Summary: It might look like everyday business, but it’s more, much more. Ben makes some quite interesting observations, and Juliet learns something, too. Originally written for the Weekly Seedlings Challenge for the prompt “Show Off”.
Word Count: 2400
Of course, they were all showing off.
They were also doing their jobs—but they did them that tad more daringly, that whit more jauntily, that bit more flamboyantly.
Hoss explained every horse they brought into the corral to her: its breed, the work for which it would be trained, how much of a challenge breaking it would be. He went and gave each horse his little “Hoss talk” (which entailed he would approach them after the saddling but before they were mounted, hold fast to their halters and whisper in their ears, so quietly no one could understand a word of it. But the horses were said to be calmer after the “Hoss talk”, so none of the boys complained or made cracks about it.)
Returning to her after a talk was done (and explaining how crucially important those talks were), he then reminded her to keep her hands off the corral’s fence, each and every time—and to Ben’s utmost surprise she did not berate him for it but just smiled and showed him how her pale, slender hands were loosely folded at her skirt front.
Hoss made sure she didn’t come too close to the fence while the horses were out, and protected her from flying dirt if need be. Juliet endured it all with patience and an amused twinkle in her green eyes, and only when he waggled his hat in front of her face to fan away a cloud of billowing dust did her smile falter and she asked him with a sharp voice to “please, desist from that!”
At that Hoss pulled his hat away immediately and, fiddling with it behind his back, smiled sheepishly. Then his face lit up and he pointed to the corral. “Look, Joe’s next.”
Ben suppressed a chuckle. Juliet had not made the way out to the Ponderosa so she could watch Joe bust a bronco—everyone was well aware of that. But Hoss, kind as he was, automatically assumed that if she was interested in seeing the breaking of a horse, it would not matter to her who did the job.
But, of course, Juliet was not primarily interested in the art of horse breaking—she was interested in Adam.
Adam had laughed half-embarrassedly as he’d told his father that he’d asked Juliet to come and watch them bust a squad of horses meant to be delivered to the army. Weeks ago, so he’d said, she had asked him how it was to break a horse.
“It’s like sailing on a stormy sea in a very small boat and trying to communicate with the water to still it,” he’d repeated his explanation from back then as he’d recounted the story.
Hearing that, Ben had found it hardly surprising that she’d then said she wanted to see it one day.
He hadn’t been surprised either, when Adam had told him he’d responded to her request with a too-modest-to-be-true “You want to watch me fly into the dust, Mylady?”
But his heart had gone out to Juliet when Adam had told him her answer to that. “No. I want to see you taming the sea, Adam,” she’d said—it was the most endearing thing Ben had ever heard about her.
Yes, it was quite clear she was not here to see Joe or even to see how horses were broken.
Still, she managed to look mildly interested as she watched Joe stand on top of the box in which the horse was held fast, and slowly lower himself into the saddle. He was wearing his fancy chaps—not the plain dark brown ones which he usually put on for every day work, but a lighter-coloured pair, adorned with blue flowers and brass buttons that Caroline Granger, the neighbours’ lovely daughter, found “adorable”—a bright lilac scarf Ben had never before seen on his youngest, and a freshly laundered jacket. (Hop Sing would have a fit over that, of that Ben was absolutely certain.) Joe winked at Juliet, flashed her a wide grin, and tipped his hat to her.
Ben saw her inclining her head a little, and then giving Joe an encouraging smile. He hoped his son would not be too encouraged: he practically buzzed with energy already, and his gestures were far too grand for Ben’s liking.
“Turn him out!” they heard Joe yell, and then the box’s gate was opened and the horse launched forward.
As usual, Joe did an excellent job. The horse bucked and jumped, caprioled in every direction; but Joe moved with the animal’s every turn and leap.
Hoss cheered, drew Juliet’s attention to the exceptional performances of both rider and horse and showed her how to see that the horse was gradually submitting. She listened intently, clapped her hands as Joe sat through a spectacular sequence of bucks and jumps, and gave a small cry when the horse suddenly twisted and simultaneously reared up on its hind legs, and Joe flew half way through the corral to come down hard on his behind.
Ben was ready to barge into the paddock (half of a mind to tell him this would not have happened had Joe kept his eyes on the horizon and not tried to see how Juliet reacted to his mastery), but before he even got into motion some hands had already diverted the horse from Joe and secured it in a separate stall; and Joe was on his feet, laughing and slapping dust from his trousers.
“Way to go, little brother,” Hoss called. “Next time ya better put some wings on, though.”
“I don’t need wings,” Joe said as he joined them, waving his hand dismissively. “He just caught me unawares. I know that move now; next time he won’t be able to throw me. You’ll see, Miss Juliet, if you come again next week, he’ll be as tame as a lamb.”
“I’m sure he will,” Juliet said and gave him her sweetest smile. “And he will be just the horse for you then, will he not?”
At that taunt Joe looked sulky for a moment but when Hoss ruffled his hair and said, “Aww, shucks,” he even managed to laugh with the others.
On the corral was new commotion then, and Adam appeared on top of the horse box. He didn’t look up, concentrated on the horse below him, speaking soothing words—Hoss, Ben realised, hadn’t given his “talk” this time—and carefully arranged his long legs so as to slip down smoothly when the horse was ready to accept him. He moved with the utmost care, held his weight on arms perched on the box’s edges, and unhurriedly let himself down onto the horse.
The animal gave a startled whinny; Adam released his hold on the box and calmly said, “Outside.”
And the show continued. It was the same bucking and leaping as before, the same wild head throwing and sidestepping, the same almost insane flailing of limbs—human arms and faunal legs—and the same billowing of dust. There was the same hooping and cheering from Hoss, some more of it from Joe, almost equal in volume and inarticulateness. Adam’s conduct, of course, looked different from Joe’s, as it always had and always would—where Joe’s was athletic and powerful, Adam’s was graceful, smooth and always in strange harmony with whatever maniac motion the horse made—but it was executed with the same effectiveness, the same cool professionalism.
The difference was Juliet. Her hands no longer lay neatly crossed on her skirt; they were tightly clasping each other in front of her chest. Her face no longer showed mild interest and an occasional chuckle; it exhibited focus, admiration—and anxiety.
Ben lay a hand on her arm, knowing more intimacy would not be welcome (he’d learnt a lot about boundaries those past few weeks, and about pacing his slow approach to his oldest son’s intended), and squeezed it tenderly as Hoss took up pointing out the particularities of this ride and this horse—and this horseman.
This time, Juliet didn’t seem to listen. She stood engrossed in the spectacle before her, kneaded her hands, and stared.
Then Adam was thrown. His descent was just as spectacular as Joe’s had been, perhaps even more so for the momentum of the toss catapulted him into the corral’s fence. A bar broke under the impact, sending splinters everywhere; and Adam was left on the ground stunned. Ranch hands hurried to capture the horse and lead it away; Joe leapt over the fence and knelt down beside Adam.
Juliet, hands pressed to her mouth, her face white as salt and eyes wide in horror, didn’t utter a single sound. She seemed petrified.
Eventually Joe turned around and waved them an all-clear, then helped Adam stand. It looked a little laboured, and Adam groaned as he straightened his back, but his gaze sought Juliet’s, and as he caught her eye he smiled reassuringly. “Nothing hurt but my dignity,” he said, climbing the fence. “Now you did see me flying into the dust after all. I told you: like a bag of potatoes.”
Juliet reached for his face, wiped a streak of dirt from his cheek. “Are you unscathed?”
“I am.” He laughed as she lifted an eyebrow. “Honestly, I am. There’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“Well, be it as it may—I think we’ve all earned ourselves a nice piece of the apple pie Hop Sing promised us,” Ben broke in. “Off you go, back to the house.”
For once, everyone turned without objection and headed to the ranch house, and Ben took care to fall two steps behind. He needed to be sure if not… And as he’d feared, he saw that Adam—who had put Juliet one small step before him (and with good reason: Ben had already noticed the lady was very observant—especially if it concerned Adam)—held his back a little stiffly and subtly favoured his right hip. He was about to confront his eldest about that—but then he heard Adam assure Juliet again that it was “nothing, really, no more than a bruised ego,” and he decided to remain quiet.
He did grab a passing ranch hand by the arm, though, and, in a low voice, sent him to get the doctor. “Ask him to come at dinner time,” he added, knowing Juliet would be long gone by then.
As he hurried to catch up with the others, he shook his head. Show-offs, all of them. Hoss with his boasting (why Juliet had tolerated the constant fuss Ben couldn’t fathom. He knew she liked his middle son, but he’d never considered her a saint). Joe with his fancy clothes and ‘greatest bronco buster ever’ demeanour (though why on earth he would want to impress Juliet, Ben had no idea. Joe didn’t even like her overly much). And Adam with his show of being indestructible, a man who couldn’t feel pain. (Oh, Ben was looking forward to the day Juliet stopped pretending she believed in his antics for even a single second. The mighty fell hard—that Ben had learnt by painful experience—and one day Adam would end up just like every other injured man, with a cold compress on his brow and express orders not to leave the bed.)
Ben wondered where in the education of his sons he’d gone wrong, where he’d let them believe it was proper behaviour to present oneself in such an undignified manner.
Show-offs, his own sons. Incredible.
Arriving at the house, Ben made certain he took a seat right next to their guest. Juliet must have had enough of horse breaking for one day, and he wanted to save her from any more talk about it. But even more importantly, he needed to prevent his sons from disgracing themselves any more—and therefore he had decided to pre-empt any more foolishness by entertaining Juliet with the story of the time Captain Stoddard, along with almost all the rest of the crew, had fallen ill and it had fallen to him, Ben Cartwright, the last man standing, to single-handedly pilot the Wanderer around Cape Horn.
It was a gripping little tale, and surely, she would prefer it over any more bragging inflicted by his sons.
Mrs. Hawkins handed Juliet their customary late night cup of heavily honeyed Lapsang Souchong tea. “Did you have a good day, dear?”
“Mr. Cartwright is a charming gentleman, isn’t he?
Juliet chuckled. “Which Mr. Cartwright?”
“Ah, coo!” Mrs. Hawkins waved her free hand. “All of them, of course! My dear Benjamin, and his three fine, strapping sons.”
“Yes, they were all very charming.”
“In particular.” Juliet put her cup down. “Naturally.”
They shared a low laugh, a knowing look, a warm, content squeeze of their hands.
Then Juliet sighed. “They were all charming enough…but also…. It was incredible, truly. Mrs. Hawkins, did your Harry ever….” She leaned her head on her folded hands. “I don’t know how to….” She gave a sound somewhere between a laugh and a whimper, then turned to the widow. “Mrs. Hawkins, are all men show-offs?”
“Oh, Juliet, my dear, dear girl!” The widow laughed. Guffawed. “Goodness gracious me.” She clapped her hands over her mouth, but they couldn’t completely stifle the giggles. “Oh, my dear Juliet,” she said finally. “Of course they are. They are all braggarts. They love to show off.” She shook her head, then became sober and took Juliet’s hands in hers. “The good ones, though,” she said. “The good chaps do it only when it really matters to them.”
Juliet’s eyes widened. She stared at Mrs. Hawkins for three, four blinks—then she inclined her head, and beamed.
Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary. ~ Mark Twain
A/N: With many thank to Sklamb for the beta-read!