Word Count: 8237
Joe leaned his head up against the jamb and gaped in astonishment through the doorway. Adam’s room never ceased to amaze him. The spick-and-spanniest room in the West, Hop Sing called it. How a body was supposed to live up to an example like that, Joe would never know.
The shade in the window had been opened just so, letting in the ideal amount of light to highlight the perfection of the space, and by extension, its owner. Adam must spend hours at this, Joe decided. The desk was neatly organized, with two inkwells primly gracing each corner, and with four pens spaced so perfectly alongside a stack of writing tablets that Joe swore his brother used a ruler.
The bed was impeccably made, the bed linens smoothed and wrinkle-free, the floor boards meticulously swept and polished, and his brother’s huge collection of books had been arranged in neat alphabetical rows on freshly-dusted shelves.
Joe remembered snickering once that if the Cartwrights were ever low on cash, they could hire Adam out as a chambermaid. At least Hoss thought it was funny. Adam, however, was distinctly unamused.
“See anything interesting?”
Joe startled at his brother’s voice behind him.
“Not here,” Joe snapped irritably. He was still in a rotten mood after the disastrous dinner, which was chock-full of some good ol’ fashioned Joe lecturing. His older brother must have enjoyed the meal immensely.
Why Hop Sing decided to serve his father his dinner on the tin plate, Joe would never know. Pa probably wouldn’t even have noticed otherwise. Hop Sing must have been planning it all day.
Pa had shot up from his chair and roared, as anyone would have expected. “HOP SING! What is the meaning of THIS!”
Of course, Joe had figured out the meaning of THIS right away. There could be only one reason on earth that their Chinese cook had resorted to using the tin ware reserved for cattle drives and hunting trips. It meant that he had run out of the good plates. And it would only be a few seconds longer before Pa found out as well. Joe immediately turned his attention to his green beans and waited for the second, inevitable, and likely much louder, outburst.
Hop Sing was gesturing anxiously and murmuring something to his pa, but any fool could figure out what they were discussing. Still, Joe tried to play the innocent and he deliberately pretended not to notice the way his father kept frowning at him. Joe sneaked a glance at his brothers. Hoss was looking mildly confused as he shoveled in spoonfuls of mashed potatoes; Adam had paused, his fork held in mid-air, and was smirking at him. Joe’s head snapped up as Pa loudly cleared his throat and slowly sat back down, purposely placing his hands before him on the table. Hop Sing wisely decided to make himself scarce at that point and scurried back to the kitchen.
Here it comes.
“Boys,” Pa said quietly, though he was looking directly at his youngest. “It would appear that some of our dinner plates have gone missing.”
The only response was a long, tense silence.
Might as well get it over with. Joe hung his head in a gesture of long-practiced contriteness. “Sorry, Pa,” he said. “I think I might have a few in my room.”
“A few? A few? Why, Hop Sing tells me that a dozen or more are missing!”
“A dozen? Oh no, Pa….I don’t have that many! Honest! I…”
Ben turned his attention to his two older sons. “Adam? Hoss? Do either of you know anything about the location of the missing dishes?”
“Hmmmh mmmmhh,” Hoss mumbled, his mouth stuffed full of mashed potatoes. Adam looked over at Pa and shook his head. Joe noticed that his older brother had now donned an expression of extreme concern over the tragic saga of the lost plates. Boy, I’ll bet he’s enjoying this, Joe thought.
“Well, Joseph, unless the hands have been sneaking in and stealing the dishes in between round-ups, that would leave just you. It would appear that there may be more than a few dishes in your room!”
Great. Pa wasn’t even bothering with his I’m-warning-you-young-man voice and had moved right into his you’re-in-big-trouble-now voice. Past experience had taught Joe not to argue when Pa was using that one. Not unless he was in the mood for a good tanning, that is.
“First thing tomorrow morning, young man, you are going to collect every single dish from your room and bring them down to the kitchen and wash them. After that, you will spend the day cleaning up your room, and…”
“But, Pa! I thought we were going into town tomorrow! I was going to…”
Joe blew out a long, frustrated sigh. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled.
The rest of the meal had passed without incident, to Joe’s relief, but his appetite was gone. His weekend sure was getting off to a rousing start.
Tomorrow he would have gone with his family to Virginia City. Just so happened that Maribeth Wilkins was going into town tomorrow too. He had overheard her mention something about selecting material for a new dress at the Mercantile. ‘Course, she had waited until Joe was within earshot to mention this. Maribeth wasn’t all that subtle, after all.
Not that he minded. With long, honey-gold hair and flashing blue eyes, Maribeth Wilkins was the prettiest girl in school. Shoot, she was the prettiest girl in the whole territory, as far as Joe was concerned. At sixteen, she was nearly a full year older than he, but he could tell that she liked him. He had caught her sneaking glances his way during school, and whenever he looked back at her, she would raise one eyebrow in a coy expression that made his mouth go dry.
Joe had it all planned out. He’d casually stroll into the Mercantile while his family was off running errands in town. He would, of course, act surprised that Maribeth was also there. Perhaps he would then ask if she would mind helping him select a new pair of boots. Joe didn’t need any new boots, but he knew that Mr. Johnson had recently moved his boot selection to a low shelf in the storeroom in the back, and many of his friends had gone boot-shopping in the hopes of stealing a kiss in the darkened room. It was a wonder that Mr. Johnson had yet to catch on to the sudden interest in new boots that no one ended up buying, but Joe wasn’t about to tell him. At least, not until he had gone boot-shopping himself.
It was going to be perfect, just perfect. Joe had even been practicing his kissing technique in the mirror, and rehearsing the romantic lines that he was sure would have Maribeth nearly swooning with desire. Yep, Little Joe Cartwright was a smooth one, alright.
Too bad he’d never have a chance to prove it to Maribeth Wilkins.
“Joe? Didn’t you hear me?”
Joe’s head snapped up to see Adam still standing beside him, and frowned. Adam was nowhere near as pretty as Maribeth.
“Pa sent me up to give you some tips on cleaning your room.”
He’s got to be kidding me, Joe thought, as he turned his head so his brother wouldn’t see him rolling his eyes. Pa must have been madder than he thought.
“I thought I’d share some of my own little techniques that have helped me over the years,” Adam continued, not seeming to notice the disgusted look that had crossed his little brother’s face. “See, what I usually do is to divide my room into quadrants, and then start from the ceiling and work my way down. If you’ll take a look at this basic diagram I’ve drawn up, I can demonstrate. First, I…”
Holy cow. Joe studied his brother’s face carefully, waiting for the joke. His brother couldn’t possibly be serious.
“….And then I wipe down each of the walls — you wouldn’t believe how much dust can accumulate in that stucco! Sometimes I use a dry paint brush to really get into the crevices. Then I use the cottonseed oil whenever I polish the furniture; it takes a few coats each time, of course; then I arrange the desk so that each of the pens are laying on the right hand side with the handle pointing up, so it’s more efficient, and…”
Dear God, he was serious. Joe’s mind started to wander away from the droning sound of his brother’s voice and he wondered vaguely if it was possible to fall asleep standing up.
“…so I’ve decided to put together a similar diagram of your room so that you could…”
“Adam,” Joe interrupted. “This really isn’t necessary. I think I can manage…”
His brother paused and pinned Joe with his classic you-are-an-idiot look. It was Adam’s favorite expression when Joe was around. Joe figured his brother wore that same snotty look even when he slept.
“Younger brother, I beg to differ,” Adam said, disdain dripping from every syllable. “I’ve seen your room. But we’ll get around to the assorted uses of hangers and drawers in a bit. First, we must start with the basics.”
He was beginning to sound like his teacher. No wonder Miss Jones had such a thing for his older brother. Misery loves company.
“Am I gonna get tested on this?” Joe blurted out before he could stop himself. The only thing worse than Boring Adam was Mad Boring Adam.
For a moment, his older brother looked like he was going to smack him, but they were thankfully interrupted by the sound of his father ascending the steps.
“Hi, Pa!” Joe said brightly, conjuring up his most winsome smile. The scowl that greeted him could only mean that Pa was still suffering from a good deal of residual mad.
Of course, the scowl turned into a beaming smile as he saw Adam. Must be a burden to be blessed with such a perfect son, Joe thought.
“Well, Adam, I’m glad that you’ve taken the time to instruct Joseph here,” Ben said proudly, patting him on the shoulder. Adam crossed his arms and raised his eyebrows smugly at his brother.
Joe felt like gagging.
He took the opportunity to protest. “Pa, I can clean my room on my own. I’m not some stupid little kid.”
Pa looked dubious. “Oh really? Well, let’s see how it looks, shall we?”
“No!” Joe said, a little too quickly. “I mean…..you know….I’m sure it’s a little bit untidy right now, but I should be able to clean it right up.”
But Pa had already opened Joe’s door and was stared wide-eyed at the sight before him.
“This…is no room,” Pa said after an agonizingly long moment. His voice was low and dangerous-sounding. “This is a sty.”
Joe jumped in front of his pa before he could proceed any further. “Oh, don’t worry, Pa….it’s not as bad as it looks – really!” He stepped backwards into the room, quickly picking up items of clothing strewn about the floor and tossing them haphazardly onto the bed, as if it would help. “See? It won’t take long at all…” Joe said, though his voice didn’t sound too convincing.
Pa had stepped into the room, carefully avoiding several assorted obstacles in his path. He was standing near the unmade bed, his hands on his hips, intently studying the scene around him–the discarded clothing, boots, towels, coffee cups, and of course, soiled dinner plates. More than a few of them. Disgust was etched in every line on Pa’s face, and Joe knew that any flimsy excuses at that point would be useless, so he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“Joseph,” Pa finally said, his voice deceptively soft. “I’m going to leave now and not say another word. But I will tell you this. Anyone who shows no consideration for others deserves no consideration himself. If this room is not the most immaculately clean and tidy room in the entire territory by this time tomorrow, boy…….you are moving into the barn.”
And with that, Pa sidestepped carefully around two shirts, an apple core, and a muddy boot, and left the room.
Unfair, Joe thought. Completely, totally, absolutely unfair.
He stomped angrily on the steps as he carried down his second load of soiled plates.
His brothers were off in Virginia City having all kinds of fun on what had turned out to be the nicest day in weeks, and Joe was stuck at home alone, cleaning.
Of course, he knew he was partly to blame for it. Maybe he should have been a little neater.
Pa had always been insistent that his sons clean up after themselves, and to keep their rooms neat and orderly. Joe knew that Hop Sing had always secretly helped him with this through the years, mostly because the Chinese servant couldn’t stand the messes that inevitably seemed to sprout up whenever Joe was around. Over time, Joe grew to depend on Hop Sing cleaning up after him, until Pa caught wind of it not long ago, and strictly forbid Hop Sing from continuing the habit. Joe meant to keep his room clean, really he did. He meant to get those dishes back down to the kitchen. He meant to gather up the scattered clothes and put them back into the bureau. He meant to pick up all those books and stack them neatly on his shelf. He really meant to. But somehow, time always seemed to slip away from him, and then he would forget about it. Again. It was only because Hop Sing had insisted on keeping Joe’s door closed at all times that Pa was never fully aware of the extent of it.
Until last night, anyway.
Hop Sing had always been Joe’s staunch defender, sometimes even taking the blame for messes that Joe made. But for Joe to intrude into Hop Sing’s beloved kitchen and borrow plates without asking was an unforgivable offense.
Joe plunked the dishes onto the kitchen counter, and stepped over to the stove to heat the water for washing. Or scrubbing, more likely. Some of the dishes had some kind of greenish stuff growing on them that looked distinctly unappetizing.
His room was mostly clean now, anyway. He had glanced briefly at Adam’s condescending little list of instructions for proper room cleaning and the step-by-step diagram that his brother had carefully drawn out, and had promptly torn it to bits. At least he was grateful that Adam was more interested in a trip to town than staying behind to supervise.
As Joe reached up to retrieve the wash basin, he paused, surprised at the sound of the front door opening and closing.
Odd. Pa and his brothers weren’t due back for hours yet. He stood quietly, waiting for one of them to call out a greeting as they usually did.
Nothing. Just the sound of unfamiliar boots walking slowly across the plank floor. Louder…..louder…
“Hey, Clem! Lookit what we got in here!”
Joe nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice behind him. He whipped around to find a sawed-off shotgun pointing directly at his chest. The weapon was being held by a homely and disheveled-looking stranger with bad teeth.
“Who are you?” Joe managed to ask, though his voice shook a little.
“You just stay right where ya are, kid,” the man said. “Ain’t gonna hurt ya none. You got food in here?”
Joe nodded mutely and gestured to the adjoining pantry. Another stranger — he assumed this one was Clem — came into the kitchen. This one was even uglier than his friend. Drifters, Joe thought. Probably thieves, too. Wonderful. What a great day to be home all by himself.
“You here alone, kid?” Clem asked, grabbing a hunk of bread and stuffing it into his mouth. Crumbs rained onto the floor. Hop Sing was going to pitch a fit.
“No. My five brothers are out back behind the barn,” Joe replied. “They’ll be here any minute. Sure hope they don’t kill you like they did the last trespassers.”
“Kid’s lyin’, Jack,” Clem said, grinning widely. “We checked out by the barn afore we came in here, boy. Ain’t no one out there.”
“Suit yourself,” Joe shrugged, trying to appear disinterested, but inwardly beginning to worry. What did they want?
Jack conveniently answered his unspoken question.
“Where’s the money, boy?” he asked. “A spread like this sure ‘nough has to have some cash lyin’ around.”
Joe shook his head. “Ain’t no money around here,” he replied, hoping they’d believe him and be on their way. “My Pa took it all to the bank this morning. Sorry ya missed him.”
“He’s lyin’ again, Jack!” Clem snapped angrily, giving Joe a hard shove. “Don’t ya be lyin’ ta me, boy!”
“Leave the kid alone,” Jack said. ‘Course, Joe would have felt a bit more grateful at the man’s intercession if he hadn’t been the one holding a gun on him.
Clem narrowed his eyes, annoyed. “Well, you can stay in here with yer new friend, then. I’m going looking for the money.”
As Clem left the room, Jack shrugged apologetically. “You’ll have to excuse my little brother,” he said. “Boy’s got a hair-trigger temper.”
Joe was surprised. “You two are brothers? You don’t look a thing alike.”
“Different mamas,” Jack grinned proudly. “My pa sure got around.”
Joe’s attention was then caught by the sound of chairs being flung aside. What the heck was Clem doing in there? Did he think they kept money hidden in the furniture?
Then Joe heard a happy whoop. Damn. He must have found Pa’s safe. Sure took him long enough.
Jack’s own curiosity had been aroused by that point. “Come on, kid. Let’s head on out there,” he said, gesturing with the shotgun. Joe walked into the great room ahead of Jack and his jaw dropped at the utter disarray that met his eyes. How in the world could one person make such a horrendous mess so quickly? Tables and chairs had been overturned, and every drawer of the desk had been yanked out and flung aside; all his father’s books and ledgers lay scattered about the floor. Clem was poking his head into the safe, which had apparently been unlocked, and was tossing aside his father’s important papers in his voracious search for cash.
Clem howled in frustration when he discovered that there was no cash in the safe. Joe had apparently been correct when he announced that his pa had taken it to the bank. Well, good. Maybe they’ll leave now, he hoped.
But he was to be disappointed.
“Upstairs!” Clem decided suddenly, an excited gleam in his eyes. “I’ll bet there’s money upstairs.”
He looked at Joe then, as if expecting him to confess knowledge of a hidden stash. Joe was beginning to feel tiny prickles of alarm as he realized that the thief would take no more care with their belongings upstairs than they did downstairs.
And Joe had spent hours cleaning his room, damn it. Hours. Alarm was slowly giving way to anger. If that filthy, no good drifter so much as touched…
And then, an idea. A tiny, faint glimmer of an idea. Joe smiled to himself. Oh, yeah. This could work out. This could work out just fine. ‘Cause he remembered where there was some hidden cash.
Joe immediately assumed the most frightened face he could manage.
“If I….” he stammered, letting his voice quiver just a little. “If I tell you where you can find some money, will you leave?”
Jack and Clem grinned simultaneously at that, showing off equally stained teeth. At least there was a family resemblance there.
“Sure, boy,” Jack replied. “You just tell us where the money is, and we’ll be on our way, an’ we won’t hurt ya none, either.”
“Alright,” Joe agreed. “I’ll tell you. It’s up in my brother Adam’s room. Down at the very end of the hall on the left. Can’t miss it. I think he hides his money somewhere behind the books on his bookshelf. Not sure which one, though.”
And with that, Clem was darting up the steps, two at a time. Within seconds Joe heard the loud thuds of Adam’s books being flung to the floor. Thud. Thud. Thud. Dang, but his brother had a lot of books. Thud. Thud. It was nearly ten minutes before Clem came barreling back down the stairs.
“I ain’t found it yet, kid,” he said, out of breath. “You sure that money’s on the bookshelf?”
Joe pretended to look confused. “Hmmm. You know, I think I remember now that he hides the money under his mattress. Sorry ’bout that.”
Clem nodded. “Okay. I’ll check that.”
This time there was a loud, muffled crash as his brother’s mattress was heaved onto the floor.
“No, ain’t there neither, boy,” Clem yelled from the top of the steps. “You sure you know where that money is?”
“You might want to check the chest of drawers,” Joe suggested, and watched as Clem turned around and headed back toward his brother’s room. Geez, were these two thieves actually this stupid? He looked over at Jack, who was staring at the top of the steps nearly licking his lips in anticipation. Apparently so.
There were several more minutes of loud crashes and rummaging sounds from Adam’s room, but before long Clem was back at the top of the steps, glaring down angrily at Joe.
Must be getting suspicious now, Joe decided. Better ‘fess up. Joe then snapped his fingers as if suddenly remembering. “Now I know! Adam told me he hides his money in the top drawer of his desk!” he announced. “How silly of me!”
Clem glowered. “That money better be there, boy. I’ll tan your hide but good!”
Joe didn’t worry about getting tanned. He knew there was money in the top desk drawer, tucked neatly inside his brother’s old wallet. Knew it all along. Adam had been saving three dollars from each week’s pay to buy himself a fancy new saddle. ‘Course, it wouldn’t be Joe’s fault if a couple of thieves broke in and stole it, would it?
There was a loud, triumphant shriek from the top of the stairs. Guess he found it.
“Forty dollars, Jack! There’s forty dollars in here!” Clem hollered as he stumbled down into the great room, waving the wallet triumphantly above his head.
Jack let out a holler at the news. “Forty? We’re living high on the hog tonight, Clem!”
Joe witnessed the exchange, amused. Sure didn’t take much to please these two idiots.
Jack grinned at Joe. “We sure owe ya, kid! Thanks!”
“Come on, Jack, let’s get on outta here,” Clem said, picking up his discarded hat from the floor. “Now you stay put till we leave, boy. Don’t want no trouble.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed. “We’ll be gettin’ outta here now just like we said.”
As the thieves turned to leave, Joe looked around at the chaotic mess surrounding him, and all of a sudden he wasn’t amused anymore. Pa was never going to believe this. Pa was never going to believe that Joe just let two thieves waltz right in, mess up the house, and leave. Suddenly, horrifically, Joe wondered if his family would think Joe did it himself. No, he couldn’t let that happen. There had to be some way to prove that…
“Wait!” he yelled out just as Clem and Jack were stepping through the door.
The two stopped in their tracks and looked back at him curiously.
Joe drew in a deep breath. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you take my brother’s money. It wouldn’t be…well, it wouldn’t be right,” he said. “If you take that money, I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to ride for the sheriff.”
That got their attention. “The sheriff?” Jack asked warily.
“Yeah,” Joe replied. “Sheriff Coffee. Surely you’ve heard of him? People ’round here call him Roy the Butcher.”
“Roy the Butcher?”
“That’s him, alright. He likes to chop the toes off of his prisoners so they don’t try to escape. That way they can get to trial in Hanging Burke’s courtroom.”
“Hanging Burke?” Clem asked, starting to sound suspicious. Joe hoped he wasn’t laying it on too thick.
“Oh, he’s the circuit judge,” Joe explained. “Built a gallows right in the middle of his courtroom to save time. I hear tell he’s all excited about the new law, too.”
“What new law?”
“Don’t you two know nothing?” Joe pretended to look shocked. “The new law that makes stealing a hangin’ crime!”
Jack looked skeptical. “Wait a minute. You mean they hang people for stealing here?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, it’s true. Oh, sometimes they use a firing squad if there’s more than one that needs to be killed. More efficient that way.”
The two thieves turned so pale at that statement that Joe almost felt sorry for them. But back to business.
“And so, I’m going to have to ride for the sheriff. I can’t let you two thieves leave with my brother’s money.”
Joe waited while the brothers frantically whispered amongst themselves as they decided what to do next. They seemed pretty dumb and harmless, and Joe didn’t think they would hurt him. He hoped not, anyway.
“Well, boy,” Jack said. “We’ve decided that we can’t let you go blabbing to the sheriff. Sorry, kid, but we’re just gonna have to tie ya up. Clem, run get some rope.”
Joe tried not to let on how relieved he was. Pa couldn’t possibly blame anything on him if a couple lowlife drifters came in and tied him up while they vandalized the place, could he? But he’d better play along just in case.
“No, please!” he begged. “Don’t tie me up! Please!”
Jack shook his head as Clem returned with the rope. “Sorry, boy. Ya seem like a nice enough kid, but ya leave me no choice.”
He gestured to the only dining room chair still standing upright. “Get yerself in that there chair.”
Joe sat meekly in the chair and tried to look frightened as the brothers tied his hands behind the chair and then wound the rope around and around and tied it again. Joe pushed against the ropes and found them tight and unyielding. Well, at least the brothers were good at something.
“See ya, kid,” Clem said, dramatically doffing his hat. “Thanks for the money!”
And as the two thieves left Joe amid the chaos surrounding him, Joe settled in to wait for his family to return home.
Joe groaned as he felt a familiar hand patting his cheeks. Someone was speaking to him.
“Joe! Come on now, boy. Wake up!”
Joe opened his eyes as awareness slowly returned. Must have fallen asleep. He blinked groggily at the confusing scene around him as his memory returned as well. Pa patted his cheeks again.
“Joe? Are you okay, son? What happened here?” Pa said anxiously.
Joe groaned again as the ropes were suddenly released from around him. He would have toppled over if Pa hadn’t been there to catch him.
Hoss’ concerned face joined his father’s. “What happened, Little Joe?” he asked. “You ain’t hurt none, are ya?”
Adam ran in through the open door then.
“I checked, Pa, and I didn’t see anyone. Whoever it was is long gone by now.” He looked down at Joe, his dark brows furrowed in concern. “Is he okay?”
Joe stood up. “I’m fine,” he said. “Good thing they didn’t kill me though. They were some mean-looking Comancheros!”
“Comancheros?” Pa said, incredulous. “Comancheros here?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah. About…oh, I don’t know….maybe five or six of ’em.”
Adam stepped forward, his eyes narrowed. “Comancheros? Joe, are you sure?”
Joe swallowed. Maybe he shouldn’t have said they were Comancheros. He had forgotten they were pretty rare around these parts. “Ummm. . .pretty sure.”
“Well, were they or weren’t they?” Adam asked impatiently. “What did they look like? You said there were at least five of them?”
“Umm. . . I’m not…”
“Adam, I think that’s enough questioning for now,” Pa interrupted, placing his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Joe’s had quite a scare today. We can talk more later.”
As Pa gently guided him toward the settee, Joe stole a glance at Adam, who was staring back at him doubtfully. Joe cleared his throat and turned his attention to his pa.
“You’re right, Pa. I guess I am still a little scared,” he said, allowing a well-practiced tremor to enter his voice. As his pa settled him onto the settee, Joe even managed a slight tremble.
“You’re shaking, son,” Pa observed. “You just rest here, boy, and we’ll take care of everything.” Pa looked so anxious that Joe felt a pang of guilt at his own skilled performance.
“Adam, get him some water,” Pa ordered, still examining Joe for obvious injuries. “Are you sure you’re not hurt, son?”
Joe shook his head. “I’ll be okay, Pa. I think…” he said. “I think I just need to rest awhile.”
“Seems to me he’s been resting all afternoon,” Adam said sharply. He looked like he had more to say, but he wisely shut up at Pa’s angry glare, and headed toward the kitchen to fetch the requested water for his traumatized little brother.
Hoss was gingerly sidestepping the multitude of papers littering the floor around Pa’s desk. “Can’t tell if anything’s missing with the mess those rascals left,” he remarked, disgusted. “Gonna take hours to sort through all this. Looks like they got into the safe, didn’t they?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, and they were pretty mad that there wasn’t any money in it. That’s when they…”
“That’s when they–what, son?” Pa asked gently.
“That’s when they decided to look around upstairs a little bit…”
Adam came back into the room with a small glass of water and offered it to Joe. “Upstairs?” he asked.
“Uh…yeah. I guess they thought there was money up there or something,” Joe explained, and took a long, slow drink to avoid saying more, but Adam didn’t notice in his rush toward the staircase. Joe held his breath as he waited for his brother’s enraged bellow when he discovered his room sure wasn’t the spick-and-spanniest in the West anymore.
But there was no bellow, no outburst, not even an annoyed protest. Only the slow, defeated sound of his brother’s footfalls on the staircase. He paused on the landing and looked down at Pa.
“They’ve been upstairs,” Adam announced quietly. “I’m not sure if they took anything. It’s gonna take some time to put things back in order.”
“Adam? What is it?” Pa asked, concerned at the desolate look on his oldest son’s face. “You know that if anything is missing, it can be replaced. We can always…”
“My room, Pa,” Adam said quietly, stepping down to the great room. “They were in my room, and their dirty hands were touching my things, things that meant a lot to me.”
Joe hung his head. “Adam, I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m really sorry.”
“Joe, there’s no reason for you to be sorry. It wasn’t your fault,” Adam sighed. “I guess the most important thing is that you’re alright. It’s just…”
“Just what, son?”
“I don’t know,” Adam said, looking toward the top of the stairs. “I guess it just doesn’t seem logical. Why would they pass up every other bedroom and head straight for my room all the way at the end of the hall?”
Ben shook his head grimly. “Who knows how these criminals think, son? We’ll leave it to Sheriff Coffee to figure out. I’ll send Hoss…”
Joe straightened. “The sheriff? But Pa, do you really think it’s gonna help? I mean, those Comancheros are probably long gone by now, and…”
Pa scowled. “Do you think I’m going to stand by and allow criminals to burst into my house and terrorize one of my sons and rob and vandalize my home?” he demanded, gesturing wildly at the disarray around them. “You could have been killed!”
“But, Pa!” Joe argued. “They didn’t even take that much! Just Adam’s forty dollars and…”
“How do you know what they took?” Adam asked sharply, jerking his head around to look at him. “Did they tell you?”
“Oh! Uh….” Joe stammered. He should have kept his mouth shut. Real stupid, Joe. “I guess they must have. How else would I know otherwise?”
Adam narrowed his eyes and stared at him for a long, tense moment, and Joe felt like squirming. Sometimes he swore that Adam could tell what he was thinking.
“Yeah,” Adam finally replied. “How else?”
Two weeks had passed since the robbery, and things soon returned to normal within the Cartwright household. As expected, Sheriff Coffee had put together a small posse to search for signs of Comancheros in the area, but failed to find any, and the posse was disbanded after a few days. Joe had been relieved that Jack and Clem seemed to have made good on their escape, not because he felt they didn’t deserve punishment for what they had done, but because of his own responsibility in the incident. Rationally, he supposed could argue that he had been alone in the house and that the two had a gun trained on him and were demanding money, but there was no escaping that small, urgent voice inside that continued to condemn him.
It was only supposed to be a joke, after all. Wouldn’t it be funny if Adam was the one with the messed up, cluttered room for once? What a laugh that would be, right?
But it hadn’t been funny at all, he remembered.
After Joe had excused himself to bed that night, he had continued down the hall and peeked through Adam’s door, getting his first glimpse of the havoc Clem had wreaked. It was worse than Joe could have ever imagined. It looked as though all of his brother’s belongings had snatched up and flung in every direction. Clem had done much more than toss things aside in his eager search for money; it appeared as if he had purposely set out to destroy anything he could get his grubby hands on. Joe nearly choked on the anger and overwhelming guilt he felt in that moment.
Adam had cleared himself a small spot on the floor, and was sitting in the midst of the unholy mess, trying to gather the books that were scattered all around him. He paused and selected one in particular and stroked it lovingly. It was Adam’s well-worn edition of Paradise Lost; its cover torn in two.
“This one was my mother’s,” Adam remarked quietly, not looking up.
“Adam, I’m sorry,” Joe said softly, continuing to stare aghast at the sight before him.
Adam looked up then. “It’s not your fault, Joe. I already told you that.”
“Even so, I’m sorry,” Joe insisted.
“I just don’t understand it, Joe,” Adam continued. “If they had just taken the money and left, it wouldn’t have been as bad. Why did they try to destroy everything?”
“I don’t know, Adam,” Joe said. “What kind of person destroys things for no reason?”
“Someone who doesn’t care about anyone or anything,” Adam answered grimly. “It’s what makes him a criminal.”
Joe nodded. “And anyone who shows no consideration for others deserves no consideration himself,” he remarked automatically, and then he gasped, stunned to realize what he had just said. It was as if his mouth opened and his pa’s voice came out of it.
“No,” Adam agreed, gently adding the damaged book to a nearby stack. “He doesn’t. That’s why whoever is responsible for this has to be punished.”
Joe could offer no response to that. I’m responsible, he thought. I’m the one who needs to be punished.
Joe couldn’t find the courage to admit his guilt, but he did resolve to make it up to his brother somehow, and spent two solid weeks helping his brother clean and straighten and bring his room back into some sort of order. Before long, the room looked almost as good as new, and Joe had high hopes that the unfortunate incident would soon be forgotten.
By his hopes were crushed that morning by a resolute pounding on the door, and Sheriff Coffee’s announcement that he had arrested the perpetrators.
“Yeah, there were two of them, Ben,” Sheriff Coffee explained. “Just the two. Didn’t look like Comancheros to me, either,” he added, pinning Joe with a suspicious stare as he strolled in and made himself comfortable on the settee. Joe swallowed nervously.
“How did you find them, Roy?” Ben asked, pouring his friend a cup of coffee. “Were they trying to rob someone else?”
“No, the two of ’em were in the Bucket of Blood, trying to buy whiskey,” he replied. “No one woulda paid them no never mind if they hadn’t pulled out a wallet with the initials A.C. on it.”
Joe nearly groaned in disgust. Lord, those two were idiots.
“So, of course, Tom got to wonderin’ about it and came and got me,” the sheriff continued. “Odd fellas, the both of ’em. You wouldn’t believe how quick-like those two yahoos surrendered! And then they just kept hollerin’ that they weren’t going to escape!” The sheriff chuckled. “Made my job pretty easy. So anyway, now I got ’em locked up in my jail. All I need now is for Little Joe to come with me into town and identify ’em so we can press charges.”
“Joe?” Pa turned to him. “You think you’ll be able to do this? If you’d rather not…”
Joe stepped to the sideboard and grabbed his hat. “I’ll be fine, Pa,” he said.
“Adam,” Pa turned his attention to his oldest son. “Go with him,” he said.
“I’m sending Adam along with you,” Pa announced, his tone broaching no argument.
Joe nodded reluctantly, biting his lip. What choice did he have?
“You okay, son?” Pa asked, sounding concerned. “Would you like me to come along as well?”
Oh, yeah. Joe thought. That’s all I’d need. Bad enough that older brother’s tagging along.
“No,” he replied. “I’ll be okay, Pa.”
The horses were promptly saddled, and before he could think to protest, Joe was on his way to Virginia City, wondering frantically what he was going to do once he got there….
“Okay, Joe,” Sheriff Coffee said as he opened the wooden door separating his office from the jail. “Just take a peek at those two miscreants in there and tell me if they’re the ones who robbed the Ponderosa.”
Joe closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Might as well get it over with.
He stepped through the door, and opened his eyes. Clem and Jack jumped to their feet and poked their faces through the iron bars.
“Hey lookit, Clem,” said Jack, pointing a finger at Joe. “It’s that kid!”
“Kid, tell that sheriff we didn’t steal nuthin’! Tell ‘im!”
“Sheriff, we didn’t steal that money!” Clem hollered as Sheriff Coffee stepped up behind Joe. “That kid right there! He gave it to us! He told us ta take it!”
Sheriff Coffee scowled. “Oh, is that so?” he asked. “Are you telling me that you weren’t pointing a gun at him when he told ya this?”
“Um, well. . .” Jack stammered. “I don’t rightly recall. . .”
The sheriff sighed loudly. “That’s about all I need, Joe,” he said. “These two here have darn near confessed. We’ll have a chat with Judge Burke first thing tomorrow.”
“Judge Burke??” Jack blurted out, alarmed. “You mean. . .” He gulped. “You mean, Hanging Burke?”
The sheriff scowled. “I mean Judge Everett Burke. Don’t think I’ve ever heard him called Hanging Burke, though I’m sure he’s hung a few in his time.”
Sheriff Coffee lightly grasped Joe’s arm and guided him towards the door. “Thanks for your help, Little Joe,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll have no problem getting a conviction after that little discussion.”
Just before the door to the jail was closed, Joe heard Clem and Jack pitifully pleading not to be hung, and he grinned in spite of himself.
“Well?” Adam asked pointedly. “Was that them?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah.”
“Then let’s go.”
He was off the hook. He should be happy, relieved. Clem and Jack would be properly punished for their crime, and no one was the wiser for Joe’s involvement. It was over.
Thing was, for Joe it didn’t feel over. Especially as he kept looking at his brother.
As they rode away from Virginia City, a taut silence fell between the two of them; Joe wondering if he should say anything; wondering how he should act.
They were well on their way when Adam himself abruptly broke the silence. “Why did you lie, Joe?”
“Lie?” Joe tried to play the innocent, though he knew it wouldn’t work. His older brother was too smart for that.
“You lied about what happened. I caught a glimpse of those lowlifes in there. They didn’t look a thing like Comancheros, Joe. In fact, there never were any Comancheros, were there? It was just those two, wasn’t it?” Adam demanded. “It’s almost as if you didn’t want them to be caught.”
Joe was quiet for a moment, quickly attempting to fabricate another excuse, another story. Another lie, he thought in disgust. He sighed. “I didn’t,” he said finally.
“Cause I didn’t want anyone to know,” he replied. “Adam, when they asked if there was any money upstairs, I told them there was some in your room. I knew it was there. I knew you were saving for that saddle.”
“Joe, there were two of them and they had a gun,” Adam argued. “They forced you to tell them. What choice did you have?
“You don’t understand…”
“What don’t I understand?”
“Adam,” Joe began. Here goes. “I knew where your money was. I knew it all along.”
“Well, I kinda….I kinda told them where to look for the money.”
“Joe, I’m not sure I’m following you.”
“I didn’t mean for them to—I mean, I just thought that they would…”
“It’s just….I don’t know…..I was just so mad because I had worked so hard cleaning my room, and your room is always so….” Joe stammered, “….and they promised that they’d leave if I let them have the money.”
“Joe, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I knew where you hid that money, Adam,” he admitted. “I just didn’t tell them. Not right away, at least.” Joe hung his head, waiting for his brother’s angry outburst.
When the outburst didn’t come, Joe looked up. Adam was staring back at him with an odd expression. “You knew what they were doing?”
“Well, I had no idea they were going to…”
Joe hesitated, and then bit his lip and nodded. He turned his attention to the scenery, not wanting to meet his brother’s eyes as he waited for the reaction. But there wasn’t any.
By the time Joe turned to glance at his brother quizzically, Adam had spurred his horse to a gallop and was already several yards ahead. Joe watched in dismay as Adam rode the rest of the way home without a single backward glance.
It had been almost a month since the robbery. Clem and Jack were long gone by now, and Joe hoped he would never see the two crooks again. Luckily, Joe hadn’t had to testify at any trial, because the two brothers, fearing the firing squad, immediately confessed to the robbery. Judge Everett Hanging Burke, hearing of their vandalism, sentenced the brothers to scrub clean the entire boardwalk along both sides of C Street, and the brothers were only too happy to oblige. It was considerably preferable to the death penalty, after all. After two long, sweaty days of scrubbing, the brothers skedaddled out of Virginia City as quick as their horses would carry them, only too happy to escape with their lives and forget the incident completely.
They could forget it, maybe, but Joe sure couldn’t.
It would have been better, even easier, if Adam had just been angry at him. Maybe if he had just hollered at him or scolded him; maybe if he had told him he should grow up and that he’d been stupid, maybe then Joe could move on. Joe could deal with Angry Adam, or Impatient Adam, or Exasperated Adam. Shoot, Joe could write instructions on how to deal with Adam in those moods. He’d sure had enough experience at it through the years.
But Disappointed Adam was another thing entirely.
Adam hadn’t said a thing about it to Pa or Hoss, to Joe’s surprise. In fact, he never mentioned it again to Joe himself. It almost seemed as if their conversation on the way home from Virginia City hadn’t even taken place. Almost.
But Joe knew that Adam had been terribly hurt by what he had done. Joe could tell by the resentful way Adam looked at him sometimes. For several days after that trip into town, Adam rarely even spoke to him, and even then it was with an almost aloof politeness.
If Pa noticed anything different, he never mentioned it, and for that at least, Joe was grateful. How would he explain it?
Eventually things seemed to return to normal, and Adam returned to being the bothersome big brother that Joe was used to, but Joe was nonetheless left with the conviction that Adam hadn’t really forgiven him.
Someday, Joe thought as he carefully polished the lamp on his bureau. Someday I’ll try to talk to him about it, tell him again how sorry I am. Maybe then he’ll believe me.
Joe could even admit to himself that he had learned something from the experience, something more profound than to never allow crooks to purposely vandalize your older brother’s room.
It was more about maturity and responsibility. For once, Pa’s long-familiar admonitions and platitudes represented more than just excuses to secretly roll one’s eyes. He could see now why Adam took so much gentle care with those things that mattered to him, why he put so much effort into seeing that everything was in its proper place. Perhaps Adam saw those things as some sort of extension of himself, and it was all about self-respect. Realizing that, Joe felt even sorrier for what he had done.
Joe took the cloth and gently polished the silver frame that bore his mother’s portrait before returning it to its proper spot on the bureau. He was going to make things right with his brother, starting that very day. He knew that Adam was in his room down the hall and would be coming downstairs for lunch any minute.
“Adam?” Joe called out a few minutes later as he heard his brother’s footfall in the hallway.
Adam poked his head in the doorway. “You need something, little brother?”
Joe reached into his top bureau drawer and drew out a book. “It’s kind of an early birthday present,” he said, handing it to his brother. “Sorry I didn’t wrap it.”
“A gift?” Adam replied, surprised. “For me?”
“I know it’s not the same, but I thought you might like it anyway,” Joe said.
“Thanks, Joe,” Adam replied, skimming his fingers lightly over the gleaming leather cover. “Paradise Lost,” he murmured. “Thanks, Joe. I know just where to put it.”
“On the P shelf?”
Adam chuckled. “No, on my desk. It’s where I put all the things that I like best.”
Joe smiled, warmed by the compliment. “Thanks, Adam.”
Adam frowned slightly as he studied the book in his hand. “You know, Joe, I’ve been thinking a lot lately. I think that maybe I’ve been placing too much significance on the wrong things lately.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“What I mean is. . . well, I guess I was so caught up in this endless concern about so many meaningless possessions that I ended up forgetting about what was most important. About who was most important.” he said. “Do you understand, Joe?”
Joe stared at his brother for a long moment. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I understand.”
“Good,” Adam turned toward the door. “You coming down for lunch?”
“In a minute,” Joe replied. “Just finishing up some dusting in here.”
Adam turned his head and looked around the room, and gave a low, appreciatory whistle. “Looks good in here. I’d say my room-cleaning tips have helped.”
“Uh, yeah,” Joe lied. “They sure did, Adam.” Tore right through them.
“You missed a spot,” Adam said, running a finger along the dusty door frame.
Joe managed a scowl. “And I can always count on you to point it out, can’t I, older brother?”
Adam grinned. “What are brothers for?” he asked. “See ya downstairs.”
Epilogue: Two months later. . .
Hoss leaned his head up against the jamb and gaped in astonishment through the doorway. Joe’s room never ceased to amaze him. The spick-and-spanniest room in the West, Hop Sing called it. How a body was supposed to live up to an example like that, Hoss would never know. . .
Thanks to Dodo and Corinna for your input! You’re the best!