Summary: Adam finally comes home and has to face something he’s kept buried for many years. Can he close the book on a dark chapter of his life with Joe’s help?
Word Count: 3183
This began life as a Pinecone with the prompt below.
I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
My Back Pages by Bob Dylan
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable 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.
Closing the Book
It had been so many years since he had sat in the room and watched the fire in that particular fireplace. The space sat comfortably with him in spite of the reason why he was there. Adam sighed as he listened to the night sounds around him. He had forgotten how quiet it was when night settled over the Ponderosa and he smiled as he heard the chirp of insects calling to one another in the darkness. There had been times when he had thought he would never again see this room or speak with the occupants of the home of his youth. A part of him ached with the knowledge that so many years had slipped away and so very much had happened in his absence. He barely covered a shiver as he looked across at the table that would never again feed his middle brother. If only he’d come home sooner. If only he’d been there that day when Hoss had … Adam shook himself and tried to remember his father’s words in his letter. It was an accident and nothing could have changed that. But still … maybe … if he’d been there ….
Adam frowned at his maudlin thoughts as he glanced upwards. In a room up there, his father lay sleeping. He had travelled at breakneck speed across the land when Joe’s telegram had come.
Come home. Pa is dying.
All those years he’d planned to come home and had found one reason after another not to. It was ridiculous and his logical mind knew it, but maybe if he’d come home sooner, his father would not have aged so. Maybe … if he’d been there …
He sighed again as he recalled his first glimpse of his brother as the stage pulled into Virginia City. Joe had filled out and matured in ways he had missed. Oh sure, they sent letters, when they could. But then for a time, Joe had gone silent. It had been his father who had filled him in on Joe’s trauma of losing his wife and unborn child. He’d thought about returning then. Maybe … if he’d been there …
Still, somehow, life had moved on and Joe had married again. The lovely brunette who had greeted him only a few days before had made him feel welcome and insisted it was still his home. He looked around the great room and saw Sarah’s touches around the place. She had kept the character of the place and added to it with subtle hints of herself. Of course, the two tiny terrors who tore up the place reminded him of his brother when he was that age and he laughed to himself.
Adam had been surprised that so much of him was still in evidence around the house. His room had become Candy’s until he’d married and moved out to his own space. Jamie had taken the guest room upstairs as his own and Adam’s room had once again been used for guests. Adam felt a twinge of sadness at the idea that he was now a guest in his own home, but it hadn’t been his home for many years. Hoss’ room had been turned into the boys’ room and he smiled at the idea as his brother would have loved that.
A part of him had been fearful to see Hop Sing’s room would be empty as the faithful man was showing his age, but somehow Sarah had eased his iron grip off the kitchen while still giving the man his dignity. The two had become fast friends and allies against the scheming of two young boys. After all, Hop Sing had far more experience on that front that Sarah ever had.
Perhaps the part that had surprised him the most was the fact that so many of his things were still stored in wooden chests and waiting for him to come and claim them again. He’d spent the better part of the day sifting through them and being surprised over and over at what he unearthed. Memories wafted out of the crate as he flipped through books and glanced again at things he had considered treasures. The most stunning find was something he’d long forgotten about. As he sat in the chair and stared into the fire, the years melted away.
The leather had aged over the years and it felt smooth to the touch as he ran his hand over it. Discovering it was like running into an old friend on the street. He smiled at the analogy, as it was an unexpected delight mixed with the question of how much had changed since the last time he’d written in its pages.
Adam ran a finger lightly over the embossing that ran across the cover and he smiled again as he recalled his father’s face. It was a birthday gift and had seemed so very expensive and extravagant at the time. A leather journal was a luxury for a boy and yet his father had seen fit to spend hard-earned coin on it. The busy father was not too busy to notice his son’s penchant for words and had actively encouraged his boy to pursue his own writing.
His thoughts turned inward again as he recalled many nights trying to learn to read by the light of the lantern. Fortunately it had come relatively easily as the words seemed to leap off the page at him and pull him into other worlds. He had a voracious appetite for books, but they were few and far between as they had travelled west. His father had traded old ones for new ones where he could find them. Adam clearly recalled his first glimpse at an actual library with the shelves lined with books as far as he could see. It felt like he had stepped into Heaven for a moment as he spun on his heel and surveyed the room. He could easily recall the smell of leather and paper and closed his eyes to savour the memory a little more deeply.
It had been many years ago he had begun to build his own collection of books and he had felt like the richest king as he recalled building an actual shelf to store them on. Treasure meant many things to many people, but he could not imagine a greater treasure than the written word.
Adam opened his eyes and stared again at the journal. It was like a gold nugget that had been lost and now it was found again. As far as he knew, not another person had ever read the words contained within it. He almost laughed out loud as he modified that thought. Joe probably had. The kid had been caught more than once snooping where he shouldn’t be and earned his older brother’s wrath.
I wonder what Joe would have made of this?
Adam thumbed through the pages and rolled his eyes at his own thoughts and some of the things he had thought worthy to be recorded.
I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
“Thanks, Pa,” he whispered to the empty room.
It was a gift from a man who knew him better than he knew himself and he spent the next few hours reading, remembering and finding himself again.
Adam jolted awake with a start and felt the weight of his arm like a lump of granite. His arm had slipped over the edge of the chair, probably not long after his eyes had drooped closed for the last time and now it felt like it had detached from his shoulder. He lifted it awkwardly and rubbed at his numb fingers with his other hand, trying to bring the blood back into circulation. He glanced down at the journal that had fallen onto the floor and he stared at it as if it may bite him. He slowly reached out and picked it up once more.
What had begun as a meander down memory lane had turned into something else altogether. The journal had been a gift for his sixteenth birthday and he had recorded the things he had thought important at that age. The things that had burned within him that he thought nobody had really understood including the plans to go to college and further his experience of the world. He dreamed of far off places whose names sounded so exotic in his ears. He had smiled as he read his own thoughts from all those years ago. Some of them seemed so juvenile now and some of them were the very things that had defined him. Adam was enjoying the trip until he reached a point where something began to change. His writing turned more pensive and a subtle anger arose from the pages. He felt his stomach churn as he recalled the reason why.
He slammed the book closed and tried to stop his runaway thoughts. He had pushed some of those memories deep into the past and tried to bury them, but he had inadvertently dug them up again.
It had been so many years since he had even thought of that time and it had slithered back out of the pages like some kind of sinister serpent. He hoped fervently that Joe had never read those pages. He felt his stomach clench as he wondered if his youngest brother had ever read the words that showed his oldest brother had betrayed him. He doubted that Joe had made it that far in his snooping because if he had … Adam swallowed down the sick feeling and reached for the book once again. If Joe had read those words, he surely would have exploded. Adam had betrayed not only his little brother, but he had betrayed the person he held most reverently in his memory – his mama.
Adam sucked in a sharp breath as he stared at the leather-bound book. He remembered only too well the night he had penned those first ugly words. It was only a few weeks later that he had written the next few pages by the light of a fire on a back trail that led to nowhere. His horse was tethered behind him and the fire had been built up far more than it needed to be for a night that was not that cold. As Adam stared at the journal, his mind drew him back to that night so very long ago where he had tried to fend off the darkness in his spirit with a campfire.
It was well past midnight as he lay staring at the canopy of stars above his head. He knew their movements as they slowly wheeled across the sky and he knew that he was not going to be getting much sleep this night or any night soon. Adam knew he shouldn’t be there, but he couldn’t face going home. He just couldn’t.
His father’s face hovered at the edge of his vision and he closed his eyes, trying desperately to erase the look he saw. His father was so angry at him and he knew that he deserved it. It wasn’t like him to run from a problem, but this one was different. This one had no answer to resolve it. This one was beyond any of them to fix. Marie was dead and there was nothing he could do to ever ask for her forgiveness, or his father’s.
Adam leaned back in the chair and ran a finger over the leather face of the journal. He glanced towards the fire and debated throwing the book into the flames. For a moment, his hand hovered and then he slowly withdrew it. Burning the book would do nothing to erase the memory or assuage the long-buried guilt. Finally he pushed up from the chair and headed for the brandy decanter. As he poured himself a glass, he gulped it down in one go and poured another. It was time to face this ghost once and for all and he needed some liquid courage to help him do that so he carried the decanter back to the table and settled it alongside the glass.
Once again, he positioned himself before the fire and tentatively opened the book once more. He thumbed through several pages, looking for something in particular. Adam felt the need to take another drink as he read the words that he had written so very long ago. His spirit groaned within him as he felt the pain rise up from the pages and he was oblivious to the footsteps that came down the stairs towards him.
As Joe settled on the table in front of him, Adam found himself unable to look up. His brother was no longer the little boy he had been when those words had been written, but it didn’t change the betrayal.
Under other circumstances, he would have laughed at the irony of the situation. He, the one who never let his emotions take over, was barely holding back tears. Joe, the one whose emotions had so often ruled his head, was sitting calmly watching him, waiting for him to respond.
“Brother, that old journal doesn’t mean anything.”
Adam looked up and fixed his brother with a stare.
“You’ve read this?” It was barely more than a whisper.
Joe shrugged and nodded his head. “You know me. It was too good to pass up when I first found it in those boxes Pa had stashed away.”
Adam swallowed hard and frowned. “How old were you? When you read this.”
“Old enough to want to rip your head off! Young enough not to know much of anything.”
Adam stared at his younger brother whose full head of hair was almost completely grey and would soon be as white as their father’s.
“I’m so sorry.” Adam dropped his head into his hands and felt himself shaking.
Joe reached a hand to rest on his shoulder and shook him.
“What for? Once being young and stupid?”
Adam slowly looked up to see his brother watching him. “I didn’t mean it. Not really … those things I said to Marie. I was just so … so young and full of myself!”
“So what’s changed?” Joe grinned at him as Adam tried to compose his emotions. “Besides gettin’ old!”
For some time, the two of them just allowed the silence to fill the space between them.
“You know, I never could figure why I was so scared when you went off to college and then when you left to travel, but when I found that and remembered what happened, it started to make sense to me.”
Adam said nothing as he watched his younger brother’s face.
“I’d forgotten. Hoss said that maybe I’d buried it because it was too hard to think on that time. But then when I did remember, I remembered how scared I was that you were never coming home. I figured that since Mama was dead and not coming back, maybe you were dead too and never coming back.”
“I didn’t want to.” Adam clasped his hands together as he remembered those nights spent on the road with no idea of where he was running to. “I couldn’t fix what I had done and I couldn’t imagine that Pa could ever forgive me.”
“Pa loved you.”
Adam reached for the decanter and poured himself another drink.
“Pa hated me.”
Adam looked up at his brother once again as he swallowed the drink. “How could he not? You didn’t hear him, Joe. I caused Marie’s death. I argued with her and said some vile things to her and she rode off in anger. I caused it, Joe.”
Joe watched as Adam pushed himself up from the chair and began to pace across the room. It had been so many years ago that he’d found the journal and read his brother’s incriminating words. He’d wanted to rip his brother’s head from his shoulders, but Adam was long gone from the Ponderosa and out of his reach. If he’d known where to find him, he would have set off to bring justice. Joe looked down at his hands as he twisted his fingers together. For a time, his rage had been all consuming and he’d imagined using those same hands to kill his brother for what he’d done. Thankfully, his father had stepped in.
“That’s not what Pa said. He said you and Mama had been butting heads, but it was Mama’s choice to ride that fast and it was just an accident. Nothin’ more.”
“I ran … like a coward.”
Adam stopped pacing as he stared once again at his younger brother.
“I ran away because I couldn’t face it. Any of it.”
Joe had never remembered his brother disappearing after his mother’s death and maybe Hoss had been right. He couldn’t cope with any more and he’d blocked it out.
Adam’s eyes shone with tears as he leaned against the back of the chair and hung his head. Two simple words to cover so very much.
“I ran and ran, but no matter how far I ran, it kept pace with me. I couldn’t outrun the guilt or the pain. I tried writing it down to get it out of my head, but nothing worked. In the end I had to come home and face it. All of it.”
Joe waited silently as his brother pulled himself together once again.
“I don’t know how, but somehow … somehow Pa forgave me.”
“There was nothing to forgive, but don’t you think it’s time you forgave yourself?”
Adam slowly settled back into the chair and felt his brother’s hands come to rest on his knees. He felt a smile creep across his face as he looked up. Joe may be aging, but somehow he still had that same puppy look he’d used so effectively as a kid.
“I’m glad you came home, brother.”
Adam couldn’t bring himself to speak immediately and he simply nodded. He had spent too many years trying to outrun something that should have been put to rest long ago.
Adam turned the journal back and forth in his hands. It held a part of his life that he could never take back.
“That thing belongs in the fire.”
Adam chuckled as he looked at Joe once more. “I thought about that before. I nearly tossed it before you came down.”
“So why didn’t ya?”
Adam ran a hand across the cover as he had done many times before. “This has been buried for too long. I needed to face it first.”
“And have you?”
Without speaking, Adam stood up and headed towards the fireplace. He began to rip pages from the journal and feed them into the fire. As the paper flared up, he felt a weight lifting off him.
“I loved you,” he whispered into the flames. “I always did.”
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Angst, brothers, ESA, Family, Grief, JAM, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, SAS
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