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