That Shrinking Feeling (by Claire)

Summary:    A practical joke backfires.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9795


 

“Very well, Joseph,” said Ben Cartwright, with just a trace of weariness in his voice, “You may go into town with your brothers and have one drink at the saloon. Just one, mind!”

Little Joe looked delighted at this announcement. For several months he had been wheedling and cajoling his father to allow him this privilege. His brothers looked rather less than delighted. It was unfortunate that Ben saw their expressions of horror and incredulity.

“Adam, Hoss!”

Their heads snapped up at the tone of his voice.

“I expect you to look after your brother, to make sure that he doesn’t get into trouble and ensure he is home at a reasonable hour. And by that I mean an hour that l find reasonable”.

“Oh great,” thought Adam. “I break my back all week at work and I finally get to go into town on Friday. Do I get to relax, to flirt or maybe even get a little drunk? Oh no, of course not, I get to baby sit Joe Cartwright, the human tornado.”

“How on earth does Pa expect me to keep Little Joe out of trouble?” Hoss wondered mournfully. “Even Pa doesn’t manage that too good”

Little Joe smiled beatifically. Friday night in town! With his brothers for company and the prospect of beer, cards and pretty girls! He was fifteen, he was good looking and had $10 to spend. What more could anyone possibly want?

Little Joe’s fond delusions of a grand night out were quickly shattered. Adam and Hoss spent the entire ride to Virginia City informing him exactly what he could and could not do. It took considerably longer for them to detail what he could not do and what punishments would be meted out for any transgressions. Little Joe felt oddly deflated. He longed to spend time with his brothers on equal terms, to be treated as man by them, but now he realized they still thought of him only as their pesky little brother. And now the longed-for trip to the saloon looked as if it would be as exciting as a trip to church. Hoss noticed Joe was lagging behind and turned back in his saddle to call “Come on Shortshanks! I’ll buy your first beer, shall I?”

Little Joe urged Cochise forward, looking slightly less dejected at this. Things were looking up! Good old Hoss – he’d show his brother a good time. Then a cool voice said “Remember, that’ll be your only beer tonight, little brother. You’d better not forget what Pa said. I’m not laying my butt on the line for you!”

It was meant as a joke, but the moment the words were spoken, Adam realized how bitter he sounded. Joe shot a venomous glare at his brother’s impassive back and .vented his frustrations by sticking his tongue out So what if it was childish – Adam deserved it. At least Hoss wanted his company tonight – heck, he was going to buy him a beer! Everything would be just fine.

It was a Friday payday and so the Silver Dollar was packed. Little Joe’s eyes grew wide at the sight of men sitting with girls perched on their knees, drinking glasses of beer and whiskey. The girls sure were pretty! The air was hot and heavy with the smell of pipe tobacco and cheap cigars. In one corner, four men were playing poker and Little Joe made an eager start towards them, only to be stopped short by an iron hand on his arm.

“Not so fast, little buddy. Where do you think you’re going?”

“Aw Adam,” Little Joe whined, “I was only going to watch”.

Adam looked skeptical, but decided to play along. “Oh well, that’s alright then.”

“Great! I’ll just get my beer and then…”

“And then I am going to join that game and you can stand and watch me! You never know, you might just learn something.”

Joe’s face fell at this pronouncement. “Yeah, that’s right” he thought. “I could learn how to play poker like a blind hen. Boy, this is going to be a long night.”

*****

Some time and several beers later, at least two of the Cartwright brothers were enjoying themselves. Hoss was deep in conversation with a rancher who had journeyed from Arizona, while Adam was $50 dollars up in the poker game. Little Joe was still nursing his first (and only) beer. Assuming a nonchalant pose, he leant his shoulders back against the wall, balancing his weight on his heels, and shoved his hat pushed forward to shield his eyes. He was deeply bored by the entire evening.

Adam looked at the clock and realized they would have to leave soon. He caught Hoss’s eye, signaled “one more?” and got an enthusiastic response. As he stood up to go to the bar, he caught sight of Joe and smiled at the boy’s seemingly negligent pose. He was trying so hard to look grown up and in control of things! Unfortunately, Little Joe was still small and slight for his age, so he wasn’t fooling anyone. Noticing the boy looked deeply bored and was still nursing the remains of his beer, Adam felt a sudden twinge of compassion. Surely there could be no harm in cheering him up with a second drink? “Hey Joe! Let your big brother buy you another beer?”

The words were meant kindly, but Joe was not in a mood to listen. All he heard was Adam was still treating him like a child – in front of everyone! Shoving his hat back, Joe started angrily towards his brother. In his haste, he didn’t see the man on his left and was surprised when his elbow connected with a hard object. Then there was a crash and the smell of cheap whiskey filled the air. Little Joe looked up in horror to discover that he had collided with a large miner, causing him to drop his bottle of whiskey onto the floor.

“Hey mister, I’m really sorry. I d-d-didn’t m-m-mean to do that” stammered Little Joe anxiously. His apology had no discernible effect on the man, who simply grabbed him by the shirt collar, lifted him upwards and began to shake him roughly. Little Joe tried not hard not to flinch and was very relieved to hear Adam’s voice saying, “No harm done. Here’s the money for another bottle. Just let the boy go.”

The miner dropped Little Joe abruptly, grabbed the money, spat briefly in the direction of the boy and stalked back to the bar.

“You okay there Joe?” asked Adam, looking anxiously at his brother who was sitting in an ungainly heap on the floor. Little Joe nodded, still feeling a bit shaky and not quite trusting himself to speak yet. “I think we should probably head for home then. Next time we come, I’ll buy you that beer.” He smiled, stretched out his hand and helped Joe up. All things considered, Adam thought, it hadn’t been to bad an evening after all. No real damage done.

They started to make their way across the saloon, Adam leading the way and Little Joe following behind him. As they neared the doors, a voice called out “Good thing you’ve got a grown-up to look after you, sonny. You need to be more careful or I’ll send you back to the nursery where you belong!”

The man’s companions burst out laughing. Little Joe had never walked away from a fight and he wasn’t about to start now. The man was much bigger and older than him, but Joe was sure he had speed and agility on his side. The man had obviously had a lot to drink, which would act in Joe’s favor. Finally (and Joe felt this was his trump card), he had the bonuses of Adam – coolly efficient – and Hoss – never beaten in a fight – to back him up. No reason not to proceed. No reason at all.

Turning on his boot heel, Joe sped towards the man before Adam knew what was happening. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his small brother hurtle towards the man, his head down and obviously determined to fight. He groaned. Why had he tempted providence earlier? Surely he should have known that Joe could find trouble in the company of angels?

Little Joe charged forwards, his head and upper torso concealing the fact that his left arm, hand and fingers were firmly braced forward. As his head butted into the man’s belly, he drove his fingers upwards, jabbing painfully between his opponent’s ribs. He heard a load groan and grinned in delight. Then a loud cry of “Joe!” jerked him back to reality.

Several things all happened at once. The miner straightened up and launched a meaty fist towards the Little Joe’s unprotected neck. Adam launched himself through the air, landing on a resounding “thump” on the miner’s back. Hoss barreled his way through the crowd and swung his fist into the man’s jaw. And Little Joe ducked down, dropped to the floor, curled up into a ball and rolled out of harms way.

Within moments, half the patrons of the saloon were involved in the fight, hitting out at anything and everything. Unseen by the combatants, Little Joe edged his way to the edge of the maelstrom, crawled out and made his way nimbly to the edge of the saloon, where he sat peaceably, watching the action with evident enjoyment. There was an untouched glass of beer on the table next to him, just asking to be drunk. Tonight was exceeding all Little Joe’s expectations.

*****

The stars shone thinly under the autumn moon and there was a thin frost on the ground as the Cartwrights rode wearily into the yard. Suddenly, the silence was broken by an almighty, unmistakable roar: “What is the meaning of this?

“Hoss cringed visibly as his father’s voice shattered the early-morning air.

“Just what time do you call this? I entrust you with your little brother and you come back in this state!”. Ben’s eyes roamed over his sons, noting Adam’s split lip and bloody nose and Hoss’s black eye. They exchanged rueful glances as Ben muttered “Tsk, tsk, tut” under his breath, before bellowing “Joseph! Where are you son?”

Little Joe urged Cochise around from behind Chub and Sport and beamed winningly at his father. “Hi Pa! I had a great time! It sure was nice of you to wait up for us. Did you have a good evening?”

Glad to see at least one son return home without visible impairment, Ben smiled at the irrepressible youngster. Hoss and Adam exchanged knowing looks as Ben continued “I’m glad you had a good time son, but I need to talk to your brothers. Can you take the horses into the barn for me?”

Little Joe trotted Cochise off to the barn, settled the horses down for the night and then made a strategic retreat to his room. Later, much later, Adam and Hoss agreed that it would be hard to imagine a more thorough, more deeply scathing condemnation. They had tried to explain what had happened, but found it difficult to say how Joe could start a fight, yet emerge totally unscathed, while they bore the obvious scars. After a while, they gave up protesting their innocence and simply endured the lecture.

*****

Little Joe bounded happily down the stairs to breakfast. Last night had been great! Sure, there’d been a little disturbance at the end, but after all, he hadn’t got into any trouble. Maybe Pa would let him go into town every week now!

“Joseph, how many times do I have to tell you not to run in the house? Come and have your breakfast – and for goodness sake eat something for once!”

“Sorry, Pa,” Little Joe said brightly and continued “I’m starving this morning”.

He helped himself to pancakes and bacon and started to eat. The silence around the table was deafening. “Someone’s in trouble,” thought Little Joe, relieved that it wasn’t him for once. Strangely enough, his brothers didn’t appear to be very hungry this morning – but then, they had drunk quite a bit last night! Snickering softly, he went back to eating. Nothing like a late night ride to work up an appetite!

Ben cleared his throat and laid his napkin on the table. “Boys, there is something I need to talk to you about.”

“Great, here comes another lecture”, thought Adam gloomily. “Little brother’s done it again: stirred up a mess of trouble and somehow come out it smelling like roses And he accuses me of being irresponsible!” He shot a venomous look at Little Joe and was gratified to see the boy start in surprise. Recovering quickly, Joe smiled happily at his father. “Sure Pa, what is it?”

“I received an important message last night …” Ben began. Hoss wasn’t really listening. He wished his father would lower his voice a little. He hadn’t slept well last night, his head was pounding and for once he wasn’t hungry. “Waste of good pancakes” he reflected, looking at his relatively untouched plate. He really didn’t feel too much like eating this morning. Adam appeared to be in the same state. Little Joe, however, was nodding enthusiastically at his father, curls bouncing up and down with joy and a beguiling smile on his face, begging “Can I come too? Please Pa, please! I’m old enough to be a real help now?”

Trying not to choke at this unlikely pronouncement, Hoss decided he needed to pay closer attention to what his Pa was saying before Joe got everyone into another mess.

“I’m sorry Joseph, but I be spending all my time in Sacramento on business. I’m afraid you’d be bored and have nothing to do. Anyway, you’ll be needed here to help your brothers on the ranch”.

“How long will you be gone Pa?” asked Adam.

 “Oh, about two weeks. But I know you’ll all manage just fine,” replied Ben, with considerably more confidence than he actually felt. “Adam, I know I can rely on you to keep things running smoothly. Hoss, can you supervise the cattle roundup? And Joe!” His voice grew louder as he saw his youngest son slouching in his chair with a petulant expression on his face. “Sit up straight and stop sulking! You are staying right here and helping your brothers and that is an end to it! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes Pa,” Little Joe replied sadly. He hated when his father was away. There seemed to be an emptiness around the house and deep down he was always afraid that something would happen and he would never see his father again.

“One last thing Joseph, I expect you to obey both your brothers and to keep out of trouble!”

Things were beginning to look much brighter, thought Adam and sneaked a peek at Hoss, who gave a small smile in return. Little Joe began to have a very bad feeling indeed.

*****

“Bye Pa! Have a good trip and come back safe!” Little Joe flung his arms around his father’s waist and hugged him tightly. Ben smiled and ran his hand through the boy’s tumbled curls. “I will, son. You mind you brothers now! And get a hair cut! You look like … “

 “A Mississippi river boat gambler!” Adam and Hoss chorused. This was brilliant: Pa had given them their first small piece of revenge. Joe pouted briefly and then joined his brothers to wave farewell as the stage sped out of town.

 “Well, Shortshanks, I guess we’d better get that mop of your cut before we head home, eh?”

“Aw, come on Hoss. Plenty of time for that before Pa returns,” Little Joe protested, but to no avail. His brothers simply linked their arms through his and walked him briskly to the barbers.

“Morning, Hank. My little brother needs a haircut. Can you fit him in?”

“Sure Adam, no problem.” Hank looked at Joe, who was already squirming with displeasure. “Just a trim, Joe?”

“Oh no,” said Adam, before Joe could respond. “I think he needs a good short haircut this time, don’t you Hoss?”

“Sure do, Adam. Don’t worry Hank, he’ll sit still, even if I have to hold him on my lap!”

This was dreadful! His brothers were ganging up against him and there was no-one to come to his aid. Little Joe looked at their set faces and realized there was no way out of this situation. With bad grace, he stalked over to the chair, sat down, crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. Hank began to cut and a shower of dark brown curls fell to the floor.

Looking at the unnaturally neat head of his youngest brother, Adam felt a pang of conscience. Poor kid! He looked even younger now! And he was so proud of his curls! Then he remembered the events in the saloon and hardened his heart. “Come on Joe, let’s go home”.

Little Joe clapped his hat on and squawked in anguish. “It’s too big now! How much hair did you have him cut off?” Running his hands through the short crop, he howled “You’ve let him scalp me!”

Anxious to avoid a scene, Hoss put a large hand on Little Joe’s shoulder and propelled him through the door.

*****

Little Joe spent the afternoon doing barn chores. He tidied the tack room, cleaned and polished livery and then mucked out the horses. Finally, he started to groom his beloved Cochise, talking him as he worked the curry comb in long, sweeping strokes over the horse’s coat. He felt extremely sorry for himself.

“It’s not fair Cooch! They all treat me like a little kid! Do this Little Joe! Do that Little Joe! Don’t be a nuisance Little Joe! They never ask me how I feel about things – oh no! I can’t even have my hair how I want it!” He grabbed a stable rubber and began to move it over Cochise, polishing the gleaming coat to a high shine and continued to pour out his heart. “Maybe if I was bigger, they’d listen to me. And, all right, I’m small but do they have to keep rubbing it in? All I ever get is “Little Joe”, “little buddy”, “Shortshanks” or “baby brother”! Lord, I hate when they call me that!” Tears started into his eyes as he considered all the injustices he suffered.

“Joe! Are you cussing in there?” Adam’s voice boomed from the barn doors.

“No Adam,” Joe lied, quickly wiping away a stray tear.

 “Come on into the house. It’s supper time”

Little Joe thought the table looked very empty without his father sitting there. Hop Sing had prepared fired chicken and gravy, with mashed potatoes and sweetcorn, but Joe didn’t really feel hungry.

“C’mon Shortshanks. You’ve got to eat more than that!” pleaded Hoss. “You need to put some meat on these little bird bones of yours!”

Little Joe didn’t respond, but continued to push his food moodily around his plate. Hop Sing came through from kitchen, saw what the boy was doing and swatted him on the back of his head with a tea towel. “Ow! What was that for?”

“Lil’ boy need to eat more to grow up big and strong!”

“Great,” thought Little Joe “All I need now is for Adam to start telling me how little and puny I am and I’ll have the full set.” He waited, but all Adam said was “Well, maybe you’ll feel like some apple pie later on.”

In truth, Adam was feeling sorry for Little Joe. He knew how much the boy adored his father and thought he must be feeling pretty low. No sense in trying to force the kid to eat if he wasn’t hungry.

The rest of the evening passed off peaceably, with Adam and Hoss playing chess, while Joe lay sprawled across a chair. “What are you reading, Joe?” Hoss asked curiously. It was strange to see Joe sit still for so long.

“Oh, it’s pretty good. Real scary in parts too. It’s called Frankenstein and there’s a monster in it and everything!”

Adam looked worried. He’d read the book too and wondered if it was entirely suitable for an impressionable youngster. But he was reluctant to spoil the pleasant atmosphere and turned back to the game. A while later, he looked across and saw Little Joe was sound asleep, the book across his chest. Moving quietly, he laid the book on the table and whispered to Hoss, “He’s dead to the world. No point in waking him up now. I’ll get him upstairs and into bed.”

Hoss nodded in agreement. They both knew that once Joe was asleep, he stayed asleep and would be incredibly grumpy if woken up. Adam bent down and lifted the sleeping boy gently into his arms, Little Joe’s head resting trustingly on his shoulder. As he walked upstairs, he remembered all the times he had done this before, starting with the tiny baby he could hold in one arm and felt strangely protective towards Little Joe. Then he shook his head. Of course he felt protective! This was his baby brother and no matter how old Joe was, he would always look out for him.

Adam laid Little Joe down on the bed, undressed him and pulled on a nightshirt, all without waking him up. Goodness, the boy was thin! Maybe he should be stricter about getting him eat. “Night, Little Joe, sweet dreams”. Adam turned the lamp down low, and dropped a kiss on Little Joe’s forehead. It was strange to see him lying there without a curl drooping forward!

A blood curdling scream ripped through the house. Without thinking, Adam leapt out of bed and ran into Joe’s room to find him sitting bolt upright in bed, his eyes wide and unseeing. He gathered the boy into his arms and held him close, crooning gently and stroking his back. “Ssh, ssh. It’s okay now, Everything’s okay now. You’re safe and I’m with you. Big brother’s got you. Everything’s all right.” Eventually, Little Joe calmed down enough to go back to sleep and Adam returned wearily to his own bed.

The next morning, Little Joe woke up in a black mood after his disturbed night. He was embarrassed to recall how he had wept on his brother’s chest. Even worse, he couldn’t remember going to bed, which meant that someone had carried him like a baby and taken all his clothes off! So much for his privacy!

“How are you feeling this morning?”

“I’m fine Hoss,” said Little Joe testily and took a small spoon of scrambled eggs.

 “Come on little buddy, you need to eat more than that now” began Adam in a concerned voice, but was interrupted as Joe turned around and yelled rudely “I know you don’t think so but I am old enough to know how hungry I am and how much I want to eat? Just leave me alone and stop treating me like a baby!”

“Well, Joseph, when you begin to act your age, let us know and we’ll treat you accordingly. But if you’re going to pick at your food and be rude then you’d better stay here and keep your sour mood to yourself.” Little Joe glowered at Adam, who ignored him and continued “there’s a whole pile of wood needs chopping, so begin on that. Hoss and I are riding up to the north pasture, but we’ll be back for lunch.”

“Fine.”

“Good.”

And so the battle lines were drawn.

*****

“I don’t know how Pa copes with that boy, I really don’t Hoss. I mean, one moment I’m feeling all soft towards him and the next I feel like taking him over my knee!”

“Yup, he sure is struggling to grow up! The only problem is, he isn’t growing.”

They rode in silence for a moment and Adam remembered how Joe’s hat had slid down over his eyes yesterday. The germ of an idea began to grow. “Do you still want to get back at Joe for that ruckus in the saloon?” Hoss nodded in agreement. “Well, I think I’ve got the perfect idea. The only problem is, it’ll take a few days to set up …”

As Adam outlined his plan, they began to laugh. Eventually, they had to stop the horses and dismount before they fell off. Hoss lay down on the ground, tears pouring down his face and howled with laughter. Eventually, he calmed down a little and offered a few refinements of his own to the plan. The sheer brilliance of the scheme struck Adam once more and when he imagined the look on Joe’s face he began to sob with a quiet  and desperate joy.

After a rather boring morning chopping wood, Little Joe was delighted when Adam suggested that he help to roundup the calves for branding.

“Isn’t Hoss going to help too?” he asked.

“No, I’ve got to go into town. But I’ll be starting the branding tomorrow.”

Little Joe hoped he wouldn’t be asked to help with this chore. He disliked seeing and hearing the young animals in pain. Although he knew branding was an essential part of ranch life, he’d rather not take part in it. Both his brothers knew this, and Adam was quick to say “Maybe tomorrow you could ride the fence lines with me? We’ve got to make sure everything is fixed before winter comes”. Hoss added “And after that, maybe you could help me move the herd over to the new pasture.”

“Sure thing! No problem” Little Joe felt much happier at this. He was being given real jobs to do. Maybe at last his brothers realized that he was a man!

What Little Joe didn’t realize was that his brothers had carefully arranged things so that one of them could always slip away unnoticed to prepare for their surprise. The next few days passed in a flurry of ranch work, with Little Joe at the centre of things. His brothers were surprised to see how useful the boy could be. They were equally pleased to see the hard work was tiring him out, so that he went to bed early and willingly. This gave them valuable time alone to put their plans into action.

*****

“Come on Joe! Time to get up”

“Okay, okay!. I’m getting up.” Little Joe lay for a moment and then opened one eye to see Hoss standing over him. He grinned and then hopped out of bed and began to get dressed.

“Hurry up then. We’re going into town for the mail this morning, so dress neat.” Hoss moved towards the door, adding “And don’t forget to brush your hair. It’s every whichways!”

Grumbling good-naturedly about bossy big brothers, Little Joe pulled on his pants and boots, found a clean shirt and buttoned it. Moving over to the dresser, he grabbed his bush and began to bang it aimlessly around his head. What was Hoss going on about, he thought. His hair was hardly long enough to lie down, far less be in a mess. Then, something strange struck him. He could only see the top part of his head in the mirror that hung on the wall. Weird! There was a shout of “Breakfast!” from below, so he tossed down the brush and ran downstairs.

After breakfast, the three brothers began to get ready for the ride into town. Their gunbelts lay on the credenza by the door and they began to buckle them on. Little Joe grabbed his, threaded the leather through the belt buckle until it reached the third last hole and fastened it. The belt slid straight down over his slim hips, landing on the floor with a clatter.

“For goodness sake! Be more careful Joe. That could have been dangerous!” Adam’s words were harsh as he realized how easily the gun could have gone off. Little Joe stood looking bemused. “I don’t understand. I always use that belt hole. Guess I’ve lost a little weight with all hard work, eh?”

“Well, you were too skinny to begin with, little brother.” Adam draped his arm affectionately round Little Joe’s shoulders. “You’d better start eating a bit more or you’ll fade away to nothing before Pa gets back and he’ll start yelling at Hoss and me again”. Little Joe grinned up at Adam and heard a strange noise from behind him. “You all right Hoss?” he asked with concern.

“Oh I’m just fine Shortshanks. Just a bit of a tickle in my nose.” As Joe continued to gaze at him with concern, Hoss continued, “Come on, I’ve got the horses saddled and ready.”

Reaching to grab his hat from the hatstand, Little Joe thought that it seemed a bit higher than normal. In fact, he had to stand on tiptoes. He looked at Adam and Hoss but neither of them seemed to notice anything different, so he said nothing.

Cochise, Sport and Chubb were loosely tethered to the rail outside. Little Joe greeted his horse affectionately and gave him an apple he had filched from the house, while his brothers looked on indulgently. Grabbing the saddle horn in his left hand Little Joe vaulted up into the saddle, his feet reaching for the stirrups. No matter how hard he searched, the stirrups remained elusive, so he leant down and saw the stirrups dangling a good 6 inches below his feet.

 “Very funny Hoss” he said. “I thought you wanted to get going. Well, you’ll just have to wait a moment.”

“Dadburn it Joe! What are you talking about?”

“You’ve deliberately put my stirrups at the wrong length” accused Joe, as he fished down and grabbed the leathers. “You know I ride with them in the sixth hole.”

“That’s where I put them when I tacked up Cochise. I know that as well as anyone. Are you telling me someone’s been interfering with your tack?” Hoss looked worried.

“Noo-o-o” replied Little Joe slowly, looking at the stirrup leather he held in his hand. They’re in the sixth hole all right. Guess the leather must have stretched a bit, that’s all. I just need to shorten them.”

Adam had ridden ahead and was waiting impatiently. “Come on – let’s ride!”

*****

“You’re awful quiet there Shortshanks,” said Hoss, looking at the rather dejected small figure riding beside him. “Something worrying you?”

“Well, you’ll probably think this is daft, but …”

“But what?” Adam asked softly. “Come on, tell us and maybe we can help.”

Little Joe could contain himself no longer “I think I’m shrinking!”

Adam tried to keep a straight face as he replied “Well, that would be unusual, but not entirely unheard of. Remember old Mrs. Brannan, who used to live near the school?” Little Joe nodded and his brother continued “Well, she was a tiny little lady, right? But I heard people say she was as tall and slim as a young tree when she was a girl.”

There was an explosive noise as Hoss sneezed again. “Bless you,” said Little Joe automatically. “But that couldn’t happen to me, could it? I’m only 15! I don’t want to start shrinking over before I’ve even finished growing! It’s not fair!”

He sounded close to tears and Adam wondered if he gone too far. Kind-hearted Hoss leant forward and touched Little Joe lightly on the knee.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re just tired, that’s all. Things will all right. We’re nearly home now, and you can have a nice hot bath and everything will be fine!” Little Joe snuffled his agreement and smiled tearily at his brother. Because his eyes were still a bit misty, he didn’t see the gleam in brother’s wide, honest gaze.

As they rode into the yard, Hoss said “You go on ahead Shortshanks. I’ll get some towels and your nightshirt for you and Adam will put the horses in the barn.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” said Little Joe gratefully. He did feel tired and a hot bath would be relaxing. He looked weary as he walked slowly over to wash house.

Adam looked at Hoss and said “Maybe we should stop. We’ve really got the poor kid going. Enough’s enough, isn’t it?”

“Well, normally I’d agree with you, big brother, but seeing as how I got the bill today for the damage to the salon …”. He handed it over and Adam’s eyebrows shot up when he saw the figure. “… and seeing as how Betsy said she didn’t want to go with no bar-room brawler …”. Adam nodded sympathetically, having had a similar story from Laura. “… and seeing as how I hauled that new bath tub all the way from Virginia City, hid it all week before dragging the old one out last night, then no! I don’t think it’s enough!”

Adam grinned. “And it would be a waste of the new clothes I bought today, wouldn’t it?”

*****

In the warmth of the wash house, Little Joe poured the last of the water into the large copper tub, pulled of his clothes and jumped in, just as Adam entered with towels and night shirt. Little Joe raised his arms above his head and stretched luxuriously. There was a sudden yelp and Adam saw his youngest brother slip down beneath the water. He grabbed an arm and yanked him up.

“Joe! What on earth are you playing at? Are you trying to drown yourself or what?”

Blinking the water out of his eyes and spluttering slightly, Little Joe looked up at Adam in surprise. “I-I-I don’t know what happened Adam, honest! I was just leaning back but the tub seems a lot longer and I kept on going.” Boy, that sounded lame and he knew it! Little Joe looked at his brother apprehensively. “Are you mad?”

“No, I’m not mad! Just be careful, okay! You could have knocked your head or anything.”

“I seem to be a bit accident prone today, don’t I,” Little Joe reflected sadly. He looked so young and vulnerable, sitting there in the tub, that Adam felt rather mean. “No harm done, so no problem, okay? How about I help you wash your hair?”

Little Joe agreed to this. He was still quite upset and didn’t mind a bit of babying for once. They went back into the house, where Hop Sing had laid out sandwiches, coffee and pie. Hoss was already tucking in, with evident relish. Adam briefly hugged Joe to him, before saying “Come on little buddy, we’d better grab what we can while there’s still some left!”

Hoss looked at Joe’s knobby knees and ankles sticking out from his nightshirt. “Come on Punkin’, eat something. You’re far too skinny.”

“You should know better that that, Hoss”, laughed Adam. “It would take a small miracle for Joe to put weight on!”

Neither of them saw the sad look that crossed Joe’s face as sat down and began to eat a sandwich. They knew something and they were keeping it from him! It must be true: he was shrinking! He was rather quiet for the remainder of the evening and went to bed early, saying he was tired. As he lay in bed, Little Joe hoped that his father would be home soon. He missed him so much.

“Please come home, Papa,” he thought, unconsciously reverting to the baby name. “I need to talk you. I need you …”

*****

Little Joe woke up to discover a freshly laundered set of clothes lying on the chair beside his bed, which was strange. Then he remembered throwing his dirty clothes on the floor of the wash house. Mentally thanking Hop Sing, he started to get dressed. And then everything started to go wrong again. The pants were too long and too wide. He had to turn up the legs and cinch in the waist with a belt. The shirt was really baggy and the sleeves hung down over his knuckles. He groaned in frustration. He had shrunk again!

Suddenly, he realized what was happening and how to sort it out. Whistling tunelessly, Little Joe put on his boots, thankful they still fitted and clattered down the stairs to breakfast. He did not mentioned the oversized clothes and Adam and Hoss decided not to either. Obviously Joe had cottoned on to their prank was now playing along with it. Oh well, it had been fun while it lasted!

“I was wondering if I could have a day off today,” Little Joe began tentatively. “Maybe see Mitch, do a little fishing?”

“I don’t see why not,” Adam agreed. “We were going to ride up to check the herds, but I think you’ve earned some leisure. You’ve worked really hard Joe and I’m proud of you.” Well, it was the least he owed the kid. Strange, he hadn’t thought Joe would take this elaborate practical joke so well. He must be growing up at last, even if his brothers had done their best to persuade him otherwise!

“Yeah, I think you deserve a day off! You see and bring home some fish for tea!” Hoss finished his ham and eggs, drained his coffee cup and then pushed his chair away from the table. “Come on Adam, we’d better get going”. As he passed Little Joe, he reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair and noticed the curls were beginning to grow back already. “Hey, your hair grows like a weed in the summer, Little Joe! It’ll soon be back to normal!”

Little Joe gave him a beaming smile. “I sure hope so. Have a good day.” He turned back to the table and continued to eat his breakfast. Then he carefully put the left-over rolls and ham into a napkin and called “Hop Sing! I’m going out for the day. Maybe do some fishing, okay?” Hop Sing came bustling out of the kitchen and handed Little Joe a packet of sandwiches and a paper bag with cookies in it. “Thanks, that’s great. I’ll see you later”.

Hop Sing watched as the boy ran into the yard, stuffed his food into the saddle bag and then vaulted onto his horse. Wiping his hands, he went back into the house to begin clearing up the breakfast dishes.

It was beginning to get dark when Adam and Hoss rode into the yard. It had been a long day and they were both tired. They went straight to the stable , where Cochise was already in his stall, with a saddle blanket over him. “That’s strange”, thought Adam, “I know Joe babies that horse, but surely he doesn’t need a blanket on at night yet”. There seemed to be something pinned to the blanket too. Curiouser and curiouser! He walked over and saw that it was a note, addressed in Little Joe’s unmistakable scrawl. He opened the letter and his heart dropped into his boots as he read the contents:

Dear Adam and Hoss 

I realize what is happening to me and I know what I must do about it. 

Looking back, this all started when my hair was cut. Right away my hat was too big. I suppose it is like the story of Samson in the Bible, only I am losing my height, not my strength! Well, that’s okay, as it’s growing back already. I reckon I shouldn’t shrink much more, but I must go away for a few weeks until my hair is back to normal, and then I should start growing again. 

I don’t want anyone to see me just now and I know you will understand. Please don’t worry about me. I will be okay. I am leaving Cooch because he is a very distinctive horse and I don’t want anyone to recognize me while I am still shrinking. Please look after him 

Give Pa my love and tell him not to worry 

Your affectionate brother 

Joseph F Cartwright

Adam passed the letter to Hoss and slumped down onto his heels, his head in his hands. He heard Hoss moan softly and looked up at him, saying “What have we done to him, Hoss?”

*****

At first, Little Joe Cartwright enjoyed his independent adventure. He made his way along little-used trails and along river beds, making a series of detours to put any would-be pursuer of his track. He camped out the first night and reached his chosen destination the next evening. This was a small cave he’d discovered on a hunting trip with his father two years ago. They kept its location a secret between them, so Little Joe was confident his brothers would not find him, although it was only about three hours ride from the house.

The cave was actually a fissure at the bottom of a canyon, hidden from casual observers by a rocky outcrop. A river ran through the canyon, so water was plentiful and Little Joe was confident he could catch rock rabbits with snares. He leaned back against the sun-warmed rock and ran his hands through his hair. Short curls were already beginning to form and he smiled happily. Everything was going to be just fine.

*****

Adam and Hoss were having the worst few days of their lives. They searched everywhere they could think of and spoken to all Joe’s friends, but it was as if the boy had simply disappeared. They were tired, worried and feeling very guilty. They confessed to Hop Sing, who had been more angry then they had ever seen him. Since then, he would bang down plates of food in front of them, saying only “Hope lil’ boy no hungry an’ cold” and then stalking out. It was all extremely unpleasant.

Hoss noticed thunder clouds brewing and hoped Joe had found shelter. He mentioned this to Adam, but only got a worried look in return. Suddenly, there was an angry rumble of thunder in the distance and heavy drops of rain began to fall. A voice cut across the heavy air “Boys! What is going on and just where is Joseph?”

Things had just got immeasurably worse. Their father had returned.

*****

Ben was beside himself with worry. His youngest child, his precious Joseph was missing. He was only 15, alone and exposed to all sorts of dangers. And all this was because his brothers – his so-called loving brothers – had played a stupid practical joke. He listened with barely contained rage as Adam haltingly explained how he had raised the mirror in Joe’s room and the hat rack in the living room. Hoss, speaking in a low voice, told how he had made new, longer stirrup leathers and a bigger gunbelt. Finally, they related the tale of the new longer bath and the larger set of clothes.

As each confession came forth, Ben’s face grew darker. “Well, I hope you’re pleased with yourselves! You’ve tormented your brother by preying upon his greatest insecurity and driven him away! No wonder my hair is white!”

The storm continued all night and none of the Cartwrights had slept much. Tossing and turning, Ben had thought and thought of where Joseph could be. His brothers had looked in all the obvious places, and half a dozen he would not have thought of. As the thin dawn began to break he suddenly remembered the cave in the canyon and sprang out of bed, newly invigorated and shouting “Adam! Hoss! Get up! I know where he is! I know where Joseph is!”

They rode out at first light. The rain had stopped, but the ground was heavy under the horses’ hooves and drops of water dripped heavily from overhanging branches.

Like his family, Joe Cartwright had not slept well. As the rain grew heavier, it began to seep through the roof of his cave. Each peal of thunder made him jump violently and he peeked nervously out of the cave into the canyon. A flash of thunder lit up the night and Little Joe could see that the level of the river had risen alarmingly. It was now very fast and deep and he realized that he had to get out of the canyon before it flooded and trapped him.

He buttoned his jacket up to his neck and turned up the collar. Murmuring gently to the horse, he soothed it and quickly saddled up. Coaxing the animal forward, Little Joe began to make his way down the canyon. The water was high and fast, swirling around the horse’s withers and the river bed felt very unstable as the horse made its way gingerly forward. There was another peal of thunder and the horse lurched violently, causing Little Joe to lurch forward and bang his chest hard against the saddle horn.

“I hate thunder,” he thought miserably. “Why didn’t I just stay at home?” He felt very alone and was soaked to the skin, plus his chest hurt. Tears began to run down his face, mixing with the rain and for a few moments he sat in the middle of the raging waters, sobbing his heart out. Then he realized how foolish this was and said “Come on, Joe. Pull yourself together. You got yourself into this, so you’d better get yourself out of it! Start behaving like a man and get going!”

Feeling slightly better, he licked the salty tears from his face and urged the horse onwards. Much as he disliked thunderstorms, Little Joe found that he welcomed the flashes of lightning, for at least they lit up the way ahead. Then and fork of lightning came down less than three feet in front of the horse. The lightning split open a boulder with a reverberating crack and the horse reared in terror. Taken by surprise, Little Joe was thrown and landed awkwardly. As he hit the ground hard there was a strange sound, like a tree bough tearing loose. A searing pain flared through his ankle, enveloping him in agony.

Little Joe knew his leg was broken and that it was broken badly. The tearing nose had been evidence enough. But this pain was different and much worse then any broken bone he’d had before. His left leg lay straight out in front of him, but the foot awkward angle. It looked as if someone had tried to wrench it the wrong way around. The top of his foot was almost touching the ground and the sight made him feel sick. Little Joe knew that in order to lessen the pain he would have to pull his foot back into position.

Gritting his teeth, he took a deep breath, grabbed his foot with both hands forced it around. He heard himself screaming again and again, before falling back to lie exhausted on the canyon floor. His body began to react to the pain and shock and his breathing became shallow and rapid. Everything ceased to matter, except for the pain in his leg. Little Joe felt very detached from everything; the only thing that existed was the pain.

Struggling back to consciousness he moaned “Help me, Pa, please help me … Adam … Hoss … please …” The effort was too much and he lapsed back into unconsciousness.

The horse ran for a while and then stopped. The storm clouds were clearing and the animal stood for a moment, sniffing the air, before turning around and trotting back to the boy. Little Joe was vaguely aware of a soft whickering, but he was too tired to care and in too much pain to do anything.

As they rode up the canyon, the Cartwrights searched the rocks and outcrops anxiously. Then, as they rounded a corner, they saw a roan colored horse gently nudging a small figure that lay prone on the ground. “Joseph!” Ben yelled, his desperation evident in his voice and kicked the horse forward. The anguish in his cry tore through Adam and Hoss. They rode forward, praying that the boy was still alive. Ben pulled his horse to a halt and leapt off, running across the shingle towards the bedraggled boy.

Little Joe was very pale and white and for a moment, Ben feared he was dead. Ben Cartwright fell to his knees and searched for a pulse, finding a faint but steady beat. He gently stoked the boy’s pale cheek and to his relief Little Joe’s eyelids flickered open.

“Hi Pa,” Joe said softly and then looked across and smiled as he saw his brothers “I knew you’d come”. Little Joe was so pale that even lips looked white. The only color in his face was the intense green of his eyes. Gentle hands started to move over his limbs, searching for injuries and he lurched upwards, clutching his father’s hand and pleading “Don’t touch my leg! Please, don’t touch my leg!” His warning came too late, for Adam was already probing the injured leg as gently as possible. Little Joe screamed terribly, the sound echoing around the canyon, screamed again and then collapsed. His eyes back into his head so that only the whites were showing and he passed out.

Taking advantage of this, they acted quickly, wrapping him in a bedroll. Ben mounted Buck and Hoss carefully handed Little Joe up to his father’s tender care before saying “I’ll get the doctor and meet you back at the house.”

“Be careful, son,” Ben called out, as Hoss rode off as fast as he dared. Then he and Adam began the journey home at a slow pace. For much of the time, Little Joe remained unconscious, rousing only for brief periods. Ben was reluctant to stop, wanting to get his injured son into his own bed as soon as possible, so they pushed on, going as fast as they dared.

Everything was ready back at the Ponderosa: a fire was burnt in Joe’s room, where a pile of towels and clean linen lay beside the bed. Downstairs, water bubbled on the range and Paul Martin sat waiting for his patient to arrive. Hoss paced up and down the great room, pausing only to stare anxiously to stare out of the window. At last he saw two horses appear and cried “They’re here!” before running into the yard.

He reached up and carefully took Little Joe into his arms and rushed into the house and up the stairs. A ranch hand came forward to take care of the tired horses, allowing Ben and Adam to go upstairs. Hoss laid his little brother on the bed and began to unwrap the blankets. Little Joe moaned and opened his eyes slowly.

“You’re home, son. You’re safe at home.” Ben took Little Joe’s hand in his own, speaking in a reassuring voice, forcing his own worries away. The boy was so cold! “Joseph? Can you hear me? Little Joe?”

The boy smiled briefly and said only “Pa, don’t let them hurt my leg, please?” in a small, worried voice before closing his eyes again. Paul Martin pushed forward and spoke in an authoritative voice which brooked no argument

“Ben! You and Adam are exhausted! Go downstairs and get something hot to drink and eat. You’re no help to me or to Joe in this state.” They realized the truth of this and left the room, pausing only take one last look at the beloved figure lying silently on the bed.

Hoss started to strip the cold, wet clothes off his unconscious brother and gently washed him with warm water. Meanwhile, the doctor took a sharp knife and cut off Joe’s left boot, revealing his injured leg for the first time. He drew a sharp breath when he saw the extent of the injury. The ankle was misshapen and grotesquely swollen. Dark bruising stretched from the sole of the foot to half-way up the calf.

Downstairs, Ben flinched as he heard his baby son scream in agony. Adam sat staring into the fire. Little Joe screamed again and then there was silence. “I hope he’s passed out again” thought Adam. Then he looked at his father. “Pa?” he said hesitantly. Ben had hardly spoken since they had found Joe and he could only imagine the pain he felt at hearing his son’s anguish.

Ben turned to look at Adam. “Son, I owe you an apology – and your brother Hoss too.” At any other time, the incredulous look on Adam’s face would have been laughable. “I know it was just a silly joke and that you never dreamed anything like this would happen.”

It would have been easier if his father had yelled at him, bawled him out, told him how irresponsible he was. But this understanding was too much. Adam went over to his father’s chair, sat at his feet, buried his head in his arms and wept. He wept for his father’s love and wisdom, he wept for his own callous stupidity, but most of all, he wept for the pain he had inadvertently caused his brother. Ben ran his fingers through Adam’s silky black hair.

“Adam, I know how much you love your brother and I know you would never do anything to hurt him. But we all have to be strong now and help Joe.” Then Ben leant back in his chair, bowed his own head and began to pray. He prayed to God and to his beloved late wife, Marie. He even used the words Marie had said every day: “Ave Maria, gratia plena …”. They provided some small measure of comfort.

There was a sound of footsteps and Ben and Adam looked up to see Hoss standing at the foot of the stairs. He was alternately wringing a large white handkerchief between his hands and using it to wipe his eyes with. His mouth was quivering and he was obviously struggling to gain control of his emotions.

Ben knew. He looked at Hoss and he knew. He knew without a single word being spoken. He knew before Paul Martin appeared at the top of the stairs and before he saw the smile on his face. Ben knew that his youngest son had an indomitable spirit that was not be easily quenched!

The doctor explained that Little Joe’s prompt action in reducing his dislocated ankle had undoubtedly saved his foot. Otherwise, the circulation would have been impaired and he would have had no choice but to amputate. Little Joe had broken both bones in his leg, but the boy was young and strong and Paul predicted he would make a full recovery.

He allowed them to pay Little Joe a brief visit. Ben’s heart constricted with joy as he saw his son lying peacefully, the broken leg propped up on a pillow. He sat down beside the bed and ran his hand gently down Little Joe’s cheek. “Joseph! It’s Pa! Come on son, look at me.”

Little Joe had been given a large does of laudanum before Paul had set .He was vaguely aware of voices calling to him, but he couldn’t summon up enough energy to answer them. He was so tired and he just wanted to sleep. “Joseph!” The voice was louder this time and difficult to ignore. “It’s time to wake up.”

Little Joe forced his eyes open a crack and squinted at the beaming faces leaning over his bed. “Hi Pa. You’re home early, aren’t you?”

“Well, I just wanted to see how my boys were doing. How do you feel Little Joe?” Ben tried hard not to sound anxious. By this time, the laudanum was kicking back in and Little Joe merely said “I’m tired and I wish everyone would just let me sleep”, in a grumpy voice, before closing his eyes and doing just that.

The next few days were full of pain and punctuated by doses of laudanum. Little Joe developed a high fever and began to babble incoherently, crying for his father and screaming in terror as he relived the accident over and over again. In his delirium he heard the bones in his leg shatter over and over again. During this time, his father and brothers never left Little Joe’s side, comforting him through the nightmares, cooling his hot body with cool water. Eventually, the fever broke and Little Joe began to make one of his characteristically speedy recoveries.

Ten days after the accident, Paul Martin found his patient sitting up in bed and loudly demanding to be allowed downstairs. Knowing Little Joe of old, Paul wisely agreed to allow him a couple of hours out of bed, on condition that Little Joe did not attempt to stand, walk or even move too much! Ben helped Little Joe into a fresh nightshirt and robe, wrapped in his counterpane and then carried him down to the great room, laying him carefully on the sofa and gently propping up the injured leg on a cushion. Little Joe looked at his brothers and said “Hey, it’s great to be back!”

Ben settled himself on the couch and drew Little Joe’s shoulders back to rest against his chest. Normally, Little Joe would have protested against being babied in this manner, but he still felt quite unwell and rather enjoyed the pampering.

“I think your brothers have something to say to you, Joseph” Ben said, looking meaningfully at his two elder sons, who were studying their boots and looking remarkably sheepish. Little Joe listened with evident interest as they explained how they had plotted and schemed. His eyes grew wider and rounder the details were explained. Finally, the story came to faltering halt.

Adam and Hoss looked anxiously at Little Joe, wondering how he would take the news. He regarded them solemnly for a long moment and then broke into a wide grin. “Well, I suppose I should mad at you, but the end result is probably worth it!” he said enigmatically. His brothers gaped dumb-foundedly at him

A pair of dumb-founded brothers gaped back at him. “Go on, son,” urged Ben. “Put them out of their misery.”

“When I was getting ready this afternoon, I noticed …” He paused for dramatic effect. “I noticed my nightshirt and robe were far too short! Pa reckons I’ve growth at least an inch!” He sat back, delighted with himself, as whoops of joy greeted this announcement.

“There’s something I have to confess as well, Little Joe,” added Ben, causing everyone to look at him in astonishment. “I discovered how wrong I can be. You see, for more years than I care to remember, I have tried everything in my power to get you to have a proper haircut, only to discover that I greatly prefer you with your old, unruly curls!” He leant forward and dropped a fond kiss on his son’s head.

Little Joe squirmed with embarrassment. When would his family ever let him grow up?

***End***

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