Word Count: 3575
“Where in the blue blazes have you been?” The words held a sharp edge even with their low volume.
“Where do you think!” The retort held an edge of its own.
“You were supposed to be here nearly an hour ago. If I didn’t need you to. . . “
“That blasted brother of mine decided to take a lamp and sit outside to read. I thought he’d never come inside.” Little Joe finished with a snort of frustration.
“You could have…”
“You’re crazy! Sneak past Adam. . .” This time his snort was louder emphasizing the absurdity of the thought.
“If we don’t get moving, we’ll never get her done in time to sneak back in without getting caught.”
Little Joe bit his lower lip in agreement at the possibility and then chewed the corner slightly as he thought of the consequences. “Yeah, well, at least if we get caught sneaking back, we have the fun of dancing before we pay the piper.”
“True.” The voice had lost any trace of anger, for, in all truth, Georgie would never have risked trying to sneak past Adam Cartwright either. “Come on then. We’ve got to get to the Hamptons and then across town, and the dark is gonna slow us down.”
Little Joe grinned. “Not me!” Joe’s heels touched his horse’s flanks, and he took off as Georgie scrambled into the saddle and followed.
“Shhhhhhhhh, if Annabel’s pa. . .” Georgie’s whisper was admonishing.
“He’s a lousy shot. Are you sure…”
“I told you I know where. . .” Georgie grabbed Little Joe’s wrist and tugged. He followed through the night as soft-footed as when he was hunting with Hoss. Fifteen minutes later they remounted and headed around the town.
“Can’t you keep quiet!” Georgie’s voice held the exasperation that only a young girl’s voice could express when speaking to a boy.
“Nobody’s going to be around here at night.” Little Joe’s voice held a thirteen-year-old’s cocky confidence.
“Sheriff Coffee and his deputy both make rounds.”
“Not this far out and not this late. Be a waste of our time to do it if they were gonna come by and take ‘em down before anybody else could see ‘em.”
“Yeah. Come on then. I can’t wait to see them flying in the breeze.”
“You sure that somebody’s going to recognize them as Annabel’s. She could just deny. . .”
A low chuckle came from Georgie’s throat. “Ain’t a girl this size in the whole town ‘cept Annabel Hampton who’s got silk bloomers with ten yards of French lace on ‘em. At the price her Pa paid for these, she’ll claim ‘em. Besides, I told you she was showing them off to some of the girls.”
The image of Annabel Hampton lifting her skirts to show her fancy bloomers took Little Joe’s attention for a moment until a sharp elbow in his side brought it back to the task at hand. That task was then completed without incident. As they mounted to head home, the thought came to Little Joe Cartwright that if the Lord thought Annabel Hampton needed a comeuppance as much as he and Georgie did, their luck might just hold long enough to make it back into bed without anyone the wiser. Descending he stairs the next morning, he was sure the Lord did.
“What the hey! You mean I ain’t gonna have to come up and drag you outa bed this morning, Short Shanks?” Hoss looked up from his first plate of eggs and ham with a grin.
“No, you ain’t, you big lug, so just pass me my share of them eggs.” Joe took his seat and shook out his napkin. “Morning, Pa. Adam.”
“Good morning, son.” Ben Cartwright smiled at his youngest son’s unusually affable mood. “It’s nice to see you at the table so early and in such good spirits.”
Adam gazed at his brother over his raised coffee cup. “Umm, yes, very nice and very unusual.”
Little Joe just grinned, “Well, just go ahead and circle it on the calendar if you think it’s such a red letter day, elder brother.” He forked two pieces of ham onto his plate and reached for a biscuit.
“Is there something you’re looking forward to that we don’t know about, baby brother?” Adam’s voice was as smooth as the silk in Annabel’s bloomers.
“Nothing that would impress an old man like you, Adam, and a college educated one to boot. Us country school boys, well, we impress easy.” Little Joe’s retort slipped around his first bite of biscuit and off his lips with ease.
“Joseph, don’t talk with your mouth full.” Ben’s admonishment ended the conversation, and he began to discuss the day’s work plans with his two elder sons.
The only people to beat Little Joe Cartwright to school that morning were Tommy Sims, Annie Hawkins, and Georgie Owens. As Joe rode up, he saw all three of them standing beneath the school flag pole gazing up at the silk and lace bloomers blowing in the wind. He settled his horse with record swiftness and joined the ever increasing crowd in time to see Annabel Hampton’s face when she first saw her unmentionables saluting the town. Her reaction was everything he had hoped it would be. So was Miss Jones’ when she arrived minutes later. The process of retrieving Annabel’s bloomers took more than thirty minutes, for Little Joe knew how to do a job right when he chose. By the time the bloomers were placed into Annabel’s hands, every school child in town and a goodly number of adults had witnessed the sight, and not even any of the adults managed to stifle all their snickers. Only Little Joe’s promise to Georgie kept him from bragging to his friends that he had orchestrated the prank. Adam Cartwright heard the tale of the flapping bloomers waiting in line at the bank.
“Some kid over at that school’s got some spunk,” Ned Turner shook his head as he spoke, “Iffen he was mine, I don’t know as how I’d have the heart to cut the switch.”
“And how would some boy get hold of Annabel’s, um, private items, I wonder. It might have been some jealous little girl,” the widow Newcomb observed.
“No little gal shimmed up that flagpole and set them knots,” Ned observed before stepping up to hand his bank book to the teller.
Adam added no comment of his own, but his left hand tugged his right ear as he decided his business would keep him in town until school let out.
He took the hat from his head and stepped into the schoolroom. “Excuse me, Miss Jones, but I was waiting for my brother and . . .” Adam’s eyes had found that brother sitting slumped over a desk in the middle of the room. He had also noticed the only other remaining schoolchild.
Abigail Jones rose to her feet as she spoke, “Oh, Mr. Cartwright, come in, come in.” She maneuvered around her desk and headed toward Adam at a brisk pace.
“Is Little Joe in trouble, Miss Jones?”
At Adam’s inquiry, Miss Jones paused and gave a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Not really, well, not any more than usual.”
“Then he’s not being kept after for some infraction?”
“No, no, I simply told him he needed to finish his math problems before he could leave.” Miss Jones closed the remaining distance between herself and Adam Cartwright.
“Are you almost done, Little Joe?” Adam used the question to turn away from Abigail Jones and toward his brother.
“Two more problems,” Joe answered and shifted nervously in his seat despite telling himself that his older brother sometimes came by to ride home with him when leaving town at the right time.
“Finish up then.” Keeping a very formal tone, Adam addressed the teacher next. “Is Joe having difficulty with his math?”
“Understanding it? No. Staying awake to work on it, yes. He’s been slow and sluggish all day.”
“I see.” Adam cleared his throat. “A sleepless night can leave a person sluggish the next day.”
“Sleepless?” Abigail Jones obviously wanted more information.
“Not literally perhaps, but my baby brother has been known to have some very restless nights.”
“Oh, I see.”
Before the teacher could continue, Little Joe sprang to his feet and announced, “I’m done.” Then he glanced across the room and asked, “You ready to go, Georgie?” Georgie’s head nodded.
“Was Georgie having a problem similar to Joe’s?” Adam inquired as he watched the two children gather their books.
“I had a restless night too, Miss Jones.” Georgie’s assertion came rapidly and somewhat breathlessly. “Well, good-bye, Miss Jones.” Georgie’s farewell was echoed by Little Joe and then Adam as the three quickly exited the schoolhouse.
On the ride home, Adam noticed that his little brother chattered much less than normal while his usually quiet friend talked almost nonstop. When they reached the point where the two children separated each day to head to their own homes, Adam pulled Sport up short.
“Well, umm, bye. I’ll see you tomorrow, Little Joe.”
Adam caught the glance Georgie threw in Little Joe’s direction. He leaned over and caught the headstall on Georgie’s horse. “Just a minute.” He pinned Georgie with a stare. “With Joe and you being so tired today, I think it would be a good idea for the three of us to take a little break before we continue. Those trees over there seem like just the place.”
“I,I,I. . .my mother will be expecting me. I have to. . .”
“Do what I say, Georgiana.” Adam’s voice, while not loud, was entirely commanding. Georgie capitulated immediately, and seconds later the three of them were dismounting in the shade of a small corpse of trees.
Adam motioned Joe and Georgie in front of him and then placed his hands on his hips. “I’m not going to ask you if you did it because I don’t care to be lied to.”
Little Joe risked a soft response, “I don’t lie to you, Adam.”
Adam blew out a deep breath. “I’m not asking how you did it; the details can wait until later.” He drew in another breath, “I want to know why you did it.” Little Joe and Georgie shared a glance.
“Adam, she’s, she’s insufferable!” Georgie declared. “Annabel’s a…” Georgie managed to swallow her first choice of description and continued, “Well, she a witch, a prissy, condescending, conniving, mean-mouthed witch, and she deserved more than she got.”
“She’s a bully, Adam.” Joe threw in for good measure, and upon seeing the look that came to his brother’s face, he added, “Well, a girl’s kind of bully but a bully still and all.”
Adam shook his head slowly, and his arms moved across his chest. “So you two decided to take it upon yourselves to deliver her comeuppance, uh?”
“It was my idea.” Georgie’s admission was barely audible. “ Joe. . .”
“Was needed to shimmy up the flag pole.” The coolness in Adam’s voice had dropped thirty degrees.
Little Joe recognized the freezing anger in his brother’s tone. “Adam, we. . .we just. . .it was a prank is all.”
“A prank!” Adam straightened, and Georgie was sure he had grown at least two feet with the movement. She wilted as the tirade rained down on her and Joe’s heads. “The two of you sneak out at night. You left by the bedroom window, didn’t you, Joe? Your second story window, and I doubt you sashayed out the front door either, missy. You sneak out to go gallivanting about in the night, to go to town in the dead of night. . .”
“We went around town,” Little Joe managed to force out the words, though they trembled like aspens in a strong breeze.
“Now that grand precaution made it ever so safe!” Sarcasm honed Adam’s voice to a fine edge. “And what measures did you take to make shimmying up that flag pole anything but just plain stupid?”
“We used Hoss’ belt.” Georgie’s response halted the flow of Adam’s rebuke.
“It went around Joe and the pole.”
“I’m a good climber, Adam. I ‘ve climbed. . .” The look on his brother’s face dammed Joe’s mouth.
“You have no idea. Neither one of you. You have no idea.” Adam spun on his heel and took two steps away as his fingers curled into fists. “You could have broken your neck.” Adam’s voice was low and flat with control. “Or your back. The two of you could have. . .” He bit off the thought and turned toward them again. “You’re both old enough to know the danger in what you did. And all of it done to embarrass a girl you don’t like by hanging a pair of bloomers from a flag pole.” Adam’s glare settled directly on Little Joe. “Pa’s going to hang your skinned hide on the side of the barn, little brother.”
Little Joe winced. “Pa don’t know, Adam.” The words hung in the air between the two brothers. Joe walked through them to come within an inch of Adam. In a whisper that would carry to only his brother’s ears, he said, “Georgie’s pa, he uses more than his hand.”
“You both need your drawers set on fire with you in them.” Adam’s anger was hot this time.
Adam made the mistake of looking at Georgiana. He had never become accustom to making girls cry. His hand went to the bridge of his nose. “If you… the two of you already think you can get away with…Lord knows what you’ll do next if I let you get away with this.” Little Joe’s mouth opened, but before he could speak Adam’s finger jabbed the air in front of Joe’s face. “No, no, don’t you dare even try promising me that you won’t do it again because all you would mean is that you wouldn’t sneak out and hang Annabel Hampton’s bloomers from a flag pole again, not one darn thing more.”
Adam turned away and walked to the edge of the corpse. He stood staring toward the road as his fist repeatedly pounded the side of the nearest tree. Little Joe gazed at Georgie, then at his brother, and then back toward Georgie.
Georgie slowly walked to stand directly behind Adam. “I am sorry.”
Turning, Adam glared down at the girl. “Sorry you did it or sorry you’re caught out?”
Georgie twisted the skirt of her dress and gazed at Adam’s boots. “Sorry I got Joe to do it. He . . .” the remainder of her words was lost in a sob.
Adam’s hand reached out and forced her eyes to his. “When you break a doll, little girl, you fix it or buy a new one. It’s not the same with little brothers and friends.”
Georgie winced as if he had struck her. She trembled, and her words tumbled into the air, “I won’t… not ever.”
His hand still held her chin. “Little girls can get broken too.” He released her, and she buried her face in her hands.
“Adam. Please,” Little Joe begged softly.
This time Adam caught Georgie by her upper arms, and she looked up at him reflexively. “If you ever do anything remotely like this again, I’ll see you answer not just to your pa but to me. I don’t care if it’s twenty years from now; you’ll answer to me.” He dropped his hands back to his sides. He drew in a breath and then asked, “Did either of you tell anyone else, anyone, that it was you?” Adam’s gaze was fixed on his brother.
“No.” Georgie managed to articulate the single syllable.
Adam’s eyebrow rose slowly.
“No, Georgie made me promise not to even hint.”
Adam walked over to Sport and took down his canteen. He pulled a linen handkerchief from his pocket and poured water over it. Walking back to Georgie, he handed the wet cloth to her. “Wipe your face.” She obeyed automatically and then handed it back to him. “Now, go home. Just go home.” Georgie did not respond verbally. She just looked over at Little Joe, mounted her horse, and rode off toward home. Adam and Joe watched in silence until she was out of sight.
Little Joe spoke first. “You’re not gonna tell Pa?”
Little Joe stiffened his spine and asked, “You gonna give me my lickin’ now or later?”
Adam had not turned toward Little Joe, so Joe could not read his brother’s face when he said, “I didn’t punish Georgie.”
“She’s not your brother and, well, she’s a girl. You ain’t never punished a girl; you’ve blistered me more than once.”
“It wouldn’t be fair, though.”
“Pa always says it don’t matter if the other person does or doesn’t iffen I deserve it.”
“True.” Adam turned and studied Joe’s face. “I don’t intend to punish you. I won’t tell Pa.” Adam gestured toward the horses, walked over to Sport, and mounted.
Little Joe followed. “Adam…”
“Don’t say it, Joe. Don’t tell me thank you.” Adam’s heels set Sport into motion so quickly that Little Joe’s horse shied.
Adam watched Georgie drop the doll; only when he reached the bottom of the flag pole, it was not a doll that lay broken on the ground but his baby brother. “JOE!”
Adam’s body lifted forward as he woke. He leaned back against the headboard of his bed and ran his hand over his face hoping he had not actually called out in his sleep. He had.
Ben Cartwright rapped once on his eldest son’s door before opening it and stepping inside. “Adam?”
“Pa, it was a dream. I…I’m sorry I woke you.”
Adam’s response did not halt Ben’s movement. He strode across the room and lit the lamp on the bedside table.
“Pa, it was nothing really.”
“You called out for Joe.”
“Did I? Well, it’s a good thing he sleeps sound.”
Ben lowered himself to sit on the edge of Adam’s bed. “And why aren’t you sleeping soundly, son, and what does it have to do with your brother?”
“Pa, I had a dream, a bad dream…”
“Something’s been bothering you since you got back from town. I’m not blind, Adam, and I’ve been your father far too long not to notice when you’re troubled. For that matter, Little Joe…”
“Pa… you’re right. Little Joe and I, we, well, you know us, Pa.” Adam swallowed. “I’ll talk to Joe in the morning and get things settled.”
Ben’s eyebrows drew together. “You’re equivocating.”
Adam rolled his eyes, Ben glared, and Adam shrugged. “Okay, but, well, Pa it’s this way. I promised Joe I wouldn’t tell you something, so I’m asking that you trust me and let it be.”
‘You were scared, Adam. When you shouted Joe’s name, it was in fear.”
“I worry about him too, Pa, almost as much as you do.”
“I worry just as much about you.”
Adam’s right eyebrow rose. “Really?”
“As much, if not as often.” Ben sighed. “I’ve always trusted you when it comes to your brothers. You’ll see to whatever it is?”
“Yes, Pa.” It had been some years since Adam had truly sounded that obedient.
“All right then.” Ben rose. “Good night, son.”
Adam watched his father depart and then turned out the light. He crossed his arms behind his head and stared toward the opposite wall.
Little Joe felt someone tugging his ankle. He kicked out. This time the hand tugged his foot from beneath the bedclothes and started tickling the sole.
“Stop it! Hey! Stop it!” Joe opened his eyes and saw his elder brother seated at the bottom of his bed. “Adam!”
Adam released Joe’s ankle. “Morning, Little Joe.”
Joe could tell by the weak light seeping in the window that it was very early. “Whatcha want, Adam?”
“Pa knows something happened.”
Little Joe sat up and pulled his knees to his chin. “You’re gonna tell him then?”
“No, but I need…”
“To give me a lickin’.”
“Probably, but I’m not going to.”
Little Joe looked through the fringe of his tousled hair. “Why not?”
Adam’s smile held sadness. “Guess I just haven’t got the heart to this time.”
“I need you to do something for me, Little Buddy.”
Little Joe came forward onto his knees. “Adam, I’m not gonna…I promise I’m not gonna do anything like climbing that flagpole again.” Little Joe saw no change in his brother’s eyes. “I can cross my heart and spit in my hand,” he offered.
Adam shook his head and smiled. This time his dimple showed. “I worry, Joe.”
“I try, Adam.”
Adam reached out and drew his brother into a hug. “I know.”
“OWWWW!” Joe suck in a lungful of air as his hand went to his backside.
Adam released his brother and said, “I’m going to fix your window so it won’t open high enough for you to sneak out. Don’t tell Pa, or I’ll tell him why.”
“I won’t be able to breathe come summer,” Little Joe whined.
“Be good until then, and I may relent.”
Joe’s bottom lip slipped forward as he rubbed the slap’s sting. “It ain’t like you ain’t never given me cause to worry.”
Adam looked back over his shoulder. “I’m the big brother.”
“Ain’t you, though,” Little Joe grumbled and rubbed harder.