Little Man, Big Man (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,444


 

Little Joe hurried to slip into his trousers before his father’s bellowing voice shook the house for the second time.  Ben had yelled once already and by the tone of his voice, Little Joe could tell that his father’s patience had worn thin.  He’d have to hurry or he’d be in big trouble.

Joe rushed into the hallway, his shirt opened, his trousers barely hugging his slim hips and a boot was tucked under each arm as he tried to button his shirt and snap his pants, all at the same time.

The second door on the right of the hall opened and Hoss stepped into the hallway, nearly colliding with his younger brother.

“Hey, watch where you’re going, ya big lug,” grumbled Little Joe as he paused momentarily to button one button on his shirt.

“Me?” stormed Hoss, “why don’t ya watch where ya goin’?  And why ain’t ya dressed?  Ya know Pa don’t like for ya to come downstairs half naked,” laughed Hoss.

He couldn’t help snickering, Joe’s shirt was buttoned lopsided and the boy hadn’t even noticed.  When Hoss glanced down toward the floor, he noticed that Joe somehow managed to slip his boots on as he hurried along, but had his boots on the wrong feet as well.  He snickered again and then wormed his way past his brother as he hurried downstairs to breakfast.

“I ain’t half naked,” Joe called out to Hoss, but Hoss ignored the smart retort and kept moving on toward the table where his bountiful breakfast awaited him.

The big man sat down, grinning from ear to ear at the spread on the table.  He rubbed his huge hands together and grabbed for the plate of flapjacks, filling his plate full with more than half of what was on the serving platter.

“Yummy yum,” he chirped happily.  “These sure do look good, Hop Sing,” he grinned.

“Well, I hope you saved a few for me!” snapped Joe as he sat down and snatched the platter from Hoss’ hand.

“Aw…Joe, I saved ya one or two,” giggled Hoss, as he drowned his flapjacks in the thick maple syrup that Hop Sing had placed on the table.

“One or two…Lookit this, Pa…he wasn’t foolin’,” Joe whined.  “There ain’t but two left!”

He held his plate up so that his father could see that he had not been joking about how many cakes Hoss had left for him.

Ben shook his head slowly from side to side in aggravation.

“Joseph, if you wanted more than two pancakes for your breakfast, you should have gotten up and down here to breakfast a might faster.  And look at your shirt…it’s buttoned all wrong!” stormed Ben.

“For goodness sake, must I still dress you?” he practically shouted.

Adam, who had remained silent, could no longer hold his amusement, and he laughed out loud.  The sound earned him a stern look from his father and a perplexed stare from the youngest member of the family.

“What’s so funny?” Joe growled.

“Nothing,” Adam said quickly, as his smile disappeared.  No sense in making his father angry with him, Ben was already agitated enough by Joe’s tardiness and his disheveled appearance at the breakfast table.

Adam glanced under the table, an action that did not go unnoticed by his younger brother.  He glared angrily at Adam.

“Now what?” Joe demanded as his eyes swept the floor trying to find whatever it was that his brother had seen.

Adam chanced a quick glance around the table and suffered himself not to smile.

“Nothing,” he repeated and then washed his laughter down with a swig of his coffee.  “But later today, if your feet start hurting, you might try putting your boots on the right feet.”

“WHAT!” shouted Joe as he pushed himself back from the table and stared in disbelief at his boots.

Hoss and Ben both burst into loud laughter that seemed to annoy the youngest family member.  Adam covered his mouth with his hand and shook his head slowly, as he eyed Hoss, who now had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard and then glanced, at his father. Ben had covered his face with his hand to try and hide his amusement.

Joe jumped to his feet, slinging his napkin down on his plate.  He cast angry eyes around the table at his snickering family and stomped to the front door, the sudden swelling of tears in his troubled eyes having gone unnoticed by the men whose laughter was left ringing in his ears.

“JOSEPH!  Come back here,” shouted Ben amid the sound of his giggling sons.  His words failed to reach his youngest son’s ears for the slamming of the door had drowned them out.

Once outside in the crisp morning air, Joe inhaled deeply and swiped his sleeve across the front of his face.  He glanced down at his feet, Adam had not been kidding; his boots were on the wrong feet.

Joe made his way to the rocking chair and pulled off both boots and placed them on the correct feet.  He sighed deeply and leaned his head against the back of the chair. His family’s laughter and gentle teasing had hurt his feelings.  Oh, they hadn’t meant to, and for sure, Joe should have been used to their ragging by now, but there were days, such as this, that it grated on his nerves and left him feeling as if he’d never measure up to his brothers or his father.  This morning’s teasing had left him feeling unsure of himself, small in comparison to the others. Not in stature…that really did not bother him, he accepted the fact that he was never going to be as tall as Adam was, or as large in girth as Hoss or even his father, but small, in the way he felt about himself.  He was a little man…in every aspect of the word…according to how his family had just made him feel.

Joe pushed himself up from the chair and headed to the barn.  The fact that his stomach was growling from lack of food did nothing to soothe Joe’s hurt feelings in the least.  He quickly saddled his horse and mounted up.  As he rounded the corner of the barn on his way out of the yard, he glanced over his shoulder toward his home.  Again he sighed and just as quickly his vision blurred by the tears that clouded his eyes.

Sadly, Little Joe spurred his mount into action and left his home behind him.

“Someday,” he mumbled to himself, “they will see me as a man…and not a little boy, maybe…just maybe.”

*****

“Okay, boys, that’s enough.  I think I’d better go find your brother and apologize to him,” Ben said as he wiped the smile from his face.  “And, sometime today, I expect the two of you to do the same, is that clear?” Ben eyed both Adam and Hoss and each one knew that their father meant business.

“Sure, Pa,” Adam promised.  “I couldn’t help myself though, when I looked down and saw his boots on the wrong feet, I almost spit out my coffee,” he grinned.

“Yeah, ya should’ve seen him hoppin’ around upstairs tryin’ to button his shirt and snap his trousers at the same time he was aputtin’ on his boots,” hee-hawed Hoss and then quickly remembered to wipe the toothy grin from his face.  “Hum…sorry, Pa,” Hoss said after clearing his throat.

Ben’s brow drew together as he eyeballed his sons.  “I have to admit, he didn’t appear his best this morning, and we were pretty hard on him.  He’s at the age where he prides himself in his appearance and tries so hard to convince us that he’s a man now…not a boy.”  Ben pushed back his chair and stood up.  Ben smiled; pride showed in his dark eyes and that same pride overflowed into his words.

“I hate to admit it, but Joe is growing up…nearly seventeen already.”  Ben sighed; his eyes took on a faraway look about them.  Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing glances and each smiled as they watched the transformation take place on Ben’s face.

“Where have the years gone?  It seems just like yesterday that Little Joe was just toddling around, getting underfoot and now, just look at him…he’s become my little man.”

Adam quickly looked over at Hoss and wasn’t at all surprised to see his brother looking his way.  Adam’s dark brows rose slightly and he turned quickly to his father.

“I don’t think I would let Little Joe hear you calling him a little man, Pa.  He’s pretty touchy about that…he’s even gotten to the point that he’s snapped at me for referring to him as ‘Little Joe’,” Adam said with a measure of concern to his voice.

Ben seemed to snap back from his daydream and he studied Adam’s face.  “Has he, now?”

“Sure ‘nough, Pa…like to have bit my head off yesterday evenin’, in the barn.  Got riled quicker than a rattler, and all I said to’em was, ‘hey, Little Joe’!”

“I had no idea, he felt that way,” Ben seemed truly surprised.  “Guess I’d better go have a talk with the boy…ere…Lit…Joe.”  Ben smiled at his blunder and tossed his napkin on the table.  “Hoss, don’t forget you’ve got that ride into Carson City to collect that seed corn.  Don’t dally; it’ll be nearly dark as it is before you get home.”  Ben turned toward the door but stopped and turned around.  He pointed his finger in Hoss and Adam’s direction.  “Remember what I said about telling Lit…Joe you’re sorry for teasing him, please.”

“Alright, Pa,” nodded Adam.

“Sure thing, don’t worry none, we’ll fix things with the kid!”  Hoss couldn’t help but to smile innocently up at his father.

Ben fought the urge to return the smile and wiggled his finger at Hoss.

*****

Joe was well passed the boundary lines of the ranch before he pulled Cochise to a stop in order to rest.  The long ride had cleared his muddled thoughts and being out, in the wide open, gave renewed feeling to his troubled soul.  He leaned forward and rubbed his hand up and down his horse’s long, silky neck.

“That was quite a ride, heh, fella?” Joe muttered to his horse.

He slid from the saddle and led Cochise over to the shade of a huge tree and laced the reins over the top of a low hanging branch.  Cochise bobbed his head up and down as Joe scratched at the velvety nose.

The boy smiled at his horse.  “You sure are somethin’,” he whispered as he nuzzled with his horse.

He remembered his last birthday, when his father had presented him with the horse as a gift.  Joe recalled being so overwhelmed with joy and pride that he had been totally at a loss for words and had stood silently, grappling for words with which to thank his father.

Adam and Hoss had laughed at him and poked fun at the tears that had filled his eyes. But later they had apologized for teasing him, telling him that they knew how he felt and that they realized that the tears were tears of joy.  Adam had even admitted to him that any boy, receiving such a magnificent animal as a birthday present from their father, would be brought to tears.  Some of the sting had been taken out of their teasing by their apology, but none the less, part of his joy had been snatched from him as well.

It seemed to Joe just then, as he stood reminiscing about his past, that much of it had been spent listening to his brothers apologizing to him for one thing or another, usually the merciless teasing about his size or age or the fact that he cried at the drop of a hat.  It was no secret though that the apologizing had been forced on them, most of the time, only after they had reduced him to tears and then only if their father had caught on to their harassing and insisted that they do so.

Joe found his bad mood from earlier that morning, returning.  Why was it, he asked himself, that his brothers could not accept him for who he was?  He was just as much a brother to Adam as Adam was to Hoss and Hoss was to him.  It made no sense to Joe as he tried to figure out his station in life, for Adam was six years older than Hoss and Hoss six years older than he was.  Same difference, so why pick on him all of the time?  Sure, they had different mothers, but they shared the same father…and hadn’t Ben always make it clear to them all, that he loved them equally, not one more than the other two and not two more than one?

Joe looked up at the sun and noted how far it had dipped in the sky.  It was well past noontime and he knew he should be getting back.  It would be nearly dark before he reached the ranch unless he rode hard.   Joe knew that if his father had to come looking for him, he’d be in for a long lecture about how far he was allowed to stray from the house and how being out after dark was unsafe and Joe groaned at the thoughts.

“Come on Cooch…might as well start home,” Joe groaned again.

He swung gracefully up into the saddle and nudged gently at the horse’s sides.  Joe hadn’t realized how far he really had strayed from the house.  Pa would be furious if he found out that he had crossed the boundary lines.  Ben had always given him the run of the ranch, but he hadn’t quite gotten so lenient yet that he would permit his youngest son to venture off the ranch without either himself of one of his brothers; just another quirk that stuck in Joe’s craw.

“I’ll probably have to be thirty years old before Pa will even allow me to go into town without Adam or Hoss having to tag along,” he grumbled softly to himself.  “Ain’t fair,” he spat.

*****

“Thanks Mr. Harden, see ya next trip!” called Hoss over his shoulder.  He tossed up his hand and then clicked to the horses.  “Giddy-up,” he snapped the reins against the horses’ rumps.

Hoss had driven the team several miles, lost in his own thoughts as they ambled along.  When he glanced up at the sky, he pinched his lips tightly together and sighed deeply.  He was miles from home, and the sun was setting fast.  It would be after dark by the time he reached home, just as his father had predicted, and he was hungry.  As if to prove the point, his stomach rumbled deeply.  Hoss laughed softly to himself.  To take his mind off his ever-growing hunger, he thought back to that morning and the scene as Joe had been in the hall.  Hoss stifled a giggle, Joe had been a sight, his hair all mussed, his shirt buttoned lopsided and trying to snap his trousers while putting on his boots, all at the same time.  And then, Hoss had been unable to contain his amusement when Adam had pointed out the fact to the youngster that his boots were on the wrong feet.

He finally laughed and shook his head.  “Sorry, Joe,” he mumbled aloud.

Hoss’ thoughts remained on the subject and he worried that when his father had gone out to the barn, Ben had not been able to find Joe.  Ben had come back inside and told Adam and himself that Joe had already saddled up and left.  He had started to feel guilty about teasing the boy and had wanted to offer his apology before having to take the wagon and team to Carson City for the seed corn.  And though he had looked everywhere for his brother before leaving, he had been unable to find the kid.  Disheartened, he had left without saying he was sorry.

For another hour or so, Hoss let the team set their own pace, but when he crossed over the boundary line that told him he was now on the Ponderosa, he urged the team into a swifter gait.  Glancing up, his thoughts on the darkening sky, Hoss was unaware that the team had strayed too far to the left side of the road.  When the horses began jerking and pulling on their lead, Hoss’ thoughts were brought back to the present, too late.  The horses spooked and bolted into a gallop, snatching the reins from Hoss’ hands.  The wagon bumped and bounced along the rutted road, jarring Hoss out of the seat and onto the floor of the wagon.  The horses pushed forward, running at neckbreak speed, slinging the wagon from side to side.  Hoss fought with all his might to right himself, but in his side he felt the ever growing pain of broken or cracked ribs and the continual tossing of the wagon made it next to impossible for him to find his footing.

Suddenly, the wagon swayed to the right.  Hoss heard the snapping of the wagon tongue and could only watch in horror as the team of frightened horses broke free, sending the wagon and its occupant careening down the ravine at a frightening speed straight toward the creek bed, where water flowed downstream at a steady flow.  Hoss could do nothing but cling to the sides of the wagon.  Sacks of seed corn were tossed from the back, splitting open and spraying the ground with the valued merchandise. The wagon bounced on a large rock, leaving the ground as it flew through the air and landing with a horrible thud in the middle of the creek, where parts of it shattered into pieces.

The last thing that Hoss remembered before everything went black was the sound of his voice as he screamed out his agony. As the cold river water lapped in ringlets around his body, he lay motionless; his legs pinned beneath the heavy wagon that had landed on its side.

Minutes later, Hoss awoke, shivering from the wetness that had soaked his clothing.  He groaned and raised his head, trying to collect his confused thoughts.

When Hoss tried to move, he found himself unable to do so and frantically he looked about to survey the damage.  The piercing pain he felt in his legs frightened the big man, as he moved his arms and placed his large beefy hands to the rim of the wagon and tried to lift it from his legs.  The wagon refused to budge and after a second unsuccessful attempt, Hoss gave in to his plight and stopped trying.

“Dadburnitall,” he muttered with a painful groan.

Hoss turned his head up toward the top of the ravine, squinting his sees, to see the sacks of seed corn strewn about through the dense trees.  The sight of the much-needed seed made him sick to his stomach. Not only had his father had great need of it, so had several of the other nearby ranchers who had entrusted Hoss with their money in order for him to be able to make their purchases for them.

Hoss felt as if he wanted to cry, but refused to give in to his despair. He was unsure which hurt him more, the pain in his battered body or the fact that several of his father’s friends had depended on him and he had let them down.

Hoss knew he was in a grave position; he was alone on a lonely road that was seldom used by anyone other than his family.  He was far from home, it was getting dark and he was in more pain than he’d ever remembered feeling before.  His predicament was grave, he was cold and his body shivered again to remind him of the swift flowing water that had rolled over the lower half of his body.

Hoss laid his head back against the stones that served as his pillow.  His head had begun to hurt and his stomach, long overdue for a hearty meal, suddenly felt sick.  For a few minutes, his mind was taken off the hurting in his legs as he struggled to keep the foul tasting bile that boiled up from his insides, down, where it belonged.  Hoss groaned and pinched his eyes and lips tightly shut.

“Oh Lordy,” he mumbled as he surrendered himself over to his pain.  The blackened world of obscurity claimed him then for the second time.

*****

Joe knew he should hurry.  Pa would be furious with him as it was for leaving this morning without informing him of where he’d be going.  But he really didn’t care, at least not at the moment.  He had been so hurt by his family’s teasing that he hadn’t thought to take a minute and tell his pa that he was just going for a ride.

Joe felt a stab of remorse in his gut.  He knew Ben would worry about him.  His father was so protective of him; overly protective surmised Joe as he urged Cochise into a trot.  He’d never been able to understand his father’s motives for his protective nature, but summed it up to the fact that Ben had never really trusted him.  The fact was wrong, naturally, but Joe didn’t see it that way.  He felt again the pangs of pity as he thought about the closeness between his father and his older brothers.  Ben was always allowing them the freedom to come and go as they chose and then giving them the opportunities to do the more important chores and duties around the ranch.  Adam took care of the books for his father’s mining and lumber operations.  Hoss was in charge of buying and selling the cattle, and hadn’t Ben spoken with pride in the manner in which Hoss had introduced that new line of cattle into the herd.  And wasn’t Hoss responsible for the success that the new breed had brought, dollar-wise, on the market?

Joe couldn’t help but feel inferior to the rest of the family.  Ben had begun years ago, establishing his empire, his brothers were quickly becoming successful businessmen and it seemed to Joe that his father had overlooked his ability to do anything that might add to the building or expansion of their ranching, mining, cattle or lumber business.  Joe sighed and wiped the tears that had accumulated in his eyes.

He had a good eye for horses, Adam had even admitted to that, but Ben had only raised his brows in surprise at his older son’s statement.  When his father had turned to his youngest son and only smiled and ruffled his curls, Joe had felt his self-pride flounder and then spiral downward.

Joe’s self pity was growing in leaps and bounds as he allowed his troubled thoughts to pull him deeper into self-loathing.  “I’ll show ya…all of ya…someday I’ll do something special…so special that you’ll fall all over yourselves trying to thank me!” determined Joe.  He nodded his head and then pulled his body upward to where it made him appear taller in the saddle than he actually was.

For several more minutes he rode along the lonely road that edged the top of the ravine and the swiftly flowing creek far below.  The squawking of crows over his head caught his attention and he looked upward, shielding his eyes from the sun’s rays that still shone brightly heedless of the late hour.

“Strange,” he muttered, as he shrugged his shoulders and continued on toward home.

Joe soon forgot about the loud crows as he lost himself amid his troubles once more.  He’d ridden about a mile further when he was distracted from his musings when Cochise snorted loudly.

“Whoa,” Joe commanded his horse while pulling back on the reins.  “What the…”

Joe stared at the team of horses that stood harnessed together, grazing contentedly on the thick grass.  The closer he drew to the pair, the more his eyes opened in surprise.  He dismounted only a few feet from the team that he recognized as belonging to his father.  Slowly and quietly, Joe talked to the horses that had stopped grazing to stare at him.  When he was within reach, Joe grabbed the lead rope and held it tightly in his hand.  One of the horses closest to him nudged him with the end of its nose.

“Easy fella,” Joe said in a calm voice that belied the rapid beating of his heart.

Quickly he searched over the horses to see if either had been injured in some way and hoped that he might find a clue as to where his brother was.  He knew that Hoss was supposed to have used the team this morning when he went to Carson City on an errand for his father and some of the other ranchers.

Joe glanced anxiously around.  His heart was in his throat for he had seen how the horses had broken their harnesses and instantly knew that somehow, for whatever reason, they had gotten away from his brother.  Joe’s fear subsided briefly as he pictured in his mind, Hoss having to walk home in the dark.  Joe could just about hear his father’s bellowing voice as he shouted at his middle son for being so neglectful in how he’d hitched the team or in how his brother had tethered the pair.

As quickly as the thought pushed its way through his head, the fear shoved its way back in.  Common sense told the boy that his middle brother was much more capable than what he was giving Hoss credit.

“Something’s wrong,” Joe whispered as he led the team over to where Cochise was standing.  He swung himself into the saddle and turned back the way he had just come, all the time trying to think clearly as to which way his brother might have been traveling.

Joe’s eyes swept the sides of the road, ever mindful of the danger that he feared might have come to his brother.  His heart felt the thin sharp edge of doom.  What if something bad had happened to Hoss?  Could he ever forgive himself for leaving that morning without saying a word to the brother whom he considered his best friend as well?  Joe had been angry with Hoss, mad and hurt because of the teasing and when he’d left, he’d had no intentions of giving Hoss, or anyone else, a chance to apologize.  Now, hours later, his heart filled with remorse, Joe wished he had not been so impulsive and had not left in such a hurry.

Joe felt a sob stick in his throat.  Suppose he never got the chance to tell Hoss that he wasn’t mad at him anymore, and that he was sorry for being so short tempered and that in truth, the teasing didn’t really bother him.  Joe knew in that instance that he had been mad at no one, other than himself that morning.  He had taken his ill feelings out on those who were closest; those that he knew loved him more than anyone else in the whole world.

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” Joe whispered into the wind and then wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.

He pushed his feelings aside mentally, and made his way down the road.  The team of horses was slowing his search; but he knew that if he didn’t drag them along with him, and Hoss needed the team to pull the wagon home, he’d be in more trouble than he cared to be.

The sky was growing darker and a crisp breeze that had sprung up in the air.  It would be chilly soon, when the sun sank behind the high mountain peaks and without his jacket, Joe had already begun to feel the chill in his body.

“I hope I find ya soon, Hoss,” Joe said to himself.

Joe had made his way as far as the boundary line and still had seen no sign of his brother or the missing wagon.  Discouraged, he turned all the horses around and started back the way he had just come.  This time he took special care to search the surrounding areas as he passed and to study the ground, searching for anything that might alert him to his brother.

“HOSS!” he shouted at the top of his voice.

Joe paused and listened carefully.  Nothing except the singing of the birds as they settled themselves in the nearby trees.  Joe urged the horses on.

The loud noise captured his attention as a flock of black crows swished down nearly sweeping his hat from his head in their earth bound dive.  Joe was forced to duck his head; the team of horses jerked back, startled by the loud squawking and nearly pulled the lead rope from Joe’s hand.

“Stupid birds,” complained Joe angrily as he righted his hat on his head and tightened his grip on the team of horses.

Joe started to press his knees into Cochise’s sides but stop suddenly.  Something odd had caught his eye.   He sat motionless for several moments, studying the object before he dismounted and tied the three horses to a nearby tree.

Using caution, Joe started down the side of the steep embankment, picking and choosing his steps carefully.  When he reached the object, Joe stooped down, running his fingers slowly through the seed corn that showed through the busted burlap sack.

A new kind of fear filled his heart, dread…for he now knew that Hoss must surely be in dire need of help.  The grain sacks lying about testified to that, for each was marked in dark letters, Carson City Feed and Grain.  Joe’s eyes searched frantically around for his brother.  He stood to his feet, his body trembling in justified fear.

“HOSS!”  Joe cupped his hands around his mouth and sucked in a deep breath.

“HHOOOSS!” he screamed as loudly as he could.

Joe moved further down the ravine.  The ground was rocky and the stones loose, making sliding easy and staying afoot more difficult.  But Joe continued; his constant growing panic for his brother had sent hot bile from his stomach into his mouth and the boy fought to keep it from spewing forth.

The crows had set up an ear-piercing clamor as they feasted on the corn that had been scattered around the ground.  Joe took off his hat and waved it about the air, over his head.

“SHOO!” shouted Joe and then stopped suddenly.  Below him, at the edge of the swiftly moving water and lying in a heap, was the family’s wagon.

Joe quickened his steps, hurrying to the wagon that had been broken apart by its wild decline down the treacherous ravine.  Joe searched frantically around the wagon, wading out into the shallow water on the opposite side of the wagon.

“HOSS!” shouted Joe loudly when he spied his older brother pinned beneath the wagon.

Joe was immediately by his brother’s side, kneeling in the water.  “Hoss…please…open your eyes,” cried Joe while trying to lift the heavy wagon off his brother.

He used both hands and tried lifting; when that failed he braced his shoulder against the wood and shoved with all his might.  Nothing he did would budge the wagon.  He sank back to his knees, his trembling hands brushing gently at Hoss’ pale face.

“Hoss?” he said softly.

This time the eyelids flickered and then Hoss’ blue eyes opened.  “Thank God,” muttered Joe.  “Hoss…can you hear me?”

“I hear ya, little brother,” Hoss groaned.

His dull, pain filled eyes searched the space over him for the boy.  Slowly, Hoss raised his hand, finding comfort from the smaller hand that grasped his so tightly.

“How’d ya find me, short shanks?” Hoss said in a weak voice.

His eyes had found what he had been searching for and though his massive body was wracked with pain, he gave his little brother a forced smile.  The fear on Joe’s face was evident and his hazel eyes had filled with tears.

“I was just riding by, and found the team…I knew something was wrong.  Hoss…are ya hurting much?” Joe asked in a wee voice.

“Not so I noticed…I reckon the…water’s so cold, I can’t feel it, if’n I was ahurtin’, Joe.”

“I gotta get this wagon off you, Hoss.  If I can find some way to lift it, reckon you can pull yourself out?”  Joe studied the wagon and the way that it pressed down on his brother’s legs.

“I don’t know, Joe…the wagon’s mighty heavy…too heavy for a little man like you,” Hoss groaned softly.  He laid his head back down, against the wet rocks.  “Joe…Joe!”

“What Hoss…what’s wrong?” Joe stopped trying to push up on the wagon and glanced at his brother’s face.

It was filled with pain and from the corners of Hoss’ eyes, tiny droplets of water seeped.  Joe squatted down, trying with all of his might, not to cry and not to let his brother see the fear written on his face.

Hoss grasped Joe’s arm, clinging to his shirtsleeve.  “Ya gotta go for help…understand?”

“NO!” Joe declared, “I can’t leave you…it’s too far…there’s no one around, Hoss.  I’ll get this wagon off you, myself.”

“Joe…ya can’t…ya ain’t big enough,” Hoss whispered.

The water beneath his head had begun to rise.  Hoss had felt the difference in depth when he had raised his head and then lowered it.  It was a matter of time before the rising water would cover his face.  Unless there was a way to free him from the turned over wagon, he would surely drowned before long.  Hoss knew his fate, yet he feared for the boy who stood protectively over him.  There was no way that the older brother wanted his younger brother to stand by helplessly and watch him die.  He had to make Joe go for help, so that when death came to claim him, the boy could be spared.

“Listen short shanks…back yonder way…toward Carson…there was an old shack.  I think there’s a man…and his son who live there…go get them,” ordered Hoss.

“Hoss…it’s too far…I’d never get there and back before the water…the water…NO!  I won’t leave you!” stormed Little Joe.

Joe knew what his brother was doing…he wasn’t so naïve as to not know the water was rising.  Here he was trying to save his brother and the big lug was trying to spare him.  Joe’s tears ran heedlessly down the side of his face.  His brother’s devotion had touched his young heart.  Joe determined in that instance that he would save his brother or…if the worst happened…stay by his side until…until…  Joe refused to think of the worst.

“You just lie still, Hoss…I’ve got an idea.”

Hoss’ toothy grin gave Joe hope.  “I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he groaned as he smiled up at Joe.

Joe stopped mid-step and looked back at his brother.  He smiled, how could he not…he loved Hoss more right then than ever before.

“Hang on, ya big galoot…I’ll save ya!” grinned Joe through his tears.

He hurried up the embankment and selected the largest limb lying on the ground that he could find.  Joe had seen a large rock protruding from above the water and hoped to use it with the pole as a lever to raise the wagon just high enough that Hoss would be able to pull himself free of this watery prison.

Hoss had lost sight of his brother and quickly surveyed the rising water.  Now, when his head was flat against his rocky pillow, the water nearly filled his ears.  He hoped Joe would hurry, though he had little hopes that whatever the boy had in mind would work.  Joe wasn’t a big kid; he wasn’t strong like his brothers, though Hoss didn’t classify his little brother as a weakling either.  The boy, for his size and body weight, was strong enough in his own right.  But no matter how hard Joe would try to save his brother, Hoss knew that Joe stood about as much chance as a snowball in mid-July.

Minutes later, the boy returned pulling behind him, a large branch that had broken free from an old oak tree.  Hoss raised his head, his eyes questioning.

“I’m gonna use it as lever, Hoss,” Joe explained.  “I’m gonna brace it under this part of the wagon and that rock over there.”

Joe pointed toward the rock and saw in total shock that the rock was now practically under the water.  He tried to mask his surprise and fear and went straight to the task of putting the pole into place.  It was hard work, shoving the pole into position and with one eye on the rising water, and the other on his brother, the job took up valuable time as far as Joe was concerned.

“Hold on, Hoss, it’s almost ready,” Joe shouted with a grunt.

Joe had the pole in place and waded through the cold water to the other side where he leaned his body weight down on the end of the pole.  He pushed with all the force he could on the pole and hoped that it would raise the wagon.

“When ya feel it rise up enough that you can move your legs, pull ya self out, Hoss…got it?” grunted Joe as he fought against the pole.

“Yeah,” Hoss muttered.

He watched the boy struggling with all of his might.  The pole refused to move.  The wagon refused to cooperate and remained lodged where it was.  Joe swallowed and glanced quickly at his brother.  Hoss’ eyes were fixed on the boy’s face, watching the tears as they built up in the hazel eyes, so wide with fear.

“Let me try again, Hoss,” Joe said as he slammed his weight down on the pole.  Still, nothing happened.

“Joe?” Hoss said weakly.  “Listen to me…I know ya doin’ ya best to save me…but…but if ya don’t…I mean…”

“STOP IT, HOSS!” shouted Joe.  The tears slipped over the rims of his eyes and rolled down Joe’s cheeks.  “You’re scaring me…don’t talk like that!”

“I don’t mean to be, Punkin…but let’s face it…this ain’t gonna work and…”

“I’ve got another idea Hoss…I’ll be right back.”

Before Hoss could whisper another word, Joe disappeared the second time.  For several moments, Hoss laid with his head in the water.  The creek had risen and now the water lapped gently at Hoss’ pudgy cheeks.  Using his hands and raising up as far as he could, Hoss pushed on the wagon with all his strength. After several moments, he stopped trying and tried to pile up more rocks under his head in order to hold it out of the water.

Hoss felt his heart pounding in his chest…he had to think of some way to get Joe out of there before the water got any deeper.

“JOE!” Hoss called in a raspy voice.  He was cold and he felt his body shiver.

“JUST A MINUTE!” Hoss heard Joe call out.

Joe had reached the top of the ravine and ran to the horses.  Inside his saddlebag he dug around until he found a pencil and scrap of paper.  He remembered laughing when Adam had told him that having a pencil and paper stashed away might prove to come in handy.  Now he could see the logic in his oldest brother’s thinking.

He scribbled the note, need helpCarson road boundary line, bring wagon.  Hoss hurt!  He folded up the paper and tied it with the rawhide strip that hung from his saddle.  When he finished, he slapped Cochise on the rump as hard as he could and watched as the horse ran off.

Joe wasted no time; he untied the team of horses and led them to the edge of the ravine.  He knew it would be dangerous to attempt to take the horses down the embankment; they could easily slip and break a leg, or worse…end up dead before reaching the creek.  But he had to try, figured Joe…Hoss needed him and time was swiftly running out.

Joe took a deep breath and said a silent prayer as he started downhill.  At first the horses balked but Joe talked softly to them, tugging gently on the lead.  Slowly at first, the team began to follow, listening to the sound of Joe’s gentle singing.  He had begun to sing in a low, soft voice and the horses seemed to respond to the sound of his voice.

Down below, Hoss waited.  He could hear Joe mumbling softly, talking to someone, yet he could not make out to whom the boy was speaking.  After several long agonizing minutes, Joe appeared.  Hoss gave a sigh of relief.

“I didn’t think ya was comin’ back…” he said, surprised to hear the quiver of fear in his own voice.

“I told ya I’d be back.  Ya didn’t think I lied to ya, did ya?” Joe said with a tiny smile.

“What are ya doin’ short shanks?” Hoss wanted to know.

The water had reached his temples and seemed to be rising faster.  His stomach was in knots, he was scared…he admitted that to himself over an hour ago…and as the water continued to rise, so did the big man’s fear.

“I’m going to tie the horses to the other side of the wagon and make them pull it off you,” grinned Joe.  He prayed that the idea would work and he kept an anxious eye on the water.

“I found some of the other supplies up the hill,” Joe explained to Hoss as he worked.  He kept talking; it seemed that talking non-stop took his mind off the panic that ate away at his soul.  “Good thing Pa ordered more ropes…this should be plenty now.”

Joe finished tying the horses to the opposite side of the wagon.  The team seemed unimpressed with the water that flowed swiftly around their hooves and stood patiently waiting for the command.

Joe waded through the water around the wagon to Hoss’ side.  “Get ready Hoss, remember, when you feel the wagon move, pull your legs out.”

“I’m ready when you are, short shanks,” Hoss said with a groan.

Joe hurried back to the horses and began pulling on the lead rope.  The team of chestnut bays tossed their heads in the air and then strained to pull forward, but the flow of the current into the opened wagon proved to be too much for the animals.

Joe tugged on the rope again, “Come on!” he cried.  Joe leaned back with the lead rope, digging his feet into the sandy bottom of the creek.  “Come on, move!” he shouted.

When the horses pulled forward, the wagon moved slightly and then slipped deeper into the water.  Over the roar of the rising current, Joe heard Hoss scream.

“HOSS!” Joe bellowed and dropped the rope as he ran through the water as fast as he could to get to his brother.

The wagon had moved just enough that it had forced Hoss’ body to move with it.  Hoss’ face was under the water by the time that Joe reached him and the older Cartwright was straining to push himself up enough that he could get his head out of the water.

Joe was paralyzed with fear when he saw Hoss struggling.  He could not move; the look of sheer terror on his brother’s face and the blue eyes that were filled with panic were almost more than the young boy could stand.  When Hoss waved his hand above the water and into the air, Joe snapped from his reverie and grabbed for the flailing hand.  He reached under Hoss and lifted one shoulder.  It was enough to bring his brother’s head up from beneath the water.

Hoss sputtered and spat until he had rid his mouth of the water.  He turned to Joe, saw the tears and the fear and tried to smile.

“That was close,” sputtered Hoss.

“I can’t do it Hoss…the horses won’t move…the water flowing into the wagon is making it too heavy for the horses…Hoss…please…”

“Hush now Joe,” Hoss moaned.  There was a new pain in his leg, but he tried not to let his brother see how much he was hurting.  “Try again, this time Joe, make the horses pull to the left…that way the wagon will be going with the current, not against it,” Hoss instructed.

“But Hoss,” Joe sobbed, “Ya can’t lay your head down, the water is over your face now,” cried Joe.  “You’ll drown.”  His voice was unsteady as he tried to fight his tears.

“Ya gotta, Joe…there’s no other way…I’ll hold my breath…now get going.”

Joe nodded his head.  “Okay, Hoss…but…but…” he stammered as he released Hoss’ hand.

Hoss reached out and grabbed the boy’s arm.  “Remember Joe…ya done ya best…no matter what happens.  Understand?”

Joe could not find his voice so he nodded is head.

“Remember, Joe…I…love ya, boy!”

Joe was still on his knees and he leaned over and wrapped his arms about his brother’s neck.  “I love you, too, Hoss.”

“Alright then, go make them stubborn critters do as ya ordered,” smiled Hoss.

He gritted his teeth and took a deep breath.  When Joe moved his hand from under Hoss’ shoulder, his brother’s head disappeared beneath the water.  Joe glanced one time at Hoss and then ran to the other side, screaming loudly.

“Giddy up!” he bellowed.

He grabbed the reins and walloped the rumps of the horses.  Again and again, he slapped the reins down.  The horses pulled with all of their strength against the ropes attached to the wagon.

Joe’s eyes were overflowing with tears.  He could picture in his mind, his brother’s face as the water washed over it.  The blue eyes that had reminded him of the sky, staring up at him seared his memory.

“Yeah!” he shouted.

The horses seemed to pause and then suddenly, working as one, they lurched forward.  Much to Joe’s surprise, the wagon moved upward.  Joe cast a worried look in Hoss’ direction but neither saw nor heard anything from the other side of the wagon.  Joe popped the reins again and with one last jerk on the ropes, what was left of the wagon righted itself.

Joe screamed with joy and ran to Hoss who was still in the water.  Quickly, Joe fell to his knees.  Hoss was submerged in the water, unmoving.  His hand floated out to his sides, scaring Joe nearly to death.

“HOSS!” wailed Joe as he grabbed his brother’s vest and pulled Hoss from the water.  “HOSS…PLEASE!”

Joe had managed to get Hoss onto dry ground and quickly straddled his massive chest.  Using both of his brother’s arms, Joe folded and unfolded Hoss’ arms across his chest.

“PLEASE, HOSS…DON’T DIE!” sobbed Joe as the tears dripped down his face.

Joe was frantic; he had failed in his attempt at saving his brother.  Hoss was unresponsive. Hoss was dead.

Joe lay sprawled across his brother’s body and sobbed out his sorrow.  His young body quivered and jerked as he cried.

“NO!” he screamed.

The shrieking cry resounded through the forest and echoed off the far distant hills.  For several long moments, Joe cried and then, something akin to a deep rumble, caused Joe to raise his head and look about him.

Hoss’ body began to twitch and strange gurgling sounds erupted from his mouth.  Joe moved back, not fully conscious of what was happening.

“Hoss?” he whispered in a muted voice.

Hoss coughed once and then again and again.  Water overflowed from his mouth and he spat it out on the ground. Joe jumped to his feet, watching the distorted expressions on Hoss’ face.  When Hoss had finally stopped coughing and opened his eyes, it was to find himself looking into the terrified eyes of his little brother.  Immediately he witnessed the tear stained face and the quivering chin that was the tattletale sign of the boy’s fear.

Hoss attempted to smile though it was more of a grimace than an actual smile.  But to Joe it was the prettiest sight he’d seen in a long time.  Joe dropped to his knees; Hoss had pushed himself up into a sitting position.

“Ya did it, Joe…ya saved my ornery hide,” laughed Hoss as he pulled the weeping boy into his arms.

Joe welded his body against Hoss’.  The wetness of his brother’s shirt soaked through to the younger brother but neither seemed to notice that they were shivering, they were both warmed by the brotherly affection that each held for the other.

“Thanks, Joe,” muttered Hoss in a thick voice.  “I’m proud as can be, of ya.  Just wait’ll Pa and ole Adam hear what ya done!”

Joe leaned back and wiped away the tears and gave Hoss a small smile.  “I sure was scared…I was afraid that you had…had…drowned,” he stammered.

Hoss had been scared too, but he wasn’t going to let on to the boy.  Had Joe not happened along when he had, he sure enough would have drowned.  He would be dead by now…there was no doubt in his mind about that.

“Ah…I just swallowed a little water, that’s ‘bout all,” grinned Hoss.  “Say Joe…how’s about ya building up a fire, I’m sorta cold and ya gotta set this broken leg afore I can move much further,” Hoss said, eyeing his brother.

He could see Joe shivering as well and knew that the boy was just as cold as he was.

“Sure Hoss, a fire I can handle, but I ain’t so sure about setting your broken leg, I ain’t done that before,” Joe said worriedly.

“Ya ain’t never pulled a wagon offa man ‘fore either, have ya…but ya did it!”  Hoss watched the smile that spread across his little brother’s face and then smiled at the sight.

Hoss clamped his mouth tightly shut against the pain that he knew was forthcoming.  Joe was watching his face closely and he didn’t want the boy to see how much setting the leg was hurting him.

“I’m ready when you are Hoss,” Joe said between gritted teeth.

He had both hands on Hoss’ leg, one on each side.  He had cut away his brother’s pants leg in order to get to the broken bone.  Joe had been relieved to see that the broken bone had not come through the skin.  He took a deep breath, and when Hoss nodded his head, Joe jerked on the leg, snapping the bone into place.

His eyes never left his brother’s face.  Hoss’ lips had turned white and his face drained of color.  His head was slumped against the ground and turned to one side.  Joe knew that Hoss had passed out and he hurried to set the leg in a makeshift cast made of branches that he had gathered for just that purpose.  Joe placed the branches around Hoss’ leg and then tore strips of cloth from the lower half of Hoss’ trousers that he had cut off earlier.  Being careful not to inflict more pain or discomfort to his middle brother, Joe quickly tied the branches in place like Adam and his father had taught him to do sometime back.

By the time that he had finished, Hoss was trying to wake up and had begun to moan.  Joe had stoked the fire to help in drying their clothes and had covered Hoss with the blanket that he had found scattered among the debris from the over turned wagon.  The boy hunkered down next to Hoss and waited until his brother had opened his eyes.

Joe made no effort to hide his relief from his brother, and by the time that Hoss’ eyes had found Joe’s face, Joe was smiling happily.

“How do you feel?” he asked Hoss.

“Leg hurts some…and my ribs just a bit, but other than that, I’m alright,” Hoss said.

He reached up with one hand and laid it on to Joe’s cheek.  The tears that sprang up unannounced blurred Hoss’ eyes and when he spoke, his voice was thick with emotion.

“I owe ya, Short Shanks…ya saved me from sure death…thanks,” Hoss whispered with deep emotion.

“Aw…it wasn’t nothing…you’d a done the same for me…wouldn’t ya?” Joe asked.

“Ya know I would, Joe…but this was different…I’d been able to pick that ole broken wagon up and set it offa ya.  What ya did took courage and inner strength…it didn’t have athing to do with how big ya was or how small.  It was a brave thing Joe…to stay with me…knowing that I might die right afore ya eyes.”  Hoss stopped long enough to gather his thoughts and to steady his insides.  “Ya may never be as big as I am, but to me, ya ‘bout the biggest man around, right now…” Hoss’ lips spread across his face in a wide, proud smile.  “If’n I could give ya a medal for bravery, Joe…I’d sure ‘nough give ya one!”

Joe’s eyes filled with tears, he had been frightened, much more than he cared to admit.  His words seemed lodged in the back of this throat and even when he swallowed several times, they refused to be dislodged.  Instead of speaking, Joe leaned down and gave his brother a big hug.  Hoss returned the squeeze and held the boy until Joe started to squirm and then giggled when he felt Hoss’ fingers tickle his ribs slightly.

“I’m ready to go home, Joe…how about you?” Hoss said at last.

“Home?  Hoss…all we have to ride is the team…think you can manage?” Joe said as he pulled himself up from the ground.

Hoss glanced over at the team and then back at Joe.  “Where’s your horse?”

“Cochise?  Oh, I wrote a note and sent him home…with any luck, we should meet up with Pa and Adam anytime.  Think you can ride one of the team?”

Hoss grinned, his leg had begun to throb and he really wasn’t sure he could ride, but he’d have to try.  One look at Joe’s face told him that the boy was almost beyond going, and so was he.

“If’n ya can help me get on, I’ll manage after that,” Hoss assured his brother.

*****

Half an hour later, Hoss was mounted, though somewhat lopsided, on one of the team horses.  Joe had made sure that the fire was out and he had moved what seed corn he could to a place where it would be protected against the crows that insisted on feeding on it.

The sun had melted hours ago behind the mountains and the moon had claimed its place in the night sky.  It was a bright moon, not yet totally full but with enough glow about it that it provided enough light to guide their path.  The ride was slow; Joe stayed close to Hoss so that he could keep a watchful eye on how his brother was doing.  Joe knew that the broken leg was hurting, he could see the pain etched into his brother’s features and it amazed Joe that Hoss was able to even sit a horse, let alone ride for miles as they had done.

Joe fought to stay awake.  It had been a long day and it seemed to the weary boy that it would never end.  He longed to be home and in his own bed.  Every muscle and every fiber of his being ached and on more than one occasion, he had rubbed at his achy behind.  The horse he was riding was broad and with no saddle and the harnesses still in place, his rump had begun to tingle.  He could feel the leather beneath him scraping against the coarse fabric of his trousers, adding to his misery and his weariness.  Joe glanced over at Hoss.  His brother was slumped over the horse’s neck, yet he had not complained…not even one time!

“You alright, Hoss?” Joe asked.

Hoss raised his head; his eyes were pinched shut and Joe could see that Hoss’ lips were tightly pressed together.

“We can stop for a while and rest, if’n ya need to,” offered Joe.

Hoss shook his head no.  “Keep movin’, don’t stop, Joe…I’ll never get back on this nag if’n ya do.”

“Ya positive?  Ya sure do look beat,” observed Joe aloud.

“Just git me home.”

*****

The dark was just giving way to morning when Adam and Ben rode over the rise.  Ben pulled the horses to a stop and for just a moment, both father and son sat and stared at the scene before them.

Hoss was slumped low over the neck of one horse and Joe was practically lying on the back of the second horse.  Hoss had in his hand a lead rope, attached to Joe’s mount and was slowly leading Joe’s horse homeward.

Ben jumped down from the wagon and when his two younger sons rode along side, he grabbed the harness on Hoss’ mount and forced the team to a standstill.

Adam had removed himself from the wagon as well, and stood next to his father, gazing up at the younger pair.

“What in the world happened, son?” questioned Ben as he took in the leg and makeshift cast.

“Team ran off the rode and down a ravine…lost most of the seed corn, Pa…I’m sorry…” stammered Hoss.

“I’m not concerned about the corn, son, I’ve been worried sick about what happened to you…and Joe, what’s wrong with him?” Ben asked as he nodded his head in Joe’s direction.

Adam had moved to Joe’s side to check to see if the boy was injured.  He turned and smiled at his father.

“Nothing wrong here, except that he’s sound asleep!” Adam grinned.  Adam glanced up at Hoss, “what’s he been up to?  The boy must have been dead on his feet to be this tired?”

“I’ll tell ya what he’s been up to, he’s been busy savin’ my hide, that’s what,” Hoss told Adam.

“Help me down, will ya, Pa…this here leg is throbbin’ somethin’ fierce.”

Ben helped Hoss down from the horse and held on to him as he hobbled over to the back of the wagon and sat down.

“Adam, ya be careful with him, ya hear?  He’s had a long day…and night, the poor little thing’s done tuckered plum out,” Hoss ordered his older brother.

Adam gently pulled Joe down from the horse and into his arms.  Joe never opened his eyes as Adam carried him to the wagon and carefully laid him on the pile of blankets that had been brought along.  Another blanket was wrapped securely around the boy, who trembled slightly and mumbled in his sleep.

Hoss watched his sleeping brother for several moments.  He turned to his father and Adam, a twist of smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

“I wasn’t foolin’ Pa, Joe sure ‘nough saved me from drownin’…and from dyin’.  He’s a brave boy…ere…man…as far as I’m concerned, he’s a bigger man than most fellas I know.  He wouldn’t give up…even when I tried to make him go for help and I knew that he’d never made it back in time.  He refused to leave me…swore that no matter what, he’d get me outta there…and he did.”

A sob caught in his throat and Hoss ran his large beefy hand over his face to wipe away the accumulation of tears that had filled his eyes.  He turned his head, his eyes sought the boy’s face and Hoss smiled at the look of innocence that graced his little brother’s features.

Ben watched, pride in both sons swelling his chest.  Tenderly he placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder and squeezed, drawing Hoss’ attention back to his father.

“I was ready to give that boy a good thrashing for leaving this morning and not telling anyone where he was going,” smiled Ben.  “I guess I’ll just have to let him slide this time, won’t I?”

“I reckon so, Pa.  He doesn’t deserve to be punished.  If he hadn’t of gotten all twisted out of sorts yesterday mornin’, he might not have been where he needed to be…and that was right there on the edge at that ravine.”

“I suppose you’re right son…seems like once again, Joe’s wrongs turned out right,” smiled Ben.

“Well, ya know what ya always tellin’ us, Pa…God works in mysterious ways,” smiled Hoss.

Ben laughed and glanced at his youngest son.  “I think the good Lord knew exactly what He was doing when He sent Little Joe to the three of us.”

“He sure did, Pa…He made our family complete.  Life sure would have been borin’ without that boy,” laughed Hoss.

“Boring, and dull too,” added Adam, grinning.  “Pa…let’s get these two boys home.  I think they could find trouble even in their sleep and I’d rather be home by the time that those two woke up.”

Ben followed Adam’s gaze and chuckled lightly at the sight.  Hoss had curled himself up in the back of the wagon next to Joe with one arm draped protectively over his brother and had fallen to sleep in a wink of an eye.  Ben smiled at Adam as they walked to the front of the wagon together.  Relief showed on both faces as they climbed into the seat next to one another.  As if on cue, both turned for one more, quick look at the sleeping pair before Ben clicked to the horses and started home.  He knew it would be days in the telling, but he vowed to listen to every word that his sons would tell him of what happened that fateful night when a little brother became a big man in the eyes of his best friend.

***End***

 

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