Word Count: 1220
Little Joe knew that his pa and brothers thought he was the one pilfering his pa’s best brandy. Who else could it be? At twenty-seven, his brother Adam could have brandy whenever he wanted. Hoss had just turned twenty-one and only had to ask if he wanted a brandy. He never did, though; Hoss preferred beer and an occasional whiskey. Joe did not think Hop Sing ever drank anything but water, tea, and maybe milk, but if he wanted a drink of brandy, Pa would be glad to give him one. That left Joe as the only person in the house who needed to drink on the sly. At fifteen, his Pa had only allowed him two or three beers in his entire life. The only time he had had anything stronger was to deaden the pain when there was no laudanum. Joe had not even liked the taste of the whiskey. Oh, he would have downed whiskey or brandy to impress his friends, but he would have paid for his own, not stolen it from his pa. Pa had asked him if he was the one taking brandy and replacing it with water. Joe had declared that he had not done it, that he had not even thought of doing it. His pa had said he would accept Joe’s word, but when Joe looked into his father’s eyes, he saw disbelief. Adam’s face and even Hoss’ had told Joe the same thing: no one believed him; they thought he was lying. They would believe he was the one until the real culprit was caught red-handed. Joe decided that was just what was going to happen.
Joe had used the same thing to play a prank on Henry Ray Cuthbert at school. It had worked like a charm. Though Joe had let Henry Ray realize just who had given him his payback, no one had been able to prove anything, and Joe had gotten off scott-free. Joe figured that meant God thought Henry Ray had deserved what he had gotten as much as Joe did. Well, the brandy thief deserved it more that Henry Ray. Joe stuffed a pair of old gloves in his back pocket and went to collect what he needed.
Setting the brandy bottle back in the cabinet, Joe quietly closed the door. Looking around and seeing no one, Joe let out a deep sigh. The tricky part was over. If anyone had caught him with the brandy bottle, his story would never have been believed. A shudder ran through Joe at the thought of the punishment that his pa would have delivered to a son he thought had both stolen and lied. Now Joe just had to wait. Pa would be gone for the next two nights. The brandy thief was sure to strike, and the next morning the proof of his guilt would be clear for all to see.
Adam came down the stairs and stopped abruptly. His youngest brother was already seated at the dining table, forking down a plate of Hop Sing’s flapjacks. Adam could not think of the last time Joe had been the first one up in the morning, and he did not think it had ever happened on a Saturday.
“Hey, Adam. Wondered if ya was ever gonna make it out of bed. Guess you need more rest when ya get older.” Joe grinned cheekily at his brother.
Adam raised his eyebrow and replied, “Probably.” Sitting down in his accustomed seat, Adam continued, “Do you have some special plans, little brother?”
“Well, I do have something I need to check.”
Adam raised another eyebrow, but declined to ask. “Chores first. If you intend to leave the ranch…”
“I don’t, big brother.” Joe jumped up and dropped his napkin on the table. He was half way out the door when he heard Adam’s voice.
“Don’t slam the door, Joe. Pa got in really late last night, and he intends to sleep in.”
Joe stopped and swung around to face his brother. “Pa’s home already!”
Adam watched his brother’s face light up with pleasure, and nodded.
“Great!” Joe exclaimed as he darted out the door, remembering at the last second not to slam it.
Joe set out to look at the hands of every person on the ranch. The ranch hands were use to him being around and paid little notice. After a few hours, Joe’s spirits started to sag. He had seen the hands of every man working on the ranch, and none of them bore the evidence of a brandy raid. Joe wandered back to the house. Entering through the kitchen, he saw Hop Sing at the stove stirring a pot. He wandered over and sniffed. “Yew! Hop Sing, you don’t expect us to eat anything that smells like that, do ya?”
“Hop Sing no cooking. Hop Sing making medicine. Little boy, best mind mannels,” Hop Sing declared waving his wooden spoon threateningly.
“What kind of medicine?”
“Medicine to stop the itching.”
“Itching! Who’s itching?” Joe demanded.
“New hand Clay says little blothel have lash on hands. Itching bad. Ask Hop Sing what can do. Hop Sing plomise fix good medicine.”
So that was it. Clay had been hired only three weeks before. He had arrived on a wagon with a younger brother in tow and been given permission to camp down by the pond while he worked for a grubstake. Joe spun and raced out of the house.
Joe came in dragging a boy about his size through the door. “PA! ADAM! HOSS!”
The three oldest Cartwrights rushed into the great room.
“Look, Pa, look!” Joe thrust the other boy’s hand out with the palm up. “There’s the proof, Pa. There’s the proof.”
“Calm down, Joseph,” Ben admonished. “Explain calmly what you are talking about.” Ben fixed a stern glare on both boys.
“Pa, I told ya I wasn’t taking the brandy, but I knew you still thought I was, so I had to do something to prove I wasn’t. I took some poison oak leaves and rubbed them all over the bottle. I knew that the person who held that bottle would end up being caught red-handed, and he is!” Joe declared in a single breath.
Ben settled his glare on the boy beside Joe. “What’s your name, son?”
“Danny,” the boy mumbled.
“Hold out your hands, Danny,” Ben ordered.
Reluctantly Danny held his hands out toward Ben. The palms were inflamed with a red rash.
“Danny, have you been sneaking into this house and drinking my brandy?”
The boy’s silence was an admission of guilt.
“Hoss, go and get Clay.” Ben pointed to the settee. “You will wait for your brother. We’ll deal with this when he arrives.” Ben’s arm dropped to his side, and he rubbed his hand against his leg.
Joe smiled in vindication. He was innocent, and everyone knew it. Adam cleared his throat. Joe watched his father and brother exchange a meaningful look. Joe’s eyes asked Adam to explain.
“Joe, that was a very clever plan,” Adam began. Joe beamed at his brother’s praise. “There’s just one complication, little brother.”
“Complication?” Joe felt his stomach sinking.
“Pa had a brandy when he came home last night.”