Summary: A WHN For My Brother’s Keeper
Rated: K+ Word Count 9000
Two months had passed since the accident. Two long months the Cartwrights would never forget, and a day that would be forever etched in the minds of Adam and Joe.
It had started as other days had done on countless occasions over the years. The two brothers had made camp at Montpelier Gorge hunting a wolf that had been preying on young calves. Joe, in his usual haste to finish the job quickly, had decided to trail the animal alone while Adam had lingered and finished his coffee.
As Adam rejoined the search, separated from Joe, he saw the wolf and shot at it. Unfortunately, Joe had been trailing the wolf and at the precise moment Adam fired, Joe had come into view and fallen to the ground, his left shoulder shattered by the rifle bullet. The wolf had then turned on Joe, biting him on the arm, scratching his face, and shaking him like a limp rag doll, until Adam had hit it with the stock of his rifle, then shot it dead at close range.
Alone, and with only one horse between them, Adam had to slowly and gently carry his brother back to the Ponderosa. Help had arrived in the shape of a father and daughter, the Reardons, who had stopped in their carriage and offered assistance. They brought the two men back to the Ponderosa where they found Hoss alone, Ben having left on business. Joe’s life had hung in the balance for days; days of fever and pain, from both the gunshot wound and the injuries caused by the claws and teeth of the wolf.
With no doctor available, it had been left to Adam to remove the bullet from his brother’s shoulder. Never in all his 35 years had he been so scared; his hands shook with the shock of what he had to do. The bullet in his brother had come from his rifle, loaded by him and fired by him. Now he had to remove the same bullet to save his brother’s life.
Till the day he died he would always remember the sight of his hands, covered in his brother’s blood. He dug deep into Joe’s shoulder, attempting to retrieve the small lead object that had settled deep into the flesh and sinew, tearing the tendon. Adam’s eyes filled with tears at Joe’s cries of agony which were muffled as he bit hard into a folded napkin.
It only took a few minutes to remove the bullet, but to Adam it felt like hours. Blood had oozed out, running down Joe’s chest, before a clean cloth was thrust into the wound, stemming the flow. With his hands still shaking, still bloody, Adam had sewn up the gaping hole, hardly believing himself competent of such an operation.
Joe was by then mercifully unconscious, not aware of the drama that had developed in the saving of his life. As he stood back and viewed his brother, sleeping, his breathing regular and his fever subsiding, Adam had turned to a bowl on the dresser and thrown up.
His face was pale and drawn. He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept, the adrenaline rush had kept his body moving for days. Suddenly he felt exhausted, his only desire to sleep. For the next few hours, unable to leave his brother’s side, he had dozed in a chair by the bed, ever watchful of Joe’s condition, fearful of any relapse.
Hoss had finally persuaded him to rest in his own room, but only on Adam’s insistence that Hoss would not move from Joe’s side, would not leave him alone, for any reason. This Hoss had promised.
The days that followed were full of worry, concern and prayers, due in no small part to the stealing of much needed medicine required for Joe by unscrupulous men who had held it for ransom. However, with the help of the Reardons and Hoss, it was recovered, and with the tender loving care of his two brothers, Joe survived.
After the bullet had been removed, and while he had laid recovering, drifting in and out of consciousness, Joe had heard Adam and Sheila Reardon talking quietly by the window in his room. Adam had been reflecting on the violence and brutality of life in the west, while Sheila had sympathized, agreed with his assessment and urged him to leave and go back east, to a more civilized way of life.
Adam had been tempted, very tempted.
In his late teens he had left for the east to attend college, the four years away being some of the happiest in his life. Though he could have remained there with his father’s
blessing, he returned to Nevada as his father’s right hand man, keen to help his family develop and expand the ranch. His thoughts on the sights and sounds of the civilized east slowly disappeared.
The accident at Montpelier Gorge had however reopened the desire within himself to leave this harsh land and seek out his dreams; to visit Europe, to become an architect. With much heart-searching and long discussions with Sheila, he had finally decided to stay on the Ponderosa with his family, and forfeit his dream. Joe heard the words and the voice of his brother, and as he grew stronger he reflected on them.
Both Ben and Hoss had been aware of Adam’s turmoil in the aftermath of the accident, and knew he had contemplated leaving the ranch. As Joe had laid sleeping and recovering, they had talked long into the night, the eerie glow of the fire illuminating the strained faces of the three men.
Ben had listened to his son, hearing of his talk with Sheila, never pressuring him to stay, but allowing him to talk through his fears, his desires, his dreams. Hoss, heartbroken that his brother had thought of leaving stayed quiet, unwilling to force his brother’s hand, just wanting him to be happy in his own mind. They were more than relieved at his decision to remain at the ranch; more relieved than he would ever know.
Had they been aware that it was the youngest Cartwright, not the eldest, who would soon contemplated a future away from his family there would have been sleepless nights on the Ponderosa ranch.
Joe had time to think, time to dream, and he had realized his dream was not the Ponderosa.
The worst was now over, but the recuperation was long and tedious. Joe had never been one to sit and idle away his days, but for once he had no choice. For the first six weeks he had been confined to his bedroom, too weak from the loss of blood to manage to leave his bed. His family had stayed close, hardly daring to leave his side, and needing to see he was improving, day by day.
He spent his time dozing, reading, and at times chatting to his family, but mostly lying alone. Never leaving the close proximity of the ranch house, always staying within shouting distance of the son and brother who lay upstairs, the family did their chores, grateful to God that Joe had been spared and allowed to live. Then as his strength had slowly built up, he had been allowed downstairs to walk around the ranch house and yard, but not to work.
It was now late October, and since Joe was recovered enough to be left to his own devices, Ben, Adam and Hoss would leave the ranch early each morning, hunting for their cattle in the high country. Their task was to bring them down to lower ground and safety, away from the snow that would soon be covering the higher slopes of the Ponderosa. It was a tiring chore, the cattle having scattered over many miles during the warm summer months, and the Cartwrights would be out from dawn to dusk, locating and driving the beasts to friendlier pastures.
Two weeks had now passed since Joe had been allowed downstairs and the family continued on their trek each day, cattle still being recovered from the vast acres that spread into the mountains. Doc Martin had been to see him days before, and happy with his progress, had told him that by the end of the week he could start to build up the strength in his arm by doing light chores around the ranch house. Joe had started to protest that his arm was fine, he could now take on any job, but the Doc had been adamant. Light duties only. Scowling he had reluctantly agreed.
He found each day long and lonely, and with his arm in a sling, the natural left-hander found there was little he could do except visit his horse, Cochise. While gently grooming the pinto Joe would talk aloud to him, allowing his horse to hear his thoughts, hear what was on his troubled mind.
There was little noise in the spacious downstairs room. Just the tick-tock of the large clock which had stood in the same place for as long as Joe could remember, and the crackle of the wood as it burnt in the hearth. Lying on the settee, his feet resting on the wooden coffee table, he stared into the dancing flames. It was a day that followed the routine of the past fortnight. With his family out, Joe was alone, again. Alone to stare into the fire that dominated the large room on the Ponderosa ranch. Alone to think and dream.
Joe sat up, removing his arm from the sling, and slowly flexed his shoulder. It was still stiff and sore, the tendon taking its time to knit together, and more painful than he ever admitted to his family or the doctor. He clenched and unclenched his hand, exercising his fingers to regain the strength they had lost. Without a fully functional left hand he felt truly impotent, unable to use his revolver, utilize his lightening fast reflexes and shooting skill. Progress was slow, too slow in Joe’s opinion. With a deep sigh he pushed himself up and walked over to his father’s desk, standing in front of the large map that dominated the wall. The Ponderosa! His home, his father’s dream.
He sighed again, running his right hand through his thick brown hair. There was something troubling the young Cartwright, and though he had fought hard against it, the nagging feeling inside would not leave him. Try as he might, one thought had dominated him over the past weeks. He shook his head, unwilling to admit it to himself, but knowing the truth, the unthinkable. He wanted to leave the Ponderosa.
As he stared at the map, he subconsciously rubbed his once injured arm, though the claw and teeth marks of the wolf had long gone and faded away. A small scar on his left shoulder was the only reminder of how close to death he had been weeks before. He turned and looked around the large room that had been a part of his life since the day he was born. Everything had a place; all was in order, much like his family. They all had their place, knew their roles in keeping the Ponderosa running successfully. Even he had a role to play, but the more he thought on it, the more he knew he wanted more.
He wondered if his family had any idea what he was thinking. At times he had been like a bear with a sore head, his temper short. They would of thought it was due to his inactivity, his convalescence he mused. Little did they suspect that his temper was due mainly to his inner feelings of conflict. To stay or leave?
He walked back to the large hearth, throwing another log onto the fire, and stood, his good arm resting on the brickwork, while he gazed into the glowing embers. How he wished he could put back the clock, to a time when he was fully fit, his every minute filled with work and laughter, never having the chance to think his future. There had never been a question about it. His life was on the Ponderosa and would always be so. He had never thought anything different. However, the weeks of inactivity, the solitude, and the memories of the pain he had sustained, had all contributed to his present state of mind. He had begun to dream of another life, another future, away in far distant lands, and the more he thought, the stronger the desire had become.
There had been many times during the long sleepless nights when he recalled the pain of the bullet as it entered his shoulder, and the agony of the wolf’s teeth and claws as it savaged his arm. He could almost smell the stench of the wolf’s breath as it salivated on his face. The recollection would send shivers down his back, and he would lie in his bed, the sweat pouring out of him.
During his life, death had come close on many occasions, the young man surviving again and again, lady luck always being at his side. However, now, for the first time in his life, Joe Cartwright suddenly realized he was not invincible. What had happened at Montpelier Gorge unnerved him to such a degree that he just knew he had no desire to live in this harsh environment any more.
He had often heard it said that a dying man sees his life flash in front of his eyes, and when the bullet hit and the wolf pounced, Joe had thought death was beckoning him. In that instance he momentarily thought of his life and how it was about to end in such a violent fashion. So, when his ordeal was over, and he still lived, a nagging thought had gripped him. There was a world out there, and Joe Cartwright had decided he wanted to see it, be a part of it. Just like Adam had once desired, he wanted to make his own fortune, his own future, his own Ponderosa!
Hours later, there was the familiar sound of horses and men entering the yard. It was dusk, and there was a autumnal chill in the air; snow and the other ravages of winter were definitely on the horizon.
Ben and his two eldest sons walked into the ranch house, eager to warm themselves and looking forward to the dinner prepared by their trusty housekeeper, Hop Sing. Hanging up their coats and hats and folding their gun belts onto the credenza, they made their way to the fireplace.
Looking down onto the settee, they could see the figure of Joe, sleeping, lying full stretch, his left arm held close to his body, the sling on the floor.
Ben stared at his youngest, so grateful he was alive. In his early twenties, Joe had come close to death on many occasions, but this time had been the worst. To be shot accidentally by one’s brother was bad enough. But what if he had subsequently died? The very thought made Ben shudder.
Adam looked down on the sleeping form of his brother. He thought of that day, the day at Montpelier Gorge, and felt his whole body tense with emotion. He knew Joe still felt pain in his shoulder, more pain than he admitted to anyone, yet he never complained. Adam also knew Joe’s reason for his silence. Joe was attempting to free his brother of the feeling of guilt he had.
Hoss smiled at the sight of the young man, sleeping peacefully. Such a young and handsome face that was unusually pale due to his enforced bed rest. His little brother, whom he loved unconditionally, and who they had come close to losing in the blink of an eye. The big man shuddered, the thought tearing at his heart. Thank God, he is still with us, he thought.
Gently, Ben shook his sleeping son, squeezing his right arm.
“Joe! Joseph! Time to wake up!”
Deep green eyes opened and stared at his family.
“Oh! Hi Pa. Must have dropped off there.” he said as he slowly eased himself up into a sitting position on the settee. He rubbed his eyes, and gave a yawn.
“Sure is exhausting, sitting here each day with nothing to do.”
“No point complaining Joseph. Doc Martin says you take it easy till the end of the week. Then you can do some easy chores and not till then. Is that clear?” his voice was stern, but his eyes laughed at the sight of his son.
With a miffed look, Joe nodded, a quick glean of a smile hitting his mouth. He knew better than to argue with his father, especially when dealing with a doctor’s instructions.
“You manage to find more cattle?” his question was directed at his two brothers who had moved to the front of the fire, Hoss taking an apple from the fruit bowl and munching it noisily.
“Sure did Joe.” he said, through a mouthful of apple, “Reckon another couple of days and we should have got just about all of them down from the high ground. By the look of that sky it ain’t a day too soon either.”
“Why? Snow on the way?” asked Joe,
“Sure reckon it is little brother. My corns have been playing up something terrible, and that’s always a sign of winter. Never failed me yet.”
Joe chuckled at his brother’s words as Hoss sat, carefully easing his huge frame next to his brother so as not to jolt the injured arm.
Adam flopped down in his chair, his body suddenly feeling exhausted from the days riding.
“You been OK Joe?” he said as Joe replaced his arm in the sling. “How is the shoulder?”
Joe glanced at his brother and gave him a quick nod.
“Oh, its fine. Getting better every day.”
Adam nodded back but knew Joe was hurting more than he would ever admit. He signed deeply, the feeling of guilt rushing over him once again. Sitting back in his chair, he stretched out his long legs then closed his eyes, unaware that Joe was still looking at him. Joe never felt malice towards Adam; it had just been an unfortunate accident and he thought his brother knew there was no finger of blame pointing at him.
However, he finally realized his brother continued to shoulder the full burden of responsibility when early one morning, three weeks previous, he had been dozing in his room and had heard voices. Half awake, he recognized Adam and Hoss who were quietly talking on the landing. Even now he could recall exactly what was said.
“You OK Adam? Sleeping any better?”
“No Hoss. Still having the nightmares. Every time it’s the same story. Me trying to dig out that bullet in Joe and the blood just spurts out, more and more, till he dies right in front of my eyes, the bullet still in him. Then I wake up.”
“It’s strange Adam. Having these dreams night after night, even though little brother is going to be fine.”
“I know. Seems I have to relive that day over and over again as some sort of penance.”
Then there was silence as the two men walked downstairs.
Still staring at his brother, Joe knew he was indebted to Adam but was at a loss to know how to repay him. What price a life?
Ben noticed how Joe had watched Adam, then had turned his eyes and stared into the blazing hearth, his mind miles away, just as he had been doing for the past weeks. His face looked sadly troubled. What was he thinking?
Was it the accident? The suddenness of the wolf attack? The shock of feeling his brother’s bullet? The long road to recovery? Ben could only speculate, but he thought there was something else. He couldn’t put his finger on it, could only wonder and wait.
The noise of clattering pans and a torrid stream of high pitched words from the kitchen was a sure indication that dinner was well and truly on the way as the four men sat around the fire. Like a mini whirlwind, Hop Sing appeared, and delivered his steaming food onto the large dining table, chuntering away in inaudible Chinese. Adam had nodded off, so Joe gave him a gentle slap on the leg, and then moved over to the table, his elder brother pushing himself off his chair and following him, yawning.
The meal was delicious as ever, and there was some small talk as the four men ate, the three eldest ravenous from their long days exertions. Joe was not as hungry, and slowly picked his way through the meal, staring at his plate most of the time, his mind elsewhere.
As he wiped his plate clean with a chunk of bread, Hoss looked over at Joe,
“When you gonna be able to get out doing some real hard work then Joe?” he said, in a good natured and joking fashion. Shaken out of his daydreaming, Joe looked up,
“Well its hardly my fault I’m not able to help, is it?” his voice sounding bitter and angry.
There was silence, three pairs of eyes focused on Joe, who suddenly realized what he had said. He looked at Adam.
“I’m sorry Adam. I didn’t mean it.” his voice croaked with emotion. “Guess being cooped up everyday is getting to me.”
Adam nodded, not commenting, and continued to eat, though inside he felt numb.
Joe felt wretched. His daydreaming, his thought of a new future, cut short by Hoss, compounded his feeling of guilt.
Should he tell them now?
He cautiously looked at his family as they continued to eat in silence, his heart pounding loud in his chest.
Should he? Dare he?
The once fearless young man could feel his hands shaking, so he hastily put down his fork and clasped his hands on his lap. Joe raised his head and cleared his throat, his father and brothers looking at him, expectantly.
“Erm, theres erm, something…” Joe’s voice trailed to nothing.
“Yes Joe?” Ben looked at his son, could see he was nervous, and troubled.
Joe looked towards his father, seeing the gentle, honest and loving face, and in an instant knew the time was not right. He could not go through with it. Not tonight!
“Oh. Just wanted to tell you my hand is feeling much stronger.” Joe said, a slight nervous smile showing.
He quickly looked down at his hands, while the three men glanced at each other, Adam and Hoss both raising their eyebrows. Joe had not fooled any of them; something else was on his mind, something he was not willing to reveal. Yet!
It was now November. Joe’s arm was markedly improved, and as he regained strength in the injured shoulder, his chores became more various, and it was soon as if he had never been injured at all. He worked hard doing more than his fair share as if trying to make up for the lost months. His family knew better than to try and get him to slow down. Once Joe’s mind was made up to do a job, nothing would stop him from achieving his goal.
He decided to keep quiet about his desire to leave for the moment. He could never find the right time, the right moment. ‘Was there a right moment?’ he often thought, as he looked at his family. He tried to be light-hearted and cheerful, unwilling for his father and brothers to suffer the torment that was flowing through his mind. He wondered how his family would react to him leaving.
His father would be heartbroken. The mere thought of the misery he would suffer brought tears to Joe’s eyes. However, he reasoned to himself, ‘had his father not left home to follow his own dream?’ Surely he would understand his youngest son’s desire to write out his own future?
Adam had been away, had tasted freedom and new horizons. He would understand. He would support Joe, having been tempted himself to follow his own dream away from the Ponderosa.
Hoss. Joe sighed deeply. Poor Hoss. He would take his departure so badly. They had always been so close, their escapades legendary, their brotherly love never questioned. He would be unhappy, even inconsolable. At least Adam would be there, reasoned Joe. Adam would take care of his brother, give the big man inner strength to cope without his younger sibling.
The three remaining Cartwrights would still support each other, still carry on and keep the family together. The Ponderosa would remain, and thrive without him. His mind reasoned out his arguments, knowing all would work out. In his heart however, he knew there would be many tears, much heartache, much sorrow.
As winter arrived, he decided to leave any thought of leaving until the following year. Spring was the season of new life, new hope; he would stay for the winter, work hard, and maybe, maybe, he may even change his mind. However, the more he thought this through, he realized he was only kidding himself. A new life beckoned him, and the desire grew daily, never leaving him, only growing and settling deeper and deeper within him.
If his family noticed any change in his demeanor, they never mentioned it. Truth be, any change in him was thought to be the result of his weeks of forced rest and the discomfort of his injuries.
Life and work on the Ponderosa settled into a quiet and uneventful routine.
With the thought that this may be his last Christmas on the Ponderosa, Joe threw himself into the festivities with a gusto seldom seen by the family. His enthusiasm for everything rubbed off on the rest of the men, as they enjoyed each others company with laughter and good-hearted banter. The awareness of how close they came to losing one of their number, and the circumstances surrounding the event was in the forefront of their minds, but did not spoil their celebrations. It was a Christmas remembered by all the Cartwrights for years as the happiest since the death of Joe’s mother, Marie.
It was soon February; winter was at its worst, the land covered in snow. A very special day arrived. Adam’s birthday.
Never one to insist on a party, Adam’s day was celebrated only with his family, his gifts opened as they sat by the fire, sipping Ben’s best and most expensive brandy. Ben bought him a new thick winter jacket and Hoss a new bridle for Sport. Joe held back with his gift. He had never possessed much imagination when buying presents for his family, as Adam’s drawer full of gloves and thick woolen socks would prove. This time it was different. The events at Montpelier Gorge and its effect on Adam had strived Joe to buy something worthy for his brother. A small payment for saving his life.
Adam took the present that Joe thrust into his hands. The parcel was weighty, covered in expensive wrapping paper, and tied with ribbon. ‘No gloves or socks this year’ thought Adam, with a chuckle.
He carefully untied the ribbon, then unfolded the wrapping paper. On his lap was now a box with the distinct markings of a London book company. Adam was intrigued. He looked up at Ben and Hoss who were staring, just as mystified, following his every move.
Joe stood by the fire, watching the scene unfold.
Adam smiled at Joe and raised his eyebrows, then bent his head down and began to open the box. He removed the lid, then through layers of old newspaper he found his fingers touching a leather bound book. Holding the book tightly, he placed the now empty box on the floor, and then stared at the cover in his hands. The leather was worked in scroll patterns and in such delicate detail that the effect was breathtaking. In the top corner were the initials A.C. Adam just stared. This gift from Joe was so different, so unexpected.
A slight cough from his father brought him out of his trance; his father was impatient to see the book within the leather cover. Adam opened up the book. It was a novel, but not just any novel. Adam had always loved books, his bedroom shelves full of every variety. However, he had been a keen and avid reader of anything by Charles Dickens for many years, and in front of him was his latest novel. It was a much heralded book, as yet not on sale in America, but its appearance was greatly looked forward to.
He looked up at Joe, his face showing his utter delight.
“How Joe? How did you get this here?” he said as he gently opened the pages, and glanced down at the words, as if not able to believe what he was seeing.
“Had it imported here from England, as a special consignment. It took a bit of doing, and a few extra dollars, but I managed it.” said Joe.
The few extra dollars had infact nearly cleared him of all his savings, but that was something he would never admit.
Hoss whistled at the sight.
“You ain’t been robbing another bank have you Joe?” he said, his voice teasing.
Joe looked up at his big brother, and shook his head with a laugh.
“Nope big brother. You and I finished bank robbing a long time ago.”
The two brothers laughed at the memory of that time, when they had actually robbed the Virginia City Bank, one of their legendary escapades.
Joe looked back at Adam.
“You sure you like it? Had the leather done special in New York. You do like it don’t you Adam?” his voice showed a slight nervousness.
Adam looked up, his eyes bright, and his face beaming. He nodded, unable to say the words for fear of letting his emotions carry him away.
“Have a look on the back page Adam.”
Adam carefully turned the book to the last page of the flyleaf and stared, his eyes widening and his mouth open.
“What is it Adam?” said Hoss, as he and Ben tried to look down on the writing that was clearly visible.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Adam cleared his throat. Swallowing hard, he read the words written with such clarity.
“To Adam Cartwright. A honorable man, with excellent taste for the finest novels.
With best wishes, Charles Dickens.”
There was silence as the three men stared at Joe, who blushed red.
“Took some persuading, but I wrote him a letter, telling him how Adam saved my life, and how I wanted his birthday gift to be special. Seems he was persuaded.”
Ben and Hoss sat, delighted and in awe of the youngest Cartwright. He had chosen a wonderful and most suitable present for his brother. Adam was struck dumb. Never had he expected or thought of such a gift, and he was overcome. Tears actually ran down his face. For once Adam Cartwright showed his emotions, and he unashamedly cried.
With a whoop of laughter, Hoss grabbed his little brother by the hand and shook it wildly.
“You gone and done it Joe! Doggone it. You have done it! You made Adam cry.”
The whole family then started to laugh with Hoss, even Adam.
Adam stood up, carefully placing his newly acquired treasure on the table. He put his arm around Joe’s neck, and looked into his eyes.
“Thanks Joe. I’ll never forget this moment, ever.”
“You deserve it Adam. More than you’ll ever know.”
The two brothers smiled and then pulled away. Ben brought forward the brandy bottle and proceeded to refill the glasses. He handed a glass to each of his sons.
“A toast” he uttered, “To Adam, happy birthday.”
“Adam” they said in unison, then downed their drinks. Adam picked up the brandy and refilled the glasses.
“Another toast,” he said. “To Mr Charles Dickens and my brother Joe.”
With tears in his eyes, Adam looked at Joe as he and his father and Hoss raised their glasses.
Joe stared back, his face shining, though deep in the back of his mind he thought how this was probably the last time they would be standing here; the whole family toasting each other, so happy together. A rush of guilt swept over him, and he forced out a smile, though inside he felt like weeping.
It was now early April. The winter had lost its battle to remain. The snow had melted, the days were longer, and the weather was warm. It was spring!
Hearing the sound of his family walking down the stairs, ready for another day, Joe moved over to his bedroom window. Each day he had looked out at the view, and now he could not help but notice how the season had changed. Winter was well and truly over, and his day of decision loomed ever closer. His mind had not changed; his dream was still as strong.
There had been days when he had wanted to blurt it out, but each time he just could not say the words. He had grown slightly tense and irritable, a fact that was not lost on his family. They could not fathom out what was wrong with Joe, so would leave him alone when they knew his mood was as black as Adam’s hat. Joe hated himself when he felt so moody, knowing it was nothing his family had done. It was him! He knew it, and that only served to make him feel worse.
Now fully fit, the events of the previous autumn were a distant memory to Joe, but he felt there was no such respite for Adam. Adam too had been moody at times, retiring early most evenings to read in his room, not wishing to discuss what was on his mind.
Many times Joe had caught Adam staring at him. When Joe had looked at him he would turn his eyes away, but not before Joe saw the sad and unhappy reflection of his inner thoughts. The birthday gift for Adam had been such a success, and Joe was sure Adam would of understood all was forgotten and a line had been drawn under the affair. Obviously his brother still could not forgive himself.
Walking slowly down the stairs, Joe looked at the three men at the table. They were already eating, and as Joe came across the room, looked up.
“Morning Joe.” said Adam and Hoss together.
“Morning son.” said Ben, noting the serious face of his youngest. What mood was he in today, he thought.
“Morning.” replied Joe as he sat down, and poured himself a coffee.
“Anything special to do today Pa?” he asked, looking over at his father.
Shaking his head, Ben smiled softly.
“There’s nothing special son. You got something planned?”
Joe pondered for a minute. He shook his head,
“If there’s nothing needing immediate attention, I felt like having a ride up to the lake, give Cochise a good run. Seems months since I had a chance to look round up there.”
“OK Joe.” said his father, as he watched his youngest dive into a plate of scrambled eggs. Joe with an appetite was always a good sign.
“Thanks Pa. I won’t be too late back.” he replied, then began eating his breakfast.
The meal was soon finished and Joe rose from the table, making his way to the front door, collecting his firearm, coat and hat. With a quick goodbye to the family, he opened the door and went outside, taking a deep breath as he closed the door behind him. Today was a good day, a fine day to say goodbye to the ranch he had known all his life. His mind had been made up the night before. Tonight he would tell the family he was leaving the Ponderosa.
Guiding the saddled Cochise into the yard, he carefully mounted, still aware of a faint ache in his injured shoulder, and he slowly walked his horse behind the barn towards the lake that dominated one edge of the ranch. It was after about five minutes of walking Cochise, that he realized there was the sound of a horse cantering behind him. He looked round and was surprised to see Adam. His brother pulled up by his side.
“Mind if I join you?” he said as Sport snorted and pulled at his reins, “I think Sport could do with a good run as well.”
Joe nodded, silently relieved Adam had joined him. In an instance he knew this was the ideal opportunity to tell Adam first off he was leaving. Adam would understand more than his Pa, or Hoss, and would be a helpful ally.
The two brothers walked their horses for a while, not talking, but just taking in the scenery, and enjoying each others company. As they entered the acres of flat meadowland Joe stopped his horse and Adam followed suite, waiting for his brother’s lead. Hooking a leg over his saddle horn, Joe took a drink from his canteen, and then offered the water to Adam, who took a quick swig then passed it back. Replacing the cork, Joe tied the canteen back on his saddle, then removed his hat, running his fingers through his hair, before placing the tan Stetson back firmly on his head. Looking at his brother, a smile began to appear on the corner of his mouth. He unhooked his leg, placing it firmly back in the stirrup, took up the reins and gave a nod.
“You ready then Adam? Think you and that old nag can keep up with me and my paint?
With a chuckle Adam nodded, and pulled Sport in the direction Joe was facing.
“Ready when you are little brother” he shouted, and with a whoop, both horses sprung forward, the brothers kicking them on to a gallop, yelling as they flew across the flat expanse of meadow.
Racing against each other was something the Cartwright brothers had done since they could sit on a horse, and the competitive nature of each race never waned. There was nothing like the feel of strength in the horseflesh under them, the wind whistling as it tore through their hair, and the sound of hooves, echoing on the dark soil and green grass of the land. The horses flew along, enjoying the pace, the feel of their trusted masters guiding them, giving them the freedom to run as nature had intended.
Eventually the race ran its course, the two men slowly easing down on their mounts, bringing them to a easy walk, then stopping by a small copse of trees that stood on the shoreline of the lake. Blowing hard, the horses were grateful that their masters jumped down and led them to the waters edge where they were allowed to drink their fill.
The two brothers puffed as well at the exhilaration of the race, enjoying the feeling of freedom from the confines of the house and yard that had seemed like a prison at times during the long days of winter.
Having drunk their fill they tied the horses to the branches of a tree and the two men sat, gazing at the land before them.
“Sure is beautiful ain’t it Adam,” said Joe as they both stared over the horizon towards the Sierra Nevada, the high line still scattered with snow that glistened in the sunlight.
“Sure is.” answered Adam.
‘Now is the right time’ thought Joe, ‘now is the moment I tell Adam of my intention to leave.’
He took a deep breath to steady his nerves, ready to unload his burden, but was cut short as Adam coughed nervously.
“I have a confession Joe.”
Joe looked back at Adam and raised his eyebrows.
“You see Joe; I wanted to talk to you in private. That’s why I followed you today.”
“You ain’t still blaming yourself for this, are you?” Joe said, pointing at his left shoulder. “Because you have no need. I don’t hold any blame on you Adam. You do know that don’t you?”
“Oh Joe! If it were only that simple.” he said, shaking his head as he removed his hat, and holding it on his lap, closed his eyes as he rested his head on the tree trunk.
The sight of his brother looking so downhearted made Joe feel uneasy. He was the one wanting to bear his soul, yet it was his elder brother who seemed to be facing a dilemma. He stayed silent, waiting.
His eyes were closed, but as he began to speak Adam knew Joe was staring at him intently.
“I know over the years we’ve had our rows, our disagreements, usually about your irresponsible ways. Lately though I’ve noticed a change in you Joe. A good change.”
He opened his eyes, knowing his brother was watching him, following his every word.
“You have grown into a hardworking, trusted member of this family. Someone who I know is more than capable of taking care of this ranch. Someone I know can take my place.”
“What you mean Adam? What you getting at?” Joe asked, puzzled, unsure the way this conversation was leading.
With a deep sigh, Adam stood up and stared at the land, the Ponderosa that was in his vision and that stretched for miles and miles.
He looked down at his brother, noting how the expression on his face was so serious, so un-Joe like.
He moved in front of him, sticking his fingers in his belt, and he looked down.
“I know I said I wouldn’t, Joe, but its been nagging me, nearly killing me inside over this past winter. I’m going to leave Joe. I have to follow my dream and go back east.”
To say Joe was surprised at his statement would be an understatement. A cold feeling of dread hit him, and he noticeably paled. Adam saw how his face seemed to lose its color, and quickly bent down placing his hand on Joe’s knee.
“I’m real sorry Joe. I know you don’t want me to go, but its something I just got to do.”
Joe continued to stare into his brother’s face, speechless. All this time Adam had been planning to leave, just as he had been. Both had desired to follow their dreams, but now there was a change. One Cartwright could leave, but two? Adam took Joe’s silence as an indication of his unhappiness at Adam leaving the family.
“You’ve got to understand Joe. I’ve tried to fight against this feeling, tried to push it away, but I can’t. I have to follow my dream Joe, or I think I’ll just tear myself apart.”
The unhappiness in his voice was enough to shake Joe, who slowly stood up and walked a few yards from his brother, staring all the while at the mountains in the distance. His eyes began to water, and he bit his lip to control his emotions.
His dream to leave suddenly started to crumble before his eyes. He knew if he told Adam that it was his desire, his dream to leave, then Adam would stay. Such was the nature and brotherly love of Adam that he would willingly give up his dream so Joe could follow his.
There was no way both brothers could depart the Ponderosa. The effect of one of them leaving would be hard enough for Ben and Hoss. But for two to leave? Well, he could not even contemplate the consequences of such an event.
He turned round and saw that Adam had sat down again, his hands stroking his hat, and his eyes staring at him, his whole body tense.
“I don’t blame you if you say you hate me for this Joe. Heaven knows how Pa and Hoss are going to react, but I had to tell you first as its gonna hit you the hardest. You’re the one who will have to shoulder most of the work. I know Hoss is able to do the physical things, but you’re going to have to take my place as Pa’s right hand man. It ain’t gonna be easy I know, and if I didn’t think you were more than capable, well, I guess I would have bit the bullet and stayed here, regardless.”
“I could never hate you Adam.” Joe answered honestly.
He walked over and sat down beside his brother.
“You been thinking this through for a long time, ain’t you Adam?”
Sighing deeply Adam nodded.
“I thought after you recovered last year, I could keep up this pretence of wanting this life, never leaving the ranch. But I guess some things are just not meant to be.”
“When you going to leave?” Joe’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“Thought I’d stay until autumn, give me time to make contacts back east, decide where my future is going to be.”
“You sure this is what you really want Adam?”
Adam could hear the sadness in his voice, knew his brother was hurting, yet was comforted by the calm way Joe had taken his news. He had imagined shouting, lost temper, criticism, and most of all anger, but none seemed to be forthcoming.
“Oh yes Joe. I now realize this desire has just laid dormant since I went to college, only I haven’t had the strength or been brave enough to admit it to myself. Now I know. Its my dream and I have got to see it through.”
Joe lent back on the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes. All it would take would be one sentence from him. ‘I want to leave and follow my own dream’ and Adam would stay.
Joe thought back to the events of Montpelier Gorge. He had wanted to pay Adam back for saving his life, had thought the gift on his birthday was enough. Now he knew different. Adam had given him back his life that day, now it was his turn to return the favor. Joe would give Adam his life, to play out the way he wanted, without fuss, argument or bad feeling. Inside he felt his heart was breaking, but a resolute Joe knew that love for his brother came before any self-centered thoughts of his own desires.
“We will miss you. Heaven knows, we will miss you.” he said, “This will always be your home though Adam, whenever you feel the need to return.”
Adam continued to stare at the young man beside him. When had he grown up from being the rebellious and insolent teenager to this understanding and intelligent man? A man of whom Adam was truly proud.
A tear appeared in the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek. Brushing it away, he sniffed loudly, the talk with Joe making him feel that a great burden had been lifted from him. He felt more at peace than he had done for months.
“When you gonna tell Pa?”
“Guess it will have to be tonight, now you know. No point in keeping it a secret.”
Joe nodded his agreement to the statement. He felt physically sick as the news from Adam began to sink in more and more. For months his mind had been on leaving and now, in an instance, he had to stay. He clenched his hands, not wishing his emotions to run away with him. Under no circumstances must Adam, Hoss or his father ever know about his desire to leave; it was a secret dream that must stay with him, and him alone.
The two men sat silently, looking towards the distant mountains, each deep in their own thoughts. Joe at last broke the silence.
“You really think I can do your job Adam?”
Joe looked towards his brother who had a look of contentment that had been sadly missing for such a long time.
“Honestly Joe? I think you have the capability to do my job better than I ever did.”
“Thanks Adam. Coming from you that means a lot.”
With a slight smile on his face, Adam stood up, and turning towards Joe, put out his hand. His brother took hold, and allowed himself to be pulled up. The two men stood together for a moment.
“You think we should be getting back? Pa’s bound to start worrying if we’re late. And besides, you have to tell them you’re leaving.”
“Don’t remind me little brother. If you only knew how many times I have rehearsed that moment.”
Adam’s voice betrayed the nervous feeling inside him.
Within himself Joe thought how he knew that feeling only too well. He had rehearsed the exact same scene over the past months, but now he would not require the words that had gone round and round in his head for such a long time. It would be Adam sat in the ranch house, gently explaining how he needed to make his own way, his own life and his own dreams. He would go and Joe would stay.
They unhooked the reins of their horses and mounted, slowly turning their backs on the blue shimmering lake.
“You OK Joe?” said Adam as he had noted his downcast face, his silence.
Looking across at concerned brown eyes, he shrugged.
“Felt better, but I’ll get over it.”
Nodding, Adam stayed silent, realizing his brother was hurting.
“Do you think I was meant to stay here, run the Ponderosa, Adam?”
“What do you mean Joe?”
“Well, do you think I could have a future away from here, have another life?”
Adam pulled up Sport and Joe stopped as well, glancing back at his brother who was studying him closely.
“Is that what you want Joe? Do you want to leave?”
Joe took a deep breath. How could he answer?
Adam grabbed hold of Joe’s arm, and stared into his deep green eyes.
“Joe! Tell me! Is that what you want?” His voice demanded an answer.
It was now or never thought Joe. He swallowed hard, and then found the strength inside himself to do the most difficult thing he had ever done. He deliberately lied to his brother.
“Of course not! Just wondered if you could see me doing anything else?” He forced out a smile, a true Joe smile that could fool anyone, even Adam.
Adam removed his hand from Joe, and then shook his head.
“You really had me going there brother.” Adam continued “As for leaving. I daresay you could do anything you set your mind to, but to be honest Joe, I reckon your place is always going to be on the Ponderosa. You belong here; it runs in your blood. This is your life, your world, your dream. Don’t you agree?”
“Of course it is! Just like to hear you say it, big brother.” he grinned back.
Kicking on Cochise, Joe made the paint jump forward, cantering off, leaving his brother in his wake. He needed to get away from those piercing brown eyes before they saw through his charade, his own eyes glistening with tears.
Adam continued to watch his brother as he moved further away. For a split second he had thought the unthinkable, had thought Joe too had wanted to go and seek out a different life. Surely not, he mused. Not Joe!
In the distance he could hear his brother calling him.
“You coming Adam? Give you another race home.”
Shaking all thoughts of Joe from his mind, Adam kicked on the prancing Sport, and raced after his brother.
That evening on the Ponderosa was tense and sad. Adam told his father and Hoss his decision. They were stunned, but in truth, Ben was not really surprised. In his heart he had always know Adam was different to his other two sons, had always seen horizons far from the confines of Nevada. He gave him his unconditional blessing.
Hoss was naturally upset but was also not entirely surprised at his brother’s decision. He was more surprised at Joe though. His calm acceptance and support of Adam was a revelation that his baby brother had turned from a feisty and confrontational individual into a mature and sensible young man.
It was nearly midnight, and the yawning of all men indicated it was well and truly time to retire. Ben, Adam and Hoss stood up and made their way to the stairs.
“You coming up Joe?” inquired Ben, who noted his son had not moved from the settee.
Joe looked up giving his father a quick smile.
“Sure Pa. Just gonna sit here for a minute. I’ll be up directly.”
Ben nodded, and continued up the stairs.
Joe heard the sound of the three bedroom doors closing and stood up, unable to suppress a yawn. Stretching out his arms, he yawned again, then turned to face the far side of the room. He walked over, staring at the map. The Ponderosa! He signed deeply.
Over the past months he had often studied the map, his fathers dream. Now he was staying, and it would have to be his dream as well. He looked around the room. ‘Maybe it won’t be so bad’, he thought. Adam had said he thought his brother could do anything, if he set his mind to it. ‘Guess I will just have to prove him right.’
He thought of the happiness on Adam’s face as his father had held him and told him he understood and he could leave without any recriminations, any bad feeling. That sight was worth any heartache Joe had felt.
With a lighthearted feeling, not felt for many months, Joe made his way up the stairs.
As he reached the top, he looked back down into the large room, glowing with the dying embers of the fire in the huge hearth. With a smile he whispered in the still of the night,
“You better listen good Ponderosa. Joe Cartwright is here to stay, for better or worse. You’ve got me to answer to now!”
With a chuckle, he turned onto the landing and went into his room, quietly closing the door behind him.
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