Summary: Big brothers looking back in time.
Word Count: 1999
The enormous stone fireplace blazed with logs piled high and burning, lighting the room with flickering orange light. An oil lamp sat on the table beside Adam as he read, casting a steady glow over his book. He glanced up from his book to see his father deeply engrossed in a newspaper in his customary chair across the large table. His brother Hoss was seated on that table hunched over a checkerboard, his large hand worrying his chin as he contemplated his next move.
His youngest brother, Joe was slumped on the arm of the sofa, sound asleep with his feet hanging off the side, one of them resting on table.
Adam turned back to his book, but looked up again when his father cleared his throat. Without looking up from his newspaper, he said, “Joseph, take your foot off the table, please.”
Hoss looked up at his opponent. He’d been so busy concentrating on his next move that he hadn’t noticed Joe had left the game. He smiled and reached over and quietly pushed Joe’s foot off the coffee table and watched for a reaction. To his disappointment, there was none. Joe didn’t stir.
Determined to figure out his dilemma, Hoss went back to examining the checkerboard, his eyebrows knit and his mouth bowed up in concentration. Adam grinned and returned to his book. The grandfather clock by the door chimed nine o’clock.
“Dagnabit!” Hoss sat back and stretched his arms over his head. Adam looked up, startled, but more surprised as he glanced at the clock. It was already nine twenty-five and Hoss still hadn’t made his move.
“Hoss, just move that king and get it over with. He’s got ya and you know it,” he advised his brother.
“Well, dadburnit, Adam, there’s just gotta be a way to get outta this mess. If I move that one, he’ll jump all three of my kings and these two too! If I just move one of these guys,” he gestured to his outlying pieces, “he’ll jump them comin’ this way and get the kings on the way back!” Hoss fluttered his thick fingers over the board, demonstrating the hopelessness of his plight to his older brother.
Adam grinned and looked over at their youngest brother. “Quite frankly, Hoss, I don’t think Little Joe’s gonna be finishing the game anyway. Looks like you win by forfeit.”
Hoss followed Adam’s gaze to the settee where Joe was still sprawled, half on his side with one arm over his head and hanging over the arm cushion.
Joe had just returned from nine days riding the line shacks, re-stocking and making repairs in preparation for the long winter to come. On the way back, Cochise had picked up a stone bruise and Joe had walked the last eight miles or so home.
After days on the trail, repairing roofs and corrals, and nine lonely nights in the line shacks, he had been happy to get home. He’d arrived just in time for dinner, exhausted and starving. He’d managed to make it through dinner, happy to have people to talk to again. Cochise was a good horse, but a poor conversationalist.
After dinner, all wanted was to go to bed, but couldn’t tear himself away from the companionship of his family. He’d missed them, as he always did when he was away. This time, on his long walk back, he’d had too much time to think; too much time to contemplate another life. What his life could have been like were it not for his family.
He’d met a lot of drifters and others who had no roots, no family to care, to talk to, to rely on, and who relied on them. Joe was not one to become maudlin, but by the time he crested the last hill and saw his beloved home below, he was emotionally prepared to kiss the floor and never stray more than shouting distance from his family again. Sentimental by nature, he was for a fact, but he knew his current fragile emotions were the result of exhaustion, pure and simple.
“Yeah, I reckon yer right, Adam, but dadburnit, just once I’d like to get outta one ‘a his traps and it’d be me crowin’ fer a change.”
Ben folded his paper and yawned loudly. “Hoss, just leave it. Maybe the solution will come to you in a dream,” he stood beside his chair and stretched. “I’m going up to bed. You’d better do the same, we’ve got to start moving that stock down from the high country tomorrow.” He moved to the stairs and slowly trudged up, but stopped at the landing and turned back to his sons. “Hoss, take your brother upstairs, please. He won’t be able to move a muscle tomorrow if we let him sleep on the settee all night.”
“Yessir, we’ll get him to bed. G’night, Pa,” Hoss called up, still looking at his checkerboard.
“’night, Pa,” Adam added. Adam placed his lucky feather in the book to mark his place, closed it and placed it on the table beside him. He reached over and turned down the lamp and pushed himself stiffly up from the comfortable chair. He moved over to the great fireplace took the iron, pushed the embers far back into the depths of the giant opening and then placed the fire screen in front. The fire had already burned itself low, and would probably be out within an hour if no new fuel was added.
He turned back and moved around the table to stand beside the settee looking down at his brother. “Well, little brother, I guess it’s time to hit the hay.” He bent and pushed at Joe’s shoulder, jostling him. “C’mon, Joe, wake up. Time for bed.”
Hoss finally pulled himself away from his game and stood up, stretching his back muscles. “Now don’t that sound silly, Adam. It’s like ‘wake up and go to sleep’.”
“Well, what should I say? You got a better idea?” Adam shot back irritably.
Joe had not moved.
Hoss came over to stand beside Adam and bent over to examine Joe closely. “You reckon he’s still alive?”
Adam reached for Joe’s out flung arm, lifted it and made a show of checking his pulse. “Well, he’s got a pulse,” he said solemnly as he dropped the arm carelessly across Joe’s chest. “I guess that means he’s livin’.”
“Well, ya sure can’t tell it from lookin’ at ‘im.” Hoss reached down and shook Joe’s foot. “C’mon sleepyhead, time to go…” He’d almost said it too and he looked sheepishly at Adam.
Adam crossed his arms, swung around and grinned at his brother, his deep dimples made wells of shadow on his dark face.
Hoss snuffed and lifted his nose. “Well, you got any bright ideas, big brother?”
“Well, younger brother, it seems to me we’re two strong, able-bodied men. We should be able to get one skinny little brother up those steps.”
Hoss put the back of his hand against Adams arm and lightly brushed him away. “Stand aside, Adam,” he said imperiously. “I done this a few times b’fore.”
Adam stepped back as Hoss bent over Little Joe and hoisted his limp body into his arms. Adam’s brow furrowed as memories came flooding back. Like an aroma that brings back memories from years past, Hoss’ fluid movement of lifting Joe from the couch opened the floodgate of memories from when the three of them were growing up.
Adam stepped aside as Hoss made his way to the stairs. Joe was oblivious, folded almost in half in his brother’s arms, his chin buried deep in his shoulder against Hoss’ chest, and both arms dangling. “Dang, he’s a sight heavier than last time we did this,” Hoss grunted as he made his way up the steps.
Adam stepped over to lower the wick on the lamp by his father’s chair, and then followed his brothers up the stairs.
Adam followed Hoss into Joe’s room and scooted around Hoss to fold the covers down on the bed. He watched as Hoss placed their brother on the bed and then they both began to take off Joe’s boots.
Joe hadn’t moved an eyelash, groaned or even snored. Adam struggled with a recalcitrant boot, unconcerned that his tugging would wake his brother. He knew from past experience that when Joe was like this, a locomotive running right through the room wouldn’t wake him.
“Say, Adam, you remember when we used ta…”
“I know just what you’re gonna say,” Adam interrupted. “When we used to have to put Joe to bed and we started putting him in places other than his bed?”
Hoss guffawed, “Yup, that’s just what I was gonna say. How long that been you ‘spect?”
The boot finally popped off, sending Adam back a few steps on the momentum. He tossed it on the floor and sank into the chair where Joe normally draped his clothes at night. “Oh, I reckon seven or eight years. He went through a growth spurt or something.”
”Yeah, yeah,” Hoss laughed, “he’d come home from school and then put in a full day of mischief makin’. He’d play and run and ride all afternoon ‘til supper, then about a’ hour after supper, he’d pass out on the sofa and Pa’d make us take him up to bed. As I recall, you an’ me got just a tad tired of bein’ pack horses ever’ night.”
Adam watched as Hoss finished with his boot, then looked over at him. “Ya reckon we should take his clothes off?”
Adam flapped his hand tiredly, “Nyah, just the belt.”
Hoss shrugged and started unbuckling Joe’s belt and then slid it off through the belt loops. With the tugging on his waist, Joe finally stirred and rolled over on his side with a groan, then went still again.
Adam smiled at the memory. “You remember the time we put him up in the loft?”
Hoss laughed out loud. “Boy, that sure was a trick getting’ him up there without wakin’ him. And the time we put him in Pa’s bed after Pa’d gone to sleep?”
Adam shook with the suppressed laughter. “Pa woke up the next morning and felt someone beside him and flung himself on the floor!”
Hoss was bent at the waist, hands on his knees laughing. “Pa never did know it was us. He just thought Joe got in the wrong bed,” he was laughing so hard he could hardly talk.
Adam still chuckled. “I dunno how long that went on, but Joe never said a word. He’d just wake up and find himself in strange places and never say nothin’. We’d see him come in the front door in his nightshirt and just sit down at the table and start eatin’ like nothing unusual had happened.”
Hoss sat on the side of the bed and reached over to pull the covers up over his brother. Joe had settled in and looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “Think he ever figured it out?”
“Oh, I think eventually he did ‘cause he stopped falling asleep on the sofa,” Adam said logically. “I think he figured every time he did that, he never knew where he’d wake up, so he started going to bed by himself at a decent hour.”
“Yeah, I remember I was kinda glad ‘cause we was runnin’ out of places to put him.” Hoss wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. “We was kinda mean to him sometimes, wasn’t we?”
Adam agreed silently. They sat for a minute and watched Joe sleep, both lost in happy memories. Finally Adam pushed himself up. “Well, I guess we’d better get to bed too.”
Hoss rose from the bed and followed his brother to the door. At the door he turned and looked back at Joe. “Say, Adam, you wanna…?”