Summary: It was just another ordinary day for Adam Cartwright, with the ordinary prospect that he would have to step in and keep his little brother out of trouble. Or was it?
Word count: 2507
“Hey, Adam, I’m heading out. You want to come along?”
Adam Cartwright looked over the edge of his Boston newspaper at his eager-as-a-puppy younger brother. Joe had his gray corduroy jacket on and his black hat anchored on his curly head and was ready to roll.
“Er…. No thank you, Joe.”
“Oh, come on, older brother. There’s a new day dawning. Who knows what it holds?”
Adam folded his paper with a sigh. “I’m quite content with the day I have, younger brother.”
“Adam, come on. I…well…I feel like company. Pa told me to mend the north fence.” Joe’s puppy-dog-eyes-look was next. “It’ll go a lot faster if there are two of us.”
“I take it there’s a reason for your haste? Perhaps you have a planned assignation with some diaphanous nymph?”
Joe’s brows popped. “An ass-ey what with a who?”
“An assign…. Oh, never mind. A date with a girl.”
His brother beamed. “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? As a matter of fact I do.”
Adam ticked off the list in his head. It had been about two weeks and there were at least five candidates. Cally, Sally, Susie, Mindy and Delores. The first two were blondes. The third, a wide-eyed beauty with saddle-brown hair. The last two were brunettes, which his little brother favored. Delores was of mixed Spanish and white blood.
She was a feisty little filly.
“Delores?” he asked.
“Now, how’d you guess, older brother?”
It wasn’t hard. Just pick the girl – or situation – where Little Joe could get into the most trouble and more than likely you’d hit the mark.
“I thought her brothers warned you to keep your distance.”
Joe was looking at his reflected image in the highly polished surface of a silver pitcher sitting on the round side table and straightening his hat.
“Nah. They didn’t warn me. They just kind of…suggested it.”
Joe managed to tear his eyes away from the pitcher – and himself – to roll them his way.
Now, he loved his youngest brother. He had since the boy entered this life screaming out his defiance and Marie had placed the red-faced little bundle of…joy…into his hands and Joe had spit up all over him – and then grinned, like he was grinning now. Joe had a unique talent of making every day new.
So he could take advantage of people over and over again.
No, that wasn’t fair. There wasn’t a malicious bone in his brother’ body.
There weren’t too many that were intact either. Joe had broken most of them, or had most of them broken by the ‘non-threatening’ likes of the Del Rio brothers – all four of them.
He supposed this was the end of his quiet morning.
“All right,” Adam said as he rose to his feet. “I’ll go with you on one condition.”
Joe looked wary – and he had every right to.
“That I escort you into town and make sure you arrive at your destination…undamaged.”
“Hey! What’s Delores gonna think when she sees me escorted into town by my older brother like some snot-nosed kid?”
Probably that you are a snot-nosed kid, Adam thought.
“Joe, you’re only seventeen.”
His brother pulled himself up to his less-than-considerable height. “I was man enough for Julia Bullette!” he declared.
And they hadn’t lived that one down yet.
“Joe,” he began, avoiding the usual, ever-present and detested ‘little’ that sent his baby brother’s hackles flying. “Look, Pa left me in charge. If anything should happen to you….”
Joe was in the middle of adjusting his hat – again – so that it sat on his curly head at just the right jaunty angle. He threw a look his way that was all innocence.
“Oh, come on, now, Adam. We’re just riding fence. What could possibly happen?”
With another sigh, Adam headed for the door and his own coat.
What did they say?
Out of the mouths of babes?
“See, older brother? All safe and sound.”
Adam used the sleeve of his wine-colored shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead before turning to look. Joe was striding toward him with the post driver anchored on his shoulder. He’d gone to the wagon to get the tool and, if the truth be told, he’d been holding his breath ever since waiting for him to come back with a black eye or a bloody nose, or maybe even both.
But he was whole and hale.
Placing the head of the driver on the ground, Joe used it as a prop to whirl in a circle. “Not a scratch on me as you can see!”
After rolling his shirt sleeves down and buttoning them, Adam walked over to stand before his brother.
“No irate older brothers waiting by the wagon?”
“Nary a one.”
“No highway robber popped out of the brush to bushwhack you?”
“How about a party of Indians?”
Joe held his arms out. “You see any arrows?”
No, he didn’t.
But then he hadn’t looked at the back of him yet.
The kid was sharp. His little brother snorted and turned his backside toward him and waved his fanny in a salute.
The smug smile Joe flashed as he turned back almost earned him a swat on it.
“Okay, Joe. I have to admit I was wrong.”
Those mobile brows of his brother’s popped toward the curls spilling onto his forehead. “Whoo-ee! Adam Cartwright admitting he was wrong.” Joe placed a hand to his ear and cupped it. “Wait. Do you hear it?”
“Why, the sound of hell freezing over, older brother!” he smirked. “Admit it, Adam. You thought I couldn’t make it through a day without someone taking a swing at me.”
Adam squinted and wiped away a little more sweat. “The day’s not over yet, baby brother.”
What was that he’d said before?
Out of the mouths of….
Ben Cartwright was waiting anxiously for his youngest and oldest son to return from town. Hoss had come home earlier and told him that he saw the pair headed toward the dress shop where Delores Del Rio worked. ‘Delicious Delores’, as she was known, had caught his youngest son’s eye a few weeks back. She was a year or two older than Joseph and had four well-muscled, tall, and very protective older brothers. He’d had a word with their father and the older man had nothing against Little Joe, but he did warn him that his boys took great exception to any man who came courting their sister – and especially if he was not of the…er…Spanish persuasion. With his rich brown curls and his mother’s green eyes and porcelain skin – especially now after being inside all winter and out of the sun – Joseph definitely bore no resemblance to a conquistador. He’d left that morning leaving Adam with specific instructions to keep his brother out of town and away from the girl if at all possible.
Apparently it hadn’t been possible and so Adam had gone along.
As Ben pulled at his chin wishing – and not for the first time – that he had whiskers, he heard the sound of horses’ hooves pounding into the yard. It was accompanied by a high-pitched whoop, which was followed by a rising crescendo of girly giggles.
His sons were home.
Ben closed his eyes. Joseph was in high spirits. Most often that meant his youngest had been in one hell-of-a-hell-raising fight. That boy loved to test his mettle as much as Hop Sing loved to cook. Steeling himself, the older man walked to the front door and opened it.
If there had been flies, they would have had no trouble making their way into his mouth.
Adam stood before him. His eldest’s left eye was black. His lip was split. His nose bent a little toward the south and was crusted with dried blood. There were holes in his jacket and he was walking with a limp.
He was also glowering at his younger brother who trailed behind him looking fresh as a rose.
“You,” Adam snarled, “will come nowhere near me for the rest of the night – maybe for the rest of your life!”
Joe affected a hurt look – and yes, it was affected. “Who me? What’d I do?”
“You were born!”
As Adam limped over to the blue velvet chair by the fire and fell into it, Ben turned to Joe. “What did you do?”
This time the hurt look was not affected. “What’d I do? What did I do? Why don’t you ask old Yankee granite head there what he did? Wasn’t me took on four mountains of muscle with only my fists. Oh, no!”
Ben blinked. He swung toward his oldest son. “Adam?”
The boy blinked back. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay….” The older man turned back to his youngest son. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Adam, hush!” He crossed his arms. “Well, Joseph?”
“You see, it was like this, Pa,” Joe said as he moved across the room, grabbed an apple from the bowl on the sofa table, and polished it on the thigh of his pristine pants. “I was minding my own business, talking to Delores…”
“Kissing Delores,” Adam corrected.
“We might of smooched a bit.”
“Try a lot.”
Joe scowled. “Hey, Adam! Are you tellin’ this story or me?”
Adam smirked. “Be my guest. I’ll be excited to hear it for the first time.”
If he hadn’t wanted to avoid being called a little boy, Ben was sure Joseph would have plunged his fingers in his ears and stuck out his tongue. Instead he drew himself up to his full seventeen-year-old dignity.
“Delores and I were…talking. Her brothers came up and told me to leave her alone. When I said Delores should be able to make up her own mind, they said they weren’t gonna let their sister be seen with any gringo cowboy with a bigamous braggart for a father.”
Ben’s eyebrows imitated his son’s in action. “So that was when you lost your temper and tried to take them on, and your brother stepped in to stop you.”
Joe shook his head. “I’m afraid you got that backwards, Pa.”
His oldest leaned back and lifted his feet. Adam moaned as he planted them on the ottoman.
“So sue me,” he said.
“Adam?” Ben asked. “Adam started the fight? Not you?”
“Me, Pa?” Joe asked all innocence. “Heck, no. I made a promise to you this morning that I wouldn’t get into trouble and I meant to keep it. I figured we could take a few insults. We’re Cartwrights, after all.”
His head was reeling. “Was that all they said?”
Ben pivoted toward his oldest son.
“Your son, Joseph,” he began, “showed surprising restraint, Pa, even when the Del Rio brothers went on to say that the name of Cartwright shouldn’t be dragged through the mud, but through the dung because that’s where low-life cattle-huggers like us belonged.”
Ben pivoted back. For a moment he wondered if this was really his youngest son standing before him.
Joe looked sheepish.
“Delores is really pretty, Pa.”
“So, even though the Del Rio brothers insulted your father and your family name, you were able to keep your temper when your older cool-headed brother was not?”
“Yeah, Pa! Aren’t you proud of me?”
Ben pinned him with a stare. “Should I be?”
His boots suddenly became very interesting to his youngest.
After a moment, the rancher said – calmly, “Joseph, would you care to tell me about the holes in your brother’s jacket.”
Little Joe shifted those boots before looking up. “Well, you see, Pa, when Adam went full tilt for the Del Rio brothers, I told him he was bein’ stupid and was gonna end up with a black eye or worse.”
“Touché!” Adam declared pointing a finger at his eye.
Joe made a face. “I pulled him out of the middle of it and shoved him toward Sport and told him we should get the heck out of there before we got ourselves killed.”
Ben looked at Adam and Adam – reluctantly – nodded.
“I sort of pulled his jacket off while we were running. That’s when Adam fell and hurt his leg. And then when the shooting started -”
“The shooting? The Del Rio brothers were shooting at you?”
“Not…the brothers,” his eldest chimed in.
Ben was incredulous. He looked at Joe. “Delores?”
Joe scratched his head. “I guess she was kind of mad that I didn’t stand up for the honor of the family,” he admitted. “Or fight for her. Seems in Mexico dyin’ to prove you love a girl is considered a noble thing.”
Ben felt like scratching his own head.
Because it hurt.
He was sure he didn’t want to know, but he asked anyway. “So that’s how your brother got the holes in his jacket?”
Joseph nodded. “Delores was firin’ into the dirt. The bullets hit it when I tossed it back to him. Good thing he put it on too ’cause it deflected the arrows.”
“Arrows?” Ben shot a look at his eldest son’s jacket where it hung over one arm of the blue chair. “You mean there are arrow holes too?! Don’t tell me one of the Del Rio brothers is an expert archer?”
“That would have been Chief Winnemucca,” Adam sighed.
Joe sighed as well. “Sarah’s mighty pretty too, Pa.”
Always a girl.
“So, let me get this straight. The two of you mended the fence without incident and went into town – against my wishes – with the express purpose of seeing a girl I told you not to see, which angered her brothers and drew you into a fight with them – and Chief Winnemucca – that ended with both bullets and arrows flying?!!”
Little Joe was shaking his head.
“I didn’t get into any fight. I kept my cool.” Joe took a bite from the apple. “It was old Adam there who stirred up the trouble.”
Both of them turned toward Adam. Ben was awaiting the explosion.
It never came.
Instead, Adam lifted his hands in surrender. “Guilty as sin!” he cried.
“See, Pa? I told you it would have been better if you’d left me in charge,” Little Joe remarked as he headed toward the kitchen, tossing the apple in the air. “Next time you’ll know better.”
Silence followed him – a long silence.
Finally Adam said, “Pa.”
Ben was rubbing his forehead. “Yes, son.”
“I have something I’d like to ask you.”
“What is it?”
Adam looked toward the kitchen and sighed.
“Never mind,” he said as he levered himself up and out of the chair.
“I’ll just shoot myself.”
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