Summary: On a secret mission, adolescent Joe Cartwright tracks his best source of discovering what girls are hiding beneath their frilly drawers–his brother Adam.
Word Count: 9000
Little Joe Cartwright sat in the classroom of the one-room school in Virginia City, his right cheek resting in the palm of his hand, his geometry text opened flat on his desktop and a pencil lying lax in his other hand. His dreamy eyes saw neither. They were focused, instead, on a point in the aisle to his left, two places ahead of his own seat, specifically on a bit of blue ribbon laced through the bordering eyelet of a ruffled hem that graced a delicate ankle twined behind the ironwork foot of the other scholar’s seat. The heel of that foot bobbed, almost in rhythm with the ticking clock that hung on the wall at the front of the room, but for once in his academic career, Little Joe wasn’t counting each tick until either recess or, preferably, day’s end set him free from the torment of education. Time had ceased to exist for him, and he felt content to sit there in pensive contemplation of a single ruffle and whatever went with it.
“Little Joseph!” A sharp voice broke his trance, although it was more likely the jerking of his answer sheet from beneath his left arm and the clatter of his pencil as it rolled onto the floor that pulled him from his romantic reverie. “Do you mean to say that you’ve solved only one problem in the last hour?” demanded Miss Abigail Jones. “Where is your mind, boy?”
“Pantalettes,” he murmured, his thoughts still lingering on their previous trail.
Eyes narrowing, she leaned closer. “What did you say?”
Little Joe felt a kick from behind him and heard a snicker to his right, followed by a loud announcement, “He said pantalettes, Miss Jones.”
Girlish giggles broke out around the room; then Mitch Devlin loudly said, “Get your mind out of the gutter, Pete Woodburn! He said no such thing. Tell ‘em, Joe.” The urgent command was accompanied by a second swift kick under the desk.
“Well?” Miss Jones tapped her foot impatiently. “What was it you said, Little Joseph? It certainly sounded like pantalettes to me, though I earnestly hope I am wrong!”
Little Joe gulped. “No, ma’am,” he said and just as quickly reversed himself, “I mean, yes, ma’am. I mean…”
Miss Jones sighed as she was wont to do when dealing with this particular scholar. “Just what is it you do mean?”
“I mean…uh…yes, you’re wrong…and, no, I didn’t say that. Of course, I didn’t say that!”
“Then what did you say?
“I said…uh.” Knowing he couldn’t answer honestly without risking a suddenly scheduled meeting with his father, Little Joe said the first thing that came into his head. “Horse frets.”
A snort from the right, followed by an outburst of laughter rolling across the classroom greeted that response. Little Joe winced. Why, or why, couldn’t he do this with the skill and ease of his brother Adam? He couldn’t count the times he’d heard his big brother mutter something outrageous under his breath, only to change it to something that sounded reasonable seconds later when Pa asked, “What’s that?” Little Joe, whenever he tried that stratagem, invariably landed on a second version that was no better and frequently worse than the original.
“Horse frets?” Abigail Jones frowned. “Why on earth would you say anything as utterly ridiculous as that?” She instantly wished she had not asked, for in her experience, the utterly ridiculous was this young man’s stock in trade, and his explanations tended only to further befuddle her.
It was no different this time. “My…uh…horse frets when I…uh…don’t see him for such long stretches.” Little Joe dawdled, floundering for words. Suddenly, he found them, and they began to pour out with mind-numbing rapidity. “You see, Miss Jones, not bein’ a boy yourself, you probably got no notion of the affection a horse can feel for a fellow and how lonely he gets, just standin’ and waitin’ all day long for him to get out of school and hop on his back and ride out across the valley with the breeze blowin’ through his mane and…”
“That will be enough, Little Joseph,” his teacher said sternly. “What you are telling me is that, instead of working your geometry problems, you’ve spent the entire study hour daydreaming about your horse.”
“Well…yes’m.” The boy looked ashamed of himself and felt it, too, although not for the reason she reasonably assumed. He was, at heart, an honest person, especially when he contemplated the consequences should his father, the personification of righteous integrity, find out that he’d just told, at best, a half-truth. He had been daydreaming, true enough; just not about Cochise.
She sighed. “I should, of course, keep you after school to make certain you do this work. However, as I have choir rehearsal tonight, I’m going to insist that you complete it while I hear the rest of the class’s recitation, and I will then assign additional work for you to do tonight at home.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly, thrilled to get off so easily. Extra schoolwork was never welcome, of course, but it was better than having a note sent home to his father or being kept after school, which would also guarantee an unpleasant conversation with Pa, quite possibly conducted while lying across his lap. Besides, he could always appeal to Adam for help with arithmetic and get him to work one or two of the problems for him as examples, maybe more if he feigned true ignorance. Adam seemed to think him a near-idiot when it came to numbers, and Little Joe had taken no pains to disabuse him of the notion. After all, it came in right handy at times like this.
By the time school was dismissed for the day, he’d only managed to work three more problems. Fearing that further contemplation of blue ribbon would lead him astray, he’d fixed his eyes higher every time he’d raised them from his work. Unfortunately, a shapely ankle was the least of Emmy Lynne’s newfound attractions. Little Joe had known Emmaline Lynne Winters almost as long as he’d been in school. At first, of course, she’d only been a girl, and he’d felt about her exactly the way he felt about all girls: he loathed them. Somewhere along the line he’d sidled up to toleration, and then outright liking for the species, but Emmy Lynne hadn’t attracted his eye or that of any other boy. She just wasn’t ripe for the picking.
All that had changed this year. She’d filled out and sprouted curves in all the right places, and even though she always wore modest, ladylike blouses without so much as a top button undone, there was no disguising the softly rounded bulges sticking out in front. To avoid pondering those, Little Joe had dropped his eyes to her ankles and become instantly beguiled by those pretty pantalettes and whatever might lie beneath them. Trying that solution in reverse had been no help whatsoever.
He burst from his seat as soon as Miss Jones set them free and would have run outside but for the teacher’s standing orders about how they were to exit her classroom, namely like little ladies and gentlemen, single-file, with the gents giving place to the ladies whenever they happened to reach the door at the same moment. He couldn’t afford to draw further attention to himself, so he did exactly that. Eventually he was outside, but just as he started down the three steps to the ground, he felt a hand clamp on his shoulder. Head swiveling, he demanded, “Let go, Mitch; I got to get to Cochise.”
Mitch’s grip tightened. “You ain’t still tryin’ to make that balderdash trot, are you?”
“With Miss Jones, I am,” he hissed. “Let go.”
“Okay,” Mitch said, releasing him, “but I’m meeting you by the stable.”
“We all are,” added Seth Pruitt from just behind Mitch.
Little Joe hurried to the stable and threw a saddle blanket across the back of his paint pony, quickly followed by the saddle itself.
“Hold up,” Seth ordered. Having longer legs than Mitch, he’d gotten there first, while the final member of the quartet of friends was still jogging across the schoolyard in chase of the others. “You got some explainin’ to do, boy.”
“Don’t call me boy,” Little Joe snapped, grabbing his bridle. “Just ‘cause you’re a year older don’t give you the right to take on airs.”
Seth shrugged. “Fair enough, but you still owe us an explanation. I mean, honestly, Joe…horse frets?”
“That was as lame as a horse with a broke leg,” Mitch agreed.
“Two broke legs,” said “Tuck” Tucker, panting up to join the others.
Little Joe sighed and let the horse tackle fall limp in his hands. “Make it three and you got it about right, but it was all I could think of.”
“Except pantalettes.” Mitch, looking up from saddling his own mount, grinned. “You ‘peared to be doin’ considerable thinkin’ on those!”
The other three boys all laughed, and Little Joe smiled ruefully back. “Don’t try tellin’ me you ain’t never done no thinkin’ on ‘em.”
“Not in school,” Mitch, the most dutiful student of the four, insisted.
“Any particular pair of pantalettes catch your eye?” Seth asked.
As he slid the bridle over Cochise’s head, Little Joe nodded. In a way, he’d have liked to keep that information to himself, but these were, after all, his best friends. “Emmy Lynne’s,” he said.
“Figured as much,” Mitch said, while Tuck flushed red as the proverbial beet at the mention of a girl’s underwear.
“Good choice,” Seth said, “but ain’t there better parts of that lady to be eyein’?”
“I was tryin’ hard not to eye those parts,” Little Joe admitted, “but then I spotted the trim on her pantalettes — it’s real frilly — and I got to wonderin’ what was…under ‘em.”
“Joe!” Tuck cried, immediately clapping a hand over his mouth and looking around furtively. “You can’t be sayin’ stuff like that, not in school, leastways. If Miss Jones was to hear…”
“She already heard,” Mitch laughed. “‘Horse frets’ may be the worst substitution I ever heard, but it worked.”
“A miss is as good as a mile, Hoss always says,” Little Joe offered, his trademark grin flashing.
“Don’t see as there’s much to wonder about, anyway,” Seth said. “I figure it’s pretty much like what you got under your own drawers…barrin’ the obvious difference.”
Even beets couldn’t match the shade of Tuck’s face by this time, but Little Joe took the comment with a shrug. “It’s gotta be some different; you know, smoother…softer or… something.”
“Unless she’s hairy as Hoss,” Mitch snickered. “Which I’m sure she ain’t,” he added quickly when Little Joe stared him down.
“There’s your answer,” Seth suggested, stroking the nose of his saddled horse. “You got older brothers; ask ‘em.”
Mitch, who had brothers of his own, began shaking his head with a look of disbelief at Seth, an orphan who obviously had no comprehension of the likely consequences of such a fool notion. Tuck, with only sisters, had nothing to offer. Certainly, no one expected him to have been spying on them!
“Hoss probably knows less than I do,” Little Joe laughed, but sobered as he continued, “As for Adam…”
“You can’t tell me he don’t know!” Seth snorted.
“Like as not,” Little Joe admitted, “but I ain’t crazy enough to open up a conversation with him on a subject like that! Ain’t no tellin’ where that could lead…like straight to Pa, for instance.”
“Oh.” Seth, who’d heard Ben Cartwright raise the roof over less, yielded easily. Then just as quickly, he brightened like a lantern lit in a dark barn. “So don’t ask,” he said, sporting his best approximation of a lascivious leer. “Just watch ‘im.”
“Watch him?” Tuck squeaked. “You mean, when he’s…tweakin’ a girl’s…” Unable to continue, he planted his face in his horse’s side.
Little Joe, however, began to thoughtfully rub both sides of his chin between thumb and fingers. “Hmm.” His animated eyes revealed the wheels turning inside his head. Slowly, a crafty smile spread across his face. “Yeah…yeah…that might work.” He looked up, beaming. “Okay, who’s in?”
Timid Tuck’s head, still planted in his horse’s flank, began rubbing side to side almost at once, while Seth, who was being raised by an uncle so strict he made Ben Cartwright look lax, nonetheless took only a moment to announce that he’d go along. Mitch just looked uncomfortable, like a rabbit caught between a net on one side and a snare on the other.
“Don’t fret yourself none,” Little Joe said softly.
Though he understood that Little Joe was telling him that their friendship would be unaffected, whatever he decided, Mitch chose to turn his response into a joke. “Fret? I don’t fret,” he said with a taunting grin. “Your horse frets, remember?” He vaulted onto his own roan gelding and took off, while the other three mounted and gave chase out of the schoolyard.
Little Joe dropped from the tree outside his bedroom window to the welcoming earth with a soft thump. A low whistle greeted him, and a dark figure emerged from the shadow of the pines surrounding the Ponderosa ranch house. “‘Bout time,” Seth scolded. “Your brother left more’n an hour ago.”
Little Joe shrugged. “Have to leave him time to fetch the girl, don’t we?”
“Thought you overheard him sayin’ it was Miss Maisy he was takin’ up to the lake,” Seth said. “Like as not, she just met him there, bein’ a saloon gal and all.”
“Adam treats even saloon gals like ladies,” Little Joe said. “Probably works to his favor.”
“In gettin’ their knickers down, you mean?”
Little Joe swatted his friend’s arm. “You best get your mind back where it belongs.”
Seth snorted. “I ain’t the one whose mind’s been taken up with pantalettes!”
Little Joe clapped a hand over Seth’s mouth and pulled him away from the house. “Will you keep it down?” he hissed.
Seth chuckled, though softly this time. “Your pa’s room is down to the other end of the house.”
“Yeah, but Hoss’ is right there.” Little Joe stabbed a finger toward the window next to the one from which he’d just emerged.
Seth snorted. “And you think he’s gonna hear anything over that?” Through the open window, Hoss’ pronounced snore could be heard rattling the tree limbs above them.
Little Joe rolled his eyes. “Where’s your horse?”
“Tied it back a ways…in case Hoss wasn’t snorin’,” Seth snickered. “Where’s yours?”
“Back corral. Give me a minute to saddle him.” Though it took more than a minute, Little Joe was soon back, leading a dark brown horse.
“Hey, where’s your pinto?” Seth asked.
“In the barn, where he’s ‘sposed to be, if anyone happens in,” Little Joe said with a cocky grin. “You think I’d pick a horse that noticeable for a secret mission? In this moonlight, all that white just makes him easy to spot.”
“Good thinking,” Seth admitted. His own horse was dark, too, but only because he had no other choice.
Both boys walked their animals until they were well away from the house; then they mounted and galloped toward the lake. As they drew closer, their pace again slowed until, finally, they abandoned the horses altogether and, after tying them securely, made their way, step by stealthy step, toward a secluded cove, from which issued the soft strumming of guitar. Dropping to hands and knees, they crept as close as they dared and hunkered down behind a convenient cluster of manzanita bushes with a good view of a picnic blanket spread beside the foaming waves of Lake Tahoe. When they saw Adam lay aside the guitar and move to the girl’s side, they exchanged a happy grin. They’d arrived just in time!
“Oh, Adam, that was beautiful,” sighed Maisy.
“You’re beautiful,” Adam said, twirling his finger through an auburn curl that rested on her shoulder. Unlike many of the girls at the Silver Dollar, she didn’t apply color to her hair, and it retained its natural softness. He held it to his nose and savored the sweet smell of lavender. Pleased, he unwound the curl, letting his fingers slowly follow it to her slender neck.
Leaning into his touch, she gazed at the waves lapping the shore. “Did you ever wish a moment could last forever?”
“Not really,” he said, stroking her soft skin. “I prefer to let the moments flow…from one…to another…to another.” With each phrase his fingers moved toward the nape of her neck.
She laughed lightly. “Yes, I see, but I meant the whole evening: the stars, the lake, the delightful picnic, romantic music…and you. I wish it could all go on forever.”
“What makes you think it’s ending?” he whispered. “Come ‘ere.” He pulled her face toward his and kissed her, gently at first and then more deeply.
Maisy moaned with pleasure, as the jaws of two wide-eyed peeping Toms dropped. Adam’s lips moved to her neck as he lightly kissed his way down toward her bosom, his hand slowly tracing the path of his lips to the top button of her blouse. “More?” he whispered.
“Yes, yes,” she murmured eagerly, eyes closed in ecstasy, and Adam eased her down to the quilt spread for their picnic.
Flashing a naughty grin, Seth nudged his friend’s shoulder, but Little Joe didn’t return it. Sure, he’d dreamed and drooled about what girls kept hidden beneath all the frills and ribbon, but eager as he’d been to catch a glimpse of a shapely leg, his ambitions hadn’t risen much above the knee, while apparently older brother’s ambitions ranged a lot higher than that — all the way to a place of which Pa would definitely not approve. Suddenly, Little Joe wasn’t at all sure he wanted the eyeful he was about to get. As his brother bent over Maisy, working at something with one hand — probably her bodice buttons — Little Joe’s face turned a shade of crimson that even Tuck, at his most modest, could not have rivaled. Then he scolded himself for acting like a kid. What red-blooded, American man would pass up an opportunity like this? The answer to that obviously being none, Little Joe hunkered down behind the manzanita and stared, mouth still hanging open, at the scene unfolding before his dazzled eyes.
Seth, however, frowned in frustration. Adam had moved into a position that blocked the youth’s view of what the man was up to, and Seth could tell by the look on his friend’s face that it was something worth seeing. He nudged Little Joe with his elbow to signal him to move over, but the other boy remained frozen. Seth shoved harder. Little Joe still didn’t budge. Seeing plenty of sheltering bush on the other side of his friend, Seth decided to take his viewing pleasure into his own hands. Stealthily he crept behind Joe, but in the dark, his toe caught the sole of Joe’s upturned boot and he went sprawling into the branches of the manzanita with thunderous crackles and crunches.
A shrill shriek pierced Little Joe’s paralysis, and even before Adam rose up, demanding, “Who’s there? Show yourself!” he and Seth were off and running. Half-crouched, they scurried toward the sheltering shadows of the trees, Adam hot on their heels. Once there, they stood upright and sprinted to their horses, pulled the reins free, vaulted into their saddles and rode for their lives. They charged down the mountainside until they came to the parting of their ways; then, with only a wave of farewell, Seth headed for home, while Little Joe raced on to the Ponderosa.
Somewhere along that wild ride, Little Joe figured out that Adam could not possibly catch him. In the first place, Adam didn’t have a riding horse. Since he’d had all the picnic paraphernalia to carry, as well as a girl to pick up. He’d taken the buckboard, and there was no way he could catch fast flying hooves while dragging a wagon. Even if he tried to ride one of the harness horses, he’d be bareback on a mount not used to being ridden and not built for speed to begin with. With advantages like that, Little Joe knew he’d be home long before Adam.
He still rode fast, but as soon as he reached the Ponderosa, he took time to give his mount a good rubdown and proper care. When it came to minimizing the consequences of misbehavior, that sort of thing went far in Pa’s books, and Adam still hadn’t shown up by the time Little Joe finished and tiptoed up to his room. He took time to change into his nightshirt and lay his clothes out the same way he did every night. Then he crawled into bed, prepared to feign sleep when the inevitable doom fell upon him.
It didn’t come. Little Joe started to worry that something might have happened to Adam while chasing them in the dark, but then he smiled. No, the only thing wrong with Adam was that he was a gentleman. Even if Maisy was only a saloon girl, Adam wouldn’t just take off and leave her, screaming alone in the dark. No, he’d have to calm her down, and since, skilled as he obviously was, he probably couldn’t do that successfully enough for them to go on with whatever he’d planned, he’d have to apologize, take her home and then drive that slow-going buckboard back to the Ponderosa before he could hope to rake his baby brother over the coals. Little Joe yawned prodigiously. Might as well sleep.
He woke with a jolt as his buttocks landed on the rough planks of his bedroom floor. He cried out, mostly in surprise, and then screeched in genuine fear when he saw his brother Adam looming over him, nostrils flaring, fumes from the fury within blasting from both sides. “You abominable little wretch!” his brother was blaring. “How dare you?”
“Wh… what you talkin’ about?” Little Joe shouted loudly, hoping someone, anyone, would hear and come to his rescue.
Between the two of them hollering, someone — actually, everyone — came quickly. Hoss was first, his bedroom being right next door. Seeing Adam grab his baby brother up from the floor, he naturally pinioned his arms, which caused Adam to drop Joe and Joe to yelp as he again fell to the hard floor. That’s when Ben burst in and demanded what the Sam Hill was going on.
Everyone tried to explain at once, producing nothing but a raucous cacophony. “One at a time!” Ben bellowed. “Hoss?” he asked, turning first to his most reasonable son.
“Don’t know, Pa,” Hoss said. “I heard this awful yellin’ and come runnin’ in to find big brother about to bash younger one, so I just naturally stopped him from killin’ the kid.”
“Hmphf,” Ben grunted, but seeing nothing to criticize in his middle son’s behavior, he turned next to his eldest. “All right, then. Why were you trying to kill your little brother?”
“I wasn’t,” Adam declared with a glare at Hoss. “Not that the world wouldn’t be a safer place if I did!”
Little Joe decided to get his two cents’ worth in before Adam had time to level any accusations. “All I know, Pa, is older brother here yanked me out of a sound sleep and dumped me in the floor. It really hurt, Pa!” He ended on a whimper, figuring it couldn’t hurt to play on Pa’s sympathies and tender affection for his youngest.
Ben Cartwright rounded on his eldest son. “Adam?” he demanded. “Did you do that?”
“I did,” Adam admitted, head held high, “and with good cause. The little wretch followed me up to the lake, where I was entertaining a young lady, and spied on…our picnic.”
Ben arched a skeptical eyebrow, for Adam seemed suspiciously overwrought at having been caught in such an innocent activity. “Well, Joseph, have you been spying on your brother’s…picnic?”
Little Joe had the out he needed. He hadn’t seen one minute of the picnic proper and, thus, could deny it with complete honesty. He did so at once with a fine display of righteous outrage.
“And you’ve been here in your bed?”
The boy paused only a moment before saying, “Yes, sir. I been asleep ever since I came up…until Adam drug me out of bed.” Again, the words were the pure truth, omitting only the inconvenient detail of exactly when he’d come up to bed.
“And can you prove otherwise?” Ben asked his oldest son.
Adam took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The truth was, he’d never gotten a good look at either of the boys he was chasing. He knew in his heart that they could only have been Little Joe and one of his rascally cohorts, but he had no actual proof, at least none that would stand up in the court of Justice Ben Cartwright. “I know what I know,” he said stubbornly.
“That isn’t enough,” Ben decreed. “I would suggest that you apologize to your young brother — and then everyone get back to bed!” Without waiting to see whether his suggestion was followed, he turned on his heel and stormed from the room.
Little Joe grinned impishly at his older brother, folded his arms and stood waiting.
“If you think I’m going to apologize to you when I know I’m right,” Adam snorted, “you are sadly mistaken.” Then, following his father’s example, he left the room with long, purposeful strides.
Hoss, however, instead of leaving, shut the bedroom door and turned to face his little brother. “Okay,” he said, “what’d you see?”
Little Joe gave his lower lip a nervous nibble. “You mean in my dreams?”
Mouth puckered, Hoss moved his head from side to side. “Nope. I mean up at the lake.”
“Hoss, you heard me,” Little Joe insisted, flopping down on his bed. “I been here, sleepin’.”
“After you got back from the lake,” Hoss said pointedly. “You may be able to pull the wool over Pa’s eyes, little brother, but I know you. And I wanna know what you seen.” Noting his brother’s wary hesitance, he added, “Aw, I wouldn’t tattle on you. Never do, do I? And I really need to know. I ain’t so good with the gals, Shortshanks, and I reckon I could learn a lot from watchin’ Adam, but ain’t no way I could ever sneak up on him.”
Little Joe snickered as he pulled his bare feet up and hugged his knees. “Yeah. You sneak about as good as a herd of elephants, brother.”
Hoss nodded grimly. “So, you gonna scooch over and tell me what you seen…or am I gonna have to pound you?”
Not in the least intimidated, Little Joe shrugged and scooted over to make room for Hoss on the bed. Their heads bent together conspiratorially, and the younger boy whispered every detail of Adam’s romantic maneuverings into Hoss’ eager ears.
“So, did it work?” Hoss whispered back when Little Joe finally finished.
“Work?” Little Joe all but squeaked. “I mean to tell you it worked! That little gal was…she was…” He struggled to remember the right word from Miss Abigail’s vocabulary list of week before last and sported a near-wicked grin when he came up with it. “Passionate. I’m tellin’ you, she was plumb passionate for older brother!”
Then, into the wee hours of the morning, the two youngest Cartwrights discussed how they might best apply Adam’s strategies to their own romantic urges until they finally nodded off and slept the rest of the night, side by side.
Little Joe spent the next week pondering how to proceed with his pantalettes project. After all, the very first principle he and Hoss had gleaned from their examination of Adam’s techniques was to take things slow and easy — the way he had with Maisy’s buttons — so careful planning was obviously the first step. Once he was ready to begin his campaign, he still moved slowly. On Monday, he wandered past where Emmy Lynne was chatting with her girl friends during recess and offered only a shy, “Hi, Emmy.”
“Hi there, Little Joe,” she replied, while he ran off in response to the other girls’ titters.
But at the lunch break, he did the same thing, and his “Hi, Emmy” was again met with “Hi there, Little Joe.” So it went for two more days at each recess or noontime break. Then, when he stopped by at noon on Thursday, he held out a sugar cookie and said, “You want one? Hop Sing always packs too many for just me.”
Emmy took it and said, “Thank you” with a smile. By the next day, he’d summoned up the courage to suggest that they share lunches, again using Hop Sing’s excess as an excuse. Emmy immediately deserted her girl friends and started to walk away with him.
A sing-song “Joe and Emmy, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” followed them until Emmy turned around and glared the girls into silence. Then she took Little Joe by the hand and led him around the back of the stable, where she pointed out that they could have both shade and privacy. Both were hard to come by in the barren schoolyard.
“That sounds good,” Little Joe said. He looked at the dusty ground and sighed. “You’ll get your pretty…dress all dirty,” he said. He’d almost said pantalettes and thanked his lucky stars that hadn’t slipped out!
Emmy just laughed. “It does every day. This is Virginia City, not some grassy Ponderosa meadow.”
Little Joe nodded in commiseration. Still, the packed earth of the schoolyard offered nothing better, so he just sat down, legs crossed in Indian fashion. “I wish it were,” he said.
“Well, maybe it can be…sometime,” Emmy returned as she, too, sat down and opened her lunch pail. “Shall we go halves?” she suggested. “I have ham biscuits and apple hand pies.”
Little Joe beamed. “Yeah, that sounds great!” He opened his own pail and shrugged. “I’m afraid you’re getting the worst of the bargain. It’s just beef sandwiches and oatmeal cookies.”
“They’ll go beautifully together,” she said, adding with a touch of daring, “same as us?”
“Definitely same as us,” he chimed in. With encouragement like this, he’d be peeking beneath those pretty pantalettes any day now!
The weekend interrupted Little Joe’s progress, but he put the time to good use. He and Hoss had quickly determined that neither of them had the musical prowess to strum a guitar, even if they could sneak it out of Adam’s room without his noticing. Little Joe had received a harmonica for his last birthday, but so far he hadn’t been able to coax much out of it except air. He and Hoss had both been stumped on how to set the right mood without music until Hoss had a flash of insight. “Hey, ain’t poetry sort of like music without the tune?” he posed.
“Sort of,” Little Joe admitted.
“That’s your answer, then,” Hoss insisted. “Pick you out somethin’ real lovey and learn it off, so’s you can speak it when the time’s right.”
“Hmm,” Little Joe mused. He hated memorizing and reciting any kind of piece for school, but it just might be worth it this time. “Okay, but where am I gonna find the right sort of poem?”
“Ask…” Hoss had started to say Adam, but one look from Little Joe reminded him that his little brother wasn’t exactly in his older brother’s good graces. “Pa?” he finished.
“I don’t know, Hoss,” Little Joe said with a shake of his head. “It’s been a powerful long time since Pa did any sparkin’…with or without poetry.”
“Yeah, but he knows lots.”
“And there’s plenty he don’t know…and that I don’t aim for him to know!” Little Joe sputtered. “He’ll want to know why and…”
“Tell him it’s for school,” Hoss interrupted. “Come on now, Joseph, you should’ve thought of that one on your own!”
Little Joe grinned. “Yeah, I sure should have. You’re gettin’ better at connivin’, brother!”
Hoss scrubbed Joe’s kinky curls with his wide palm. “I learned from the best.”
Saturday morning seemed the best time to put that plan into operation, so armed with his best sad-puppy look, Little Joe approached his father. “Pa, I need help with a school assignment.”
Ben, who was waging war with the month-end bookwork, looked up absently. “I’m kind of busy, son, so I won’t be much use to you until I finish here. Besides, your brother Adam is the scholar in the family; I suggest you ask him.”
Little Joe let his lower lip quiver. “I can’t, Pa. He’s still mad.”
Ben sighed as he laid his pen aside. “What have you done now, Joseph?”
Little Joe looked offended. “Nothin’, Pa! He’s still holdin’ a grudge, ‘cause he thinks I spied on him and…” He almost slipped and mentioned Maisy’s name, which an innocent boy, of course, would not know. “And whoever he was with that night. You remember.”
Ben closed his eyes and exhaled in exasperation. Why on earth had he sired three sons? Surely, girls would have been easier. “He’s not still stewing over that! It’s been two weeks!”
Little Joe didn’t even have to feign fear. It was a natural reaction to his father’s raised voice, and since it worked to his advantage, he didn’t try to disguise his trembling. “I’m scared of him, Pa,” he said for added effect.
“Well, we can’t have that!” As he burst up, Ben thrust his chair back so forcefully that it hit the wall behind him. He stormed outside, shouting, “Adam!”
Fearing he’d gone too far, Little Joe hung back behind the porch pillar as his father stomped toward the barn.
Adam came out and stood in the barn doorway, not backing away when his father came to a halt right in front of his nose. “Yeah, Pa?”
“Am I to understand that you are holding some sort of grudge against your youngest brother?” Ben demanded.
“Who says so?” Adam demanded right back. “Him?”
“He says he’s afraid to ask you for help with his schoolwork,” Ben said hotly. “I’m sure you don’t want that.”
“No, I don’t want that,” Adam said quickly, although the look he shot toward Little Joe was just short of murderous.
“Well, then,” Ben said. He’d expected argument and counter accusations, but Adam’s easy acquiescence left him with nothing to say. “Well, then… Joseph! Come tell your brother what you need, and let’s have no more of this nonsense.” He stalked back into the house, slamming the door with a vigor he would not have countenanced from any of his sons.
Adam folded his arms and leaned against the barn wall. “Well, are you going to get over here and tell me what this latest falderal is about or are you going to cower there like a craven?”
Frankly, Little Joe would have preferred the second alternative, but he needed help. Since Pa had proven unfit for the task, that left only Adam. He approached his older brother at a snail’s pace that had Adam unconsciously copying his father’s exasperated exhale of mere minutes earlier. “Now, what is it you need help with?” he asked with a greater show of kindness and patience than Little Joe had expected.
Adam sighed. “Sometime this morning, please. I do have work to do.”
“Sorry, Adam,” Little Joe said. “It’s just hard to explain, you know?”
“I don’t know, and I’m not likely to at this rate,” Adam said crisply.
“Okay, okay.” Little Joe patted the air in a calming gesture. “I got to memorize this poem, see? Only I don’t know which one to pick, and you’re the one with all the poetry books, so I thought…” He spread his hands in hopeless appeal.
“You thought I could pick for you?” Adam chuckled. “Considering my current attitude toward you, little boy, it’s likely to be the longest, hardest piece I can think of.”
“No, no,” Little Joe rushed to say. “Miss Jones specifically said it shouldn’t be long. It’s just gotta be…well…real lovey-dovey stuff.”
Adam arched an eyebrow. “She expressed it that way?”
“She used different words,” Little Joe hastily corrected, “but that’s what she meant.”
Adam shook his head in bewilderment. “A love poem. Why on earth…”
“This is Miss Jones,” Little Joe pointed out.
“That’s true,” Adam sighed. Even if he hadn’t heard enough complaints from both Hoss and Little Joe on the subject of Miss Abigail Jones’ delight in all tales romantic, his own conversations with her had revealed her absolute absorption with the likes of Romeo and Juliet and Sir Walter Raleigh. “Well, I’d suggest one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, then. They’re not long, but should be romantic enough even for Miss Jones.”
“That sounds perfect,” Little Joe said enthusiastically. “Can you get me one?”
“Get it yourself,” Adam said coolly. “Third shelf, toward the middle.” He started to move back into the barn, but hesitated long enough to ask, “You’re not really afraid of me, are you, Little Joe?”
Little Joe quickly calculated his options. The fear ploy might prove useful in the future. However, he’d already told so many lies that his conscience was beginning to prickle painfully, and in this case, the plain truth would probably suffice. “Only when you’re mad at me,” he said, his hesitance only heightening the perception of candor.
“Well, you needn’t be; I’m not an ogre,” Adam said. “But no more spying.” He tapped his long index finger against the boy’s chest once for each of the final three words. Then he spun on his heel and headed into the barn, leaving Little Joe struck silent.
Memorizing a Shakespearean sonnet turned out to be harder work than Little Joe had imagined. “Ain’t there some simpler poem I could learn?” he whined at supper that night after struggling for hours with Sonnet 43. It didn’t help that he’d worn himself out just picking that one from the way-too-many Shakespeare had written. He’d read at least a hundred lines that day, and almost none of them made sense. In fact, all most of them did was make him wonder why Shakespeare, if he was as smart as folks said, couldn’t learn to write in plain English, instead of spouting fancy gibberish like “When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay.” Still, even that made more sense than most of the other sonnets, and he’d kind of been able to picture what the poem meant. Near as he could figure, it was about a man dreaming about his girl, and he thought Emmy Lynne might feel downright accommodating to a man who spent his nights dreaming about her. That would make it all worthwhile…or so he kept telling himself, every time he struggled (yet again) to remember the words.
By Monday morning, he still didn’t have them down pat enough to recite the sonnet to the girl, so he just kept right on meeting her for lunch. That day he trotted over to the stable as soon as they were released from the classroom, having told Emmy Lynne at recess that he’d meet her at “our spot.”
When he arrived behind the stable with a quilt over his arm, Emmy clapped her hands. “Oh, Little Joe, how thoughtful you are!”
“Can’t have my best girl dustin’ herself all up, can I?” he asked with a smile.
She helped him spread the quilt, and then they sat on it and opened their lunch pails, as usual. Once the food was divvied up to their satisfaction, she asked, “Am I? Your best girl, I mean.”
“Well…sure,” he said. “You don’t see me sharin’ my lunch with anyone else, do you?”
“No,” she said. “I enjoy our picnics, Joe.”
“Yeah. Me, too.” Little Joe was surprised to find that he really meant it. He hadn’t started this with the best of intentions, but he was coming to feel a strong liking for Emmy Lynne that went beyond curiosity about what she was hiding underneath those frilly pantalettes. Maybe it was all that memory work on Sonnet 43, but he’d actually started to dream about her at night.
Emmy gazed demurely downward. “I still wish we could have one in a meadow on the Ponderosa, instead of here, nice as you’ve made our spot today.”
“Yeah. We’ll have to do that.” He sighed, though, and when she looked at him quizzically, he said, “Sorry. That would be great, of course, and we’ll do it. I was just wishin’ I could spread you a quilt up at the lake for a moonlight picnic. I mean, it’s so beautiful there…almost as beautiful as you.” That seemed like something Adam might say to Maisy, and somehow the moment felt right for tryin’ out some fancy words of his own. “I know it’s impossible,” he said quickly, “but I sure wish we could.”
Emmy set her sandwich down. “Why can’t we?”
Little Joe stared at her. “Uh…moon only comes out at night?”
She laughed. “Are you afraid of the dark, Little Joe?”
“No, of course not,” he sputtered, “but…I mean…your folks wouldn’t let you…”
“Good gracious, no!” she exclaimed. Then she lowered her voice. “But they wouldn’t have to know.”
His smile slowly widened into a grin. Was it possible that Emmy Lynne was really a girl after his own heart? “You mean you’d sneak out to meet me?”
“I’d even bring the picnic basket,” she said with a conspiratorial wink.
“Friday night?” he suggested.
“Saturday,” she countered. “That’ll give me all day to bake something special.”
When Miss Jones rang the bell to signal the end of lunch, the two of them practically floated, hand in hand, back into the classroom.
Little Joe shivered in anticipation as he saw Emmy Lynne riding toward their designated meeting spot. She’d done it! She’d actually ridden out to meet him in the dark of night. “You have any trouble getting away?” he asked when she reined in the bay beside his pinto.
She giggled. “If I had, I wouldn’t be here. You?”
“Nah, I’m used to this.” Then he flushed. “Sneaking out, I mean, not meeting girls.”
“Well, I’m glad of that,” she laughed. “My first time for either — sneaking out or meeting a boy.”
“You did great,” Little Joe praised, “and toting a basket, too. How’d you ever get that out of the house?”
She only waved a careless hand and said, “Nothing to it. Baking the strawberry tarts without raisin’ questions was harder.” She leaned close and whispered, “They look sort of special.”
“You’re sort of special,” he whispered back. “Ready to ride up to the lake?”
They rode at an easy lope up into the hills surrounding Lake Tahoe to a spot Little Joe had selected earlier. He’d gone to some pains to pick just the right place. He wanted it to be scenic, of course, but his main consideration was to locate their picnic far from any place older brother Adam might choose to spark Maisy or some other girl. This being Saturday night, there was always a chance that he might be doing exactly that, and the last thing Little Joe wanted was to cross paths with Adam. He’d tried to worm out his older brother’s plans for the evening at supper, but when Adam had said, “Since when do you care?”, he’d been smart enough to shrug it off as unimportant.
He spread the quilt close to the lapping waves; then Emmy set out the food she’d brought, including the heart-shaped strawberry tarts. No wonder she’d said they’d been harder than sneaking out! She would have had to bake those incriminating hearts right under her mother’s nose. Curious as he was about how she’d explained them away, Little Joe didn’t ask. That was something they could discuss at school; tonight was reserved for greater things.
After eating their fill, they lay back on the quilt, propped up on their elbows, facing the lake. Emmy sighed in deep contentment. “It’s everything you said, Little Joe. I’ve seen Lake Tahoe in daylight, and it was beautiful then, but like this… The waves shimmering all silvery in the moonlight…so much more.”
Little Joe sat up and smiled at her in surprise. “Emmy Lynne, that’s pure poetry.”
She just laughed. “I’m no poet,” she said. “Besides, I never thought you cared much for poetry.”
“Well, it’s been growin’ on me some, these last few days,” he said with a darting glance at her face, “on account of I’ve been tryin’ to learn off a piece…for you.”
It was Emmy’s turn to sit up, surprised and pleased. “For me? You’ve been learning a poem for me? Can I hear it?”
He nodded. “Sure, but don’t expect too much. I still stumble some.” He took a deep breath and tried to still the trembling of his mind. Then he began to speak:
“When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?”
Emmy’s face had been growing more puzzled with each line until, finally, she could take no more. “My, you must’ve worked hard on that! That’s harder to understand than any poetry I ever read. Or, maybe, I’m just stupid.”
“No such thing!” Little Joe cried in quick defense. “I gotta confess, Shakespeare makes me feel the same way, but I been spendin’ so much time with this sonnet that I understand it better than I did, and it makes me think of you.”
“How?” she asked, looking intently into his face.
He suddenly found the toes of his boots fascinating. “Well, it’s about this fellow — Shakespeare, I guess — who don’t pay much attention to things in the daylight, but when he’s asleep, he dreams about his girl…like I dream about you.” A quick glance her direction, and then his attention snapped back to his boot tops.
She leaned closer. “Do you, Little Joe?”
“Well…yeah.” He felt sort of shy about admitting that, and it had only been a couple of times, after all, but he could see at once that she liked the idea of a fellow spending his nights dreaming of her. “Anyway, the rest of the poem says…”
“Oh, forget the poem,” she said, closing the short distance that now lay between them, and pressing her lips against his, she kissed him with all the passionate intensity that he’d seen only in his dreams or between Maisy and Adam on their blanket by the lake. No, forget that. When it came to passion, Maisy had nothing on Emmy Lynne! Not quite knowing how it happened, he suddenly found himself flat on his back, staring up into her shining blue eyes and feeling her fingers poking at the buttons on his shirt. She worked one loose and slipped her hand inside the opening to slide her fingers over his smooth and now shivering chest.
“Wh…what are you…” Her lips silenced his protest as she loosened another button and reached further inside his shirt. Blood rushing to his cheeks, Little Joe grasped her by both shoulders and held her at arms’ length. “Now, look,” he sputtered. “This ain’t the way this is ‘sposed to work. You’re not ‘sposed to mess with my buttons; I’m ‘sposed to mess with yours!”
She flounced back from him. “Little Joe Cartwright! What kind of girl do you think I am?”
“I don’t know!” Little Joe cried, sitting up abruptly. “I mean, I think you’re a nice girl, a real nice girl, but on the other hand, nice girls don’t mess with a man’s buttons. It’s the man’s job to do that!” Flustered, he fumbled to refasten his shirt. “Not that I’d have done that to you, on account of I respect you too much. All I wanted was one tiny little peek under your pantalettes, not…” Realizing he’d said too much, he buried his face in his hands. When, oh when would he learn not to blurt out every fool thing that passed through his head?
“Well, I’m not dropping my pantalettes for you or any other boy!” she declared.
“Of course not!” he said, the shock on his face genuine. “I figured on pushin’ ‘em up a ways, but not the other direction, I promise!”
“Well, you’d better not,” she said, staring at the hands now clasped tight in her lap. “Look, Little Joe, I reckon, maybe, the both of us got a mite carried away, what with all the moonlight and poetry and all. I don’t think either one of us is ready to go much further, so I think I’d best get on home before we get carried away again.”
“Don’t be mad,” he pleaded. “I didn’t mean anything bad toward you, honest.”
“I didn’t, either,” she said, hurriedly packing up the remains of the picnic.
“I’ll ride you home,” he said as they both stood.
She laid a palm to her burning cheek. “I can make it just fine on my own.”
Not knowing what else to say, Little Joe watched her mount her horse and ride away. Then, his face long as a mule’s, he folded up the quilt and walked toward his horse.
Satisfied that the innocence of youth had been preserved, a figure clad all in black slid away from the scene. He moved doubled over, both to conceal his six-foot height and to contain the belly laugh that threatened to burst. Not until he was well on his way back to the Ponderosa did the man release it in sheer satisfaction of retribution achieved with potential blackmail possibilities held in reserve.
Little Joe set out for school Monday morning, as miserable as he’d ever felt in his life, although the Sunday before had run a close second. He’d moped at the breakfast table, barely glancing up from his nearly untouched plate of bacon and eggs. Whenever he had, he’d caught Adam looking at him with a knowing smirk, although that was probably his imagination, Joe told himself, since there was no way possible that his older brother could have known what was bothering him. He’d gone to church after an unsuccessful attempt to plead an upset stomach and kept his eyes glued on the preacher, lest they stray to a certain bonnet on the other side of the aisle or, worse yet, to anybody’s pantalettes.
Throughout the morning, he tried to focus on his arithmetic, but he made so many mistakes that Miss Jones kept him in at recess to redo the assignment. He didn’t even mind, since being kept in meant that he could put off what was bound to happen out in the schoolyard. As the clock’s hands moved closer to high noon, however, he felt himself sinking into that Slough of Despond he’d read about in Pilgrim’s Progress. Soon everyone would know that he and Emmy Lynne were no longer together. He didn’t blame her, of course; he’d acted like a fool kid, shying away from taking all she was offering and, worse yet, blurting out his own childish intentions. He would miss their lunch times together, though; he hadn’t realized how much until he’d lost them.
The clock showed one minute short of the dreaded hour when he heard a hiss to his left and, despite all previous efforts to keep his eyes to himself, automatically looked that direction. He kept his eyes studiously on Emmy’s face, however, until she pointedly looked toward the floor, inviting his attention downward. He tried to ignore that invitation, but curiosity proved too strong and he let his gaze drop. Her hand moved down at the same time, and he stared, agog, as she untied the bow of the blue ribbon around the bottom of her right pantalette leg and slowly pulled it from its eyelet lacing.
Like a calf shying away from a hot branding iron, Little Joe flinched back from that enticing sight just as Miss Jones dismissed everyone for lunch. They all lined up, as usual, and though it wasn’t Little Joe’s doing, somehow he ended up directly behind Emmy Lynne. He couldn’t take his eyes off the blue ribbon she dangled behind her back. He saw it slowly float to the floor and quickly bent to scoop it up, just as the line moved forward. Weaving it in and out of his fingers, he dawdled his way down the school steps. By the time he looked up, Emmy Lynne had disappeared. Then he smiled. He knew where she’d be. Hurrying into the stable, he removed the quilt he’d never unpacked from his moonlight excursion and scampered eagerly around the back of the building, where he found her sitting, pantalettes hiked up to her knees.