Hoss Cartwright had a problem. Normally he wouldn’t have hesitated to go to his little brother for help, but this situation was a little ticklish, and he didn’t think he could count on Joe not to start laughing. And he just didn’t think he could stand having even his little brother laugh at him.
He shook his head as he left the cool evening air of the Ponderosa’s ranch yard for the warmth of the barn. To do him credit, Joe Cartwright didn’t have a mean bone in his body, but his sense of humor had some odd quirks in it, and something told Hoss that his little problem would be sure to set off that jaybird cackle.
He wasn’t too sure about going to his older brother, either. He thought he could trust Adam not to laugh, but if he raised that sarcastic eyebrow it would be just as bad. Hoss sat down on the one of the big boxes of grooming equipment. He knew he could ask his father, but Pa was in Carson City for the next three days and that would be too late.
“Hey, Hoss? You in here?”
Hoss ignored his younger brother’s voice in the hopes he’d go away.
“Hoss? Hey, where are you? I thought we were gonna play checkers after dinner.” Joe’s voice got closer, and shortly his curly head peered into the darkness of the barn. “Hoss?”
There wasn’t any way around it; Joe was going to find him. He sighed and gave up. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Why are you sittin’ here in the dark?” asked Joe as he groped his way to his brother’s side. “Ow! What’s that shovel doing there?”
“It’s sittin’ there ‘cause you forgot to put it away, that’s what it’s doin’ sittin’ there,” answered Hoss practically.
“Oh. But that doesn’t answer why you’re in here without so much as a lantern.”
“Just needed some time alone, that’s all.”
Joe thought that over for a minute. “Well, you had enough?”
“Huh,” Joe grunted and sat down next to his brother.
Hoss shifted a little to the side. “I said I needed time alone,” he repeated.
“Yeah, I heard you,” said Joe. “You’re right, it can be really crowded in the house with Adam there.”
Hoss sighed and gazed heavenward. “Look, little brother, I just need a little thinkin’ time. You go on back in the house, an’ I’ll be along in a while for that game of checkers.”
Joe sat up straight. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t leave you out here by yourself when you need to be alone. That wouldn’t be…” he groped for a word, “…well, it just wouldn’t be brotherly!”
“Joe,” Hoss said firmly in his best big-brother voice, “go on back to the house. I’ll be fine.”
As he suspected, Joe ignored him. “What’s wrong?” he asked instead.
“Nothin’s wrong,” he answered, exasperated.
“Sure it is. You just said you’d be fine, and that means you aren’t fine right now. So what’s wrong?”
Hoss rose from the hay bale and strode across the freshly swept dirt floor to the nearest lantern, which hung from a post near the tack room. He took it down, pulled a match from the pocket of his britches, and scratched it across the wood of the post. It flared up immediately, throwing his face into contrasts of reds and black. He transferred the flame to the wick of the lantern, and the steady glow chased the shadows away.
He stood for a moment, one hand against the post, the other holding the lantern at his side, and considered talking with Joe. It was true his little brother usually had good advice when it came to the ladies, but what worked for Joe didn’t always apply to himself.
Still, he decided to take a chance, especially since he knew Joe well enough to understand that his little brother would never let up on him until he wrestled the truth out of him somehow.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Adam sat in the red chair in front of the fire, blissfully enjoying a brandy, a good book, and the peace and quiet. It had been a long day full of the type of work that tended to make him wonder why he’d ever come home from Boston. Cussing, swearing men, sweating horses, dust that got into every crevice of your body, and at the heart of it, ornery, idiot cattle that didn’t have the sense to stay out of gorges, ravines, gaps, tangled underbrush, streams and, worst of all, the bogs just north of Marlette Lake. They’d had to shoot one cow after laboring unsuccessfully for hours to drag her out of the sucking goo, only to discover she’d broken her leg, and now Hoss had another orphaned calf to try to raise.
He contemplated the ruby liquid in the crystal goblet, swirling it in the firelight and admiring the way it changed colors as the flames crackled and leapt. He brought the glass near his nose and inhaled the heady aroma, suddenly aware of the pops and snaps of the fire and the feel of the soft leather binding in his other hand. He was clean and well-fed, thanks to Hop Sing, and thoroughly enjoying a quiet evening at home. What a…civilized…way to end the day. Except…
It was too quiet.
He suddenly realized his brothers had been gone for quite some time. He wasn’t naïve enough to assume they’d left him in peace on purpose, which meant they were probably up to something. He groaned. Should he go find out, or just go to bed and hope it was nothing?
He set the brandy and book on the coffee table, took a deep breath, let it out in a whoosh and stood. With a final look of regret at the goblet, the poems and the fire, the responsible Adam Cartwright went outside.
A faint glow coming from the barn told him where his brothers were, but he couldn’t identify the sounds. A tuneless but rhythmic buzzing, the sound of shuffling footsteps, and the occasional cackle from Joe didn’t help him figure it out, either. He stepped silently to the doorway and peered inside.
Hoss and Joe were grappling and Joe was giving a pretty good account of himself. Adam was impressed; Hoss was tough to take and Joe usually didn’t last more than a few seconds. Then Joe’s steady counting registered:
“FRONT, right, together; BACK, left-no the other left, together…AGHHH!”
“Dadburnit, Joe, don’t stick your foot under mine!”
“I didn’t! You weren’t supposed to step there. Now, c’mon, let’s try this again.” Joe seated one of his brother’s big paws against his waist and grabbed the other up in the air. “Here we go. ONE, two, three; ONE, two, three…”
Adam couldn’t help it. He leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed, and said, “Mighty good looking couple. For a couple of stubborn mules.”
Faces flaming, the two younger Cartwrights whirled toward him.
“What are you doing?” he asked them.
“…learn to dance…” mumbled Hoss.
Joe jerked his head toward Hoss and mumbled, “…teaching him…”
Adam shook his head. “You know how to dance, Hoss.”
Hoss’s face turned brick red, and he shook his massive head. “Not elegant, I don’t.”
Ah! thought Adam. He pushed off the wall and wandered over to where Hoss was now sitting slumped on a tack box. There was definitely something going on, and if he wanted to find out he could see he’d have to take a diplomatic approach. He sighed softly and rested his hand on the big man’s shoulder. “Tell me what this is all about.”
He could see Joe’s startled twitch. Surely Joe knew they could count on him…well, maybe he didn’t. It was hard for Adam to remember a time when the things that were desperately important to his youngest brother had been important to him. He tended to view Joe’s unsubtly expressed desires with patient tolerance at best, but all too often, he knew, with heated exasperation. Well, this was Hoss, and he was a different story anyway. If it was that important to his middle brother, it was important to him, too. Now, to just get him talking.
“Hoss?” he asked again and sat down next to him.
“Well, see, there’s this gal…” he managed to get out.
Hoss looked up at Adam finally and his eyes were like stars. “She’s just the most beautiful thing I ever did see. She just floats across a dance floor like cottonwood fluff in the springtime.”
Adam looked at Joe for enlightenment. He mouthed the name “Alberta” and Adam suddenly understood everything. Alberta Evans had appeared in Virginia City two months ago, and Hoss wasn’t the only man smitten with her beauty and charming ways. Adam had taken a turn with her at the dance last month, and he had to agree with Hoss’s assessment—the girl definitely floated. He knew they’d made a good-looking couple on the floor, but he’d found their few minutes together more than sufficient time to decide she was too young for him.
Now Hoss, on the other hand…
He put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “So what’s the problem? Can I help?”
The stars in Hoss’s eyes changed to hope. “Would you, Adam? Ol’ two left feet over there keeps getting’ me confused.”
Joe snorted. “It’s not my two left feet that are the problem!”
“Was that the waltz you were working on?” Adam asked.
“Yeah.” Hoss drooped again. “Everyone can dance the reels and such, but I know Miss Alberta loves to waltz. I figgered if I could waltz, then she’d go to the dance with me this Saturday.”
Adam’s thoughts drifted back to his dance with the girl. Oh, yes, she could waltz, he’d bet on it. He turned his attention back to his brother. But teaching Hoss by Saturday was going to be quite a challenge. He smiled. He loved challenges.
He wasn’t smiling by the time they all went to bed that night, though. Joe was right; Hoss had two left feet when it came to the waltz. And he had the sore toes to prove it. Joe had kept his laughter to a minimum, though Adam was sure it was only due to the dire unvoiced threats he’d been shooting at him all evening. He sank down full length onto his bed with deep pleasure, too tired to even think about taking his boots off. At a light tap on the door he called, “Come in,” not surprised at all to see his youngest brother. “No laughing,” he warned with a significant look at the wall he shared with Hoss.
Joe waved his hand and swore, “No, I’ll keep quiet,” but Adam didn’t trust the twinkle in his eye. Joe won his undying gratitude, though, when he started pulling the boots off his sore feet.
He dropped them on the floor and checked over Adam’s sock-clad toes carefully. “Looks like they’re still all there,” he said cheerfully.
Adam shot him another murderous glare, but it didn’t have any more effect than usual. Joe just plunked himself down on the comforter that was neatly folded at the foot of the bed like he’d been doing all his life. He folded his bootless feet under his legs Indian-style and asked, “What are we gonna do?”
“Has he asked her to the dance yet?”
Joe shook his head. “He was waiting until he learned the steps, but now that you’re working with him, I think he’s gonna ask her tomorrow.”
Adam groaned. “I really don’t know if I can teach him enough by Saturday. There’s people who work months on learning to waltz.”
“Admitting you can’t do something?” Joe grinned. “I never thought I’d see the day.” He grew somber quickly enough, though. The two brothers rested on the bed for a while, trying to come up with some solution. Joe thought back to Adam’s last statement. “Well,” he said thoughtfully, “you don’t have to teach him everything about it, just enough to get through one song.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Good point,” he said and yawned. “Let’s sleep on it—maybe we’ll come up with something tomorrow.”
Joe nodded and climbed down off the bed. “You gonna go to sleep like that?” he asked with one hand on the door, staring at his usually neat brother almost asleep in his bed fully clothed. With the exception of his boots.
“It’s all clean,” Adam mumbled, eyes closing. Between dragging cattle out of bogs all day, the brandy he’d had after dinner, and then waltzing with a man who seemed to think he was still wrestling cattle, he couldn’t face taking care of one more thing.
Joe came back into the room and pulled the comforter up and tucked it around his brother. Adam didn’t even notice.
Adam spent the next day thinking about Hoss’s problem. His half-formed hopes that Alberta Evans already had an escort for the dance were dashed, though, when Hoss returned from town, exhilarated and terrified. They had another fruitless session in the barn, but Joe and Adam tried to keep his spirits up.
Adam climbed painfully up the stairs, wondering why his brother was having so much trouble. Hoss was big, sure, but he was agile enough. Most of the time he relied on pure strength, but Adam had seen him in enough fights to know that Hoss could move like a dancer…he paused at the top step, deep in thought.
He felt a jab in his back, and came back to the present.
“Adam, you may not be tired tonight, but I want to go to bed,” Joe complained from behind him.
Adam held a hand up, halting Joe’s tirade before it started. “I’m going to take Hoss up into the high country tomorrow.”
Adam nodded. This would work, he was sure of it. He turned back to Joe, who was two steps and consequently several more inches than usual lower than his eye-level. “You’ll have to finish heading up the gather by yourself.”
“Hey—” he started to object, but Adam interrupted.
“You want Hoss to learn to waltz, right?”
Joe nodded, confused.
“Then you take care of the gather, and I’ll take care of Hoss. Don’t worry, we’ll bring back any strays we find.” He looked down at his little brother. “You’d better get to bed, though, if you’re going to ramrod the crew.” He went up the last step to his room, leaving Joe standing on the landing.
“I’d better get to bed, he says, and who’s been blocking the stairs for the last ten minutes?”
Hoss was as confused as Joe had been when Adam took him up into the rock-strewn southern range. He tied his big horse, Chubb, next to Adam’s Sport and followed his brother to where he was clearing a four-foot square piece of ground that was surrounded on three sides by knee-high rocks.
Adam sat on one of the rocks and pulled a knife from the scabbard at his left hip. He waved at Hoss to sit on the rock across from him. He raised his right hand, palm toward his brother.
“I’m going to put this knife between our hands,” he said, “and I want you to make sure it stays there.”
Hoss didn’t know what Adam was up to, but many of his lessons as a young boy had started in just such an obscure manner, so he raised his left hand in a mirror image of his brother. Adam placed the blade between their palms, hilt to the ground. He pushed cautiously against Hoss, and Hoss backed off just a bit, so as not to get cut by the sharp blade. He didn’t back off enough, though, that the blade would fall.
Adam nodded in satisfaction and gently stopped pushing. As a result, their hands moved closer to Adam. Not strongly enough to hurt either of them, but with enough pressure to keep the blade between them. “All right,” Adam said. “Remember that, but now we’re going to do something else.” He put the knife back in its scabbard and waved Hoss to the little square he’d cleared.
He entered it cautiously and asked, “What burr do you got under your saddle now?”
“We’re just going to wrestle a bit.”
“Wrestle? In this little bitty space?” He peered at his brother. “You feelin’ okay?”
Adam laughed. “I’m fine. Now, let me show you what I have in mind.”
The two of them stood in the little clearing, face to face. Adam pulled his gun, emptied the bullets into his pocket, and held it loosely in his right hand. “What would you do if I raised my gun at you?” he asked.
Hoss grabbed his wrist with his left hand and forced Adam’s arm up, then kicked his legs out from under him and followed him to the ground with a knee to the chest.
“Good,” Adam said through gritted teeth. “You can let go now.”
Hoss let loose, and Adam rubbed his wrist.
“You taught me that move, Adam. You testin’ me for some reason?”
“No,” he said and rolled to his feet. “Let’s try this again, but this time we’ll say this is a cliff and if you put me on the ground like that I’m likely to take you over the edge with me. Don’t push me around, just control me.”
Hoss pursed his lips. “Sure, I can do that.”
Adam raised his gun again and Hoss grabbed his wrist, but didn’t push so hard this time. Adam gradually eased up as well, and Hoss kept a firm grip but kept Adam’s hand in the same place.
Adam tested him, pushing just a little, then letting off just a bit, and Hoss, confused but willing, met his every move with just enough strength to hold Adam’s gun hand where he wanted it.
Then Adam said, “I have a knife in a scabbard on my left hip.”
Hoss automatically grabbed for it with his right hand, and Adam covered it with his own, keeping it in place on his hip. “Now,” he said, “you’re going to move me out of this little box, but very carefully. Use just enough strength to move me, but don’t push too hard or we’ll both go over the edge. Start with a step forward, with your left foot.”
“You got some reason for all this?” Hoss asked.
“Of course, but don’t think about that now, just move me away from this cliff.”
Hoss shook his head and took a step forward. Adam moved his right foot back, keeping them balanced. “Now move me to your right, one step, out of the box.”
Hoss automatically stepped to the side with his right foot, shifting his weight so he stood square, and again, Adam mirrored his move.
“I’m a little close to the edge now, so pull me away.”
Hoss was game, though he was starting to wonder about his brother’s sanity. He stepped back with his right foot, pulling Adam toward him. Adam moved his left hand from his waist to Hoss’s right shoulder for better balance.
“Okay, now back into the box.”
Hoss moved them back to where they started.
“Let’s do it one more time, but smoothly,” Adam suggested. “Move me out of the box…and back in.”
Hoss ran through the figure again, his bulk easily balanced on the balls of his feet, his movements light and sure.
They stopped and Adam pulled his knife, placing it once more between the palms of their hands.
“Again,” said Adam, and they ran through the figure twice more, three times more, never dropping the knife.
“Once more,” but this time he counted along. “One, two, three, one, two, three.”
A big grin started across Hoss’s face as he realized what Adam had really been doing. “I’m dancin’! Adam, you done it! I’m dancin’ a waltz!”
Adam smiled as well, and dark eyes twinkled at the sheer happiness in a pair of sky blue.
Adam and Hoss disappeared for several hours every day that week, and when Ben came home from Carson City, Joe covered for them so Ben had no idea what they were up to.
Finally the big night arrived. Adam made sure his brother’s tie was straight and his best coat was brushed, and Joe had polished up the surrey until it gleamed. They sent him on his way with cheerful waves as Ben wondered what was going on. It was a rare Saturday night dance that didn’t start with an argument about who got to use the good carriage.
“C’mon, Pa,” shouted Joe. “Get cleaned up. We don’t want to miss any of the dancing tonight!”
“All right, all right, I’ll be there,” he shouted back.
They mounted up, and Ben was pleased to note that Adam had slung his guitar on his back. They arrived at the hall just in time to see Hoss lift a lovely young lady with golden hair to the ground. He spared his family a grin, then put a gentle hand to her waist and led her inside.
Ben put a hand on Joe’s arm. “Is that…?” he asked.
“Alberta Evans,” confirmed Adam from behind. “Yes, it is.”
Ben raised an eyebrow.
“Just wait,” Joe grinned. “This whole town’s in for a surprise tonight.”
“Well, let’s not wait out here,” Ben said.
Adam and Joe danced, but kept their eye on their other brother. For once, Hoss didn’t spend the evening standing next to the refreshment table. He courteously gave up his partner to other men, but was always available when each dance finished to lead her off into the next.
Finally Ben cornered Joe. “When is this great surprise going to happen?” he asked.
Joe stood on his toes and looked over the crowd to the musicians. “Right about now, I’d say,” he grinned, a delighted twinkle in his eyes.
The current reel ended
and then they heard the sound of Adam’s guitar. He began a steady
one-two-three arpeggio that gave everyone time to find their partner, then
he began to sing.
Alberta, let your hair hang low.
Alberta, let your hair hang low.
I’ll give you more gold than your apron can hold,
If you’ll only let your hair hang low.
Ben watched with amazement that turned to pride as Hoss delicately guided Alberta Evans into the first few measures of the dance. They moved slowly around the room, rotating slightly as they went, and he caught several glimpses of pure delight on the girl’s face. Then Adam swung into the verse, and Hoss released one of her hands to move forward side-by-side with her; then they came together, he released her other hand, and they moved side-by-side toward the other side of the room. He guided her gently, smoothly, and everyone could see he thought she might have been made of porcelain, the care he took.
Ben glanced over at Adam, expecting him to be lost as usual in his music, but this time surprised a sweet smile on his son’s face as he watched his brother dance to his song. Ben leaned over to Joe, his eyes once more following Hoss and Alberta. “When did this all happen?”
Joe bounced a little on his feet in sheer happiness. “Adam’s been teaching him all week.”
“When did they find the time?” Ben wondered.
“Oh, I took over some of the chores. It was better than getting stepped on,” he laughed.
Ben blinked back sudden tears and grasped Joe’s shoulder. “I’m proud of you, boy. I’m proud of all of you.”
And Hoss and his girl twirled and floated to the music, a gift of love from both of his brothers.
“Alberta” is from the album “Come All Ye Fair and Tender
Ladies” as performed by Pernell Roberts.
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