Summary: This is a compilation of ten private conversations between Adam and Hoss Cartwright from childhood through adulthood showing facets of their brotherhood. (They were written separately as responses to various challenges and prompts.)
Rating: PG (references to adult themes) Word Count: 4,520
Eavesdropping on Two Brothers
The five-year-old stopped with his hand on the door knob. His eleven-year-old brother walked up behind him and pulled his hand back to his side.
“You can’t go in there!’ Adam hissed into his brother’s ear.
“Because the door’s shut.”
“I knows it’s shut, Adam, but I’s big enough to open it.” The little boy’s voice held a puzzled exasperation.
Adam’s tone was one of condescending frustration. “You may be big enough, but you can’t open that door anymore, not when it’s closed.”
“Why not? Why can’t I open it; I done opened it lots of times.”
“That was before. Now you can’t.”
“Before what?” Hoss could not imagine what might have occurred that would prevent him from opening the door to a room he had always entered at will.
“Before Pa married that woman.”
“Our new ma?”
“She’s Pa’s wife not our ma, but now that she is that is her room too.”
“And I can’t go in.”
“Not if the door is closed.” Adam stated with completed assurance.
Hoss heaved a sigh. “Why not?”
“Because when married folk close the door to their bedroom, other folks can’t go in. Married folk don’t want to be disturbed in their bedroom.”
“I would be dis-ur bing?” Hoss’s brow became furrowed.
“You sure, Adam?”
“ I’m sure, and you know Pa gets mad when he’s disturbed, so don’t even think about opening that door.”
“I don’t want Pa to be mad.” Hoss declared and shifted from one foot to another.
Adam placed a hand on his little brother’s shoulder and turned him away from the door. “Come on. I’ll help you get dressed. You can’t go and watch Pa shave anymore.”
“But . . .”
“No buts, little brother, unless you want Pa to wallop yours. She’s here now, and you can’t do things like we used to anymore. Just remember not to open that door unless Pa calls and tells you too. Okay?”
Hoss sighed again. “Okay.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the door to his pa’s bedroom. He sniffed just once before obediently following his brother.
“Is they married?”
Adam turned his head from the sight of the two soaring eagles and looked down at his little brother. “Married? Animals don’t marry, Hoss.”
“But you said one was a male and one was a lady bird, and they share a nest, and they stay together for life.”
“That sounds married to me.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Mating for life and getting married are not the same thing. Animals don’t marry.”
“I knows some don’t. A stallion he has lots of mares not one, and most wild ones gets with a new mate every spring, but …”
“Hoss, animals are not hairy people. Marriage is a scared thing from God for people only. Now I don’t want to hear any more about married eagles.” The edge on Adam’s voice brought a pout to the younger boy’s lips.
“Iffen one of them was killed would the other look for a new mate?”
“Umm, I don’t know, maybe.”
“I hope so.”
“You hope so?”
“I wouldn’t want one of um to be lonely, and building a new nest next year would be real hard for only one, and there wouldn’t be no eggs nor no little baby eagles…uh, eaglets.” Hoss looked up at Adam seeking approval for remembering the proper word. Adam shook his head, but his lips turned up in a slight smile.
“Eagles live long lives. They’ll be fine, and we’ll see the babies flying in a few weeks.” Adam placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder and applied enough pressure to turn the boy one hundred and eighty degrees. “We best head toward the house; we’ve evening chores to get done before Pa gets back from town.”
“We can tell our new mama about seeing the eagles. Ya think she’s ever seen one?”
“No. She’s from the city. They don’t have eagles in New Orleans.” Adam’s voice was gruff and forced through gritted teeth.
Hoss glanced sideways at his brother. “How comes ya don’t like our new mama?”
“She’s not my mama; she’s not yours either. I told you she is our stepmother.”
“Folks say she’s our new mama.”
“Well, folks are wrong.”
“She said I can call her mama.”
Adam bit the side of his cheek. “You can call her what you want, but Marie is not our mama, and I, for one, won’t be calling her anything but m’am.”
Hoss took a few silent steps. “She can’t be our mama ‘cause she didn’t birth us?” Adam offered no response only quickened his steps. “But my mama, my first mama, didn’t birth you; your first mama did. Wasn’t she your mama?” Hoss’s voice was soft and puzzled.
Adam stopped dead in his tracks and stiffened to granite. “Don’t you ever say she wasn’t my mama!” His hands curled into fists.
“If she was your mama than Marie can be mine.” His mind settled Hoss strode forward leaving Adam standing alone beneath the pines drawing in slow breaths and blinking rapidly.
Adam came in the back door and walked through the kitchen snatching a cookie cooling on the counter. Taking a large bite, he saw his way blocked by his brother. Hoss stood just in the dining area obviously watching something in the room beyond, watching and listening. It was then that Adam became aware of the singing. He recognized the soft, lilting sound of his stepmother’s voice and the words of the lullaby she sang. Stopping beside his brother, Adam’s gaze found Marie as she sat rocking Little Joe and singing tenderly to him in French.
“Adam.” Hoss’s voice was a whisper. “Did my ma ever sing to me?”
“Yeah.” Adam kept his voice at the same volume. “All the time, little brother, even before you were born and every day after.”
“I wish. . . “ Hoss turned his eyes from mother and child to glance at his older brother. Something in the set of Adam’s jaw brought the thought of how little time Adam’s ma would have had to sing to her son. His voice faltering, Hoss finished, “I wish I could remember; it seems. . .it seems so nice.”
“When Mama sang, it was real nice.” Adam seemed to be listening to something farther away than Marie and his brother. “Sometimes I sang with her.”
Hoss knew his brother too well to miss the soft catch in his final words. “We, well, we might could go sing to Little Joe too.”
Adam remained silent for as the seconds passed. Then he turned and smiled. “We could but your singing, brother, well, Marie might have both our hides if we scare the baby,” he teased.
Hoss shoved his brother and then smiled. “Baby won’t hear me at all if you’re singing too. That voice of yours would drown out a squalling cat.”
They both laughed drawing Marie’s attention. Deciding the best way to avoid a scolding was to follow Hoss’s suggestion, they did. The baby slept with the sound of singing wrapping him in love.
“Adam?” Hoss closed the door of his brother’s bedroom behind him. “Adam?” The call was louder but still a whisper in the dark room.
“Are ya going to be all right?”
Adam pushed up on his elbows and turned his face toward his brother. At least you had the sense not to ask if I was all right. “Pa hasn’t killed any of us yet. I don’t suppose I’ll die this time.”
Hoss stepped closer. “Sometimes it makes ya almost wish ya had.” He inched over to the bedside. “I couldn’t help but hear. I weren’t eavesdropping.”
Adam dropped his face down into his pillow. You wouldn’t need to. I’m sure everybody heard. Adam felt the blood flushing his face and groaned.
Hoss slipped onto the bed. “I can put a cushion on your chair at breakfast.”
Adam groaned again but moved his head in the negative. “I’ll be fine; go back to bed.
Hoss shifted but did not rise. “Adam, ummm, why do ya…I mean ya know if Pa catches ya…well, ya know what will happen.”
Without lifting his body, Adam turned his face from the pillow toward the wall. “I know.” He heard his pa’s voice in his head repeating how his punishment would escalate if his pa needed to repeat it. “I know.”
“Then why do ya keep doing it?”
“Maybe I just convince myself each time I won’t get caught.”
Hoss shook his head. “Naw, that ain’t your way. Ya know ya could, and iffen ya keep on ya know you will, so why? Usually, ya don’t disobey Pa like this unless ya think there’s a good reason even if most of the time Pa don’t think the reason’s good enough.”
“This is different.”
“Just is.” He sorted. “Now, go to bed and leave me be.” Hoss did not move. “I said go on!” Adam’s tone was forceful even though his volume was low.
Hoss continued to sit.
Lord God Almighty, why did you give me such a stubborn brother! “You wouldn’t understand.”
“I’d try. ‘Sides I understand most things when you explain ‘em to me.”
Adam snorted again. He’ll sit there until morning because I can’t risk causing a ruckus by throwing him out. He snorted again.
“Sometimes I just… sometimes I’ve got to ride, ride like the wind, to be free again.”
“Can’t ya ride like the wind in the daylight? Pa’d get mad if ya was too reckless but not tanning mad like when ya sneak out at night.”
“It doesn’t make me feel the same.”
“It doesn’t make ya free?”
“No… no, not the same way.”
Hoss sighed. “What ya want to be free of?”
“Maybe…” Adam stopped himself. “Not you, Hoss, never you.”
“Just…just me, I guess.”
Hoss imitated his brother’s snort. He placed his feet on the floor and stood, looking down at his older brother’s back. “You’re gonna do it again, ain’t ya?”
“Not for a while.”
Hoss bit his lower lip. “Make it a good while.” He turned and walked toward the door, pausing when his hand touched the knob. “Well, ya only get caught about half the time.”
“If we could get Little Joe to sleep through the night, I could probably cut it down to one time in three.”
“Probably.” Hoss opened the door.
“Don’t worry about it, Hoss. Please. Like I said, Pa hasn’t ever killed one of us, and I don’t think he ever will.”
Hoss shook his head again and closed the door behind him.
Adam snorted and then forced himself to exhale slowly. He paused and decided perhaps a short break was in order. After a cup of coffee and perhaps a couple of Hop Sing’s molasses cookies, he would be in a better frame of mind to try for the third time to get it right. He turned on his heel and walked toward the house.
“Takin’ a break?” Adam slowed his gait slightly, and Hoss came up on his right matching his steps to his older brother’s.
“Yes. Are you joining me?”
“Yep. Things going well?”
Adam bit his lower lip before answering. “Not really.”
“A little rusty, are ya?”
Adam paused. “It’s been closer to five years than four since I’ve done anything…” He let his thoughts fade into silence.
“Not much call for ranch work back East.”
“None at all.”
Hoss watched Adam’s right hand reach up to tug his ear. When Adam took another step forward, Hoss placed a hand on his brother’s arm to halt his forward progress.“It’ll come back soon enough.”
“Of course it will. Like you said, I’m just a little rusty. Too much time with books and pens and papers.”
“Adam.” Hoss cleared a lump from his throat. “Would, well, would ya rather, I mean, ya could still be working with them pens and papers. Do you wish ya were?”
“Sometimes.” Adam seldom bothered to lie to Hoss, and Hoss never believed him when he did.
“Ya came home for Pa and Little Joe and me.” It was a statement not a question.
Adam’s gaze swept the house in front of them before he turned his gaze to his brother’s eyes. “If none of you were here, I wouldn’t have come back, but then if my family wasn’t here, this wouldn’t be my home. I wanted to come home, little brother. From the moment I left, I wanted to come home.”
Hoss’s voice was barely audible. “Not as much as ya wanted something more.” Adam did not speak. The truth of Hoss’s statement was indisputable. Hoss’s voice was stronger, clearer, and held a demanding tone. “Do ya still want something more?”
“Can you understand that part of me always will?”
Hoss’s hand tightened on Adam’s arm. “Ya can still have it. Pa and me and even Little Joe, well, none of us want ya being miserable giving up what ya want for us.”
“I’m not miserable.” Adam placed his left hand over Hoss’s. “I wanted to come home. I want to be here. I need…” He cleared his throat. “I need to be here; I need my family.”
“Wouldn’t lose us even if ya left.”
“I know. This is where I want to be.”
“Then I’ll give ya a hand after we get us some of them cookies Hop Sing was gonna bake this morning.” Hoss smiled and headed off toward the house.
Adam watched his man-sized little brother, shook his head, and then smiled. Evidently, Hoss was not even a little rusty at being his confidant.
“If ya keep grinding your teeth, you’re gonna end up with just a mouthful of nubbins.”
Adam turned his head to look at Hoss and raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
Adam turned his gaze away. Hoss settled himself onto the bench beside his brother. “Ya left the table, which I might just mention was plum foolish since Hop Sing had cobbler with cream for dessert, ‘caus ya was mad, and I’ve got it figured that ya was mad with Little Joe, but I can’t figure why.”
Adam picked at a splinter of wood with his fingernail. “I… it’s just…I’m not mad at Little Joe, not really.”
“Ya got some burr in your britches, and it’s got something to do with Little Joe.”
Adam released a slow breath. “He kept whining about not catching any fish.” Adam’s boot tip gouged the dirt beneath his feet.
Hoss’s expression grew more puzzled. “He wasn’t really whining, not…”
Adam slapped his hand against the wood of the bench. “He sat at a fully laden table grumbling and whining, yes, whining, and carrying on like no tomorrow.”
Hoss cleared his throat. “And that made ya mad enough to leave and come out here to…well, to fume and grind your teeth to nubbins?”
Adam’s palms rubbed back and forth over the edge of the seat. “I didn’t want to let loose at Little Joe. I know he’s just a kid, and really I shouldn’t…it’s just, sometimes… I guess it’s just, well, I remember…I remember when not catching any fish was, well, when it really was, well, not a tragedy but…”
“When it meant the difference to how ya belly was feeling?”
“Yes.” Adam leaned his head back against the barn wall and closed his eyes.
“It ain’t Little Joe’s fault that he’s grown up different.”
“I know that. That’s why I left the table before Hop Sing’s cobbler.”
“I don’t really remember them kind of times either.”
“Things kept getting better, at least that way, after Pa meet Mama.” Adam’s eyes remained closed. “Actually, it’s not as if that was the way of things for very long or that any of us really grew up poor. I shouldn’t feel the way I was feeling.”
“A body don’t pick feelings; they just are.” Hoss rested his hand on Adam’s forearm. “It ain’t just that Little Joe ain’t never really known want.” He paused. “Just about everything’s been easier for that boy than for you.”
A long minute passed. “Not everything.” Adam straightened. “Wallowing in self-pity is never a good thing.”
“Pigs enjoy a good wallow now and then.”
“I could find an insult in that statement if I tried.”
“Could have found a worse one iffen I’d said what I first thought.” Adam turned his head toward Hoss and arched his eyebrow. “Well, when ya said ‘not everything’, I could have said, ‘No, he did have you for an older brother.’ I didn’t though.” Hoss grinned slowly. “Just couldn’t somehow.”
Adam smiled back. “Thank you.”
“You’ve broken it!” Adam’s tone was curt and admonishing. Then he sighed as he stared down at his brother’s hand.
“It will heal.”
“It wouldn’t have to if you hadn’t plowed it into the doorframe.”
“Had to hit something, and that doorframe was handy.” The reply was matter of fact.
Adam rolled his eyes. “I guess it’s a good thing a cast iron stove wasn’t handy. Then it might have broken in three or four places.”
“A body gets mad sometimes, Adam.”
“But it’s not usually you!” Adam looked into Hoss’s face and sighed again. “Why didn’t you just hit what made you mad and save yourself a broken hand.”
“Too angry. I would have really hurt him, Adam. This is better.” A slightly pleading tone had entered Hoss’s voice.
“Oh, yeah, this is real fine. You’re going to be one-handed for weeks.” Adam’s words were sharp with sarcasm and bitterness.
“At least I’m not a southpaw like Joe. I’ll get along fine. Ya don’t have to worry; I’ll still pull my weight.”
Adam gave his brother a rueful glare. “It takes a team of oxen to pull your weight. Besides you know that’s not why I’m angry.”
“Then just what burr is under your saddle? It’s not like I can’t tell you’re mad at me.” A slight irritation had crept into Hoss’s voice.
Adam looked down at the large hand resting on his thigh. “You hurt my little brother.”
Hoss’s brow furrowed with puzzlement. “Little Joe ain’t even. . .”
“I didn’t say baby brother.”
“Oh.” Hoss smiled. “You got to remember I’m grown, and you don’t have to look after me no more. I can take care of myself.”
“And this is an example of how well you do?”
Hoss’s eyes grew serious. “It is, Elder Brother, if ya think on it. A little old broken bone in that big hand of mine don’t hurt half as much as carting around a load of guilt.”
Adam looked up into the clear blue of his brother’s eyes and accepted that Hoss’s words were simply true. “Well, don’t expect me to cool Pa down for you when he hears.” Adam shook his head and then smiled. “Come on. We’re going over to the doctor’s. I lay you ten to one he puts one of those new plaster casts on it.”
“We could just put my hand in a sling.”
“It needs to heal properly. Come on. Let’s get it over with.”
The two brothers rose. Hoss cradled his injured hand against his chest, and Adam slipped an arm around his brother’s shoulders.
“Can ya at least be there when I tell Pa?”
“I guess I can.”
With one last shake of Adam’s head, they walked toward Dr. Martin’s office.
At the sound of his brother’s voice, Hoss Cartwright turned his head and gazed on the meadow below. His eyes quickly focused on the herd of wild horses which had paused to drink at a small stream. Suddenly a massive chestnut stallion reared and neighed. The whole herd came to life, and in perfect unison galloped after the chestnut down the valley. The sound of their hoofs thundered back toward the two men.
“They’re beautiful creatures,” Adam observed. “Wouldn’t mind having the stallion for my own.”
“He wouldn’t be has beautiful then,” Hoss replied softly.
Adam turned an appraising gaze on Hoss. “Perhaps not, little brother, but would you have all of us go constantly afoot?”
Hoss sighed. “Sometimes. When I see ‘em like that. Sometimes.”
Adam shook his head slowly. There was not a trace of wildness in this brother, yet he prized it in the rest of God’s creatures. “Do you envy them their freedom?”
Hoss gave a single shake of his head and then grinned. “Naw, big brother, not like you.”
Adam’s eyes meet his brother’s as he silently acknowledged the truth. Then he simply stated, “Best get back to work.” He would ponder the irony of it later in the blue chair before the fire.
“It was like so, but wasn’t.* Not really, not the absolute truth of it, but no one knows the absolute truth, only their truth. For me the truth was that we were in love. For a time she was my world.”
“Then the rest of her world reared its ugly head.” Adam stared at the whiskey in the bottom of his glass and swallowed it down. “There was a great deal of ugliness in her life.”
Hoss set down his almost full glass. “Was there ugliness in her?”
“Not in her; I could never believe that, but she was stained by it.”
“You were awful young.”
“So was she, but . . . things can make a person grow up fast.”
Hoss cleared his throat softly. “Before you found out, had you…”
“No.” Adam looked at the bottle on the table, reached toward it, and then let his hand drop. “That first year in college, I had Pa sitting on my shoulder too often for that, and I thought, well, I thought she was a . . .a lady.”
“When you found she…, well, that she…, what she was doing?”
“I went to her. Furious, I was furious; I . . .I think I could have hurt her except…”
“She turned toward me with tears in her eyes. I loved her, even then I loved her; she told me she loved me, that that part of things had never been a lie.”
“You didn’t believe her?”
“I wanted to, part of me did, some of me still does, but …” This time Adam poured a shot and swallowed it in one gulp. “I couldn’t trust her; I never could have trusted her.”
“So it ended?”
“I never saw her again until today.” Adam looked directly at his brother for the first time since their conversation had begun. “She was a truly beautiful girl.”
“I could see that. Years can be hard on a woman.”
“And drink can be harder. Still I knew her; one look and I knew her. I wish you could have seen her then.”
“I can picture it. Adam, you ain’t; well, you ain’t blaming yourself for what she is now?”
“If she did love me, if I had forgiven her…”
“There’s if’s and there’s maybe’s but there ain’t no reason for you to feel guilty. If she’s had to pay for her sins, well, that’s in God’s hands.”
“She hurt my brother; that’s sin enough.”
Adam saw the judgment sharpening the blue of his brother’s eyes, and slowly shook his head. “You’re usually the forgiving one.” He took one more drink and then stood unsteadily. “You best get me back to the hotel.”
“Are we still leaving for home in the morning?”
“Unless we get shanghaied on the way to the hotel.”
“Ain’t nobody going to try and shanghai me; they’d be worried about sinking their boat.”
“Ship. Their ship.”
Hoss shrugged and pulled Adam’s arm across his shoulders. “Let’s go home.”
*This first line was a quote from Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers used for a challenge prompt.
Adam leaned against the side of the stall and stared down at Hoss as he inspected Chubby’s leg. “Why did you lie to the boy?”
“It weren’t really a lie.”
“It surely wasn’t all of the truth.”
“It was all the truth that boy needs to know.” Hoss stood, and his eyes meet his elder brother’s.
Adam cocked his eyebrow, but the message in Hoss’s eyes did not waiver. Adam had seen that look in those blue eyes before. Sometimes it was best to simply let a mule have his way, at least a certain overgrown brother of a Cartwright mule. “Have it as you will.” Adam straightened. “The decision was yours to make. I’ll not tell him anything more.” He gave a meaningful shrug of his shoulders. “Still, that’s not to say that he won’t hear the whole story from someone else.”
“Maybe, but ain’t that many folks know the whole story, and none of them is likely to be spending time in Richmond.”
“Yep. The boy showed me some papers. He has kin in Richmond on his Mama’s side. It will be best if he goes to them.”
Adam’s right hand tugged at his ear. “Best for the boy, yes, it should be best for him.” He sighed. “I’m…I know you…well, I know how you feel about him.” His hand settled on Hoss’s shoulder and squeezed gently.
“I want what’s best for him is all. He’s a good boy, Adam. He deserves a chance.”
Adam’s hand squeezed again. “Of course. Still, maybe learning the whole truth when there is someone to help him deal with it would be best if there’s even a chance of him looking for more answers and finding them later.”
This time Hoss sighed and then shook his head. “No.”
“Why are you so sure?”
“I’ve done thought it through, and my mind is set.”
“I’m not arguing the point, but you really haven’t answered my question. Why?” He waited patiently for his brother’s answer; he always had.
“Well, the way I see it, the whole truth would kill all that boy’s heroes, and a world without heroes is like a world without sun, you can’t look up to anyone.* Iffen you ain’t got anyone to look up to, well, it’s real easy to get lost or find some lowdown, slim crawler to follow. I won’t let that happen to that boy.” He turned to look directly at Adam.
“I see.” Adam made a decision not to mention heroes with feet of clay. Hoss knew his older brother well, though.
“There’s bit of clay in most men’s feet. That’s a lesson we all learn sometime. Only it’s a lesson best learned after we’ve had lots of practice learning to forgive.”
Adam smiled his agreement and dropped his arm around his brother’s shoulder. “Right.” Yes, there’s some clay in most hero’s feet, but not all. I know for sure, not all.
*“A world without heroes is like a world without sun, you can’t look up to anyone.” Is a quote from “A World Without Heroes” by Kiss (Lou Reed, Bob Ezrin, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley) which was used as a challenge prompt.