Summary: Adam wanted to help his brother, not kill him.
Word count: 6200 Rating: T
Written for 2017 Once Upon A Midnight Dreary (aka Poe) Challenge and published in 2018 for the Better Late Than Never challenge.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, 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.
The Twice Told Tale
St. Mary’s Hospital – San Francisco
I’m pacing and can’t stop. There’s nothing else to do but walk off my frustration at not being able to see Adam. I’m sick of platitudes and conciliatory remarks.
He’s resting. He’s under sedation.
Well, I waited, and when I saw him, I asked what any father would ask, “What the hell happened?”
That’s when they escorted me out of the room.
You’re upsetting him. Give him time.
There is no time, don’t they understand? My sons. My sons.
He doesn’t know what he’s done.
I refuse to believe Adam would ever harm his brother, not intentionally. I need to see him to find out why.
He’s mad, that’s why.
Here, read his confession.
I should have known. I’m the smart one. The college-educated Cartwright. Graduate with distinction in two disciplines. Winner of numerous academic awards, including the Alfred Landell Engineering Award and the coveted Beckman Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Architecture. Cool. Logical. A man of decision; a leader of men.
Only I didn’t know.
Certainly not then. Possibly not even now.
Pa asked what happened. What the hell indeed.
It all started on the Saturday just after Joe turned twenty. There hadn’t been much celebrating on his birthday because he was still recovering from a bone crushing injury and Pa had him on a short rein. The fact my younger brother was beginning to chafe at the restrictions was a good sign, though none of us would appreciate the ramifications.
Pa will tell you on a ranch the size of the Ponderosa the sixth day of the Lord’s creation is just another work day and remind us there are animals to tend, assignments to complete, and future projects to plan. But to my brothers and me, Saturday means only one thing—a trip to town to pick up the mail.
“Hot diggity!” Hoss exclaimed as he exited his bedroom doing a little jig. However, when we reached the landing and saw that our youngest brother was not yet at the dining table, we paused.
“I’ll go,” I said, turning back.
“Naw, I’ll get him. You know there’s no way Pa will let him go to town, so he might need some cajolin’ to get out of bed.”
“Right. Better you than me.” I gave Hoss a slap on the back and trotted on down the stairs with a smile on my face. After all, it was mail day.
Our tradition is that each of us reads our letters in private and not until the next day do we pass them around or read sections aloud.
After breakfast on Sunday Pa shared the letter from his brother in Ohio. It contained news about people we’ve never met but have come to know because Uncle John, a serious man with no funny bone, shares a lot of gossip that keeps us in stitches for a week.
When my turn came, I said, “I had a letter from Nigel Ainsley. He’s going to represent his family’s interests in San Francisco, and inquired whether I would be interested in constructing a house for him and his bride.
“Nigel? Ain’t he one of your college chums?” Hoss asked.
“Yes. He transferred from Oxford during my sophomore year. I helped him acclimate to life in the ‘colonies’ as he put it.”
“That’s wonderful, Adam! You’ve been wanting to design a house ever since you graduated.”
“Not design exactly, Pa. It appears Nigel and Mary stayed at a cottage in Scotland on their honeymoon. Built in1654. She fell in love with it, so he bought it, had it disassembled, and shipped to San Francisco. He wants me to oversee its reconstruction.”
Curious, Joe stopped rearranging the food on his plate. “You don’t get to design it?”
“Well, I’d have to see the plat map of the property he intends to build on. There may be some modifications necessary depending on topography. He sent all the particulars to his attorney in San Francisco.”
“It sounds as though he needs an engineer as well as an architect, then,” Pa said. “Right up your alley, don’t you agree?”
“From an engineering standpoint the project does intrigue me, but I don’t know. I’ll have to think on it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have to think twice,” said Joe. “I’d rather spend the winter in California than in the Sierras.”
“The cattle have been moved, son, and the timber camp is shut down until spring. Why don’t you go to San Francisco and inspect the site before you make a decision?”
“There’s other work to be done here before winter sets in.”
“Joe and I can handle it,” Hoss said.
“Sure,” agreed Joe. “I can take care of the line shacks while Hoss puts up the storm windows.”
“I will install the windows, young man,” Pa said. “And Hoss will restock the line shacks.”
“What am I going to do?” Joe’s plea bordered on whining.
“After eating your breakfast, you are going back to bed and rest. The doctor hasn’t cleared you for work yet.”
Pa silenced Joe’s inevitable protest by clamping a hand on his arm. “Adam, while you’re in California, I’d like you to meet with Ed Bingham to discuss our proposed changes to the contract.”
“I didn’t say I was going.”
“Aren’t you?” he said with a smile. “Come to the study. I’ll point out the clauses I’m concerned about.”
Later that morning, I checked on Joe. He was in bed as ordered, but not asleep.
“Mind if I come in?” I inquired after rapping on the partially opened door.
“Not if you are going to rub it in.”
“I came to say good-bye, if that’s what you mean. I’m taking the afternoon stage to Placerville to avoid the storm Hoss’s bunions say is imminent.”
“I’m sick of winter and it’s only November.”
“I thought you liked the cold.”
“I don’t mind the cold as long as it’s sunny. When I’m stuck inside, I’m miserable, and Pa’ll keep me shut up in this house until spring, you know he will.”
“That might not be such a bad thing.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed, but he kept silent.
“All I’m saying is that you could use the time to—”
“—what? Better myself?” Joe turned away and pulled the covers over his head.
Twenty years old, but the kid could still pout with the best of them. I closed the bedroom door for privacy and leaned against it, folding my arms across his chest. “You’ve had a rough go these last few months. Slow recovery from a bad injury. Missing out on the roundup and Founder’s Day race. And . . . you have a long winter ahead of you.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Joe mumbled.
“Don’t know or don’t believe? You will recover. And you will ride again. But first you have to snap out of it.”
“Out of what?”
“This defeatist attitude. A few weeks ago, you could hardly draw a breath without screaming in agony.”
“I didn’t ‘scream.’”
“All right. Groan then. Loudly.”
“Wise ass,” Joe said.
I shook my head, then sat down on the edge of the bed. Joe rolled to his back and stared at me. To his credit, he kept his mouth shut waiting for me to gather my thoughts.
“You came within inches of dying, you know. Do you have any inkling how worried we were?”
Joe scanned my face searching for some hint of hyperbole but finding none, whispered, “I know.”
“Do you? Do you know Pa stayed by your bed for over a week, not eating, not sleeping, to the point he collapsed from exhaustion and worry?”
That got his attention. “What?” he said, sitting up cross-legged. The morning sun made the circles under his watery green eyes appear even deeper.
“For a while, Hoss and I thought for sure we would be digging two graves next to your mother’s.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“I’m telling you now. When you don’t eat your meals—like breakfast this morning—or ignore the doctor’s warnings, it’s like shoving a knife in Pa’s heart. It hurts him. Bad. Do you take my meaning?”
“Yes,” Joe’s voice cracked, “you don’t have to say any more. I’ll eat.”
“And follow doctor’s orders?”
“Yeah. No complaints.”
“Well,” I said, standing up. “Don’t go overboard.” Joe’s brows knitted together in confusion. “I said ‘follow orders.’ That doesn’t mean you need to be agreeable about it. You wouldn’t be my kid brother if you were.”
I heard a boot collide with the door as it closed behind me.
Two weeks later.
“You accepted the offer then,” Joe said when I stepped off the stage.
“What makes you think so?”
“Any idiot could see it.”
“Oh, come on, Joe. Give yourself more credit.”
I was surprised to see the surrey, a conveyance usually reserved for company, parked across the street from the Overland Stage depot. I raised my chin in greeting to the driver.
“Good to have you back, Adam. Toss me your bag.”
I complied and climbed in next to Hoss to sit across from Pa and Joe.
Conversation during the ride back to the Ponderosa concerned business, both what I accomplished in San Francisco and ranch affairs. Listening with half an ear, I noted Joe had put on a few pounds, but saw that his skin still had a pasty quality. Moreover, Pa still hovered, the lines of worry etched as deeply as before.
On the way home, I formulated a plan.
Over dinner, I confirmed what Joe suspected—I had accepted Nigel’s offer and would be returning to San Francisco in a few days.
“I’m pleased, son,” Pa said. “I know how much your degree means to you. Although this project doesn’t involve original design, it sounds like a challenge—one worthy of your engineering skills.”
“Sure gonna miss you around here, older brother,” said Hoss.
“You’ll just miss my superior intellect.”
“Joseph,” Pa prodded.
“Wha—? Oh, yeah, we’ll miss you, Adam. How ‘bout a game of checkers, Hoss?”
“Sure, Joe. Go set ‘em up.”
“Hop Sing, thank you for an excellent dinner,” Pa said. “I’ll take coffee at my desk if you don’t mind.”
“Make that two, Hop Sing,” I added, retrieving the decanter from the sideboard on my way to the study. I turned the chair in front of the desk around and straddled it, keeping my back to the fireplace and the checker game already in progress. After topping off our coffee with a generous shot of brandy, I said in a low voice, “Winter’s coming.”
Pa’s lip twitched. “Is this an example of your ‘superior’ intellect?”
“Very funny.” I cleared my throat and plunged ahead. “Joe’s health improved while I was away, but if he gets sick, he has no reserves left to draw on.” Pa sat still, stirring his coffee. “The Farmer’s Almanac has predicted a hard winter and the ranch is likely to be snowed in for weeks, if not months. A bout of pneumonia could kill him.” Such bluntness caused a flinch. “You know I’m right,” I said.
“What do you propose?”
“That he come with me to San Francisco while I work on Nigel’s project. It’s warmer there and the food is excellent.”
“Are you intimating Hop Sing’s meals have been less than adequate?”
“Of course not, but you know a change of scenery always stimulates Joe’s appetite, and I am confident Hop Sing’s enumerable cousins will take up the watch and report back to you regularly.”
“And just what would he do all day while you are working?”
“Plenty of things for him to see and do—” I caught the raised eyebrow, “—away from the Barbary Coast. And as soon as the outer walls are assembled, he can help me with the interior woodwork. His carpentry skills are good. And, of course, you’d visit whenever you wanted.”
“You mean assuming Hoss and I can dig our way out of the igloo we’ll be living in?”
I lowered my head and took a deep breath. I’d pushed as far as I dared. “Think about it, Pa. I won’t mention it again, and I won’t say anything to Joe.”
I didn’t have to.
The next day the temperature dropped 30 degrees and gale force winds hit Lake Tahoe. Despite sitting less than two feet from the fireplace, wrapped in a heavy Indian blanket, Joe couldn’t stop shivering.
We wound up staying at a small but well-appointed hotel on Rincon Hill near Nigel’s property. Joe kept odd hours staying up late, sleeping in, and ordering room service any time of day or night which didn’t bother me. Unlike Pa, I saw no reason to regulate my brother’s bodily functions. When hungry, he would eat; when tired he would sleep. And when his stockpile of dime novels lost its allure, I gave him permission to explore Frisco so long as he followed Pa’s rules about areas to avoid.
He had just returned to our rooms from such an outing when a messenger delivered a large leather tube containing blueprints from the English architect who oversaw the deconstruction of Nigel’s purchase. Included were detailed renderings and an inventory of each stone with its corresponding location noted on the drawings.
Joe peeked over my shoulder and whistled. “Some cottage.”
Indeed. The house, while not a mansion per se, did not even closely resemble a cottage. Two and a half stories, 27 windows, gargoyles, balustrades, buttresses, vaults, arches . . . the specs read like a lexicon of architectural terms. As I turned each page of the plans shaking my head, I heard him mutter.
“Practice what you preach, brother.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, come on, Adam. It can’t be all that hard for someone with your brains and talent.”
I expected to see a smirk on his face, but his bright eyes and broad smile confirmed he spoke with genuine admiration.
“Well, let’s go see what I’ve gotten myself into, shall we?”
Joe’s excursions to the embarcadero had built up his stamina and improved his color. Looking fit, if still on the thin side, he had no trouble keeping up with me as we climbed the hill to Nigel’s lot. The stones lay along the perimeter of the property in sections marked by numbered stakes. I removed the blueprints from their sheath and unrolled them on a flat stone weighting the edges with small rocks.
In an architect’s perfect world, the site is selected before the house is designed. I chose neither the site nor house, but I had accepted the job and would do my best. Taking a deep breath, I began comparing the blueprints with my notes on the plat plan. After some time, I concluded that only slight modifications would need to be made to the siting. Pleased, I started to share the news with my brother and noticed him wandering amongst the stones, rubbing his neck—something he often did when troubled.
“This isn’t right.” Joe appeared pensive. “This stone doesn’t belong in this group.”
“When did you become a masonry expert?”
“Here,” he said. “See these lines?”
“Striations. Scratches made by glaciers.”
“I don’t think so. They’re not random. They’re carved. And over here.” Joe moved across the property to another grouping. “See, the same lines continue, and look at these curves. You can’t tell me a glacier did that.”
As much as I hated to admit it, Joe had a point. I wouldn’t be able to take the word of the English architect who catalogued these blocks. I would have to examine each piece myself. I stood riveted in the center of the stones, hand over mouth, as a sense of doom enveloped me.
“Adam? Adam! Come on, the fog’s rolled in. Let’s get down this hill before we fall off it.”
I may have been daunted by the prospect of cross checking each item on the inventory, but I had underestimated Joe’s tenacity and fascination with jig saw puzzles. In short order, he sorted out the misplaced stones. They appeared to have been deliberately scattered among the groupings. As to why, I couldn’t begin to guess since it was obvious they all belonged to the large chimney.
The construction crew I hired worked nonstop. By the latter part of January, the exterior walls were up, and the roof raised. Framing the interior came next and for that I wanted Joe’s help, not only because he knew my standards, but because he had begun to question his reason for being in San Francisco. He wouldn’t admit it, of course, but homesickness had struck hard. The short visit Pa and Hoss made during Christmas only intensified his lack of purpose after they left. I got him to stay by appealing to his vanity.
“I need you, Joe. The stonemasons did an outstanding job, but I’m not as confident in the carpenters. They quarrel over little things and their work is not up to par. Mistakes are made. Tools disappear. Stupid things that cost time and money. Your woodworking skills are top notch and the men like working with you.”
“Because you relate to them better than I do. With your help, I can bring this project in on time and under budget.”
All right, I may have sugar coated it a bit, but it is true that his leadership style is different than mine. I oversee men; Joe works alongside them.
Work proceeded apace, enough so that I felt comfortable leaving my brother in charge while I spent two days in the financial district at Pa’s behest negotiating a second timber contract with Bingham & Sons, followed by more days down at the wharf resolving issues with the agent regarding broken or missing items from Nigel’s last shipment. By the time his household goods were transferred to a warehouse for storage, the sun had begun to set. When the desk clerk at the hotel said Joe had not yet returned from the site, I headed straight there to collect my brother for dinner, my stomach growling in earnest.
The thick stone walls and growing twilight made it difficult to see inside the structure. I made a mental note to order lanterns. At some point, I stumbled near the main fireplace. Crouching down to ascertain what tripped me, I heard a low, feral growl.
“Joe? What is this?”
“None of your business.”
I shivered involuntarily. As warm as the day had been, a cold wind now whistled through the rafters creating a keening that filled the house with a sorrowful one note tune. “Do you hear that?” Voices begging to be heard, whispering, calling, seducing.
Come to me.
“What are you talking about?”
Don’t leave me!
Cold, bewildered, and too tired to argue, I backed away. I didn’t know the game Joe played, but I wanted no part of it. Let him get his own dinner, I thought, and turned to walk down the hill when a thrumming filled the air, like the tenor C note drawn by a bow. I looked back at the house—now shrouded in fog—to see a greenish glow emanating from the paneless windows.
Sleep eluded me.
Despite the heavy drapes in our top floor suite, the sounds of the city penetrated my bedroom. I jumped at every noise thinking Joe had returned to the hotel, only to discover his bed undisturbed. Worry superseded anger and the gnawing in my gut had nothing to do with one skipped meal. How would I tell Pa I had failed to care for my brother? I grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the liquor cabinet in the parlor and settled into a chair in front of the door to wait.
Joe must have come in after I fell asleep for a quick bed check in the morning revealed a room in disarray, covers askew, a leg dangling over the edge of the mattress, my brother’s arm shielding his eyes from any light that might penetrate the closed drapes—in other words, situation normal. I chalked up the previous night’s hallucination to hunger and exhaustion. Leaving him a note as to where I’d gone, I hurried up the hill to check on the progress made in my absence.
As I’d promised Pa, San Francisco basked in golden sunshine under blue skies. Everywhere, that is, except at the house on Rincon hill. There, a preternatural cold lingered even as the sun rose, and the morning fog burned away. Ignoring the chill, I walked through the house, paper and pencil in hand to make notes.
Our ranch house features exposed logs to reflect the Ponderosa’s origins. Similarly, I planned the interior of Nigel’s house to showcase its historic walls. On paper my design was pleasing; the reality was a bitter disappointment. The exposed stone felt cold to my touch and, though dry, seemed slimy. It reminded me of a snake and for a moment I could have sworn the walls slithered. Too much whiskey I decided. I really should have eaten.
Joe arrived later that morning seemingly unaware of my distress. I followed as he strolled leisurely through the house, brushing his fingertips across the walls, caressing them. A cold draft and the scent of roses, cloyingly sweet, lingered wherever he went.
It infuriated me.
Days, maybe weeks passed. I lost track of time. My brother remained as mercurial as ever. His moods ebbed and flowed, but without the same rhythm and regularity of the tides. It exhausted me to keep up with his waves of euphoria while I grew more despondent with each passing day.
I stalked the halls of the Green Lady, as I had begun to think of her, seeking solutions to my design conundrum, rejecting each one as soon as I thought of it. Joe grew frustrated with the change orders and began making decisions on his own which displeased me. I ripped out walls as fast as he and his crew put them up.
On top of that, stalled negotiations with Bingham & Sons had me in a permanently disgruntled frame of mind.
Failure on all fronts—as an architect, businessman, son, brother—haunted me.
The ultimate disillusionment came when I realized we were further behind than ever and all because of my brother. I overheard workers complaining the boss had become morose and belligerent, arguing with everyone, wanting to do things by himself, his way. “El jefe es una loca.” The boss is crazy.
Had Joe started quarrels rather than end them?
The Green Lady was finished at last, but I couldn’t let her go.
I stood on the balcony listening to the fog horns sounding a low C, staring into the darkness, pushing away thoughts I didn’t want to give substance. Images of Joe, the circles under his eyes taking on a greenish cast to match the mist that swirled around us.
And voices; always the voices.
A cold breeze arose laced with scents of salt and rain. The chill of the balustrade permeated my calloused hand. The stones whispered, beckoning, cajoling come to me! Come to me!
All I had to do was lean forward and let the night take me. Impossible to be the perfect son any longer, it would be a perfect end.
Except for the voice. “Adam?”
I turned to see Joe, shirtless and barefoot, shaggy hair falling into his eyes. Sleep walking. He hadn’t done that since childhood after his mother died. He stared into empty space. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t me. It was raw anguish.
“It’s okay, Joe. It’s just a dream. Nothing more.”
His skin glowed in the moonlight. The frosty air turned his short breaths into little puffs of white.
“Joseph!” I tried to sound like Pa. “It’s time for bed. Now march young man.”
I made a grab for the lantern but lost my grip and it crashed to the floor. Shattered glass mixed with kerosene. The wind, fiercer now, blew the liquid into rivers of flame that licked at his feet and legs and up the walls until the entire wooden infrastructure of the house burned.
Lunging. Fighting. Blows to the head and shoulders, not well placed but effective nonetheless in his weakened condition.
Rough hands separated us. “El Jeffe, no! Lo estan matando! You will kill him.
God help me! it’s me. I am el Jeffe!
My brother’s broken body lay limp in my arms. His hot blood already congealing on the cold, cold stone.
“El jeffe es una loco.” The boss is crazy. Perhaps I am.
I have killed my brother.
I couldn’t believe it when Pa walked through the door with Hoss right behind him. I wanted to run right into his arms and hold on until morning. But I couldn’t. I didn’t deserve his love or . . . forgiveness. Ashamed, I turned away. Or tried to, until the pain behind my eyes exploded and I fell into a void.
A door opened. A few garbled words floated into the room obscured by the sound of a gurney’s wheels scraping against a stone floor; the vision of a straitjacketed man writhing.
I heard my brother’s cries and terror engulfed me once again.
I awoke gasping for air. A big hand pressed a cool cloth against my forehead.
“That’s right, shortshanks. It’s ol’ Hoss. Nothing’s gonna hurt you now. I’m here.”
“I know. We’ll get these cuffs off you now that you’re awake. You was fighting some kind of battle with the devil while you were sleeping.”
“You tied me up?” Panic ensued, and I renewed my struggle to be free.
“Shush now. You’re gonna be okay. Doc! We need help here.”
Someone stuck me with a needle.
When I awoke again, the restraints were gone. Hoss gave me some water and rubbed some salve on my cracked lips.
“Feeling better now?”
“Yeah. Where am I?”
“St. Mary’s Hospital.”
“You got beat up pretty bad.”
I closed my eyes and remembered. “Adam.”
“Yeah. Wanna tell me about it?”
Not really. “Used to be able to hold my own. Not this time.”
“Me and Adam have mixed it up once or twice. Thing is, we always knew when to pull our punches. You tellin’ me he forgot?”
“Guess I made him mad.”
Hoss got up from his chair and paced. “Joe, I seen Adam practically cut his arm off rather than smack you even when you deserved it. There ain’t nothing you can say that will convince me he did this on purpose—angry or not. But I know you wouldn’t lie to me. Tell me what happened.”
He expected me to have all the answers and I didn’t even know the questions. What the hell did happen?
“I touched the stones.”
Hoss stared open mouthed and dropped into the chair.
“You wanna say that again?”
“Adam was jealous of anyone who touched the house. Explain to me how you’re supposed to build if you can’t touch anything.”
Hoss shrugged. “What else?”
“Once the walls were up, he wouldn’t leave the site. It’s like the rocks talked to him. Sang is more like it. He kept asking me if I heard it.”
“Music. He kept humming. All the time humming.”
“How did the fight start?”
“We were on the balcony. He . . . he was going to jump. I turned him around to face me, but when he stared, it wasn’t me he saw. And what was in his eyes terrified me, Hoss. Madness. He was out of control and unbelievably strong. Like you and Bearcat . . . and Regan . . . all rolled into one. I’ve never been so scared. I thought he was gonna kill me.”
Someone must have heard that last part because the next time I woke up a policeman in a gray uniform stood next to my bed waiting to take my statement.
“Are you Joseph Cartwright?” He made it sound more like an accusation than a question.
“Yes.” My eyes darted around the room for someone, anyone to help me. Where was Hoss? “Why?” I tried to sit up. Only then did I realize my feet and legs were swaddled in bandages. I grabbed the bedrails and pulled myself up.
The officer flipped open his notepad and read, “‘I thought he was going to kill me.’ Is ‘he’ Adam Cartwright?”
“Y—yes,” I panted.
“Any relation to you?”
“My b—brother. Oldest brother.” Sweat stung my eyes. “He d—d—didn’t do anything.”
“It’s pretty obvious that he did.”
“Then he didn’t know what he was doing.” Waves of nausea rippled through me. “He’s . . . he’s not responsible.”
“He almost killed you.”
“No! He would never do that.”
“Not if he were sane. A madman might.”
“Adam is. Not crazy! He’s not!”
Out of nowhere, strong arms encircled me. I fought back until I recognized Hoss. I surrendered to his embrace but not before I threw up on the policeman’s shoes.
Another week passed before they let me out of bed. The stitches on my head itched, my bruises had bruises, but the burns on my legs and feet were healing. I couldn’t stand yet, much less walk, so Hoss lent me a pair of his socks to wear over the bandages when he wheeled me out to the conservatory for some fresh air.
I hadn’t seen Pa since that first day. I didn’t expect to, all things considered. Still, it hurt that he hadn’t visited. So, when I spied his familiar form at the garden’s edge, I wanted to cry and run away at the same time.
“Joseph. How are you?”
“I’ve been better. You?”
“Same here.” I remembered what Adam had said about Pa’s health and I resolved not to add to his distress.
“He’s not in jail?”
“Why would he be in jail?”
“The policeman. The policeman said he tried to kill me.”
“Is that what you believe?”
How do I answer that? Adam said believing and knowing were two different things. I guess my silence was enough of an indictment to Pa because a grimace passed over his face.
“He’s recovering. Same as you. And, he’s . . . under observation.”
I could read between the lines. “Because they think he’s crazy?”
“Hoss told me your version of what happened.”
“Don’t raise your voice to me. Your brother told much the same story. Different point of view, of course. We all have our own perception of events.”
“But you believe his. I’m not surprised. You always take his part.”
“This is not a contest, son. I want to understand, to make sense of it all. I want the two of you to heal—not only in body, but in soul.”
I turned away. I could never tell Pa about the raw anguish I saw in Adam’s eyes that night. His desperate need to end it all. How I struggled to keep him from jumping off that balcony. Let Pa think the worst of me. Adam needs him more than me, whether he’ll admit it or not.
“I’m tired,” I said, turning the chair around.
“Goodbye, Pa. Take care of Adam.”
When the wheels got stuck in a crack, it was Hoss, not Pa, who came to my rescue.
When we got back to the room, Hoss wouldn’t let go.
“Shortshanks, we gotta talk about this.”
“I don’t want to, Hoss. Pa’s taken his side. It’s all right. I don’t mind.”
“According to Adam, you knew.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said you had a sixth sense about the house. That you tried to warn him.”
I nodded. “I begged him to leave, to go back to the hotel. He wouldn’t listen. We all know Adam has black moods. But the intensity, the sheer force of his will that night overpowered me. I couldn’t fight him. I gave up.”
“That’s probably what saved you. He said the shock of your going limp in his arms, like a rag doll, is what broke the spell.”
“I don’t remember.”
But I did. I closed my eyes against the remembrance of blows that hammered my body against stone, hateful words that burned my soul. And blood. So much blood. The coppery smell of it. The scent of roses, cloyingly sweet—yet rotten.
Eventually, I got discharged. We moved to a hotel closer to the hospital. I could walk a few steps now, but it would be a while longer before I could wear boots. Hoss and I went to the hospital a couple times a week, Hoss to visit Adam, and me to have my bandages changed.
One day when Hoss and I were in the hallway waiting for Pa, the door to Adam’s room opened and I saw him for the first time since that night. Bile rose in my throat and I focused on Pa, afraid to look at my brother—afraid he might look back, afraid I would still see the anguish within.
Pa nodded a few times, spoke some words we couldn’t hear, then shook hands with the doctor. An eternity passed before he stepped into the passageway, hands shoved into his pockets.
“We can take him home.”
“They’re discharging him?” Hoss asked.
“Not exactly, but they won’t stand in our way if we leave.”
I nearly fainted at the news.
“Hoss, take your brother outside before he falls out of that wheelchair. I have some papers to sign and then we’ll be along.”
I dunno what to think exactly. My brothers don’t lie, neither of them. Yet their stories don’t fit. Mebbe it’s like two sides of a coin, both different but the same. It’s hard to know what to believe. Did Adam try to jump, and Joe stopped him? Or was Adam only defending himself from Joe’s attack when they both slipped on stones wet with mist?
Pa seems to be having the hardest time, torn as he is between two sons who need him. It’s difficult for him to believe his stoic, logical first born lost his mind. It’s easier to believe Joe went off half-cocked ‘cause that’s what he usually does. Did. He’s grown up since he was 17 and pulled a gun on Pa.
One thing’s for sure . . . Joe took the worst of it physically. He don’t say nothin’, but I seen him limp when he’s tired, or the way he has to uncock his shoulder when it locks up.
Adam’s wounds were on the inside and who can say whether he’s healed or not.
Neither of my brothers can stand being in the same room with the other, so Pa and I have our work cut out keeping them separate. We eat in shifts, me with Joe, Pa with Adam. Can’t remember the last time we was all together.
Sure do miss it.
It’s early fall now. I still have my dark days, but for the most part life is back to normal, whatever that might be. I dread the coming winter. Too many memories.
A friend in Scotland researched the cottage’s history at my request. When I received his letter, I read a portion out loud at Sunday dinner.
“According to Scottish lore, a pregnant servant girl wearing a green dress was murdered and then stuffed unceremoniously up the chimney. Maighden uaine, the Green Maiden, is a vengeful ghost and has haunted the cottage ever since. Clan folk say no child conceived or born in the house has ever lived. They believe the stones have absorbed centuries of blood and anguish, and that those lost souls, never born or gone too soon, have cursed the occupants forever.”
“No wonder them folk were all too happy to sell the place,” Hoss said.
The Ainsleys didn’t know about the curse then and wouldn’t have believed it if they had. Would the fact that Mary suffered a violent miscarriage that left her barren change their opinion and lend substance to the curse?
Because of their tragedy and what happened to Joe and me, Nigel neither wanted the house nor wished anyone else to suffer because of it. The Green Lady was dismantled, and the rock loaded onto a ship as ballast. It sank in a storm on the way back to England.
Joe said the stones were thirsty and they didn’t care whose blood they drank.
Pa said that was rubbish.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy*, Pa,” I replied, watching Joe through hooded eyes.
For the first time since we’d been home, Joe looked me in the eye and held my gaze, nodding imperceptibly. As he walked past my blue chair on the way to his room, he whispered, “low C.”
My heart skipped several beats. He’d heard it, too. I swallowed hard.
I am not mad.
* Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5.
Other Stories by this Author
- Clothes Make the Man (by Cheaux)
- The Black Hat (by Cheaux)
- Under the Influence (by Cheaux)
- Staying the Course (by Cheaux)
- The Ring (by Cheaux)