Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave (by Territell)

Summary:  Not everything is as it seems on the latest cattle drive.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,190


 

Ben was becoming exasperated; only 24 hours before the cattle drive and they still hadn’t found a helper to assist ‘Snakey’ with the chuck wagon. Snakey’s real name was Bert Bishop, but he had earned the nickname very early on in his career at the Ponderosa. He wasn’t the brightest of men and had yet to associate the poisonous attributes of the asp family with what the men thought of his cooking. Snakey’s idea of a ‘good meal’ left a lot to be desired, but he had been with the Cartwrights a number of years and no amount of ribbing was going to encourage him to try something new when out on the trail.

Snakey was not only renowned for his lack of culinary skills but also for his temper, hence the need for assistance so close to the cattle drive departure. Mike Lawson had been a quiet and amiable boy and had put up with Snakey’s verbal and occasional physical abuse for the last six months (three months longer than most), but only yesterday the lad decided he couldn’t take any more, and with not so much as a ‘bye as you leave’, he had upped stakes and left.

“Well there’s nothing else for it,” Adam stated with his usual stubbornness. “Little Joe will have to help out on the chuck wagon this trip.”

Hoss sucked in his breath. “He ain’t gonna like it. The kid feels he has something to prove and he won’t be able to do that sitting on a chuck wagon. Who’s gonna be the one to tell him?”

Two sets of eyes, one brown, one blue, looked pointedly at their father.

“I’ll tell him,” Ben sighed, not relishing the task. “Joseph will have to understand that a cattle drive is not a Sunday picnic. Each of us has to do whatever we can to make things go smoothly and if, on this occasion, that means him helping out Snakey, then so be it. Give him a few more years and he’ll be begging to get off so lightly.”

Just as they were about to return to their last minute preparations, they became aware of a lone rider making their way towards the house.

All three men stood and watched as the cowboy got closer and closer. The surprise was evident on their faces when a young boy rode straight up to Ben Cartwright, dismounted from his horse and announced in a high-pitched voice, “I’ve come about the job for a cook’s assistant.”

Ben coughed slightly to try and mask the chuckles emanating from his two elder sons. The boy was even smaller than Little Joe and probably not as old, judging by the fact his voice was yet to break. He was so slim his pants hung loosely round his middle, with only his tight belt holding them up, and his shirt looked two sizes too big.

“Been on a cattle drive before have you?” Ben asked, trying to keep the amusement from his voice.

The boy glared hard at the men before him, his eyes narrowing to almost slits. “No, but I’ve worked on a ranch before and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. But I thought you were looking for a cook, not a cowboy, and I’m real good at cooking.”

Ben looked over at Adam, whereupon Adam held out his hands and shrugged his shoulders in that ‘it’s up to you’ fashion he applied when not wanting to make the decision himself.

“How old are you?” Ben asked, turning to the boy once more.

“Eighteen.”

“We’ll try that one again, shall we, son. I asked how old you are. And what’s your name?”

The veiled admonishment worked and the boy’s head dropped to his chest. “I’m sixteen and the name’s Charley.”

Ben was dubious that he was even sixteen, but he didn’t see the need to labor the point.

“Right, Charley, needs must; it looks like you’ve got yourself a job. My son Joseph should be back shortly. When he gets here, I’ll ask him to take you out to camp. We leave first thing in the morning so try and get an early night.”

“Thanks, Mr. Cartwright, you won’t regret this,” Charley gushed, his excitement evident.

It wasn’t long before the youngest Cartwright made his appearance and introductions were made. Joe was delighted with the newest member of the crew as he had had the sinking feeling all morning that he was going to be nominated for the cook’s assistant job, whether he liked it or not.

As Joe and Charley headed towards the camp, Joe chatted incessantly. This was going to be his first long cattle drive since leaving school and it pleased him to think that he wouldn’t be the only sixteen year old going. The men were noted for their teasing and Joe over the last months, being the youngest, tended to be the main fodder for their humor.

Joe was so busy talking that it never occurred to him that Charley only responded when he had to and generally made very little conversation. After introducing Charley to Snakey, Joe headed home with renewed vigor and spent the evening in such an excitable state Ben ended up sending him to bed early so that the rest of the family could get some respite!

*****

Monday morning came upon them quicker than Ben would have liked. His old bones groaned as he climbed from his bed and he didn’t relish the idea of sleeping on the hard ground for the next three weeks or so. As he left his room, he was nearly knocked off his feet as his youngest son rushed past him.

“Morning, Pa,” called an usually bright Little Joe as he bounded down the stairs two at a time.

“Morning, Joseph,” replied Ben with a shake of his head. This was going to be a long three weeks. He just hoped that Joe’s exuberance settled down a little over the next few days. When Joe was this excited, he tended to get cocky, and that could be dangerous on a cattle drive. Ben didn’t want to come down hard on his youngest, but he would have to impress on him that this was a serious business and not a time for Joe to show off. He had no doubt of Joe’s abilities — the boy rode as if he had been born on a horse; it was just that his youthful enthusiasm sometimes made him reckless.

Sensing that there was a lecture on its way, Joe took a deep breath and tried to calm down. It was just a cattle drive, after all; he had been on them before. But this one was different. Last year he had still been in school when the men left on their three-week stint. He had pleaded with his father to go, but to no avail. Ben was determined that Joe would finish his education and he wouldn’t be swayed. In an act of sheer defiance, Joe had played ‘hooky’ for most of the time that the family had been away, which had resulted in the ‘tanning of all tannings’ when his father returned.

It wasn’t long before they had eaten, packed and were ready to go. Breakfast wasn’t up to the usual high standard as Hop Sing had already left for San Francisco. He took the opportunity at this time each year to visit his many relatives, usually linking up with the family at the end of the cattle drive. He would return to the Ponderosa with Ben by stagecoach, while the boys brought the horses back separately.

As the family rode out of the yard, the sun had yet to make its appearance and there was an eerie silence about the place. The early morning chill caused them to turn up their collars and pull their hats down harder onto their heads; it wouldn’t do to catch a cold.

By the time they reached camp, most of the men were packed up and ready to go. Joe looked round to see if Charley was about, but Charley and Snakey had already left. As soon as the men had eaten, Snakey had insisted that they quickly pack and be on their way. He always liked to be well ahead of the men so that he could be at their first watering hole in time to have their next meal prepared, ready for them arriving.

The first week of the cattle drive was always the hardest. Extra men were brought into the crew just for that early period. The cowboys needed to push the cattle pretty hard to get them as far away from their familiar ranges as possible so that they wouldn’t try to run at night. Once the cattle were trail broken, they could ease off and the extra men head off home, but until that time, there would be very little sleep for any of them.

The greenest of the men were always assigned to the rear of the herd to ride drag. Their job was to bring up the weakest cattle and it wasn’t one of the pleasantest of positions to be in. Joe, as expected, was given this task, and as he rode to the rear of the herd, he longed for the time when he would move up through the ranks. Eating dust all day was not his idea of fun, but he didn’t complain; his turn would come in the years ahead.

Ben as trail boss rode at the front of the herd and it would normally be his job to ride ahead to pick out watering holes and a noon resting place, but this was well known territory and the watering holes and resting places were already prearranged. The men positioned themselves around the herd and waited for the signal from Ben for them all to move out. It was only 5am but the working day had already begun in earnest.

As lunchtime was upon them, Ben and Adam headed into the makeshift camp together. It was necessary for the men to eat in shifts and they arrived just as Hoss was leaving.

“How’s it going, son?” Ben asked, giving his middle son a wide smile.

“Better now I’ve eaten Pa,” Hoss replied, patting his full stomach. Then he added in a whisper. “Don’t want to upset Snakey any, but that new kid sure can cook, Pa. Even Snakey seems happy.”

“Well that’s good to know,” replied Adam sardonically. “The thought of Snakey’s cooking for three weeks always gives me indigestion.”

“Has your young brother been in yet?” Ben asked looking around the camp.

“Don’t think so, Pa,” Hoss replied with a shake of his head. Then with a glint of mischief in his eye he added. “There again I might not recognize him after he’s rode drag all morning.”

As the three men laughed together, they turned to see Little Joe walking into camp. He was covered in dust from head to toe and, before he pulled down his bandana, only his green eyes were identifiable in his dirt-smeared face.

“Oh boy, am I hungry,” Joe called out heading towards the chuck wagon.

Ben caught him by the belt of his pants as he passed and swung him round. “I think you better wash up before eating, young man,” he admonished. “You look and smell worse than the cattle.”

With a resigned shrug, Joe headed over to the water bucket and attempted to wash the dirt from his hands and face, which wasn’t an easy task as the water in the bucket was by now as dirty as he was, but he was in no mind to change it.

Hoss had been right about Charley’s cooking; it was a big improvement on what Snakey usually served up. Ben was curious to ask how Charley had managed to persuade Snakey into letting him prepare the food in the first place, but decided to let well alone. If it meant they ate better, who was he to upset things?

*****

The first week of the drive went by without incident. The cattle were trail broken and the extra men had returned to their families, leaving Ben feeling relieved and content at how well things were going. Tempers had often flared during those early days. Long hours in the saddle, together with sleeping on the hard ground, took a bit of getting used to, and even the cowboys with many years experience were grumpy and sore at the end of a long day. But eventually everyone began to settle into their roles and the persistent grumbling stopped.

For someone like Little Joe, who was still quite green, it was harder. His hands were blistered, his back ached, and as for his rear end, well, he tried not to think about that. Oh, he could rope a steer as good as any of them and his horsemanship was second to none, but at the end of the day, his young skin still had to thicken and build up the calluses that were needed to protect it from the inevitable rope burns.

Even though they were of a similar age, Joe and Charley had not become the friends that Joe had hoped they would be. No matter how many times Joe had tried to start a conversation with Charley, the other boy had been reluctant to talk for more than a few minutes before making his excuses and returning to the wagon. Joe had been disappointed. He was still regarded very much as ‘the kid’ by the rest of the men and often conversations stopped as soon as he appeared. Intuitively, he knew that the men would be talking about the many saloons they had frequented and more likely the many women they had met there. If his Pa hadn’t been around, Joe was sure the men would have carried on with their discussion, but knowing how Ben felt about his youngest, the men were respectful of Joe’s youth and innocence.

On the evening of the tenth day, their luck began to turn. The weather was changing and not for the better. There was definitely a storm brewing, as the cattle were jittery and in turn, so were the men. Thunder and lightning at night could stampede a herd, and if that happened, there was very little they could do about it. The last shift of men ate their supper almost in silence and retired early; there wouldn’t be any cowpoke songs sung that night.

When the rain started it was relentless and the men’s slickers provided very little protection. Extra men were assigned to guard the herd but when the thunder and lightning started all thought of sleep was forgotten as each and every man rushed to the remuda and saddled his horse.

With each crack of lightning, the cattle became more unsettled and it would only take one lone spooked steer to set the herd off running. Snakey and Charley packed up the chuck wagon in readiness, for if the herd went, everyone else would just have to follow until they ran themselves out.

It was nearly 3am when Joe rode into camp to get a well-earned cup of coffee. The adrenaline rush he had felt when the lightning first began had started to wear off and he was now barely able to keep his eyes open. As he sat down on an upturned log, Charley came over to him with a cup of coffee. Joe took the welcoming brew and closed his eyes for a second as he sipped the hot liquid. Turning to his side, he was surprised to see that Charley hadn’t rushed away as he usually did, but was now sitting down next to him with a cup of coffee in his own hand.

Joe gave him a weak and tired smile and Charley smiled back.

“Quite a night,” Charley stated simply.

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Joe responded. “And it ain’t over yet.”

“Quite a night,” Charley repeated, an impish glint in his eye.

Both boys laughed and a bond started to form between them. Joe found himself telling Charley all about the Ponderosa and Charley bombarded him with questions about ranch life.

“Hey Joe?” Charley queried. “How come no ones riding any of the white horses tonight? They are all still in the remuda.”

“It’s unlucky.”

“Why is it unlucky?” Charley asked in puzzlement. “I would have thought a white horse would have been easier to see at night.”

“That’s just it,” Joe stated knowledgably. “White horses are thought to attract lightning and you’ll never find a cowboy use one at night. Too easily seen.”

Charley laughed. “You’re pulling my leg. That’s stupid.”

“It may seem stupid, but do you see any white horses out there?” Joe said, indicating his head towards the cattle. “No, you don’t and you won’t ever see any at night.”

The boys sat in silence for a few minutes, the warmth of the coffee and the heat of the fire sending them both to sleep. A crack of lightning in the night sky caused Joe to wake with a start. Struggling to his feet, he rubbed his tired eyes and headed back towards his horse.

“See you later,” Joe called over his shoulder to Charley who was still sat dozing. Then mischievously he added. “Better not let Snakey find you sleeping; he’s likely to box your ears and paddle your hide good and proper.”

Charley jumped up immediately and looked cautiously around him; he had already had quite a few heavy-handed swats to his rear end and he wasn’t anxious for another. Joe chuckled softly to himself as he rode back to the herd. He was so grateful that Charley had joined the cattle drive; otherwise, that would have been him at the receiving end of Snakey’s notorious temper.

It wasn’t long before Hoss rode over to his younger brother. The bigger man’s face was unreadable in the dark but his strained voice showed his tension. “These critters are well spooked,” he began. “Won’t take much for them to start running.”

“Maybe if those with the fastest horses was to try and head them…..”

“You listen to me, young’un. When this herd starts moving, you keep well back,” Hoss interrupted sharply. “Pa and Adam, not to mention me, have got enough to worry about without some fool kid getting in the way.”

Joe bristled at the ‘fool kid’ inference, but kept quiet. It wasn’t often Hoss was this worked up and he wouldn’t put it past his brother to hog-tie him to his saddle.

Before another word could be spoken, it happened. The dark sky flashed with a blazing light and the thunder that followed almost immediately afterwards was deafening. The cattle bellowed in terror and almost as one started to move forward.

Cries of “stampede” echoed out in the darkness, as the slow rumbling of hooves became an almighty din. The cowboys tried hard to slow them down, but there was little they could do. The flankers and swing men riding at the sides could do no more than ride alongside the charging torrent and hope against hope they wouldn’t be unseated and fall, because if they did, there would be no one there to save them.

For once, Joe did as he was told and rode behind the herd. This wasn’t the first stampede he had been involved with and, on another occasion, he had recklessly risked his life to help another cowboy in trouble. It had paid off and the man lived to tell the tale. At the time Joe had been fourteen years old and couldn’t understand the fuss his family had made about his dare devil antics. Ben, on the one hand, was proud of his son’s bravery, but was also furious at the boy’s foolishness and insubordination; he had given Joe strict instructions to keep his position at the rear. Little Joe lapped up the men’s praise as they gave him a pat on the back, but much to his indignation, his father’s hand left a more lasting imprint.

It was almost morning before the cattle came once again to a complete standstill, but there was still no respite for the tired men. Every available one of them was sent out to round up strays that had off-shot from the main herd.

Ben, Adam and Hoss were the last ones to finally ride into camp for breakfast.

“Well,” declared Ben. “The only good thing I can say is no one was hurt.”

“But how many cattle have we lost Pa?” Adam queried.

“Probably about fifteen,” Ben surmised. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Snakey dished out breakfast for the tired men and they ate automatically, hardly tasting a thing on their plates.

“We’re way off target,” Hoss grumbled. “Gonna have to turn the herd around and head them back in the right direction. Probably lost us half a day or more.”

Adam suddenly became aware of what he was putting into his mouth and grimaced; this certainly didn’t taste like Charley’s cooking. Shouting over to Snakey he asked. “Hey Snakey, where’s Charley this morning?”

Snakey walked over to them, coffeepot in hand. “Sent him on ahead about an hour ago with one of the wagons so he can make a start on getting things ready for lunch. Just hope the little fool doesn’t get lost.”

A high-pitched voice piped up in the background. “I-I-I could go after him and make sure he’s all right, if you want?”

Ben Cartwright tried to keep the smile from his face as his youngest came into view.

“That’s very good of you Joe,” he applauded. “Don’t suppose your offer has anything to do with the fact that being first at the watering hole means you get to have a swim and freshen up before the cattle arrive does it?”

Joe smiled sheepishly and hung his head. “The thought had crossed my mind Pa.”

Ben, Hoss and Adam exchanged an amused grin. Little Joe would never admit it, but almost two weeks in the saddle and he was exhausted. The thought of a swim and a couple of hours just being a ‘boy’ again was very appealing at this moment in time.

“You know, Pa, I think that might be a good idea,” Adam mused. “Young Charley shouldn’t be out there all alone; perhaps it’s best if Joe rides after him.”

Joe held his breath and looked at his Pa expectantly.

Ben’s face was unreadable for what seemed a lifetime but then the muscles relaxed and he grinned. “Okay Joseph, you can go. But no tomfoolery,” he warned. “You boys can have a swim, but I still expect you both to have your work done by lunchtime.”

“Yes sir,” Joe called over his shoulder as he ran for his horse, finding an extra bit of energy in his excitement.

Two hours later, a hot and dusty Joe rode up to their next designated stopping point and dismounted. Tying his horse to the back of the stationary wagon, Joe looked around for Charley but he was nowhere in sight. Taking off his hat, Joe took a few swigs from his canteen before pouring the remaining drops over the back of his neck and shaking his head. He was just about to call out when he heard splashing coming from the watering hole.

Glancing round the side of the wagon, Joe smiled to himself at the sight before him. Charley was happily swimming in the cool water, totally oblivious of Joe’s arrival. With an impish glint in his eye, Joe quickly divested himself of his own clothes and silently entered the water.

Diving deep, Joe swam until he was just inches from Charley’s feet as the other boy treaded water. Taking hold of Charley’s ankles, Joe tugged hard and pulled the startled boy swiftly under. Unable to hold his own breath any longer Joe swam to the surface and broke out in a fit of giggles. Seconds later a shocked, Charley came spluttering up next to him.

“Why you sneaking, devious, lousy, good for nothing……”

“It was only a bit of fun,” Joe interrupted laughing out loud.

Charley drew back his hand and made to hit out at his tormentor. Joe’s own hand instinctively went up and with a shove on Charley’s chest he moved the boy back away from him.

Joe almost jumped out of the water as if scalded. He looked at his offending hand and then back at Charley, unable to believe what he had just felt.

“Y-y-you’ve got b-b-br………..” Joe stopped speaking, blushing furiously at what he had almost said.

The anger left Charley’s face and he instinctively covered his chest with his hands.

Joe gulped several times and shook his head. He knew what his hands had encountered. Much as he had very little experience in the practical side of things, he had been a very keen observer of the said articles for as long as he could remember.

“You’re a g-g-girl?”

Charley recovered some of her composure. “Give the boy a prize,” she spat back at him, still smarting from the ducking and the unwanted, if unintentional, grope she had just experienced.

“But why are you pretending to be a boy?” Joe asked, trying hard to come to terms with this new revelation.

“How many girls do you see on cattle drive, dumb head?” Charley replied spitefully. “Look I’m getting cold; I need to get out of here.”

A sly smile spread over Joe’s lips. Now that it was beginning to sink in, he found their predicament quite amusing and his body was beginning to react to the idea of been so close to a naked girl. “Mitch is never gonna believe this,” he said almost to himself with a shake of the head.

Anger flared in Charley’s eyes as she noticed the look on the young man’s face.

“You better get all those thoughts out your head, boy, if you know what’s good for you, and if you mention this to anyone Joe Cartwright I’ll tell your Pa you grabbed me.”

Any amorous thoughts quickly left Joe’s mind. “Okay, okay, I won’t say a word.”

“Well?” stated a relieved Charley.

“Well what?” Joe asked.

“Get out of the water and go as far away as possible, keeping your back turned, so I can get out.”

“But what about me?” Joe queried. “I’ve got no clothes on either.”

Charley began to chuckle. “Oh I’ll turn my back to hide your modesty, little boy.” And with that Charley turned her back to Joe and shouted. “Hurry up, I haven’t got all day; I’ve got work to do.”

Joe quickly swam to the embankment and scrambled out of the water. Keeping his back to Charley, he hurriedly grabbed his clothes and held them in front of him as he made his way over to the wagon. When out of sight, he pulled on his pants and shirt and walked over to the nearest tree. “It’s all right; you can come out now and I promise not to look.”

Charley swam cautiously to the water’s edge. “You better keep those eyes tight closed, Little Joe, or believe me, I’ll tell your Pa.”

Joe didn’t need a second telling. He sat down with his back to the water and kept his eyes tight shut. If his father ever got an inkling of this, he was dead meat.

Dressed once more in boy’s attire, Charley shouted for him to come out.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” Charley began. “This is going to be our secret. No one must know about this.”

Joe’s eyes couldn’t help going to the girl’s chest and he was disappointed to see that it looked completely flat once more. Automatically he looked at the size of his hand and shook his head. He was sure he had felt a good handful and couldn’t understand where it had disappeared to.

“Joe,” Charley almost shouted, bringing him out of his reverie.

“But you’re just a kid….a-a-and a girl. There’s bound to be someone looking for you.”

“That’s my business and I ain’t a kid. I’m seventeen, which is a lot older than you,”

Charley replied, emphasizing her point by poking her finger into Joe’s chest.

Joe pushed her hand away. “You ain’t that much older than me.”

“Yeah but everyone knows girls grow up much faster than boys,” Charley replied, tilting her head back in defiance.

Joe looked at her flat chest again and smirked. “Looks as if you’ve still got a lot of growing to do, if you ask me.”

The slap that hit Joe’s cheek took the silly smirk off his face and he winced, but ruefully he had to admit that maybe he had asked for that one.

“I’m telling you, Joe. You breathe one word of this and I’ll tell your Pa you groped me.”

And so it was that Joe was drawn into her little game and he kept up the pretence.

*****

Meanwhile, that evening back in Virginia City, four men sat in the saloon drinking a cool glass of beer. Mallory Smithson and his three sons were an ornery looking bunch and the other patrons kept their distance not wanting any trouble.

“We’ve been looking for her for nigh on six weeks, Pa. What makes you think she came here?” asked Jeb, aged about twenty and the youngest of the brood.

“Just a hunch, I guess. But that sister of yours always did have a hankering for the city life and I aim to call in at every place we pass until I find her.”

“I still think she must have got herself a fella,” the eldest son, Jack, declared. “Why else would she run off like that?”

Mallory Smithson’s face turned red with anger. “Well, if there is a fella, he’s gonna wish he never set eyes on my baby gal. ‘Cause if he’s laid one finger on her, I swear I’ll kill him.”

“Wonder if she’s still pretending to be a boy?” Mark, the middle son asked.

“If she’s alone, you can bet on it,” his father replied. “She stands a much better chance of getting around unnoticed dressed in pants than some fancy petticoat.”

Before leaving, Mallory called Sam, the barman, over to him. “Hey mister, you ain’t seen a little fellow, about so high?” he placed his hand just below his shoulder to indicate the height he was referring to. “Looks about fifteen with a mop of blonde curly hair.”

Sam scratched his head and thought back. “Now you come to mention it, there was a boy just like that in here looking for work a couple of weeks ago.”

The family all looked at each other and grinned; they were on the right track once again. “What happened to him?” Mallory asked.

“I sent him out to the Ponderosa. The Cartwrights were looking for a youngster to help out the cook on a cattle drive that was leaving for San Francisco the next day. Told him to come back here if he hadn’t any luck; I could always use someone to collect and wash the glasses. He never came back so I reckon he must have got the job.”

The four men walked outside and digested the information. “What now, Pa?” Jeb asked.

“What do you think, stupid?” Mallory replied, cuffing his youngest son round the ear. “We head to San Francisco and find my little gal before she gets herself into something she can’t handle.”

*****

The Cartwright men noticed a change in the relationship between Joe and Charley, but they couldn’t put their finger on just what it was. Joe seemed to be more protective of the younger boy than he had been, while on the other hand Charley often bossed Joe around and, more surprisingly, Joe complied with his instructions.

On one particular night, Snakey lost his temper with the young boy in his charge and grabbing him by the collar he had been about to land a few heavy swats on the boy’s behind. Joe had been horrified and jumped to Charley’s defense.

“Hey Snakey, leave him alone,” Joe shouted. “You ain’t got no business tanning him.”

Snakey’s mouth dropped open in surprise. In the past, the discipline of the young boys in his charge was left up to him and as long as Snakey didn’t go too far and it was warranted, Ben approved of a parental figure to keep the boys on the right track.

“What did you just say?” Snakey snarled, grabbing Joe with his free hand.

Adam quickly stepped forward and pulled his brother away from Snakey’s grasp. “What’s this all about, Little Joe?” he queried angrily.

Joe hung his head and bit on his bottom lip. How could he explain to them that Charley was a girl and should be treated differently? It just didn’t seem decent that Snakey be tanning her hide. As it was, Joe was at a loss for words to explain and Adam and Snakey just looked at each other and shrugged. Kids! Who knows what got into them sometimes?

At the end of the third week, Joe was glad when they arrived in San Francisco. The pressure of keeping Charley’s secret was getting to him and he would be glad to spend sometime away from her.

Once the cattle deal was done, it was customary for the men to spend time in the city letting their hair down and having fun. Some of the men had signed up just for the drive, but the regular hands had a few days off to relax before returning to the Ponderosa. Although it had taken them three weeks to get there, the return journey, without the cattle, was an awful lot quicker.

“What do you intend to do?” Joe asked Charley as they sat on the steps outside the bank as Ben was inside depositing their takings.

Charley thought for a minute and then shrugged. “If nothing better turns up, I guess I’ll go back to the Ponderosa with you.”

Joe inwardly groaned. How could she expect him to keep up this pretence indefinitely?

Ben joined them seconds later and escorted the ‘boys’ over to the hotel, having already booked rooms for himself and his sons.

“Look Charley,” Ben began. “San Francisco is no place for a young lad to be wandering round on his own. So I insist you stay at the hotel with us until it’s time to return to the ranch. You can share Joseph’s room.”

Joe had a coughing fit and almost choked. “Charley can have my room, Pa. I think I’ll just bunk in with Hoss.”

“You can think again, young’un,” Hoss corrected. “Those beds ain’t hardly big enough for me to fit in on my own. Now you and Charley there will have plenty of room.”

Joe tried desperately to think of a suitable protest, but nothing feasible would come to mind.

“I’ve already arranged baths to be taken up to the rooms,” Ben added, slapping his youngest on the back. “You and Charley will have to share. Just don’t fall out over who goes first.”

Ten minutes later, Joe and Charley stood in Joe’s room looking at the floor in embarrassment. “We can’t do this!” Joe said quietly. “It ain’t right. We’ve got to tell my Pa what’s going on.”

Charley shot him an angry look. “Oh no we don’t. You promised, remember!”

Then looking round the room she brightened considerably. “Hey, look here, a settee. You’ll be fine sleeping on there, Little Joe. Much better than being out on the trail.”

“Why should I sleep on the settee?”

“Come on Joe, you can’t expect me to sleep on it. That’s not very gallant of you.” Charley’s voice for once was petulant and female, appealing to Joe’s better nature.

Joe reluctantly agreed that she would have the bed. Then looking at the steaming tub of water he stated. “I suppose you want first bath as well?”

“It would be nice,” Charley wheedled. “It’s not easy for a girl to go round smelling like one of the herd.”

“Oh all right,” Joe conceded. “Just don’t be all day about it. I’ll be back in an hour and then it’s your turn to go for a walk.”

*****

It was their third night in San Francisco, and Joe and Charley were sitting in the saloon with Hoss and Adam. Adam had agreed that the young boys could have two beers each but that was all.

Charley giggled as she drank her second beer, the alcohol going straight to her head. Joe didn’t approve of a girl drinking, but then he didn’t approve of a lot of the things Charley did and he had no way of stopping her.

A number of the Ponderosa hands were also in the saloon and Pete Malcolm, a regular worker at the ranch, had had one too many.

“Let’s have a little fun,” he said conspiringly to his fellow drinkers. “Keep Adam and Hoss talking, so they don’t see what I’m doing.” With that, he walked over to the Cartwright table, and while Adam and Hoss were distracted by another of the men, he poured a large measure of whisky into both Joe and Charley’s glass.

“Have a good night, boys,” he whispered, winking at the two youngsters, before returning to the bar to watch what happened.

Joe and Charley were by now quite light-headed and drank their drink with glee, both eager to feel the effects of the strong liquor.

Half an hour later, Adam declared it was time the youngsters headed back to the hotel, but when he tried to pull Joe to his feet, the boy could hardly stand. Joe’s eyes looked vacant and he started giggling uncontrollably. Adam and Hoss looked at the boys and knew immediately they were drunk. Neither of the boys had left their side, so someone else had to be the culprit.

Looking round the crowded room, Adam’s eyes soon fixed on the grinning face of Pete Malcolm and his fellow conspirators. “We just found the guilty party,” he said, nudging Hoss and indicating to the bunch of men stood at the bar.

Hoss was on his feet and heading towards them in a second. He was the first one to swing a punch and Adam had no compunction about joining in. As pandemonium broke out Joe and Charley were happy to get in the thick of the melee; after all, a good fight was the perfect way to end the evening.

It was over almost before it began and Adam and Hoss were one of the few still standing. Slapping his elder brother on the back, Hoss declared. “That was a real good fight, big brother; glad to have you by my side.”

Wiping a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, Adam winced as he broke into a smile. “We make quite a formidable pair, Hoss.” Then looking back at the upturned table they had been sitting at, he asked with some concern. “Where are Little Joe and Charley?”

Hoss surveyed the room until his eyes rested on two prone figures on the floor.

“Looks as if the kids decided to join in, Adam.” Then with a shake of his head he chuckled. “Don’t know what Pa’s gonna have to say, but these young’uns ain’t gonna want to listen with the heads they’ll have in the morning.”

Adam and Hoss stepped forward and taking an arm each, they pulled the youngsters to their feet and slung them over their shoulders. Strolling happily back to the hotel, they climbed the stairs to the boys’ room and tossed them none too gently down onto the bed.

“Suppose we better get their clothes off,” Adam decided. “Might be an idea to put a couple of basins on the floor as well in case they’re sick.”

Hoss set about stripping his baby brother down to his drawers and Adam did the same for Charley.

As Adam removed Charley’s shirt he declared. “Hey Hoss, did Charley mention anything to you about hurting his ribs?”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Hoss considered with a shake of his head. Then looking over at Charley’s bound chest he pondered. “Wonder if that’s why little brother here has been so protective of him in the past week. Maybe he knew Charley was hurt?”

“That could be right,” Adam agreed as he removed Charley’s boots and pulled off his pants. “But why would they want to keep it a secret?”

With their task finished, the brothers stood up and looked down at the sleeping boys, dressed in nothing but their drawers.

A look of concern crossed Adam’s face and he asked. “Hoss, do you see what I see?”

Hoss looked at the boys once more and smiled coyly. “Well, little brother there may have a bit of growing to do, but he’s all Cartwright in the place that matters.”

Adam couldn’t help grinning at Hoss’ observation. “Actually, it wasn’t Little Joe I was looking at.”

Hoss looked over at Charley and frowned, there was nothing unusual as far as he could see.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Adam declared. “But I just want to make sure.”

With that, he bent forward and pulled the waistband of Charley’s drawers away from his body and took a look. Adam immediately pulled his hand away as if he had been caught by Hop Sing in the cookie jar, and sat down in the chair next to the bed in shock.

Hoss was perplexed. “What’s up with you, Adam? Why do you want to go and do a thing like that?”

Adam looked up at his middle brother and frowned. “Oh boy, is Joe in trouble this time.”

“Joe, Little Joe, why would he be in trouble?” Hoss queried. Why did his elder brother always talk in riddles? “And what’s it got to do with Charley?”

Adam looked at the sleeping duo once more. “But that’s it, Hoss. Charley isn’t a Charley really. She’s more of a Charlotte.”

Hoss’ mouth dropped wide open. “A g-g-girl,” he whispered. “Charley’s a girl?”

Adam nodded.

“But maybe Little Joe didn’t know that,” Hoss stated hopefully. “After all, we just found out.”

“They’ve been sharing a room for the past two nights Hoss. Knowing our little brother’s obsession with the opposite sex, I don’t see this one getting past him.”

“What’s Pa gonna say?” Hoss asked with dread.

Just as the words were leaving his mouth the door opened and Ben Cartwright entered.

“What am I going to say about what?” he demanded, before his eyes fell on the sleeping pair. “That’s a girl,” he stated simply pointing a finger at Charley.

“How did you know that Pa?” Hoss asked in astonishment.

“Well it’s obvious,” Ben said in exasperation.

“Not to us,” Hoss refuted. “Even ‘know it all’ Adam there didn’t know without looking in her drawers.”

“HE WHAT?” Ben bellowed, turning his full attention to his eldest son.

“L-l-let me explain, Pa,” Adam began, before he was interrupted by a low moan from the bed.

Ben’s bellowing voice had awoken Little Joe and he sat up and opened his eyes, still hazy and blurred with the alcohol and punch to the chin.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Why’s everyone in our room?” Then turning to his side he viewed the prone figure of Charley. “So that’s how she keeps them flat,” he mused. “Always wondered how she did that.”

“You knew about this?” Ben spat out through gritted teeth.

Joe began to sober up very quickly and held his hand to his head. “I’ve got a real bad head Pa.”

“That’s not the only thing that’ll be aching before this night’s through,” Ben promised. “Now get out of that bed and go to my room. NOW”

“But Pa,” Joe protested. “I’m only wearing my drawers.”

“Not for much longer,” Ben grimaced as his hand rested instinctively on his belt. “Now move.”

Joe didn’t need telling twice. Jumping from the bed, he hastily rushed out of the door and ran along the corridor to his father’s room.

Pulling the blankets over the sleeping girl, Ben declared. “I’ll speak to her later, but I think my youngest is in need of my attention.”

As he left the room, Adam made to follow.

“Hey, where you shooting off to?” Hoss called after him.

“There’s no way I’m missing this one, Hoss,” Adam replied. “Can’t wait to hear what explanation the kid comes up with this time.”

*****

As Ben strode into his room, Adam slipped in unobtrusively behind him and moved over to the far corner out of sight, in the hope that he wouldn’t be asked to leave.

Joe stood next to the bed, his hands held protectively behind his back. He was shaking slightly and it wasn’t just from the cold. How was he ever going to explain to his Pa about Charley?

The room remained silent for a good ten minutes as Ben paced up and down and tried hard to bring his temper under control. He was a fair man and believed in giving his sons the benefit of the doubt and hearing their side of the story before jumping to conclusions, but with Joseph this was hard to do on many occasions. This was a very serious situation and he couldn’t for the life of him think of how it would be resolved.

After what seemed a lifetime to Little Joe, his father finally stood in front of him with his hands placed firmly on his hips. “Well, young man, what have you got to say for yourself?”

Joe bit on his bottom lip and frowned. He didn’t know what to say without digging a bigger hole for himself.

“I’m waiting, Joseph. How long have you known Charley was a girl?”

Joe tried to speak but nothing came out. Coughing slightly to clear his throat he whispered. “The day after the stampede, when you sent me after Charley to the watering hole.”

Ben digested this latest revelation. That meant that Joe was well aware of the situation when they arrived in San Francisco and yet he had agreed to share a room with the girl. A fleeting moment of panic filled Ben’s head, but he tried to dismiss the thought as quickly as it had come to him. Joe was only sixteen; surely he was too young to be even thinking such a thing. But Ben had to know.

Choosing his words as carefully as he could, Ben asked. “You knew Charley was a girl and yet you agreed to share a room with her?”

Realizing the implication of Ben’s words, Joe quickly blurted out indignantly. “I didn’t want to share with her, Pa; I even offered to share with Hoss, but he wouldn’t let me.”

Ben breathed a quick sigh of relief; at least the reason for Joe’s deception did not appear to be of a dishonorable nature.

“That doesn’t alter the fact that you kept her true identity to yourself and you did share a room with her. Why didn’t you tell me immediately when you discovered the truth?”

“I couldn’t, Pa. Charley made me promise to keep her secret.”

Ben’s voice rose slightly. “She made you! Have I not raised you to have a mind of your own? What do you mean ‘she made you’?”

“She said she would tell you if I said anything.”

“Tell me what?” Ben asked in exasperation

Joe didn’t look at his father’s face, knowing what reaction his next words were likely to cause. “She said she would tell you that I touched her br.., her br, well you know her…” Joe could not bring himself to say the words; instead he gesticulated with his hands in front of his chest.

“YOU DID WHAT?” his father bellowed.

“But it was an accident Pa,” Joe shrieked. “We were in the water and we didn’t have our clothes on….”

“Oh God,” Ben gasped, holding his hand to his head. This was getting worse by the second.

Adam sat in the corner with his hand over his mouth trying hard to stifle his laughter. Only Little Joe could get himself into such a predicament.

Holding up his hand in front of him, Ben silenced his young son. “Let me get this straight, Joseph. You and Charley were in the water….naked….and you touched her..” Ben stopped in order to take another deep breath. “You touched her breasts.”

Joe nodded.

“Joseph, I want you to think very carefully before you answer this next question.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Did you know that Charley was a girl when you both took off your clothes and entered the water?”

Joe’s mouth dropped wide open in shock and he looked in stunned silence at his father’s face. How could his Pa even think such a thing? Regaining his tongue, the words began to pour out of Joe’s mouth at an alarming rate.

“I had no idea Pa. When I arrived Charley was already swimming and I sneaked into the water when she wasn’t looking. I grabbed hold of her legs and pulled her under…of course I didn’t know she was a girl then otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. When she came to the surface, she was real angry…. well I guess she would be wouldn’t she… being a girl an’ all. Then she went to hit me and I reached out to push her out of the way and well, that’s when it happened.”

Ben tried hard to keep up with Joe’s rambling. “When what happened?” he asked.

“That’s when I touched her, you know, her…” Joe lowered his voice. “Her breasts. And that’s how I found out she was a girl. Charley said if I told you about her, she would tell you I grabbed her, but I didn’t…well, not really.”

Ben walked round and sat on the side of the bed. He should have known. Joe was only sixteen and much as he thought he was all grown up, in the ways of women he was still very much an innocent. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Ben would have laughed, but as it was, Joe had at the very least compromised the girl by sharing a room with her.

Joe couldn’t read his father’s face. Some of the anger seemed to have disappeared, but he still looked very serious. As for Adam, he was now stood looking out of the window, his shoulders shaking slightly. Joe wondered if his brother was upset, but the truth was that Adam couldn’t hide his amusement any longer and he didn’t want to have his father’s wrath turned on him if he was caught laughing.

Ben still had unanswered questions. “Little Joe. Where have you been sleeping these past two nights?”

“ME!! Oh I slept on the settee, Pa,” Joe squeaked, anxious to put his father’s mind at rest. “Charley had the bed to herself and I-I-I left the room when she took off her clothes and things.”

“Okay, okay, I believe you,” Ben acceded, raising his hand to quiet his son’s excited chatter. “Right I want you to go to bed now and we’ll discuss this matter further in the morning.”

Joe was relieved that the discussion hadn’t included a ‘necessary talk’, but he now looked at his father in confusion. “Go to bed, Pa?”

Ben raised his eyes to the ceiling – ‘God give him strength’. “In that bed, Joseph,” he growled, pointing to the bed Joe was leaning on. “You will be sleeping in my room from now on, where I can keep a good eye on you.”

Later that evening Ben and Adam met in the lounge bar downstairs to discuss the sorry state of affairs. Walking over to the table with a couple of beers in his hands, Adam set them down before tentatively broaching the subject with his father. “What you going to do about Joe, Pa?”

Ben drew in his breath and held it for several seconds. “I think your little brother has really excelled himself this time, Adam. The trouble is Joseph doesn’t seem to appreciate the position he has put himself and the young girl in.”

Adam looked at his father and sadly thought he had aged visibly in the last few hours. “I’m sure nothing happened between them, Pa. One look at Little Joe’s face should have told you that.”

“That doesn’t alter the fact, Adam. Your younger brother has been sharing a bedroom with a young lady for the past two nights. What her family are going to say about this, I dread to think? If it was my daughter, I would be demanding marriage at the very least, but only after I had a slice of his hide first.”

Adam was stunned at his father’s words. “Come on, Pa, they are just a couple of kids. Surely you can’t be contemplating allowing Joe to marry.”

“No, of course not,” Ben admitted. “But how are we ever going to placate the girl’s family into believing that it was all completely innocent and save the girl’s good name into the bargain?”

Neither man could come up with a satisfactory answer. Ben was right; Joe had really got himself into quite a fix this time.

“You know, Pa, we don’t even know if Charley has any family at this moment in time,” Adam cajoled, a glimmer of hope in his voice. “Why don’t we wait and see what she’s got to say for herself before we go jumping to any conclusions?”

Ben acknowledged Adam’s words, but he didn’t feel confident. Drinking the rest of his beer in one, he rose and headed for the stairs. As he entered the darkened bedroom, his eyes clouded as he looked at the sleeping form of his youngest son. “Oh Joseph,” Ben whispered to himself with a shake of his head. “Why don’t you think before you act? Your brothers and I won’t be around forever to keep picking up the pieces.”

*****

The following morning, Adam knocked on Charley’s bedroom door and waited for an answer. The girl was still feeling the after affects of the beer and whisky from the night before, not to mention the blow she had taken on the chin.

“Who’s there and what do you want?” she called out in a sleepy voice, reluctant to be drawn from her warm bed.

“It’s Adam Cartwright, young lady, and Pa wants to see you in his room in ten minutes, so look lively.”

Charley sat up in bed a look of pure horror crossing her face. How did Adam know she was a girl? Looking down at her almost naked body, she groaned as fleeting memories of the night before came back to her. At the thought of the brothers undressing her, she blushed profusely and pulled the covers up to her chin in embarrassment.

When Charley finally presented herself outside Ben’s room some twenty minutes later, she was once again dressed in the boy’s clothes she had worn since meeting them. As she prepared to knock on the door, one of the ranch hands was just leaving after delivering a message to Ben, and he couldn’t help but notice the difference in the ‘boy’ he had seen the day before.

Joe too noticed the difference immediately. Charley had not bothered to bind her female attributes; after all, her secret was out. As Joe looked blatantly and open mouthed at that part of her anatomy, Ben could feel his temper rise.

“JOSEPH!” Ben shouted, bringing Joe’s eyes quickly forwards and downwards so that he was looking at the floor.

Ben stood in front of the two shamefaced youngsters and tried hard to keep his anger in check. “So young lady, what have you got to say for yourself? I’ve heard Joseph’s version; now I would like to hear yours.”

Charley glanced sideways at Little Joe, who was still standing with his head down not daring to look up. “Er, well, em, what has Joe told you Mr. Cartwright?”

“I’m asking you, Charley, not Joe. Now why don’t your start by telling me why you dressed as a boy and joined the cattle drive?”

Seeing that she was going to get no help from Joe, Charley lifted her head and declared. “I was fed up looking after my Pa and three brothers. They never let me have any fun. I wanted to help with the horses and ranch, but they just wanted me to do their cooking and cleaning.”

Adam and Hoss looked at each and rolled their eyes; she sounded as bad as Joe.

“Is that the only reason?” Ben asked, trying hard to be patient.

“There was something else,” Charley reflected. “Pa was even talking about finding me a suitable husband.”

“You. Married!” Joe chipped in, feeling pity for anyone that ended up with Charley.

“Quiet, Joseph,” Ben remonstrated. Then turning to Charley he warned. “After this little fiasco, your family may very well think they have found you a husband.”

Charley and Joe looked at him aghast, the fear and realization showing on their faces.

“Pa, I can’t get…….” Joe began.

“Well I ain’t ready to get married yet,” Charley declared emphatically, interrupting Joe. “Anyway Joe’s just a kid,” she shrieked.

“I’m not a kid,” Joe shrieked back at her.

“You’re just sixteen,” Charley shouted louder, ignoring Ben’s warning glare.

“BE QUIET!” Ben cried in exasperation, silencing them both with two words.

Once peace was restored, Ben turned to Charley and asked. “Do your family have any idea where you are?”

“No Sir,” Charley answered meekly feeling ashamed of her childish outburst.

Ben thought for a second then asked the question he knew he couldn’t avoid. “I have already spoken to Joseph, but I want to hear it from you. What, if anything, has happened between the two of you?”

Charley looked over at Joe and when she saw him begin to squirm, she jumped to the wrong conclusion. “I don’t know what Joe said, Mr. Cartwright, but it must all be in his imagination, ‘cause I can assure you nothing whatsoever happened between me and Joe.”

Even though Ben had believed Joe’s version of events, he still breathed a sigh of relief to hear it confirmed by Charley’s own lips. But what was he to do? Would Charley’s family see the whole escapade as a juvenile prank and that the kids were not romantically involved. He was certainly going to have his work cut out convincing them of the truth.

Looking at the two worried faces in front of him, Ben felt a moment of compassion. Much as he would have liked to knock their two heads together, he would do everything in his power to prevent their simple act of foolishness from ruining their lives.

With some reluctance, Charley provided Ben with details of her family’s whereabouts and Ben quickly penned a telegram to them. Handing the note and a few dollars to Joe, he instructed him to go to the local telegraph office and send the message immediately.

“Come straight back here, Joseph,” Ben warned. “I haven’t finished with you yet.”

*****

Meanwhile the ranch hand who had seen Charley as he left Ben’s room couldn’t wait to impart his news to the rest of the hands. Hurrying out into the street and over to where a number of the Ponderosa crew were standing, he declared excitedly. “You’ll never guess what? I just bumped into young Charley over in the hotel and he’s not a he at all, he’s a girl.”

“He’s a what?” Pete Malcolm blustered, not trusting what he was hearing.

“I’m telling you, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Charley’s a girl.”

The surrounding men were flabbergasted, who would have believed it. It took a few minutes for the knowledge to sink in, but when it did, a slow smile spread over Pete Malcolm’s face. “That Little Joe Cartwright sure is a dark horse.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it! The little Casanova’s been sharing a room with her for the past few days,” Pete answered with a knowing wink in their direction.

The crew all started to laugh and whoop, totally unaware of a group of men listening and watching in the background.

Mallory Smithson and his sons stood rigid with anger. With fists clenched tightly at his side, the senior Smithson turned to his eldest son Jack and demanded. “You find this Joe Cartwright and bring him to me. No man’s gonna take advantage of my little gal and get away with it.”

*****

Joe was so glad to get away from his father and outside into the street. He hoped the worst was over; at least his Pa seemed to believe him and Charley that nothing had happened between them.

As he exited the hotel, one of his father’s men shouted over to him. “Hey Little Joe, how’s it going?”

When the other men with him started to laugh, Joe felt uncomfortable. “Uh, just fine,” Joe shouted back moving quickly away, not wanting to be the butt of one of their jokes.

As Little Joe made his way up towards the telegraph office, he was unaware that he was being followed. Just as he arrived at his destination, he felt a hand on his shoulder and he turned to see a tall dark man about Adam’s age standing behind him.

“You Joe Cartwright?” The man asked.

“That’s right,” Joe replied, wondering just who this stranger was.

“Someone wants to see you over at the livery stable,” the man stated and walking away beckoned for Joe to follow.

Ignoring the warning bells in his head, Joe’s curiosity got the better of him and he followed the man across the street.

As they entered the stables and the door was closed behind him, Joe began to have the uneasy feeling that he had made a big mistake. There were three other men now standing there and none looked too happy to see him.

“This is him, Pa,” Jack Smithson shouted over to his father; at the same time spiraling Joe forward with a push to his back.

“He ain’t nothing but a kid,” Mallory Smithson spat, glaring down at the boy now standing just feet from him.

Before Joe had time to gather his thoughts, Jeb, the youngest of the brothers’ stepped forward and landed a heavy blow to Joe’s stomach.

“Kid or not, he’s dishonored our sister and for that he’s gonna have to pay.”

Joe was now on his knees, coughing and trying to catch his breath. He looked up at his attacker, but before he had time to formulate a reply in his own defense, another blow struck him in the face.

Falling heavily to the ground, Joe’s head banged hard on the earth beneath him. Blood trickled from his mouth as he tried to collect his confused thoughts and make sense of what was happening to him.

Joe’s breath was still coming in short gasps when two pairs of arms grabbed hold of him and dragged him to his feet.

As Jeb and Mark held Joe tightly between them, Mallory Smithson now stood just inches from his captive. Taking hold of Joe’s hair he pulled the boy’s head up so that he could look him straight in the eye. “Before I take the flesh off your hide boy, have you got anything to say for yourself?”

“I-I-I don’t know what I’m supposed to have done,” Joe stuttered, flinching visibly as the hands holding him dug into his flesh.

“Is it true that you have been sharing a room at the hotel with my little gal?”

The fear escalated in Joe’s mind, this was one situation he knew he was going to have difficulty talking his way out of.

“I-I-I suppose I have, but it’s not what you th……”

Joe never finished his sentence, his first words had condemned him and Mallory Smithson was now beyond reason. Only the two pairs of hands at each side of him, kept Joe on his feet as the blows rained down on him again and again. Each blow was more vicious than the last and eventually Joe ceased to care, as he hung unconscious in the brothers’ grasp.

*****

Ben Cartwright couldn’t believe that Joe was disobeying his instructions. As he paced backwards and forwards in the lounge of the hotel, his temper was rising with each step.

Charley, Hoss and Adam stood nervously by as Ben vented his anger. “Why can’t that boy follow one simple instruction? Mark my words, that’s his last chance; for the rest of this trip, he won’t leave my side for an instant.”

The door to the hotel lobby opened and Ben turned expectantly towards it, thinking it to be Little Joe. He was disappointed to see Snakey walking towards them. Just a few minutes prior, Snakey had been informed by Pete Malcolm that Charley was really a girl and his natural curiosity meant he had come to see for himself if it was true.

“Snakey, you haven’t seen Little Joe by any chance?” Hoss asked in an attempt to avert Snakey’s eyes from the front of Charley’s chest.

“Sure,” Snakey replied, still keeping his eyes fixed on Charley’s obvious female assets. “Seen him going over towards the livery stable with some fellow.”

Adam sensed something was amiss immediately. “Was it anyone we know?”

Snakey eventually pulled his eyes away from Charley and looked at Adam. “Not anyone I know,” he said with a shake of his head. “But I did see him earlier with three other men. Think they must be the same family, ‘cause a couple of the younger guys called the older one Pa.”

“Oh no!” Charley cried looking over at Ben. “You don’t suppose it could be my Pa and brothers?”

“Damn!” Adam cursed. It wasn’t by chance that Snakey was there giving Charley the once over and if Snakey knew about Charley, then probably half the town was aware by now. If those men were Charley’s family, it was a good guess that they had heard the gossip and it was a sure bet that they had the wrong end of the stick the same as everyone else.

Leaving Snakey to wonder what was going on, Ben, Charley, Adam and Hoss rushed from the hotel and towards the livery stable. Not pausing to wonder about the dangers, Ben pushed open the doors and barged inside followed closely by his sons and Charley.

Mallory was just about to land another blow to Joe’s battered body. Adam instantly pulled his gun from its holster and growled. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you, Mister,” then looking at the other three men he said menacingly. “All of you put your hands in the air and keep them there.”

Mallory’s fist stopped in mid air and he dropped it back to his side. The two men holding Little Joe released their grip and Joe’s body slid lifeless to the floor.

Ben rushed to Joe’s side and gently lifted his son into his arms.

Unable to take her eyes from Joe’s battered body, Charley sunk to her knees and cried. “Pa, what have you done?”

“What have I done?” her father bellowed. “More like what have you and this boy done? Did you think I wouldn’t find out about you sharing a room together?”

“But it wasn’t like that, Pa,” Charley sobbed, realizing the trouble she had caused. “Nothing went on between me and Little Joe; he slept on the settee the whole time.”

“You expect me to believe that!” Mallory Smithson roared. “If there was nothing going on, why were you sharing a room?”

“Because I wanted everyone to think I was a boy. Little Joe found out and he agreed to keep my secret.”

“So he was blackmailing you into staying with him?”

“NO, NO,” Charley shouted, trying to make her father see sense. “Little Joe wasn’t blackmailing me. It was more like me blackmailing him. He wanted to tell his Pa I was a girl, but I made him promise he wouldn’t. So, you see that is how we ended up in the same room, but nothing happened, Pa. Honest.” Charley looked once more at Joe as Ben wiped the blood from his face. “Look at him Pa, he’s just a boy. How could you think such a thing?”

For the first time Mallory Smithson took a good look at the boy in Ben Cartwright’s arms and a wave of shame passed over him. He knew his daughter was telling the truth. Charley may be a little on the wild side, but in all her life, she had never lied to him.

As the anger seeped out of him, Mallory looked to Ben for understanding. “I’m sorry about the boy,” he whispered. Then in a more pleading tone he asked. “What was I supposed to think?”

At that precise moment in time, Ben really didn’t care what Mallory Smithson thought; his priority was his youngest son and tending to his injuries. Little Joe began to groan and Ben was relieved that he was regaining consciousness.

“How is he Pa?” Hoss asked looking worriedly over Ben’s shoulder.

“Pretty sore, I would imagine,” Ben replied. “But he’ll be all right, Hoss, he’ll be all right.”

Adam had returned his gun to its holster and now hovered in the background, still keeping a watchful eye on the Smithsons.

As a dazed Joe tried to clear his thoughts, Ben continued to check out his injuries. Once he was satisfied that Joe had no broken bones, he breathed a sigh of relief. The lump forming on the side of Joe’s head was concerning and Ben would get the doctor to give him the once over, but the fact that Joe was now conscious was a good sign.

Ben and Hoss stood at each side of Joe and slowly pulled him to his feet and held on to him.

“It’s okay, Pa, I can walk,” Joe protested, pushing the helping hands away. But after only one step Joe’s knees began to buckle and only Hoss’ swift reflexes kept Joe from falling face down in the dirt.

Lifting his little brother with ease, Hoss swept Joe up into his arms, and despite the younger man’s protests, he carried his little brother bodily over to the hotel. Ben fell in step with Hoss while Adam set off in search of the doctor.

Charley and her family were left standing in the livery stable feeling embarrassed and foolish. At first, they all avoided eye contact but eventually Mallory Smithson could stand the silence no longer.

“Why did you do it, Charley? Why did you run off like that?”

Charley shrugged her shoulders and tried to find the right words. She didn’t want to hurt her Pa’s feelings but at the same time, she didn’t want to return home to the life she had left behind.

“Ever since Ma died, I ain’t had a life Pa. You and the boys seem to think I should fill her shoes. I cook; I clean, I run about after you all. But what about me, Pa? I’m seventeen years old and I never have any fun; I never go anywhere or do anything. You won’t allow me court a boy, and then you talk about finding me a suitable husband like I’m some prize cow at the market.”

Mallory Smithson looked at his ‘little’ girl through new eyes. Charley was right; ever since his wife Martha had died two years previously; he had expected Charley to take her place. Running a home, in his opinion, was women’s work and it never occurred to him that Charley would want a different life for herself.

“What is it you want, Charley?” Mallory asked, realizing he had taken her for granted.

“I don’t want much, Pa, just a bit of consideration. Maybe I could help on the ranch a bit more; I’m real good with the horses. And in return, the boys could help out with the house chores.”

Charley’s brothers began to mouth their protest, but Mallory quieted them with just a raise of his hand. “Okay Charley,” he conceded. “I’m willing to meet you halfway. Come home with me now and I promise everything will change. The boys and I will help you with your chores and I’ll see that you get to work with the horses.”

Charley squealed with delight and flung herself into her Pa’s open arms. Kissing him on the cheek, she hugged him tight and declared. “I love you, Pa.”

Mallory was delighted to have his daughter back again, but he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt towards Joe Cartwright. Prying himself away from Charley’s grip, he held her hands in his and said. “I think we should go over to the hotel and see how the lad is doing. I’m afraid I wasn’t too easy on him.”

Charley’s smile faded from her face. “He really is a nice boy, Pa. Little Joe never did anything wrong.”

“I know, I believe you Charley; it’s just when I thought you were sharing a room with him, I saw red.”

The Smithson family left the livery stable just as the doctor was entering the hotel with Adam Cartwright and making his way to Ben’s bedroom.

*****

Joe hated being fussed over and was none too pleased to see the doctor enter the room. His pride had already taken a battering at the way Hoss had carried him into the hotel and up the stairs, and he was in no mood to be prodded and poked by the local quack.

“Now young man, let’s take a look at you and see what the damage is,” the doctor said pleasantly as he walked over to the bed. Blood was still trickling from Joe’s mouth and nose and onto his shirt. “I think we’ll start by getting you out of these soiled clothes,” the doctor added.

As the doctor reached over to unbutton his shirt, Joe pushed his hands away. “I’m fine,” he said churlishly. “I don’t need no doctor.”

Ben’s concern for his youngest turned to one of irritation. “Joseph, that is quite enough. You will do exactly as the doctor tells you.” Then turning to Adam he added, “Help your brother off with his clothes, Adam.”

Joe sulked as Adam helped him remove his shirt and pants, but much as he tried to pretend he wasn’t in pain, he couldn’t help groaning and biting on his bottom lip when the doctor began his examination. Once the blood was wiped away, most of Joe’s injuries turned out to be superficial; he would have plenty of bruises to show for his beating but there didn’t appear to be any lasting damage.

By the time the doctor had finished, Joe was trying hard to keep his tears at bay and he was grateful when the physician mixed a painkilling powder and insisted that he drank it. The painkiller also had the added benefit of having a sedative effect and once his ordeal was over, Joe lay back on the pillows with his eyes closed, breathing heavily, and waited for the drug to work its magic.

As Adam pulled the covers over his young brother, Ben and the doctor moved away from the bed.

“Well?” asked Ben and waited for the doctor’s diagnosis.

“He’s certainly taken quite a beating, but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” the doctor began. “His ribs are sore and probably quite bruised but nothing’s broken. The only thing I’m a little concerned about is the blow to his head, but he seems to be coherent enough. Just keep him in bed for a few days. If that’s possible,” the doctor added with a chuckle, glancing back at the young man who was now beginning to drift off, “and he’ll be fine.”

After the doctor had been paid and left the room, Ben sat with Joe until he fell asleep. With Joe now compliant, Ben took the opportunity to bathe his young son’s face and body in an attempt to wash away the dried blood and dirt.

There was a quiet knock at the door and Adam answered. Charley sheepishly entered the room and stood before them.

“How’s Joe, Mr. Cartwright?” she asked.

Ben forced a smile on his face. “Don’t worry, Charley, he’s going to be fine. He’ll have plenty of bruises and his pride is hurt, but he’ll get over it.”

Charley’s bottom lip began to quiver. “This is all my fault. Joe really didn’t want any part of it, but I made him promise to help me. I’m so sorry.” With that, the tears began to fall and Charley choked back a sob.

Gathering the girl into his strong arms, Ben stroked her hair and said soothingly. “What’s done is done, Charley, we can’t change it, but at the end of the day I hope you and Joe have learned something from this experience.”

Pulling herself together, Charley found herself smiling. “I don’t know about Joe but I sure have, Mr. Cartwright.” Then, with a mischievous smile, she added. “I’ve learned that those chest binders are the most uncomfortable things in the world to wear.”

Ben began to chuckle, and with a swipe to Charley’s rear end, he admonished. “You scamp. I pity your father trying to keep you in line, and to think I thought I had it bad with Joseph.”

At the mention of her father, Charley became serious once more. “Speaking of my Pa, he would like to talk to you, Mr. Cartwright. He and my brothers are waiting downstairs.”

Shortly afterwards Adam, Hoss and Ben made their way to the hotel lounge for the inevitable meeting with the Smithson men.

As the seven men confronted each other, there was an awkward silence in the room. Mallory was the first one to speak. “Charley told me Little Joe is going to be all right, but I still want to apologize for what I did to the boy,” he began, not finding it easy to find the right words. “If you could just try and understand how I was feeling after what those men inferred about my daughter. I know it’s no excuse but it’s been real tough trying to raise a girl since my wife died.”

Ben’s face softened; he knew how difficult it was to raise kids on your own, but he expected that it would be doubly hard raising a daughter. Holding out his hand to the other father, he said magnanimously, “No hard feelings, Mr. Smithson; thinking about it, if I had a daughter, I’m sure I would have acted in exactly the same way.”

Mallory Smithson breathed a sigh of relief; he wasn’t proud of his actions and although he couldn’t undo what he and his sons had done, he was at great pains to make amends.

“Thank you for that,” Mallory said, acknowledging Ben’s generous spirit. “We’ll be staying in town for another day or so and I’d like the opportunity to apologize to Joe in person when he’s feeling better.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Ben affirmed. “Now how about we all sit down and have some lunch.”

*****

It was the following afternoon when Ben opened his bedroom door and Joe suddenly found himself surrounded by the entire Smithson family. The bruises on Joe’s face were now quite prominent, and all in all, he looked a very sorry soul.

Joe slunk low down in the bed and kept his eyes on the cover in front of him. He felt uncomfortable and exposed lying in bed injured while the men that put him there hovered so close nearby.

Mallory Smithson’s face reddened as he was confronted by the evidence of his actions. Coughing to clear his throat, he tried to formulate an apology that didn’t trivialize his behavior. “Little Joe, I know it will be hard for you to comprehend my actions, but hopefully when you grow up and become a father yourself, you may be able to understand why I did what I did. Sometimes your heart rules your head and you do things you wouldn’t normally do.” Mallory paused for breath, as Joe seemed to sink lower in the bed. “What I’m trying to say, Joe, is that I’m sorry, really sorry, for the way I behaved. If I could take back the hurt, I would and I….well…I just wanted you to know that.”

Joe still kept his eyes down, his bottom lip sucked between his teeth. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he just couldn’t think what to say to the man.

Mallory made to turn away. “I’m sorry, son, but I can understand if you don’t want to accept my apology.”

Joe’s head shot up. “No no, it’s not that. I do accept your apology and I suppose I do understand how you feel…well a little anyway.” As Joe looked around him, his eyes fell on Charley who was stood at the back of the room.

This was the first time Joe had seen Charley dressed in female attire. Her blue fitted dress accentuated her slim figure and her blonde curls were no longer pushed behind her ears but now fell softly forward framing her pretty face.

“WOW!” Joe couldn’t help exclaiming. “You sure scrub up well.”

Charley started to giggle. “I can’t say the same for you, Joe; you looked a lot prettier yesterday morning.” Realizing how heartless that sounded, Charley was quick to apologize. “I’m sorry, Joe; guess that was a really dumb thing to say.”

Joe laughed and then winced as his ribs began to hurt. “That’s to be expected. After all, you’re just a girl and girls always say dumb things.”

“You’re a one to talk, little boy,” Charley was quick to respond. “If you weren’t so pig h………”

“Oh oh, I think it’s time to separate them,” Ben laughed, as Mallory grabbed his daughter and pulled her from the room.

*****

Several days later, Ben finally allowed Joe to leave his bed and join them downstairs for breakfast. The Smithson family had already left town the day before and Ben had made arrangements for himself and Joe to leave on the noon stage. Hop Sing would be joining them on the journey while Adam and Hoss returned to the Ponderosa with the rest of the crew on horseback.

At midmorning, Ben left the hotel to go and finalize some last minute arrangements, while Adam and Hoss decided to make one last visit to the saloon for a cool glass of beer before they started to make tracks on the homeward journey.

Joe tagged along with his brothers, looking rather dejected. “What’s up with you Short Shanks?” Hoss asked, unhappy to see his little brother looking so forlorn.

“I think he’s missing his little friend,” Adam teased, winking in Hoss’ direction.

“That’ll be the day,” Joe retorted. “Charley was enough to put me off girls for life. I’m finished with women from now on.”

“Then what’s up?” Hoss asked once more.

“Just wish I was going back with you and Adam,” Joe cried petulantly. “Don’t want to spend all that time on the stage with Pa and Hop Sing.”

“It’s for your own good,” Hoss deemed. “Those ribs of yours ain’t up to a long horse ride. Besides, I don’t think Pa is willing to let you out of his sight for, oh, I don’t know, the next three or four years maybe.”

The elder brothers guffawed with laughter at their younger siblings face. “Come on,” Adam called, slinging an arm over each of his siblings’ shoulders. “Let’s have a beer together before we have to leave.”

Hoss and Adam were in discussion at the bar, their glasses almost empty, when they turned to see Little Joe being chatted up by one of the pretty saloon girls.

“Well, hello, young fella,” the girl crooned. “What happened to your handsome face?”

To the brothers’ amazement Joe smiled cockily at the girl and with all the charm he could muster said. “Oh it’s nothing, just got into a bit of fight that’s all.”

The saloon girl bent forward and kissed the young man on the lips. “How about I kiss your bruises better?” She enthused before seductively allowed her fingers to trace a line down Joe’s chest. “All of them.”

Before Joe had time to make a response, two pairs of arms lifted him bodily from his seat and carried him protesting out of the saloon.

“Got to hand it to you, boy,” Adam declared with a shake of his head. “Your celibacy didn’t last long.”

“My w-w-what?” Joe questioned, still trying to free himself from his brothers’ grasp.

“Forget it, little brother, just forget it,” Hoss laughed, pulling Joe’s hat down over his eyes. “You know, Adam, I think we should tell Pa to make that five years!!!”

***The End***

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