Summary: Start with one fifteen-year-old boy with a brand-new sidearm. Add the prettiest twin girls in school, a pair of matching ponies named Floyd and Feather, two inept bank robbers, a worried lawman, several frantic family members, and a best friend who’s game for almost anything. And then, let the chase begin. . . .
Rated: T WC 23,000
Bank Robbers, Belles, and Puppy Dog Eyes
“She sure is a beauty, ain’t she?” Mitch Devlin gave a low, admiring whistle at the sight of his friend’s birthday present
Little Joe Cartwright grinned proudly. “She sure is,” he agreed. Mitch reached out to stroke the handle, but Little Joe stopped him. “Pa said I wasn’t to touch it until him or Adam or Hoss showed me what to do,” he said.
Such strict adherence on Joe’s part to any order by his family was so unusual that Mitch thought his friend must have misunderstood. “I’m sure he didn’t mean you couldn’t actually lay a finger on it,” Mitch protested. “He prob’ly just meant you couldn’t practice with it or such.”
Little Joe shook his head firmly. “Pa said not to touch it-not at all-and I ain’t after getting’ tanned on my birthday,” he said. “And believe me, they’d do it if they caught me messin’ with this.”
“But you’re fifteen! And it’s your own gun!” The pearl handle shone softly next to the tooled leather of the left-handed holster.
“It don’t matter. I don’t think there’s much I’d get tanned for at my age, but I can tell you, this would be it. I already had to listen to all three of them go on and on about how it ain’t a toy and it’s dangerous and it can kill a man. Like I don’t already know all that. Just last week, when Adam and me were in Virginia City, I saw a man get shot dead right there on C Street!”
Mitch’s eyes were wide. “Who was it?”
“Dunno. I think he was a miner. Somebody said something about him cheating at cards. The fellow who killed him was dressed real fancy. I’ll bet he was a gunfighter or something.”
“Did he bleed a lot?”
“I didn’t get to see too much. Adam yanked me out of there too fast.” Yanked was an understatement. Adam had grabbed his arm and flung him into the nearest doorway. Stumbling, Joe had knocked the parcels out of Mrs. McDonald’s hands, and he’d almost knocked over the lady herself. While everybody else got to go and see what was happening with the gunfight, Joe had been stuck fetching spools of thread that had rolled under every conceivable shelf.
“Did they arrest the gunfighter?”
“Sheriff Coffee took him in for questioning, but he let him go. I wanted to go hear what the sheriff was gonna say, but Adam wouldn’t let me.”
“Adam’s worse than your pa sometimes, ain’t he?”
“Lots of times,” Little Joe said glumly. “An’ sometimes Hoss is no better. It’s like having three pas instead of one.”
Mitch considered this. “I reckon you better not touch the gun, then.”
“Not if I want to live to suppertime.”
The boys considered the injustice of it all. Fifteen years old, and Little Joe couldn’t try out his own pistol.
After a minute, Mitch said, “I’ll bet the Belles would think it was pretty fine.”
“I’ll bet they would.” Joe’s green eyes glowed at the thought.
The Belles were Annabelle and Dulcibelle Johnson, twin daughters of the local undertaker. The girls were so beautiful, with their blond curls and cornflower-blue eyes, that every boy in school wanted to spark them. Curt Watson and his brother, Alvin, seemed to think that they had the inside track, but the fact was that it was impossible to know who the Belles favored. When they looked at Joe and Mitch with those big blue eyes, the boys were certain they’d won the fair maidens’ hands, but then they’d see the girls looking the exact same way at the Watson boys the next day, and at Clem Garvey and Philip Robinson the day after that. Once, when the Slater brothers had captured the Belles’ attention, Joe muttered to Mitch that the girls probably wouldn’t be any different if they were standing in front of Pa and Hoss. It was just their way, and it could drive a man crazy.
“Pretty fine-lookin’ weapon, ain’t it?”
The boys’ heads snapped around. Hoss stood behind them, arms crossed. Joe had never figured out how such a big man could move so silently, but the fact was that Hoss could creep up on his own shadow.
“We ain’t touched it,” announced Little Joe.
Hoss looked unimpressed. “You was told not to,” he shrugged.
“And we did just what we were told,” said Little Joe as though that were something noteworthy-which, in fact, it sort of was. “But now that you’re here, you can show us what to do.”
“Me? Show ‘us’ what to do? Little Brother, I think mebbe you been out in the sun too long.”
“But why not? Pa said I couldn’t touch it unless him or you or Adam was here, and you’re here, and it’s my birthday. Besides, you know you’re the best shot in the family. You’re the natural choice to show me how to handle a pistol right.”
This speech was accompanied by the expression his family had long ago dubbed Little Joe’s “puppy dog eyes.” Joe would widen his eyes to assume the most innocent, plaintive expression imaginable. Only his eyes moved as he looked up at whoever was being stern or otherwise uncooperative. Already shorter than his father and brothers, he would bow his head slightly, creating the impression of being cowed and intimidated by his big, strong family. Looking small and vulnerable was key: if he and the other person were seated next to each other, he would bow his head until his chin nearly touched his chest so that the same looking-up effect was accomplished. If he had to, he would allow his lips to tremble and his chin to quiver, but he was careful not to overuse these flourishes. Tears were permitted to well up only under extreme circumstances.
Even though they all knew that Little Joe used the expression shamelessly, they all fell prey to it on a regular basis-so regular, in fact, that for years, Adam and Hoss had routinely sent their little brother in to intercede with Pa on their behalf. This was when they discovered that the roster of Joe’s admirable traits did not include philanthropy: by the time he was five years old, he was exacting payment for services rendered in the form of sweets and bedtime stories. As the boy grew, the fee schedule evolved accordingly. At the moment, Joe accepted payment in the form of relief from chores, the granting of a privilege such as a hunting trip or an afternoon of fishing, or cold, hard cash. Adam and Hoss didn’t even want to think about what their baby brother would be demanding in another year.
Though he was not usually over-burdened by conscience, even Little Joe knew that it was sort of unfair to use puppy dog eyes on Hoss. His big brother was a pushover without the extra persuasion. But when it came to his new gun, Joe felt entitled to use every weapon in his arsenal. Today, he would stop short of the tears-even soft-hearted Hoss wouldn’t believe that he would cry over a pistol-but he would come as close as he needed. If he handled matters just right, it would never occur to Hoss that if Joe’d been speaking to Adam or Pa, they would have been the ones he praised as the best shots in the family. Fact regularly gave way to flattery when Little Joe Cartwright was determined to win.
As it turned out, Joe didn’t have to work that hard. Hoss had come back to the house with the specific intention of showing his little brother how to handle the gun. After all, it was the boy’s birthday, and Hoss wanted to do something extra-special for him. He knew what it would mean to Little Joe to impress Adam and Pa when they gave him what they thought was his first lesson. Besides, Joe knew that both Adam and Hoss had been younger than fifteen when they first learned to handle a sidearm, and this had been a sore point for several years. It was one of the very few matters where puppy dog eyes had been useless: Ben Cartwright was simply not convinced that his youngest son was mature enough to handle this responsibility. And as much as Adam and Hoss wanted to intercede for their baby brother, they couldn’t honestly argue the fact that, in some ways, the boy was taking his sweet time about growing up.
But at last, Pa gave in, and now the pearl-handled gun and tooled leather holster were on display before two admiring boys. Hoss wasn’t all that happy about showing Joe how to use the gun with Mitch there, but Mitch didn’t have any older brothers, and his pa was usually pretty busy. Probably better to teach them both at once, anyway.
“All right, Little Brother, but you better not tell Pa or Adam I did this,” he warned. “And Mitch, you don’t tell nobody. Got it?” The boys nodded solemnly. As Hoss took them outside for their first lesson, a thought crossed his mind: I’m gonna regret this.
* * * * * * * * * *
When Little Joe rode into the schoolyard the next morning, a crowd of boys had gathered at the far edge of the yard. He stabled his horse as fast as he could and made a beeline for the crowd.
In the thick of it was Curt Watson. He was proudly showing off his squirrel rifle. Joe relaxed. He’d always been taught not to brag about what he had-Pa said it was rude, especially when others didn’t have as much-but it was nice to know that Curt still had a squirrel rifle when Joe already owned his own pistol. Even nicer was the secret knowledge that Hoss had pronounced him a natural at handling it.
“Good-looking piece,” Joe said generously.
“You should see Cartwright’s new gun,” piped up Mitch. Joe glared at him, and Curt misinterpreted the look.
“I’ll bet Cartwright has some fine gun,” Curt said. “Kill a lot of squirrels with it?”
“It ain’t a rifle,” said Mitch, ignoring his friend’s black stare. “It’s a pistol.”
All of the boys stared. “You got a sidearm?” Gus Chapman asked finally.
“Well-it was my birthday,” admitted Little Joe.
“And you should see the holster!” Mitch added.
“Hey, Devlin, I gotta talk to you before school,” said Little Joe in an attempt to change the subject.
“Yeah, Devlin, he’s gotta talk to you,” sneered Curt. “All about how he don’t really have a pistol.”
“I do too!” It was one thing to be thought of as rude; it was quite another to be called a liar, directly or through Mitch.
“Yeah? Well, where is it?”
“It’s at home,” said Joe, as if this were obvious. “Who would be fool enough to bring a gun to school?”
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than the fool in question tossed the rifle to his brother and jumped the smaller boy. Within seconds, the schoolyard talk had degenerated into a full-blown melee.
“Break it up!”
The thundering bass voice brought the fight to an instant halt. The boys turned in time to see Little Joe be plucked out from under the pile of classmates and hauled to his feet as if he were no bigger or stronger than a rag doll.
“You forgot your lunch,” said Hoss grimly, handing him the pail. He looked from his brother to the other boys. Joe looked furious instead of repentant, which probably meant that he hadn’t started the fight. Still, his little brother knew better. He resisted the urge to check the boy over to be sure he was all right. The kid was fierce and fast, but he was also small and slight of build, while some of his classmates, like the Watson boys, were already quite large for their age. Hoss allowed himself a quick appraising glance and turned to go. Over his shoulder, he said, “Be in the north pasture right after school. That fence is a mess. We lost at least ten head already.”
“Lucky for you your big brother came along,” sneered Curt, wiping blood from his nose.
“Oh, Curt, are you hurt?” One of the Belles scurried over to him and pressed her handkerchief against his face.
“Oh, don’t you worry your pretty head about me,” said Curt. “It takes a whole lot more than Little Joe Cartwright to do anythin’ to the likes of me.”
Mitch and Joe rolled their eyes. The other Belle knelt beside Alvin Watson, who was still sitting on the ground. “Are you all right, Alvin?” she inquired in that soft, breathless voice that visited Joe’s dreams.
“I’m just fine, Annabelle,” Alvin said, getting to his feet.
“I’m Dulcibelle,” the girl said, not even a little bit put out at the mix-up. Curt turned to Joe and Mitch with a triumphant sneer, and Joe glared as the Belles laid their delicate hands on the rough sleeves of the Watson brothers and walked slowly toward the schoolhouse.
Little Joe had a hard time shrugging off this type of thing. Not the fight, but the Belles. His frustration went beyond the fact that he had a broad competitive streak. Rather, it grew from his private belief that he was indeed the better man and, as such, he should win the girl. He knew this to be true, because he alone had the secret weapon: Adam.
When it had come time for the talk about growing up and all that went with it, Pa had been surprisingly awkward. Little Joe didn’t think he was asking unusual questions, but Pa seemed quite taken aback. Joe couldn’t remember ever seeing his pa blush before. He stammered over his answers like he didn’t know what Joe was talking about. How on earth this man had won a woman like his mother was beyond Little Joe.
The next thing he knew, Joe was in the barn, and Hoss was explaining things. The problem was that while Hoss was just fine with the observable facts of what happened between males and females of other species, he wasn’t telling Joe anything he didn’t already know. Growing up on a ranch, a boy learned certain things early on. Of course Joe knew the difference between a mare and a stallion. After all, he’d seen animals mating all over the Ponderosa every spring of his life. That wasn’t what he needed to know about now: he looking for more personal information. But when Joe tried to ask his big brother about certain matters specific to humans, Hoss got even redder than Pa and told him not to think about those things.
Right. Like there was a chance of that.
The next night, Adam commandeered him after supper. Little Joe followed his brother upstairs eagerly. He’d been expecting this, and frankly, he was looking forward to it. Pa and Hoss might have been sort of pitiful, but he felt confident that Adam would tell him everything he wanted to know.
And he did. Every question was answered, with no equivocation and, thank heaven, no blushing or stammering or telling him how he was too young to hear about such things. They might have been talking about how to rope a steer for all the emotion Adam showed. Little Joe knew his older brother well enough to understand Adam’s approach: deal with the matter head-on, and the whole thing loses all its mystique and its sense of being forbidden fruit, and it won’t be nearly as tempting.
Like there was a chance of that, either. Clearly, Adam had forgotten what it was like to be young.
The only hint that Adam might actually have feelings about the whole issue came when Joe asked him about his first time with a girl. Then, a quiet smile stole over his elder brother’s face, and he shook his head.
“That’s private,” he said. “A man doesn’t talk about those details.”
“Will you tell me who it was?”
“Maybe someday. Not tonight.”
Joe was disappointed, but considering how much he’d learned in one evening, he figured he could wait. Surely, Adam couldn’t mean to keep this to himself forever. Maybe he just thought Joe was too young to know at this point.
“It ain’t like I’m gonna do anything now,” he assured his brother, fingers crossed behind his back. “I just wondered. . . .”
“You’d better not be doing anything now,” said Adam, lightly threatening as he reached for the hand behind his little brother’s back. His voice grew serious. “Every girl is to be treated as a lady, and if I ever hear that you did anything else, you’ll have me to answer to.”
With that, Adam pinned Little Joe with that certain look he had, rock-hard and smoldering, that could make a brave man’s blood run cold with absolute terror. That look said that Adam Cartwright might kill you or just stare at you, and that he truly didn’t care which one he did. Joe had seen that look reduce grown men to quivering without a single word spoken, but before that moment, it had never been turned on him.
Joe took an involuntary step back. He met Adam’s eyes, lifting his chin defiantly, but Adam was better than good. Hazel eyes bored into green with increasing intensity, hard and unblinking. Joe swallowed hard. Adam moved a step closer, forcing his little brother to look up almost straight up at him. A frisson of fear ran down Joe’s spine. The brother he had known and loved all his life was suddenly a stranger. This man could choke the life out of him without breaking a sweat. To his horror, he could feel tears building.
Adam didn’t let up. Joe clenched his jaw, holding firm and not looking away, even as he inwardly cursed himself for the tears that were welling up. But then, just as they threatened to spill over, Adam relaxed, pulling him into a quick, rough one-armed embrace.
“All right, then,” was all Adam said, but Little Joe understood.
Now, as he watched the Belles strolling across the schoolyard with the Watson brothers, Joe grinned to himself. The Belles might think the Watson brothers were the better men, but he was willing to bet that Curt and Alvin didn’t know half of what Adam had told him. Not that he’d let on, of course. He’d be a gentleman, and not just because Adam would have his hide if he wasn’t. It was the right thing to do, at least for now. Someday, though, when the time was right, he’d find a way to let those girls know what he had to offer. In the meantime, it was just as well to wait. He still needed to get Adam to tell him about his first time.
* * * * * * * * * *
The next morning, Little Joe rode into the schoolyard well in advance of the schoolbell. He stabled his horse and lingered next to the gelding, waiting. When Mitch rode up, Joe gestured for him to come close.
“What’s going on?” asked Mitch.
“Guess what’s in my saddlebag,” said Joe in a low voice.
Mitch’s eyes widened. “No!”
Little Joe nodded. “I ain’t gonna take it out unless Curt Watson starts in on me, but it’s there if I need to show it to him.”
“You ain’t gonna leave your saddlebags out here all day, are you?” Mitch was horrified. “What if somebody steals it?”
“I ain’t stupid,” said Little Joe. He didn’t add that taking the saddlebags in with him would be unusual enough for someone to ask about it. After the previous day’s incident, it would only be a matter of time before one of the boys would ask if he had the pistol in there.
“Is it loaded?”
It was Joe’s turn to be horrified. “Do you think I want to get killed by my pa before I’ve had it a week? The bullets are in the other saddlebag.”
“What about the holster?”
“It’s here, too. Everything’s here. If Curt Watson tries to call me a liar again, he’ll be real sorry.”
The morning passed with agonizing slowness. Joe had nonchalantly placed his saddlebags under his chair, but he was well aware that everyone had seen him do it. Curt Watson had to be chomping at the bit by now. Pretending to ignore the attention, Little Joe focused so intently on his lessons that even his eldest brother would have been impressed.
Just before the teacher dismissed them for lunch, there was a commotion out in the schoolyard. Little Joe craned his neck, but he could see nothing. Miss Jones was walking down the aisle, reading aloud about Sir Walter Raleigh. She alone seemed oblivious to the noise in the yard. Mitch kicked Joe’s foot, and Joe shrugged. They’d find out soon enough.
As soon as they were dismissed, Joe grabbed his saddlebags, and they raced outside. The Belles were already there, and they were in tears.
“Who could have done such a thing?” one of them sobbed.
Little Joe Cartwright was no fool. Opportunities like this were rare and precious gifts, not to be squandered on the basis of mere propriety. He immediately took a weeping Belle into his arms and held her close–solely to comfort her, of course. As Mitch did likewise with the other, Joe caught his friend’s eye questioningly. “What happened?” he mouthed. Mitch shrugged. It didn’t matter. They were holding the Belles, and the Watson brothers were as useless as a sleigh in July.
Joe would have been content to stand there all day, holding whichever Belle he had, but he heard Sheriff Coffee’s unmistakable voice. He released his hold on his Belle rather than have to listen to a lecture from Pa tonight about acting improperly with an innocent girl. He didn’t know how they did it, but Pa and Sheriff Coffee seemed to have some kind of mental telegraph between them so that whatever one knew, the other knew. He was sure that Pa, sitting behind his desk at the Ponderosa, already knew he’d been holding a Belle in front of God and everybody.
As the sheriff bore down on them, Little Joe gently wiped away the girl’s tears with his fingertips. The beautiful, sorrowful eyes met his, and for a moment, he thought he might drown in them.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “I’ll take care of it.” No matter that he had no idea what he was talking about. At that moment, he’d have promised her anything.
“Oh, Little Joe!” She flung her arms around him, sobbing afresh. As a gentleman, he had no choice but to continue to hold her. At least the sheriff would see that she had thrown herself at him. Hopefully, that would count for something.
The sheriff cleared his throat. “Miss Johnson?”
The girl loosened, but did not release, her hold on Little Joe. For his part, Little Joe kept his arm around her. He had no intention of letting go first. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Mitch and his Belle stood slightly apart from each other. Joe was the only one with a girl in his arms. This was turning out to be a very good day.
“Miss Annabelle Johnson?” Sheriff Coffee looked at Little Joe, who shifted his gaze to the girl in his arms.
“Yes?” said Mitch’s Belle. Joe breathed a sigh of relief that he’d kept silent. He’d thought he had Annabelle. These girls needed to wear different-colored hair ribbons or something.
“Where were the ponies stabled?”
“Right over there,” said Annabelle, pointing to two empty stalls.
Joe’s eyes widened. The Belles’ ponies had been stolen! Everybody knew that the Belles were devoted to their matching bay ponies, oddly named Floyd and Feather. A Belle in his arms and stolen horses. Yes, sir, this was a very good day indeed.
Sheriff Coffee looked Joe dead in the eye and harrumphed. Reluctantly, Joe let go of Dulcibelle, nodding conspiratorially to her so that she would know it wasn’t his choice. After a moment, the girl released his neck and turned to the sheriff.
“Did you see anything?” asked Sheriff Coffee.
“No, sir,” said Dulcibelle in that sweet, breathless voice that could make a strong man fall down dead with desire.
“We were still in class,” explained Little Joe. “Do you know who took them?” he added, man to man. He figured it was the kind of question his pa would have asked.
“Most likely, the men who robbed the bank,” said Sheriff Coffee.
This day just kept getting better and better. It was like having two birthdays in one week. “There was a bank robbery?”
“That ain’t a good thing,” said the sheriff flatly. He’d known Little Joe since the boy was born, and he knew how that mind worked.
“No, sir, of course not,” said Joe. He knew the sheriff, too, and he knew the correct responses. “How come they stole the ponies if they were way over at the bank?” The bank was at least three blocks away.
“Seems they snuck out of the bank the back way and got this far before the teller came to.” Sheriff Coffee wasn’t quite sure why he was standing around, answering the boy’s questions. He needed to get a posse together and find out just what had been stolen. Still, even though Little Joe Cartwright was ten kinds of trouble, he’d always had a soft spot for the boy. So, he stayed the extra few minutes and told Ben Cartwright’s youngest son what little there was to know about the robbery and the theft of the horses. Later, Roy Coffee would regret this decision, but he couldn’t have known that then.
After the sheriff left, Dulcibelle threw her arms around Joe’s neck again. Always an agreeable sort, Joe put his arms around her waist.
“Are you really going to get my pony back?” she asked breathlessly, her cornflower-blue eyes mere inches from his own.
“Of course,” Little Joe said. He had no idea how to do it, but between his Cartwright upbringing and his southern heritage, one thing was certain: he was not going to break a promise to a lady.
“Oh, Joe!” Dulcibelle squealed with delight. “Annabelle! Little Joe’s going to get our ponies back!”
“Oh, Little Joe!” Annabelle squealed just like her sister. She ran over and hugged him, even though Dulcibelle was still hanging onto his neck.
Everyone, including Mitch, stared silently. After a minute, Curt Watson guffawed. “What are you gonna do, Cartwright? Hire a detective?”
“I don’t need a detective,” said Little Joe defensively. “It ain’t that hard if you know what you’re doing.” If you know what you’re doing. That was a big if. Still, Hoss had taught him some things about tracking, and everybody knew Hoss Cartwright was the best tracker in these parts.
“And you know what you’re doing?” challenged Alvin.
Little Joe had never backed away from a challenge in his life, and he wasn’t about to start now. He looked at the Watson boys levelly, just the way Adam would have. “Yeah,” he said with his elder brother’s quiet intensity, lying outright and doing a damned good job of it. “I know what I’m doing.”
Deliberately, he let go of the Belles and picked up the saddlebags that had lain by his feet ever since Dulcibelle flung herself into his arms. He knew that everybody already had their suspicions about what was in those saddlebags. Relishing the drama of the moment, he reached into the bag, took out the gunbelt, and strapped it on. Then, as casually as if he did it every day, he dropped the pistol into the holster. No one had to know that the bullets were still secreted in the other bag.
Both Belles were still hanging onto him. Joe rested a hand on each of their waists and looked over at Mitch. “You ready?” he asked, as if there had never been a question that the two of them were in this together.
“Sure.” As an adult, Mitch Devlin would be one of the best poker players in Virginia City, primarily because of his ability to remain straight-faced no matter what was thrown at him. He gave all the credit for his development of this skill to Little Joe Cartwright.
“Little Joe, you’ll be careful, won’t you?” Dulcibelle was holding onto him so tight that she was nearly strangling him now. Even Curt Watson looked uncertain. It had to be the gun. This was definitely one of the best days ever.
“I’ll be careful,” he promised. As much as he would have loved to remain right there, with both Belles still holding onto him, Joe knew that they had to move fast. The bell for class would ring at any time. “Now, remember, you can’t tell anybody where we’ve gone. Otherwise, the robbers will find out.” He held his breath at the sheer idiocy of the statement, but everyone nodded seriously. As if there was any chance that the conversation in the schoolyard would somehow be passed along to a pair of men who were God alone knew where. The real question was how to keep the teacher from finding out where they were and contacting his pa.
Inspiration struck. “If Miss Jones asks, tell her Mitch and I had to go out to the Ponderosa. Tell her Adam sent for us.” Miss Jones’ crush on Adam was a well-known secret. If Adam said they were needed, she wouldn’t question it.
“Bring my pony back safe,” whispered Dulcibelle. Her lips brushed his cheek, just for an instant.
“Mine, too,” whispered Annabelle, kissing his other cheek.
“I will.” It was all Joe could do to keep his voice from squeaking. With every bit of self-control he could muster, he picked up the saddlebags and held them close to his body as he strode to the stall where Cochise waited. At last, he understood why Adam had used his fiercest look that night. Turned out, Adam’s glare was barely as powerful as the feelings the Belles had stirred up.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Where is your brother?” thundered Ben as his two older sons strolled into the house.
“I’d like to know that myself,” said Adam, not bothering to conceal his own irritation. The kid was supposed to help Hoss look for strays so that Adam could get into town to meet with the lawyer. Instead, Adam had spent the entire afternoon helping Hoss haul a steer out of a bog. The eldest of the Cartwright sons was muddy, sweaty, tired and cross, and he was not inclined to show any mercy toward his youngest brother.
“Didn’t he show up for work?” Ben was startled. It was very much like Joe to be late, but it was not like him to fail completely to appear.
“Nope,” said Hoss. He was just as muddy and aggravated as his brother. “Ain’t seen saw hide nor hair of him all day. Prob’ly run off someplace with Mitch Devlin.”
“He’d better not have,” said Ben. “If he did, I swear, that boy’s going to be eating his dinner standing up!”
Just then, the sound of hoofbeats caught their attention. “There he is now,” said Adam. All three men strode outside, prepared to confront the youngest member of the family. Instead, they saw Roy Coffee, looking serious.
“Evening, Roy,” said Ben. “What can we do for you?”
“Evening, Ben, boys. I’d like to see Little Joe, if I can,” said the lawman.
“Little Joe? Why? Did he do something?” A distinctly uneasy feeling crept over Ben.
“Well, I ain’t quite sure,” said Roy. “Is he here?”
“Actually, he’s not,” said Ben. “We were just waiting dinner for him.”
Roy looked from one Cartwright to the next. “When did you last see him?”
“Roy, what’s going on?” Ben approached Roy’s horse, peering at his old friend. “Is Joe in some kind of trouble?”
Roy took a deep breath. “Well, Ben, to tell you the truth, I don’t know,” he admitted. “I was kinda hopin’ to find him here.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Adam’s tone sounded almost like a challenge.
“It’s like this,” Roy said. “There was a bank robbery in town earlier today. Robbers got away with a couple of horses, too.”
“You’re not suggesting that my little brother robbed a bank and stole a horse!” Adam snorted. The others chuckled at such a ludicrous notion.
“No, I’m not sayin’ that.” Unlike the Cartwrights, Roy still looked serious.
“Well, do you think he saw something?” Ben couldn’t make sense of what Roy was saying.
“I dunno,” said Roy. “Thing is, there’s been some talk in town. Seems that, before I could raise a posse, a couple of riders already done headed out after the robbers.” When the three men looked at him blankly, Roy sighed and spelled it out. “The talk is that the riders were Mitch Devlin and Little Joe.”
“Joseph? What on earth–” Ben looked flabbergasted, a reaction that Roy privately felt was a bit naïve. It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that, of all the boys he knew, Little Joe was far and away the one most likely to pull such a stunt, but he refrained.
Adam had darted into the house. He returned a moment later, looking somber. “His gun’s gone,” he announced.
Ben’s face drained of color. Hoss rested one enormous hand on his father’s shoulder. For a moment, none of them spoke. Finally, Adam asked, “Has the posse already ridden out?”
“Yep,” said Roy. “But nobody seems quite sure where the boys went. So, they’re tryin’ to track the robbers and just hopin’ the boys are headin’ the same way.”
“Joe’s a pretty good tracker,” said Hoss. “They’re prob’ly on the robbers’ trail.”
“Then we need to get moving,” said Roy. “I sent the posse on ahead so’s I could stop and let you know what was happenin’.”
“Jest let us get some things together, and we’ll ride out,” said Hoss.
Ben seemed to rouse a bit with that. “Adam, you stay here in case Joe comes back,” he said.
“Pa, maybe I should go, and you should stay here,” Adam suggested gently. “If Joe gets back before the rest of us, you’re going to want to talk to him.”
Ben fixed his gaze on his eldest. “My boy is out there with bank robbers and horse thieves,” he said levelly. “I’m riding.”
“I think we should all go,” said Hoss. “Hop Sing will be here if’n Little Joe gets back before we do.”
“I could use all of you,” Roy said. It wasn’t actually true, but he needed to move them along. Daylight faded fast this late in the fall, and he had a pair of fifteen-year-old boys in a peck of trouble. He wasn’t about to stand around all night while Ben and Adam argued about who should stay behind.
“We’ll be ready in ten minutes,” said Ben.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Okay, where do we start?”
Mitch probably didn’t mean it to sound like a challenge, but Joe felt challenged anyway. Everybody had watched them leave, so he had no choice but to look completely confident, as if he knew exactly what he was doing. Mitch should have known better, though. If anybody knew when Little Joe Cartwright was faking it, it should have been his best friend.
Joe regarded the road and Mitch. He was gratified to see that Mitch looked more than slightly unsure himself. At worst, the blind would be leading the blind. But Joe didn’t want to be the blind. He wanted to ride in triumphant, with bank robbers and stolen horses, to the accolades and applause of the entire town, and especially the Belles.
So, he dismounted and studied the road. Somebody had ridden through there recently, although that hardly identified anyone specific. Nothing had been said about the Belles’ horses having any distinctive tracks–no missing or chipped shoes, no uneven gaits. Cochise, on the other hand, needed to have his left front shoe replaced, something Joe had intended to see to that very afternoon
“Well what?” Joe didn’t mean to sound irritable. Sounding irritable was one step away from admitting that whatever he said would be nothing more than a guess.
“Well, where do we go?”
“Follow the road west,” said Joe. It made as much sense as anything else. The robbers had headed west from the bank to the school, and they certainly wouldn’t have doubled back and risked coming face to face with the sheriff. So, for the moment, Joe figured they’d all be in it together if they headed west. He took a swig of water and recorked his canteen, riding out with Mitch behind him and his heart pounding with the excitement of the adventure.
Luck was with him, or maybe not. Not a mile later, he noticed a broken branch off the left. He dismounted, looking at the side of the road as Hoss had taught him. Sure enough, the tracks showed that someone had left the road. Two someones, in fact.
“Hey, Mitch, look at this.” Mitch looked skeptical until Joe explained what they were looking at. At his friend’s admiring gaze, it was all Joe could do to keep a straight face instead of bursting into an enormous grin that would have shattered his matter-of-fact pose. The boys veered off the road and began to poke through the woods, following broken branches and trampled grass. It was all they could do not to whoop with glee. At this rate, the biggest problem that they were going to have was making the capture sound difficult and dangerous.
By the time they were a mile off the road, the rain had begun. Even though they hadn’t thought to bring rain gear, Joe couldn’t keep from grinning. The rain would wash out the tracks on the road. The likelihood that the posse would catch up with them would dwindle to practically nothing. This capture was going to be all theirs.
Hours had passed, the rain had stopped, and darkness had long since fallen when they came upon the camp. Although they would never have admitted it, by this time, they’d completely lost the trail, and the only reason they kept going was the obstinacy of Joe Cartwright. As it was, it was sheer dumb luck that they heard the voices, but Joe threw Mitch a triumphant look, as if this had all been part of his plan.
“You idiot,” said one rough voice. “Them horses were supposed to be right outside!”
“What do you care?” demanded another voice. “We got away, didn’t we?”
“Barely,” said the first. “Hadn’t been for the school, we’d have ended up walkin’ out of town!”
“Look, we’re here, the horses are here, the money’s here-we’re fine,” said the second. “Ain’t nobody’s gonna find us here. I don’t care you who are, you can’t track over rock, and especially not in the rain. In the morning, we can just mosey on out of here, and nobody’ll be the wiser.”
“You don’t think somebody’ll be lookin’ in the morning?” said the first sarcastically. “We robbed a bank and stole horses. I’m thinkin’ that, just maybe, somebody ain’t gonna like that so much. An’ maybe they’re gonna look for us for longer than a couple hours!”
“What’re you so afraid of, anyway?” demanded the second one. “Didn’t it just come off exactly like I said? You don’t see any sheriff around here, do you?” He belched loudly. Joe and Mitch, crouched in shadow, exchanged admiring looks. They’d tied their horses farther down the trail so that the Belles’ horses wouldn’t nicker at them and give the game away.
The rain had stopped, and the robbers had a tiny fire going. It was enough for the boys to see the bottle being passed back and forth. Again, Joe mentally patted himself on the back. This was going to be the triumph to end all triumphs. At only fifteen years of age, he was going to apprehend the bank robbers singlehanded-well, okay, not singlehanded, because he did have Mitch, but single-gunned, anyway. He patted his sidearm, half with excitement and half with apprehension. He’d loaded it before they left town. His pa would skin him alive if he knew.
“What do we do?” hissed Mitch.
“Make the arrest and take ’em back to town,” said Joe with studied casualness. “Go around the other side and keep ’em from escaping that way.”
“How you figure I’m gonna keep them from escaping when you’re the only one with a gun?” asked Mitch reasonably.
“They don’t have to know that,” snapped Joe, annoyed at having the obvious flaw in his plan recognized. “Can’t you just pretend?” Mitch snorted his disdain, and Joe said, “You got a better idea, let’s hear it.”
“I didn’t say I got a better idea,” said Mitch defensively. “But pretending to have gun doesn’t sound like a very good plan.”
“Well, if you ain’t got a gun, it’s the best we’re gonna do,” said Joe. “So, take the rope and go around the other side and be ready when they try to go that way.”
“You want me to tie ’em up?” Mitch was incredulous.
“Unless you think they’re gonna come with us on their own,” said Joe. “And maybe I just don’t know nothing, but it seems to me that two fellows who’re about to get arrested for bank robbing and horse stealing might not be all that happy about gettin’ hauled in, and they’re maybe gonna need to be convinced.”
“I don’t know about this,” said Mitch unhappily. “It don’t sound like much of a plan.”
“Well, maybe it ain’t much of a plan, but it’s all we got,” said Joe. “Now, get in position. I’ll count to fifty and then take ’em.” With a skeptical backward glance, Mitch slipped out of sight.
Alone, Joe evaluated his prey. They were about his pa’s age, but they looked like they hadn’t shaved in weeks or bathed in even longer. Even from here, Joe could smell them. One of them had gray hair and the other was near to bald and missing a couple teeth. They didn’t look real smart, but they looked pretty drunk by now. Joe figured he could get the drop on them easy.
Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty. He cocked his gun and stepped forward. “Drop your guns,” he said in the deepest voice he could affect without sounding like a complete fool.
He didn’t know what he’d expected, but he sure hadn’t expected them to laugh at him. Laugh they did, though. They saw him standing there with his gun, and they howled like a pair of wolves.
“Hey, Clyde, would you take a look at that!” The gray-haired one poked the bald one and pointed to Little Joe. “Looks like we got ourselves caught by the boy sheriff!”
“I did think Roy Coffee was lookin’ pretty spritely these days, but I didn’t think he was still wet behind the ears,” said Clyde. “Hey, boy, what’re you doin’ up? It’s past your bedtime!”
“I said, drop your guns!” Joe was tempted to let off a shot, just to show he was serious, but the moment before he did, he realized that he didn’t want to. All he had to do was shoot, and the posse would be on them and making the capture. No, if he and Mitch were going to get the credit, he’d have to do this real quiet.
So, he strode into the camp, as arrogant as only the young and foolhardy can be. The next thing he knew, he was staring down the barrels of two guns held by two drunken bank robbers.
“Okay, kid, you drop your gun,” said the gray-haired one. “You ain’t old enough to have a gun, anyway. We’re doin’ you a favor.”
“I am so old enough!” said Joe hotly. “I got it for my birthday!”
“When was that? Yesterday? Day before? Boy, you ain’t old enough to be doin’ half of what you’re doin’ right now.” Clyde heaved himself to his feet and stood there unsteadily, waving his gun at Little Joe. “Now, you just drop your birthday present and get the hell out of here, and we’ll pretend we never seen you.”
“I don’t think so,” said Mitch. He threw the lasso, which would have been a spectacular maneuver if he had managed to catch one of the robbers. Instead, the lasso landed harmlessly between the two men, who doubled over with laughter.
“Is this your whole posse?” asked the gray-haired man, wiping tears from his eyes. “A couple of kids? This is what Roy Coffee thinks of havin’ his bank robbed?”
“The rest of ’em are comin’,” said Little Joe. “We’re just the trackers.”
“Then how come you ain’t waitin’ for ’em?” asked Clyde. “I think Duke’s right. You two young’uns are the whole posse!” He picked up the lasso and pulled. Mitch, who was still holding the rope, stumbled forward.
“We ain’t the whole posse, but even if we were, we caught you, and we’re takin’ you in!” Joe gestured with his gun. “Now, drop your guns before I get mad!”
Clyde and Duke nearly fell over at that. Joe was furious. He could feel his face getting red. It didn’t help that Mitch was just standing there, looking like a dumb heifer. How in blazes was he supposed to make an arrest with this kind of help?
To hell with bringing the posse. These fools deserved it. Joe was just about to fire when Duke whipped around, grabbed Mitch and pressed his gun to the boy’s ribs.
“Okay, kid, drop the gun,” he said to Joe, suddenly sounding very sober. Mitch’s eyes were wide with terror. Without a word, Joe dropped his brand-new gun onto the wet ground. “Now, kick it over here,” said Duke. “Real gentle-like.” Joe kicked, nice and gentle. “Now, you come over here,” Duke instructed. Joe walked over slowly. When he was within arm’s-length of Mitch, Duke reached out and grabbed him. He pushed them to the ground, and Clyde dropped the lasso around the two boys, neatly tying them together, back to back.
“Well, that sure was fun,” said Clyde, tucking Joe’s gun into his belt. He picked up the bottle and took a swig. “You kids want a drink?”
“We don’t want nothin’ from you,” said Little Joe.
Duke smacked him upside the head. “That ain’t no way to talk to your elders, boy,” he said. “Now, Clyde here offered you a drink. If’n you don’t want none, you need to say, ‘No, thank you, Mister Clyde, sir.’ Now, you want that drink?”
“Go to hell,” snarled Little Joe. He could hear Mitch suck in his breath at that one. If Ben Cartwright had heard Joe say that to anyone, even these men, Joe wouldn’t have sat down for a week.
Duke smacked him again, harder. “I can keep this up as long as you can,” he said. “You’re a feisty little thing, but I’m bigger’n you, and I been doin’ this a lot longer.” As if to prove his point, he smacked Joe several times. “And if’n you don’t find your manners, I can do the same thing to your buddy here.” He smacked Mitch. “So, whaddya think? You gonna be polite, or am I gonna have to teach you some manners?”
Joe seethed. He didn’t care if Duke beat him up, but he did care about getting Mitch in trouble. Mitch didn’t have any brothers, and so he didn’t have nearly as much experience as Little Joe with getting beat up, although he routinely jumped in when Joe was in a fight at school. So, Joe actually considered, for just a second, saying what they wanted to hear.
But only for a second. Instead, when Duke leaned closer, Joe spat in his face.
“You little-” Duke hauled the boys to their feet and flung them to the ground like they weighed no more than a canteen. Joe landed face down in the wet dirt, Mitch on top of him. Clyde and Duke laughed as the boys struggled to right themselves.
“You got spunk, kid, I’ll give you that,” said Clyde. He reached down and pulled on the boys’ arms to help them to sit up. “But I wouldn’t try that again, if’n I was you. Duke here don’t like rude kids.” His tone was genial, but his watery blue eyes were hard and fierce and sent a shaft of fear through the boys.
Clyde and Duke settled themselves by the tiny fire. “So, where’d you kids come from, anyway?” asked Clyde. When neither boy spoke, Clyde glared.
“Virginia City,” said Joe finally.
Pleased, Clyde sat back. “You didn’t walk all the way out here, did you?”
“No.” Little Joe had to fight the reflex to add “sir.” These two didn’t deserve it, no matter what his pa said about respecting his elders.
“Where’re your horses?”
“Why do you want to know?”
Clyde shrugged. “Just makin’ conversation,” he said. “Bet you got nice horses. That’s a real nice gun you got, too–pretty fancy for a birthday present. You two look like your folks are pretty well off.” He considered the two boys. “I bet your folks are real well off,” he said. “In fact, I bet your folks would pay a lot of money to get you back.”
Duke grinned. “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”
Clyde nodded. “I am indeed,” he said. “You guard the prisoners.” He scrambled to his feet and, weaving only slightly, headed out in the direction Joe had come in from.
In a remarkably short time, he returned with the horses. “Looky here,” he said. “Ain’t this about the finest horseflesh you ever did see, Duke? Lookit this paint. He is one fine animal. Bet he’s dumb, though.”
“He ain’t dumb!” Stung, Joe took up for Cochise. “He’s the smartest horse you ever met!”
“Smart enough to find his way home?”
“He’s plenty smart enough for that!”
“Well, then, let’s just see how good he is.” Clyde fished in Joe’s saddlebags and drew out a pencil and one of Joe’s schoolbooks. He tore out a page and scribbled a note, wrapping it around the cheekstrap of the horse’s bridle. “Now, git!” he shouted, smacking the horse’s rump. Cochise ran off, Mitch’s horse close behind.
“What’re you doing?” demanded Joe.
Clyde grinned. “Sending a ransom note.”