Summary: At thirteen, Joe decides to practice shaving, only to discover that growing up isn’t just about growing whiskers. (This story introduces an OC named Jackson Cooper, aka Coop.)
Word Count: 4500
Thirteen-year-old boys pretending to shave with a well-honed razor were bound to get cut. And, sure enough, they weren’t at it for long before the first boy cried out, “Ow!”
“Not like that!” Little Joe Cartwright took the folding blade from his friend’s hand. “Here. Watch me.”
Shifting his position, Joe knelt on top of the rope they’d left in a tangled mess on the ground, too anxious to bother moving it out of the way. He’d waited a long time to get outside and expend all the energy he’d been building up. After a hard winter and a particularly wet spring, Joe had gone about as stir crazy as a fella could get. His family was probably as happy as he was that this day had finally dawned bright and clear and dry — or at least bright and clear.
The ground was soft and muddy, but that didn’t much matter to the two boys at play. After weeks of confinement in their homes, they’d finally been given some free rein, and they hadn’t wasted a minute of it. They’d tossed stones to see who could throw the farthest, lassoed bushes to see who had the best aim, and whittled sticks into spears to try their hands at fishing the way they’d heard Indians would. Jackson Cooper, or “Coop,” as Joe called him, won the throwing contest; Joe beat his friend at lassoing; but neither of the boys could spear a fish.
Now it was time for Joe to pull out his prize of the day: his big brother, Adam’s, razor.
He hadn’t meant to take it. Not really. He’d watched Adam shaving that morning, and something had compelled him to grab the razor from his brother’s washstand after Adam had turned away. It wasn’t as though Joe had actually stolen it, of course. He would put it back in its place long before Adam came home for supper. Yep. Joe was just borrowing the razor. It wouldn’t be too much longer before he started sprouting whiskers of his own. He ought to start practicing.
“Adam does it like this.” Joe leaned over the stream, looking closely at his reflection in the calm waters as he guided the razor over his neck. “Ow!” he cried out an instant later, just as his friend had.
The razor fell from his hand, hitting the water with a tiny plop!
Coop giggled. “Maybe Adam ought to grow a beard!”
“It ain’t funny!” Joe hollered back.
“Sure, it is!”
Angry for no good reason, Joe splashed icy water into his friend’s face.
“What’d you do that for?” Coop sputtered.
“To get you to stop laughing!”
“I’ll show you!” Coop launched himself at Joe.
They wrestled on the bank of the stream until both boys were covered head to toe in mud and tangled up together in the rope. By the time they stopped, there wasn’t a clean spot on either of them, except for the whites of their eyes.
Stuck together with rope and mired in mud like that, Joe couldn’t help but giggle. Then Coop giggled. Then both boys broke into a long fit of laughter, stopping only when their stomachs hurt and they found it hard to breathe.
“We gotta get outta this rope,” Coop wheezed.
Joe drew in another lung full of air. “Sure do.”
But getting out of it wasn’t as easy as getting into it had been. Coils were still encircling the boys’ legs when Joe’s eye landed on Adam’s razor gliding lazily downstream.
“Oh no!” Anxious to salvage it before it disappeared, he crawled back toward the water’s edge, hauling Coop along with him. “Grab it!” he hollered as it slid out of his reach.
But as Coop dipped his own hand into the water, a thunderous roar stopped him, drawing both boys’ attention upstream and up the mountain.
“What’s that?” Coop asked.
Having no answer, Joe just shook his head.
The rumble grew louder, closer. The boys held still, watching, hardly breathing.
“It ain’t good,” Joe said. “Whatever it is.” He tried to get up, but the rope still tying him to his friend had him stumbling so much he couldn’t get off his knees.
Then he saw a wall of water crashing down the mountain toward him. That realization struck him barely an instant ahead of the wall itself.
The water slammed into Joe. And Joe slammed into Coop. What happened after that was a flurry of surging water that made it impossible to think clearly enough to be scared. It pummeled and pushed him, banging him against his friend and apparently every boulder in the stream. He was at the mercy of the swirling torrent and couldn’t even begin to look for a means of escape. He had to devote his efforts to stealing swallows of air between much larger gulps of water, and had no way of knowing whether he would find himself facing the sky or the streambed at any given moment. The entire while, his fingers grasped aimlessly for something solid to cling to.
He caught nothing but water.
Then something grabbed hold of him.
Joe coughed and panted for breath as the world stilled around him. Water continued to thrash at his chest, pressing him up against a tangle of sticks, but his head was free and the sticks at his back were effectively holding him that way. He smiled briefly at his good fortune, and might very well have started laughing if it hadn’t been for the thin arm that dropped limply across his shoulder.
“Coop?” The word stayed in Joe’s throat, locked there by a raw feeling that made him realize he must have been screaming. Turning cautiously, mindful of the water’s pull and none too eager to get caught up in it again, he saw his friend. Joe wasn’t mindful of much of anything else right then. Jackson Cooper’s eyes were closed and his arm was hanging at an unnatural angle.
“Coop!” Joe shouted past the rawness. He was grateful to see his friend’s eyebrows twitch and Coop’s head turn slightly toward him. “I’ll get us out of this, Coop. I promise.”
Solid land was more than an arm’s length away, and it didn’t really look all that solid. But it was land, anyway. Stealing himself to fight the water again, Joe wrapped his left arm around Coop and took hold of the wall of sticks with his right. He’d hoped to pull them both forward that way. But the wall shifted.
A new surge of water slammed him against Coop again, jamming Coop deeper into the debris. Coop screamed. And something snapped in Joe.
Joe would never quite be sure how he did it. He might swear he flew, if he didn’t know that was plumb impossible. All he could figure was that instinct overrode conscious thought as he grabbed hold of his friend and leapt toward the river bank. He landed hard on his back in the mud, with Coop landing hard on top of him. And then the world swirled around him again, this time wrapping him in a blanket of blackness.
It was the cold that woke him. Joe was shivering so hard he had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from clattering together. If it weren’t for the fact that the mud enfolding him was soft, he would have thought he’d been lying in a bed of ice.
“Coop?” The word fell from his lips in a whisper. It was all he could manage, and even that small effort gnawed at his throat, tickling up a phlegmy cough that forced him to rise to his elbows. The fit pulled on bruises he didn’t know he had until everything hurt from his hips to the top of his head, and that black blanket threatened to creep around him again. Finally the coughing stopped with an upsurge of watery vomit. He turned to spew it out, and then settled back into the soft, icy mud, waiting for his panting breaths to ease into something a bit more useful to his lungs.
“Joe?” His friend’s voice was strained, but had more volume than Joe had managed.
Turning his head, afraid to move anything else, Joe saw Jackson Cooper leaning back against a boulder. Coop looked worse than Joe felt. He held his left arm in front of him, cradling it as best he could with his right hand. The angle where it hung from his shoulder looked so wrong the sight of it nearly turned Joe’s stomach again. There was also a gash on the side of Coop’s head.
“You okay?” Coop asked.
Joe tried to nod, but his head protested any movement at all. “Better’n you,” he managed in something not much more than a gasp as he closed his eyes against the pain.
“Don’t look better.”
Confused, Joe opened his eyes again and looked at Coop. “I don’t?”
Coop raised an eyebrow, giving his friend a small, pain-shrouded grin. “You look like you wrestled with a man made of sticks and lost.”
Glancing down as all the scratches on his clothes and the thin trails of blood from the similarly torn skin underneath, Joe couldn’t help but grin back. “Least my arm ain’t broke.”
“Ain’t my arm; it’s my shoulder. I think it just came out of joint, is all. You gotta help me put it back.”
“Put it back?” Joe sat up so fast his head spun.
“I saw Doc Martin do it once. I can tell you what to do.”
“I got a better idea; we’ll get you to Doc Martin.” Joe glanced around him, trying to figure out just where they were. “We’d better start walkin’.”
“Hurts too much.”
“It’ll hurt more if I go messin’ with it.”
“I reckon it will, but not for long. Honest, Joe. I can’t do anything with it like this. You gotta try to set it to right. From what I saw, that fella’ at Doc Martin’s felt a whole lot better after.”
Joe felt sick all over again. “But … what if I make it worse instead of better?”
“You can’t know that for sure.”
“Just do as I say. It’ll be all right.”
Joe stared at him for a long while, and then he felt a slow grin start creeping up on him again. Then he started giggling.
“What’s so funny?”
“You and me, that’s what’s funny! You’re tryin’ to make me feel better ‘cause you’re too dumb to realize you’re the one who’s hurt!”
Coop’s brow grew about as stern as it’d been before he’d started wrestling Joe earlier. “You’re hurt, too; and I ain’t dumb!”
“You want to fight me about it?”
It took a few moments, but then Coop started giggling, too. Neither boy felt well enough to burst into a laughing fit like the one that had preceded the floodwaters, but what laughter they could manage buoyed both of them through Joe’s effective, if painful, resetting of Coop’s dislocated shoulder.
It wasn’t until afterward that the seriousness of their predicament turned laughter into tears. Joe didn’t recognize any of the landscape around him; he had no idea how far the water had taken them. On top of that, he was so cold he couldn’t help but shiver; and it was clear Coop didn’t feel any better about his shoulder. In fact, Joe was pretty sure his friend was too hurt and sick to walk anywhere. But they didn’t have much choice, did they?
Frightened but resolute, Joe tried to make light of the situation by pretending he was a sergeant in the Army and Coop was his recruit. “March!” he commanded.
Trouble was, Joe discovered he only had one boot. He must have lost the other one in the water. To make matters worse, the soil there on the riverbank was too muddy for marching, and the ground beyond was too rocky and steep. Every step became a struggle.
Somewhere along the line, Joe lost his other boot. He discovered that little fact when he stumbled on a piece of driftwood and had to look to the ground while he struggled for balance. He thought it was odd that he hadn’t felt the boot slipping off his foot in the mud. Then he realized it wasn’t just odd, it was plumb scary. He knew what it meant to get so cold you couldn’t feel things anymore.
Then Coop fell down and didn’t get back up; and Joe realized he was more scared for his friend than he was for himself.
Joe lost track of time. He was disappointed to notice how low the sun had fallen in the sky. And he was both disappointed and glad to notice how cold he was. The numbness was wearing off. Cold and pain were seeping in. His fire, such as it was, had been enough to start warming him. Of course, he was a long way from warm. The fire was more smoke than flames. He hadn’t had a whole lot of dry wood to choose from. Frankly, much of the warmth that had chased away the numbness was more likely to have come from the energy he’d expended trying to get the sparse wood to burn at all. Without matches, he’d had to rely on what Hoss had taught him about rubbing sticks together, using something Adam referred to as friction.
He’d worked hard to get it done, but he’d done it. He’d made a small, smoky fire. Now Coop was lying next to it, looking dazed and ill. And Joe was so tired he couldn’t imagine taking another step.
“I’ll buy you a new razor, Adam,” he mumbled to the lick of a tiny flame. “I’ll do your chores for a week.” Frowning in concentration, he added, “Heck, I’ll even stay put to listen to your whole lecture when you find out I took your razor in the first place. Just….” Joe turned his attention and his thoughts far upstream. Somewhere up there he’d left his horse. And somewhere up that way he hoped his family had already started looking for him. “Just find me, okay?” Another glance toward his friend elicited a heavy sigh. “Find us.”
Coop looked bad. Real bad. He was rolling his head this way and that, and shivering a whole lot more than Joe. Joe wished he could make the fire warmer, but how? There wasn’t a dry spec of wood anywhere around him.
Sheer desperation drove him to grab a damp stick from the pile he’d gathered. He held it near the flame, thinking maybe — just maybe — it might dry faster. After a moment, the stick started to sizzle, sending a thin, smoky trail skyward. As Joe watched the trail blend with the rest of the smoke, his tired mind painted a daydream about a band of Indians signaling their tribesmen.
“The smoke,” he realized.
Excitement borne of a new sense of hope surged inside him with a force almost as strong as the flood that had caused all this trouble, stirring up a wild burst of energy. He gathered up all the damp wood and brush he could find, intent on building up more smoke, if not more fire. With any luck, someone would notice and choose to investigate. Maybe even — hopefully — Joe’s family.
In Adam’s hands, the razor glided across skin like a spatula across frosting. Joe knew the blade was sharp, but when Adam tilted it just so he didn’t draw a spec of blood. It looked easy.
“What on earth are you staring at?” Adam said into the mirror, raising an eyebrow to where Joe sat on his bed, just beyond his own reflection.
“How’d you learn to do that?” Joe asked.
Joe’s nod prompted a grin.
“Practice,” Adam said. Then, chuckling, he toweled off the last of the shaving cream and splashed his face with cologne. “Don’t you think you’d better get down to breakfast?”
“I reckon so.”
“Let’s go, little brother.” Adam patted Joe’s shoulder and started toward the door.
Joe kept his eyes on the razor.
“Chop, chop, boy!” Adam said playfully mimicking Hop Sing. “Before breakfast ruined.”
Joe matched his brother’s grin and got up to join him. But when he moved past the washstand, he couldn’t help but grab the razor, pocketing it before his brother could notice. Adam’s smile would vanish if he knew what Joe had done. Joe would just have to make sure Adam never knew about it.
“Little Joe?” Adam’s brow was drawn, and his eyes, dark.
“I’m sorry,” Joe mumbled. His tongue felt oddly thick.
Adam glanced sideways, saying nothing. His gaze was as stern as ever when he looked at Joe again.
“I’ll buy you a new one.” Joe added. Why was it so hard to talk? Joe tried to sit up; he didn’t get far before falling back into his brother’s oddly cold and squishy mattress.
“Take it easy, little buddy.” Adam gently gripped his shoulder.
Buddy? Joe looked at his brother’s dark eyes again and started to wonder if some of that sternness he thought he’d seen looked more like concern, instead. “You’re not mad?”
Adam’s brows moved lower. “Why would I be mad? This wasn’t your fault. As a matter of fact, I—”
“But I took it.”
Adam looked to the side again. Joe couldn’t even tell if his brother had heard him.
“I’ve got … money saved up.” It sure was hard to talk. Joe couldn’t seem to draw in enough breath. “You … can have it. …Buy a new one.”
Adam didn’t respond to Joe. Instead, he shouted, “Over here, Pa!” Then he rose and moved away.
Joe had a hard time figuring out whether he was dreaming or not. He wanted to believe his family had come. He wanted to trust in the blanket they’d wrapped around him, the rocking motion of the horse beneath him as it plodded through mud, and the comfort he took from the strong hand clutching him tightly to Pa’s broad chest. But sometimes he found himself being swallowed up by water and mud, instead. He shivered and couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he’d never even made it out of the river.
Then, finally, he came fully awake. Somehow, he was in his own bed, in his own room. He was home. He was sure of it. The linen sheets felt too real to be part of a dream; and his brother’s unshaven face looked coarse enough — real enough — to scratch him if he were to reach up and touch it.
Joe’s brother shot up from his seat by the bed. The book he’d been reading fell to the floor with a heavy thud. “Pa! Hoss!”
Joe started at the harshness in his brother’s voice.
“Sorry, little buddy,” Adam said with a sheepish smile. “I shouldn’t have shouted. Guess I got carried away.” He sighed and raised an eyebrow. “I have to admit you scared me this time.”
“Scared you? How?”
“Joe!” Pa’s voice pulled his gaze to the doorway, where Joe saw nearly a mirror of Adam’s smile amidst the fledgling whiskers of an equally coarse if grayer beard. “It’s good to see you awake, son!”
“Did you lose your razor, too?” Joe asked.
Pa rubbed his chin and chuckled. “I’ve been a bit too — preoccupied — to bother with shaving.”
“Hey, Little Joe!” Hoss called in then. “Boy, it sure is good to see you!” His grin was even deeper than both Pa’s and Adam’s, although his stubble wasn’t quite so thick.
Confused at how he seemed to have lost a couple of days, Joe tried to sit up. But he grew dizzy, and his chest and stomach felt all tied up in painful knots.
Somewhere through the haze of his dizziness, Joe sensed his pa’s hand pushing lightly on his shoulder; and a shift in the mattress beneath him told him that Pa had eased himself onto the edge of the bed. “Easy, son. You’ve been pretty sick. You’re going to need to rest for a while yet, so you can start to build your strength back up.”
Joe focused on his pa’s worn features. “I don’t remember being sick.”
Pa’s gaze turned to his brothers, and then Joe watched his family’s eyes dance around one another before looking back at him.
“What do you remember?” Adam asked.
“I lost your razor,” Joe said guiltily. It was the first thing that came to mind, pushing itself past all that ruckus with the river. After all, if he hadn’t lost the razor, he wouldn’t have lingered so close to the river’s edge. “I’m sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean to take it. I just—”
Pa’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “Calm down, Joe. You and Adam can work that out later. We’d like to know what you remember about the river, and your friend, Jackson.”
Joe didn’t really want to think about all that, but the questions in his pa’s eyes made it clear he had better. “It was … like that avalanche we saw last year. Remember? It tore down those trees like they were sticks. It was just like that, only … it wasn’t snow.” Joe found that talking so much was making it hard to catch his breath, but he wasn’t quite done. He took a quick swallow of air and pressed on. “It came down so fast we couldn’t get out of the way. We just started tumbling around in it. Half the time I didn’t even know which way was up.”
Joe watched his pa’s chest pull in a deep breath and wondered why he couldn’t manage to do the same. Then Pa nodded. “You’re very lucky you found your way out. What else do you remember?”
“Coop’s arm looked funny. I didn’t want to mess with it, but … he said I had to. I didn’t make it worse, did I, Pa? He’s okay, isn’t he?”
“He’s fine, son.” Pa’s brow went up and he smiled again. “He’s doing very well, in fact. You did exactly what you had to do.”
“Doc Martin said he might not’ve done better,” Hoss added, filling up his chest just as Pa had and puffing it out like he was proud.
“I’m glad.” Satisfied to hear Coop was okay, Joe concentrated on breathing and let his eyes slip closed.
“Joe?” Adam waited until he opened his eyes again. “Who gathered all that wood and got that fire going?”
“How’d you get it started?”
“Like you and Hoss taught me. You know, with friction.” Joe was puzzled by the glances his family exchanged. “What?”
Pa cocked his head — sort of, but not quite a nod. “It couldn’t have been easy, son, after all that tumbling you did in the river.”
“Well someone had to do it and it sure wasn’t gonna be Coop. I tried to get back to the horses first, but Coop couldn’t walk anymore.”
“You had to be hurting quite a bit, yourself.”
Joe sighed. “Truth is….” He didn’t want to show them how scared he’d been, or how much comfort he’d taken from finding himself clutched tightly in his pa’s arms. “I was kind’a numb.” That really was the truth. He had been numb. He’d been so numb it had scared him. He’d fought to stay awake, because he’d always been warned that he could die in his sleep if he was too cold. He hadn’t wanted to die in his sleep. He hadn’t wanted to die at all. Yep, he surely had been scared. And all that fear had proved to him more than anything else had that he was a long way from being ready to use a razor. A grown man would never be afraid to fall asleep.
He looked at his family again, wondering if he’d given away his secret. Hoss was chewing on his lip and had his hands stuffed in his pockets. Pa was studying Adam, whose arms were crossed in front of him.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” Joe said to the scrunched up brow of his oldest brother. Was Adam mad? “I told you I’d buy you a new razor, didn’t I? At least….” Maybe that had been a dream. “I think I told you that. If I didn’t, then I’m telling you now. I will, Adam. Honest!”
Pa’s hand came down on Joe’s shoulder again. “Easy, son! There’s no need to get so worked up. Now just let yourself catch your breath.”
“I’m proud of you, Joe.” Adam’s words stole what little breath Joe had been able to take in.
Before Joe could see past all the dark spots that had started to cloud his vision, he felt the pressure of his pa’s hand releasing him, and Adam swam closer into view.
“Y-you,” Joe said to the apparition of his oldest brother. “You’re what?”
When the apparition solidified, Adam was smiling and he’d dropped his arms. He even reached out to ruffle Joe’s hair. “I said I’m proud of you, you little scamp.”
“We’re all proud of you, son,” Pa said.
“Sure are,” Hoss added with that wide grin of his.
“You handled yourself well out there, little brother,” Adam went on. “You took care of your friend. You gathered all that wood and started a signal fire even though you were hurting, too. You even admitted to taking my razor.”
“You’re proud of me for taking your razor?”
“No, I’m proud of you for admitting it. I will hold you to that promise you made about replacing it, but I’m pretty confident you’ll keep that promise, because from what I can tell, you are finally growing up. Frankly, I know a few men who wouldn’t have done as well as you did out there.”
“Then … will you teach me how to shave without cutting myself?”
“Absolutely. In a few years, when you have something to actually shave off.”
And suddenly Joe realized it didn’t even matter. He didn’t need to shave make-believe whiskers to prove himself a man among men. He’d already proven it. He had Adam’s word telling him so. And something even better.
“I’m proud of you,” Adam had said.
Pa squeezed his arm, pulling Joe’s eyes open. When had he closed them? “You get some more rest son. I’ll have Hop Sing bring up some broth in a little bit.”
Joe wasn’t about to argue … except, “Adam?” he asked then.
“Maybe you won’t need to teach me after all.”
“Maybe I’ll just let my whiskers grow, like all of you.”
“All right,” Pa chuckled. “That’s enough. You, Little Joe, are going back to sleep. And the rest of us are going to shave right now.”
“Now, Pa?” Adam asked. “I’m afraid I no longer have a razor.”
“Yes, now! You can borrow mine.”
Joe drifted back to sleep, imagining himself on Adam’s bed again. He saw his own reflection in his brother’s mirror, where he expertly guided the keen edge of a well-honed blade across his neck without drawing a drop of blood. Just like his big brother.