Summary: On a quiet night after a rough afternoon that could have taken their little brother from them, Hoss and Adam ponder Joe’s instincts and … athleticism.
Word Count: 1,846
Hoss Cartwright returned to the chuck wagon to get one last helping of Cookie’s stew. When his plate was full once again, he didn’t bother retaking his place by the campfire. Instead, he started eating right where he stood and glanced over to where his little brother was already stretched out in his bedroll. He marveled to see that Joe was sleeping sound as could be, as oblivious to the conversations going on around him as he was to the notes Slim was strumming on his guitar.
Adam noticed, too. He joined Hoss beside the chuck wagon, his eyes following Hoss’s line of sight.
“Look at him lyin’ there,” Hoss said, “sleepin’ all peaceful-like.”
Adam scrunched up his eyes and crossed his arms in front of him. “Like he doesn’t have a care in the world,” he said with a touch of cynicism.
“Guess I sort of figured he’d have one of them nightmares of his tonight.”
“He doesn’t have to,” Adam said tersely. “I’ll have enough for both of us.” Taking a deep breath, he added in a softer tone, “He scared the hell out of me today, Hoss.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“And then he laughed about it!” Adam’s jawline tightened in anger, reminding Hoss that Joe wasn’t the only one whose emotions could shift like dust devils in the desert. The difference was that Adam held tight rein on his, revealing them only to those who knew where to look in his posture and his eyes, while Joe let his run where they would.
“Part of me wanted to punch him,” Adam added. “Another part….” He sighed so heavily Hoss saw all that tightly reined anger seeping right back out of him. “Well, another part wanted to hug him.” Adam turned a sheepish look Hoss’s way, one that Hoss had seen less and less as Adam left his childhood further and further behind him.
Hoss liked that look. It was familiar and comfortable and … brotherly. It was also enough to release a good dose of the fear Hoss had been left with in the wake of the stampede they’d encountered that afternoon. “If you would have hugged him I reckon that would’ve scared him a whole lot more than all those beeves runnin’ at him.” Hoss even found himself laughing. It felt good to laugh.
“I’m serious, Hoss.” Adam argued. “He could have died out there and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do but watch it happen.”
Suddenly, Hoss didn’t feel cheerful at all. “No, there sure wasn’t. But there wasn’t anything you needed to do, either. He handled it just fine. Better than fine,” Hoss decided. He even felt a smile creeping back in. “You know, I could almost believe I was watchin’ one of them circus fellas when he grabbed onto that tree branch like he did.”
“He was lucky.”
“He was smart. Thought right quick about what he had to do.”
“He was reckless. He shouldn’t have been out in front of the herd like that.”
“He was tryin’ to turn ‘em, just like any good wrangler would do.”
“He should have known better. He’s too young, too inexperienced.”
“Inexperienced? Adam, that boy’s among the best wranglers I’ve ever seen.”
Adam gave a slow, calculating nod. “He’s good, I’ll grant you that. I’ll even admit he’s better than I am when it comes to horsemanship.”
“Nah,” Hoss countered. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“You’re the one who taught him.”
“Working with horses comes naturally to him. But,” Adam took in a deep breath, “he’s still got a lot to learn about driving cattle.”
“Maybe not as much as you think.” Hoss looked at his sleeping younger brother again. “He already knows enough to teach them new hands we took on, and they’re comin’ along just fine. Face it, Adam….” He returned his attention to his pensive older brother. “You ain’t mad at Joe for doin’ what any good drover would do. You’re mad at him for doin’ what no good little brother ought to do.”
“I’m not mad.” Adam’s eyes made him look both cynical and sheepish.
“Then why’s your fist clenched like that?”
Adam opened his hand and started looking at it. “I already told you.” Shaking his head again, he folded his fingers loosely and took a long, hard look at his middle brother before continuing. “He scared the hell out of me out there,” he said softly then. “When I saw him trying to head off that stampede, I thought….”
“I know what you thought,” Hoss finished when it was clear Adam wasn’t going to. “So did I. But just when I knew he was gonna go down with that horse of his, he grabbed hold of that branch. Sure was a sight to see,” he added, letting his smile return. “Might even have been downright entertaining, if we hadn’t been so dadblamed scared about what might happen if Joe lost his grip.” Hoss thought about that for a moment. “Ya’ think maybe he learned to balance on the branch like that from watching that circus fella?”
“What circus fellow?”
“The one on that swing, way up in the air.”
“The trapeze artist?”
Hoss grinned. “Yeah, that’s the one. Joe used that branch like a trapeze. I half expected him to swing head first around it like that fella did.”
Adam still wasn’t sharing his good humor. “That would have been one sure way to get himself killed. Joe’s life depended on keeping a firm grip. It was hardly time for play.”
Now it was Hoss’s turn to get angry. “You think I don’t know that? You think I wasn’t as scared as you watchin’ him?”
“Then why are you making light of it now?”
“Because it worked! Joe took a chance that was a whole lot more daring than any of them circus fellas, and it worked. He wasn’t hurt.”
“You sound like you’d encourage him to try it again!” Adam’s shout turned a few heads their way. Joe didn’t so much as twitch.
“He sure is tired,” Hoss said. “Ain’t he?”
Adam let out another long sigh, releasing some of that tension again and pulling back in some of that cynicism. “Maybe being in a circus is harder work than driving cattle.”
“He was scared, too, you know.” Hoss gave his attention back to Adam.
Adam didn’t believe him. “He laughed, Hoss!”
“Not ‘til it was over. Not ‘til the cattle settled down. You weren’t as close as I was. You didn’t see him clear as I did. I ain’t never seen that boy’s eyes so wide or his face so white.”
Adam scrunched his eyes up at Hoss for a moment. Then, looking back at Little Joe, he leaned back and crossed his arms again. “Well … good.”
“I’m glad he at least had sense enough to know—” Startled by something, Adam turned toward the campfire. “What on earth…?”
And suddenly Adam tensed up again; his shoulders strained against the fabric of his shirt and both his hands balled into fists. “You play one more note of that song,” he shouted toward Slim, “and I promise you it’ll be the last thing you play!”
That’s when Hoss heard it. The song Slim was playing. The song Slim went right on playing, as though Adam hadn’t said a word. “Little Joe the wrangler will wrangle never more, his days with the remuda are all done….”
The mess that followed had Hoss’s head spinning worse than one of his little brother’s dust devil emotional outbursts ever could. When it was over, Slim’s guitar was in splinters and three cowpokes had more bruises on their faces than callouses on their backsides. Several others were wearing whatever food had still been on their plates, and everyone was gaping slack jawed at Adam Cartwright, a man known for always keeping a clear head.
“What are you staring at?” Adam confronted one of the new men, who only shook his head and backed away. Then the eldest and usually wisest Cartwright brother turned his temper on the entire herd of cowpokes. “If anyone ever plays that song again within earshot of me or anyone else in my family, you’ll end up in as many splinters as that guitar! Is that understood?”
His answer came in muttered words and nodding heads.
“I said, ‘is that understood?’”
Shouts of, “Yessir, Mister Cartwright, sir,” echoed around the camp.
“Good!” Adam shouted back. “Now bed down! We have an early start tomorrow. We need to make up for what we lost with that stampede.”
Moments later, a much more familiar, reserved Adam rejoined Hoss by the chuck wagon, and it was Hoss’s turn to sound sheepish. “You know Slim didn’t mean anything by playin’ that, Adam. It’s just another song to him.” The glare Adam shot his way made him regret saying a word.
“A song,” Adam answered, “about a wrangler with our brother’s name who ends up mashed to a bloody pulp after a stampede.”
Hoss shrugged. “That song’s about a boy a whole lot younger than Joe with a whole lot less experience.”
Adam’s glare both hardened and narrowed. “Are you saying you like that song?”
“Heck, no! Makes me sick every time I hear it. But ya’ didn’t have to smash Slim’s guitar.”
It took a whole lot of deep breaths before Adam relaxed again. “Yep,” he said then. “I did have to.”
“Because if I’d tried to do that to the cattle that tried to do that to Little Joe, I’d have ended up mashed to a bloody pulp.”
The strangest thing happened then. Adam grinned. “You know, it really was somewhat entertaining, wasn’t it?”
Hoss felt his eyebrows go clear up to his thinning hairline. “The song?”
Adam shook his head but did not lose his grin. “Joe’s little trapeze act. He might even be able to find a job in a circus if we ever get tired of him.”
Hoss looked back at his little brother while he pondered his older brother’s transformation. “Look at that,” he mused. “All that ruckus and he slept right through it.”
“That’s our Little Joe, for you. Create havoc and then leave the mess for everyone else to sort out.”
“Things sure ain’t boring with him around.”
Crossing his arms again, Adam looked more relaxed than Hoss had seen him for a long time. “I guess the circus will have to wait.”
“Because … as exasperating and infuriating and downright irritating as he can be, he sure isn’t boring. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever really get tired of him.”
Hoss grinned. “No, I don’t reckon we will.”
Moments later, Joe’s older brothers bedded down beside him, and all three slept like they didn’t have a care in the world. Not a nightmare disturbed a single one of them. Instead, their dreams were filled with visions of a daring young man on a flying trapeze.