Word Count: 2,176
Summary: Words and actions impact and influence the people around us more than we realize. A WHN for “First Born.”
Under the Influence
Slumped in the blue chair by the stairs, Ben Cartwright slept fitfully. He hadn’t meant to doze, but he’d grown weary waiting for Joe to return home after sneaking out of the house to follow his half-brother Clay into another life.
Another life. Acid churned in Ben’s stomach at the mere thought that his youngest son might be gone forever.
Three wives, each so very different. And three sons—half-brothers who bore no physical resemblance whatsoever, but who shared a love of the land and a commitment to each other and the Ponderosa.
Then, out of nowhere, another half-brother appeared, nearly the mirror image of Joe—the same height and build, the same hair and eyes. Marie’s eyes. Ben had recognized the truth of it the moment Clay announced he was Marie de Marigny’s firstborn son, even if Adam and Hoss didn’t. Joseph, of course, had no such misgivings and bonded instantly with his new sibling, especially after a night under the influence of alcohol supplied by said sibling.
When the mail came from Judge Wharton in New Orleans confirming Clay’s identity, Ben hoped that life on the Ponderosa—however altered by the addition of a fifth Cartwright—would nevertheless continue in the same fashion. After all, Clay was likeable enough and, as his own firstborn had pointed out, a hard worker. Ben prayed he could influence Clay to adopt the family’s values as his own, and that his stepson would adapt to ranch life.
Fate had other plans. Accused of cheating at cards, Clay killed a miner in self-defense. In and of itself, shootings were not an unusual event in the wild, silver and gold town of Virginia City, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened to his stepson, and likely not the last. The investigative report provided by the Judge detailed other such incidents. Although ruled self-defense in every instance, the killings illustrated Marie’s son had led a troubled life fraught with danger. Danger Joseph would now share.
Roused from sleep by the sound of footsteps on the porch, Ben swallowed the bile in his throat and hurried to open the door. Praise God! Joe stood before him, soaked in sweat, pale, and speechless before burying his head in his father’s shoulder.
Ben guided his son to the settee and sat next to him, arm around his shoulders, unwilling to break their connection. He knew Joe should be in bed after the beating he took from those miners looking to get back at Clay, but more than bones and soft tissue needed mending this time.
“I tried to bring him back, Pa, I even offered to go with him until he was ready to settle down.” Joe leaned his head back and stared unseeing at the ceiling, tears flowing from the corners of his eyes.
The door slam reverberated through the house, rattling windows and causing a book left on the arm of the blue chair to topple.
Hoss all but ran down the stairs. “What’s wrong?” he shouted. “What happened?”
“Just our kid brother expressing displeasure with his usual disregard for people and property.”
“That’s enough, Adam,” Ben said. He stood by the fireplace, shoulders sagging, hands in pocket. To Hoss, he explained, “Joe doesn’t believe we understand his loss.”
“Maybe we don’t,” Adam admitted. He picked up the fallen book and sat in his chair. “It’s hard to fathom how Joe could form that strong of an attachment in such a short period of time.”
Ben sighed. “It’s more than losing a brother he had barely begun to know,” he said. “Sharing memories of Marie with Clay brought her to life. So his leaving is like losing his mother all over again.”
Hoss and Adam exchanged knowing looks. Both remembered the nightmare-laden nights following Marie’s death when the house was filled with their younger brother’s anguished cries. More than a year passed before the boy no longer crawled into one or the other’s bed seeking solace.
“What can we do to help?”
“I don’t know, Hoss. We can’t tell him to forget Clay like we would some girl who toyed with his feelings, or promise him another brother will be along next week to make him forget.”
“You did all you could. You asked Clay to stay and be a part of the family,” Adam said.
“Yes, but I had also warned him Joe was impressionable and asked him to use his influence in a positive way.”
“Nothin’ wrong with that to my way o’ thinkin’,” Hoss said.
“No, but I can’t help but wonder if Clay pushed Joe away because of what I said to him. If so, I’m responsible for both losses.” Ben lowered himself to the plank table and sat with his hands between his knees.
“Both?“ Adam and Hoss said in unison.
“Joe gave Clay his pocket picture of Marie.”
A low rumble emanated from Adam’s throat as he remembered the heartbroken little boy who quaked in fear on his seventh birthday because he had forgotten what his mother looked like. When Hoss brought him an old pocket watch, he removed the clockworks, and Pa put Marie’s picture in it. They’d given it to Joe for Christmas that year and he had carried it with him ever since.
“Should I saddle the horses?”
“Thank you, Hoss, but I think we need to let Joe work through this on his own.”
“What if he goes after Clay again?” Adam asked.
“Clay said some pretty hurtful things to Joe. I doubt he’ll follow him now,” Ben said, hoping he was right, but sorry for the reason.
Fractured. It was the only word Joe could think of to describe how he felt. Or maybe shattered was more like it, like a mirror broken into a thousand shards of glass. He’d heard tell that twins could feel each other’s pain. Did Clay feel his? Their mother’s blood flowed in both of them, but they weren’t twins and they had only known each other a few weeks. But Clay was his half-brother just like Adam and Hoss were. Would he feel this shattered if either of them left? They wouldn’t leave, would they? Without a doubt, he knew he’d never survive another brother’s departure. Maybe he should be the one to go. Maybe doing the leaving would hurt less than being left.
Cochise snorted in response.
“You don’t think so? What do you know any way? Just drink your coffee and leave me alone.”
“I may have to drink the horse swill you call coffee,” Adam said as he entered Joe’s camp, “but I draw the line at sharing Cochise’s mug.” He took the lid off the coffee pot and sniffed before pouring the strong black liquid into the tin cup from his saddlebag. Truth was, Joe made a more-than-decent trail brew, but he’d never tell him that. Not today anyway. Today’s conversation would be more . . . circumspect.
“What are you doing here?” Joe asked.
“Looking for you.”
“Did Pa send you?”
“No. And not Hop Sing or Doc Martin either. Satisfied?”
“I guess. Why are you here?”
“To bring you home. Pa’s worried.”
“I thought he didn’t send you.”
“He didn’t. I’m here of my own volition.” Adam looked around the camp noting the absence of a stream or scenic vista or soft ground on which to lay a bedroll. “Why here by the way?” Joe sat against a large boulder hugging his knees. When he didn’t respond, Adam scrutinized him. He breathed easily, but not deeply, so his ribs were still sore but on the mend. The bruising on his face had faded although the scab above his left eyebrow remained. As many times as that spot had bled after a fight, it’s a wonder the kid had any eyebrow left at all. Then he saw it.
“What’s in the jug?”
“Ah. The infamous source of your ‘condition’.”
“I was in no ‘condition’.”
Adam had never tried the liquor, and weighed the consequences of having this conversation over a drink. “Sure, why not.” He sat down next to Joe and watched as the kid poured a milky, slightly foamy and somewhat viscous beverage into his tin cup. It had a peculiar taste, but a not-altogether-unpleasant one. “Aren’t you going to have any?” he asked after Joe filled his cup again.
“No. I’ve had enough.”
“Of what? Pulque or feeling sorry for yourself?” Adam didn’t intend to go on the offensive quite so soon. Maybe it was the liquor loosening his tongue or dulling his brain. Whatever the cause, Joe didn’t appear to take offense. In fact, he looked slightly bemused as he filled Adam’s cup for a third time, or maybe fourth. And was that a smile or a frown? Adam rubbed his eyes with his palms. Yes, there was definitely a frown on his brother’s face.
“Come on, kid. Tell me what’s going on. Why are you out here in this—” Adam waved his hand in circles. “—garden spot of the Ponderosa.”
Joe tilted his head back to look at the stars and recall that night. Viva la brothers! “This is where Clay and I celebrated being brothers. Where he told me about his life. It’s also where I caught up to him when he left. Where he told me I didn’t mean anything to him; that he didn’t want or need me in his life; that he didn’t need anyone.”
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
“He didn’t mean it.”
“He said trouble had followed him all of his life because he was alone with no one to back him up. Okay, I get that. But, he had a chance to be part of a family and he threw it all away. We didn’t make any difference to him whatsoever.”
“What’s so funny?”
“You, Joe. You have had a greater impact on him than you realize.”
“How do you figure that?”
Adam counted off his list on his fingers. “First, when he found out he had a brother, he came looking for you. Third, when he was in trouble, you stood up for him. You believed he didn’t cheat when no one else did. Everywhere he goes now you will be that little voice in his head. You’ll influence him forever. Trust me. You are unforgettable.”
“No, I’m not. I’m fill-o . . . sloppy . . . cal.”
“You need coffee.”
“You gonna show me how to do it?”
“Make that horsey swill trailee stuff. Good stuff. Best I ever had.”
“You are definitely under the influence. I’ll get your bedroll and you can sleep it off.”
“Not ‘til I tell you somethin’ important.”
“Fences. You got to mend fences.”
“I finished last week, remember.”
“Apolly [hiccup] gize.”
“Oh, that kind of fence. Don’t worry. I’ll apologize to Pa.”
“Not Pa. Hoss.”
“Clay changed stuff for Hoss.”
“I’m oldest.” Adam thumbed his chest. He tried to poke Joe, but kept missing. “Hold still. You’re youngest. Hoss’s in the middle with Clay.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Hoss is your best friend. And Clay is your shiny new brother.”
“Yes, and you’ve had too much pulque.”
“You tossed old Hossy bear into a trunk in order to make room for the shiny new red wagon.”
“What are you . . . oh. I get it. I never meant to hurt either of you. Clay is my brother, but he is not more important to me than you and Hoss.”
“Hoss felt left out. He’d never say, but he did. Now the wagon’s gone and you [hiccup] you’re going to pull the old bear out of the trunk as if nothing has changed. But it has, you know. He knows it and I know it. How do you think he will feel?”
Joe blinked several times, first while sorting out Adam’s ramblings and then as understanding dawned. “Second best,” he said sadly.
“So what are you going to do about the elephant in the room?”
“I’ll take Hoss fishing and we’ll talk it out. I’ll make it right, Adam, you’ll see.”
“S’kay. Long’s you [hiccup] do.”
“Come on, older brother,” Joe said, throwing Adam’s arm over his shoulder. “Let’s get you home before Pa discovers the Plato of the Ponderosa is under the influence.”
“No Man is an Island” by John Donne, Meditation XVII.
“The elephant in the room” a proverbial phrase dating to 1814, when Ivan Andreevich Krylov wrote a fable titled “The Inquisitive Man” which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant.
Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
The words/phrases dealt to me were:
over a drink
when the mail came
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