That Shrinking Feeling
A Bonanza FanFiction
this was the very first Bonanza story I ever wrote...
"Very well, Joseph," said Ben Cartwright, with just a trace of weariness in his voice, "You may go into town with your brothers and have one drink at the saloon. Just one, mind!"
Joe looked delighted at this announcement. For several months he had been wheedling and cajoling his father to allow him this privilege. His brothers looked rather less than delighted. It was unfortunate that Ben saw their expressions of horror and incredulity.
Their heads snapped up at the tone of his voice.
"I expect you to look after your brother, to make sure that he doesn't get into trouble and ensure he is home at a reasonable hour. And by that I mean an hour that l find reasonable".
"Oh great," thought Adam. "I break my back all week at work and I finally get to go into town on Friday. Do I get to relax, to flirt or maybe even get a little drunk? Oh no, of course not, I get to baby sit Joe Cartwright, the human tornado."
"How on earth does Pa expect me to keep Little Joe out of trouble?" Hoss wondered mournfully. "Even Pa doesn't manage that too good"
Joe smiled beatifically. Friday night in town! With his brothers for company and the prospect of beer, cards and pretty girls! He was fifteen, he was good looking and had $10 to spend. What more could anyone possibly want?
Joe's fond delusions of a grand night out were quickly shattered. Adam and Hoss spent the entire ride to Virginia City informing him exactly what he could and could not do. It took considerably longer for them to detail what he could not do and what punishments would be meted out for any transgressions. Little Joe felt oddly deflated. He longed to spend time with his brothers on equal terms, to be treated as man by them, but now he realized they still thought of him only as their pesky little brother. And now the longed-for trip to the saloon looked as if it would be as exciting as a trip to church. Hoss noticed Joe was lagging behind and turned back in his saddle to call "Come on Shortshanks! I'll buy your first beer, shall I?"
Joe urged Cochise forward, looking slightly less dejected at this. Things were looking up! Good old Hoss - he'd show his brother a good time. Then a cool voice said "Remember, that'll be your only beer tonight, little brother. You'd better not forget what Pa said. I'm not laying my butt on the line for you!"
It was meant as a joke, but the moment the words were spoken, Adam realized how bitter he sounded. Joe shot a venomous glare at his brother's impassive back and .vented his frustrations by sticking his tongue out So what if it was childish - Adam deserved it. At least Hoss wanted his company tonight - heck, he was going to buy him a beer! Everything would be just fine.
It was a Friday payday and so the Silver Dollar was packed. Joe's eyes grew wide at the sight of men sitting with girls perched on their knees, drinking glasses of beer and whiskey. The girls sure were pretty! The air was hot and heavy with the smell of pipe tobacco and cheap cigars. In one corner, four men were playing poker and Joe made an eager start towards them, only to be stopped short by an iron hand on his arm.
"Not so fast, little buddy. Where do you think you're going?"
"Aw Adam," Joe whined, "I was only going to watch".
Adam looked skeptical, but decided to play along. "Oh well, that's alright then."
"Great! I'll just get my beer and then…"
"And then I am going to join that game and you can stand and watch me! You never know, you might just learn something."
Joe's face fell at this pronouncement. "Yeah, that's right" he thought. "I could learn how to play poker like a blind hen. Boy, this is going to be a long night."
Some time and several beers later, at least two of the Cartwright brothers were enjoying themselves. Hoss was deep in conversation with a rancher who had journeyed from Arizona, while Adam was $50 dollars up in the poker game. Joe was still nursing his first (and only) beer. Assuming a nonchalant pose, he leant his shoulders back against the wall, balancing his weight on his heels, and shoved his hat pushed forward to shield his eyes. He was deeply bored by the entire evening.
Adam looked at the clock and realized they would have to leave soon. He caught Hoss's eye, signaled "one more?" and got an enthusiastic response. As he stood up to go to the bar, he caught sight of Joe and smiled at the boy's seemingly negligent pose. He was trying so hard to look grown up and in control of things! Unfortunately, Joe was still small and slight for his age, so he wasn't fooling anyone. Noticing the boy looked deeply bored and was still nursing the remains of his beer, Adam felt a sudden twinge of compassion. Surely there could be no harm in cheering him up with a second drink? "Hey Joe! Let your big brother buy you another beer?"
The words were meant kindly, but Joe was not in a mood to listen. All he heard was Adam was still treating him like a child - in front of everyone. Shoving his hat back, Joe started angrily towards his brother. In his haste, he didn't see the man on his left and was surprised when his elbow connected with a hard object. Then there was a crash and the smell of cheap whiskey filled the air. Little Joe looked up in horror to discover that he had collided with a large miner, causing him to drop his bottle of whiskey onto the floor.
"Hey mister, I'm really sorry. I d-d-didn't m-m-mean to do that" stammered Joe anxiously. His apology had no discernible effect on the man, who simply grabbed him by the shirt collar, lifted him upwards and began to shake him roughly. Joe tried not hard not to flinch and was very relieved to hear Adam's voice saying,
"No harm done. Here's the money for another bottle. Just let the boy go."
The miner dropped Joe abruptly, grabbed the money, spat briefly in the direction of the boy and stalked back to the bar.
"You okay there Joe?" asked Adam, looking anxiously at his brother who was sitting in an ungainly heap on the floor. Joe nodded, still feeling a bit shaky and not quite trusting himself to speak yet. "I think we should probably head for home then. Next time we come, I'll buy you that beer." He smiled, stretched out his hand and helped Joe up. All things considered, Adam thought, it hadn't been to bad an evening after all. No real damage done.
They started to make their way across the saloon, Adam leading the way and Joe following behind him. As they neared the doors, a voice called out "Good thing you've got a grown-up to look after you, sonny. You need to be more careful or I'll send you back to the nursery where you belong!"
The man's companions burst out laughing. Joe had never walked away from a fight and he wasn't about to start now. The man was much bigger and older than him, but Joe was sure he had speed and agility on his side. The man had obviously had a lot to drink, which would act in Joe's favor. Finally (and Joe felt this was his trump card), he had the bonuses of Adam - coolly efficient - and Hoss - never beaten in a fight - to back him up. No reason not to proceed. No reason at all.
Turning on his boot heel, Joe sped towards the man before Adam knew what was happening. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his small brother hurtle towards the man, his head down and obviously determined to fight. He groaned. Why had he tempted providence earlier? Surely he should have known that Joe could find trouble in the company of angels?
Joe charged forwards, his head and upper torso concealing the fact that his left arm, hand and fingers were firmly braced forward. As his head butted into the man's belly, he drove his fingers upwards, jabbing painfully between his opponent's ribs. He heard a load groan and grinned in delight. Then a loud cry of "Joe!" jerked him back to reality.
Several things all happened at once. The miner straightened up and launched a meaty fist towards the Joe's unprotected neck. Adam launched himself through the air, landing on a resounding "thump" on the miner's back. Hoss barreled his way through the crowd and swung his fist into the man's jaw. And Joe ducked down, dropped to the floor, curled up into a ball and rolled out of harms way.
Within moments, half the patrons of the saloon were involved in the fight, hitting out at anything and everything. Unseen by the combatants, Joe edged his way to the edge of the maelstrom, crawled out and made his way nimbly to the edge of the saloon, where he sat peaceably, watching the action with evident enjoyment. There was an untouched glass of beer on the table next to him, just asking to be drunk. Tonight was exceeding all Joe's expectations.
The stars shone thinly under the autumn moon and there was a thin frost on the ground as the Cartwrights rode wearily into the yard. Suddenly, the silence was broken by an almighty, unmistakable roar: "What is the meaning of this? "
Hoss cringed visibly as his father's voice shattered the early-morning air.
"Just what time do you call this? I entrust you with your little brother and you come back in this state!" Ben's eyes roamed over his sons, noting Adam's split lip and bloody nose and Hoss's black eye. They exchanged rueful glances as Ben muttered "Tsk, tsk, tut" under his breath, before bellowing "Joseph! Where are you son?"
Joe urged Cochise around from behind Chub and Sport and beamed winningly at his father. "Hi Pa! I had a great time! It sure was nice of you to wait up for us. Did you have a good evening?"
Glad to see at least one son return home without visible impairment, Ben smiled at the irrepressible youngster. Hoss and Adam exchanged knowing looks as Ben continued "I'm glad you had a good time son, but I need to talk to your brothers. Can you take the horses into the barn for me?"
Joe trotted Cochise off to the barn, settled the horses down for the night and then made a strategic retreat to his room. Later, much later, Adam and Hoss agreed that it would be hard to imagine a more thorough, more deeply scathing condemnation. They had tried to explain what had happened, but found it difficult to say how Joe could start a fight, yet emerge totally unscathed, while they bore the obvious scars. After a while, they gave up protesting their innocence and simply endured the lecture.