Summary: After having a fall out with his friend Mitch, Joe has trouble finding a way to make things right. WHN to the episode “Between Heaven and Earth”.
Word Count: 2281
Something to Prove
Adam looked up from his book to see his youngest brother leaning against the door frame. He focused on rearranging his features into a neutral expression instead of the guilty one he was sure had flickered there for a second. Not that he should feel guilty, especially in front of his younger brother. Still he felt like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. There was after all a lot of work to be done and he had only meant to glance at his new book for a couple of minutes, and here he was still reading, a couple of chapters into the book. Who knew how much time had passed. He certainly didn’t.
Little Joe didn’t look that confident either where he stood. He tried to look casual and relaxed, but his posture looked staged and his expression said that he had probably been thinking hard about his next question, instead of dropping into his brother’s room almost by accident like he wanted it to look.
“Um…” Joe started again and Adam raised one eyebrow in question.
“Yes, Little Joe?” he asked and noted Joe didn’t appreciate the epithet ‘little’ this time. Mostly he didn’t mind, but if he was already feeling small, he didn’t like it.
“Can I ask you something?” Joe continued and walked into the room, making to close the door behind him, but didn’t push it properly and the door was left slowly swinging closed, but then stopping with a still sizable gap remaining.
“You’re about to, so go ahead.” Adam reached for a card to mark his place in the book and put the book down beside him on the bed to fully focus on his brother.
“How do you apologise to someone?” The question was asked quickly and with a frown as if he’d been holding back a lot of questions and this was all he managed in the end.
Adam looked at Joe quizzically and raised his eyebrow. Suddenly his brother seemed ten again. Sometimes he wondered if there was something special about their twelve-year age difference. Was that exactly the age gap that would make a person the target of the strangest questions or that turned the simplest questions into the most complex? He sighed.
“Joe, you’re not a kid. Surely you know how to say sorry.”
Joe frowned, obviously a little annoyed with both of them, but also determined to discuss what he had in mind.
“I mean in specific situations. When you’ve hurt someone and they might not accept you just saying sorry. How would you make someone understand that you really didn’t mean to do it in the first place, or wouldn’t do that normally?”
“In a situation where you might have been snapping rudely at everyone for a week or so and now you regret it?” Adam asked, raising his eyebrows. Focusing on his brother’s eyes, Adam tried to see if Joe was talking about his recent bad moods, when he had been difficult for anyone to be around. Was there more of a story there than what he knew?
“Mm hmm,“ Joe shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed. “Well, sort of. And not quite that either,” came the slow reply.
“Joe, can’t you just speak plainly?” This was getting frustrating. “I’m sure you’re not talking about some hypothetical situation here. Who do you want to apologise to and for what? And why is it more difficult than usual?”
“I mean, yes, I will apologise to Hoss too, but that’s not it.” Joe was tapping the sideboard repeatedly with his heel in small kicks now, as he leaned against it.
“I guess I’m also sorry,” he continued at last quietly, but stopped there.
“What do you mean you’re also sorry?” Were they going in circles here? “This whole conversation is about you being sorry, isn’t it? And can you stop that kicking?” he snapped.
“I mean, I’m telling you I’m sorry.” Joe looked up to meet Adam’s gaze as he stopped the tapping. “I guess I’ve been a grouch.”
Adam gave him a wry smile. “Apology accepted, little brother. But as far as I have heard, I got the least of it, being elsewhere for most of your moods. You’ve talked to Pa?”
“Yeah, I’ve talked to Pa.”
There was nothing to add to that. Adam hadn’t expected that Pa was Joe’s problem, but apparently talking to him hadn’t helped with other issues either. There was a silence for a while, until the tapping from Joe’s foot started again.
“Spit it out Joe,” Adam sighed at last, causing Joe to freeze in mid kick.
Joe replied in a low voice “It’s Mitch. He… he got in the middle of it and I really messed up. He won’t listen to me either.”
“You’ve tried to really talk to him? You two have been friends for so long.”
“Yes. Well, I guess, no. Just right after. I really embarrassed him, and he trusted me. But he wouldn’t listen when I tried to explain.” Joe frowned. “I would have erased the whole thing if I could have then and there.”
“Try again, Joe,” Adam said calmly. “He must have calmed down by now. Really explain why it happened and why you’re sorry. There really isn’t more you can do. But just try again. One quarrel shouldn’t break up a long time friendship.”
“You’re supposed to be good at words, Adam. I expected at least a good speech that you always have on hand.”
“And you’re supposedly good at emotions, Joe,” he retorted.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that you’re good at showing your emotions.” Joe was about to protest at the statement that he saw as belittling, but Adam gestured at him to stay quiet as he continued, “I don’t mean to insult you with that. It’s a good thing. People can see that you’re sincere and that you really mean what you say. So do what you usually do. Show him that you mean what you say.”
“Oh,” Joe sighed thoughtfully and finally gave a cheeky smile. “I guess I’ll try that then, older brother.”
Adam shifted where he sat. To him the whole thing was hardly clearer than at the beginning of the conversation.
“And you don’t want to explain what happened?”
Joe looked slightly apologetic. “Not now,” he said softly.
“Or about what got you to act like you were fifteen again, having a quarrel with the world?”
“No, not that either,” Joe snorted. “Not yet anyway. Maybe sometime.”
If Joe didn’t have to relate the whole thing to his brother now, the same didn’t apply to what he had to tell Mitch. He’d have to explain how he had been afraid and how that had made him cowardly. It wasn’t going to be easy. He had thought about his issues with Eagle’s Nest and talked about it with his Pa, but it still felt embarrassing.
He thought about going to the Devlin place, but scrapped that idea. He couldn’t invade a personal space like that, when he wasn’t wanted there. He tried to approach Mitch by the general store the next day, but the man turned away. He couldn’t go to the saloon either. Not on a Friday anyway, because that was when the arm wrestling was. Still, that was where he found Mitch in the end. At least it was Saturday.
The saloon was in a way a perfect place for redemption. The mix of stale beer, sweat and wood smelled of regret. Here you could sin and feel the after effects of it all in the same night. Or else you could be picked up to be brought elsewhere to atone. For most, that was by the sheriff to jail. After seeing Mitch was there, Joe walked up to the bar to buy a beer not only to have an excuse to be there if he wasn’t accepted at the table, but also to have something to hold in his hands.
He didn’t ask if he could sit down. He just picked an empty chair. After a minute of the two of them staring at each other, challenging Joe’s right to be there, the two other guys took the hint and rose to leave.
“Hey, you don’t have to go,” Mitch told them. “Cartwright’s not staying.”
Not Joe, nor Little Joe, but Cartwright. This wasn’t going to be easy.
“Yes, I am,” Joe said at the same time as the other two muttered something about whiskey and walked away.
“If you’re not leaving, then say your piece and go,” Mitch said curtly after a silence. He wasn’t looking at Joe now.
Joe cleared his throat.
“I… Mitch do you remember when it all started? I mean, when I, well, started to act like an idiot.”
“When that Ken fellow tried to stir up trouble and have you challenge me,” Mitch replied straight away, fixing his angry eyes on Joe. “You said you didn’t have anything to prove and we didn’t have anything to prove to each other.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “I believed you, and I guess I was wrong.”
“No, it was later,” Joe said.
“You were upset about not getting that puma and losing your rifle.” Mitch wasn’t participating in Joe’s guessing game as much as thinking out aloud.
“Yes, that’s part of it. It was the rifle. I couldn’t get it back.” Joe scratched marks into the table with his fingernail, but remembering Adam’s advice he looked up at Mitch when he began to tell his story about losing his rifle and realising he had a fear of falling from Eagle’s Nest. He told about how he couldn’t find the nerve to get that rifle and how he had felt like a coward and embarrassed about the whole thing, so he needed something to make him feel bigger, more important. He needed to prove something, exactly like he had said he didn’t need to do. That’s were arm wrestling came in.
“Friends don’t do that to friends,” Mitch muttered.
“I know,” Joe replied. “ I wouldn’t do it now. It’s like I was possessed by something then. I know it’s no excuse and I shouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry.”
“I still can’t trust you.”
It wasn’t enough and there wasn’t much else he could do. Joe rose up to leave.
“You know that championship wasn’t all you had. There’s other things you have people’s respect for.” Other things in fact that maybe Little Joe himself didn’t deserve any respect for.
He looked down at Mitch and continued. “But maybe I was wrong about you, too. Maybe that’s all you had.”
Now Mitch too was on his feet, glaring at Joe.
“Do you have anything more to say?” he snarled.
“No, you can go back to your games and championships. I’m leaving.”
“Joe, I know what you’re doing. I know what you want and you will have it,” Mitch said, his voice steely as he stepped closer.
At last Joe felt the fist hit his stomach and a moment later another landed on his face making him stumble to the floor.
“Call that exorcism, Little Joe,” Mitch said a little smugly and went back to sit down by his beer. “You said you were possessed, and you had the devil in your eyes back then anyway.”
Nearby patrons turned back to their drinking when they saw there wasn’t going to be a fight. Joe slowly picked himself up from the floor, feeling his face with his fingertips. There probably would be a bruise, but that was fine. He sat down by the table again and grabbed his beer, glancing almost shyly at his friend’s face between swigs. Mitch glared back at him severely, but Joe knew better. They would be fine too.
This was inspired by the episode “Between Heaven and Earth”, which was written by Ed Adamson.
Many thanks to Cheaux for beta reading and answering all my questions!
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