said nothing. Hoss looked from Adam to his father and sighed as he shuffled his feet again. “I guess,” he said in a low voice.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

Adam sat down on a hay bale and watched Joe working in the stall beside him. The youngster was forking hay as if his very life depended on it. “What’s the rush?” Adam asked, sitting back and stretching his legs out in front of him. “Got somewhere to go?” The moment the words were out of his mouth he winced, wishing he had bitten his tongue before uttering them. The way Joe had been these last few days, he was sure that he’d take offence at the thoughtless comment and sure enough his brother stopped working for a moment and shot him a dark look.

 

“Is that supposed to be funny?” he asked sarcastically.

 

Adam pulled a face and shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean …”

 

“I know what you meant!” snapped Joe. “Tonight’s the Gala Night … and no …. I guess I’ve got nowhere to go. Happy now?” He began to rake again, his eyes blazing and his teeth clenched.

 

Adam shook his head slightly and sighed. “You know I didn’t mean it like that Joe,” he said. “I was just making conversation.”

 

“Well go make it with someone else,” snapped Joe shortly. “I ain’t interested.”

 

Adam rubbed his nose in an irritated fashion. “You know that the show girls will be here for a few days,” he said. “Maybe you’ll get to see them at some other time?”

 

Joe stopped again and leant on his rake. “Yeah?” he asked sarcastically. “Like when? You think that they’re gonna put on another show just for me? Besides, Pa didn’t put no time limit on my punishment remember? He ain’t gonna let me back into the Silver Dollar until them girls is well and truly gone and that ain’t fair!”

 

“Joe, you know that’s not true,” said Adam calmly.

 

“Is too!” shouted Joe angrily. “And if you were any kind of brother you’d have stood up for me with Pa!”

 

“How do you know I didn’t?” asked Adam reasonably. “And it’s no use shouting at me … I’m not the one punishing you.”

 

Joe acknowledged his brother’s remarks with a slight nod of his head. “I guess,” he said softly. He sat down on the hay bale next to Adam and hung his head. “It’s just so darned …” his voice trailed away.

 

Adam put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, but Joe immediately shrugged it off again. “Don’t,” he said irritably. “I don’t need your sympathy!” He stood up and stomped off out of the barn, leaving his brother shaking his head behind him.

 

“Still at it?” said a voice behind him and Adam turned to see Hoss standing there with some tack in his hand. “I was hoping he’d have calmed down by now.”

 

Adam shook his head. “You know our little brother,” he said. “He won’t get over it until the Gala Night is well and truly over.”

 

“You reckon if I tried talking to Pa again then he might …” began Hoss with a hopeful look in his eyes.

 

Adam shook his head. “You’d be wasting your breath,” he said. “You know that as well as I do brother.”

 

“I reckon,” said Hoss. “Still, I ain’t gonna enjoy it much without Joe there. It just won’t be the same.”

 

Adam nodded. “He does tend to lend an air of excitement to the night,” he admitted dryly. “Especially when there are pretty girls around. Pity in a way, but then again …”

 

“I know, I know,” said Hoss. “You think he deserves it. I just wish he were coming but. Those girls are gonna be a sight fer sure and Joe should get a chance to see em.”

 

Outside the barn Joe nodded his head slightly and a determined look came into his eyes as he eavesdropped on his brothers’ conversation. “I should,” he said in a half whisper. “But don’t you worry brother, cause I’m gonna see them show girls no matter what!”

 

^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

Hoss walked down the stairs while straightening his necktie a little self-consciously. “I sure never wore one of these to the Silver Dollar before,” he said ruefully. “Don’t see why we haveta get all doodied up nohows.”

 

Adam walked over and untied his brother’s tie before beginning to do it up again correctly. “Sam has gone to a lot of trouble for tonight,” he said. “The dress code is different.”

 

Hoss made a face. “Don’t know much bout any code,” he said. “But I still don’t see why we haveta wear ties.”

 

Ben smiled at the sight of his eldest son yet again looking after the interests of his younger brother as he straightened first his tie, then his coat and checked his hair was all slicked down. Since the moment Hoss’ mother Inger had died, Adam had taken charge of his little brother and made sure that he was looked after. Even now when they were both grown men, old habits were hard to overcome and he always made sure that Hoss was well-presented before they left for a social occasion. He’d done the same for Joe before the youngster had fancied himself as a ladies man and taken over his grooming himself, but Ben had noticed that Adam still always cast an appraising eye over his youngest brother to ensure that the Cartwright name was not sullied by his appearance.

 

At the thought of his youngest son, Ben’s thoughts plummeted yet again as they had been doing all week. The boy was still extremely angry with his father for the punishment he’d meted out to him and in a way Ben couldn’t blame him. He heart had gone out to the young man earlier this evening at the supper table as he’d sat in stony silence when his brothers had left the table to get ready for tonight’s event. He’d tried to reason with him again, but all he’d got from the boy was a shrug of the shoulders and an announcement that he was going to his room.

 

Hoss had declared yesterday that he wasn’t going to the Gala Night either if Joe wasn’t going, but to the youngest Cartwright’s credit he’d soon talked his brother around. After all, Joe had reasoned with him, why should two of them miss out? Hoss and Adam had been looking forward to this event as much as he had and Hoss missing it wasn’t going to solve his problem. Ben had listened to the conversation with a touch of pride, for it showed that in spite of his feelings Joseph was finally considering someone else for a change.

 

Ben had considered not going himself, but at the last minute had relented and decided to accompany his two older sons. He wasn’t against a pretty face and a nice figure himself, and the way Joe was behaving by going to his room, it wasn’t as if he was going to do him any good by staying here tonight. Ben sincerely hoped that by tomorrow when all this was over, Joseph would calm down and they could all get back to normal, but for tonight … well they may as well enjoy themselves while they could.

 

“Ready boys?” he asked, putting on his coat. He gave them each a smile and they grinned back, but their father noticed that the grins didn’t reach their eyes. As they left the living room, all their thoughts were on the youngest member of the family upstairs in his room and their hearts were heavy because of it. As they rode from the front yard, Ben gave one last glance over his shoulder at the dim light that emanated from his youngest son’s bedroom window and sighed.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

If Ben had known the whereabouts of his youngest son at that moment his thoughts may been slightly different, for Joe Cartwright was not moping in his room as his family thought, but was dismounting from his horse in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon. As he straightened up his best blue suit coat and patted down his carefully slicked-down curls, Joe knew that he was a thing of beauty, for weren’t all the saloon girls in the Silver Dollar always telling him so?

 

He drew himself up to his full height and wished, as he usually tended to before a social night out, that he were taller. Not that it seemed to worry the ladies, but if he had his way he would have added an inch or two to his height. Maybe it would have made his father and brothers treat him with more respect, he thought ruefully.

 

At the thought of his father, a brief flash of guilt crossed his mind at what he’d done. Getting out of his room was easy, for he’d been sliding across the roof and climbing down the tree for as long as he could remember. Propping some pillows under his blankets to make it look as if he were sleeping was part of his routine as well, so he hadn’t even given that a thought. What did play on his mind as he hitched up his horse was the fact that he might be caught and that was what concerned him the most.

 

After all, Pa and his brothers had made it abundantly clear at supper that they were coming to the Gala Night and Joe was taking quite a risk by being there at all. He patted the old brown mare that he’d been forced to take from the corral behind the barn, for there was no way that Cochise wouldn’t have been missed if he’d taken his own horse out of his stall. It was a shame that he had to ride Brandy into town though, as he knew that he looked particularly fine on Cochise when he was dressed up.

 

He flinched slightly as he walked along the sidewalk towards the Silver Dollar … for he’d been careful to leave Brandy around the corner from the saloon … thinking about what his Pa would say if he could see him now. The feeling of guilt subsided as quickly as it had come as he considered that his Pa was to blame for the way he’d acted tonight anyway and that it was all his fault. If he hadn’t been so unreasonable, then Joe wouldn’t have been forced to be so secretive.

 

He hesitated for a moment at the swinging door of the saloon, listening to the sounds of the gaiety that was coming from within. Part of him thrilled to it and he longed to go in quickly, but the small sensible of him made him put his head down and lower his hat over his face. After all, it wouldn’t do to be noticed by too many people tonight. Joe figured that could have a good look at the San Francisco show girls, have a couple of quiet beers in a corner where no one would notice him and still have time to leave before the rest of his family arrived. With any luck, his father would never be any the wiser that he’d even been here at all. It wasn’t an ideal plan, but under the circumstances it was the best he could do.

 

Given the amount of time that Hoss always took to get ready, Joe figured that he had a good hour to amuse himself before having to leave. To make sure that he was safe, he was prepared to allow himself only half that time here and that should be plenty of time to get a good look at those girls and fit in a couple of beers. By the time Pa and his brothers arrived he’d be well on his way to The Ponderosa by the back trails.

 

Joe took a deep breath and entered the Silver Dollar, his eyes wide with the excitement of what the next half hour was going to bring. “Looks great don’t it?” said a voice by his side and Joe turned to see Mitch Devlin standing next to him with a drink in his hand. “Been waiting for ya Joe,” he added. “I thought you’d be here by now.” Mitch looked over Joe’s shoulder. “Ain’t ya brothers with ya?”

 

Joe drew his friend by the arm into a corner. “Shh!” he said, putting his finger to his lip. “I ain’t supposed to be here Mitch, so you gotta keep it quiet.”

 

Mitch pulled a face. “Ain’t gonna be nuthin quiet about tonight,” he said with a short laugh, motioning to the activity around them. Joe looked with interest at the decorations that had been strung up around the saloon and the large platform that had been set up at one end of the room.

 

“Looks great,” he breathed with excitement. “You got a look at them show girls yet, Mitch?”

 

Mitch shook his head. “Nah! Sam is being real mean and keeping em in the back room until the show starts.”

 

Joe’s face fell. “When is that gonna be?” he asked.

 

Mitch shrugged and took a sip of his beer before answering. “Not for an hour yet. Seems that Sam is trying to get everyone to drink up while we wait. He’s a good businessman, that Sam,” he added.

 

“An hour?” cried Joe. “I can’t wait an hour!”

 

Mitch leant against the wall and continued to drink. “Just get a beer and the time will pass real quick,” he said with a grin. “Stop being so anxious Joe, they’ll come out in time.”

 

“But you don’t understand!” said Joe, his heart sinking. “I can’t wait an hour. I told you that I’m not supposed to be here. My Pa and my brothers are gonna be here later on and I have to be gone before they see me!”

 

Mitch gave his friend a sympathetic look. “Too bad,” he said. “What you’d do this time?”

 

Joe ignored the question. “All this for nuthin,” he said angrily, thinking of all the trouble he’d taken to get here.

 

“And you look right fine too,” Mitch sympathised. “Seems a waste not to let them show girls get the chance to meet ya Joe.”

 

“Thanks …. I know.” Joe nodded in agreement, knowing for sure that he would have made an impression on the girls. Already he’d noticed several of the regular saloon girls eyeing him off and he didn’t blame them one bit, for he knew that he looked his best in his blue suit. “I know,” he repeated miserably. He turned at a movement beside him and smiled at the blonde saloon girl that he remembered had been sitting on his knee the other afternoon before he’d been in trouble from his Pa. For the life of him he couldn’t remember her name, but he flashed her a smile anyway.

 

“Hi Joe,” she breathed and tucked her arm around his. “I was hoping you would be in tonight.”

 

“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said absently. “Hey Mitch! How about getting me a drink? I may as well have a couple even if I can’t see them San Francisco girls.”

 

“Get it yourself,” said Mitch, his eyes on a red-haired girl across the room.

 

Joe nudged his friend. “I don’t wanna get noticed,” he said in a low voice. “I told ya why!” He handed the other young man a few coins. Mitch nodded and walked away to get his friend a beer.

 

“I noticed you Joe,” the blonde girl breathed into his ear. “I noticed you the moment you walked in.”

 

Joe gave her a slight smile while searching his brain to try and remember her name. “Thanks,” he said. “But I’m kinda trying not to be noticed tonight. I’m only here for a bit.” His eyes swivelled around the room and he made a mental note of anyone who might be likely to greet him and thus make the evening more complicated than it had to be. Ross Marquette and several of Adam’s other friends were seated at a table near the bar, so he immediately drew back from the light in that area and into a dark corner.

 

The blonde girl, still clinging to his arm, was dragged with him. “Good idea,” she said in a low voice. “Dark corners are nice to snuggle in, ain’t they?”

 

“Yeah,” said Joe, his eyes still on the room and not the blonde girl. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in her, for she was quite pretty, but she was someone he could have a drink with any day of the week. What was tearing at him right now was the need to see the San Francisco showgirls who would be disappearing from town within days. He might never get another chance after all, and all the effort he’d gone to, to get all gussied up, seemed to be for nothing. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair in a nonchalant way as he considered all his good looks going to waste when not one of those San Francisco beauties would even get to appreciate them.

 

“You’ve got lovely hair Joe,” the blonde girl breathed into his ear.

 

Joe’s eyes didn’t falter. “Yeah … I know … thanks,” he said absently. He took the glass of beer from Mitch as his friend held it out to him.

 

“Hi Cindy,” said Mitch and the blonde girl smiled at him.

 

Cindy, thought Joe. That was her name.

 

“See ya later Joe,” sad Mitch, his eyes on the redhead across the room. “Or maybe not,” he acknowledged. “Shame that ya can’t stay.”

 

Cindy gave Joe a mournful look. “You can’t stay?” she asked as Mitch walked away. “Why not?”

 

Joe shrugged as he sipped his beer. “It’s complicated,” he said, not wanting to let the girl know that his family couldn’t even treat him like the grown up man he was. “I’ll have to be going soon.”

 

“What a shame,” she said, clinging onto his arm even tighter. “Aren’t you even staying for the show?”

 

Joe shook his head. “Can’t,” he said sadly. “Sure wish I could get a glimpse of them San Francisco showgirls before I go but. They’re sposed to be real sensational.”

 

Cindy sniffed. “They’re not that pretty,” she said, tossing her blonde curls over her shoulder. “Some of us are just as good looking.”

 

Joe looked at her for the first time with interest. “You’ve seen em?” he asked, ignoring her obvious hint for a compliment.

 

“Sure,” she said with a pout. “They’ve got the rooms just down the hall from the rest of us.” She leant over towards him. “Some of em are real snobby,” she added. “Just cause they come from the city and all don’t make them so special. Why only this morning I said to one of them ….”

 

“You reckon you could get me in to see em?” Joe interrupted, as a thought entered his brain. “I’d be ever so grateful if you could … with me not being able to stay for the show and all.”

 

“Well,” said Cindy. “I’m not sure that I should. Sam said ….”

 

Joe pressed his lips to her neck and fluttered them lightly across her skin, making her shiver with excitement. “Forget Sam,” he said in a soft voice. “I’d be ever so grateful just to get to meet em before the show.”

 

Cindy closed her eyes and gave herself up to the joy of his touch. “Well,” she said. “I don’t think ….”

 

“Don’t think,” he said with all the charm he could muster. He cupped her chin in his hand and tilted her head back slightly so that he was looking into her eyes. She stared into his green eyes and went weak at the knees as he bent his head towards hers and kissed her full on the mouth.

 

Cindy closed her eyes as they kissed, her mind focused on the wonderful feeling of closeness to Joe. Joe opened his eyes wide as they kissed, his mind focussed on the anxious feeling in the pit of his stomach as he noted the time ticking away on the clock on the wall opposite.

 

After a minute, their lips parted and Joe breathed into her ear softly as he caressed her gently along her neck with the hand that wasn’t holding his beer. “How’s about it then? I’d be ever so grateful,” he whispered.

 

Cindy smiled at him and took him by the arm. Joe grinned at her as she led him into the back room behind a heavy draped curtain. After all, what was the Cartwright charm for if you didn’t use it? he reasoned. It would have been downright criminal if he hadn’t made full use of his good looks and expert kissing technique at a time like this. Not one ounce of guilt crossed his mind as the girl led him up a hallway and along a landing, for after all … he’d make it up to her once the San Francisco showgirls had left town. He’d devote a whole afternoon to letting her sit on his knee once Pa let him back into the saloon again, just to show how grateful he was.

 

“They’re in here,” said Cindy, opening a door. “This is their dressing room. I’d better ….”

 

“Thanks,” said Joe, pushing past her in his excitement and opening the door. “I can manage from here.” He looked through the open doorway eagerly and to his delight saw about a dozen women in various states of dress and undress.

 

“Do you mind?” shouted out one of them. “Get out of here!”

 

“Don’t be so hasty, Elizabeth,” said a voice close to Joe’s side and he turned to see a lovely blonde woman standing next to him, holding her garment in front of her half-dressed self. “Look before you make those kind of decisions,” she added, smiling at Joe and pulling him into the room. “Hello there, honey,” she said. “What can we do for you?”

 

Joe swallowed as he looked around the room at all the women. Everyone had frozen at his entrance and were all staring back at him as if he were from another planet. “Um …” he said and then swallowed again.

 

“Claire!” said Elizabeth who had spoken before. “He’s a man … and we’re all getting dressed here!”

 

“I know he’s a man,” said Claire, still smiling beautifully at Joe. “And such a lovely specimen too, don’t you agree?” She looked at him appraising up and then down. “It’s not often we meet such a stunning young man such a yourself in one of these provincial towns. What’s your name?”

 

“Joe Cartwright,” replied Joe, his confidence returning in a rush. “Thank you ma’am.”

 

“Call me Claire, sweetie,” she breathed into his ear.

 

“Joe,” hissed Cindy behind him. “You’ve seen them now. Come on! I’ve got to get back to work and you’ve got to get out of here!”

 

Joe ignored her and continued to grin around the room. “Hello ladies,” he said. “Sorry to barge in unannounced like this, but I can’t stay for the show you see, so I ..”

 

“Why not?” asked a dark-haired beauty … named Debbiejo … who had sidled up next to him and was caressing his arm. “I’m sure you’d enjoy it.”

 

Joe grinned at her. “I know I would,” he said. “But … well I have business elsewhere. I run a big ranch you see and I have a lot of business to conduct.”

 

“At night?” asked Elizabeth, her curiosity getting the better of her.

 

Joe shrugged. “There’s always something to be done,” he said. “So I thought I’d just come in and wish you all good luck for the performance. He grinned at two of the women who were jostling each other to stand next to him.

 

“Stop it Sarah! Stop it Hilary!” said the blonde Claire, holding onto him possessively. “Give him a chance to breathe. Here honey …” she led Joe to a stool in the corner. “Just sit there while we all get dressed. We’ll be with you in a minute.” She disappeared behind a strategically placed screen, leaving a very happy Joe perched on his stool as all the women proceeded to hook each other’s dresses up. He sighed in utter contentment.

 

“I can’t stay long,” he said wistfully. “Just a few minutes.”

 

A tall woman next to him patted him on the arm. “Better than nothing,” she said. “I’m Jenny by the way and I think you’ve got the most gorgeous green eyes.”

 

“Thanks,” said Joe happily. “Everyone says that.”

 

“And lovely thick hair,” breathed another woman on the other side of him. “My name is Helen,” she breathed into his ear. “Mind doing me up honey?”

 

Joe was only too happy to oblige. “Gee if I’d known how friendly you all was, then I’d have come in earlier,” he said as he tried to hook up Helen’s dress.

 

“We’re friendly for sure,” said Elizabeth. “And bored. The man who hired us has practically kept us locked up in here for the past two days. Says that he doesn’t want anyone seeing us before the show because it’s bad for business.” She ran her fingers through Joe curls. “So we’re sort of starved for company,” she added, smiling at him.

 

“Until you turned up, that is,” said another girl. “And we’re mighty glad that you did.”

 

“So am I,” declared Joe. “But like I said, I can’t stay long.”

 

“Hmph!” said a voice behind him. “Joe! I have to get back to work!”

 

Joe turned to look at Cindy. “Don’t let me stop you,” he said. “I’ll be out directly.” He turned back to the showgirls and grinned again. “Don’t let me interrupt you girls,” he said. “Just carry on as if I wasn’t here.”

 

He watched with interest as the women began to apply make-up to each other’s faces, ignoring the disgruntled Cindy who flounced out of the room and slammed the door behind her.

 

“So,” said one of the women. “Where exactly is this ranch of yours Joe?”

 

“Out of town aways,” said Joe, trying to sound casual. “It’s the biggest spread around here.”

 

“You look rather young to own such a place,” said Claire, coming out from behind the screen.

 

“Yeah .. well … what can I say?” replied Joe. “I guess I’m just a good businessman is all. I let my family work there with me, so it ain’t too hard.”

 

“You have family?” asked Sarah. “Tell us about them!”

 

“I’d rather tell you about me,” said Joe, leaning towards her and nuzzling her neck with his face. “You smell nice.”

 

Sarah squealed happily and turned her face so that their lips locked. “Careful,” she said after a moment. “You’ll smudge my lipstick. What a lovely kisser you are, Joe,” she added in a low voice.

 

“I know,” said Joe. He reached out for her. “I’m good at other things too.”

 

“Careful there,” said Debbiejo, getting in between them. “You don’t want to keep this young man all to yourself now Sarah.” She looked Joe up and down again. “Exactly how old are you Joe Cartwright? You don’t look a day over about fifteen.”

 

Joe drew himself up to his full height on the stool, his seventeen-year-old dignity suddenly hurt. “I’ll have you know I’m twenty,” he declared boldly. “And old enough to know what’s what I can tell you!” He reached out again, but Claire hit him with her fan.

 

“That’s enough of that,” she said sternly. “There’s plenty of time for such things later. We’ve got a show to do shortly.”

 

“But I told you that I can’t stay for the show,” said Joe, giving her one of his most charming grins and noticing a softening in her countenance immediately. “We have to make the most of the time I’ve got.”

 

“If you say so,” said Elizabeth, bouncing in between them. “Show me what a good kisser you are Joe. I don’t mind how old you are.”

 

Joe was happy to oblige and several of the women gasped as Elizabeth received the benefit of his instructions. “Me next!” shouted Helen, pushing her way forward and flinging herself into Joe’s arms. “It’s been a long two days and I’m starved for a man!”

 

Joe found himself nearly pushed off his stool as first one and then another of the women accosted him. He could hardly keep up with whom he was kissing at any one time and finally had to lean back to catch his breath again. “Whew!” he said. “You city women sure are keen!”

 

“We’re what you’d call experienced,” said Hilary, fixing up her smudged lipstick again. “And in spite of how young you are Joe, you sure seem experienced too.”

 

“Thanks,” said Joe. “I’ve been told that before. “I reckon that …” He stopped as there came a loud knock on the door.

 

“Ten minutes girls!” shouted Sam. “The show’s about to start!”

 

Joe got off his stool quickly. “Sorry girls,” he said, reluctantly. “But I gotta go. I didn’t realise that it was so late.”

 

“No!” cried Elizabeth. “Stay. We’ll be free later on and we can do a lot more than kissing then.”

 

Joe looked as if would have loved to have changed his mind, but instead shook his head resolutely. “Sorry,” he said. “But I just can’t. Work is waiting. Maybe I can get to San Francisco and visit you gals someday?”

 

“Oh yes do!” said Claire. “We’d love to see you again Joe.”

 

“Good luck with the show,” said Joe, opening the door. “I hope it all goes well.” He sighed as he shut the door, thinking as he did so that all his efforts had been worth it. True, his lips did feel a little numb, but that was to be expected, considering the amount of kissing he’d just done. As he walked down the hallway, his thoughts flew to the wonderful times he could have with these girls in other circumstances. If they were an example of San Francisco showgirls, then he’d have to work on getting Adam to invite him along on the next business trip he took to that fine city. Now he knew why his eldest brother was so keen to go there all the time for Pa. Why Adam was …

 

He stopped and stared into the large room in front of him, one hand on the curtain that he’d half-pulled aside. Adam was …. Adam was … sitting directly in front of him across the other side of the room. Joe gulped and let the curtain down again. He stood stock still for a moment, cursing himself for staying too long. His thoughts whirled around his head and he tried to work out what to do.

 

If Adam were already here then … He looked through a crack in the curtain and his blood went cold. Hoss was sitting next to Adam and across the other side of the room next to Sheriff Coffee sat …. his Pa!

 

Joe groaned as he let go of the curtain. Either Hoss hadn’t taken as long to get ready as he usually had, or Joe had been in the back room longer than he’d thought. Either way, he was in deep trouble! He opened the curtain again to take another look, hoping against hope that his eyes might have been playing tricks on him the first time, but no such luck. There were Adam and Hoss seated together with a group of Adam’s friends. They both had beers in their hands and were looking around in great anticipation of the coming show. Pa was also cradling a beer in his hands as he sat talking to Sheriff Coffee.

 

Joe let go of the curtain and looked around. He’d been back here enough to know that there was no back entry … at least not from this hallway. There was no hope for it … he’d have to go back to the girls’ room and get out of the window into the back alleyway and make his escape from there.

 

He scurried back down the hall, anxious to get out of the building as quickly as possible and gave a smart rap on the door. Suddenly it was opened by Claire, who glared out into the hallway. “I said we’d be ready in a few moments,” she said in an irritated fashion. “Don’t you …” she stopped, her eyes wide. “Joe!” she said, changing her tone immediately. “Changed your mind?”

 

Joe shook his head as he pushed past her. “It was sorta changed for me,” he said grimly. “Sorry to disturb you again ladies, but I gotta use your window if you don’t mind.”

 

“We don’t mind,” said Sarah, from in front of the mirror where she was touching up her face make-up. “But it’s kind of small, don’t you think? Even for a littlun like you honey.”

 

Joe looked at the tiny window, his heart sinking as he noticed how small it indeed was. The woman was right, for there was no way he’d ever be able to fit though it. He sat down on the stool, where only moments before he’d been perched in such a happy way, his face speaking volumes.

 

“What’s the matter, honey?” asked Elizabeth. “Aren’t you glad to see us again?”

 

Joe gave her one of his best puppy dog looks. “It ain’t that, ma’am,” he said dejectedly. “It’s just that I gotta get out of here ….. and right quick.”

 

“But why?” she asked, sitting down next to him. “Don’t you like us anymore?”

 

“More than you could know,” he said ruefully. “It’s not you … it’s … someone else. Someone who’s likely to …” He swallowed and hesitated, considering how it would sound if he told the roomful of women that he was scared of going out there and being seen by his father and brothers because he was being punished like a little boy and wasn’t allowed to be here in the first place. “ …. to beat me up,” he said finally.

 

Everyone stopped and stared at him. “Beat you up?” said Hilary finally. “Why on earth would someone want to beat you up, Joe? Who would do such a thing?”

 

Joe sighed. “Well there are some people who enjoy that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s a … a … business rival. He’s jealous of my … um … business sense and he’s … well, he’s always trying to get the better of me.”

 

“But why would he beat you up?” asked Jenny. “What a horrible man!” She clenched her fists. “Just show me who he is and I’ll kick him for you when we get out there,” she added, holding up one of her long legs. “These heels can come in handy sometimes.”

 

Joe sat for a moment admiring her leg in the short dress and then roused himself to say. “He’s the one dressed in black at the table near the bar,” he said, describing Adam. “But that’s not important. The important thing is that I’ve got to get out of here without him or his men seeing me.” He looked around at the indignant faces of the women and warmed to his topic. “The big guy beside him is his offsider,” he said. “And there’s an older guy with silver hair talking to the sheriff who’s in on it too.” He noticed the women getting more and more agitated at his words and considered that they just might be able to be his salvation if he got them riled up enough. “That’s why I can’t just go to the sheriff to protect me,” he said mournfully. “He’s in on it too. The silver-haired man has been talking to him all evening and they’ll be paying him to look the other way.” He looked at them hopefully. “So do you think you could help me ladies?” he asked giving them all his best puppy dog look.

 

“They’d beat you up with all those people out there to witness it?” gasped Jenny. “No!”

 

Joe shook his head. “They’d drag me outside,” he said, noting with satisfaction how terrified they were all looking. “It’s a terrible thing to be envied in business,” he said, really getting into the issue now. “I’m always in danger of business rivals trying to get back at me for some deal I’ve beaten them to. So, if you ladies could just see your way clear to … maybe help me? Anyone have any ideas?” He looked around hopefully, knowing that they were his only hope. It was true that if he couldn’t get out of here then he would most likely sustain a beating … but it wouldn’t be quite the way he was telling it. Pa hadn’t tanned him for a few years … but he wouldn’t have put it past his father to start the tradition up again, if he’d discovered just what had taken place tonight.

 

“I really don’t see what we can do, Joe,” said Elizabeth, running her fingers through his curls playfully. “Why don’t you just sit it out here until they’ve gone after the show? That way we could visit a bit more later on this evening.” She gave him a lovely smile and his heart melted at the sight of the small dimple that appeared in her cheek.

 

“Can’t,” he said, thinking about what would happen to him if Pa and his brothers got home before him. Pa would be sure to check his room as he always did before turning in and when he discovered nothing more in his bed than some fluffed up pillows … Joe shuddered at the thought. “They’ll wait fer me outside after the show if they see me,’ he said. “They could stay out there all night,” he added for emphasis.

 

“And that’s a problem?” asked Claire, leaning down and looking deeply into his eyes. Joe found himself looking straight into her ample bosom and for a moment felt that it didn’t much matter whether his father found out that he was here or not. It would be worth it for the delights that he felt he might have to offer him before he was dragged away. “You could spend the night in here with us, Joe,” Claire added suggestively. “And tomorrow when it’s light you’d be able to get away. They wouldn’t dare beat you up with people on the streets to witness it in the morning.”

 

It was on the tip of his tongue to agree with her and to offer his company for the whole night, but a vision of his father’s face suddenly flashed in front of him and he shivered slightly. “Better not,” he said reluctantly. “I gotta get out of here!”

 

The women all thought for a moment. “Well …” said Sarah. “You aren’t going to make it out any back way … because there’re isn’t any apart from that window … seems to me that you’ve got no choice Joe. You’ll have to walk through the main saloon.” She winked at the other women. “I think we can fix it up so that no one will recognise you … don’t you girls?” she gestured towards the large trunk that contained their costumes and several of the other women giggled.

 

Joe gave them a horrified look, knowing in an instant what they were thinking. “No way!” he said, hopping up. “I ain’t getting dressed up as … no way!” he declared again.

 

“You’d make a lovely looking girl,” Hilary whispered into his ear. “Being such a good looking young man and all.”

 

“I know,” said Joe. “But that’s not the point. I ain’t getting dressed up in no dress!”

 

“Suit yourself,” said Claire with a shrug of her shoulders. “But it seems to me that it’s either that or be discovered by those men out there.”

 

Joe hesitated. “I … I can’t,” he said, feeling like a trapped animal in a snare. “I mean … how would I look?”

 

“You’d look lovely,” said Sarah. “Just like now.” She dove into the trunk, pulled out a short red dress and held it against him. “This should fit,” she said with a giggle. “You’d look beautiful in this.”

 

Elizabeth ran a finger down his cheek. “No stubble,” she said. “He’s a light shaver.”

 

Joe pushed her hand away crossly. “Don’t!” he said.

 

Hilary put her head onto one side. “Even so,” she mused. “Plenty of pancake makeup wouldn’t go astray.”

 

“And he could hold a fan to his face like this!” enthused Jenny. “So they’d only see his eyes. No one would even know.”

 

“I ain’t dressing up like no woman!” Joe declared, but no one was listening to him.

 

Claire pulled a golden brown wig out of the trunk. “This should do,” she said excitedly. “And I’ve got some extra stockings here somewhere.” She bent down to look. “Here they are!” she declared, holding up a black pair. “Now …” she tilted her head to one side and studied Joe. “With a bit of padding …”

 

“I ain’t dressing up like no woman!” repeated Joe, louder this time.

 

“I think the green dress would go better with his colouring,” said Jenny. “Try this one Joe.”

 

Joe pushed her hands away. “I told you that I ain’t …” he started to protest.

 

Claire shook her head. “No … the red one is better,” she said. “Hilary … get those bloomers from over there.”

 

“I ain’t wearing no …” began Joe, but his voice wasn’t even heard as the women began to scurry around the room, picking up things to dress him in.

 

“What about shoes?” asked Elizabeth. “He can’t wear those boots.”

 

They all stopped and looked at Joe’s feet. “Try your shoes, Jenny,” said Sarah after a moment. “You’ve got the biggest feet.” She bent down to pull Joe’s boots off, but he kicked out at her.

 

“I told you,” he said firmly. “I ain’t ….”

 

He stopped suddenly there was another knock on the door. “Time, ladies!” shouted Sam. “Show time!”

 

“We’ll just be a few minutes!” called out Debbiejo. “Slight problem with one of the dresses!”

 

“Well hurry up!” shouted back Sam. “The crowd’s getting real impatient out here!”

 

It was true. They could all hear the calls coming from the front room and the stomping of feet could also be felt. Joe swallowed. “I can’t go out there,” he said. “Not dressed up like …”

 

“Now don’t be silly,” said Claire, pulling him to his feet and pushing him behind the screen. “No one will recognise you. Just get into the dress and we’ll take care of the rest of it. Hurry up now!”

 

“What about my own clothes?” asked Joe as he began to take off his shirt in spite of himself. “I can’t ride home in a dress!”

 

Just hand them to me,” said Sarah. “I’ll throw them out of the window and you can pick them up out there and change back into them once you get outside. You can leave the dress and the wig out there and we’ll get them later. Now hurry up!”

 

Joe slid out of his trousers, feeling rather self-conscious knowing that there were a dozen or so women standing only inches from him. He looked at the red dress hanging on the screen. “How does this go on?” he asked. “I ain’t never …”

 

Claire appeared from around the other side of the screen, ignoring his embarrassed look. “I’ll help,” she said. “Now don’t be embarrassed, honey,” she said looking him up and down. “I’ve seen it all before.”

 

Joe put one hand over his chest and the other lower down as the woman looked at him in his under-drawers. “Hey!” he said, but didn’t have the chance to say any more before she pulled the red dress over his head. His words were muffled until he pulled the material down around his neck. “Stop looking at me!” he finished.

 

“You’ll have to take off those under-garments,” she said, ignoring his protests. “Quickly now … we don’t have much time.”

 

Joe pulled the dress down over his slim hips and wriggled his under-drawers down underneath it. “Here,” he said, holding them out to her.

 

Claire took them and flung them over the screen along with his shirt, coat, trousers and boots. “Take a look girls!” she called out, pulling the screen aside. “He really looks the part.”

 

Everyone gasped as they caught sight of Joe and he thought how dramatic they all were. He supposed that it came with being in the theatre, but it did tend to unnerve him a little. That and the fact that they were all staring at him in a way that made him feel decidedly uncomfortable. He pulled the dress tighter around himself. “I still don’t think….” he began.

 

“Don’t think,” said Jenny, holding out the black stockings to him. “Here put these on to hide your legs.”

 

Joe looked down at his legs. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked indignantly. Claire pushed him down on the stool and began to pull one of the stockings onto his foot. “Nothing,” she said soothingly. “They’re lovely legs Joe, except they’re a bit hairy for a lady.” She pulled the first stocking up to his thigh and Joe slapped her hand away.

 

“I can do it,” he said, pulling it up further.

 

Claire began to pull the other stocking onto his foot. “You’ve got lovely toes Joe,” she said softly. “I love nice toes.”

 

“She’s got a thing for them,” explained Sarah. “Especially curly ones like yours.” She sighed as Joe took Claire’s hand away and pulled the second stocking up himself. “You know what? Your legs are pretty good Joe.”

 

“Thanks,” said Joe. “I know.” He looked down at the dress. “There’s a lot of material up here,” he said gesturing to his chest area. “Looks kinda funny.”

 

Elizabeth grabbed a couple of stockings. “Try these,” she said, rolling them up into tight balls and stuffing them down the front of his dress. “There! No one will ever know.”

 

“Now for the wig,” said Jenny. “Although it sure seems like a waste to cover these beautiful curls. You’ve got lovely hair, Joe.”

 

“Thanks. I know,” said Joe. “Hey! What are you doing?”

 

“Just a bit of powder and some rouge,” said Hilary soothingly as she patted his face. “Don’t worry, we all wear it.”

 

“Yeah, but I don’t …” Joe’s words were smothered as one of the women tilted back his head and began to apply red lipstick to his mouth. “Mmm … mmm ….mmm …” he spluttered.

 

“Just relax,” said Claire soothingly. “Trust us Joe. You’re going to look lovely. There!” she declared as she slipped Jenny’s high heels onto his feet. “All done!” She pulled him to his feet. “What do you think girls?”

 

There was silence for a full minute as they all surveyed their handiwork. “I think I’m jealous,” said Hilary at last. “No man has the right to look that good in a dress.”

 

“No man in his right mind would be seen looking this good in a dress,” said Joe dejectedly. “I still don’t think that this is a good idea. I …”

 

There was another knock on the door. “Ladies!” shouted Sam. “I can’t hold em no longer!”

 

“We’re coming!” shouted Sarah. She handed Joe a fan. “Now keep that up in front of your face,” she instructed. “Just follow our lead and you’ll be fine.”

 

“Your lead?” squeaked Joe. “But …”

 

“Just follow all of us onto the stage,” said Claire. “Make sure you get onto the right hand side and then you can make a run for it. Don’t worry … no one will notice as we’ll keep them looking at us. Ready girls? Let’s go!”

 

All the girls trailed out of the room with Joe in the midst of them trying desperately to walk in the high heels and looking miserably around. As they approached the thick curtain, his resolve failed him and he started to falter. “I can’t …” he said as he listened to the stomping of the feet from beyond the curtain. “I ….” But he didn’t have a chance to say any more as a couple of the girls pushed him forward and he found himself on stage with them facing the crowd.

 

“And here they are!” shouted Sam. The crowd started to cheer and there was much clapping and stomping of feet. “Straight from San Francisco!” he continued. “The glamorous showgirls here to entertain you!” Again the crowd burst into spontaneous applause and Joe summoned up the courage to peek out from behind his fan.

 

To his dismay he saw Hoss and Adam clapping along with everyone else while his Pa sat back in his chair and grinned at all the girls. Joe gulped and quickly hid behind his fan again. He took a tentative step towards the door, but Claire pulled him back again. “Not yet!” she whispered into his ear. “Wait for the music and the dancing to start. They won’t notice you when we all distract them.”

 

Joe forced himself to stay next to her, even though every fibre of his being wanted to get out of the room and away from the prying eyes of the crowd. He felt as if every eye in the room was on him and he avoided looking at his two brothers who were close by. He tensed himself up, waiting for the first strains of the music that would be his signal to bolt for the door.

 

However, instead of the music, Sam’s voice boomed out again. “Now before we have the chance to hear these lovely ladies sing, let me introduce them all to you. He grinned around at the crowd who all began to clap again, shout out and whistle at the girls on the stage. Joe felt as if he were about to collapse and it was only the fact that he found it difficult to move in Jenny’s high heels that stopped him from sprinting across the stage. His breath came in short gasps as Sam called out the name of one girl after another as he walked across the stage and he was just about to ask Claire what he should do, when the saloon owner stopped beside him and stared at him. For the life of him, Sam just couldn’t seem to remember the name of the striking girl in the red dress and he shook his head slightly hoping that it would come back to him.

 

“What’s your name honey?” he asked, bending closer to Joe who immediately put his fan up in front of his face and scowled at him. Sam was slightly taken aback, but nevertheless continued to probe the young lady for information. ‘Your name?” he asked again and then turned to the crowd. “This one is a bit shy,” he said with a wink. “Let’s all ask her name, shall we?”

 

The men in the crowd all chorused out the question and several of them whistled at Joe for encouragement. Over in the corner, Roy Coffee leant towards Ben. “That one in the red dress sure has pretty legs, don’t ya think so Ben?”

 

Ben nodded, but didn’t reply. There was something about that slim red-attired girl that seemed familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite place why that should be so. “She sure is a looker,” he replied after a moment’s hesitation.

 

Up on the stage, Sam noticed that Joe was trembling and he put his arm around his waist as he whispered in his ear. “Don’t be frightened, honey,” he said soothingly. “Is this your first show?”

 

Joe glared at him and pushed him away. “She’s shy!” shouted out a man in the audience and Joe turned to glare at him. At that moment Adam sat forward in his chair and their eyes locked for a split second. Joe quickly put his fan in front of his face again, but not quickly enough for the eagle-eyed Adam who fairly gasped.

 

“What’s ya name sweetie?” persisted Sam. “You’re holding up the show!”

 

Joe cleared his throat. “J .. Jo …” he stammered in a high voice.

 

“Let’s hear it for Josephine!” shouted Sam and everyone clapped. Several of the men in the audience began to whistle again and one called out, “Show us yer legs!” causing Joe to turn and glare at him again.

 

Claire pulled on his dress. “Just settle down,” she said. “Wait for the music.”

 

As the musicians began the first notes of the introduction, Adam leant over and whispered to Hoss. “Notice anything about that red one on the end?” he asked. “Does she look familiar to you?”

 

Hoss grinned at him. “Nope!” he said. “But I sure wouldn’t mind getting ta know her a bit better. She’s a real looker!” He took a deep swig of his beer and grinned at his brother happily while Adam leant closer and whispered something into his ear that caused him to nearly choke on his mouthful. “What?!” he exclaimed and turned to look at Joe again. “Well I’ll be!” he said, staring at brother standing on the stage in a dress. “What … I mean … How come …” His voice trailed away, lost for words and he turned to Adam in shock. “I can’t believe it!” he whispered.

 

“I can,” replied Adam grimly. “I have come to believe anything of that little brother of ours.”

 

Hoss stared at Joe again. “Well ya must admit that he makes a right fine looking girl,” he said admiringly. “Who’d a thought …”

 

Adam’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Joe who was miserably watching the other girls begin to dance. Someone from the audience called out “Why don’t ya dance sweetie?” and Adam suddenly grinned.

 

“Yes!” he called out. “Dance! Show us your legs … you in the red dress! Over here sweetheart! Dance over here!” he motioned to Hoss who also grinned and put his fingers to his mouth. A loud whistle split the air and everyone took up the call. “Dance! Dance! Dance!”

 

Joe suddenly found himself the centre of attention and … not knowing what else to do … began to move his feet in imitation of the girls. Unfortunately, he was so unsteady on his high heels that he immediately tripped and fell off the side of the stage, straight into Adam’s waiting arms. “Well, hello sweetie,” said Adam, clutching his brother to him and giving him a huge smile to the delight of the audience. “Are you going to give me a kiss?” he asked.

 

Joe struggled to be free of his brother’s grasp, but Adam had a firm grip on him. “Let me go!” he shouted.

 

“What was that?” asked Hoss, hugely enjoying the sight of his two brothers in such a situation.

 

“Let me go!” shouted Joe again and hit Adam on the side of the head with his fan. He brought his legs up and kicked his brother hard on the shins, causing Adam to let go of him and gasp in pain.

 

“Why you little …” muttered Adam, reaching for his brother again, but Joe had scrambled off his lap before he could grab hold of him again. He made a run for the door, but the heels let him down again and instead he toppled into the waiting arms of a brawny cowboy who swooped him up in delight.

 

“I got one!” he shouted out to the crowd. “And the pretty one too!” He grinned at Joe who was struggling in his arms. “Kiss me!” he cried out. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth … and received a hard punch right on it. He dropped the girl in his arms in surprise and stared at her sprawled on the floor at his feet. “What the …” he cried, holding onto his mouth. “Hey!”

 

“You leave Joe alone!” cried Sarah from the stage. All the girls stopped singing and glared at Adam and the brawny cowboy, their indignation evident on their faces.

 

“You aren’t gonna beat him up while we’re around!” shouted Elizabeth. “Come on girls!”

 

She launched herself from the stage and began pummelling the brawny cowboy with her fists. The other girls didn’t hesitate, but quickly follow suit. Suddenly there were people everywhere getting out of their chairs to join the fray and several of the men tried to grab hold of the women who clawed at them with their nails and kicked at them with their heels.

 

Joe found himself lying on the floor watching everyone fight around him. As he looked up at the chaos it suddenly occurred to him that this was his ideal opportunity to escape and so without any more ado he began to crawl for the door. Suddenly a tall cowboy picked him up and squeezed him around the waist. “Not so fast!” the man shouted. “I’ve had my eye on you honey … now be nice!” Joe squirmed in his arms, shouting at him and trying to punch him at the same time. “That’s it!” shouted the cowboy. “I love a feisty girl!”

 

Hoss put down his beer and looked at Adam who was still seated next to him. “I hate to miss a fight!” he shouted over the noise.

 

Adam nodded, took off his hat and stood up, motioning to Joe who was kicking for all he was worth. Besides,” he shouted. “It seems like our little brother’s honour is at stake!” They both stepped into the fray just as Ben forced his way through the crowd and arrived at their table.

 

“Adam! Hoss!” he yelled. “Come back here!” His two sons ignored him and he shook his head as he saw them go to the rescue of the slim girl in red who was being held up high by a large cowboy. Suddenly it came to him who she reminded him of. “Marie!” he gasped … for the girl was the spitting image of his late wife. “Marie!”

 

At that moment, Joe’s wig came tumbling off and Ben gasped. “Joe!” he yelled furiously. “Joseph Francis Cartwright!”

 

Over the noise of the fight, Joe faintly heard his father’s voice calling him and his heart sank, but he had other things to think of at that moment as he tried to free himself from the cowboy’s grasp. Suddenly he felt a great force pull him out of the man’s arms and he opened his eyes to see his brother Hoss grinning at him as he held him up high.

 

“Well lookee here!” shouted Hoss. “See who I’ve found Adam!” Joe swallowed as he looked first at one brother and then the other. Realising that there was nothing he could do at that point, he simply groaned and closed his eyes.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^

 

 

Joe stood with his hands behind his back in his customary position in front of his father’s desk, trying to look contrite. He opened his mouth to speak and then thought better of it and shut it again. Hoss and Adam stood near the bookcase on the other side of the study, watching their father as he paced up and down in front of the grandfather clock. Every so often Ben would stop his pacing, look across at his sons, open his mouth and then shut it again, shaking his head as if he didn’t dare say anything.

 

Finally, it was Joe who broke the silence. “Pa?” he said tentatively.

 

Ben immediately pointed an accusing finger at his errant son. “You be quiet!” he said. “I’ll deal with you when I’m ready and not before!”

 

Adam shifted his position slightly and leant against the bookcase, causing his father to immediately turn to him. “What I can’t understand about all of this,” he thundered. “Is that you two knew what was going on!”

 

Adam shook his head. “Not until it was too late and this …” he gave his youngest brother a withering look. “This idiot was up on the stage.”

 

Joe glared at his brother. “Don’t call me an idiot!” he said angrily.

 

“I told you to be quiet!” shouted his father. “And I meant it!” Joe shut his mouth immediately. “And in view of your behaviour tonight Joseph, I think your brother’s description is a fairly accurate one,” added Ben meaningfully.

 

“Adam’s right Pa,” chimed in Hoss. “Besides, younger brother here needed to be taught a lesson.” He grinned at Adam. “I’ve got him out of lots of situations before, but I never thought I’d have ta save him from the attentions of a ranch hand.” Both men chuckled at the memory of their little brother in the arms of the cowboy.

 

“He needed to be taught a lesson?” shouted Ben. “And you were just the one to teach him, weren’t you?” he added sarcastically. “All you two did was to make the situation worse!”

 

Joe lifted his head. “Yeah!” he agreed. “You two didn’t help me none.”

 

“I seem to remember that we did,” said Adam mildly. “If Hoss here hadn’t saved you, you’d have found yourself being ravished by that ranch hand right there on the saloon floor.”

 

“That is enough!” thundered Ben. “Isn’t it enough that I’ve been totally embarrassed by all of you tonight in front of the whole town, without you continuing this nonsense here at home?” He shuddered at the memory of his youngest son in a dress and high heels being held aloft in the middle of the crowd. “Whatever possessed you, Joseph?” he asked in disbelief.

 

Joe shrugged. “Seemed like the only way out at the time,” he mumbled. “I didn’t wanna do it.”

 

Adam smirked. “I actually thought you looked quite pretty,” he said teasingly. “You seemed to be enjoying yourself up there on stage.”

 

Joe clenched his fists and took a step towards his brother, but his father pulled him back by the collar. “Keep still!” he said firmly. “Now,” he continued, trying to keep his temper in check. “Firstly, all the damages from tonight’s little escapade will be taken from all your pays until Sam has all the damages paid for.” He ignored the protests of all three of his sons and raised his hand to quiet them. “Not another word!” he said. “You were all in the fight, so you will all pay.”

 

Now it was Joe’s turn to smirk at his brothers. “Seems fair,” he remarked. “They broke more of them glasses and chairs than I did.”

 

Adam and Hoss gave their younger brother dark looks, but Joe only smirked more.

 

“Now please get out of my sight,” said Ben wearily. “I’ve had enough of your nonsense tonight.”

 

Adam nodded. “Sorry Pa,” he said and pulled Hoss behind him towards the stairs.

 

“Yeah … sorry Pa,” echoed Joe, following his brothers quickly.

 

“Not you, Joseph,” called Ben. “I haven’t finished with you yet.” Adam and Hoss both grinned at each other, gave Joe triumphant looks and then disappeared up the stairs quickly. “Over here, young man!” said Ben.

 

Joe swallowed and walked over towards his father. “Yes Pa?” he said in a low voice, putting his hands behind his back again.

 

Ben sat down at his desk and gazed at his son. “I am thoroughly ashamed of your behaviour tonight, Joseph,” he began. “How could you do such a thing?”

 

“Well,” said Joe, considering the question. “Once I got the dress on it was easier than I thought. It was only the heels that …”

 

“Be quiet!” thundered Ben. “I am not only talking about the dress. Firstly, you deliberately disobeyed my orders by going to the Silver Dollar. Secondly, you participated in what I can only describe as ludicrous behaviour by wearing such a disguise. Thirdly, you have damaged the good reputation of your family by your wanton actions. What do you have to say for yourself?”

 

“I’m sorry Pa,” replied Joe, trying to look it. “But really … well … if you hadn’t forbidden me to go in the first place, then this never would have happened.”

 

Ben’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.

 

“Well I only disguised myself because you wouldn’t let me go to the Gala Night,” Joe continued.

 

Ben leant forward in his chair and put his hands on his desk as he stared at his son. “Am I hearing you correctly?” he asked. “Are you insinuating that this fiasco tonight was my fault?”

 

Joe thought for a moment, wondering what the words insinuating and fiasco meant. “Well …. yeah ….” he said finally. “Sorta.”

 

Ben blinked a couple of times. “Let me get this straight,” he said, lowering his voice. “You’re saying that it is my fault that you crept out of the house, entered the saloon, disguised yourself as a showgirl and put on a ludicrous display that resulted in $500 worth of damages to the Silver Dollar Saloon. Not to mention dragging your brothers into your mess as well. Not to mention embarrassing me in front of the whole town. You are saying that all that is MY fault?”

 

Joe swallowed. Somehow, the way his father said it, made it sound different to the way he saw it in his mind. “Is that what you’re saying, Joseph?” asked Ben.

 

“Well …. kinda,” said Joe in a low voice. “I mean …”

 

“Get up to your room!” shouted his father. “Get out of my sight this instance! I will deal with you tomorrow when I feel less like strangling you!”

 

Joe took a step backwards. “Sorry Pa,” he said, before turning to go. “Pa?” he asked over his shoulder. “What’s a fiasco?”

 

“Something you are constantly causing,” sighed his father. “Now get upstairs.”

 

Joe opened his mouth to ask what insinuating meant, but one look at his father’s face made him shut it again. “Night Pa,” he said instead and bolted for the stairs.

 

Ben waited until his son had disappeared around the top of the staircase before rubbing his temples and sighing. He sat for a few minutes staring into space before reaching across the desk and picking up a picture of Marie, his late wife. He stared at her face, thinking just how much like her Joe had looked tonight with the wig on. Perhaps if Joseph had been a girl, then he would have been able to control him better? Somehow he didn’t think so. Ben shook his head wearily and put the picture down again. “Where did I go wrong as a father?” he muttered. “I can’t figure him out. Maybe if you were here you could, my love,” he added.

 

 

^^^^^^^^^^

 

Joe straightened up and stretched his shoulders as he looked at the pile of wood beside him. Somehow all the work he’d put into making it smaller hadn’t seemed to make any difference at all. In fact, it looked to him as if it was even bigger than when he’d started three days ago. He shook his head, picked up yet another piece and began to attack it with his axe.

 

“Well now, there’s an unusual sight,” said a voice behind him and he turned to see Adam and Hoss sitting on their horses grinning down at him. “Make sure you get a good look at this, Adam,” said Hoss. “Seeing our little brother work isn’t something that you see very often.”

 

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Adam with a lazy grin, as he slid down from his saddle. “Something tells me that we’re going to see an awful lot more of this in the coming weeks …. Maybe even months,” he added as he looked at the huge pile of wood waiting to be cut into kindling.

 

“You’re enjoying this, ain’t ya?” snarled Joe.

 

“Yep,” said Adam. “You deserve this and a whole lot more for the stunt you pulled the other night. “You should be thankful that Pa didn’t take you over his knee for what you did.”

 

“I’m too old for that!” retorted Joe. “Sides,” he sighed as he looked at the woodpile. “What with this and all the other extra chores he gave me, I think I’d rather have had a tanning and got it over with. There’s a lot to be said for being punished that way. At least it don’t last long.”

 

“True,” said Hoss. “And this way you’ll be punished fer weeks ta come, little brother.”

 

“By the ways,” said Adam, tying up his horse. “The San Francisco girls left town this afternoon while we were in there.”

 

“Yeah?” said Joe, fiddling with his axe. He had a momentary feeling of dismay that he’d probably never see them again,

 

“Don’t worry Joe,” said Hoss with a wink at Adam. “Maybe Pa will let you see em if they ever come back to town again?”

 

“I wouldn’t count on it,” said Adam. “Sam said that he won’t get them back for another ten years, what with all the trouble they caused and I’m sure that Joe won’t be finished this wood pile by then.” He came and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder in a mock-sympathetic way. “Face it Joe,” he said. “I have my doubts that you’ll ever see the inside of a saloon again.”

 

Joe knocked his brother’s hand off his shoulder. “Shut up!” he said, scowling at him.

 

“Now don’t look like that,” said Adam, sweetly. “Scowling like that will spoil your pretty complexion. After all, you want to look your best if you ever get to go into town again. Everyone says that you were the prettiest one out of all the girls, so you’ve got a reputation to uphold, you know.”

 

He and Hoss both doubled over in laughter at the look on Joe’s face. “You shut up!” shouted Joe.

 

“But it’s true!” spluttered Hoss. “There was quite a few cowboys asking after you Joe,” he said, laughing even harder.

 

“I said to shut up!” shouted Joe, getting angry in the face.

 

“Joseph!” shouted his father, coming out of the house and standing on the front porch. “What is all that yelling about? Get back to work!”

 

“Yeah Joe,” giggled Adam, leaning on Hoss for support. “Get back to work. The sooner you get all this finished, the sooner you get go in to see everyone in town. Maybe you can do a bit of a show for them? If I were you I’d be practising my singing while I was working though … some of your higher notes need a bit more work.”

 

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss, holding his stomach as he continued to laugh. “And them dance steps could do with some work too. You weren’t too good in them high heels.”

 

“Adam! Hoss! Let your brother get back to his work!” shouted their father angrily.

 

Joe’s brothers turned to go to the barn, still laughing loudly. “Maybe we should get him some ladies shoes to wear around the house to practise with?” suggested Hoss gleefully as they disappeared into the barn.

 

“Joseph!” shouted Ben again. “Work!” He turned and stomped into the house, slamming the front door behind him.

 

Joe picked up another piece of wood and stared at it. Well, he reasoned. The San Francisco showgirls might be gone, but there was still that blonde girl who was willing to sit on his knee while he had a beer or two. She had been quite nice and was worth looking forward to when he finally did get back into the Silver Dollar again. Now … if he could only just remember her name ….

 

The End

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Author: Joan S

From her Australian base, Joan is one of the most prolific writers of Bonanza Fanfic over the past few years. Although you can read 67 of her stories on Bonanza Brand, she also has a website where you can access her whole collection of stories. http://sites.google.com/site/joansstories/home

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