Word Count: 3330
It was a long ride home for 13-year-old Little Joe. With a black eye, looking worse by the minute, and a split lip, Joe was sure Pa would know he had been fighting.
His best friend, Mitch, rode with him, looking equally battered. “What are you gonna tell your Pa, Joe?”
“Well,” Joe began, “the truth comes to mind. It’s not like we asked for this and we sure can’t hide it; we got jumped and had to defend ourselves.”
“You think that’ll make a difference?” Mitch asked. “You know how your Pa feels about fighting.”
“Yeah, I know,” Little Joe retorted. “Painfully aware of it. Your Pa feels the same, don’t he?”
“Yep, I know.”
“Mitch, they just have to believe us,” Joe hopefully commented. “After the last time, I hope my Pa wouldn’t think I’d look for a fight.”
“I hope you’re right,” Mitch agreed, turning toward his place. “Well, let’s pray for the best.”
“Yep. See ya’ later, Mitch.” Joe then quickly added with a smile, “I hope.”
Joe rode into the yard and, not seeing his father or brothers anywhere, breathed a sigh of relief. After stabling his horse, he decided to get a head start on his chores.
After about 20 minutes, Adam entered the barn humming, indicating that he was in a good mood.
Seeing Little Joe, Adam cheerfully said, “Hi, little buddy.”
Joe, turning for the first time since Adam entered the barn, sheepishly returned, “Hi, Adam.”
Clearly surprised, Adam remarked, “Joe! Another fight?!?”
“It ain’t what you think,” he explained. “Mitch and me…”
“Mitch and I,” Adam corrected.
“Mitch and I was jumped.”
“Who?!?” Adam demanded.
“Frank Denby, Chet Baker, and two older boys I didn’t recognize. They’re not in school.”
“Four against two?!?” Adam was outraged.
“Yes,” Joe admitted.
Hoss came, leading Chubby into the barn about this time. “Hey, brothers. What’s up?” he asked, feeling tension in the air.
“Well, Hoss. It seems baby brother here has been the victim of older bullies!”
“They did that to yer’ lip?” Hoss asked, noticing the dried blood. “That eye don’t look too good neither.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe said, quickly touching his eye and his lip. “I just hope Pa don’t get too mad.”
“Well,” Adam started, forcing himself to calm down. “Pa won’t be happy. But he’ll be even less happy knowing his baby boy was ganged up on.”
“Stop callin’ me a baby,” Joe snapped.
“Sorry, little buddy,” Adam said. “Let’s get you in and see if we can clean you up some before Pa gets home.”
“Thanks, brothers,” Joe said gratefully.
An hour later, when Ben arrived home, Little Joe’s eye was nearly swollen shut.
“Joseph?” Ben called from the yard as he dismounted.
Taking a deep breath, Joe went to the door, answering, “Yes, sir.”
Ben was startled at the condition of his youngest son’s face. “Joseph, are you all right?” he asked, taking Little Joe’s chin in his hand examining his eye and lip.
“Yes, Pa,” Joe tried to convince him. “I’m okay.”
“I was over at Charlie Devlin’s place when Mitch got home,” Ben began. “He told us what happened.”
“Then you know it wasn’t our fault?” Joe asked hopefully.
“Yes, son,” he assured. “We need to talk about these bullies.”
“Aw, Pa,” Little Joe complained. “Do we have to?”
“Yes, we do, Joseph,” Ben insisted. “I want you to tell me exactly what happened.”
Taking another deep breath, Joe began, “Well, Pa, it was like this…”
Frank Denby had been Little Joe’s self-appointed tormentor since Joe had started going to school. Now, Frank’s friend, Chet Baker, joined in his games.
It was lunchtime when Joe and Mitch were first approached by the bullies.
“Well, if it ain’t Cartwright and Devlin,” Chet commented.
“Ya’ see, Chet,” Frank antagonized. “I told ya’ ifn’ we followed the yellow streak, it’d lead us to these two.”
“Ain’t either of us yellow,” Joe seethed through gritted teeth.
“Ignore ‘em, Joe,” Mitch whispered. “Remember what yer’ Pa said.”
“Yeah, Cartwright,” Frank chided. “Ya’ don’t wanna get a whippin’ from yer’ Pa.”
Joe, taking a deep breath, stood, picking up his lunch pail, turned to Frank and with as much control as he could muster, said, “It’ll take more than you two to take us on; and more time than we have.” Hearing Miss Jones ringing the bell, Joe added, “Come on, Mitch; let’s get back to class.”
The two boys left Frank and Chet looking at one another, grinning knowingly.
“Well, Pa,” Little Joe finished. “Frank and Chet didn’t come back to class. That must have been when they got the other two. They jumped us on the road home. Didn’t know the two older boys, but they didn’t seem to have any trouble gettin’ their licks in. They actually seemed to enjoy it.”
Adam, shaking his head, remarked, “Well, baby brother; looks like you drew the line.”
“What do ya’ mean?” Joe groused. “I didn’t draw no line nowhere.”
Shaking his head at the poor grammar but deciding to let it go, Ben explained, “You made a challenge, son.”
“Sounds like, short shanks,” Hoss added.
“Well,” Joe started griping. “We shoulda’ thrashed ‘em right then and there for callin’ us yellow!”
“No, son,” Ben sternly advised. “You did the right thing walking away. Otherwise, you and I would be having this discussion in the barn.”
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe contritely agreed.
“Joseph?” Ben added.
“I’m proud of you for walking away the way you did,” Ben said smiling.
“Question is, what do we do about it?” Hoss asked.
“Look,” Joe insisted, “I can handle it.
“Joseph, I will not have my son in fights or beaten up every day.”
“Please, Pa!” he begged. “It’ll be worse if you or my brothers start to fight my battles for me.”
“I don’t like it, Joseph,” Ben bemoaned.
“I know, Pa. But I’m not a baby,” Joe insisted.
After looking at his youngest for a minute, knowing how he was struggling to grow up, especially being slight of build as he was, Ben conceded, “All right, but if they gang up on you again, I’m talking to Roy.”
“Thank you, Pa!” Joe gratefully exclaimed.
After supper, all the Cartwright men enjoyed family time in the sitting room. Adam was engrossed in a novel, Ben was reading a letter from a long-winded cousin, while Little Joe and Hoss played checkers.
As the grandfather clock chimed eight, Ben looked up from the letter, saying, “All right, Little Joe. It’s time for you to get on up to bed.”
“Aw, Pa,” Little Joe grumbled. “I was winning.”
“Joseph,” Pa said in a tone not to be trifled with. “You’ve won several games; it’s time for bed.”
Slowly, Joe rose, realizing there was no point arguing. “Yes, sir. ‘Night, Adam, Hoss, Pa.”
“Good night, little brother.”
“Good night, son.”
All three of the elder Cartwrights watched as Little Joe slowly plodded upstairs, listening closely for his door to latch.
Upon hearing the door close, Adam and Hoss turned to Ben, who was still focused on the stairs.
Glancing at his brother, Hoss remarked, “Okay, Pa. Spill it.”
Surprised, Ben responded, “Excuse me?”
“Pa,” Adam began. “That letter from Cousin Clarissa is 8 pages long. You’ve been ‘reading’ it for an hour and a half and haven’t passed page 2.”
Looking at the letter in his hand, Ben realized Adam was right. “Distracted,” he simply said.
“Yeah,” Adam retorted. “You’ve been hatching something in that head of yours, Pa. You might as well tell us.”
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss chimed in. “What’s yer’ idea ‘bout the kid?”
“It’s that obvious?” Ben asked.
Adam and Hoss looked at each other and in unison said, “Yeah.”
“I know I told him he could handle the situation,” Ben began. “But with his temper…I don’t know. I don’t like leaving him to his own devices.”
“You want we should follow him, Pa,” Hoss offered.
“Just to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”
“Of course, Pa,” Adam answered. “We already planned to.”
“Thank you, boys,” sounding relieved, Ben smiled.
“No problem, Pa,” Hoss assured. “Why don’t you finish Cousin Clarissa’s letter.”
The next morning, Adam and Hoss followed Joe, far back enough to not be seen. They watched as Mitch met him on the road.
“Hey, Joe. How ya’ doin’ today?” Mitch greeted his friend.
“Great, Mitch; you?”
“Good. So you didn’t get in trouble?” Mitch asked.
“No. Thank goodness, Pa believed us.”
“What’s yer’ Pa gonna do, Joe?”
“Nothing,” Little Joe said with a smile. “He’s letting me handle it.”
“Wow,” Mitch looked surprised. “What are ya’ gonna do?”
“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “But they sure ain’t gonna call me yellow!”
Adam and Hoss glanced at each other.
“Adam, ya’ don’t think he’s gonna start somethin’, do ya’?” asked Hoss.
“Not if he values his hide. You know Pa’ll tan him good if he does.”
They continued to follow their little brother and his friend, suddenly realizing they, too, were being followed.
Adam turned to face their tail, only to discover Mitch’s brother, Peter, who said, “Our Pa’s obviously had the same idea.”
“Obviously,” Adam agreed.
With a great grin suddenly spreading across his face, Hoss beamed, “Better odds!”
Laughing, the three then continued in their pursuit of their young prey.
Arriving at the school without trouble, Adam began, in a ‘take charge’ kind of tone, “Okay, Hoss; why don’t you stay in town and keep watch. Peter, you and I can meet up with Hoss when school’s out. I don’t believe this thing is over by a long shot.”
Hoss and Peter both agreed.
“Sounds like a plan, big brother,” Hoss said. “See you two later.”
Adam arrived at home to find Ben waiting for him.
“Well, Pa,” Adam started, taking his hat from his head and running his fingers through his hair. “Looks like its true what they say.”
“Great minds think alike. Looks like Charlie Devlin had the same idea. We ran into Peter this morning just after Little Joe met Mitch.”
“I left him watching the school,” Adam explained. “Just in case. Peter and I will meet up with him after school.”
“Adam?” Ben asked, uncertainly. “I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the right thing.”
“I can’t answer that, Pa,” Adam said, surprised at his father’s uncertainty. “You know what a temper that boy has, but you eventually have to give him the benefit of the doubt. He knows the consequences of losing control. Besides, he’s not out of our sight. Maybe he’ll surprise you.”
“I hope so. You and Hoss were easier sometimes.”
“Pa, Hoss and I were easier ALL the time,” Adam teased. “Look at it this way; he’s keeping you young.”
Father and son had a good laugh, then set about their work for the day.
Back at school, Hoss kept out of sight at lunchtime, watching for any signs of Frank Denby and Chet Baker approaching his brother. About halfway through lunch, the two bullies didn’t disappoint him as he spotted them coming up behind Little Joe and Mitch.
“Well, Frank,” Chet goaded, “there’s that yellow streak.”
“I think you’ll discover,” Little Joe stated, “the true coward is one who don’t fight fair and square.”
“You callin’ us yellow, Cartwright?” Frank was infuriated.
“Well, yer’ not as stupid as we gave ya’ credit for,” Mitch retorted.
“Joe! Mitch!” Miss Jones called, having seen what was transpiring and wanting to stop it before it escalated. “Would you boys come help me for a moment please?”
Frank, with no small amount of venom, said, “You just wait, Cartwright.”
Returning the venom, Little Joe seethed, “Oh, I’ll be ready.”
Hoss watched with some degree of pride as his little brother walked away from an obvious challenge. ‘Kid must be growin’ up,’ he thought.
Frank and Chet were then observed walking to the student stable. Quietly sneaking around to see what they were doing, Hoss overheard voices.
“Obviously, they didn’t have enough yesterday,” Frank growled.
Finding a cracked board, Hoss saw Frank and Chet talking to Sam Beck and Tom Tucker, two boys whose fathers had been outbid on property and cattle by his own father. ‘These must be the other two that attacked Joe and Mitch,” he angrily considered. ‘They’re my age!’
“Let’s meet up the same place,” Tom said. “These Cartwrights are just to high and mighty for their own good.”
Sam added, “It’s about time somebody put ‘em in their place; startin’ with that young pup.”
Hoss waited until Frank and Chet went back to class, deciding that Tom and Sam could lead him to the meeting place.
Again, Hoss was not disappointed. Once the spot for the ambush was revealed, Hoss rode for the sheriff. He explained what had transpired the day before and what the boys were planning for today.
“Sheriff?” Hoss asked. “I’d like to ride with you. Can you send someone to tell Pa and Adam?”
“Clem, head out to the Ponderosa and tell Ben and Adam.”
“Yes, sir,” the deputy answered, quickly leaving.
“All right, Hoss; why don’t you show me where those other boys are.”
“Pa, I’ll go let Charlie and Peter Devlin know,” Adam said swinging into the saddle after Clem had informed them of what was happening.
“Go ahead, son,” Ben agreed. “I’ll join you at the cross road.”
Turning back to Clem, he said, “Thanks for getting here so quickly.”
“Twern’t nothin’,” Clem answered.
Ben saddled Buck and then rode out with Clem, meeting Adam with Charlie and Peter Devlin.
Roy, with Hoss’ assistance, had already arrested Tom and Sam, who were sitting in a cell at the jail.
Hoss rode back to the planned ambush location to await the arrival of Little Joe and Mitch. ‘Well, at least if those bullies try anything, it’ll be a fair fight,’ Hoss thought.
At the end of school that day, Little Joe and Mitch went to get their horses to ride home.
“Joe,” Mitch began. “What ‘er we gonna do ifn’ we get jumped again.”
“We fight, Mitch,” Joe snapped. “At this point, I don’t care what my Pa says. I’m sick of that Frank Denby! Even if I get tanned, it’ll be worth it!” Although he really did care what his Pa said, his anger took control of his mouth and mind.
As they arrived at the designated spot, Frank and Chet appeared, not realizing the two older boys had been arrested and were sitting in one of Roy’s jail cells.
“I told you I smelled yellow, Chet,” Frank antagonized Joe.
Taking a deep breath, Joe suddenly lunged at an unsuspecting Frank, bellowing, “I’ve had enough of you and your mouth, Denby.”
Mitch then took a defensive stance against Chet, landing a solid fist across his jaw, knocking Chet out cold. He turned to see Little Joe, straddling Frank, landing punch after punch across his jaw.
Then, Mitch caught a sight that made his blood run cold. Adam jumped from Sport, grabbing his brother’s arm before Joe could land another punch. The rage was evident in Joe’s eyes.
Looking up into his brother’s eyes, the rage Joe was feeling suddenly gave way to fear, realizing what his Pa had just witnessed.
Roy, coming from behind Joe, took Frank by the arm saying, “Clem, go tell Mr. Denby and Mr. Baker they can pick their boys up at the jail.”
Sheepishly, Little Joe looked at the ground, unable to meet his father’s dark eyes.
“I…I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe stammered.
Both Mitch and Joe stood in front of their fathers not knowing what to expect. They both knew how their fathers felt about fighting. Little Joe also knew that although Frank had antagonized him, he was the one who lunged at Frank. ‘Well,’ Joe asked himself. ‘Was it worth it? Yep. It was worth it.’
“Charlie, why don’t we take these boys out to the Ponderosa and we can sort it all out there,” Ben offered.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Charlie agreed.
Arriving back at the Ponderosa, Ben had Adam and Peter take the horses. He wanted to hear everything, including what Hoss had observed.
Joe and Mitch explained how Frank had once again antagonized them during recess, then again on the road home. When the boys were finished, Hoss told them all he had seen and heard. After the all the details were laid out, Ben and Charlie had Joe and Mitch go upstairs while they talked.
“Mr. Devlin,” Hoss began. “Mitch only hit Chet when he was tryin’ to get Little Joe. He was protectin’ my brother.”
“Thank you, Hoss,” Charlie said gratefully. “I appreciate you telling me.”
“Hoss, why don’t you go help Adam and Peter with the horses,” Ben suggested.
“Sure, Pa,” Hoss answered, hoping that his brother and his friend weren’t going to be in for an uncomfortable night.
“Well, Ben,” Charlie asked when Hoss was out the door. “What do you think?”
“I think,” Ben started, “I’m going to have a brandy. Care to join me?”
“Wouldn’t say no. Thanks, Ben.”
Judiciously, the two fathers discussed the events of the day. Weighing the good and the bad, they decided the fight was unavoidable.
“Hopefully, this is the end of it,” Ben commented.
“Well, I hope so. That little one of yours made effective work of that Denby boy’s jaw.”
“I’m still debating whether or not to deal with that as I normally would,” Ben admitted. “They were justified.”
“I agree,” Charlie said. “Should we let ‘em sweat a little while?”
“I think they’ve sweat long enough,” Ben grinned. “I’ll go up and send Mitch down. Why don’t you have Peter get your wife and take supper with us this evening?”
“Well, thank you, Ben,” Charlie answered. “I accept your invite.”
Heading upstairs and reaching Joe’s door, Ben put on a stern façade, knocked on the door, and entered.
“Mitch, your father wants to talk to you downstairs,” Ben announced gravely.
“Yes, sir,” Mitch answered, exchanging a quick glance with his best friend then leaving the room.
Ben then turned to his baby boy and seeing him looking at the floor and shifting nervously, began, “All right, son. I want to talk to you.”
“Pa,” Little Joe, swallowing hard, timidly asked. “Are you gonna tan me?”
“No, Joseph. Not this time.”
“Pa, I really tried hard to not fight. Even after he called me yellow at school. I told him a real coward is one who don’t fight fair and square.”
“Very good, son,” Ben said with just a hint of pride. ‘My baby is growing up,’ he thought. “However, there will be no more fighting! This is the ONLY free ride you get. Another fight and we’ll be having a ‘necessary little talk’ in the barn. Do you understand me, Joseph?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe answered, relieved that his father was strict but fair.
“Now, let’s go down and get you cleaned up for supper,” Ben said, standing at the door waiting for Little Joe.
As he walked past his father, Ben landed one solid stinging swat on Joe’s backside, taking him by surprise.
“OW!” Joe exclaimed, turning to look at his father.
“That’s just a reminder,” Ben smiled as they walked together into the hallway.
“Pa?” Little Joe said biting his lower lip.
Pausing for a moment, Joe said, “Thanks for not letting me handle it on my own.”
“No problem. I love you, boy,” Ben said, putting his arm around his son’s shoulder.
“I love you, too, Pa,” Joe smiled and turned to embrace his father.
Little Joe was glad, on this day at least, that his father and his brothers were there to protect him.