Summary: A WHIB for “The Fighters.” In this episode, Hoss swears off fighting after he nearly kills an aging prizefighter. An up-and-coming heavyweight fighter, Charlie Powers, tries to taunt him into a fight. Hoss refuses to fight, walking away from the mocking crowd, but Joe can’t let Powers’ jeers go. He foolishly takes a swing at Powers, and the much-larger Powers easily beats him. When Joe manages to drag himself home, beaten and bleeding, and Hoss sees what Powers has done, he goes back to town to take on Powers. As he delivers his opening punch, he announces, “This is from my little brother.” This WHIB comes after Hoss’s fight with Powers.
Rated: K+ WC 2000
Defending His Brother
Hoss eased open the door as though there was a chance nobody would hear him. He should have known better, of course. No sooner had he set foot inside the house than Pa was calling, “Hoss? Is that you?”
“Yes, sir.” He didn’t even try to disguise the glum heaviness he felt.
Pa hustled over from his desk, worry plain on his face. His work-roughened hand felt strangely soft against Hoss’s swollen cheek. “You all right?” he asked at last.
Hoss nodded. “How’s Little Joe?”
“He’s fine,” said Pa. “You just sit down and rest now.”
But Hoss remained rooted in place. “How bad is it?”
“It’s nothing,” said Pa. “Cuts and bruises mainly. A couple of cracked ribs. He’ll be up and around in no time.”
“I want to see him.” Hoss started for the stairs, but Pa’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“He’s fine, son,” said Pa. “Besides, he’s sleeping. I bound up his ribs and gave him a little laudanum. He’ll likely be out for a couple hours yet. Now, you come and sit down.” He guided the big man across the room and sat on the table as Hoss settled himself on the settee. Hoss didn’t meet Pa’s eyes, but he could feel his father peering at him, assessing the damage Charlie Powers had inflicted on top of what Hank Kelly had done a few days earlier. “Did he hurt you?” Pa asked when Hoss said nothing.
Hoss shook his head. He knew what Pa meant. “I reckon I just got more padding than Little Joe.”
Relief was evident in Pa’s smile. “Well, then, I don’t imagine a good long soak in a hot tub would do you any harm,” he said, patting Hoss’s knee. “The water’s heated and ready for you,” he added, his smile widening at Hoss’s surprise.
Hoss opened his mouth to protest, but the thought of sinking into the water up to his chin and allowing its warmth surround him like a soft blanket was just too inviting. He let Pa help him stand up, trying not to grimace at the stiff soreness that was already setting in. “I’m gettin’ too old for this,” he grumbled, and Pa’s chuckle followed him as he headed for the bathhouse.
Hop Sing was already pouring buckets of steaming water into the large copper tub when Hoss came through the door. The bathhouse’s usual warm scent of wet wood had an added note of something that reminded Hoss of a meadow in late summer, when the flowers and grasses had dried out after months under the Nevada sun. “What’s that smell?” asked Hoss.
“Hop Sing put special herbs in water,” said the little man as he emptied another bucket. “Help Mister Hoss not feel sore.”
Hoss grinned. “Thanks, Hop Sing.” If ever there was a day when he could use a few of those herbs, he reckoned today was it.
Fully an hour later, he rose from the tub feeling a thousand times better. He did his best to drip on the towel Hop Sing had spread on the floor, but he was a big man and it was a little towel. He dried off with the towels Hop Sing had left beside the small fireplace, groaning in pleasure at their warmth. When he bent down to pull on his drawers, he was still stiff, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
Probably will be by tomorrow, he reflected with a rueful grin.
He wandered back into the living room to find Pa in his red leather armchair with the Territorial Enterprise and his pipe. “Feel better?” his father asked, smiling.
“That was good,” Hoss admitted. “Joe awake yet?”
Pa smiled. “I haven’t heard anything from up there.”
“I’ll go check anyway,” said Hoss. He acknowledged his father’s smile with a quick nod and headed up the stairs.
At Joe’s door, he paused. He didn’t hear anything, like Joe trying to get up even though nobody with a lick of sense would have gotten out of bed in his condition. As quietly as possible, he eased open the door.
In the dim light of late afternoon, Joe’s bruises looked dark and fierce. Hoss felt the acid rise in his throat at the wound on his brother’s brow. Rage swept through him again at the thought of Charlie Powers’s iron fists slamming into Little Joe. His breath quickened, and his fists clenched. If Charlie Powers had been in the room, Hoss would have slammed him against the wall and pummeled him until he cried for mercy.
The voice from the bed was barely audible, but it was enough. Hoss reined his temper in. “Hey,” he said, crossing the room. “You look like somethin’ the cat drug in.”
“That’s pretty much what I feel like,” Joe murmured. He started to push himself to a sitting position, but he dropped back with a gasp.
“What’s the matter? What do you need?” Hoss was immediately on the alert.
“Just some water,” Joe managed.
“You jest stay still,” Hoss ordered. He poured a glass of water and said, “Here. Now, lemme help you.”
“I can do it,” Joe began, but Hoss already had one arm behind his shoulders to help him to sit up. Joe drained the glass and nodded, and Hoss lowered him back to the bed.
“Pa says you cracked a couple ribs.” Hoss lit the bedside lamp and settled himself in the chair.
“I guess.” Joe squinted as though trying to see through a thick fog. “You okay?”
Hoss nodded. “I whupped him.”
“I figured as much.” He fell quiet, and the two brothers rested in comfortable silence. Just as Hoss was wondering whether his little brother had fallen asleep again, Joe whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry you had to fight him. You said you weren’t ever gonna fight again, and then. . . .” His voice trailed off.
“You ain’t got nothin’ to be sorry about,” said Hoss. “It’s like I told you the other night. I wouldn’t have fought him if I didn’t want to.”
Joe responded with a disbelieving epithet that was no less emphatic for being delivered in a voice that was mostly breath. “You didn’t want to fight him,” he said. “You did it because of what he did to me. If I’d held my temper, you’d never have had to lay a hand on him.”
“It would’ve happened sooner or later,” said Hoss. “If it hadn’t been Charlie Powers, it would’ve been somebody else. You can’t live our kind of life without fightin’. Doesn’t matter what the weapon is. Sometimes it’s guns, sometimes it’s fists, and sometimes it’s just a matter of tryin’ to outthink the other feller like Pa and Adam are so good at.”
“And me,” Joe added with a drowsy smile.
Hoss managed the grin he knew Joe was hoping for. “Yeah, you really out-thought Powers, didn’t you?”
Joe’s smile faded. “I just couldn’t stand there and listen to him say those things about you and hear everybody laughing. I don’t know how you walked away from them, but I couldn’t.”
“I walked away ’cause that’s what I learned to do a long time ago,” Hoss said. “Long time ago, when I was a whole lot littler than I am now, but I was still bigger than any of the boys I knew. I had to walk away, or I was liable to hurt somebody.”
“You don’t always walk away,” Joe pointed out. “You’ve been in plenty of fights.”
“And when was the last time you saw me throw the first punch?” He waited as Joe squinted, clearly sorting through his foggy memories. “When you’re my size, Little Brother, you got to pick your fights or somebody’s gonna get hurt bad.”
“You’ve picked some real lulus,” Joe observed. “First you beat up Regan, an’ then you went after the Duke. You just like prizefighters, I think.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Hoss snorted. Joe knew full well why Hoss had taken on those particular fights. The first had been after John C. Regan, former heavyweight champion, had beaten seventeen-year-old Little Joe nearly to death. Adam had held Pa back as Hoss took on the bully. The second fight came after the English fighter had beaten up a Ponderosa ranch hand.
“‘Sides, I was a whole lot younger then,” Hoss added. He chuckled, recalling his match against Clarence “the Duke” Simpson. “Pa was so dead set against that fight with the Duke. Remember how he stood up in front of everybody an’ said how the fight was happening against his wishes?” He did his best to imitate their father’s deep, resonant voice.
Joe started to giggle, but an instant later he was catching his breath as he grabbed at his torso. “Don’t make me laugh,” he managed after a minute.
“Sorry,” said Hoss. “Pa says you jest cracked them, though, right?”
Joe nodded. “I expect some guardian angel was looking out for us both, considering how hard that Charlie Powers hits.”
“I reckon you’re right,” said Hoss. “He walloped me some, but he didn’t break nothin’.”
“You break anything on him?”
“I don’t think so,” said Hoss. “Woulda been like breakin’ a steam engine.”
“But I bet he’s hurtin’ some tonight.” Even half-awake, Joe sounded hopeful.
“I bet he is,” Hoss agreed, more to see Joe’s grin than because he truly believed it.
“You boys ready for some supper?” Hoss hadn’t heard Pa approach, but there he stood with that smile on his face that said that he knew what to be thankful for. Hoss had seen that smile a million times after one of them–most often, Little Joe–had survived some foolhardy escapade without serious harm.
“Not hungry.” Joe’s eyelids were drooping, and his voice faded as he slid back toward laudanum sleep.
Hoss gave his brother’s hand a quick pat and stood. “Well, I’m gonna get some grub,” he said. “Beatin’ up prizefighters always makes me hungry.”
“Pa, you gotta tell Hoss to watch his temper,” mumbled Joe.
Pa raised his eyebrows. “Of course,” he replied, deadpan. “Because your brother is the one whose temper always gets him into so much trouble.”
“Uh-huh. You gotta keep him in line ’til I’m back on my feet.” The words were slurring now, and Joe’s eyes were closed as he delivered that last instruction.
“Right, Little Brother,” chuckled Hoss. His grin faded as he watched his sleeping brother. It could have ended so differently. Just one wrong punch, and . . . he closed his eyes against the thought. No two ways about it: Joe’s guardian angel had been working overtime today.
Pa pulled Joe’s door closed behind them as Hop Sing’s impatient call to supper rang out below. “We’re comin’, we’re comin’,” Hoss called in mock irritation. He winced as he started down the stairs. Doggone that Charlie Powers anyway.
“Definitely gettin’ too old for all this,” he grumbled, and he knew from his father’s chuckle that Pa understood exactly what he meant.
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