Summary: Joe makes a promise. An October Chaps & Spurs challenge response.
Rated: K+ (2,375 words)
The shot echoed, tearing the quiet ravine apart as the sound rang against the rocks. Adam Cartwright, revolver in hand, shrank back against the rocks he’d taken shelter behind. Beside him, his brother Joe ducked. Between them, they had one rifle, two revolvers, a limited supply of bullets, and no idea where the shots were actually coming from. Oh, they had a general clue, but their company kept themselves fairly well-hidden.
“You see ’em that time?” Adam asked tightly.
Joe shook his head. Beads of sweat stood starkly on his forehead and dust caked his face and hands. Despite the negative answer, green eyes showed little hint of fear; Joe’s gaze was constantly flickering over the rocks in the ravine above them, hoping against hope that he’d find something. His hands moved over the rifle restlessly, fingers near caressing the guard around the trigger. He tore his gaze from the rocks and gave Adam a quick, assessing look. His older brother’s hat was pulled down over his eyes, hiding the dark hazel from view — and probably hiding lines of pain and stress. That was Adam, never wanting to admit to being anything but absolutely fine. He could be impaled through the chest by a wagon tongue and shot in the head and still be trying to tell people he was just fine, don’t worry about him. “You all right, older brother?”
Adam tilted his head back just far enough that Joe could see the alertness that danced in his gaze. “Just took a little hide.”
Joe’s eyes slipped to the bloody crease just below his brother’s right knee. “Still bleeding?”
“Slow. Don’t worry. Not something I want to walk on very far, but not something that’s going to kill me.”
“Well, with any luck,” Joe said as he looked back up the hillside, “we’ll be able to get back to our horses and there won’t be much walking.”
Adam snorted. “We gotta find ’em.”
“Not arguing that one, brother, but I’m a bit stuck on how we’re gonna do it.”
Adam shifted, bracing his side against the tall boulder he was crouched behind and holding his revolver ready. “I’ll draw them out. You shoot when they show themselves.”
Joe stared at him. “Well, that’s a stupid plan.”
“Best we got.” Adam returned the glare. “I’m going to be shooting. Feel free to back me up.”
Joe mumbled something rather unflattering under his breath, and they both understood it was stress and fear making itself known, rearing its head as faux anger. He adjusted his grip on the rifle and waited; the rock he crouched behind jutted up against the larger boulder Adam had taken refuge under. A nice corner that would have been, under any other circumstances, a nice to place to set up camp for a bit. Sheltered by boulders on two sides, it rested in the shadow of the ravine hillside behind it. Now, though, Joe would rather never see it again. At least they had cover; it had been a very near thing when the first shots were fired. The first bullet had creased Adam’s leg, which had made his jump down off his horse a little less than graceful. They’d both scrambled for the cover, Joe’s heart in his throat until he figured out that Adam’s injury wasn’t severe.
Ben and Hoss were away, on a trip up into the timber camps to check in on the progress being made toward a handful of their contracts. Adam and Joe had received word from some of the hands that cattle were disappearing; with no carcasses to show for it that anyone could find, the most logical conclusion was that they had rustlers on the Ponderosa. Adam and Joe had left that morning with every intention of riding the lines, looking for some sort of clue as to their whereabouts.
Instead, they’d been shot at and they were still blind.
Adam pulled the hammer back on his revolver and glanced at Joe. Joe raised the rifle to his shoulder and nodded. He was as ready as he could be for this. All Adam was doing was drawing fire down on them, but they didn’t have much of an option here. Adam took a breath and leaned around the boulder, firing off two shots in quick succession in the general direction of their attackers.
On the third shot, Joe saw movement in the rocks above them, as the man there began to zig-zag down the hillside to a better position. He tracked it with his rifle, waiting for a clear enough shot to actually do some good.
He waited too long.
Another shot rang out, just before Joe had a chance to fire. The peculiar echo of a bullet hitting rock set his ears to ringing, but it wasn’t enough to drown out the grunt of pain or the clatter of a revolver hitting the rock-strewn ground in front of him. Without turning toward Adam — he wanted to, oh God did he want to — Joe squeezed the trigger. He was rewarded with a yelp; without watching the man’s body drop into the open, he cocked the rifle again and scanned the rocks for the man’s accomplice. There had to be two of them; all the shots and glimpses thus far spoke to two men at the top of the ravine.
Nothing came to him, though. Joe’s breathing sounded too loud in the sudden harsh stillness. Beside him, Adam crouched on the ground, his left hand clamped hard over his right forearm. “Adam?” To Joe’s ear, his voice sounded like a child’s and no wonder; he felt just as competent as a toddler out here right about now.
“Caught a ricochet.” Adam’s voice was strained. Again, no wonder.
Joe crouched and slid next to Adam, propping the rifle up with one hand even as he reached for Adam’s elbow with the other. “How bad?”
The answer was a harsh, slow breath. It was answer enough. Joe carefully pulled the ruined sleeve away from the wound, a hiss escaping as he looked at the mangled mess that was his brother’s arm. He pulled the handkerchief from around his neck and pressed it against the bloody furrow, alarm growing when blood soaked through the cloth almost instantly. Taking Adam’s left hand, he pressed it against the handkerchief, knowing full well it wouldn’t do much good as saturated as it was. “Hold that,” he ordered.
“Yeah.” It was nothing more than a breath, but Adam complied with the order.
Joe, glancing over his shoulder and up the hillside at regular intervals, pulled back Adam’s sleeve and nearly cursed aloud when he realized the extent of the injury. The bullet had carved a furrow in Adam’s forearm, then lodged into the flesh just above the elbow. Had it not been a ricochet, it might have gone clean through the arm and that might have been better. Joe pushed Adam down, until he was seated on the ground and leaning against the taller boulder. “Stay there.”
Adam shook his head. “Joe, it’s not that–”
“That bad? Right. Humor me, would you?”
Worriedly, Joe peeled the handkerchief back. “You feeling lightheaded?” Silence met the inquiry. He was, then; Adam would have denied it immediately if he didn’t. He was and he knew he had to be honest but couldn’t bring himself to say it. Just like him. Joe’s voice was hard. There was nothing left of the childish fear that had plagued him only a few minutes earlier. (Had it only been minutes? A lifetime had passed. He was sure of it.) “Damn it, Adam, answer me.”
Joe pressed his lips together and nodded. He was afraid of that; with how the wound was bleeding, it would have been a miracle if Adam wasn’t feeling the affects of blood loss. Joe ripped at the seam of his shirt and pulled his sleeve free; he replaced the handkerchief with the sleeve. “Stay there.”
Adam blinked up at him, brow furrowed and eyes narrowd. “Joe–”
“Adam, I swear to God, if you move, I’ll make you walk home.” He poked Adam gently in the chest. “Don’t move.”
“Adam, I said–”
Adam cut him off with a quiet voice. “Be careful.”
Joe nodded once, grabbed the rifle and peered over the rock. Loathe as he was to leave Adam’s side, he might well have to, if he wanted any chance at getting them both out of there alive. ‘In one piece’ was obviously out of the question and there was little to no chance of rescue. They were on their own. Joe glanced at Adam. His older brother had leaned his head back against the rock — his hat was sitting on the ground next to him — and the hand holding Joe’s sleeve to his arm was loose. He was fading and Joe felt that familiar fright returning. It was just a shot through his arm. That’s all. Nothing that should have been life-threatening but Joe could see that the sleeve was soaked through. Blood dripped onto Adam’s thigh and onto the dusty ground.
God, please. Joe sent up a silent benediction before he moved. He had no time for anything else, nor did he know what to say. Fear and concern choked the words he didn’t have time for anyway. Rifle in hand, he moved around the boulder, careful not to look back at Adam. He didn’t need to be distracted by the sight of his brother bleeding to death behind him.
He wanted to look so badly.
The whine of a bullet shattered his thoughts, such as they were. He fell back behind the rock. Another bullet bit the ground just to his right as he scrambled backward. Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive; it was the only way he could help Adam. Stay alive and kill the bastard after them and get him home. Joe nearly jumped out of his skin when a shot shattered the silence behind him. Wide-eyed, he stared at Adam who held his revolver in his blood-slicked left hand. Adam’s gaze was dull when he looked at Joe, but the message was clear.
They had a plan. They’ll stick to their plan.
Joe set his feet and brought the rifle up, then nodded at Adam. Adam’s mouth was set in a grim line. The revolver nearly jumped out of his hand when he shot. One shot. Two.
Two bodies lay unmoving, precariously strewn among the rocks above them. Joe paid them no heed as he crouched in front of Adam. Gently, he took the gun from his hand. He didn’t bother replacing the blood-soaked makeshift bandage. It would do no good anyway. When he touched Adam’s cheek, his fingers left smears of blood.
“I’ll get you home.”
There was no doubt in Adam’s tired expression when he nodded once.
Adam stared at his left hand like it had betrayed him. His brow was furrowed, his jaw set, and the pencil he’d worn nearly to a nub was held loosely in his fingers. He’s abandoned the desk earlier in the evening to sit on the settee, a ledger open on his lap as he looked over the figures and tried — and usually failed — to make whatever notes needed made. Joe — the only other person in the ranch house — leaned back in the red leather chair to Adam’s left, propped his feet up on the low table, quirked a brow, and waited for the inevitable explosion.
It wouldn’t be much of an explosion, all things considered; Adam’s anger, especially when it came to trivial matters, dissipated as quickly as it rose. When Adam grunted and threw the short pencil into the fireplace, Joe crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. “Trouble?”
“No.” Adam shifted and adjusted the sling that held his arm immobile. He still looked wan and Joe wasn’t oblivious to the pain his brother was still in. They’d dodged a bullet, so to speak, when Adam hadn’t come down with anything other than a low fever — a natural response to the trauma, Paul had said, and not a sign of infection. Joe had got him home, sent a hand for the doctor and the sheriff, and turned the problem of the rustlers over to Roy and his posse, all before Adam had regained consciousness. Doctor Martin had been adamant, though: nothing strenuous for Adam, unless they wanted to court infection and complications. Neither of them did and so, to alleviate some of the sheer boredom, Adam had taken to working with the ledgers the very day he’d crawled out of bed.
Obviously, he hadn’t been thinking it through. Adam trying to write left-handed provided Joe with the most entertainment he’d had in a long time. His lips quirked, but instead of responding the way Adam most likely expected, he chose a different tack. “Hop Sing should be home in a coupla days,” he said lightly. “Looking forward to something mighty toothsome when he does.”
Adam didn’t look up. “Something wrong with my cooking?”
“I’ve been cooking for the last three days.” Joe gestured toward Adam in all his invalid glory. “Unless you want to try.” He paused and a wicked grin spread across his features. “I don’t see you cooking any better left-handed than you can shoot.”
Adam did look up at that. His expression was so deceptively mild that Joe was hard-pressed not to start laughing. “I did my part,” he said.
Joe sobered. “Yeah, you did.”
Adam ran his hand over the ledger’s pages, then closed the book with a soft thump. “Thanks, brother.”
The silence they fell into was comfortable. Later, when Adam fell asleep on the settee, Joe settled a blanket over him. Early the next morning, Ben and Hoss came home to find them asleep in the great room, Joe curled up in a chair pushed close to the settee.