Summary: Two short stories that begin with Adam and Hoss looking for their missing brother.
Rated: K+ Word count: 2916
Looking for Little Joe
“Where have you looked?”
“The barn, the root cellar, and the bunkhouse. You?”
“Every blame corner in the house, even the attic.” Hoss wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Little Joe hates the attic.” Adam observed with a trace of worry underlying the irritation in his voice.
“He plum hates a whuppin’ worse!”
“If we don’t find him before Pa comes home, that’s exactly what will be facing him!” Adam eyes continued to scan the area around the ranch house. And more than likely the two of us! Adam did not voice his final thought, but Hoss read it in his brother’s eyes.
“Ma may get home before Pa.” Hoss could only bring himself to whisper the notion, and a chill shuddered down his spine despite the sweat that had reappeared on his brow.
The thought of telling his stepmother that he had no idea of his baby brother’s whereabouts paled Adam’s tanned cheeks. “We’re not going to let that happen, brother.”
“But what if it does? “ Hoss’s ten-year-old mind demanded reassurance.
“We lie, well, not lie exactly, but we avoid the truth.” Adam’s right hand tugged nervously at his left ear.
“Pa says that’s the same thing.”
“Only if the other person finds out.”
Hoss’s stomach plummeted to his knees; if Adam was ready to lie, they were already swimming in trouble.”
“Well, if he’s not in the house, yard, or barn, we’re going to have to broaden our search. You go around the edge of the yard that way, and I’ll go in the other direction. Look for any sign that he went off into the woods.”
“He ain’t allowed to leave the yard, Adam.” Hoss made the statement mainly to push way the thought of the four-year-old wandering alone in the woods.
Adam was trying to keep the same image at bay. He or even Hoss may have been fine in the woods at that age, but Little Joe had always lived in a house with multiple older eyes upon him. Dangblast it all! Why didn’t I keep my eyes on him today!
His father’s voice filled Adam’s head, “Marie has gone to see what she can do for Mrs. Foster, and I’m needed at the lumber camp, so you will just have to put your book aside and keep an eye on your little brother.”
Adam sighed as his eyes searched the ground for signs of a little boy’s passing. Please God make him just be hiding some place safe because he’s mad that Pa wouldn’t take him with.
Adam stopped and watched Hoss stoop for a closer look at the ground. “Do you see something?” Hope rose in his heart until Hoss stood and shook his head.
Hoss completed the last few yards and then faced his brother tears forming in his eyes. “No sign, Adam, no sign at all.”
“Well, then he must still be hiding in some corner around here.”
“Maybe it’s time to fire shots and bring the men, so they can start helping us look.”
Adam chewed his lower lip. If they fired signal shots, it was admitting that Little Joe was lost; it also made their own comeuppance a surety. You so afraid of a whipping that you’d leave your baby brother in danger just to avoid one!” The voice in his head was razor sharp and sounded a little like his father and stepmother both, as impossible as that would be for any human. Adam sighed. “You looked everywhere in the house? Even the little spaces?”
Hoss nodded unable to push a word past the lump in his throat.
Adam had not needed to ask; even though he was not grown Hoss was always thorough with any task. Little Joe would have come out for Hoss, maybe not for me, but he would have for Hoss.
“We’ll try one more thing, and then, well, then I’ll get a rifle.” Adam put his arm around Hoss’s shoulders and said quietly, “I’ll go into the trees a little and look some more. You go in the yard and the house and call for Joe. Tell him I’m not around, so it’s safe to come out. That you’ll talk me into not telling Pa about his going off and hiding.”
Hoss understood his brother’s reasoning and nodded solemnly. He tried to talk Little Joe out of hiding from various spots in the yard and house for the next ten minutes, but no little brother appeared.
Adam walked up, shook his head, and went to the gun cabinet. He carried his rifle outside, pointed it toward the sky, and then heard a wagon approaching. He lowered the rifle and pointed it toward the ground as he saw his father pull into the yard. He stared at the ground as Hoss walked up to stand behind him. It did not occur to either boy that their father had not had time to complete a round trip to the lumber camp and back.
Ben set the brake and jumped to the ground. He walked over to his sons. “Why do you have the rifle, Adam? Has something happened?”
“Well.” The single syllable was all he could manage.
It came out in one rush of jumbled words from both boys’ mouths.
“It’s Little Joe, Pa”
“We’s got to find him!”
“He went off after you left, and we’ve been looking…”
“He’s lost, he’s lost, Pa. He’s lost, and it’s my fault.” Hoss’s exclamations dissolved into sobs. Adam dropped the rifle and wrapped his arms about his younger brother.
“No, no, it’s not. It’s my fault.” Adam looked over his brother’s shoulder and addressed his father in a steadier voice. “We’ve looked everywhere, sir. I was going to fire shots to bring the men. We need to organize a search party.”
Ben held his son’s eyes with his and then spoke in a measured tone, “You need to look in the back of the wagon.”
Adam drew in a sharp breath and then moved toward the wagon with his arm still around Hoss’s shoulders. The two brothers peered over the wagon’s side. Lying on his stomach asleep with his thumb in his mouth was their baby brother.
“I was almost half way there before I discovered my stowaway. He cried himself to sleep on the way back.”
Adam did not turn toward his father’s voice but continued to stare down at Little Joe. Thank you, Lord, oh, thank you! Neither Adam nor Hoss asked why Little Joe had been crying; both boys knew their father too well to wonder.
“How long was it before you started looking for him?” Their father’s voice had taken on the cold fire of true anger.
Adam answered, “About a half hour,” before he looked over Hoss’s shoulder into his father’s face. Then he stiffened, “It was my responsibility, Pa.”
“Hoss, can you carry your brother up to his room?”
“Yes, sir, Pa.” Though only ten, Hoss had the size and strength of an older boy, and Little Joe was a diminutive child.
Adam reached out and lifted Little Joe over the side of the wagon and into Hoss’s arms. The little boy stirred and instinctively wrapped his arms and legs about the familiar body of his brother. Hoss then carried him into the house.
Adam turned and placed himself in front of his father.
“Your explanation, Adam.”
“I only had a page more in the chapter when you called that you were leaving. I was just going to finish that when I told Hoss to go keep an eye on Little Joe. Hoss was in the kitchen and said he was busy, but I told him again to go. I thought he had. “
“How long did that page take to read?” The tone of Ben’s voice had darkened.
“I read the next two chapters, and then Hoss walked in and said he’d take Little Joe out to play. He thought Joe was with me, Pa. We started fi.., well, after we figured out Joe wasn’t with either of us we started looking.”
Ben refrained from bellowing as it occurred to him that Adam looked as if he could be knocked down with a single gust of air. “You know what could have resulted from your irresponsibility?”
“Yes, sir.” Adam dropped his gaze to the dirt beneath his feet. And I know what is going to result from it, but it’s only what I deserve.
“Adam Stoddard Cartwright, I am very disappointed in you and Eric.”
Adam’s head jerked up. “Not Hoss, Pa. It was my responsibility. Hoss isn’t at fault.”
“No, Pa, please! I deserve for you to skin the hide right off my backside, but please don’t tan Hoss. He’s been searching and worrying, and I shouldn’t have tried to shove my responsibility off on him. Please, don’t punish him, Pa, please.”
Ben looked at his eldest son. Adam very seldom cried, but tears were rolling down his cheeks as he choked out the words.
“Go up to your room and tell Hoss to go to his. I’ll be up after I see to the horses.”
Adam opened his mouth to volunteer to take care of the team, but his father’s face was carved in granite, so he did not speak but only trudged past his father into the house.
Adam sat on the window ledge staring down at the yard. It seemed like an eon before his father walked out of the barn and toward the house. It seemed like only moments had passed when he heard his door open.
He turned to face his judgment, but the first thought that entered Adam’s head was He looks so weary.
Ben motioned for Adam to sit on the bed and brought the straight-back chair from the desk over to the bedside. “The last time I punished you for failing in your responsibility to watch your younger brother you were the ten-year-old.”
Adam startled at Ben’s words as the memory came rushing back. He had been watching Hoss and reading when Hoss had wandered through the kitchen and out of the house. Once outside he had followed a butterfly, then a frog, and then a squirrel. Their pa had discovered Hoss playing at the edge of the woods and then found Adam still reading when he had brought the little boy back to the house.
“I wasn’t allowed to read anything but the Bible for a month.”
“I think that caused you more suffering than the tanning I gave you.”
“I don’t know about more, Pa. It was a pretty powerful tanning.”
“Evidently. The effects lasted for six years.”
“I’m really sorry, Pa. Little Joe could have really been hurt and …well, I made Hoss feel guilty too. It was terrible looking and looking and … It won’t ever happen again, Pa, never.”
“I know it won’t, son.” Ben reached out and delivered his forgiveness with a touch to his son’s cheek.
Relaxing at that touch, Adam ventured, “Pa, please, you’re not going to punish Hoss, are you? He really didn’t do anything wrong. I just expected him to obey me.”
“I’ll talk with your brother, but, no, I don’t intend to punish him.”
“Thank you, Pa.” Adam stood. “Can we go down to the barn, so Hoss and Joe won’t have to hear?”
Adam’s eyes widened, and his teeth sunk into his lower lip, but he had already received one favor, so he made no protest.
Ben stood up, and Adam went to the foot of the bed and leaned over grabbing the top of the footboard. Ben did not move.
Adam jerked straight, and his eyes flew to his father’s face. “What?”
“For the next two months the only book you are allowed to read is the Bible. No newspapers either. If I find that you disobey me in this, then you will receive the tanning you were expecting today.”
Ben’s smile was warm but held sadness rather than humor. “This time I think I can afford not to be as strict as I’ve needed to be in the past.” He walked over and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. “You are not an irresponsible person, son; you never have been; I don’t think you could be. Your brother is fine except for a sore bottom which he deserves, so forgive yourself this lapse.” Ben drew his son into a hug. When he released his hold, he brought his hand up to cup Adam’s chin. Giving the boy a half–smile, he said softly, “We will not be mentioning this to Marie.”
Adam’s lips curled into a half-smirk of his own. “Don’t you always say that keeping back the truth is the same as lying?”
“And aren’t you the one that keeps trying to convince me that a careful omission isn’t?”
“I guess you were listening all those times.”
“Son, if you really feel that we should inform your mother…”
“No, no, Pa! I don’t feel that way at all!”
“Dadburnit!” Hoss Cartwright eased his body down onto a large barrel and wiped the sweat from his brow. “That young’n would pick the hottest day of the year to take off.”
Adam walked up and leaned against the barn wall. “I take it you haven’t found him?”
Hoss shook his head. “I haven’t found a trace of the little varmint. I’ve looked everywhere I can think of, and I’m plum wore out with the looking.”
“Well, we can’t stop until we find him, and when we do…” Adam’s statement drifted into a low growl.
Hoss did not have to hear his older brother’s intentions; he knew Adam well enough to be perfectly sure of what awaited their little brother at Adam’s hand. “Well, it’s partly your fault,” Hoss muttered.
“My fault! How in blazes do you figure that any of this is my fault?”
“Well, you know Little Joe well enough to figure that he’d take to his heels as soon as ya said he was goin’ to get a lickin’. You should had kept ya mouth shut until ya had a hold on him.”
Adam snorted. “Our younger brother disobeys Pa’s orders, sets off to go fishing when he should be doing the chores Pa set for his punishment, has a temper tantrum when I stop him, and kicks me in the shin to top it all off, and you think it’s my fault he ran off and hid himself so well that we’ve spent two hours searching for him?”
“Like I said, ya should have had a firm hold of him before ya threatened to spank him,” Hoss retorted.
“It wasn’t a threat; it was a promise,” Adam declared his voice cold enough to send a chill down Hoss’s back.
“We have to find him first,” Hoss declared as he pushed himself to his feet, “and we best do it ‘fore Pa comes home from the lumber camp.” Hoss sighed. I might take a few swats at that whippersnapper’s backside myself!
Adam’s arms crossed his chest, and he tugged his left ear. “I’ve just got a feeling that he’s closer than we think. We never should have taught that boy how to play hide and seek.”
“I’ll check the edge of the yard for sign that he went off into the woods,” Hoss stated as he set off.
Maybe I should check again to see if he went underground. Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose as he set off toward the root cellar. After a few steps he stopped short and looked around the yard again. Maybe I should just announce that if he comes out right now his hide is safe and wait to see what happens. Adam tugged his ear and then shook his head. I haven’t ever lied to the boy, and that’s a promise I couldn’t keep! He strode off once again.
A few minutes later Hoss’s former seat started to rock as if possessed. Then the barrel tipped on its side, and out of its interior crawled a sweaty eleven-year-old. Little Joe paused to pant and stretch the kinks out of his body. He scanned the yard for any sign of his brothers. Seeing none, he sprang stiffly to his feet. Time to change my hiding spot. Got to keep ahead of Adam. Or behind him. He said before that he checked the cellar. Joe took off in the same direction as his older brother.
Approaching the door of the root cellar with extreme caution, Little Joe leaned his ear against the wooden planks and listened. Hearing nothing, he gently slid the door open and slipped into the darkness. The dim interior was cooler than the sunlit yard, and Little Joe sighed in relief as he walked deeper into the large, earthen room. Then a hand descended and seized his shoulder.
“Ahhhhh!” Joe’s startled wail echoed against the walls.
“Now, little brother, it’s only me.” Adam’s voice was deceptively soft and smooth.
“A,aaa,dum! I’m sorry! Really, I’m really, really sorry!”
Adam took a firm hold on both his brother’s arms before replying, “Not half as sorry as you’re going to be.” His lips twisted upwards, and Adam decided that the cellar would do for him just as well as the barn had always done for his pa.
Other Stories by this Author
- Don’t Speak of That (by DJK)
- The Wheelchair (by DJK)
- Ben’s Boy Little Joe (by DJK)
- Feeling Guilty (by DJK)
- Remembering the Barn Elf (by DJK)