Summary: Inspired by the July Writers Challenge – Adam and Little Joe’s relationship is tested when Adam returns from College.
Rated: K+ Word Count: 3100
As the winter wind howled around the ranch house in the darkness of night Adam Cartwright stoked the fire for the umpteenth time then settled down again in his favourite leather armchair and stared into the flames. The grandfather clock struck eleven and the young man gave a loud yawn then took a sip from his glass of brandy.
He’d had a long stressful day. In fact he’d had a few aggravating weeks since his highly anticipated homecoming from college; Ben deciding within a short while of Adam’s return to have a break away from the ranch with Hoss and celebrate his middle son’s sixteenth birthday in San Francisco, happy in the knowledge he could leave his more than capable eldest in sole charge of the Ponderosa.
In sole charge? Adam gave a wry smile of disbelief. For after arriving back home to his intense disappointment it soon became clear the ranch practically ran itself due to his father’s hard work and attention to detail during his 4 year absence, and there was not much need for the newly acquired skills of the recently graduated Cartwright. How naïve he’d been to think the ranch couldn’t survive without him Adam reflected with a hint of chagrin, though his father had wisely told him to be patient as there’d be plenty of time for him to make his presence felt.
But even so Adam had wondered if he should answer in the affirmative the correspondence received the previous week from his favourite college tutor; the lecturer offering to send him letters of introduction to several professors within various European universities and so giving Adam the ideal opportunity to carry out a long held desire since early childhood to travel the world of academia.
He’d never expected nor really wanted to fulfil his ambition for many years yet but better now than be surplus to requirements on the Ponderosa, Adam pondered unhappily as he refilled his glass once again. However he knew he was really fooling himself, for that wasn’t the main reason he was contemplating leaving the place he really loved beyond measure. Oh no! There was another cause much nearer and dearer to his heart, for it would seem not only could the ranch manage without him nowadays….so could Little Joe.
Adam heaved a deep sigh of regret. Ever since his return he and Joe had failed to connect and have the close brotherly relationship they’d once had. And with all the excitement of his eldest son’s arrival Ben failed to notice the hidden tension slowly building under the surface between the two; the result being after his departure when the eldest and youngest Cartwright had been thrown together every day, things quickly went from bad to worse.
Spoiling for a fight at every opportunity and always finding some reason or excuse to push Adam to the limits of endurance and into another heated argument, over their time together Joe gave the distinct impression each fraught-filled day he deeply resented his eldest brother’s reappearance in his life; that evening after supper being no exception.
It all started when after checking the horses in the barn for the final time that night, Adam opened the front door of the ranch house and to his surprise found Joe still up and fingering the rifles standing in a row on the impressive looking rack that filled one wall of the great room; something he would have never dared do had his father been around. Conscious of this fact and with a frown crossing his brow, Adam asked what he was doing.
“I’m just deciding which rifle is the best one to use,” Joe replied with unusual bravado; apparently un-phased by his brother’s arrival and question. “Me and Mitch are planning going up to Eagles Nest for the weekend and hunt us some cougar.”
Walking over and gently pulling his brother away from the potentially lethal weapons, Adam placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders and looking down shook his head emphatically. “No way squirt! You’re not going anywhere.”
With eyes blazing Joe squirmed and wriggled out of his brother’s hold. “Don’t call me squirt. I ain’t a kid no more! I’m nearly eleven!”
Adam lifted one corner of his mouth ever so slightly in amusement. “Okay, point taken,” he admitted. “But you’re still far too young to go camping miles from home, even with Mitch Devlin. And as for being allowed the responsibility of a firearm, don’t even think about it! So please get up those stairs. It’s way past your bedtime.”
However Joe was in no mood to have his well-laid plans thwarted by anyone, least of all his elder brother, without a fight. “You ain’t got no right to tell me what I can or can’t do,” he yelled, visibly irate and totally ignoring Adam’s request. “I don’t take orders from you and you can’t make me!”
Adam stared at him wordlessly for a moment, biting his tongue and counting to ten in an attempt not to lose his temper and so rise to the bait once again. “While I’m in charge you do as I tell you whether you like it or not,” he finally responded with a tight smile of certainty. “Now go to bed!”
Unfortunately the expression on Adam’s face appeared undeniably smug-like to Joe and so without thinking he levelled inappropriate foul language that no ten year old, especially a Cartwright ten year old had a right to know or express aloud. It was at this point the ice-cold look that suddenly showed in Adam’s brown eyes told Joe he’d gone too far this time as his brother finally snapped and let out a loud angry sigh of pure exasperation.
“Joseph Francis Cartwright if you ever speak to me like that again I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget!” he shouted over loudly as his face reddened with rage. However, keen to keep his temper under control Adam then took a deep breath to calm down and consciously lowered his tone as he continued. “So little buddy, unless you want to visit behind the woodshed and have your backside tanned, I suggest you….”
Joe widened his eyes in surprise; momentarily thrown at hearing his baby nickname for the first time in a long time. Then as the realisation of Adam’s threat suddenly dawned on him he interrupted with a screech of incredulity. “You wouldn’t dare…you ain’t my Pa!”
But as he stared at Adam’s grim expression Joe knew for sure his brother wasn’t kidding. A multitude of emotions flooded through him…shock, bewilderment, resentment and finally a scalding fury that made his body shake. “You’ve got no right to interfere in my life so why don’t you just go back from where you came from and leave me alone. I hate you!”
Adam inwardly winced with hurt at Joe’s explosive outburst but outwardly remained poker faced as the youngest Cartwright stared at his brother rebelliously; the words hanging in the room like a fog. Without waiting for a response Joe then turned and stormed up the stairs towards his bedroom without a backward glance or a goodnight, leaving Adam to watch his disappearing back with a stony yet thoughtful expression on his face.
His brother’s cruel words upset Adam to such an extent that hours later and even after a few large glasses of his father’s most expensive brandy he was still unable to shake off a feeling of gloom and despondency. Swishing what was left of his drink around in his glass he swallowed it back then purposefully picked up a volume of his favourite poems from the table and began to flick through the pages; but for once nothing caught his interest. He just couldn’t concentrate on anything else except Joe, so he threw down the book in frustration as his mouth slowly curved into a small sad smile.
Where had the cute and affectionate little brother he’d loved so much and remembered so well from before he left for Boston gone? Now he hardly recognised the surly and argumentative scrawny reincarnation as he recalled their every fight, spat, clash of wills since he’d returned to the Ponderosa. He wondered if it was just a phase that most children of Joe’s age went through, but in his heart of hearts Adam knew it wasn’t such a simple explanation.
Four years lost. That was the underlying cause for Joe’s bad-mouthing and resentment towards him, Adam pondered sadly. Their years apart had left Joe not remembering the elder brother with whom he’d once been so close; only welcoming back a stranger to whom he had to follow orders and whose authority he clearly resented…a stranger he obviously didn’t like much.
Pushing off his chair Adam made his way to his father’s writing desk at the far side of the room and sat down, removing a Massachusetts University crested letter from the top pocket of his shirt and reading the contents then re-reading them again. Opening a drawer and pulling out a pen and a sheet of writing paper, he glanced around; suddenly conscious of the large room filled with the happy memories of year’s gone bye and still not sure which course of action to take.
What to do…go….or stay?
However as he absently drummed his fingertips on the desk top the more Adam deliberated the more he could imagine the uneasy relationship between Joe and himself intensifying as time went on. And so after a few further moments consideration the decision was made.
He had no intention of threatening the stability of the Cartwright family with his presence, and for the sake of peace there was no point delaying the inevitable Adam decided with a sigh of resignation. The Ponderosa could and would continue to function without him so he’d write to the professor and accept his offer of introductions; travel the world, just as his father had once done. And though Pa would be saddened to lose his eldest so soon after his return home, he’d always said he would never stop any of his son’s following their dream and would let him go without condemnation or rebuke…never to know the real reason why.
As for amiable Hoss, he would understand and accept his elder brother’s decision, wish him luck and grow to be his father’s right- hand man…and a good one too! Of that Adam had no doubt.
And Little Joe….well it was obvious they were as different as chalk and cheese, the years that separated eldest from youngest obviously too big a gap, Adam silently convinced himself. Joe would probably just say good riddance and eventually forget he ever had an elder brother he once idolised during his early years.
With a cold chill of inevitability in his gut about his last notion, Adam dabbed the point of the pen into a small silver inkwell and let his hand hover above the paper for a moment as he considered what to write. And it was at that point the unexpected squeak of a loose floor board on the upstairs landing made him look up quickly, and a tousled haired Joe, blurry eyed, bare footed and wearing a far too large striped nightshirt for his skinny frame came into view.
Slowly he walked down the stairs, sensing but refusing to catch Adam’s penetrating gaze and a couple of times nearly tripping on the overlong hem. Deliberately ignoring the comedic aspect of Joe’s ill fitting night attire, Adam forced himself to remain stern faced and looked at him questioningly as his baby brother stood with his head bowed on the last step, purposefully gnawing on his bottom lip.
An uncomfortable silence followed as Adam recognised the tell-tale sign; something serious was bothering him. “Joe what’s wrong?” he eventually asked; his throat tightening with guilt as he silently thought apart from the fact after four years apart I’m suddenly back in your life and ordering you about like I have a God-given right.
Unaware of his brother’s private remorseful deliberations Joe nervously wiped his sweated palms across his front. “I wanted to say sorry for being such a pain in the butt lately and I’ll try to behave better from now on,” he answered in a whisper, fleetingly meeting Adam’s piercing gaze then quickly looking away. “And ‘bout what I said earlier. I didn’t mean it Adam…I don’t hate you…I love you.”
The admission was like music to Adam’s ears and for a moment he was astounded into silence. “Thanks Joe…apology accepted and I love you too,” he answered at last with a tender smile. Then expecting him to race back up the stairs Adam waited for movement but to his puzzlement Joe showed no desire or inclination to return to his bed.
Silence once more ensued as Adam studied his brother’s miserable looking face; Joe looking confused as if his emotions were in turmoil and he was summoning up the courage to say something else but wasn’t sure whether he should.
Not wishing to pressurise Adam said nothing and waited but still there was no sign of Joe speaking up. “What else is bothering you little brother?” he finally coerced gently. “Are you feeling all right?”
Joe just gave a hardly perceptible nod then with his voice low and hushed he answered. “I’ve had a really bad dream and now I can’t sleep.”
Suddenly the corner of Adam’s mouth twitched with remembrance as he recalled the many times a five year old Little Joe would use that same excuse to come downstairs and sit in front of the fire on his elder brother’s lap until eventually slumber overcame him.
A long forgotten feeling deep and warm fluttered in Adam’s chest and he immediately put down his pen, pushed back the chair then walked over, looking down and noting the youngster’s red rimmed eyes and flushed cheeks. “A bad dream eh?” he queried; his voice equally soft and quiet to match Joe’s tone. “What was it about?”
Joe raised his gaze and took an anxious gulp as he stared at the concerned expression on his brother’s face. “It was about you,” he confessed then quickly lowered his eyes once more.
Adam grinned; keen to lighten the mood. “About me? More like a nightmare then.” But Joe refused to smile back at the joke and tentatively Adam tilted up his chin with his finger before continuing. “Would…would you like to tell me about it?”
As a single tear ran down over his cheek Joe nodded so Adam made comfortable in his armchair and to his surprise and delight his brother joined him and settled on his knee as if it were the most natural thing to do; happily resting his head on his chest.
“I dreamt you left us all for a second time because of me and vowed you’d never come back…ever, no matter how much I begged,” Joe admitted in a muffled whisper, the misery in his voice more than apparent. “You didn’t even say goodbye and I never saw you any more….just like what happened with my Mama. I woke up scared, crying. I was so afraid it was really gonna happen.”
Abruptly Joe then burst into tears, burying his face against his brother’s neck. And instantly overwhelmed by a feeling of brotherly protectiveness that originally came to the fore at the time of Marie’s tragic and untimely death, Adam held him in a tender embrace, stroking Joe’s hair in a comforting fashion until his crying ceased.
“You don’t want me to go away then?” Adam finally asked as he brushed away a strand of hair which had fallen across his brother’s forehead.
Swallowing back a loud sob Joe raised his eyes which still brimmed with tears of remorse and shook his head. “When you called me little buddy I slowly got to remembering how it was before you went to college…how I’d cried for days after you’d gone ‘cause I missed you so much,” he burst out then sniffled again and wiped his sleeve across his nose. “Please don’t leave me again Adam. I want you to stay…I really do. I don’t want you to go away ever and that’s the truth. You won’t, will you?”
With his heart turning cartwheels of joy over and over Adam looked towards the letter on his desk and swallowed hard. If he’d had second thoughts about moving away they were now completely gone. Joe wanted him to stay…the world could wait. “No little brother….I don’t aim to go anywhere…least ways not for a long time until you’re all grown up. And when the time comes I’ll definitely never, ever leave you without saying goodbye first. That’s a promise. Okay?”
Joe looked at him closely with large, doleful eyes. “I guess,” he answered warily; his voice still uncertain. “You really promise Adam?”
“I really promise…cross my heart and hope to die.”
This seemed to finally satisfy the youngster who now with a smile of relief on his face and tears dried snuggled even closer into his brother’s body. He tried to hide his weariness by smothering a sleepy yawn but failed miserably in his deception and Adam gave him an affectionate squeeze.
“Tired buddy? Maybe you should get up to bed,” he directed reluctantly; not really wanting to break the spell of closeness that seemed to have formed between them.
Joe shook his head determinedly. “Can’t I sit here with you a while? I won’t be no bother…honest. I’ll close my eyes and start counting sheep like I used to do when I was little. Do you remember you used to tell me if I could count up to a hundred of those pesky creatures and still not fall asleep you’d read me a story?”
Adam chuckled and ruffled Joe’s hair. “I remember very well little brother. I’m just surprised after all this time you do.”
“I still don’t remember a lot of stuff,” Joe admitted with a wistful sigh. “But I do remember some…and that you were the best brother a brother could have.” Then screwing his eyes tight began to quietly and slowly count.
It was no surprise to Adam that Joe was asleep before he got to double figures and as he continued to hold him close Adam stared over at the fire again, relaxed and contented for the first time since returning home as he watched the embers now glowing brightly in the hearth.
And as he looked down at his brother, so snug and trusting in his arms, Adam kissed the top of his mass of curls and sighed with new found elation and happiness.
At last he felt connected.
Other Stories by this Author
- A Brother’s Heartache (by Dodo)
- The Question (by Dodo)
- The Art Of Cunning (by Dodo)
- A Hard Act To Follow (by Dodo)
- Hindsight (by Dodo)