The Great Baby Switch (by Puchi Ann)


Summary:  Bored boys, left to their own devices, can come up with wild ways of passing the time, and when the bored boys are Little Joe Cartwright and his friends, Virginia City is in for quite a fright.  Written for the Michael Landon Birthday Challenge.

Rating: K     Words: 5,068


The Great Baby Switch

Little Joe Cartwright sat on the steps of the Howard Theater, elbows propped on his knees and drooping chin resting on folded fingers.  Though surrounded by a cadre of his friends, the ten-year-old did nothing but stare, frowning, at the dusty, moonlit street.  “How much longer, you figure?” he finally asked the chilly October air.

“Ain’t got a watch, no more’n you,” Mitch Devlin muttered.

“Too long,” Tuck Tucker sighed.  “You’d think they’d all be worn to a frazzle by now.”

“Huh!” Seth Pruitt put in.  “Grownups don’t get frazzled out from dancin’.  They can go round and round ‘til near dawn.”

He wasn’t exaggerating.  As they all knew, the hard-working folks of Virginia City didn’t hold many shindigs like this harvest ball, but when they did, they partied hard, dancing into the wee hours of the morning.  If you didn’t care for dancing—and no right-headed boy did until he reached the stupid age when girls stopped being someone to go fishing with, if no one better were around, and commenced to making fellows blush and trip over their own tongues—there wasn’t much to do except feed your face.

“Round and round,” Tuck sighed again.  “Can’t figure what they see in it.”

“Ain’t nothin’ to see but some gal’s battin’ eyes and silly smile,” offered Ted Lingstrom, a newcomer to Virginia City.

“Same as sayin’ there ain’t nothin’ to see,” Little Joe grumbled.  His sixteen-year-old brother apparently disagreed, for he’d recently turned into the reddest-faced tongue-tripper of them all.  It was a major disappointment to the youngster, for up until he reached the stupid age, big brother Hoss had been his favorite playmate.

“Nothin’ to do, neither,” Seth grunted.  They’d already eaten their fill of the sandwiches and sweet treats the ladies had brought and set up on a table at the side of the big room, where all the chairs had been removed so people could dance the night away.  They’d even tromped around the room a few times themselves, with each other as partners.  Girls their age were few in number and the ones most likely to bat their eyes and paste on silly smiles.  There was a whole town full of interesting places to explore, of course, but they’d all been forbidden to stray past the wagons parked outside the theater.

“Guess we could bed down,” Mitch said.

They all stared at him like he’d gone off his head after munching on loco weed.  Sure, all their folks had provided their young ones thick pallets to lie down on in their wagons, if they got sleepy, but how could any self-respecting kid put himself to bed without being forced to go?  It just wasn’t done.  Besides, none of them really wanted to sleep; they just wanted something to do.  Something besides dance, which ran a close second to bedding down as the most boring activity available.

“Only babies do that,” Seth snorted.  The vestibule of the theater, being the darkest and quietest place available, was lined with baskets full of sleeping infants, six of them in all.

“Guess we could have another piece of pie,” Tuck said shyly.

“Ugh!” Little Joe groaned.  Puking in the nearest alley, which is what he figured he’d do if he tried to stuff one more bite into his already overloaded stomach, leaped to top of the list of worst ways to pass the time until Pa, Adam and Hoss got their fill of dancing.

“There’s better ways to have fun than that,” Ted offered, a little tentatively, for he still felt like an outsider to the other boys, who had known each other for years.

“You got any ideas, I’m open to suggestions,” Little Joe said, raising his head.

“Yeah, what you got?” Seth demanded with a put-up or shut-up attitude.  He considered himself Joe Cartwright’s best friend, though Mitch would have argued the point, and he didn’t much appreciate the interloper’s attempts to worm his way into a place Seth believed rightfully his.

Mitch and Tuck, being more followers than leaders, looked to Little Joe, and since he looked interested in what Ted had to say, they immediately were, too.

“Well, bein’ as it’s gettin’ close to Halloween,” Ted started, “I thought . . .”

“Aw, we cain’t go hollerin’ ‘trick or treat,” Seth said with a scowl.  “All they’ll do is point us to the refreshment table and go on dancin’.”

“Ain’t what I was gonna say!” Ted declared, hackles rising like a bantam rooster’s.

“Let him finish, Seth,” Little Joe said.

“I was just gonna say it’s a prime time for pullin’ pranks,” Ted said.  “Almost expected this time of year, if you get my drift.”

“Reckon we could turn over an outhouse or two,” Tuck said, though without any real enthusiasm.

“Boring,” Seth said, and his opinion was met with nods of sour-faced agreement.

“We could switch out folks’ teams,” Mitch suggested.

“Work,” Seth observed.

“Yeah, and tired as they’ll be, they likely won’t even notice ‘til they get home,” Little Joe said.

“You’re right, Joe,” Ted quickly agreed.  “We don’t want to do that much work and then not even get to see the fun.”

“Right,” Mitch and Tuck chimed in simultaneously.

Ted moistened his lips.  “I heard about a prank in this town we passed through on our way west.  Not a heap of work and sure raised a commotion.”  He took courage from the faces turned expectantly toward him.  He leaned in close, as if there were a real need for secrecy on the empty street.  “We switch up folks’ babies,” he whispered.

“Aw, they’ll notice,” Mitch said.

“Yeah, probably, but that’s when the fun starts,” Ted said, speaking faster in his excitement.  “The minute some lady sees it ain’t her babe in the basket where she left it, she commences to hollerin’ and don’t even think to check the other baskets.  Then another one looks and, lo and behold, her kid’s been switched out, too, and sometimes they think it’s gypsies took ‘em or even fairies, maybe, if they be Irish.”

“It’d be a sight, all right,” Tuck said, with a quick glance to see how his hero was responding to the idea.

A crafty smile slowly slid across Little Joe’s face.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Everybody in?”

Ted quickly agreed, followed by Tuck and Mitch in one voice.

“I reckon it’s better’n just sittin’ out here,” Seth grudgingly admitted.  “Besides, air’s gettin’ a mite cool.”

“Cool’s what we’ve got to be,” Little Joe chuckled, “cool and calm, so’s we don’t get caught.”

“If you don’t wanna get caught,” Mitch wryly advised, “you’d better harness that jaybird cackle of yours, Little Joe.  That’ll draw attention quicker than anything!”

With a grin Little Joe nodded in acknowledgement.

“Best to switch babies that ain’t lyin’ right next to each other,” Ted advised, “and if we have time to change their clothes, too, that works even better, or so I’ve heard.”

“Mix ‘em up good, huh?  That sounds good,” Little Joe said.  “Now, what we need is to have two of us block the door to the vestibule, and keep watch, while the other three make the switches.  Then we’ll change places and try to switch a few clothes, too.”

“Then, once it’s done, we got to act innocent,” Seth said.

“Yeah, but not too innocent,” Little Joe advised.  “My pa, for one, gets suspicious when I act like an angel.”

“Anyone would know that was an act,” Mitch snickered, giving his friend’s shoulder a comradely swat, which was promptly returned in kind.

“Bad as I hate to say it, maybe we ought to ask some stupid girl to dance,” Tuck suggested.

“Or mosey over to the refreshment table,” Ted said.

Little Joe sighed.  “Maybe so.  Just make it look like you’re havin’ a good time and act surprised and confused when the ruckus starts, but don’t overdo it.  Don’t nobody give us away, ‘cause it’ll be misery if our folks find out.”

“Amen to that,” said Seth with an especially hard look at Mitch and Tuck, always the weakest links in any scheme that required subtlety and subterfuge.

According to Little Joe’s assignment, Seth teamed up with the nervous Tuck to stand guard at the door, while Joe, Mitch and Ted, as the resident expert on the prank, gently lifted each slumbering infant and gingerly settled it into a different basket, any except the one right next to its original location.  Then Little Joe took over Tuck’s post, and moments afterward Mitch tapped Seth on the shoulder and, making sure that no one was watching, slipped into his place as guard.  Ted, feeling more important than he had since his arrival in Virginia City, remained in the vestibule to help direct the change of the babies’ outfits.  Little Joe wasn’t sure that was necessary, since the kids were all covered with blankets, anyway, but he didn’t want to steal Ted’s thunder by pointing that out.

Hoss waltzed by with one of the fleshy ladies that did the miners’ laundry on his arm.  “Hey, Little Joe,” he called, “what you standin’ around there for?  Get yourself a partner, boy, and have some fun!”

“I’m thinkin’ about it,” Little Joe called back with a toothy grin at his big brother, figuring that, when the time came, Hoss’s invitation would provide the perfect cover for his sudden return to the dance floor.  He took a quick glance over his shoulder.  “You about done?” he whispered.  “It’s gonna start lookin’ suspicious if we hang around this doorway much longer.”

“Almost finished,” Ted whispered back.

“Head on off,” Seth suggested from behind Little Joe.  “These two can finish up, so I’ll take your place on the door.”

“Okay,” Little Joe said.  Turning to Mitch, he said, “May I have this dance?”

Mitch batted his eyes and said in the most simpering voice he could manage, “Oh, yes, I’d just love to dance with a man like you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Little Joe stifled his famous jaybird cackle and, grabbing his friend’s arm, trotted onto the dance floor.

Hoss grinned as the youngsters gamboled past him.  “It’s more fun with a girl, Little Joe.”

“Pa’ll wash your mouth out with soap if he hears you tellin’ whoppers like that,” Little Joe joshed back.  “No disrespect to you, ma’am,” he added quickly when the laundress frowned at him.

He and Mitch danced their way around the room, noticing, when they circled back, that the doorway to the vestibule was now empty.  As they continued in step with the music, they sashayed by Seth and Ted, who were engaged in a good-natured contest of who could step on the other’s toes most often.  “Where’s Tuck?” Little Joe asked.  “You didn’t leave him behind, did you?”

“Naw,” Seth assured him.  “He headed for the refreshment table.  Didn’t want to ask a girl to dance, for some reason.”  They all chuckled.  Of all their schoolmates, Tuck would easily be voted least-likely-to-even-look-at-a-girl, and by pairing up with Ted, Seth had insured that the fifth boy had no alternative but some frilly skirt guaranteed to make him blush fifty shades of rosy red, if God invented that many.  No wonder he’d picked food, instead.

“He can use some fattening up,” Ted snickered.

“So can you,” Mitch said, driving a sharp elbow into Little Joe’s scrawny ribs.

“That does it,” Little Joe said, shoving him away.  “Switch partners!”  He grabbed Seth’s arm and waltzed off before Mitch knew what hit him.

“Guess it’s you and me,” Mitch said.  Ted shrugged and took him by the arm.

Round and round and round they went, reenergized by their anticipation of the fun to come.  After every couple of dances, they changed partners and even managed to drag Tuck onto the dance floor a time or two.  Whenever the musicians played a slower dance, they’d all head for the refreshment table, although Little Joe never did more than look at the dwindling goodies.  Then it was back to the dance floor without a thought for why the activity that had bored them stiff before now had them laughing like hyenas.

The routine had started to get old again, though, when Little Joe felt a tap on his shoulder and heard a familiar voice ask, “May I cut in?”

“What for?” he demanded of his oldest brother.  “I ain’t wearin’ a skirt.”

“Neither is your current partner,” Adam pointed out as he took his brother’s arm and forcibly twirled him under his own a time or two.  Once he had Joe separated from his friends, Adam said, “I couldn’t help noticing that you’ve been dancing a lot more than usual and thought, maybe, I should investigate.  Are you developing any grownup urges that might require a big brother’s guidance, little buddy?”  He thought his brother was still too young to be showing any real interest in girls, but then, Little Joe could be precocious at times one wouldn’t expect.  Of course, he hadn’t actually seen the kid with a girl yet, but perhaps Little Joe just didn’t know how to ask.  Exactly the sort of thing a big brother could help with.

“Just tryin’ to get in the spirit of the thing, long as I’m stuck here,” Little Joe said, “and dancin’ with you sure ain’t accomplishin’ that!”

“Well, let’s get you another partner, then,” a somewhat nettled Adam declared, dancing his brother toward the side of the room, where he’d spotted a blonde-pigtailed sprite in bright blue gingham ruffles.  “Hello, Miss Lisa,” he said when he reached her.  “I have an energetic partner here for you, if you’d care to dance.”

“Oh, yes!” Lisa cried eagerly before Little Joe had a chance to protest.  Why, Little Joe Cartwright was the most popular boy in school, and the absolute cutest!  She’d been eyeing him hopefully all night long, and this invitation would just put the cap on a wonderful evening.

Little Joe had been raised with too many manners to do anything but take her by the hand and lead her onto the dance floor, but he threw his big brother an if-looks-could-kill scowl over his shoulder.  Then he submitted himself to the torture in the certain knowledge that Halloween was coming, the perfect time for big brother to get his comeuppance for this act of treachery.  As soon as that dance ended, Little Joe passed his partner off to Ted, the closest target, and after that Lisa found herself making the rounds of the quintet of boys.  Even years later, she would remember it as the most exhilarating night of her life.

Midnight came, and the boys were beginning to wilt, both from the endless exercise and the unaccustomed lateness of the hour.  Little Joe was stifling a yawn when he felt a tap on his shoulder and looked up to see his father, smiling down at him.

“We brought bedding, son,” Ben reminded him.  “Isn’t it about time you took advantage of it?”

“But I’m having such a good time, Pa,” Little Joe insisted, an argument that would have been more convincing had he not been forced to stifle yet another yawn in the midst of it.

Ben chuckled.  “Well, I’m glad you are, but I think it would be better if you lay down in the wagon, son.  You’re not likely to get out of bed before noon tomorrow, as it is!”  He landed a soft swat on the boy’s backside.  “Run along now.  You’ll thank me in the morning.”

Little Joe would have figured that to be true under normal circumstances, but the grownups still hadn’t even begun to think about leaving the party, which meant that he and his friends hadn’t yet enjoyed the fruits of their elaborate prank.  Still, Pa usually meant business when he emphasized an order with a swat, soft or not, so he figured he had no choice but to do as he was told.  As he passed through the vestibule, he saw that all six babies were still there, fast asleep.  He left the front door propped open as he left the Howard Theater, in hopes that he’d be able to hear the hullabaloo, once it started up.

“Hey, Little Joe!” Mitch called from the back of his wagon.  “Climb in here.”

Little Joe clambered into the Devlin wagon.  “You get sent to bed, too?” he snickered.

“Yeah, and I wish they’d all start yearnin’ for the same thing,” Mitch complained.  “You’d think the ladies’d have sore toes by now, with all them miners tromping on them.”

“Copper-toed shoes,” Little Joe said with a grin, which earned him a shove back onto the pallet.  “It’s probably gonna be another hour, at least, before folks start headin’ home,” he said as he came up on his elbows.”

“Yeah, but at least we’ll have a good seat for the show, once it starts,” Mitch said.  “My wagon’s closer to the door than yours.”

“Good thinking,” Little Joe said.  “Look, if you wanna grab a little shut-eye, I could keep first watch.”

“Good idea,” Mitch said, “but seems like I oughta take first watch, me bein’ the host, so to speak.”

“I ain’t gonna argue!” Little Joe laughed.  He curled up on the pallet, certain that sheer excitement, if not Mitch’s jabbering, would keep him awake, but he soon drifted off and didn’t even wake when Seth, Ted and Tuck all piled into the wagon.

He woke to someone shaking his shoulder and hissing his name in his ear, piercing his foggy mind like a dull knife.  “Wake up, Joe,” that person was insisting.  “We got trouble!”

That word sharpened the knife’s edge enough to make him crack open an eye.  “Trouble?” he asked blearily.  “Who’s in trouble?”

“We all are,” a different voice grunted.

Identifying it this time as Seth, Little Joe sat up, still not fully awake, but with a vague fear gripping the pit of his stomach.  “What’s wrong?”

“One of ‘em’s gone,” Tuck moaned.

“One of who’s gone?” Little Joe asked as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“The babies,” Mitch muttered.

Suddenly, Little Joe was fully awake.  “The b-babies?” he stammered.  “One of the babies has gone missin’?”  He cocked an ear and heard . . . nothing.  “How come they ain’t raised a ruckus if there’s a kid missin’?” he demanded.  “If this is some kind of joke, I’m gonna tear the lot of you limb from limb.”

“It ain’t a joke,” Tuck all but whimpered.  “One set of them folks left early and took their youngun—or maybe not their youngun—with ‘em.”

Little Joe grabbed the nearest shirt front, which happened to belong to Mitch.  “Which one?” he asked urgently.

“I don’t know,” Mitch said.  “I was asleep, same as you.  Tuck woke me up with his yelpin’.”

“You was supposed to be keepin’ watch!” Little Joe yelled, only to have a palm slapped over his mouth.

“Shh!  I was, ‘til the others came,” Mitch said.  “They said I could catch a couple of winks, so I did.”

Little Joe pushed away his friend’s hand.  “Okay.  Who did see, then?”

“All three of us,” Ted, who had been hanging back in the wagon’s farthest corner, replied.  Since the baby switch had originally been his idea, he was petrified that he’d have to shoulder the full blame, now that it had most likely gone wrong.  Being new to town, he had not yet learned the level of loyalty Little Joe Cartwright showed any friend or co-conspirator in crime.

“All right, then,” Little Joe said.  “Who left?”  He looked from one blank face to the next.

Ted shrugged.  “I don’t know folks hereabouts that well yet.”

“Me, either,” Seth said.

“That don’t wash,” Mitch snorted.  “You been here two, three years now.”

“You been here longer!” Seth thrust his accusing nose about half an inch from the other boy’s.

“I was asleep!” Mitch protested, “same as Little Joe.”

“Fussin’ at each other ain’t helpin’,” Little Joe said.  “Didn’t any of you recognize ‘em?  Tuck?”

“No,” Tuck said.  “They must be town folks, Little Joe.  I’m just country stock.”

“We all are, except for Ted,” Little Joe sighed, “and he’s new to town, so I guess that leaves us in the dark.  They weren’t hollerin’, though, right?  Maybe that means they figured it out and got a good laugh out of it.  You think?”  The hope in his eyes as his chin bobbed up and down looked downright pitiful.

“More likely means they didn’t have a clue they was takin’ home the wrong youngun,” Seth said.  “They’d be more likely to yell bloody murder than laugh, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Little Joe admitted glumly.  “Well, bad as I hate it, maybe we’d better ‘fess up and face the music.”

“Have you gone daft?” Seth exploded.  “Maybe you can do that, but I sure can’t!”

Little Joe nodded in mute commiseration.  While discovery would probably mean a tanning for him, Mitch and Tuck, Seth was more likely to get an outright beating.  He didn’t know Ted well enough yet to calculate the consequences for him, but Seth’s need, at least, was reason enough to keep quiet.  “I wasn’t thinking,” he said by way of apology.  “We may have to, but we’ll leave that for a last resort.  Agreed?”

The others’ murmurs of agreement were silenced by the high-pitched, piercing shriek that suddenly poured through the open doorway into the theater.  “Uh-oh,” Tuck muttered.  “I think that’s it.”

“We oughta go in, see the fun.”  Ted’s guarded suggestion was squelched by the looks on the faces of his companions in the wagon, but when a succession of screams followed the first, whether to go or stay became a moot question.  Fun didn’t matter; consequences didn’t matter: they had to know.  They all piled out of the wagon and rushed into the theater’s vestibule, now crowded with screaming women, frantic fathers and concerned citizens, as well as the idly curious.  The five boys did their best to look like the latter, but the scene that unfolded before their widening eyes made that difficult.

Mrs. Pederson, whose family ran a dairy farm outside town, was pointing an accusing finger at a petite lady holding in her arms a chubby infant with hair the color of ripened corn.  “She steal my baby!” Mrs. Pederson bellowed.

“No,” the other lady protested.  “I just picked it up this minute.  And it was in my basket!  What did you do with my little girl?”

“I not touch,” the immigrant lady insisted.

“Here she is, Greta,” a man called from the end of the line of baskets, “but she is dressed like boy.”

“Those are my boy’s clothes,” another irate mother snapped, “but I can’t find him at all.  Is this someone’s idea of a joke?”

“More than likely,” someone chuckled, a sound that echoed through the ranks of the idly curious.

None of the parents, however, found the situation amusing, as they shouted accusations at any and all within sound of their voices.  Apparently, someone had thought to send for Roy Coffee, who managed to shout the whole lot of them into silence.  “Now, we’re gonna sort this out, folks,” he promised, “but we got to have order.  Now, first thing is to get some room in here, so if you didn’t have a baby in one of these baskets, you need to get back in the theater.”

“Can’t we just go home, sheriff?” one man asked.  “It’s mighty late.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jefferson,” Sheriff Coffee said.  “Like as not, you got nothing to do with this, but nobody leaves until I know what’s what.  Please go back inside.”

Little Joe and his cohorts tried to slink out the front door, but the sheriff saw them.  “I said inside, boys,” he scolded.  “Go find your folks and stay with them.”

“Uh, sure, Sheriff Roy,” Little Joe said, snaring the elbow of his nearest friend.  “We was just gonna go back to sleepin’ in the wagon, but whatever you think best.”

Roy’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he had a duty to protect these younguns, too, if there was a real kidnapper loose on the streets and not just some prankster, as he suspected.  “I think it best you go find your folks,” he said.

“Yes, sir; we’re goin’,” Little Joe said.  The last thing he needed was to arouse the suspicion of the sheriff, family friend or not.  He did not, of course, immediately seek out his family.  Blending in with the crowd seemed, by far, the safer course of action.

However, he had failed to take into consideration that, with a child gone missing, his family might be looking for him.  It was Hoss, acknowledged as the best tracker of the family, that spotted him first, but Ben was the first to reach his son, with the two older brothers following in his wake.  “Little Joe, I thought you were supposed to be sleeping in our wagon,” Ben said.

He had meant the words as an explanation for his concern, but Little Joe’s guilty conscience immediately interpreted them as an accusation.  “I was,” he insisted and then stumbled.  “Well, I mean, yeah, I was sleeping, but not in our wagon.”  He hurriedly explained, “I was with Mitch in his wagon.  He invited me, and I didn’t think you’d mind, Pa.”  He let his lower lip tremble, in a display of nerves that was only half-feigned, though for a different reason than the one he was hoping his father would assume.

Ben, still too relieved to see beyond his son’s safety, put an arm around the boy’s shoulders.  “Well, of course, I don’t mind, son,” he said warmly.  “In fact, it was probably safer for you boys to stay together.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other and both rolled their eyes.  The kid could get away with almost anything, and it was obvious to anyone with eyes not clouded by worry that he was trying to divert his father’s attention; from what remained to be seen.  Adam, in particular, thought it far more likely that the baby switch was the work of youngsters like Joe himself than the crime of a kidnapper, and even Hoss would not have been surprised to learn that his baby brother had had a hand in the tomfoolery.  Neither of them, naturally, would have said that to their father.  The voicing of such a suspicion violated the code of brotherly conduct and, therefore, was not to be considered.  Besides, neither of them thought the boy capable of hiding a child from its parents.  While Little Joe was always up for a bit of mischief, that sort of meanness would never even cross his mind.

Sheriff Coffee strode into the main hall and loudly announced, “Everything’s been sorted out, folks, so you’re all free to go.”

“Roy,” Ben called, signaling the sheriff over.  “Everything’s all right?” he asked his friend when Roy joined them.  “What about the missing child?”

“Not missing now,” Roy said with a grin.  “The Lincolns had him.  Just picked up their basket and headed home without bothering to take a good look inside.  Wasn’t ‘til they was home, changin’ their girl’s diaper before bedding her down proper, that they noticed they had a boy, instead!”

“So they brought him straight back,” Ben surmised.  “Well, all’s well that ends well, I suppose.”

“I reckon,” Roy said.  “Folks is laughing about it now, but”—he aimed a significant look at Little Joe—“I wouldn’t recommend anyone try a stunt like that again, not in my town.”

“I’m sure they won’t,” Ben said with a knowing smile.  He wasn’t quite as oblivious as his older sons thought and his youngest profoundly hoped, but for once he chose to turn a blind eye.  No great harm had been done by what would go down in the annals of Virginia City as the Great Baby Switch, and he was pretty sure that the perpetrators, whoever they might be, had gotten a bad enough scare to keep them on the straight and narrow, at least for a while.

Looking up, he suddenly realized that he was missing a child himself, one far too large to tote off in a basket.  “Now, where’s Hoss gone to?”

Adam chuckled.  “The refreshment table.  Fortifying himself for the trip home, I believe.”

“Hope he brings extra,” Little Joe ventured.  Sheer relief had suddenly given him a renewed appetite.

“If he doesn’t, we’ll just send him back,” Ben said with a fond ruffle of his boy’s curls.  “Did you have a good time, Little Joe?”

“Yes, sir!”  A momentary frown settled on his face.  “Except for when Adam tricked me into dancing with a girl,” he muttered.

“Trick?” Adam said in apparent surprise.  “Why, I thought dancing with Lisa would be a treat, little brother.”

“That was very kind of your brother, wasn’t it, Little Joe?” Ben suggested pointedly.

Little Joe darted a look at first his father and then his older brother, whose arched eyebrows were almost mirror images of each other.  It was only a small gesture, but he’d had ten years experience in reading its multi-faceted nuances.  They knew, both of them, or at least, suspected, and the code of brotherly conduct, as well as the law of self preservation, dictated that he respond accordingly.  “Um, yes.  Yes, it was.”  He was surprised to discover that he almost meant it.  Lisa hadn’t been a bad dancer at all; in fact, she’d been a lot more fun to twirl around than stumble-footed Tuck.

Hoss returned with the hamper they’d brought to the dance.  Though Hop Sing’s goodies were long gone, it was filled with enough remains of the refreshment table to provide a feast for all on the way home, and the three older Cartwrights, at least, were still dipping into it long after Little Joe fell asleep in the back of the wagon, dreaming of babies floating from one basket to another in the darkened vestibule of the Howard Theater.


The End

© October, 2017


Note:  Elaborate as they may seem, the pranks mentioned in this story were actually perpetrated by 19th-century youngsters.

Other Stories by this Author


Author: Puchi Ann

I discovered Bonanza as a young girl in its first run and have been a faithful fan ever since. Wondering if the Cartwright saga could fit into the real history of the area, I did some research and wrote a one-volume prequel, simply for my own enjoyment. That experience made me love writing, and I subsequently wrote and published in the religious genre. Years later, having run across some professional Bonanza fanfiction, I gobbled up all there was and, wanting more, decided I'd have to write it myself. I decided to rewrite that one-volume Cartwright history, expanding it to become the Heritage of Honor series and developing a near-mania for historical research. Then I discovered the Internet and found I wasn't alone, for there were many other stories by fine writers in libraries like this one. I hope that you'll enjoy mine when I post them here.

15 thoughts on “The Great Baby Switch (by Puchi Ann)

  1. I have to admit that was a pretty funny stunt. Glad things turned out well in the end.. Little Joe type stunt all the way around. thanks for a good laugh. I enjoyed this story.

    1. Thank you, Hope. So nice to hear from you again and know that you enjoyed the story. “All’s well that ends well” is pretty much Little Joe’s code of life.

  2. What a delightful read! I’m sorry illness, vacation, and BoNaNo delayed my enjoyment of a story now added to my list of classic Cartwright Halloween must reads. P.S., I suspect Adam will shortly rue the day he encouraged Joe to step out with a girl.

    1. Thanks, Dee. I’m sorry you’ve been ill, but happy you’re better. You’re probably right about Adam, now that I think of it! He’ll soon get plenty of experience ruing the day in many ways with a certain little brother.

  3. I enjoyed this story very much. The way of it wasn’t obvious and how the boys acted was very believable and authentic. I like also how Ben and the older brothers reacted – many more nuances as usual in most fanfiction, where Ben is often the stereotyp of an disciplinarian.

  4. *snort* Yeah … I can actually see them doing this. Bored enough ten year olds? No telling …

    Ah, the code of brotherly conduct. I have only sisters, but it works the same. That sort of thing does seem to be inborn. ?

    Thanks for writing!

    1. He is? I think there are some in Virginia City that might consider him a fallen angel after this little episode. 🙂 Thanks for reading and leaving a review. I’m glad I made you laugh.

  5. So funny! That kind of prank is just what I’d expect from Little Joe and his crew. I’m glad they were loyal to each other and didn’t break down.

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