Never Too Old To Learn (by DebbieB)

Summary:  Both Adam and Joe learn that you’re never too old to learn something new after an accident leaves Joe mortally wounded and his older brother feeling guilty.

Rated:  G (18,160 words)

Never Too Old to Learn

Joe twirled the revolver around his finger imitating what he had seen his older brother do on occasions and smiled to himself when the pistol repositioned its self in the correct manner within his hand. The boy held the gun out before him in his left hand, pretending to point it at an imaginary outlaw and then poised himself for action; with his right hand he hammered away at the trigger, sending make believe bullets into his adversary. When all of his shells were spent, Joe held the pistol barrel up to his lips and blew away the unseen smoke that he alleged boiled from the end of the long barrel. He then flipped the revolver around one more time and slipped it smoothly into the holster he wore hanging loosely from his left side.

 

Running both hands along the rim of his hat in a professional gunman’s manner, Joe nodded his head at his supposed audience and turned, stopping dead in his tracks, a look of total surprise instantly appearing on his young face.

 

“Take it off, Joe. Now!” ordered Adam, his hand already extended outward, waiting for the younger boy to place the weapon into his hand. “How many more times do I have to tell you that this gun is not a toy?”

 

Adam wore a dark scowl on his face and Joe knew that he had over stepped the boundaries that his older brother had laid out for him in regard to the new sidearm and holster Adam had purchased just four days ago.

 

Quickly doing as ordered and seeing the look his brother wore the younger Cartwright did as instructed. Joe knew it would take some mighty smooth talking on his part to get himself out of this pickle; it was plain to see that Adam was madder than Joe had seen him in quite sometime.

 

“I was just…” began Joe, trying to keep a look of innocence on his face.

 

“I know what you were doing boy, you were doing exactly what I told you not to be doing, and that was playing with my new revolver. Now get in the house, we are going to have a talk with Pa, and I need not tell you that he isn’t going to be any happier with you than I am, now get.” Adam snatched the gun and holster from Joe’s hand and pointed toward the barn door.

 

“Aw come on Adam, I’m sorry, I promise I won’t touch it again. Please?” begged Joe, lowering his eyes just slightly for effect and making a smile that he hoped would win his brother’s favor.

 

“No way young man, that’s the same promise you made two days ago when I caught you doing the very same thing, now get going,” ordered Adam taking a step toward the door. He paused when Joe made no move to do as instructed.

 

Joe ignored the way in which Adam’s jaw began to clench and unclench tightly, a fair warning that the older Cartwright brother was not in the best of moods. Joe had seen the look many times before and knew then that it was a sign that there were turbulent waters ahead, but was hoping this time to calm the seas with a little charm.

 

“Please Adam, you know Pa will start yelling at me, and then he’ll probably wallop me a bunch of times and that’ll only make me start yelling and I know how much you hate all that noise. Can’t we just forget it? I don’t wanna make Pa lose his temper, ya know he ain’t been feeling too good today. How’s about if I promise to do all your chores for…hmm…say the rest of the week? Please Adam, please?” begged Joe, hopefully as he watched the angry lines furrow deeper into his brother’s brow.

 

Adam said nothing, just pointed toward the barn door. When the his brother hesitated, Adam stepped close to Joe and slipped his arm around the smaller boy’s neck, holding firmly to the opposite shoulder.

 

Joe glanced up, new hope growing in his heart, for he knew what his father would do to his backside if Adam were to tell their Pa that he had been caught playing with the weapon for the third time that week.

 

“I’ll tell you what little brother. We’ll go now…” Adam emphasized the last two words and continued, “and see Pa. I will let you explain to him why you can’t seem to understand that his weapon is not a toy and why you insist on ignoring not only my warnings about playing with this gun, but his warnings as well. And then, little brother, when Pa decides to…as you say…wallop your backside, I promise not to get mad at you for all the bellowing and howling I know you will be doing. How’s that?”

 

Adam was practically dragging his younger brother toward the door. Joe tried to dig his heels into the dirt but the hard packed earth inside the barn made it impossible and he had no other option but to allow him self to be dragged along.

 

“I don’t think I like that idea, how about I do your chores for two weeks? Come on Adam, give me a break, please?” protested Joe, purposely trying to set his heels into the dirt.

 

Adam stopped half way between the barn and the house and turned dark angry eyes on his brother. His hand had moved to Joe’s arm where he tightened his strong fingers around his brother’s upper biceps and jerked Joe around to face him.

 

“This isn’t a joke, Little Joe. Don’t you understand how dangerous it is to play with guns? How fast an accident could happen? A gun is used for protection, sometimes killing. It is never meant as a toy for mindless little boys. If this thing were to go off, you or someone else could be killed instantly. Then what Joe, what do you think would happen to our father if you were to be killed just because you were too bull headed to do what you were told? How would you feel if you were playing with it and it went off and someone else were wounded or killed? Think about that, think about the consequences, Joe!” Adam all but shouted.

 

Adam wouldn’t admit it to his brother, but the same thoughts had crossed his mind when he had entered the barn and seen his younger brother twirling the pistol around in his hand. He had stopped cold in his tracks fearing that Joe might drop the gun and that it might go off accidentally. Adam had forced himself to remain calm, giving Joe the opportunity to place the pistol into the holster before making his presence known to his brother.

 

“It wasn’t loaded, Adam,” snapped Joe, his calm reserve shattered. “I have enough sense to check a gun before doing anything with it, Pa taught me that much when he taught me how to use my rifle.”

 

“You don’t get it do you, boy…”

 

“Stop calling me that! I’m not a boy, I happen to be fifteen years old!” Shouted Joe, trying to free his arm from the vise like grip that the bigger boy still held about his arm.

 

“You might be fifteen but that sure as hell doesn’t make you a man, especially when you act as you are right this minute. And if you were a man, you would know how to follow orders, now get your butt into that house right now or I might just put you across my own knee!” Adam pulled Joe along behind him, Joe muttering under his breath as he followed reluctantly, Adam every so often giving a swift jerk on his brother’s arm to hurry him up.

 

At the sound of the door opening, Ben looked up from his newspaper that he had been reading and smiled as his two sons entered the room. His smile quickly faded at the sight of the frown that graced Adam’s face, the way Adam held Joe’s arm tightly and the worried expression on his youngest son’s face.

 

“Pa, I think Joe wants to tell you something.” Adam gave Joe a dark look and Joe returned the gesture with a look of his own, though Joe’s was one last pleading look that begged for leniency.

 

When Adam failed to meet his brother’s gaze, Joe lowered his head fearing what his father would say once he knew the truth, the disturbing thoughts suddenly causing Joe grave misgivings about what he had done.

 

Ben was quick to note the tone of voice that Adam used and seeing his youngest son’s reaction to his brother’s announcement, Ben waited patiently while Joe struggled to find words. When Joe said nothing, Ben spoke.

 

“Joseph?” Ben paused, giving Joe opportunity to speak, which he passed up for the second time. “Obviously your brother thinks you need to tell me something important. Do you want to explain this now, or would you rather your brother do it for you?”

 

Joe gulped and gave Adam a sideways glance. Adam paid his brother no mind as he slipped the missing bullets back into the revolver’s chamber.

 

“Well Pa, it was like this…” stammered Joe and paused, looking up to check his father’s reaction. In the background, Joe could hear the clicking of the pistol’s chamber as Adam placed the bullets into their proper place. ‘One, two, three, four, five, six,’ counted Joe mentally.

 

“Yes? What was like this?”

 

Ben’s deep voice broke into his thoughts. “Hmm…well, I sorta was looking at Adam’s new revolver…and…well…I didn’t ask him first.” Joe kept his head bent low not wanting to see the disappointment he knew would be in his father’s eyes if he looked up.

 

Adam didn’t know, at least as of yet, but their father had caught him as well just yesterday with the new gun. Joe had been doing the same role playing when Ben had happened into the living room and caught his youngest son red handed with Adam’s new weapon in his hand. Joe mentally calculated the number of times that he had been caught since Adam had made his purchase and figured the number to be around three in as many days, or was it four?

 

“Looking at?” barked Adam in an angry voice, “Pa, I caught the boy twirling the gun around in some kind of fancy finger work like he was a professional sharp shooter or something. I’d hardly call it ‘looking at’.”

 

“I wasn’t doing nuthing wrong Pa, honest I wasn’t. I’m sorry I didn’t ask permission first, but Adam was no where around and I checked it first and everything, it wasn’t even loaded,” rushed Joe in his own defense.

 

“Joseph, it doesn’t matter whether Adam was around or not, you know that both your brother and I have told you in no uncertain terms that you were not allow to so much as touch that gun. Just because you checked to see if it were loaded or not does not mean that it is okay for you to handle it. You were told the day that Adam bought it to leave it alone, am I right young man?” asked Ben, his hands placed firmly on his hips, his eyes growing darker as he watched the anger beginning to seep into his disobedient son’s mannerisms.

 

Joe glanced first at his father and then quickly at Adam who stood to his father’s side staring at his defiant younger brother with a look on his face that made Joe feel inferior to his older sibling. Joe wanted to make a face at his older brother for being such a tattletale but thought better of it since his father was watching every move that he made. Right then he decided that it would be in his best interest to concede, take whatever punishment his father might render and count his losses.

 

“Yes sir,” he said softly, allowing his anger at Adam to be known by the tone of his voice.

 

“I’m glad to see that you agree with us. Now, would you mind explaining to me, why you choose to defy me as well as your brother?” questioned Ben, noting the sour apple look that Joe wore.

 

“I guess I wasn’t thinking…”

 

“Well that’s certainly not a first. When have you ever stopped to think about something before you did it?” shouted Adam.

 

Adam turned away from the sight of his brother who had, in truth, scared him more than he wanted to admit when he had found the youngster twirling the new gun around in his hand like a pro.

 

“Your brother’s right Joseph, when will you ever learn to stop and think before you act? I find your answer no excuse for your disobedience…” began Ben as the same thoughts of what might have happened began to cloud his mind as well.

 

“Oh sure, Adam’s right, as usual and I’m wrong…so…what else is new?” shouted Joe.

 

“He never has made a mistake has he, no, no…the mighty Adam Cartwright is always right and I’m the bad little boy once again.” Joe took a couple of steps back and turned his anger on his older brother.

 

“Go ahead Adam, tell me I’m acting like a baby, call me a boy, I don’t give a damn.” The dam had cracked and Joe could no longer hold back the unhappy feelings he had been experiencing lately.

 

“All I’ve ever wanted is for you to make time for me, show me how to use the dang gun the right way, and teach me how to shoot like you, but no, you’re always too busy trying to be perfect, you could care less about me. I hate you!” screamed Joe, the tears he’d been trying to control now slipping down his face as he turned and bolted up the stairs.

 

“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he watched in shock while Joe hesitated on the landing and turned to face his parent. “I’ll not have that kind of talk in my house, young man!” growled Ben loudly his index finger held high in mid air and pointed straight at Joe.

 

“I’m sorry Pa, but I just wanted Adam to teach me how to use his gun. I tried to ask him, twice already and he just brushed me off as if I was nothing. He hates me and I hate him.” Joe added and turned, running the rest of the way up the stairs and once in his room, slammed the door, flung him self across his bed and let the tears flow. In his anger, Joe grabbed Scruffy, his stuffed sleeping companion that Adam had given to him several years earlier as a Christmas gift, and slung the little ragged dog across the room.

 

“I hate you too, you…you…worthless ole mutt.”

 

Ben and Adam stood in silence, each trying to formulate in his mind, the reason behind the youngest Cartwright’s unexpected outburst. Ben moved slowly to his chair behind his desk and lowered his suddenly weary body into it. Adam followed his father and dropped into the spare chair next to the desk and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, he pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers.

 

Ben had seen Adam’s reaction to his brother’s proclamation of unjustified hatred and knew that Joe’s cruel remark had hurt his older son.

 

“Adam? Are you all right, son?” asked Ben, leaning forward and placing a comforting hand on Adam’s shoulder. Ben could feel the tightness of the muscles that rippled beneath the thin fabric of his son’s shirt.

 

Adam raised his head as his troubled eyes meeting his father’s concerned dark, compassionate eyes and Adam could see the unspoken misgivings in their depths.

 

“I’m somewhat speechless. I had no idea that Joe felt as he did.” Adam brushed his hand across his face and Ben knew that his oldest had nearly been reduced to tears, something that had not happened in many years and Ben watched as Adam quickly brought his emotions under control once more.

 

Ben’s smile was meant for comfort and he leaned back in his chair. “Son, was Joseph right in what he said?”

 

Adam glanced up at his father, a look of uncertainty on his handsome face.

 

“I mean, did the boy ask you to show him the gun? Did he ask you to teach him how to use it?” questioned Ben and noted the look of concentration that gathered in the dark eyes that fought to bring from memory a time that Joe might had asked him to show him the new Colt .45.

 

“I don’t know Pa,” Adam replied in a near whisper. “I’ve been so busy lately, I can’t remember. I know Joe was in the barn the other day, the day I bought the gun. Mary Ann was here remember? She came over to tell me about the church social and…well I guess that I was busy talking to her. I vaguely remember Joe interrupting us, saying something about the gun, but I honestly don’t remember what he said. I suppose I wasn’t paying any attention, least ways, not to him.”

 

Adam stood to his feet and pulled back the short curtain that covered the window above Ben’s desk. Hoss had just ridden into the yard and was leading his horse to the barn, where Adam knew that Hoss would care for his horse and begin his evening chores.

 

“I probably did brush him off,” he said, still watching Hoss who had stopped to speak with one of the hands that had just come from the barn. Hoss had started to laugh, whatever Pete had said must have been funny thought Adam, and suddenly wished he had something to laugh about.

 

Adam turned to face his father and noted that Ben had been watching him and the knowledge somehow left him feeling uncomfortable. “Maybe I should go talk to him?”

 

It was more of a question than a statement and Ben shook his head. “I want to have a word with the boy first,” said Ben, standing to his feet and moving from behind his desk.

 

Adam reached out his hand and placed it on his father’s shoulder, stopping Ben.

 

“Pa…please don’t be too hard on him. I know what he did…and said…was wrong. But I don’t believe he meant it…at least I hope he didn’t. And about the gun, I don’t suppose there was any real harm done. It was…”

 

Ben held up his hand for silence. “I don’t think for one minute that Joe meant what he said to you…about hating you, I mean. But playing with the gun is a totally different matter, a matter in which I mean to talk to him about; and about his language, which I will not tolerate in this house.”

 

“I know that Pa. But maybe I over reacted. It scared the he…it scared me when I saw him twirling it around his finger. He was good, too good and the thoughts of him being able to handle a gun like that…it made all kinds of images run through my head. Maybe I should teach him how to use it, maybe then he wouldn’t be so curious about it…maybe…”

 

“Son, life is full of maybes…but the fact is, Joe was told to leave it alone. He handled it anyway; he blatantly and willfully disregarded our wishes. Now it’s time for him to suffer the consequences of his actions. Isn’t that what I have spent my entire life trying to teach all of you?”   Ben placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

 

“Don’t worry son, I’m not going to wallop him, unless he pushes me into it.” Ben smiled, turned and made his way to his youngest son’s bedroom, trying to think of the best way to approach his distressed son without adding fuel to an already smoldering fire.

 

Joe was still lying across his bed and had not heard the soft knock that his father had rendered to the thick oak door. Gently, Ben eased opened the door and stepped inside the dimly lit room. In the semi-darkness Ben could see his son laying face down on the bed and could hear the soft whimpers that told him that Joe was still upset. Ben slowly approached the bed, his foot making contact with Scruffy who laid belly up in the middle of the floor. Stooping to pick up Joe’s favorite stuffed animal, Ben smiled to himself.

 

“Joseph,” he called softly.

 

The unexpected sound of his father’s voice so close behind him startled Joe and quickly the boy sprang to his feet, wiping the tears from his face with the backs of his hands.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in,” stammered Joe, turning to hide his embarrassment from his parent.

 

Ben approached his son with caution, stopping just inches behind Joe’s back. Ben could sense the tremors that still coursed through his son’s body as he extended his hand around to Joe’s front, offering him the stuffed little dog; but Joe refused, shaking his head back and forth and then moved further from his father. Ben held the little animal in his hands and fingered the soft fur, “I think we should have a talk son, please sit down.”

 

Joe glanced over his shoulder at his father and moved to the edge of his bed where he did as his father had instructed and sat down. The closeness of his father unnerved the distraught boy and again he glanced up, expecting to see anger in the usually caring eyes of his parent. But the anger was not there; instead, Joe saw love and something else he could not name though disappointment came to mind.

 

“I’m sorry, Pa. I know I was wrong to yell at you like I did, and I’m sorry for cursing, I know how you hate that.” Joe sniffed his nose and wiped the back of his hand across the tip end to stop the clear moisture from dripping onto his lip.

 

Ben sat next to Joe on the bed but made no move to touch his son, instead Ben continued to pick at the soft fur on Scruffy’s body. “I don’t understand your outburst son. Would you mind explaining it to me?” asked Ben and then glanced at Joe.

 

Joe’s lips were pursed tightly together and Ben knew that the boy was fighting back tears. Something was terribly wrong of that Ben was positive, but what?

 

“Joseph?”

 

Joe, head hung low sniffed again. “I don’t know Pa…honest,” Joe added when he heard Ben sigh deeply. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t explain it Pa…it’s like…I can’t stop myself…I mean, I try to do what you tell me…honest I do. But sometimes, like when I saw Adam’s gun just sitting there…I wanted to see it…I knew Adam told me to leave it alone…” Joe glanced up at his father, his eyes shining with tears that once he blinked, rolled slowly down his face.

 

“I couldn’t help myself…I know that ain’t no reason to do something he told me not to do…but Pa…don’t ya see? I asked him two, three times to show it to me, but he was always too busy with something else and never even answered me.” Joe had begun to whimper and Ben felt his heart going soft for the boy’s dejectedness.

 

“He never gives me a second thought, except when I do something wrong, which is most of the time according to him. He can’t stand me Pa…don’t you understand? I’m nothing to him…and…and…well…it hurts cause I…I love him.” Joe’s tears flowed freely and when he felt his father’s arm embrace him, Joe gave in to the need for comforting and leaned against his father’s inviting body.

 

Ben’s arms enclosed his son in a tight hug and held the weeping boy while he cried. “I’m sorry Pa, honest. I know it was wrong to touch Adam’s gun, I won’t do it again, I promise,” wept Joe, truly sorry for what he had done. “It’s just an old gun anyway, I don’t care anymore, I’ll just wait until you have time to teach me how to use one. I don’t need Adam for that; I have you and Hoss. Heck, even ole Hank said he would teach me if you said it was all right.”

 

Ben smiled to himself over the top of his son’s curly head. “I think, young man, that either your older brother or I should be the one to teach you, not one of the ranch hands. However, I’m not sure that you are ready to learn, you haven’t been able to learn obedience as of yet, now have you?” asked Ben, no longer angry with his son, just perturbed somewhat.

 

“And where did this, ‘I hate you’ feeling come from?” questioned Ben, pulling Joe back and looking into the misty hazel colored eyes.

 

“I didn’t really mean that Pa, I don’t hate Adam…it’s just that he never takes time for me anymore. He treats me like I’m still a little boy, and he calls me boy, all the time. I hate that, and he knows it, that’s why he does it. Cause he knows it makes me mad and he thinks that’s funny. Well, it isn’t funny, not to me…it hurts my feelings, but he doesn’t care and even that hurts. And then he’s all the time telling me to grow up and act like a man, then when I do, he treats me like a kid again.” Joe wiped away the dampness from his face and stood up walking to the window where he pulled back the drapes and stared out at the fading light. “Nothing I do is right. Sometimes Pa…” Joe turned back to his father. “I wish I’d never been born.”

 

Surprised at his son’s statement, Ben crossed the room in three long strides and placed both hands on his son’s shoulders, pulling the curly headed boy to his breast where he held him tightly.

 

“Joseph, you can’t mean that son. Why, I can’t even begin to imagine my life without you. I thank God everyday for you, for all my sons, but Joe,” Ben cupped the quivering chin and forced Joe to look up at him. “I could not live with myself if anything happened to you, I wouldn’t want too. That’s why it scares me so when I see you doing something so foolish as playing with guns. I know you don’t mean to disobey me, not intentionally, but when you do, it angers me, because it scares me that I might somehow lose you. It’s the same way with Adam, whether or not you believe that. Adam loves you son, he always has, and when he sees you walking blindly into unforeseen danger, he has the same fears for you as I do. Can’t you understand that Joseph? We both love you and we both need you just as much as you need the two, or three of us. Hoss loves you as well, son and our lives would never be the same if something happened to you.”

 

Ben pulled Joe’s head back to his breast and closed his eyes tightly. His heart was beating rapidly and he was sure that Joe could hear the thumping going on in his chest.

 

“I’m sorry Pa. I didn’t know, I mean…Adam…well…he never says anything like that to me. I can’t even remember the last time he told me he loved me,” whispered Joe in a soft voice.

 

“I know son, Adam isn’t the kind of man who can easily express his feelings. Least ways, not in words, unlike Hoss who happens to be as easy to read as an opened book. But Adam does care Joseph, and we both know that, don’t we? Other wise, why would he be making such a big deal out of everything you do?” Ben smiled raising Joe’s chin upward and brushing away the last lingering droplets of water on his son’s tear stained face with his thumbs.

 

Joe clung to his father, enjoying the comfort that the strong arms offered to him. “I suppose Pa, but why does he treat me like that? Doesn’t he know how that makes me feel…I mean it makes me feel like…a fool.”

 

Ben eased himself and his son onto the edge of the bed, “Son, haven’t you learned by now that Adam is the way he is because that’s just Adam.” Ben laughed softly, “I know that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you right now, but how we are is made up of many things that happen to us throughout the course of our lives…things happen Joe to shape who we become and what we are. Sometimes, too many bad things can make us a bad person, but on the other hand it could shape us into a better person than if we had had too many good things in life. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

 

Joe was silent for a moment, his father’s words slowly beginning to take shape in his mind. Joe looked up, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “You mean, cause of the way Adam grew up, the hard times you and he had on your way out here, made Adam a man quicker than if he had had an easier life, like I have, right?”

 

Ben pursed his lips. “Sort of, Joseph. Adam’s childhood was not a normal one to say the least, unlike yours. Adam has been forced, mostly because of me, to see a side of life that you have yet to experience. It has hardened him somewhat, to the world around him. He doesn’t remember what it was like to be your age, not that that was so very long ago, but by the time your brother was your age, he was…well…”

 

“A man?” Joe supplied the word that his father was so hesitant to use. “It’s okay Pa, I understand that his childhood and mine are about as far apart as Boston is to the Ponderosa.” Joe smiled when he looked up and saw his father smiling at him.

 

“Maybe you are more grown up son than what either your older brother or I would care to admit,” laughed Ben giving Joe a tight squeeze. “Adam wasn’t quite a man then, but almost, and you’re getting there as well Joseph. Just please son, don’t rush into it so, it’s making an old man out of your Pa!”

 

“I’m sorry Pa, honest I am. And I’ll apologize to Adam for what I said and for messing with his gun. I won’t do it again, and I mean it this time, Pa,” promised Joe.

 

Ben picked up Scruffy from beside of him and looked into the little dark eyes and smiled.

 

“Guess you want him back now too? Or are you still mad at him about something?” smiled Ben and offered the little stuffed animal to his son.

 

Joe looked up, surprised that his father had guessed the reason for the stuffed animal to be on the floor. Somewhat embarrassed, Joe accepted the toy from his father and smiled shyly, “Naw, ole Scruff can’t help what big brother does, I shouldn’t have blamed him.”

 

Ben laughed loudly and tosseled the top of his son’s dark curls. “Joseph, I’m not going to punish you this time. I probably should, but I’m going to let you off with a firm and final warning, if you go near that gun again I can promise you that you will not be sitting comfortably for a very long time. Do I make myself clear?”

 

“Very clear, sir,” replied Joe.

 

Ben moved toward the door but stopped and turned, “Supper will be ready soon, you clean up your face and come on down.”

 

“Yes sir…and Pa?” Joe all but whispered.

 

“Yes son?” answered Ben, watching his son who had lowered his head somewhat.

 

“Thanks.” Joe met his father’s eyes and smiled. “For helping me to understand…about Adam I mean.”

 

Ben returned the smile with one of his own, happy that harmony had been restored to his home. “You’re welcomed Joseph.”

 

 

By the time that Joe slipped silently down the stairs, his family had already taken their usual places at the dining room table. Almost shyly, Joe slid into his seat and gave his older brother a quick glance. Adam had not even looked up by the time that Joe was in his seat. Joe could tell by the look on his older brother’s face that Adam was still mad and it bothered him some that his brother would not even look at him. He quickly glanced over at his father, but his father had seemed not to notice and was busy filling his plate. When he looked up, Hoss was watching him and when their eyes locked, Hoss’ brow moved ever so slightly upward before he looked away.

 

Adam on the other hand, had been advised, by his father, of the conversation that had taken place upstairs, a short time earlier. Ben had approached his older son, some what put out with Adam that he had some how given Joe the idea that he no longer cared for the boy. Adam was quick to come to his own defense.   But it was obvious to Adam that his father had already set his mind to the ideas. And before he could justify his actions, an argument had occurred leaving Adam with the same feelings toward Joe as before and now at his father, that he had suffered just a couple of hours earlier. When Adam felt his brother’s eyes on him, he refused to look up and even refused to acknowledge the boy’s presence.

 

Joe slowly began to fill his own plate though he wasn’t really hungry. He had hoped that after his conversation with his father, he would be able to set things right between himself and Adam but now it looked as if he would have to wait. It seemed clear to him that his older sibling wanted nothing to do with him at present, so Joe continued to fill his plate, ate his supper in silence and then asked to be excused.

 

“I have some unfinished chores that need my attention, is it all right Pa, if I’m excused?” asked Joe in a low voice.

 

Ben, who had been carrying on a conversation with Hoss in regards to the purchase of a few new cattle, had been unaware of the lack of conversation between his other two sons. Joe’s voice broke into his discussion and he turned, “Yes Joseph go ahead, do whatever you have to do.”

 

Joe wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed back his chair. As he rose slowly, he let his eyes rest on Adam’s face. Adam, feeling Joe observing him again, raised his head to look up at his brother but quickly turned away, his displeasure plainly showing on his handsome face.

 

Joe started to say something but changed his mind wanting to distance himself from the piercing look of daggers that he could feel boring into his back as he hurried to leave the table. Joe quickly grabbed his hat from the peg and rushed from the house before the pool of tears he felt well within his eyes could spill over. The last thing that Joe wanted was for Adam to see that he had been upset by his older brother’s seemingly unconcern toward him.

 

Joe went to work on his chores, Adam foremost in his mind. Troubled thoughts reeked havoc with his heart; he worried that he had truly hurt his brother by screaming his hatred out at him. It wasn’t true he told himself, he didn’t really hate his brother; he had just been mad and hurt. Joe hurried to finish his chores so that he could return to the house. He promised himself that he would make Adam listen to an apology, and he would make his brother believe that he would, from now on, do as he was told when Adam gave him specific instructions or orders.

 

When Joe was at last finished, anxious to speak with his brother, he ran the short distance from the barn to the house, shoving the door open so hard that it banged against the credenza behind it. Joe quickly glanced toward the great room, grateful that his father was nowhere to be seen and hurried to shut the door before removing his hat and replacing it on the peg.

 

Hoss was seated comfortably in the blue chair dosing and snoring softly and Joe had to laugh. Even the sound of the heavy door banging on the credenza had not awakened his middle brother. Joe moved toward the slumbering giant as quietly as a snake slithers through the grass and was just about to tickle Hoss on the tip of his nose when a voice from behind him halted his intentions.

 

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” barked Adam moving to sit on the settee. “He might come up fighting, you might get punched in the face with one of those big fists of his.”

 

Something in the way that Adam spoke to him, the ill-mannered tone of voice, set his temper to flaring and Joe turned on his brother, his promise to himself forgotten.

 

“And you’d like to see that happen, wouldn’t you, Mr. Perfect?”

 

Adam was spinning the chamber on his new revolver, allowing the bullets to empty onto the settee beside of him, yet he never took his eyes off his brother’s face. Seeing the sudden anger, Adam could not refrain from snapping a nasty retort.

 

“I wouldn’t mind, might knock some sense into that thick skull of yours, but I doubt it,” he snapped and turned his attention back to his revolver.

 

Joe could not believe his ears; his hopes of making amends with his brother were dashed in a moment of anger, washed away in a flood of words. Joe slowly walked to the red leather chair and dropped his body into the soft folds, leaning his head back and shutting his eyes tightly hoping that he would not begin to cry. Why was it he asked himself, that Adam could reduce him to tears in just a matter of a couple of angry words? Had the remarks been mouthed by anyone other than his older sibling, Joe would have known what to do. But Adam seemed to have some kind of odd affect on him and remembering his father’s words from their earlier conversation, Joe refused to allow himself to be dragged into yet another argument that he was sure to lose.

 

“Adam!” Ben bellowed, causing Joe’s eyes to pop open, as well as Hoss’.

 

Ben stood just behind Adam with a cup of hot coffee held securely in one hand, the saucer in the other.

 

“Son, please make sure that pistol is empty before you clean that thing in here.” Ben nodded towards Adam’s new revolver.

 

Adam continued to work the cleaning cloth over the pistol barrel and around the trigger casing, making it to shine more, if that were possible.

 

“Don’t worry Pa, I know what I’m doing. I’m not a kid, unlike some people in this room.”

 

The words were barely out of his mouth when suddenly there was a loud blast that rang through the room, and seemed to bounce off the walls, startling all the men in the room. Ben, the cup against his lips, nearly spilled his hot coffee down the front of his shirt; Hoss, jarred from his nap for a second time, almost slipped from the chair where he had once again closed his eyes.

 

Adam’s fingers tightened around the handle of the gun and Ben could clearly see how his son’s hand trembled.

 

“I don’t know what happened,” he stammered, “ I thought it was empty,” said Adam, his voice quivering as he spoke.

 

“Is everyone all right?” asked Ben, checking the faces of his two younger sons assuring him self that they were unharmed.

 

Adam glanced at Hoss who just glared at him and shook his head in disbelief. Adam cut his eyes around to look at Joe. The boy was staring at him and the look unnerved him, making him to feel strange and quickly he lowered his gaze looking at the gun in his hand for a quick second before glancing back up at Joe who had yet to speak.

 

Adam’s eyes locked into Joe’s facial expression. Something wasn’t right, Joe was too quiet, he should have been ranting and raving but he had not spoken a word.

 

“Joe?” Adam said softly, dropping the weapon onto the settee and standing to his feet as a sick feeling turned his stomach into tight knots.

 

It was then that Adam saw the bright red blood that seeped from between the fingers that clutched his brother’s mid-section.

 

“JOE!” shouted Adam, his heart racing as fear pumped through his veins.

 

Adam closed the distance between him self and his wounded brother in two steps. Ben and Hoss, still in shock, sprang to life and joined Adam at his brother’s side.

 

Adam was on his knees, his large strong fingers, gently pulling the smaller fingers of his younger brother’s from the gaping hole in the middle of his belly.

 

“Oh God, Joe…” cried Adam.

 

“Adam,” whispered Joe softly, his voice cracking. “I didn’t mean what I said…I don’t hate…you. I…love you.”

 

Adam stared into Joe’s face as his hand held the blood coated smaller hand of his brother; “I love you too…”

 

Adam had to catch Joe’s body as it suddenly slumped forward against his chest. Numb with disbelief, he quickly gathered the limp body into his arms and rose to his feet. Tears glistened on his face as he looked into his father’s eyes.

 

“I didn’t mean to do it Pa, I thought the gun was empty,” cried Adam.

 

“Take him upstairs, quickly. Hoss, go for the doctor and hurry.” Ben gently pushed Hoss in the direction of the door.

 

“Pa, how bad is it?” asked Hoss, pausing briefly as he watched Adam carrying his little brother upstairs.

 

“I don’t know son, please Hoss, hurry.” Ben took the stairs two at a time and was just in time to see Adam gently lower Joe onto his bed.

 

“I’m sorry little buddy, I’m so sorry,” whispered Adam, as he worked at pulling Joe’s shirt free from the blood that had already soaked through. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

 

“Pa,” called Adam looking at his father over the top of his shoulder, “he’s bleeding badly.” Adam glanced again at the hole he had made in his brother’s stomach.

 

“God…so much blood.” Adam’s shoulders began to tremble and Ben placed his hand on his son’s back.

 

Adam held up his hands before his eyes, shocked at the blood that had stained both the front and back of his hands. He then glanced down at his shirt where his brother’s blood had seeped through the thin material and had begun to congeal on his upper body where Joe had bled while being carried upstairs.

 

“Pull yourself together Adam, let me have a look.” Ben took Adam’s place next to Joe, his heart racing as he quickly surveyed the damage the bullet had done.

 

Adam willingly backed away, giving his father the space he needed. Shocked at what he had done, he held his hands further out in front of him, unable to speak or react. It was Joe’s blood; he had shot his own brother! Adam’s jaw clenched tightly as he fought the nausea that suddenly boiled into his mouth and had to swallow several times willing himself to control the urge to scream out in misery. His eyes were tightly shut; his fingers curled downward making tight fists, the vision of his brother’s eyes when they had been locked into his, Joe’s apology and his declaration of love, all of it making him to cringe in anguish. His father’s voice broke through his stupor and he quickly wiped his hands on the legs of his trousers.

 

“We have to stop this blood; hurry son, get me some clean rags to squelch the bleeding and tell Hop Sing to get some fresh water and bandages. I think we’re going to have to probe for that bullet,” ordered Ben holding his opened hand over the wound in an effort to control the blood loss.

 

“Joseph,” said Ben grabbing a towel from the wash table and placing it over the wound in Joe’s stomach. “Joseph, please son…can you hear me?” begged Ben as he focused his observation on Joe’s pale, pain drawn face.

 

Joe moaned softly and began tossing his head from side to side. “Hurts,” he whimpered weakly.

 

“I know it does son, but you’re going to be okay, the doctor will be here soon,” soothed Ben still watching the blood oozing from the bullet wound.

 

He was growing worried that he might be unable to stop the blood flow. Ben knew that Joe would go into shock soon if he could not get it under control and he felt himself begin to panic as the realization that he might lose his youngest son began filtering into his thoughts and work their way down into his heart.

 

“Here Pa, Hop Sing’s coming with the medical supplies. How’s he doing?” questioned Adam moving to look over his father’s shoulder.

 

Joe’s face had turned a pasty white, his lips were slightly blue and he was still tossing his head about on the pillow. Adam felt his own stomach do a flip and for just a moment he thought he might lose his supper.

 

“Adam, put your hand over this, I’m going to get the rest of his clothes off.”

 

Ben moved so that Adam could take his place and as soon as Adam had placed his hand on top of the bloody area, Ben quickly pulled Joe’s boots from his feet and then removed the trousers, which by now had become soaked with blood.

 

Adam kept his eyes focused on his brother’s face, brushing back a stray lock of hair with his free hand. Adam could see his hand tremble as he brushed the back of his across Joe’s face. He felt sick, he felt all alone and worse he felt like a fool for having done the very thing that he had admonished his younger brother about doing. Guilt washed over the older boy, shame followed in guilt’s footsteps and when Adam could take no more, he covered his face with the hand he had been fingering the soft dark curls with. His usual self-control shattered, his emotions reaching their breaking point, Adam began to weep for his brother, for what he had caused, for the pain that Joe felt and for the life that may be lost forever.

 

Ben, hearing the broken sobs of his oldest quickly moved to place his hands on Adam’s shoulders. “Adam, please don’t.” It was all he said, it was all he had time to say, for Joe had begun to thrash about on the bed.

 

“Adam quick; hold him down!” Ben placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders and gently forced him back into the bed. “Easy son, take it easy,” whispered Ben while Adam applied more pressure, using both hands this time to stop the blood from oozing any worse.

 

“Hurts! My…insides are on…fire,” whimpered Joe, opening his eyes just enough to catch a glimpse of his father. “Please…Pa, make it…stop hurting.” Joe’s body stiffened as a wave of burning pain shot through his body. Suddenly his body went limp and Joe was lost to the world of darkness.

 

“We take bullet out now, boy in deep sleep.” Ben had no idea how long Hop Sing had been in the room but he knew he was glad to have his help. Ben glanced at Adam; it was plain to see that his oldest son was in his own world of compunction and would be little help to them. Adam had moved to allow room for Hop Sing and quickly, rinsing his hands clean once again, was now on the opposite side of the bed, Joe’s hand held tightly within his two.

 

“The bleeding’s about stopped Hop Sing, bring the lights over closer to the bed and let’s see if I can get that bullet,” instructed Ben.

 

Hop Sing poured a basin of water for Ben to wash his hands in and another with boiling water he had carried from the kitchen. In that basin, he placed what instruments he thought they would need.

 

With the lights now burning brightly, Ben picked up the long thin tweezers that Hop Sing had sterilized in the boiling water and glanced first at Adam and then at his trusted servant. “Well…God help us all.”

 

In seconds, Ben’s brow beaded with sweat. His hand trembled only slightly as he moved the tweezers as gently as possible into the deep hole in Joe’s mid-section. Using a clean towel, Hop Sing dabbed the tiny droplets of perspiration from his employer’s brow. With a nod of his head, he proceeded on with the daring search for the embedded bullet. Hop Sing stood ready to dab away the blood that had begun to ooze again when Ben had inserted the long thin instrument into his son’s wound.

 

After several minutes Ben sighed deeply. “I can’t find it.” His anxious eyes searched the faces of both his oldest son and Hop Sing. He could see fear in both the hazel eyes and the dark almond eyes and he knew that the same fear was reflected back to them from his own eyes.

 

“You’ve got to get it, Pa. Go deeper,” encouraged Adam who still clung to Little Joe’s hand. “Please Pa…try again.”

 

Ben could hear the desperation in Adam’s voice and knew that his oldest son held himself responsible for what had happened. In a blink of an eye, Ben wondered how Adam would survive if his brother died. Realizing the danger that he could possibly lose more than one son, for different reasons, Ben tried again, this time taking Adam’s advice and probing deeper into the jagged opening.

 

Joe groaned softly, Ben’s hand froze in position as he waited to see if the boy would open his eyes or not. When Joe made no other sound or movement, Ben continued his tedious task, all the while whispering a prayer that God would guide his hand as he worked to save the life of his youngest and most audacious son.

 

“I found it!” whispered Ben in a raspy voice as he slowly pulled upward on the tweezers.

 

In seconds, the bullet was out and Ben dropped it into the basin. The medal shot made a slight pinging sound as it hit the bottom of the bowl and rolled around the base of the china basin.

 

Adam’s head shot up and he stared into the eyes of his father. He could see the relief shining through the well of water that had suddenly pooled in Ben’s eyes and felt his own eyes fill with tears of relief as well. Adam scanned Joe’s face but the boy was still out cold and made no sound or movement as Ben hurried to apply pressure on the open wound.

 

“It’s bleeding again. I can’t see where it’s coming from,” said Ben in a worried voice.

 

Ben glanced at Adam who had stood to his feet and was now bent over his brother’s body looking into the hole that the bullet had made.

 

“You didn’t damage anything did you Pa?” he asked, looking up at his father anxiously.

 

“No, I don’t think so,” Ben was busy wiping the blood from around the wound area so that he could see inside the deep hole. “Looks like a vein has been severed,” announced Ben giving Adam and Hop Sing a swift glance and then, using his fingers, reached into the blood-covered wound and pinched the vein tightly, stopping the flow of blood.

 

“There, that’s it.”

 

Hop Sing quickly wiped the sweat from Ben’s brow before it could drip onto Joe’s body.

 

“Doctor best hurry,” said Hop Sing softly. “Boy no look too good. Wound need stitching.”

 

All three men automatically looked down at Joe’s face. Hop Sing was right Joe’s face was pale, and when Adam felt his cheek Joe felt clammy but cool to the touch. Adam did notice that his brother’s lips were returning to the natural color where before they had begun to turn blue from loss of blood.

 

“Adam, I need you to hold your fingers on this vein, I can’t hold my hand like this any longer,” requested Ben worn out both mentally and physically from having to probe so long for the bullet that had nearly killed his son.

 

Adam’s face drained of color; he hesitated only briefly before he inserted his long slender fingers into the gashing hole that he had made in his brother’s stomach. Forcing himself to swallow the guilt he felt for having injured his brother in such an inane accident, he pinched his fingers together, the severed vein held tightly in their grasp.

 

Adam’s eyes sought his brother’s face once more; the pained expression he read there would forever be embedded in his memory and in that instant, Adam hated himself for having even bought the new gun in the first place. Had he been able to fore see the future and know what pain his carelessness would have caused, he would have never thought about making the purchase. But now it was too late, Joe lay so near death’s door that Adam feared the boy would die, and thought Adam sadly, if that happened, the boy would die believing that his older brother hated him.

 

“I don’t little buddy, I don’t hate you. I’m sorry Joe, honest, I didn’t mean for this to happen,” whispered Adam softly so that his father or Hop Sing, who were busy cleaning up part of the bloody mess, could not hear him.

 

“I love you Joe, honest pal, I always have.”

 

“Thank God, Hoss is back with the doctor,” exclaimed Ben, running to the top of the steps.

 

“Paul, hurry!” he called out and watched as Paul ran across the room and darted up the stairs toward him. “He’s in his room,” said Ben leading the way, which Paul already knew by heart from the numerous times he had visited the youngest Cartwright in that same room.

 

“Adam, Hop Sing,” greeted the family physician as he stepped up to the bed and pressed the back of his hand to Joe’s forehead. “Good, no fever. What the hell happened?” he asked, bending down and investigating the opening that had split Joe’s stomach apart.

 

There was total silence in the room, no one spoke at first, until Paul raised his head and looked into the faces of the four men who gathered around the bed. “Maybe I shouldn’t have asked,” he stated quietly.

 

“I shot him,” said Adam softly, not meeting the doctor’s eyes, knowing that he would only find total disbelief in the usually calm and caring eyes of the man who had given each of them his tender care throughout the years.

 

“He didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident,” spoke up Hoss, eager to jump to his brother’s defense.

 

“I’m sure it would be. Adam, are you all right?” asked Paul, digging in his bag for the instruments that he would need to close the opening.

 

“I am, but Joe here’s not doing too well. I think the bullet severed a vein. I have it clamped off with my fingers,” Adam informed the doctor.

 

“I got the bullet out Paul. It was in pretty deep,” added Ben who watched over the shoulders of the physician and his son.

 

“Yes, yes, I see it. Okay, Adam, I have it now. I want you and your father to go downstairs, Hop Sing can stay and help me,” ordered Paul after seeing the worn expression on all three family member’s faces.

 

He had known immediately that the ordeal had already taken its toll on each of them and also knew that if they stayed any longer in the room where they could see and hear Joe’s suffering, one or all of them would eventually break down.

 

“Come on son, let’s do as Paul says,” suggested Ben giving Joe one last glance and then moving toward the door. He expected Adam and Hoss to follow him, but both stood stone still.

 

Adam was watching Joe’s face for signs of life other than the forced rapid breathing that was making his chest rise and fall at a surprising rate.

 

“I can’t leave him Pa, I just can’t do it,” Adam turned sad eyes in Ben’s direction and Ben almost relented but quickly changed his mind.

 

“Son please, you need to sit down. Rest while Paul does what he has to do and then you can sit with your brother,” Ben took Adam gently by the arm and led him toward the door giving one last glance over his shoulder at his son who was beginning to moan.

 

“Hoss, let’s go downstairs,” Ben nodded his head at Hoss and then toward Adam.

 

Hoss was quick to get the silent message and stepped between his father and Adam and gently pushed Adam out of the room.

 

Once downstairs, Adam collapsed in the blue chair. Hoss hurried to the kitchen to make some sandwiches while Ben poured himself and Adam a brandy.

 

“Here son, drink this,” said Ben as he offered the tiny goblet to his son.

 

Adam looked up, the expression on his face unreadable to his father, and accepted the glass of brandy. Moving it to his lips he downed the sweet tasting liquid in one gulp and handed the glass back to this father.

 

“Another one,” he said, allowing no emotion to sound in his voice.

 

Ben obliged his son by pouring a second brandy. “Drink it slowly son,” cautioned Ben.

 

Adam smiled; the light that should have registered in the eyes when one generally smiles did not ignite the spark. Adam’s eyes were dull; sadness had exchanged places with the normal brightness that could be found in their depths. Ben’s heart went out to his son, he sensed the guilt that Adam was carrying and knew that his son would suffer days of inner turmoil before coming to terms with what had happened to his brother.

 

“He’s going to be all right Adam…” began Ben.

 

“How can you be so sure? Maybe physically, but what about emotionally? He knows I shot him, he knows I was angry with him, what’s to keep him from believing that I shot him on purpose…”

 

“Adam, stop right there. Yes, Joseph knows those things, but he also knows that you did not mean for that gun to go off. He isn’t going to blame you for this, it was an accident, for goodness sakes!” Ben stated as he sat on the coffee table and faced his oldest son.

 

“Pa’s right big brother, Little Joe knows ya didn’t mean to do it. Ya ain’t gonna have’ta worry none about that,” added Hoss as he sat the tray of sandwiches on the table next to his father and helped himself to one.

 

Adam leaned forward in his seat, “You both seem mighty sure of yourselves. Maybe the kid does know…but I can’t forget what happened. It was my fault, I should have been more careful, paid more attention to what I was doing instead of purposely trying to antagonize the boy. For that I cannot forgive myself.” Adam rose to his feet, “I almost killed him, you don’t have any idea how that makes me feel, either of you.”

 

Adam made his way to the door and without another word to his family, grabbed his hat from the rack and walked out, closing the door quietly behind him.

 

Once outside, Adam breathed deeply of the fresh air and filled his lungs. His head had started to throb and he rubbed his hand across his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose as he did so.

 

Slowly, Adam made his way to the barn, a ride would help, he told himself. He needed time to gather his thoughts, to calm the untamed anxiety and dread that threatened to override his usual genteel spirit.

 

Once at the barn door, Adam turned and glanced up at the upstairs window where he could see the shadows of Doc Martin and Hop Sing moving about in the bedroom that was his brother’s. Suddenly Adam changed his mind; he could not leave, not yet, until he was positive that his younger brother would live. Then, when there was no doubt, he would go, he had too he whispered to himself. How could he stay here knowing what he had done, knowing the agony that he had caused his brother and his family…knowing that because of his carelessness, he might have very well killed his brother. Joe wasn’t out of danger yet; the bullet went deep, the gash appalling and the blood loss great. Adam groaned, his jaw tightened and his fingers folded again into fists and in his frustration, Adam turned and slammed one fist into the hard wooden boards of the barn door.

 

“Damn!” he cried out as the pain shot through his hand.

 

His other hand covered the aching fist and Adam rubbed hard at the soreness. After a brief moment he slung the sore hand out to his side, shaking his hand, fingers outstretched in a last ditch effort to deflect the throbbing pain.

 

Slowly Adam returned to the house and slipped inside. Ben and Hoss stood in front of the fireplace, heads bowed. Ben poked carelessly at the dying embers with the fire poker. Hoss rested one large foot on the hearth; his fingertips stuffed into the tops of his pants pockets. Both turned at the sound of the door opening and Ben straightened, and smiled a greeting to his son.

 

“I’m glad you came back son. Paul should be down soon,” greeted Ben.

 

“He’s not finished yet?” questioned Adam, rubbing his fist.

 

“No.” Ben turned, looking toward the top of the staircase as if willing the doctor to appear and give him news of his son.

 

“What happened to your hand Adam?” asked Hoss after seeing his brother massaging his fist.

 

Adam made a mock smile and held his hand up for Hoss to inspect, “This?” he said sarcastically. “I was just letting off some steam. I think I might have broken a finger or two.” Adam surveyed his hand, moving his first finger back and forth and frowning at the bruise that was forming over his entire set of knuckles.

 

“What in tarnation did ya hit?” asked Hoss who had stepped closer to Adam and was now holding the injured hand in his larger hand.

 

“The barn door.”

 

“The barn door? Shucks big brother, from the looks of this here bruise, is the door still intact? You must’va hit it pretty dang hard,” commented Hoss with a slight smile.

 

He knew of Adam’s sudden bouts with frustrations and was not surprised by what he was looking at. It wasn’t a first, and it sure would not be the last time that his older brother took his anger out on the barn door.

 

Adam was about ready to make a reply when the sound of an upstairs door could be heard closing followed by the sound of footsteps in the hallway.

 

 

Doc Martin and Hop Sing both sighed in relief that the ominous job of stitching Joe’s wound, both inside and out were finally finished. The physician had given Joe something for the pain; the boy had begun to return to the world of reality and with his return came the suffering and confusion that was common with such injuries.

 

Paul quickly washed his hands and then with the help of Hop Sing began cleaning away the mess that had been made. Hop Sing hurried from the room to gather fresh linens for Joe’s bed; Paul bathed Joe to clean away the blood that had accumulated on the young boy’s body. Minutes later, Hop Sing returned with the clean linens and gently the pair moved Joe so that the bed could be remade and Joe situated comfortably beneath the pile of warm blankets.

 

Once he was sure of his patient’s comfort, Paul slipped from the room, ready to face the family of anxious men who waited news of the youngest Cartwright’s condition. The family was waiting at the foot of the stairs, three anxious faces; three sets of worried eyes watched him as he descended to the last step.

 

“Well?” asked Ben before Paul’s foot had been placed securely on the floor. “How’s he doing?”

 

Paul glanced at the three men, taking in each expression one at a time. His eyes lingered a bit longer on Adam’s face and Paul read the inner turmoil that the oldest Cartwright son tried to hide from all of them. Turning to face Ben, he placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

 

“I’m not going to lie to you Ben, Joe is in serious condition. He’s lost a lot of blood, more than I would have liked for him to.” Paul noticed Ben cast fearful glances at both of his sons and hurried on with his concerns about Joe’s well being.

 

“I was able to repair the severed vein with no problem and stitch together the tears and rips inside. The bullet did not strike any vital organs other than the vein, for that, we can be thankful. I closed the wound, it took several stitches but I believe it will heal nicely. Barring any problems with infection, I think Joe will be fine in time. I am worried about the infection, his wound was opened for a good while, I understand that both you and Adam had to have your hands in and around the wound area, that alone might cause problems, but it couldn’t be avoided I know,” informed the physician.

 

“Ben, Adam, Hoss…try not to worry, Joe is healthy and strong. He has a good constitution and should snap back relatively fast. What we need to watch now is for fever. I gave him something for the pain and that should let him rest comfortably for several hours. I want him to sleep, he needs to remain quiet and calm so that his body can begin the healing process and I want someone with him around the clock…” explained Paul.

 

“I’ll take the first watch,” spoke up Adam quickly as he moved passed his family and the doctor and started up the stairs.

 

“Adam,” called Paul, stopping the younger man before he reached the top. “I’m going to be staying here tonight, call me if there is any change.”

 

Adam nodded his head in acknowledgment and hurried on up and into his brother’s bedroom.

 

“Ben, I’m worried about Adam. Are you sure he’s okay?” questioned Paul, concern growing in regards to Ben’s oldest son.

 

“Aw…Adam’s okay, Doc. He feels guilty for what happened to Little Joe, but he knows it was an accident.” Hoss glanced at his father, hoping that his synopsis of his brother’s attitude was correct.

 

“Hoss is right Paul, Adam is ridden with guilt. He had been fussing with Joe for playing around with his revolver earlier today and then this evening when Adam was cleaning the gun he failed to make sure that it was emptied. When the thing went off, Adam was just as shocked as the rest of us, and then when he saw his brother had been hit, well, you know Adam. He holds himself responsible,” explained Ben.

 

Paul shook his head. “It’s a shame old friend. I know how much that oldest son of yours loves that boy. And I know how much the boy idolizes his oldest brother. If Adam should need anything to help him rest, please let me know Ben, I can give him something to help him relax; he needs to get some sleep so don’t let him sit with Joe for more than a couple of hours. Right now I think I am going to make use of your spare room. Call me Ben, if you should need me.”

 

Ben slipped his arm about his friend’s shoulder. “Thanks Paul, for everything. You make yourself comfortable and if you need anything just let Hop Sing know. He’ll get you whatever you need, and if you’re hungry….”

 

Paul held his hand up, “No, no, I would just like to lie down and rest.”

 

“All right Paul, I think I’ll keep Adam company for a while. Hoss, why don’t you get some sleep and you can take the next watch?”

 

“Sure Pa…sounds good to me. Night, Doc.” Hoss followed his father upstairs but stopped at Joe’s door. “Pa?”

 

Ben paused, his hand already on the door handle, “Yes son?”

 

“You will call me if there’s any change, won’t ya?” asked Hoss quietly and gave his father a sideways glance.

 

Ben saw the fear that shone in the usually sparkly eyes of his middle son and knew that Hoss was just as fearful about Joe’s health as he and Adam. Ben reached his hand out and patted Hoss’ shoulder.

 

“I’ll call you son, I promise. And try not to worry, Joseph will be fine.” Ben gave his son a smile that he hoped would be more convincing than he actually felt.

 

“Thanks, night Pa.” Hoss placed his large beefy hand over his father’s and squeezed gently. “Promise me, you won’t worry either.”

 

Ben lowered his head momentarily and then raised it and smiled again. “I will try son, I will try.”

 

 

Adam had pulled the chair close to the bed. Joe lay sleeping soundly, his face drawn and pale, dark circles had formed beneath both eyes. Adam felt the lump in his throat and had to swallow, regaining control of his frayed emotions. The blankets had been pulled up to Joe’s neck with Joe’s arms resting on top of the quilts and down by his sides. The boy’s head was turned facing the opposite wall where his cheek rested on the soft pillow. His brow had begun to gather tiny beads of water and Adam thought that Joe looked flushed as well as pale, the dark circles made a stark contrast to the lighter more pronounced whiteness of his face.

 

Joe moved the arm nearest to Adam ever so slightly, bringing his hand closer to where Adam sat. Unconsciously Adam picked up his brother’s hand and held it in his own. With his thumbs Adam caressed the back of Joe’s hand, feeling the coolness of Joe’s flesh. Overwhelmed with unannounced empathy and memories that flooded his thoughts, Adam wrapped his other hand around Joe’s and bending down brought the hand of his brother upward to his lips where he held it for several minutes.

 

Silent tears stung his eyes but Adam willed them away. He would not cry he told himself.   But one, a lone tear managed to slip past the unseen wall that held the dam in check and rolled slowly down the sun- bronzed face of the oldest Cartwright sibling. Adam felt the pain in his chest, the ache that had seemed to tighten around his heart breaking it in two pieces and he squeezed his eyes shut tightly and groaned softly.

 

“I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it,” whispered Adam so softly that he believed only God would hear him.

 

But he was wrong; Ben, who stood in the doorway, had overheard his son’s proclamation and the words spoken by a man with a broken heart and spirit and it tugged at his heartstrings. The concerned father wanted nothing more than to announce his presence, give comfort to his distraught son but instead, stepped away from the door and eased himself out of the room, choosing instead to give Adam his privacy and time alone with his brother.

 

 

By the time that Ben returned to Joe’s room two hours later, Joe had begun to moan. His head turned from side to side somehow trying to free him self from the pain that Ben knew burned throughout his son’s body. Joe’s fingers had latched onto the soft folds of the homemade quilts that covered him and he clung to them as if the soft material were a lifeline that would lead him from the burning agony that plagued his tormented body.

 

Adam turned at the sound of his father’s footsteps behind him; his eyes clouded with worry as he gently held his brother’s shoulders to keep him from rising from the bed.

 

“He just started doing this,” explained Adam to his parent. “I was going to come wake you but then Joe started trying to get out of bed and I couldn’t leave him.”

 

“That’s okay Adam.” Ben stepped under Adam’s arm, placing himself on the edge of the bed next to Joe.

 

“Shh…Joseph, be still son,” ordered Ben in a strong but gentle voice.

 

“Ohh…Hmm…” whimpered Joe, tossing his head, trying to force open his heavy eyelids so that he might see rather than hear the man who spoke so assuredly to him.

 

Ben placed the back of his hand to Joe’s brow and felt the heat that radiated there. “He’s burning up with fever. Please son, get me some cool water and Adam, wake Paul.”

 

“Sure thing, Pa.”

 

Adam answered back and sprang into action, getting first the water pitcher from the side table and pouring a small amount into the flowered china basin then placing it on the table next to the bed where Ben could easily reach it. Beside the basin he laid several cloths and without having to be reminded, rushed down the steps and pounded on the doctor’s bedroom door.

 

“Paul, wake up!” shouted Adam as he knocked on the heavy door. “Pa needs you upstairs quickly, Joe’s spiking a fever.”

 

Paul’s bedroom door opened at last, revealing the sleepy man who had remained clad in his clothing. “He’s what?” asked Paul, not fully awaken.

 

“Joe’s waking up and he’s got a fever. Pa asked that I tell you,” Adam stated and wished the kind doctor would come to his senses and hurry to help his brother.

 

“Fever? I was afraid of that, let me get my things and I’ll be right up son. Tell your father to make sure that Joe does not thrash around on that bed, we can’t risk reopening that wound.” Paul turned back into the room and quickly grabbed his satchel of medical instruments and hurried to join Ben and Adam at Joe’s bedside.

 

By the time the physician made his entrance, Hoss had also joined the family group and was helping his father hold Joe down on the bed. Ben turned, his eyes full of concern, a mixture of fear and uncertainty on his tired face.

 

“He’s spiked a fever Paul, I thought we should wake you,” Ben explained to his friend.

 

“You did the right thing Ben, now let me have a look.” Paul placed himself above Joe, lowered his hand to the boy’s brow and once the heat penetrated the palm of his hand, Paul pursed his lips tightly together and glanced about the room.

 

“This isn’t good,” he stated flatly.

 

Paul grabbed his bag that sat close by and as Adam took his place holding on to his brother, Paul prepared a syringe of medicine for his patient.

 

“He’s in pain as well, Ben. I’m going to give him this injection, it will ease the discomfort and hopefully calm him down enough so that we can do something about this fever.” Paul turned his attention back to his patient and while Adam held Joe gently, the doctor injected the morphine into the fold of Joe’s arm.

 

Joe whimpered softly as the sharp needle pierced his flesh. Moments later the strong medicine did as it was intended and Joe began to quiet and drifted once again into a deep drug induced slumber.

 

For several hours the men worked at cooling the feverish body. As soon as one cool cloth became too warmed by the raging fever, it was replaced with another cooler cloth. Several times over Ben helped the doctor to wash his son’s steamy flesh with water that had been pumped from the deepest depths of the family’s well.

 

Hoss lost count of the number of times he was made to lower the bucket into the refreshing undersurface of the deep cistern and pull the heavy bucket upward from the darkness far below. Bucket after bucket was hauled to the sick room. Ben and Paul soaked the cloths while Adam placed them on various parts of his brother’s feverish body and then replaced them as soon as needed.

 

Adam watched Joe’s body shiver as the cool moisture soaked into the hot flesh and slowly began to bring the temperature down. Joe moaned, as his mumbling became incoherent to the ears of those that fought to save his life and strained to understand what it was that Joe was trying to tell them.

 

“Adam.”

 

It was so softly spoken that Adam thought he had imagined that he had heard the sound of his name, but when he looked down into Joe’s face, the boy’s eyes were beginning to flutter open.

 

“Hey, little buddy,” whispered Adam, brushing back the strand of curls that had become glued to his brother’s forehead by the dampened cloth.

 

“Why?” moaned Joe, his eyes shutting briefly before re-opening them.

 

They were cloudy and seemed to be looking over the top of his brother’s shoulder and Adam knew that Joe was just semi-conscious, not totally aware of those around him. Joe tried to talk, his words coming out jumbled and unclear, tears formed in his hazel eyes and Adam watched as a single tear traced the outline of his brother’s features and drop onto the pillow next to his head.

 

“Joe?” cooed Adam taking a cool cloth and dabbing at the sweat beads that had accumulated on Joe’s brow.

 

His brother’s one word question stuck into his heart as sharply as if an arrow had pierced the beating organ and Adam felt himself giving in to his feelings of having failed the boy whom he loved as his own.

 

Joe continued to moan and toss his head from side to side. The sight ripped at Adam’s heart and again the guilt he felt for having put his brother in such a situation began rising from the pit of his stomach until it reached his throat. This time Adam could do nothing to stop the hot bile that gathered in his mouth and quickly he rose from the bed and grabbed a basin, spewing the acid like liquid into the bowl. Again and again, Adam retched until nothing was left in his stomach to rise to the throat. Weakly Adam excused himself from the room carrying the basin with him to find refuge elsewhere until he could somehow calm his turbulent emotions and upset stomach.

 

 

It was much later when Joe’s eyes at last opened and searched the room for his family. He felt weak and tired and it took all the strength he could muster just to force his heavy eyelids to remain open. Adam, his mind screamed; he had to talk to Adam. He had to tell him something…but what? His thoughts seemed jumbled, mixed together as if someone had tossed them all into an old sack and shook them up and poured them out onto the hard ground where the dust and dirt had added to the confusion. In his delirium his bare toes kicked at the thoughts that lay at his feet but only one word could be separated from the dusty stack of perplexities that piled on the earth beneath him. One lone word stuck in his head, Adam.

 

Joe’s eyes closed, his body arched and stiffened as a wave of pain coursed through his middle. His mouth popped open, his scream startled the doctor who sat near the edge of the bed and his father who stood guard on the opposite side.

 

“ADAM!” screamed Joe as he tossed his head to one side and buried his face into the soft comforts of the pillow where he shut his eyes once more.

 

Joe allowed himself to drift from the real world around him back into the dark world of repose where he could forget the disconcerted thoughts and the wretchedness that still plagued his body.

 

“Joseph,” cried Ben, kneeling down and running his fingers through the mass of dark curls. “Joe…baby, your Pa’s here son.”

 

Ben cast frightened eyes up at the doctor who had remained calm and who was busy checking Joe’s pulse and listening to his heart.

 

“He’s okay Ben, just hurting some and confused. Why don’t you see if you can find that brother of his? I think Joe wants to see him.” Paul sighed lightly and turned back to Ben.

 

“He’s going to be fine, Ben once this fever breaks and it is coming down. With any luck it will break before morning. Now please, go tend to your other son. He needs you as much as this boy does.”

 

Ben, torn between the son who struggled to live and the son who wished he could die, nodded his head, the doctor was right. Adam needed him, needed his comfort and reassurance. Joe would sleep now the doctor would see to that and to the fever that still lingered.

 

“You’re right of course. Hoss is doing the chores; I’ll go check on Adam. Please Paul, if Joseph wakes up again call me.”

 

Ben stretched his weary body and gave his old friend a weak smile as he slowly made his way to the door. There he stopped and glanced again at his youngest son who lay buried beneath the pile of blankets. Joseph so young, so small and looked so frail, thought the worried father with a deep sigh.

 

Ben looked everywhere in the house for this son but when his search turned up no one, he went to the barn. Hoss was busy doing the chores, working intently at rubbing down his mount and totally unaware that he had company. Ben stood silently and watched as Hoss rubbed vigorously at the already shiny hairs on his horse. Chubb bobbed his head up and down and snorted softly.

 

“Ya hush up now, Chubb, I ain’t ahurtin’ ya none,” growled Hoss.

 

Ben picked up on the tone of voice that Hoss was using and knew that the large gentle giant had his own private war going on inside his heart. Ben knew his middle son well enough that he knew Hoss was as torn as he was about what had happened to his brothers. He loved them both; Adam had always been his hero, his teacher, and his confidant. Joe had been always been his shadow, sometimes leading him, sometimes following.   Together the two younger Cartwrights were often finding themselves in some sort of shenanigans that their oldest brother would have to rescue them from. Hoss and Little Joe, buddies, best friends and Ben had often remarked that they must have been joined at the hip for where you found one, you could almost certainly find the other. Ben smiled at the thought of the brotherly affection that his three sons shared. All alike in so many ways, but so very different in others, yet bound by blood, joined by brotherhood, his sons, his life, his greatest accomplishments, thought Ben proudly.

 

“Hoss,” Ben spoke at last and smiled when Hoss nearly dropped the brush when he heard his father’s voice.

 

“Hey Pa, I didn’t hear ya come in. How’s Joe?” Hoss pushed aside his big mount, making a clearing to leave the stall, placed the brush back in its proper place and wiped his hands on the legs of his pants.

 

“He’s resting. Paul says the fever should break by morning. God, I hope so. Have you seen Adam, he wasn’t feeling well a little earlier. I thought I might need to check on him.

 

“He was here a little while ago, but left. Said he needed to get some fresh air and would be back later.” Hoss lowered his head, sadness and worry claiming the smile that had graced his face moments before.

 

“He holds him self responsible for what happened to Little Joe. Ya know that, don’t ya Pa?” asked Hoss quietly.

 

“Yes son, I am aware of that. I think knowing that he caused Joe’s pain and seeing his brother suffering was what made Adam sick in the first place. Did he say where he was headed?” questioned Ben.

 

“No sir, just that he’d be back later. He’ll be all right Pa. Don’t ya worry none; Adam just needs some time. ‘Sides, Joe don’t hold nothing again Adam, I heard’em tell Adam that he didn’t hate him, that he love loved’em,” Hoss told Ben.

 

Ben’s head darted up and he stepped closer to his son, “Joe said that? When?”

 

“Just before he fell into Adam’s arms, after he was shot, didn’t ya hear him say it?” asked Hoss, surprised that his father had not heard Joe as well.

 

“No, I wasn’t aware he had said anything. I know when I talked to him earlier in his room that he was going to apologize to Adam for playing with the gun against his brother’s wishes and for telling Adam he hated him. Maybe he didn’t get the chance to do so and that’s why this whole matter has Adam ripped apart.”

 

Ben was thoughtful as he considered the possibly that Joe had failed in getting his apology out to his brother and that in turn, part of Adam’s guilt stemmed from the fact that he must believe that Joe still hated him; childish in a sense, but under the circumstances, very likely figured Ben.

 

“Pa, I’m sure Adam heard Joe, he had a real funny look about ‘em. Least ways, I hope he did, he needed ta hear it,” said Hoss.

 

“I hope so too, son. It would mean something to your brother, to know that Joe didn’t mean what he said earlier. Well, I’m going back inside, you coming?” asked Ben as he started toward the door.

 

“Yeah, I’m finished here, I wanna go sit with Joe for awhile if’n ya don’t mind.” Hoss finished putting up his things and followed his father to the door. Together father and son slowly made their way to the house.

 

“I sure will be glad when everythin’ is back to normal around here,” commented Hoss with a small smile on his face as he led the way into the house.

 

“Normal?” chuckled Ben, “I’m not sure what normal is anymore,” he laughed lightly as Hoss joined in.

 

 

Adam quickly stabled his horse and cared for the animal before hurrying to the house. He was anxious to see how his youngest brother was doing. He had spent the last several hours doing a lot of thinking, making plans that he would follow through with later, but first he had to be sure that Little Joe would be okay. Adam knew his father would not approve, that the older Cartwright would frown on his decision but nonetheless, Adam promised himself that he would make good his covenant that he had made. He needed time, he needed space and he needed to distance himself from those around him. Adam had no idea how long he would be gone, or whether or not he would ever come back, but go he must. His decision had been made, only divine intervention could change his mind now, for he had no intentions of staying where he felt he was no longer welcomed, where his family could look at him with distaste and disapproval, where Joe hated him. And that thought bothered him more than anything else, he was sure that his younger brother not only hated him but also held him responsible for having been shot. Adam had even considered the idea that Joe could possibly think that Adam had shot him on purpose.

 

Adam had no idea that thoughts such as those were the furthest thing from the young boy’s mind. Upstairs, Joe lay resting. His fever had slowly been declining and after a long night, had slipped into a sound sleep at last. At his bedside remained his father, keeping a vigil throughout the long hours. Ben sat with his chin propped in the palm of his hand; his were eyes closed and he was snoring softly. Joe appeared more relaxed and his breathing more even. Adam slipped into the room and softly made his way around his sleeping father to sit on the side of the bed near his brother.

 

Adam placed the back of his hand to Joe’s brow and let out a sigh of relief when the coolness he felt told him his brother’s fever had broken.

 

“Joe,” whispered Adam, wishing that his brother would wake up and talk to him.

 

Joe’s eyelids batted in an effort to respond but failed to open completely to the gentle urging by his brother. Adam glanced at his father afraid that Joe’s soft moaning and attempts to turn in the bed might awaken Ben and for the time being, Adam had no desire to get into what he feared would end up as an argument. Rising, Adam eased out of the room and into his own to catch a couple of hours of much needed sleep before facing the new day.

 

“Pa?” cried Joe softly as he tried to raise his head.

 

He could see his father dozing in the chair on the opposite side of the bed from him. His voice was weak; his strength seemed to have been drained from him as a result of his ill-fated accident. It was all he could manage to do to hold his head just inches off his pillow.

 

“Pa!” he called out again, this time forcing his voice up from deep within his throat.

 

Ben snapped opened his eyes at the sound of his name and quickly moved his chair nearer to the bed.

 

“Well, good morning,” smiled Ben, relieved to see his son awake and able to talk to him at last. “How do you feel, son?”

 

“Pa…I’m fine,” said Joe, placing his head back down on his pillow.

 

Ben saw the look of pain that forced his son’s features to become distorted and knew that no matter how badly his son felt, Joe would almost certainly reply that he was ‘fine’ rather than to admit that he had any pain whatsoever.

 

“I wanna talk to Adam…where is he?” Joe asked, taking in his father’s sudden worried expression. “I need to tell him something…please Pa…I have too.” Joe reached his arm across the bed and took his father’s hand into his own. “Pa, I have to tell him I know it was an accident…please, tell him I want to see him.”

 

Ben saw the tears that sprang up in his son’s eyes and gently used his fingers to wipe away their dampness and then placed his hand on Joe’s brow to check again for fever.

 

“Son, Adam’s probably sleeping, and you need to rest, can’t you wait just a little while and try to eat something first?” asked Ben, not even sure if Adam had returned from his previous night’s ride.

 

“I don’t anything to eat…I want Adam,” demanded Joe, determined to see his brother.

 

“You don’t understand Pa…last night…I thought he was here, I thought I heard him calling my name…please Pa…I have to talk to him…now,” sniffled Joe as he tightened the pressure on his father’s hand.

 

Ben sighed, seeing as how he knew Joe would never give up the idea and sure that the boy would become agitated, Ben relented.

 

“All right son, you rest while I go find that brother of yours. I’ll be right back in a few minutes.” Ben leaned down and tucked Joe’s hand back under the blanket and smiling down at his son placed a kiss on Joe’s brow.

 

Ben closed the door softly behind him and hesitated briefly, trying to decided where to search first. A noise down the hall, one that he knew came for his oldest son’s bedroom told him that his search would begin and end on the other side of the bedroom door.

 

Knocking gently, Ben waited for an invitation to enter. When there was none, Ben eased the door opened and peeked inside. Adam was up. He had placed his back to his father and was bending over the bed.

 

“Adam?” called out Ben.

 

Ben saw his son’s hesitation before turning to face him and as Adam did so, Ben saw the satchel that had been placed on his son’s bed and the array of clothing that was spread neatly on the top of the blanket. Surprised, Ben stepped up to the bed and glanced first at the stacks of shirts and pants then glanced up at his son. Adam had his head turned toward the window, purposely avoiding meeting the dark eyes that he could feel penetrating into his back.

 

“Are you going somewhere, son?” Ben asked in a calm quiet voice that displayed none of the inner turmoil that belied his true fears.

 

“I’m leaving,” answered Adam quickly and returned to his packing.

 

Adam had given much thought as to whether or not he should talk to Joe and tell the boy that he was leaving. Adam knew in his heart that Joe would hold no blame at him for what had happened, but truth was, Adam held all the blame, his heart and soul was consumed with it and he had decided to just go. Stopping in to see Joe would only result in upsetting the boy and Adam had to admit, he wasn’t even sure if he could face his brother. He had hoped to be able to manage to slip out before anyone was awake, but it appeared that lady luck was not on his side.

 

Ben swallowed hard and silently prayed for guidance. “May I be so bold as to ask where you are going and why?”

 

Adam gave Ben a quick sideways glance and continued to fold the shirt that he held in his hands.

 

“I’m not sure where I’m going, New England maybe. As to why, I think we both know the answer to that question.”

 

Ben fought the grief he felt rising and refused to make a reply to his son’s statement. He was fairly sure why Adam was leaving but he wanted to hear it from his son.

 

“No, I don’t think I do know, why don’t you tell me?”

 

Adam’s own ire began to surface. It wasn’t anger intended at his father, but at him self. Frustrated, Adam tossed the shirt into the satchel.

 

“Come on Pa, you know as well as I do, why I have to go away. You don’t really expect me to stay here, not after what happened do you, not after what I did?”

 

“I most certainly do young man. Why should you feel you ‘have’ to leave as you put it? No one blames you for what happened. Surely you can’t believe that any of us do?” Ben all but shouted.

 

Adam moved to the window and jerked back the curtains. Hoss was bidding good-bye to Doc Martin down below in the yard. Adam turned slowly back around to face his father.

 

“Doc’s leaving, I guess that means that Joe is going to be all right. Good, that makes my going easier knowing that,” stated Adam and picked up the same shirt and began to refold it.

 

“Yes, the fever broke late last night sometime. Adam,” said Ben, his voice quieter and calmer, “You didn’t answer my question. Why are you leaving? Don’t you know how that will hurt your brother?”

 

Adam sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed deeply, unable to meet his father’s eyes. “I’ve already hurt him. I nearly killed him…Pa…if Little Joe had died…I’d…”

 

“But he didn’t son. Little Joe is going to be fine; he’ll be up and about in a few days. Why do you feel you have to go? Adam, son…Joe is awake now and he’s asking for you. He wants to talk to you, please, won’t you just go to him?” Ben placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

 

Adam raised his head at last to look into his father’s eyes. Ben noted the haunting look that appeared on his son’s face.

 

“Don’t blame yourself Adam, no one else does. It was an accident, pure and simple. Learn from it, we’re never too old to learn. Now please, go to your brother. I’m asking you, son.”

 

Ben dropped his hand and moved aside. Adam had risen to his feet, his chin up; the young man pursed his lips.

 

“No, I can’t, you tell Joe I’m sorry for what I did. I’m going Pa; in time he’ll get over it and by then he won’t even miss me. Hell, I doubt that after awhile he won’t even remember me.”

 

Ben stood stunned at his son’s words and for a moment could not react nor think clearly. Adam had popped shut the satchel and walked out of the room. At the sound of his son’s footsteps clicking on the stairs, Ben snapped back to his senses and rushed from the room to follow Adam to the door no longer attempting to hide his anger at his oldest son.

 

Adam stopped beside the settee, his eyes spying the new revolver still lying on the cushion where he had tossed it after seeing that Joe had been hit by the stray bullet. Quickly he snatched it up and held it tightly in his hand before turning and tossing it to his father.

 

“Here,” he said, “Get rid of it, I never want to see it again.” With that the angry young man started toward the door.

 

“You wait just a minute, young man,” stormed Ben as he placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder and forced him to turn around and face him.

 

“What is it Pa?” shouted Adam, his eyes growing dark as he struggled with the multitude of emotions that ran rampant through his heart and soul.

“I am not going to tell Joseph you are leaving, if you want him to know, then you have to be the one to tell him and he’ll want to know why, so you can tell him that as well. But don’t expect me to be the one to make excuses for you,” shouted Ben.

 

Adam jerked from Ben’s grasp and grabbed the door, pulling it opened. “Then the boy will have to find out on his own, I have no plans to tell him anything.”

 

Suddenly Ben’s hand swept passed Adam’s face onto the door, just beneath his son’s hand and shoved the door closed. Adam dropped his head, defeated and hiding the anger he felt and the turmoil that threatened to force him into an emotional breakdown.

 

“Don’t stop me, please Pa…just let me go,” whispered Adam in a broken voice.

 

Ben’s passion was raw, he hurt for both of his sons; for Joe who had come so close to dying and for Adam whose self-imposed guilt was driving him from his home and from the family that loved and needed him.

 

“You walk out of that door and you will be doing Joseph and yourself a grave dishonor. You will be killing him, oh not physically; those injuries will heal in time, but the emotional damage you could do to him, will never heal. That boy loves you, you can claim he doesn’t all you want too, but I am his father as well as I am yours and I know him better than anyone on the face of this earth and I’m telling you, Joseph loves you.”

 

Ben moved away from the door, his eyes dark with emotion.

 

“Go ahead, go. If you can live with yourself knowing you have destroyed the boy in the worse possible way, go ahead, run away and wallow in your self-pity and self-hatred.”

 

Ben turned and walked away, leaving Adam standing silent at the door his hand still holding the handle but unmoving. On the small landing, Ben paused to glance back at his son, praying that his words would force Adam to see that running away would only make more problems and solve nothing. Silently the anxious father walked the remainder of the way to Joe’s room and stopped just outside of the door racking his mind as to what he should or should not tell his son. He feared that Joseph’s condition was still too weak to endure more stress and feared that the knowledge that his older brother had left without so much as a good-bye or explanation as to why would prove to have negative affects on his son’s recovery.

 

As expected, Joe was waiting for his father’s return. “I thought Adam was coming? I need to talk to him. Is he coming?”

 

Ben took a deep breath and quickly eased himself down on the bed. With one hand Ben brushed back a displaced lock of hair and smiled down at his son.

 

“Son,” began Ben.

 

“Pa, what’s wrong? Adam’s not coming is he? He hates me…I knew he did…” cried Joe as tears formed in his eyes.

 

Ben shook his head, “No…no, precious, that’s not it at all. Your brother doesn’t hate you, in fact, it’s just the opposite.”

 

Joe dabbed his eyes, “What do you mean, just the opposite?” he asked.

 

“Adam doesn’t hate you son, he hates himself right now,” Ben tried to explain. “He holds him self responsible for what happened to you and…”

 

“Pa!” Joe was becoming annoyed, “he’s leaving isn’t he? Isn’t he?” Joe shouted as loudly as his weakened condition would allow him too.

 

“He can’t do that to me…Pa…where is he?” stammered Joe, his voice as well as his chin beginning to quiver while he tried to pull himself upward in a vain attempt to get out of bed and find the brother who had always been his hero.

 

“I’m right here, Little Buddy,” rang the reply from the doorway and halting the boy’s escape from his sickbed. “Don’t go getting yourself all worked up over nothing. You don’t think I’d really run out on you, do you?” smiled Adam.

 

Ben rose from the bed to give his oldest son access to his brother. Adam’s eyes met his father’s as Ben turned from the bedside.

 

“Thank you, Pa,” whispered Adam as Ben strolled past.

 

Ben blinked away unshed tears and smiled at his son, his relief shining in the smile he gave to Adam.

 

Adam placed himself on the edge of the bed and placed his hands on Joe’s shoulders.

 

“Now little boy, you get back in that bed.”

 

Joe’s eyes quickly swept his brother’s face smiling at the term his brother had used. Unexpectedly Joe’s arms embraced Adam’s neck and Joe locked his fingers together behind Adam so that his brother could not pull free.

 

“I love you Adam and I’m sorry for saying I hated you. I lied, I don’t really hate you, please don’t go, don’t leave me again…” Joe could no longer withhold his tears. “I don’t blame you for what happened Adam, honest, I know it was an accident. I won’t touch your new gun again, I promise, just promise me you won’t go away.”

 

“Hey, calm down little buddy,” said Adam softly, suddenly realizing that his father had known all along that his leaving would destroy the boy whom he now held in his arms.

 

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise Joe, I’ll not leave you, so stop crying.”

 

Adam placed his hands on Joe’s hands and untangled his brother’s fingers so that he could pull Joe free from around his neck and look him in the face.

 

“Listen to me for a minute Joe.”

 

Joe did as Adam had asked and stopped crying. Adam eased Joe back down onto the bed and wiped away his brother’s tears.

 

“Joe, I’m the one that should tell you I’m sorry. I was so foolish for not double-checking the chamber. Pa taught me years ago how to properly care for a weapon, and in a moment of anger I forgot the most important rule, ‘make sure it’s unloaded’…God…how could I have been so stupid?” whispered Adam as his throat thickened with emotion.

 

“How can you ever forgive me? I nearly killed you.” Adam pursed his lips tightly together and moved his head from side to side in loathing of himself.

 

“I’ve already forgiven you big brother. Maybe you should try to forgive yourself,” whispered Joe softly.

 

Joe had seen the pained expression that had embedded its self in the deep furrows of Adam’s brow and the sight of his unhappy brother tore his heart in two. How, he asked himself, could he have thought for one minute that he could hate this brother of his who wore his heart on his sleeve? The mask that usually hid his older brother’s deepest emotions from everyone, including his family had suddenly slipped away, revealing a dispirited and anguished young man. Joe watched the play of sensitivity on Adam’s face and thought that his brother appeared to have aged since the accident and Joe could not help but feel responsible.

 

“Joe…” stammered Adam picking up his brother’s hand from the bed. “I don’t know what to say.”

 

“Then don’t say anything Adam. As Pa always says, it’s over, finished, it’s water under the bridge so forget it.” Joe smiled at his brother; he had made Adam speechless.

 

Only a moment passed before Adam’s face broke into a wide grin, returning his brother’s smile.

 

“Damn kid, when did you get so smart?”

 

Joe giggled. “Oh, I suppose I was born that way, or maybe I just take after my oldest brother.”

 

Adam gently pulled Joe into a sitting position and embraced him.

 

“Pa says you’re never too old to learn, guess he’s right. You little brother, have taught me a lot in the last couple of days.”

 

“Yeah, no fooling?” giggled Joe again, “Like what?”

 

“Like how much you really mean to me and just how much I love you,” whispered Adam and then planted a kiss on top of Joe’s head.

 

“I learned some things too, big brother,” said Joe turning serious and making sure he had direct eye contact with his brother. “Like the meaning of truth and trust, like the importance of keeping a promise, and how much I love you too,” smiled Joe shyly and leaned back on the pillow, his eyes closed momentarily then reopened.

 

“Adam?” said Joe softly.

 

“Yeah kid?”

 

“Ya reckon we’ll ever learn it all and be as smart as Pa?” Joe glanced up and watched the smile spread across his brother’s face.

 

“I don’t think so squirt. We’d have to live an awfully long time to know all that Pa has learned. He’s never even been to college, but he sure has learned a lot just by living. And it’s a good thing for us he has, other wise we could be…well, let’s just say Pa’s one sly fox.”

 

Adam laughed and Joe joined in, not quite sure of what his brother meant by Adam’s comment about their Pa being a sly fox. Adam saw the doubt on Little Joe’s face and promised himself that he would never tell the boy just how close he came to walking out on him. Had it not been for their father’s wisdom and sharp words, he, Adam, would have missed out on a lifetime of brotherly love.

 

Smiling down at his kid brother, Adam playfully punched Joe’s cheek.

 

“Go to sleep Joe, you need your beauty rest. I’ll see you in a little while, right now I need to go have a talk with Pa.”

 

“Aye, Aye Captain,” laughed Joe and closed his eyes as ordered, happy to have his brother back.

 

Within minutes the boy had fallen to sleep and Adam slipped from the room, he had one more apology to make.

 

THE END

September 2002

 

 

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