Summary: A WHN and missing scenes for “The Quest.” Adam is taken aback by his reaction to Joe’s success with the Sun Mountain Mining Company contract.
Rated: K+ WC 8300
By the time we left the logging camp, my face ached from forcing a smile. Pa and Hoss hadn’t had to force anything–they were genuinely thrilled with Joe’s success, and they were delighted to let him know. And Joe–well, there have probably been times in his life that I’ve seen that kid more jubilant, but offhand, I can’t think of any.
I really was happy for him. I swear it. This was my little brother who had triumphed. He’d come up with the notion that bested Will Poavey and made a tidy sum for the Ponderosa in the bargain. He’d gotten off to his usual brash start, but he’d learned some hard lessons along the way, like who to listen to and who to trust and how to recognize when he needed help. He’d come a long way in a few short months. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was completely grown up, but he was a lot further along than he’d been the day Hoss and I had found him brawling with Dave Donovan.
I remember that day well. Once again, Pa had sent us into town to find Joe and haul him back to the ranch. For weeks, the kid had been acting as though he was on a permanent vacation. He spent his days lounging around the Bucket of Blood or, for variety, the Silver Dollar. Most of the time, we found him with cards in his hand, a girl on his knee, and at least one empty beer mug next to his half-full one. He routinely left his chores half-done–or completely undone. And when he did do any work, he was as contrary and cantankerous as any man I’d ever met.
I’m using “man” loosely here, because even though Joe was certainly old enough to be considered a man, he wasn’t acting like one. What infuriated me even more was that Pa didn’t seem at all inclined to rein him in. I couldn’t imagine a time when he’d have tolerated this behavior from me or Hoss. When Joe first started to slack off, I fully expected Pa to haul him into line, thundering reprimands and threats until they hung in the air as thick as a San Francisco fog. But for some strange reason, he didn’t do much of anything–at least, nothing that made a difference.
So, Hoss and I went on another Joe-search, and we found him in the middle of a fight with a big blond fellow. Reasonably, we figured that he needed a hand–after all, his opponent was a whole lot bigger, and Joe seemed to be getting the worst of it. So, we stepped in.
An instant later, I was staggering back, but it wasn’t the blond fellow who had hit me. It was Joe, eyes blazing, who had slammed his fist into my jaw.
Let me say right here that I don’t really blame him all that much. Maybe it wouldn’t make sense to women or city folks, but I understood what was going on. Joe’s been the youngest and smallest of pretty much every group he’s been in for as long as I can remember. When he left school at fifteen, some of the thirteen-year-olds still towered over him. He’s easy to spot among the ranch hands, because his hat is about half a head below everybody else’s. And in a saloon–well, he’s tough and feisty, and he’s been quick to learn everything Hoss and I taught him about fighting, but he still usually ends up trading punches with opponents who outweigh him by fifty pounds or more.
As a practical matter, there are really only a couple ways to deal with those situations. One is to give up control to the big guys, and we all knew Joe would never go in for that. The other is to earn their respect. So, I can’t say I was surprised to find that Joe had a bet going that he could stick with Dave Donovan for four rounds.
Notice that I say “stick with,” and not “beat.” Joe’s no fool. Considering the size of Donovan, there was practically no chance Joe would emerge as the victor. Joe knew, though, that winning wasn’t the real point: if he could stick with Donovan, that would be impressive even if Donovan was standing at the end.
But I digress. The point is that lately, Joe had been acting like a fool kid instead of a responsible man, and it irked me that Pa wasn’t doing much of anything to stop him. Even Hoss grumbled on occasion when he had to finish up Joe’s chores, and Hoss puts up with a lot from our little brother.
So, when Joe finally pulled himself together and did something that required discipline and maturity and even benefited the ranch–well, a normal person would have been dancing a jig, right? And yet, all I wanted was to get as far away from that logging camp as possible. I wanted to banish the word “flume” from my vocabulary. I wanted to go home, read a book, and forget all about that damned misbegotten timber contract and how it was my ornery little brother who had saved the day.
Because it should have been my triumph.
Let me explain. I grew up working, whether it was helping Pa load our wagon or changing Hoss’s diaper or feeding and watering the team as we made our way across the country. When we finally landed in what was then western Utah, I was the one who worked side by side with Pa to build our first cabin. Later, I produced the first sketch of where the house and barn and corrals should be, followed by the first sketch of how the rooms should be laid out in the house. I was young, of course, and Pa had to make some changes, but he always told everybody who asked–and, in all candor, a lot of people who didn’t–that I was the one who had designed the house and the outbuildings.
College was the proverbial dream come true for me, with time to read and study and think. Those four years passed in a flash, and then I came home, bringing with me all sorts of ideas for modernizing the ranch–some of which even worked. As time went on, if there was a question or a problem, the men began to turn to me almost as often as they turned to Pa. Not at first, of course–I had to earn their respect by working side by side with them. Eventually, though, they were willing to listen to me and to consider the notion that I did indeed know what I was talking about, even if I’d learned a lot of it in school.
Meanwhile, Joe had entered what can charitably be called a rough patch in his growing up. If everybody else said “white,” he said “black.” Whatever he was told to do, there was something else he’d rather be doing, and he’d stand there, hands on his hips and arms akimbo, arguing about why he should be doing the something else. Even Pa and Hoss lost their considerable patience with him several times a week. I never really valued patience the way they did, and so I shouted back in an effort to educate the boy as to who was actually in charge. I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t occasionally been satisfying to watch Joe trailing after Pa to the barn for an encounter that would leave my little brother sitting gingerly for the rest of the evening.
Eventually, as Pa had predicted (with more hope than certainty, in my opinion), Joe began to settle down. It still wasn’t a smooth path, but he was showing promise. I remember when Pa sent Joe to San Francisco to negotiate some cattle sales. The decision was made, so I held my tongue, but I’m sure Pa knew I thought it was foolhardy at best to send a seventeen-year-old kid off to the big city by himself. I don’t think there was a night in the entire two months that Pa actually slept through, but I remember well the day Joe came back. Hoss and I met his stagecoach, and Joe was so happy to see us that he didn’t even object when Hoss grabbed him and hugged him off his feet, right there in front of everybody. Of course, five minutes later, Joe discovered Julia’s Palace and we had a whole new set of problems, but at least they were of a more grown-up variety than the ones we’d dealt with before.
In any event, the years passed, and I remained at Pa’s right hand. It was no secret to any of us that he dealt differently with me than with my brothers. He treated me more like an equal, and even though I’m sure he’d never admit it, he listened more closely when I spoke. If I said that we needed to move a herd or take on a project, he gave my words serious consideration. And if I said something shouldn’t or couldn’t be done, he would generally nod and agree with my pronouncement.
That evening, when Hoss and I got home from the Donovan debacle, we found Pa studying a map of the Ponderosa. It seemed that Sun Mountain Mining Company was accepting bids for a contract to provide fir for a new mine they were opening. It was a handsome contract, and I’d have loved to bid on it, but I just didn’t see a way to make it work. The only fir we had ready to cut was up on the ridge above Buckhorn Meadow, and while it was more than adequate for the job, getting it down the mountain would be an enormous undertaking. There was only one road up to that area, and it was steep and, in some parts, narrow. It had some sharp turns that even a regular wagon could barely make; hauling a flat of timber around those turns would be impossible.
“I don’t see how we can do it,” I concluded after laying out these facts. “It’s ten miles closer than anything Will Poavey has, but that ten miles is almost all straight up and down.”
Pa puffed on his pipe as he studied the map. “I think you’re probably right, son,” he said. “It’s a shame. I’d really have liked to win that contract.” He drew on his pipe, shaking his head. “Well, it doesn’t matter, I suppose. We’ve got more than enough to keep us busy right now.” He yawned as he rose. “I wonder where your brother is,” he mused.
And just like that, the discussion was done, the decision made. We weren’t going to bid on the contract. The stand of fir above Buckhorn Meadow would remain intact, because there was no reasonable way to get it off the mountain.
Except that nobody told Joe that.
The next morning, we came downstairs to see him at Pa’s desk, surrounded by papers like a schoolboy. As soon as he saw us, he jumped up, his words tumbling over each other as he told us what he’d figured out. I heard, but didn’t really listen at first. Pa and I had been over all this the night before. Whatever Joe had been figuring was nothing more than the overly ambitious dreams of a kid who wanted to do a man’s job.
And then he said the word, and the truth flashed through me like a jolt of lightning.
He was right. God help me, he was right.
I could see it as clearly as I saw my brother and his sheaf of papers. Endlessly tall fir trees, their dusty green needles crisp against a cloudless blue sky. Deep voices shouting, “Timber!” as the unmistakable crack of a falling tree echoed through the forest. The rhythm of saws biting through wood and hammers pounding sections together as men straddled logs bigger around than their horses. The rough wooden trough that ran the length of a mountain, down to where the river splashed around bobbing logs as men hopped from one to another, directing them downstream to the waiting wagons.
It would work. The realization burned in my brain. Joe’s plan would work, and it would make a tidy bundle for the Ponderosa.
And it had never crossed my mind.
All right, then. Maybe I hadn’t been the one to come up with the idea, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know how to execute it. I was just reaching out for Joe’s papers when he announced that he wanted to do this project by himself. He sounded for all the world as though he was four years old again, when “by self!” had been the constant refrain in our house.
Fine. He could do his calculations by self. “I can get you Jake Weber for a foreman,” I said.
“I already have a foreman,” my brother announced. “Dave Donovan.”
It took a second before I put two and two together and realized that Donovan was the big blond fellow Joe had been brawling with the day before. Clearly, this had the potential to get out of hand. “Okay, then, I’ll take a few days off and help you myself,” I announced.
“Hey, sure, me too,” Hoss chimed in.
“Now, listen!” Joe appealed to our father: “This is my project, and I’ll run it myself.”
Before I could think of how to frame the obvious objections, Pa said, “All right.”
Later, after Joe had darted out of the house, I approached Pa. “Did you look at his papers?”
Pa gave me an odd look. “No.”
“Then how do you know they’re right?”
“I don’t,” he said. “I guess we’re just going to have to trust Joe.”
“But. . . .” The protest died on my lips. Pa’s expression didn’t quite make sense. He looked as though he was trying hard to believe something even though nearly every scrap of evidence was against it.
In the days that followed, I watched my father holding tightly to whatever it was he believed in. Joe was staying up at the timber camp with the men, but rumors were already floating around. I heard in town that the kid had gotten suckered into a scam about a performance bond. Hoss reported that Donovan had been hanging around the saloon when he was supposed to be hiring. One of the hands told Pa about how Poavey had tried to block the road and was charging Joe twenty-five dollars a wagon to pass.
Through it all, Pa held his tongue. Not once did he criticize how Joe was handling the project. Every day, Hoss rode up to the ridge and watched Joe working, and he reported in over supper, but Pa never said a word. And every night, Pa sat in his chair, pipe in his hand, and held a book in his lap without turning a page for hours at a time.
“Adam, you think we ought to go out there and give Joe a hand?” Hoss asked me in a low voice one night when we were putting the stock to bed. “He’s got an awful long way to go.”
I shook my head. “He wants to do it himself,” I said, trying not to sound irritated.
I must not have succeeded, because Hoss frowned. “You don’t think he can?”
I shrugged, turning my attention to securing the corral latch. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess we won’t know until it happens.”
And then the day came, as I knew it would: Hoss and I walked into the house, and there was Joe, slumped in defeat. My heart ached for the kid as he sat on the end of the table, Pa’s arm around his shoulders, tears in his eyes. I knew better than to rub salt into his wounds by saying anything, but I couldn’t help wondering if whatever catastrophe had befallen him could have been avoided if he’d listened to me.
If it wasn’t exactly what I’d foreseen, it had its roots in the same problems. Donovan had proven to be no good, but he didn’t take kindly to Joe firing him, and so he joined up with Will Poavey to ruin Joe’s chances of making good on the contract. They’d blown up a good section of the flume and injured one of the men. Luckily, nobody had been seriously hurt, but it was clear that Joe felt he had no choice but to give up.
“I can’t do it alone,” he said, his head in his hands.
At that moment, the struggle I’d seen in Pa’s eyes for weeks relaxed. He looked relieved as he patted Joe’s shoulder. “We’re still here if you need us,” he said.
Joe lifted his head and looked at us with something approaching amazement. It was clear that he’d thought all his “by self” talk meant that we were going to leave him to sink or swim. Hoss and I confirmed that we were free, and Pa pointed out that we had a whole bunch of ranch hands sitting around. The kid lit up, and the grin that spread across his tear-stained face was so sweet that I couldn’t help grinning back. With a jubilant “What are we waiting for?”, he jumped up, as enthusiastic as the morning he came up with the idea.
Dawn was barely peeking through the trees when we rode into the camp the next morning. I managed to remain stone-faced at the wreckage, but it was every bit as bad as Joe had described. The blown-up section of the flume lay in pieces. Rough holes bore evidence of the bullets that had found their mark. It was a miracle nobody had been killed. And all because Joe had to prove he knew what he was doing in hiring his brawling buddy as foreman.
But I didn’t say that, or anything like it. I hunkered down and let my little brother tell me what to do. Hoss was clearly getting a kick out of calling Joe “Boss,” but I just did the work and didn’t worry about things like that. I made suggestions where I could, and Joe accepted them as wholeheartedly as if he’d thought of them himself. When I recommended constructing an A-frame, you’d have thought I was giving him the best present in the world.
I’m not proud of this fact, but here it is: the closer the flume came to completion, the harder it was to watch what was happening. Joe was working his backside off, running here and there, overseeing everything and working as hard as any three men. The men who came back after the explosion were listening to him just like he was indeed the boss, and they were working their hearts out for him. The flume was going to be done, and it was going to be done on schedule. Will Poavey had been beaten, and the project that did it bore Joe Cartwright’s name.
I kept my feelings to myself, but as I watched the men loading the first log onto the flume, there it was again: this should have been mine. My project, my flume, my triumph. There was nothing here I couldn’t have done easily. No reason that it hadn’t been my victory, except that I hadn’t thought of it and my little brother had.
“Wooo-ee! Ain’t that pretty?” Hoss’s grin was as wide as the Truckee.
Joe darted over to stand between Hoss and Pa as we watched the first logs slide down the flume. Joe’s eyes shone with his triumph, and Pa’s glistened just a little as he clapped Joe on the back and congratulated him.
And me. . . .
I watched from a few feet away. I wanted to celebrate with Joe, and I hated the part of me that was being petty and jealous. My little brother had taken on a man-sized job, and he’d done it well. He’d worked harder than I’d ever seen him work, and he’d endured more setbacks than pretty much anybody else would have, but he’d succeeded. That timber was going to be at the mine with time to spare, and in the end, the credit had to go to Joe.
I smiled at him when he turned from joking with Pa and Hoss to see where I was. His brow furrowed just a little, and I said, “Back’s a little sore. Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” Joe nodded, furrows vanishing, and he turned his attention back to his flume. A few years back, I wrenched my back in a fall from a bronc, and sometimes, it acts up. On rare occasions, I end up in bed with hot towels and Hop Sing’s flat irons to relax the muscles. More often, I just keep going and eventually the pain eases up. It wasn’t really a problem now, but it did make for a convenient explanation.
Certainly better than the truth, in any case.
Once the flume was built, Hoss and Pa and I turned our attention back to other matters. Joe, of course, stayed at the timber camp to oversee the logging operations. When he came home that Saturday night, filthy and dog-tired, my little brother’s grin could have lit up the entire Ponderosa. We all pounded his back and clapped him on the shoulders and told him what a great job he was doing, and I half-thought he was going to cry at one point just from being so proud and so tired. Hop Sing had already heated bath water for him, and we waited supper until he’d had a chance for a good long soak. Hoss invited him to go along to town that night, but Joe just shook his head.
“Maybe next week,” he said through an enormous yawn. “Tonight, I just want a soft bed and plenty of blankets.”
As we watched him climb the stairs, I said to Pa, “Well, he did it.”
Pa turned to me. His eyes glowed in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen before. “He sure did.” He turned back to the stairs as Joe disappeared around the corner at the top, and he repeated, “He sure did.” Then, he exhaled as though he’d been holding his breath for a long, long time, and he smiled at me. “I think I’m going to turn in, too. ‘Night, son.”
I watched him go, unable to quiet the niggling feeling in my chest. Hoss had headed into town on his own, and the house was silent. Too bad, because I could have used somebody to talk to right then, somebody whose casual conversation would have drowned out that little worm that wriggled in the back of my mind. With a deep breath, I picked up my book and settled myself in the blue velvet chair by the fire. In the absence of my family, Mr. Shakespeare and King Henry the Fifth would do just fine.
The next morning, I was surprised not to see Joe at breakfast. I wasn’t the only one; Hop Sing brought in a platter of eggs and said, “Where Li’l Joe? He go back to timber camp already?”
Pa chuckled. “It’s Sunday, Hop Sing. I figured I’d let him sleep.”
“He’s going to be late for church,” I pointed out. Certainly, I’d never been excused from church on Sunday just because I was tired on Saturday.
Pa barely favored me with a glance as he said, “If he’s up in time, that’s fine. I’m sure he can use the rest, though. He’s still got at least another couple weeks on that project.”
I reached for the platter of sausage patties to avoid saying something unwise. Sometimes, the most dangerous place on the Ponderosa was between Pa and his youngest cub. I’d learned that one the hard way.
Sure enough, when we drove back in the yard after church, Joe was sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee. His shirt was untucked and unbuttoned, and he leaned back in the rocking chair, his bare feet resting on the bench by the table. He looked utterly content, and a quick surge of irritation rose in me.
“Glad to see you finally got up,” I called as we disembarked.
Joe’s grin still bore traces of sleep. “Yeah, I’m up.”
“You sleep well, son?” asked Pa as Hoss set to unhitching the team.
“Like a rock,” said Joe. “Hey, thanks for not waking me up.”
Pa patted his shoulder. “I thought maybe you could use a little break.” There it was again–that look in Pa’s eyes from last night. Joe smiled up at him, and in the space of a second or two, it was as though they’d had an entire conversation without saying a word. I couldn’t have felt more left out if they’d cupped their hands beside their mouths and whispered to each other.
You’re being ridiculous, I told myself firmly. I headed into the barn to help Hoss groom the horses. Maybe I was the one who was overtired.
The rest of the day passed quietly. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Joe stayed around the house. Usually, he spent Sundays out riding or visiting friends, but today, he just stretched out on the settee and read one of those awful detective novels he’s so fond of. In my defense, let me just say that I did my best to instill some appreciation of literature in my brothers. Unfortunately, I must admit that I failed. Hoss doesn’t read much of anything without a reason, and Joe spends an inordinate amount of money on those silly books that, at ten cents, are vastly overpriced. That evening, Hoss and Joe played checkers while I continued my foray through the Henrys and Pa read Mr. Dickens’s latest offering. More than once, I looked up to find my father watching my youngest brother with an expression I can only describe as gratitude mixed with pride and relief.
Two more weekends passed thusly before the day Joe came home to announce that the last of the timber had been delivered, the campsite had been disassembled, and the job was finished. Three days after that, there came a knock on our door, and a thin man with a sharp face asked for Joseph Cartwright. I fetched Joe from the barn, and when he saw our guest, he smiled and held out his hand.
“Mr. Hawkins, it’s good to see you, sir,” he said. He introduced us all and said, “This is Mr. Hawkins of the Sun Mountain Mining Company. It’s thanks to him that we got this contract at all.”
“Not at all, young man,” said Mr. Hawkins, his face softening into a smile. “You gave us a fair bid. And, I’m pleased to say, you’ve fulfilled your contract to the letter. Here’s the money you posted for the performance bond, and here’s our payment. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Cartwright. I hope we can work together again sometime.”
Joe’s eyes grew round as Mr. Hawkins handed him an envelope. “Thank you, sir,” he managed.
Mr. Hawkins turned to my father. “You should be very proud of this young man. He did a fine job.”
“Well, Mr. Hawkins, I had a lot of help,” Joe began, but Mr. Hawkins waved him off.
“As I understand it, you’re the one who came up with the idea of building a flume, aren’t you?” At Joe’s nod, the older man said, “That idea saved Sun Mountain ten thousand dollars over the next best bid. We appreciate that, and to let you know that, we’ve included a little bonus in there for you. Feel free to bring us more of your ideas, Mr. Cartwright.” With that, he bid us all farewell, shook Joe’s hand one more time, and headed out to his carriage.
Joe stood in the living room, his jaw slack and his eyes wide. “Go ahead, Little Brother, see what you got!” Hoss urged him. Looking dazed, Joe opened the envelope and extracted its contents: five thousand dollars for the performance bond, a bank draft for the sum of the contract–and an extra thousand dollars with a note: “Well done. J. Hawkins.”
“Joe, look at that! A thousand-dollar bonus! Dadburnit, what d’you think about that!” Hoss was as excited as though the money was his.
“I–I don’t know. I–I never–” Joe gave up hunting for words and handed Pa the draft and the thousand dollars.
“No, son, that’s yours,” said Pa, handing back the cash. “You heard Mr. Hawkins. It was his way of saying thanks for your idea.”
Joe stared at the money, as did I. By my calculations, that was more money than the total of what Joe had earned in his entire life. I’d never gotten a bonus like that on any project. In fact, as far as I could recall, the only bonuses we’d ever gotten had been the occasional bottle of brandy.
Eventually, Joe stopped staring at the thousand dollars and turned his attention to the other five thousand. “I gotta get this back to the bank,” he said, holding up the larger stack of bills.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“The performance bond. Burt Crawford said it had to be five thousand in cash, and there wasn’t time to come out to the ranch, so I had to borrow it.” Joe seemed completely unperturbed by this, but I caught Pa and Hoss both looking sharply at him.
“Five thousand in cash? Since when?” I demanded. “We’ve never had to do that before. A note’s always been adequate.”
“But that’s what Crawford said that day. Five thousand in cash by sundown, or I’d forfeit the contract.” He looked perplexed for a moment. Then, understanding dawned, and he stared at the money with an angry set to his jaw. “Because he figured I’d never be able to do it,” he said. “And then his buddy, Will Poavey, would get the contract.” The glow of a minute earlier faded as the bitter taste began to register.
“Don’t worry about it now, son,” said Pa. “The important thing is that Crawford didn’t stop you. You figured out a way to do it, and Mr. Hawkins was pleased with your work. Now, you get yourself into town and put that money in the bank where it’ll be safe-and while you’re at it, deposit this draft for me.”
“Sure.” Joe snatched his hat off the peg and picked up his gunbelt. “I’ll see you later. I’ve got to go pay back my loan.” He tucked the money into the inside pocket of his jacket and headed out.
I looked up to see Pa watching me with a sad expression. “What’s the matter?” I asked. He just shook his head and turned back to his desk. To Hoss, I said, “Come on. We’ve got to get that fencing up to the north pasture.”
Hoss just grunted as he followed me out to the barn. When the next three things I said were also met with grunts, I turned to him. “What’s going on?”
Hoss’s eyes were as sad as Pa’s had been. “Did you have to tell him right now about that bond?”
“What do you mean?”
“He was so happy. Would it have hurt anything to wait and maybe tell him tomorrow or the next day?”
“He deserved to know.” I couldn’t figure out why I was defending myself, but it irked me. “Next time, he’ll know better.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.” But he didn’t sound convinced. He sighed and took down the harnesses for the team, and I tried to shake off the feeling that I’d been accused of something and found guilty.
Hop Sing was complaining about the pork chops drying out by the time Joe got back. He hung up his hat and jacket, fishing a receipt out of the pocket. “This is for the deposit,” he said, handing it to Pa.
Pa’s brow wrinkled. “Wasn’t there any interest on that loan?”
Pa held up the receipt. “This is for the whole amount of the draft. Didn’t the bank charge interest on the five thousand dollars?”
Joe’s cheeks reddened. “Yes, sir, it did.”
“It was my fault there was a loan in the first place, so I paid the interest out of my bonus.” The words came out in a rush, as though he’d been caught doing something wrong.
“Son, that bonus was yours,” said Pa. “The interest should have come out of what we made on the project–just one of the expenses.”
Joe took a deep breath. “Pa, just–just leave it, all right? It’s done, it’s paid–can we not talk about it any more?”
Pa regarded Joe for a long moment. “Of course,” he said. He tucked the receipt into his desk drawer as he continued, “Go and wash up. Supper’s ready.” He watched Joe disappear around the corner. Then, I caught his eye, and even though he didn’t say a word, I felt again as though I was being judged.
I marched over to the table. Uncharacteristically, I took the bottle of wine from the sideboard and poured myself a glass. “Anybody else want a drink?”
“Sure, whyn’t you pour us all some?” said Hoss. “I reckon we got a little celebratin’ to do tonight!”
I clenched my teeth as I poured wine in the other glasses. Just what I was not in the mood for–a little celebratin’.
Once we were all seated and Pa had asked the blessing, Hoss raised his glass. “I think we oughta have a toast. To Little Joe and his flume!”
“To Little Joe!” said Pa, raising his glass.
“Hear, hear!” I added, raising mine.
Joe lifted his glass. “I couldn’t have done it without you all!”
We all clinked and drank and began to pass platters. Just when I thought that we were finished with this topic, Hoss asked, “So, Little Brother, you figured out what you’re gonna do with your bonus?”
“Heck, I don’t know,” said Joe as he stabbed a pork chop from the platter. “Maybe we could all go to San Francisco or Denver or someplace–you know, with a fancy hotel and all those high-class restaurants.”
Pa chuckled. “Son, that’s awfully nice of you to offer, but maybe you want to think about saving some of that money.”
“For what?” Clearly, the notion had never entered my little brother’s mind, and I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.
“The fact that you have money doesn’t mean you have to spend it.” My voice sounded a little sharper than I’d intended, but Joe didn’t seem to notice.
“You know, I’ve heard there’s some horses down in Arizona that are prime breeding stock,” Joe said. “Wonder what they’re getting for them.”
“Mebbe we should go down to Arizona and find out,” Hoss suggested as he dumped a heaping spoonful of mashed potatoes on his plate and handed the nearly-empty dish to me.
“And I’ve heard Texas, too,” Joe continued through a mouthful of pork. “Hey, Adam, pass the string beans.” Without waiting for a response, he grabbed the bowl and shoveled a pile of beans onto his plate. “Here you go, Pa,” he said, handing the dish to Pa without seeming to notice that I hadn’t gotten any.
“Would somebody pass the pork chops?” I asked more loudly than I’d planned. The three of them stared at me for a moment. Then, Hoss passed the platter that still bore a few pork chops, and the rest of the family resumed discussion of the pressing matter of how best to help Joe spend his bonus.
Let me just say here that the second glass of wine probably didn’t help. Neither did the fact that when Hop Sing brought out more potatoes, my brothers pretty much inhaled them before I had a chance to reach for the bowl. Nor did the constant references to the flume, a word I’d never despised before. I tried to join in the merriment, but it grated like a second-rate soprano singing off-key. Still, I told myself, supper couldn’t last forever. I poured myself a third glass of wine and tried to ride it out.
“–and when I came up with the idea for the flume–”
“–that flume was a danged fine notion, Little Brother–”
“–son, you did a fine job with that flume–”
“–if I hadn’t thought of a flume–”
“Damn it, Joe, you built a flume! You didn’t discover fire!”
The silence following my words was deafening. As soon as they were out, I wanted to snatch them back. Anything to avoid what I knew was coming next. But there was nothing I could do, and so I gripped my fork and waited.
The spark of pride that had glowed in my little brother ever since the first log slid down that flume went out just like I’d stomped it with a wet boot. Confusion and hurt flashed in his eyes, and his grin vanished. All at once, he looked like a kid again, uncertain but striving to prove that he was just as good as the rest of us.
Then, his nostrils flared and his jaw clenched. Before Pa or Hoss could say anything, he spat out, “What’s the matter, Adam? You jealous that you didn’t think of it first?”
“That’s enough!” Pa snapped.
“No, Pa, let’s have it out,” said Joe. “He’s been holding this in for weeks.”
“Joe, I–” I began.
“Go ahead, Adam, say it all,” Joe cut in. “You’d never have hired Donovan, you’d have held your own with Poavey’s men, you’d have had the whole stand cleared and delivered with weeks to spare, and you wouldn’t have needed to ask for help from anybody. Isn’t that right? You wouldn’t have come crawling home with your tail between your legs. You wouldn’t have needed everybody to drop everything to bail you out. You’d have done the whole job better and faster and cleaner than I did.”
“Little Brother–” Hoss began, but Joe’s words rushed over him, louder and faster.
“But while you’re figuring out all the ways you’d have done it better, Adam, just remember this–you’d never have done it at all, because you didn’t think of it!”
My little brother shot me a fierce glare. He shoved back his chair and stormed out, ignoring my father calling him to get back to the table.
I could feel their eyes on me. I focused on my plate, carving my pork chop like a surgeon. No one spoke. I heard the hoof beats of Joe’s horse galloping out of the yard, and I threw down my knife and fork.
“I’ve got work to do,” I said shortly. Not meeting their eyes, I headed out to the barn.
I’d groomed almost every horse in the barn when I heard the crunch of boot on hay. I didn’t look up until I heard the words: “I didn’t think of it, either.”
I turned to Pa. His eyes had the same sad look they’d held earlier. I nodded brusquely and turned my attention back to the hoof I was cleaning.
“How much was that contract for?” I asked finally as I set the hoof down.
“Does it matter?”
I straightened. “I was just wondering how much I almost gave away to Will Poavey.”
Pa regarded me. “What’s really bothering you? That you didn’t think of the flume–or that Joe did?”
I couldn’t lie to him. “Both, I think.” Pa shook his head, and I said, “I know. I guess that’s what happens when you think you have somebody pigeonholed. They go and do something unexpected, and it messes up everything you thought you knew about them.”
Pa raised an eyebrow. “About them?” His emphasis on the pronoun was slight, but unmistakable.
I exhaled, nodding. “Yeah,” I conceded. “I suppose I ought to get used to this. It’s going to happen again.”
“Probably,” Pa agreed. “But don’t worry. It takes a little getting used to when somebody you’ve always thought of as a child proves that he’s not.” I must have looked startled, because he said, “That design you developed for the corrals–I could have stared at a piece of paper for a month and not seen how it should work.”
I moved into the next stall and took up the currycomb. It hadn’t occurred to me that my notions might have been a little disconcerting for my father. “But you never. . . .” I waved my hand to describe my behavior.
“No, I didn’t,” he agreed. “But it still took a little time to get used to the idea that my son could think of things that never occurred to me. After a while, I realized that it was actually a gift–I didn’t have to be responsible for everything, because I knew that you would see things I didn’t. And the same is true with Hoss, and now with Joseph. Takes a lot of the load off, I’ll tell you.”
I considered his words as I worked dried mud off the horse’s flank. “When do you figure he’ll be back?”
“I don’t know.”
He stood still, watching me for a while longer. Then, he left the barn, and by the light of the lantern, I finished grooming the horses.
* * * * * * * * * *
My little brother didn’t see me when he slipped into the house. The only lamp lit was the small one on the table behind the settee. I watched as he hung up his hat and jacket. He coiled his gunbelt and placed it next to Hoss’s on the sideboard. He stood there for a long minute, his head bowed. Then, he took a deep breath and headed for the stairs.
He was almost at the bottom step when he saw me in the old blue velvet chair. He slowed slightly, and I said, “You want a drink?” I gestured to the bottle and the two glasses on the low pine table.
“No, thanks.” His words were clipped, his meaning clear: I only drink with friends.
“Have a drink, Joe.” I held out the glass I’d already filled for him.
He wavered before he took it. I picked up the other glass and held it up as in a toast. “To saying stupid things.” Before he could lash out, I said, “Not you, Joe. Me.” I clinked my glass against his and drank. After a moment, he swallowed the whiskey.
Even in the dim light, I could see the wariness in his eyes. His shoulders were stiff, as though he expected a blow.
“Sit for a minute, will you?” Normally, I’d have told him rather than asking, and a slight wrinkle between his brows told me that he knew this, too. Still, he remained standing until I added, “Please.”
I waited until he’d seated himself on the settee to refill his glass. He looked at me and pointedly set the glass on the table.
I poured myself another drink and sipped this time. All the words I’d rehearsed as I sat in the darkness slipped away. Finally, I set my own glass down and faced him squarely.
“I’ve kicked myself a thousand times for not thinking of that flume,” I said. “That contract nearly got away from us. If it hadn’t been for you, Will Poavey would have had it.”
“He almost got it anyway.” Joe’s voice was so quiet that at first, I wasn’t certain he’d spoken.
I nodded. “But he didn’t.”
“I made every mistake a man could make.”
“And you fixed them.”
“I could have gotten those men killed.” His voice was hoarse.
“It wasn’t you who risked their lives,” I said. “It was Donovan and Poavey. You were just doing your job.”
“What if somebody had been killed in that explosion? What was I supposed to say to the widow? ‘Sorry, ma’am, but I was just doing my job’?” He threw back the whiskey and plunked the glass down on the table. “I wanted so much to prove that I could handle this job that those men almost died.”
“You did handle it,” I said.
“I wanted you all to be proud of me.”
He looked up at me. With the lamp behind him, his face was in shadow, but I could feel his eyes searching my face. “Are you?” Not the plural now, but the singular. He knew about Pa and Hoss. I was the question mark.
I told him the truth. “Yes, Joe,” I said. “I’m proud of you. I’m proud of how you handled this job. And I’m sorry I’ve never said so before now.” I refilled his glass to avoid looking at him as I added, “And I’m sorry I made you ask.”
My brother ran his finger around the rim of his glass. “You know what made me think of the flume?” I shook my head. “The summer you came back from college, you took me out hunting up along the Truckee. I don’t remember why Hoss wasn’t there, but it was just us. I remember being up among that stand of timber and looking down at the river, and I said how I wished it was snowy so that we could slide down the mountain, clear down to the river. And you told me how sometimes loggers did just that with timber. You said how they’d clear a path and build a flume, and it was just like a great big sliding hill for the logs, and then they’d just float them down the river nice as you please.” He sipped his whiskey. “I’d never heard of such a thing before, and I wanted so much to see one. A few months later, you came in and told me to saddle up and wouldn’t say why. We rode up near Michaelson’s place, and there was a logging crew, sliding those logs down their flume. You just pointed to it and said, ‘That’s what I was talking about.'”
I remembered now. His eyes had sparkled like it was Christmas morning. We must have sat there for an hour, just watching those logs slide down the flume and splash into the river. The next day, he insisted that we had to show Hoss the flume, and even though Hoss had seen flumes before, he rode back there with us and we watched the loggers again.
“So, you kinda did think of the flume,” Joe said. “You just thought of it at a different time.”
I chuckled. “I appreciate the credit,” I said lightly. “But this time, it’s all yours.”
I poured another round, and we sat together in a silence more comfortable than I’d known with Joe in months. Just as I was about to call it a night, he leaned forward. His next words were so low that I almost missed them. “There’s something else I’ve gotta tell you, and you’re not gonna like it.” I nodded at him to go on. “When I figured out that I’d thought of something and you hadn’t . . . well, I felt like I’d finally won or something. I know I’m not as smart as you, and I’ve spent my whole life knowing that. Even Mr. Emerson, when I went to get the loan and I told him about the flume–his first question was whether my brother, Adam, had thought of this for me. And it felt really good to tell him that it was me and not you who’d thought of it.”
“It was a good idea. You should have been proud of it.” His words stung a little, but I understood.
“Maybe so–but I was so convinced of how smart I was that I didn’t listen to you about things like hiring Jake Weber. And I nearly lost it all.” He tossed back the last of his whiskey. “I shouldn’t have been so prideful. I’m sorry.”
I considered the man sitting before me. He could have simply accepted my apology and gone to bed, but instead, he confessed his own shortcoming and asked me to forgive him. No two ways about it: my little brother had grown up.
I rose, stretching. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, and I meant it. I corked the whiskey, and Joe stood to follow me upstairs. At the door to my room, I put out my hand to stop him from going past to his own. “Just one thing,” I said. “You ever start wondering if you’re smart enough or man enough to do something, take a ride up the Truckee and look at what you did.”
He shrugged. “It’s just a flume.”
I shook my head. “It’s a whole lot more than that.” He cocked his head quizzically, and I said, “You’re the smart one. Figure it out.” I ducked into my room and closed the door, chuckling as I heard Joe’s footsteps receding. He’d be puzzling on this one for days. To be honest, I wasn’t certain that even I could put into words exactly what I meant, but I knew I’d enjoy watching Joe try.
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