Summary: WHN for “My Brother’s Keeper” What if Adam left the Ponderosa after all and didn’t return until two years later? What if Joe never forgave him for leaving? What if Adam never forgave himself?
Rated: K+ (13,850 words)
Waiting on the Wolf Series:
Waiting on the Wolf
A “What Happens Next” story for the episode, “My Brother’s Keeper”
When Joe came down the stairs, it was nearly midnight, and his father was still up writing. It was that kind of winter night when the wind groaned against the windowpanes, and the rough timbered walls of the ranch house didn’t seem strong enough to keep out the cold.
“Still up?” Ben asked his youngest son, who was still clad in his trousers and unbuttoned shirt.
“I was about to say the same to you.” Joe pulled up a chair, straddling it backwards.
Ben smiled affectionately at his youngest son. “Well, I guess we have something in common, then.”
Joe understood why his pa was smiling like that, but the knowledge made him look away. His pa was happy simply because Joe had stopped to talk. They used to do that all the time. In fact, Joe could remember a time when he and his pa talked every day. Things weren’t the same between them any more, and yet it took so little to make his father happy. Joe wondered why he couldn’t find it in himself to do it more often. How many months had it been since they’d been alone together?
He could have said any number of things to his pa, but Joe ended the moment by simply asking, “Writing another letter?”
“I’m writing a letter to your brother. Guess I couldn’t sleep either.”
Ben gestured at the good stationery that lay on the desk. Elegant script almost covered the linen sheet. Such an economical use of fine writing paper. Waste not, want not.Ben could say things like that and make them ring true, because he really lived them out. Joe had never understood what the phrase was even talking about. How much of his life had he wasted? How much could one man want? Joe knew what his father wanted. He’d lost three wives, and his oldest son was gone. But Ben had never been one to feel sorry for himself. He simply continued faithfully writing letters to the responsible son who was gone, while never complaining with the less deserving son who’d stayed behind.
That’s the way Joe saw it. He’d come to accept it. He didn’t write to Adam any more. He’d gladly never write another letter in his entire life as far as he was concerned, but Pa never seemed to get tired of it. Joe wondered if Pa asked Adam to come home. If he did, there wouldn’t be much point to it. Adam was going to do what going to do, and there wasn’t much to be done about it. That’s the way Joe saw it, but most of the time, he tried not to think about it. He avoided moments like this for that very reason. They made him think. Better to keep moving, before all those crazy thoughts and dreams could track you down. So Joe kept himself moving on.
The darkness around them was so thick Joe could feel it. The candlelight was inadequate for that kind of darkness, and Joe could barely see a few feet ahead. He couldn’t see the words his pa had been writing down, but it really didn’t matter. It was none of his business, but Joe was pretty sure he knew what Pa would have written.
Dear Adam… doing well…. miss you, son… we all miss you…everyone is doing fine, just fine. Proud of you, son. Love, Pa.
His father was nothing if not a faithful correspondent. Hoss usually stuck his own little note into the envelope before it was mailed in town. And Joe? Joe could easily have added his own words to the letter.
Don’t worry about me. I’ll be as fine as I need to be. I’m as fine as I’ll ever be. Stay away as long as you want. I’m doing fine. Brother.
But Joe didn’t write to Adam any more. He’d given up writing letters after the couple months, when Adam didn’t come home, and it didn’t seem to matter any more.
Ben leaned across the desk and placed his hand over Joe’s hand. There used to be a time when Ben touched this youngest son casually and often, and he kept his hand there longer than he should have. Neither would have thought anything of it. But Joe found himself counting the seconds until it wouldn’t be rude to pull away. His pa seemed to realize it, so he pulled away first. Joe took his hand off the desk and held onto his chair tight.
“I have a feeling that Adam will come home this spring,” Ben said offhandedly and searched his youngest son’s face for a reaction.
Joe knew better than to roll his eyes or laugh. Despite everything that had come between them over the past couple years, he would never have hurt his father that way.
Instead he advised, “Don’t get your hopes up, Pa.”
Ben’s face fell. Then Joe made it worse by shrugging, which was a different kind of betrayal. Hope was like air for Ben Cartwright, and Joe had no right to deprive him of it. Ben looked down, and Joe had enough conscience to feel ashamed for his shrug. But he also blamed Adam for it.
Adam. Joe hadn’t seen his brother in more than two years, and yet it always came back to Adam. It felt like just yesterday Sheila Reardon had invited Adam to come visit her, shortly after her father had passed away and she’d returned home to Philadelphia. Joe could barely remember the young woman; he’d been unconscious most of the time she and her father had been in his house. The Reardons had been responsible for getting them home, after Adam had accidentally shot Joe on a hunting trip at Montpelier Gorge. The wolf had attacked, biting him several times, and Joe was bad off enough for the next several days that he didn’t remember much of it at all. So for Joe, Sheila Reardon was little more than a voice that had drifted in and out of his fever dreams.
However, Hoss had been planted at his bedside during those interminable days of recovery and told his little brother what he couldn’t remember on his own. After the shooting, Adam had been depressed, disgusted with himself, and worried sick out of his mind. Nobody but Hoss was sure that Joe was going to make it. Sheila Reardon had offered Adam a way to escape from his troubles. She wanted him to go back East with her, and for a while, it looked like Adam might actually do it. He’d certainly been tempted. Said he wanted to go where a man could live like a decent human being. Hoss insisted that it was only because Adam was worried sick because Joe was so bad off, and not to pay it much mind. Sometimes all that thinking could make a man daft. That’s what Hoss said. It would all get back to normal, as soon as Joe got himself better. However, they found out soon enough that for once, Hoss had gotten it all wrong.
Pa and Hoss hadn’t believed that Adam had any feelings for Sheila Reardon whatsoever, other than gratitude. However, Adam had astonished everyone, most of all himself, by accepting the invitation. He said he owed it to pay his respects for what Sheila and her father had done. Everyone believed him at the time. Believed he’d be back by fall. Everyone, that is, but Joe.
Even as he prepared for the trip, Adam had waited to leave the Ponderosa until Joe was better, practically healed – at least, everyone thought he was. From a lifetime of having three men watching over him like a hawk, Joe certainly knew how to act like he was fine. He’d been careful enough not to let anyone, especially, Adam, know what was really wrong, even after the doctor proclaimed that the gunshot wound and the wolf bite were as healed as they were ever going to be.
So Joe had gotten back to work, hoping that his good spirits alone could bring Adam out of the malaise he’d fallen in and could convince him to stay. Adam had never gotten over the shooting. Joe knew that, but couldn’t do anything about it. So Joe had laughed and joked, worked hard, and never let on that his shoulder hurt like the devil. He’d have done anything to keep Adam from feeling worse about it than he already did. Everyone knew that the shooting was an accident, but Joe held himself every bit as responsible as Adam. He’d up and ignored every rule of hunting he’d ever been taught, and by sneaking up behind that wolf like that… well, as far as Joe was concerned, he deserved to be shot for such a stupid mistake. As far as Joe was concerned, he was more to blame than Adam. The guilt didn’t rest easy on his shoulders.
Of course, he didn’t let on he felt that way, especially to Adam. During his months of recovery, they never talked about it. Not ever. They were moving on and busy. Adam was gone with Hoss out on the spring roundup, while Joe stayed back with his father. Hoss came back, pleased as punch that Adam almost seemed back to his old self. That same old self he was before the “accident.” That’s what they called it at first, and after a while they didn’t call it anything at all. So, it was a real shock when the letter from Sheila came. In many ways, Hoss and Ben had forgotten all about her. They truly believed that Adam had done the same. She was a stranger to them. His pa said they owed a lot to her and to Mr. Reardon, but Joe didn’t see it that way. The way he saw it, Adam would have found a way to get them home without the Reardons’ help. Adam wouldn’t have let him die, even if they hadn’t come along in their buggy that afternoon. Joe could still remember leaning back against his brother’s chest, the warmth of the yellow coat around him, could feel the gelding’s angling sway down slope. Adam’s arms encircled his waist. Kept him upright. Wouldn’t let him fall. Joe had no doubt about it. They hadn’t needed the Reardons. Adam would have saved him on his own.
But Joe knew what was going on. Guilt was an ugly dance partner, and Adam was desperate to escape. Joe truly believed that Adam would get over his guilt, when he saw how much better Joe was getting every day. They were a family, and families got over things like that.
But Adam left any way.
As far as Joe was concerned, he owed it to his pa to make for the fact that Adam was gone because of him. And yet Joe kept failing in that, again and again, in hundreds of small ways. It was like the story of the prodigal son, except that everyone ended up in the wrong part and kept forgetting their lines. The dutiful son had left home, and the sinner had stayed behind. It wasn’t nearly so satisfying.
Joe shrugged himself back to the present and smiled. He owed his pa a whole lot more than a smile, but it was the best he had to offer.
“Maybe you’re right, Pa,” Joe said, and this time, he reached for his pa’s hand. “Maybe Adam will be home by summer.”
Ben looked grateful, but Joe understood his pa was no fool. He knew what his boy was offering him. Like a school child anticipating a trick, Ben was waiting for his youngest son to pull that proffered hope right out from under him.
“Let’s wait and see what happens.”
Then, Ben took his hand away first.
Adam was coming home.
That’s what everyone kept saying. Two years after he’d left, Adam Cartwright was finally coming home, and Virginia City as abuzz with the news.
Joe Cartwright threw back another beer, and sat back in his chair, thinking. The lovely and infamous Sarah Jane Cooper was sitting next to him, and she was worried. She wasn’t really supposed to be in the saloon; after all, she didn’t work there, and only saloon girls were allowed in Virginia City’s finest drinking establishments. Ladies weren’t allowed. Well, this was no fine drinking establishment, and Sarah Jane wasn’t really a lady. Not any more, although she had once been, back home in the South before she decided to head out West. Sarah wasn’t a saloon girl either, in the traditional sense, but she worked hard to earn a living in whatever way she could. Being a “working lady” seemed to bend the Bucket of Blood’s rules enough to let her stay.
“Tell me you’re all right,” Sarah demanded. “Tell me, but I probably won’t believe you anyways.”
Joe grinned at that. He never got tired of Sarah’s accent, a peculiar mixture of honey and Southern grit. Sarah had come all the way from Tennessee to claim a stake in the West. Although she was only a year older than he was, she seemed a lot older. She’d seen a lot in her short life, but it didn’t keep her from looking at him like she’d never seen anything she liked better.
“I won’t be able to stay tonight,” he said, as if that was a respectable answer. Joe took her hand and kissed it tenderly. “My brother’s coming in this afternoon on the stage.”
She laughed. “I do believe I’ve heard that, Joe. I don’t think there’s anyone in Virginia City that hasn’t heard your brother is coming home. You haven’t answered my question though, and don’t think I’ve forgotten. Are you all right?”
Joe shrugged. “Damned if I know,” he said. He crooked a hangdog smile at her raised eyebrow. “I’m sorry, Sarah, I really am. Didn’t mean for it to come out like that. Just don’t tell my pa I’m forgetting my decent upbringing. It would break his heart if he knew I didn’t know how to talk in front of a lady.”
“It would be hard for me to tell your father,” she drawled, aiming a sidelong look at him. “Seeing as how I’ve never met your father.”
She had a point. Joe sighed and reminded himself to add “failing to introduce Sarah to his family” to his ever growing list of failures. It was a list that stretched into his foreseeable future. There had been a time when he’d been considered a very promising young man by just about everyone in the territory. Now, he was simply viewed as the one Cartwright boy who likely wouldn’t amount to much. Too much money, those notorious good looks… too much time on his hands. Life came easy to him, but that made it even harder. What happened to Little Joe Cartwright? That’s what folks asked, even though they didn’t ask it to his face. Joe wished he had a good answer. It wasn’t like his life had plunged headlong over a cliff. It was more like it was moseying along the edge.
“I’m not good enough for you,” Joe said, and he felt the truth of it. He wasn’t good enough for any of them. Not his father, Hoss, or even his oldest brother who would be coming in on the stage. Joe took a long draw on his whiskey. He would need every drop, for the afternoon that was ahead of him. Adam was coming home. Pa’s prediction had come true. As far as Ben was concerned, his family was going to be restored; everything was going to be all right again.
Sarah shook her head and leaned forward to kiss him. “Some folks might say a dance hall girl’s not good enough for a Cartwright, so enough of that kind of talk. We could spend all night in a sinning contest, but I’m already late.”
Joe didn’t ask where she needed to go. It was their unspoken agreement, the cornerstone of their relationship. He didn’t ask her any questions; she didn’t ask him any. Asking if he was all right was as close as she came to violating that pact. It wasn’t perfect, but it was all he had to offer a lady these days. It sometimes occurred to him to offer the lady his name, but he pushed that idea away as quickly as it came. No wonder Ben Cartwright didn’t approve. Joe didn’t approve either.
He kissed her until she pulled back, pursing her lips. He brushed her hair out of her eyes, so she could see. She wore her hair down, in curls, and he liked it that way. Sarah stared at him, tears filling her eyes.
“Joe,” she said impetuously, “you need to forgive your brother. You’re wasting your life hanging on to this.”
He stared at her, truly astonished. Joe never talked to Sarah about Adam, and so her comment struck him as coming out of nowhere. He could feel himself getting riled, but he tamped down that anger, just like he tamped down everything else.
“What should I forgive him for? The shooting was an accident. Everyone knows that.”
“For leaving you. Forgive him for going, when he should have stayed.”
“I’m the one who should have gone,” Joe mumbled, almost to himself. “Not Adam. He left because of me. Pa needed Adam. The Ponderosa needed him. I on the other hand…I’m not much good to anyone.”
Sarah rose and stared at him directly until he couldn’t look at her any more. He could hear the big clock chiming in the middle of town. The clock had been a gift from the Virginia City Literary Guild, and it was always on time. Joe was always late.
“Be good,” she said.
“I’ll see you soon, my pretty girl.” Joe aimed a crooked grin at her until she couldn’t help but smile back. He knew what his smile was good for. Some things never changed.
He swallowed hard as he walked out of the saloon. Some things never changed. Other things wouldn’t stop changing. He was late, his shoulder was beginning to ache, and Adam was coming home.
Adam stared out the stage window. He’d been looking out that window for so long, he was starting to believe he’d never see anything but tumbleweeds and scrub. The wooded mountains of the Ponderosa had never seemed so far away. And yet, just when he was beginning to give up hope of ever getting home, the rolling hills at the edge of the high desert abruptly gave way to civilization, and the familiar sight of wood-frame buildings finally came into view. Virginia City. Home. Had it really only been two years? It felt like a couple lifetimes at least. Adam could hold his breath and let the feeling of being home settle in his chest. It made breathing sweet.
The stage came to a bucking halt in front of the station. Dust clouded around the coach, and Adam couldn’t see out the window any longer. No matter. As soon as he exited the stage, he knew what would be waiting.
Sure enough, he’d only planted one foot down on that dusty road, when he found himself suddenly lifted off his feet and practically swung around. Adam was not a small man. There was only one man who could make him feel like he was as light as a child.
“Hoss!” Adam found himself laughing out loud like a kid, when he said his brother’s name, and Hoss plopped him down on the ground so enthusiastically that Adam’s travel-weary legs almost gave out from under him. But the familiar ground and his brother’s handshake held him, and Adam caught his breath. Almost in the same moment, he turned to find himself enveloped in an embrace that was absolutely familiar and even more welcome. Adam was not a physically affectionate man, and yet, he didn’t know if he’d ever let go of his father again. Even though they stood in the middle of that Virginia City street, none of them could have cared less who was watching. Adam was home, and it felt good; that was all that mattered.
Reluctantly, Ben let go of his oldest son, although Hoss kept thumping him on the back for good measure. Ben’s eyes might have been watering from dust that the stage roused up. If it was more than that, well, nobody was going to mention it. By the time the dust settled, they were ready to move out from the middle of the road, but Adam found himself looking around, searching. Hoss noticed, and traded a guarded look with their pa. They knew who Adam was looking for.
“And Joe?” Adam asked softly.
“Little Joe’ll be along,” Hoss said, his visible joy fading a bit. “He’s just runnin’ late, that’s all.”
Ben cleared his throat and turned away, but Adam suddenly saw the etchings of the past two years’ sorrow on his father’s face. What had happened while Adam was gone? He should have written more often, tried harder to find out what was going on at home. The truth was that he wasn’t really sure he wanted to know. Guilt had been preying on him a long time. Who was he to think he could have left this behind?
“Joseph knew your stage was coming in around now,” Ben said, quietly. “I’m sure he’ll meet us when he’s ready.” To Hoss, he added, “Go see if you can find your little brother. I’d expect he’s with that woman.”
That woman. Adam lifted an eyebrow and studied his father, but Ben was grappling with the two traveling bags that Adam had brought with him. Not much to account for – two years that could fit into two well-worn bags. Adam turned his father’s words over in his head: that woman. So little brother had found himself a woman that their father didn’t approve of. Funny how Pa had never mentioned that in his letters. Adam wondered what else his pa had been leaving out…
He glanced at Hoss. They’d always been able to read each other before, but Hoss’s face was set in stone.
“Pa, I reckon we oughta just go back to the Ponderosa. Little Joe’ll meet us there.”
“I told him that we were going to meet in town as a family and go home together. Now, this family has been separated for long enough. Please do as I asked, and go find your younger brother.”
Adam finally succeeded in winning back the bags back from his pa but still didn’t understand what was going on. He felt every mile of his journey in his bones. The miles he’d traveled suddenly seemed insurmountable, and Adam felt very, very tired.
Ben took a good look at his oldest and said more gently than before, “You’ve had a long trip, son. Let’s go and sit down for a spell. If Hoss can’t find Joe after we’ve had time for a nice, cool beer, than we’ll go home and wait for him there. Hoss is right. Joe will turn up. He always does.”
With his father’s arm anchored around his shoulders, Adam’s questions seemed to melt away as they made their way to the saloon. There would be time enough for answers, but for the time being, Adam wanted nothing more than to sit down at a table in the corner of the Silver Dollar and drink a beer with his pa. He felt like all his worries had been somewhat unfounded. Joe was late. Well, Joe had been irresponsible when Adam had left two years ago, and he was apparently still irresponsible. Not something to get worked up over. Yet, Pa seemed so worried. It gave Adam an uneasy feeling inside, but he tried to ignore it.
They pushed through the swinging doors and were immediately overwhelmed by a wave of tobacco smoke, the smell of newly milled sawdust, and the musky air of unwashed men. Adam had to smile. He never thought he’d ever look forward to such smells again. Adam had more backslaps in the next ten minutes than he’d had for the past two years, but at last he found himself relaxing where he most wanted to be – across the table from his father. Ben took a long draw from his beer and smiled at his son.
“You look good,” Ben said. “Good but different. You’ve grown.”
Adam cracked a smile. “I don’t think a man my age is apt to do much growing, Pa.”
“That’s not the kind of growing I was referring to, son.”
Adam had to ask. The question was hanging between them, and he couldn’t talk about past, present, or future, until it was answered.
“Pa,” he began. “What’s going on with Joe? It sounds like there’s trouble.”
Ben patted his hand, and this time, did manage a more reassuring smile. “Don’t worry yourself,” he said. “We’re just so glad to have you home. I really can’t tell you, Adam, how much you’ve been missed.”
“About Joe,” Adam persisted, but there was movement behind him, and he turned to find his youngest brother effectively being herded in their direction by their huge brother.
“You don’t even want to know where I found him,” Hoss was saying, but Adam hardly heard him. Joe was staring at him with an expression that Adam couldn’t read.
Uncharacteristically, Adam felt unsure of himself. What had he been expecting? Joe looked exactly the same and yet completely different. What had two years brought between them? Adam had made his peace with Hoss and his pa before he’d left. He’d been unable to do so with his little brother. As he stood in the dimly lit saloon, the afternoon he’d left came back to him with surprising intensity. It could have happened yesterday…
“You’re really leaving.”
It was more an accusation than a statement, but Adam chose to treat it like they were having a polite conversation..
“I’m leaving on the noon stage,” he said.
“Do you think you really have a future with that woman?” Joe asked bluntly.
“Her name is Sheila,” Adam replied quietly, but his hands clenched themselves into fists. “Miss Reardon to you. And I’d advise you to watch your tone of voice with me, before we both say something we regret.”
Obviously disgusted, Joe turned away too quickly and cringed when he brushed his bad shoulder against the rough planked wall of the barn. He didn’t manage to turn away in time, and Adam saw pain, raw and unguarded, pass over his brother’s face. For someone who never left an emotion unexpressed, Joe’s ability to conceal pain from his family was almost heroic. Adam knew Joe had been hurting from that bullet wound. It hadn’t healed well, nor had the lingering infection from the wolf bite made matters any better. Joe never complained – not ever- but his injuries were never far from anyone’s mind. Ben referred to the shooting as “the incident at Montpelier Gorge,” Hoss called it, “the accident,” and Adam and Joe never called it anything at all.
Maybe this was the right time. Maybe Adam should ask for forgiveness once and for all, even though Joe obviously didn’t want to talk about it. Adam couldn’t blame him. He didn’t want to talk about it either, but the shame of almost killing his brother overwhelmed everything else.
Adam had about worked himself up to asking for his brother’s forgiveness, when Joe looked up, with eyes full and almost brimming with tears.
Joe stuck out his hand awkwardly, almost formally. “Good luck to you, Adam,” he said, his voice trembling. “I know you’ll do well at whatever you put your mind to.”
“Joe.” Adam grabbed hold of his brother’s hand and didn’t let go. His apology died on his lips, but he knew Joe didn’t want to hear it anyways. “Why don’t you come with me into town? See me off?”
Joe shook his head, no, looking very much like the little kid Adam had left behind some fifteen years earlier, when he’d gone to Boston for college. Again, Adam stepped towards him, but Joe kept backing off.
“Sorry, brother.” Joe had control of his voice again. “I’m can’t go into town and watch you go. You’ll have Pa and Hoss with you. Stay safe, Adam. Don’t take chances.”
“Joe – ” Adam called after him, but Joe had practically bolted into the barn, and the next moment, was riding away on his pinto like the devil was at his tail. He was gone, and it took all of Adam’s self control not to rip his stage ticket in half and ride after him. This was no way to leave things. But Joe wasn’t a little kid anymore. He was a grown man, and Adam was not his brother’s keeper….
But there he was. Two years later, Joe was next to him again, with an unruly grin and an outstretched hand. Adam let go of the breath he’d been holding, and took hold of it, shaking it too hard, but he couldn’t help himself. God, how he had missed this…. this place, his family.
“Hey brother,” Joe said amiably, as if nothing had passed between them. Adam could feel his worries ease up. What was his pa so anxious about? Joe was just fine, standing right in front of them with that smile that always made Adam feel like all was right with the world. After all, Adam had half raised him…. Perhaps, Adam had been right after all in going away. It had given them all time for much needed healing…
“You’re all grown up,” Adam said, reaching over and pulling Joe in for a quick hug, despite the fact that curious bar patrons were staring. “Why didn’t anyone write and warn me?”
Adam was smiling so hard his face hurt – seeing Little Joe healthy and whole was an almost unbearable relief, but when he turned to look at his pa and Hoss, he was bothered by their troubled expressions. He’d always trusted their judgment as much as his own, so he reined in his relief and tried to get a better look at Joe.
“You look good, older brother.” Joe was still smiling, but had ducked out from his brother’s embrace with his arms crossed tightly across his chest. He was all wound up, Adam realized. He’d never really seen Joe tense like that. Joe continued, “Philadelphia did you some good, even though we were all sorry to hear that Sheila wasn’t the one – “
“Joseph – ” Ben warned, but Adam brushed that warning off.
“It’s all right, Pa,” he said and sat down, gesturing at an empty chair for Joe to do the same. “It became clear very quickly that things between Miss Reardon and I weren’t going to work out like I’d hoped.”
“Then why in tarnation did you stay?” Hoss asked, sincerely baffled, while Ben raised his hands in exasperation. Had any of his boys learned more manners than a pack of rabid jackasses?
But Adam smiled. Lord, how he’d missed Hoss with his straightforward ways. In the company he’d been keeping, members of the social elite were polite to a fault. If you offended someone, you’d never know it. They’d remain cordial and smiling until you left the room. A man never knew where he stood, until a silver dagger knifed him politely in the back. Adam hadn’t realized how the uncivilized West had become a part of him, until he found himself missing its barbaric yet humorous ways….
“Sheila wasn’t my only reason for going,” Adam said. “There were… possibilities in Philadelphia that just didn’t exist here.”
Joe hadn’t sat down with the rest of them, but was leaning against the rough-hewn wall, tapping his foot nervously, and Adam could see that he was skittish like an Indian colt, not yet saddle broke. As if he knew Adam was reading him, Joe gathered himself up and forced a wider smile onto his face. He was faking it – Adam just knew it, but he couldn’t have said why.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go, Pa,” Joe said. “Still got work to do up at the camp. Didn’t join up with Sullivan’s crew this morning, and I expect they need some help clearing the eastern section.”
Ben reached out and gripped his youngest son’s arm. “Stay,” he urged, with a smile that also seemed forced. “Joseph, please. Remember your brother only just came home.”
To Adam’s amazement, Joe pulled away. In all of Adam’s recollections, his little brother had never pulled away from their pa. “I can’t, Pa,” he said. “Adam’s back, so you’ll be all right visiting with him. I just can’t stay.”
Then, he was gone. Hoss muttered under his breath and then gestured to the barkeep. “Sam, pour me another.”
Adam was bewildered. For the briefest of moments, everything had seemed just fine, and then just as suddenly, it wasn’t.
“What just happened?” he demanded, looking hard at his father and Hoss. “Will you tell me what’s wrong with Joe? I can see for myself that things aren’t right!”
Again, the two men traded peculiar looks with each other.
“This isn’t the right time,” Ben began. “You only just got home. We want to hear about Philadelphia, about your travels.”
“Please don’t change the subject,” Adam said, knowing he sounded rude but didn’t care. He couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Why didn’t anyone write about this in the letters? “I want to know what’s wrong with my brother.”
Ben sighed. “It’s not exactly that anything is wrong with Joseph…” he began.
“It’s just that nothing ain’t that right,” Hoss finished helpfully.
Adam also gestured for another beer. He had a feeling he was going to need it. “Well, what’s happened?” he asked. Trying not to sound accusatory, he added to his father, “Your letters never indicated anything was wrong.”
“Adam, you always asked about his shoulder,” Ben said, and this time, his voice wasn’t all that gentle. “In your letters, you always wanted to know how your brother was healing, and I always told you the truth. His injuries from the incident have healed quite well.”
“He’s got a hard time bustin’ broncs,” Hoss added. “Made his shoulder start to hurtin’, so he had to give it up. That’s bout all that bothers him now. Least, all he’ll admit to.”
“And we all know what that means,” Adam said, startled at his own tone. Why did he sound so bitter? He’d spent two years running away from all this, and here it was. It had waited him out.
Ben patted his son’s arm. “Enough with this. Joe will be fine. Now that you’re back home, everything will be fine. I’m sure of it. Tell us about Philadelphia. In your last letter, you wrote that the building you designed was almost completed.
Adam shook his head. “I didn’t design it, Pa. I told you – I helped draw up the plans.”
“What’s the difference?” Hoss asked, finishing off his second beer.
“All the difference in the world,” Adam replied. Damn. That bitterness again…
“The way I see it,” Hoss said. “One way or another, that building got itself built. I reckon that’s somethin’ you had a hand in. Somethin’ to be proud of, anyhow.”
Could he have loved Hoss more? “I expect you’re right at that,” Adam said, with true affection. “You know something? I think I’m ready to go home again.”
He didn’t have to ask if the other two wanted to join him. At that moment, it almost felt like a race to see which of the three men could make it through those swinging doors first. Like a beacon at the end of a dark road, the Ponderosa was waiting for them to make it back home.
Joe knew he should go home. Adam had been back a week, they’d be waiting on him, and Pa would be disappointed if he didn’t come home for Sunday supper. He’d missed church that morning, but he’d missed church most mornings, so at least, that would seem normal. He’d been making himself scarce. That’s how Hoss put it, and Joe could very clearly make out the hurt behind those offhanded words. When he thought of all the ways he’d hurt his pa and Hoss, it made him want to pack his saddlebags and set out on the road for the nearest port city.
Instead, Joe rode slowly towards the Ponderosa, taking the meandering path that trailed along the lake. He stopped at his mama’s grave like usual, took his hat off, and paid his respects, telling her about his week. He made some of it up, although that seemed silly because if his mama could really hear him, she’d certainly know what he’d been up to. Joe should have moved on from there, but the lake was calling to him. So instead of riding home, Joe scrambled up a cluster of boulders to find the perfect spot to watch day’s end.
The sun was going down, and Joe marveled at the colors it cast over the water. Even though he’d watched the same sunset his whole life, it never failed to take his breath away. Swarms of insects, golden in the slanting light, clouded over the dark water. He longed to climb down and dive in, to spend the evening swimming out to his favorite haunts. How long had it been since he’d done anything like that? He felt himself torn between what he wanted to do and what he was expected to do. Stay out on the lake, swimming until the moon rose over the mountains? Go home, sit around the table, ask polite questions, and try to think of any answer at all to his family’s questions?
What if Adam asked him what he’d done with his time? Joe was overjoyed his brother was home. In fact, he was so glad he could hardly think of anything else. But Joe didn’t know how’d be able to account for the past two years to his big brother. He had so little to show for it. His shoulders had grown broader and more muscled from hours of hard work in the sun, he’d been often known to bend an elbow with the boys and a jug of distilled rotgut, and he played a mean game of poker. He’d finally learned to bluff. He’d earned the affections of a woman who was too good for him, despite the ugly talk in town. Yet, what would that mean to Adam?
Adam wasn’t just Joe’s brother. They had twelve years between them, and Adam had half-raised him. Joe had learned from hard-won experiences that his oldest brother’s expectations were every bit as high as his pa’s. Joe had always wanted so badly to make Adam proud of him. And Joe knew as much as anyone that any way you looked at it, he had fallen short.
To whom much is given, much is expected.
That had been Ben Cartwright’s mantra while he was growing up. He was reminded of it every time he made a bad decision, every time he didn’t work as hard as he could, and every time he took the easy way out of a problem instead of facing it straight. Joe had tried to live up to that teaching and knew his brothers had done the same. And yet, when Adam left the Ponderosa, Joe had come to a hopeless understanding. He would never be good enough to make up for the loss of his brothe. Why even try?
It was Sunday supper. He should be home. Hop Sing had prepared two chickens, which was proof that this was a very important occasion. He was expected to be on time. He knew he should turn around, but instead he began climbing across the tumbled rocks and boulders that led to the drop off above the water. As he groped for fingerholds and footholds on the rough rocks, Joe told himself again that it was time for him to leave home and try his lot somewhere else. He should set out at dawn. He should leave Sarah behind, so he wouldn’t break her heart any worse than he already did. He could hurt his pa once and for all, or he could hurt him a hundred times over in small, tedious ways. It would be a long, dreary season of disappointment, and he didn’t want to subject anyone else to it. Joe couldn’t imagine how things had come to this. He’d expected better from himself – much better – and he was sorry for how it had turned out.
He made it to the flat boulder that jutted out some fifteen feet over the lake. After taking off his shirt, Joe rubbed his shoulder where the old wound ached from the climb. The round shattered scar where the bullet entered was puckered and red against his tanned shoulder, although the jagged diamond scars where the wolf’s teeth had clamped down weren’t nearly as visible. Pushing to his feet, he mulled over his options. He’d always been a courageous man and still was in every way but the way that really mattered. At that moment, he’d have rather faced a rabid wolf than face his family. As Joe stood there at the edge of that lake, he thought about all the ways he could be brave… He could go back home, have a meal with his family, and make amends with his brother. He could ask his father’s forgiveness for the way he’d let the Cartwright name down. He could turn his life around.
Or he could go for a swim.
He only thought for a minute. Then, Joe Cartwright stripped down to nothing and took a steep, gloriously reckless dive off the edge into dark waters.
Adam wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. It had been a long time since he’d worked up a decent sweat and surprisingly, it felt good. He felt a nudge on his back and turned to find Hoss offering him a canteen. Adam grinned ruefully and took it, drinking deep. Feeling like a fool greenhorn, he realized that he’d forgotten his own canteen.
“I reckon I need to break for a spell,” Hoss said. “That all right with you, Adam?”
Adam nodded gratefully, trying to catch his breath. The two brothers sunk to the ground on the one patch of shade they could find. It was something he’d desperately missed about Hoss – the way his massive brother could look at you, know what you needed, and give it to you without making you feel bad about it.
Adam took another mouthful of water, “It’s been a while. I never remembered fence mending as being so exhausting.”
Hoss grinned, leaned over, and knocked his dignified older brother’s hat off. “Aw, it’ll come back to you. Just like everything else, I reckon. Like fillin’ your canteen on a hot day.”
They were quiet a while, and then Hoss asked, “Hey, Adam. Me and Pa was wonderin’… why didn’t you marry that little gal, anyhow?”
Adam smiled and put his hat back on his head, tipping it down like he planned to take a nap. Trust Hoss to cut right to the heart of an issue…
“We weren’t right for each other. We didn’t have anything in common.”
“Well, Adam we all knew that before you left.. You could’ve asked me and Pa.”
Adam lifted the rim of his hat and gave his brother a dry look. “Well you could have told me that then and saved me the trip.” Then he smiled. “There are some things, Hoss, a man needs to find out for himself.”
“Did you find out some of them things?”
Adam had to think about it. “Some things,” he admitted. “Other things, I’m still figuring out.”
This time Adam took his hat off and studied his brother. “Like what happened to Joe. I’ve hardly seen him since I got back, and the feeling I get from Pa is that is pretty much typical. He’s not really living at home. I checked his wardrobe. He hardly has any clothes left in his room.”
Hoss said sadly, “That’s the way it’s been for a while. Pretty much since you left, I reckon.” The big man looked away, scanning the horizon. “Little Joe never got over it.”
“He never got over being shot?” Adam asked the question, his great fear, way too quickly, and Hoss gave him a dark look.
“He got over being laid up right quick,” he said in a surprising sharp tone. “It was you leavin’ afterwards that set him back.
Adam felt that. He had believed that shooting his brother had been the worst sin of his life. It didn’t matter if it was an accident; he should have known better. For the first time, he wondered if his transgression was even worse than he thought. More than that, he blamed himself for not thinking enough about what leaving would do to Joe.
He was quiet, but then Hoss asked, “Have you tried to talk to him, Adam?”
Adam shot back, “Have you?”
Hoss stared off, squinting in the sun. “We all try to talk to him. Lots of times. Don’t seem like Little Joe’s got much to say to us. Skedaddles before anyone can say somethin’ to him. It don’t make much sense to me, but it sure hurts Pa.”
And you? As always, the unsaid was right there between them. Adam could hear the hurt in his brother’s voice and was sorry for it. He could only imagine the pain his father had been feeling. Joe had always been so close to his family.
“Is Joe in trouble?” Adam hadn’t asked the question before, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer. Now, he wanted to know. He was ready.
“He ain’t in trouble like you’d think.” Hoss paused for a minute, mulling it over. “He ain’t done anything all that wrong. He drinks more than Pa likes, spends his time playin’ cards in town ‘stead of stayin’ home. Reckon that’s his right. Sees his gal all the time, the one who works in the mining camp. Pa don’t like it one bit.”
“I can imagine,” Adam said dryly.
“It ain’t ‘bout what she does,” Hoss said, with a frown. “Pa wouldn’t care bout that. It just upsets Pa that Little Joe never brings her around. He doesn’t talk about her or anything else. Ain’t like we even see him all that much.”
“But Joe still works on the Ponderosa…” Adam prodded for more information.
“He works for Pa,” Hoss affirmed. “But that’s ‘bout all he does on the ranch. Pa’d wanted him to take on more, but Joe didn’t want the responsibility. Still only wants his wages at the end of the week, just like all the other hands. Dadburnit Adam, I don’t know what to do about him. It ain’t like he thinks he’s a part of our family no more…”
Adam winced. “He’s a part of us. Somebody just needs to remind him.”
“I reckon that gotta be you.”
Adam frowned at his brother. “Hoss, he doesn’t want to talk to me. He won’t even stay in a room for five minutes when I’m around.”
But Hoss insisted, “He wants you. All this time, he’s been waiting for you. Like I told ya, Little Joe ain’t been doing anything all that wrong, but he ain’t been doing anything all that right neither. Pa and me think that it’s gotta be you to turn things around.”
Adam felt like either burying his head in his hands or turning tail and riding away. All his life he’d accepted the responsibility handed to him. Leaving the Ponderosa had been the first time he’d tried to set that responsibility aside. Obviously, it hadn’t worked particularly well.
“Why me? Why do you think he’d listen to me?”
Hoss clambered to his feet, ready to get back to mending fences.
But then he turned and said, “He’d listen. You’re his brother.”
Joe dreamed he was on that mountain again. He was waiting on the wolf, but he was so close this time. He had to get to the wolf first. Shoot it down before his brother, Adam, had a chance to put out the campfire and get his rifle. Before that wolf came between them, and the whole damn hunting trip came undone. It was all a matter of timing. If Joe could just get the timing of that afternoon right, then none of it would have to happen. Joe wouldn’t have to get shot, and Adam wouldn’t have to meet the Reardons. Adam wouldn’t have given up on life in the west and would have stayed home. Pa’s heart wouldn’t have broken, a hundred times over again, first by Adam leaving them physically and then by Joe leaving in every other way. Joe simply had to meet up with that wolf at the right time to make things go back to the way they were before.
Pa said there were no “ifs” in life. Everything happened for a reason. But the dream always unfolded the same way. Joe crept around the corner so sure that he had that wolf in his sights. He was ahead of the game this time! But from there, the dream always went downhill. A shot always cracked and echoed through the ravine, the bullet always slammed him against the rocks again and again, and the wolf always crouched and lunged, teeth bared. Even as he felt teeth clamp onto his arm, even as he felt the world implode in violent pain, Joe knew that he hadn’t fixed a thing. The wolf had him by the arm, but failure had him at the throat. It wasn’t about possible death; that didn’t frighten Joe. It was about what was to come – the kind of pain that didn’t get any better, even if you were good at hiding it…
Joe sat up, shuddering and panting, and he startled at his oldest brother’s voice. He looked wildly around the room. Where the hell was he? It wasn’t like him to fall asleep at home. Joe could feel the breath rasping in his chest, panic clamping down in his throat. He had to fight to say a few words, to sound normal.
“I’m fine, Adam. Some kind of a bad dream.”
“Some kind,” Adam echoed and then managed a tiny smile. “Good thing I heard you. Don’t think Pa would have appreciated some of your more ‘colorful’ ways of describing that dream.” Adam studied him in a way that made Joe feel like his brother could see right through him and into his nightmare. “What was it about?”
Joe clenched his blankets in his fists. How dare he? Adam had hardly been home a month, and yet he insisted on acting like nothing had changed between them. What was the dream about? What wasn’t the dream about? One way or another, Joe was so tired of that dream, he didn’t care about fixing it any more.
But he lied to Adam in a voice that was miles away, “Nothing much. I’ve already forgotten bout it. Go back to sleep. I’m sorry I woke you up.”
Joe stayed stock-still, facing the wall, until he was sure that his brother had closed the door. Next time, he swore, would be different. Next time, he’d be sleeping in Sarah’s bed and wouldn’t take a chance like that again. If there was anything Joe had learned from the past couple years it was that there was no way to make nightmares go away. The only thing to do was to be quiet about them.
Unconditional love can be overrated.
That’s what Adam was thinking as he helped his father balance the books. It had been a month already, and in some ways it seemed like he’d never left. In other ways, it felt like he should have never come back. His father’s faith in him knew no bounds. Even though he was profoundly grateful, Adam sometimes found his father’s confidence humbling. He wasn’t exactly sure how to live up to it. Adam actually understood why Joe stayed away as much as he did. With the kind of legacy Ben Cartwright had provided for his sons, being an ordinary man just didn’t measure up.
“Ironically enough, our mining interests haven’t done as well as the horse buying venture this past quarter…”
Adam wasn’t really focusing on what his pa was saying. His mind was tracking his own thoughts. So much had changed while he was gone, and even more was exactly the same. As far as Adam was concerned, he hadn’t quite figured out his role at the Ponderosa. On the other hand, he sure as hell hadn’t found a place for himself in Philadelphia. The thought of his two years there, struggling to make a name for himself at an architecture firm that was owned by a former classmate of his… well, the thought of that job filled him with a mixture of amusement and horror. It had been a bad match from the beginning, but Sheila had encouraged him in it. Actually, he had encouraged himself. He had studied architecture in college, he believed he had a gift for it, and he believed it was time that he lived up to his own potential. Sheila had agreed, of course. Back then, she agreed with everything he did. That changed soon enough, and he and Sheila seemed to have less and less in common as the months wore on. They parted, amicably enough, but in a way that left Adam adrift in what he planned to do with his life.
He was so sure it was the right thing to leave home… however, after some time in Philadelphia, he’d started to believe he’d taken a coward’s route after all. He’d told himself time and time again that the move had been about his future as an architect and his prospects with Sheila. It didn’t take long until he realized that he had only been fooling himself. He could deny it all day long, but during his long night’s alone, the truth came back to haunt him.
He couldn’t deny the dreams. When he thought how he’d let Joe down – good Lord, he had shot him – he couldn’t live with himself. It was as simple as that. He had to get away. But the dreams wouldn’t let him. They kept coming back to him night after night forcing him to relive that surreal afternoon at Montpelier Gorge. It would all the same. The wolf would prowling towards the canyon floor. He’d be waiting, shotgun in hand, praying the wolf wouldn’t come around the bend. Adam would will his own finger not to pull the trigger of his shotgun. Yet, it always turned out the same. The wolf appeared. His finger pulled the trigger, even as he knew what was going to happen next. There was blood. Pain. He’d killed his brother; he hadn’t kept him safe. I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t see you. All Adam’s life, he had tried so hard to do the right thing. Instead, he’d failed in the most important way that mattered.
Ultimately, it was failing as his brother’s keeper that made him have to leave. It didn’t take long in Philadelphia for him to realize that. But self-understanding only went so far; he still had to earn his keep. So, Adam found a job at a firm that specialized in designing law offices and financial houses, but he never seemed to get the hang of looking at capitalism as a craft. He found he had no aptitude for uptight, upright design. The West had got a hold of him after all. When he was supposed to be designing impressive facades, Adam instead found himself drawing up plans for sprawling ranch houses with angles and planes that mimicked the mountains and sky. He longed for wide-open spaces. He missed his family. It was a lot like physical pain. Many mornings, he woke up in the morning with a throbbing shoulder that irrationally made him wonder if it was a message from Joe. Was he in pain back at home? Did his kid brother need him? Adam began growing more and more restless than he’d ever been at home, but he began learning truths about himself he’d never understood until he was on his own. Sometimes, it took loneliness for the truth to come out.
Adam had always believed that he had sacrificed a great deal for his family when he’d returned home after college. He’d given up time spent immersed in books and learning, something that he had considered more precious than all of the Comstock’s silver. In Philadelphia, he believed he would finally have time for the things he counted as most dear.
Yet, his ideas about what was dear seemed to be ever changing. There had been many grey days where he stared at the rows and rows of buildings that testified to cultivation, something he’d always believed in. It was all very civilized and more than a little bit boring. Oddly enough, he missed the physicality of the West. Adam missed his father’s calloused hand on his shoulder more than he could imagine, the assurance that everything would be all right if his pa believed it would be. He missed Hoss’s belly laugh as he told bad jokes over a campfire, and his deep concern over the predicament of a trapped raccoon. And he missed the outdoors – those sprawling periodicals he had mocked in front of Sheila and her father actually sounded pretty good. Once he didn’t have it any more, Adam missed the comfort of a well-worn saddle on a good horse and the uncertainty of sprawling vistas stretching out before him.
Then there was Joe. Adam missed Joe – he missed the person his brother had been before Adam fired his gun. Adam could picture the visceral excitement on Joe’s face throughout that hunting trip at Montpelier Gorge. His little brother was tired of waiting on that damned wolf. Joe was going to get that wolf, even if he died trying. Adam could remember the look on Joe’s face as he set out, and he could finally smile. That hunting trip was real life – what life was meant to be, with all its exhilaration and abject misery. The two were intertwined. Sitting at his drafting table in a dark-paneled office that looked over the financial district of Philadelphia, Adam finally understood that a cultivated life wasn’t what he yearned for at all, yet what he learned was invaluable. Love trumped lifelong dreams every time.
Why had he come home? It was fairly simple when it came down to it. Adam had come home to tell Joe that dreams were what you made them. Nightmares could tell you things you needed to know. By getting it wrong, Adam Cartwright had finally gotten something right. At least, that’s the way he saw it. He had to tell his brother.
But when Adam got back to the Ponderosa, he learned the irony of his situation. He’d come home, but Joe was very much gone.
“Adam, have you listened to a single word I said?”
Ben’s voice was sharp, and it broke through his reflections like an anvil through glass. Adam startled himself out of the past and stared at his father.
“Sorry, Pa. What were you saying?”
Ben cleared his throat and glared. He did try to sound patient, even though it was obvious he was repeating himself. “I was saying that our ventures are sound, although they’re not as well diversified as they were a few years back. Our horse operations are currently our strongest area.”
“So Joe’s done a good job with the horses, then?” Adam was glad to hear that Joe’s passion was profitable. When Adam had left, his father had put Joe in control of all areas of the horse operations – breeding, breaking, selling.
Looking away, Ben said, “Um, no. Joseph… chose… not to take that on, sometime after you left. Joe said he wanted to do his work and be able to leave it at the end of the day…” He smiled sadly at his oldest son. “He has done his work fairly well. He comes in the morning with the rest of the hands and finishes in time for – “
“With the rest of the hands,” Adam echoed. “So he’s basically working for you as a hand?”
Ben nodded. “It’s his life, Adam. Joe has made choices… well, as long as he can stand up next to those choices, well then, there’s not much I can say about that. It would be enough for him to be a good man.”
Adam asked softly, “Is Joe a good man, Pa?”
Ben looked suddenly stricken. He put down the pen, and for the briefest of moments, allowed himself the luxury of burying his face in his hands. When he looked up, that’s when Adam knew it – there were many different ways to lose someone, and they weren’t always at the receiving end of the barrel of a gun.
“I don’t know,” Ben confessed. “I don’t feel like I know that much about your brother. I feel like I’ve failed Joseph somehow, but I’m not sure how it happened. I’ve tried so hard to help him understand.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t know much about you either, son, or what happened to you while you were gone. You never were much for endless talking, but I used to feel we knew each other well, didn’t we?”
“Yes, Pa, we did.”
Adam could feel the old guilt pressing in on him. How many people had been hurt by his decision to leave? He knew Hoss had suffered as well, bearing up under the weight of their father’s disappointments. Adam had no doubt that Hoss had born it well while he was gone, but all the same, there had to have been suffering.
“Don’t feel guilty, Adam.”
It was a command, and Adam looked up in real surprise.
“What do you mean?”
“This guilt you’ve been holding on to… Son, don’t you know I’m proud of you, just like I’m proud of all of my sons? You didn’t abandon us, no matter what you may think. I imagine there were things you had to find out for yourself.”
Ben paused, and Adam nodded, his throat too thick to speak.
Continuing on, Ben said, “Sometimes a man has to leave to find out what’s important. It might have been better if Joseph had done the same.” Recognizing Adam’s startled expression, he continued, “Joe stayed because of me. He felt like he owed it to me, although I tried to tell him many times that was a grown man and could do what he needed. You left, and you found something out for yourself – I can see that, and I’m glad for you, son. Joseph stayed, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s still waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” Adam pursued.
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe for his real life to begin. Maybe he’s waiting for you.”
“I can’t even get alone with him,” Adam said helplessly. “What can I do?”
And then Ben told his son about his plan.
Joe couldn’t believe he was doing this.
It had been their father’s idea, and why he hadn’t had the backbone to say no to it, Joe couldn’t say. It was such an audacious proposal that Joe couldn’t begin to understand why he was being asked to do this. In all actuality, very little had been asked of Joe for the past couple years, and he simply didn’t feel like he could say no. Why Adam had agreed to it was even more of a mystery. Adam had traveled clear across the country to get away from this place. As far as Joe could tell, his brother had made a seamless reentry back into life on the Ponderosa. Why he’d want to endanger that was unfathomable. There was no doubt about it.
This was a very bad idea.
Joe had fallen into the expedition almost by accident, although he suspected that was also by design. The whole thing came up so quickly. It had come up yesterday on one of the rare mornings he’d actually woken up at home and had come downstairs to have breakfast with his family. Joe had had a long night playing cards in the bunkhouse and had made do with only a couple hours sleep. The tarantula juice he’d been drinking still seemed to be running through his veins, and his head was throbbing something fierce. He‘d been downing coffee like a man in the desert guzzles water, while his family had been discussing a predator that had been picking off the calves from their largest herd. If Joe had been paying attention, he might have heard Hoss mention “Montpelier Gorge” a couple times, but he wasn’t, so he didn’t.
By the time the coffee was triumphing over the tarantula juice, Adam was saying, “I think the two of us can handle it,” and Hoss was nodding.
Ben turned to his youngest. “Sound good to you, Joe?” he asked.
Joe’s mouth was full of dry toast, but he swallowed quickly, so he could answer genially, “Sure, Pa.” He reached across the table to pour himself another cup of coffee.
“Then it’s settled,” Ben said, beaming with the sort of satisfaction that Joe hadn’t seen in a long time. He turned to Adam, “Then you and Joe head out to Montpelier Gorge in the morning.”
Joe almost spit out his coffee.
“What?” he sputtered.
“I’m sure Adam and you will have no trouble tracking it down,” Ben said calmly and took a sip of his own coffee with perfect composure.
“Tracking what down?” Joe looked wildly between his two brothers but neither was meeting his eye. Hoss had an unreadable look on his own face, and if Joe didn’t know any better, he’d have said that Adam looked scared.
“Whatever’s been killing our cattle,” Ben said patiently, as if explaining the matter to a rather slow child. “I’d imagine it’s a wolf, but I could be wrong.”
Looking back on yesterday’s breakfast, Joe couldn’t exactly remember saying yes. But he hadn’t exactly said, no, either. It was the way he’d been living his life for a while, dallying his time away between yes and no, good and bad. It was fitting that he couldn’t find the gumption to have turned his father down, although he’d have given anything to figure a way out of it. For whatever reason, it seemed important to his pa, and just this once, Joe couldn’t bear to let his father down.
Adam didn’t seem wildly excited by the trip either, but he seemed resigned to it in a way that Joe didn’t exactly understand. He didn’t have proof, but he believed his pa and Adam had been scheming about a way to get them together. Joe was a better poker player than he’d ever been, and he didn’t have the heart to tell his pa not to place a bet on those odds. This ridiculous excuse of a hunting trip was a wild shot at redemption, if ever there was one. For Heaven’s sake, they didn’t know what they were hunting! Nobody had even seen the animal. It could be a bobcat, a bear, or a mountain lion. Or it could be a wolf. Wouldn’t that be just great, Joe thought sarcastically. They all knew how well that turned out the first time around.
He’d done everything he could to forget that first hunting expedition during his waking hours, but it had been coming back to him in waves after Adam came back. It had been a good trip between he and his big brother – quiet but filled with companionship and shared purpose. Joe was a natural talker with everyone else, but he never felt like he had to fill the quiet spaces with Adam. That was then. Now, the silence between them felt as empty as the miles and miles of scrub and chaparral they traveled. Joe rode across it, thinking he’d be happy to never see this land again. Maybe it was time for him to leave… set out on his own…
Adam stopped short, and Joe practically rode into him. Unlike the first trip, this time Adam had been in the lead all day. Joe gave him the lead by default; he could care less whether they found their prey or not. It was all the same to him. At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.
“How bout we camp here?” Adam asked, gesturing toward an protected outcropping of rock.
“Fine with me,” Joe said and shrugged.
But Adam kept staring at him so strangely that Joe had to look away first. He dismounted and led his horse into the shade, ignoring his brother’s unsettling expression. What did Adam want from him, anyways? Be nice to your brother. That’s what Sarah had told him last night, before he left her. He’d gone to see her before heading back to the ranch house close to midnight. His visit had been filled with much bewailing to the poor girl, complaining of everything from conspiracy theories between his father and brothers to proclamations about how he was finally going to leave when this trip was over. He was going to take her with him. Once and for all, he was going to find a place for himself. It had been a long time, since he’d been looking for anything at all.
“Take care of this, first,” Sarah had said to him calmly. “Then we’ll know where we’re going.”
“Do you know where we are?” Adam’s question took him so by surprise that it was Joe’s turn to stare. Could Adam have read his mind? How could he know where he was, if he had no idea where he was going? Again, Joe had the feeling of drifting along the edge of a cliff, waiting for an unpredictable gust of wind to tip him over the side…
“Near the gorge,” Joe started to reply, but then he took a better look around. Of course – it was coming back to him. This campsite was almost exactly the same place they’d stayed at the first time around. He frowned, but Adam’s back was to him as he began unloading supplies.
They made camp, each man keeping his own counsel. It was strange. All day, Joe’s shoulder had been bothering him in a way that it hadn’t for nearly a year. It was like the wound itself was going back to the day of the shooting, reversing the healing process. Maybe it had never really healed at all.
The winds picked up when the sun went down, making it difficult to keep their fire going. They’d been out a full day and hadn’t seen any signs of a large predator, let alone a wolf. The last time they were looking, that wolf had been everywhere! Joe had been sure the animal had been taunting them. This time, their prey was elusive, possibly non-existent. He wondered if his family had invented the attacks on the herd just so Joe would go along.
Once the sun was down, the darkness was deep around their fire. He’d expected Adam to try and make conversation. After all, he had seemed downright chatty with everyone else at home. If Joe had any inclination to be honest about it, he might have felt a little bit jealous watching Adam’s easy relationship with his father and big brother. He’d been like that once. Honestly, Joe couldn’t remember the last time he’d anything but a stranger in his own home.
That was when Adam asked, “Thinking about your girl?”
Joe startled. He actually hadn’t been thinking about Sarah, but once Adam mentioned her… well… then he was. Lately, when he wasn’t with her, he missed her in ways he hadn’t expected. Sarah Jane. She was supposed to be an untangled relationship – no complications expected or required, just like everything else in his life. She was separate from his family, and Joe wanted to keep it that way. Lord Almighty, couldn’t Adam just mind his own business?
“What do you know of her?” Joe said, almost angrily, which was strange. He hadn’t felt angry for a while. His quick temper had been long been extinguished by something flat and dull and much more frightening. What was it about Adam that could get his back up like that?
“I only know what Pa told me,” Adam said. Joe couldn’t see his brother’s expression in the flamelit dark. “Which isn’t much.”
Joe cracked a smile, despite himself. “It’s probably enough for you to get the picture.”
“Probably. So, you thinking about her?”
“I think about her. You thinking about Sheila?” Joe countered, fully aware that was also a provocative question.
But Adam was unfazed. “Not much. It really didn’t work between us. I think that was very apparent to both of us, just a month or two after I arrived in Philadelphia.”
Despite himself, Joe was curious. “We thought you’d marry her, Adam. Pa and Hoss couldn’t understand it when you didn’t.”
“How about you?” Adam asked. “Could you understand it?”
Joe’s voice turned cold. “I can’t even remember Sheila Reardon. How could I understand you leaving us for a woman I couldn’t remember?”
You leaving us. You leaving me. Well there now, the words were practically out there. Why not say the rest? Isn’t that why they had come? To say what needed to be said for the past two years and then to move on? Right then and there, Joe made up his mind. He was going to move on, whether Adam did or not. Joe could see his future in front of him for the first time in years. He could take Sarah and try his hand at his own life. Adam was home. Joe no longer owed his pa the penance of staying on the Ponderosa. He didn’t always have to be “that Little Joe Cartwright” – the one Cartwright boy who never quite amounted to much…
“I didn’t just leave for Sheila,” Adam said softly.
Joe wrapped his arms tightly around his chest. He could feel himself shivering, and it wasn’t just from the winter cold. He’d never believed that Adam loved that woman. Even when he’d left the Ponderosa, his demeanor towards any mention of Miss Reardon had been polite and tightly contained. Joe had never believed that Adam left the Ponderosa for a woman. Joe knew the reason. He was to blame.
“It’s my fault,” Joe said, quietly.
“What?” Truly astonished, Adam leaned forward until Joe could clearly see his brother’s face across the flames.
Saying it out loud gave him courage. More like the reckless Joe of old, he plunged forward. “If I hadn’t gone after that wolf, you’d never have shot me. You got all worked up cause of it, but it was my fault the shooting happened. I should have waited.”
“We both should have waited,” Adam replied calmly, although Joe could see his brother’s fists clenched. “We should have stuck together instead of separating. Joe – you can’t possibly blame yourself for what happened… I’m the oldest. It was my responsibility to know better.”
Joe shook his head. “It was my fault that I snuck up behind that wolf,” he insisted, but then he looked up at his brother with narrowed eyes. “But it was your fault for leaving, Adam.”
“I had to go, Joe.”
“Why? Because you couldn’t stand to be anywhere near me afterwards? I saw you, Adam! I saw the way you watched me all the time I’d gotten out of bed and was trying to get around. You kept watching me to see if I was hurting, and I did everything not to let it show. I got back on a horse three weeks later. I told you and told you that I was all right, but it just didn’t matter to you. You were bound and determined to feel guilty, and I couldn’t keep you from it.”
“It did matter.” Adam’s low baritone drifted across the snapping fire. “It mattered more than anything. That’s why I left when I did – because I knew you were going to be fine.”
That didn’t make any sense to Joe, but he couldn’t think of anything to say about it, so they were quiet for a while.
“You hurt Pa,” Joe said.
“I know it. I was sorry for that.”
“You hurt Hoss.”
Then Joe said very quietly, “I hurt them too.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t.”
Adam leaned forward. “Why couldn’t you?”
Joe rubbed his hands over his face. He could feel the heat of the fire on his face and the desert chill at his back… why was he always stuck in the middle of such extremes? Yet, could almost imagine hearing a wolf howling in the distance. Why, oh why, wouldn’t that wolf simply attack them and get it over with?
Adam repeated, “Why couldn’t you leave if you wanted, Joe?”
“I had to make it up to Pa.” There, Joe said it! “You left, and it was my fault. I was going to stay, make it up to Pa that you were gone. But it didn’t work out that way. I’m just not you, Adam! I can’t be anything like the kind of man you are.”
“Well, thank God for that,” Adam said dryly.
Joe glared at him. “What do you mean?”
Adam cracked a sudden smile. “It’s just that I wouldn’t wish being me on anyone.”
“Pa needed you, Adam.”
“He needed you too. From what I’ve heard and seen, you haven’t been around any more than I have.”
Joe looked up and stared his brother straight in the face. Something in him seemed to break down.
“Adam, I don’t know what I should do any more,” he whispered.
Adam came around the fire and didn’t exactly sit next to his kid brother, but he didn’t keep his distance either.
Very earnestly, he said, “It’s what I needed to tell you, Joe. It’s what I learned by going away. I needed to find it out for myself. You know I like to get things right the first time…?”
Joe raised an eyebrow and immediately nodded. He’d been a witness to his oldest brother’s perfectionism, his whole life.
Adam smiled knowingly, before continuing, “I thought you’d know about that. Anyway, when I shot you… I almost killed you, Joe. You were bleeding out, dying, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. For a while riding home, I thought I’d be bringing your body back to Pa. It seemed like everything I’d ever worked so hard for didn’t mean a thing. You can understand that, can’t you?”
Joe let loose a short, unhappy laugh. “Yeah, I can understand. Can’t think of anything I’ve done that’s meant much of anything.”
“But that’s just it,” Adam persisted. “You’re wrong, Joe. It’s what I learned in Philadelphia.”
The fire was faltering, but neither reached for more kindling. Despite two years of keeping a safe distance, Joe moved a little closer to his brother. He’d been waiting a long time for this, and he wanted to make sure he heard every word.
“What – what did you learn?” Joe asked.
Adam took a deep breath and said, “I learned that it’s not what you do or where you live – it’s who you are. It’s who you spend your life with. Whether or not you do ‘great things’ doesn’t matter as much as I once thought it did.”
“Adam,” Joe said quietly, “I’ve messed up in all sorts of ways. Lots of ways that Pa and Hoss don’t even know about. I can’t tell you a single good thing I’ve done for the past two years, let alone any great things…”
“How about the girl?” Adam prodded.
Joe’s face melted, and for the first time in a long time, his feelings showed all over his face. “Sarah. Her name is Sarah. You’re right, brother. Sarah is a real. good thing.”
It came out wrong, and they both laughed out loud, but Adam knew what he meant. Without realizing it, Joe scooted closer to his brother, until their shoulders were almost touching.
“Joe, you can leave the Ponderosa if you need to, or you can stay. It’s your choice. Pa would understand whatever you decide. You’ve got to trust me on that. What you do doesn’t matter. I learned it the hard way doing a job I thought I’d love.”
“And you didn’t love it?”
Adam cleared his throat. “It wasn’t the same – it wasn’t what I hoped it would be.”
It wasn’t what I loved. Joe heard it, even if Adam didn’t say it.
Then they were awfully quiet for a while, thinking things over, but it was more like the old kind of quiet they used to have together. Overhead, the sky seemed limitless and vast, while silver clouds drifted in front of the perfect moon. Then, in the distance, they heard it. A wolf howling into the night. So it had been a wolf after all – their pa was right. The two brothers eyed each other, each knowing exactly what the other was thinking.
“So what do you say? Tomorrow morning?” Joe asked unexpectedly, grinning slyly. “This time, I get the first shot. I always was a better shot than you.”
Adam countered, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. You’ve got to let me have him.”
Joe fired back quickly. “You got him last time. Besides, you don’t know a thing about waiting!”
They were still arguing and didn’t notice that the fire was almost out. It was deepest night and darkness was closing in, but neither worried. The wilderness was a black tangle around them, the wolf was waiting, but morning would come when it was good and ready. As it got colder, Adam slung his arm around his kid brother’s shoulders, but Joe didn’t pull away.
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