Summary: Some things can be learned by listening to the advice of others and some things are learned by experience. Little Joe will learn both ways about shooting and the possible consequences.
Word Count: 2231
Getting back early from working in the pastures and hearing gunshots, Adam and Hoss headed to the back of the stable and found Little Joe practicing his quick draw. Wearing his brand new pistol rig, he was quick but not nearly as accurate as he wanted to be. Three bottles were still on the fence. As he walked to the fence to replace the missing three, Hoss and Adam found comfortable perches on stacked logs but remained silent. When Little Joe turned around to see them there, his face turned a little pink because he realized they had probably seen what he had done. He tried to explain away the failure.
“I did better the other times. I tried to go faster that time.”
“Faster isn’t better if you miss.”
He snapped at Adam. “I know that.”
Hoss leaned back and decided to play devil’s advocate a little. He and Adam had been talking about that. “Ifn ya know that, they why’d ya do it, little brother?” He looked over at Adam to see him grinning at him for that.
Little Joe wasn’t looking at them. Intent on reloading his pistol, he never saw the silent communication between brothers. “Listen, this is all new to me. Just give me a little space to try things out, would you?”
“All right, we’ll both be quiet. Why don’t you show us what you can do?” Adam delivered that seriously and without any mocking although Little Joe still wasn’t sure he wasn’t being mocked.
Standing tense and ready for their comments, he drew and missed four of the six bottles. He waited for the laughter, but nothing happened. Turning around, he was surprised that Adam and Hoss were walking toward him looking serious. They had some suggestions. Adam made most of them.
“Hold your hand like this above your holster but not so high. Keep your muscles loose but ready for action. You’re too tense before you draw, and your hand was too high and too far away from your body. Slow down enough to aim at each target.”
“Yeah, don’t have your feet so far apart neither. It hurts your balance, and like Adam says, it kinda makes you all tight too.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Ya oughta listen, Little Joe, especially to what Adam’s got to say to ya. Adam’s the best draw on the ranch. In fact, he’s probably the best draw in these parts.”
Joe’s chin came up in that familiar defiant pose he had. Drawing all five foot eight of himself up, he stared at Hoss who stood over a half foot taller. “I think I’m faster.”
“Maybe so.” He saw Joe’s look. The eyes rolling and mouth twisted in a small smirk make his opinion clear. “All right, you’re faster, but he hits what he’s aiming at near all the time. Ain’t likely a man around here wants to go up against him ’cause they know that.” Hoss made a meaningful gaze at the fence and back. “How ’bout you?”
Waiting to let Hoss’ words sink in, Adam was willing to make one more effort to get Little Joe to learn a better method. It wasn’t easy getting his youngest brother to take the time to think things through. He was smart enough but tended to react instead of plan. Much like his mother and somewhat like his father, his first reaction was often emotional. Adam did his best to get him to make that first reaction one of planning. He knew that Little Joe was more likely to take the advice of Hoss without overreacting so he waited long enough he thought and then longer to make sure he gave Little Joe enough time to process what had been said. The one thing he couldn’t teach him was that the same process was true in a gunfight. Staying cool and planning was going to save his life one day.
“Try it my way. If it doesn’t work, you can always keep going at it your way.”
Shrugging at their comments, Little Joe acknowledged that he was willing to try their idea once. Taking his time and trying to remember each thing that Adam had said, Little Joe did it Adam’s way. Remarkably to him, he hit five of the six bottles and was almost as fast as he had been by doing it his way.
“That worked. I wasn’t as fast though.”
“Accuracy is more important than speed. If you’re fast but miss, your opponent can gun you down even if he’s slower.”
“Yeah, little brother, six fast misses ain’t near as good as one slow hit.”
“Yeah, and now I could gun somebody down if I had to. You’ve gunned people down, Adam. What was that like?”
“Not something you ever want to feel.”
“Does it get easier after the first time?”
“Nope. That first time, even now I still remember, and the feeling’s still the same. Any time, it’s like lead in my belly. Fear before and guilt after: it’s a part of life out here, but it will never be something I can accept easily.”
Adam walked away then. He knew there would be faces in his dreams that night. There often were. In the daylight, he could logically assess a situation and rationally explain that he had no choice in each case when he had to take a life. At night though, the guilt ate at him with the dark dreams. Hoss watched him go and had a feeling Adam would never be able to let go of some of that burden of guilt he carried for not finding another way other than killing. Hoss accepted it as part of life and found it difficult, but if his family was threatened, he wasn’t going to carry a load a guilt over it.
Sixteen-year-old Little Joe, who had been looking forward to his first gunfight as something glorious, had his first doubts., but he had doubts about his oldest brother too. Guilt he could understand, but he had never thought of him as being afraid.
“I never thought about Adam shooting people because he was afraid of them.”
“That’s not why he done it. It’s that whenever you get into something like that, you know you could die. Don’t like to think on it, but it could happen. No guarantees you gonna be the one who walks away.”
“But how can you do it if you’re afraid?”
“Only way you can do it is if you’re afraid. Any fool can shoot a gun. If you don’t know what to fear, then you won’t know how to protect yourself. You know, you go to town, and you look around kinda getting the feel for things. You want to know if there’s anything you have to be worrying yourself about.”
“I know you’re only looking around for something pretty in a skirt, but you need to start looking around for more. You can’t always count on Pa or Adam or me to see the dangers around us. Sometime, you gonna hafta be the one to do the looking and the seeing.”
“And the killing.”
“Maybe that too, and then you’ll know that feeling that me and Adam has, one that stays with ya forever. Now you get back to your practicing, but remember, when you need that shooting, it ain’t gonna be at bottles. It’s gonna be at something that’s shooting back. How good you gonna be when that happens?”
Hoss walked away then too following his older brother to the house. He and Adam had discussed that last point too. They knew that their younger brother was smart, but wisdom was going to come slowly to the youngest Cartwright because he seemed to prefer learning through mistakes. This was one of those situations though that a mistake could be the end of learning. He and Adam were going to do their best to see to it that he learned what he needed to know before he needed to use it.
Little Joe set up the bottles and began practicing. In the house, Adam and Hoss noted that the rate of fire had slowed down. Apparently, their little brother was making sure he hit those bottles now. They looked at each other and both smiled. The first lesson had worked. They knew though there were going to be many more, but Little Joe was well on his way to be one of the best shots in the area and well able to defend himself and others.
Three years later, Hoss walked to his little brother and took the pistol from his hand putting it back in his holster. With a hand on Joe’s shoulder, he turned him but Joe’s head swiveled back to the man lying in the dirt with eyes staring sightlessly at the sky. Hoss wished they would close but knew they wouldn’t. That man would never do anything again on his own. Joe had put three shots into his chest. Seeing him aiming at Adam’s back and firing, there hadn’t even been much time to yell. He had, but not quite soon enough.
“C’mon, Joe. We gotta go hep Adam. He’s hurt. I don’t think it’s too bad.”
“I tried to warn him.”
“I know you did.”
“That man must have wanted the money Adam got from the bank.”
“He probably did and paid the price for being greedy. Now, c’mon, our brother needs us. You helped him but now he needs a bit more help.”
“Hoss, I never killed anybody before. I shot at some and maybe wounded some, but I never killed anybody.”
“I thought I’d feel good about doing the right thing especially about saving my brother. I mean, I’m glad Adam is still alive, but I wish I didn’t have to kill somebody for that to be true. I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
“Later. Right now you come help me take care of Adam.”
As they talked, Hoss had been guiding Joe slowly back to where Adam sat quietly waiting for them. By his posture, Hoss knew the bullet was still inside. Adam was doing everything he could not to move including taking small shallow breaths.
“We’re gonna hafta take off your coat.”
“Looks like it most likely hit your shoulder blade.”
“I got news for you. It feels like it too.”
“That’s the good news.”
There was no response from Adam because Hoss was pulling at his coat by then as Joe did his best to help. All Adam could manage to do was grimace with the pain and try not to call out as waves of agony assaulted him. They worked on Adam for an hour removing the bullet from its shallow hole and then bandaging him and getting him to rest on his stomach by the fire. Exhausted by blood loss and pain, he fell asleep quickly.
With the crisis diminished, Little Joe’s problems returned. He walked swiftly to a tree and leaned over bracing himself against the tree trunk as he spewed out the contents of his stomach. Hoss casually stood and went over to him handing him a canteen before returning to sit by Adam’s side. When Joe came back to the campfire, he sat down right next to Hoss so that they were almost touching.
“I feel like I got lead in my belly. I don’t think I can ever forget what I did. I’m going to see his face in my dreams. I know it.”
“You and Adam are a lot more alike than either of you seem to know. Seems to me he said something like that to you a few years ago.”
“Yeah, he did, but I only understood it today.”
When they got home three days later, Ben was of course concerned not only with his eldest son because he was injured but with his youngest too. “Hoss, he seems different. What happened?”
Hoss told the whole story. “He found out what it’s like to carry that kind of power and then to use it when the consequences are final, and you got to live with ’em.”
“But he saved your brother’s life.”
“Yeah, but he’s a lot like Adam.”
“He’s been brooding about it?”
“Nothing we can do, is there?”
Little Joe Cartwright was fast and accurate, but he never became a gunman for the same reason his eldest brother would never do such a thing. He learned something about himself on that trip. There was a price to pay for killing even when done in self-defense or the defense of others. Only someone without morality or without a conscience could make a living by killing others. At least that was the way Little Joe saw it. He was going to let Adam have some time to recuperate and then have a discussion about that with him. That’s how he managed to fall asleep at night. He vowed too that when he had sons, he would teach them about shooting the way his brothers had taught him. He would never forget that shooting lesson.