Word Count: 1200
His eyes were closed tight, his lips pressed tightly together, and he pinched the bridge of his nose sharply between two fingers.
At that moment, everything about Adam Cartwright was dark, tight and sharp.
He sighed – a sharp exhale that sounded more like a snort of exasperation – then opened his eyes to look up at his brother, who stood frowning at him from across the campfire.
But unlike that of his brother, Joe’s frustration was wide open and without reservation.
Green eyes sparked with fury, his nostrils flared, and his lower lip was thrust out in defiance.
“For the last time, Joe,” Adam began, but Joe’s explosive response made it clear he had already tolerated “the last time” from his brother.
“Dammit, Adam, I’m not gonna do it!”
Now it was Adam whose temper was pushed to its limit. “You are gonna do it, and if you’ll shut up for just a minute, I’ll tell you why!”
“Don’t tell me to shut up! You’ve been tellin’ me, all right; all day and all night, you’ve been tellin’ me, and you still haven’t said one word that’s made any sense. Now why don’t you shut up for a change, and listen to why I’m sayin’ I won’t do it!”
“I did listen, Joe, but you…”
Joe cut his brother off with a savage motion that slashed the space between them. “You didn’t hear a word I said. You never listen; your mind’s already made up. I’m trying to tell you…”
Adam stood up and took a step toward his brother. He didn’t intend for the gesture to appear threatening, but Joe’s response told Adam immediately that his brother had interpreted it as such. Although younger and smaller, and although Joe had lost every physical contest in which he’d ever engaged with his brother, that never stopped him from rising up to meet any challenge, real or imagined. Tonight was no exception.
Joe moved forward so quickly that he was upon his brother before Adam realized what had happened. Adam blinked in surprise, but was not at any level intimidated.
“Aw, Joe,” Adam began, but Joe once again cut him off.
“No, let’s settle this once and for all,” Joe snapped.
Adam glared at his brother, but the argument had escalated to another level of confrontation, whether he liked it or not.
“I’m not going to fight you, Joe,” Adam said stiffly, but Joe seemed not to hear.
“You wanna tell me what to do, you want me to listen, well, I’m listening now, big brother. Whaddaya have to say now?”
“I say you’re acting like a kid. Settle down and reason this out like a man.”
Adam couldn’t have chosen a better way to inflame his brother’s temper than by calling him a kid, but whether his words were intentional or unfortunate, it was too late, and Adam knew it; Joe’s eyes glittered like fire.
And then Adam grinned.
This response was so sudden, so unexpected, that Joe stumbled, both physically and emotionally. “Wha – what’s so funny?” he sputtered, trying to collect himself.
Adam shook his head, almost chuckling now. “Nothing,” he replied. “It’s just that, well, Joe, you know what, it doesn’t even matter. It’s not worth fighting about, that’s for sure, one way or the other. If you don’t want to do it, fine. It doesn’t make any difference.”
Joe was having a hard time keeping up with this unanticipated turn of events. “Then why…?”
Adam shrugged, turned casually back toward the fire and crouched down again to pick up the coffee pot, as he’d been doing when the argument first began. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied easily, his voice as nonchalant as if they had been discussing the weather. “I thought it was a good idea. But if you don’t think so, well, that’s fine.”
Joe scuffed the dirt with the toe of his boot, studying his brother as Adam poured coffee into a tin cup, then leaned over to retrieve a second cup from his saddle bag.
“Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t a good idea,” Joe began, somewhat uncertainly. “What I was sayin’ was, what I was tryin’ to say was, uh, I was thinkin’ it might be better to just do it the other way.”
Adam poured coffee into the second cup and, without glancing at Joe, held it out toward his brother. “Mm. You’re probably right.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Joe reached over and took the cup. Adam returned the pot to its place near the fire. Still without looking up, he picked up his own cup, settled back on the blanket tossed casually over his saddle, and began to sip his coffee.
Joe continued to kick at the dust, holding his cup with both hands, watching his brother over the rim as he inhaled the fragrance of the hot, dark brew. Adam sighed contentedly, leaned back against the saddle and gazed pensively toward the fire as if contemplating nothing more contentious than the interaction of the hot, glowing fire against the cold, dark night.
Joe exhaled as if he’d been holding his breath for a long time. At the same time, and all in one motion, he moved around the fire and folded his legs so that he was sitting next to his brother, on his own blanket, propped up against his own saddle, and stared into the fire as though searching for the vision his brother saw.
Adam’s eyes flickered toward his brother with amused indulgence as Joe began to speak. Joe shrugged elaborately to emphasize his careless manner, but it was obvious that he was choosing his words deliberately as he spoke. “I don’t know … maybe you’re right. There’s no reason why I can’t do it.”
Adam sipped his coffee carefully. “Well, whatever you think,” he murmured.
“That’s what I think.”
“Hmm. Well, all right then.”
The brothers sat in silence for a little while longer. Whatever anger had overwhelmed either of them earlier drifted away with the smoke into the silence of the night sky.
“I’m gonna turn in,” Adam finally said. “Morning comes early.”
“Sure does,” Joe agreed. His voice had lost its lingering edge of grudging annoyance and was once again light, almost cheerful.
Without giving it any thought whatsoever, Joe scooted down, reached around his shoulder to catch the edge of his blanket, and then rolled over, pulling the blanket with him as he did to cover himself. Behind him, Adam did the same with his own blanket, snaking out a hand to adjust his hat, tilting the brim to shield his eyes from the glow of the fire.
As they always did – as they always had – the Cartwright brothers snuggled down to sleep next the campfire, Joe closest to the fire and Adam beside and behind him so that Joe was kept warm in between.
Adam was almost asleep…in fact, he was asleep when his brother’s drowsy voice roused him back to a dreamy wakefulness.
“Adam? You really think so?”
Adam sighed – softly this time – and murmured, “Yeah, Joe. And you will too.”