Summary: A WHN for “My Brother’s Keeper”. Sometimes the invisible wounds are the ones that take longest to heal…
Keywords: WHN, My Brother’s Keeper, SJS, ESA, cattle drive, hurt, ropes
Rated: T WC 10,400
It’s funny. I’m the one who got shot, but it’s Adam who was really wounded.
I watch him as he rides along beside Pa, fifty yards or so ahead of Hoss and me. On the outside he looks the same as he ever did, leaning slightly to the right, one hand easy and relaxed on the reins. Pa says something to him, and he nods and answers. But his answer is short, like most of the answers he gives these days.
I suppose I should be relieved that he didn’t leave altogether, like he talked about doing soon after the accident. For awhile there, during those first few weeks, I was actually sick of hearing him talk. Always going on about Boston, or New York, or Philadelphia, or some other city a million miles east, and how he was going to go there and forget he ever was a rancher in a place “where men live like animals.” That’s what he kept saying. Pa never said a word to change his mind, just kept watching him and listening. Hoss and I–well, we argued with Adam until we were blue in the face. We tried to convince him that leaving wouldn’t change anything, wouldn’t help anything. Where we lived didn’t have a thing to do with what had happened to me.
But Adam can be stubborn. Finally I yelled at him to just leave then, if he was so goldanged determined to do it, and for once he didn’t have anything to say. He just looked at me real funny like. But that was the last time he said anything more about pulling up stakes and moving east.
So now he isn’t talking much about Boston. Trouble is, he doesn’t talk to any of us much at all. Oh, he’ll answer polite as you please, just like I just saw him do with Pa, but he’s . . . distant. Especially with me. Like he’s really somewhere else, or wishes he was.
Almost like he did leave after all. My oldest brother is still here, but it’s like part of him is missing.
My eyes fall on the empty rifle scabbard tied to his saddle. If we were talking about someone else, Adam would have a word for that empty scabbard. Symbolic, that’s what he’d say. His empty scabbard is symbolic of Adam missing parts of himself. I’ve been riding along on cattle drives with my pa and brothers since I was eight years old, and not once have I seen any of them start out on a drive without a rifle near to hand. Seeing Adam without his looks as off-kilter as seeing the sun rise in the west.
Fact is, Adam hasn’t touched a rifle at all. Not once, not since he and Hoss and Mr. Reardon fought off Dowd and his bunch right in our own house. I was still out of it then—missed the whole darn shootin’ match. But Hoss says Adam was as quick on the draw as ever that night. Says he never missed a beat, even as worried over me as he was.
But after that . . . after that, things were different. Adam put his rifle up in the gun case on the wall, drew the latch across it, and walked away. It’s been five months, and not once has he so much as looked at that rifle. Same thing with his pistol. He cleaned it, oiled it, replaced it in its holster and laid it in its customary spot on top of the credenza by the front door—and then proceeded to ignore it, like he didn’t even know what a gun was. Like he didn’t want to know.
A gun is a tool, just like a shovel or an axe. That’s what my brothers and I have always been taught. Around here, most fellows start handling at least a squirrel gun by the time they’re eight or nine, and plenty of ‘em carry rifles by the time they hit twelve, some of ‘em even younger.
Adam told me once that Pa had a hard time getting used to that when they first got here. Young’uns carrying guns, I mean. I guess people where Pa grew up don’t have as much use as we do for carrying a gun when they’re grown, much less when they’re just a kid. But Nevada territory is different. It’s wild and hard, and a man who can’t shoot a gun is bound to find himself in serious trouble sooner or later. At the very least he’s liable to wind up hungry. And you can’t just decide one day when you’re a man that you’re going to start shooting a gun. It takes awhile to get used to it. It’s just like when a greenhorn decides that he’s going to learn to ride. He’s going to spend a lot of time eatin’ dirt, and he’ll likely never take as naturally to it as someone who’s been on a horse since they were a kid.
Anyway, Pa eventually came around to lots of differences out here, guns being one of ‘em. Adam said his change of heart had something to do with a mama bear getting after him once when he was younger. Seems Pa and Adam were building fence somewhere up in the north section of the ranch, and they ended up several hundred yards apart with the bear suddenly appearing in the middle. The bear charged at Adam, and Pa shot three times before finally bringing her down. The way Adam told it, she was nigh out of range from Pa when the last bullet got lucky and hit her just behind the ear. It was tricky shooting from Pa’s vantage point; he could just as easily have hit Adam as that bear. When she fell over, she was so close to Adam that he said he could’ve reached out and touched her.
Adam said Pa shook for an hour afterwards. The very next day Pa spent three hours teaching him to shoot his own gun, and he made him practice every evening for months until he was satisfied he could handle it.
Hoss and I didn’t have to wait so long. Pa practiced with us shooting a rifle as soon as we hit our sixth birthdays. Of course, he stood right there beside us, and we weren’t allowed to handle a gun at all unless he was with us. It seemed like we did a heck of a lot more talking back then than we did actual shooting—about how owning a gun was one of the biggest responsibilities a man could have, and how it was something that could either save a life or destroy it in the blink of an eye, and how it wasn’t something to take lightly.
We had lots of those talks and lots of practice sessions, and by the time we were ten, handling guns was pretty much second nature to us. We were allowed to hunt squirrels, rabbits, ducks and geese on foot. Hoss was allowed to carry a rifle when he went out far from the house on horseback by the time he was eleven. I had to wait an extra year before Pa let me carry one while riding—he said I was still too jumpy and he was afraid I’d be too quick on the trigger when I was busy thinking about the horse between my knees and how fast I could ask him to go.
Pistols were another matter. Fifteen, Pa said. Fifteen was plenty young enough for some to start carrying a pistol, and not near old enough for others, he said. Rifles were good for hunting. They were good for protecting yourself, your horse and your livestock from snakes and other predators. Sometimes they had to be used to put a sick or injured animal out of its misery. There were other uses, too, like signaling for help. But pistols were another matter. The margin for error when using a pistol is narrower. Pistols are quicker to draw up and fire, and therefore have a tendency to be deadlier in the wrong hands. Although we weren’t allowed to carry a pistol until that fifteenth birthday rolled around, Pa did let us practice with one when we were younger. We would shoot at tin cans and bottles, Pa standing next to us offering advice. He didn’t let us strap on a holster at all at first. We’d end up shooting our toe off, he said.
When we finally turned fifteen and were deemed old enough to pack a pistol around, we got the same talking to we’d had when we first started learning about guns, with Pa even more stern and sober through the whole thing.
After those talking-tos and all the practice, guns were relegated to the background. They just weren’t something we even thought much about when we got older. They were just there, a part of life’s necessary accoutrements like saddles and boots and spurs. The weight of them against our hip was as customary as the shade of a hat over our face. But when Adam started refusing to have anything to do with a gun—well, that’s when they started looming large in my mind.
I worried about him whenever he rode out from the Ponderosa without his holster.
“Somethin’ could happen, Pa,” I said one day. “Indians, bushwhackers, a rabid wolf—” I could’ve bitten my tongue at my choice of words, for Pa flinched slightly, and I knew he was thinking of my own close call with that wolf out at Montpelier Gorge. I took a deep breath. “There are a hundred reasons why he can’t keep on thinking this way.”
Pa had sighed and shaken his head. “A hundred reasons why he can’t—and yet one very big reason why he feels compelled to think this way.”
I had ducked my head. Me. I was the reason Adam felt the way he did. Pa had smiled sadly and reached out and tousled my hair.
“It’s not your fault,” he had said, but somehow I didn’t believe him. “He just needs more time, Joseph. You’ve got to allow him to come to terms with this on his own.”
More time. Well, after five months, it’s obvious to me that Pa is wrong. Time isn’t doing a darn thing for putting Adam back together the way he was before he and I went on that hunting trip up at Montpelier Gorge. My shoulder is slowly knitting itself back together now. The muscles across my back and chest still pull and twinge, and the strength isn’t there yet, not like it was. But every week it feels a tiny bit better. Adam, though—as far as I can see, he isn’t getting better.
The hunt for that rogue wolf up at Montpelier has damaged my brother badly. We had both been in such high spirits when we set out that week. We were on a search for retribution against an animal that had developed such a taste for newborn calves that it no longer bothered to hunt for smaller, wilder game. The wolf had become so bold that he was no longer even hungry enough to consume his entire kill; bloodied remains dotted the pastures below the gorge. So it was decided that Adam and I would set aside a few days, track him down, dispatch him, and carry his pelt home as a trophy proving that we were men in control of our surroundings, that a wild animal couldn’t impose his will upon us, couldn’t rob us.
My earnestness for the hunt was high as we started out. “It’s like a quest for glory,” I said, “like one of those knights in those books of yours. Only we’re going after a wolf instead of a dragon.”
Adam had laughed. “A quest for glory,” he repeated, and shook his head, smiling.
But there had been no glory for us, only an instant of carelessness from each of us, a rifle barrel aimed slightly high from atop a nervous horse and a trigger pulled too fast. The dragon came for us in the form of a bullet, a bullet meant for a wolf that caught me instead. Healing has been a long time coming for me—and nonexistent for Adam.
Pa says something else to him as they ride along ahead of us, and Adam surprises me by laughing gently. I haven’t heard him laugh much these last few months, and the sound of it makes my heart beat faster. He turns his head and looks back at Hoss and me. The corners of his mouth are lifted in a grin, and the sight of it makes me feel so good that my own grin shoots back at him before I have time to think about it. Almost instantly his smile fades back to the carefully blank expression he’s been wearing for weeks; his eyes quickly slide away from me, and in the next second I’m left staring at the back of his head again.
Beside me I hear Hoss clear his throat, and I know he saw it, too.
“The drive went smooth as silk, don’t you think?” Hoss asks. He wants to turn my attention off of Adam. Off of the way he just looked past me like I don’t even exist. I don’t answer Hoss, but he keeps right on. “I don’t reckon I remember a cattle drive to North Umberton ever bein’ pulled off with fewer problems. No bad weather. No jumpy cattle. No strays lost. And to think we did it without any extra drovers. Just us four Cartwrights.”
“We only took thirty head this time,” I remind him sourly. “It ain’t nothin’ to be proud of. If we can’t handle thirty cattle between the four of us, we ain’t got no business going on a drive at all.”
Hoss shrugs. I’m sure he suspects, just as I do, why Pa decided to take such a small number of cattle to North Umberton. He arranged it that way on purpose so that we didn’t need any extra help along. Just us, so we would have a chance to work through things.
Things way more important than driving cattle.
I stare again at Adam’s empty scabbard. I want to punch it. Just drive my fist into the stiff leather, feel the sting of it against my knuckles. “Why’d he even tie the scabbard on if he wasn’t going to take his rifle?” I grumbled.
“I put it there.”
I look at Hoss then. He’s chewing his bottom lip, and all of a sudden I’m sorry I’ve been grumping at him. I’ve forgotten that he’s been as worried about Adam as I have.
“Did it when we were loading up, getting ready to go on the drive,” he says. “I thought maybe if I just slipped the rifle in at the last minute, maybe . . . ” He shrugs again.
“Did he get sore at you?” I ask. “What did he say?”
“Didn’t say nothin’. Just stopped dead in his tracks, looked at the rifle, looked at me, and then pulled it out and took it back in the house and left it. I reckon he would’ve taken the scabbard off, too, but you and Pa already had the cattle movin’ and he didn’t have time.” He sighs. “I thought maybe if it was, you know, just there, like it had always been, he wouldn’t think of the bad memories . . . ”
Hoss’s voice fades away, and I nod and look back at Adam. “It was a good thing to try, Hoss. I don’t care what Pa says. We’ve got to do something, and I think Adam might take it better coming from you. I can’t do it. I can’t do anything. I mean, he can’t even stand to look at me.” I know bitterness has risen in my voice, but I can’t help it. I am so miserable—have been ever since the Reardons left and Adam started keeping to himself.
“Aw, Joe, that ain’t it and you know it,” Hoss says, but he sounds miserable too.
“I told him it was an accident,” I whisper. “I told him it could happen to anybody, and I told him he saved my life. I told him I was proud and lucky to have him as a brother. I told him if anybody was to blame, it was me for not being more careful. I should’ve known he would be coming along after me that day, and I should’ve let him know where I was.” I look at Hoss, and I have to work hard to steady my voice before I can go on. “Do you know what he said?”
Hoss looks at me like he’s scared to hear what I’ve got to say, and he shakes his head real slow-like.
“He didn’t say anything,” I continue, “just like he didn’t say anything about you loading the rifle on his horse. He just looked at me and walked out.” I stare at Hoss. All of a sudden my stomach hurts, and I want him to tell me not to worry, that everything will be alright. “When is he going to come back, Hoss?”
Hoss knows exactly what I mean. He knows that the Adam that’s been living with us since he carried me home from Montpelier isn’t the same Adam we both grew up with. Hoss looks at me, dead in the eye, and I hold my breath waiting for him to give me an answer I can live with.
“I don’t know, Little Joe,” he says quietly. “I wish I did, but I don’t.”
Both of us are quiet for a long time after that. We don’t try to catch up with Pa and Adam even though it would be easy enough, since we’re on the return trip and have no cattle to push. We keep our distance because that’s what Adam has asked of us, even though he hasn’t put it into words. Since the accident, my family has been stiff and clumsy with one another, like a new rope before it’s been broken in.
“At least he’s been riding alongside Pa for a good ways today,” I blurt suddenly. “That’s a good sign, don’t you think?”
Hoss nods and gives me a little smile. “I reckon it might be, Joe.”
But I don’t really believe it, and I don’t think Hoss does, either. As I watch the back of Adam’s dark head, the pit of my stomach feels as empty as that scabbard tied onto his saddle.
We’re all tired, and none of us is in the best of spirits despite the easy drive we’ve just completed, so we push the horses hard just to cut down on the number of nights we have to spend on the trail. We pass through Hanover’s stage stop, but we pause only long enough to water the horses and move on.
There’s about an hour of sun left when Pa finally stops to strike camp. He and Adam already have the picket line strung up for the horses by the time Hoss and I catch up to them. I slide down out of the saddle and stretch to release the kinks in my muscles from the long hours of riding.
Hoss gives Chubb a final pat as he secures him to the picket line and gazes out across a grass-covered hill off in the distance.
“What do you say we go out over that rise and see if we can scare up some small game? Might be able to land us a rabbit or two,” he says.
I nod, but my eyes go back to Adam. He’s busy building a fire in the center of the campsite, and Pa is rooting through the supplies he and Adam have already piled up under a mesquite tree. Beside me, Hoss sees where I’m looking, and he puts a quiet hand on my arm.
“Let it go, Joe,” he says, but I am so tired of doing that. In that moment, anger surges up inside me, and I shake Hoss’s hand off and turn back to Cochise to unsaddle him. I jerk at the latigo to loosen the cinch.
“Let it go,” I mutter. “That’s all we’ve been doing, is letting things go.” I flip the cinch and the flank strap over on top of the saddle and reach up to pull it down off of Cochise’s back. But my temper has made me forget to move carefully; I hiss in pain when a stinging twinge streaks across my shoulder.
Hoss moves in instantly, grabbing hold of the saddle. “I’ll get it,” he says, but I jerk it back toward me.
“No!” The word comes out more harshly than I intend, but out of the corner of my eye I see that both Adam and Pa are staring at me. Showing weakness at this moment is something I will not do, and for once it has nothing to do with my pride. It does, however, have everything to do with my brother Adam’s well being, even though I’m sure he would deny that. I take a deep breath even as my shoulder shrieks a protest. “No,” I repeat, more calmly this time. “I’m fine.”
Hoss doesn’t look convinced, but he nods and steps back. I get a better grip on the saddle and carry it over to the mesquite where our supplies are. Setting my jaw tight as I try not to show the strain, I set the saddle down and tip it up onto its horn, silently berating myself for not being more careful. In an action born of habit, my right hand starts to sneak up to rub at the soreness in my shoulder, but I feel my family’s eyes still on me and I catch myself. I turn and stride back toward the horses where Hoss has gone back to removing tack.
I’m slipping Cochise’s bit from between his teeth when Pa makes his way over.
“You all right, son?” he asks quietly.
I give a curt nod. “I’m fine.” Again I sound too short, too sharp, but I’ve given that same answer so many times over the past several weeks that I’m sick of hearing it myself.
“Ready to go after supper then?” Hoss asks, and I nod, grateful that he is helping me to turn attention away from me and my shoulder.
Cover it up, ignore it, and it will go away. Wasn’t that what we’d been doing all along?
And all of a sudden, I am through with this. I don’t want to cover it up any more. I look back at Adam, who has gone back to poking at his fire.
“You coming with us, Adam?” I say, and my voice is loud and carries a distinct note of challenge in it. Behind me, I hear an intake of breath from either Pa or Hoss. I’m not sure which.
Adam jerks his head up in surprise and looks at me. “What?”
“To hunt for supper. You coming with us?”
Adam is staring at me with the oddest expression, and for one hopeful second I think he might actually accept the invitation. But he doesn’t. Instead, he shakes his head and starts stirring at the fire again. “Somebody’s got to watch the camp. Besides, the fire needs attention and the beans need heating.”
And it’s Hoss, with his forced joviality coming to the rescue again, who says, “You get ‘em heated then, and get ready to put a couple of rabbits on a spit.”
Adam smiles back, and the expression is no less false than Hoss’s good cheer. “I’ll be waiting.”
“You boys hurry along,” Pa adds. “I’ll see to the horses’ water.”
“Come on, Joe,” Hoss says. “Let’s get going before we lose what little daylight we’ve got left.”
I watch Adam for just a moment more before I slowly turn to follow Hoss. We stop where we’ve got our gear and rifles stashed at the edge of camp, and Hoss bends down to grab our rifles. He hands mine to me.
“I figure if we mosey down through that draw, we might find—Joe?”
But I’m not listening any more. I pick up Pa’s rifle and walk toward the fire with a gun in each hand, and I don’t stop until I’m standing right beside Adam. I thrust our father’s gun out toward him.
“Here,” I say. Still on his haunches over the fire, he looks up at me. One brow rises in a mocking sort of question mark, but he says nothing.
“Take it,” I snap, and I shove the rifle at Adam. “Take it and come with us.” I am aware of Pa and Hoss standing frozen, watching the two of us, but I can’t drop my eyes from Adam’s. His eyes reflect the growing light of the embers he is tending, and they are deep with thoughts that I don’t have the guts to try to delve into. What are you afraid of? I want to ask him, but I can’t. I’m afraid that his answer will have more power than the rest of us can fight. We are on the brink of losing him, and even though he no longer talks of Boston, I know he is still thinking of leaving. I don’t dare turn my gaze from his; at this moment, I know it is me who holds him here even as it is me who drives him away. It is guilt, thick and cloying—that is what I see in his eyes.
It is the longest Adam has looked at me since it all happened, and at last, he is the one who breaks the connection. He gives his head a slight shake and goes back to poking at the warming embers, and I breathe again.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he murmurs. “I’m tending the fire. I already told you that.”
Tending the fire. That’s the best he can come up with, and he tells me not to be ridiculous. “Pa can do that,” I say. “Can’t you, Pa?” But I keep looking at Adam.
“What?” Pa says, and he sounds uncertain. “Well . . . yes, of course. I don’t mind.”
I nod at Adam, even though he’s staring at the fire and not at me any more. “See? The beans and the fire are safe enough. So come with us.” I’m still holding Pa’s rifle out toward him.
“It doesn’t take three men to bring down a couple of rabbits,” Adam says, and his voice has taken on a patronizing tone. I know he’s doing it on purpose so I’ll back off.
But I’m not quitting this easy, brother.
“Fine,” I say. “So you and I will go, and Hoss will stay and keep Pa company.” Still I hold out the rifle, and still Adam pokes at the fire as if it is the most important thing in the world.
Hoss clears his throat. “Joe, don’t be makin’ a big deal out of it—”
“Why not? Why should we keep ignoring it?” I realize I’m shouting, but I can’t seem to stop myself. “You know what? It is a big deal, Hoss, and I’m tired of everybody pussy-footin’ around it all the time.”
Pa steps forward. “Joe, don’t—”
“Don’t what, Pa? Don’t pay any attention to the fact that Adam acts like touching a gun might burn his hand?”
Pa cuts me off. “This isn’t the time, Joe.”
“Isn’t the time?” I’m yelling louder now. “Isn’t the time for what? The time for Adam to act like himself again? Or time for him to get over the fact that his bullet could’ve killed me, but it didn’t? Time for him to realize he’s not perfect, and he never should’ve expected himself to be?”
Pa is angry with me now, but frustration has my chest heaving, and the words continue to spill out of my mouth. “Tell me, Pa, just when is the time? It’s been five months. Five months!” I turn back to Adam and I struggle to gain control over the emotion choking me. “Adam, come on. Please. This has gone on long enough. You can’t avoid using a gun for the rest of your life.”
Adam moves so fast that it makes me jump. He flings the stick into the fire and stands, and suddenly his face is inches from mine, dark and angry. “Whether or not I choose to carry a rifle is my business, not yours.”
I swallow, and I want to back up, but I don’t. “That’s where you’re wrong, brother. If we were living out east somewhere, it might not matter. But we don’t live in the east. We live on a ranch, in a place where we have to use guns to keep our livestock safe. To keep ourselves safe.” My voice is hard and fast, and I shove my chin forward to match his. “One of these days you’re going to run into a situation where you’re gonna have to use a gun or end up dying, and what are you going to do then? Just curl up into a ball? Or are you going to get past this—this—whatever it is that’s got you in such a stranglehold, and start acting like yourself again?”
“Maybe I am acting like myself. Did you ever think of that?” Adam presses his mouth into a thin line. “Maybe I don’t want to live where I have to keep a gun handy just to make it through the day.”
This is going nowhere. We’re right back to where we were a week after the accident. Fatigue floods into me, and at last I let the arm holding Pa’s gun fall to my side. I turn my head and spit into the fire, and I manage to conduct a lot of disgust into that motion.
“Don’t start up with that again,” I say. “Look, I’ve heard enough talk about this whole moving east thing to last me a lifetime. You belong here, and we all know it. You know it.” I sigh, and try to approach him from a different angle. “Look. It ain’t right that we’re short one gun just because you’ve got some crazy idea in your head that you can’t shoot anymore.”
It works. I’ve got his attention. He whirls back to face me. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, you don’t. I never said I couldn’t shoot anymore. I just . . . I just won’t.”
But he turns away from me to stare out at the foothills that lie another day distant. “No, Joe. You don’t know what you’re asking. You want me to be the same person I was before—before I pulled the trigger and damn near killed you.”
He’s right. That’s what I want. But he shakes his head, and when he speaks again, his voice is so soft that I can barely make it out. “You’re not the same. How can you expect me to be?”
What’s he saying? I am the same. Everything about me is just the way it was before, except for my shoulder, and that’s only a matter of time. I’m young, and time is something I have plenty of. My muscles will strengthen again. I’m not worried. Not really. Or that’s what I tell myself, anyway.
But as I watch Adam, I suddenly feel such a heavy sadness that I feel as though I’ll be crushed by it if I don’t move away. I wonder how much of that sadness is my own and how much is my brother’s. Without another word, I turn away and walk past Hoss and Pa where they stand silently watching. I walk back to the mesquite tree, and I lean Pa’s rifle gently against its gnarled trunk. Still carrying my own rifle, I head out toward the draw Hoss pointed out earlier. It is a slight depression filled with thick grass tinged red with the light of the dying sun, and I walk toward it as if there is no place I’d rather be.
“Come on, Hoss,” I call back over my shoulder. “If we’re going to have something to eat besides beans and jerky tonight, we’d better hurry.” I walk faster, and I hope nobody notices the slight crack in my voice.
The night is quiet. I lie on my back in my bedroll, my eyes wide open as I stare at the stars, so clear and close in the desert air. Now that everyone else is asleep, I don’t have to keep my eyes closed so that they’ll think I’m asleep.
Neither do I have to pretend that my shoulder doesn’t hurt. I wouldn’t have thought riding for hours for days on end would cause it to be more sore than usual, but it does. The movement of the horse, I suppose. Beneath the rough blanket, my hand creeps up to rub at my shoulder, and my fingers pause and go still as they brush over the scar. They’re funny things, scars. Hoss always says they’re reminders to a fella so he doesn’t do the same dumb thing more than once.
My scar is a reminder, all right, but not just for me. It’s a reminder for my entire family. When the bandages first came off, I was careful to keep my shirt on all the time, because I couldn’t stand the way Adam looked when he saw it. But summer came on hot, and as I slowly started taking on more of my normal chores, I soon shed my shirt and often went around bare-chested just as I had always done. I was sure it soon wouldn’t bother Adam any more.
I had been wrong about that.
I rub my fingers across the slightly roughened patch of skin. It shouldn’t bother him so much. It doesn’t bother me. For all that I almost died from it, it’s not even all that impressive anymore; it’s lost the angry redness it had in the first weeks, and it’s faded into a softly pink, puckered dimple-like mark that nestles in the hollow between my chest and left shoulder. To tell the truth, I had stopped even checking it in the mirror until something happened last month with Marcie Wilburne.
I had asked her on a walk around the lake. The day had been warm and pleasant, and we were holding hands and walking through waist-high grass studded with bright yellow balsam root. We ended up chasing each other through it, and then lying on our backs, talking and laughing and watching the clouds drift overhead. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, Marcie’s fingers were undoing the buttons of my shirt. She rolled up on her side and then moved to kiss me full on the mouth, and I kissed her back while she pushed my shirt down off my shoulders. The cool grass tickled my skin, and I laughed into her mouth, and then my laughter turned into shudders when her mouth brushed across my chest, all the way over to the place where Adam’s bullet had once threatened to destroy me.
“Does it still hurt much?” Marcie had asked, her cheek soft and warm against my shoulder.
If I had received that wound any way other than how it had happened, I’d have told her the truth. Heck, I’d probably have played it up, even, just to gain some sweet sympathy.
But Marcie knew how it had happened, just as all of Virginia City knew, and I hated talking about it at all. Accidental shootings, especially when hunting, are not unheard of, and most people have been nothing but sympathetic. But there are a few who gossip about it and look at Adam differently these days. Hoss even flattened a couple of miners one day when they said something about what had “really happened.” Hoss never told any of us exactly what they had said, but we had all heard some whispers. If the truth isn’t exciting enough, Pa says, people tend to try to make it more interesting. People sure have enjoyed embellishing the story of what went on up there on Montpelier, that’s for certain.
I didn’t want to help them add more. So even though I knew Marcie wasn’t one of the ones spreading tales about what had happened, I simply told her, “It doesn’t hurt at all.”
She had smiled then, and had pressed her lips against the scar, the warmth and the gentle, silken pressure making me catch my breath. And then she had raised her head and looked at me with big doe eyes full of wonder, and she had whispered, “You are so beautiful.”
That had surprised me. How a girl could want to kiss a man in a place that he definitely didn’t look his best, and then call him beautiful besides? Beautiful…it wasn’t a word meant for men. Women were beautiful. Men were . . . well, not. And yet I’d seen the look in her eyes. She’d meant what she said, and she’d said it again as she went on to prove her sincerity that afternoon.
I puzzle over it now, as I lie beneath the bright stars. I turn my head to look at Adam’s blanketed form, the angular edges of his shoulders softly lit by the low burning fire. For weeks I’ve wanted to talk to Adam about that day with Marcie in the grass. What she had said, and the way she had kissed my scar. Why a woman would be drawn like that to something that sure wasn’t pretty to look at. Adam knows a lot about women, and I’m certain he’d know about this, too. It’s just not the sort of thing I’d talk about with Hoss or Pa. No, this is definitely an Adam question.
Six months ago I could’ve asked him—but not now. I lie here, staring at Adam and wondering how a small scar that mostly bothers me only when I strain and that doesn’t even scare womenfolk off could still be such a wedge between me and my brother.
I could creep over to him right now, shake him awake. Just like I did a couple of years ago when we were both swept along with a posse gone bad, on the trail of men suspected of murdering a woman I had known all my life. I had needed my brother’s advice then; I had some mighty hard questions running through my head that night on the trail, and I had desperately needed to talk about them. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of the night. And Adam, worn out as he was from riding hard on the trail all day, had wiped the sleep from his eyes and sat up and talked me through it.
It had been so easy for me to reach out for him then. Now, though . . . now he might as well be a thousand miles away.
I’m still staring at him when my eyelids finally drift shut.
It’s the old dream again. I hear the explosion of the rifle, and the resulting fire in my shoulder. The shadowed sand is cold against my back, and I can’t draw in air. But I’ve done this before. I know the wolf is near, ready to pounce, and I know I have to be ready. Sure enough, I hear a snarl close to my ear and there he is above me, fangs snapping, hot breath in my face. It is fear that makes me forget the pain ripping my shoulder apart, for the wolf is lunging at me, ready to tear my throat out. I manage to get my hands up to hold him off, but I know I can’t last long. My left arm, with its mangled shoulder, is weak, and the rest of me isn’t far behind.
But I hear footsteps running toward me. Adam! I look to find him, wait to see him swing his rifle butt at the wolf to knock him off of me—but nothing happens. The wolf is still on top of me, and I feel his teeth sink into my forearm. Again I look up at Adam—but he is just standing there. He looks sadly at me and holds up both empty hands for me to see.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I don’t carry a gun any more. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.” He starts fading back into the distance.
I am astonished. I start screaming for him. “Adam! Help me!”
“I can’t, Joe. I’m leaving. Going to Boston . . . ”
“Please! Oh, please . . . I’m shot!”
His face fades back into my view, and he looks surprised. “Shot? Who shot you? Couldn’t have been me—I don’t carry a gun, remember?”
I can feel the wolf’s hot, wet mouth closing around my throat.
“Who shot you, Joe?”
Why won’t he help me? What is wrong with him? Why won’t he help me?
“Who shot you, Joe?”
I am so terrified I can hardly breathe. “You did! You shot me, Adam! You shot me!” I wrench upwards, trying to escape the wolf, and I’m still screaming. Why is he asking me a question that we all know the answer to?
“Who shot you, Joe?”
“You shot me!”
The sound of my own voice rings in my ears, and in that moment of confusion between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a vise-like grip circling around my shoulders. For a moment I think it’s the wolf and I start to struggle again, but a whisper brushes against my ear.
“Shh. Stop it, Joe. You’re all right. I’ve got you.”
I blink. My nose is pressed against someone’s chest, and I inhale a familiar scent, a mixture of leather and pine, saddle soap and horse, all mixed up with the scent that is uniquely Adam. He is holding me so tight it hurts, but I wouldn’t move right now for anything. I am frozen with fear that he has heard what I shouted in my sleep.
You shot me.
Maybe I didn’t really say it out loud. Please, God, let it have been words only in my dream. Carefully, I tip my head back to look at him. His expression confirms my fear. He’s heard what I said, all right, those words I would never say if I’d been awake. His eyes are shut because he doesn’t realize I’m looking at him, and his lips are pressed tight together, and he looks as if he’s in actual, physical pain, like somebody has slugged him in the gut with a rifle butt.
We’re both shaking.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry with myself as I am at this moment. If I could cut off my tongue, I swear I would.
Hoss and Pa are standing over us, guns drawn and now lowered, faces pale. Apparently I managed to wake the whole darn camp—but it was Adam who reached me first.
“God, I’m sorry,” I whisper. Adam opens his eyes and looks down at me, and gives a tight nod before starting to disentangle himself from my arms and legs.
“It’s okay,” he says, but of course it’s not. I catch hold of his arm as he turns loose of me and starts to move away.
“Adam . . . ”
I’m willing to beg if need be. I’ve got a million things I want to say as his gaze snags on mine, but I can’t seem to force a single one of them past my lips.
But he knows. He shakes his head. “It’s not your fault,” he tells me, and then he’s moving away from me.
It’s not your fault, either, I want to shout at him. But I don’t, and soon he’s rolled up in his blanket again.
Pa wipes a hand over his face and Hoss visibly sags before turning back toward his own bedroll. Pa puts a hand on my back and leaves it there for several moments before returning to lie down again. You’d think they’d be used to this by now—the nightmares, the screams. But of course they’re not. Some things are impossible to adapt to.
The dream hasn’t come in over a month, though, and I thought I was surely free of it by now. But I’m not free, and never before has the dream ended with Adam refusing to help me. I don’t want to think about what that might mean.
There are still hours before dawn, but I know there will be no more sleep for me tonight. I lie awake and silent, and I know from the sounds of my family’s breathing that they aren’t sleeping, either.
The wolf still has all of us in his grip.
The day is long, dusty and silent. We ride along, each of us in our own thoughts, none of us inclined to engage in conversation. I think even Pa recognizes that his hopes of using this trip for more than selling cattle were in vain. All we want now is to get home. If there is any chance of picking up the broken pieces from the damage done at Montpelier Gorge, it’s become pretty apparent that it’s not going to happen out on this trail.
And so we push harder than ever, as hard as we can without hurting the horses. By the time we stop, we are in the foothills, and we are exhausted, but we are only one day away from reaching the Ponderosa. It will be our last night out on the trail.
Our exhaustion proves to be our undoing. We sleep too hard, too heavily. Not even the wolf comes to invade my slumber, something I would be grateful for at another time.
Not this time.
I wake choking. Something is pressing hard across my windpipe, and even though I know I’m not dreaming, my first irrational thought is that the wolf has me by the throat again. I claw frantically at my throat, and a low voice growls next to my head.
“If you don’t want me to pull this trigger, kid, you’ll keep still.”
My groggy wits come flooding back, and I realize that it’s a heavy forearm pushing against my throat. Cold metal prods at the side of my head, and I go still.
“That’s better. Now sit up real slow-like and do exactly what you’re told.”
I do as he says, and I see that Pa and my brothers have guns trained on them, too. There are four men altogether, and within minutes Hoss and I are trussed up like one of Hop Sing’s Christmas turkeys. I’m propped up against Hoss; my hands are bound tightly behind my back. The positioning makes my shoulder scream in protest.
“You all right?” Hoss asks quietly, and I nod, trying not to wince. A few feet away from us, two of the men have just started to work at tying up Adam and Pa.
“What do they want?” I whisper, and I strain my wrists against the tightly bound rope, trying to ease the pressure on my shoulder.
Hoss sighs. “The money for the cattle is what I’m guessin’.”
Sure enough, one of the men lets out a whoop.
“I’ve got it!” he shouts, and a triumphant fist holds up the bank bag that was in Pa’s saddlebag.
The rest of them look up and grin, and in that moment, Adam jerks away from the man who is winding ropes around his wrists; he whirls and plants a fist in his assailant’s jaw, knocking him to the ground. Hoss and I sit up straight, ready to move but helpless to do so. Another punch from Adam, and the man is out cold.
The commotion allows Pa to fight his own way free, and he manages to grab a gun. Shots ring out in the night, and another robber goes down. More shots. Hoss and I shout as Pa leaps out to the side. He gets another shot off as he falls, and that shot, too, finds its target. Adam turns and snatches up a rifle, and Pa tries to take another shot, but I hear only a strange metallic sound, and I know his gun is jammed.
And then I’m yanked up and backwards so hard it rattles my teeth. There’s only one of the men left standing, the one who found the money, and he’s jerking me along by the rope binding my wrists. He’s got an arm locked around my neck, and he’s backing us both up as fast as he can go.
“Stay where you are, all of you, or I’ll kill the kid right here,” he yells, but Adam is moving forward anyway, following us. He’s got the rifle raised, and he’s looking down the sights right at us.
The man pulls my back tight against his chest, and he reaches up with his free hand. “I’ll kill him!” he warns again, and I see something flash in the moonlight. A knife. I feel the cold sting of steel against skin, and then a warm wetness as he presses the blade against my neck. I swallow, and I can feel my throat convulsing against the steel blade.
Adam stops where he is.
“That’s it, partner,” the man says softly, and the stench of stale tobacco wafts under my nose. “You just stand where you are.”
“Nobody’s moving,” Adam says, and his voice is carefully controlled. But he doesn’t lower the rifle.
The man doesn’t loosen his grip on me or the knife. “Now here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to ease out of here with the money, and I’m taking the kid along just so you don’t get any funny ideas. You follow me, and he’s dead.”
Adam stands there, and I can tell that he’s weighing all the options. I don’t want him to think. There’s nothing to think about. I’ve seen this man’s type before; if he takes me out of this camp, I am going to die. I’m certain of it.
Adam keeps watching us down the gun barrel, one eye squeezed shut as he keeps us in the rifle’s sights, and he gives his mouth a quick, nervous lick.
“Now you just go on ahead and lower that gun,” the man tells him. We keep moving backwards, further and further away from my family.
“Don’t do it, Adam,” I blurt. “He’s gonna kill me anyway.”
“Shut up!” the man shouts in my ear, and he presses his arm harder against my neck. “Look here, boy, you say one more thing, and you’re gonna be plenty sorry.”
I’m already sorry. My windpipe feels like it’s about to snap in half, the knife edge sawing into my skin feels like a branding iron, and on top of everything, my shoulder is hurting like the blazes from the awkward position of my arms.
But I’m not shutting up. Adam’s a good shot. He can do this. If he doesn’t, I don’t have a chance.
“Adam. Shoot him.” Saying the words makes my throat rasp itself across the blade, and I swallow again.
“Adam. Get him in your sights and fire,” Hoss says, and I hear the desperation in his voice as he strains against the ropes holding him. Pa looks around wildly for another gun.
I stumble as the man pulls me backwards, and he wrenches upwards on the ropes to keep me standing in front of him. The pain shooting through my shoulder sends stars swimming before my eyes.
Adam still has the rifle against his shoulder, one cheek laid against the stock as he keeps the barrel pointed at us.
Now the man he knocked out earlier has come to. He’s up on his feet, and Pa is struggling with him. I turn my attention back to Adam, who stands as though frozen, rifle still held ready.
“Shoot him!” I shout again.
Even from here, even at night, I can see Adam trembling. Sweat glistens on his face.
“Adam. You gotta do it,” Hoss pleads. “Joe’s right. He ain’t gonna last two seconds after this jasper drags him away.”
“Go ahead!” the man yells from behind me. “Go ahead and shoot! You’ll end up killing him yourself. Save me the trouble.”
We continue to shuffle backwards. Pa is grappling with the other bandit for the gun, but he looks in Adam’s direction for one brief instant.
“Adam!” he yells. It is all he says, all he has time to say, but it is a plea with a multitude of meaning.
“Do it, Adam,” Hoss shouts.
Adam grimaces, and then he repositions the rifle in a lightning-fast, fluid motion. His eye, the one that is open and staring through the sights, is narrowed and hard and clear. His finger tightens on the trigger, and I hold my breath.
But nothing happens. He continues to stare through the sights, but he doesn’t pull the trigger.
He lets out a strange sort of choking, sobbing sound. “I can’t,” he says. “I can’t.”
“You won’t hit your brother, son. Shoot!” Pa’s voice is strained as he fights.
“I will. I’ll hit him,” Adam insists. “I can’t do it!”
My heart sinks. I hear a horse snort nervously from behind me, and I know it must belong to the bandits. This man is about to reach the point where he can get safely away. My time is almost up, I know, but I allow myself to hope that maybe he will simply let me go and ride away.
“Okay, kid, this is the end of the line,” he grits out against my ear. “You’ve come in right handy. I figure if I cut you, they’ll be so busy trying to keep you from bleeding to death that they won’t be worried about chasing after me. Adios.”
This is it. I look at Adam, and our eyes meet. He’s still poised to shoot, but his expression is one of hopeless desperation. Pa and Hoss are both screaming at him to shoot. I can’t tell if the moisture on his cheeks is from tears or perspiration.
I can’t leave him with this. I do the one thing, the only thing, I can think to do for my brother.
“It’s not your fault, Adam,” I say, and I make sure it’s loud enough for him to hear. I pray that he will know it’s the truth. But the phrase to err is human, to forgive divine runs through my mind, and I know absolution isn’t mine to give. But it’s something Adam desperately needs, even though in my eyes he’s done nothing to be forgiven for.
I take a deep breath, and then I give one vicious jerk to my hands where the bandit is holding me, hoping against hope that I’ll be able to free myself.
It’s almost good enough. Almost. But he jerks back so hard that I’m sure my bad shoulder has been pulled out of its socket, and the pain of it is enough to make the whole world go dim.
The power in that pain is incredible; my knees turn into rubber, and I feel the muscles in my captor’s forearm bunch as he gets ready to drive the knife home. Even as my legs betray me and begin to buckle, I jerk again to the left with all my strength, and I hear the crack of a rifle shot.
I don’t feel anything but the burning pressure in my shoulder, but I wonder if I’ve been shot, because suddenly I’m falling.
The wolf has won after all.
The earth comes up to meet me; it slams hard against my cheek. I blink dirt from my eyes and see smoke from spent gunpowder wafting up from Adam’s rifle; now he is running toward me. I turn my gaze, and this stranger who intended to end my life is lying on the ground beside me, staring at me with sightless eyes. There’s a small bloody hole in the middle of his forehead.
I shudder and turn my eyes back to Adam as he skids up to me. He grabs the knife off the ground and a moment later the pressure on my arms eases as he cuts through the ropes. I try to turn over, but I can’t. I wonder why it is so hard to make my muscles obey what I want them to do, but it doesn’t matter. Adam does it for me, easing me over onto my back.
“Joe.” That is all he says as his frantic eyes skim over me. He grabs my hand. I concentrate on his face, trying to keep the waves of pain from my shoulder from sending me under, but the stars overhead are fading, and I know I’m losing the battle.
“You got him, Adam,” I say softly.
He takes a deep breath. “Yeah,” he says. “I got him.” And then he slips his hand out of mine and staggers a few feet away before dropping down onto his hands and knees.
The last thing I hear is the harsh sound of Adam vomiting into the sand.
Doc Martin slaps me on my good shoulder. “You’ve wrenched that shoulder around pretty good, Little Joe, but you’re lucky. The muscle was badly strained, but I don’t believe it’s torn. A day or two of bedrest, and then no heavy lifting or straining for a few weeks, and you should be on your way to healing up. Again.” He looks at Pa and shakes his head. “You Cartwrights.”
Pa just gives him a quiet chuckle and a shrug, and then he and Hoss walk the doctor down the stairs, but Adam stays. He’s sitting in the chair beside my bed. He shoots me a grin, and I feel the warmth of it spread across me like sunrise. Gingerly, I start to raise myself up off the pillows stacked against the headboard, but he puts out a hand to stop me.
“You heard Doc. A couple of days of bedrest.”
“It’s my shoulder, not my legs. I can rest downstairs,” I say, but my argument is half-hearted. Watching Adam behave like his old self again, listening to him talk to me and even order me around is making me feel better than any amount of rest or medicine could ever do. He shakes his head, and his restraining palm rests warm against my shoulder, right on top of my scar.
“I’ll let you hash that one out with Pa,” he says, and he smiles again, because we both know who will be winning that particular dispute.
He lifts his hand and then freezes in place as he notices the scar. My breath catches, and I wish I had my shirt on. After all that has happened, I’m afraid of doing something to make my brother want to leave again. But he lets his index finger fall to rest on the scar and rubs lightly against it. I watch his face as his finger, roughened from years of work and weather, slides against my skin, and I wait.
“The skin feels tougher there,” he says finally.
I shrug, still watching him. “Scars are the strongest parts of us,” I say, repeating something Hoss mentioned once, and Adam nods. Hoss has a way of putting things that makes them seem simple even when they’re not.
Adam draws his hand back and leans back in his chair, and his attention strays off to the window, but he’s not turning away from me the way he’s done over the past few months. This time, it’s like he’s thinking things over, not like he’s avoiding me. He looks back and clears his throat.
“One of the hands was telling Pa about a wildcat that’s been raising Cain with the herd down in the southwest section,” he says. “I was thinking, in a week or two, if he’s still around . . . if you’re feeling up to it . . . ”
He stops. I’ve never seen my brother look so vulnerable. He’s opened himself up and handed himself to me to do with as I will. It’s the biggest show of trust he’s ever given me, and it makes me feel odd, like we’ve somehow gotten the roles of older and younger brothers reversed. He looks terrified, and I know it’s because he really is; he’s scared that the thought of a hunting trip alone with him might scare me. Scared that I can’t trust him any more the way I once did.
“A quest for glory?” I ask softly, remembering how I had described the wolf hunt in the very beginning.
Some of the worry leaves his eyes, and suddenly he smiles. “Nothing so distinguished. We might end up slaying a few dragons, though.”
I grin. Riding through the pines with my brother beside me, both of us whole again . . . that’s glory enough for me.
Author’s note: I know many readers, especially those raised in an urban setting, have a difficult time accepting the historical reality of the use of firearms by children. In the past, being able to shoot a gun was a necessary skill that was taken for granted in the west. Boys of ten and twelve years of age fought in the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War, not to mention the many small skirmishes in between. Young boys protected their homes and families from Indians, wild animals and other dangers—with guns that they knew darn well how to fire.
Being able to handle a gun is still often considered a necessary skill for children growing up on a ranch. The ages I’ve used here for introducing the Cartwright brothers to guns came from the experiences of my own family and most of our neighbors growing up in rural Texas.
Also, please note that in the episdoe ‘Henry P. Comstock’, Joe was fifteen, and he carried a pistol and was proficient with it.
As hard as it is to reconcile with our modern-day thinking, Ben Cartwright would have been negligent in his parenting had he prevented his sons from having contact with guns from an early age. Indeed, not educating them in this manner could easily have placed their lives in danger. And we all know Ben would never have done that.
Companion story to Glory:
Other Stories by this Author
- Mama Died Today (by southplains)
- Which Brother? (by southplains)
- Lucky (by southplains)
- Devotion (by southplains)
- Heroes (by southplains)