Word Count: 2900
“He’s gotta be around here somewhere, Cooch, but where?” Little Joe Cartwright gave his paint horse a pat on her side as he scanned the area for any sign of “he,” that is, his oldest brother Adam.
For the past two days, there had been a contest between the two Cartwright sons for the attention of their lovely houseguest, Mademoiselle Helene Devereaux. So far Adam was winning, monopolizing the dark haired, dark-eyed beauty and leaving Joe with only the most fleeting of glimpses, smiles and comments from the gorgeous Louisiana miss.
Last night, Joe decided that he “had not yet begun to fight” and developed what he thought was a foolproof strategy to have Mademoiselle Helene all to himself. Very early this morning — for Joe anyway — he had gotten up to cajole Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ Chinese cook, into preparing a special picnic lunch for the two of them. He tried to eat a little breakfast as he darted back and forth between the kitchen and the dining area so he could keep one eye on his basket and the other on his scheming brother who was sitting at the dining table with Helene, her parents, their middle brother Hoss and their father.
After he caught sight of Joe peeking from the doorway for the third time in two minutes, Ben wiped his mouth with his napkin, excused himself and went to investigate what was going on with his youngest. He immediately collided with and was almost knocked down by his youngest. After he recovered, Ben pushed “Joseph” into the kitchen and growled at him about “being rude” and not joining their guests for the meal.
“B-b-b-ut, Pa…” Joe made up the excuse that his back ached from Adam’s share of the work he had to do yesterday in addition to his own. He winced, made an appropriate face and rubbed the area at the base of his spine.
Ben frowned at Joe and crossed his arms over his chest, not remembering him doing his chores let alone Adam’s. He then told Joe in no uncertain terms that he would fix it so he ached a whole lot more a whole lot lower if he didn’t get himself to the table in one minute. He then turned and left the kitchen in a huff and Joe in a quandary. How was he going to keep the basket from being purloined by Adam? Take the basket to the table with him, that’s how, he snapped his fingers, then had a second thought. But Pa wouldn’t be happy about seeing it and he couldn’t afford that. Think Joe.
Think he did, quickly turning to the Chinese cook and extracting a promise on the “memory of his sacred ancestors” that Hop Sing would protect the basket from “Mis-tah Adam” no matter what. Feeling a little more confident that he may be able to actually pull this off, Joe joined the others at the table and tried to be cordial to everyone even his oldest brother who sat across from him. However, a few times, Joe let Adam get to him and his temper did show up but disappeared after his father gave him one of those looks that one only ignores once for the sake of one’s hide.
Once breakfast had ended, Joe grabbed Mademoiselle Helene by the arm, pulled her to the staircase and whispered that he
“… had a little surprise for her” and that he
“… would be right back” and that she should
“… wait right there” and
“…not go anywhere with anyone especially Adam” and he
“…just had to go to the barn” and maybe she should
“…get a wrap because it might be chilly” and
“…remember, not to go anywhere with Adam” and
“…s’il vous plait.”
Joe then gave a somewhat confused Mademoiselle Helene a small peck on the cheek and dashed into the kitchen where upon he grabbed the picnic basket from the table and headed outside. He carefully set the basket on the back seat of the carriage and hurried to find Jake, the black Percheron gelding.
Now, everyone’s heard of a quarter horse, but Jake was the Cartwright boys’ “courting horse.” Over the years, the three of them had taught the big black horse a few useful tricks for courting purposes and for that reason, he was very much in demand when one of them had designs on a pretty miss like Mademoiselle Helene. Luckily Jake was still standing where Joe had left him and doing exactly what he was doing when Joe left him – eating. The horse was truly a bottomless pit but, when it came to strength and stamina, the Cartwrights would not have traded him for the world. Somehow Joe managed to pry the big black behemoth away from breakfast and coax him outside to the carriage. He then quickly hitched him up.
“Rats!” As he finished, Joe remembered his green jacket and hat. He only left Jake and the carriage and the picnic basket unattended for a short time when he sprinted back into the barn to retrieve them. A short time, however, was all “that black-hearted scoundrel” Adam needed to appropriate Jake and the carriage, the picnic basket and the lovely Mademoiselle Helene. That was two hours ago. Since then, Joe called his oldest brother far worse things than “black hearted scoundrel” as he searched every likely spot on the lake that he or one of his brothers had used to entertain female guests of the Ponderosa in the past without success. His luck changed, though, when he moved just south of the lake. That’s where he spotted about two hundred yards from him…
Jake was hunkered down in the shade of the largest of the oak trees. While a good dozen of his family members gathered provisions for the long cold winter, a gray squirrel sat casually munching on an acorn not three feet from the Percheron like he was not there.
Joe chuckled to himself since Jake was not something that you could easily overlook. He was the largest horse that the Cartwrights had ever owned that Joe could remember. The family’s carriage sat near him and the still full picnic basket sat on the front seat.
But where was… Joe tethered Cochise to an oak tree not too far from the big black gelding. …Of course, if Jake’s around, Adam and Mademoiselle Helene could not be far away. He then began to move silently through the fallen leaves, branches and acorns, slipping between the trees and sneaking a peek from behind each one as he made his way past Jake. Maybe if I’m lucky, old Adam’ll get caught in one of them snares that Hoss and I put out last spri…oh yeah…, Joe stopped abruptly in his tracks as the sudden realization struck him. We didn’t take ‘em down…Oh, boy… He looked around the ground warily, then resumed his forward progress carefully scrutinizing the next place where his foot was to land before landing it.
Cochise, Jake and Jake’s little furry friend with the acorn all watched the youngest Cartwright as he cautiously made his way along, step by calculated step. The horses knew this was not his usual relaxed gait but was a halting, bobbing, up and down tiptoey sort of movement. They also had seen their human owners do all sorts of strange things before but they never saw one of them move like a …like a ….really big squirrel?
The little squirrel, however, was just a bit suspicious of what this really big squirrel was up to, stuffed the acorn he was chewing on into the side of his cheek and trailed along after Joe but at a safe distance. His good dozen relatives also became interested, dropped what they were doing and began to likewise follow Joe.
This was too funny for words! Cochise and Jake looked at each other and sniggered boisterously.
“Shhhhhhh!” Joe looked back to admonish the equines a little too loudly.
This was all it took to cause a sort of chain reaction with the squirrels. Startled by their leader’s actions, all of Joe’s followers spooked and scampered off in twelve different directions. Unfortunately one of them chose to scamper in front of him causing him to lose sight of where he was stepping and he stepped right into a …
In an instant, Joe’s feet were jerked out from under him…
…and he went flying upward feet first as the branch whipped him into the sky and he ended up suspended, his head five feet from the ground.
Joe couldn’t quite believe it! “How could you be so stupid? You’re an experienced hunter, trapper and tracker and yet….,” He struggled, trying to reach his feet high above him. He reached into his pocket for his knife before he realized that it was right where he left it on the dresser this morning.
While Joe struggled, Cochise seeing her beloved master was in trouble began to untie herself. Jake noticed what the paint horse was doing but did not move, preferring to watch how Joe dealt with his predicament. Once she was free, Cochise raced over to Jake and nudged him in the side with her muzzle in an effort to get him to do something, anything, to help rescue her Joe. The Percheron snorted his displeasure at being disturbed from his comfortable spot, reluctantly got to his feet and ambled over to where Joe was hanging.
“…you let yourself get caught by….Cut it out, Jake,” Joe tried to nudge the big horse’s nose away from him with his elbow. “This is bad enough but I don’t need you trying to eat me, too!”
Jake stepped back four feet, with his four feet, and eyed his youngest owner and the rope that held him prisoner in the upside down position critically. He then sidled sideways four feet and then back to his original position and then sideways again three feet and back again.
“Listen, you big hayburner, I know you can dance a pretty mean jig but we don’t got time. Old Adam will be back… ”
Jake shook his head “no.”
“You’re not dancing?”
Jake shook his head “no” again.
“Well, it’s pretty hard for me to tell from this position with the blood rushing to my head and all,” Joe growled and crossed his arms over his chest. He then looked at him hopefully realizing that Jake was not an ordinary horse. “You don’t happen to have a plan, do you?”
“Okay, go on,” Joe sighed deeply. “I’m ready anytime you are.”
The big horse did not move, however. He just stood there looking expectantly at the youngest Cartwright for…
Joe immediately recognized the look on the horse’s face. “Okay…okay…okay…You want something, Right?”
Jake nodded again.
Joe cleared his throat. “How about I give you an extra apple every day for a week?”
Jake shook his head in the negative.
“OK,” Joe sighed. “Two weeks?”
Jake snorted and shook his head “no” again, cantered over to the carriage, grabbed the picnic basket with his teeth from the front seat and brought it over so Joe could see it.
“You drive a hard bargain, you know that,” Joe frowned at the horse.
Jake nodded his head and neighed.
“Okay,” Joe knew he had no other choice at the moment. “But make it quick.”
The big gelding then strolled to a position near Cochise, dropped the basket beside her, looked over at her and sniggered. Whatever he said to her must have been funny because she sniggered too and nodded her head. Jake then pawed the ground like a bull.
“What the blue blazes are you up to?” Joe growled as Jake charged at his helpless owner for all he was worth. “Hey… now, Jake buddy… I didn’t mean to call you a …”
Jake grabbed onto Joe’s green corduroy jacket with his teeth and, as he correctly calculated, pulled Joe and the rope off the large tree branch that supported him…
“…haybur-r-r…ner-r-r-r-ahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!” Joe closed his eyes and instinctively put his hands over them.
….and dropped him on his head on the ground with a thud.
“Oh, mon Dieu!” and a combination of the rustle of skirts and dried leaves and a sinister laugh alerted Joe to the fact that Mademoiselle Helene and Adam had witnessed the incident. “Leetle Joe… Leetle Joe… Speak to me… Leetle Joe.” The dark eyed dark haired beauty dropped to her knees and cradled his head against her in such a way that he would get a very good view of her very ample bosom that is when his head cleared, of course.
“Who…?” Joe, who was still slightly dazed by the fall, was now desperately trying to clear his head, especially since he didn’t want to miss any of this golden opportunity to observe Helene’s charms first hand.
“It is Helene, Leetle Joe…mon cheri,” Helene cooed rocking him gently to soothe him.
“He’ll be fine, Helene,” Adam stopped laughing but did smirk down at his baby brother in an amused way. “He’s been dropped on his head once a week since he’s been born,” he chuckled, nudging Joe’s backside with the toe of his boot. “He’s got the Cartwright hard head from Pa.”
Joe’s world finally stopped spinning and he found himself exactly where he had plotted the night before he was supposed to be – in the arms of the gorgeous Mademoiselle Helene. Thank you, Jake! This is worth two picnic baskets.
“Oooo, Adam, you are horrible!” Mademoiselle Helene scolded the eldest Cartwright son sharply, her dark eyes flashing. Then she looked quite concerned at the youngest Cartwright son again. “Oh, mon petit choux, are you injured?”
“Where am I?” Joe decided to milk this fortunate turn of events for all it was worth. He batted his green eyes up at her and acted befuddled. “Who am I?” He again took a long appreciate look at the Louisiana miss’s cleavage.
“Quelle horreur!” Helene stroked Joe’s brow gently. “You meen you do not know who you are, Leetle Joe?”
Joe’s eyes lit up as he pretended to suddenly recognize his name. “That’s right…my name’s Joe…and there is my really old brother Adam,” he snarled slightly as he pointed toward Adam feebly. “…But you…” he looked up into her big brown eyes. “…you must be some kind of an angel sent from heaven since nothing on earth could be so beautiful.” He smiled a smile that melted many a female heart, young and not so young alike, took her hand in his and gently kissed it. He then grimaced, winced and gave her his puppy dog look that made her fall for him hook, line and sinker.
“Oh, brother,” Adam grumbled crossing his arms over his chest and rolling his eyes.
“I will stay with you day and night until you are well, mon pauvre petit…” she promised holding him closer. “I will sleep in the chair next to your bed and read to you and… We must get you back to your father. Adam, help me get him up,” she ordered sharply much to Adam’s surprise and Joe’s delight.
“That’s okay,” Joe dramatically kicked the rope loop that held him upside down off his feet and struggled to a standing position with her assistance. “I think I can still walk….if you just let me lean on you, un petit peu,” Joe said weakly and put his right arm around Mademoiselle Helene.
“You are so brave, Leetle Joe,” she told him as she held him tightly, steered him to the carriage and helped him into the back seat. “We will get you well no matter how long it takes, I promise you.”
Adam still couldn’t believe it! Everything was going so right. A secluded spot, a picnic basket…Jake…that’s right, Jake… He shook his head and chuckled to himself as he gazed into Little Joe’s bedroom.
There was the beautiful Mademoiselle Helene gently blowing on a spoonful of soup and then tenderly feeding it to his baby brother who was propped up in bed with at least four pillows. Joe was playing this for all he was worth, in Adam’s opinion. While Adam was busy with Jake and Cochise, Helene had insisted that Joe change into a nightshirt with his father’s help,
“He doesn’t need any help,” Adam frowned.
…that Hoss go to town to get the doctor,
“And he doesn’t need a doctor either,” Adam growled.
…and that Hop Sing immediately prepare some broth for “her Leetle Joe.”
Adam heaved a deep sigh.
“What goes around come around, I guess, son,” Ben who had been watching Adam watch Joe and Helene from the doorway of his room put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Which reminds me,” he moved so he was directly in front of his eldest so he could block his view of the couple. “I’d like to have a few words with you about Joe getting his ‘hard head’ from me.”
Yep, Adam thought to himself as his father turned him back around, herded him into his bedroom and closed the door behind them. What goes around comes around.