The Last Laugh (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,312


 

 

The group of people that assembled together in the chapel after Sunday morning worship service wasn’t a large group, but it was made up of some of the finest people in Virginia City, among them, the four Cartwrights.

It was early May, and time to start planning for the annual church festival that the congregation hosted each year in order to raise money for various needs of the church and the surrounding community.  This year, Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright’s oldest son, headed the event.

“Any suggestions for something different?  I mean, we always have the usual, the bake sale, the pie contest, dress making, and,” he laughed, glancing at Hoss, “the prettiest baby contest.”

Everyone else glanced at Adam’s middle brother and laughed.  “Hoss, ya gonna judge that again this year?” someone in the back of the group asked, causing the room to fill with laughter once again.

Hoss had been the judge for the Prettiest Baby Contest the year before and had ended up with every woman who had an infant young enough to enter the contest, mad at him.  Hoss scrunched up his face and shook his head.

“Nosirree, I’m leavin’ that job to some other fella,” declared Hoss loudly, leaving no doubt to the group of people that they’d have to look elsewhere for a new judge.  “Maybe my Pa would be willing to…”

“Oh no you don’t, young man.”  Ben’s deep voice rang loudly in the chapel as all heads turned in Ben’s direction.  “I think that job should fall to the mayor, he’s the one that spent his election campaign kissing those babies!” laughed Ben.

Everyone started to laugh.  “Then it’s settled,” shouted Adam, before the mayor could decline.  “Everyone in agreement, raise your hand.  Count’em Hoss,” Adam said quickly.

Hoss stood to his feet and glanced around the room.  “No need too, it’s unan…younam…everyone agrees, ain’t no one saying no,” beamed Hoss, relief showing on his chubby face as he smiled at the mayor and then sat back down.

“Why not have a greased pole climbing event?  Every one can pay…say a dollar to enter, with the prize money going into the church fund?” one of the men spoke up to ask.  “I’ve seen it done before; it can get pretty funny watching the boys trying to climb up those slick poles.”

“How’s it done?” inquired another.

“Well, you have two poles, flag poles really and we grease them with lard, or oil, make them real slick and then the boys compete against each other until one is able to get to the top, then that boy is the winner.”

“Sounds good to me,” Little Joe piped in to say.  He rubbed his hands together as if he were a child waiting for a special treat.

Ben watched with amusement, his youngest son, and wondered silently if the boy would ever truly grow up.  Secretly, he hoped not, he loved Little Joe just the way he was, young and full of life…and mischief, thought Ben.

“Alright, then we need two poles, Tim, since you came up with the idea, why don’t you see if you can find us two poles that we can use?” Adam said as he wrote down greased pole climbing contest to his list of things to do.  “Anyone else have an idea?”

“How about if we have a log pulling contest?  The men from the lumber camp can furnish the logs from one of my camps, and then the loggers can team up, use their own horses? Ben suggested.

“That sounds like a good idea, but Adam, why not form a committee to ask some of the merchants to furnish prizes for the events? That way we could charge an entrance fee to the festival…so much per person to see all the events rather than to charge the participants a fee to enter, that way we collect one time and the pot of cash then goes to the church fund?” Mr. Hamilton the banker suggested.

“Sounds logical to me, how about the rest of you?” inquired Adam.

Everyone nodded their heads in agreement to the one time entrance fee as Adam made notes.  When he’d finish, he moved on, glancing around the room at the excited faces.

“Anything else?”

Joe cleared his throat and smiled, “We are going to have a kissing booth, aren’t we?”

The room erupted in to gales of laughter at Joe’s suggestion, for they all knew of the youngest Cartwright’s slightly tarnished reputation involving nearly every woman in Virginia City between the ages of 16 and 60.

“Well, why not?” Joe stammered, looking as if his feelings were hurt.  “Why, I’d pay a dollar a kiss just to kiss…hahaha…I’m not telling, Miss Cindy, don’t you dare look at me like that!”

“Joe Cartwright, shame on you, why…I’d give you an old dollar NOT to kiss me!” Cindy Hamiltion, the banker’s daughter said as she stood to her feet and placed her hands on her hips.

Joe’s face began turning red as Cindy sashayed up to the youngest Cartwright.  “Why Joe Cartwright, I do believe you are blushing,” giggled Cindy.

Joe gulped, and Cindy giggled again, “Don’t worry, Little Joe, I won’t give away our little secret,” she whispered in a low voice so that only Joe could hear.

Adam watched with an amused look on his face and almost felt sorry for his little brother, though he wasn’t sure just why.  His brother had begun to squirm and as his face grew redder, Adam decided to help him out of an obvious touchy situation.

“What’s it be, do we or do we not have a kissing booth?” Adam asked.

“I have no objections, if it is done properly,” the minister was quick to speak up.  “Just a quick peck on the cheek, nothing more, we have to remember that this is a church fund raising event!” he added as an after thought.

The group once again nodded their heads, the younger men and women smiled shyly at one another, and Joe was off the hook, for whatever it was that Miss Cindy knew and no one else did.

“I have an idea I’d like to present; it’s something I saw the last time I was in Sacramento.  I think you might like it,” Adam began.

“What is it?” one of the ranchers asked.

“It’s called a dunking booth.  What it really is, is a water tank, filled with water and a seat that extends over the rim, above the water.  On the outside there is a lever that drops the seat down and when the target is hit the person who is sitting on the seat, falls into the tank of water.  It’s really pretty neat, and quite fun, too.  One person at a time gets three tries to hit the lever, for a small fee, if they hit it and the person falls in, the one throwing the ball gets a prize,” explained Adam.

“Hey that’s a great idea; I saw one of those at a fair once, over in Salt Lake City.  It is fun, but say Adam, who’s going to be sitting on the seat?”

“I suppose we would have to have a volunteer,” replied Adam.  “It would have to be someone who wouldn’t mind getting wet, naturally, and someone not too big, or the seat might not hold him up.”

“Cain’t be Hoss Cartwright!  Ain’t no seat that strong, ‘ceptin’ maybe his horse!”

“Aw dadburnit Shorty, I cain’t help it none, I’m just a growin’ boy!” Hoss called back to the man in the back of the room.

“Any volunteers?” Adam asked, waiting for a reply.

The group glanced around at each other as if waiting for the next person to be the first to volunteer.

“Hey Adam, how’s about Little Joe?  He ain’t big like Hoss, and he’s always such a good sport.  What’cha say Little Joe, ya willing to get wet for a good cause?” Mitch Devlin called from across the room.

Everyone turned to Joe and began encouraging him to be the man in the hot seat, or rather, the wet seat.

“Come on Short Shanks…”

“Aw…I don’t know, Hoss,” Joe said, beginning to squirm, he’d plan on spending his day at the kissing booth.

“Be a good sport little brother, besides, it might keep you out of trouble,” Adam grinned, winking at this father.

“Now…”

Ben moved beside of Joe and placed one hand on his son’s shoulder.  “It is for a good cause son, and since it will be on Saturday night, you won’t even have to take a bath afterwards,” teased Ben, lowering his head and laughing softly.

When he looked up, Joe’s face was distorted by anxiety, but nonetheless, his son gave in to the pressure and smiled, nodding his head.

“Okay, I’ll do it, but I’m warning you,” he said, pointing to Hoss and Adam, “it had better be after I get to visit the kis…pie eating contest,” he stammered.

Ben laughed and gripped his son’s arm, “Thank you son, and remember, it is for a worthy cause.”

“Yeah, yeah, right…I get dunked into a tank of cold water, and you call it a good cause, but let me stop by the kissing booth and you call it a…”

“I know what I call it, thank you!” smiled Ben.

*****

The men spent the next few days gathering the poles for the greased pole contest, and the lumber for the dunking tank, and the women folk began digging through their pie recipes, dress patterns and the mothers of infants, began preparing their babies for the prettiest baby contest.  By the time that the church festival was scheduled to take place, everything was ready and in place, including the dunking tank, which had been filled with water.

“You about ready, Joe?” called Hoss as he grinned at his father and Adam who were waiting in the great room for their youngest family member to show himself.

“I’ll be down in a minute; you fellas go ahead, I’ll catch up!” Joe shouted from his room where he stood studying his reflection in the mirror.

“Oh no you don’t,” Adam called loudly, “I’m waiting right here, you’ve been trying to get out of this ever since you volunteered.”  Adam grinned at his father and Ben laughed softly.

“I didn’t volunteer for this, and you know it,” Joe said, as he stepped to the door so that his older brother could better hear him.  “My so-called friend, Mitch, volunteered me…I had other plans on how to spend the evening.”

“Were you planning on spending the entire evening at the kissing booth, son?” laughed Ben.

“Well, maybe not the entire evening,” Joe said, coming slowly down the stairs.

“My, don’t ya look plum purty,” grinned Hoss, playfully slapping his brother on the back.

“Such a waste too, Hoss.  The first time he gets dunked, those new clothes of his will be ruined,” Adam said teasingly.

Joe’s face formed a frown and he glared at his two brothers.  “What makes you so sure, I am going to get dunked?” he asked.

Hoss tossed back his head and laughed.  Adam grinned mischievously and placed a firm hand on his little brother’s shoulder.

“Cause I aim to throw the first ball, and…you know what a good shot I am, so get prepared little buddy, for your bath!”

Hoss and Adam burst out laughing as they strolled to the door and donned their hats.  Joe’s frown deepened as he watched the pair.  He turned to his father when Ben rested his hand across Joe’s shoulders.

“Don’t take it seriously son, they are only teasing you.  And remember…it’s for…”

Joe groaned, “I know, it’s for a good cause,” he grumbled and then offered his father a smile.  “Come on, I might as well get this over with, I have a feeling it’s gonna be a long night.”

Ben snickered softly.  “That’s the spirit, son.”

*****

Joe made his first stop at the kissing booth.  He smiled brightly when he saw that the first beauty was Cindy Hamilton, the girl that Joe was currently interested in.

“Good evening, Miss Hamilton,” greeted Joe, smiling.

“Why, hello Little Joe,” Cindy smiled.

“Here’s my dollar,” Joe said offering the bill to the pretty girl.

Cindy glanced down at Joe’s hand and smiled, taking the dollar from his hand and stuffing it into a box under the counter.

“Hurry up Little Joe,” called a voice from behind him.

Joe turned seeing Dan, one of the local boys that worked at a neighboring ranch.  Joe made a mocking smile and held his hand up.

“Just hold your horses, I’ve paid my dollar and I aim to take my time and enjoy this,” he said.

“Fine, just make it fast,” Dan called.

Little Joe rolled his eyes, but smiled at Cindy.  “Come here,” he said in a whispered voice, waiting for the girl to lean across the counter so that he could earn his dollar.

Cindy smiled.

“It’s a shame I have to pay to kiss you, when you didn’t seem to mind my kissing you last night without having to pay,” whispered Joe, grinning.

Joe’s face turned bright red from the slap that Cindy rendered.  “Hey!  What was that for?” cried Joe, taken back by the blow.

“That’s for being so sure of yourself, Mr. Cartwright!” Cindy snapped.  “Next,” she called, ignoring Joe and smiling sweetly at the man behind her suitor.

“Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t get my kiss!” Joe stammered.

Cindy turned dark eyes at the startled young man.  “You’ve gotten all you’re getting from me, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Come on Joe, move it,” said Dan, laughing as he shoved Joe out of line and laid his dollar on the counter.

Joe had no other recourse but to step aside as the other men in line pushed forward.  He was disappointed and stood to the sidelines, rubbing his reddened face and nursing his wounded pride.  Suddenly he felt the pressure of hands on his shoulders and turned, surprised to see his older brother standing behind him.

“If you’re through fooling around, and from the looks of your face I’d guess that you are, we are waiting for you at the dunking booth.  You coming willingly, or do I have to drag you, screaming and crying?” taunted Adam, though he wore a friendly smile on his handsome face.

Joe scrunched up his face at this brother and dropped his hand, no use trying to hide Cindy’s brand from his brother.  “Women, I’ll never figure them out!” moaned Joe.

Adam laughed and patted his brother’s back.  “You’re not suppose too, little brother.  That’s what makes fools out of a man, trying to understand women…it can’t be done, you see, once you think you’ve got them all figured out, they go and do something totally different.  It’s a never ending battle pal, so don’t try!” laughed Adam.  “Besides, it’s what’s so alluring about them.”

“Well, tell my face that…that little gal wallops a powerful punch and I don’t even know why she hit me,” Joe said, rubbing the side of his face once more.

“Don’t let it get to you, kid.  Look, there’s Hoss, he’s waiting for us,” said Adam pointing toward Hoss who was hurrying over to meet them.

“Hey Joe, where ya been, we dun got people waitin’ fur ya,” the big man said, “Come on, get in there,” Hoss said, pointing toward the tank filled with water.

Joe glanced in the direction where they had set the tank up and was surprised to see that a small crowd had already gathered.  He gulped, swallowing the knot that had formed in his throat.

“That’s Pa!” Joe said weakly.

“Yep, that’s Pa alright, he was the first one in line,” laughed Hoss, taking Joe by the shoulders and nearly having to drag the boy to the back of the tank where the ladder was.

“Now get ya ornery butt up there on that perch and let’s get this show on the road,” he ordered.

Joe took a deep breath and slowly climbed the ladder and took his spot on the narrow seat.  He glanced down into the water, dread already washing over him.  He glanced at the crowd, seeing his father’s face and the smile that silently told him, he was fixing to get wet.

“Pa, I can’t believe you would do this to me,” Joe said, a sickly smile plastered on his face.

“Well son, it’s for a good cause,” laughed Ben, tossing the first ball, which missed the target.

Joe laughed, and when the second ball missed the target, he laughed again.  The third ball whizzed through the air and just nicked the edge of the target.  Joe giggled loudly, “Hey Pa…”

The lever snapped suddenly and before Joe could utter another word, the water washed over him as he plunged into the tank.

The crowd burst out laughing as Joe came sputtering to the surface and slowly climbed back on to his perch.

“Lucky shot,” he sputtered, giving Ben a crooked little grin.

“I’m sorry son, but I just couldn’t help myself,” laughed Ben, moving from the line and giving the next person a chance to do the same to his soaked son.  “You have fun Joe, I’ll come by later and check on you,” Ben called as he moved off into the crowd.

Mitch Devlin was the second in line, and he laughed when he saw the surprised look on his best friend’s face.

“OH MITCH, NOT YOU TOO!” yelled Joe just as his friend threw the ball, hitting the lever and dropping the chair.  Joe was swept underwater and came up spewing a stream of water from his mouth.

The crowd roared with laughter.  Ben heard the racket and glanced back toward the tank just in time to see Joe take yet another dive.  Ben watched for a moment, a smile spreading across his face.  Joe certainly was being a good sport about this he thought, and then groaned when Mitch called out to his son.

“Remember the other day Little Joe, that practical joke you played on me?  Well, now it’s pay-back time,” laughed Mitch and threw another ball.

“Aw Mitch…that was just in fun,” Joe called as he settled himself on the seat.

“So is this…and this is even for a good cause, so unlike your practical joke,” snarled Mitch, grinning as he flung the ball.

The ball flew past the lever, coming within inches but missing.  Joe burst out laughing as he wiped the dripping water from his face.

“Gonna have to do better’n that, old pal,” mocked Joe.

Mitch laughed right along with his friend, his sky blue eyes dancing with excitement.  “Oh, I’m not finished yet Cartwright,” he laughed and then pulled another dollar from his pocket.

He turned to the attendant, “Give me three more balls,” he said, glancing at Joe and laughing at the shocked look on the dripping boy’s handsome features.

Silently, Joe groaned.  He looked out among the crowd, which had doubled and watched the expressions on all the faces.  ‘And these people are suppose to be my friends,’ he thought as he felt the chair beneath him give way.

Joe slid down below the surface of the water but this time he stayed down longer than before.  He was holding his breath, trying to grab a moment of rest for himself, for he was already becoming tired out from the continuos dunking into the tank.

When Joe came up, the crowd had become unusually quiet.  Joe glanced around toward them and then suddenly they began to cheer.

“Thought we’d lost ya there for a moment, Short Shanks,” called Hoss, who was standing behind Mitch.

“Hurry up, Little Joe.  I wanna dunk ya again, I owe you, remember?  And I aim to collect,” called Mitch, tossing one ball up and down in one hand.

“Okay, okay,” answered Joe, making himself comfortable.  “Just give me…”

SPLASH! Down he went again.

Joe popped to the surface and just as he turned to sit, Mitch threw the ball for the final time.  SPLASH! Poor Joe was beginning to tire, but being the good sport that he was, he climbed for the…how many times had it been?

“HOSS! Not you too!” Joe moaned.

Hoss laughed loudly, “That’s right, little brother.  I owe ya, too.  Remember the other night when Bessie Sue and I were walking in the moonlight, and ya popped outta the woods, dressed like a werewolf?  Remember what happened to that poor little gal?”

“Aw Hoss, I already said I was sorry for that?  Ya can’t still be mad at me…can ya?” squeaked Joe.

He knew it was a dumb question; of course Hoss was still upset about what he’d done.  He had only meant to make a hero out of his middle brother, not have him the one rescued by Bessie Sue!

The ball whizzed by so fast and hard that no one had even known when Hoss had thrown it.  Had it not been for the spatter that Joe made when he hit the water, the crowd would have still been waiting for Joe to plead his case against his brother.

Twice more the youngest Cartwright was dumped into the water and twice more Joe climbed to his perch.  His hair dripped drops of water into his face and Joe hardly had time to brush back the damp locks of curls before another participant threw the ball.  Each time someone different stepped up to the plate, they reminded Joe of a joke that he had played on them, and each swore that today was payday.

Joe was tiring quickly and he wondered if he would last until the end of the day.  They had hardly given him a break, his trousers were soaked, as was his shirt and they seemed to weigh him down and grow heavier each and every time that he returned to the wired seat.  As he glanced at the long line of players, he wondered briefly if they were all here to get back at him for some joke he had played on them or some misconduct that he had unknowingly taken part in.

Adam was next in line and behind him was the sheriff, Roy Coffee, and Doc Martin, and then Clem, and there was…Cindy Hamilton??  ‘Darn,’ moaned Joe, ‘she’s already slapped me…now she wants to drown me too?’

Adam never said a word; he just smiled that crooked little smile of his, the one that made his dimple deepened into his cheek.  Joe screwed up his mouth and took a breath.  It was a good thing, for in the next instance, Joe was in the water.  As he came to the top he glanced at his brother, Adam’s eyes glowed and Joe knew why.  Hadn’t Joe forgotten to tighten his brother’s saddle cinch just the other day, and hadn’t Adam fallen off his horse because of it?  Joe remembered Adam’s anger that day.

“Just you wait Joe, I’ll remember this day…and if it takes me a year, I’ll get you for this,” Adam had sworn.

‘Short year,’ thought Joe just before he hit the water again.

The third ball was just as accurate; Joe felt the water wash over his body and when he came up, he was surprised to see Adam standing next to the tank waiting for him to surface.

Adam’s face was expressionless and Joe had no idea what his brother was thinking, until he spoke.

“We’re even now.”  Adam started to turn but stopped and looked back at Joe.  “You’re a good sport, kid.”  Adam gave his brother a smile and winked at him, leaving his brother to be dunked again and again by the others that wished to…get back…at the mischievous boy.

Hoss and Mitch were waiting for Adam on the sidelines, out of Joe’s view.  They could hear the lever clicking and the crowd laughing and knew that Joe was taking another dunking.

Adam grinned as he joined his brother and Mitch.  “Three out of three…guess that squares things with Little Joe,” said Adam.

“Yeah, reckon it does,” Hoss replied gloomily.

“What’s with you?” Adam asked, seeing the unhappy expression on Hoss’ face.

Adam turned to see what it was that Hoss was so intently watching; he smiled when he realized that his middle brother was watching their kid brother being dunked repeatedly.

“Ya reckon he’s had enough?” Hoss asked, turning to face Adam and Mitch.

“NO!” said Adam quickly.  “There’s still at least a dozen or more folks that want a chance to get even with that joker,” stated Adam.

“Aw shucks Adam, ya know Little Joe never meant no harm by them jokes he’s always playin’ on people,” Hoss complained, following Adam and Mitch as they moved down the street in search of some other fun.

“I know that, but still, we all agreed that Joe would be volunteered for this.  It was your idea to sucker Joe into getting into that tank in the first place,” Adam said in a low voice.

“Yeah, but the tank was your idea, not mine…and ‘sides, I didn’t know so many people would be joinin’ in.  The kid’s tired Adam, ya seen him, and ya know as well as I do, he won’t quit, he never does,” Hoss pointed out.

Mitch started snickering.  “That’s right, he won’t, but then again, he never stops playing those infernal jokes either, Hoss.  What he gets tonight is only a smidgen of what he dishes out daily to everyone else.  Let them have their fun, maybe Little Joe will learn something after tonight.”

“I suppose ya right, but somehow, it don’t seem fair to the boy,” grumbled Hoss, following along after his older brother.

*****

The afternoon seemed to drag on and on for the wearisome boy.  Joe was dragging and though he longed to toss in the towel and call it a day, his pride would not permit his quitting.  So he stayed and he was dunked over and over until he felt as if his lungs would burst from the amount of water that he had swallowed.  To make matters worse, the sun had begun to slip behind the mountain peaks and with the lowering came the evening breeze.  The tank had been refilled with water that seemed much chillier than the previous tank and Joe had begun to shiver.

Ben appeared around suppertime and had urged his son to call a halt to the dunking, claiming the need to eat and rest, but in truth, Ben had begun to fear for his son’s well being.  He could see Joe’s lips trembling; he noted the bluish tint to his son’s lips and knew that Joe was cold.  His main concern was that his son would become sick from his experience in the festival’s dunking tank.

“Joe, come on son, enough is enough,” Ben proclaimed.  “You’re freezing to death in that water.”

“I’m alright, Pa…it won’t be much longer,” Joe said, his voice already growing hoarse.

“Move outta the way, Ben, I got a score to settle with that young’n of yours,” called Jonesy, the town’s harness-maker.

Ben scrunched up his face and looked at Joe, holding his hand up to force Jonesy to wait for a minute.  “What did you do to him?” whispered Ben as he stood beside the tank and talked to Joe who perched on the trick seat.

Joe shrugged his shoulders and gave his father a forced smile.  “I dunno, Pa…I can’t remember doin’ a thing to him…unless it was…”

The ball buzzed passed Ben’s head, nearly hitting him along his noggin.  Ben jerked his head around, glaring at Jonesy.

“Hey, I asked you to wait a minute, I was talking to my…”

The second ball shot by, brushing against the rim of Ben’s hat and forcing him to duck.  The ball somehow managed to hit the target and before Ben could straighten, he heard the click of the seat and felt the splatters of water as Joe sank to the bottom of the tank.

Jonesy laughed. “Better move Ben, I have one ball left and I aim on using it against that rascal son of yours’n, “ laughed the leather master.

“Don’t you think my boy has had enough, good God man, he’s been in there since noon and it’s nearly five o’clock,” growled Ben as he turned back to his son.

Ben watched as Joe slowly and laboriously climbed on his perch and turned, giving his father a quick smile before finding himself back at the bottom of the tank.  Joe was slow in rising to the surface.  He had not been expecting Jonesy to throw the ball so soon after the last toss and Joe, being unprepared, had swallowed a large amount of water.

Ben watched from the top where he had climbed the ladder, his son who seemed to be struggling to come to the top.

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben, looking down into the tank.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam called, seeing his father on the ladder bending over the edge of the water tank.

Ben glanced up, caught Adam’s eye and motioned for him to hurry over.  Adam looked quickly at Hoss and then ran the short distance to where the tank was.

“Help me pull him up, he’s too worn out to push himself to the surface,” Ben explained anxiously.

Adam climbed up beside his father and with Ben’s help, each grabbed at Joe’s arms, pulling him to safety.  Joe began sputtering and coughing, spitting water from his mouth.  His body went limp as Adam and Ben carefully dragged him from the large pool and laid him carefully on the ground.

Joe groaned and tried to get to his feet.  “Let go,” he whined.  “I can’t get out…they’ll think I’m a quitter,” he muttered in a weak voice.

“No they won’t son, you’ve given them their money’s worth,” Ben said, softly.

The last of the lingering crowd began to gather around the star of the show.  One man laughed, “You did okay, kid.”

“Great show, Cartwright,” called another.

“You’re a good sport Little Joe, being as how they set you up for this,” one man called from behind the others.

Joe, who lay on the ground shivering, forced himself in to a sitting position.  “What’s he talking about?” he asked his father.

“I have no idea, son,” Ben answered, which was the truth.

Ben had been unaware that there had been a conspiracy going on against his youngest son.  He turned troubled eyes up at his two older sons, but they were looking elsewhere and refused to meet his dark eyes.

“I’ll get Joe a blanket,” muttered Adam, turning to search for one.

“I’ll find a towel,” Hoss added and hurried to follow his older brother.

“I thought you said he’d never find out, Mr. Knowitall,” fumed Hoss to Adam.  “When Pa figures out what we did, we’ll never hear the end of it,” Hoss continued to grumble.

“Well, just keep quiet about it for now, here, take this blanket to Pa and Joe, the kid’s freezing,” Adam instructed.

He was beginning to worry slightly about what he and Hoss and a whole slew of others had plotted to get even with Little Joe for all the times he had bested them in one of his little jokes or schemes.

By the time that Adam returned to the dunking booth, Joe had dried off and changed into clean clothes and looked, to Adam, none the less for what he had been put through.  The boy did look a mite on the tired side, decided Adam after they had ridden most of the way home and Joe had been unusually quiet.  Adam studied his brother’s posture and noted how the boy slumped in the saddle and again a nagging fear for his brother’s welfare stirred his conscience.  Perhaps they had over done themselves in their little joke, he considered, glancing at Hoss and noting that his middle brother appeared just as concerned.

When they reached the barn, Joe was all but asleep and nearly falling from his horse.

“Joe,” called Ben, moving to his son’s side and resting his hand on the boy’s leg.  “We’re home son,” Ben smiled up at Joe.

“Okay,” murmured Joe sliding down from the saddle.

When his feet touched the ground, his legs buckled beneath him and had it not been for his father standing so close, Joe would have crumbled to the ground.  He’d never known, for he appeared asleep on his feet and he leaned against his horse.

“Come on, little boy, let’s get you in bed,” smiled Ben as he slipped his arms about his son and gently guided the boy to the house.

“I’ll take care of his horse for’em,” offered Hoss.

“I’ll help you get him in bed,” volunteered Adam, taking a hold of Joe’s free arm and helping to guide him into the house.

Once they had Joe in his room upstairs, they gently lowered his sagging body to the bed.  Joe lay where he landed, undaunted by the fact that his father and older brother had begun to remove his clothing and was soon tucking him beneath the warm covers.

“His body feels chilled,” whispered Ben, touching Joe’s arm and feeling the coolness.

“All that water probably; look at his hands and feet, they look like prunes,” smiled Adam, tucking Joe’s feet under the blanket.

“Well, he’s starting to shiver, please, would you tell Hop Sing to send up some warm blankets?” Ben asked as he pulled a chair up to the side of the bed.  He leaned down, placed the back of his hand to Joe’s brow and then let out a long sigh, at least the boy wasn’t running a fever, he thought.

Adam was on his way from the kitchen with the blankets that Hop Sing had warmed for him when the opening of the front door stopped him.

“Hey,” Hoss greeted, “how’s Joe?”

“Freezing, and he looks like a gigantic prune, his entire body is wrinkled.  I have to take these blankets up for him, to try to warm him up a bit,” replied Adam as he moved on toward the stairs.

“I think we over did it tonight, Hoss.  I’m afraid Joe may be sick over this,” he whispered as he neared the opened bedroom door.

“Lordy, Adam, I’ll never forgive myself if anythin’ happens to that boy,” groaned Hoss.

“Shh…” cautioned Adam, slipping into his brother’s bedroom.

“Here Pa, Hop Sing has more blankets warming if we need them,” explained Adam.

“Thank you son,” Ben said as he pulled back the blanket covering his sleeping son and then, with Adam’s help, unfolded the warm blanket and spread it out across Joe’s trembling body.  They opened the second warmed blanket and did the same and then covered both with the first blanket.  Ben was careful to tuck in all the edges so that none of the warmth could escape.  When he finished, he sat down in the chair and let out a sigh.

“I should have never let him stay in that tank for so long.  He’s going to be sick and it’s all my fault,” whispered Ben, turning to look up at his two sons.

“What’s wrong with the two of you?” he asked, seeing the worried expressions on their faces.

“Nothin’…’ceptin’ Joe gettin’ sick,” stammered Hoss.

“Oh don’t worry, son, I was just thinking out loud,” Ben said, quick to console his middle son, who worried about anything and everything where his little brother was concerned.

“Pa…” Adam said, glancing at Hoss and then back at his father.  It was time to confess and Adam knew that Hoss would never be able to get the confession out, so he jumped right to the point.  “It won’t be your fault if Joe gets sick…it’s mine,” confessed Adam.

Ben looked startled.

“And mine…and a lot of other people’s fault as well, but not yours,” Hoss added.

“What do you mean, your fault, and yours,” he said, pointing to Adam.  “And what does everyone else have to do with whether or not Joe gets sick? And who is everyone else?”

Hoss gulped and glanced at Adam, he was silent for several moments before speaking up.  “Hmm…you tell him, Adam, you’re better with words than I am,” Hoss floundered.

“Maybe we should go downstairs,” suggested Adam.  “I wouldn’t want to wake him up,” he said, nodding his head toward Joe.

“I don’t know what this is all about, but I have a feeling, I’m not about to hear something that will please me,” Ben muttered, rising from his chair and following Adam and Hoss out into the hall.  Before Ben pulled the door closed, he glanced one last time into the room to be sure that Joe was sleeping soundly.

The three made their way down to the great room, and when Ben had reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned to Adam.

“Now, what was it that you were going to say that you felt so important that we had to come down here?” Ben asked, noting the way that both boys glanced from one to the other yet refused to look at him.

“I asked you a question.”

“Pa, it was like this…” began Adam.

“Yeah Pa, like this…” Hoss added.

“Like what?  Would you two please start making sense and tell me what in the world is going on here?” scolded Ben, taking a seat in his red leather chair.

“Pa, we, Hoss and I and some of Joe’s friends, one’s that he has played his jokes on, fixed the dunking tank especially for Joe…” Adam started to explain.

Ben stood up, his hands stuffed into his pockets as he eyed his sons.  “Wait a minute, are you saying, this whole dunking booth was planned for your brother?  For heaven’s sake, why?” he stammered when Adam and Hoss nodded their heads.

“It was a joke, Pa…that’s all,” muttered Hoss.

“To give everyone a chance to get back at the boy for the practical jokes he’s played on everyone,” Adam said.  “The dunking booth was my idea, I confess.”

“And it was my idea to have someone volunteer Joe for the job,” Hoss said, pinching his lips tightly together.

“We didn’t know it would get so out of hand.  We thought only a few of his closest friends would take a turn dunking him, we didn’t plan on half the townsfolk getting in on the action,” said Adam, plopping down in his blue chair.

“We’re sorry, Pa.  We never meant for Joe to get sick…we didn’t think…” began Hoss, feeling very remorseful for his part in suckering his little brother.

“That’s right!  You didn’t think!” shouted Ben, and then, remembering his sleeping son, lowered his voice.  “I don’t believe you two; oh I understand trying to get even, but to have all of your brother’s friends to go along with you?  This is worse than anything Joe has done to the lot of you!” stormed Ben.

He edged his way around the furniture and Hoss and stopped at the bottom of the steps and turned back to face his apologetic sons.  His eyes had turned dark and when he spoke, he waved his pointer finger in the air at them.

“Understand me, if you brother gets sick, each of you will take time about doing his chores for one solid month!  Do I make myself clear?” Ben demanded.

Hoss lowered his head, reminding his father of the times his middle son had done the same thing as a boy.  Adam’s lips formed a fine straight line across his face, but he nodded his head.

“Yessir,” Hoss said softly.

“Good, now I’m going up to sit with your brother, I would suggest to the two of you that each of you find something useful to do with your spare time, for I have a feeling that you won’t have much of it left.”

Ben turned and started back up the steps, unaware of the pitter-patter of footsteps that ran silently down the hall.  The boy jumped back into the bed, pulled the blankets up to his chin, and by the time that his father sat down in the chair next to his bed, Joe could have truly been sound asleep.

It was all that Joe could do to keep from bursting out laughing.  So, his brother’s had set a trap for him and he had stepped right into the middle of it.

‘Oh, just wait,’ thought Joe, ‘this snare you’ve set for yourself, all I have to do is wait until the time is right and then spring the trap.’  Joe grinned to himself…and he thought that he had been such a good sport, too!

He heard his father as Ben crossed the room, and quickly closed his eyes, faking sleep.  He almost flinched when Ben’s hand pressed against his forehead, checking for fever.  And when Ben sighed and sat down, Joe chanced a small smile.

‘Hmm,’ he thought, ‘this entire dunking tank scheme had been planned by his brothers and his friends to get back at him for his practical jokes and not to benefit the church,’ Joe surmised, ‘and now those same two brothers were worried that he’d be sick.  Serves them right,’ smiled Joe.  ‘How many of his friends were in on the joke?  Mitch was, for sure,’ Joe figured.  ‘And Cindy?’  Joe really hated to think of the pretty faced young woman taking advantage of him in such a way.  ‘They’re all ruthless,’ Joe summed up.  ‘I have to think of some way to even with them, but what?’

Joe suddenly sneezed.

“Joe?” Ben whispered as he leaned over the bed, searching for his son’s face in the dim glow of the lamp.

“Hmm…”muttered Joe, hoping his father had not realized that he wasn’t really sleeping.

“Are you okay, son?” murmured Ben.

“Sleepy,” Joe moaned, softly, keeping his eyes closed tightly.

“You rest then son, Pa’s right here,” Ben whispered as he brushed at the locks of hair that had fallen to Joe’s brow.

“Hmm…okay, Pa…night,” Joe said, drifting off into loll-loll land for real.

*****

By the time that Joe made his appearance at the breakfast table the next morning, he had decided what he would do to get back at everyone for their part in the practical joke that had left him water logged.  One look at his two brothers, as he sat down in his seat, told him what he needed to know.  They were worried about his health!

“Morning son,” smiled Ben, greeting his youngest as Joe slipped into his chair.

“Morning, Pa,” Joe said, lowering his voice too barely above a whisper.

“Mornin’ Short Shanks…what’s wrong with your voice?” Hoss inquired, casting worried eyes at Joe and then at Adam and back to his youngest brother.

Joe made a point to clear his throat, and forced a smile, “Too much water, I reckon,” he said.

“You aren’t feeling poorly, are you little buddy?” Adam hurried to ask; suddenly ashamed of what he had conspired to do to the boy.

“Naw,” Joe said, giving Adam a pathetic glance, and hearing his brother sigh in relief, “leastwise, not too poorly.”

Adam’s eyes darted from Joe to Hoss and then to their father.  Joe almost burst out loud laughing at the startled look on his brothers’ faces.

“I reckon I’m just still tired from all that dunking I took yesterday.  The water sure was cold,” Joe hinted.

Ben watched his youngest son intently, and tried to determine just how poorly the boy was feeling.  Before he could ask, Joe sneezed, surprising them all.

“Excuse me,” Joe said.  He was just as surprised as the others, he hadn’t expected to sneeze; but he smiled to himself for the timing was perfect.

“God bless you,” Ben said quickly.  “Joseph, perhaps you should rest up some today.  Since you aren’t feeling well, maybe you should go back to bed.  I can have Hop Sing fix you something on a tray and have it brought up to you,” suggested Ben, worried now that Joe was sicker than he was letting on to them.

Joe glanced around the table and then turned to his father.  “I’d love nothing better Pa, but I have chores to…”

“None sense, you’re brothers won’t mind doing them for you, will you boys?” Ben said, turning to Adam and Hoss, his eyes dark and brooding, and telling both that they had better agree with him.

“No, course not Short Shanks, Pa’s right, maybe ya better just go back to bed,” Hoss spoke up first to agree.

“We’ll do your chores for you…today,” Adam agreed at last, glancing at his father.

“Joe, I just want you to know, that I think you were a good sport…about yesterday I mean.  The dunking booth took in more money than what the main entrance fee brought in.  You are a hero, as far as the church community is concerned,” smiled Adam.  “And, as far as I am concerned, I don’t think I could have been so accommodating as you were.”

“Really?” Joe said, honestly surprised at his oldest brother’s comment.

“Sure, I wouldn’t joke around about a thing like that,” admitted Adam. “I’m proud of you kid,” smiled Adam.

“So am I short shanks,” smiled Hoss.

“Guess that makes three of us, son.  Now, back to bed with you…I don’t want you sick, and I’m sure your brothers don’t either,” Ben said seriously, glancing at his two oldest sons.

“Pa…really, I’ll do my chores first and then…”

Ben made a stern face and pointed toward the stairs.

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” laughed Joe and then sneezed again.

*****

Joe lay awake, staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep.  Funny, he thought, he’d never noticed how the chink between the wide boards over his bed, seemed to make patterns on the high ceilings.  He studied them intently for several moments and then flipped over on his side trying to get comfortable.

He had just peered out the window and had watched as Adam and Hoss worked about in the yard and barn.  Joe’s conscience bothered him just a mite; he really was feeling worse than when he had first gotten up, but not to the point that he should have been in bed.  At first Joe sort of liked the idea of staying in bed all day and letting his conniving brothers do his chores, but the day had dragged by slowly and he was bored.  And he had sneezed repeatedly, and when he swallowed, he felt the burning sensation in the back of his throat.  He wished he had company, anyone with whom he could just talk with, but being short handed, his family was having to take more time to do all the yard and barn chores.

Suddenly a light rapping at his door caused Joe to jump.  He quickly pulled the cover up to hide his half-naked body and then called gently.

“It’s opened, come in,” he said, his voice growing hoarse now.

“Hi ya, Little Joe,” Mitch said from the doorway where he was peeking around the corner of the door.  “Mind if I come in and sit a spell?”

Joe straightened himself up in the bed, and cleared his throat; it still burned.  “Naw, come on in,” Joe said.

Mitch eased slowly into the room and took a seat in the chair close to the bed.  “I didn’t know if’n ya would see me or not,” he said softly.

Joe frowned slightly, “Why would you think that?”

“Well, after yesterday…you know, I dunked ya quite a few times and I thought perhaps…”

“I was mad?”  Joe sneezed and had to wipe his nose.  “I ain’t mad at you,” he said, swiping his nose a second time.

“Ya pa said he thought ya was getting’ sick.  He said you shouldn’t have been in that cold water as long as ya was,” Mitch said.  He glanced at Joe and watched how his friend crinkled up his face every time he swallowed.

“Ya throat hurtin’ Joe?” he asked out of curiosity.

Joe moved his hand to this throat and rubbed gently, nodding his head.  “Yeah, it burns and feels scratchy.  But hey, it will be okay, it ain’t nothing,” Joe said as he sneezed.

“Say Joe, I was wonderin’ sumthin’,” began Mitch.  “I feel really bad about what I dun to ya yesterday, and I was thinkin’, maybe I could make it up to ya somehow.”

Joe smiled and then cleared his scratchy throat.  “Could you pour me a glass of water?”

Mitch smiled and stood to his feet.  “Sure,” he agreed, grabbing the pitcher and pouring Joe a glass of water.  “Here,” he said as he turned and handed Joe the glass.

“Thanks, Mitch,” smiled Joe.

Joe turned the glass upward and took a long drink, watching his friend over the rim of the glass.  “Would you mind going down to the kitchen and asking Hop Sing to fix me some soup?  I could use a bite of something to eat,” Joe asked in a raspy voice.

“No, I wouldn’t mind, I’ll be right back,” Mitch smiled and hurried from the room.

Joe grinned and placed the glass on the table beside the bed.  “This might be fun after all, I’ll have them all hopping by the time they realize that I’m not really sick.  Ole Joe Cartwright will have the last laugh after all,” he said in a whisper.

Mitch came back minutes later with a tray of soup and a small pot of coffee and set the tray across Joe’s lap.  As he backed up, he smiled down at his friend.

“Would you mind fluffing my pillows?” Joe smiled pleasantly.

Mitch quickly did as asked and when he’d finished, he stood back, as if waiting for his next order.

“Thanks, Mitch, you’re such a good friend,” Joe said, and then sneezed.

When Mitch had his back turned, Joe quickly slipped his silverware under the covers.  “Hey, Mitch,” Joe said in his raspy voice.

Mitch turned from the window, “Yeah?”

“How am I suppose to eat this soup?  You forgot to get me a spoon,” Joe smiled.

“I did?” asked Mitch, surprised as he moved closer to the bed and looked down at Joe’s tray.  “I could have sworn I grabbed a spoon and laid it right there,” Mitch said, moving things around on the tray.

“Ain’t there,” whispered Joe.  “Do you mind?  I mean, I don’t like cold soup.”

“No, course not, I’ll be right back,” answered Mitch heading for the kitchen.

Joe couldn’t refrain from snickering, ‘serves ya right, friend.’

By the time that Mitch returned, Joe was busy eating his soup.  His friend stopped dead in his tracks, staring opened-eyed at the spoon that Joe held in his left hand.  Joe smiled brightly.

“Must have slipped off the tray when you set it down, I found the spoon here under the corner of the blanket,” Joe explained.

“Whew,” sighed Mitch, “good thing, I’m wearing myself out, running up and down those stairs, how do you manage it all the time?” he asked, flopping down in the chair.

“Guess I’m just used to it,” Joe said between bites.  “Say Mitch, I hate to ask you to do anything else for me, but this coffee is cold, would you mind asking Hop Sing for a fresh pot?”

Mitch took a deep breath and gritted his teeth, he was almost sorry that he’d stopped by to visit his best friend.   “Naw, I’ll get it for ya, and then I guess I’d better be getting’ on home, my Pa wanted me to help him…hmm…”

“Do some chores?” Joe supplied, hiding his smile behind his napkin as he wiped his mouth.

“Yeah, some chores, that’s it Little Joe; my Pa needed me to help him with the chores,” muttered Mitch, grabbing the pot of cold coffee and practically running from the room.

When Mitch was out of hearing range, Joe began to giggle.  When he heard his friend’s heavy footsteps coming back up the stairs, Joe snuggled his head down into his pillow and closed his eyes.  He heard Mitch stop in the doorway and gasp loudly.

“Well, dadburnit,” Joe heard Mitch grumble.

Joe was aware when Mitch crossed the room and lifted the tray from his lap and then left the room quietly.  Joe began to laugh and laughed so hard that tears began to fill his eyes.  When he finally stopped, Joe crawled from the bed and hurried to the window to peek outside.  Mitch was saying good bye to Adam and Hoss and when he rounded the corner of the barn on his way home, Joe giggled again.  When he spied his father starting toward the house, Joe ran back to his bed and covered up.

In just a few minutes, Joe heard his father open the door.  Slowly, as if he’d been sleeping, Joe opened his eyes.  “Oh, hi Pa,” he smiled sheepishly.  “Where’s Mitch?”

“Oh, Mitch went home, son.  He said you fell asleep, how are you feeling?” Ben asked, taking the chair that Mitch had tried so hard to sit in.

“I’m fine Pa,” Joe answered, aware that his voice had gotten raspier and that his throat seemed to be getting scratchier also.

“Joseph,” said his father, standing and placing his hand to Joe’s forehead.  “I think you’re running a bit of a fever,” Ben decided.

“Well, to be honest Pa, my throat does hurt just a little,” confessed Joe.

“I thought so; I could tell by the way your voice is sounding.  Do you hurt anywhere else?” Ben questioned as his concern mounted.

“No sir, I’m just tired,” answered Joe honestly.  He was hoping that he wasn’t really going to be sick.

“I’ll be alright, Pa…I just need to rest a little more.”

“Alright son, but I’m going to have Hop Sing fix you a mustard pack for that sore throat,” Ben informed his son.

“Aw Pa…that stuff stinks to high heaven!” Joe fussed.

“Doesn’t matter, it works, now you get back under those covers and I’ll be back shortly.”

Ben smiled at the disgusted look on his son’s face and then patted Joe’s shoulder.  “Don’t look so sad, little boy, you have everyone in this house jumping and hopping for you as it is.  Why even Mitch said you had him running to and fro from the kitchen to your bedside.  You are quite a charmer, Mr. Cartwright,” laughed Ben.

Joe watched how his father’s eyes danced when he spoke and for a brief moment, Joe wondered if his father knew what he was doing, and in that same instant, Joe almost confessed his conspiracy.

“Pa…oh hey little brother, ya awake,” smiled Hoss as he slipped into the room.  “How ya feelin’?”

Joe glanced from his brother to his father and back to Hoss.  “Not too well, Pa thinks I’ve started running a temperature, but I ain’t so sure.”

“Hate to hear that Short Shanks, anythin’ I can do fur ya?” Hoss asked, pressing his large hand against his brother’s brow to check for himself whether or not Joe was running a fever.

“Seems fine to me Pa,” Hoss said, turning to Ben.

“Well, I’ll just keep an eye on him for the next day or so, until then, I want you and Adam to do the boy’s chores, he’s not allowed out of that bed until I decide for sure just how ill he is,” ordered Ben.

Hoss couldn’t help but screw up his face; he had plenty of work to do without having to add half of his brother’s chores to his own work list.  But then he blamed himself in part for Joe being sick in the first place.

“Sure thing, no problem…much,” Hoss replied.

“What did you want me for, son?” Ben inquired of Hoss.

Hoss looked puzzled and scratched his head.  “Danged if I know, I plum forgot what I came up here fur.”

“Well, while you’re busy thinking big brother, would you mind doing me a favor?” asked Joe sweetly, giving his brother a half smile.

“No, reckon not.  What’cha need, little brother?” Hoss asked, turning his attention back to Joe.

“I was wondering Hoss…I was suppose to take Cindy on a picnic after church tomorrow, and now I can’t go.  I was wondering if you’d mind riding into town and telling her that I’m sick in bed and feeling pretty down and out about having to break our date?” Joe said.  “Maybe you could hint that she might come by and visit me?” he said slyly.

“Sure, I gotta ride into town this afternoon anyway…if’n I can finish all those chores.  But I’ll make a point of goin’ by and tellin’ her fur ya,” offered Hoss.

“Thanks,” smiled Joe, snuggling deeper into his pillows.

“I’ll finish up in the barn and then be on my way, see ya later Short Shanks,” Hoss said as he tossed his arm in the air, waving bye.  “Oh Pa,” he said, turning back around, “I remember what it was, Adam asked to see ya, he’s down in the corral.”

“Tell him I’ll be down in a minute, I want to talk to Joe first,” Ben said.

“Thanks Hoss,” Joe called in his hoarse voice.

“Joe,” began Ben, smiling as he sat down in the chair.  “I was wondering something.”

“What’s that Pa?” croaked Joe, having to cover his nose because he began sneezing.

“Bless you,” smiled Ben.

“Thanks, what were you wondering about, Pa?” questioned Joe.

Ben watched his son’s face and saw the pained expression when Joe sneezed, or cleared his throat and decided not to voice his suspicions, that perhaps the boy was faking his sickness, for it did appear that his son was feeling poorly.

“Pa?”

Ben smiled suddenly and stood to his feet, giving Joe a little pat on the arm.  “Never mind son, it wasn’t anything important.  You rest while I go see what Adam needed.  Hop Sing will be here in a few minutes with his mustard plaster.”

“Yuk,” mumbled Joe as his father turned to leave.

Ben couldn’t help but smile, nor could he blame the boy, he hated those plasters every bit as much as his son hated them.

*****

Joe tossed and turned.  When he finally woke, it was the middle of the night, and his throat felt as if it were on fire.  When Joe coughed, he was quick to wrap his hand around his sore throat, and his face twisted into distorted configurations because of the burning sensations.

“Pa!” he called out, though his voice was so raspy that the word was nothing more than a mere whisper.

Joe pushed back the blankets, he was hot, and tiny beads of perspiration had dotted his brow.  He needed a drink to cool himself, even his insides felt as if someone had started a smoldering fire in his lungs.  Joe hadn’t realized how badly he felt, until he stood to his feet.  His head throbbed, and unexpectedly the room began to spin.  Joe stumbled across the floor searching in the dark for the chair.  His hands groped for something to cling too as Joe flounder around in the dark knocking over the china basin on the bedside table and sending it crashing to the floor where it broke into several pieces.

The shattering of glass brought Ben from his warm bed.  As he started for his door he stopped and grabbed the pistol that he kept hidden in the drawer next to his bed. As he ran into the hall he nearly collided with Adam who stood barefooted with just his trousers on, a pistol in his hand as well.

“Sounds as if someone is ransacking the house!” whispered Ben, easing cautiously down the hall.

The sounds of someone falling drew their attention to Joe’s room.  “It’s coming from Joe’s room,” Adam said, hurrying to the door where he stopped and pressed his ear against the door.

“Something’s wrong,” cried Adam as he pushed the door opened and stepped into the dark room.  “Joe?” he called out.

Ben was right on his son’s heels as he followed Adam inside.  “Joseph?”

“Hmm…”

“Over here Pa,” said Adam, dashing to the other side of the bed.

Joe lay crumbled in a heap on the floor with his eyes pressed tightly shut.  Adam quickly turned his brother over so that he could see Joe’s face.  On the side of Joe’s forehead, Adam could see blood oozing from a small cut where Joe had hit his head on the corner of the table when he fell.

Ben raised the wick in the lamp to bring light into the room and then hurried around the bed where he could hear his youngest son moaning.

“He’s hit his head Pa and he’s burning up with fever.  Help me get him back in the bed,” said Adam as he slipped his arms beneath Joe’s body and, with his father’s help, they put the boy back into bed.

Ben sat on the edge of the bed taking Joe’s hand in his.  “Adam, pour me some water and get me a cloth so that I can bathe his face.”

“Joe…can you hear me son?” Ben cooed, brushing back the damp strands of hair that had plastered themselves to the boy’s brow.

Slowly, Joe opened his eyes.  He could barely make out his father’s face before him.  “Pa?” moaned Joe.

“I’m here son.  You’re going to be okay, you must have tripped when you got up,” Ben whispered softly.

“Water…my throat…burns,” Joe murmured, pressing his hand to his throat.  “And my head…it’s pounding.  I was trying…to get a…drink,” explained Joe.

“Here you go Little Buddy,” Adam said as he handed his father the damp cloth and offered the glass of water to his brother.

Ben helped Joe raise into a sitting position and held the glass until he was ready to get a drink.  Once Joe had satisfied his thirst, Ben placed the glass on the table.

“Lay down son, you’re burning up with fever,” Ben said as he placed the cool cloth back on Joe’s brow.  “I’m sending your brother to town for the doctor…”

“No,” Joe whispered, “It’s not even light, just wait until daybreak, Pa…I’ll be okay until then,” Joe pleaded.

Ben glanced at Adam; his oldest son shrugged his shoulders.  “Can’t do any harm, we can keep him bathed off, and I’ll wake Hop Sing and have him fix another plaster for his throat,” suggested Adam.

“Joe, are you sure son…cause if not…”

“I’ll be fine until then…it’s my throat…and my head,” the boy groaned as he closed his eyes.  “Oh…” he whispered, unaware that he had spoken aloud.

“Adam, wake Hop Sing and asked him to come up here, he’ll know what to do until we can get Paul out here.  Joe needs some relief for this headache,” Ben ordered.

“Sure Pa,” Adam answered, turning to leave.

Ben got up and followed his son out into the hallway.  “I want you to wake Hoss and send him into town for the doctor…”

“I thought you were going to wait until day break to…” Adam began.

“I know what I said, but his fever is too high to suit me and I’m worried about his throat, not to mention his head…and besides, by the time you get Hoss awake enough to know what’s going on, and he gets to town, it will be nearly morning.  Now please son, go on,” Ben instructed.

“I guess you’re right, it’ll take a blast of dynamite to wake Hoss this time of night,” Adam snickered and then patted his father’s arm.  “If I can’t get the big galoot to wake up, I’ll go myself,” he smiled.

“Thank you Adam; now please, hurry,” smiled Ben.

*****

Adam had finally given up any hope of waking his middle brother, and so, after waking Hop Sing and explaining to the faithful servant what his father needed, Adam hurried to the barn to saddle his horse.  He would go himself, though he had not even closed his eyes to sleep he felt responsible for his little brother’s illness.  He chided himself for having even thought up the idea in the first place and now, he felt as if he owed his brother something.

‘Somehow,’ thought Adam, ‘I’ll make it up to the boy.’

As he rode along in the moonlight he recalled his father’s words that if Joe were to get sick over the dunking booth incident, he and Hoss would be required to do Joe’s chores for a month.

‘Well, that’s fair,’ thought Adam, ‘but I want to do more for him.’

He pondered several ideas as to how he and Hoss could make up with Joe.  First and foremost, when the boy was well again, they would have to face the lad and admit that they had set him up, along with most of his friends and then they’d have to offer an apology to Joe.

‘Great,’ judged Adam, ‘the kid will never let us hear the end of this one.  I can just hear him now…first you try to drown me and then you try to kill me!  Yep,’ smiled Adam to himself, ‘that’s just what Little Joe will say, I’d stake my life on it!’

*****

It was just after daybreak that Adam and Doc Martin entered the house.  Even before they started up the stairs they could hear the pitiful moaning coming from Joe’s bedroom.  Adam looked, with fearful eyes, at the physician.

“He must be lots worse,” he said, silently cursing himself for being so foolish.

Paul had quickly removed his coat and was already on his way to his patient’s bedroom.  He pushed opened the door without even taking the time to knock and rushed to Joe’s bedside.  Ben and Hoss both were leaned over the youngest family member, each grasping a shoulder and trying to keep the boy from throwing himself into the floor.

“Boy, am I glad to see you,” muttered Ben, “he’s hot, Paul, much, much too hot.”

“Move aside,” ordered the doctor, taking Hoss’ place next to Ben, who still held Joe down.

Hoss stepped back next to Adam and watched.

“Ben, we need to strip him off and bathe him down in cool water.”  The doctor turned to Hop Sing, “get us plenty of cool water, I want it drawn fresh from the well, and sink that bucket to the bottom, the water will be cooler,” ordered Paul as he tossed back the covers and began pulling off Joe’s night shirt.

“Either give us a hand or get out,” Paul ordered Adam and Hoss sternly.

“Hoss, go help Hop Sing draw some water, I’ll find fresh linens,” Adam quickly barked out the orders as he turned from the room in search of fresh sheets and more towels.  He’d make sure there were blankets in the warming oven.  Though Joe’s fever was high, Adam knew that his brother would be chilled after suffering through a near cold bath.

Adam was right in his assumption, for by the time he returned with fresh linens and towels, Paul and his father had already begun to bathe Joe in the cool water.  Adam watched, horrified, as Joe’s body trembled.  Before his very eyes, Adam could see the thousands of tiny goose bumps that popped up over practically every inch of his brother’s flaming flesh.

Joe’s cries that he uttered broke his older brother’s heart.  Joe tossed his body around in the bed, trying to break free of the restraining, yet loving arms of his father as Ben held him down so that the caring doctor could finish with his bathing.

“No…no…cold…” wept Joe.  “Please…stop,” he said, his lips began turning a light shade of blue and his chin started quivering from the coolness.

“Shh…we’re about finished, son,” soothed Ben gently.

“Adam, bring me those blankets,” Paul said.  “Ben, we’ll wrap him in these for now, once his body warms up, we won’t need them because he’ll only grow too hot again.  Hoss,” Paul said over his shoulder when he spied Ben’s middle son enter the room.  “Please, fetch me some chopped up ice, I think if Joe will suck on it, it will help to soothe his throat,” said the doctor.

“Sure thing, I’ll be right back,” Hoss replied.

The big man spun around on his heels and hurried to the kitchen.  He felt as bad, probably worse, than his big brother about what they had done to get even with Joe for his infernal jokes.  At first Hoss had thought the idea a good one, but as that day wore on, he had seen how weary his younger brother had grown and now, he wished he had never let Adam and Mitch talk him into doing what they had done.  The price Joe was paying now was too much in Hoss’ way of thinking.

The long hours passed slowly as Joe’s family and the doctor labored to bring down his fever.  Ben lost count of the times that they were forced into changing the wet linens from where Joe’s sweat drenched body had dampened the sheets.  Hoss continued to haul water from the well and Adam and Hop Sing took turns with Ben and Paul bathing the youngest family member to keep his temperature from soaring any higher.

Joe’s cough had worsened and Paul had instructed the family to build a breathing tent, fashioned with blankets that hung from the ceiling and draped across the patient’s bed.  Once that was done, Paul order pans of boiling water brought into the room and placed carefully beneath the tent where Joe lay, gasping for each breath that he drew.  Ben shared the task of gently but firmly pounding on Joe’s back, a technique used to help break free the phlegm and mucus that had collected in the lungs.

Joe coughed for what seemed like hours to his worried father.  The cough, dry and hacking at first finally began to produce the needed results.  But each time that Joe was forced into a sitting position, leaning wearily against his father while the doctor took his turn to pound on the patient’s back, Joe would whimper and cry from the unpleasantness of the treatment.

“Please…no…Pa…not again,” Joe would beg between bouts of coughing and hacking.  “Hurts…” he’d cry.

“I know son, I know, but it has to be done,” whispered Ben, tenderly caressing his son’s cheek as Doc Martin worked.

“Just keep coughing that stuff up young man, and you’ll be fine,” assured the caring physician.

“My throat…I can’t cough…much more…makes my throat…burn like…fire,” Joe tried to tell them.

“I know son, but just a little more and I’ll give you something for that,” Doc Martin explained.

“Pa…please…I can’t…no more…” Joe pleaded as his eyes sought for his father’s face.

Ben’s heart melted when he saw the tears that had accumulated in the hazel eyes and threatened to spill over.  Ben glanced up at the doctor, his own eyes slowly beginning to water.

“Paul?”

“Alright Ben, we’ll stop for a spell,” Paul said softly.  “Joe, I want you to lay back now, and be still son, I’m going to have your brothers put more steaming water under here, it will help you breathe better,” Paul explained.

“Thanks, Doc,” whispered Joe, doing as instructed and laying back, closing his eyes.

“Son, open your eyes, for just a minute,” Ben said as he stuck his head beneath the tent.  “Open your mouth,” Ben ordered when Joe had his eyes opened.  “Doc wants you to take this; it will help with the sore throat.”

Joe complied without the usual fuss.  He opened his mouth, swallowed and without a word, closed his eyes.  Within minutes, he was asleep.

“I’ll sit with him a spell Pa, why don’t you go get some rest,” offered Adam.

“No thanks, son, I’ll…”

“Pa, you’ve been at this for hours, now please, I promise to wake you if he asks for you.  I don’t want you sick, too,” Adam scolded gently.

“The boy’s right Ben; go to bed, doctor’s orders,” smiled Paul.  “I’ll be downstairs in the spare room, Adam; you call both of us if Joe should need anything, understand?”

Adam nodded his head in agreement.  “I will, I promise,” he said, looking at his father.

“Okay, I’ll rest, but you had better call me son,” Ben said as he glanced back at the tent that now hid his son from view.  “Don’t leave him, Adam.”

Adam followed his father’s gaze and then glanced back at Ben.  “Don’t worry Pa, I won’t,” he promised.

*****

Joe’s condition varied from hour to hour.  Several times it appeared as if his fever might break but then just as soon as the family’s hope began climbing, the fever would begin an upward climb and then they all would be busy bathing Joe’s fevered flesh once again.  Most of the time Joe either slept or was so disorientated that he would fight against the hands that administered the tender care.

Joe’s friends had received word of his illness and several had stopped by, hoping to get a chance for a short visit, but Joe was too ill to receive visitors.  Mitch came by for a second visit, hoping to tell Joe how sorry he was.  Cindy Hamilton, when she learned that Mitch was going to visit Joe, decided to accompany Mitch and rode along with him.

“Oh Adam, I’m so ashamed of myself.  I can’t believe that I let you and Hoss and Mitch talk me into doing such a cruel thing to Little Joe,” Cindy fumed.  “Joe will never forgive me when he finds out what I’ve done, or any of us for that matter,” she scolded as she sat with Adam, Hoss and Mitch on the side porch.

“Don’t you think I’ve not thought of that?  I’m every much as ashamed of myself as the rest of you are, it was my idea, think about how that makes me feel,” Adam stated.

He was angry with himself, and as Cindy stated, ashamed.  Every time he walked into his brother’s room and listened to the hacking cough and watched how Joe labored for every breath, Adam hated himself a little more.  He’d even wondered how he’d ever be able to live with himself, should the worst happen, and Joe not pull through.  His father would never forgive him; he’d never be able to forgive himself for that matter.

Hoss, who sat across from his older brother, could almost read Adam’s thoughts, for his was much the same.  He’d always, ever since they had been kids, he had been Joe’s protector, protecting him from life’s unpleasantness, from bullies, and ruffians, and had on many occasions, taken the blame for his brother in something that the pair had inspired to do that had led them into trouble.

“We need to do something to make up for what we’ve done,” said Adam, breaking the silence that had fallen upon the group.  “Any ideas?”

“Like what?” Cindy questioned.  “We can’t do anything right now, not with him still sick.  Oh Adam, he is going to get well, isn’t he?”

Adam’s dark eyes flashed from Hoss to Mitch and then back to his brother’s girl.  It was as if she’d been sitting there, reading his mind and the thoughts disturbed him, for in his heart he feared the worst.  It had been nearly three days and Joe’s condition had hardly changed. Joe was still confined to the tent, he had been reduced to tears from the continual pounding on his back, and to add to his misery, he had lost his voice entirely.  And the fever refused to relinquish possession of Joe’s body.

Adam had, had to help his father with the treatments, Paul having been called away on an emergency and Hoss taking care of chores, Hop Sing busy in the kitchen keeping water boiling on the stove, the unpleasant duty fell to him.

“Adam?”

The sound of the young woman’s voice and the touch of her hand to his arm brought Adam’s thoughts to the present.

“I’m sorry,” apologized Adam, “I was thinking about Little Joe.”

“I understand,” Cindy said softly, the concern she felt showed in her eyes and in her tone of voice as well.

“I suppose we wait until Joe is better before deciding on something.  But whatever we do, it has to be something that all of us, you, me, Mitch, Hoss and the rest of Joe’s friends can take part in as well,” advised Adam.

“I agree,” Hoss said.  “Me and Adam ‘specially, cause it’s more our faults than anyone else’s, being’s how the idea was ours in the first place.”

“Well, we went along with it, didn’t we Cindy?” Mitch questioned.

“Yes, we certainly did, and so did a lot of others, why I was shocked when I saw the sheriff in line, and even Clem…and Doc Martin.  I heard him tell Joe that he was going to dunk him once for every time that he had to crawl out of bed on a cold night to come out here, just to patch Joe up!” Cindy told every one.  “And now here he is, Doc Martin, having to stay hours with Little Joe in order to get him better.  Oh, poor man, he must feel simply awful!”

“We all do,” Adam said flatly.

“We just got carried away, knocking Joe off that little seat.  He mentioned several times about the water being so cold that his lips were turning blue, but no one paid him any mind.  I know I didn’t, I just laughed at him and told him it served him right for all the times he’d suckered me,” Mitch said.  “Now I wish I had of listened to him.  And he wouldn’t quit, not for a thing.  I’d of took his place, if’n he had of, I wouldn’t have minded, for a little while anyway.”

Suddenly Adam smiled, surprising the small group, for no one had smiled in days.  “I have the perfect way for all of us to show Joe how sorry we are.”

“How?” Mitch quizzed.

“Oh, Adam, do tell,” Cindy pleaded.

“Oh brother, here we go again.  I’ve seen that look before and ya see where it got us the last time,” Hoss groaned, rolling his blue eyes back in his head.

Cindy, Adam and Mitch couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on Hoss’ face.  The laughter had served it purpose, for Joe’s family and friends felt their spirits lifted and new hope flickered within each heart.

“When Joe is well enough, here’s what we are going to do…” said Adam, smiling, for he felt that his plan was the perfect way to say, ‘we’re sorry.’

*****

Joe’s fever raged for another day and a half.  It was late into the evening when Ben first realized that his son had broken out in a cold sweat.  Within minutes, he had summoned Hop Sing to help him with stripping the bed and remaking it with fresh linens.  The boy’s temperature peaked at last, his flesh was ablaze with heat that burned his father’s hand, but just as quickly, the temperature began to subside and an hour later, Joe lay sleeping peacefully at long last.

Ben sighed deeply and walked to the window.  It was completely dark outside now and the stars had begun to twinkle brightly in the cloudless sky.  Silently, Ben bowed his head and offered up a prayer of thanks.

Paul Martin arrived shortly afterwards, happy to see that his patient had taken a turn for the better and was destined for recovery.

He smiled at the weary family.  “The worst is over Ben, praise the Lord.  Now, lots of rest and plenty of Hop Sing’s good food should bring him up to par.  I want him to stay in that bed for a couple of weeks, maybe less it he behaves himself…which isn’t likely,” laughed the doctor teasingly.

“I heard that,” muttered Joe in a strained voice.

Ben and Doc Martin turned to see Joe smiling weakly at them.  “Don’t try to talk too much just yet Joe.  Your throat has been very inflamed, and I don’t want you straining your voice.”

“I won’t,” whispered Joe and then clamped his lips tightly together when he saw Paul roll his eyes and shake his head at Ben.

“Does he always manage to get in the last word?” Paul asked, snickering.

“Most of the time,” laughed Ben, going to the bed and sitting down on the edge.  He smiled down at his son, brushing back some stray locks of hair.  “Just knowing that he will be able to talk to me again, is enough reason to let him have the last word.”

Ben smiled again when he saw Joe looking at him.  “Welcome back, son,” he said.

Joe pinched his lips together and nodded his head.  When Joe placed his hand over his father’s, Ben knew what Joe was trying to tell him, he was glad to be back.

*****

The first week in bed, Joe did quite well, under the circumstances, but by the middle of the second week, Joe was fit to be tied.

“Why can’t I get up?  I feel fine,” he complained to his father, and to whichever brother happened to stop by for a visit.

“Because the doctor said to stay in the bed, that’s why.  Listen, Joseph, I am not taking any chances on a relapse.  You don’t realize just how sick you were, young man!” Ben scolded, gently but firmly.

He plopped down in the chair next to the bed.  Joe’s face had formed a frown and Ben felt sorry for his bedridden son.  The boy had always hated being restricted to the bed when sick, and Ben couldn’t blame him.  Joe was full of energy and held a zest for life that was unmatched, and having to remain in bed, was for Joe, what jail was to the most harden of criminals.

“It shouldn’t be but another day, two at the most, son, and then Paul will let you get up for short periods of time,” Ben said encouragingly.

“But Pa, it’s been forever since I’ve been outside, or even downstairs for that matter.  Cain’t I please, just sit at the table while we eat, or I’d even be willing to lay on the settee, just let me out of this room, please…Pa…please?” begged Joe, giving his father his most pathetic puppy dog look.

Ben felt his heart begin to melt, it was the same each time.  Just one certain look from his youngest son, and Ben felt all his reserve start to crumble, and this time was no different.

“I don’t know…”

“Please Pa…I promise, I’ll come back up here the minute you tell me too,” whined Joe.

“Paul said…”

“We won’t tell the Doc…come on…just for half an hour,” urged Joe.

“I think…”

“Then don’t think…at least not with your brain…think with your heart, Pa…” Joe tempted.

Ben laughed; he couldn’t help it.  “Joseph, what am I going to do with you?”

“Let me go downstairs?” smiled Joe, batting his long lashes for affect.

“Oh, alright…”

“Yeppee!” shouted Joe, tossing back the blanket.

“Wait just a minute, young man,” Ben nearly shouted.  “Let’s set some rules, right here and now,” he stated, stopping Joe from getting out of bed.

“One hour, no more, no less…and you will not put up an argument when your time is up…And…you will stay inside, not outside, agreed?” Ben said, giving his son a steady glare.

“Agreed,” smiled Joe, grabbing for his trousers and slipping them on.  He stood quickly to his feet and then stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Ben asked, seeing how Joe grabbed for the bedpost to steady himself.

“I must have gotten up to quick,” Joe said in a low voice.  “I’m alright though, just got a little dizzy there for a second,” Joe forced himself to stand up straight and give his father a smile.  No way was he going to get back in that bed, not after having to fight for his freedom, he decided.

“Let’s go,” he told his father.

Ben walked in front of his son, glancing over his shoulder every now and then to be sure that Joe remained steady on his feet.  When he reached the last step, he raised his arm and pointed to the settee.

“Sit, I’ll have Hop Sing bring us some sandwiches,” Ben said and then as Joe took his appointed spot, Ben smiled.  “I’ll be right back, son.”

“Thanks Pa,” Joe said, returning the smile.

The hour passed far too quickly for Joe.  He had enjoyed sharing time with his father and he hated to admit it, but by the time that Ben ordered him back to bed, Joe was feeling worn out.  Reluctantly, he stood to his feet, paused to steady himself before moving and then, with his father right beside him, slowly climbed the stairs.

Ben followed his son into his room and even pulled back the blanket, waiting for Joe to crawl into bed.  Joe giggled and glanced up at this father.

“You still treat me as if I were your little boy,” smiled Joe, even though he enjoyed the pampering.

Ben waited until Joe was settled and then tucked the blanket around him.  “Joseph,” said Ben, sitting on the edge of the bed, “no matter how big you grow, or how old you live to be, you will always be my little boy.”

Joe giggled again, he couldn’t help it, it was times like this, when it was just his father and himself, alone, that Joe enjoyed the most.  “I know that Pa, and don’t think for one minute that it bothers me, cause it doesn’t.  I like being your little boy, I like it when you do this for me,” he said.

Ben had a puzzled look on his face.  “Do what son?” he asked.

“This, tuck me into bed, make sure I’m comfortable, take care of me when I’m sick, read to me…” Joe paused briefly.  “Will you read to me, please Pa?”

Ben groaned, but he wasn’t put out with his son, for he enjoyed doing for the boy, all those things that he had called to mind.  “Sure, what do you want me to read?” asked Ben, rising and going to the bookcase.  He started to pull a book from the shelf, but Joe stopped him.

“Not that one, the one next to it,” suggested Joe.

“This one?”

“That’s it,” answered Joe.

Ben glanced at the title and began laughing.  “Joseph, how many times in your lifetime have either I or your brother Adam read this story to you?”  Ben moved the chair closer to the bed and sat down, opening the book to the first page.

“I don’t know, I stopped counting a couple of years ago,” laughed Joe.  “But it’s my favorite story; I’ve never gotten tired of it.”

“Well, son, it’s my favorite story too. There’s just something about Moby Dick that keeps me wanting to read it over and over again,” Ben said, giving Joe a smile as he made himself comfortable in the chair.

Ben had only read the first few pages when realized that Joe had grown still and when he glanced up, Ben smiled.  Joe had fallen to sleep, his head pressed back against the pile of pillows; a tiny smile remained on his face as Ben closed the book and set it on the table.  Carefully so as not to wake his son, Ben pulled the covers up that Joe had kicked down and gently tucked them in around the sleeping boy.

Ben eased out of the room, closing the door gently behind him and then made his way downstairs.  He’d give Joe time to take a nap before supper and then if he wanted him to, Ben would read some more.

*****

By the end of the second week, Doc Martin had proclaimed Joe well enough that he could send more time out of bed and downstairs with his family.  The warm June days had given him a chance to get out of doors and most afternoons were spent helping his father with the ledgers.  They spent their time going over figures, sipping lemonade and enjoying each other’s company.

“I’ll be glad when Doc lets me get back to work,” Joe said one late afternoon.

Ben, whose head had been bent over the ledgers, glanced up, surprised at his son’s remark.  “That’s a first,” Ben said softly, a smile beginning to show on his face.

“Aw Pa…” giggled Joe.  “But no kidding, I’m bored sitting here day after day, trying to add up all these figures.  This is more math than when I was in old Miss Jones’ class at school.”

“Joseph!  Miss Jones was a very good teacher, and a nice lady, I might add,” Ben scolded gently.  “And…I’m sorry you are so bored, having to sit with me.”

Joe’s eyes quickly searched his father’s face, worried that Ben had taken his comment the wrong way.  When he saw his father smile, Joe sighed.

“I didn’t mean I was bored with you, Pa…I only meant…”

Ben couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on his son’s face.  “I know what you meant Joseph, and I can’t say that I blame you one bit.  If I were as young as you, I’d want to be up doing something besides this,” Ben groaned and pointed at the books, “there has to be a better way to keep track of things than the way we do them.  Why couldn’t Adam have been an accountant instead of…speaking of your brother, here he comes now.”

Ben pushed back his chair and stood up.  Joe turned, looking over his shoulder, surprised to see Adam and Hoss, plus a slew of his friends.  Joe smiled, happy for a break from the bookkeeping and happy to have company, he met the small group of gathers as they dismounted their horses.

“Hi ya, Joe.”

“What’s up Little Joe?”

“Hello, Joe,” Cindy Hamilton smiled sweetly.  “Did you enjoy the cookies I baked for you?”

Joe smiled at everyone, but his gaze had fixed on the lovely young woman.  “I sure did, thank you Cindy,” Joe smiled.

“Hey Little Brother, a bunch of us guys, and gals,” he added, “ are getting together Saturday night over at the church.  We was wonderin’, ya wanna come?” Hoss said, grinning from ear to ear.

“We’re going to have sandwiches and desserts, please say you’ll come,” begged Cindy as she slipped her arm around Joe’s.

“Well, sure, that is if Doc says I’m well enough.  I’d do about anything just to get away from here for a little while.”

Joe turned to his father who was standing next to Adam.  “What do you think, Pa?  Reckon Doc will agree?”

“I don’t know son, why don’t we ask him, here he comes now,” said Ben as he moved to greet the physician who was just arriving in his buggy.

“Hi Paul,” Ben called, holding the horse’s halter while the doctor climbed down from the buggy.  “What brings you out this way?”

“I thought it was about time to check out that youngest bear cub of yours, I’d say it’s getting pretty close to time to turn him loose,” Paul grinned.  “You are ready for things to get back to normal, aren’t you Ben?” he smiled.

“Most certainly, in fact, Joseph was just telling me how bored he was with my company,” laughed Ben.

“Now Pa, you know that’s not what I said, or what I meant!” called Joe who had overheard what his father had said.  Joe excused himself from his company and walked over to the doctor.

“The gang was just wondering if I could go with them Saturday night to a social at the church.  Reckon, it would be alright?” inquired Joe, the hope showing in his expression.

The doctor smiled at Joe and then turned to smile at his father.  Joe missed the wink that passed between the two.

“As long as you keep doing what you’re doing, until then.  That’s only two more days, then I see no reason why you can’t join your friends,” Paul explained.

“Oh Doc,” Joe nearly shouted, causing everyone to turn and stare at him.  “Thanks!”

Come Saturday, Joe was ready to go before everyone else and very anxious to be on his way.  He paced the floor in front of the fireplace until he all but wore himself out.

“Hey, can’t you two hurry it up some?” he shouted from the bottom step.

“Calm down, son, your brothers will be down shortly,” Ben snickered, putting his paper down on the table.  “You know what?  I think I’ll get ready and ride over to the church myself.  From what Adam and Hoss tell me, just about everybody in town will be there,” Ben said, standing to his feet.

“Why?” Joe asked.

Ben turned to his son, a puzzled look on his face.  “What do you mean, why?”

“Why is everyone in town going to be there?  I thought it was just going to some of my friends, and Adam and Hoss?” Joe asked.

“I think that’s the way it started out son, but when everyone got wind that there was going to be a party of sorts, everyone started saying that they wanted to come, so I guess everyone is,” laughed Ben.  “I sure don’t want to be the only person in town not to show up.”

Joe laughed along with his father, “I’m glad that you’re coming too, Pa.  Hey,” he said, turning to his brothers who had finally decided to join him.  “It’s about time you’re ready.  Come on, let’s go,” Joe said happily as he started to the door.

*****

The Cartwrights arrived in due time.  The church was buzzing with people and Joe set about right away, to find his friends.  “Catch ya later, Pa,” Joe called as he hurry off.

“Stay out of trouble, little boy!” Ben called back.

Joe paused and turned.  When he saw his family laughing at him, he frowned back, but then smiled, so they would know that he wasn’t really up set with them.

Joe found Mitch, along with Seth and Cindy was there as well.  They spent several minutes chatting and then wandered over to the buffet table, which had been loaded with food.

“Wow, would ya look at all of this?” said Joe.  “Someone really did plan for a party, and Pa was right, everyone in town is here.  Look, there’s Roy and Clem, Doc Martin, Dan from the Bar S ranch, and Jonesy, and look, even Bruno’s here!”

Joe glanced around the room, astonished to see practically everyone he knew.  Suddenly, he remembered his manners.

“Hungry?” he asked Cindy.

“Not right now, Little Joe.  I think Adam and Hoss have a couple of surprises planned.  We can eat afterwards,” she suggested.  “Oh look, here they come now.”

Adam and Hoss joined his brother and the small circle of friends who had formed a ring around Joe, all ready to wish him well, and to let him know that they were happy to see him up and about once again.

Adam pulled out a chair and surprised his brother by standing in it.  “If I could have everyone’s attention, please!” he called from his perch.  Everyone stopped talking and turned to Adam, waiting to hear what he had to say.

When the room was quiet, Adam smiled.  “First of all, I want to thank everyone who came tonight, especially, my brother Hoss, Roy, Clem, Miss Hamilton, Doc Martin, Jonesy, Dan, Bruno, and even my father.  But most of all, I want to say something to someone who means the world to me.”

Adam turned then and faced his youngest brother, a look of seriousness on his handsome face.

“My kid brother, Joe.”

Joe’s eyes popped opened as he looked from one smiling face to the other and then back to Adam’s.

“What are up to Big Brother?” he asked softly, suddenly suspicious of everyone around him.  He glanced around the room one more time, realizing that the ones there were the same ones that had spent an entire day dunking him in the dunking pool.

“Calm down, little brother.  All of us have something that we want to say to you.  Your friends chose me as spokesman for the group, and in a minute, I’ll explain why.  But right now, I just want to tell you that I’m glad to see you well again and I’m happy that you can be up and round and that you’re here tonight.  See Joe, I have to confess something.  It was my idea to have a dunking booth at the church festival…”

“And it was my ideay Short Shanks, to have ya the person what got dunked,” added Hoss.  “And it was my ideay to have one of your friends volunteer ya for the job,” stammered Hoss.

Joe’s eyes opened wide as he looked at all the faces.  “And let me guess, it was your idea to volunteer me, right Mitch?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, I let them talk me into it,” his friend confessed.

“Little Joe?” muttered Cindy, turning her blue eyes up at her beau.  “I’m sorry…for slapping you, and for dunking you…it was all part of the set up.”

Joe’s eyes were beginning to grow dark and a small frown had begun to ebb its way onto his brow.  Ben watched with concern and when he saw the very slight quiver to his son’s chin, he hurried to Joe’s side and slipped his arm across the boy’s shoulders.

Joe cut his eyes up at this father.  “Were you in on this, too?” he said in a soft voice.  “You were the first to dunk me.”

“No, son, I didn’t have any part in it, in fact, I didn’t even know it was a pay back, until you got sick and your brothers told me about it,” Ben explained.

Joe moved from his father’s embrace and stepped up to the chair.  When he looked up at Adam, his brother could see the sad expression in his younger brother’s eyes.

“Why?” he whispered, trying to keep the tears from building up in his eyes.

“Joe, when I thought up the idea, and told your friends about it, it was supposed to be to pay you back for all of the practical jokes you’ve pulled on everyone.  It wasn’t meant to hurt you, and it certainly wasn’t meant to make you sick.  I’m sorry Joe,” Adam said as he stepped down from the chair.

“I’m sorry, too Short Shanks,” Hoss said as he stood beside of Adam.

“So am I Joe,” Mitch added, hanging his head.

“Little Joe, I’m very sorry.  Please forgive us?” she begged.

Joe looked from face to face and saw the remorse in each expression.  He gritted his teeth and then smiled.

“I reckon I had it coming, sooner of later,” he said lightly.

“Oh Joe, thank you,” Cindy cried gleefully as she wrapped her arms about Joe’s neck and kissed him squarely on the lips.

“WHEEE!” the crowd shouted, laughing at the surprised look on Joe Cartwright’s face.

“Joe, we…all of us here…want you to know that we think you’re a good sport, and for being such a good sport, we threw this party in your honor,” Adam announced.

“For me?” Joe’s arm rested protectively around Cindy’s waist.

“That’s right, and we have surprise for ya, too,” Hoss told his brother.

“Come out back with us,” Mitch said as he waved his arm in the air signaling for the group to follow him outside.

The group circled Joe and practically forced him along with them as they all filed through the door and out to the back of the church.  When they got to a certain spot, Adam held his hand up, stopping the moving crowd.

“Joe, come here, buddy,” Adam called.

The crowd parted ways so give the honoree the freedom to move forward.  Joe took two steps and stopped in his track, his eyes wide.

“Oh no you don’t, not again!” he said and started to back up.

Hoss, who had been behind his brother, stopped Joe before he could bolt and run off.

“Hold still short shanks,” Hoss ordered.

Joe fought against the hands that clasped his arms.  He dug his feet into the dirt as his bigger brother pushed him forward.  His friends were laughing, adding to Joe’s doubts about what this mob, as he thought of them, were planning for him.

“Pa!” Joe called over his shoulder.

Joe found his father standing next to the doctor and the sheriff; Ben was laughing as well.

“Take it easy, Joe,” Adam said when Hoss had finally managed to get Joe to the front of the group.

“I’m not getting back in that tank, Adam, no matter what you or anyone else says, I’m not doing it!” Joe growled at his brother.

He finally pulled free of Hoss strong fingers and backed up a step.

“I got suckered once, you’ll not sucker me a second time,” he glared, glancing around.  “All those jokes I played on everyone, never hurt the first person, no one nearly died because of them, but you, and you, and you…all of you, darn near killed me!”

“Aw…shucks, little brother, this here ole tank ain’t fur you!  It’s fur all of us!” laughed Hoss.

“Heh?” Joe said.

“That’s right Joe.”  Roy Coffee pushed his way to the front of the crowd.  “We, all of us here, felt so bad about what we dun to ya, that we got together to think of a way to let you pay us back.  And this here dunking booth was the perfect thing.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” muttered Joe.

“Joe, turn around,” he heard his brother Adam say.

When Joe turned, his mouth dropped opened in shock.  Adam had stripped his shirt and his boots and was now perched on the little seat.  One look into the deep tank and Joe could see that it had been filled with water.

Suddenly, Joe’s eyes lit up with amusement and his face broke open with a big smile.  Like a child, he rubbed both hands together in excitement.

“Is this what I think it is?” he laughed, his eyes on Adam’s face.

“Yep…payback time, Little Brother.  For everyone of us that dunked you, you get to dunk us, but it cost a dollar per person,” Adam added.

Joe’s smile disappeared as his eyes swept the room.  “I don’t have that much money!”

“No, but we do,” laughed Mitch.  “We agreed that each one of us would put up a dollar for our own selves, just so that you could dunk us.  The money goes into the church fund, just like last time,” Mitch explained.

“That’s makes your part in the church fundraising, the biggest contribution in the church’s history, Little Joe,” the minister told Joe.

Stunned, Joe was at a loss for words.  He felt his father’s arm on his back and looked up into the dark eyes, and then smiled.

Looking back at his brother, who sat waiting in the little seat, Joe picked up the three balls that were offered to him.

“I get three chances to dunk everyone who was in on the joke, right?” he said.

“Right, and since it was my idea, I’ll go first,” Adam said.

He wasn’t sure he liked the gleam in his little brother’s eyes.

“You came back two or three times, didn’t you…big brother?” Joe snickered.

Everyone laughed when they saw Adam gulp, but pandemonium broke out when they saw the handsome dark hair man drop beneath the water.  Adam crawled back into his seat, only to be dunked a second and then a third time.  When he finished, Mitch took the seat.  Joe remembered that Mitch had taken two turns the night of the festival.

Joe’s aim was deadly; five out of six times Mitch was knocked into the water.  Joe couldn’t stop the laughter that spewed forth from deep within.  This was better than anything he could have thought up to get everybody back for suckering him into their mean little joke.

By the time that Mitch was finished, Roy climbed into the seat, and then Clem, after that, Doc Martin even took his turn.  Dan from the neighboring ranch, and Seth, and when he finished, another and then another took their turns on the perch.  It was obvious that everyone was having fun, and that the plan to give the youngest Cartwright his last laugh, had been a complete success.

The evening wore on until at last, only one person remained to take their turn.  When Joe watched Cindy slowly glance down into the tank as she climbed the ladder, Joe wasn’t sure whether or not he could go through with his sweet revenge.  She looked so pitiful, thought Joe, and her dress was so pretty, he’d hate to ruin it.

“Cindy, you don’t have to do this,” Joe called as he watched the girl get comfortable on the little chair.

She glanced up at him, her eyes wide.  “Yes I do, Little Joe…I was in on the joke, too.  It wouldn’t be fair to the others if you let me off,” she said weakly.

Joe swallowed and glanced around him; they really did expect him to dunk the beautiful daughter of the town’s banker.

“I’m not sure if I can, or not,” Joe muttered, trying to put off for as long as possible, throwing the ball.  He smiled to himself, he would throw the ball, but just as easily as he could hit the target, he could miss as well.

“Don’t do what I know you are thinking little brother,” called Adam.  “She wants to do what’s right, don’t deny her the chance, Joe.”

Joe’s smiled died on his lips as he looked at Cindy with some doubt.  “He’s right Joe, throw the ball, or…”

“Or what?” Joe asked.

“Or…I’ll not go to the next church social with you, or I won’t dance with you at the next dance, or I’ll not have Sunday dinner with you tomorrow or I won’t………….SPLASH!’

Cindy bounced back to the surface, her hair falling to her shoulders, her dress floating over the top of her head, revealing her lace pantaloons.  Joe nearly split a gut giggling as the crowd around him joined in.

When Cindy was seated on her perch, she glared at Joe.  “You just wait, Little J…”

SPLASH…she was underwater for the second time.  The third time, she neither smiled nor frowned.  She refused to look at anyone and kept her eyes staring straight ahead, looking at nothing.

As Joe raised his arm to prepare to throw the third ball, he felt a hand grab his wrist.  “Hold on a second, Little Joe.”

Joe turned to see who had stopped him.  He was surprised to find Mr. Hamilton to be the one holding his wrist.  For a moment, Joe was unsure as to the man’s motive.

“Give me the ball,” he ordered Joe, which Joe complied with the man’s wishes.

Cindy’s eyes had grown wide and she squirmed on her seat as she watched her father toss the ball up and down in his hand.

“Daddy, you wouldn’t dare?”

“Wouldn’t I daughter?  Remember the other day, before Little Joe got so sick, you said to me that he would never get the last laugh on you, because he’d never believe that you would be part of anything so devious?  Well, guess what sweetheart, he did believe it, isn’t that right, Little Joe?” Mr. Hamilton said as he turned and smiled at Joe.

Joe nodded his head, returning the little wicked grin.  “Oh yes sir, my pa always told me that if you couldn’t trust the local banker, you couldn’t trust anyone.”

“WHAT!” shouted Cindy.  “Oh Daddy, you didn’t…please tell me, you weren’t the one who told him?”

“Yes, my dear…I felt it my duty.  I wanted the boy to know what he was getting in to,” laughed the banker.

“Here Joe,” he said, handing the last ball to the youngest Cartwright.  “Have the last laugh, on my daughter!”

Everyone, including Cindy burst into laughter.

Joe tossed the ball up in the air one last time and caught it in his opened hand.  “One last laugh.  I thank you, Mr. Hamilton.”

The ball whizzed past everyone’s head and clanged against the lever, the seat dropped down and Miss Cindy Hamilton took a final dive.

Joe laughed one last time…he was even…and one up on his family and friends, cause he’d gotten the last laugh after all.

***End***

*Thanks to the vacation Bible school of Hopewell Baptist Church, Cleveland, TN. For having a dunking booth on commencement night and to my cousin, Brenda, for sharing the story of her son’s experience in another tank…and for being my inspiration for this story.

Return to Debbie B.’s home page

 

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