One Word at a Time (by Harper)

Summary:  Adam hasn’t been home from college long before he clashes with the hands—but maybe that’s what he wanted….

Rating:  K+  (1,505 words)


One Word at a Time


The first time it happened—a bucket of flour propped on the top of the bunkhouse door—Little Joe assumed, like the rest of the hands, that it was Adam’s bad luck to have been the first one through the door. The flour covered him with remarkable accuracy, coating his black shirt and hat, turning him into a ghostly copy of himself. Only his hat saved his head and face from being completely powdered in grayish flour.

Laughing with delight, Hoss had slapped Joe on the back, nearly knocking him off his feet. 

“Sorry, Little Joe.” Hoss grabbed his ten-year-old brother’s arm in time stop his headlong tumble. “It sure is a good thing Big Brother Adam didn’t take off his hat as he came through the door!”

Grinning at his eastern-educated brother’s loss of dignity, Joe nodded. Adam had only returned from college a couple of months ago. Somehow, seeing him covered in flour helped bridge the gap between the brother of Joe’s memories and the brother who stepped off the stage four years later. 

As the hands laughed at Adam’s attempts to brush himself off, Joe thought about what Hoss said. Adam’s got more manners than straight-laced ol’ Reverend Miller, Joe thought, but that’s the first time I’ve ever seen him come inside without takin’ off his hat. 

For the next few days, Joe kept track of how often Adam ended up the brunt of the hands’ practical jokes, and his tally surprised him. Adam was more likely to be muddy, more likely to be sprawled on the ground, more likely to be laughed at than all the other hands put together. Once, when Adam forgot to check his cinch and ended up lying in the dust, staring at the loose saddle slug under his horse’s belly, Joe caught the knowing look on Hoss’ face. Their eyes met for a moment, then Hoss grinned and winked slowly at Joe. Hoss sees it too, Joe thought.Adam is letting himself be set up for all the jokes the hands can think up. But why? 

Hoss looked at him pointedly, and Joe could almost hear him: Think on it, Little Brother. Why would Adam do a thing like that? 

So Joe kept watching and listening, trying to see what Hoss wanted him to see. 

One July evening, when wind had slowed to a murmur and the sun cast long shadows on the dining room wall, Joe walked outside to call his brothers for supper. When Adam had first come home, he’d spent his evenings with his family, reading a book or revising his drawings. Lately, however, Adam could be found in the bunkhouse in the evenings, listening to the stories the hands swapped back and forth. If Ben sent Joe to fetch his brothers, he got in the habit of checking the bunkhouse first.

As Joe got closer to the open bunkhouse door, he could hear Shorty retelling Adam’s mishap with the saddle cinch, to the delight of the bunkhouse crew. Shorty’s words were accented by Hoss’s booming guffaws at expected high points of the oft-told story. Looking through the open door, Joe saw Adam bow slightly as he accepted the cries of “that’s something only a dad-blamed tenderfoot would do!” and “bet you won’t forget to check your cinch next time!” 

“Boss, you’ve got to be more careful,” Shorty was saying, shaking his head. “How are you gonna chase cattle if you can’t even remember how to get on your horse?”

Joe squinted at Shorty, wondering at the top hand’s tolerant tone. Shorty didn’t have much patience for newcomers.

“I’m depending on you men,” Adam said. “I need your expertise to get me through the day.”

“Our ex-per-what?” Young Bill muttered, looking around suspiciously. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” 

Joe inched inside the doorway and stood beside Hoss, watching Young Bill warily. Young Bill had only been with the bunkhouse crew for a few months, and was proving to be touchy as a sunburned rattler. 

“Expert-tease.” Hoss pushed his hat back on his head. “It means you know how to sweet-talk cattle. Although in your case, I’d have to disagree with my brother. You don’t sweet-talk ’em, you just wear ‘em down to your way of thinking. Just like you do when you ask a gal to step out with ya.”

A round of laughter followed this remark, and Young Bill’s face reddened. Old Bill clapped a hand on his shoulder. “It gets the job done, with cattle and gals, so don’t worry about it.”

Young Bill’s face grew even redder. “It ain’t fair to be usin’ high-falutin’ words just to show how smart you are.”

The laughter dwindled. 

“I’d like to point out that you use unusual words, too,” Adam said. “The other night at the branding camp, you told me there were ‘soogins’ in my bedroll, and I spent the night sitting by the fire to avoid them.”

The laughter boomed out again, and Joe grinned delightedly. 

“It was only later,” Adam continued, “that Shorty told me that a ‘soogin’ was an oiled tarp, and I had spent a cold, sleepless night for nothing.”

Knees were slapped, as was Young Bill’s proud shoulder.

“Well, I can’t help it if’n you don’t know a simple word like that!” Young Bill grinned.

Joe remembered something Pa said once: Respect is something you earn, one word at a time, one deed at a time. If you show a man respect, he’ll respect you, too. 

And suddenly, Joe understood. Adam was trying to show the hands that he recognized they were better at some things, that they knew more than he did about their work. That he respected them.

“It wouldn’t be so bad, Young Bill,” Adam continued, his eyes twinkling and his mouth quirked up. “But as I was sitting up, shivering and cold, I looked over, only to see that you were warm and slumbering away in your bedroll—“

Young Bill jumped to his feet. “Take that back!” His hand hovered very close to his holstered gun. “I don’t let no man say that about me. No man!”

Two or three hands jumped back, leaving a clear path between Young Bill and Adam. Silence descended. Young Bill’s body twitched slightly. He ain’t gonna back down, Joe thought, gripping Hoss’ arm with a white-knuckled fist.

Hoss started forward, but Adam raised a hand.

“I stand corrected,” Adam said. “You were not slumbering. My mistake.” His eyes had lost none of their gleam, Joe noted.

Young Bill stayed crouched, hand poised over his holster, his body taut as a bowstring. Adam stood rock still and met Young Bill’s gaze without blinking. Joe took five deep breaths before Young Bill straightened and took his hand away from his gun.

“All right.” Young Bill nodded, adjusting the hang of his gun belt. “I’ll cut you some slack, ’cause you’re new ’round here. But you’d be smart to use proper lingo, and be careful what you say about a man, or you’re liable to get shot.”

“Thank you,” Adam said, tightening his lips and looking down. “I appreciate the—er, slack.”

The rest of the hands relaxed, and resumed their previous positions.

“Young Bill, ain’t you due to relieve the night crew?” Shorty said. Young Bill settled his hat on his head with deliberate dignity and walked out toward to the shadowed corral. A few seconds later, hoof beats signaled his return to the herd.

Joe moved to stand near Adam.

“Adam,” he said in a low voice. “What does ‘slumbering’ mean?”

Adam twisted and leaned down so that only Joe would hear his reply. “It means he was sleeping.”

Joe grinned. “I wonder what Young Bill thought it meant.”

“I’ve no idea,” Adam said, his eyes crinkling at their corners. “But he considered it a grave insult. Let that be a lesson to you, Joe, to use proper—er, lingo. 

Joe looked up at his brother’s laughing face. “Like you, Adam? Your high-falutin’ words are gonna get you in real trouble—they nearly did just now!”

Adam winked. “I guess I’ll have to count on you and Hoss to make sure I say the right thing, won’t I?”

“How can we?” Hoss said, turning to stand behind Adam. “Half the time, we don’t know what you’re talking about, either!”

Adam grinned. “Like learning any new language or culture, Hoss. Take it one word at a time.”

The End

Author’s note: This story was inspired by an anecdote told in No Life for a Lady by Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Thanks to pjb for beta reading and helping polish the rough edges!


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