Summary: A wild stallion and a nine-year-old boy teach Adam a lesson he never learned in college.
Rated: K+ WC 6300
The smack of the leather belt against the reddened flesh seemed to echo forever. “All right, that’s it,” Adam said, weary with resignation. In four years away at college, he’d forgotten just how much he hated this part of being the older brother.As soon as Adam lifted his hand from the boy’s back, Little Joe sprang to his feet, pulling up his pants as he darted across the room, as far from Adam as he could be. He stood by the window, his back to the room and his brother, each hand clutching the opposite elbow. He still made no sound. He hadn’t from the moment Adam laid him across his lap.”Joe.” The boy didn’t move. “Joe.” Adam watched for anything, any sign that the boy understood how much he hadn’t wanted to do it. Sighing, he put his belt on and crossed to where his little brother stood, still as a statue. He rested his hand on the boy’s shoulder. No response. It was like putting his hand on a rock.
Clearly, the boy wanted nothing to do with him. “I’ll see you downstairs,” Adam said, patting the stubborn shoulder. He let himself out, closing the door quietly behind him.
Downstairs, Adam paused only briefly before pouring himself a brandy. He rubbed his temples against the beginnings of a headache. Settling himself in the blue velvet chair by the stairs, he wondered how it was possible that four short years had brought so many changes.
Little Joe was just shy of six years old when Adam left. Marie had died only a few months before, but Pa maintained that both he and Adam’s stepmother had wanted him to go to college and that he ought not change his plans now. “We’ll manage,” said Pa, resting his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “You go and do what you need to do, and we’ll be here when you get back.”
So, Adam went. Even though he had pangs of homesickness, especially during that first year, he never once regretted the decision. Boston was rich with culture and refinement and sophisticated people, with thoughts and ideas debated long into the night over glasses of port. It was beautiful young women in lace-trimmed dresses who found the combination of rough cowboy and polished scholar intoxicating. It was the ability to read as much as he wanted without being called away to water the stock or slog through mud looking for stray calves or diaper the baby or do any of the myriad things that always seemed to require him to put down his book almost as soon as he’d taken it up.
But at the end of it all, he came home. It was part of the deal he’d made with himself: four years of study, and then he’d go back and use what he’d learned to help build the Ponderosa into the empire he knew it could be. It wasn’t as if there weren’t other opportunities, but Adam knew where his obligations lay. Pa had already sacrificed so much for him; now, it was Adam’s turn to make some sacrifices. And so he’d written home through the years, his ideas going before him so that Pa would be ready for them when he arrived home.
His homecoming had been almost all he could have hoped for. As soon as he stepped from the stage, Pa gathered him into a hug, right there on the street. Ben Cartwright might be the toughest, strongest man Adam had ever met, but he had a soft side when it came to his family, and he never shied away from expressing it.
When Pa released him, Adam turned to Hoss. His younger brother was almost half a head taller than he was, and he’d filled out beyond his earlier promise. Adam’s best guess was that the fifteen-year-old outweighed him by fifty pounds, and he knew that estimate just might be conservative. Hoss was laughing with delight, and he gathered Adam into a big bear hug that pulled him right off his feet.
Finally, Hoss set Adam down. Breathless and laughing, Adam turned to Little Joe. The chubby little boy who had laughed and cried in the same breath and clung to him in the dark days after his mother’s death was no more. Instead, a skinny nine-year-old was pressed up against Pa, big green eyes fixed on Adam as if considering a stranger.
“Joe?” Adam said gently. He reached for the boy, but Joe tightened his grip on Pa’s jacket and watched him as he might a stranger, without a hint of a smile or welcome.
“Joseph, it’s Adam,” said Pa. “It’s your brother. Don’t you remember?” The boy shook his head slightly, eyes never leaving Adam. “It’s Adam,” said Pa again. “Now, you welcome your brother home properly.”
The boy looked up at Pa, who nodded encouragingly. Still holding to Pa with one hand, he extended his other to shake hands. “Welcome home, Adam,” he said somberly.
Adam suppressed a smile as he took the small hand in his. “Thank you, Joe,” he said with all proper seriousness. “It’s good to be home.” The boy regarded him soberly, withdrawing his hand.
The next three weeks had passed in a flash. Every waking minute was filled with seven things that needed to be done. In the evenings, Adam took over his father’s desk, drawing up new plans for corrals and cattle pens, setting down plans for expanding the family’s holdings, and trying to capture all his thoughts before they vanished in the bustle of the days. Every now and again, he would look up to see his father watching him, bemused. Hoss would just laugh outright when Adam sounded so much like an overenthusiastic schoolboy that even he knew it, but there was nothing mean-spirited about Hoss’ mirth. The two brothers had fallen right back into the easy relationship they had when the elder had left.
It was inevitable, Adam supposed, that something would have been lost in the shuffle. Now, as he sat by the fire, brandy in hand, it was bitterly clear to him that he’d been overlooking one of the most important things, the boy upstairs. He’d seen the look on Joe’s face last week, when Pa said that he had to go to Genoa. The boy looked almost panicked.
Pa had seen the look, too. After he’d said goodnight to Joe, he came back downstairs to where Adam sat, surrounded by papers. “Son, we need to talk,” he said.
Something in Pa’s voice got his attention immediately. Even though he’d been in the middle of adding up a long column of figures, Adam put his pencil down. “Yes, sir?” Pa turned from the desk and headed over to his red leather chair, silently instructing Adam to follow.
Adam settled himself on the settee and waited. Pa watched him for a long minute. Then, he said, “You’ve been quite busy since you got home.”
It didn’t sound like a compliment. “Yes, sir,” said Adam, a trifle uneasily.
“You haven’t had time to do much besides work, have you?”
“Not really, Pa,” said Adam. “But once these plans are completed and in place, I think you’ll find that they save us all a lot of time and expense. If we just move the corral-wait, let me show you the drawings-” He started to rise, but his father’s voice interrupted.
“Adam.” The single word was enough to return him to his seat. His father watched until he was satisfied that Adam’s attention had indeed returned to the discussion. “I’ve been watching you since you came home, and there’s something that concerns me. I was hoping that you’d put it right on your own, but that hasn’t happened.”
“What do you mean?” Adam asked when Pa didn’t continue.
“Little Joe,” said Ben, drawing on his pipe. “The two of you have barely spoken. Did something happen that I should know about?”
Adam shook his head. “Nothing that I’m aware of,” he said. “The boy hasn’t shown the slightest interest in talking to me.”
“And how much interest have you shown in talking to him?” Pa asked gently. Adam opened his mouth and closed it without speaking. “He’s a child, Adam, as much as he wants to believe otherwise. He was very excited about your coming home-he talked of nothing else for weeks.”
“Really?” The memory of the withdrawn child at the stage seemed at odds with the picture his father was painting. “But when you came to pick me up-”
Pa nodded. “He was shy,” he said. “You weren’t the way he remembered. He was so little when you left, and he’d been through so much with Marie’s death-he remembered you differently.”
“Did he tell you this?”
“He talks to me,” said Pa. “And to Hoss. And he’d talk to you-if he thought you were listening.”
“Is that what he said? I don’t listen to him?” Adam fought the urge to defend himself.
“Joe doesn’t tattle,” said Pa simply. “But it’s true. I’ve watched him try to get your attention. You’re so focused on your plans and ideas that you don’t pay him the slightest mind. Even when you’re looking right at him, it’s clear that your mind is somewhere else. He’s a bright boy. You can’t treat him that way and then wonder why he won’t talk to you.”
Adam considered his father’s words. “Is that why you’re going to Genoa? So that Joe and I will talk to each other?”
Ben smiled. “I’m not quite that clever,” he said. “I’m going because I need to sign those contracts before we can get started moving the herd. But you may want to take advantage of your time ‘playing father’ to see if you can’t talk to your brother.”
And now, three days after Pa’s departure, they were farther apart than ever. Joe had clung to Pa out in the yard, and he’d been thoroughly obstinate from the moment Pa was out of sight. Hoss did his best to temper the boy’s attitude, but even he couldn’t seem to get Little Joe to cooperate. Everything was a battle, from hauling him out of bed to getting him to eat anything. The only thing he did willingly was to groom his pony. Everything else required shouts and threats.
Finally, this afternoon, came the straw that broke the camel’s back. Adam knew by now that Little Joe was obsessed with horses; anyone who spent three minutes in the boy’s presence knew that. He also knew, as did Little Joe, that Pa had very strict rules about which horses Joe could ride and under whose supervision. Needless to say, any horse that was not thoroughly broken and gentled was absolutely off limits, in all ways, and Joe knew this as well as anybody.
And so, when Adam came around the corner to find Joe standing quietly in the pen with the gray stallion that had just come in and was so wild that they hadn’t even attempted to put a saddle on him-well, that was the final straw. It didn’t matter that the horse wasn’t acting up. To the contrary, the horse stood as quietly as the boy, as if each were taking the measure of the other. Joe was talking to the horse in quiet, soothing tones, neither attempting to draw nearer than the six-foot distance between them.
“Joseph!” The word leapt forth, harsh and angry. Little Joe jerked around, and the horse tossed its head, snorting. Immediately, Adam saw his mistake. Moving carefully, he said quietly, “Joe, back over to the rail, now.”
“Adam, he’s all right,” said Little Joe. “You just startled him. He’s fine. It’s okay.”
“Do as you’re told,” said Adam through clenched teeth.
“Joseph. Back. Up. Now.” The controlled fury left no room for debate.
“I’m sorry, Gray, I have to go now,” Little Joe said to the horse. The horse eyed him, but made no move. Without breaking eye contact, Joe backed up the few steps to the fence, and Adam seized him, dragging him between rails.
“Adam, you don’t-”
“Get up to your room and wait for me,” said Adam between clenched teeth. “Go!” he shouted as the boy looked about to say something else. Reluctantly, the boy turned and headed into the house. Only after he was out of sight did Adam allow himself to feel the terror of what could have happened, and he clung to the rail, his legs suddenly unable to bear his weight.
It was an hour before he was calm enough to climb the stairs. He hadn’t meant to make the boy wait so long, but he remembered how Pa had always said not to discipline a child while you were still angry. Adam was convinced that this principle had saved his hide on more than one occasion. Today, though, Little Joe would not be so lucky.
He opened the door without knocking. Little Joe stood by the window, looking down into the yard, and he didn’t look up when Adam entered.
“All right, let’s get this over with,” said Adam. He unbuckled his belt and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Little Joe turned from the window then. Seeing his brother on the bed, he said, “Pa doesn’t turn me over his knee any more. I’m too big for that.”
“Well, Pa may think you’re too big, but I don’t,” snapped Adam. “Now get over here and drop your pants.”
Joe’s eyes grew round. Wordlessly, he shook his head.
“Joe, if I have to tell you again, I’m going to add two lashes,” said Adam. He hated, absolutely hated, this part of being a big brother. There was no question in his mind that the boy was testing him, that he’d never have gotten into the pen with that horse if Pa were home. He didn’t seem to realize how fast that stallion could have turned on him, how dangerous it was to be there. It was up to Adam to protect him.
“That’s not how Pa does it,” said Joe, remaining by the window.
“Maybe not, but that’s how I’m doing it, and you’ve just earned yourself two more lashes.” If there had been any way just to walk out of the room at that moment, Adam would gladly have taken it. He watched as his little brother’s face became immobile, emotionless. Defiantly, the boy walked over to him and unfastened his pants, letting them drop to his ankles. He stood beside Adam, almost daring him to take the next step.
Afterward, Adam felt sick. He knew that discipline was necessary. What Little Joe had done was wildly dangerous, and he couldn’t wait until Pa got back to deal with it. But something about this scene was terribly wrong. The boy hadn’t made a sound the entire time. Everything in Adam wanted to take Joe in his arms and reassure the boy that he was loved, that the punishment had been for his own good. But when he touched Little Joe’s shoulder and felt nothing but rocklike resistance, Adam lost his nerve. Telling himself that Joe didn’t care what he had to say anyway, he patted his little brother’s shoulder and said, “I’ll see you downstairs,” and he left the room.
He poured himself another brandy. He couldn’t get over the feeling that he’d handled the matter very badly. He tried to remember how Pa had been with him over the years, but it had been a long time, and he didn’t think he’d ever done something as utterly foolhardy and dangerous as what Joe had done.
“Hey, Older Brother, what’s for supper?”
Adam hadn’t even heard Hoss come in. The gap-toothed grin was usually enough to lift his spirits, but now, even that failed.
The grin faded. “You okay, Adam? You look mighty down.”
Adam sipped his brandy. “I had to deal with Joe,” he said. “Found him in the pen with that gray stallion. Scared the living daylights out of me, I’ll tell you that.”
“‘Again’? He’s done this before?” Adam was flabbergasted.
Hoss nodded, settling himself on the settee. “That kid has a way with horses, no two ways about it, an’ every time we get a new one in, he wants to get in the pen with it and try to gentle it. Been doin’ it for about a year now. We’ve all told him not to, and Pa’s tanned his hide more times’n you can count about it, but it’s like he can’t help himself. He ain’t done it in a while, and we thought maybe he finally learned.”
“Well, apparently, all he learned was not to do it when Pa’s home,” said Adam bitterly. “So, it fell to me to do the tanning.”
“You tanned him?” Something in Hoss’ tone was suddenly strange.
“What was I going to do? Wait for Pa?”
“No, it’s jest-well, you ain’t hardly been back, and Joe don’t really know you yet-” Hoss was stumbling over his words.
“Hoss, I’m his brother,” said Adam. “Of course, he knows me. What does that have to do with anything, anyway?”
Hoss was clearly searching for words. “It’s jest-well-mebbe you should have waited for me. I mean, the kid’s got grit, and he’s tough as they come on some stuff, but when it comes to things like this-well, Pa’s got a way of handlin’ him.”
“Well, if he keeps getting into the horse pen, it would seem that Pa’s way isn’t all that effective, so maybe mine will be,” said Adam, draining his glass.
Hoss’ blue eyes were troubled. “Adam-before you done it-did you talk to him about why you were doin’ it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well-Pa always talks to him first so’s Joe knows why he’s getting’ tanned.”
“He knew why,” said Adam impatiently. “I caught him in the act, for God’s sake. He knew exactly why he was being punished.”
“You didn’t say nothin’ at all?”
“I told him what to do, he tried to defy me, and we eventually did it my way. Then, he refused to speak to me, and I came downstairs.”
“Wait-what do you mean, he defied you?”
“He said that he was too big to be turned over my knee.” Adam couldn’t figure out why he was suddenly defending his actions.
“He is,” said Hoss. “Pa ain’t done that with him in almost a year.”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter,” said Adam.
“It does to Joe,” said Hoss, his eyes dark with concern. “What about afterward? What did you say to him?”
Adam shook his head. “I didn’t say anything,” he admitted. “I tried, but he wouldn’t even turn around and look at me, so I just told him I’d see him downstairs.”
“And you just left him there by hisself?” Hoss was incredulous. “How long ago was this?”
“About half an hour,” said Adam. “Why?” It seemed to him that Hoss was seriously overreacting.
In response, Hoss just shook his head and headed up the stairs. When Adam started to rise, Hoss turned back. “You jest stay there,” he said, as if their roles had suddenly been reversed and he were the older brother. “I’ll see to Little Joe.” Without waiting for a response, the fifteen-year-old headed up the stairs.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hoss eased the door open. Little Joe was sprawled across the bed on his stomach, sound asleep. He was making the hiccupping noises that he made when he’d cried himself to sleep. He wore only his shirt, and a crescent of reddened flesh was visible below the hem. The pants were a tangle on the floor, as if they’d been hurriedly yanked off to relieve discomfort. Hoss took the blanket that was folded up at the foot of the bed and drew it up over his sleeping brother, resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Little Joe jerked awake at the touch. His initial look of panic gave way to relief when he saw his big brother standing by the bed. His cheeks were stained with tears, and his eyes were rimmed with red. “Hoss,” he murmured, reaching out.
Hoss settled himself on the bed and rubbed the boy’s back in large, slow circles. “You okay?” he asked. Little Joe nodded, fresh tears leaking down his cheeks. “It’s all right, ole Hoss is here,” his big brother murmured as the boy gave in to new sobs. “Come here, you,” he said, wrapping the boy in the blanket and holding him close, careful to position him comfortably.
When the sobs had subsided, Hoss wiped his brother’s eyes and then handed him the handkerchief. Little Joe blew his nose and handed it back.
“You wanna tell me what happened?” Hoss said quietly. It was part of the routine they’d established after Adam had left, when it was just the two of them: after Pa had disciplined the little boy, Hoss would come to him, and they would talk about what Joe had done. Sometimes, Hoss didn’t understand any better than Joe just why Pa was upset, but the two brothers would try to sort it out as best they could. Even when they couldn’t figure everything out, it helped to talk.
“I went in with the gray,” Little Joe said. “I just wanted to talk to him. We were doin’ real well, too. But then-he came along and yelled and nearly spooked the horse, and he dragged me out of the pen and sent me up here, and he turned me over his knee like I was some little kid-” Tears spilled over again, and Hoss held the boy close, making soft, meaningless noises of comfort.
“You went in with the gray?” Hoss repeated after the boy’s tears had stopped. Little Joe nodded. Say what you would about the kid, but he wasn’t a liar. If he did something, he admitted it. “But you knew Pa said not to.”
“But nobody else was doin’ it,” said Little Joe. “I could tell the gray was gettin’ upset, and he needed a friend. I thought maybe I could help, and since Pa wasn’t here, it’d be okay.”
Hoss sighed inwardly. This was going to be hard to explain. He wished Pa were here. “Joe, you know I think it’s real important to help animals when you can,” he began. Joe nodded solemnly. Hoss had brought home lots of injured animals over the years. “Thing is, sometimes it’s dangerous. Remember how that raccoon bit me when I tried to splint its paw?”
Little Joe nodded, a smile stealing over his face for the first time since Hoss came into the room. “Your thumb swelled up big as a tree,” he remembered.
“And it hurt like a son of a-it hurt a lot,” Hoss amended hastily. Pa would wash his mouth out with lye soap if he heard some of what Hoss had said when that danged raccoon chomped down. Hoss wasn’t one for cussing, but those sharp little teeth could make a preacher swear. He rubbed his thumb, remembering, and Joe giggled.
“Well, a horse can hurt you a whole lot worse than a raccoon,” said Hoss. “When Pa tells you not to go into the pen, it ain’t ’cause he don’t wanna help the horses. It’s ’cause it’s dangerous for you to be in there all by yourself when the horse ain’t tied up. Even Pa and me wouldn’t go in with some of them horses, and we been at it a whole lot longer than you have. It don’t matter if Pa’s home or not, you jest can’t do it. It’s too dangerous. It’s like Pa said before: if you wanna talk to the horses, you gotta do it from outside the pen.”
“But it doesn’t work as well,” protested Little Joe. “They don’t like it when there’s a rail in between us.”
“Mebbe not, but that’s all you can do if’n you ever wanna sit down again,” Hoss said, his half-joking tone belying the seriousness of his message. “Joe, I need you to promise me you won’t go in the pen by yourself no more. Promise me that you won’t do it unless Pa or me or Adam is with you and somebody’s holdin’ the horse.”
The boy searched his big brother’s face. For four long years, almost half his life, it had been just the two of them here with Pa. Hoss had only been eleven when Adam left but, as Adam had before him, Hoss had shouldered a man’s load at an early age. With both Adam and Marie gone, that load had included the care of his little brother while Pa was out tending to ranch business. Through the years of working and growing together, of games and fights and pranks and secrets and tears and laughter, the two boys had grown closer than most brothers. Hoss knew people would think it silly if he said it out loud, but the nine-year-old in his lap was his best friend, and it just about broke his heart when the boy had to be punished.
“I promise,” Little Joe said finally, reluctantly.
“Cross your heart?”
Solemnly, Little Joe drew an X over his heart. “I promise,” he repeated. “I won’t go in unless you or Pa is with me.”
“Or Adam,” said Hoss. When Joe remained silent, he said, “You still mad at him for tannin’ you?”
In response, Little Joe nestled into Hoss’ arms. “Hoss?”
“If somethin’ happens to Pa, promise you’ll take care of me?”
“Nothin’s gonna happen to Pa,” protested Hoss.
“But if it does,” said Little Joe. “Like with Mama. Nobody thought it would happen, but it did. If somethin’ like that happens to Pa, promise you’ll take care of me?”
“If somethin’ happens to Pa, Adam’ll take care of both of us,” said Hoss.
“No!” Little Joe burrowed his head into Hoss’ chest. “He don’t want me anyway! He don’t even like me!”
“Listen to me, Little Brother,” Hoss began. He reached down and lifted Joe’s chin. “You need to-what happened to your lip? Were you in a fight?” Joe’s bottom lip was cut, and fresh blood was congealing. Joe shook his head. “Then how did this happen?” Joe was silent. “Joe, I want to know how this happened. You tell me now, if you weren’t fighting, how did you cut your lip?”
Little Joe dropped his eyes. Finally, he whispered, “I didn’t cry when he tanned me. Not even a little bit. I never made any noise at all.” Remembering, he bit his lower lip again.
The words pierced Hoss’ heart. How very angry, how very scared the boy must have been, biting through his own lip rather than lose control. He could feel his temper starting to flare. He held the boy tightly, and the skinny arms went around his neck, clinging as if for dear life. “You’re all right,” he murmured, patting Little Joe’s back. “I got you. You’re fine. Don’t you worry ’bout nothin’. Everything’s gonna be okay, I promise.” He held his little brother, murmuring comfort, until he felt the boy relax.
Just then, Adam called from downstairs, “Supper’s ready!”
“You better get dressed,” said Hoss, extricating himself from Little Joe’s grasp.
Hoss raised his eyebrows. “You ain’t plannin’ on goin’ downstairs without your pants, are you?”
“I ain’t goin’ downstairs at all,” said Joe.
“Little Brother, you gotta eat somethin’,” said Hoss. “‘Sides, Adam was makin’ beef stew, and it smelled mighty good.” Joe shook his head, not meeting Hoss’ eyes. Hoss reached down to lift the small chin. “What?” he asked gently.
The boy’s cheeks were flaming red with embarrassment. “Hurts,” he muttered. “He hits harder than Pa.”
“Oh,” said Hoss, understanding. He knew Pa would have insisted the boy come down to the table. Pa wasn’t here, though, and with things so unsettled and nobody to work them out, Hoss was reluctant to put the boy through the humiliation and discomfort of trying to sit on that hard wooden chair, especially in front of Adam. He thought briefly of putting a cushion on Joe’s chair and abandoned the notion as equally mortifying to the young boy’s pride.
“All right, just this one time,” Hoss said. Little Joe flung his arms around his big brother’s neck. “You get your nightshirt on, and I’ll bring your supper up. But jest remember, this is only one time. Next time, you go downstairs. Understand?” Joe nodded soberly, and Hoss smiled. Adam wouldn’t be happy, but Hoss could handle him. Joe and Adam needed to talk, that much was certain, but that could wait until later. For now, Hoss was taking care of his baby brother.
* * * * * * * * * *
Adam was seated at the table when Hoss came down. His younger brother looked troubled. There was no sign of Little Joe. Adam sighed inwardly. Was this the next step? Drag the boy, kicking and screaming, to the supper table?
“Where’s Joe?” he asked, trying not to sound irritated.
“Upstairs,” said Hoss. He picked up the plate at Joe’s place and ladled stew onto it.
“You know, you can probably make do with one plate at a time,” said Adam.
“This is for Joe,” Hoss said. He gathered up the silverware, napkin and water glass, depositing everything onto the tray that sat on the sideboard.
“What? Why isn’t he coming down?”
Hoss met Adam’s eyes squarely. “Because I said he didn’t have to,” he said. It was as clear a challenge as Adam had ever seen.
“Oh, really? Any particular reason that he’s now getting his meals delivered to him on a tray? Are you sure you can’t find a silver platter for him?”
“Watch yourself, Adam,” said Hoss almost casually. “You might have a fancy education, but you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about here. You take care of the ranch, and let me handle Little Joe.”
Hoss’ quiet authority was even more irritating that Joe’s open defiance had been earlier. Adam snapped, “Little Joe is my responsibility while Pa’s away, and I’ll handle him the way I see fit!”
“The way you did this afternoon? Tell me something, Adam. Other than the time you spent yellin’ at him and tannin’ him, how much time have you spent alone with Little Joe since you been home?” Adam opened his mouth and closed it without speaking. “That’s what I thought,” said Hoss. “That boy don’t know what to think of you right now. He says you don’t like him and much as I don’t want to believe that, fact is that the only things you done since you been back are ignore him and tan him. He won’t say it, but I think right now, he’s scared of you. So I’m takin’ his supper up to him, and I’m gonna eat with him in his room, and I’m gonna sit with him for a while. And if you don’t like that, Adam, well, that’s jest too dang bad.” He ladled stew onto a second plate, picked up his own silverware and water glass, and loaded everything onto the tray. “Enjoy your supper,” he said, disappearing up the stairs.
Adam sat alone at the table, his gaze resting on one empty chair after another. Maybe this had been a mistake, coming home. Maybe he should have stayed in Boston. Maybe he should have gone someplace where nobody knew him, where he could get a fresh start and nobody would be upset because he was different from how he’d been before.
The clink of his fork against the plate almost echoed in the silence. He could hear himself chewing. He took a sip of water and listened to himself swallow.
To hell with this.
Those were his brothers upstairs. For better or worse, they were his family. And if they wouldn’t come downstairs to eat with him, he would damned well go upstairs to eat with them.
Adam gathered up his plate and silverware and stomped up the stairs. Let them hear him coming. It wasn’t as if they could go anywhere. What was the worst thing they could do? Tell you you’re not welcome to join them, whispered the voice in his mind. He shook it away. Hoss would never say that. He wasn’t so sure about Little Joe, but then, he’d certainly earned any skepticism the boy might entertain.
The door was ajar, but he knocked anyway before pushing it farther open. Hoss was sitting in the bedside chair, while Joe lay on his side, plate on the bed in front of him. The smile on his face vanished as he looked up and saw Adam.
“Mind if I join you?” Adam had intended to sound jovial, but even to his own ears, he sounded tentative.
His brothers exchanged a long look. He saw the plea in Joe’s eyes, but Hoss shook his head slightly.
“C’mon in,” said Hoss. “We might not be too interesting, but you’re welcome to join us.”
Adam smiled determinedly. He pulled the desk chair over by the foot of the bed and set his plate by Little Joe’s feet. He pretended not to notice how his brothers had fallen silent when he came in. Instead, he focused on his food for a few minutes while he tried to figure out something to say.
Then, it came to him. He swallowed his stew and turned his attention to Little Joe. “So,” he said. “I hear you have a way with horses. Is that so?”
The boy looked at him suspiciously. “Yep,” he said, pushing his stew around his plate.
“Is that what you were doing today with the gray?”
Adam sighed inwardly. Talking to this kid was like trying to dig a silver mine with his eyelashes. “What exactly were you doing?” he asked.
“Talkin’,” said Little Joe. He took a bite of stew and chewed for much longer than was warranted.
“What did you say to him?” Adam asked after the boy had finally swallowed.
“Stuff.” Another long bite. Adam caught Hoss giving Joe a stern look, and he took a bite of his own dinner, lest the boy see him smiling.
“Like what?” he asked when they’d both swallowed.
“Just stuff,” said Little Joe. “Nothin’ you’d be interested in.”
“If I weren’t interested, I wouldn’t be asking,” said Adam simply. “I don’t generally talk to horses, and I don’t know what you’d say to one other than ‘geeyap’ or ‘whoa.’ That one today didn’t look like he’d care much about either of those words, so I was wondering what you were saying to him.”
Little Joe looked at Hoss, who nodded encouragingly. “Well,” he began hesitantly, “first, I just say howdy, just like you would to any stranger. Then, if they’re nervous, I try to tell them that it ain’t so bad here.” Adam resisted the urge to correct the boy’s grammar. “Most of them are nervous, so I tell them what a nice place this is and how nobody’s gonna hurt them and it’s okay to relax a little bit.”
“What else?” Adam asked encouragingly.
“Well, sometimes, if they seem like they’re not too sure about me, I tell them who I am, and all about Pa and Hoss-” He broke off.
“It makes sense that you’d tell them about the people they’d be meeting,” said Adam smoothly. He knew that the boy was suddenly uncomfortable that he didn’t tell the horses about his eldest brother.
Joe shot him a sharp glance to see whether he was being mocked. Apparently satisfied, he continued, “And I tell ’em about the Ponderosa and how much they’re gonna like bein’ here, even if they ain’t gonna be stayin’ very long. An’ usually, by the time we talk about all that, they’re ready for somebody to try ridin’ them.”
“And does it work?”
“Are they any gentler when it’s time to break them?”
Little Joe nodded. “They’re a lot easier to handle,” he said, looking to Hoss for confirmation. “‘Cause they know it’s okay to trust people.”
Hoss nodded. “Sounds farfetched, but it’s true. Not all of ’em, but enough that it ain’t just a coincidence.”
“Can anybody do it? Could I?” Adam sat back in his chair, genuinely impressed. Nobody had ever mentioned this about Little Joe. He wondered what else they’d never told him, what else he would discover about the boy in the days ahead.
Joe studied him carefully. “I don’t know,” he said. “Depends, I guess, on how you are with ’em. You gotta be gentle and really listen to them. They gotta know you like ’em. You gotta make sure they know you’re not gonna hurt ’em.” His voice faltered.
Adam bowed his head. And a little child shall lead them, he thought. I did less for you, my own brother, than you do for those horses. He took a deep breath and lifted his head.
The boy’s eyes were guarded, and his expression was cautious. Adam knew that, no matter what he said, Little Joe wasn’t going to trust him overnight. He’d been gone too long, and the past few weeks had been too rocky, for a quick fix. They were going to need to talk about a lot of things-today, the last month, and years gone by. It wasn’t going to be easy for either of them.
But if a wild gray stallion could learn to trust a nine-year-old boy, then just maybe, there was hope for the rest of them.
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