Summary: Yet another discussion with Adam prompts Joe into doing something rash and potentially life-threatening—and into thinking more about politics than he ever wanted to.
Word Count: 2600
Politics weren’t something you discuss at a ball, and still they had discussed politics. At a ball.
Discussed politics, yeah, that was one way to put it. Discussed. Joe fingered his jaw. It still hurt. Was most probably coloring already. Wouldn’t make him look too smart in his new uniform. Come to think of it, however, perhaps it would make him look a bit more weathered, as if he’d actually been in a few battles already. As if he was hiding other, more interesting injuries under the grey wool.
Well, then again, perhaps the coloring would have faded away already when he finally got his uniform since it would take him a couple of days to reach an enlistment office.
Joe shifted his weight, sat deeper in the saddle, bent a little backwards. The horse picked up the clue and slowed its trot down.
No, usually politics weren’t discussed at a ball, at least not by Joe—or any other sane person. The only one who would discuss politics at a ball was Adam. Of course he would, that dang arrogant Yankee granite head. And of course, he would pull Joe into that discussion. At a ball, where Joe couldn’t duck out of it without making a scene, without losing face, without looking like a dimwit in front of Bethany, the current love of his life.
To be honest, Joe didn’t discuss politics at home, either. Not if he could help it—which wasn’t always the case with someone like Adam around. Adam, that dang arrogant Yank—well, with Adam around. Joe wasn’t a political person. That didn’t mean he didn’t have an opinion. Heck, no, he did have an opinion about almost everything. Perhaps even about political things…to a certain degree. And perhaps this opinion happened to be different from Adam’s sometimes. Often, perhaps. Or rather most times.
All right, maybe even always—but what the heck? People had different opinions, sure. Sometimes they clashed, sometimes they butted heads, sometimes they used fists. But there was no need to talk it over time and again. And, honestly, politics weren’t that interesting anyway, were they? In the end, it all came down to the same: people wanted to live happy, self-determined lives. Why not let them? Live and let live.
And don’t talk it to death.
Of course, Adam had a different opinion on that, too. Yeah, Adam enjoyed discussing politics. And literature, and mathematical problems, and state laws, and windmills, and just any other odd thing he could think of. Just as long as he could happily talk the hind leg off a donkey. Lately, it usually was about the war: that they had to support the cause of the North, and the South had to be put in their place. That the Southern system was based on the mistreatment of human beings and that they shouldn’t be allowed to keep up that kind of life. Joe saw it a little differently. Not that he favored slavery, but he thought that the South should be allowed to work out their problems on their own and not be dictated how to do it by the North. And so he ended up being forced to talk about politics far more often than he liked.
Sometimes Joe wished that Adam had a screw somewhere, like a kerosene lamp, where he could just be turned down.
Tonight, Joe certainly had wished Adam could be turned down low. He’d even tried to do it: not with pinched fingers on a tiny screw but with his fist on Adam’s chin. But that blow never found its target: Bethany’s father, Mr. Bellflower, had held him back, Hoss had held Adam in check—not before older brother had landed a solid punch on Joe’s chin, though—Joe had raged “I’ll show him, I’ll show him,” Bethany had screamed, other women had joined in, a few men had shouted, some smaller boys had hooted, a little girl had cried, from outside dogs had barked—until finally Mr. Bellflower, roaring at the top of his lungs over the general mayhem, had called them to order.
And then, just as everything had been calming down and Joe had forced his fist to relax into something he could proffer his brother as a peace offering, he’d seen the complacent gleam in Adam’s eyes—and that had been the final straw.
The horse went into an even slower walk. Joe sat up straighter, but didn’t spur the buckskin on. They had a long way to go, no need to exhaust the unfamiliar livery stable mount with unnecessary haste. Maybe Cochise would have been the better choice after all—but Joe rather wanted to know his faithful companion safely home in his stall at the Ponderosa.
He let the reins slacken, allowing the horse to dawdle along. He wasn’t in a hurry. He’d made a headlong exit tonight, sure, but that didn’t mean he had an actual plan. Or a schedule, like certain other people would have.
A schedule that could not be jumbled.
It had all started with jumbling Adam’s schedule. Well, to be honest, it had been not only Adam’s schedule threatened to be jumbled, not just his plan at risk of being set at naught. They all had been looking forward to the ball in celebration of Bethany Bellflower’s nineteenth birthday tonight, and all with good reason.
And then Hoss had come home with Walter in tow. Walter, the old prospector Obie’s dog, and the most complicated creature besides Adam on God’s green earth.
Obie apparently had gone off to visit his sister again, and, of course, Hoss had seen it as his duty—and pleasure—to look after Obie’s dog while he was away. With Hop Sing gone to San Francisco to see his cousins Nos. seven to fifteen and Pa not yet home from a business trip to Sacramento, that had left them with the problem of what to do with Walter while they were at Bethany’s birthday ball.
Any other dog they just could have left home alone, but not Walter. Oh, no. Walter was far too sensitive for that, Hoss had said. Walter’s feelings would be hurt. And what would he think of the famous Cartwright hospitality then? No, there was no way Walter could have been left on his own.
Of course, Walter had not betrayed his potentially hurt feelings with so much as the raise of an eyebrow. (Another characteristic he shared with Adam, Joe thought in amazement. Both of them expressed emotions—if at all—primarily with their eyebrows. He had to make sure to point that out to Adam the next time they…oh. Well, there wouldn’t be a next time so soon.)
Taking Walter to the ball had been out of question, even though Hoss had thought it a good idea. Dogs weren’t well-received guests at balls, and Joe had wanted to make a good impression on both Bethany and her father.
Bethany, sweet rosy-cheeked Bethany with those pretty heart-shaped ruby lips… Would he ever see her again? And what kind of impression had he made on her? That of a man who stood up for his convictions, he hoped. But perhaps…perhaps he’d looked more like a petulant child who ran away, half-crazed, to go and play with the big boys. Drat.
Perhaps bringing Walter to the ball would have been less embarrassing. Surely, if they hadn’t argued over who’d stay at home with Walter they’d have gone to the ball in all friendship, like the brothers they were, not with the air of hostility wafting around them, ready to flare up again at the slightest nudge. Which it did—with the outcome that Joe was heading…somewhere. Somewhere where he could enlist.
Well, yes, they had argued. Hoss, who’d been the natural choice for a dog keeper—he’d brought Walter home after all—had claimed he’d asked Bessy-Sue Hightower out to the ball, and no one who cherished his life stood Bessy-Sue up—not even a man as stout and steady as Hoss. Having promised the Bellflowers to bring his guitar and accompany Bethany for a few songs, Adam had been indispensable—as he’d pointed out grinning like the big, sly cat that got the canary. And Joe? Well, there’d been no way he would not attend his soon to be betrothed’s birthday party.
Joe couldn’t remember what had turned the argument—it must have been something insignificant, unimportant, absolutely meaningless—but suddenly it was about the war again.
Adam had accused him of defending the slavery-system, Joe had argued that the war was not about slavery but about freedom and independence.
“Oh, wake up, Joe,” Adam had snorted then. “You can’t seriously think that.”
One word had led to the next, until finally Joe’d been wound up enough to cry out, “Maybe I’ll go and enlist just to show how serious I really am!”
Adam had pinched the bridge of his nose at that, as if to show that Joe’s stupidity gave him a headache, and said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Joe,” in that condescending tone of voice that never failed to make Joe mad beyond reason.
He’d been ready to strike out at his older brother, had his fist clenched already and his arm swinging back, but Hoss had held him back, pointing at Walter.
“There,” he’d said. “Now you gone done it. Now you gone make Walter angry.”
The darn dog had not appeared as if he’d been listening at all—or still been alive…but then again, most of the times nothing gave away that Walter was still in the land of the living.
“What?” Joe had spat. “You want to tell me the dog has his own opinion about the war?”
“Naw, ‘course not. He jest thinks ya shouldn’t go half-baked. See his eyes?” Hoss had indicated the completely unconcerned looking dog. “He always looks like that iffn he dislikes somethin’.”
In Joe’s opinion, Walter always looked “like that,” no matter what he might be thinking. To his utmost surprise Adam had also seen something in the dog’s expression—of course, something different.
“Nope, that’s his ‘he won’t do it anyway’-look,” Adam had said, and grabbed at the back of Joe’s head and squeezed lightly. “Come on, Joe, be reasonable.”
It might have been meant as a peace offering, but Joe had long passed the point of being agreeable to peace offerings, and so he’d hissed, “Don’t patronize me!”
He’d clenched his fist again, Adam had clenched his, Hoss had obviously been torn between holding back one or the other of his brothers or silencing them both with some well-placed uppercuts—but this time the impending fight had been thwarted by Pa’s arrival. Pa had shaken his head, made clear his disapproval of rough housing inside the house, senseless quarreling, and hostility among brothers in general—and declared he’d look after Walter since he was too tired to attend a ball anyway.
Everything should have been just dandy then, and at first that’s how it had looked. Mr. Bellflower had not skimped on anything at Bethany’s party: there’d been the finest food, a punch that rivaled Pa’s famous concoction, and fiddlers who knew how to wield a bow. Bethany had danced with no one but Joe, waltz after waltz—until Adam had cut in.
And that had been the beginning of the end. Joe hadn’t felt charitable towards Adam, and he’d wanted to keep Bethany for himself anyway, and he might have used words that weren’t too amiable to express that.
Be that as it may, the old squabble had flared up yet again, and this time with witnesses, which had brought Joe’s blood to the boil within moments. Adam’s display of aloof coolness and level-headed darn ole Yankee grani—well, yeah, that same old attitude had aggravated Joe even more.
And so he’d ground out, “All right, I’ll show you who’s got guts. I’ll fight for my conviction. You just go and keep skewing everything.”
As he’d stormed out of the house, he’d heard Bethany crying in horror, “Now you’ve ruined everything! Go after him!” and Adam’s “Don’t worry, he’ll be back before the night is over. Just gotta run out of steam, the kid.”
It filled Joe with satisfaction that Adam had sounded much less certain than his words implied.
The funny thing, however, was now that Joe had run out of steam, and the night was getting colder, and darker, and the terrain more and more unfamiliar, he wasn’t so sure anymore himself.
He brought the horse to a stop.
It was ridiculous. This entire affair was ridiculous. Was he really so hot-headed? And so…dedicated? He wasn’t a political person, he didn’t even know everything about that darn war. All right, yes, he thought the South had a right to be an independent nation if they so wished. Yes, he did understand the desire to determine your own fate, to decide for your own. But—and that was a huge but—he also didn’t believe that one man’s fortune should be paid with another man’s enslavement. And as much as he hated to admit it: even though the war might not have been about slavery from the start (although a voice in Joe’s head that sounded suspiciously like Adam’s told him that for the South the primary aim of the war had always been to win independence and to sustain their traditional way of life—which included slavery), the war now was about slavery—and he had no notion of helping to defend that inhuman system. Fighting for a cause in which he didn’t honestly believe just to contradict his older brother was—just as Adam had said—completely ridiculous.
Joe groaned—and grinned. There was only one way to end this whole mess. His pride be danged.
As he took up the reins again, he found that unconsciously he must have turned the horse already, must have prompted it into moving already, that he was on his way back to the Ponderosa already. As Adam had predicted, he would be at home before the night was over.
Briefly, he considered spending the night at the International House in Virginia City—just because—but apparently he’d really run out of steam. Heading back seemed much more appealing—even though he knew he’d be greeted at home by arms crossed high on a broad chest, a black eyebrow raised to a point just below an equally black hairline, and a slightly amused baritone telling him that his return had always been expected. Perhaps he’d even be treated to a mordant “What kept you so long?”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t Adam who said it, as Joe finally stepped through the front door not long before the night actually was over. The great room was still lit, the family still awake, and all smiles were on Joe as he sat down amidst them.
No, it was not Adam who said it. It was Walter, of all creatures, who bestowed a raised eyebrow on Joe, and a sardonic look that said loud and clear, “I told you so.”
Adam was much quieter as he squeezed Joe’s shoulder and said softly, “Welcome home, Buddy.”
As always, with my heartfelt thanks to Sklamb, my wonderful beta. I’d be lost without your suggestions, and without your encouragement.