Summary: Little Joe Cartwright, on his own in Virginia City for only 45 minutes. What could possibly go wrong?
Word Count: 4200
As soon Adam Cartwright pulled the buckboard up in front of Will Cass’s mercantile on C Street in Virginia City, his fifteen-year-old brother Joseph hopped down to tie off the reins at the hitching rail. Adam was right behind him, snaring an elbow and pulling the boy to one side. He handed Joe a list. “Give this to Mr. Cass,” he instructed, “and then you’re free to do whatever it is you’d begged to come to town for.” He eyed Joe with suspicion and added, “As long as you don’t step one foot inside any saloon, understood?”
Little Joe Cartwright held his left palm to his chest and blinked back in apparent shock. “Me, go in a saloon? You know Pa don’t allow that.”
“And you’re always scrupulous in your obedience, aren’t you?” Adam queried with a knowing quirk of his mouth. He took out his pocket watch. “It is now 11:00.” He jabbed Joe’s breastbone with a solid index finger. “Whatever you’re up to, be back here at the wagon in forty-five minutes—and I do not mean forty-six.”
“Or forty-four,” Joe snipped back with a mocking shake of his shoulders.
Adam smiled sardonically as he snapped his watch closed. “As a matter of fact, forty-four would be entirely acceptable, even bordering on virtuous. For safety’s sake, I suggest you aim for that. Plenty of clocks around town to help you toward that goal.”
“Forty-five,” Joe declared with a crisp nod and an expression that said he intended to push that limit to the last second.
“Be on time,” Adam ordered, adding with a forbearing drawl, “and try to stay out of trouble.” He turned and headed toward the Washoe Club, where an important meeting with mining executives waited.
Little Joe planted his fists on his hips. “Try to stay out of trouble,” he mimicked. Then, with a grin he sauntered up the wooden steps to Cass’ store. “Don’t I always? Don’t see why everybody’s got to act like I’m some magnet for trouble or somethin’. I dotry.”
“What are you muttering about, Little Joe?” asked a laughing voice.
Joe looked up at the balding man with a fringe of gray hair around and feathered over his shiny crown. “Oh, nothin’, Mr. Cass.” He handed the list Adam had given him to the shopkeeper. “Here’s a list of supplies we need. Just get it together, and me and Adam’ll load it when he gets done jawin’ with them fancy mine folks.”
“I’ll do that, Little Joe.” Will Cass couldn’t resist giving the boy’s rampant curls a tousle.
Sidling away, Joe scrunched his mouth in distaste. Why was it older folks just had to do that? He wandered toward a display of silk neckerchiefs and held up a gaudy yellow one. “How much?”
Cass, getting canned peaches from the shelf behind the counter, looked over his shoulder. “Six bits.”
Joe dropped the pricey neckerchief like a hot horseshoe and ambled over to the row of apothecary jars beside the cash register.
“You want something, son?” Cass asked. “Or are you running too short even for candy?”
Joe giggled. “I’m short, but not that short. Don’t want to buy none myself.” He pulled a short bit from his pocket. “Hoss gave me this, though, so you might as well make up his bag now as later.”
Cass chuckled. “Not that I got anything else to do.” He was fond of the Cartwright boys, especially the youngest, so he stopped gathering the supplies on the list to give full attention to preparing ten-cents worth of candy.
“Don’t load it up with those horehounds this time,” Joe advised. “Lots of gumdrops and lemon drops, maybe some peanut brittle. No licorice.”
“Am I making this up for you or for Hoss?” Cass asked pointedly. “I think I know your big brother’s favorites by now.” He grinned as he put an extra large handful of the gumdrops in.
Joe grinned back, for those were his favorites, not Hoss’. He dipped his hand into the small bag and drew out five in assorted colors. “Hoss won’t mind,” he assured the shopkeeper.
“I reckon not,” Cass said. He waved goodbye to Joe as the boy popped a soft green candy into his mouth and moved toward the door. Then he added some lemon drops and, ignoring Joe’s advice, some horehound ones to Hoss’ bag and turned his attention back to the list.
Joe stood outside the store for a minute, trying to decide which way to go. Despite Adam’s assumption that he had some special aim in begging to come to town today, he didn’t. He just wanted to get out among people and see something besides cows and horses for a change. A busy place like Virginia City could usually be counted on for some interesting sights.
Opening his mouth wide and catching another candy in mid air, he turned right, still aimless, still just looking to see whatever there was to see. He paused in front of the dressmaker’s shop and tried to picture how that bone corset would look on Maribelle Jenkins, the curviest creature ever to grace the territory of Nevada. When a departing customer stared holes in him, though, he decided to move down C Street to something a little less likely to raise eyebrows, especially Pa’s if he heard.
Gunther’s Saddle Shop seemed to fit the bill. A fellow couldn’t get into trouble looking at saddles, could he? He sauntered in confidently and walked around the shop, closely examining the goods on display and gulping at the price tags. “You in the market for a new saddle boy?” Jim Gunther asked gruffly.
“Me?” Joe giggled at the thought that he would ever have enough money to buy a saddle. “Well, no, not exactly. Just lookin’ for now, but I got a birthday comin’ up.” It was four months from now, a fact Joe considered unworthy of mention. “Might be I’d mention your place to my pa, if’n he was to want to buy me somethin’ special. You probably know my pa—Ben Cartwright?”
“I know your pa,” Gunther said dryly, “and I know he generally gives his business to Hiram Falor, even though my work’s better—my opinion.”
Joe gave the nearest saddle an affectionate pat. “Looks right fine to me.”
“You bein’ an expert on saddles.” A deprecating sneer soured the saddler’s expression.
“Well, sort of. Use one every day.” Joe flashed a smile that wasn’t returned.
“Uh-huh. Look, son, you’re welcome to look around, more than welcome to hint to your pa that you want a birthday saddle crafted by me,” Gunther said, moving back to his workbench, “but I’m kinda busy, so don’t be pestering me no more, okay?”
A pout curled Joe’s lip. “Didn’t know I was.” He made a show of looking around a little longer, but decided, after all, that Pa might know best when it came to saddlers. Sight unseen, Hiram Falor was beginning to look a whole lot more attractive than the taciturn Gunther.
Joe finished his gumdrops while he headed down C Street. As he passed an alley, he heard a sweet voice singing and turned toward it with a smile. “Hey there, Maggie May,” he called, walking toward a blond-haired five-year-old kneeling in the dirt next to a low stoop. “That’s a right pretty tune you’re singing.”
“Hey, Little Joe,” Maggie chirped.
Joe cast a hopeful look at the nearby doorway. “Your big sister Maribelle wouldn’t be helping your ma in the shop today, would she?”
Maggie shook her head. “Naw, she’s out gallivantin’ some place.” She looked up with a bright smile. “Guess what I’m making.”
Joe watched her slapping a patty of mud from one hand to the other. “Offhand, I’d guess mud pies,” he said with a grin. “What kind?”
Maggie’s clear blue eyes were full of genuine liking. “What’s your favorite?”
“Mine?” Joe’s mouth skewed left and then right as he thought. “Apple,” he said with a decided dip of his chin. “Apple pie would be my favorite.”
Maggie jumped up. “That’s just what it is!” she cried excitedly. “Wanna taste?”
Joe took a step back. “Uh, no. Not—not before dinner, that is. Maybe after. And—uh, Maggie—I think maybe it needs more apples. Reckon you better work on it some more, huh?”
Maggie appraised the pie with what she hoped seemed like an experienced eye. “Guess so,” she said. “I’ll keep working, and after dinner it’ll be real good.” She smiled expectantly.
Joe stumbled another step back. “Uh, I gotta go, Maggie. Gotta meet Adam.”
“I’ll make ‘nough for him, too,” Maggie called.
“And Adam loves apple pie better than me,” Joe assured her as he backed toward the street. “You save him a big piece.”
Safely away, he ducked into the next business, which, sadly, turned out to be another dressmaker’s shop. He swiveled on his heel faster than a top-notch gunslinger clears leather, and trotted a few more doors down to Kairns and Company, boot makers. In fact, it was the shoe store favored by his father, and with notions of birthday gifts still in his head, Joe walked around, tracing the tooled leather tops of pair after pair of fancy boots.
“Need a new pair of boots?” a familiar voice asked with unaccustomed depth and roughness. “Bet you ain’t got the money to pay for ‘em, boy.”
Joe turned to grin at his friend Seth Pruitt, whose voice he had recognized instantly despite Seth’s attempt to disguise it. “Cinch bet,” he said, “but maybe Pa . . .”
“If wishes were horses,” Seth taunted.
“For my birthday,” Joe insisted.
Seth shook his head. “I know when that is, and your pa ain’t lookin’ yet.”
Joe shrugged. “Reckon not.”
“So why are you?”
“Just killin’ time ‘til Adam gets out of a meetin’. He’s gonna take me to dinner—someplace nice, he promised.” He cocked his head at the shabby pair of boots in his friend’s hand. “You bring those in so’s he can size a new pair?”
“New pair? From my uncle? You gotta be kidding!”
Joe nodded glumly. Seth’s uncle was tighter with a penny than Pa and Adam put together, and even that was doing injustice to Pa and Adam. “Repaired, then.”
“Yeah. Need new soles. Just droppin’ ‘em off.” He draped an arm over Joe’s shoulders. “You got time for a drink? I’m buying.”
Joe cast a furtive look out the front window. No sign of Adam, but Joe suddenly realized he had no notion of what time it was. “Gotta check on that. Get your business taken care of, and I’ll meet you outside.” He grinned. “If I ain’t there, it means I’m already late and hoofin’ it for the wagon.”
Seth laughed. “See you outside . . . I hope!”
Joe trotted out and stepped far enough into the street to see the clock at the Bank Exchange. He shook his head. How had he possibly managed to squander so much time doin’ nothin’?
“Well, you’re still here, so I guess you got time for that drink,” Seth chuckled as he came up behind Joe.
“Just one,” Joe said. “I got to be back at the wagon in”—he squinted at the clock down the street—“twenty-two minutes.”
“I wasn’t offerin’ more than one,” Seth snickered. “You tend to slide under the table after two, buddy.”
Joe scowled, for it was no joke. Sometimes his limited capacity for liquor was an embarrassment to his budding manhood, but not when he was with a good friend like Seth. Seth always made out like it was the extra year he had on Joe that made the difference, giving Joe hope that he’d soon be downing shot glasses of whiskey with manly ease.
“Better step lively,” Seth suggested. “We got to make it down to the Barbary Coast of C Street for what I can afford.”
“Oh, man,” Joe muttered. “Come on, then!” He began jogging down the sidewalk. The seedy section of C Street was several blocks away, but Joe decided he was probably better off doing his drinking down there, where a beer could be had for a single bit, instead of the two charged at places uptown. He wasn’t just thinking about the drain on Seth’s pockets, either; his big brother was far less likely to spot him in that part of town. If Adam and his fancy friends did leave the posh Washoe Club for a drink, which wasn’t likely, they wouldn’t dream of visiting a place like O’Brien and Costello’s Saloon and Shooting Gallery, where Seth turned in.
The place was loud and lively, and one of the scantily clad hostesses was doing a little jig on a table in the center of the room. Joe pulled out a chair and sat down, beer forgotten as he gaped at the lady’s cleavage and wondered how she would look in that corset he’d seen earlier. Better than Maribelle Jenkins, he was pretty sure, ‘cause this gal had more to stuff in it.
Seth plunked a beer mug down in front of him. “Drink up, buddy. You gotta hurry, remember?”
“Uh-huh.” Eyes still glued to the tabletop dancer, Joe took a tiny sip of the brew. “Flat,” he muttered.
“Well, she sure ain’t.” Seth nudged an elbow into his friend’s ribs.
“She sure ain’t.” Joe sighed longingly and took another sip of beer.
The dance ended, and then the girl started working the room. “Get you another?” she asked Seth when she sashayed over to the boys’ table and spotted the near-empty mug before him. She giggled at the miniscule amount Little Joe had drunk. “Well, now, I can see you’re not ready for another yet.” She ran her fingers through his curly locks, and Joe found he didn’t mind it one bit when she mussed his hair. It felt different—all over—from the way Will Cass did it.
He did, however, flush crimson under the continuing attention. “I—uh—I sure liked your dance, ma’am. You gonna do it again soon?”
She chucked him under the chin. “Not for a while. A girl needs to rest up and refresh herself, you know? Care to offer me a drink, sonny? Might perk me up sooner.”
Lost in the limpid pools of her eyes, Joe pushed the beer mug toward her.
“No, thanks,” she laughed and pushed it back. She turned and brought her hand down Seth’s cheek. “How about you, honey?”
“Sorry. Can’t,” Seth admitted, “but maybe another time?”
“Sure,” the girl said, setting her eyes on likelier prospects. “You come back any time you’ve got the price of a whiskey. I’ll be here.” She started to move away, but stepped back long enough to plant a wet, enticing kiss on Little Joe’s lips. “That goes for you, too, sweetie, and I’ll even throw in a special dance—just . . . for . . . you.” She tapped his nose once as she uttered each of the last three words; then she laughed at the adolescent lust in his eyes and swished her satiny skirts over to the next table.
“Wow,” Seth murmured in admiration. “I buy the drinks and you snare the girl. You sure got a way, Joe.”
“Yeah.” Dreamily, Joe ran his tongue over his lips to savor the lingering taste of that kiss.
Seth polished off the rest of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Better drink up,” he advised.
“Huh?” Joe was still staring after the saloon girl as she flirted with the men at the next table.
Seth rolled his eyes. A smirk came across his face as he turned toward the door, lifted a hand and said, “Hey, Adam!”
Joe jolted upright in his chair, swiveled around and saw nothing. He turned back to glare at his cackling friend. “You dirty…”
“Hey, I’m doin’ you a favor,” Seth insisted, raising his hands in a show of innocence. “You got a deadline to meet, don’t you? It’s bound to be crowdin’ close.”
Joe sprang to his feet. “Oh, man, you’re right.” He took one more gulp of his beer and set it down with a thud. “You comin’?”
“Naw, I ain’t got no deadline.” Seth grinned broadly as he pulled Joe’s half-full mug toward him. “Maybe, if I drink slow as you, I can nurse this ‘til that little gal’s all rested and ready to dance again.”
“Cruel, you’re plumb cruel,” Joe groused. He rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Thanks for the beer.”
“Welcome. Now run for it.” Seth broke out laughing.
With a parting wave of his hand, Joe promptly left. He had no watch, so he wasn’t sure what time it was; like Seth, though, he had a feeling the deadline Adam had set was comin’ up fast. He walked briskly, but unconcerned, ‘til he again came within sight of the clock at the Bank Exchange. Then panic erupted and he took off running. Three minutes. He had exactly three minutes to get back.
Joe dodged past drunken men stumbling from saloons into the street and then, as he drew closer to his goal, around ladies with their arms piled with packages. He made it past the boot store, where he’d met Seth, and was just chugging past an alley when he heard his name called. He darted a quick look up the street and saw the wagon parked in front of Cass’s store—no sign of Adam.
He turned to acknowledge the greeting of the little friend he’d passed a few minutes with earlier, but though his pace slowed, he kept back pedaling toward the wagon. “Hey, Maggie. Nice to see you, darlin’, but I got to meet Adam right quick.”
Holding a tin pan filled with a mud concoction, Maggie May skittered out into the street. “But I made it special for you, Joe—lots of apples. Please, just one taste?”
Joe shook his head. “Sorry, sweetie, but I just can’t.” As he started to turn, he saw Maggie still coming after him—and behind her, on a straight course for the little girl, was the incoming stage, headed for the Wells, Fargo depot. “Maggie!” he screamed and launched himself toward her. With only seconds to spare, he snatched the child up in his arms and ran for the safety of the alley. Sandwiched between them was the mud apple pie.
Tears trickled down Maggie’s cheeks. “Oh, it’s all spoiled,” she cried as she wiped her offering from Joe’s shirt.
“It sure is,” Joe groaned, and he wasn’t thinking about the pie. Her distress, though, made him forget his own. Setting her down in the dirt, he raked his left index finger up the placket of his shirt and held it about half an inch from his mouth. “Um, tasty,” he said as he pretended to lick his finger.
Maggie May giggled. “I knew you’d like it.”
Joe knelt before her. “Maggie, I know your mama has taught you better than to run in the street like that.”
The tears threatened again as Maggie nodded solemnly. “You gonna tell?”
Joe smiled. “I wouldn’t tell on my best girl, would I?” He stood and took her by the hand. “No, but I think I better walk you home. And no more mud pies today. Time to clean up.”
Beaming, Maggie skipped along at his side ‘til they reached the alley door to her mother’s millinery shop. Joe set her carefully on the stoop and then bent to press a kiss to her forehead. “Thank you for the pie, Maggie,” he whispered tenderly. “That was real sweet of you.” He patted the back of her skirt. “In you go now.”
“Bye, Joe.” As he turned and began to run toward the street, she stood on the stoop, waving ‘til he was out of sight.
Joe raced toward C Street with an impending sense of doom. He’d had only three minutes to spare, and he figured he’d spent at least that much time, just taking care of Maggie. Careening around the corner, he aimed toward the wagon. Then he skidded to a halt. No point in running now. There, coming out of the store with a load of supplies, was his big brother Adam—and he didn’t look happy, not one little bit. Step by trembling step, Joe made his way up C Street.
Adam placed the supplies in the wagon and then, as he had after the previous load, scanned the street in both directions. His face hardened as he saw Joe coming toward him at a snail’s pace, shirt plastered with mud and face guilty as sin. He folded his arms and stood there, glowering.
Joe stopped about six feet from his brother and gave him a tentative wave. “H-hey, Adam. You early or somethin’?”
Lips pursed and face flinty, Adam took a step toward his brother.
Joe took one step back.
“Stand where you are,” Adam ordered tersely.
Joe gulped as Adam paced slowly toward him. “I guess I’m a little late . . . but I can explain.”
“No doubt.” Adam stood toe to toe with his younger brother. “Is this why you wanted to come to town, to wallow in a pig sty?”
“No!” Joe squealed, arms waving in protest. “That was an accident. You see, there was this little girl—”
“Isn’t there always?” Adam smirked. “Blonde hair, blue eyes, initials MJ, I presume?”
Amazed by Adam’s clairvoyance, Joe murmured, “Well . . . yeah, but it’s not like you think, Adam.”
“Oh, I can see it all now.” Adam touched his forehead with the back of his fingers and spoke with dramatic flair. “Dazzled by her nubile beauty, you fell head over heels . . . straight into a mud puddle.”
“It was a mud pie,” Joe sputtered through gritted teeth.
Shaking his head, Adam clamped a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Little buddy, if you’re still playing with mud pies, I think you’d better leave off chasing skirts for a few more years.” He leaned in close, his nose wrinkling in distaste. “Have you been drinking?” he thundered.
Joe tried to step back, but since Adam had an iron grip on his shoulder, he went nowhere. He giggled nervously and held his index finger and thumb about an inch apart. “Well, maybe, just a teeny, weeny bit.”
Adam’s eyes narrowed. “And do I also detect a whiff of cheap perfume?”
Joe’s brow wrinkled in thought. He honestly couldn’t remember if the saloon girl had worn scent or not. His attention had been occupied with her other assets. “Well . . . maybe,” he conceded slowly.
Adam’s hand slid down to his brother’s elbow, and he propelled the boy toward the buckboard. “Stay away from saloons; that’s the only restriction I gave you, and you couldn’t even honor that. Get up there!” he demanded with a swat to Joe’s backside.
“But, Adam,” Joe protested, “I gotta help you load the wagon.”
“I doubt Hop Sing would appreciate finding his supplies decorated with mud,” Adam snorted. “I’ll finish loading, and then we’ll be heading for home. Now get up there!”
Joe’s face screwed into a pathetic expression as he climbed into the buckboard. “You said we was gonna eat,” he whined.
Palms planted on his hips, Adam glared at his brother. “I planned to treat you to dinner at the International House, but I can scarcely take you there in a suit of mud, can I?”
Joe glanced down at his filthy shirt. “Guess not,” he admitted, “but I’m hungry.”
“I’ll pick up something at the store,” Adam growled. “Now, just sit there and don’t move a muscle.” He clattered up the wooden steps toward Cass’ store, grumbling under his breath. “Forty-five minutes. That’s all. You’d think anyone could stay out of trouble for forty-five minutes, but not Joe—no, not him. Five minutes would probably have been asking too much!”
Joe winced, figuring he’d be getting an earful of the same all the way home. He looked up and down C Street to soak in the sights, for he had a feeling he was getting his last glimpse of Virginia City for a long, long time and he wanted to store up enough memories to tide him over. As his mind drifted back to the tabletop dancer at O’Brien’s and Costello’s, he smiled. He carefully concealed it when Adam came back out and tossed him a bag filled with sliced sausage, cheese and crackers, but the sense of contentment remained. All in all, it hadn’t been a bad day, and once he told Pa how heroic he’d been in rescuing Maggie May Jenkins from certain death, that would surely outweigh one little trip to a forbidden saloon. Well, at least he could hope.