Summary: After a night of brotherly bonding is complicated by a group of distrustful vaqueros and a jug of pulque, the morning after — two days later — opens Adam’s eyes to a whole new dimension in his relationship with Little Joe.
Word Count: 4351
It was a spectacular fall. Joe’s pirouette could have taken center stage in a ballet. Adam might even have been inclined to start a standing ovation, if he hadn’t already proved to himself that any attempt to stand would only set the world to spinning. Even Juan Manuel — not to be confused with the much smaller and friendlier Juan Miguel — looked on in amazement before gazing at his own fist with a glint of pride in his eyes. It had been that fist, after all, that had initiated the pirouette. But Joe’s landing…. Well, that part wasn’t pretty. He bounced from boulder to boulder like a ball in a billiard game before coming to rest — if it could be called rest — splayed across the laps of four pulque-emboldened vaqueros.
He didn’t stay there for long. The men were slow in responding, the pulque surely having dulled their senses; but a response was inevitable. Adam figured they’d all had a fair amount of experience with the heady drink. It was, after all, a local brew. Before long, one push led to another and one kick led to another, and, suddenly, Joe was back in that billiard game, bouncing now from fist to boot rather than rock to rock.
Hang it all. Adam was going to have to brave the spinning world to save his little brother. And hang his little brother for shouting “viva la pulque” anyway. He should have known better. Joe’s first sip should have been his last, reminding him not just of a night spent camping out with Marie’s first born — a third and previously unknown half-brother to Little Joe — but also, and more significantly, of the morning after. Joe had stayed green for hours. But Joe hadn’t known better. He’d taken another sip and then a full swallow before handing the jug to Adam, shouting “viva la pulque” and instantly winning over the men at Don Mariano’s hacienda.
Yes, Joe had won them over. For a short while anyway, he’d turned them from suspicious strangers to amigos. Compadres. And that was a good thing…while it lasted. Adam and his brothers had been trying to waylay the suspicions those men had harbored toward them since they’d arrived. Why on earth the vaqueros thought the Cartwrights were in league with Maximilian, Adam had no idea. Their source of inspiration might have been nothing more than Hoss calling Little Joe, “Joseph.” Someone mentioned that Maximilian had been christened Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, and, well, their suspicions had been aroused.
After that, the vaqueros had spent the day finding fault with Cartwright cattle. Hoss had done everything he could to prove their accusations false while Adam had spent the day trying to rein in his youngest brother’s temper.
And then came the pulque, and suddenly they were all compadres. Even Adam had imbibed. He’d figured he’d better–solely for the purpose of helping to strip the vaqueros of their suspicions.
But one too many swallows of that pulque had led to Joe repeating the name Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph over and over again until he could effectively pronounce every syllable despite the fact that his tongue grew thicker while the jug got emptier.
The boy should have stuck to talking about breaking horses and senoritas.
No, that wasn’t quite right, was it? Adam would never encourage Joe to talk about breaking senoritas.
What was it Adam had wanted to do? Standing wasn’t really the best idea he’d ever had. The world had developed a sea-like fluidity that rocked him right back to the log he’d been sitting on since nightfall. He closed his eyes to ease the effect, and briefly wondered how a man could get sea-sick in the middle of the desert…or on the outskirts of the desert. Where were they, anyway? Oh. Right. Chihuahua. Mexican cattle country. Where Don Mariano was bound and determined to build the biggest herd in Mexico, supplementing what he already had with the best from the north…Cartwright cattle.
Too bad Don Mariano’s men didn’t share his fine opinion of the Cartwrights. Or…Cartwright cattle. Or maybe both.
Adam’s muddled thoughts got even muddier when someone ran into him…or was thrown into him…knocking him from his perch on the log to a somewhat less than gentlemanly position sprawled out on the ground. Pushing the dead weight off of him, he discovered it was Juan Miguel.
Juan Miguel was a good man. Adam liked him. Why on earth would someone want to throw him around? Suddenly angry, Adam carefully climbed to his feet. He was disappointed to discover he still hadn’t managed to get his sea legs…or desert legs…or desert-sea legs…. But that didn’t stop him from forming a loose fist and turning his attention to the melee going on in front of him. He took a blind swing at the first blurring figure that crept into view, and…hit nothing but air.
And then the air hit him back. Momentum sent him crashing into someone’s soft belly. “Hoss?” Adam patted the comfortable flesh in front of him and started chuckling at the irony.
But Hoss didn’t share in his sudden turn of mirth. Adam’s middle brother grabbed him by the back of his collar and started dragging him somewhere. Yep, dragging. Adam’s feet weren’t working very well. After a minute or three, he stopped even trying to keep his feet under him. He was having a hard enough time trying to keep his stomach where it belonged.
Finally, the moving stopped — or the dragging, anyway…the spinning wasn’t likely to stop anytime soon. And then it was Adam’s turn to collide with someone on the ground when Hoss tossed him down beside…or, rather, somewhat on top of, Little Joe. Adam patted his youngest brother’s less than fleshy chest as he maneuvered himself into a more comfortable position to watch his bigger younger brother battle all those vaqueros all by himself.
“Viva la pulque,” Joe muttered drunkenly beside him.
Giving his attention over to his smaller younger brother, Adam was surprised to see Joe smiling despite the fresh trickle of blood the effort drew from a cut in his lip.
“Viva la pulque,” Adam repeated softly. Somewhere inside him he knew the coming morning was not going to be pleasant. But the rest of him couldn’t help but chuckle. He even shouted, “Ole!” when another vaquero landed face-first on the ground in front of him
Dawn found Adam still lying beside Little Joe. He knew that fact by the whimpering that arose beside him long before he dared open his eyes. Yes, he knew that sound. Joe’s whimpers were somewhat legendary and as identifiable as Adam’s own reflection.
When Adam realized those whimpers came with the steady cadence of breathing, he wondered if Joe was suffering from damage to his ribs. Or maybe he was simply experiencing the same skull-splitting pain as Adam, himself. Truth be told, Adam felt inclined to do some whimpering himself, but he bit back every useless, wordless, pathetic complaint that threatened to pass through his bitterly dry lips. Whimpering simply wouldn’t do, not given his own somewhat legendary stoicism.
Soon other men started moaning, drowning out Little Joe’s quiet whimpers. That’s when Adam finally opened his eyes to find that Joe and he weren’t the only ones to have fallen asleep where they’d landed. But they were the only Cartwrights. Where was Hoss?
“Adm?” Joe mumbled.
Adam rubbed his eyes and tried to get a good look at his not-so-good looking little brother.
“Think I’m gonna be sick.”
The words had no sooner left Joe’s lips when Adam own stomach started to revolt. He shakily rose, took five staggered steps and…fired without aiming. By the time he realized what direction he’d pointed, he found himself staring straight at his bigger younger brother’s chest.
Hoss looked like he, too, was about to get sick. “Doggone you, Adam!” he complained, curling his nose at the vomit now adorning the front of his shirt and holding his hands out to his sides. “What’s got into you, anyway?”
“Pulque,” Adam said as shakily as he’d stumbled moments earlier. “And too much of it. Too…too much of it.”
“Well, pull yourself together!” Hoss looked as stern as Pa ever could. Sterner, even.
Sterner? More stern? Couldn’t Adam come up with a better word?
“We gotta get movin’,” Hoss added. “I aim to be long gone by the time these yahoos sober up.”
“Moving?” Adam asked queasily. “No. Can’t.” Feeling his weak legs grow weaker, he grabbed Hoss’s arm for support.
“You darned well better! I don’t want to carry this check any longer than I absolutely got to. The sooner we get it locked up in Pa’s safe, the better.”
Hoss gave a quick bob of his head in answer, while his eyes scanned the moaning bodies beyond. “Don Mariano agreed to our price. Paid in full.”
“When?” Don Mariano had barely said two words to Adam since they’d arrived. “How?”
“Last night.” Hoss’s lip curled again. “While you two were fillin’ yer gullets with that poison of theirs, Don Mariano and his daughter were fillin’ mine with the best beef this side of Texas.”
Hoss’s curled lip turned into a grin. “She sure is a pretty filly,” he said, patting Adam’s shoulder. Then his expression hardened again. “Now if you can handle pullin’ yourself together, I’ll collect little brother over there and we can ride outta here.”
“Ride?” Adam’s stomach started churning again. This time he dropped to his hands and knees and aimed for the ground.
It was a long morning. And an excruciating one. Every step the horse made jolted through Adam’s temples like iron spikes. He wondered how Joe was faring, but didn’t dare take his eyes off the path in front of him. Besides, looking toward Joe would force him to move his head. And any movement of his head jabbed those spikes deeper.
Even when Hoss declared it was time to stop for lunch, Adam didn’t make any attempt to check on Little Joe. Frankly, it was all he could do to get himself down to the ground. Once there, he quickly closed his eyes and just as quickly fell into a light but blessed doze.
“Here,” Joe’s voice called to him through the soothing darkness. “Have some coffee. It’ll help.” He sounded, well, like he sounded on any given day. There wasn’t a trace of last night’s indulgence in his even tone. Nor of last night’s billiard game.
Curious but cautious, Adam opened his eyes slowly. He squinted up at Little Joe to find the boy smiling down at him. Yes, smiling. It was a gentle smile, a soft, concerned smile, the kind of smile generally reserved as a show of brotherly compassion. Just as there’d been no trace in Joe’s voice of the hangover Adam himself was experiencing, there was also no trace of ridicule in his smile. Adam certainly deserved some ridicule. He’d given Joe his fair share the last time the boy had experienced the after effects of too much pulque.
“Guess I should have warned you about the kick that stuff has,” Joe said amicably. “Doesn’t take as much as you’d think.”
Blinking away the cobwebs, Adam pushed himself up to one elbow and gratefully accepted the cup Joe offered.
“Guess I should have known better,” Adam croaked back, his voice as weak as his vision.
Joe’s hand settled on his shoulder. “Sure was some night, wasn’t it?” His giggle came as even more of a surprise to Adam.
“How?” Adam asked, looking closer at his little brother. “How is it you…?” He cleared his throat. “Why aren’t you….?”
A rainbow of dark, painful looking colors encircled a cut above Joe’s right eye; but his gaze was clear and focused. He even nudged his smile wider, pulling at the swelling in his lower lip until it stopped puckering around a newly formed scab. “Maybe it’s just worse the first time around.”
“Why on earth,” Adam struggled to say, “did you give it a second time?”
Joe shrugged. “Just stupid, I guess.” He settled down to sit cross-legged beside Adam, and then winced, taking in a sharp, quick breath.
“Ribs?” Adam asked.
Joe smiled again. “Sure took a pounding. But I’ll be fine by the time we get home.”
“You amaze me.”
“I do?” Joe’s eyebrows shot upward for an instant. The action opened his cut.
“You’re bleeding,” Adam pointed out.
Joe just shrugged and swiped the trickle away with the back of his hand. “You worry too much, older brother.”
“Maybe you don’t worry enough.”
“Is that why I amaze you?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I guess…I just….” Adam sighed. “How is it you can take a beating like you did last night…both from the pulque and from those vaqueros…and sit there now acting like…there’s not a thing wrong with you?”
“There isn’t anything wrong with me.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Beg all you want, older brother. Just remember we’ve still got a good six hours or more of riding ahead of us today, and a whole bunch more tomorrow.” He winked with his good eye, tapped Adam’s shoulder again and practically jumped to his feet. “Hey, Hoss!” he hollered out then, making Adam do a bit of jumping himself and reminding him that he still had iron spikes in his temples. “Got any more of that coffee for older brother, here?”
Setting his cup on the ground beside him, Adam shook the spilled liquid from his hand and lay back again. Dang, but that sun was bright.
That first night on the trail home, Adam slept as well as he ever had. Better, even. He blinked his eyes open seemingly moments after having closed them, and then found himself wondering how the sun could have risen so quickly. Then he realized he’d slept so well nothing remained of his pulque-induced headache or the corresponding nausea. He felt remarkably whole and hale and ready to face the day.
Little Joe, on the other hand, looked as bad as Adam had ever seen him. The spark in Joe’s eyes had dulled, and the cheerfulness he’d displayed the day before had faded. He wasn’t ornery exactly. But he was quiet and distant. Clearly, he was hurting. His hand perpetually rested against his ribs or drifted to his temple, hovering over but never quite touching the colorful bruising around his eye.
Calling Hoss toward the morning’s fire with a jerk of his head, Adam looked to where their youngest brother sat staring at the cooling coffee in his cup. “He didn’t let you check those ribs of his by any chance, did he?”
“Aw, he’s okay,” Hoss answered lightly. “Just sore. Ridin’ and sleepin’ on the hard ground ain’t helpin’ him none. But he’ll be okay.”
“You sure about that?”
“I’m sure.” Hoss bobbed his head in a quick nod. “I made sure of that before we left Don Mariano’s. I wouldn’t’a let him ride, otherwise.”
“No,” Adam said absently. “I don’t suppose I would have, either…if I’d managed to even think about it.”
“I don’t reckon you were up to much thinkin’ back there.”
Frustrated and disappointed in himself, Adam tensed, shaking his head. “How could I have been so careless?”
“Careless?” Hoss’s question surprised him.
“Yes, careless!” Adam practically shouted. “Of course, careless! I don’t even know why I took one sip of that…that…rattlesnake juice. What on earth prompted me to keep going?”
“Seems to me,” Joe called over, “you were doin’ more than sipping.”
Adam hadn’t meant for Joe to hear him. “You’re not helping,” he answered, keeping his voice somewhat softer than the shout that had obviously disturbed his young brother’s contemplation of trail coffee.
“What’s got you so riled up, anyway?” Hoss asked.
“I’m supposed to watch out for him.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed.
“For both of you,” Adam added before Joe could complain. “And what do I do? I get so drunk I couldn’t even bother to stop those vaqueros from beating the daylights out of Joe. And I left you to negotiate with Don Mariano on your own.”
“I did all right.”
“That’s not the point.”
Hoss’s eyes locked on Adam’s…studying, maybe even calculating. Whatever was going on behind that intense, blue gaze started to make Adam nervous. “I thought you had it figured,” Hoss said then.
“Had what figured?”
“When I saw you sharin’ that jug with Little Joe, you were laughing.”
“Getting drunk will do that.”
“No, Adam. Not then. You’d just sat down. Hadn’t even taken a swallow yet. But you were laughing. You and Joe, both.”
“That was right after you took a punch at him.”
“Oh, come on! I did no such thing.” Adam glanced toward Joe and then looked away just as quickly, uncomfortable to realize he was being scrutinized by both of his brothers.
“Sure did,” Hoss countered. “Right after Joe took a punch at you.”
Adam shrugged. “Now that I can believe.” Was Joe actually smiling?
“The way you rode herd on him all day,” Hoss went on, “I couldn’t blame him. I’d have taken a punch at you, too, if you’d hounded me like that.”
“Well, someone had to stop him from getting into trouble with Don Mariano’s men.”
“Why?” Joe asked.
“Why?” Incredulous, Adam turned from Joe to Hoss. “You saw them! They took offense with everything he said!”
“So you just had to step in,” Hoss said. “That about right?”
“That’s exactly right.”
“Adam, by steppin’ in like you did, you got those men to start thinkin’ we had somethin’ to hide.”
“They figured that was why you kept tryin’ to shut Joe up.”
“Oh, for the love of….”
“But after you threw that punch…. Well, I don’t rightly know how it all came about. But those men started laughin.’ And then Joe started laughin.’ Even you got to laughin.’ That’s when they brought out the jug. And I figured you and Joe were finally actin’ like brothers. Not like big brother and little brother, but…more like…like you sometimes act with me.”
Sighing, Hoss pushed at his hat and gave his shoulders a small shrug. “Well, sometimes you hound me, too.”
“I have never hounded you,” Adam scoffed.
Hoss studied him again. “What was that you were sayin’ a minute ago? About how you were supposed to look out for both Joe and me?”
“Looking out is not the same as hounding.”
This time, it was Adam’s turn to study Hoss.
“Look, Adam. All I’m sayin’ is it was good to see you and Joe laughin’ together. Even sharin’ that jug. And when I tried to get you both to go in for supper, you were havin’ such a good time you both just kept tellin’ me to wait. That’s when I reckoned it was time for me to look out for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I joined Don Mariano for supper on my own. Told him you thought you and Joe owed it to his men to work out your differences.”
“What did he have to say to that?”
“He admired your sense of honor.”
“Joe’s honor?” Yes, Joe was definitely smiling. And his smile was getting wider.
“Yep,” Hoss said. “On account of the fact Joe took a punch at you for sayin’ the likes of men like Juan Manuel weren’t worth his attention.”
“Whatever I said, I’m sure it was nothing so callous as that!”
“Oh, it was callous, all right. In fact, I’d say it was downright mean—although I’m pretty sure you didn’t think Juan Manuel could hear you. Weren’t even drunk at the time. Just riled.”
Closing his eyes, Adam rubbed gently at the awakening headache behind his brows. “Riled can be just as bad as drunk.”
“Maybe you’ll remember that next time.”
Hoss’s words were overshadowed by the calculating nature of Adam’s own, well-rested mind. “Wait a minute,” Adam realized suddenly. “You’re saying Joe stood up for Juan Manuel?”
“Then why did Juan Manuel throw a punch at him?”
“I made him a bet,” Joe offered.
“I told him I was so good at reading a man’s eyes I’d know just when to duck.”
Joe cocked his head sideways and lifted his shoulder in a sheepish shrug. “I thought I could tell when he was gettin’ ready to hit me. I figured I could duck in time. Turned out, I couldn’t.”
“Of all the stupid, lame-brained….”
“Viva la pulque,” Joe said with something less than enthusiasm.
Blowing out a rush of air, Adam had to agree. “Maybe so, but…muerto la Joseph.”
“Sure is some shiner you gave him,” Hoss said then.
Adam looked at the dark bruising around Joe’s eye. “I thought that was from Juan Manuel.”
“Nope. Juan Manuel split his lip. It was you gave him the black eye.”
Adam gaped at his youngest brother, amazed to see that Joe was still smiling.
Joe even winked at him — with his good eye, of course. “At least you’re looking a whole lot better this morning,” Joe said teasingly.
And suddenly it was Adam’s turn to feel sheepish. “Sorry, Joe.”
“I swung first,” Joe admitted. “Besides, it was worth it.”
“How on earth could my giving you a black eye be worth it?”
Raising his tin coffee cup in what looked like a toast, Joe declared, “Viva la brothers!”
“Joe…I gave you a black eye!”
“And a night I’ll never forget. A night with a brother I’d never met before.”
So that’s what was going on in that boy’s mind. Adam stiffened. “Is that all this is about? How a night drinking pulque with a bunch of angry vaqueros reminded you of Clay?”
Joe’s smile finally faded. But…it was not supplanted by anger. “Nope,” Joe said softly, meaningfully. “The brother I’d never met before was you.”
Adam stared at him, looking for signs of trickery in Joe’s eyes. He saw none. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I had fun, Adam,” Joe offered. “With you.”
“You got beat up.”
“So,” Joe shrugged, and then grimaced at the resulting discomfort in his bruised ribs. “The fun got a little out of hand. It was still fun. And you know the best part?”
“When you started laughing and stopped working so hard at being my big brother.”
Adam felt his brows rise to his hairline. “You thought it was fun when I sat back and let you get beat up?”
“Maybe especially because you let me get beat up.”
Shaking his head in utter confusion, Adam couldn’t even begin to form words for the enigma his youngest brother represented.
“Besides,” Joe added, “Hoss got them to stop.”
Adam had to appreciate the significance of that statement. “I suppose we both owe you,” he told his bigger younger brother.
Hoss clapped Adam on the back. “And don’t you forget it.”
“I also suppose it’s good to know at least one of us was responsible.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed, “and I suppose it’s my turn next time.”
“I can be responsible.”
“Boy, you don’t know the meaning of the word.”
“How many times do I have to tell you to stop calling me boy?”
“As often as it takes for you to stop acting like one!”
Hoss’s fingers dug into Adam’s shoulder. “If you two boys are about ready, we still got us a lot of ridin’ ahead.”
“I think I’m a long way from boyhood,” Adam said coldly. “Don’t you?”
“Kind’a hard to tell by the way you been actin’. Frankly, I think it’s high time someone rode herd on you for a change.”
Hoss shrugged. “Well, seeing as how I’m the only responsible one on this trip, I reckon that ought’a be me.”
“You think you can ride herd on me?”
“Yep. Just like I been doin’ ever since we left Don Mariano’s.”
It was true, wasn’t it? Adam took in a long breath and then let it out slowly. “Herd away,” he said softly, waving his hand in an exaggerated show of surrender.
“Don’t worry, brother,” Joe said then. “I know a thing or two about gettin’ out from under.” His wink toward Adam was a sure sign that the rest of the journey was not going to be without incident.
Normally, Adam would have been suspicious of the threat secreted in his youngest brother’s statement. At that moment, however, he saw it as more of a challenge than a threat. He even felt a small touch of excitement. “I imagine you do, brother.”
Of course, the challenge would have to wait until Joe was moving more like his old self rather than like the old man his bruised ribs were making him appear to be. He accepted his brothers’ help in saddling Cochise before taking his time mounting up.
An instant later, he kicked his heels against the horse’s flanks and shot out ahead of both his older brothers. “Viva la brothers!” he shouted as he left them eating his dust.
Sharing a bemused shake of his head with Hoss, Adam repeated softly, “I thought he was hurting.”
“Yep.” Hoss scratched his ear. “You reckon maybe he was just pullin’ our leg?”
“I reckon I’ll never understand just what goes on underneath that boy’s hat.”
“Better not let him hear you call him a boy again.”
“Oh, he’ll hear me, all right.”
Sighing, Hoss slipped his foot into the stirrup. “Just do us all a favor, Adam. Would ya’?” he asked as he settled into his own saddle.
“Wait until that black eye of his heals up before you give him another one?”
Adam couldn’t help but start grinning. Then he kicked his own horse, shouted, “Viva la brothers!” and raced out after Little Joe. If Hoss thought he was ready to try riding herd on a brother who knew a thing or two about getting out from under and another brother who knew a thing or two more, who was Adam to stop him from trying?