The Circumstance of His Return (by McFair_58)

Summary:  A violent storm, a frightened mare, and the matter of his homecoming.  My entry for the 2021 ‘Man in Black’ challenge.
Rated: PG
Word count: 10,999


God, he was weary.

Adam Cartwright chuckled as he pulled the collar of his black outer coat closer about his cheeks and nudged his mount around yet another chuck-hole that the pounding rain had turned into a minor lake.  No, ‘weary’ was an incompetent and incomplete word for what he was.  Fatigued, perhaps?  Uninspired.  Exhausted?  Too banal.  Maybe something a little less prosaic?

“How about bushed?” he asked no one in particular.

His horse started at the sound of his voice, turned and eyed him, and then snorted out rain water all over his boot.

Somehow, he’d pictured his homecoming a little different.

The timing was wrong to begin with.  It was late in the year and autumn was rapidly shifting toward winter.  He’d meant to arrive home at least a month before, but gotten caught up in a project in a small town along the way and wasted precious time.

Adam’s upper lip curled.  A ‘project’ named Angelina.

But that was a story for another day.

In fact, he hoped to tell it to his father tonight – in his favorite chair – after he’d pulled it up close to the hearth and Pa put a snifter of fine French brandy in his hand.

His horse stumbled even as he did.  Both of them righted themselves quickly enough.

It would be there, right?  The blue velvet chair by the hearth?

Maybe Joe had burned it.

Adam winced as he patted his mount’s neck and urged it forward, promising it wouldn’t be too long now before they were both dry and bedded down.  He knew there was going to be Hell to pay with his little brother for the five years he’d been away.  Knowing Joe, all it had taken was one look out of those scorching green eyes to set the wingback on fire.  The kid probably laughed as the flames consumed it.

He was being morbid.

Better than being ‘bushed’ he guessed.

It was his own fault after all.  For the first year or two after his departure he’d been diligent in his correspondence.  He’d been a lot of places and seen so many wonders that he felt compelled to share.  Then life settled down into a more banal – oh, that word! – pattern as he got to work on a series of projects and soon living was just that – living.  Up at five, work, lunch around noon, work, supper and then more work, and then maybe a little conversation with his housekeeper or the occasional night at the opera before bed.

Sounded just like the routine he’d had on the ranch – other than the opera.  The routine he’d been so certain he wanted, no, needed to escape.

Year two went by and then year three, and then suddenly it was year five and he realized he’d hardly communicated with his family at all.  Pa and Hoss wrote in spite of his silence.  Joe wrote too at first, asking a myriad of questions that he failed to answer, the result of which was little brother wrote several more letters containing some rather…colorful phrases…and then stopped writing at all.

Yeah, he bet that blue velvet chair was toast.

Unexpectedly his mount halted, jarring him in the saddle.  A few of those ‘colorful’ phrases escaped his own lips as Adam pressed in with his knees and urged the animal forward.  It steadfastly refused to budge.  He was about to try again, but changed his mind when he realized the horse was smarter than him.  Someone was coming toward them.

Fast.

He was on the road – sort of.  Or, at least, he thought he was.  Adam glanced at the moon, noting how it had slipped beneath a blanket of clouds, and then at the cast shadows that engulfed him and his mount.  Deciding the Bard knew what he was talking about – and that caution was better than rash bravery – he eased the horse off of the well-worn path and into the trees where he could wait for whoever it was to pass by.  It only took a minute for the wagon to appear.  He couldn’t see the driver clearly, but whoever it was – unlike him – had opted for rash bravery and was moving at a rate of speed Pa would have tanned Little Joe’s hide for.  The man and team passed him by like greased lightning.  Adam waited for it.  He winced as he heard one of the wheels hit the chuck hole lake he’d managed to maneuver around and then gasped.  Not because the wagon floundered, rightly tossing its incautious driver on his butt and sending the frightened team scattering, but because of the curses that followed.  They were Cantonese.

Dear Lord!  It was Hop Sing!

Adam shifted his mount onto the road and took a step in the direction of the wagon, but halted a second later.  Hop Sing was headed for Virginia City.  His objective lay in the opposite direction.

Home.

As he sat there, blinking rain out of his eyes, Adam considered his options.  Home was indeed calling, but he was weary – ah, that word again! – and chilled to the bone.  Once upon a time neither of those things would have stopped him, but he was older now and – if the truth be known – softer; changed by over half a decade of city living.  There was no rush.  Not really.  He hadn’t informed the family of his return.  Hell, he hadn’t known he was going to return until the day he handed the man he worked for his resignation.  Within a week he’d vacated the house he was renting and bought the elegant thoroughbred he so aptly named ‘Vinnie’ – short for ‘vindication’ – that he now rode.  He hadn’t been all that far away, just in California.  Subconsciously, or so it seemed upon consideration, he’d been slowly making his way home for the better part of a year now.  Hong Kong to Italy, to France, to England, and finally to the U.S. some three months before.  It had hit him as he stood sipping coffee and looking out the window of his rented house in Sacramento, that he had ranged the entire world looking for something indefinable – some thing that would satisfy the deep longing in his heart and give rest to his soul.  He’d thought it would be art or literature, or even architecture, but none of that had satisfied.

He was like a man who’d enjoyed a great feast but left the table empty.

Adam scrubbed a hand over his stubbly cheeks and then pulled his hat down to shield his eyes from the slanting rain.  It was coming down harder now and he was tempted to stop where he was and make a soggy camp for the night.  The wind was ferocious, driving leaves and nettles from the trees; transforming them into stinging missiles that plagued his eyes and wounded his exposed skin.  Lightning cracked and thunder boomed.  He looked down the road and sighed.  If his calculations were right, he had ten, maybe fifteen miles to go.  The thought of home, of his pa and brothers – of a hot toddy by a warm fire and a clean, dry bed – sounded a siren call like the one heard by lonely sailors standing on the deck of a ship bound for its harbor.

Still….

The man in black glanced at the sky again.  By the time he arrived home, it would be early morning.  Anyone in the house would be fast asleep.  A smile curled his upper lip as he once again considered the idea of making a ‘grand entrance’.  He’d sneak upstairs and hide before Pa, Hoss, and Joe were up, and remain hidden as they went downstairs to take their seats at the dining room table.  Since Hop Sing was away, Joe would be complaining about their father’s coffee and Hoss, about Joe or Pa’s cooking.  They’d jibe and banter and eventually turn to discussing the needs of the day and then – suddenly and without warning – he would make an appearance at the top of the stairs, dramatically clear his throat, and ask them what was for breakfast.

Adam laughed.

Was Joe was too old now, he wondered, for Pa to threaten to wash his mouth out with soap when he chose to employ a few of those ‘colorful’ phrases?

Even as the thought of their combined joy beckoned him forward, the reality of riding a untested horse through the howling wind and stinging rain for several more hours dampened Adam’s enthusiasm.  Maybe he would stop for the night.  If he was lucky, the storm would relent before the sun rose.  That would still leave enough time for his surprise.

Yes, that was what he would do – take pity on his horse and himself.  Tonight they would sleep the sleep of the miserable and wet.

But, oh, what a glorious day tomorrow would be!

 

II

 

After a night spent huddled by a meager fire, Adam emerged from the hollow he occupied stiff and sore.  His morning ablutions were of a necessity truncated and it was only a matter of minutes before he was on his way.  He’d slept longer than intended.  The sun was up and heading toward noon, so he’d lost any element of surprise.  Oh, well.  The rain had ended.  The day was bright and beautiful.  That meant the last leg of his journey was guaranteed to be – if a bit muddy – altogether more pleasant than the first.  He had to admit he was tired.  Just about as tired as his horse.  He and Vinnie had slept in fitful spurts, their rest as intermittent as the storm had been unrelenting.  It had been a long time since he’d seen the rain come down in waves, washing over the land and carrying everything – leaf, twig, weed and brush – away with it.  For all of its beauty, the West was a harsh mistress.

He would have to remember that now that he was back.

By the time the house he’d designed and helped to build appeared on the horizon, both he and his mount were more than ready to call it quits.  The road had been treacherous in places, forcing him to move on and off it at regular intervals.  One ‘move on’ had seen the two of them nearly run down by a large covered wagon moving at a quick clip.  He’d tried to hail those aboard, but the man in the driver’s seat either didn’t see him or ignored the hail.  He’d wondered at the time if they were headed for the Ponderosa.  The vehicle had all the earmarks of a chuck wagon.  If that’s what it was, it was no wonder the team was moving fast

“A Hoss without food is a Hoss to be reckoned with!” he chuckled to himself.

Even though Adam wanted to go straight to the house, the first thing he needed to do upon his arrival was take his exhausted mount into the barn to wipe it down, feed, and warm it.  The man in black winced.  What they said was true – you could take the rancher out of the West, but you could never take the West out of the rancher.  Most everywhere he’d settled, the townsfolk had rolled their eyes at the uncompromising manner in which he took care of the animals he owned.  Some, with a wink, even accused him of a love affair.  Adam reached forward to pat Vinnie’s neck and say a few words to the faithful animal as he dismounted.  They were right.  What was between a man and his horse was a kind of love affair.

One your life depended on.

Adam glanced at the yard as he dismounted.  It seemed odd to him that no one had taken note of his arrival.  There was no motion in the bunkhouse.  No hatless head popped out of a window or door to check on who had ridden in.  His gaze shifted to the corral.  There was no one watching the gate either, nor anyone moving about in the field.  If fact, it was so quiet he could hear the leaves crunch under his boots as he headed for the barn.  Halfway there, he halted.

Damn.  The cattle drive.

Talk about bad timing!

It was a little late in the season for it.  Still, he’d heard in the last town he’d passed through that the herds were thinner this year due to a hot, dry, and trying summer.  His father could have decided to allow the Ponderosa steers a little extra time to fatten up before driving them to their next destination.  The man in black’s right eye twitched with annoyance as he turned toward the house.  He had to admit there was an air of abandonment about it, as if someone had left the coop door open and all the chickens had gone missing.

He shook himself.  There he went, being morbid again.

Adam scanned the yard once more; his brow furrowing.  There was something.  He didn’t know how he knew – or what it was – but there was something…wrong.   Even if the hands were away on the drive, it was unusual for there to be no one left.  Pa never took all the men with him.  He always left someone behind to keep watch.  Of course, if his father or one of his brothers had remained, there would be no need.

He chewed his lip.

That must be it.

Satisfied he’d found his answer, Adam opened the barn door and stepped inside.  The interior of the large wooden structure was dark.  It was late afternoon and the sun was at that odd angle where the trees and mountains blocked most of the light.  With narrowed eyes, he scanned the main room, searching each massive post for a lantern.  There were none to be found.  All of the usual nails were empty.  In fact, the barn itself was pretty empty.  One skittish brown mare with a couple of white socks occupied a back stall, bucking and straining at the rope that tethered it.  Otherwise there wasn’t a horse to be seen.

Cochise.  Chubb.  Buck.

Everyone was gone.

“Now look at who’s surprised,” he said with chagrin.

It wasn’t the end of the world.  Not really.  He could always follow his family and enjoy the rather dubious pleasure of a few weeks on the trail.  It was just a different kind of homecoming from the one he had envisioned.

“Suck it up, Adam.  You’re a big boy now,” he said aloud.  “What did you expect them to do?  Drop everything because you were coming home – when they didn’t know you were coming home?”  With a sigh, he turned to Vinnie.  “Come on, boy.  Let’s get you taken care of.  And let’s hope Pa still leaves the front door unlocked.”

By habit, the man in black led his horse to the stall Sport had once occupied, right next to the one where his youngest brother usually stabled Cochise.  Just before entering it, his boot made contact with something out of place.  Adam looped his mount’s reins through the ring on the wall before bending down to see what it was. The bucket rolled a bit as he touched it.  Puzzled, he knelt and took hold of the rim.  A thin trail of water led away from it, as if someone had knocked or kicked it over not all that long ago.  Adam glanced at the barn door and then at the window in the front.  Even with the rain of the evening before, neither was close enough to be the source.   He remained where he was a moment longer than needed, staring at the floor.  He had no idea why, but the sight of that wet trail unnerved him.  Pa was a stickler for everything having a place and everything being in it.

Besides, if everyone was gone, just who had knocked the bucket over?

Adam opened the clasp on his holster as he rose to his feet and palmed his gun before returning to the main room.  His hazel eyes narrowed once more as he searched the shadows, and then opened wide as he moved into them.  He was careful to avoid the back stall where the skittish mare was stabled.  She was in a state, and he certainly didn’t need to have his noggin cracked open by her flailing hooves!  As he passed by, the man in black paused.  The light was failing so he couldn’t see all that clearly, but it seemed to him that something had recently been dragged from the stall through the muck and into the back room where they kept extra gear and a cabinet with liniments and such.  He followed the trail, weapon at the ready, and was surprised to find – instead of a vagrant or outlaw – an empty room.  A low table occupied the middle of it.  It held a lantern.

The lantern was lit.

His fingers tightened on the trigger of his gun as he moved quickly to extinguish it.  The burning lantern added to the overturned bucket were proof positive that he was not alone.

“Hello!” he called out.  “Hello!  Is anyone here?  Hoss?  Joe?”

The skittish mare whinnied nervously in response.  Otherwise, there was nothing.

Adam glanced that way again.  He’d need to see to the her soon, but right now he had other things to think about.  Crouching, he fingered one of the dozen unstruck matches strewn about the table’s legs.  As he did, he noted an overturned saddle with a blanket curled around it and tucked underneath.  Beside it was an empty bottle of Colt Remedy.  It looked like someone had made a nest out of the blanket and helped themselves to a rather untraditional drink!

His mouth watered with distaste even as his heart hammered hard.

Just what was going on here?

Adam rose quickly and made his way back to the stall where he’d stabled Vinnie.  Before he stepped in he turned back to look at the mare, wondering once more at her extreme agitation.  “Sorry, boy,” he said as he laid a hand on the thoroughbred’s withers.  “You’re going to have to wait a few more minutes before I get that saddle off of you.”

With that, the man in black quickly filled the upturned bucket with oats, tossed some fresh hay on the floor, and made a beeline for his seemingly abandoned home.

 

III

 

The porch bell was sounding in the wind.  Inside the house, the tall case clock struck six times.

Adam drew a breath before lifting the latch and then pushed the heavy door open and cautiously stepped inside.  A quick survey of the great room revealed nothing out of the ordinary, other than the fact that it looked immaculate.  He stood for a moment, listening.  The house was unnaturally quiet.  The only sound was that of the ticking clock.

He cleared his throat.  When he spoke, his voice was strained with an unknown fear.  “Pa?  Hoss?  Are you here?  Joe?”

The clock continued to tick even as his heart hammered in his chest.  There was no reply.

Why did that make him afraid?

After a moment’s thought, he came to a decision.  Holstering his weapon, Adam headed for the stairs and – taking them two at a time – mounted to the second floor to begin a search of each room.  His father’s was neat as a new pin as always.  Hoss’, less so, but had obviously been put to rights for a lengthy absence.  Joe’s puzzled him.  It was straightened as well, but there was some evidence of recent occupation.  A chair was turned into the room.  Beside it sat a pair of Joe’s boots.  One was knocked over on its side.  A fresh shirt and pair of pants lay on the bed, most likely placed there by Hop Sing before he left.

So, his youngest sibling was home!  Adam returned to the door, ready to call again, but stopped.  No. That wasn’t right.  Joe had to be gone.  Cochise’s stall was empty.

Maybe Joe had ridden into town.  Or, maybe that chuck wagon – the one that almost ran him down – had come to the house and they’d left together.  Could that be it?  Had he missed seeing his youngest brother by minutes?  That would be his luck!  Instead of a companionable ride at his brother’s side, spent catching up on all he had missed, he would be forced to follow Joe’s tracks to find him.  Adam scowled.  It had been quite some time since he’d done that and he wasn’t sure the ‘knack’ was still there.  In fact, the thought of wandering around in the wilderness with his nose to the ground, sniffing out the right path, was nearly enough to drive him to his blue chair and that snifter of brandy.

He’d just wait here patiently for his family to come to him!

Adam chuckled at the imagined scene.  Of course, he couldn’t do that.  He wouldn’t do that.  He would give Vinnie time to recuperate and then he and his road-weary pal would hit the trail…again.

The man in black paused as he came abreast his old room.  He’d noted in passing that his book shelf was still there, replete with the literature of his youth.  Why not grab an old favorite and use it to pass the time?  As he drew abreast the shelf, he happened to glance out the window and saw something ‘flash’.

Something white.

And black.

Adam grinned as he realized it was Cochise.  He replaced the book, hurried down the stairs, and ran out of the house shouting, “Joe!  Hey, Joe!”

Cochise was by the fence, feeding on grass.  The pinto raised his head to stare at him with soulful eyes.  There was no little brother in sight.

“Joe?  Hey, Little Joe!” he tried, thinking maybe he could rile the kid into replying.  Knowing Joe, he’d spotted him and was in hiding; intent on prolonging his homecoming agony.   He was obviously somewhere nearby as Cooch was missing his saddle.  “Joe?”

Nothing.

Adam frowned as he headed for the horse.  Joe’s beloved and constant companion pawed the ground and snorted at his approach.  When he reached out, Cochise shied and backed away as if unwilling to be touched.  The man in black pursed his lips.  Could the horse have forgotten him?  He remained where he was and spoke very softly, reminding the animal of who he was and how well they’d known each other.  It took a couple of minutes, but finally the paint nuzzled against his hand.  Adam caught his lead rope and began to draw him toward the barn.  When he glanced back to see if Cooch was following, he got the shock of his life.

Cochise’s side was covered in blood.

He’d been afraid before.

Now he was scared witless.

Instead of heading for the barn, the man in black led his brother’s horse to the rail in front of the house and looped the reins over the well-worn beam.  He stared at the animal for a moment, fingered the blood stain, and then turned toward the house.

It was then he saw it.  What he had missed before.  A series of rusty red, round drops, near perfect in their symmetry, leading up to the front door.

Adam knelt briefly to ascertain that they were what he thought they were.  A touch of a fingertip to his tongue let him know he was right.  His jaw tightened as he rose.  Then – faster than thought – he bolted across the porch and threw the front door open with such force that it struck the credenza and caused the landscape painting above it to tilt to the right.

Just like his world had tilted.

“Joe!” he shouted.  “Joseph Francis Cartwright, you answer me now!”

Adam waited, his heart pounding harder with each silent second that passed.  Good Lord!  Where could the kid be?  The man in black scowled.  His hazel eyes narrowed as he took several hesitant steps into the dining room.  One of Pa’s Chippendale chairs lay on its back.  A drawer in the sideboard hung open; linens cascading out of it and onto the floor.  Next to the sideboard lay an empty whiskey decanter.  Beside it was Joe’s green jacket.

And even more blood.

Adam knelt and picked up the familiar corduroy garment.  He turned it over in his hands, noting that it was filthy and that it too was covered in blood.  A second later he rose to his feet and headed for the stairs, certain that somehow he had missed Joe when he checked the rooms.

Then he smelled it.

Fire!

 

IV

 

By the time he reached the kitchen hall smoke was pouring out of the room, filling it.  It was a thick, roiling smoke that smelled of charred flesh and boiled blood.  Gagging, Adam reared back.  Then he took his brother’s ruined jacket, which was still in his hands, placed it over his nose and mouth and plunged in.

It took a few seconds to identify the fire’s origin.  The smoke was rising from a charred pan on the stove-top that held what looked to have been a thick steak once-upon-a-time.  It was with relief that he realized the fire was localized and had not spread to the kitchen walls.  Adam drew in a breath before shifting the damaged garment from his nose to his hand and used it to take hold of the incandescent iron handle.  He felt his skin singe as he carried the pan the short distance to the kitchen door, kicked the door open, and tossed the ruined utensil into the yard.  Cochise screamed as the smoking missile flew past him.  The paint reared, pulling his reins free from the rail, and dashed off into the trees.  Adam stared after the pinto, imagining how upset his baby brother would be if the horse never returned.  Then he shook himself and got to work.  Crossing to the hearth, he picked up a tin basin and returned outside where he filled it with water.  Once back in the house, he used the water to douse the smoking steak.  The action caused the ruined meat to hiss like a snake and sent steam rising into the air.

Exhausted, Adam leaned against hearth wall and surveyed the kitchen.  Hop Sing was going to have a fit!  The room was still smoky and a fine layer of soot coated almost everything.  And the smell!  Cooking a steak was one thing – the scent was mouth-watering – but not when the meat was charred!   The Asian man’s ‘palace’, as Joe used to call it, stunk like the field at branding time.  The man in black sighed as he pulled off his coat and tossed it over the back of a chair.  He’d left the door open so the room could clear of smoke.  He needed to open the windows as well.  As Adam headed for the one that fronted the house, he wondered once again where his youngest brother was.  Joe was obviously injured.  It seemed strange that he’d think about eating at such a time. Still, if it was the kid who put the steak on to cook, then where the Hell was….

Adam’s heart skipped a beat.

He’d just seen the pair of light brown boots blocking the back door.

Adam rounded the table and dropped to his knees.  His kid brother lay prone on the floor, just in front of the dry sink.  Joe’s curly head was pressed up against the green check fabric; his neck at an odd angle.  There was blood…everywhere.  On both pants legs.  On his shirt and sleeves.  It had congealed along the side of his face and matted his curls to his forehead.

Adam reached for those curls but paused.  Joe’s hair…it was silver.

God!  How long had he been away?!

Tenderly, he took hold of his brother’s head and shifted it so Joe lay flat on the floor.  Then he placed his ear on his brother’s chest and listened.  Thank God!  From the angle he lay at, he’d feared….  No.  He wasn’t going to borrow trouble.

Adam let out a small bark of laughter.

He had more than enough without borrowing it!

The man in black ran a hand through his own thinning locks as he assessed his brother’s condition.  One leg was whole, the other broken.  It bore a make-shift splint.  Joe’d done a good job of immobilizing the injured limb with what looked to be part of a chair and a set of leather reins.  The accident  must have happened in the barn and he’d used whatever resources were at hand.  Smart kid!  Adam glanced out the door and toward the barn.  That skittish mare!  Maybe she….  He sucked in air as he turned back to his brother’s still form.  It didn’t matter how the accident happened, only that it had happened.  Joe was a mess.  He’d taken a blow to the head as well.  The cut was deep and dirty and still seeping blood.  And his arm….  Adam gingerly pushed the brown fabric back to reveal it.  God, his arm!   Joe’s flesh was deeply bruised; his arm crushed and the tips of the bone exposed.

As he began to examine the wound, his brother moaned.

“Joe?”  Taking hold of his chin, he turned the kid’s face toward him.  “Joe?  Can you hear me?”

A thin sheen of sweat covered the wounded man’s skin.  Joe’s color was high.  Both sure indicators of a rising fever.  Whatever happened in the barn, it had been bad.  Most likely the violent storm spooked the mare, she’d panicked and injured Joe.  That explained not only the trail from the stall to the back room, but the empty Colt Remedy bottle and the saddle and blanket on the floor.  His brother reeked of urine and horse manure.  There wasn’t a hope in hell that some of the stuff hadn’t been driven into the open wounds.

Adam looked for a spot that didn’t appear to be injured.  Finally, deciding upon the cheek on the left-hand side of Joe’s face, he tapped it lightly.

“Joe?  Come on, Joe!  I need you to wake up.”

The command seemed to work.  His brother’s eyes opened.  Their emerald green depths were clouded with confusion and pain.

“…Pa?”

“No, Joe.  No.  It’s not Pa.”  Adam paused.  He wondered if the kid was coherent.  The cut on the side of Joe’s head was deep.  “Can you tell me what happened, buddy?”

Joe half-smiled.   “Silly…mare,” he breathed.  “Scared…of a door…and some…lightning….”

So he’d been right.

“The storm?” he asked.

Joe winced as he turned his head away.  Then he coughed.

Not a good sign.

His brother lay silent for a moment.  Then, unbelievably, he roused and tried to stand.  “Need…to close…the door.  Hop Sing’ll…give me hell….”

Adam caught his shoulders and forced him back to the floor.  “It’s okay, Joe.  I left it open to let the smoke out.”

His brother blinked.  Joe opened and closed his eyes a couple of times and then shut them for so long he thought he’d passed out again.  Finally, they opened with more clarity.

“Who….?”

“It’s me.  Adam.”

Joe’s brows knit together.  “Adam’s…dead.”

“No, I’m not.  I’m….”  The man in black chuckled.  “To quote an old friend, the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Joe shifted his mangled left arm and winced before reaching up with the right one.  “Adam?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

A second later he was unconscious.

Adam rocked back on his heels, his eyes traveling past his brother to the singed stove and sooty furniture.  Thank God Joe had passed out and fallen to the floor!  The air would have been cleaner down here.  All his wounded brother needed was smoke-filled lungs on top of his other injuries!  The man in black rose to his feet and stood for a moment.  If he hadn’t come home when he did….  If the fire on the stove had been left to burn out of control and reached the walls, they would have lost Joe and the house as well.

Pa wouldn’t have survived it.

Adam rubbed his forehead hard.  He had to get control of his emotions and take action!  First of all he needed to remove Joe from the damaged kitchen and take him somewhere safe where he could tend to his wounds.  Secondly, it was imperative he make a thorough search of the bunkhouse and surrounding fields.  His brother was too sick to sit a horse, there wasn’t a wagon or buckboard in sight, and Joe needed a doctor and needed one now!  Certainly Pa had left someone behind besides Joe.  The man in black glanced at his brother, who was out for the count, and then rose to his feet and returned to the great room and opened the door to the first floor guest room.  Thank the Lord for Hop Sing!  As he’d hoped, it was freshly cleaned and prepared for the next unexpected traveler who knocked on the door.  The thought of getting the kid up the staircase made him go green.  It was going to be hard enough to get Joe out of the kitchen and into bed without causing him great pain.

“Joe?” he said as he returned to his brother’s side.  “Joe, I’ve got to move you.  I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt.”  He put an arm under Joe’s shoulders and lifted up.  The kid was still slender, but had filled out over the last five years.  Lifting him was going to be harder than he’d thought!  “Joe?  Can you hear me?  I need you to help.”

“Mm…mm?”

“Joe!”

His brother’s eyes opened and fixed on his face, seemingly without comprehension.

“Can you stand?” he asked.

Joe’s reply was a frown.

“Joe?”

“Give me…a…minute,” he grunted.  As Adam watched, his brother planted his teeth firmly in his lower lip and edged his way into a seated position.  Joe sat for several seconds, panting heavily, and then – leaning on his arm and into his strength – managed to rise.  There was a moment when he thought the kid would go right back down, but he caught himself and managed to balance on his good leg.  Joe shuddered, the pain coursing from head to toe, and then shot him a triumphant look.

“I…made it to the…house…without you…older brother….” he said through clenched teeth.

“Yes, I know.”  Adam wrapped his arm around his brother’s slender waist and started to move.  Joe grunted with each step.  “And in spectacular fashion, I must say.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought you lit that signal fire just to guide me home.”

Joe scowled at him as they reached the dining room.  “I was…hungry.”

“You might have considered the size of the fire.  You lit one big enough to roast all of the Ponderosa steers at once!”

They were making their way.  Slowly.  Adam had to stop every so many feet to let his brother catch his breath.  Joe coughed several more times, though whether from inhaled smoke or the threat of pneumonia, he had no idea.  By the time they reached the downstairs bedroom, his brother’s strength was flagging.

“Hang on, Joe,” he encouraged.  “We’re almost there.  Just a few more steps and you can lie down.”

Joe stopped short.  His head turned and he looked around, confused.  “Where…am I?  This isn’t….”  The kid’s eyes closed and he swallowed hard before speaking again.  When he did, the words came out on a harsh breath.  “This isn’t…my room.”

“No, it’s not.  We’re downstairs, Joe.  Remember?  This is the guest room.  You’re not well enough….”  Adam hesitated.  If he told the kid he wasn’t well enough to go up the stairs, that was exactly what he’d try to do.  “It’s for me, Joe.  I can check on you easier here.”

That brought a pale grin.  “Okay…old man.  Wouldn’t…want…to wear out…those old bones…of yours….”

With some difficulty, Adam angled his brother into the room and onto the bed.  Joe sat for a moment on the side, his head hanging down, and then let him almost bodily lift him into it.  In spite of his best efforts, he wasn’t able to guard both Joe’s broken leg and his injured arm and his brother cried out in pain.

The strangled sound nearly broke his heart.

“Sorry, Joe.  And sorry again.  I need to see to your injuries.  Joe?”

His brother’s eyes were closed.  He was breathing hard.  Joe’ skin had gone dry and his cheeks were blooming with color; each a clear indicator that his temperature was sky-rocketing.  Adam pulled a chair close to the bed, sat down, and took hold of his brother’s right wrist.  He found the pulse and counted.  The kid’s heart was racing.

So was his.

He had a decision to make.

Joe needed his wounds cleaned and bandaged, and he needed a doctor.  The question was, which came first?  He had no idea how long it had been since his brother was injured, but from the look of things he was guessing at least one day.  Maybe more.  If there was an infection, it had long ago set in.  Leaving Joe as he was wouldn’t help, but a few hours longer wasn’t going to hurt either.

Finding a doctor was, on the other hand, a matter of life and death.

Reluctantly, Adam climbed to his feet.  He stood for a moment holding his brother’s hand, and then bent to place it on top of the coverlet.  As he did, his gaze fell on Joe’s other arm – the blood-soaked one – and the reality of everything his brother had endured…alone…shuddered through him.  He’d been expecting a joyous reunion – a happy homecoming with his family.

If he had arrived a few minutes later….

Adam’s fingers found his brother’s and gripped them tightly.  “I’ve got to go now,” he said softly.  “I need to find someone to send to town.  Joe.  I need….”  He drew in a breath that changed his intended words to a prayer.  “God, I need you to keep this bull-headed kid in bed until I get back.”  He looked up.  “Do you hear me, God?  Don’t let him wake up and make things worse.  God?”

The wind rose outside, causing the porch bell to clang.

The clock struck quarter to nine.

Adam released his brother’s hand, stood up, and without a backwards glance, walked out of the room.

 

V

 

He checked the bunkhouse first but it was devoid of life.  In fact it was so tidy, if someone had told him all of the men had up and left for good he would have believed them.  The lack of even an old geezer, sitting by the woodstove waiting to jaw, continued to puzzle him as he climbed onto Vinnie’s back and urged the thoroughbred out of the yard and into the field.  Why was there no one to be found?  The only explanation he could think of was that the ranks of the men were as thin as the herd.  It was possible, he supposed, that many of the transient men his father usually hired had moved on in search of other work when they heard the pickings were slim.

Still, to leave Joe completely alone….

Adam shook his head.  He had to face facts and the first one was that Little Joe wasn’t so ‘little’ anymore.  That solid body he’d lifted had definitely belonged to a man and not a boy.  It seemed impossible that Joe had changed so much in five short years.  Then again, when he looked in the mirror, it seemed impossible that he had changed so much!  His black hair was now streaked with white and had receded back from his forehead, creating what the Bard would have called an ‘enobled brow’.

The Gods were fickle, of course.  Joe still had all of his – hair, that was!  His brother’s curls were, if anything, even more riotous than they had been in his youth.  Adam chuckled as he turned his horse to the west.

And they were silver-gray!

Divine justice, perhaps, for the way the kid and his hi-jinks had turned their father’s prematurely white?

When he came to the first boundary fence, the man in black reined in his mount and looked in both directions.  There was no one and nothing to be seen, so he had another choice to make.  Travel on – at least as far as the next fence line – to see if he could find anyone, or turn back and tend to Joe.  He hated to leave the kid alone, but hated even more the thought of returning empty-handed.  He’d really hoped he would find someone to send to town.  Once again, the West’s lack of simple necessities stirred a sense of dissatisfaction within him.  A doctor, for God’s sake!  One of the most rudimentary needs of mankind.  Out here you’d be lucky to find a decent one within a hundred square miles.  Back East you couldn’t spit without hitting one.  An old wound opened deep within him as he recalled an earlier time when the lack of a physician had nearly cost his baby brother’s life; a time when the fault had been his and all he could do was stand by and watch him slip away.

Nearly too far away.

Adam straightened in the saddle.  He’d go a just a bit farther, say five miles, and then go home.  The sun was slipping toward the horizon and he didn’t want to leave Joe alone after dark.  With any luck, Hop Sing had returned from town and found Joe and was tending his wounds.

Luck.  That was what you had to rely on in the West.  Not communication.  Not science.

Just luck.

His baby brother had always been one of the luckiest men he knew.

He hoped Joe still was.

 

The light was gone by the time Adam returned.  Of all things, his horse had thrown a shoe!  He’d been nearly halfway home when it happened and had to walk his horse the rest of the way.  Joe had been in pretty bad shape when he left.  He’d hated to go, but believed at the time it was for the best.  Now – coming back as he was, empty-handed – he felt it had been a waste.  What if Joe was worse?  Every limping step made him regret his choice not to clean and sterilize his brother’s wounds before he left. How could he have forgotten?  This was the West.  The brutal, unpredictable, savage West.  He’d let his guard down and now he feared it might cost his brother’s life.  He’d meant to be gone a few hours at most.

It had been six.

Adam was bone-weary by the time he finished in the barn and headed for the house.  He was so weary, in fact, that it took a minute for it to register – the fact that there was a light on inside his father’s office.  Hope sprung into his heart and quickened his step.  Could Pa have come home unexpectedly?  Or maybe Hoss?  But…no.  Most likely it was Hop Sing as he’d thought before.  Relieved in any case, the man in black entered the house, dropped his hat and gun belt onto the credenza, and turned into the great room.  Then he stopped in his tracks.  Littering the floor from the door of the guest bedroom to the office was a line of overturned furniture, shattered pottery, and broken glass.

And blood.

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed.

The sight that greeted Adam as he entered the office brought him up short.  Joe was seated in the barrel chair that was habitually butted up against their father’s desk.  His brother’s left arm hung at his side and was hidden in shadow; his splinted leg stretched out to one side.  More than half of the contents of Pa’s bookcase were strewn on the floor about him.  Joe’s face was flushed.  Sweat dripped from his chin and ran from his curls, marring the surface of the darkly polished wood.  His brother’s thick eyebrows – which were somehow still impossibly brown – formed a ‘v’ of concentration as Joe traced a line on the printed page with one finger; his trembling lips mouthing the words silently.

“Hey, buddy,” Adam said softly, tenuously.  “What are you doing out of bed?”

Joe started at the sound of his voice, shuddered, and continued reading.

“What have you got there?”  Adam could see as he moved closer that the book was some sort of medical text.  Their father kept several on his shelves.  They’d served as their doctor more times than he could recall when they were boys.  “Joe?”

His brother was muttering fast and low – and oblivious to him.

“Joe?”

Finally, Joe turned toward him.  He bit his bottom lip, sniffed, and then sort of smiled.  A moment later the kid began to recite, almost mechanically, the words he had just read.

“The infection of gangrene…runs its course more…severely in some…cases.  Swelling with…dusky redness and a deep seated…pain.  Death almost…invariably ensues in three or four days.  Any attempt to…save….”  His brother choked, swallowed, and went on.  “…to save any part of…may be hopeless.  The patient’s only…chance may lie in…ampu…ampu…tation.”

Joe closed his eyes.  When he opened them again, his brother looked at him without recognition.

And without hope.

“Joe, no.”  Adam took hold of the textbook, intending to remove it.  “It’s only been a day or two.  You’ll be fine.  Come on now.  We need to get you back to bed so I can tend to your wounds.”

Joe’s hands came down on the book and pinned it in place.  He shook his head.  “No.  It’s a…good book.  It’s a good book…to explain why…the disease…runs its course more….”

Adam reached out to take his brother’s chin in his fingers.  “Joe!  Look at me.  It’s Adam,” he said, forcing him to.  “I’m telling you, you don’t have gangrene!  You’re hurt, yes, but you’re going to be fine!  Now, come on….”  The man in black halted.  His brother was laughing.

Laughing.

He took a step back.  “Good Lord, Joe!  What is there to laugh about?”

The sound of it was slightly hysterical.  It became even more so as his brother shifted and painfully dragged his injured arm up and onto the table.

“Shows what you know, older brother,” he said.

The limb was barely recognized as human.

Joe’s lower arm had blackened and was swollen to twice its normal size.  Blisters had erupted on the taut flesh and oozed a putrid pus.  His brother stared at it, sniffed again, and then turned hollow eyes on him.

“It’s gonna have to….”  His baby brother’s jaw tightened.  “Adam, you’re…gonna have to…cut it off.”

He took a step back.  “Joe….  No.”

Tears streamed down the kid’s face, tearing at his heart.

“Adam, please….”  Joe’s words were a whisper, breathed as he lost the battle and slid from the chair.   “Adam…please…you gotta promise…me….”

He caught him before he hit the floor and held his brother there, in front of their father’s desk.  He was startled by the heat radiating off of him.  In the time he’d been gone, infectivity had taken control.  Adam’s jaw tightened as tears filled his eyes.  They weren’t for his brother but for himself and the crushing guilt he felt, that all but overwhelmed him.

He denied them.

If guilt and its erstwhile companion grief were to be rightly laid on his shoulders, there would be time for that later.  Right now Joe was all that mattered.

Joe and the fight to save his life.

 

Adam lifted his head from the book he was reading and listened.  He was in the great room in the big red chair beside the fire.  His favorite, the blue velvet one, remained empty.  He had to admit he’d come to regard the idea of sitting in it – sipping that brandy and staring across the table at his kid brother bundled up on the sofa, safe and alive – as a kind of reward; one that was to be savored once this crisis was past.  He’d left Joe sleeping in the spare room and come to the hearth to peruse the stack of medical books he’d found in his father’s library.  Each and every one offered various remedies and tonics for just about everything from a hang nail to pneumonia.  Unfortunately, each and every one of them offered only one ‘cure’ for gangrene.

A ‘cure’ he refused to administer.

The man in black closed his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose.  Of course, it had to be Joe’s left arm that was affected!  Why couldn’t the damn horse have stepped on the right one?!  The thought of Joe without his dominant arm – without the ability to rope and shoot and maybe even ride – was beyond conceiving.  And yet, Joe had asked him to do it.  To…amputate.  The kid had to know what it would mean.

Or did he?

Adam put the book down on the table before rising and walking to the bedroom.  Once there he leaned on the jamb.  He’d left the door open as there was no one else in the house to disturb his brother’s sleep.  One of the books had recommended a poultice of tea and tobacco be applied to the wound.  He’d done that several times and, while it hadn’t done much to slow the progress of the disease, it had seemed to ease Joe’s pain.  His brother was sleeping.  Fitfully.  Restively.  But sleeping.

God, he looked so young.

The poultice would work, he told himself as he turned and moved slowly toward the kitchen where a fresh batch was brewing.  The next time he looked, the necrosis would be arrested and the swelling would have gone down.  When he reached the stove, Adam lifted the lid and used a spoon to swirl the linens about that he’d dropped into the brown liquid earlier.

After all, a concoction this foul smelling had to do something, didn’t it?

The man in black made a disgusted noise as a bit of the remedy splashed out of the pot to land on the floor.  As he reached for a towel to wipe it, his gaze fell on the square wooden table that squatted not three feet away.  He’d put what was left of the thick piece of beef Joe had attempted to fix for supper into the ice box and then driven the tip of the butcher’s knife into the table’s top.  The firelight struck the blade and the metal flashed before his eyes – along with a horrific vision.  Little Joe – not the man of twenty-eight he was now, but the small boy of four he had been – sitting before him with his arm stretched out on the table.  Little Joe looked at him, his green eyes wide with love and trust – even as the blade fell, cleaving his arm from his body.

And then, Joe screamed.  God, how he screamed!

Adams eyes shot open.

No.  Joe was screaming.

Now.

He’d never turned a corner so fast in his life.

By the time he reached the bedroom, Joe was thrashing from side to side with such fury that he feared he would fall from the bed and injure himself further.  Thank god he’d had the foresight to bind the wounded limb to his brother’s side!  Adam sat on the bed and took hold of the kid’s shoulders and thrust him back to the sheets.

“Joe.  Joe!  Listen to me.  You’ve got to calm down.  Joe!”

At first, Joe fought like a tiger.  He seemed not to hear him.  Then, slowly, he began to respond.

“That’s it, Joe.  It’s me, Adam.  I’m here.  You’re going to be okay.”

Joe’s eyes flew open and his right hand shot out to grip his shirt.  “Adam?” he panted.  “Adam?”

“Yes, that’s right.  It’s me.”

His brother whimpered.  He turned his head into the pillow and groaned.

“What is it, Joe?  Is the pain worse?”

Another whimper.  Then those green eyes, wide as that four-year-old child’s, fastened on him.  “Adam, you gotta get him…off of me….”

The man in black frowned.  “Who?  Joe, there’s no one here but you and me.”

Joe’s breath came faster.  It was like he was running.  “Adam, you gotta…. Get him off of me!  Adam!  I’m shot….  I’m shot….”

Adam swallowed hard as the long-buried grief resurfaced yet again, forcing him to participate in the scene Joe’s raging fever had rekindled.  Montpelier Gorge.  Another day when he’d forgotten to think things through.

Another day when he’d acted unwisely and nearly got his little brother killed.

“Joe, that was a long time ago,” he said, his voice weak with grief.  “There’s no wolf here.”

Joe drew in air and pointed.  “There is!  He’s…behind you.  I can…see him!”

“No, Joe.  No.  It’s the fever.  Do you hear me?  It’s the fever!”  The kid was strong.  Joe was actually trying to sit up.  “Joe, stop it!  You’re going to hurt yourself!”

“Don’t let him get me, Adam!  Don’t…”  His brother went rigid.  He drew in a sharp breath and looked at him with terror in his eyes.

“What is it, Joe?  What?”

Joe’s lips formed a single word without sound.  Then his eyes rolled back in his head and the kid pitched forward into his arms.

‘Why?’

 

VI

 

Why?

Why, God?

Why…me?

Adam ran a hand across his bleary eyes and then thrust the medical text away in disgust.  If he’d read the passage on gangrene once, he’d read it a hundred times.  Just like he’d applied that damn poultice of tea and tobacco a hundred times with little or no result.  He rose to his feet and began to pace with restless energy, walking the length of the great room several times before he stopped outside of the room where his brother lay sleeping.

Joe was sick.  Real sick.

The infection in his brother’s arm was raging and Joe’s fever had grown dangerously high.  All too soon it would be too late.  The progress of the disease would be irreversible.  There would be nothing he could do.  There was something he could do…now…but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  He couldn’t….

He just couldn’t cut off his brother’s arm.

Adam snorted.  He supposed that made him a coward.  Hell, he knew it did!  Joe had more courage than him.  The last time the kid had awakened, he’d practically begged him to do it, citing the words in that damn medical book as if he knew them by heart.

‘Gangrene.  The infection runs its course more severely in some cases…death almost invariably ensues in three or four days.  Any attempt to save any part of the injured limb may be hopeless.  The patient’s only chance may lie in amputation.’

“Now, he learns how to memorize!” he scoffed.

Adam entered the room and stood at his brother’s side.  Since reliving the nightmare of Montpelier Gorge, Joe had not awakened.  The kid was dead to the world.  If he was going to…do it…now was the time.  He’d found another book that detailed every part of the procedure, from how to apply the tourniquet around the limb before starting to cut, to how to reduce bleeding and where and how to discard the damaged limb when done.  Adam rubbed sweat from his upper lip and swallowed hard.  Once the limb was gone, there were arteries that had to be tied off using either horsehair or silk.  Before he began, he’d have to decide whether to use the circular or flap method to finish off the procedure.  The circular was faster but took longer to heal.

A scalpel was needed to cut through the skin, and then a knife to cut the muscle.  He’d have to have a saw to cut the bone itself.

The room faded and Adam cursed.

He’d nearly passed out.

One hand shot out to grip the bedpost.  “Sorry, Joe,” he breathed.  “Joe, I’m sorry….  I have to get some air.”

The man in black didn’t walk, he ran.  He ran fast and hard and didn’t stop until he reached the barn.  Once inside Adam Cartwright – the man who prided himself on his cool, calm demeanor and stoic countenance; the older brother who was never at a loss for words or an opinion; the man who knew it all – dropped to his knees and blubbered like a baby.

God, he prayed.  God, help me!

Even if he could bring himself to do as Joe asked, there was no way he could do it – amputate, that was.  Performing an amputation wasn’t as simple as taking a cleaver and cutting off an infected limb.  It required the skill of a surgeon.

A skill he didn’t have.

His brother was going to die.

Adam righted himself so he was sitting and then dropped his head to his knees.  A minute.  He needed…another minute.  He knew what he had to do.  He would return to the house and sit at his baby brother’s side and be with him until he passed.  He’d promised Marie years before that he would always take care of her petite Joseph; that he wouldn’t leave Joe until Joe left him.  When the kid…left him…he’d take him and bury him near the lake at her side.  After that he’d come home and sit in the blue chair by the fire and wait for his father and Hoss to return, only to find that the surprise homecoming hadn’t been his.

It had been Little Joe’s.

Adam jumped as a hand landed on his shoulder.  Startled, he sucked in a breath and looked up.

Into a big beautiful beefy face.

“Adam?” Hoss asked.  “Adam?  Is it you?”

From behind his brother came another familiar voice.  “Hoss, did you find Joe?  Hoss?”

The big man turned.  “Pa, I found –“

Adam rose to his feet and dusted himself off.  “No, Hoss.  Let me.”

His father was speaking as he walked toward the barn.  “I found Cochise.  There’s blood on his coat.  Your brother….”

Pa stopped, shocked, just as he appeared in the doorway.  The older man’s face went slack with disbelief and then burst into a wide grin.  His father started forward, but halted as he noted the condition he was in.  The man in black knew what he saw.  He hadn’t shaved for days.  The stench of Joe’s sickness clung to him, as did his baby brother’s blood.

The question came as a whisper, formed on lips of fear.  “Joseph?”

Adam nodded.  “He’s been asking for you, Pa.  I’m so glad you’re here.”

“How bad?”

A single tear coursed down his cheek.  Words failed him.

His father stepped forward to place a hand on his shoulder.  Pa looked at him and then pulled him into a close embrace.

“Welcome home, son,” he said as he released him.  “Now, take me to your brother.”

 

Even though Hoss took off that instant to fetch the doctor, Paul was a long time in coming.  Despair, fear, remorse and guilt could do nothing to shorten the twenty miles between the Ponderosa and town. The seven hour wait was agonizing, and more so for his father than him.  Pa, of course, had absolved him of any wrong doing, but would have none of it as far as his own guilt.  Joe surfaced once or twice during the long night; long enough for Pa to put two and two together and figure out that baby brother’s injuries occurred at practically the same moment he and Hoss rode away.  What made it worse was that Pa had left his pipe behind and almost come home to fetch it.  In the end he’d decided that it would take too much time to backtrack, and getting the drive underway was too important.

‘More important’, the older man had sighed as he took Joe’s swollen and discolored hand and covered it with his own.  “More important than my son’s life.’

Adam was sitting by his brother’s bed.  He put the book he was reading down and looked at Joe.  The kid lay swaddled in an old comforter that Hoss had magicked from somewhere, with barely more than his curls showing.  It wasn’t quite a crazy quilt, but its colors were as vibrant as Joe’s skin was gray.  He thought he remembered it being on their parents’ – on Pa and Marie’s bed – once upon a time.  It had been a gift from a group of church ladies if he remembered correctly.  The man in black’s lips curled with irony.  No doubt an attempt at an apology for the less than warm reception their father’s New Orleans’ bride had received upon her arrival in the settlement.  Joe was resting peacefully at last with a pinprick on his hip and a head of morphine-induced dreams.  He’d been in the room when Paul Martin made the pronouncement that both he and Joe had been correct.  It was gangrene.  The physician went on to tell them that the book they’d used as a reference was out of date, as were many of the methods cited in it, and it was a good thing they had not followed through.  It had been just about all he could do to hold his tongue.  In the midst of the crisis, checking for a copyright date had been the last thing on his mind!

Still, he knew what he was getting his father for Christmas!

A sense of movement drew Adam’s attention back to the sickbed and his brother who had managed to wiggle out from under the quilt enough to breathe.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

Joe smiled.  “I…fleell fnn,” he slurred.

“I just bet you do.”  Adam leaned over to place a hand on his brother’s head, noting again the silver curls with wonder.  “Your fever’s down.”

The kid didn’t say a word; just continued to stare at him.

“Joe?  Are you okay?  Should I get the doc….”

The silvered head was shaking.  His brother closed both eyes for a moment, and then opened them with more clarity.  Joe wet his lips before asking, “Real?”

“Real?”  What was he on about?  “The accident?  Yes, it really happened.”

Again his brother’s head shook.  “No…you.  Real?”

So that was it.  “Me?  Real?”  he chuckled.  “At least the last time I checked.”

“Thought….”  Joe winced as he shifted.  “Thought I was…dreaming.”

“How’s he doin’?”

Adam turned toward the familiar voice.  Hoss had picked up weight in the last five years, but it seemed the big man had shed at least half of it from his face during the last night of worry.

Joe grinned his silly grin.  “Hey…nig…”  He blinked lazily.  “Big brother.”

“Hey, yourself, shortshanks,” Hoss growled as he moved to the side of the bed, half with mock indignation and the rest with relief.  “You owe me, Joseph!  You done scared me outta ten years of life, you know that?”

Baby brother pouted like the four-year-old he had been.  “Ssrry.”

Hoss was a giant, with hands that could span a hundred-year tree.  He reached out with infinite care and gentleness to lay one on Joe’s rampant curls.  “Heck, punkin.  I’m just funnin’ you.”  Their brother winked and then looked right at him.  “Old Adam and me knows you’d do just about anythin’ to get out of a round-up.  Ain’t that right, older brother?”

It felt right.  The banter.  The camaraderie.  Heck, even Joe laying injured in bed with the two of them commiserating over whether or not he would live to see the high side of twenty felt right.

Adam’s gaze went to the silver curls.

Make that thirty.

“Or haying season,” he said softly.

Hoss returned his grin, but Joe had grown serious.  That encouraged him to check the kid’s forehead again for rising fever.  Paul had warned them that a renewed infection was a very real threat.  Unexpectedly, Joe reached out to catch his hand.  Their fingers locked and remained locked for several heartbeats before his brother released him.

“Thanks,” he said.

Adam chuckled.  “For what?  Not panicking when I didn’t know what the Hell to do?”

“For…being here.”  Joe paused to draw a breath.  “Would have…been alone.”

The possibility of that shivered through the man in black.  Could his brother have survived if he had faced this crisis alone?

Adam glanced at Hoss and then favored his little brother with a smile.  “You’re tough, kid.  You would have made it.  Somehow.”

Joe let out a long sigh.

“What’s wrong?”

Joe rolled his eyes.  “…always…calling me…kid….”

He reached out to ruffle those silver curls.  “These don’t make you older than me.  At least not until you lose half of them.”

Hoss ran a hand over his own thinning hair.  “So how come Joe got more hair as he growed up and we done lost half of ours?”

Adam chuckled.  “Must be that hard head of his.”

Joe was staring at him.  The man in black raised an eyebrow to ask the question.

“Are…”  Joe cleared his throat, which had grown suddenly tight.  “Are you going to stay?”

The storm of several nights before heralded a change.  As of this morning a light dusting of snow lay on the ground.  Winter had come to stay at the Ponderosa and so it seemed had he.

For a while, at least.

“Through the winter.  After that…we’ll see.”  Adam pressed a hand to his aching back and straightened up.  “After all, I promised Marie.”

Joe had been half-asleep.  The kid perked up at the mention of his mother.  “What’d you promise Mama?”

The man in black kept his face sober.  “That I’d look after you until you were old enough to look after yourself.  Obviously, we’re not quite there yet.”

“Hey!”

“You gotta admit, he’s right, Little Joe,” Hoss added with a twist of his lips.

Shortly after that, the pillows began to fly.

 

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Angst, ESA, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, SJS

 

 

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

25 thoughts on “The Circumstance of His Return (by McFair_58)

  1. You managed to change a wonderful episode and make it even more exciting. Adam’s introduction to this episode was perfect, bringing him back to Ponderosa right at a time where he was needed and would feel how important his little brother was to him. Everything perfect!!! Thank you so much for this entertainment!!! I love your stories!!!

  2. Very good and credible retelling of a favorite episode, and Adam’s inclusion works well. I had to laugh at Adam’s hint at what Ben is getting for next Christmas. Much needed!

  3. Your story slipped Adam into the episode seamlessly. I always felt stressed that Joe dealt with all of that alone, and I like your version to have Adam there. But poor Adam, definitely not the homecoming he envisioned. The ending was pure brothers, rebuilding their brotherly bonds.

  4. What a perfectly planned WHI for the underlying Episode. Didn’t see it coming at first ! Appreciate the time context of 5yrs later being woven into the story. PTSD flashback was a very realistic moment.

    Your talent as an author and obvious heart to continue Bonanza stories that fans will enjoy is such a precious gift to their fans.

  5. That was a great way to bring Adam back just in time to help his brother . Not the reunion haws looking for but wonder ours just the same.

  6. You just made a favourite episode even better! I think they can all say, thank God Adam came back. Great story and so neatly woven into the episode.

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