Summary: If curiosity killed the cat, then ingenuity just might be the death of Little Joe Cartwright.
Word Count: 4,305
“Yes, fishing,” Adam replied, smiling at his youngest brother. “Pa has given us the day off to go fishing.”
“Why?” Joe asked suspiciously.
“Because we’ve been working hard,” Adam declared. “Well some of us have,” he added, winking in Hoss’ direction.
“I’ve been working hard as well.”
“Sure you have, little brother, sure you have,” Hoss agreed, grabbing Little Joe in a headlock and dragging him behind him across the yard. “Now make yourself useful and get our horses saddled. I’ll go and make sure Hop Sing packs plenty of food; we ain’t likely to survive on the fish you catch.”
Joe didn’t need a second telling. “Don’t worry, Hoss, I’ll have them ready and waiting by the time you get back; we don’t want to hang around too long in case Pa changes his mind.”
“Changes his mind about what?” Ben’s deep voice boomed from the doorway.
“Oh hi. Pa, I didn’t see you there.”
“That was plainly obvious, Joseph,” Ben replied sternly, fixing his eyes on his youngest son’s face, but he couldn’t keep his severe expression going for long, and with a wide smile, he added, “Well, step to it, boy or the day will be half gone.”
“Yes sir,” Joe gushed, running off to complete the task.
Ben laughed at his son’s enthusiasm; he must be getting soft in his old age. Then again the boys deserved a break. It had been a long, cold winter and the first weeks of spring were arduous ones as they tried to catch up with all the jobs that had gone undone during the dark winter days.
Once the boys had provisions packed, horses saddled and were ready to go, Ben stepped outside again to bid them farewell. “Have a good day, boys, but mind and be home for supper. You’ll need all the sleep you can get tonight; tomorrow promises to be a long and busy day. After all, you will need to work twice as hard to make up for your day of rest.”
Joe groaned out loud and was about to voice his opinion on the extra chores when Hoss swatted Cochise’s rump, causing the paint to take off at a run, with Joe hanging on for dear life.
Adam and Hoss followed, laughing good naturedly and looking forward to the day ahead.
The three brothers rode for almost two hours before arriving at a spot near the lake that promised to yield the biggest and best fish to be had. It was a crisp morning, the sun was shining, but there was still a bit of a nip in the air and so the brothers did not remove their jackets as they settled down to fish. Early morning dew still lingered on the grass and they laid their bedrolls down to sit on; better that than risk the wetness soaking through their pants.
“Ain’t this the life!” Hoss declared, lying back on the embankment, enjoying the warm sun on his face.
“Yep,” Adam replied, lying back with him and pulling his hat down over his face. “We certainly don’t get enough days to relax like this.”
Joe looked at his brothers and asked. “Thought we were here to fish?”
Adam pushed his hat back slightly and, opening one eye, he surveyed his youngest brother. “That’s what we brought you along for, Little Joe. We sleep, you fish. Wake me up if you catch something worth eating.”
Hoss laughed. “Little brother can’t sit still long enough to catch anything, Adam. Just as well Hop Sing packed us a good lunch.”
Little Joe pulled a face in his brothers’ direction, but if truth be known, Hoss was right; Joe did find it difficult to stay still for long and invariably he frightened away the fish before they were willing to take a bite.
Almost an hour passed by and Joe was not having much luck. Adam and Hoss snored next to him and, he had to admit, he was bored. Joe generally enjoyed fishing, but it wasn’t so much the fishing, more the camaraderie he shared with his brothers that made it memorable. It just wasn’t any fun sitting there fishing by himself. He would need to do something, but what?
Joe thought back to two summers ago when they had met up with a Paiute Indian friend of Adam’s and he had shown them how to fish with the use of a spear. It had been extremely difficult to master, but Joe and his brothers had had a good time practicing. Anxious to try something different, Joe snapped a branch from a nearby tree and. with the use of his knife, he cut away the branches and whittled away for about thirty minutes until he had a makeshift spear. Feeling the pointed end, Joe decided it wouldn’t be sharp enough to do the job in hand, so using part of his fishing line, he tied his knife securely to the shaft.
Looking round for somewhere to practice with his new found toy, Joe decided to venture onto a nearby rock so that he had a clear view of the water below. This was perfect, Joe decided, and he tied more of the fishing line round the end of the spear and wrapped it round his right hand; after all, he needed to be able to pull the spear, and hopefully the fish with it, back onto dry land.
Standing precariously on the rock, Joe waited about ten minutes before his chance finally came. Taking the spear in his left hand, he took aim and threw it at a large fish that was hovering close to the surface.
“Damn!” Joe cursed as the fish darted away unharmed; this was not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination.
After several more attempts, Joe’s aim was getting better and he was really starting to enjoy himself. When a huge pike settled itself just feet away from him, Joe’s excitement almost bubbled over. Biting on his bottom lip and concentrating as hard as he could, Joe slowly raised his left arm and took aim, anxious not to alert the fish below him. Counting to three under his breath, Joe let the spear go with as much force as he could.
“Woohooo!” Joe screamed out as his makeshift spear found its target, but his next cry was not one of jubilation. “Aaaaahhhh!”
Adam and Hoss, hearing the commotion, sat up just in time to see their little brother slip from the rock and crash into the water below.
“What the heck????” Adam cried, rising quickly to his feet and running to the water’s edge.
Little Joe came spluttering to the surface, still hanging onto the line from the spear for dear life. Swimming for the shore with one hand and pulling the fish behind him with the other, he scrambled up the embankment and onto dry land.
“Little Joe, have you taken leave of your senses?” Hoss asked, moving away from his brother as Joe stood up and shook the water from his clothes.
“Oh wait till you see this,” Joe cackled, ignoring his brothers’ confused stares.
Pulling on the line in his hand, Joe dragged the spear and pike from the water and placed them at his brothers’ feet.
“What do you say to that?” Joe asked proudly.
Hoss scratched his head in wonder as Adam folded his arms with frustration; either that or to keep them off his youngest brother.
“So we have a fish,” Adam said dryly. “Was it worth it?”
Joe tried to defend himself. “But see how I caught it? Boy, I can’t believe I did that.”
“I can’t believe it either,” Adam agreed. “Now how do you suppose to dry off before you catch your death of cold?”
It was at that moment Joe’s teeth began to chatter and the exuberance he had felt a moment before began to wear off.
“I’ll build a fire,” Hoss declared. “Better get out of those wet clothes Joe.”
Adam pulled the pike from the water’s edge as Joe stripped naked.
“Joe boy, why ain’t you wearing your drawers?” Hoss asked as he walked back towards them with an armful of firewood in his hands.
“He’s like a child, Hoss,” Adam replied for him. “He needs someone to supervise his dressing on a morning.”
Joe quickly wrapped his bedroll round his exposed body. “You know they make me itch,” he grumbled. “Anyway it’s up to me what I wear.”
Within minutes, Hoss had a glorious fire going and Joe arranged his clothes on various bushes to try and dry them.
“Now where’s that fish?” Hoss asked, licking his lips with anticipation. “I’m feeling mighty hungry after such a hard morning.”
The brothers all had to agree the fish was delicious, and with full bellies and feeling warm and content, even Adam admired Joe’s fishing technique and examined the makeshift spear with admiration.
“Got to hand it to you, Joe,” Adam acknowledged. “It certainly worked better than I ever thought it would.”
“I always was the best one for throwing things,” Joe boasted. “And you have to admit when I was a kid, I beat you and Hoss hands down when we used to throw stones at the bottles lined up on the fence.”
Hoss began to chuckle and winked at Adam. “We let you win, Joseph. You weren’t knee high to a grasshopper and half the time Adam stood behind you, throwing another stone and making believe it was yours all the time.”
Joe’s face reddened and he began to look cross.
“Aw, don’t go and get all moody on us,” Hoss warned. “You were just a little kid and Adam and me just played along to keep you happy.”
Joe was saved from giving a response by what happened next. A spark from the fire had inadvertently landed on his pants and, while they were talking, the spark had taken hold and Joe’s pants were now a separate fire all of their own.
Adam and Joe were quickly on their feet and stamping all over the pants to put out the flames.
“Ouch, ouch,” Joe screeched, jumping from one foot to the other.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” Adam berated. “You’ve no boots on.”
“They ain’t your pants going up in smoke,” Joe retaliated, running to the water’s edge to cool his burning feet.
Hoss held up the remains of Joe’s pants between his fingers. “Don’t think you’ll be wearing these again little brother,” he smirked as he lifted the pants higher and looked through a hole the size on his head in the still smoking material.
“What am I going to do?” Joe asked quietly as the full realization of his predicament dawned on him.
“It wouldn’t be a problem if you had worn your drawers like everyone else,” Adam scolded. “At least you would have been decent when riding home.”
“Well, we can’t let him ride home naked,” Hoss decided. “Not that there’s much to write home about,” he added laughingly as he eyed his brother’s exposed body.
Joe reddened as he pulled the blanket closer round his hips, ignoring his brothers’ grinning faces.
“Come on, Adam,” Hoss decided. “Give the kid your drawers and we can get packed up and start for home.”
The smile died on Adam’s face. “Oh no, it’s his fault he’s in this predicament; he’ll just have to ride with his bedroll round him.”
“Don’t be silly,” Hoss replied. “Now come on Adam get your pants off.”
“And I’ve told you once he’s not having them,” Adam answered petulantly.
Joe was puzzled. Why was Adam being so mean? But Hoss knew the answer and started to laugh uncontrollably.
“What’s so funny?” Joe asked, wanting to be let in on the joke.
“Its elder brother here,” Hoss smirked, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “The reason he won’t lend you his drawers is cause he ain’t wearing any either! Ain’t that right, Adam?”
Adam was about to protest Hoss’ statement, but he knew he couldn’t. Instead he turned on Joe. “You know, Joe, you create havoc wherever you go. Is it too much to ask for you to keep out of trouble for one day?”
Joe’s mouth dropped open in astonishment; here was Adam berating him for not wearing his drawers and Adam wasn’t wearing any himself, and to top it all, he still managed to turn it all round to be Joe’s fault.
“Don’t worry, little brother, you can have mine,” Hoss offered generously, still chuckling at the idea of finding his big brother in the wrong for once.
Hoss quickly stripped and handed his drawers to Joe. Joe looked at the enormous drawers in his hand and winced; these would cover him head to foot and wrap round his body at least twice.
Two minutes later Joe stood in front of his brothers looking like a small child. The drawers hung at least a foot off the end of his feet and Joe had to hold on tightly to hold them under his armpits.
Hoss and Adam could not contain their laughter and almost rolled down the embankment at the sight in front of them.
“Oh Joe,” Adam cackled, hardly able to get his words out. “I wish Mary Sue could see you now, the poor girl would take off running and never come back.”
Mary Sue was Joe’s latest love and the thought of her seeing him at this moment sent shivers down his spine. In fact, the thought of anyone seeing him brought him out in a cold sweat.
“How am I supposed to keep these up?” Joe complained. “Hoss, why do you have to be so big?”
“It ain’t me that’s big; it’s just you’re so small, little buddy,” Hoss replied, patting Joe on the head.
“You’ll be okay once you put your belt round,” Adam offered, still unable to keep the smile from his face.
Joe took the scorched belt from his burnt out pants and fastened it round his waist, folding the drawers over it, but as he walked the underwear began to slip from the belt and within a short time it was round his ankles.
This caused Adam and Hoss to lose control once again and they could hardly pack up camp for laughing.
“Very funny, very funny,” was the best Joe could come up with as he packed his saddle bags with one hand, the other holding on tightly to Hoss’ underwear.
A new problem quickly unfolded; Joe’s vest was dry but his jacket was still soaking wet.
“You can’t wear that,” Adam decided. “You’ll catch pneumonia.”
Joe was about to give a smart comment when he though better of it. Packing his saddle bags onto Cochise, he pushed his scorched feet into his wet boots, wrapped a blanket round his shoulders and with some difficulty climbed into the saddle.
The brothers had hardly ridden a hundred yards when Joe stopped his horse.
“What’s wrong, Joe?” Hoss asked, turning in the saddle to look back at his young brother.
“I’m not sure,” Joe replied. “Cochise seems to be limping.”
Joe slid from the saddle and bent down to check his horse’s leg. It felt warm to the touch and when Joe bent the leg and checked his foot, he could see the trouble straightaway. The shoe was cracked.
Hoss knelt down beside him and a thin line crossed over his mouth. In an unusual show of anger, he turned on his brother.
“I told you last week about that shoe, Little Joe; you have no excuse for this.”
Joe backed away from Hoss in fear. “I-I-I’m sorry, Hoss,” he stammered. “I guess I just forgot.” When it came to animals and their welfare, Hoss was a force to be reckoned with and Joe knew he was to blame for Cochise’s present predicament.
Adam stood between his brothers and tried to defuse the situation. “Well, there’s no point arguing about it now. Joe, you are going to have to double up and we’ll just have to take our time getting home so we don’t aggravate the condition anymore than we have to.”
“He can double up with you,” Hoss retorted, the anger still showing in his voice.
“That’s for sure,” Adam agreed, allowing a smile to cross his lips. “No point putting more strain on poor Chubb than we have to. Poor horse has enough to contend with.”
The tension in the air released and the brothers mounted once more, only this time Joe was forced to sit at the back of his eldest brother — not the most comfortable of positions.
An hour later, they had only covered a few miles of their journey as Adam sought out the smoothest of trails in an effort to prevent any more damage to Cochise’s foot. Meanwhile Joe squirmed in the saddle so much that Adam became irritated.
“Joe, what is it with you? You got ants in your pants boy?”
“I need to go,” Joe replied. “I was hoping to hold on, but I don’t think I can.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Adam said in exasperation. “We would have stopped. All you had to do was ask.”
“Well I’m asking now,” Joe growled back. “So will you please stop?”
Adam pulled his horse to a halt and Joe quickly slid down and ran into the bushes.
Joe tried to stand and do the necessary while holding onto Hoss’ drawers, but in the end he gave up and let them fall to his ankles. Once relieved, he bent down, pulled up the drawers and made to leave. That’s when it happened. The ripping noise was plainly obvious and Joe turned to see the seat of the pants hanging from a thorny bush behind him.
“Oh no,” he groaned audibly so loud, his brothers came to investigate the problem.
“What’s wrong, Little Joe?” Hoss asked with concern.
Joe didn’t answer; he just turned his back, exposing the pink flesh of his bare bottom through the hole in the drawers to his now chuckling brothers.
Adam tried to look all serious for a moment, but then reaching forward, he delivered a resounding smack to Joe’s tender flesh and announced. “You know, little brother, this just isn’t your day.”
Standing in front of their horses, the brothers pondered Joe’s latest dilemma. Suddenly Hoss declared he had the perfect solution. Taking hold of Joe’s bedroll, he used his knife to cut a circular hole in the cloth just off centre. Once finished he pulled it down over his little brother’s head and declared, “See, now you have your very own poncho, and I’ve cut it so it hangs down lower at the back than the front, so as to save your blushes.”
Sure enough, the blanket hung down to Joe’s knees as the back, but barely came up to his waist at the front. It wasn’t very pretty, but under the circumstances it was better than nothing and Joe thanked his brother for his efforts.
The rest of the journey proved uneventful until they were only a couple of miles from home. They came across Mary Sue and her mother in their buggy. One of the wheels had come loose and they were stranded at the side of the track.
“Oh no, don’t stop,” Joe groaned, trying to hide behind Adam’s back.
Adam could understand his brother’s embarrassment, but there was no way the women hadn’t seen them. “We can’t just ride on, Joe; we have to stop and help them.”
“Thank goodness,” Mrs. Carson enthused, as the brothers rode up to them. “We were just wondering how long we were going to be stuck here.”
“Don’t you worry, Ma’am,” Hoss consoled. “We’ll have that wheel back on in no time at all and you can be on your way.”
Adam and Hoss immediately started working on the wheel while Little Joe stood next to the horses looking very shamefaced. Mary Sue and her mother didn’t ask about Joe’s present predicament and they politely averted their eyes from his half dressed body, but it was plainly obvious that Mrs. Carson did not approve of the young man in front of her. After this little encounter, she was determined to keep her young daughter away from such bad company; he was bound to be a bad influence.
When the wheel was once more affixed, Hoss tipped his hat to the elder lady and announced, “All ready, Ma’am; you can be on your way.”
Mary Sue, who had kept her eyes to the ground for most of the time, now looked sheepishly over at Joe and asked, “Would you mind helping me, Little Joe?”
Mrs. Carton tuttered her disapproval, but she took Adam’s arm as he helped her into the buggy and sat to await her daughter.
Little Joe blushingly stepped forward, and taking hold of Mary Sue’s hand in his, he placed his other hand on her elbow and gently helped her up.
The movement and stretching proved too much for Hoss’ drawers and they slid from under Joe’s belt and dropped to his ankles. The shriek that came from Mrs. Carson alarmed her daughter and she turned suddenly and fell into Joe’s arms causing them both to fall to the ground.
Adam quickly rushed forward and lifted the helpless girl back to her feet and onto the buggy, but Joe was not quick enough to hide his assets before the poor girl was given a quick biology lesson into the male anatomy.
Mrs. Carson by then had regained her composure, and as they rode away, she could be heard shouting at the top of her voice how the sheriff would hear of this and she would have Joe Cartwright arrested for indecency.
“You’ve gone and done it now, little brother,” Hoss said with a shake of his head. “Once Mrs. Carson speaks to all those other mamas, I don’t think you’ll be doing any courting for a long, long time to come.”
“It’s not the mamas I’m worried about,” Joe gulped. “It’s the papas. Well, one Papa in particular, once he gets to hear about it.”
“Yep,” Adam grinned. “That butt of yours might find itself exposed yet again before the day’s out.”
“Let’s just hope he doesn’t find out,” Joe whispered, crossing his fingers and saying a silent prayer to anyone that was listening.
The boys said nothing of their escapades to Ben that evening over supper, but a father’s initiative told him something had happened that day and he made it his business to get to the bottom of it before the week was out.
As it happened, Ben didn’t have to do much investigation of his own, for bright and early the next morning Sheriff Coffee arrived before breakfast and gave him an account of what had transpired between his sons and Mrs. Carson and her daughter the day before.
Armed with half the story, Ben extricated the rest of the sorry tale from Adam and Hoss as they appeared for breakfast.
Poor Joe was still in his room; he had seen Sheriff Coffee arrive and now he was terrified to go downstairs and face the music. What if the Sheriff arrested him? And his father was bound to take a dim view of the whole affair. Not only had Joe been involved in a stupid prank to catch fish, he hadn’t been wearing any underwear (a cardinal sin in his father’s eyes), he had not looked after his horse as he should, and then to top it all, he had exposed himself to two women. Things did not look good and, whichever way he viewed it, he was doomed. Just then his father’s voice boomed up the stairs.
“JOSEPH, COME DOWN HERE, PLEASE. THIS INSTANT.”
Joe descended the stairs slowly with his head down, unable to look into his father’s disapproving eyes.
“You wanted me, Pa?”
“Oh yes Joseph, I wanted you,” Ben growled. “Sheriff Coffee and your brothers have just been filling me in on your escapades yesterday. When are you ever going to grow up?”
Before Joe could answer, Ben started talking again. “This silly fool trick of catching fish, resulting in you falling into the lake. For heavens sake, boy, you could have caught your death of cold in the water at this time of year. And how many times do I have to tell you about wearing underwear?”
“A-A-Adam wasn’t wearing……”
“I’m not talking about Adam,” Ben interrupted. “Then your horse. You have no excuse for not looking after your horse. Have I not brought you up to put your animal first?”
Again Ben did not allow Joe to get a word in before he continued with his tirade. “And then to expose yourself to two unsuspecting women! Well, words fail me.”
Hoss tried to keep a straight face as he said in mock defense of his brother. “It was such a little exposure, Pa; women probably never saw a thing.”
“That’s right, Pa,” Adam interjected. “No point getting upset over a LITTLE thing like that.”
“Well?” Ben demanded ignoring his older sons. “What do you have to say in your defense?”
Joe bit on his bottom lip and tried to think how best to respond, but as he lifted his eyes and caught sight of his grinning brothers and the twitching mouths of both his Pa and the Sheriff, a twinkle entered his eye and he said.
“I’m real sorry, Pa; you know I would always try and uphold the family name and the family REPUTATION,” he emphasized. “But all I can say in my defense is…..that water was REAL COLD!”