Joe's Dilemma
Christy G

As Adam Cartwright rode slowly back from Virginia City, his eyes kept sliding over to his younger brother who was riding beside him. Little Joe Cartwright had never been particularly interested in keeping people in the dark about his mercurial moods, and Adam had no trouble seeing the uneasiness that had etched worry lines into the pleasant features of his little brother. Finally, unwilling to have Joe arrive home in a mood guaranteed to disquiet their father, he reached out for Cochise's reins, quickly bringing both horses to a stop/

Joe glared at him. "What'd you do that for?" he demanded.

"All right, Joe. Out with it. What's the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter," Joe replied testily. "Why don't you mind your own business?"

"One of these days I'm going to pop you in the mouth if you don't learn to talk to me in a more respectful manner," Adam commented genially. "Now, why don't you just tell me what's going on and get it over with?"

After a long moment spent scowling at Adam, Joe finally gave up and dismounted, settling himself on a rock. Adam warily slid off Sport and stood staring at him.

"I'm in love," Joe finally announced, his voice filled with defiant bravado.

"With only one girl? That's quite a change for you, isn't it?"

"I mean it, Adam. This is the real thing. I couldn't believe it when I met her in town today. It was love at first sight."

"It usually is."

Joe flapped his hand as he rose and began to pace. "You don't understand. All those other girls—they were just passing fancies. Youthful indiscretions. This is the real thing!"

"Of course it is. What's her name?"

Joe sighed, his eyes misty and far away. "Matilda," he breathed. "Matilda Cornwinkle.

Adam looked horrified. "You're joking."

"No. Beautiful, isn't it?"

"Actually, that's not quite the adjective that comes to mind."

Joe spun around and glared at his brother. "You're not implying there's anything wrong with the name Matilda, are you?"

"Heavens, no!" Adam replied, his face a mask of innocence. "Joseph and Matilda Cartwright. What could be more charming? So, dare I ask, what exactly seems to be the problem?"

"Well, when I was talking to her...it seems like she's real interested in art..."

Adam looked surprised. "Really? You're interested in a girl who likes art? I'm impressed."

"Yeah, well, there's a bit of a problem."

"There usually is."

"Seems she only dates artists."

"I see. And you, being invariably quick-witted, immediately professed to be an accomplished artist."

Joe looked at Adam admiringly. "You know, Adam, you're awfully bossy and short-tempered, but I've gotta admit, you sure catch on to things fast."

"Thanks for the compliment," Adam replied dryly.

"So anyway, one thing led to another, and I told her I draw."

"You can't draw. Your drawing gives your harmonica skills a real run for their money."

Joe glared. "I know I can't draw, Ijit! Why do you think I'm so upset? I promised to draw a picture for her, and present it to her when I come by Saturday night. What am I supposed to do?"

"Naturally, telling her the truth is out of the question..."

"Of course it's out of the question! She won't go out with me if I tell her the truth."

"I suppose it would be a waste of breath to point out that a girl who doesn't appreciate you for you isn't worth going out with?"

"Adam! I'm in love with her!"

"Oh yes, I forgot. And since we all know you're the type to fall in love only once in a lifetime, this thing has got to be pushed ahead at all costs."

"Exactly! So what am I going to do?"

Adam shrugged. "Pretend to break your arm?"

Joe's face lit up. "Adam, you're a genius! I can't possibly draw her a picture if I have a busted flipper!" Joe suddenly paused and looked worried. "Wait—you don't think I'll mess up and accidentally use my arm in front of her, do you?"

"Knowing you—probably."

"Then pretending to break my arm is out. Now what?"

"You could really break your arm. I'd be happy to do it for you," Adam offered helpfully, taking a step towards his brother.

"Back off," Joe snapped. "I'm not breaking my arm."

"Not even for love?" Adam wheedled.

"Think of something else."

Adam sighed. "Well, if you're so dead set against the strong, manly approach, the only thing left to do is to have someone draw a picture for you."

Joe let out a squeak of delight. "What a brilliant idea! You're the smartest person I ever met, Adam."

"Thank you."

"I mean it. Absolutely brilliant. And have I mentioned lately that
you're the best brother a guy could have?"

"Oh no you don't, Joe."

"No? What do you mean, 'no'?"

"I mean `No, I'm not drawing a picture for you'."

"Come on, Adam. You're good at drawing."

"Of course I am," Adam replied smugly. "I'm good at everything."

"Except keeping your massive ego in check," Joe snapped.

"Comments like that don't seem designed to procuring favors," Adam pointed out.

"Come on, Adam. Just one little picture. It won't kill you."

"Why should I?"

"'Cause you're my brother."

"Why don't you ever seem able to remember that when I need a favor from you?"

"You're exaggerating. I do favors for you all the time."

Adam laughed out loud. "Name one."

Joe thought for a minute. "Well, I meant to do you a favor once. I'll tell you what. If you draw me a picture, I'll owe you one favor that you can call in any time you want."

"What good is that? You already owe me so many favors I practically need higher math to add them up. And, oddly, you're never around when I want to cash them in."

"Well I will be this time. I promise."

"And of course I should trust your word because..."

"...I'm your brother. And because you know I'd never lie."

"No, never. For example, you'd never tell a girl you were an accomplished artist just to get her to go out with you."

Joe hastily changed the subject. "I really appreciate you're doing this for me, Adam. I feel so much better. Well, let's be getting home."

He vaulted on Cochise and rode quickly away, leaving Adam staring after him, his face a nice mixture of exasperation and amusement.

"How does he do that?" Adam asked himself. "How on earth does he manage to manipulate me? Well, Sport, we'd better be getting home. It looks like I have some drawing to do before Saturday."

Adam came down the stairs, a large piece of parchment fluttering in his hand. Ben looked up as his eldest went to the fire, extracted a piece of charcoal and settled himself on the hearth, unceremoniously
shoving Joe's feet off the table, and spreading the parchment there, instead.

"Well, there you are, Adam. You seem to be disappearing every night. I was wondering if we'd done something to offend you."

Adam flashed his father a grin, and got to work with the charcoal, shading areas of his intricate drawing.

"What do you have there?" Ben asked his son.

"It's the interior of North Church in Boston. I did it from memory."

Ben got up and looked over his son's shoulder. "Adam, that's wonderful! I'm glad to see you drawing again. It seems that you haven't done that in forever."

"Hard to find the time." Adam added one more line and smudged it with his finger, before holding it up and eyeing it critically. "What do you think?"

"I think it's marvelous," Ben told his son earnestly.

Adam reached down beside him and picked up the frame he had constructed for it. He carefully mounted the drawing then turned it to face his brother.

"Joe?"

Joe's eye's lit up. "Say! That's really good, Adam. Just the thing for impressing the ladies!"

Ben eyed Adam with new interest. "Is there a special lady I haven't heard of, Adam?"

"Don't start, Pa. There isn't anyone."

"I just thought, from what Joseph said..."

"Well, there isn't," Adam told his father firmly. "I just felt like drawing. Nothing more than that."

Ben looked disappointed. "Well, it's a wonderful drawing, anyway. Let's put it up here in the great room."

"What? Oh, no...I don't think..."

"Let's move the painting over the credenza and put it there. That way everyone can see it as they come in the front door."

Adam glanced at Joe. "Well...I don't really like my stuff displayed where everyone can see it..."

"Nonsense, Adam. Stop being modest. It will look perfect."

"Pa, if Adam doesn't want it there..."

"Now don't you start, Joseph. I want it over the credenza and that's that. "He removed the oil painting and placed his son's drawing there instead. A wistful smile lit up his features, and he turned back to Adam. "Just the kind of thing your mother always drew. She was so artistic; that's where you get it from. I will
treasure this forever, Son. Thank you. Thank you."

Adam scratched his head and glanced at Joe. "Umm...Pa...don't you think maybe somewhere not so prominent...?"

"I won't hear another word on the subject. I've very proud of my talented son, and I want everyone to see the kind of work he's capable of. I can't wait for Hoss to make it back from St Joe so he can see it. Now, don't you boys think you should be getting at the barn chores?"

"Yes, Pa," the two chorused, as they headed towards the door. They stopped and stared at the drawing for a moment, then headed out into the warm evening.

"Why didn't you tell him it was for me, Adam?" Joe started in as soon as the door closed behind him. "That was really stupid."

"Yeah, I could have told him how you lied to impress a girl, and I had to do a drawing to get you out of the mess. Tell you what. Why don't we go back in and explain it to him?"

"GAAAAHHH! NO! Pa'll skin me alive if he finds out I've been stretching the truth again."

"Stretching the truth? You're a master of understatement, Brother. Call it what it was—an evil, horrid, black lie."

"You're exaggerating. Well, there's nothing to be done about it. If Pa assumes you gave the drawing to him, we'll have to live with it. You'll just have to do me another drawing."

"Joe, it took me almost a week to do that using every spare minute I had. There's no way I can do another by tomorrow night. You'll just have to tell the girl you were too busy to do a drawing for her."

"But I ran into her pa yesterday and gave him a message to pass along to Matilda saying the drawing was almost done and I'd bring it by tomorrow night!"

"You're a lot of help."

"I didn't want to disappoint her."

"Wonderful. Well now you've promised the girl, and there's no drawing. I have no idea what you're going to do."

"I do. I'm going to steal it."

"Steal what?"

"The drawing, of course. When Pa goes to bed, I'm going to pinch it."

"And you think Pa won't notice it's gone come morning?"

"Sure he will. You saw him mooning over the thing. But I'll just jimmy open the door and knock a few things over. Make it look like someone broke in and took it."

"And you don't think Pa'd see through that? I mean, give the man credit for some brains. You don't think he's going to ask himself what kind of half-witted burglar breaks into a home constructed on
the lines of a fortress in order to steal a drawing? Even," he added modestly, "if the drawing is a masterpiece fit for presentation to a king."

"'Course he'll wonder, if that's all I take. But if I snag a few other things, as well..."

"You're sailing into dangerous waters, here, Joe..."

"Your problem is you're scared of Pa."

"Your problem is you aren't."

"Don't worry about it. I've got everything under control."

Joe turned to blow out the lamp hanging in the barn, and, as a result, was lucky enough to miss the disbelieving stare his brother directed his way.

Joe arrived home from what was fast-becoming a regular occurrence—his daily visit to Matilda. He rode dreamily into the yard and, having settled Cochise in the barn, strolled into the house, his feet barely
touching the ground. He smiled languidly at his father and brother sitting in front of the fire.

"Hiya Pa. Hi Adam."

Ben grinned at the lovelorn look on his youngest's face. "Have a nice time tonight, Little Joe?"

"Did I? I tell you, Pa, Matilda's the most amazing thing that ever happened to me!"

Adam winced as he always did at the mention of his brother's beloved. Not only did the name itself jar his sensitive, musical soul, it always brought with it the not-yet-buried memories of the morning, not a week ago, when Ben had discovered the missing drawing. There had been a great deal of yelling, and sincere
proclamations that when Ben got his hands on the thief that had stolen his treasured drawing, heads would roll. Adam preferred not to think about it.

"By the way, that reminds me, Pa. The Cornwinkles have invited both of us over for dinner tomorrow night. I said we'd come."

Ben smiled. "Well that's fine. I'd like a chance to get to know them better. Make sure Hop Sing knows, so he won't be expecting us for dinner."

"Yes sir," Joe said absently, as he floated on air towards the kitchen.

Adam stared after his brother with a look that was half disbelief, half horror. In a single bound he was out of his chair and following Joe to the kitchen, moving so fast he practically left a gale force
wind behind him. He met Joe coming out of Hop Sing's room, and grabbed him by the shirtfront, pushing him against the wall.

"What do you think you're playing at?" Adam snarled.

Joe looked at him in shock. "What's the matter with you?" He brushed Adam's hands away, and smoothed the wrinkled cloth with a distinctly wounded air.

"Why did you get Pa invited to the Cornwinkles house?" Adam demanded. He kept his voice low so that their father could not overhear them; nonetheless it seemed to Joe that Adam was screaming. Joe wondered briefly how Adam had perfected the whispered shout, but there was no denying he did it flawlessly.

"She's awful sweet Adam. I've known her for a long time, now, too."

"ONE...WEEK..." Adam breathed sinisterly.

"Is that all?" Joe asked in surprise. "Well, it seems like an eternity. Anyway, I've been thinking. I'm going to ask her to marry me, so I thought Pa should get to know them better. I was going to invite them over here, but it just sort of worked out better this way."

"JOSEPH CARTWRIGHT, IF YOU ARE NOT THE MOST REPULSIVE HALF-WIT I'VE EVER MET, I DON'T KNOW WHO IS!"

Joe stared at his brother, askance. "What's that supposed to mean? I can get married to anyone I choose."

"And naturally you choose the girl that you gave my drawing to. The one I believe you specifically mentioned hung it in the front parlor of her home! Right where every visitor is sure to see it!"

Joe blanched. "I hadn't thought of that. Pa's likely to see it, isn't he?"

"As it's about fifteen by twenty inches, I expect it's hard to miss!"

"Well, Pa probably won't recognize it after all this time."

"All what time? A whole week?"

"Oh yeah. I keep forgetting that. Time seems different when you're in love."

"Time's going to seem different when you're in a body cast, too!"

"Well, what's the big problem? So what if he sees it?"

"Gee...I don't know. Maybe he'll think Matilda's family is a bunch of night marauders who sneak into other people's home and steals stuff. Then he'll press charges against them, and it'll all come out
that you stole that drawing from him and gave it to her. Then Pa'll skin you alive for stealing and lying about it, and then he'll skin me alive for knowing about it, and not stopping it! Thank you very
much for all your help!"

"Hmm...hadn't looked at it from that angle. Well, there's only one thing to do."

"What? Confess to Pa?"

"Don't be an idiot. I'll have to steal the drawing."

"WHAT!?"

"Yep. There's no other way. Can't let Pa see it, and I know they'll want to show Pa what a great drawing I did..." this statement drew a cold snort from Adam, "so I'll just have to break into their house and steal it back."

Adam shook his head in disbelief. "You're dumber than post. Did you know that?"

"Of course, when I say I'll have to break into their house and steal it back, I really mean you'll have to break into their house and steal it back."

Adam stared at his brother in shock. "What did you just say?" he asked once he'd recovered the power of speech.

"Well, obviously, I can't do it. The only way to get in without being caught is to arrange it so that you sneak in while they're out in the yard graciously welcoming Pa and me to their home for supper.
That means I certainly can't take it without being noticed, and that leaves you. Besides, it's only fair. I pinched it last time. It's your turn."

"You have the most loose definition of fair of anyone I've ever run into."

Joe smiled cheerfully. "Well, that's set then. Everything's going to be fine. Well, I think I'll be getting to bed, Brother." He patted Adam genially on the back, an action strongly resented by Adam, and left the kitchen, heading to bed with an easy mind.

Ben and Joe rode into the Cornwinkles' front yard just as the sun was setting. Adam's dark clothing made him invisible in the shadows by the house and he watched closely as his father and brother exited the buggy. He knew it was going to take lightning-fast reflexes to jump through the window, grab the drawing, and exit back out before being seen, and frankly, he didn't feel up to the challenge. It was times like this that he tended to think, rather wistfully, how much simpler life would have been had his father never met Marie.

"Mr Cartwright," he heard Mrs Cornwinkle call out. "How nice of you to grace us with your presence. Your son Joseph we have the pleasure of regularly, but I'm delighted that you managed to stop by as well."

Adam anxiously peered around the corner, and saw the families milling. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he dove through the window, landed hard, and rolled, coming back up to his feet. He sprinted across the parlor, keenly aware of the clattering his boots were making on the hardwood floor, and, grasping the drawing from above the fireplace, headed back towards the window.

No one who saw it could deny it was a valiant try, and he very nearly made it. Unfortunately, the door opened just as he was about to chuck the drawing out the window. Cursing under his breath, he dove
behind a well-situated divan and made himself as comfortable as possible under the trying circumstances.

"Come in, come in," he heard a male voice inviting. This, Adam could only assume, was Mr Cornwinkle.

"Thank you," Ben replied. Suddenly the divan creaked as his father and brother took a seat right in front of him. Adam scratched his head, and wondered if his arms were long enough to strangle Joe from his vantage point.

There was general chitchat, and the clink of glasses as the two families drank a toast to the younger generation. Adam rolled his eyes. Suddenly a shriek caused him near heart failure.

"What is it?" Adam heard his father ask.

"My drawing! It was over the fireplace, and now it's gone!"

"What?" Ben asked in astonishment.

"Yes! It was right there. Someone's taken it!"

There was the unmistakable sound of wracked sobbing, and Adam heard Joe rise and move across the floor. He knew his brother too well, not to know that he was offering a great deal of sympathy and
handholding. Well, Adam thought, I might not be too comfortable, but Joe is certainly making out well. Things do seem to happen this way.

"It's the most extraordinary thing," Ben was saying. "Why, only last week, someone broke into my house and stole a piece of artwork of the highest value. I can only assume we have an art thief that is making serial visits to homes. There's nothing to be done, but to get Sheriff Coffee and report this."

Adam heard his father dispatch Joe down the street to fetch the sheriff, and deeply wanted to remove himself from the general vicinity. He wondered if perhaps he could manage it before Roy entered the house. Adam got himself up on his hands and knees in preparation for making another giant leap—this one back out the way he'd come in.

After some long moments, he heard a knock at the door, and readied himself.

"Hi folks," he heard the Roy's voice saying. "Little Joe done told me there'd been some trouble here tonight."

A cacophony of voices answered him, and Adam realized it was his chance. He breathed deep, popped up from behind the divan, and bounded through the window to safety. At least, it seemed at first he
had bounded to safety. Unfortunately, at the last moment his foot caught. He landed half-in, half-out of the window, the drawing crunching beneath him, and he turned to see what his foot had been snared on. Looking down at him, with a quizzical look on his face and bear-trap grasp on his ankle, was his father. Adam sighed in resignation.

"Hello, Pa."

Adam lay back on the lumpy mattress of the jail cell waiting for his father, the sheriff, and the Cornwinkles to finish their discussion. Frankly, he wasn't sure he wanted out. He'd seen that look on his
father's face before, and it had never preceded pleasant circumstances.

The door to the cell block opened, and his brother appeared. Adam was on his feet in a moment, his hands reaching between the bars in a vain attempt to wrap themselves around Little Joe's neck.

"I'm going to murder you," Adam snarled. "You just wait. They can't keep me here forever, and when I'm out, you're dead. That's a solemn vow."

"Gee, Adam, I don't know why you're so upset." Joe looked flabbergasted. Sometimes the way Adam overreacted to things confused him.

"You don't know why I'm so upset! Everyone thinks I'm a thief. Come to think of it, I AM a thief. And it's all your fault. I'll be a laughing-stock. No one will ever trust me again! I hate you," he added earnestly.

Joe looked reproachfully at his brother. "That's not a nice thing to say," he chided.

"The only good thing to come out of this...the ONLY good thing, is that I can only assume your heart is broken. Matilda will never speak to you again. I hope you rot away in despair."

"Oh, yeah. That's what I came to talk to you about. You know earlier, when I came down here to fetch the sheriff? Well, on the way back to the house, I met this girl. Boy, is she pretty, Adam. You'll like her.
Her name is Helen, and when we got to talking I realized you were right. That what I felt for Matilda was a child's mere capriciousness. Helen's the one I love. So you'll be happy to know it's all off between me and Matilda. I was just wondering, though. Since it looks like you'll be sitting in here for a while with
nothing to do...do you think you could do me a drawing I could give to her?"

END