Christmas Comes But Once A Year (by SueH)

Summary: Warning…lots of Christmas kisses!
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,000


 

Poor Little Joe Cartwright was feeling out of sorts and that wasn’t like him at all. The last few days leading up to his 19th Christmas were turning out to be his worst ever. He couldn’t really figure out why, either. He’d never once meant to rile his brothers, but somehow it had just kept happening.

Of course there were plenty of times in the past when Joe had thoroughly enjoyed stirring up Adam and Hoss, but it was always just in harmless fun. Now, if he’d ever stopped long enough to think about it, he’d have realized long ago that it always turned out to be him that got the worst end of his pranks anyhow. Somehow that never seemed to deter the intrepid Joe Cartwright, or dent his normal enthusiasm for a new affray.

But this was different; what was upsetting him now was that the festive season of good cheer was almost upon them. Highjinks could not have been further from Joe’s mind. He loved this time of year — they all did — and he wanted to get along with his brothers, at least until the New Year anyway.

No, all Little Joe Cartwright was thinking about was getting all his work done and having a great time. Just not necessarily always in that order and there lay the crux of his problem.

But Joe reasoned that his brothers were just being plain ol’ tetchy and he couldn’t do anything right for them and he’d just about had enough. Take the first time he’d upset them. All he’d done was be a teeny little bit late meeting up with them to do some fence repairs. Okay, that had led to them being late to meet their latest young lady friends. Now Hoss and Adam were stuck firmly in the ladies’ bad books. In fact, the girls in question had gotten so cross waiting for the two older Cartwright brothers that they’d up and left with two other cowboys; they showed those high and mighty Cartwrights they weren’t the only handsome and eligible men in town. Adam and Hoss were, not unreasonably, fuming and blamed it all on Little Joe for not turning up on time. Naturally Joe had had a very good reason for his tardiness, but did they understand? Did they? Heck. In fact, when he’d tried to explain himself, it had only made matters worse.

Joe had quite simply lost track of time when Sarah Jane, a very pretty girl from a neighboring ranch, had called by on the off chance that he might be free for a ride. Joe had explained most politely that he most definitely wasn’t free and that he had to meet his brothers and mend a few fences. He’d particularly emphasized this to Adam and Hoss when he’d got to that part of his explanation, pausing for effect and ensuring that his brothers understood that he had absolutely tried his best to be on time.

But, Joe, ever the gentleman, would have felt rude not passing just a little bit of time with Sarah Jane; after all, she had ridden all that way just to see him. And he’d only meant to give her a little kiss goodbye, except she really was very pretty and very willing to extend one little kiss to quite a few more. And Little Joe Cartwright did like to please. So before he knew it, a half hour had gone by, and before he knew it even more, a whole hour had quite simply flown by.

When he’d finally made it to join his brothers, he could tell straight off they were not pleased with him. They’d stood there, hands on hips, waiting, glaring and definitely in no mood for excuses. Joe decided honesty was the best policy so had started to explain, although, truth be told, his own slightly unkempt and flushed state gave them quite a big clue. Not to mention the rouge by his left ear. Needless to say, they were very angry and that was even before they’d gone into town to find out that their dates had up and left them. As it was, they had left Joe alone to finish the fence fixing and the clearing up and had ridden off muttering something about, “Ornery younger brother’s… getting spoiled by Pa…” and worst of all… “He’d get his, just wait and see.”

Later on, as Hoss and Adam stood in the Silver Dollar watching all the other seemingly paired up couples, they decided then and there to really get their own back.

Adam arched an eyebrow as he drank his beer. “So, Hoss, you with me on this? We can’t just let it go this time you know.”

Hoss swallowed a big gulp of beer ” You can count on it, Adam…it plum took me weeks to work up the courage to ask Miss Julie out for a date and now look at her, with another fella. Little brother or no little brother, I’m with you…we just got ta bide our time is all.”

Adam looked thoughtful. “Mmmmm… ” he said, as he heard Mary Ann go past the saloon doors giggling happily with her new escort, ” Let’s not leave it too long, though.” He placed his beer down and followed Hoss out of the bar to find a good meal and hopefully rescue their evening.

Meanwhile, Little Joe had finished off the fence repairs, loaded up the leftover wood, nails and tools back onto the wagon and slowly and a little disconsolately had headed back to The Ponderosa…Cochise followed on behind, tied to the back of the wagon.

Joe talked to his horse over his shoulder. “It wasn’t like I meant to be late…how could I help it if Sarah Jane turned up? Did I invite her? No, I most definitely didn’t!” He answered himself, slightly indignantly, as Cochise whinnied his own reply. Joe nodded to the horse, secure in the knowledge that he agreed with everything Joe said. He was some horse.

“Mind you…” Joe added, a little quieter while letting slip a very cheeky grin, “I’m awful glad she did turn up.” He whistled to the horses and picked up speed just a little bit. “Still, Cochise, a couple of hours with their girlfriends, Hoss and Adam will soon have forgotten all about me being late! Won’t they boy?”

“Sure they will,” snickered the horse as they approached home.

By the time he had tended to Cochise, unloaded the wagon, and sorted out the team, Joe was all tuckered out and bone-tired weary. He headed into the kitchen, hoping for a coffee and a bite to eat. Adam and Hoss were in town for the evening, Ben was at a friend’s house and that left Hop Sing with only himself and Joe to cook for. He’d made a few of his favorite Chinese dishes. He knew Joe enjoyed these too and he didn’t often get to try them out.

Even though Joe was a little late, Hop Sing didn’t scold like he sometimes did; he could see the boy had been working hard.

The kitchen was full of sweets, cakes and pastries that Hop Sing had been preparing ahead for Christmas. While they amiably chatted, Joe played with some leftover marzipan and colored icing. When he’d finished, he’d made some very funny figures that sort of resembled his Pa, Adam and Hoss. You could just about pick Ben by the hands on his hips and comic stern face and a pipe, Adam by the guitar and a wagging ‘I told you so’ finger, and Hoss by his hat, naturally, plus the large cake in his hand. He giggled boyishly at the finished articles; they weren’t that flattering but then he was no artist! He stood them on a dish and placed them up on a shelf next to a large jug of Apple Jack for safe keeping or eating later on!

Instead of washing up and eating formally in the dining room, Hop Sing and Joe sat companionably in the kitchen, swapping stories of their respective days.

” Little Joe must learn not to make brothers mad at him…only lead to trouble like always,” Hop Sing admonished, not telling Joe anything he didn’t already know.

Joe was enjoying the food way too much to answer at first, but eventually he enthused while swallowing and wiping the delicious sweet and sour sauce from his chin, “Hop Sing this is wonderful! I’d sure like to have this more often…” and then remembering his friend’s comments replied, “I know you’re right, Hop Sing…I guess I just gotta try a little harder.” He grinned at him as they cleared the dishes.

“Hey Hop Sing, what say I help you with these and then we play another game of Mah Jong?” Joe hadn’t mastered the game yet, but he marveled at the beautiful rosewood case and intricately carved tiles and was enjoying learning it and using the exquisite pieces Hop Sing kept so carefully in his room.

Hop Sing nodded his approval. “Little Joe promise not to upset brothers and make house noisy again and Hop Sing happy to teach him new game.”

Joe laughed his infectious laugh, knowing this might be a little more than he could truly promise, but he figured Hop Sing knew that anyway.

Little Joe had always been close to Hop Sing. They all were in their own ways, but ever since he was a little boy, Joe had shared his hopes and dreams, his adventures and stories with their Chinese housekeeper, who had become almost like a second father to him. Hop Sing in turn was touched by the closeness and the young man’s willingness still to confide in him. He understood that, although Little Joe enjoyed pranks, his heart was always in the right place and his intentions were mostly pure. He just liked a little fun and was inclined to be a little reckless when his enthusiasm sometimes got the better of him.

Once the pair had finished clearing up, they disappeared into Hop Sing’s room and set up the game. Although Hop Sing was well known for his tantrums if things went wrong in his kitchen, he was, in fact, a very patient man. He thoroughly enjoyed the chance to share a little bit of his culture with his protégé and enjoyed the young man’s eagerness to learn. After they’d finished and Hop Sing made to retire, ready for his usual early start, Joe thanked him for the game and then wandered back to sit a while in the living room.

He hunched up comfortably in the red leather armchair by the fire and pulled his knees up to a comfortable position so he could rest his chin on them. He was smiling at the knowledge he was alone and no one was about to shout, “Joseph get your feet off the furniture!” Not that he minded that, anyhow.

Keeping the same position, he turned his head towards the fire and looked a picture of contemplation as he stared into the flames, idly reflecting on his day.

All in all, it had been a good day and he had enjoyed the unusually quiet evening and the chance to talk to Hop Sing. He hoped his brothers were having a good time entertaining the lovely Mary Ann and Miss Julie. He pictured, them having fun in town, flirting, joking, maybe kissing goodnight. He grinned happily as he made to head up for bed. As he did so, a small lump of soot fell with a soft thud onto the hearth below, sending up a little cloud of black soot. It reminded him of the last time his Pa had made him clean up that hearth. Knowing his father would probably want that chore done again before Christmas, he thought ruefully, “Sure hope it’s not my turn this time…boy, I hate that job.” He carried on up to bed.

About a half hour later, Adam and Hoss entered the house. Seeing Ben was not back and Joe had gone to bed, Hoss sat in the chair his brother had not long ago vacated. Adam sat opposite and they made themselves comfortable, poured a brandy and talked revenge. They hadn’t enjoyed their meal, and losing at cards had topped off a very disappointing evening.

“What would be nice,” said Adam testily and nodding up the stairs to you know who’s room, “is if we could make the punishment fit the crime.”

Hoss looked thoughtful. “That could be a mite tricky, older brother, being as the reason our considerate younger brother was late was on account of him being too busy flirtin’ and kissin’ with Miss Sarah Jane…”

He stopped mid-sentence, struck with a wondrous thought. Adam, meanwhile, was not happy being reminded that his youngest brother was well up on him in the kissin’ and flirtin’ stakes just lately. He soon forgot that, though, as he watched thoughts dance across his middle brother’s face. It sure was a sight to behold as Hoss’ face lit up and his blue eyes twinkled with merriment at whatever the idea was going on behind them. Adam could hardly contain his curiosity.

Hoss eventually continued,” But then again older brother…I just might have the perfect solution.” A look of pure devilment that even the recipient of this plan would be hard put to match, crossed his face.

Adam sat forward, very interested. “Tell me more, Hoss…”

“Now hold yer horses there, Adam; let me check somethin’ out tomorrow, and if I’m right, I’ll be able to tell you all about it then.”

Hoss looked mighty pleased with himself. They went off to bed hunched together conspiratorially. Hop Sing who had popped into the kitchen for some water shook his head sadly. “Not good for Little Joe…” he muttered as he returned to his room.

*****

The next morning Joe, who’d slept perfectly, bounded down the stairs full of the joys of winter. Joseph ‘bounded’ whatever the season, as his father would be the first to testify. He’d had a quiet, but very enjoyable evening the night before, in the pleasant company of their resident housekeeper Hop Sing. He was grinning to himself, finding it highly amusing that he’d been the first Cartwright to go to bed last night and was the first one up this morning — that sure made a change! He was looking forward to a little gentle ribbing of his brothers and father; it would be fun to turn the tables for once!

Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen with a full tray of breakfast things, to be greeted with a warm smile from Little Joe, just at the same time his older brothers began stomping down the stairs. Hop Sing tried to shoot Joe a warning look but Joe had already turned around to greet his brothers.

Joe gave them his best winning smile and said, “Well, hello there brothers and a bright good morning to you both!”

As he looked them over, Joe could see they looked anything but bright. He ventured further, anxious to hear how they’d got on last night.
He winced on their behalf, “Ouch…I guess you’re a mite hung over there, brothers; must have been a heckuva night with those gals…I hope you gave them a goodnight kiss from me too…” He grinned hopefully.

If it was a competition as to who could glower the meanest at Little Joe, then it was pretty even; Adam just had the edge, he’d had more practice.

Joe’s happy smile had died quickly on his face. “I guess by the looks on you two it didn’t go too well, huh? Well, look brothers if you need any tips, you only have to ask. I’ll be only too glad to help out….”

Noticing this hadn’t helped, Joe tried again. “I wonder where you went wrong?” he said, scratching his head and screwing his face up in thought.

Adam and Hoss advanced towards him, just about ready to throttle him, but they stopped. No, revenge could wait but he would at least know that it was coming.

Adam said through clenched teeth, “Where we went wrong, little brother, was nothing to do with us but everything to do with being late and Miss Julie and Miss Mary Ann deciding not to wait around. And just in case I need remind you of the reason we were late…”

Adam looked particularly menacing right then and he began to advance again towards Joe; Hoss was right on his shoulder.

Joe was looking very guilty now, realizing he’d messed up their evening. He’d abandoned all thoughts of breakfast and started to back off, holding his hands up in surrender. He stumbled slightly over a chair as he tried and failed to make a hasty exit. “Alright…alright…I’m sorry…” he stuttered. “Look, I’m sorry…I didn’t know…I’d…uh…. oops…” He stumbled again. “Look, I’ll just get out of your way here…start some morning chores…say Hi to Pa for me, would ya?…when he comes down…” And with that, he made it to the door. Adam and Hoss went back to the breakfast table, happy to enjoy their meal without their little brother.

Ben, who’d been the last in last night, heard most of this from upstairs; he’d been slow to come down as he actually was a little hung over himself and had expected to get more teasing than he could cope with this morning. Consequently, he was quite content to have one less son to deal with over breakfast, especially the noisiest one. Breakfast was thankfully a quiet affair for them all.

Joe, meanwhile, was out in the barn talking to Cochise, as he made good headway with his chores. “Well, Cochise,” he sighed, “it looks like I’m still in trouble with those older brothers of mine…I sure didn’t mean to mess up their dates. What kind of gals are they, anyhow, that can’t wait around a little bit for a fella? Sure sound impatient types to me…Adam and Hoss are probably better off without ‘em.”

 Cochise whinnied his agreement, which Joe as always appreciated. He had decided, though, since it really had been his fault, that he was duty bound to make it right for his brothers. He’d talk to those impatient Virginia City gals and make them give his brothers a second chance; he’d make them realize and they’d beg his brothers’ for another date.

And the thing was, later on that day he’d tried. He really had. Joe had been given an errand to do for his Pa in town, and when he spotted Miss Julie and Miss Mary Ann, he went right on up to them and started to explain everything. He told them it had all been his fault, and please, please would they forgive Hoss and Adam who were altogether blameless. Seeing they didn’t look at all convinced, he tried even harder. “If you don’t forgive them, I’ll never be allowed out again, and as it was I had to skip breakfast, they were so doggone mad.”

He didn’t realize but this was having the wrong effect.

“Oh my!” the girls exclaimed as one and they formed a Joe sandwich, one on either side of the suddenly very nervous cowboy. He was definitely the filling of their choice today and they wanted nothing more than to eat him right up. Little Joe sure was appealing in all senses of the word. The girls continued to pet and coo all over him,

 “Oh, you poor Joe Cartwright; those mean ol’ older brothers of yours.”

Joe gulped; he had to change tack….and quick; this was not going to plan. They gave him an idea.

“So, Little Joe……… how come you were late in the first place??”

‘This‘ll put ‘em off,’ Joe thought, before answering defensively. “It was that Sarah Jane; she stopped by to see me…” He paused and gulped, more than a little uncomfortable to be the object of such close attention from them. Seeing his discomfort, they pressed even closer, Joe hadn’t thought that was possible.

A single bead of sweat betrayed his fears. It slowly trickled down his face, faltering slightly at his chin; the girls watched fascinated as it changed path to trace an irresistible little trail over his Adam’s apple and deliciously on down towards his smooth and oh so inviting chest. Finally it disappeared teasingly but tragically behind his top-most shirt button. Oh how they both wanted to follow it’s descent to the conclusion of its enticing journey.

Joe was trying manfully hard to be oblivious to all this and he decided to put them off by describing just how soft and inviting Sarah Jane’s kisses had been, exactly what effect they’d had on him and how completely impossible he had found it to resist her. Then they’d surely understand why his brothers had been late and hopefully he could get the conversation back away from him. ‘Nothing like talking about another girl to put them off,’ he thought. There was something wrong with the girls thought processes, though, because his description of Sarah Jane’s pliant mouth pressing on his very willing one was doing all the wrong things to Mary Ann and Miss Julie. As he saw their lips advancing relentlessly on his, Joe had no choice but to duck away from them under the hitching rail and he made good his escape on to the waiting and ever faithful Cochise.

As he rode away from town, time and distance colored Joe’s perception of how it had gone and he asked Cochise…

“So how do you think that went, Cooch? I think it went pretty well, what d’ya think? Honestly? Don’t kid me.”

Cochise whinnied.

Joe nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I thought so too; had ‘em eating out of my hand. They’ll be chasing after Hoss and Adam begging them for a date now.”

By the time he rode into the yard and with Cochise’s encouragement, Joe was firmly convinced that all Adam and Hoss had to do was to smile at the girls in a certain way and they would be theirs once more. And by golly, if he was right, Adam and Hoss might even forgive him and they’d have a merry Christmas after all.

When Hoss made it into town later and put Joe’s theory and his own most winning smile to the test, he was upset to find himself being whacked over the head with a pretty little pink clutch bag and his eardrums violently assaulted with the angry words. “Why you mean ol’ Hoss and your brother Adam too, treatin’ that cute as a pie Little Joe that way, frightnin’ him half to death, starvin’ him of his breakfast… Well, you can just tell him from me, if he ever wants feedin’ up…or anything else… he’s more than welcome at my place anytime…you be sure and tell him. Now get out of here you brute…” Miss Julie had dismissed him, or rather he had escaped under the very same hitching rail that Joe had earlier in the day.

If Hoss had wavered at all in his plot to get even with that ‘cute as a pie’ little brother of his, any doubts had evaporated in an instant. When he reported the happenings of the day back to Adam and followed it up with the exact nature of his plan, the laughter coming from the barn could be heard all the way to The Comstock and back. Yessiree, they had indeed come up with the perfect punishment to suit the crime and would hopefully cure their romantically-inclined youngest sibling from ever having a preference for kissing over fence building again. Well, at least for a very long time. We’re talking Joe Cartwright here, after all.

Hoss and Adam returned to the house, happy in the knowledge that all they had to do was sit back and wait for the Christmas fair to arrive. Only two days to go…

Once Joe knew he was back in trouble again, he had tried his hardest to make it up to his brothers. So much so that after a day of his most diligent pandering to their every whim, they had almost relented…almost. Poor Joe couldn’t do enough for them, pulling out cushions when they needed to sit down, pouring them drinks before they asked, offering to rub down their horses when they finished a day’s work. His eagerness to please was a little too obvious, though; that grin just a little bit forced and nervy. Anything to put off what Joe realized was probably inevitable anyway. Surely they wouldn’t be too mean, though, it was nearly Christmas after all — season of goodwill to all men, including little brothers, he sincerely hoped. They, in turn, thoroughly enjoyed the sight of Little Joe squirming, knowing full well that nothing he could do would mess up their plans, they were too good, but they were quite happy to give him hope, keep him dangling so to speak.

The day of the Christmas Fair soon came and the Cartwrights prepared to go.

Ben watched affectionately as his three sons swapped friendly banter, all looking forward to the day’s fun and all thoughts of revenge completely forgotten…by one of them anyhow.

Ben didn’t miss the conspiratorial looks behind Joe’s back whenever he turned around, or the almost over-friendly greeting his brothers gave him. Now it wasn’t like Joe to miss these signs, either, usually ever on the alert, but the truth was, Joe loved Christmas and was just so glad to be back in his brothers’ good books, he’d let his guard down. Whatever it was they had fixed up, Ben hoped it wasn’t too awful. He had learned a long time ago it was often better to turn a blind eye to the boys’ little squabbles, and if it was going to happen, it was probably better for Joe to get it over and done with, before the festivities began in earnest. But seeing the two older ones so obviously in cahoots made him feel more than a little protective towards his youngest.

Ben caught Hoss by the arm and addressed both of them quietly as they set off. “He’s tried really hard to make it up to you boys. Cut him a little slack why don’t you?” he pleaded.

“Course we will, Pa,” said Adam, just as Joe shouted from behind his horse and prepared to mount up.

“C’mon you, big galoots…” Joe was relaxed and happy, looking forward to the fair and was reverting a little bit to normal … “all those lovely ladies waiting for me at the fair….wouldn’t do to keep ‘em waiting…” He vaulted gracefully onto Cochise.

“Course we will Pa,” echoed Hoss, not before adding to himself… “if you only knew, little brother.”

And he and the other big galoot chuckled.

Ben shook his head, now fully resigned to the inevitable and joined them in making ready to leave.

“Let’s ride” they shouted in unison as they headed off, all enthusiastically but some of them for different reasons.

*****

The plan was that the Annual Christmas Fair should, this year, raise lots of money for the Local Orphaned Widows’ and Stray Puppy Dogs Roof appeal, a very good cause and one that everybody wanted to contribute to. Now Hoss had heard that, in another town, they had raised a whole lot of money by providing a kissing booth. It didn’t seem right to Hoss to put a lady in one of those, but he had no such qualms about volunteering his younger brother. He considered it only right and proper that the Cartwrights should help this cause, so Hoss had generously offered the services of Joseph Francis Cartwright to man the kissing booth. Perfect…and Adam had agreed…wholeheartedly. And at 25 cents a go, they’d hopefully raise lots of money for that poor Old Orphaned Widows’ and Stray Puppy Dogs Roof Appeal. Naturally, they hadn’t told Joe about this, so it was more than a bit of a shock for him when he entered the fair only to be immediately grabbed by the buxom Mrs. Walsh and dragged across to his booth for the day.

“Hey! What’s goin’ on? Hoss…Adam…Pa… help!!” Joe’s voice got higher with each name.

 ‘Help!’ came out as little more than a screech. Mrs. Walsh took no notice…she already had her place booked at the front of the queue!

Hoss and Adam just looked the other way, pretending they were preoccupied as she dragged him off; they had a hard time stifling their laughter ‘till he was out of sight.

Ben just sighed and waved a goodbye to the even more animated than usual Little Joe, thinking…”Well, I suppose it could have been worse”

The Kissing Booth was a brand new initiative for the fair and it was a big talking point and proved a major draw. Everybody patted Hoss on the back and thanked him for such a great idea — everyone except Little Joe, in fact.

Lots of girls went to bed dreaming of kissing Little Joe Cartwright, so in no time at all there was a long queue of expectant lovelies — and not so lovelies – outside. Adam and Hoss scoured the fair to ensure that all the slightly less attractive residents of Virginia City’s female population knew exactly where the booth was situated, and if they didn’t, they helpfully pointed the way; after all, it was for charity.

Some just wanted little pecks on the cheek; some ventured much further, demanding their money’s worth. Bessie Sue nearly killed the poor unfortunate Joe as one kiss was not enough and she hugged him ferociously to her ample breast, nearly squeezing the breath right out of him.

Now Joe was not one to judge a girl on her appearance alone, but that didn’t mean he wanted to kiss them all. Poor Joe — they fairly poured into the tent. And Hoss and Adam cheerfully kept a handful of spare change in case any of the more comely wenches fancied a second bite at the cherry. Which, of course, they did…some going back for seconds and thirds.

Any time they felt a little guilty, Hoss just reminded them, “Let’s not forget it is for those poor unfortunate orphaned widows…”

“And stray puppy dogs!” Adam added helpfully.

How poor Joe wanted to escape; he almost ran when Mary Ann and Miss Julie came in…together. Joe sandwich mark two, but with no easy escape under a hitching post this time. The girls eagerly balanced one on each knee, pouting at their captive who smiled nervously, swallowed hard and went for broke. Had anyone in the history of fund-raising suffered so much? But Joe gamely hung on in there as long as he possibly could.

Brave and heroic as he was, though, he finally drew the line when Adam and Hoss had persuaded Sheriff Coffee to wander in all puckered up, with a pretty pink bonnet, a ribbon round his neck and lips the color of red wine. Enough was enough! Even for stray widows and orphaned puppy dogs! Little Joe definitely drew the line at kissing gals with facial hair. Joe bolted…out through the back of the tent, making an exit hole that shouldn’t even be there. He could be heard swearing off kissing for ever (and EVER!) as his brothers doubled over, crying with laughter at their hapless sibling. Even Ben could see the funny side. They guffawed loudly. “He ain’t gonna wanna kiss any pretty gals for a month of Sundays, is he?” they agreed.

Did they even know their little brother?

Joe had taken his punishment like a man and was laughing along with them all later that night, when he’d described his absolute and total terror when that last lady had entered the tent. “I never in my life saw anyone that ugly!” he exclaimed a trifle ungallantly, and his brothers’ wondered whether to report this observation to their friendly neighborhood Sheriff. Joe’s poor lips were still numb, so he talked a little funny, which only added to the merriment. They all retired happily to bed, pleased to be back to normal and ready to really start and prepare for Christmas and the upcoming Governor’s Ball, to be held on Christmas Eve.

Now you would have thought a day in a kissing booth would have been enough punishment for any man, but evidently not for Joe Cartwright, ‘glutton for punishment’ being his new middle name. In no time at all — you guessed it — he was in trouble again. Yes sir, the very next night had him riding slowly home, his thoughts mellow and pleasantly filled with the sweet perfume and even sweeter caresses of the fair Rowena. He’d met her in the kissing booth and arranged a date for the following evening…this time promising her some free samples.

His lips were now fully recovered and the pair made good use of them, enjoying a wonderful evening. Joe wasn’t quite ready to let the memories fade so he’d ridden home as slowly as he could. Approaching a particularly pretty spot by the lake, he’d pulled up and slowly dismounted, only planning to stay a short while. He led Cochise over to the water where he found a nearby comfy tree trunk to lean against. He watched, smiling, as Cochise drank his fill. Before long, Joe leaned back against the tree, tipped his hat over his eyes and was soon kept warm with dreams of the fair Rowena.

In the morning, his brothers, now abject with worry, found him still asleep and propped against the tree, his arms wrapped around himself as if holding someone. Cochise was tied next to him, nibbling at his master’s collar, the horse’s steamy hot breath vivid in the morning air as it gently warmed his master’s neck. Joe giggled in his sleep as warm wet lips brushed his skin, tickling him deliciously… “Oooh, do that some more, darlin’…”

The two brothers wordlessly took in the scene, they were also steaming. When they approached him, Joe seemed to be grunting softly, reliving some particularly happy moment. Suddenly, the sleepy Romeo was shaken violently from his reverie.

“This time Joe Cartwright!!!” they yelled as one.

The shock of finding himself by the lake and also discovering that the hot breath on the back of his neck was from his horse and not the fair Rowena was a little shocking, to say the least, without his brothers yelling at him to boot! The poor boy jumped up so fast he banged his head on a low hanging branch.

And that had been enough for them…he was confined to the ranch ‘til after Christmas. Even worse, Pa had seen fit to extend the punishment to them all for a few days, due to the bickering, but he had relented after much pleading as it wasn’t Hoss and Adam’s fault at all. Never had been. He knew he had to be impartial. But for Joe, there was no such reprieve.

*****

So, there you have it, the reasons why poor Joe found himself alone on Christmas Eve, abandoned and forlorn, no glad rags to wear, just his worn out work clothes and, worse still, given the miserable task of cleaning out the dirty ol’ hearth. And on the night of the Governor’s Ball, the biggest event Virginia City had seen for years… and Joe couldn’t go!

Who was he kidding, anyhow; he had nothing to wear for the ball anyway and his mean old half-brothers had used up all his bay rum so he didn’t smell too good either. Eau de soot just about described it.

The aforementioned wicked ol’ half-brothers had had their confidence shaken in events of the heart recently. Although no slouches usually in the dating department, things had not been going too well for them, and for that they laid the blame squarely on the slim shoulders of their younger brother. Tonight they could relax and enjoy themselves at The Governor’s Ball, safe in the knowledge that, this time, he wouldn’t be there to mess it up for them.

Adam and Hoss had spent longer than usual primping themselves and Hop Sing had helped them, even offering them a chest wax to boost their flagging egos. Actually he was really punishing them for gloating over his poor boy’s misfortune. He thought it was unfair Joe wasn’t going tonight, even though he had been invited. Little Joe, after all, hadn’t planned for that girl to come up to the ranch, or to fall asleep under the tree; it was just unhappy happenstance.

Hop Sing melted some candles and smoothed some over the top part of Hoss’ chest, then he applied some paper and yanked hard! Hearing Hoss’ scream and then seeing him run from the room clutching his chest, Adam had naturally declined.

Hop Sing busily helped everyone prepare, but really his heart went out to the sad figure hunched down in the hearth scrubbing for all he was worth and hoping against hope for a last minute change of heart.

Many a time Joe had perched on the table in front of that hearth, enjoying its warmth; right now, he thought forlornly, there were definitely some disadvantages to having the biggest fireplace in Nevada. As his brothers got ready to go and his father went ahead to check their buggy, Joe emerged covered in muck and soot and pleaded with them one more time…

“Please, can I come?…I’ll even come like this…it ain’t like I wanna meet a girl or anything…I just don’t wanna be left behind…please? Adam? Hoss?” He thought his Pa might relent but only if his brothers agreed; he wasn’t exactly hopeful though.

The eldest Cartwright sons looked at each other and then back to their brother. What a sight he was…hair all disheveled, sleeves rolled up, buttons undone just so… a youthful, perfectly tanned, muscular and hairless chest just visible through rips in his shirt, sooty marks on his face just enough to accentuate his most charming features, almost but not quite teary eyed, appealing like a puppy dog and all topped off by that Joe grin if they said ‘yes’, sure to charm the hardest heart…

“Awww c’mon, please let me come…”

 He didn’t have a prayer.

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, knowing exactly what effect he’d have on all those soft-hearted ladies…they were resolved and merely said as they pointed to the great fireplace…”You missed a bit…see ya later little bro’…” and they slammed the door behind them.

*****

Joe knew when he was beaten and he shrugged his lovely sad shoulders and climbed unhappily back into the fireplace, scrubbing brush in one hand, bucket in the other. He worked long and hard until it was finally done. The fireplace looked like new, the copper kettle swinging and sparkling so you could see your face in it. Joe pulled it off its hook and breathed on the side of the kettle and gave it one last rub with his cloth, silently wishing he could be at the ball too. He also wished that his brothers would forgive him, and lastly, he wished he could spend the rest of the evening dancing and holding the most beautiful girl in the world, or even in Nevada would do.

He sighed deeply, knowing there was little chance of any of that, and he bent down to replace the kettle on its hook.

As he stood and made to climb out of the fireplace, he forgot himself and stood up too early and banged his head hard on one of the massive cast iron ball finials that decorated the hearth. He sat down with a bump as his head swam alarmingly. He had to crouch there for a few moments while he attempted to gather his wits.

Joe rubbed his head, feeling even more sorry for himself, as he painfully located the impending bump. He sighed deeply, “Doggone it!! This is turning out to be the worst Christmas Eve I ever had!!!” His head wouldn’t quit spinning, or was it the room now?

Hop Sing watched from the kitchen, feeling just as sorry for the youngest Cartwright as he clearly felt for himself, sitting there in a sad mucky heap, clutching his tender and sooty head, in the now lovely clean fireplace…almost but not quite tearful.

Hop Sing smiled to himself as he disappeared into his room. “I make Christmas happy again for Little Joe Cartwright.”

Joe had to stay where he was for quite a little while longer before he finally stopped seeing stars. As they gradually cleared, he had another go at standing up, a little gingerly this time.

He had to rub his eyes at what he saw before him.

There, laid out on his father’s favorite red chair…was a beautiful dark blue suit, made of the purest silk… a crisp white shirt lay beside it….An exquisite fragrance wafted downstairs, and when Joe went to investigate he found a hot bath just inviting him to climb in. As if in a dream, he discarded his filthy clothes and stepped into the water.

A little while later, he was a sight to behold — quite the handsomest man in town, now resplendent in the beautifully tailored suit. In fact, it was Hop Sing’s No. 3 cousin’s beautifully tailored suit but it fit Joe like a dream. The only catch was that it had to be back to the laundry by just after midnight, to be returned in time for its owner to wear on Christmas Day. Hop Sing helped Joe with his cravat and added an emerald tiepin that perfectly matched Joe’s now very twinkly green eyes. It was a masked ball, luckily for Joe, so the final flourish was a dark blue, silk eye mask that would keep his identity a secret and therefore hopefully also keep him out of trouble for being where he shouldn’t be.

Hop Sing jumped into the buggy that was now done up with lanterns swinging gaily from the poles and they set off laughing happily.

Ben, Adam and Hoss had been having a great time at the ball and Ben was just introducing his two oldest sons to The Governor and his beautiful daughter when the crowds in the ballroom suddenly parted and everyone stared as a handsome young man in a blue suit entered the room. The Governor’s daughter watched as he walked purposefully towards her. Something about the young man drew her gaze, and from that moment on, she had eyes for no other.

“May I have this dance?” he asked politely, his voice making her melt.

Ben shrugged and moved aside, looking disapprovingly at the unruly curls touching the collar of the exquisitely cut jacket the young man wore, “Harrumph,” he thought, “looks a bit like a cheap river boat gambler to me…”

“Mmmmmmm…just like a Mississippi river boat gambler,” sighed the Governor’s daughter’s maid dreamily, as she eyed the cute way his curls touched the collar of his dark blue, extremely well fitted suit. ‘Sure does accentuate him in all the right places…’ she thought wistfully.

Meanwhile, Ben’s thoughts had strayed to his own ‘river boat gambler’ back home and he felt a pang of regret that he was not with them right then. He remembered how they’d left him, sad and grubby in the hearth. He resolved to try and leave early and speak to him the moment he got back. Joe’s misdemeanors had to be punished, for his own sake, but Ben knew that his son had truly meant no harm. He never enjoyed punishing any of his sons; it’s just that most often it seemed to be his youngest that needed it.

He sighed as he walked over to the punchbowl, unwilling to watch the handsome boy that reminded him that his own handsome youngest son was not where he should be — with them.

The young stranger and the Governor’s daughter had eyes only for each other. They talked, they laughed, they danced and twirled and they giggled. He discovered she loved horses as much as he did, she loved the outdoors, they were amused at the same things and got serious about the same things too; she was truly the girl of his dreams. Anyone watching –and most people were — would have thought they’d known each other all their young lives. The couple managed to steal away for a short while, to be alone, away from inquisitive eyes. All too soon, though, the clock struck 12 and the young man suddenly panicked; he’d all but forgotten…he had to get the suit back to the laundry for Hop Sing’s No 3 cousin. He made a rushed apology and kissed the beautiful Governor’s daughter on her hand…then once more on the lips, then rushed out.

“But what’s your name? I don’t even know your name…” she cried vainly after him as he disappeared from her life. As she stood watching, dejectedly, she saw something glinting on the floor. Bending down to retrieve it she found it was the tie pin with the emerald stone in it. Just like his eyes, she murmured softly.

Joe made it to the laundry and back again to The Ponderosa before his brothers and his father, and he slowly made his way up to bed, after first looking in on a soundly sleeping Hop Sing.

An hour or so later, his family returned. Joe was sleeping so Ben decided not to disturb him, but he’d make sure he was the one that woke him in the morning; then they’d have that little talk he’d promised himself.
Adam and Hoss had had a great time, their confidence now firmly restored and they were reminiscing about the lovely ladies they had met at the dance. They were now actually starting to feel more than a little sorry that they had left their brother behind.

“That stranger in his fancy blue suit would have been no match for our little brother if he’d been there.” said Hoss fondly. Adam agreed.

“Still, when he sees the Christmas presents we got for him, he’ll soon forget all about missing tonight,” Adam mused, hoping it would be true. They were enjoying a night-cap and admiring the fine job Joe had made of the hearth when an urgent rapping at the door disturbed them.

They couldn’t have been more surprised when they opened it to discover not only the Governor, but his daughter, her maid, and Sheriff Coffee standing there. They all looked anxious as Ben invited them in.

Apparently, as soon as the ball had ended, the Governor and his daughter had spent their time going from house to house and ranch to ranch to try and find the mystery stranger. It had only been hours but it felt like weeks to the poor Governor. His daughter was distraught and begged him to help her find the masked stranger whose eyes matched the emerald of the tie-pin. They searched everywhere, describing him as they went, over and over. The Governor’s daughter had poured her heart out… “He was the handsomest boy….he had the greenest eyes…. the most beautiful laugh …the most gorgeous butt…uh…buttons …mother of pearl buttons…….”

Her maid had listened intently. She had been just as struck with the young man as her mistress but couldn’t say she’d noticed his buttons. ‘He sure had a great ass, though,’ she reminisced admiringly to herself. That had been her first view of him as he’d entered the ballroom and she’d half not wanted him to turn around, fearing that the front view couldn’t hope to match up to his most perfect back one. But he did turn round and her answer had been yes, yes, yes! even with the mask on. Now she was as anxious as her mistress to see the full effect of this mystery man.

The party retold their story of how in every place they went they were told the same thing…

“Well it sounds a mite like Little Joe Cartwright, but it cain’t be. He wasn’t at the ball tonight; he was at home scrubbing the hearth because his Pa and his brothers left him behind while they had a high old time dancing and merry making at the ball.”

“All right… all right! That’s enough” muttered Ben just a little gruffly.

Sheriff Coffee explained the situation more patiently to Ben. “I told ‘em it cain’t be Little Joe, Ben, on account of you all leavin’ him at home like ya did and high tailin’ it off to the Ball n’all…and anyway, his eyes are hazel. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer and the only way I was gonna get any peace this night was if I brung ‘em on over here,” he finished apologetically.

Ben was still slightly irritated, but wanted to clear his house of unwanted guests as quickly as he could, so he reluctantly agreed to wake his youngest son …anything for a good night’s sleep.

It took some doing but eventually Joe came very sleepily down the stairs. He’d slung on some pants and his shirt was undone and he’d eventually emerged, wondering what all the fuss was about. He was scratching his head and unconsciously tousling his hair.

‘Urgh!’ thought Adam and Hoss!

‘Yes, yes, yes!’ thought the maid…not for the first time.

The beautiful Governor’s daughter knew him in an instant. She held the emerald tiepin up against the light, it was a perfect match for his eyes but then she’d known that it would be, the second he’d appeared on the stairs.

Joe, for his part, couldn’t believe she was really right there in front of him; he’d been dreaming about her only moments before. He willingly extended the dream and they embraced and shared a soft lingering kiss, totally oblivious that anyone else was there. She was captivating and he…. well, he was Joe …more than willing to be captivated….again…and again.

“Iffen that don’t beat all” said Hoss in shock.

The Governor naturally begged Little Joe to marry his daughter, and in return for her happiness, Joe would receive half his worldly goods, which was a small fortune. Little Joe hesitated, though, for a moment; after all he had only known her a couple of hours. Then he looked her deep in the eyes and said, “You mean more to me than anything in my life….”

“Gee thanks,” harrumphed Adam, Hoss and Ben in unison.

Joe heard them and looked guiltily across before adding quickly…

“Except of course for Pa, Hoss, Adam, Hop Sing, Cochise…”

The Governor’s daughter sighed, just happy to be in there somewhere, but then Joe continued….

“… then there’s Sheriff Roy Coffee, my personal physician Paul, and, of course, The Ponderosa,” and then he went on some more…

 “…Charlie the ranch hand, Mitch, that new black stallion I’m hoping to work on soon …Hemp and Johnny, my half brother Clay who I hope to meet one day…”

Some time later, he slowed down and finally he stopped, still looking into her eyes and realizing however mad he got at his brothers, really he was right exactly where he wanted to be. The promise of riches held very little appeal to Little Joe Cartwright compared to what he had. He was, though, very fond of the girl still in his arms and he didn’t want to hurt her… so he said,

“Do you think we’re rushing things just a little?…”

Ben, Adam and Hoss breathed a sigh of relief as the boy came to his senses and his father hoped he would always be this sensible with women. They all realized that however mad Hoss and Adam and sometimes Ben got with him, Joe was right exactly where they wanted him to be too — with them on The Ponderosa.

Seeing their worried faces and the very wistful look on Joe’s had led the Governor’s daughter to come to this conclusion too; she had sadly decided what she had to do.

“Joe, I never met anyone like you before and I know I never will again…but I love you enough to wait; just wish for me Joe….and I’ll come back.” She held his face and kissed him softly on the lips…

She took one last look that would stay in Joe’s heart until they met again, and then she was gone.

Sheriff Coffee gave Joe a wink as he followed the party out. Joe wasn’t sure why, but this gave him a very uncomfortable feeling and a sudden flashback to the kissing booth.

Once they at last had the house back to themselves, The Cartwrights shared a large bottle of port, followed by Hop Sing’s very special Hot Cocoa and then they finally went to bed.

*****

When they awoke — a little later than usual — it was Christmas morning. All the Cartwrights had slept very heavily and had had the strangest dreams. They all came downstairs with slightly fuzzy heads and very shaky memories of the events from the night before, each privately blaming it on Hop Sing’s special bedtime cocoa, or was it the Port? Whatever it was had sure produced some crazy dreams.

Poor Joe also had a small bump where he’d smacked his head on the fireplace. That part he was sure about at least…but the rest? A little bit of Christmas magic? He was the last to descend the stairs and he looked across at Hop Sing quizzically as he came down, but he just received a little nod in reply. There was no sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened at all. Individually, they all decided to lay off the drink a little today and they’d perhaps better keep their dreams to themselves; they didn’t want to look stupid, after all.

Ben, Adam, Hoss and Joe all sat around the breakfast table, suddenly very hungry indeed due to the delicious smell of bacon wafting across from the kitchen.

Joe, still a little thoughtful, glanced across to the fireplace, which now had a roaring fire going. He watched the flames flicker and the tiny little sparks flame and die as they landed on the hearth. ‘Just what had happened last night? It felt so real…’

The voices round the table soon brought him back to now, though. Whatever dreams and events had or hadn’t happened were soon forgotten and they all ate a hearty breakfast and felt much better indeed.

Ben had attempted to talk to Joe like he’d planned, but his son had merely said, “It’s ok, Pa…” when he’d started to speak. Joe had by now quite decided that last night had all been just the result of a bump on the head and an overactive imagination, especially as no one else had mentioned anything at all out of the ordinary. Ben meanwhile blamed it all on too much Christmas spirit and Hop Sing’s cocoa. Everybody was happy and that was all that mattered to both of them.

Joe and Ben had stayed by the tree, sharing a further quiet moment together, silently admiring the decorations that now adorned it. Ben simply and lovingly placed his arm around his son’s shoulders; no words needed — both knowing instinctively what the other was thinking. They were remembering Ben’s last love and Joe’s first and the few wonderful Christmas’s they’d shared here. Ben only needed to look at his son to be reminded of Marie; her laughter always lit up the room, just like Joe’s did now. Christmas always made it more poignant; he hugged his son tighter and Adam and Hoss came across to join them and they all quietly remembered Elizabeth, Inger and Marie Cartwright, all of them … ‘feeling the wings of bright angels near…’

Suddenly there was a crash in the kitchen and Joe and Hoss ran in to see what had happened. It was just a pan that Hop Sing had dropped but they decided to hang around in there and help out, and maybe get a little sample of the food he was so busily preparing. Before long, they were hindering rather than helping, though, and getting into all sorts of good-natured mischief.

Over by the fireplace, Adam had reached for his guitar and was busily tuning it ready for later when their guests would arrive.

Happy noises continued to burst from the kitchen, which was now full of activity. Hoss’ wonderful guffaw was punctuated by Joe’s totally infectious giggle, with the occasional Chinese expletive from Hop Sing thrown in. Hoss and Joe were dispatched from there pretty quickly with glasses and a jug of Apple Jack, but it was really to get them out from under poor Hop Sing’s feet! Although truly he enjoyed the two most mischievous Cartwrights larking around…but in small doses!

Hoss and Joe poured everyone an Apple Jack, while they all prepared to sit around the tree and pass out the presents stacked around it. Adam treated them to a beautiful rendition of ‘The New Born King.’

Ben watched as his younger sons listened, rapt. Contentment was written large across Ben Cartwright’s face and it came from deep within his soul. He felt like the luckiest man alive to be surrounded as he was by so much love. It was not always apparent to those that didn’t know them well, but to the ones that mattered, it was obvious — their mutual love and respect the bedrock that held them all together.

When Adam finished, they all clapped, Hoss wiped a tear away and Joe said very genuinely, “That was beautiful Adam.”

Adam smiled at him and replied, bowing gracefully. “Why thank you, younger brother” He was touched by the heartfelt compliment. He passed Joe the star, which tradition said the youngest member of the family should place on the tree. Adam and Hoss helped Joe balance as he hopped up and then perched precariously on the edge of a chair to put it in place. No thoughts now of tipping him off. Ben and Hop Sing watched them all indulgently, like two proud fathers.

After that, they all sat around the tree, eager to open their presents and to see the faces of the recipients of their own gifts.

Even though Joe had been effectively grounded for the run up to Christmas, he had been allowed out for the very necessary trip of present buying. As he had been riding into Virginia City, he had happened across a peddler traveling from town to town selling his wares; in this case, gifts he’d purchased from other travelers, some of which made perfect Christmas presents. Joe had already got Miss Keaton of the sewing circle to make a beautiful embroidered pouch with a silk cord for Hop Sing. He’d asked her to pattern it with the American flag and the Chinese one and lotus leaves and pine trees, dragons and horses and all manner of American and Chinese motifs. It was beautiful, designed by Joe and sewn by Miss Keaton to fit Hop Sing’s treasured Mah Jong case.

For Hoss, Joe had chosen a game of boules…with his name now carefully and precisely carved into the top of the box. Joe thought Hoss would love this game. It was French, too, which always held extra appeal for Little Joe.

For Adam he had found a beautiful leather bound edition of Shakespearean sonnets, and for Ben, a First Edition of Dickens’s London. Joe had often been bemused when his father had chuckled at passages from Dickens. Joe had found very little to laugh about in the little snatches he’d read and marveled that his Pa found anything in them that amused him. This book had actual illustrations of the places in the stories; he knew his father would love it.

Unbeknown to Joe, Miss Keaton had been kept busily employed by two other Cartwrights as well. Adam and Hoss, even while they had plotted their revenge on Joe, had had her busily embroidering a vest in dark green silk for him, something to impress the ladies with. He also received a beautiful patterned Indian horse blanket from his Pa for his beloved Cochise. Ben had traded with Chief Winnemucca but kept back the information that the Chief’s daughter Princess Sarah had made it…just in case Joe had any ideas to go and thank her personally. From Hop Sing, Joe received a little book of the history and rules of Mah Jong and he looked forward to many happy evenings perfecting his game against his worthy opponent. What made it extra special to Joe were the little notes carefully written by Hop Sing’s own hand in the margins.

They had lots more presents to open, and before long, were surrounded with paper, empty boxes and gifts; it had taken them half the morning to open each present with care but eventually they were left with just one.

At first no one was sure who it was for, but then Hop Sing said enigmatically, “I think this one is for Little Joe.” Joe swore he winked. Joe eagerly took the box from Hop Sing, and as he opened it up, he gazed in surprise at the present inside.

Carefully, he lifted it out to reveal to his family his mysterious gift.

It was a snowstorm in a glass globe. Captured in the glass were two exquisitely painted figures of a beautiful princess dancing in the arms of her handsome prince. Joe shook the globe delighting at the beauty of the object in his hands and the figures were soon surrounded with swirling snow.

“Wind it up, Joe,” encouraged Hoss as he spotted a key underneath.

Joe found the key and wound it three times; the music started and a waltz played. The couple spun round slowly inside to the pretty tune. Joe shook the globe again, still entranced by the scene and once more snow swirled around the dancing couple. Gradually the music slowed, the last few notes played… staccato…until, note by note it reached a stop. Everyone watched still enchanted by the beautiful ornament.

The family exchanged bemused glances, wondering who had left the gift. An old friend perhaps? A girlfriend too shy to leave a name?

As his family began to clear away the discarded boxes and paper and top up the Apple Jack, Joe wandered across and sat down cross-legged on the round table in front of the fire. Hop Sing watched him, amused, from across the room as he prepared the large dining table. Did the boy know how to just sit on a chair? He was fully expecting to hear Ben come back and scold his son for using the furniture this way, but his father was still busy with Adam and Hoss looking for Apple Jack in the kitchen.

Joe, meanwhile, wound the globe once more and then gently placed it down in front of him and he leaned forward and peered more closely at the prince and his beautiful lady. His warm breath misted the glass a little and he carefully wiped it clear with his sleeve to reveal the scene once more.

The curve of the glass magnified the effect of the delicately crafted figures within. The painting was exquisite — the girl’s features beautifully detailed, her hair almost real. Joe smiled quizzically across at Hop Sing before turning back once more to marvel at his gift. As he studied the couple inside, he could almost catch the scent of her perfume. And the prince….well he was handsome and dashing in his blue suit, whirling the girl effortlessly around. His hair just curling onto his collar…a broad smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes — his beautiful, expressive and very green eyes.

The snowstorm started to settle, a few stray snowflakes landing on the shoulders of the figures inside. Joe swore he could almost feel one land on the back of his neck and trickle down inside his collar. He felt a sweet shudder at a half-remembered stray kiss…

“Just wish for me Joe and I’ll come back.” It was as if she was right there beside him.

“JOSEPH!!” A loud good-humored roar suddenly came from the kitchen, followed by a slightly less loud but equally good-humored…

“I do NOT look like that, little buddy!!”

All finished off with a booming, “I suppose you think that’s funny Shortshanks!!”

Little Joe, who had nearly fallen off the table in surprise, looked blankly at Hop Sing for a minute, wondering what on earth he’d done this time, then a light dawned…

“They found the figures I made!!”

Making a hasty retreat, Hop Sing nodded in agreement and laughed. “Little Joe in trouble again!”

***The End***

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