Summary: When bandits invade the Ponderosa, a fourteen-year-old boy with an overactive imagination fed on dime novels decides that he and he alone can save his family.
Word Count: 6100
Surprised by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, Ben looked up from the ledger he’d been perusing with his eldest son. “Joseph?” he inquired, a look of mild concern in his velvet brown eyes. “Not headed for bed so early, are you?” There had barely been time for one game of checkers between Joe and his other brother since supper.
Little Joe turned to lean on the rail of the lower landing. “Uh, no, Pa. I just got homework.”
Adam raised his dark eyes and frowned at the fourteen-year-old. “You have homework,” he corrected.
“I just said that,” Joe insisted.
Adam rolled his eyes. “Do you need help?” he inquired.
A look of near panic sprang into the younger boy’s eyes. “Shoot, no!” He quickly calmed his voice and said, “It’s just a couple of arithmetic problems, and I need to study for the spelling test tomorrow.”
Adam arched a thick, black eyebrow. Little Joe, studying, without being coerced? An image that incongruous would bear investigation as soon as he finished going over the ranch accounts with Pa.
Pa, on the other hand, merely smiled in approval, told his youngest son good night and turned his attention back to the books.
Quickly calling good night to Pa, Adam and a disgruntled Hoss, who was putting away the checkerboard after losing the single game Joe had consented to play, Joe darted up the stairs and into the first doorway on the right of the hall. He closed the door quietly and grinned at how easily he’d made his escape. He hadn’t even had to lie.
The smile faded slightly as he sat at his desk and opened his arithmetic book, but he worked the two remaining problems of his assignment quickly, not bothering to check for accuracy, and grabbed up his blue-backed speller. Tossing it onto the bed, Joe pulled off his boots. He walked to the bureau in his stocking feet, rummaged through the bottom drawer, the one reserved for out-of-season clothing, and pulled a thin, paperbound book from beneath his wool underwear.
A shiver of anticipation rippled down Joe’s spine as he gazed at the lurid four-color cover drawing of a buckskin-clad, flaxen-haired lad who served as hero of the dime novel he’d surreptitiously purchased that afternoon at the general store. While Pa hadn’t exactly forbidden reading the cheap little books, he frowned mightily every time he caught Joe looking at one. Best not get caught, then, Joe figured, as he tucked the book inside the speller he had no intention of studying. He hadn’t lied. He did have a test tomorrow and he did need to study, but Joe was a good enough speller to slide by with little more than a quick glance tomorrow morning. The blue-backed book simply served to hide the more fascinating adventures of Deadeye Dave, in case someone—well, Pa or Adam, to be specific—wandered in unannounced. Hoss didn’t count, ‘cause he wouldn’t tattle or do more than mutter a token scolding. Though the brawny middle Cartwright son pretended to be too old for dime novels, the truth was he liked them just fine and was always eager to hear Joe recount the latest story.
Hoss would be sure to like this one, Joe told himself as he plopped onto his bed, stomach down and stocking feet aimed toward the ceiling. He opened the book and began to read. Deadeye Dave could hit the eye of a squirrel at two hundred yards with his trusty Colt Navy revolver, according to the claim of the caption on the front cover, only it wasn’t a squirrel he’d be after in this tale. It was as slimy and slithery a villain as you’d ever want to meet inside the pages of a book, and you sure wouldn’t want to meet Scarpathio McSwain outside the pages of a book. Joe could tell that just from the drawing on the cover, in which the vile and villainous Scarpathio held a struggling girl by the wrist while firing at Deadeye Dave.
Only a few pages into the story Joe discovered that the girl threatened by a fate worse than death was the beautiful and buxom Miranda May from down New Orleans way, and Joe was well on his way to falling as much in love with her as Deadeye Dave appeared to be when a sharp rap on his door made his eyes jerk up from the printed page. Before he could even say, “Come in,” the door opened and his oldest brother Adam came bursting through, eyes scanning the room for signs of mischief. Joe quickly slammed shut his speller with the contraband dime novel concealed inside. “What do you want?” he demanded tersely.
“Why, little brother, aren’t you glad to see me?” Adam inquired with an exaggeratedly innocent look. He pressed his hand to his heart. “I’m so hurt.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Joe snorted. “What do you want, Adam?”
“I just came to offer some help with your spelling test,” Adam said, reaching for the blue-backed book lying on the bed. “Here, I’ll quiz you on the words.”
Joe snatched the book and held it out of Adam’s reach. “I told you I don’t need no help.”
“You don’t need any help,” Adam corrected, “and it’s rather obvious from your poor grasp of sentence structure that you do.”
“I ain’t gettin’ tested on sentence structure,” Joe insisted, lower lip thrust out stubbornly. “It’s a spelling test, I told you.”
“They go together,” Adam insisted, stretching out his hand. “Give me the book, little brother.”
It was a response guaranteed to fuel Adam’s already sparked curiosity. “Give me the book,” he repeated firmly, “or you’ll be explaining to Pa why you refused my offer of help.”
“‘Cause I don’t need it,” Joe said, but the words trailed off ‘til they sounded more like a question than an explanation anyone would accept.
Adam snapped the fingers of his left hand and then slammed that index finger into the open palm of his right hand. With a sigh Joe relinquished the book and set himself to endure the diatribe to come.
Opening the speller, Adam withdrew the garishly colored paperback and held it out with a snide smile. “Are you sure ‘deadeye’ will be on the test tomorrow?”
“Give it back,” Joe demanded, scrambling up to his knees and grabbing for the dime novel.
Adam held it out of reach. “Not on your life, little boy. You came up here to study, and study you will before you set eyes on this trash again. I don’t understand the attraction, anyway, Little Joe. I seem to recall buying you a nice volume of appropriate reading material for your birthday. Have you read that yet? Somehow, I doubt it!”
Joe glowered at his older brother. The ‘nice volume of appropriate reading material’ had been, like all his older brother’s choices for him, boring beyond belief. “No, I ain’t read it yet. I’ll get around to it, Adam.” When there ain’t nothin’ better to do.
“Uh-huh. You obviously ‘ain’t read’ your grammar text recently, either,” Adam drawled, “so I think we’d better spend some time with that tonight, as well, and it would probably be a good idea if I checked your arithmetic, wouldn’t it?”
Joe groaned. He would obviously not be learning how Deadeye Dave saved the lovely Miranda May tonight.
The prophecy proved only partially true. Though Adam drilled him for what seemed like hours on his spelling words and grammar and made him rework three of the arithmetic problems, his older brother did return the book in time for Joe to read one more chapter of The Daring Deeds of Deadeye Dave, enough to see how Dave’s sharp shooting rescued the fair maiden. Not only had Dave’s first shot blasted the gun from Scarpathio’s hand, but his next two bullets had severed the connection between the villain’s suspenders and his waistband, forcing Scarpathio to flee while holding up his baggy britches with both hands. There were still twenty-five pages left in the little book, however, so Joe was pretty sure that the evil Scarpathio would be back again, just as he’d threatened. Joe was too tired to read more, though, so he slipped the book beneath his pillow, and enfolding a second soft shape in his arms, he whispered words of endearment, similar to those he’d read, into its downy depths and imagined the fair Miranda May covering his face with kisses of infinite gratitude and bestowing on him a lingering gaze of pure admiration.
As Joe drifted to sleep, he realized that the key to making this dream come true with some real-life Miranda May was prowess with a six-shooter. There was only one obstacle: Pa had never let him touch a firearm, other than a hunting rifle, and wasn’t likely to change that edict anytime soon. If Deadeye Joe were to be prepared for any Scarpathio types lurking around the Ponderosa, he would need practice with a pistol, but that was a problem whose solution would have to await the break of day. Joe worked on the problem in his dreams, sleeping so soundly that he never knew when Pa slipped in to readjust his bedcovers and tuck him tenderly beneath the lightweight blanket.
Even though the sky was still black, without a trace of dawn’s early light, Little Joe awoke with a smile and an idea. Sometime during the night important information had filtered into his memory, mainly that both Pa and Adam would be involved in some long-winded meeting in Carson City today. That would leave the road clear for him to spend some time away from the ranch, practicing his marksmanship, without having to explain why he was so late getting home from school. Hoss would be working somewhere on the ranch, of course, but even if he noticed that Joe wasn’t home when he should be, Hoss was always susceptible to a simple explanation of boyish dawdling. Now all he had to do was get the gun.
Joe crept stealthily from his room and peered down the hall. No crack of light showed beneath the bedroom doors of either of his older brothers, and while he couldn’t see around the corner to his father’s door, chances were Pa wasn’t up yet, either. Joe tiptoed down the hall and peered around the corner into the great room below. Dark and empty. So far, so good.
Step by step, Joe moved noiselessly down the stairs and went directly to Pa’s desk in the alcove at the front of the house. Glancing warily up the stairs one more time, he eased open the top drawer on the right and removed the gun that Pa kept there for emergency use. Since he wouldn’t be home, he wouldn’t need it today, though, and Deadeye Joe certainly did. Tiptoeing across the room to the rifle cabinet, Joe opened a drawer beneath the rack of rifles and took out an extra box of ammunition of the correct caliber. Then, quietly and carefully, he ascended the stairs, slipped into his room and secreted the gun and bullets in his saddlebags. With a yawn Joe hustled back into bed and promptly fell asleep with a satisfied smile on his lips. Today was shaping up to be a great day.
By the time school let out that afternoon, Joe was sure it was going to be a great day. He’d made a hundred on his spelling test, probably thanks to bossy old Adam’s dull drilling last night, and both Pa and his older brother would be happy to hear of that next-to-never happenstance. Not only that, but Joe had the whole afternoon to himself, to spend any way he chose without fear of detection. He’d learned at breakfast that Hoss would be mending fence in the far northwest section of the ranch, so his older brother wouldn’t be there to see whether or not Joe got home on time. Hop Sing would, of course, but early on Joe had convinced their Chinese cook that tattling was un-American. Hop Sing wanted to be a good American, so he never tattled, unless Pa cornered him and made him tell.
Little Joe aimed his pinto toward a boulder-bordered glade far from the main house. Dismounting and tying Cochise’s reins to the lower branches of a nearby pine, he took the gun from his saddlebag and twirled it in his left hand . . . and promptly dropped it. It didn’t go off, thank goodness, but Joe decided he wasn’t quite up to any fancy tricks yet. Today he’d just work on firing straight and true. A quick draw and fancy twirls could wait ‘til later. Joe was sure Pa would applaud that bit of wisdom.
The gun was an old one, as was appropriate for a firearm rarely used, but Ben kept it clean and loaded, just in case. Joe wasn’t bothered a bit by the age of the Colt Navy revolver; in fact, he thought it was sheer destiny that he’d found a gun of this make for the taking. After all, hadn’t Deadeye Dave used a Colt Navy revolver? Sure, he had, so that made a Colt Navy the perfect weapon for Deadeye Joe, too. The logic was inescapable. Why, even old Adam would surely see that, if it were properly explained to him!
Joe frowned slightly. Why was he worrying about how Pa or Adam would react? They weren’t going to find out, so he really shouldn’t be wasting time thinking about possible consequences if they did. Tucking the gun in his waistband, since he didn’t have a holster, Joe began gathering pinecones and setting them up as targets on the shorter boulders and low limbs of pine trees surrounding the clearing in the woods.
Holding the gun in his left hand, Joe adopted the jaunty stance Deadeye Dave had assumed on the cover of the dime novel, aimed at the nearest pinecone and pulled the trigger. Unprepared for the weapon’s jolt to the shoulder, Joe stumbled backward and plopped, bottom first, into the dust. He scowled in self-disgust. This wouldn’t do at all. Deadeye Dave would never have been able to intimidate Scarpathio while sitting on his backside.
Joe scrambled up, firmly resolved to do better. Abandoning heroic flair in favor of staying on his feet, Joe held the gun with both hands and began firing as fast as he could pull the trigger, imagining each target to be the leering face of Scarpathio McSwain. No target, living or dead, however, needed to fear the aim of Deadeye Joe. Pinecones perched on branches and boulders trembled not as bullet after bullet flew past them harmlessly. Frustrated, Joe dug the box of bullets from his saddlebag and reloaded, following the technique he’d often observed in his father and brothers. By the time he’d emptied the revolver six times, Joe had hit exactly two pinecones, but he felt no triumph in seeing them shatter. They hadn’t been the ones he was aiming at. Oh, well, it only meant he would need more practice. No doubt Deadeye Dave hadn’t made much of a showing his first time out, either.
Noticing that the orange orb of the sun was slipping steadily earthward, Joe packed up quickly, even though he had a few bullets left in his gun. Snatching the reins free from the branch, he vaulted into the saddle and rode fast. He had stayed later than he had intended, and Hoss, at least, was bound to be home, so Joe would have some explaining to do and not just to Hoss if he didn’t hurry.
As he rode, Joe settled on a simple explanation, for he’d learned by experience that simple explanations worked best. Fancy ones tended to sound suspicious, and once suspicion was aroused, it was hard to quell. The best thing to do was focus on the positive thing that had happened today, so first thing he’d tell whoever was home about the marvelous showing he’d made on the spelling test. Then he’d confess that he thought he deserved a little celebration and so had gone to the lake to swim and lost track of the time. Yeah, Hoss would fall for that in a minute and would be patting him on the back within two; Pa or Adam might be a harder sell, but Joe thought the story had a fine chance of flying.
He remembered just in time to slow Cochise to a walk before entering the ranch yard. It wouldn’t do to get even Hoss started down the scolding road by charging recklessly up to the door. Nope, he needed to move straight to the positive today, so Joe walked his horse into the yard. He was surprised to see several unfamiliar horses tethered to the corral fence, alongside Buck, Sport and Chubby. Company, huh? Was that good or bad? Not a search party, surely; he wasn’t late enough yet to make his family worry enough to send out for help. More likely, the horses belonged to someone Pa and Adam had talked business with in Carson City and had invited home to supper to talk it over some more. Joe decided to work it to his advantage. Yeah, he’d just go bursting into the front room, like he was too excited to notice that they had company and start bubbling about how well he’d done on the test and slathering Adam with soft soap for all his help. Give Pa and big brother something to be proud of in front of their guests. That ought to do the trick!
Putting a bright, beaming smile on his face, Joe bounded through the front door. “Pa, guess what!” he cried as he rushed toward the fireplace, around which all three members of his family and Hop Sing were sitting . . . with their hands held behind their backs. Four voices shouted at him, almost simultaneously.
“Joe, run!” Adam cried.
“Run, boy, run!” Hoss hollered.
“Ride for help, son!” Ben urged.
“Chop-chop!” Hop Sing added for emphasis.
Hearing the clatter of chairs pushing back from the table, Joe jerked toward the dining room, where he saw three desperados so dirty a dime novelist would have been accused of embellishing the truth if he’d described them accurately—and the woman getting up from what was usually Hoss’ place at the table looked even worse. Joe took one look and bolted for the front door.
The desperados followed in quick pursuit, however, and just as Joe threw himself up on Cochise’s back, they dragged him down and hauled him into the house. Joe fought them all the way—biting, scratching, kicking—until the grimiest of the three outlaws drew back his hand and slapped the boy so hard that he fell to the floor. The other three Cartwrights and the Chinese cook lurched to their feet, but being tied hand and foot, they couldn’t really do anything to help Joe.
he woman, wiping pork fat onto her already greasy red calico bodice, got between the man and Joe. “Leave him be, Zack,” she snarled. “He’s just a kid; he cain’t do nothin’.”
“Don’t call me ‘kid’!” Joe screeched, still struggling.
“He bit me!” Zack bellowed, glaring at Joe with savage hatred. “He’s got a few licks comin’.”
“Maybe, but we got no time for a tannin’. The food’s gettin’ cold,” the woman reminded him. “Just tie him up and let’s get back to that roast pig.”
“Roast pig,” Hoss moaned, dropping back down on the settee, his belly rumbling as it bewailed the loss of one of the big man’s favorite meals.
“Should have let all dly up,” Hop Sing grumbled, resuming his place on the stone hearth. “Bad men not deserve Hop Sing good loast pig.”
“Not too tight, Jack,” the woman cautioned as one of the other pig robbers tied Little Joe’s hands behind his back. “I don’t hold with hurtin’ kids.”
“All right, ‘Tildy,” Jack grunted. “Whatever you say, but it’s on your head if he breaks loose.” He loosened the ropes slightly.
Matilda ran grimy fingernails through Joe’s luxuriant chestnut curls. “You ain’t gonna give us no trouble, are you, sonny? Hey, you know, you’re a real cutie.”
“He won’t give you any trouble,” Ben said sharply. “Put him here by me, and I’ll keep him in line.”
“A monumental task,” Adam muttered under his breath.
Ben glared at his eldest son, his dark eyes transmitting a message that now was not the time for his typical older-brother sarcasm.
Jack finished tying Joe’s feet and, hoisting the boy up by the back of his britches, dumped him at the foot of the burgundy leather chair in which Ben sat. Then he made his way back to the bountiful table.
Joe inched up into a sitting position and leaned against his father’s leg. “What do they want, Pa?” he whispered. “Just roast pig?”
“Roast pig,” Hoss whimpered again, saliva drooling from the corners of his mouth as he watched the outlaws eat his dinner.
“Hush,” Ben hissed toward his middle son. Looking down at his youngest, he said, “No, Joe. They’re after what’s in the safe.”
“Alleady got that,” Hop Sing sputtered. “Why they eat Hop Sing pig, too?”
From his blue chair across the room, Adam snuffled his derision of the easily distracted thieves. “Because it was there.”
“Ain’t never had us a chance to live like high and mighty Cartwrights, that’s why,” Zack hollered from the head of the table. “Speakin’ of high livin’,” he said as he shoved back the chair, “where you keep the liquor, Cartwright? The good stuff, I mean.”
“Find it yourself!” Ben snapped over his shoulder.
As Zack came lumbering toward Ben, Adam spoke up quickly. “It’s in there.” He motioned with his head toward a cabinet behind him.
“Adam,” Ben growled in rebuke, but he stopped when he saw the crafty look in his son’s eye.
“I couldn’t let them hurt you, Pa,” Adam called loudly, adding melodramatically, “Let them have the liquor. It isn’t worth your life.”
Ben understood at once what Adam was thinking. The quartet of bandits was already a stumble-brained lot, who had only succeeded thus far because they had caught the Cartwright men off guard, one by one. Liquored up, they’d be easier to take. Ben nodded once to acknowledge his comprehension and settled back in the chair.
“Good thinkin’, boy,” Zack cackled as he stalked toward the cabinet, followed by another of his cohorts. Finding it locked, Zack kicked in the side.
“Aw, you broke one,” the third thief grumbled, falling to his knees to dabble his fingers in the booze and touch them to his tongue. “It was prime, too.”
“Don’t matter none, not when there’s as much as this.” Zack pulled out two bottles of Ben’s best brandy and headed back toward the dining room. “Help yourself, Mack.”
With a yellow-toothed grin Mack reached into the cabinet and drew out two bottles of red wine.
Soon the only sounds heard were slurps and burps as the wine was drained to the dregs, the brandy guzzled to its last distilled drop and the pig picked to the bare bones. When the four bottles were gone, Zack, Mack and Jack staggered back to the liquor cabinet for a new supply. They each grabbed a bottle and, tilting it up to their mouths, sprawled out around the cabinet, each determined to down as much as his bloated belly would hold.
Little Joe surveyed the scene with disgust. Why didn’t somebody do something? Hoss looked like he was about to cry, just because the roast pig was all gone, and Hop Sing obviously couldn’t see past the ravaged dinner table, either. Adam had turned coward on them, tattling about the booze before he took a single jab to the jaw, and Pa seemed content to just sit and watch these greasy scoundrels tear the place apart. Well, if nobody else was going to do anything, it was up to him to save his family. The ropes on his hands were loose, anyway; it shouldn’t take long to work himself free.
While the men gurgled and giggled on the floor, Matilda had a different sort of entertainment in mind, and she’d consumed just enough liquor to make her bold enough to grab what she wanted. Hands on her hips, she sashayed up to the oldest Cartwright brother, gave what she intended to be a provocative wiggle and plunked herself in Adam’s lap. Pressing her greasy bosom against his black shirt, she planted her mouth on his as she raked her pork-oiled fingers through his thick, dark locks.
Adam almost gagged as her sage-and-onion-laced breath wafted into his nostrils. “Wouldn’t you rather,” he started to say when she came up for air, but before he could say more her sandpaper lips were once more assaulting his.
Joe shuddered in horror. Now, that truly was a fate worse than death! Adam wasn’t as pretty as Miranda May, but he needed rescue just as bad. Sensing that the family honor was now at stake, Joe tugged harder on his bonds and gasped in relief as he felt the ropes grow slack. Slow and easy, he told himself as he let the ropes slip off and moved his hands toward the bindings on his ankles. Eyes glued to the quartet of ne’er-do-wells, none of whom were paying the slightest attention to the kid they were sure could do nothing against them, he untied his feet, turned and began to crawl quietly between his father’s chair and the fireplace.
Ben, Hoss and Hop Sing all saw him go, and Ben, especially, began to pray that the boy would make a clean escape. The chances looked good, with the men being consumed with the contents of the liquor cabinet and the woman consumed with—well, unfortunately, with his oldest son. Poor boy, he was going to deserve a medal for surviving this night. As for his other boy, the one now crawling around the dining table toward the kitchen, Ben wasn’t sure what Joe intended. Not just to escape, he could be confident of that. The boy was brave, and he loved his family. Probably gonna get a knife from the kitchen and come back to cut us loose, he surmised with a certain degree of dread. Ben really wished Joe wouldn’t try that. It might work, but it was risky, depending on just how besotted the men were with liquor and the woman with . . .
He cringed. Though it would extend Adam’s suffering, it really would be wiser if Joe just went for help, and Ben could only hope the boy would have sense enough to remember where the nearest help was to be found. Oh, he would; of course, he would. Joe was young and impulsive, but he wasn’t dim-witted, and he knew which neighbors could be trusted in a hazardous situation like this. Ben tried to calculate just how long it would take Joe to get to those neighbors, tell his story and send them back here to help. Too long, he sighed, as he looked across the room at Adam’s squirming figure. Much too long.
Joe, in the meantime, had crawled through the doorway into the kitchen. Out of sight of the bandits, he stood and walked slowly and stealthily to the door. Opening it with only the slightest creak of the hinges, he slipped through into the cool, dark night and headed straight for Cochise. Call him a kid, would they? Well, he’d show them; he’d show them all just what this kid could do. Joe unbuckled his saddlebag and took out his trusty Colt Navy revolver. Opening the chamber, he counted only three bullets. Oh, well, he wouldn’t want to shoot a woman, anyway. His mouth set in a determined line, Deadeye Joe headed back toward the kitchen door.
Pleased to see that his absence had still not been noted, Joe burst into the dining room. Running past the table, he planted his boots shoulder-width apart and holding the gun with both hands to steady his aim, he boldly shouted the words, slightly altered, that had worked so well for Deadeye Dave. “Reach for the sky, you dastardly devils, for you dare not draw on the Deadeye Kid!”
The announcement did not bring about quite the reaction Deadeye Joe was expecting. The first sound he heard was a groan from his brother Adam, followed by “Heaven help us.” The second was the incredulous, high-pitched query of his father, “Joseph?” After that, the sights and sounds were swirling around him too rapidly for Joe to sort them out. Of the trio of drinkers on the floor, Zack recovered most quickly and began fumbling for the gun in his holster. Joe fired first, though, and the grandfather clock by the front door chimed in protest as the bullet struck its pendulum.
Infuriated at the sight of a man about to draw down on their little brother, both of the older Cartwright boys stood up. As Adam jolted to his feet, Matilda toppled into the floor, and Adam tripped, falling flat across her prone figure. Hoss, though, kept his feet and in an amazing display of agility for so large a man, he jumped onto the sofa with both bound feet and then launched himself over it at Zack, who had just succeeded in getting his gun out of its leather holster. Zack fired off a shot, but his aim was deflected when Hoss crashed into him.
Bullets flew from all directions, for while Hoss had Zack pinioned to the floor, and Adam and Matilda were hopelessly entangled, Jack and Mack had a clear shot at the Deadeye Kid. What they didn’t have was clear vision, for their heavy alcohol consumption had blurred their eyesight.
Emboldened by the fact that every bullet had missed him, Joe raised the revolver once more. Dare to draw on the Deadeye Kid, would they? The blackguards must be taught a lesson! Joe fired once more, but bad men were as safe as pinecones from the erratic aim of Deadeye Joe. Grim with determination, Joe pulled the trigger a third time. This time the bullet found a target, one as large as the Ponderosa itself, and it landed smack in the middle of that Ponderosa.
Hoss yelped as the bullet creased his ample backside. Mack and Jack ran for cover behind Ben’s desk, and Ben, who had finally struggled out of his chair, hopped frantically toward Little Joe. “Put that down,” he yelled, “before you kill someone!”
Realizing that he was out of bullets, anyway, Joe lowered the revolver. “I was just tryin’ to help, Pa,” he protested.
“If you want to help, get a knife,” Ben snapped, “and hurry up about it.”
Gulping, Joe ran to kitchen and grabbed up the first sharp knife he saw. Running back, he had just managed to slice through the ropes binding Ben’s hands when Mack and Jack recovered their courage and came stumbling out from behind the desk.
“My feet, quick!” Ben shouted as the two men headed toward him.
With one cut Joe severed the rope between his father’s ankles and moved over to the fireplace to free Hop Sing as Ben charged toward Mack and Jack. Joe started toward Adam next, but decided to bypass that writhing tangle of limbs. He had a feeling Adam was going to win, anyway, even tied up. About time his older brother started showing some gumption, the Deadeye Kid concluded, and left Adam to deal with Matilda.
Hoss was doing just fine with his man, too, having subdued Zack by simply sitting on him, but since Pa was outnumbered two to one, Joe decided he might need Hoss’s help. Two swift slices set Hoss free, but Pa didn’t need his help after all. Hop Sing had grabbed the empty pig platter off the table and was attacking everyone within reach. “That teach you steal Hop Sing loast pig,” he declared vehemently each time the platter hit one of the offenders.
“You tell ‘em, Hop Sing!” Hoss hollered in encouragement. A strangled sound to his right reminded him that there was still one Cartwright under attack. Taking pity on his older brother, he walked over, somewhat awkwardly due to the pain in his buttocks. Lifting Adam out of Matilda’s grasp, Hoss plopped his brother down on the sofa. “Cut him loose, Joe,” Hoss ordered as he held Matilda back.
The next five minutes were pandemonium, but when that time had passed, the roles had been reversed: the outlaws, now bound hand and foot, lay scattered across the great room of the Ponderosa, and their former captives stood triumphantly over them. “We did it, boys,” Ben said with satisfaction. “We’re gonna be all right.”
Joe grinned broadly. “Thanks to the Deadeye Kid,” he announced proudly. The grin faded as four sets of eyes fixed on his face. “But I did save you,” he insisted.
“You blame sure didn’t save me!” Hoss snorted, hand held to his burning backside.
“Or anyone else,” Ben declared sternly. “And what’s this nonsense about the Deadeye Kid?”
“The explosive combination of a dime novel and a kid’s overactive imagination,” Adam offered. His nose wrinkled in distaste. “I knew I should have taken that trash away from you.”
“Foolishment. Nothing but little boy foolishment,” Hop Sing muttered as he moved toward the dining room and began to clear the table. The first thing he removed was the Colt Navy revolver Joe had dropped there on his way to the kitchen for a knife. “Think this yours, Mistah Cahtlight,” he said, holding out the weapon.
“It certainly is!” Ben said, staring at the gun in his hand. “Would you care to explain how it happened to be in your possession, Joseph, when I have specifically forbidden you to touch handguns?”
Joe tried to work up a charming smile, but only succeeded in producing one that looked sheepish. “Well, it’s like this, Pa,” he began with a nervous quiver in his voice. “I just had a feeling there might be some Scarpathios—uh, I mean, bad hombres—gettin’ ready to do us harm, and so I figured we’d need every man—”
“Man,” Adam scoffed with a roll of his eyes.
A brush of Ben’s hand silenced his oldest son, and he turned back to the youngest. “Please continue, Joseph,” he said brusquely.
“We’d need every man who could handle a gun,” Joe finished with a glare at his oldest brother, “and so I figured I’d best practice up and”—he stopped as the glowering gaze of his father settled fiercely on his face.
“And so you took my gun—without permission,” Ben growled.
Joe gulped. “Well, yeah, but—but aren’t you glad I did?” He bobbed his head hopefully and then began to wag it dolefully from side to side. Pa didn’t look glad; neither did Adam, and Joe didn’t dare look at Hoss, who had more reason than either of the others to be mad at him.
Ben folded his arms and stared at his youngest son. “You get yourself upstairs, young man,” he decreed imperiously, “and you’ll soon learn how glad I am. If ever a necessary little talk was in order, I do believe this is the time!”
“But, Pa,” Joe protested.
Ben snapped his fingers and pointed toward the stairs.
Joe looked pleadingly, first at Adam and then at Hoss. Seeing sympathy on neither face, he turned and ran up the steps.
With measured tread, Ben mounted the stairs after his son.
Hoss nodded in solid approval. Though generally a staunch defender of his younger brother and an unfailing advocate for mercy, tonight he hoped Pa would show none. The Deadeye Kid deserved to feel a little sting exactly where his big brother did.
Grimacing, Adam plucked at his greasy shirt and wiped the slime from his lips with the back of his hand. “Hop Sing, I need a bath,” he announced.