Summary: Adam isn’t talking about whatever happened to him in the desert, but a concerned younger brother has developed some unique theories to explain it. According to Little Joe, who tells the aftermath of “The Crucible” from his perspective, it’s all a matter of kerosene and water.
Rated: K+ WC 14,000
A Brother’s Torment Series:
Water for a Burning Soul
It’s over, ‘cause we found him; we finally found him! And here he is, safe, when we were sure he was dead. Well, I was, anyway; I said as much to the sheriff of Salt Flats after I found out that Adam had been waylaid by those two pieces of rotten driftwood. Pa held out longer, and his faith carried me and Hoss along, at least for a while. Two long weeks we looked, and just when we’d give up hope altogether, Pa spotted him down here on the desert floor. Had to be the hand of God, else why would Pa have looked down here, just that minute, when one minute more might’ve lost him to us forever? Just a minute—less, really—between bein’ washed by a river of joy or crushed by an ocean of agony. (How’s that for poetic talk, Adam? And you think I never listen when you spout that fodder!) Poetry aside, now it’s over: the gut-grippin’ fear when he didn’t meet me at Signal Rock, the shivering dread of finding Sport alone at that livery, the bubble of hope when Pa and Hoss came to help me search . . . the throat-stranglin’ grief and guilt of finally givin’ up. We’ve been in hell for half a month, but now it’s over, washed clean with joy . . . leastways, it ought to be.
Hell . . . I called it that in my own mind, though I never said it out loud, but now, seein’ my brother fall into Pa’s arms and blubber like a baby—no, that ain’t right; babies blubber out of anger or pain or hunger, maybe (I ain’t no expert) . . . but Adam? What could make him cry? Somethin’ more than a baby’s need, that’s for sure. Somethin’ deeper, like . . . despair? Is that what it is? Adam . . . despair . . . don’t seem to go together, no more than Adam cryin’ his heart out in Pa’s arms; that’s more like me. Adam’s never seemed to need that kind of comfort. He’s too strong to need it . . . too much a man . . . but he needs it now, needs it more than I ever have. I may not be smart like him, but I can feel what folks feel, real strong sometimes, and what I’m feelin’ now, comin’ from my big brother, is that ocean of agony I thought Providence had spared us. Didn’t spare Adam, I guess, and before I can stop the words—I almost never can—they’re out my mouth: “He’s been through some kind of hell.” I only thought I’d been there; my brother Adam, he’s stared straight into its flames, and I ain’t even had a glimpse.
“He was draggin’ a dead man,” I hear Hoss say. I’d forgot about that fellow on the litter. Who is—was—he? Just another sinner sufferin’ the flames of hell . . . or was he the devil with the pitchfork? Don’t know what made me think that, but a shiver went through me when I did, a shiver of knowing—like the one I felt when I found Sport. I knew then that somethin’ awful had happened to my big brother, and looking at that sun-baked body over there, I know—just know without knowing how—he’s part of the somethin’ awful, maybe the worst part, maybe the part that brought my brother to despair.
Still can’t get a handle on that. Adam don’t despair. He stays real calm in a crisis, thinks things through and works ‘em out, so everything turns out right in the end. Always been that way. Seen him do it time and again. Couldn’t he do it this time? Well, of course, he did, ‘cause everything is right: he’s alive and he’s with us. Drained dry and scrawnied down—the desert’ll do that to a man—that’s likely what’s makin’ him look so lost . . . so kind of hollowed out . . . but rest and Hop Sing’s good cooking’ll take care of that. Sure. That’s all he needs. He’s Adam. Stuff don’t get to him like it does to weaker folks—folks like me. He’s Adam—my big, strong, made-of-iron brother. Ain’t nothin’ gonna break him, not ever. So, it’s over . . . leastways, it ought to be.
* * * * *
It ain’t over. Should’ve been, once we got him to town. We took him straight to the doctor here, who ain’t no Doc Martin, but good as they got in Salt Flats. He said just what I thought: Adam needs to rest and feed up, and he’ll be fine, no damage done. (Maybe him sayin’ the same as me, who knows squat about doctorin’, should have been a warning, but we missed it.) Anyway, we watered him and fed him and put him to bed and waited for him to perk right up, so we could head back to the Ponderosa. That was three days ago, and he ain’t perked up yet.
The first night here he slept solid and silent, like he had on the trail. Just plumb wore out . . . or, maybe, it was ‘cause Pa was sittin’ with him. I can always sense Pa close when I’m sick or hurt, and it helps me rest; maybe it’s the same with Adam. The second night, with me on watch, was anything but restful . . . for Adam or me. Adam kept mutterin’ somethin’ in his sleep. I could never quite make it out clear . . . somethin’ about gold and games. I tried pattin’ his arm, to soothe him, but it didn’t seem to have no effect. I ain’t Pa. He wasn’t wakin’ hisself up, so I just let him mutter away.
I settled down in the straight-backed chair, and even though that ain’t a comfy bed, I must’ve drifted off. I jolted straight out of the chair when I heard Adam yellin’ his head off. Same stuff about gold and games, only louder and kind of frantic-like. I hurried over to him and shook him awake, to loose him from the nightmare. Big mistake.
Next thing I know my brother’s hands are closed around my neck, and he’s yellin’ right in my face: “No more games!” We’re nose-to-nose and I’m just inches from his eyes . . . and what I saw there scared me half to death. His eyes were glazed over, like he didn’t even see me, and I couldn’t see what he was seein’, either. I got a feeling that’s a blessing.
Weak as he was, I should have been able to push him off me, but he caught me off guard and, besides, I didn’t want to hurt him. That held me back long enough for him to get a killer grip on my throat, and no matter how hard I pushed and pulled on his hands, I couldn’t break loose of that stranglehold. He was squeezing tighter and tighter, ‘til I couldn’t get a word out. A good thing for me Adam was lettin’ out plenty, enough to wake Pa and Hoss and send them both runnin’ in. Hoss got there a minute before Pa and he hollered, “Adam! Adam!”
Adam’s head jerked toward Hoss and then back toward me, and the glaze faded away. He let loose a cry like a wounded animal—or somethin’ worse—and let go. He fell back onto the bed, with one arm flung across his eyes and just lay there, pantin’.
Suckin’ in air in short gasps, I stumbled away from the bed, and Hoss caught me before I toppled over.
Pa came in about then, his eyes flickin’ back and forth between me and Adam, tryin’ to take in what he was seein’. “Joseph, are you all right?” he asked.
I still couldn’t talk, but I nodded. Hoss put an arm around my shoulder, and he nodded at Pa, too, as if to say that he’d take care of me, so’s Pa could go to Adam.
That’s what he did. I’d’ve held my breath, except I didn’t have none to hold. It scared me, though, watchin’ Pa ease toward that bed. I couldn’t help wonderin’ if Adam would go after him, the way he’d gone for me. “Adam . . . son?” Pa asked gentle-like. “Are you all right?”
At first Adam didn’t say nothin’, just hid behind that arm over his eyes. Then he asked, real weakly, “Did I hurt him?”
“No, no,” Pa assured him quick-like. “Your brother’s fine, Adam; you didn’t hurt him.”
“That musta been some nightmare, older brother,” Hoss said.
Adam finally let the arm fall. “A nightmare.” He licked his lips and Pa turned to pour him a glass of water. “Yes. I . . .was having”—his eyes fell on me—“I’m sorry, Joe,” he whispered so soft I could barely hear him. “I didn’t . . .” His voice tapered off as Pa offered him a drink, leavin’ me to wonder what he’d meant to say. That he didn’t mean to, that he didn’t know it was me? Who’d he think I was, then? I had an idea, but I wasn’t about to ask . . . at least, not then. I try to limit myself to one big mistake per night.
I couldn’t ask this morning, either. I came in to see Adam before I headed down to breakfast. Just needed to see that he was all right . . . that he was Adam, not whoever or whatever he was last night. He seemed to be, but suddenly I realized he was staring at my neck, and I hurried to button my shirt up all the way. Too late. He’d seen.
“Did I do that?” he asked, like he was askin’ if he’d robbed a bank or shot a man for no reason.
My heart went out to him. “You were asleep, Adam,” I said, makin’ excuse. “You didn’t know it was me.” All I wanted was to comfort him, to take the worry off his face.
“No, I . . . didn’t know it was you,” he said.
That was the time to ask who he’d thought I was, but I just couldn’t. All I could say was, “Don’t worry about it.” Adam didn’t say anything, and I hightailed it out of there and joined Hoss downstairs for breakfast.
Today, Adam’s been quiet all day. Just lies there real thoughtful, grateful for every little thing we do for him, but still lookin’ hollowed out inside, like he just ain’t there, like he’s still out in that desert with that dead man—dead devil, that’s how I think of him. I ain’t had the nerve to ask, but I know that devil did something to my brother that put him straight into hell’s flames, and he ain’t out yet. Adam ain’t said nothin’, though, not one word about what happened out there. Pa don’t ask nor Hoss, neither, except that one question out in the desert, when he buried the devil, and “Kane” was all Adam answered then. Hoss scratched it on the rock he put at the head of the devil’s grave, and we left him behind.
Except Adam. I don’t think he left that Kane behind; I think he’s still draggin’ him along, and the weight of it’s killin’ him, keepin’ him in the hell fire that devil threw him into. How could any man do that to Adam, my big, strong, made-of-iron—is he made of iron? I always thought so, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe he’s flesh and bone, like the rest of us, after all. I kind of wish he weren’t, that he was so strong nothin’ could break him, ‘cause I’m real scared this might . . . whatever “this” is. Will we ever know? I got to! ‘Cause anything that can crack Adam’s iron strength could shatter what us lesser mortals got.
I want to ask so bad, but I just can’t; I can’t make hell burn hotter for my brother, and I got a gut feelin’—Pa and Hoss do, too, I’m pretty sure—that talkin’ right now would just add fuel to hell’s fire. I think talkin’s the only water to put it out, too. Always works with me and Pa . . . but not ‘til the time’s right. Talkin’s still kerosene to Adam, and he’s the only one who can turn that kerosene to water. I don’t mean nothin’ sacrilegious by that. It ain’t like I think Adam’s Jesus, with the power to turn water to wine, but he’s the one who’s got to decide when God’s made it happen for him. I ain’t a preacher, no more than I am a doctor, but I got a lot of experience with this kerosene to water miracle. I wonder if Pa ever got this twisted up inside, waitin’ for it to happen with me. Maybe I’ll ask; maybe now’s exactly the right time to ask; maybe if I remind Pa of all the times it’s happened for me, it’ll be water on the fire burnin’ in him, while he waits for the chance to douse Adam’s hell.
* * * * *
It still ain’t over . . . and now I think maybe it ain’t gonna be, not for a long, long time . . . not for Adam, not for me. I know things now I didn’t before, and now it’s not just Adam carrying secrets; it’s me, too. Adam made his statement to the sheriff today, and Pa sent me along with him, sayin’ the sheriff might have questions for me, too, since I was the one who found good ole Sport. The sheriff did ask me some about that, since I hadn’t give him much chance the first time I came to town, but I knew—and I think Adam did, too—that the real reason Pa wanted me there was to look after older brother, who’s still more than a little wobbly after his time in the desert. I wish he’d sent Hoss, instead.
Adam told his story, all cut and dried, just bare facts and as few of them as the sheriff would let him by with. He was waylaid in the desert by two men—the ones I trailed here to town—robbed and left to make his way out as best he could, on foot and without water. They didn’t care whether he lived or died—probably hoped he’d die, in fact, and leave no witness to their crime—but Adam’s strong, like I’ve always known. He survived and they’re the ones ended up dead, though Adam didn’t know that ‘til today.
What I didn’t know ‘til today was who those men were. Just a couple of saddle bums, the kind you’d give no heed to in a saloon. And we didn’t, neither Adam nor me, but they sure gave heed to us. Must’ve heard us talkin’ about the money we’d got from the cattle, must’ve seen Adam hand me over some of it for “a little celebration money.” And, what’s worse, must’ve heard all about our plans to split up, for me to stay in East Gate for the trial and Adam to go off alone.
Why’d I let him? It was rough country, the kind a man shouldn’t be alone in, but I didn’t give it a second’s thought at the time. Maybe ‘cause plenty of men do cross the desert alone, and maybe ‘cause I think my big brother can handle anything . . . except two-against-one odds. If we’d just stayed together . . . that’s what ripped me right apart while I was listenin’ to Adam give his statement to the sheriff. If we’d just stayed together, it might never have happened . . . whatever “it” is. Adam’s still bein’ cagey ‘bout that. He told the sheriff that he only survived because he came across the camp of a miner named Kane, that the man offered him food and water and help gettin’ out of the desert in exchange for a few days’ work in his mine. A few days! Adam was missin’ two weeks! Then he said they’d waited too long to start out; food and water ran short and Kane got weak. Adam built a travois and tried to drag him out, but he died; Adam wasn’t sure when. I told the sheriff that Kane had been dead when we found Adam, still pullin’ him, and that we’d buried him.
The story seemed to satisfy the sheriff, but it don’t satisfy me. I’m sort of the family expert at lies and half-truths told in time of need, so I can recognize a whopper when I hear one. And my straight-and-narrow brother just told one . . . half-truth, at best. So Kane’s a helpful miner he met out in the desert, huh? I don’t think so. Call it gut-instinct, but I still think that man was a devil, and if I didn’t before, the way Adam shivered when he mentioned his name would have shouted it at me. That devil did something to my brother . . . and whatever it was, I’m at least part to blame, ‘cause I let my brother face the devil alone. If I’d just gone with him, it wouldn’t have happened.
That’s the secret I got to carry now, my own load of kerosene that tryin’ to talk about will set a spark to. Makes me glad I didn’t have that talk with Pa I was thinkin’ about. Pa and Hoss—they’re frettin’ theirselves sick over Adam already, especially after what happened the other night, so it’s time for me to be a man and carry my own load, like Adam is. His load’s heavy, I can tell, by the way his steps drag as we head back to the hotel. I wish I could share it, but right now that would just be kerosene mixin’ with kerosene. Don’t take no college scholar to know that could only make a bigger flare up, so us two containers of kerosene better just walk along together quiet-like and separate. And neither one of us will say a word to Pa or Hoss, even though they got the water we need. It’ll be tough, but I can do it if Adam can.
* * * * *
I ain’t as good at this as Adam. I got one of those tattletale faces that lets folks—especially my family—know right off when something’s wrong. And what I heard at the sheriff’s office is twisting my stomach in knots by the time we all settle down to dinner in the hotel restaurant. Even Adam makes a better show of clearing his plate, and puny as his appetite’s been since we found him, that’s sayin’ a good bit. I sort of fiddle my fork through my food and take a nibble now and then, hoping no one will take note. Of course, Hoss notices right off, and it ain’t the sort of thing he’s likely to keep quiet about. “Kind of off your feed, ain’t you, little brother?” he asks with a worried look.
I shrug it off. “Ain’t done nothin’ to work up an appetite.” I can hear irritation in my voice, but it’s too late to change that. I flick a nervous glance over at Adam and see him lookin’ at me with his head cocked in that studyin’ sort of way he’s got. I cut away fast before he can get a good look into those tattlin’ eyes of mine and see straight down into my soul.
I don’t think he had time to see the guilt wrenchin’ my gut ‘til food’s plumb nauseous to me, but he must’ve seen something that bothered him, ‘cause the next thing I know he’s sayin’, “Maybe it’s time we headed back home.”
Nothin’ I want more than to be home, but not like this—not with my brother, who’s been through hell, pushing himself before he’s ready because he’s worried about me! “Don’t be stupid!” I snap. “You ain’t up to travelin’ yet.”
“Joseph!” Pa hisses at me, keepin’ his voice down ‘cause we’re in a public place. “You will not speak to your brother in that manner.”
“It’s all right, Pa,” Adam says real quiet-like. “We’re all restless, cooped up in this hotel . . . and I think I’m ready to go home.” His voice hesitates and gets even softer when he says that last part. He ain’t ready; I can tell he ain’t.
I choke on the words, but manage to get a few out. “Don’t do this for me.” Don’t make me feel worse, I want to scream, but I ain’t that selfish. That’s all Adam needs: the load of my guilt added to his own. Whoa! Where’d that thought come from? What guilt could Adam be carryin’?
I ain’t got time to ponder that one, though, ‘cause now Adam’s talkin’ again, his voice real gentle. “Home is what we all need,” he says. His hand reaches out to cover mine, but his touch burns like fire, and though I hate myself for it, I pull away. Sneaking a peek, I can see Adam looks puzzled, but he just leaves his hand floatin’ there in mid-air and asks, “Could we leave tomorrow morning, Pa?”
Pa don’t quite know what to say at first. In his face I can see worry over Adam’s health battlin’ with joy that he’s sounding so much better. In the end joy wins. “Of course, son,” he says brightly. “We’ll head home tomorrow.” I can tell he’s thinking that everything will be all right again, once we’re back on the Ponderosa. Will it? Will it be over then? Or will all this bottled-up kerosene just explode and burn down the ranch?
* * * * *
Boy howdy, ain’t this some trip? The most uncomfortable I’ve made in a long while. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever made this miserable a trip in my life. It ought to be great, the four of us ridin’ home, side by side, but it’s just been . . . well, awkward . . . I guess that’s the word for it. It’s all Adam can do to stay in a saddle, so no one worries much about how quiet he’s bein’. Besides, quiet is kind of natural for him.
It ain’t natural for me. Usually, no one can shut me up on a long journey like this; if I ain’t jabberin’, I’m hummin’ or singin’ some little ditty, ‘til whoever I’m with cries out for mercy. I can tell by the way Pa and Hoss keep lookin’ over at me that they’re wonderin’ what on earth’s gone wrong, to keep me quiet and broodsome, like older brother. I ain’t likely to share my thoughts with them—no, sir! ‘Cause all I been able to think about since we left Salt Flats is that crazy feelin’ I had back in the restaurant that Adam’s carryin’ a load of guilt, same as me. Makes no sense, leastways none I can figure. He ain’t let no one down; he just ran into more trouble than one man could handle, and that’s more my fault than his. Every now and then, though, I peek over at Adam, and the way he jerks away tells me he’s hidin’ something, some kind of guilt that likely only makes sense in his own head. ‘Cause my big brother couldn’t’ve done nothin’ wrong, leastways nothin’ wrong enough to account for him lookin’ so . . . so tormented.
Wish he’d tell me what that torment is . . . or, better yet, tell Pa. Pa’s got the water you need, you ole bottle of kerosene, so why don’t you just . . .
Why don’t I just, huh? Pa’s the only one could help me make sense of what’s eatin’ me, too, but I can’t talk yet, any more than Adam can. So we’ll just keep ridin’ along, Pa and Hoss chirpin’ away about all the work that’s waitin’ at the ranch and me and Adam just noddin’, like we’re hearin’ every word, instead of one in ten.
* * * * *
I volunteered to scout around for some firewood. Kind of sparse in this area we’re camped in, which means the job’ll take awhile, but I need to get away from the others, just for a bit. Wish I could get clean away. I need to think, and I just can’t with them starin’ at me. Maybe, once we get home, I oughta volunteer to stock the line shacks or something. Too obvious, probably; just raise questions I don’t wanna answer. What’s that? Dropping my load of sage and reaching for my gun, I spin around at the sound behind me. Oh, man, wouldn’t you just know it? “What are you doin’ here?” I demand as I holster the pistol.
“I thought you could use a hand,” Adam says.
“Not yours, I can’t,” I sputter. “You ain’t up to work yet, Adam.”
He arches his eyebrow at me in that maddenin’ way he’s got. “Picking up a little dried sage generally qualifies as light chores. Any reason you don’t want my help?”
“Just don’t need it.” I bend down to pick up the kindling I dropped. I take my time, so’s I can keep my face hidden, but Adam’s still standing there, starin’ at me, when I come up.
He puckers out his lips and exhales slow through them. “Are you afraid of me, Joe?” he asks quietly.
“No,” I say fast—too fast. “Why would you think that?”
One of those non-smilin’ smiles lifts one side of his mouth. “Well, you did just pull a gun on me—and you’ve been careful to keep Hoss between us all day.”
Guilty as charged, but that was so he wouldn’t look at me too close, no other reason. I can’t tell him that, so, instead, I say, “I ain’t scared of you, Adam. Why would I be?”
“This, maybe,” Adam says, stepping toward me and reaching to touch the bruises on my throat. I tried to keep my shirt buttoned up, so he wouldn’t have that reminder, but the desert heat just plain melted my resolve and I’d loosed the top two buttons by midday.
I can’t stop myself. At the sight of his hand comin’ toward me, I flinch away. For that one moment, I am scared, remembering how he came at me before. “I told you not to worry about that,” I say, hopin’ the words come fast enough to cover anything my face might say different.
“What’s bothering you, Joe?” my brother asks, voice all soft with worry.
“Nothin’,” I insist, wishin’ I could keep the sharpness out of my own voice, but I ain’t never managed the control my big brother’s got. “I’m just . . . on edge. You know . . . dark . . . desert . . . creatures of the night.”
Adam gives a short, ugly laugh. “Since when are you afraid of the dark?”
“I ain’t,” I snort as disdainful as I can, “and I ain’t afraid of you, neither, so now that we got all that settled, why don’t you just haul your scrawny, desert-dried carcass back to camp and let me finish this chore?” I shouldn’t talk so rough to him; I know I shouldn’t, but if he don’t quit badgerin’ me, so help me I’m gonna just blurt out exactly what I’m thinkin’, and we won’t have to wait to get back to the Ponderosa for that sky-high explosion I been dreadin’.
He looks like I’ve hit him with a two-by-four, and his face goes so pale I think he may keel over. I take a step forward, but he gets hold of himself and straightens up rigid as a ridgepole. “By all means, little brother,” he says gruffly. “I wouldn’t want to discourage this rare demonstration of industry.” Then he turns and walks away.
Now, that sounded like my big brother! I’m used to takin’ that kind of guff from him, and after the way he’s been the last few days, it’s music to my ears. Maybe things are gettin’ better . . . at least for him. Ain’t so sure about me. I got to find someplace to pour out all this kerosene I got inside . . . or, maybe, if Adam keeps actin’ more like the brother I know, it’ll just dilute down to water on its own.
* * * * *
We been home a week now, long enough to know the good ole Ponderosa ain’t the sure-fire cure-all we all hoped—prayed—she’d be. Ain’t nothin’ gettin’ diluted around here, not for Adam and dead-sure not for me. I’m off my feed so bad Pa and Hoss both are frettin’, but I keep blamin’ the heat or some such excuse. They ain’t exactly buyin’ it, but so far they ain’t pushed me about it. Chalkin’ it up to worry over Adam, maybe, and, well, come down to it, that’s pretty much right. Worry and guilt, but they don’t know that part, and I’d just as soon they never did.
Adam’s appetite ain’t too bad, but he sure don’t sleep good. I know ‘cause I kinda been pacin’ the floorboards every night myself, and I hear him mutterin’ that same ole claptrap in his sleep. I go as far as the door, to see whether it’s bad enough to run for Pa, but I ain’t about to get too close. Learned my lesson on that one the hard way! So far, he just tosses and mutters, so I leave him be. Far as I know, Pa nor Hoss neither one knows how bad it is, except they can probably see the circles under older brother’s eyes. Mine, too? I ain’t taken a close look in a mirror recent enough to know; don’t think I want to know.
Adam is some better, though, or, at least, tryin’ to act like he is. Maybe that’s all any of us ever do is act like we’re okay when we ain’t. Don’t know why we bother. Never fools anyone. Anyway, Adam’s been actin’ like he’s all ready and rarin’ to go back to work, but Doc Martin says no, so Pa says the same, of course. Could’ve told Adam there weren’t no use arguin’ with that pair. Comes down to the final tally, they hold all the marbles.
Ole Adam’s sure been a caution, though. One of us sticks close to the house every day, and he’s smart enough to figure out we’re doin’ it to keep an eye on him. Shucks, even I could figure that one out; don’t take a brain as big as ole Plato’s. Don’t take much brain power to figure out how he feels about it, either. We’re two of a kind when it comes to that—maybe four of a kind, which’d be a winning hand in poker, but adds up to nothin’ but misery in this pot.
Picture it like this: a fellow’s all duded up for a fancy dress ball, swallow-tail coat and all, but he’s got these starvin’ ants nibblin’ around inside his fancy black britches. Now, at a high-falutin’ party like this, he can’t let anyone know that, so he dances and talks real smooth, all the time tryin’ to ignore those ants gnawin’ away. Tight-reined control on the surface and hell fire underneath. That’s the way it’s been with Adam, like he’s about to bust with something, but just won’t let himself let loose. Kills me to see him like that, ‘cause I ain’t forgot that it’s all my fault he was left alone to deal with . . . with . . . doggone, I wish I knew with what!
Pa tried once to get him to talk about what happened out in that desert. Adam just thanked him, polite as a stranger, but said there wasn’t nothin’ to talk about. Nothin’, my foot! He told that whopper cool as a cucumber, but I bet those ants were feastin’ away like he’d spread a Sunday afternoon picnic just for them.
Now, if it’d been me, I’d’ve blown up and yelled my head off when Pa made me that offer, but that would’ve been my way of hollerin’ for help. That’s the way my kerosene works—flashes right up when a spark’s set to it. I guess Adam’s works different; his just kind of simmers away, just below the sparkin’ point, so you’re always waitin’ for an explosion that never seems to come. And, then, when you least expect it—boom!
I ain’t so sure but what my way’s better, after all. Gets things over and done with quicker and gets me the help I need sooner. Maybe I oughta quit pussyfootin’ around and do something to spark off ole Adam’s kerosene. Maybe what the Ponderosa needs—what we all need—is that one big flare-up. Or maybe not. I’ll have to think some on that one.
* * * * *
Glad I didn’t waste much time thinkin’. Like I figured all along, you set two containers of kerosene next to each other long enough, and some obliging spark’s bound to come along. Should’ve expected it, I reckon, but when it finally came, it hit me like a bolt out of the blue. And you know what lightning bolts do to kerosene, right?
Today was my day at home, guarding ole Adam. Pa had business in town, and Hoss had promised to help an elderly neighbor patch his barn roof, so I was elected, like it or not—and I didn’t much like it. Wearisome business, this walkin’ on eggshells—doggone touchy eggshells, at that—and I was plumb tuckered to begin with, from not sleepin’ nights. Like usual when I was “on duty,” I asked Adam if there was anything I could do for him before I started my morning chores.
Adam shook his head. Then he asked, “Any way I can help?”
“Adam,” I chided him, drawling the word out slow and reproachful, ‘cause we been down this road before and he’d be the first one to make me toe the line about doctor’s orders. “You know you ain’t allowed.”
I thought he’d rip the blue fabric right off, tight as he clawed the arms of his chair. “I can work,” he growled, “take the place of a mule, if need be.”
I stared at him like he was crazy, ‘cause for a minute he sounded like he was, voice all hollow and bitter and . . . far away . . . back in that desert hell, maybe. “Don’t need a mule for barn chores,” I finally managed to sputter out, “but thanks, anyway.” Then I turned and all but ran for the barn. It’s safer out there. Company’s more sociable, too.
Had me a good talk with Cochise while I was swampin’ out the barn, chewed myself up one side and Cooch chawed me down the other, so to speak. We both come to the conclusion that runnin’ out on Adam like that was pretty doggone cowardly. All the poor guy wanted was somethin’ to do besides stare at four walls. Can’t hardly blame him for that, now can I? I’d feel the same, even if I didn’t have ants nippin’ at my backside like ole Adam. Resolvin’ to do my best to perk him up once I got back inside, I finished up the chores quick as I could without drawin’ down the wrath of Pa on my helpless behind and scurried back to the house, all ready to be a good and downright entertaining brother, instead of a prison guard.
Now, why did I think that all I had to do was make the right decision and everything would fall into place, pretty as you please? I was feelin’ chipper when I went into the house, ‘til I saw Adam sittin’ in that chair, with a book open in his lap—not readin’ it, just starin’ into the fire. I wondered for a minute if he could see the devil with his pitchfork in those flames, but I put that thought out of my head fast, ‘cause it weren’t helpful.
I flashed older brother a big toothy grin and said, “I’m all done with the chores, Adam.”
“Hurray for you,” Adam muttered, but the way he said it made it sound like he meant just the opposite.
Reminding myself that he had reason to be cranky, I took a deep breath and plunged on. “How about a game of checkers before lunch?”
“No.” He tapped the book, as if to say that he was reading.
It irked me, since I figured he hadn’t turned a page since I’d left this morning, but I wasn’t about to let him dampen my spirits. Older brother obviously needed to be pulled out of himself, and I was just the man for the job. I’m usually pretty good at that kind of thing. “Ah, come on, Adam,” I wheedled. “I got time, and goodness knows, you do.” Oops. Shouldn’t’ve reminded him of that. Adam didn’t say anything, but, like they say, if looks could kill. . . .
I hurried on, to get past the awkwardness. “Best two out of three? What do you say?”
“I said no,” he spat out through gritted teeth.
“It’ll do you good, Adam,” I rambled on, ignoring the warning sign of his bared fangs. “You know it will. Hey, I’ll even play chess, if you’d rather.” This was real generous on my part, ‘cause it pretty much guaranteed I was gonna lose, but anything to help older brother.
Before I could pat myself on the back for bein’ so noble, Adam slammed the book to the floor and stood up. “I said no!” he shouted. “No checkers, no chess, no games!”
That did it. If he’d said anything but that, I think I might’ve held on to myself, but it took me right back to all those restless nights of hearing him mutter in his sleep. I planted my hands on my hips and snarled back at him. “No games, huh? No gold, either, I guess.”
Adam rocked unsteadily for a minute, and I started toward him, scared he’d topple over, but he put up a hand to stop me. “What . . . did . . . you . . . say?” he demanded, icy eyes starin’ me down.
I guess that’s when the lightning hit my kerosene, and I just . . . well . . . exploded. I started pacin’ the floor in front of him. “No more gold; no more games,” I ranted, throwin’ my hands in the air. “No more gold; no more games.” I stopped dead in front of him. “I’m so sick of that stuff I could scream. What gold, Adam? What games?”
He reached out and grabbed me—not around the throat this time, thank goodness—but he held me by my shirt front and yelled, “You don’t know anything!”
Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut or, at least, say something sensible, like, “That’s right, Adam; I don’t know a thing, so why don’t you tell me about it”? ‘Cause that ain’t what my kerosene does, once it’s lit. Oh, no, I’ve got to get contrary and throw a spark back at him. “Don’t I? You talk in your sleep, Adam; you talk a lot.”
He shook me ‘til my teeth started to rattle, all the time yellin’, “You don’t know anything! You don’t know anything!”
I didn’t have a choice, honest I didn’t, but if I’m real honest, I didn’t want one, either. I wanted to fight back. I kicked and clawed and finally broke free. I didn’t raise my hand to my brother, but it’s the one mistake I didn’t make. Before we knew it, we were wrestlin’ each other, first one on top and then the other, kickin’ tables, chairs, anything that got in our way. Just two bottles of kerosene rollin’ around on the floor—well, that don’t make sense, ‘cause we’d both already exploded, but I wasn’t thinkin’ real clear at the time . . . and not much better now.
I reckon we’d’ve burnt down the house—or at least wrecked all the furniture—if Hoss hadn’t come in about then and waded right into the fire. He grabbed me up around the waist and somehow managed to hold Adam off with his other arm, ‘cause older brother was still bound and determined to wring my neck or any stray limb he could get hold of. “What’s got into you two?” Hoss roared.
“He won’t play checkers with me!” I hollered, twisting and turning, trying to break free.
Hoss stared at me like I’d lost my mind, and I guess it was sort of a crazy way to describe what was going on, but it was a lot easier than tryin’ to explain about kerosene.
“I won’t play anything with you!” Adam roared. “You don’t know anything about games, boy!”
I was still kicking and squigglin’, tryin’ to get loose from Hoss’s iron grip. “And you know it all, don’t you, Adam?” I hollered. “All about gold and games; you even know how to play the devil’s game. He teach you good, that devil Kane?”
Adam lunged at me, but Hoss pushed him away, backed him right into his blue chair and bellowed, “Stay put!” Then he hauled me across the room and dumped me into Pa’s big leather chair. “Don’t you move,” he growled, pointing a commanding finger when I started to get up, “or so help me, Joe, I’ll toss you through that dining room window clean into Lake Tahoe.” Hoss don’t get firm like that often, but when he does, he means business. I dropped back into the chair.
Hoss took his stance between us, scowling and shaking his head as he looked from me to Adam and back again. Finally, his eyes settled on me. “How could you, Joe?” he asked.
“Me?” I yelped. “He grabbed me first.”
“Joe,” Hoss said, patient as if he was tryin’ to reason with a five-year-old, “Adam’s been sick.”
That did it. All my fire fizzled out in the shame of it. Adam had been more than sick; he’d been through hell and hadn’t found his way out yet. And while I’d meant to help, all I’d done was make things worse. I buried my face in my hands. “I—I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean . . . I’m sorry.”
I could feel Hoss pattin’ my back, but I couldn’t take comfort from it. It took all the courage I had and then some to look up at Adam. I wanted him to say it was all right, that he forgave me . . . something . . . but he just stared at me, his chest heaving like it was hard for him to breathe. And I’d done it to him. I couldn’t say anything, either; I’d already said I was sorry, but it just wasn’t enough. How do you apologize for showin’ your brother the face of hell . . . again?
“Both of you are plumb exhausted,” Hoss said. “Adam, you ain’t slept good since you got back from the desert, and, Joe, I don’t know what you’re doin’ at night—”
“Eavesdropping,” Adam muttered.
“Don’t make no never-mind,” Hoss said, throwing water on that spark before it could light any leftover kerosene. “It ain’t sleepin’, and that’s what you need, so I’m orderin’ you to bed, the both of you, and if I hear any argument, Pa is gonna get an earful when he gets in tonight.”
I nodded, glum as a turkey on Thanksgiving eve. Hoss makes idle threats, plenty times, but this wasn’t one of ‘em, so even if it was the middle of the day, I headed for the stairs. As I passed Adam’s chair, I felt his hand close around my arm, but not in anger this time. He held me just for a moment and looked up into my face, like he was studyin’ me. I couldn’t meet his eyes; I just stood there, hanging my head until he let go. Then, without either of us sayin’ a word, I went up to my room. Hadn’t been there long before I heard Adam walk past and go into his room. Reckon he didn’t feel up to buckin’ Hoss’s orders, either.
Been up here awhile now, not sleepin’ like Hoss ordered, but thinkin’ things over. And I’ve come to a real sober conclusion: sparkin’ off that kerosene didn’t use up any of what I had bottled up inside; in fact, I think some of Adam’s ended up sloshin’ into me. Now it’s not only the hurt I caused by leavin’ Adam to face the devil alone; it’s what I did today to stick the pitchfork in myself. If I don’t find some way to pour this stuff out soon, I don’t know what’s gonna happen to any of us . . . but it’ll be bad.
* * * * *
Oh, this feels good—Pa’s arms around me and all the kerosene turned to water again. I know it’s happened ‘cause what’s leaking out from under my eyelids is pure water—salty, but pure. Why’d I wait so long? I knew all along this was what I needed, but I guess I thought Adam ought to go first, his need bein’ greater. Thought if he could bear his pain, I ought to be able to bear my smaller one, that I’d be less a man if I didn’t. After what happened this afternoon, though, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Maybe Adam’s strong enough to handle this on his own, but I’m not. If that makes me a kid, so be it. I need my pa. I think Adam does, too, to be honest, but when I asked Pa a minute ago if he maybe oughta crack open ole Adam’s armor and pour some water in, Pa just smiled at me, though his eyes were sad, and said, “It doesn’t work that way, son.” I reckon he’s right—he ‘most always is.
I just poured it all out, all my worries and fears and the gut-grippin’ guilt that’s been keepin’ me sick to my stomach and sleepless at night. Pa shared the worries and fears; we both—Hoss, too—are feelin’ those for Adam, but talkin’ about the feelings helped. Then Pa went to work on the guilt. “You did nothing wrong, Joseph,” he told me. “You made your choice; Adam made his.” I was still wrestling with it, and I guess Pa could see that, because then he said, “You think trouble might have been avoided if you’d gone with Adam, but try asking what would have happened if he’d stayed with you.”
I figured it for the easiest question I’d ever been asked. “We’d have seen the trial and come home together, both safe.”
Pa took my hot face in his cool, calming hands. “You don’t know that. Once they knew you had money, those men might have dogged your trail wherever you went—in town, in the desert, wherever.”
“Together,” I whispered. “We’d have been together.”
Pa brushed one of those frustrating curls back off my forehead. “You might have been able to fight off those men together,” he said, “or you might have died together. Or you might both have ended up trapped in the desert as he was and both endured whatever torment he experienced there. No way to know. No man can know the future, son. He can only make the best choice available to him at the time. Watch a trial or go hunting; separate or stay together. What’s to say one was wiser than the other? Neither you nor Adam made a bad choice; those men did, and they paid the ultimate price. Now, let it go.”
And I did. I could almost feel it slippin’ off me as I fell into his arms. I haven’t even tried to stop the tears. I could stay here forever, it feels so good . . . except Hop Sing’s callin’ us to supper, and for the first time in weeks, I’m hungry.
* * * * *
How’s this for a new scientific discovery: kerosene’s heavier than water. Not sure the textbooks would agree, but whatta they know? It’s gotta be true ‘cause I’m bouncin’ down these stairs light as air this mornin’, not draggin’ heavy like when I was weighed down with all that kerosene sloshin’ around inside. “Mornin’, Pa . . . Hoss,” I call real chirpy when I reach the first floor. “Adam still in bed?”
“I suppose,” Pa says. “I haven’t checked.”
“Probably can use the rest,” Hoss puts in.
I can’t help wincin’ when he says that, ‘cause I just might be the cause of Adam not sleepin’ good last night. ‘Course, he ain’t been sleepin’ good any other night, either, so maybe me and my shenanigans yesterday didn’t have much effect, one way or another. After what Pa said to me last night, I ain’t about to take on another load of guilt unless I’ve earned it for sure and certain.
“Want me to look in on him?” I ask just as I get to the table.
“Nuh-uh, not you.” Hoss is scowlin’ at me, rememberin’ yesterday I reckon. Can’t blame him.
“I’ll be meek as a lamb,” I insist.
Hoss snorts at that, like he thinks it ain’t possible. “If there’s any checkin’ to be done, I’ll be doin’ it.”
“Pa?” I ask, turning toward him.
“Let Hoss,” Pa says gentle-like, and then he adds with a grin, “I’m not sure the furniture’s up to another encounter between two bottles of kerosene.” (I told him all about how that works last night.)
“Huh?” Hoss says. He looks confused, but I got no time to explain all that now.
“Pa!” I protest. “I ain’t still—”
“But Adam is,” Pa interrupts to say. “Sit down and have your breakfast, Joseph, and, Hoss, I would appreciate it if you checked on your older brother. If he’s resting peacefully, let him sleep; if he seems to be having a nightmare, wake him gently and tell him breakfast is ready.”
Hoss wipes his mouth on his red-checked napkin and gets right up, on account of he’s the most obedient son Pa’s got. “Sure thing, Pa.”
I shrug and slide on into my chair and reach for the platter of bacon. I leave a couple of slices for Adam, just in case he’s comin’ right away, but Hop Sing may need to fry up some more, ‘cause I’m powerful hungry this morning. I’m just loadin’ my plate from the bowl of scrambled eggs when Hoss comes trompin’ down the stairs. “Pa,” he calls from the landing. “Adam ain’t up there.”
The bowl hits the table with a clunk, and all of a sudden the room’s whirlin’ around, and I feel like I’m lookin’ through one of them kaleidoscopes. A groan comes rippin’ out my throat. “Noooo.”
I can’t focus, but I hear Hoss say, “I’ll—uh—check the barn.”
I try to get up, but I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder and Pa says, “Finish your breakfast” as he moves past me to follow Hoss out.
He’s kidding, right? Adam’s run off and it’s my fault—no counterfeit guilt this time; this time doggone deserved—and Pa expects me to just sit here and eat? He’s gotta know me better than that. I snatch up a piece of bacon and take a bite, so’s I can say I ate, and jolt to my feet. I hold on to the chair ‘til the world quits spinnin’ and then I take off toward the barn, too.
Hoss and Pa are coming out as I cross the yard. “He’s gone, ain’t he?” I ask.
Pa sighs deep and heavy. “It appears so. Sport is missing.”
I slam my fist against my thigh. “I knew it! I just knew it! And it’s all my—”
“No, Joseph,” Pa says real sharp.
“Yeah, Pa,” I snap back. “This time it is my fault; you know it is.”
I see Pa suck in a long breath. For a minute I think he’s gonna pound me for raisin’ my voice, which ain’t respectful like I been taught, but then he blows out the air just as slow and admits I’m right. “I’m sure your brother’s departure does have something to do with that confrontation the two of you had yesterday, son, but he’s a grown man, responsible for his own choice.”
“But, Pa,” Hoss argues, “Adam ain’t in no fit shape to take off on his own.” I nod my hearty agreement.
Pa squares his shoulders. “Which is why I’ll be going after him.”
“No, Pa, not you—me,” I protest. “Don’t you see? It’s gotta be me.”
“I don’t see it!” Hoss snorts. “He’s my brother, too, and I’m a sight less likely to set him off than you!”
“It’s gotta be me,” I repeat, ignoring Hoss and locking eyes with Pa. “You know it does.”
“Why?” Hoss demands.
Eyes still fixed on mine, Pa puts up a hand to silence him. “Because that’s the conflict that has to be resolved,” he says. “Is that what you mean, Joseph?”
I wouldn’t have put it like that, of course, but Pa’s got a way of sayin’ just what I mean when I can’t get the right words out myself. “Yes, sir,” I say. “He won’t come back ‘less’n that’s fixed.”
Pa sighs. “I’m afraid so,” he admits. Again he squares his shoulders, which he tends to do when he’s facin’ somethin’ he don’t much like. It’s his way of makin’ courage rise up inside him. “All right, Joseph. You can leave as soon as you finish your breakfast.”
“Already did,” I say, movin’ fast toward the barn.
Pa grabs my arm and hauls me up short. “I’m wise to your tricks, young man. Now, Hoss will saddle your horse, and Hop Sing will make you up a trail pack, all of which will give you ample time to clean your plate.” He spins me around and plants an encouragin’ swat on my backside. “Now, git!”
* * * * *
Though it’s hard to force the food past the knot in my throat, I gobble down my breakfast like a good little boy, ‘cause arguing with Pa will only slow me down more.
Soon as I buckle on my gun belt, Pa pulls me into his arms for a good-bye hug. “Be careful,” he whispers.
I can hear the worry in his voice. “I will, Pa,” I tell him, “and I’ll bring your other boy home safe.”
Pa nods. I’m almost out the door when he calls, “Joe?”
“Yeah, Pa?” I’m sure he’s gonna tell me again to be careful, but he surprises me.
“Stay well-watered,” he says.
I grin back at him. “Downright drenched,” I promise.
Hoss is kicking at the upright post of the hitching rail, where Cochise is tied, when I come out. “I don’t like this one bit,” he says straight off. “I think I oughta ride along with you.”
“No, Hoss,” I say, keepin’ my voice real calm and soothing. I need the practice for when I meet up with Adam, and I might as well get it with someone who’s a lot easier to soothe in the first place. “I appreciate the offer, honest I do, but this is between me and Adam.”
“Seems to me you needed someone between you and Adam back in Salt Flats,” Hoss grunts. I can hear the shaking in his voice when he goes on. “I’m plumb scared, Joe, of what might happen if Adam comes at you again and I ain’t there to stop him.”
I’d be lyin’ if I said that hadn’t crossed my mind, but I don’t want him frettin’. “Adam wouldn’t hurt me, Hoss.” I sound convincing, at least to my own ears, but Hoss don’t look any easier.
“He wouldn’t hurt you a-purpose,” he says real sober-like, “but Adam ain’t himself, Joe.”
“I know that, but more so than he was back then.” Hoss is still frowning, so I crack a joke to lighten him up. “Besides, I ain’t gonna get that close,” I say with a big grin as I swing into the saddle. “I learn my lessons well, big brother.”
Hoss snorts like a horse blowin’ hard. “Tell that one to Miss Abigail.”
It’s a perfect opening and I grab it. “We’ll save that job for Adam, when he gets back.” Rememberin’ the troubles he’s had with Miss Abigail, we share a chuckle at older brother’s expense. I lean over to lay a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “Everything’s gonna be all right,” I say with as much confidence as I can muster. “Don’t fret, and try to keep Pa from it, okay?”
“I’ll try.” He taps my knee a couple of times, his way of sayin’ he’s turnin’ me loose. I ease Cochise back, turn him around and tap his flanks with my heels. I don’t look back, but I can feel Hoss still standin’ there, watchin’ and worryin’ as I ride out.
* * * * *
Sun’s goin’ down behind me, splashin’ the desert rocks with fiery color. I got no time to dwell on the sight, grand as it is. I been on the trail three days now, and I’m bone tired, but unless I miss my guess, that’s older brother’s campfire up ahead, so I got to press on. Might be smarter to make camp by myself and wait ‘til mornin’ to face Adam, but I’m tired, his fire’s already lit, and there’s this real fragrant aroma of sizzlin’ meat floatin’ toward me. Since I ain’t ate nothin’ but jerky the last two days, my belly’s urgin’ me to ride on in and see if older brother can’t be persuaded to share his meal. Hope there’s enough, but I sort of doubt Adam was expectin’ company.
When I start to get close, I dismount and lead Cochise, both of us walkin’ soft. I figure I might better scout the situation first, see if Adam’s . . . well, himself. I creep up real cautious, my hand holding Cooch’s muzzle. Adam’s made camp inside a ring of boulders, so I can get real close without bein’ seen. My mouth starts droolin’ at sight of the big jackrabbit staked over the fire, but my feet won’t move. Much as I’ve thought about what to say to Adam, once I find him, all of a sudden I’m scared—not of my brother, but of sayin’ things wrong, so’s I push him further away, instead of—
“You might as well come on in; I know you’re there.”
Might’ve knowed I couldn’t sneak up on Adam! No time to pick and choose my words now. I just paste a big, sloppy grin on my face and step into the firelight. “Hey, Adam,” I call out real cheery.
He groans, long and exasperated. “You? I figured someone was following me, but I never thought it’d be you.”
I step a little closer, still keepin’ the fire between us, and I grin even wider, hopin’ it covers my nerves, which have got all shaky in the last couple of seconds. “What’s the matter, older brother? Ain’t you glad to see me?”
“Not particularly.” Adam leans back against the boulder behind him, legs stretched out in front and arms folded over his chest.
It ain’t the most promisin’ beginnin’ I ever been party to, and I can feel my face wincin’. “Guess you’d rather it was anyone but me, huh?”
Adam gives me one of them short, hard laughs that ain’t got a lick of humor to it. “I’d rather it were none of you; I came out here to be alone, but I suppose that’s too much to ask.”
“Doggone right! You ain’t fit to be on your own yet, Adam.”
“I’ll manage,” he grunts. He edges toward the fire and lifts the stick holdin’ the rabbit off the forked uprights. He tears off a hind leg and settles back to gnaw on it.
Watchin’ him lick the grease off his fingers makes my stomach give a hearty rumble. “You—uh—you gonna eat that whole fat rabbit all by yourself?” I ask. There’s a hint if ever I heard one!
“Oh, wonderful,” Adam snorts. “I’m not fit to be on my own, so Pa sends someone to look after me who can’t even provide his own supper.”
That hurts, and I reckon it shows in the way I answer back. “Pa didn’t send me; I sent myself. I couldn’t take time to hunt if I wanted to catch up with you, but never mind, older brother. I can provide my own supper. I got jerky in my saddlebags.” I start to stalk off toward where I’d ground-tied Cochise.
My brother’s voice stops me. “Oh, help yourself. I can’t possibly eat all this.” He holds the skewered rabbit out to me.
I tear off some meat and squat down on the opposite side of the fire from Adam. First things first, I focus on fillin’ my belly, hopin’ it’ll quit jumpin’ around once I do. “Meat’s good,” I offer sociably. Butterin’ up big brother seems like a good place to start. He’s always been powerful fond of that.
Adam tears himself off some more meat and hands the rabbit over to me, as if to say I can have the rest. What he actually says out loud is, “Pa know you’re here or will he and Hoss be followin’ along after you?”
Doggone! Why do both my big brothers have to treat me like I’m five years old? Pa, at least, has more confidence in me than that. “He knows; of course, he knows.” I start to say he sent me, but I already said he didn’t. Besides, that’s stretchin’ the truth a mite. I fill my mouth with more rabbit. Helps cover me not knowin’ what to say next.
Don’t give me much reprieve, though. I no more than swallow the final bite when older brother, who’s propped back up against that boulder, says, “All right, Joe, let’s hear it.”
“Hear it?” I’m stallin’ for time, of course.
I see his eyes roll in the firelight. “The speech you rode after me to give. You do have it planned out, don’t you? I trust you’re not going to subject me to more nonsense like your being sent to bed earlier than me all those years not setting well if I’m leaving home now.”
I shake my head in disgust. “That was two years ago, Adam! Don’t you ever give me credit for growin’ up?”
Adam stretches his long legs out and taps his steepled fingers together above his belt buckle. “I have significant doubts. Prove me wrong.”
Believe it or not, this actually makes me feel better, ‘cause this is the Adam I’m used to—always quick with a come-back, no matter what I say, always challengin’ me to come up to his level. This time I’m sure I can do it, ‘cause I know exactly what my big brother needs to hear. I launch into a full-blown explanation of my insights into the workings of kerosene inside a body and the effect of water on it. I don’t think a professor of science could have explained things any better, I decide as I finish up and sit back to savor how impressed ole Plato’s gonna be.
Adam throws the picked bones of his share of the rabbit onto the fire. “That is the most convoluted barrel of balderdash I have ever heard,” he says as his head wags slowly back and forth. Then he drags his hand down his stubbly cheek. “But what I find most disconcerting is how easily I managed to follow that line of reasoning.”
I get rid of my bones the same way and stand up, wiping my greasy hands down the sides of my pants. Even if I ain’t sure what convoluted means, older brother’s smart remarks are beginning to irk me, but I remember my promise to Pa to stay well watered, and that keeps me from snappin’ back the way I usually would. “Well, I can tell you need to think about it some more,” I say, voice drippin’ with pity for my poor befuddled brother, “so I’m gonna settle Cochise for the night while you do that. Then we can talk some more.” I start toward my horse, but stop and ask over my shoulder, “I am invited to stay the night, ain’t I?”
For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I hear my brother laugh. It ain’t a belly-shakin’ laugh, but it sounds real and honest. “My rocks are your rocks,” he says in imitation of the old Spanish mi casa, su casa hospitality. I can’t help grinnin’ back at him. It all seems so natural that if I didn’t know better, I’d think Adam’s problems were all solved. But I know they ain’t; in my heart I know he’s still brimful of kerosene; he’s just hidin’ it better.
I dawdle over tendin’ to Cooch, to give Adam time to think, but mostly to give myself a chance to fill back up with water. A tussle with older brother sure can drain the water out of a man. Guess I understand now how he must’ve felt all those times he tried to pour his college learnin’ into me and Hoss and we just couldn’t soak it up. Well, Cooch is about as content as a horse can be, and I’m about as drenched as I’m gonna get, so it’s time to go back into camp and try again. I square my shoulders—building up my courage like Pa does—push my hands into my pockets and saunter in, whistlin’ a lively tune to put Adam in a cheery mood.
“That took long enough,” Adam says to greet me. Bound and determined to pour his kerosene into me, but I’m wise to that trick.
“Hope you used the time to good purpose.” I toss back at him words I’ve had thrown in my face a few times. “You understand now about the kerosene or do I need to go over it again?”
For a minute I think my brother’s gonna puke. Then he arches an eyebrow at me and says, “Well, let’s see if I’ve got it straight: you feel that I’ve been incubating volatile emotions, which will inevitably give birth to catastrophic conflagration. Is that about it?”
Now, why’s he gotta do that? Take somethin’ simple and hide it under all that college-learned jargon. Oh, wait, that’s it, ain’t it? He’s hidin’ behind all that learnin’ so he don’t have to deal with the simple truth. “Won’t work, Adam,” I say, waggin’ my finger at him like he’s a naughty little boy. I grin, ‘cause bein’ on the other side of that, for a change, feels real good. “We’re keepin’ this simple, so’s you can’t squirm away from it. Now, what happened to you out there in the desert has got you full, top to toe, of kerosene, and it is volatile enough—see? I know big words, too, older brother—to burn down the ranch.”
“Why do think I left?” Adam croaks out.
That tears at my heart, and before I know it I’m at his side, ignorin’ what I promised Pa and Hoss about keepin’ my distance. How can I when my brother needs me? How could any of us? “You left ‘cause of me,” I say, reachin’ out to stroke his arm. “I pushed you too hard . . . and . . . and I’m sorry, Adam.”
“I couldn’t bear you knowing my shame,” he says, head hanging. “Hard enough facing what I’d done without you and Pa and Hoss knowing.” His head comes up sharp. “Did you tell them?”
“Tell them what?” I ask.
“What you know . . . about me . . . and Kane.” His voice is barely a whisper.
My turn to hang my head. “Oh, Adam,” I moan. I have to make myself look up, face him man-to-man. “I don’t know anything. That was just kerosene talkin’.”
Adam grabs me by the shoulders, grip as strong as the one he had on my throat back in Salt Flats. “Forget the kerosene! What do you mean, you don’t know anything? You said—”
“Lies, all lies.” It shames me to admit it, but the time’s come for truth. “I was just mad, Adam.”
He drops back, starin’ at me in disbelief and bewilderment. “Because I wouldn’t play checkers with you?” he finally asks.
“No! Doggone it, Adam, I ain’t a little kid.” He just keeps starin’ at me. I take a deep breath and try to explain. “I was mad ‘cause you wouldn’t let me help you. You went through hell out in that desert. Don’t ask me how I know that, ‘cause I don’t know myself, but I do know.”
“You said I talked in my sleep.” Adam’s eyein’ me wary-like now. “That a lie, too?”
I shake my head. “You talk,” I admit, “but all you ever say is ‘No gold, no games’—nothin’ that makes sense.”
Adam blows out air, slow and thoughtful. “And you think that if I explain it all to you, somehow that’ll draw out all my . . . kerosene, for lack of a better word . . . and then—”
“Not me,” I say real quick, cuttin’ him off. “Pa. He’s the one with the miracle touch to turn kerosene to water—not meanin’ anything sacrilegious. I mean, I want to know; of course, I do, ‘cause I know it’s all my fault and—”
“Whoa, whoa,” Adam orders, grabbin’ me by one shoulder this time. “What do you mean it’s all your fault? You had nothing to do with . . . with. . . .”
“You see what I mean?” I can feel tears springin’ to my eyes and I blink ‘em back fast. This ain’t the time for that kind of water. “What happened out there in the desert—what that devil Kane did to you—it’s so bad you can’t even say it, and I’m the reason you were out there alone.”
Adam draws back and grasps his own chin, his eyes borin’ into mine as he studies me. I make myself sit still under it, even though I want to run. “Because you didn’t come with me,” he finally says, measurin’ each word like understandin’ is comin’ to him, slow as water drippin’ from a rusty pump. “Joe, that’s . . . nonsense. You aren’t responsible for those men stranding me in the desert . . . or for what Kane did afterwards.”
“I know,” I say. “I talked to Pa the night you and me had that fracas, and he said the same. Pa’s words—they’re water for a burnin’ soul, Adam. That’s why you got to come home and let him do for you what he done for me.”
Adam leans back against a boulder and stares up at the stars. “I wish he could,” he murmurs, real wistful, “but it’s not the same, Joe.”
He looks over at me. “No, Joe, it’s not. You were carrying guilt not rightly yours, but I deserve the guilt of my soul . . . and I deserve to bear its torment alone.”
I’m not followin’ everything he says, but one thing stands out clear, and that I can speak to. “You don’t get to bear torment alone,” I say, firm as I’ve ever said anything to my big brother, “not in this family. No Cartwright ever bears torment alone. What hurts you hurts me, and what hurts me hurts Hoss, and what hurts any of us half kills Pa.”
“Ah!” Adam says, puttin’ on his professor face and raisin’ his voice like he was talkin’ to a whole roomful of folks, instead of just me. “As Donne said, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’”
Groanin’, I rub my achin’ head. “That’s a fancy way of sayin’ what I done said, all right, but after all your lectures about my grammar, you oughta watch your own better than that, Adam—and quit rollin’ your eyes!”
Holding his belly, Adam starts to laugh. “You are priceless, boy.”
He’s makin’ me mad, so I picture myself standin’ under Niagara Falls. (From what I hear of the place, it might have water enough to douse the kerosene risin’ in me!) When I feel good and soaked, I let myself answer him: “Say it any way you want, just so’s you understand this one thing, loud and clear: whatever your torment is, Adam, you ain’t gonna bear it alone; you just plain ain’t got the luxury.”
“Luxury!” He glares at me like I’ve said somethin’ so outrageous I oughta have my head tore off; then, slowly, one corner of his mouth creeps up in one of those half-smiles of his. “You know, kid, every once in a while—when I’ve waded through the balderdash—you manage to come up with something rather insightful. There is a certain luxury in keeping one’s torment to oneself . . . and I have been indulging in that luxury.”
I sit forward, eager. “Then you’ll come home, talk to Pa?”
A shiver runs all over Adam’s body. “I’m not sure I can,” he says. “It’s worse than you think, Joe: it’s not what Kane did to me; it’s what I did to Kane.”
“What’d you do to him?” I shouldn’t have asked; I know that the minute the words are out, but that’s me: talk now, think later.
I expect Adam to say it’s none of my business, but he just sits there for a minute. Then he asks, “Remember what I said in the bath house back in East Gate?” He can see I don’t, I guess, ‘cause he tells me, “I said no one could drive me to murder.”
It comes back then, the bad joke and the shove under the water. I give him a sour smile. “Except me. Yeah, I remember. What’s that got to—”
“I was wrong.” There’s a world of pain in those three words. I know because he can’t even face me while he says ‘em. He shakes his head, looking disgusted with himself. “Hubris, the fatal flaw of Greek tragedy, and I find I’m prey to it, after all.”
I reach over to grip his arm. “Talk sense, Adam.”
He gives me a sad, bitter smile. “Pride, Joe. I thought I was better, stronger, more civilized than other men.”
“You are.” I’ve always known that about my big brother.
He gives me a sharp look and bites out, “No hero worship, Joe; I’m not worthy of it.” He says it again, plain, eyes begging me to understand. “I thought no man could drive me to murder. I . . . was . . . wrong.”
Something grabs the pit of my stomach and twists—hard. “What are you sayin’, Adam?” It sounds like he’s confessing to murder, and that just can’t be. Maybe he ain’t made of iron, like I always thought, but he ain’t common clay, either. “Was—was there someone else in camp with you and Kane?” I ask, tryin’ to sort things out.
He leans his head back against the boulder, starin’ up at the stars. “Just a mule.”
Sortin’ this out just may be beyond me. Sure wish Pa was here. Or Hoss, at least. Sometimes he can see into the heart of a thing ‘most as good as Pa. Well, it’s my fault they ain’t here, so I got to take hold and get the job done, somehow. I tap my brother’s arm again, to get his attention. “Did you kill the mule? Is that the murder you mean?”
He laughs—short, sharp, sputtering. “No, Kane killed her.”
I roll my eyes. Sortin’ this out is definitely beyond me. “Adam, you gotta help me here, ‘cause, honest to goodness, you made more sense when you were spoutin’ about volatile emotions and islands and fatal flaws. If you and Kane and the mule was the only ones in that camp, and Kane killed the mule, then there ain’t anyone left for you to—”
“Kane!” he shouts. He grasps my head between his hands and yells it in my face. “Don’t let hero worship blind you to the obvious, boy! It was Kane I murdered!”
His hands rest light on my jawbone, but right now we’re a heap closer than Hoss or Pa or especially me is comfortable with. “Adam, let me go,” I say, keepin’ my voice soft and gentle so I won’t spook him.
He jerks his hands back like my skin burns him. “I wouldn’t hurt you,” he whispers.
“I know, I know,” I assure him, even though I ain’t as certain as I sound. “I just think we can talk better from—from a mite further apart.”
He laughs hoarsely. “Far enough now or shall I move across camp?”
“Where you are’s just fine.” I give him a pat on the shoulder, to show him I ain’t scared. “Now, help me understand this, Adam. You say you murdered Kane?”
“Yes.” He bites the word out, but there’s relief in his voice, too, which tells me that this secret was the kerosene he’s been keepin’ bottled up. I knew it had to be somethin’ awful, but murder? Yeah, that’s awful enough to bring torment to a man like Adam.
Something still don’t make sense to me, though. “You killed him—and then you built a travois so you could drag his body out of the desert? Why didn’t you just bury him?”
He exhales in one long, loud gust. “He wasn’t dead, then.”
I scratch the side of my head, confused again. “You killed him after you put him on the travois?”
“No! Are you completely obtuse, boy?” He jumps up and strides across camp.
“Quit hidin’ behind those big words!” I holler, bouncing up to follow him. “Let’s talk plain common sense. Look, Adam, if he wasn’t dead when you put him on the travois and you didn’t kill him afterwards, then how could you have murdered him?”
“Like this!” Adam spins and, just like back in Salt Flats, his hands are around my throat. No, not like then. This time he don’t tighten his grip. “I choked him,” he says. “I put my hands around his throat and tried to choke the life out of him, like I did you that night, but he kept taunting me, telling me to kill him, telling me he’d won.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, taking a step back. “If he was talkin’ to you, brother, it wasn’t like that night in Salt Flats, ‘cause I sure couldn’t do any talkin’ then. If he could, then you didn’t have a killer grip on him.”
His hands, which had hung in the air when I stepped out of them, slowly dropped., and he stared at them while he stammered out, “I had my hands around his throat; I was . . . choking him . . . and he said he’d won . . . and I couldn’t let him win . . . couldn’t let him turn me into him . . . and I . . . let go.”
Suddenly, it’s like I’m there in that camp with Adam and Kane, watchin’ it happen. “You wanted to kill him, and I reckon you had reason, but when it came down to it, you couldn’t.”
Adam looks up at me. “No,” he says, sounding surprised. “I wanted to—oh, how I wanted to!—but I couldn’t.”
“You’re not a murderer, Adam,” I tell him. “You’re human enough to want to kill someone who’s hurt you, like I reckon Kane must’ve done, but you didn’t give in to that. And you didn’t because you are better, stronger, more civilized than them that give in easy to the urge to kill.” Pa or Hoss might not approve, but I can’t stop myself. It just seems like the most natural thing in the world to move closer and wrap my arms around my big brother. He doesn’t break down, like when we found him in the desert, but he holds onto me tight and I can almost feel the kerosene leakin’ out.
When we finally break apart, I say, “Look, Adam, I know I ain’t got the real fire-dousin’ power like Pa, but maybe I got water enough to get you through the night if . . . if it would help to talk about what Kane did to you.” I feel like I got to make the offer, even though I got “significant doubts,” like Adam might say, that I can quench the fires of the hell he went through.
Adam cups my chin in his hand and smiles, the first real one I’ve seen since we split in East Gate. “I think I’ll wait for Pa,” he says. “I’d like to keep my little brother innocent just a bit longer.”
“Innocent!” I protest, even though what I’m really feelin’ is relief. “Older brother, when you gonna realize I ain’t still a kid in need of protection.”
“When you don’t,” he chuckles. He pats my cheek and then throws an arm around my shoulder. “Maybe I can tell you someday, Joe, but Pa first, okay?”
“More than okay, brother. More than okay.” Arm in arm, we walk back to where we were, and we spread our bedrolls side by side . . . close, the way brothers should be.
* * * * *
We both slept real sound last night, but Adam’s been quiet ever since we woke, all through breakfast and breakin’ camp. Oh, he answers me if I talk to him, but doesn’t say much else. He’s probably mulling over what he’s gonna say to Pa, and I’d probably be doin’ the same, in his place. Wouldn’t be no one to pull me out of it, either, with just old sober-sides around. Adam’s luckier, though; he’s got me, and I got this natural talent for perkin’ folks up. I know exactly what’ll work in this case, and if he thought my kerosene talk was the biggest barrel of balderdash he ever heard, wait’ll he gets an earful of this! “Hey, Adam,” I call as we swing onto our mounts, “You know what you been like here of late?”
“Bottled kerosene, I believe the analogy was,” Adam says, throwin’ that arched eyebrow my direction again.
I wave that aside. “No, no, I got an even better a-analogy for you. See, there’s this fellow who’s all duded up for a fancy dress ball, swallow-tail coat and all, but he’s got these starvin’ ants nibblin’ around inside his. . . .”
A Brother’s Torment Series:
© October, 2007
Other Stories by this Author
- A Boy’s Lament (by Puchi Ann)
- My Brother’s Keeper–WHI (by Puchi Ann)
- A Tiny Preprandial Tale (by Puchi Ann)