Summary: Little Joe has a plan, and all he needs is a left-handed holster.
Rated: K+ Word count: 6170
The Left-Handed Holster
Little Joe sighed. There simply was not one on the ranch or in the town of Virginia City, and if he could not find one, well, that would be the end of his plan. Little Joe sighed again. It was such a fine plan, and he knew that, with a little practice, he could make it succeed. A little practice and the proper equipment was all he needed. He had figured out how to sneak in the practice time. He had the pistol hidden in his room. All he needed was a left-handed holster. His next sigh seemed to rise from the depths of his soul. There was no way he could win a quick-draw shooting contest without a holster. It was his pa’s fault. His father had allowed Adam to teach him to shoot a pistol, but had adamantly refused to buy the boy his own gun or a proper holster. To Ben Cartwright, his sons were not old enough to wear a sidearm until they were sixteen, and then only under specific conditions. Little Joe threw the currycomb in his hand across the barn in frustration. He would not turn sixteen until three months after someone else had won the hundred dollar cash prize and the special edition Colt that Little Joe had coveted since seeing it on display at the town hall. Little Joe knew that if he just had a left-handed holster he could win that Colt. He was already an accurate shot. His older brother, who was a crack shot himself, said he was a natural, and everybody said Little Joe was quick. In fact, the word quick appeared in almost every description he had heard of himself. Admittedly, the word that followed was usually tempered, but Little Joe knew he could be quick on the draw also. All he needed was that left-handed holster. Hearing riders, Little Joe walked out of the barn. One of the riders was his brother Adam, but the other was a stranger.
” Little Joe, come here, please.”
Little Joe walked over to his brother. “What ya want, Adam?”
” Little Joe, meet Randy Desmond. Randy is going to be working for us. Randy, this is my brother, Little Joe.”
“Nice to meet you,” Randy said extending his left hand.
“Yeah, nice to meet you too.” Little Joe shook Randy’s hand and then seemed to freeze. Randy managed to disengage his hand from Joe’s and gave Adam a puzzled look.
Adam slapped Little Joe’s upper arm lightly with his gloves. ” Little Joe, would you please show Randy where he can bunk. Joe? Is something wrong with you, boy?”
“Uh, no, no siree, brother. There ain’t a thing wrong. I’ll be glad to help Randy get settled.”
Adam watch a grin spread across his little brother’s face and a sparkle brighten his eyes. Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. He knew that gleam, and it meant trouble. He sighed. What is the boy up to now?
Little Joe walked alongside the new hand chatting happily. His eyes kept returning to the Randy’s hip. Settled on the man’s left hip was a hand-tooled holster. There was now a left-handed holster on the Ponderosa. God must want him in that contest because he had just answered his prayer.
Little Joe moved the food absentmindedly around on his plate. His mind was not on Hop Sing’s cooking but on his plan. Randy Desmond was the key. He had talked to the man on the way to the bunkhouse. Randy was like many of the men who had worked for Little Joe’s family. He was a traveler on the road west, another man intent on leaving his past behind and heading toward the promised land of California. Working his way across the country, Randy was forced to travel light. Men in his position became very protective of the few possessions they carried with them. That was the problem. Little Joe chewed the inside of his cheek. First on Randy’s list would be his horse, followed closely by his saddle, then his rifle, next would be his pistol and holster. Little Joe mentally counted down the list: one, two, three, four, five. All Joe needed was that left-handed holster. Since it was fifth on the list, Joe decided he had a chance.
Adam watched his brother with an assessing eye. He noted Little Joe’s pensive attitude, his failure to actually put food in his mouth, and his inward focus. He knew the moment the gleam returned to Little Joe’s eyes and a forkful of mash potatoes entered his mouth that Joe had settled on a plan. The tingle at the back of Adam’s neck told him that Little Joe’s plan would bring about trouble. Adam always knew when Little Joe was headed for trouble. Alas, he did not always know which road was taking baby brother there.
Little Joe excused himself from the table and muttered to his father that he was going down to the barn to check on Cochise. Little Joe did go to the barn and feed his beloved pinto an apple, so he had not actually lied to his pa, but five minutes later he was headed toward the bunkhouse.
Ben Cartwright had never considered the bunkhouse the proper place for a child. Hundreds of transient men had been sheltered by those walls. Many of them had been rough men with few manners. Some had had a penchant for drinking and others for fighting. Few of them fit the role of babysitter, so even though Little Joe had spent his entire fifteen years on the Ponderosa, he had spent relatively little time in the bunkhouse and most of that his father knew nothing about.
Little Joe opened the door slowly, so he would not attract attention. He looked in and saw what he expected. This time of night there was always a poker game, sometimes two, being conducted at one of the round tables near the stove. Little Joe smiled to himself. Randy Desmond was seated with four others staring at the cards in his hand. Little Joe had known it since this afternoon; God wanted him in that quick-draw contest.
Little Joe walked over to the table where the five men were playing poker. Some of the men noticed him, and one of the long time hands shook his head ruefully, but nobody told the boy to leave. He was the boss’s son, after all, and had a right to be anywhere on the property that he chose. If Ben did not want his son here, that was between the boy and his pa.
Little Joe slide onto on empty chair and simply watched the game for a few minutes. He knew three of the players well, but one of the men he had not even met. Well, it was the time of year when Adam and Pa hired a lot of extra hands. Little Joe studied the coins in front of each man and smiled when he saw that Slim’s funds were running mighty low. Two hands later, Slim threw down his cards and exited the game. Little Joe slipped into the chair Slim had vacated.
“Wait a minute, young’un!” Rusty had worked the Ponderosa long enough to know that Ben would be unhappy not just with Little Joe but with any worker who gambled with him.
“Just a couple of hands, fellows. What can it hurt?” Little Joe wheedled.
“You got any money, kid?” the man whose name Little Joe did not know spoke up.
“Sure do.” Little Joe pulled his savings out of his pocket with a grin. “Good as anyone else’s, isn’t it?”
Rusty shook his head. “Do as ya like, boys. I’m about played out anyway.” Rusty departed, and the rest of the men decided the boss might just appreciate their teaching the boy the foolishness of trying to best grown men.
Little Joe’s grin widen as he was dealt his first card. Joe intended to win, and he had a plan for doing it. He hand learned to play cards from Adam, and if nothing else, his bossy older brother was an excellent teacher. If they relaxed and underestimated him, he could reel them in like fish on a line. First thing he would do was get them talking about something that would take their concentration off the game. Little Joe knew that the one thing that could distract any man was a female. So he stirred the talk to girls.
Randy Desmond was a talker. He always had been. He loved nothing more than an audience for one of his tales. He soon found himself telling a story about lost love. “For sure, boys, she was the love of my life…”
Little Joe watched Randy’s focus on the card game drift as he spun his tale. He had worked for the girl’s father on a large ranch in Colorado. She had adored him and met him in secret. When Randy started to describe one of those meetings, Rusty had had a coughing fit and then pointed to Little Joe. Little Joe had allowed himself to blush and look as young as possible while he vowed to hear that part of the story another time. Tonight he wanted everybody at that table to think of him as just a kid.
Randy continued with his story, telling about the ranch owner discovering that his daughter was in love with a mere saddle tramp and his own heroic defiance of the powerful man. As he talked, Randy failed to notice the dwindling of his money and the increase in Little Joe’s funds.
Finally Little Joe was ready. The cards in front of Randy indicated the best hand at the table unless Little Joe actually had that seven of spades as his hole card. Little Joe held his breath as the other two players folded. It was just Randy and Joe, and Randy thought Little Joe was bluffing.
The problem for Randy was that Little Joe had amassed enough money to buy the hand.
“I’ll have to give ya a marker, kid.”
Rusty spoke up as several of the men shook their heads. “Not at this table, Desmond. Ponderosa rule.” Ben Cartwright felt that workers running up debts among themselves made for problems and had set a table limit and no marker rule for the bunkhouse poker games.
Little Joe saw the look on Randy’s face and softly offered, “You could put something besides money on the table.”
“Don’t know as how I’ve got anything worth enough that I could spare.”
“Then I guess I’m the big winner,” Little Joe gloated and then paused. “Tell ya what, Randy. That story of yours, well, that was kinda sad about you and that girl. Tell ya what. I’m a lefty too, so if you put that holster of yours on the table…”
Randy quickly interjected, “I ain’t betting my gun with no kid.”
“Not your pistol, just the holster.” Little Joe waited to see if Randy would realize he wouldn’t be so kind if he was bluffing.
“Just my holster?”
Little Joe let his gaze circle the room. “Well, I tired to be fair. Pa says it’s kinda low to buy a pot, but…”
“My holster then, and you show me those cards.” Randy walked over and retrieved his holster. He put it in the middle of the table and waited.
Little Joe smiled and flipped up the seven of spades. “Got to go now, fellows. My pa will be waiting.” Little Joe picked up the money and the holster, sure his luck would hold out until he won that contest.
Little Joe stood by the open window and listened. He heard his pa’s voice. “Son, I wish you had told me how you felt about this earlier. It’s going to be hard to stop the negotiations at this point without causing ill will.”
“I kept going over things in my mind, Pa, and I can’t get past this feeling I have about Crayton.” That was brother Adam.
“Well, let’s go over things point by point, son, and then we’ll make a final decision.”
Little Joe grinned. This discussion was sure to keep his pa and elder brother occupied for some time. Nothing made Adam more of a windbag than their Pa treating him like a full partner. God was still smiling down on him. He slipped off the porch and took off at a run.
Little Joe placed the saddle on the back of an old gray mare. With Cochise in his stall, everyone would assume that he was around the house or yard. It was not likely that anyone would notice that old Maisy was missing. The old mare was living out her days in comfort and was used only when the Cartwrights had guests who need a rocking horse instead of a worthy steed. Pa said she had earned an easy old age with the extra effort she had given when she was young and the ranch was just beginning. Even if someone noticed the mare’s absence, absolutely no one, especially his family, would ever think that Little Joe would deign to ride such an animal. Actually though, Maisy was the perfect companion for this outing. Nothing fazed the old lady, not even gunshots.
“Now, girl, I’ve picked a place with a lot of sweet grass for you to nibble while I’m practicing,” Little Joe told the mare and then gave her head a good rub. Maisy announced her appreciation, and Little Joe laughed. He was doing the mare a favor. He would consider that his good deed for the day. He mounted the horse and touched his heels to her sides.
Reaching the empty meadow, Little Joe dismounted and tied Maisy to a tree. Looking around carefully, he drew the holster and pistol from the saddlebag. Buckling the holster around his hips, Joe automatically stretched to his fullest height puffing out his chest and walking with what he felt was a manly stride. He set up a line of targets and began his practice confident in his ability to become a quick draw champion in just four weeks.
Little Joe Cartwright was a well-known talker. He talked to anyone around and everyone he met, but he did not only chatter about his thoughts, he also asked endless questions. For years, he had been asking questions about how to draw a gun, how to draw quickly, and how to hit where you aimed, and he had listened to the answers far more carefully than anyone else ever realized. Better yet, he remembered almost every detail of what he had been told. Over the next three weeks, he repeatedly rode Maisy to various out of the way spots on the Ponderosa and practiced what he had been told. With his naturally quick reflexes, his resource of knowledge, his strong motivation, and an abundance of confidence, he made rapid progress. He truly felt God had blessed his plan and intended for him to win that contest. He never stopped to wonder why God would be so helpful to someone who was sinning so gleefully. Neglected chores, evasive lies, and multiple deceitful acts went undetected, and Little Joe’s repeated disobedience remained undiscovered. With just a week until the contest, Little Joe had ceased to even worry and dreamed each night of winning only to awake each morning with a smile on his face.
Adam Cartwright stared into the fire and wondered. For weeks, he had known that his youngest brother was up to some sort of mischief, and he had been waiting for the inevitable calamity that would reveal all. That calamity had yet to come. At first Adam had shrugged and waited expectantly; then he had been called away to the lumber camps for almost two weeks. The problems there had pushed thoughts of which road to trouble his baby brother was traveling from Adam’s mind. He had returned three days ago to find that nothing had been revealed during his absence while that warning tingle remained. It not only remained, but it had gotten stronger. Adam sighed. Any secret plan or hidden indiscretion that had been sustained for such a long period of time had to be of major importance. The words big trouble burned themselves into his brain, and big trouble meant that big brother need to get off his big behind and find out what was going on and put a stop to it before Little Joe ended up injured, maimed, or at the mercy of their irate Pa. Adam decided to start keeping a closer eye on baby brother and on the lookout for any possible clues.
Ben Cartwright looked over at the stairs and failed to see his youngest descending. “Hoss, you woke Little Joe this morning?”
Hoss looked up from his pancakes. “Sure I did, Pa. Took the covers off him and set him on his feet before I came down.”
“Obviously that was not incentive enough for him to join us for breakfast.” Ben sighed and started to rise.
“I’ll go up and hurry him along, Pa,” Adam quickly interjected, “You just have another cup of coffee.” Adam was on his feet and headed toward the stairs. Ben and Hoss exchanged wondering glances. Adam seldom volunteered to get his brother down to breakfast without an ulterior motive.
“Rise and shine, boy!” Adam called cheerfully when he found Little Joe in his shirt and drawers sprawled on his rumpled bed covers.
“Just a couple more minutes,” Little Joe whined still more asleep than awake.
“Mmmm, let me see. NO!” Adam bellowed into Little Joe’s right ear.
Little Joe was accustomed to loud voices, but he recognized that his elder brother had replaced the genial Hoss as his tormentor and pushed himself up onto his elbows. “Go away, Adam. I’m getting dressed.”
“I wouldn’t be so rude when I was offering such a prime target, little boy.”
Joe quickly rolled from his stomach to his back while a small surge of adrenaline brought him fully awake. “Better not!” he said indignantly.
“Pa will if you’re not downstairs in five minutes. Get going!” Adam leaned back against the dresser.
“Ya gonna stay there and watch?”
“Yes.” Adam watched a pout form on Little Joe’s face and listened to him sputter. “Forget any attempts at false modesty, baby brother. I’m here to see you get down those stairs and not back into that bed.”
Little Joe stomped around dressing as quickly as possible. Adam’s eyes carefully scanned his brother’s room. When Little Joe trudged out the bedroom door, Adam swiftly went to the desk and slipped out the folded paper stuffed into the pages of a book he had given Joe for Christmas. Adam was quite sure Little Joe had made no attempt to read the book, so the paper was not being used as a bookmark. Adam unfolded and read the announcement of a quick- draw contest. Surely, Little Joe couldn’t be thinking of entering such a contest. Joe knew how to fire a pistol sure. He was more aware of that than anybody having been the one to teach the boy, but he had most definitely not indulged him in any quick draws. Why, Little Joe did not even have a holster, and he could not simply borrow one from around the ranch, for their little southpaw would need a special left-handed holster. Adam refolded the paper and returned it to its place inside the book. Was this a serious clue or a red herring? Adam prayed it was the latter and followed Little Joe downstairs.
“Is there something on your mind, son,” Little Joe started at his father’s question. Then he looked up to see that his pa had locked eyes with his oldest brother.
Adam shrugged, “Just wondering about something, but now I best get to work.” Adam looked once more at his youngest brother and then left the breakfast table. After buckling on his holster and retrieving his hat, he walked out onto the porch.
Old Charlie had been a top hand. Now he worked tending the Cartwright horses in the corrals.
“Well, sir, it’s just I noticed that someone’s been riding old Maisy pretty regular. I was just wondering who?”
“Maisy? Someone’s been riding that old mare, and no one mentioned it to you?”
“Well, now, that’s what had me wondering. If’n ya all have a guest who will be needing Maisy, you or your Pa usually let me know.”
Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked at Charlie. There was something in his eyes and the set of his mouth. “What’s the rest of it, Charlie? Who do you think is riding Maisy?”
“Don’t rightly know, but I’m thinkin’ it’s the young’un.” Charlie offered.
“Little Joe? Why would Little Joe be riding Maisy?”
“Now that’s the question, ain’t it, Mr. Adam.”
“I’ll look into it, Charlie. Thank you.”
Adam had the feeling that he had just been given clue two.
“Adam! I asked if ya was ready.” Hoss’ voice startled Adam out of his reverie.
“Ready to tackle that fence in the south pasture? Remember that’s where Pa wanted us to start this morning.”
“Oh, yeah. Ready? Sure I’m ready. Let’s go.” Adam walked with his brother to the barn, his brain still processing the information he had received that morning. Yes, he was ready to get work out of the way, so he could deal with far more important business.
Hoss watched his brother and waited for Adam to let him know what problem elder brother was trying to solve. Sooner or later Adam would come out with it, and if it wasn’t sooner, he would just have to start nudging.
“Hoss, you know that new hand, Randy Desmond?” Adam suddenly asked as he and Hoss were finishing the fence repairs.
“Yeah, what about him?” Hoss responded glad that Adam was finally going to speak up.
“He’s left-handed like Little Joe, isn’t he?
“Well, yeah, I remember thinking Little Joe would like not being the only southpaw on the ranch. But why ya wondering about Randy?”
Adam ignored his brother’s question and asked another of his own, “You noticed he was a lefty because of his holster, right?”
“Yeah, I guess that musta been it. Why, Adam?”
“I think we have a problem, brother?”
“What kind of problem?”
“A baby brother problem, what else.”
Adam laid out his suspicions to Hoss. Hoss wanted to say that Adam was being silly and overly distrustful, but in his heart he knew that the chances favored Adam being absolutely right.
“Adam, Desmond didn’t have his holster for a while. While you was up at the lumber camps, he ordered one special. He just got it a couple of days ago.”
“Did he say where his old one had gone?”
Hoss swallowed. “Well, now I heard that he lost it in a poker game.”
Adam groaned. “We might as well use Little Joe’s dining chair for firewood. If Pa finds out about all of this, the boy won’t be needing it ever again.”
“Adam, we don’t know for sure.”
Adam raised his right eyebrow. “We don’t?”
“We don’t have to tell Pa, do we? Ya can take care of it, can’t ya?”
“You think I’ll be easier on Little Joe than Pa?”
Hoss grimaced. “You could just blister his ears and warn him off that contest. Take that holster away. That would take care of it, elder brother. Ya know how it will be if ya tell Pa.”
Adam sighed. He knew. Pa would be upset and angry and therefore irritable. Hoss would be sad and sorry for baby brother, and he himself would be just about as bad. Little Joe, well, baby brother would be plain pitiful, and nobody did pitiful better than Joe.
“Okay,” Adam sighed. “Pa has a meeting tonight at the Cattleman’s Association, so we’ll have a little meeting with Little Joe.”
“We?” Hoss inquired weakly.
“We! You’re in this with me, brother.”
Pa had left as soon as supper was over. Adam waited until Hop Sing had retired to his bed and then closed the book he was reading.
Little Joe looked at his elder brother wondering why Adam was using that stern tone. “What, Adam?”
“Go and get the holster and pistol and bring them to me,” Adam ordered calmly.
Little Joe fidgeted and asked nervously, “What pistol do you want, Adam? Your gun belt’s on the credenza.”
“Joseph, I want the pistol and holster you’ve been using, and don’t intend to ask for them again.”
Little Joe opened his mouth to deny that he had either but saw the look on Adam’s face. Little Joe’s eyes went to Hoss. The look on his middle brother’s face convinced Joe that lying would only make matters worse. He rose. “I have to go outside to get ’em.”
“Be quick about it,” Adam snapped. Then he added, “Don’t even think of taking off, little boy.”
“I’ll go with ‘im,” Hoss quickly interjected and followed his little brother out the door.
In a few minute, Little Joe and Hoss returned to the great room. Little Joe walked over to Adam and handed him the pistol and holster.
“Here!” Little Joe thrust the gun toward Adam and his lower lip toward the floor.
Adam recognized the old pistol. He took it from the holster and checked that it was cleaned and unloaded. “This belongs to Pa.”
“I was just borrowing it, Adam.”
“And where did you borrow this?” Adam held the holster out toward Little Joe.
“That’s mine,” Little Joe muttered.
Little Joe rubbed his sweaty palms along his pants’ legs. “Won it in a card game,” he mumbled.
Adam tossed the holster on the low table before the fireplace and stood. He glared down at his little brother making full use of his height advantage. “Shall we list your crimes, boy?”
Little Joe winced and shook his head.
“You shall when Pa asks.”
Tears rose in Little Joe’s eyes. “Please don’t tell Pa, Adam, please,” Little Joe pled.
“Pa needs to know when his baby is playing with guns.”
“I weren’t playing!” Sudden anger shot the words out.
Adam eyes blazed. “Watch your tone, boy! What were you doing then?” Adam waited to see how truthful his brother would be.
“Just practicing. You taught me to be safe with a gun, Adam. I know better than to play. I’m good, Adam.”
“I don’t care how good you think you are. I taught you the rules for pistols that Pa set. Shall we count how many you’ve broken?” Adam’s voice had increased in volume and turned icy.
Little Joe shook his head as a picture of his father rose in his mind.
“What were you practicing for, Joseph?” Adam had decided that if Little Joe told the whole truth he would only blister the boy’s ears.
Little Joe rubbed the toe of his boot over a knothole in the wooden flooring. He almost lied, but when he chanced a look through his lashes at Adam’s face something told him that his brother already knew. “For a contest.”
Adam launched into a lecture that ended with Little Joe desperately trying to hold back his sobs. Hoss even added a few stern remarks.
“Are ya going to tell Pa?” Little Joe’s voice was barely a whisper.
“No, not this time.”
Little Joe felt a wave of relief but then remembered his brother’s position of authority. “Are you gonna tan me?” Little Joe held his breath.
“The only reason I’m not is because if I gave you the tanning you deserve there would be no way you could hide it from Pa, and I don’t want to lie for you.” Little Joe let out his breath. “Get to bed!” Adam ordered, and Little Joe scrambled to obey.
Adam looked at Hoss. Hoss glanced toward the upstairs and then asked quietly, “Why didn’t you make him promise not to be in that contest?”
Adam rubbed the bridge of his nose. “He would have broken the promise,” he answered flatly. “Any way, I’ve got a way to make sure that he doesn’t.”
Adam explained his plan to Hoss, and Hoss agreed it was the best way.
“Pa.” Adam looked at his father over the breakfast table the day before the scheduled contest. “There are some things we need at the mill that can only be gotten in Carson City. I’ll need to make a supply run there.”
Ben looked at his oldest son. “Do you plan to leave today?”
“Yes. I should be back in three days.”
“Fine.” Ben returned to eating his pancakes.
Adam swallowed and continued, “I’d like Little Joe to go with me.”
Little Joe’s head popped up, and his eyes widened. Before he could burst out with an exclamation of his own, his father asked, “Little Joe? Why do you want Joe to go?”
Adam sent Little Joe a look as he said, “You know how he is always complaining about not getting to go places like Hoss and I do. Well, I thought this might be just the trip to take him on.”
Little Joe swallowed as Hoss sent him a look that echoed Adam’s. “Adam’s right, Pa. This is just the kind of trip where there shouldn’t be no trouble for little brother to find,” Hoss declared.
Ben doubted that there was any trip possible where his youngest couldn’t find trouble, but Adam usually had good reasons for his actions. “If you’d like him to, of course Joe can go.”
Little Joe opened his mouth to decline and then closed it. He knew exactly why his older brother was suddenly willing to take him with on such a supply run. Well, if Adam thought he could keep him away from the contest, elder brother was in for a surprise.
“I’ll go up and pack my things,” Little Joe muttered.
Adam exchanged glances with Hoss and then excused himself. He went to discuss with Hop Sing what he might need from Carson City.
Little Joe sat next to his brother on the wagon. He had considered being good and pretending he was glad to go with Adam to Carson City but had decided that his big brother was the sort to be suspicious of good behavior on his part. Instead Little Joe had sulked just enough to let Adam know he understood the reason for the trip and to make his brother think Joe was mad that he had lost the chance to participate in the contest. Little Joe glanced over at his brother. Adam thought he was so smart.Now won’t it bite him when he finds out I found where he hid the holster and pistol.” Little Joe kept a grin from his face. The holster and pistol were hidden again right on the wagon.
Little Joe helped Adam make camp, ate his supper, and then rolled up in his bedroll projecting a pronounced pout. As soon as Adam was asleep, Little Joe slipped out of his bedroll.
“Where ya headed?” Little Joe had known Adam would come awake.
“Got to go,” Little Joe mumbled in what he hoped was a sleepy slur.
Adam rolled over, and Little Joe slipped away into the night. If Adam slept until morning, the contest would be over before big brother could catch up to him. Little Joe mounted the faster of the two horses. He would have to be careful riding bareback through the dark, but he was sure that he would be in Virginia City in time for the contest. A sudden shudder went through the boy as his mind momentarily settled on the consequences he could expect, but winning the quick-draw contest would be worth them all he assured himself.
Adam sipped his cooling coffee and stared into the fire. He fought the panic that swirled in his stomach. It was the familiar mixture of fear and impending guilt he had felt countless times when taking responsibility for his baby brother. Though he had never been able to actually conquer the feeling, he had become very adept at concealing it. Now he had taken the most dangerous gamble with Little Joe’s welfare that he had ever even considered. He did not know how he would deal with the consequences if Joe got hurt. Even if everyone else forgave him, he would never be able to forgive himself. He had let Little Joe ride off into the night. Even now with the die cast irrevocably and the morning sun shining, Adam Cartwright argued the pros and cons of his decision and prayed that his brother would prove him right. He told himself that he would allow himself and Little Joe one more half hour.
Adam heard a sound and swiftly set down his cup. His hand hovered over his pistol, but he took another gamble and did not draw. This gamble was much easier to make because if he were wrong about who was approaching only his own life would be at risk.
The minutes passed slowly, and then a figure emerged leading a horse. Adam breathed again and felt the swirl in his stomach subside. He gave a silent prayer of thanks as he picked up his coffee.
Little Joe walked over to Adam and handed him the pistol and holster. Adam took them and said evenly, “There’s coffee, bacon, and biscuits. See to the horse and then eat some breakfast.”
Little Joe answered, “Yes, sir,” his voice soft and hesitant. He went about caring for the horse. Waves of panic kept rolling down his spine, but something told him he had made the right choice when he turned around and rode back to his brother.
Little Joe sat opposite Adam and stared at his breakfast. He should be hungry, but there seemed to be a dead weight filling his stomach.
“Why did you decide to come back?”
Little Joe looked up at his brother but could not read his eyes. Joe sighed. “I got to thinking.”
“You didn’t tell Pa when ya found out what I’d been doing even though there was lots of reasons ya should. Weren’t but one reason for ya not to.”
“I never like to see ya hurting, little brother.”
“I know.” Tears welled in Little Joe’s eyes. “It was really wrong for me to turn around and take off on ya. I thought winning the contest would be worth the punishment I’d get. I still think it would have been; it just wasn’t worth hurting my big brother.”
“If you’ve figured that out for yourself, then there’s no need for me to lecture you about it.”
“Does no lecture mean no punishment”? Little Joe asked sheepishly.
“I told you what I’d do if you touched that pistol and holster without permission.”
“I know,” gulped Little Joe. “Do I get to keep my britches up?” Adam raised his right eyebrow. Little Joe recognized Adam’s you-don’t-really-think-so look. “I did come back, Adam.” Little Joe’s voice sounded very young and very beseeching.
“That you did,” Adam conceded.
Adam nodded as he rose.
Little Joe had padded the wagon seat with both bedrolls, but after a couple of hours he had resumed his normal chatter. The days were long enough that they would still reach Carson City before dark. Adam smiled. He had won his gamble and felt generous. Little Joe knew that he did not intend to share Joe’s little adventure with their father. Adam’s smile broadened. Little brother had done a bit of real growing up, and big brother was considering how he could show Little Joe that he realized it.
“Adam, I still think I could have won that contest.”
“You do, do you?” Adam replied incredulously.
“I really am good, Adam. I could show ya.”
Adam looked over at his brother and saw the little boy who was always shouting, “Look, Adam. Watch me do it!”
Adam pulled the wagon off the road. He gave Little Joe the holster and pistol and set up five pinecone targets. He knew the contest was to have been judged on accuracy and speed combined. He took out his watch and told Little Joe to turn his back to the targets. When Adam called out, Little Joe turned, drew, and fired.
Adam gave a low whistle. The boy probably would not have won this year’s contest, but the first shooting contest Little Joe was allowed to enter, he intended to lay down a sizeable bet on his little brother.