Summary: For most of the family the affair of Adah Menkin and John C Reagan has been forgotten and left behind, but they are about to realise that for one, this is not the case.
Rating T: some language and violence. Word Count: 7048
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Proof of a Man
A WHN to The Magnificent Adah
Joe Cartwright dismounted slowly from his horse and removing his hat ran an unsteady hand through his tousled, dirty hair. He looked up at the sky to see it welcoming a new dawn, although it wasn’t that welcome to him.
It had taken him a lot longer to get home then he’d intended. Mainly thanks to the excessive amount of gut rot he’d imbibed the night before which had made its certain way out of him on the ride back. Following that he’d dropped down in the dirt and passed out.
He’d woken twenty minutes ago in the predawn gloom. His head pounding so bad he would have been happy to detach it from his body. The uncomfortable ride home had been completed with him filthy, stinking and stiff.
Trudging to the barn he took care of his horse and after given Cooch a final pat made his way to the ranch house.
He stood outside for a moment gathering himself. He was only too aware that by now the rest of the family would be awake and at breakfast. Taking a deep breath he opened the door and went in.
At hearing the door open Ben Cartwright looked up from his breakfast. Glancing at Adam his eldest and Hoss his middle son he commented, “Well it seems your errant younger brother has finally returned.”
Carefully lying down his knife and fork he got up. His other two sons looked first at him and then at each other. Their eyes exchanging understood communication honed over years of long practice. Joe was in for it.
Ben left the dining area to move into the living section of the great room of the ranch house. He saw his youngest son moving from the credenza, where he’d just laid his hat and gun, toward the stairs.
“And just where have you been young man?” the words spoken in a tone to chill any man caused his youngest to turn to him. With dismay, Ben took in the filthy jacket and grubby face, smeared with dirt. These added to the bruises acquired on other nights in Virginia City. His curly chestnut hair was stiff and matted. He barely recognised his handsome, youngest son.
Ben found himself fixed with a pair of insolent green eyes. “You know where I’ve been,” came the reply, the tone matching the look.
Bens hands went to his hips and his chest expanded with the air he sucked in. “From the stink of you, I can guess you spent the night in a saloon.” Receiving nothing but a shrug in response Ben felt his temper rising further. “Joseph, this ranch depends on everyone being able to pull their weight and do their job. Your stayin’ out and not coming home ‘till dawn in this state means you aren’t able to do that.”
“I can do my job…”
Thoroughly incensed by his son’s interruption and incredulous at his cavalier response, Ben’s anger boiled over. “No! No, you can’t!” he roared. Gaining some satisfaction from the wince that Joe gave to his raised volume he went on. “I can’t send you out to work in the state you’re in. It wouldn’t be safe for you or others.” Shaking his head, he instructed, “Get out of my sight and clean yourself up.”
“If that’s what you want,” Joe responded with a disinterested shrug. “An’ you can take it out of my pay,” he added snarkily, turning on his heel.
Still sitting at the table Adam’s eyebrows rose up his face in surprise, and Hoss rolled his eyes in despair. Ben’s eyes, however, grew wide in his face and sparked with the fury that now engulfed him.
As his son began to climb the stairs he stormed, “JOSEPH! Get back down here!” Ben waited until his son was back standing in front of him before he continued. Leaning menacingly over his youngest he growled, “I will not put up with such insolence boy, do you understand?”
“Yes. Can I go now?” came the less than contrite reply.
Ben huffed and threw out his arms in surrender, “Yes, get out, just go.” He watched as Joe turned and mounted the stairs to go to his room.
Ben, shoulders suddenly slumped. Walking back to the table he sat down again. His eyes dark with frustration he asked Adam and Hoss in dismay, “When will this end?”
Ben might well ask, the wayward behaviour of his seventeen-year-old had been going on for three weeks now and everyone was just about at the end of their tether.
Around his family Joe was withdrawn, moody, irritable and downright rude. Worse though, he’d taken to spending as much time as he could in Virginia city where he picked fights at every opportunity. Starting brawl after brawl. When he wasn’t doing that he had taken to drinking whisky too excess.
They’d all tried talking to him, with varying levels of success ranging from awful to downright disastrous. Ben’s attempts had been met with sarcasm and insolence. Hoss, normally the one most in tune with his younger brother, met a brick wall of angry resistance. Adam’s chat ended in a fist fight that left them both with a black eye. Even Hop Sing their faithful cook and friend was told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business.
Things, everyone knew, were bad and no one had any idea what was going on … except possibly Joe.
However, if you were to ask Joe Cartwright he would have had some difficulty explaining what was happening either. To his family, the problems began three weeks ago. To Joe, they’d begun three months ago, the night he encountered John C Reagan.
Reagan was an ex-pugilist, once the heavyweight champion. He was the lover of Adah Menken an actress and old friend of his pa’s.
As Joe laid on his bed he couldn’t stop the memory of that night seeping back into his consciousness again. This stranger had approached him in the street and asked if he was a Cartwright. He’d then told him his name and to remember it when his pa asked. Disinterested, Joe had turned his back (how he cursed himself for being so stupid as to turn his back), and that’s when Reagan has struck him. Sucker punched him from behind and knocked him to the ground with a blow to the back of his neck. He’d then picked the stunned Joe up and smashed his massive fist into the young man’s face. Knocking him into an alley he continued his assault.
It wasn’t a fight. He’d been in fights before, plenty of them, but nothing like that. Pa had said that Reagan’s fist were lethal weapons. He’d used those weapons on Joe that night.
Joe flung an arm over his face as if this could blot out the memory of that beating. Reagan’s fists hitting him over and over, again and again. Pounding his face, body, chest until he’d remembered no more as he lost consciousness. The memory had sunk deep into his soul. He could still feel every punch. Reagan’s knees on his arms pinning him down and every word that Reagan spoke as he beat him.
Hoss had said Reagan had near been him to death, and it had taken him three months to recover physically from the attack. He’d been in constant pain for weeks afterwards. His face so bruised and swollen he could barely drink, let alone eat.
They’d also been a concern at first that he might be blind in one eye where Reagan had injured it. To everyone’s relief, this hadn’t proved to be the case. The spectre that the sight might still have been damaged vanished as the days went on and the swelling around his eyes slowly went down.
As well as the worry to his eyesight, the doctor was also concerned about the possibility of internal injuries where Reagan has mercilessly pounded his body. Ben was told to watch that the bruising on his torso didn’t spread or swell. A tell-tale sign of internal damage. Ben had received the instructions with raised eyebrows. Since Joe’s torso was such a mass of bruises, it was difficult to tell where one began and the other ended.
Reagan had also cracked his ribs which made any movement, or just plain breathing, difficult and painful. Out of all his injuries, these had taken the longest to heal.
The doctor had said he’d been lucky, but Joe didn’t feel lucky. Even as his body recovered he found he couldn’t shake off the feeling of anger that threatened to overwhelm him. It was like water pushing at a dam that was cracking under the pressure, and he couldn’t hold it back. Every day the pressure built and built.
Once he was on the road to recovery Ben had sat down and told him the story of Adah Menkin and Reagan.
Adah herself had told him, just before the attack, that his father was staying in Virginia City to protect her from someone from her past. She hadn’t said who and he hadn’t asked.
Ben explained that Reagan had been an old lover of Adah’s. She’d never been able to cut him out of her life or stop loving him. When he’d asked his pa where Reagan was Ben reluctantly told him that Adah and Reagan had left Virginia City. They’d gone the day after the attack, taking the stage to Salt Lake.
Seeing the hurt in his father’s face he hadn’t asked any more.
Ben did tell him that Hoss has taken Reagan on and beaten him. To make him pay for what he’d done to Joe. He was grateful, he was, yet somehow this just added to his anger. Hoss fighting his battle had stripped away his chance to redeem himself.
Hearing his family ride out for their day’s work he hauled himself off his bed and took himself down to the wash house.
Wallowing in the bath the door quietly opened to let in Hop Sing. The little Chinaman began collecting up Joe’s discarded clothes with an air of injured humility. He eyed him with hostility expecting a lecture. Not a word was spoken between the two, but the tension in Joe was evident from the white knuckles on the hand that held the side of the bath. Hop Sing’s eyes missed nothing. When he left the room he shook his head sadly at the thought that he couldn’t seem to help the young man he cared for so deeply.
At Hop Sings departure he sighed and once again sank down. Yet it did bother him that Hop Sing hadn’t attempted the lecture. Had he thrown in the towel on him? He couldn’t really blame his old friend if he had. He knew his behaviour was pushing everyone to their limit and yet he couldn’t control it.
Joe’s mind drifted back three weeks. His ribs having finally recovered, he’d taken himself off to Virginia City. Nothing more on his mind then to meet his friends and have some fun.
His friend Mitch had greeted him with enthusiasm when he entered the saloon. Mitch had been out to see him at the ranch during his recovery, but this was the first time back together in town.
“We was beginnin’ to think we’d never see ya again,” laughed Mitch slapping his friend on the back. “Here, let me get ya your first beer.”
Supping the cool nectar and listening to his friends chatter about what had been going on in town during his absence he’d begun to relax and enjoy himself. It was three beers in that the loud-mouthed miner at the back of the saloon rudely intruded on his notice.
Turning to lean his elbow against the bar, he watched the man from over the top of his glass. He was a big man, with a barrel-like chest and loud, real loud. He decided he didn’t like him.
“Joe? I said do ya fancy comin’ fishin’ Sunday?”
“Huh? Oh, sure Mitch sounds good.” His attention once again returning to his friends he turned back to the bar.
He was sure at that point he’d forgotten all about the big man. When suddenly his arm was nudged spilling some of his beer. He’d turned to look right into the face of the miner.
“Sorry kid didn’t mean ta jog ya.”
It was a friendly enough apology. Joe’s friends were already turning back to the bar when he’d warned, “Watch where ya goin’, clumsy.”
Startled Mitch turned back. It was a deliberate provocative remark and no man, Mitch knew, would let it pass.
The man’s fist flew out at Joe who dodged it easily. The miner might be big, but he was slow, and he quickly sent his own fist firmly into his middle. The fight was on. Soon the miner’s friends and Joe’s were involved, and a battle royal erupted.
When the fight was over Sam, the barkeep, evicted the offending parties threatening each with a large bill. He only planned to send one, to Ben Cartwright. Seeing as Joe had started the fight, but mainly because he knew Ben would pay up.
Mitch helped his friend on his horse and rode with him out of town.
Despite his speed, Joe had come off the worse from the encounter and Mitch whistled between his teeth. “Yer Pa’s sure gonna be mad,” he teased.
Joe scowled, “Why? Taint none of his business.”
Mitch raised his eyebrows commenting. “When yer Pa gets a look at yer face he’ll make it his business.”
His scowl deepened. “I’m a grown man, he’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
Having reached the parting in the road that led to their respective homes Joe turned his horse and broke into a canter. Mitch called after him, “See ya Sunday!” and received a wave in response. Mitch shook his head at his friends back puzzled, he’d never seen him start a fight like that before.
As predicted Ben was less than impressed by Joe’s appearance and the fight. He put it down to him having too much energy following his convalescence and thought no more of it, at first.
But, after that first night, his career as bar fighter blossomed at an alarming rate. He seemed to be making it his mission to pick a fight each night.
Joe eased his aching body in the bath stretching out the kinks. He hadn’t known why he’d pushed that miner to a fight that first time or why he’d needled every other man since. He just knew he had to let the anger out. Something dark inside was eating away at him and he needed to fight. Needed to prove that he could. Prove that he could beat those bigger men. Prove to himself that he wasn’t weak, that Reagan…he pulled himself up. He didn’t want to think about Reagan, but it was hard not to. The whisky helped, he grimaced to himself he didn’t even really like whisky, but it helped.
Joe flitted about the living room finding it impossible to settle. The nervous energy in him was palpable. His eyes kept flicking to the decanter on the table near his father’s desk. He knew that his pa and brothers would be back any minute for lunch but the feeling that something was trying to burst through his chest couldn’t be contained. He needed to damp it down, and only one thing worked.
Finally giving in to the need Joe strode over to the table and poured himself a brandy. “Just one,” he lied to himself. He was downing his third glass when Pa and his brothers walked through the door.
The three men froze as their eyes fell on Joe. The heavily depleted decanter and the almost empty glass halfway back to the table. Caught out, Joe’s feelings of embarrassment gave an added edge to his rage. He slowly returned the glass to the table. With an arrogant flourish and a bravado that sent a chill through him, he reached for the decanter again.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Having a brandy.” He finished pouring his drink not looking at this father or brothers. He’d already seen their faces, he didn’t need to look again.
“Drinking brandy, at this hour?” the incredulity in Ben’s tone couldn’t be missed.
“I pay for it, if you’re that worried,” the sneer in Joe’s voice brought Ben over the room to him like a charging bull. Snagging his hand under Joe’s armpit he snapped the boy against him, so Joe and he were nose to nose.
“I’m not worried about the cost boy. I’m worried about you, drinkin’ hard liquor in the middle of the day.” The mocking look in Joe’s eyes shook Ben. What is happening to my son?
“I’m a man Pa, you don’t hav’ta worry about me.”
“If you’re a man why don’t you start acting like one?” Adam demanded angrily crossing the room toward them. His patience well and truly ended. “All Pa and the rest of us have done lately is worry about you and your stupid shenanigans.”
Twisting out of his father’s grip Joe flashed, “No one asked you too.”
“For Lordy sake Lil’l Joe yer our brother, course we’re gonna worry about ya. We jest don’t understand what’s gotten inta ya lately?” Hoss placated, attempting to calm his younger brother.
Joe eyed Hoss with resentment. “Nothin’ has gotten inta me. Mind yer own business.”
Ben stepped forward and clutched him by both his forearms. Desperation seeped into his voice as he asked, “Joe what’s eating at you boy? We can’t help you if you don’t tell us?”
Joe looked into his father’s eyes and saw the anger gone, only concern and worry filled them now. He couldn’t bear it, seeing that look. He knew it was because Pa thought him weak, not a grown man capable of defending himself. Inside his chest, the emotions in him welled up pushing outwards causing him almost physical pain. His eyes widened, and he looked straight at his father as he suddenly pushed him roughly away. Ben staggered almost falling.
“I don’t have to tell you anything!” he spat. Before the words were barely out of his mouth Joe found himself spun around by the shoulder. Socked soundly in the jaw he was knocked backwards toward the stairs. Crashing down on the floor he saw his oldest brother bearing purposefully down on him.
“Adam!” cried Ben effectively stopping his approach.
Adam spun toward his father. “Pa! You gonna let him get away with that?” he seethed.
Ben looked at Joe. He would’ve been as annoyed as Adam if he hadn’t been looking into his youngest’s eyes and seen the look in them. Ben had seen shock and horror staring at him. At that moment he realised that Joe was hating his behaviour just as much as everyone else, maybe more.
Joe pulled himself up staggering against the sofa. His chest was heaving and as he spoke he struggled to keep his voice steady. “I don’t need your help, I don’t need you takin’ care of me!” Pushing past Adam, he headed for the door.
Hoss approached him, hands out to help. “Joe…” he began but was cut off.
“Don’t Hoss, don’t!” Joe begged. He flung out an arm, palm out, holding his brother at bay. “Jest leave me alone. I don’t need your help, I can take care of myself!”
He stood for a moment staring at his family. The tableau of the four men seemed to be suspended in time as they looked at each other. Three of them regarding their youngest member before them. A picture of crumbling fury.
“Jest leave me be,” he gasped, before grabbing his gun and hat and dashing out the door.
Adam stepped forward saying grimly, “I’ll get him Pa.”
Ben’s hand shot out to stop him. “No, Adam, wait a minute. We need to think about this,” he cautioned.
“Pa, ya ain’t gonna let him go like that?” Hoss asked, anguish reverberating in his voice. He couldn’t bear to see the agony he’d just seen in his little brother eyes. All he wanted to do was make it go away and have his Lil’l Joe back again.
“Just for a minute Hoss, we need to think for a minute,” Ben told him. “We need to try and get to the bottom of this if we’re to help Joe.”
“But how can we if he won’t tell us what’s wrong?”
“I know, I know but…”
The sound of hooves dashing out of the yard brought all three to the door to see Joe’s horse being recklessly galloped out of the yard and disappearing into the distance.
“Gone to Virginia City and the nearest saloon I expect,” Adam fumed, exasperated at his youngest brother’s behaviour.
Ben closed the door and with his head down walked slowly to the fireplace. Joe needed help, he knew that. In his current mood, it frightened Ben to think of the trouble his boy could run into. Running his hand over his face and round his chin, he reached his reluctant decision.
He cut a look across at his eldest. “Alright Adam, go get him, bring him back,” he instructed in a fatalistic voice.
Adam gave a determined nod and left.
Adam entered the Bucket of Blood saloon scanning the interior for his brother. When he found him, he stood watching for a few minutes hardly believing what he was seeing.
Adam had seen his little brother do lots of stupid things in his time, but he’d never seen him single out the biggest man in a place. Squaring up to him like an arrogant cock taunting him into a fight.
He’d also pulled Joe out of lots of fights. Watching his brother’s behaviour now he was aware of a sense of disgust. Pa’s instructions or not, Adam felt that if he wanted trouble this bad let him have it.
He would have left if Sam hadn’t caught his eye.
“Please, Adam, can’t ya do somethin’? I can’t afford ta have any more table an’ chairs busted up. I’m runnin’ out of places for folk ta sit!” Sam begged.
Giving Sam a resentful look Adam lifted his hat. Cramming it down harder on his head he resigned himself and headed toward his brother.
Joe, taking a punch from the big man he’d baited was knocked across the saloon landing ignominiously at Adam’s feet. Seizing his opportunity Adam grabbed him. Picking him up by the arms he dragged him out the door, kicking and protesting.
Being on the brunt end of Joe’s protests at this treatment, both physical and verbal, did nothing to improve Adam’s temper. However, he waited until he was outside before releasing his spleen.
“What the heck d’ya think that was about?” he roared, giving his brother a shake.
“Let me go!” yelled Joe, “I don’t need ya buttin’ in!”
“Pa told me ta fetch you, and I’m gonna.”
“Mind your business. I could’ve beat that guy!”
Adam holding a desperately struggling and squirming Joe gave him another shake that rattled his younger brother’s teeth. “Don’t be an idiot, that gorilla could’ve pounded you into the floor!”
Joe’s head flashed round to face his brother’s. His eye’s large and sparking with fury. “No, he couldn’t! I could’ve beat him. I could’ve!” he insisted. His voice rose almost hysterical as he saw the derision in his older brother face. “I could’ve Adam. Why…why can’t you see? I ain’t no coward, I can stand up ta him. I could’ve stood up to Reagan…”
“Reagan…wha?” Surprise slackened Adam’s grip and Joe managed to pull himself free.
Staggering back, he ran a desperate hand through his hair. His eyes, still fixed on his brother’s, were wide with shock at his slip.
“Joe, what are you talking about? What has Reagan got to do with it?” Adam demanded.
“Nothin’.” Joe’s voice rasped harshly as he tried to regain the control he’d lost. “Nothin’! For God’s sake, Adam jest leave me alone!”
As Adam watched his youngest brother tearing at himself a revelation suddenly dawned on him. The arrogant cockfight he’d just witnessed began to make some sense, and his behaviour fell startlingly into place. How could we have been so blind?
Adam took a determined step forward and Joe backed away. “Stay away Adam, just let me be!”
“Pa told me to bring you home little brother and that’s what I intend to do.”
Before he knew what was happening Adam moved like lightning. He caught Joe with an uppercut on the chin that sent him flying back and crumpling dazed to the ground. He was then grabbed and flung unceremoniously into his saddle. He sat slumped forward over his pinto’s neck. Smoothly mounting Adam scooped up Joe’s horse’s rein.
Recovering his senses on the way home Joe found his lead rein firmly wound around Adam’s saddle horn. By the expression on his brother’s face, Joe could see he had no intention of releasing it. Furious at this treatment, he finished the ride back to the Ponderosa in silence. Which suited his older brother exactly, as it gave him time to think.
What he had just witnessed made Adam realise that they’d all been foolishly complacent in thinking they’d gotten off so lightly after their brush with John C. Reagan. Yes, Joe had recovered from his brutal beating physically, but they’d overlooked the emotional toll it had taken on him. Everything he’d done since he’d recovered and first went back to Virginia City now began to make perfect sense to Adam. Joe had picked out the biggest man in the room and baited him into a fight. In an attempt, Adam realised, to prove that he wasn’t afraid. Wasn’t afraid to fight and wasn’t afraid of big men, which Reagan had undoubtedly been.
Adam grimaced, wondering how his younger brother could think for a moment that he could have defended himself from the likes of Reagan. The man had been a mountain, a professional boxer and vicious. Hell, when his pa had been prepared to take him on, Adam had known that Reagan would’ve killed him. He’d had grabbed Pa himself and forcibly held him back so Hoss could step in.
Adam admitted to himself that he had been loath to take Reagan on. Yet here was his seventeen-year-old kid brother torturing himself as he felt less of a man because that animal had almost killed him.
When they reached the ranch house Adam quickly dismounted and waited whilst Joe did the same. He then snagged him under the armpit and marched him into the house. Ben and Hoss sitting by the fireplace stood up at their entrance, but Adam giving them a shake of the head, walked Joe straight to the stairs.
“Go up to your room, whilst I talk to Pa,” he instructed in a tone that brooked no argument.
Joe flashed Adam a venomous look but said nothing and did as he was told.
On reaching his room Joe tore off his jacket and flung it viciously into the corner before throwing himself onto his bed. Lacing tense hands behind his head he stared at the ceiling and tried to quieten his thoughts. He knew that soon someone would be up to his room to have a talk with him. At this point, he had no idea what he was going to do or say. Right at that moment he just wished he could get his hands on a whisky.
The consuming anger within him gave him no rest and he was soon up off the bed and pacing his room. Trying to find some release.
“So what ya sayin’ Adam is that Joe thinks these men he’s fightin’ are Reagan?”
“No, not exactly Hoss. I’m sayin’ that somehow in Joe’s head he’s trying to prove that he can beat Reagan.”
Hoss shook he head bewildered, “I jest don’t understand it, Pa, do you?”
Ben, had been sitting the whole time Adam was carefully unveiling his theory in his red chair. His hands linked tightly between his knees. His eyes fixed on his eldest, absorbing every word. He turned to his middle son now.
“I’m not really sure Hoss, but I think I’m beginning to understand. Joe’s trying to prove he’s not scared. That what happened with Reagan didn’t make him less of a man. Is that right?” Adam nodded. “What can we do about it? How can we help him? We can’t let him carry on like this.”
Adam looked into his anxious father’s face. He had an idea, whether it would work or not was another matter.
“I think we need to let Joe know exactly what happened that night with Reagan. With you, Adah and Hoss, do you see?”
Ben smiled at his eldest. He was proud of his sons but never more so when then pulled together like this, looking after each after. “I’ll talk to him first,” he decided.
The knock at his door made Joe start, even though he’d been expecting it.
“Little Joe can I come in?” Ben opened the door and put his head around.
Sitting back on his bed attempting a casual position he replied sullenly, “I guess.”
Taking this as his queue Ben quickly entered carrying a bowl, cloth and some liniment.
“Adam tells me you may need some attention to your face.”
Startled Joe put his hand to his chin. Up ‘till now he’d barely noticed the cut on his lip where the miner had hit him or the lump on his chin where Adam had taken him out.
Ben placed the bowl down on the bedside table and dipping in the cloth took hold of Joe’s face and gently dapped at his lip.
Joe’s hand came sharply up to lay over Ben’s. “I can do it Pa.”
Ben looked steadily into his eyes. “I know you can Son. Let me, please.”
The gentleness in his father’s voice checked Joe and he allowed him to have his way.
Ben continued his administrations and whilst he did, began to talk.
“I want to tell you about the night John Reagan attacked you, something I didn’t tell you before.”
The protest Joe was about to make died on his lips as his curiosity got the better of him.
Ben noting the curious look went on. “I asked Adah to marry me that night and I let Reagan know it. He’d been pushing Adah around so I threatened him, told him to leave her alone. I even asked him to make his play. Tried to push him into a gunfight, but he wouldn’t fight me. He left, and I thought he’d backed down.”
“But I was wrong, instead he decided to try and make me angry enough to be goaded into a fist fight. He did that by hurting what he knew I held most dear.” Ben risked running a gentle hand down Joe’s cheek. “He succeeded. When he refused to pick up the gun I had Adam pass to him…” Ben paused. The memory of Reagan sneeringly refusing the gun because he wouldn’t be able to hold it with his cut knuckles. Knuckles he’d cut battering Joe came back to him. He clenched his jaw. “I was ready to take him on in a fist fight.”
“But Pa, Reagan…” Joe uttered shocked.
Ben nodded his head in agreement. “I know, he would’ve killed me. At that moment, after I’d seen what he’d done to you, I didn’t care. Fortunately, Adam had more sense, he held me back and let Hoss take him on.”
Ben sat down on the bed next to Joe. “You know I was pretty mad with Adam at first. I tried my darndest to get him to let me go, but I’m glad he didn’t. I couldn’t have beaten Reagan, Joe, the man was an animal. I was angry, and I let that override my good sense. For a moment anyway. I wish I’d told you this at the time. I was just so glad you were all right that nothing else mattered then.”
Joe’s head dropped as he took in what his Pa had told him.
“Reagan was a brute and a coward. After all, he didn’t even have the guts to take you on in a fair fight.” Ben waited, letting this sink in before he picked up the bowl and got up. “Anyway, I think your brothers want to talk to you. Is it all right if I send each of them up?”
“Sure Pa, sure,” came the slightly dazed response.
Ben smiled and gave Joe’s shoulder a squeeze before leaving the room.
Hoss stuck his head around the door.
“All right ta come in Short Shanks?”
Receiving an affirmative Hoss ambled into the room in a slightly too casual manner, giving away his nervousness.
“It’s alright Hoss, sit down, I ain’t gonna bite yer head off,” Jo told him, feeling guilty that he’d given his gentle older brother a reason to feel this way.
Hoss ducked his head and gave an embarrassed smile. Like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Pulling up a chair he turned it, so he could sit straddled and leaned his arms on the chair back.
“Pa asked me ta tell ya what happened that night with Reagan,” Hoss explained fixing Joe with a worried look.
Joe nodded, and Hoss drew in a breath.
To his surprise, Hoss said nothing at first only laid his chin on his arms thinking. A minute passed before Hoss finally spoke.
“Ya know he came inta the saloon that night after he’d finished beating up on ya. Course I didn’t know that then.” Hoss gave him an apologetic grimace. Joe tilted his head in recognition and smiled his reassurance.
As Hoss continued a frown formed on his face. His words coming considered and slow, “I didn’t know who he was. I introduced myself to him, can ya believe that? He came in and ordered drinks fer everyone like he were celebrating someint.” Joe watching his brother was startled to see a depth of anger in those clear blue eyes he’d never seen before. “It were you, Joe. He were in that bar celebratin’ that he done near beat ya ta death.”
“When I followed Pa back inta that saloon and realised it were him. I tell ya, I were ready ta tear him apart. Pa tried ta get him inta a gunfight, but the coward wouldn’t do it. He wanted to take on Pa in a fist fight, coz he knew he’d beat him easy. I told Pa to let me, but he weren’t listening. Guess he were about as furious as I was. Reagan would’ve killed him, and Adam he knew it. He grabbed Pa and held him tight, so I could get inta it. Boy, he was sure mad at Adam fer that,” Hoss gave a chuckle at the memory.
“But you beat him,” Joe couldn’t help interrupting to say bitterly.
Hoss spoke earnestly to his brother, “Little Joe I almost didn’t. That man was mean as all get out an’ he pounded me good. I was almost down. If Adam hadn’t told me ta stop fightin’ and start wrestling him, he would’ve beaten me.”
Leaning forward Hoss put a large, gentle hand on Joe’s knee. “It were the hardest fight I ever had little brother. You were too bashed up ta see me afterwards, but I tell ya I was in pretty bad shape.”
Joe laid his hand over his big brother’s. Things between him and Hoss were, well, special and he felt bad now at his previous anger at him. “I’m sorry Hoss I didn’t know.”
“Aww, why should ya have, ya were in pretty bad shape yourself. Y’know the thing that got me about that Reagan was that he never gave ya a chance. He couldn’t take ya in a fair fight, nah, he had ta blindside ya.”
Joe blushed, and then he shrugged. His mind finally letting himself admit what he’d been fighting all along. “I don’t think it would’ve made a difference.”
“Dang sure it wouldn’t! He’d had pummelled ya good either way,” Hoss agreed genially.
Joe gave a gasp and a startled laugh broke from him. The first genuine laugh he’d had in weeks…it felt good.
Hoss got up and patted Joe on the shoulder. “Pa says Adam wants ta talk next. I’ll go get him.”
After Hoss left Joe couldn’t keep the small smile off his face.
Adam entered in his usual quiet way and walked soft-footed to the side of the bed where he sat down in the chair.
Joe watched him the whole time without speaking but once he sat down he cocked an eyebrow and asked, “You here ta tell me about that night too?”
Adam’s lop-sided smile broke out, “That’s right.”
Sighing, he crossed his arms and looked resigned. “Go ahead.”
“I just wanted to tell you what happened in the saloon. Pa was so mad he was ready to take on Reagan bare fisted, but I knew he didn’t stand a chance against that man mountain.”
“Yeah I know, so you held him back and Hoss took him on,” Joe interrupted.
“That’s right, but do you know why it was Hoss, Joe?” Adam fixed him with that steady serious look of his that held Joe’s tongue and his attention. “Because I knew that it wasn’t just Pa who couldn’t beat Reagan, I couldn’t have either.”
Disbelieve ran through Joe. Adam wasn’t afraid of any man or anything. He searched his older brother’s face looking for signs of mockery but saw only earnestness.
“Reagan was a swine, he used his fists to intimidate and control people. It made him feel big to beat up on others and he did it anyway he could. Even if that meant unfairly as he did with you.”
“So, I shouldn’t feel bad about Reagan beatin’ on me? I get it, Adam,” Joe acknowledged, sounding more dismissive than he intended.
Adam leaned forward. His look became even more intense and an edge crept into his voice, “Do you, Little Joe? Because I don’t ever want to see you doin’ again what I saw today.”
Joe’s eyes dropped, and he swallowed hard before answering in a small voice, “Sure Adam, it won’t, I promise. I feel like a fool for that now, anyway.”
Adam stood and gave Joe’s shoulder a squeeze. “Glad to hear it fella, but you’re not a fool. You’re just a seventeen-year-old with more spunk than brains.”
Joe laughed, “Is that what you think?”
“Of course, you’re certainly no coward and you’ve got nothing to prove. To yourself or anyone else.”
“You really believe that?” Joe asked amazed.
Adam stopped and looked at Joe, a frown in his eyes. “Don’t you?”
Joe sighed, “I guess.”
Adam thoughtfully regarded his brother for a moment before adding, “There’s no need to guess Little Joe, it’s true.”
Joe smiled up at his brother, “Thanks, Adam.”
Adam smirked, “That’s what smart, big brothers are for.”
As he went to go, Joe asked, “Can you ask Pa to come back up?”
Nodding, Adam left, softly closing the door.
Joe waited for his pa to come back up and a knot began to form in his stomach. The way he’d behaved over the past few weeks came back to him now with a sickening thud. He felt he had every reason to feel ashamed. He behaved like a heel and deserved punishment rather than the understanding he’d received.
Ben came in with a smile on his face asking, “You wanted me, son?”
“Yeah Pa…I, well…erm, I’ve been thinkin’ an’, well. I guess I…erm owe you an…er, an apology for the way I’ve been acting,” he managed to mutter, embarrassment making him stumble over his words.
Ben placed a steadying hand on Joe’s knee as he sat down on the bed beside him. “Actually I think we owe you an apology too. We didn’t understand how what happened affected you.”
Joe’s eyes began to fill as he blurted out, “He jus’ kept hittin’ and hittin’ me. Saying over and over, remember to tell you who’d done it.” Breaking off, unable to look his father in the eyes his head dropped. He stared at hands clasped together in his lap. Finally, he confessed, “Pa, I jest kept beggin’. Beggin’ him to stop.” Unable to bear his shame, Joe’s voice cracked. Tears he could no longer hold back began to slip as he mumbled, “I’m so sorry.”
Ben pulled Joe to him clutching him tight.
“Son, don’t you ever be sorry. I’m the one who should be sorry. Sorry, that because of me you got attacked like that. You’re no less of a man because of it.”
The two held each other, letting their closeness and touch do the healing.
Eventually, Joe spoke. “Pa?” the word hesitant and softly spoken.
“D’ya think she’ll be all right?”
“Miss Menkin. D’ya think she and Reagan will be all right?”
Ben hugged Joe tighter for a moment. The boy had such a capacity for caring, but, he deserved an honest answer.
“No Joe, I don’t.”
Ben felt Joe pulling free and released him.
“You don’t?” he queried, surprised.
Ben gave a sigh and explained. “We know that Adah loves Reagan and in his own way I think he loves her, but, the man hasn’t managed to change in all the years he’s known her. I’m afraid I don’t see that happening now, or ever. I wish I did. God knows I wish Adah only happiness. She is a wonderful, magnificent woman and…” Ben hesitated, not sure if he should continue.
“And you loved her, right Pa?”
Ben smiled, “Yes son, I loved her.”
“Pa.” Ben raised his eyes back to Joe’s. “I really liked her, she was…all right.”
Ben laughed, “Yes, she was all right. What about you, are you all right?”
Joe smiled back into his Pa’s loving eyes. “Yeah Pa, I’m all right.”