The Whistle

Lyn Robinson


Adam and Joe had been arguing for ten days. The origins of the quarrel had been long forgotten by Adam, although Joe recalled the exact moment when the attractive blonde he had been talking to, looked up and saw his eldest brother enter the hall. She had lost interest in him and gravitated to Adam’s side within minutes. It hadn’t helped when Adam seemed to barely notice her, one courtesy dance before finding his current lady friend. None of that had stopped Joe blaming his brother, his pride hurt as he was used to all the young ladies chasing him.

Over the next days everything Adam did was wrong in Joe’s eyes and he felt that his eldest brother was treating him as a child. In turn he was continually jumping down Adam’s throat, every word the older brother said was taken the wrong way. Inevitably that led to retaliation, Adam was very adept with a cutting comment or sometimes just a raised eyebrow, making Joe feel about twelve instead of his full nineteen years.

Hoss was fed up acting peacemaker between his brothers and had given both of them his opinion of their antics the previous day, but it obviously hadn’t worked. As he went into the barn he saw Adam stagger backwards, followed by a furious younger brother hitting out hard.

Adam hadn’t expected the original blow, he had only said that they had better finish the barn chores quickly or Hop Sing would be threatening to leave again. Since Christmas was only three days away, he didn’t like being on bad terms with his youngest brother and had only been joking. Normally such a comment would have led  to some joking, about how upset Hoss would be if threatened with no Christmas diner, but this time Joe had taken it as a personal criticism and launched himself at Adam.

Adam tried to ward off the blows, not really wanting to fight, but dazed by the first blow, he had cause to regret his efficiency in teaching his youngest brother how to fight. Just as Hoss headed towards them to try and break things up, Adam lost his own temper and landed one perfectly timed blow to Joe’s jaw, which put him flat on his back.

Furious Hoss got between them “Dadburn it! That’s enough from both of you or I’ll give you both just what you’ve been asking for fer the last week.”

Adam lent against Sport’s stall, mopping up blood from a cut lip, not about to take on the enraged big man, even though he didn’t really see what he had done wrong. From the look of Hoss that wasn’t a point of view that his brother would accept and he knew from experience that his father believed that as the eldest he should show control.

Joe had some satisfaction from the thick lip and the black eye he could see forming, to say nothing of Adam’s struggle to catch his breath. However all of that didn’t alter the fact that Adam was on his feet while he was sitting on his butt, yet another thing to hold against his eldest brother.

Hoss hauled his little brother to his feet and ordered him to go and get cleaned up and then get in the house. He suggested that Joe start thinking how to explain his bruised jaw to Pa.

One Joe had gone, Hoss’ temper deteriorated further as he realised he would have to finish off the barn chores. Adam obviously shaken didn’t look capable of it. As he felt his brother’s gaze on him, Adam tried to straighten up feeling the bruised muscles in his stomach protest. He caught his breath for a moment and then sighed “We taught the kid too well!”

“What the hell were you doing fighting him Adam? It’s supposed to be Christmas, spirit of good will. I just don’t understand what’s got into you two”

“I wasn’t fighting him” Adam protested knowing his big brother was really upset, it was very unusual for Hoss to swear.

“How come he’s got a swollen jaw then?”

Adam’s immediate thought of “he started it” sounded too childish even to his own ears and he just shook his head “I’ll only take so much, even from Joe”

“Yeah well you know him well enough to have avoided this” Hoss glared at his older brother “You’d better try and slip up the back stairs and clean up, it’s gonna be bad enough when Pa sees you anyways. I’d have liked to be able to enjoy my dinner in peace for once, instead of havin’ to listen to the brotherly love and responsibility lecture again!”

Adam decided that a few minutes peace and quiet was needed, to say nothing of a clean shirt and left Hoss to calm down

Hoss was slowly working through the remaining chores when he saw something glinting in the lamplight. He bent over and unearthed what appeared to be a whistle.   He couldn’t remember having seen it before but having wiped it off, he couldn’t resist trying it. To his surprise there was no sound from it but it did have two very striking effects. The small dog he’d been caring for over the last two months came rushing in and more worryingly Adam’s big chestnut reared alarmingly in his box. Sport seemed to be trying to kick the stall down and was obviously upset. Hoss hastily put the whistle in his pocket and turned his attention to calming Sport down before he did and damage either to himself or to the barn.

Hoss was first at table for dinner and Ben quickly joined him. Hoss could have scripted the next comments as his father queried the absence of his brothers and then went on to berate their lateness. Hoss tried to concentrate on his food, it never seemed fair that he always heard the lecture, when he was the only one who was always on time!

Eventually Adam slipped into his seat, closely followed by his youngest brother. Ben considered his sons, both carrying sign of a fight. He knew neither had been off the ranch and unfortunately with their current moods it was all too likely that they had been fighting with each other. Ben looked over at Hoss but his big son was concentrating hard on his plate and very unwilling to meet his father’s gaze. Ben gave up on Hoss as a source of information and turned his attention to his eldest son “Adam have you and Joe been fighting?”

Adam sipped some water not wanting to answer but meeting his father’s gaze he knew Ben wasn’t about to let him away without an answer  “Not really Pa”

Ben reached over and turned his youngest son’s face towards him “How did you get that bruise Joseph?”

Little Joe didn’t want to answer but Adam decided he really wasn’t that hungry. “Yeah Pa I gave Joe that bruise and he gave me mine” He pushed his plate away as he spoke.

Ben angrily demanded “What were you two fighting about?”

Adam came to his feet, graceful despite the anger evident in every movement, “I don’t know Pa. If your youngest son lets you know then maybe you can tell me! For now I need some air” With that Adam turned, grabbed his gunbelt hat and coat and walked out, slamming the door behind him.

Ben looked at Joe “Well?”

“It’s between us Pa, we’ll sort it out”

Hoss looked up “I wish you two would hurry up and do it then. I’m fed up trying to be the buffer between you. It’s supposed to be nearly Christmas, time of good will, ain’t much of that round here at the moment”

Joe pushed his plate away and ran back upstairs, ignoring his father’s call. Ben sighed heavily and then met Hoss’ eye “They’ll work it pout, they always do. Meantime let’s try and enjoy our food or things will go seriously downhill if we annoy Hop Sing.”

“Yeah Pa” Hoss concentrated on eating for a minute and then looked up “Don’t usually stay at outs with each other for so long”

The evening seemed very long to Ben, neither Adam nor Joe reappeared and Hoss soon announced he was tired and would have an early night. Ben sat staring into the fire, unable to concentrate on his book, trying to puzzle out his sons’ behaviour. He was soon lost in memories, other times when they had been arguing but every thing had worked out. Rather calmer Ben headed for bed late in the evening, but he knew Adam hadn’t come back yet and he found it impossible to sleep.

Adam had ridden up to the lake and sat staring out over the view he loved. He thought back over the years and remembered another time when he had been at odds with Joe. A southern sympathiser Kyle had been raising the temperature in town, trying to get Nevada’s silver for the South and the brothers had come to blows. Adam had known then that Joe needed their father and the ranch more than he did. Adam had decided his only option was to leave, the ranch wasn’t big enough for both of them. He had found it far harder to leave than he had expected and Joe had found him at the lake, after learning what Kyle was really like. Then the brothers had gone home together. This time Adam couldn’t believe Joe would bother to stop him, but the rest was still true. Joe needed their home and their Pa more than he did.

It was very late when Adam rode home, but although the big room was empty, Ben hadn’t been able to settle until he heard his eldest son come upstairs. Then he did go to sleep but he might not have done so if he had known what Adam was doing.

Adam slowly collected a few essential clothes and precious momentoes and packed them. For a while at least  maybe things would be better if he and Joe had some miles between them. He had a long standing invitation to join some friends with a ranch near Sacramento. He had been best man at their wedding about three years earlier. He had been trying to find the time for a visit and now seemed ideal. He thought of slipping out and just leaving a note but he wasn’t that big a coward and decided to tell his family at breakfast.

Adam spent the rest of the night carefully packing the presents he had bought for each of his family and for Hop Sing. He wrote a brief note to go with each to try and make them understand that although he had to leave he did love them. It was one of the hardest jobs he had ever done. Adam had never found it easy to reveal his feelings but eventually it was done. He slipped down stairs and left them with a covering note for Hop Sing and then went back to his room. He sat staring out of the window at the view that he loved as he awaited dawn.

For once in his life Joe was up early, his stomach reminding him that he had barely touched his dinner the previous evening. Yet another item to add to the long list of complaints he had against his eldest brother. Joe was glad to see only Hoss and his Pa at table as he came down. “Adam already gone out?”

Hoss shook his head “Nope for once you’ve beaten him down” Joe joined them at table but a couple of minutes later they heard Adam coming down. Ben turned to make a jocular remark, hoping his eldest son was in a better mood, but it died on his lips as he took in the saddlebags and the coat Adam was wearing.

Hoss was the first to find his voice “What are you doing?”

“Thought I’d go and visit Sam Butler and Cassie for Christmas”

“You can’t” Hoss protested “ It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow” realising as he spoke that his protest didn’t make much sense but just knowing he couldn’t have his brother leave for Christmas.

“More peaceful for all of us”  Adam said with a slight smile to his family and then he swiftly moved over to the door.

Ben swallowed hard “Are you coming back?”

“I don’t know Pa” Adam met his father’s gaze and his eyes softened momentarily “I promise I will write” With that he turned swiftly and went out to the barn to saddle Sport leaving total consternation behind him.

Joe licked suddenly dry lips “He can’t mean it”

Hoss angrier with both his brothers than he could remember glared at Joe “When does Adam ever say anything he don’t mean? Anyway why should you care? I though you wanted him outta here.”

Joe couldn’t meet his big brother’s angry gaze and his muttered “I never meant him to leave” wasn’t audible to his family.

The three moved out to the yard, each wanting to find some way to stop Adam. By the time they emerged Adam had saddled Sport and was leading him out of the barn. Ben moved swiftly over to his eldest son and put a hand on his arm “There’s no need for this.”

Adam’s gaze rested on his youngest brother “I think there is Pa before we end up really hating each other. I really don’t know what I have done but I’m not taking much more from him so I think it’s best we get some space between us”

“Take care son”

Adam swung aboard and with a wave for his big brother he pushed Sport into a lope. Joe moved next to his father to watch as Adam moved through the deep snow drifts, not knowing how things had come to this but realising it was all his fault. Even when he had physically attacked his big brother Adam had taken a lot of punishment and only landed one blow back. Suddenly honest with himself Joe realised he had been blaming Adam for a blow to his own ego which his brother didn’t even know had happened and certainly wasn’t his fault. All over a girl who meant nothing to either of them, while his brother did matter.

Hoss dug his hands deep in his pockets to stop himself raising a fist towards either of his brothers, not sure which one he was most angry with. He found his hand closing round the strange whistle he’d found and almost without thinking Hoss took the whistle out and blew it hard.

The effect was the same as before, Sport reacted frantically,  rearing and pawing at the air. Adam taken totally by surprise was thrown heavily into the snowdrift on the left of the path.

His family watched in shock and almost before Adam hit the ground Ben and Joe were running towards him. Hoss was stunned by what he had done and stood as though rooted to the spot until Ben called to him “Hoss come on, we may need your strength”

 Adam was flat on his back in the snow. Winded and stunned by the unexpected fall, he couldn’t answer his father’s anxious questions. He formed the answers but couldn’t find any breath to speak. Ben frantically cleared the snow from his body and began to check for broken bones as Joe knelt down by him, almost as ashen as his eldest brother “Pa is he alright?”

“I don’t know”

“He’s gotta be I didn’t mean any of it.  Please Adam, you must be alright, I need to tell you how sorry I am”

Ben put his hand on Joe’s arm “Not now Joseph. You get Sport, let Hoss and I carry your brother back to the house.”

Hoss had finally arrived very worried by his brother’s attempts to get his breath and the pallor of his skin “Is it safe to move him Pa?”

“We have to. It’s too cold”

Adam was fighting both for breath and for his scattered wits but he could hear the fear in both his father’s voice and his brothers’. He struggled for enough breath to reassure them “Alright ------ just  ------- winded” he managed to get out with gasps for breath punctuating the words. Thankful that he was able to manage even that much Ben helped Hoss to lift his brother and between them they got Adam back to the house and got him onto the couch.

Joe had caught Sport with no problem but for now he had just tied him to the hitching rail outside. “Pa should I get Doc Martin?”

“Wait a minute before we bother Paul, help me get your brother’s boots off”

Adam was shivering with the cold and the shock of the fall and Hoss stood watching, blaming himself, scared his brother was badly hurt. Slowly Adam’s breathing was easing off and once Ben had got his snow covered coat off him, Joe brought the indian blanket over from the stairs and wrapped it round his eldest brother. Ben slowly fed his son a little brandy and Adam gained enough control to insist that he didn’t need a doctor. “Alright son just take it easy. Joe go and get Hop Sing to heat up some broth.”

“Honest Pa I’m okay” Adam tried to sit up but as he did so the room started going round on him and he realised he had taken more of a blow to the head, when he landed, than he had thought. He let Ben settle him back down,.

 Joe came back over and started to rub his brother’s hands and arms to try and warm him up “Adam I’m so sorry, all my fault.  I didn’t mean it”

Adam pulled his hand away and ruffled his brother’s hair “Okay kid forget it” Joe looked up at the ‘kid’ but the smile on his brother’s face told him he really was forgiven and he relaxed and concentrated on trying to warm Adam up.

Ben hurried over with the hot broth but Joe insisted on helping his brother. Hoss slowly relaxed and got himself a sandwich. He had been scared at first that he’d really hurt his brother but reassured on that he just revelled in watching his brothers. Adam for once accepting all the cosseting and visibly relaxing and Joe hardly able to bear to lose contact with the brother, he thought he had driven away. Realising again just how much his eldest brother did mean to him.

Ben sat back in his own chair with a coffee “I take it you are going to stay with us for Christmas?”

Adam looked up but his hand rested on his little brother’s shoulder as Joe still sat on the floor by the couch “Well when I feel up to riding –“

Joe tensed under his hand but Adam squeezed gently “I might just take my brothers into town for a drink. Otherwise I think home sounds pretty good”

Hoss fingered the whistle in his pocket as he watched. He’d got the only Christmas present he really wanted, his family complete and his brothers back to normal.



On Christmas morning the four gathered under the tree after breakfast and began to hand out the presents. Adam was totally relaxed he had dreaded not being here, but now everything seemed fine with his youngest brother. He was watching Hoss open the set of knives he had bought for Hoss’ whittling, when out of the corner of his eye he realised Ben was opening an envelope. Adam’s first instinct was to grab the envelope and throw it on the fire but he realised that the explanations would be even worse.

Adam got abruptly to his feet and walked over to stare out of the window. Joe and Hoss stared at him, worried by the tension they could see in every line of his body. Adam could not believe that he had totally forgotten those notes that he had worked so hard over. Notes that were only supposed to be read because he was in a different state. The stray thought came into his mind, maybe he had deliberately forgotten because the notes said things he couldn’t bring himself to say face to face. Whatever the reason he was on edge, unsure how his family was going to take what he had written.

Joe and Hoss looked at each other and then at Ben but were surprised to find Ben smiling. Ben held up the envelope and gestured at their own gifts each with an obvious envelope, now the gift was unwrapped. Ben knew his eldest son very well and just how hard it was for Adam to reveal his feelings. He needed no explanations for Adam’s abrupt move.

The brothers read their notes but it was Joe, who made a move over to his eldest brother. Adam had said just how proud he was of the man his youngest brother had grown into and had apologised if he sometimes failed to acknowledge that Joe was now a man. That Joe’s opinions did matter and that he loved his brother very much, too much to risk what they meant to each other by staying and over reacting. He had also insisted that it wasn’t Joe’s fault but his own that he wasn’t able to talk it out.

Joe knew that it was his fault, whatever Adam said, and he also knew just how much Adam meant to him but for once he was the one who couldn’t put it into words. He just turned his brother round from the window and hugged him. Adam relaxed at that and returned the hug.

Ben, knowing how uncomfortable Adam got with displays of emotion, poured out four brandies “I propose a toast ‘To the Cartwrights, with four aces in every hand we can’t fail’”

His sons laughed and all joined him round the fire, it was a fantastic Christmas!