Word Count: 1200
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” The thought flashed in his mind, but he clenched his jaw and swallowed it off his tongue. The last time he had said it out loud, his brother had turned and pinned him with a burning glare. “Well, you’re not me, and I ain’t you, and I ‘m never going to be!” Then Little Joe had turned his back to him and muttered, “I couldn’t be if I tried.” After which, Joe had proceed to do exactly what he had intended to do. It had not turned out as badly as it could have; the boy had broken only his collarbone and not his neck.
Adam drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly through his nose. Turning on his heel, he walked out of the saloon exchanging a glace with his brother Hoss on the way. He walked over to the hitching rail, set both hands flat upon it, and leaned against it staring into the darken street. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” Never once in all the times he had said it to his baby brother had Little Joe paid heed, but then again the only time he himself had ever heeded the same warning was when it was uttered in his Pa’s stentorian tones. None of Ben Cartwright’s sons was fool enough not to recognize an order from Pa or doubt the consequences for ignoring one. Hoss had said it to them both and been routinely ignored every time.
Adam’s lips curled in a wry grin, and then he heard footsteps behind him. He turned to see his oversized little brother with Ben Cartwright’s unconscious youngest son slung over his shoulder. Adam sighed. “Any real damage done?”
“Don’t think so, but it might be better to get a room at the hotel and bed him down there just in case something shows up later.”
“I suppose so, but the entire bill is going on Little Joe’s account, not the Ponderosa’s.” His arms crossed, and he tugged at his left ear. “Pa’s going to fret all night if none of us comes home.”
“So we flip to see who sits with baby brother, and who rides home and tells Pa?” Hoss shifted and resettled his brother more securely on his shoulder.
“You trust me alone with him?” Adam asked with a rueful grin.
“Not really, but. . . Do you relish being the one to tell Pa?”
“No! We’ll flip for it then.” Adam pulled a coin from his pocket. “Call it.”
“Heads,” Hoss replied.
Adam caught the coin and slapped it down on the back of his left hand. “Tails! You tell Pa.”
“Maybe I just want a chance at little brother before Pa has his.”
Hoss shook his head and started walking toward the hotel. After Adam secured a room, Hoss carried Joe up the stairs. As Hoss let his brother’s body flop onto the bed, Little Joe stirred and groaned.
“Seems he’s coming round,” Hoss observed.
“So we can put the worry that he won’t behind us. Which leaves me a clear path for. . .”
“Now, Adam, don’t. . .”
Adam stared down at his brother. “He’s not a boy any longer, he’s not a boy any longer, he’s not…” he chanted the phrase in an apparent attempt to convince himself of its truth in the face of insurmountable evidence to the contrary. Little Joe’s mumbling as he opened his eyes brought a halt to the recitation. Adam sat down on the edge of the bed. “Joe, Joe, let me have a look at your eyes. Little Joe turned his head from side to side until Adam locked his brother’s chin in a death grip. “His eyes aren’t dilated; I don’t think there’s a concussion, at least not a major one.”
“I’ll be heading to the ranch then.” Hoss stated moving toward the door.
Joe moaned. He had heard the tone in his elder brother’s voice, even if his view of Adam’s eyes had been blurry. “Don’t leave me alone with him,” he said pleadingly.
Hoss looked at Adam’s face and then shrugged. “You made your own bed, Short Shanks. You already owe me for being the one to have to tell Pa.”
Little Joe’s next groan was deeper. “You couldn’t just. . .”
“No, he couldn’t.” Adam’s statement left no room for argument.
“See ya to tomorrow. The earlier the better, I’d reckon.” Hoss chuckled and made his way out the door.
As it closed, Adam asked, “The truth, Joe, should I send for Doc Martin?”
“Yea, since Hoss has deserted me, I may need him.”
Adam relaxed slightly. In all reality, Little Joe had been seriously hurt enough to recognize when he had suffered real injury. His little brother’s asking for the doctor was a sure sign that he did not need one. “You want your comeuppance before or after I take off your belts and boots?”
“After, much after.”
“Joe . . .”
“I know, Adam, but, well, you know me.”
Adam shook his head and then chuckled, “Since the day you were born.” He stood up and divested Joe of his gunbelt, belt, and boots. “Unbutton your pants, and I’ll pull them off too.”
Little Joe’s eyes had cleared and most of the fog had left his mind. “Maybe I should keep them on.”
Adam glanced up. “You’ll be more comfortable without them, besides I seem to remember being at your twentieth birthday party.”
“My twenty-first is still eight months away.”
“That’s between you and Pa.”
Little Joe sighed and undid the buttons on his pants. Adam tugged them off and then hung then neatly over the back of the chair. “Shirt?”
Little Joe undid the buttons and shrugged out of the garment. Adam watched Joe’s coordination closely and caught the shirt when Joe tossed it to him. Then he hung it over the pants. “Go to sleep, Joe. Like Hoss said, it would be a good idea to be home early tomorrow, and I’ll have to keep waking you through the night.”
“I’m going to walk over and fetch our saddlebags from the livery.”
When Adam returned, Little Joe was curled up under the covers. Adam undressed, blew out the light, but then walked over to stare out the window at the moon.
“Adam.” Little Joe’s voice was soft and not slurred by slumber.
“What?” Adam had known his brother was not asleep.
“Why didn’t you stop me?”
“Could I have?”
“You didn’t try.”
“No, I . . .well, I guess . . .do you think I should have?” Adam turned and stared through the darkness between them.
“I. . .not that I want you to, but I guess I always expect you to.”
“If I had thought Hoss couldn’t stop it before you got truly hurt, we would have toted you out of there kicking and screaming.”
“I would have hated you for that,” Joe whispered, “at least for awhile.”
“I know. Would have done it anyway.”
Joe smiled and pulled the covers up around him. “Night, Elder Brother.”
Adam turned back to gaze again at the moon. “Night, Little Buddy.”