Summary: All Joe wanted was some blackberry pie; was that too much to ask for? Yet Adam and Pa didn’t seem to have any consideration for it. At all. Winning story of the 2016 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
Rated: PG (canonical violence and a mention of blood)
Word Count: 2700
Joe Cartwright abandoned all hope of blackberry pie at the International House the moment Stanford Paine called his father a horse thief right in the middle of C-Street.
He heard his brother Adam hiss, “Leave it, Pa,” but he knew that was in vain. Joe didn’t understand everything that had happened between the Cartwrights and the Paines those past few weeks but he understood that this shout was the final straw. No one called Pa a horse thief. Especially not in the middle of town where everyone could hear it.
Adam groaned as Pa brushed his hand from his arm and whirled around to face Mr. Paine in one movement. Had he really hoped to soothe Pa’s temper with just a restraining hand? Obviously he had, for he pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes real tight for a moment, and then, shaking his head, followed Pa’s brisk stride to the hitching post in front of the Bucket of Blood saloon, where Mr. Paine and his men stood.
Important things usually happened when six-year-olds weren’t around. Or said six-year-olds were instantly whisked away. This time things happened so fast no one thought of whisking Joe away. In fact, no one even paid Joe any attention—no one but Hoss, that was. But Hoss was twelve, and there are those rare moments in which that six year gap wasn’t as wide as it usually seemed. Moments like when you left the Ponderosa and Hop Sing’s lemonade and went with Pa and Adam and a couple of ranch hands to Virginia City just because you hoped for a piece of blackberry pie at the International House as well as like when you were put out of harm’s way—or out of everything grown up’s way.
So Joe and Hoss just exchanged one look, then simultaneously made themselves as unobtrusive as possible (not an easy feat for someone of Hoss’s stature) as they followed everyone else over to the Bucket of Blood and found a place to linger on the sidelines but with a good view, side by side with a saloon girl clad in a violently pink dress.
By the time Joe had diverted his look from the frills at the girl’s neckline (they were made of a funny, holey fabric that almost looked like the net curtains in Pa’s bedroom, only black), the men from the DoubleR ranch had formed a tight cluster around Mr. Paine and his eldest son Ethan, and those from the Ponderosa one around Pa and Adam. They were trading colorful insults, most of which Joe had never heard before and which he desperately hoped he’d remember when school started again.
Pa’s face was almost as red as Mr. Paine’s, and both he and Mr. Paine alternated between shouting at each other and berating their respective sons. Ethan Paine looked just as furious as his Pa and added to the mayhem mostly by repeating “horse thief!”, whereas Adam looked—well, just like Adam. Maddeningly calm. Only those who knew him very well—and paid attention—saw the telltale twitch of his eyebrow and how every now and then his hand rose and was willed down before the fingers could pinch the bridge of his nose.
Adam didn’t shout, but as usual, his calm voice was clearly heard over the ruckus. “I’m certain neither my father nor you is a horse thief, Mr. Paine. Why don’t we go and have a drink and settle this like the reasonable men we all are?” There was emphasis on “reasonable” and “all”, but that only seemed to anger Pa and Mr. Paine more.
“My men caught that stallion weeks ago,” Mr. Paine growled. “Then your men stole it. In my eyes that makes their boss a horse thief.”
Pa snorted. “My men caught that horse running free on the plains. It wasn’t branded, it belonged to no one. It’s rightfully mine.”
“And the lasso around his neck? Didn’t that tell you someone’d already caught it?”
“It told me someone had tried to catch it—but not succeeded. You have no claim on a horse you just tried to catch.”
“But we done caught it,” Ethan broke in. “It just broke free again, that’s why there was a lasso around his neck.”
“Well, if it breaks free it isn’t quite caught, right? Next time, Paine, your men might do better.”
That, naturally, brought on a lot of shouting again, mostly from Ethan and Paine’s men, but soon the Ponderosa hands were joining in.
Joe trained his ears on Adam, though, who talked insistently to Pa. He only caught “compromise” and “money”, but that was enough to understand why Pa was shaking his head.
The stallion this all was about was the most promising horse they’d caught in years. Adam was already breaking it, and even though it seemed more difficult to break than any horse they’d seen before, it was worth every effort. It was a tall, broad and powerful animal, high spirited with endurance beyond anything they’d ever seen in a horse. It was long decided that the stallion was not going to be sold, but to be used for breeding and for roping in other horses.
Joe knew that the DoubleR claimed they had caught the stallion first, and he knew that threats had been uttered—and delivered. Fences had been cut, short cuts to pastures had been blocked by inexplicable rock fall, fire had destroyed a hay rick, and Adam had almost tumbled down a ravine when his saddle came lose because someone had obviously cut into the cinch. Of course, there was no proof the DoubleR was behind those things, but there were rumors enough.
Joe also knew that Adam thought no horse was worth all that bad blood. He’d heard Adam say Pa was “stubborn and unreasonable” and should make concessions, one night when he’d been supposed to be in bed and not eavesdropping, and then Pa had given Adam an earful about it: Mr. Paine didn’t deserve concessions, Mr. Paine himself never made concessions, and didn’t Adam remember the incident with the Ponderosa calves on Paine’s land? He’d said several more things then, about how Adam obviously had too much time if he spend so much of it stewing over things that weren’t his concern and such; but as great as it had been to hear Adam getting a first class scolding, Joe’d been so tired he’d fallen asleep on the top of the landing before he’d ever learned more about that incident with the calves.
There was no reason not to be on Pa’s side, Joe thought. Perhaps Adam was being stubborn and unreasonable and should make concessions?
Joe decided to contribute that thought to the overall argument, but just as he opened his mouth someone bellowed, “Quiet!” with a voice like thunder.
It wasn’t the word or even the booming voice that made them all, to the last man, stop. It was the fact that the most unexpected man had delivered the command: Adam. Joe’d known his brother had a loud voice, heck, he’d heard him sing in the barn from miles away. But he’d never heard him shout at people.
The stunned crowd now rearranged itself into a circle centering around Joe’s eldest brother, and Adam, obviously not intimidated by that at all, smiled a quick, lopsided smile that was almost too tiny to notice and said more softly than before, “If you will listen for just a moment, I’ll offer you a way to end this argument peacefully. It has really gotten all out of proportion, don’t you think?”
“I don’t need you telling me—” Ethan started, but Mr. Paine interrupted him.
“No, I want to hear it.”
Adam nodded once, then took a deep breath. “Pa, Mr. Paine, I think we reached an impasse here. We have been neighbors for how long? Ten years, surely. Mr. Paine, we helped you sink your well, do you remember that? And Pa, the Paines were suporting you when Marie died, you haven’t forgotten that, right? That stallion…is it worth destroying the good relations we used to have?”
Pa looked furious—the way he did when Adam was right. Mr. Paine looked down. Ethan tried to say something, but was silenced by his father before he’d uttered anything comprehensible.
“I’ve been stewing over this for a long time already,” Adam said, glancing at Pa and taking the time to raise an eyebrow at him. “As the horse is already worked upon and mostly broken, I think it would be wise to not relocate it. But if everything goes as planned, our best mare will have the stallion’s foal next spring, and perhaps, Pa, you can pledge to Mr. Paine that that foal will be his.”
There was murmuring among the men, all eyes on Pa and Mr. Paine. The two men looked at each other, and Joe saw slow smiles spreading over their faces. They nodded, and Pa reached his hand out to Mr. Paine, who took it and said, “You’ve got a smart boy there, Ben.”
Pa looked at Adam with his “wait till we’re at home”-face, but only for a moment, then he chuckled and said, “You have no idea,” and they all laughed.
Not Ethan, though, who looked as if he wanted to say something, thought better of it, and turned away—and then whirled back with his gun in hand and fired.
Colts leapt into hands almost instantly. Paine’s men all seemed armed; most of the Ponderosa hands, too. Even Pa had his gun out, trained on Ethan. The only unarmed men left were Adam, still standing there with his arms crossed, and Mr. Paine, who carefully laid his hand over Ethan’s gun and pressed it down.
“Please,” he said. “We don’t want to draw blood.”
Joe held his breath. Hoss tried to push his younger brother behind his back; the saloon girl next to Joe ducked behind another bystander.
There was no sound in the street except for the heavy breathing of the men. Then Adam’s voice broke the silence. “Was anyone hit? No?”
A pause. Low murmurs. Shaking of heads. Then the noise of Ehtan’s Colt clanging on the ground.
And Mr. Paine again, “Well, obviously not. Thank the Lord for that. I apologize, Ben.”
“It’s all right, Stanford. As you say: no harm done.” Pa slowly reholstered his revolver. “Weapons down, boys.”
Not only did the Ponderosa men obey, the DoubleR hands did, too. Even Ethan mumbled something apologetic, and the city sighed with relief.
Joe considered making himself perceivable again and suggesting they all had blackberry pie at the International House now, but Pa’s dark gaze swept over all of them, lingered on Hoss and him for a moment before Pa closed his eyes briefly and said just one word, “Home!”
And home they went. It was a quiet ride on the buckboard; Hoss and Joe had a subdued discussion about the blackberry pie they hadn’t had, Pa chewed on the inside of his mouth as if on words he’d love to say to Adam but for some reason couldn’t, and Adam leaned against a bag of rice, back hunched and shoulders sagged, even quieter than usual. He didn’t look up once, and Joe guessed he was stewing over things that now very well concerned him, too.
Adam still hadn’t uttered a single word when they finally reached the Ponderosa. At first, Joe thought Adam had fallen asleep, but then his brother rose almost reluctantly and eased himself down from the wagon bed. He staggered a few steps, shook his head and then walked stiff-legged towards the house.
“Hey,” Joe cried after him. “There are bags to unload, Mr. clever pants.”
Adam flinched at that, shook his head again and turned slowly. His arms hanging limply at his sides, he stared at a point somewhere behind Joe, then his eyes completely lost focus, he began to sway, and when Pa, at Hoss’s cry, rushed to him, he just collapsed into his arms.
“What in tarnation…,” Pa muttered as he tried to shake Adam awake.
“Pa,” Hoss said, and when Pa didn’t react he repeated it a little louder and a little more urgently. “Pa, look.” He pointed to the bag of rice Adam had leaned against.
The burlap was drenched in blood.
Joe was at Pa’s side in an instant, and now that he knew what to look for, he noticed the wet stain on Adam’s shirt that his hunched posture and the black material had hidden. As Pa pried the fabric loose, he saw the hole in Adam’s side, small and innocent, still sluggishly oozing blood.
The next hours passed in a blurry whirlwind for Joe. Pa bellowed out orders while he took Adam upstairs into his room: someone was to ride back to Virginia City to get the doctor, Hoss was to help Pa; Joe was tasked with alerting Hop Sing and bringing towels and hot water, with picking Adam’s discarded clothes from the floor and burning them, with bringing more water and more towels, then with staying out of the way as the doctor came and went.
His world slowed down again and the fog of fear eventually dissolved when Joe was allowed to enter Adam’s bedroom, and Pa smiled at him and said that Adam was one lucky boy.
Adam looked pale as a ghost and lay so still Joe was eerily reminded of Maman after…but Pa said it was only the blood loss that made Adam sleep and the something the doctor had given him, that the bullet hadn’t penetrated very deeply and came out without problems. “He’ll be right as rain in no time, you’ll see.”
Joe fought the urge to climb onto Pa’s lap as he was much too grown up for that, but he managed to wriggle himself into the stuffed chair next to his father instead. It couldn’t be very comfortable for Pa, but he just put his arm around Joe and pulled him even closer.
“It was Ethan’s bullet, wasn’t it, Pa?”
“Yes. Adam paid for my stubbornness. Had I made concessions earlier, all this could have been prevented. Remember that, Joe.”
Joe chewed on his lower lip. “Why didn’t say Adam he was hit? He could’ve gone to Doctor Paul right then.”
Pa sighed. “Because your brother is, as Mr. Paine said, a smart boy.”
“Don’t sound too smart t’me.”
“Joe, what would have happened if Adam had said he’d been hit? What do you think?”
Joe remembered the drawn revolvers, the nervous silence, the hard breathing. “Someone would’ve shot Ethan down?” he ventured.
Pa nodded. “And then someone would have shot at the one who shot Ethan, then someone at that man and then…”
Joe shuddered. “Everyone could’ve…” He didn’t even want to think it, much less say it out loud. Pa had been right in the middle of that.
“There could have been dozens of victims,” Pa agreed. “Only because of Adam’s silence we dodged that. It could have come at a great cost, but we dodged that, too. We were lucky today.”
“But Adam is a victim,” Joe said.
“Small price,” croaked a voice from the bed. “Worth it.”
That, of course, spurred Pa to action. He helped Adam drink some water, mobbed at his brow, and fussed with the bedclothes, all the while Adam was mumbling, “’m fine, Pa” and rolling his eyes at Joe behind Pa’s back.
Joe grinned back at him and made funny faces. No, he thought, his brother wasn’t a victim. A hero, more like.
What a story that would make at school. Absolutely worth the missed blackberry pie.
A/N: Words drawn: victim, stallion, dodge, stew, blackberry
Thank you very much for the betas, Joaniepaiute and Sklamb!