Prequel. After Adam returns to the Ponderosa from college, Joe harbors a lot of jealousy of Adam and it colors all of his interactions with his oldest brother. The trip home from a cattle drive and a series of unfortunate events will begin healing the rift between the brothers.
WC = 8613 Rating: T
Just the Way They Are
Dismounting from Cochise, Joe walked over to where Adam was working on the forge. It was a hot day and he had his shirt hanging over the corral fence as he worked on bending some metal for a wagon wheel. Joe had been reminded the day before about the small scar that Adam had on his upper back, and that was visible when he had his shirt off. The scar tissue never tanned and stood out against his dark skin. Joe called his brother’s name and tossed a small object to him when he looked up. Adam fingered the arrowhead in his hand and looked up at Joe again wondering what the significance of it was.
“I was cleaning up that old lineshack to the far northwest. Decided that the fireplace needed some work so I cleaned it out so I could reset some of the stones. I found that stuck in the back corner. Pa threw it there when he pulled it out of your back. It got stuck between two of the stones, and I guess it’s been there ever since.”
“Joe, I hardly remember that trip. Bits and pieces but not much more.”
“A lot went wrong on that trip.”
“And a lot went right.”
“I remember it well. It was the trip when I had to start growing up.”
With a cheeky grin, Adam had to ask. “When do you suppose you’ll be done with that?”
With a scowl, Joe was eyeing up the bucket of water standing next to the forge when Hoss walked out of the stable with their father. Ben saw where Joe was looking and stopped. If there was someone who was going to get wet, he didn’t want to be standing too close. When his sons were younger, he had tried to intervene in these shenanigans and only managed to make them more resentful of whatever slight one might hold against another. He was beginning to enjoy sitting back and watching their stunts.
Hoss had noticed what Joe was doing as well. “Yup, Joe, our older brother here has been working so hard out here in the hot sun in the dusty yard with the dry wind blowing in his face. Maybe you oughta think on how you could be a help to him.”
“I was thinking just that, Hoss.” Joe picked up the bucket and heaved the contents all over Hoss.
“Hey, why me? I was just standing here minding my own business.”
Adam grinned. “Yeah, like reminding him of that day we both ended up in the horse trough was minding your own business.”
Dripping water and wiping his face with his hand, Hoss looked as innocent as he could. “What? Me? Adam, how can you be so vengeful like thinking on something that happened so long ago? Aw heck, I needed to change clothes anyway. Hey, what ya got there?”
“The arrowhead Pa pulled out of my back up at the Paiute Creek lineshack. Joe found it still in that fireplace.”
Soon all four men were remembering what had happened nearly fifteen years earlier. They especially remembered how all the trouble began.
“Hurry up, Little Joe. Pa wants us to get going. There’s a lot of sick people in the town here.” Hoss picked up the four bedrolls and headed to the horses.
Quickly, ten-year-old Joe poured the water that had been boiled into the canteens. Because he spilled quite a bit in his haste, he didn’t have enough to fill the last of the four canteens. Because it was Adam’s, he grabbed water that was still in the bucket and quickly filled his brother’s canteen too. He set it down near the coals so it would be warm like the others. Then he packed the kettle and frying pan into the sack of utensils, and he put the bags of beans and coffee into the food sack. Satisfied that he had completed his tasks as ordered by his father, he poured the rest of the water from the bucket onto the coals before putting the bucket back by the well. After he picked up the two sacks and the four canteens, he trudged to the horses. Adam had saddled his horse and he gave a grudging, insincere thank you for that. Ben was about to remonstrate with Joe again, but Adam gave him a shake of the head. Having their father intercede hadn’t helped their relationship so far. Another episode was as likely to make it worse as it was to bring about any improvement.
After completing a cattle drive, the family was on the way home. Ben had told his sons that he thought they could be home in four more days, perhaps three if all went well. They had hoped to get rooms in this small town, but there was some sort of epidemic sweeping through the community. Instead, they had found a small farm just down the slope from the town and camped there. Water was scarce with a drought that had lasted for months in California. The well at the farm seemed to be a blessing, but Ben had said they would only use water that had been boiled. He knew Paul Martin suggested that whenever there was an outbreak of disease. No one knew why boiling the water helped, but it usually did. It was Little Joe’s job that morning to boil the water to fill the canteens as the rest of the family packed up the camp and got the horses ready. Ben didn’t tell him why. He only told him to do it. Even that small task irritated Little Joe because he had to fill Adam’s canteen for him.
Only a few months earlier, Adam had returned from college. He had expected his family to welcome him home and wasn’t disappointed. But Little Joe had quickly turned negative. He resented any instructions and orders from his oldest brother. He didn’t seem to think that Adam had a right to tell him anything. Whenever Ben backed up Adam, which was most of the time, Little Joe got even surlier.
This cattle drive was supposed to help improve the family dynamics, but it had been more of the same with Little Joe resenting that Adam stepped into the job of ramrod without having to first ride drag and do all the other chores like Little Joe was told he had to do to earn his place. Little Joe was very tired of hearing stories about all the work that Adam had done when he was Little Joe’s age, and how he had been ramrod on two drives before he was eighteen years old. Then Adam had left for college returning four years later. Little Joe could hardly remember him, and the memories he had were of a boy and not a man.
There was smoldering resentment in Little Joe every time his oldest brother talked to his father like a partner instead of as a son. And he did think of Ben Cartwright as his father and not as Adam’s father. He and Hoss couldn’t talk with their father that way. Little Joe had a lot of his father’s attention for four years, and that some of that time was now spent on Adam was irritating to the boy. So when Adam told him anything, it was all Little Joe could do to hold down his rage although quite a bit of the anger did seem to get into his responses to his brother anyway. Sometimes Adam just walked away from Little Joe as if he couldn’t be bothered with such a troublesome little brother. Each time he did that, resentment grew in Little Joe, but if only he had known how his attitude and his statements hurt his brother forcing him to turn away from the source of the pain. Adam often walked away because in his hurt, he was worried that he might say something mean or nasty. It was in his thoughts, and it wouldn’t have been very difficult to spew them out on his youngest brother. So he would turn and walk away when he felt his control slipping. He wasn’t always successful and had tossed out terms like spoiled and brat on more than one occasion. He regretted those words but he couldn’t take them back. As he thought about it though over the months, he knew there was some truth to what he had said but it had been in mean terms and not those meant to help. He wished for an opportunity to talk with Little Joe to try to mend their relationship, but there had not been a time when his meeting with his little brother had not been confrontational.
Hoss witnessed quite a few of those confrontations. He didn’t know how to help, but he did know that Little Joe probably knew he was doing something he shouldn’t because he rarely did it in front of their father. Hoss had hoped too that the cattle drive and working together would bring the brothers closer, but if anything, the separation was even more pronounced. Adam’s duties had often kept him away from Little Joe and the drag crew sometimes for days at a time. When Adam did ride back there, he often asked Hoss to ride with him. Hoss knew why. He would be there to make it less likely that Little Joe would lose his temper. He always tried to hold it in when Hoss was around. Even if he wasn’t entirely successful, the presence of the middle brother did make the confrontations between oldest and youngest more civil than they would likely have been otherwise.
When Little Joe handed out the canteens, Adam was going to say something about how the cover was dry. Little Joe should have wet them so that the water would cool as they rode. However, Adam knew that any comment from him was likely to start another verbal sparring match, so he let it go. Hoss wasn’t so tolerant.
“Dadburnit, Little Joe, the canteen’s warm and you didn’t even wet the outside. We’ll be drinking warm water all day.”
“Well, nobody told me I had to wet them. The water was boiling hot anyway. It’s going to be warm no matter what.”
“Little Joe, what I think your brother meant to say was didn’t you want to wet these down so the water could cool for all of us?”
“Yes, Pa. Sorry, Pa. But I emptied the bucket on the fire and there wasn’t any more water in the kettle.”
“Don’t you think that would have been a better answer to give your brother?”
“Aw, it’s all right. Like you said, it was boiling water so it’s gonna be warm anyway.”
As Ben led his sons on the ride away from the afflicted town and further up into the mountains, he felt sad. He had built the Ponderosa with Adam and Hoss, and now Little Joe was assuming some of the work too. However it would all be meaningless unless the family could be whole and not torn apart by the chasm between Adam and Little Joe. The more Ben thought about that, the more confused he was. Little Joe had been dependent on Adam before Adam left for college. While Adam was gone, he had talked about him a lot and treasured the letters that he received as well as the small gifts Adam was able to send. But when Adam had reappeared, Little Joe had seemed to change. Adam was different too, and Ben wondered if that had caused the rift between the two. Ben had no idea why they were at odds nor any idea on how to improve the situation. His talks with Little Joe only seemed to make things worse. All he could do was hope that his youngest son would gradually warm up to his oldest once again.
At noon, the group stopped to make a quick lunch of beans and bacon. Adam felt a bit queasy when he ate, and offered some of his meal to Hoss who willingly took the extra. Ben asked if he felt all right.
“I’m fine. Riding just didn’t give me much of an appetite, I guess. I’ve got to take care of some business, and I’ll be right back.” As Adam relieved himself, he noted that he felt nauseated if he looked down. He decided that he shouldn’t do that. It was rather warm for riding up into the mountains too, but at least he wasn’t cold. Hoss and the others were donning their jackets when he returned.
“Hey, Adam, ain’t ya gonna put on your jacket? The wind is a mite cool.”
“No, Hoss, I’m fine. I’ll keep it handy in case I get cold. Right now I feel fine.”
Hearing Adam say he was fine twice raised Ben’s concern. Adam always said he was fine when he wasn’t. He looked all right though, but Ben noted that he hadn’t eaten much and now was too warm to wear his jacket. He watched Adam the rest of the afternoon as he rode up ahead leading the way but saw nothing out of the ordinary. But Ben was even more concerned when Adam said he wasn’t hungry when they stopped to camp for the night. He volunteered to care for the horses while the others ate. When Adam stretched out his bedroll, Ben put his down next to it.
“Are you feeling all right? You haven’t eaten hardly anything since breakfast.”
“I guess I might have eaten something that didn’t agree with me. I’ll be fine tomorrow.” With that, Adam lay back and closed his eyes. Ben noted that he didn’t pull the blanket over him even though the night was chilly. He reached out a hand and touched Adam’s forehead. Adam wanted to push the hand away, but he knew that would only make his father more determined to fuss over him.
“You’re very warm. I think you may be running a fever.”
“All the more reason to get to sleep so we can get an early start tomorrow. Once I get home, Hop Sing will likely have some vile concoction for me to drink if I’m not feeling better by then.”
As Ben realized there was nothing he could do but worry, he leaned back on his saddle to try to sleep. Across the fire, Little Joe was laying on his bedroll next to Hoss. He had seen the tender gesture his father had made to Adam before they both lay back to sleep. He was upset that his father had not done that for him. He fell asleep plotting things he could do to get even with Adam for that. He didn’t realize that his jealousy had changed him so much. Hoss knew but didn’t know how to tell Little Joe. He fell asleep worrying about his two brothers because he suspected, as did their father, that Adam was getting sick. That was a scary thought up here in the mountains so far from help. He worried too about Little Joe and that he might do something he would forever regret if he couldn’t face up to his feelings about sharing their father with Adam and accepting that Adam was a man now with the privileges that went with that.
In the morning, Adam ate nothing. Ben walked up beside him as he saddled his horse.
“I can brew some tea if you think that would help.”
“At this point, I think getting home is the only thing that will help.”
“Keep sipping water then. You can go without food for a time, but you have to have water. If you sip small amounts frequently, you should be able to keep it down.” Adam looked up at his father wondering how he knew he had retched that morning. “I followed you to make sure you didn’t fall over out there. You’re sick. You need to tell us if you need to stop today. I have a feeling that may happen a bit often. We’ll try for the Paiute Creek lineshack. At least you can rest more comfortably tonight.”
“I’d rather just get home.”
“I know you would, but this may slow us down some.” Seeing Adam’s dark look, Ben had to add one assurance. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home.” Adam nodded and immediately regretted that. His nausea was now compounded by a throbbing headache made worse if he looked down or did something like nodding. He closed his eyes and leaned against his horse until the pain subsided. Ben stepped to him and put a hand on his shoulder squeezing gently to comfort his son.
Standing next to his horse, Little Joe saw that and got angry. His father hadn’t spent any time with him in the past day but seemed to find lots of time to spend with his oldest brother. Little Joe had slept next to Hoss who snored, eaten breakfast with Hoss as Ben followed Adam out of their little camp, and now Ben was spending any remaining time with Adam before they started riding. It all seemed so unfair to the boy. The more his jealousy grew, the more he was able to make every action of his older brother a major impediment to his own happiness and the more his common sense abandoned him. As the day progressed, Little Joe got more irritated with Adam. Ben had said they could get home in three days if all went well, but Adam kept asking them to stop. He would go off into the bushes or behind a tree. He again skipped lunch sitting away from all of them and sipping water from his canteen. He didn’t talk with anyone and any query sent his way got a rather sullen response. Joe couldn’t understand why his father didn’t say something to Adam but instead looked at him with concern. The afternoon was more of the same until Little Joe called out to Adam as he rode behind the other three.
“Hurry up, grandma. You’re riding like a little old lady. We aren’t ever going to get home as slow as you’re going.”
Hoss pulled up his horse and waited until Little Joe was beside him. Ben had halted too and was looking angrily at his youngest son. “Little Joe, you best keep your mouth shut if that’s all you can say. Now, ride ahead of me behind Pa. I’ll keep an eye on Adam.”
“That’s just great! Now you’re taking his side against me too.” With that, Little Joe kicked his horse into a faster trot and moved up the trail before Hoss could say anything more.
Adam rode up next to Hoss then. Hoss looked over at him and saw the sheen of sweat on his face as well as the pale countenance.
“How you feeling, and don’t say fine?”
“About the same. I’m looking forward to that lineshack and a chance to rest. You know I’m going as fast as I can?”
“I know it. Little Joe just don’t understand the situation.”
“I wish I did.” Hoss understood the double meaning of that statement. “Let’s go before he gets more upset than he already is. He could do something stupid if he gets too upset.”
“Yeah, and he’s been real good at stupid these last couple of months.”
“Just give it some time, Hoss. When I got home, I shook up his world. He needs time to get used to things being different.”
“I think there’s more too it than that. I jest can never get him to tell me.”
Then Adam asked Hoss to call a halt as he needed to head into the trees again. With only water, his stomach was less rebellious than the day before, but he was needing to empty himself every hour or so. The cramping from that was more of a problem by that time than either the nausea or the headache although all three were a very unpleasant combination. He knew he had a fever as well but so far that wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately that changed for the worse in the afternoon when rain began to drizzle on them and then that mixed with intermittent downpours accompanied by gusty winds. Even with their slickers, they were getting wet because the wind drove the rain into any opening and wet their legs with some water managing to make its way into their boots during the heaviest rain when even visibility was a problem. Their pace slowed and it was dusk before they neared the lineshack. Once there, Ben told Adam to go inside while he took care of the horses with Hoss and Little Joe. Little Joe was going to object but a look from Ben stopped him from saying anything. As Adam walked to the shack, he stumbled and nearly fell.
“Pa, you go on in with Adam. Little Joe and me can handle the horses while you get a fire going.”
Grateful and nodding in agreement, Ben took the sacks of utensils and food as well as the four bedrolls and headed inside. Once he was inside, he told Adam to sit at the table. That Adam did that without protesting just as he had gone inside without arguing had Ben more worried than ever. He helped Adam remove his slicker and was dismayed to find him thoroughly drenched. Apparently whatever the rain hadn’t gotten wet, sweating had.
“Adam, I’m going to start a fire to warm this place up, and you need to get out of those wet things. Just get everything off, and we’ll drape it all on a line as soon as Hoss gets in here to help me string one.”
Without responding, Adam methodically began opening buttons slipping off his shirt, his boots, and then his pants. Ben was back to help him at that point. He picked up Adam’s bedroll and guided his eldest son to the single cot in the room. He spread out the bedroll and told him to lie down. Then he put the blanket over him.
“Rest, Adam. I’ll get some broth going as soon as I can.” He saw his son grimace at those words and knew the nausea was still a major problem.
“Maybe just some water, Pa. I’m so thirsty. There’s still some water in my canteen.”
At that point, Hoss walked into the shack with two saddles, and Little Joe had his saddle and the four canteens. Hoss went back out to get the last saddle as Ben told Little Joe where to put the others. Little Joe was shocked that while he and Hoss as well as their father had been working, Adam was laying down.
“There’s only one bed in here. Why does he get it?”
Hoss had returned by that time and pushed Little Joe back away from where their father was softly talking to Adam. “Cause he’s sick, that’s why. Now we gotta get all these wet things spread out so they can dry. I’m going to dry the rifles and pistols. You can wipe the saddles down.”
“Whadya mean, sick?”
“He ain’t been eating and when he did, he retched it all up. He’s been going in the woods cause he had that problem too. He’s so weak he had a hard time staying in the saddle by later today. We’re lucky this shack is here. We woulda had to make a shelter of some kind otherwise, and in this rain, that woulda been awful hard to do.”
Walking over to his younger sons, Ben looked very worried. “He thought might have been something he ate, but he’s getting worse even though he’s not eating anything.”
“Maybe some broth?”
“I already offered and he doesn’t want anything except water.” Picking up Adam’s canteen, Ben shook it. “Not much left in here. We’ll need to boil more water.”
“Ya think we still got to boil it? We’re a long way from that town where them people was sick.”
“I know, but Paul Martin thinks that boiling water helps when people are sick. He said he doesn’t know why, but that there might be something in the water sometimes that makes people sick.”
Startling his father and his brother, Little Joe grabbed Adam’s canteen from his father. “Here, use mine. I got a lot of water left in it.” Surprised but pleased that Little Joe wanted to share with Adam, Ben took the canteen and walked back to Adam helping him sip some water before Adam closed his eyes again. Little Joe was very quiet the rest of the evening as they prepared some food and did their best to dry the things that were wet or damp. Finally it was time to go to sleep except Ben pulled a chair next to the bed and sat by Adam’s side instead.
“Pa, ya gotta get some rest.”
“Hoss, I’ll rest but I’m not sleeping until Adam starts to improve. His fever is worse. For now, I want to be here if he needs anything.”
“Pa, wake me in a few hours. We can take turns.”
“Thank you, Hoss. I may just do that.”
Slowly walking up next to Hoss, Little Joe had a suggestion. “Pa, maybe we ought to say a prayer for Adam so he gets better.” Ben nodded and took each of his sons by a hand as he said a quick and fervent prayer for Adam to recover quickly. Then he told the two to get some sleep. Hoss fell asleep almost immediately. It had been a long and exhausting day with the ride, the rain, and the worry. Little Joe couldn’t sleep though. Guilt was eating him up. Finally he couldn’t avoid it any longer. He walked to his father’s side.
“Ah, Little Joe, you surprised me. I thought the two of you were sleeping.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Worried about your brother? I know that you love him even if the two of you haven’t been getting along so well.”
“Pa, that ain’t it. Pa, I made Adam sick, I think.”
“Little Joe, how could you have made Adam sick?” Ben was skeptical but Little Joe seemed so sincere and worried, he had to hear him out.
“Pa, I didn’t put the boiled water in Adam’s canteen. I put water straight from the bucket into his.”
Shocked, Ben stared for a moment. “Why would you do that? I expressly ordered you to boil water and fill the canteens. It was all you had to do. Why would you do that to your brother? Why would you take that kind of risk of his health? Why?”
“I forgot until tonight why we boiled water sometimes. I was in a hurry and I spilled some. Hoss was yelling that it was time to get going so I just filled Adam’s with water from the bucket. It seemed fine. I didn’t know it would make him sick.”
“Little Joe, go lay down. I don’t want to talk with you right now. Anything I say would be in anger, and I don’t want to disturb Adam’s rest. Now go.”
Trudging back to his bedroll, Little Joe was chagrined to see that Hoss was awake. The look he gave Little Joe indicated quite clearly that he had heard the conversation. Hoss rolled over positioning his back to Little Joe. He didn’t want to talk with him right then either.
During the night, Hoss woke to his father’s low murmured words and moans from Adam. He quickly moved to the bed to find out what was wrong. Adam was bent and clutching his abdomen. Ben had a hand on his shoulder talking softly with him and getting only slight head shakes for answers.
“I think he needs to go, and we have nothing in here to use. We’ll have to get him outside.”
“It’s still raining a little, but the wind’s died down to nothing. I’ll go hang a tarp by the lean-to where the horses are. I can use some of the grass we pulled for em last night. It’ll be all right, Pa. You help Adam, and I’ll go get ready.”
About a half hour later, Hoss and Ben got Adam back into the bed and covered. He was shivering then but they didn’t know if it was the chills or if he had been that chilled by being outside with only a blanket wrapped around him. It seemed that whatever it was, he was more comfortable as soon as they got another warm blanket around him. He closed his eyes to sleep and soon his soft regular breathing announced that he was resting comfortably.
“You should get some sleep now, Pa. Adam should be fine for a few hours. You know I’ll wake ya ifn I need your help with him.”
Ben reluctantly agreed. He needed to be strong enough for all three sons. When he woke in the morning, Hoss was fixing some coffee and some broth.
“Adam said he wouldn’t mind trying some broth. I wish we had something fresher than jerky to make it with but that ain’t likely. He knows what I’m doing.”
Thanking Hoss, Ben moved to the chair by Adam who had opened his eyes after hearing Hoss talk. Though still very pale and with that sheen of sweat on his face, Adam did look better. He looked more alert and his eyes weren’t so glassy looking.
“Looks like you’re getting better. We can stay here for a day or two until you’re strong enough to ride home.”
Nodding, Adam reached out for Ben’s hand. “Don’t be too hard on Little Joe, Pa. He didn’t know what would happen. None of us knew the water was bad.”
“Oh, so you heard that last night.”
“I did. I was too tired to open my eyes and say anything then. I’m glad I was because I might have said something I would have to apologize for today.”
“Little Joe will be the one apologizing.”
“Pa, no. Let it go, and let Little Joe say to me what he needs to say when he’s ready to say it. There’s been enough trouble between us. I don’t want any more.” Adam could see Ben considering his words. “If he doesn’t say something about it in the next few days, I’ll tell you, and you can handle it any way you want. Give him a few days though. Please?”
Smiling, Ben nodded. “Although I really don’t think I need your permission to handle it any way I want.”
Adam grinned, and it was the most beautiful sight Ben could imagine seeing on this morning. Adam had to be recovering if he could talk like that and grin about it. Hoss was there with a cup of broth then. Adam began sipping it, and looked up to Hoss after a bit earning a smile when he gave his big brother a thumbs up.
Ben went over to wake Little Joe. He sat up rubbing his eyes wishing he could sleep more. Then he remembered where he was and why. For the rest of that day, Little Joe was quiet. By early evening, he offered to help with dinner. Hoss had managed to snare a rabbit so they were going to have some very basic stew with biscuits.
“Pa, I wish it wasn’t Adam who was sick.”
“Hoss why would you say that?”
“Adam makes better biscuits than the rest of us.”
Ben had to chuckle. Hoss was more focused on good food than anyone. Stewed rabbit with biscuits probably sounded good to him. Ben would rather have roasted the rabbit, but Adam wasn’t ready for that kind of meal yet. However, if he could eat some stewed rabbit and a biscuit, then they might be able to head home the next day. There was another line shack about a day’s ride from where they were. The plan was to go there next. Then the day after that if all went well, they could cover the last miles to home. Adam did manage to eat some of the stewed rabbit and half a biscuit before stopping. Ben knew that encouraging him to eat more was not a good idea. They kept the stew simmering adding water periodically and would have it for breakfast. Ben put a biscuit on the chair next to the bed for Adam if he chose to eat more. He didn’t then because he fell asleep soon after eating. During the night when Ben got up to take care of necessary business, he saw that the biscuit was gone. Adam must have awakened and eaten it. Things were certainly looking up.
In the morning, they had breakfast, and Adam declared he was ready to ride. He knew how much all of them wanted to get home. Ben didn’t think he looked ready, but he wanted to get moving too. He had felt uneasy for the last day with a feeling that they were being watched. Every time he went out the back door to check on the horses in their lean-to, he had a feeling that someone or something was very close. He kept a hand on his pistol and this morning carried his rifle when he went out. Hoss saw him and followed him to the horses with two more saddles.
“Pa, you worried about something?”
“Just my nerves, I guess. I’ve had this feeling we’re being watched.”
“Not just your nerves, Pa. I’ve had that feeling since I was out getting that rabbit yesterday. I kept thinking I saw something moving, but when I looked directly at a spot, there was nothing there.”
“You think it’s a cougar?”
“I think it might be two-legged ones. Pa, let’s not use the front door of the lineshack. We’ll take everything back here and mount up and ride out when we’re all ready. With that cliff behind us, and the door opening the way it does, we’re pretty safe here. Somebody would have to be right at the corner there to do anything.”
“You’re right. I’ll go talk to Adam and Little Joe while you finish saddling the horses. Keep that rifle handy.”
As Ben stepped toward the shack, he heard his sons talking inside. Little Joe was cleaning up and packing away the utensils and food they had left while Adam was dressing.
“Adam, I’m real sorry about the water.”
“I accept your apology. You do know now why it’s important to boil the water sometimes?”
“Yes, and I never wanted you to be sick. It kinda scared me when you got so sick.”
“Why did it scare you?”
“Heck, you’re my brother. I was afraid you might die.”
“Would that bother you?”
“Of course it would.” Pausing and thinking a bit, Little Joe was sheepish. “I guess the way I’ve been acting, you might not know that. I’m real sorry about how I’ve been. It just seemed like Pa was giving you a lot of attention.”
“Little Joe, our Pa gives all of us a lot of attention, maybe sometimes too much.”
“You think that too?”
“He cares a lot about us. Pa lost three wives. It must make him worry about losing the ones he loves. Maybe because of that, he’s very protective especially of you.”
“He likes you best though.”
“Little Joe, why would you say that?”
“Cause one day I heard him when he told Roy that he spent a small fortune to send you to college. He doesn’t spend that kind of money on Hoss and me.”
“Was that the day I got back from college?” At Little Joe’s nod, Adam continued. “If you wanted to go to college when you’re old enough, Pa would send you.”
Little Joe wasn’t convinced. “Pa won’t even get me a new horse. I could really use a better horse if I’m going to work on the ranch with the cattle. I’d like to go along when the men round up wild horses, but Pa said I’m too young to be working with horses. He won’t teach me to shoot either.”
“Pa’s not that fond of horses or guns.”
“But he’s a rancher and he’s got guns.”
“Yes, but he was never fond of either. I guess it’s because he’s a sailor. I taught Hoss to shoot. I could teach you. I could teach you to work with the horses too.”
“Oh, gosh, Adam, that would be great.”
“We would have to start slow. You realize that, I hope. You would start out working with horses that were already broke, and you would learn to shoot with the small caliber rifle that Hoss had until he got a new one at fourteen.”
“Yes, I know that. Of course I know that. Thanks, Adam.”
After waiting for the two to finish their conversation and suppressing a grin, Ben stepped into the shack and explained to them what he and Hoss feared. Adam strapped on his pistol although he wasn’t sure he would be steady enough to hit anything. He picked up his rifle and made sure it was loaded and ready to use. He would be more likely to hit something with that if he had to shoot. As Ben stood talking with his sons, he saw Adam shivering. He took off his coat and removed his thick leather vest and handed it to Adam.
“I’m fine, Pa.”
“You’re cold, and I don’t need that with my coat on. You do. Wear it while it’s still warm. And put your coat on.”
Scowling at being ordered about, Adam did as requested. He thanked his father then because the warm leather vest did help. Adam shoved his gloves into this pocket and buttoned up his coat. He looked over at Little Joe who nodded.
“We’re ready whenever you are.”
They didn’t have to wait long for something to happen. As Adam waited for Hoss and Ben to lead the horses from the lean-to, he suddenly gasped and sagged into the wall of the shack. Little Joe looked at his brother beside him worried that he might be sicker than he had admitted when he saw an arrow protruding from his back. He reached for Adam to stop him from falling to the ground.
“Pa, Adam’s shot.”
Quickly at Adam’s side, Ben helped him back into the shack pushing Little Joe ahead of them. Adam slumped onto the bed. Ben reached for the shaft of the arrow and pulled causing Adam to groan in pain but luckily the arrow had not penetrated very deeply and was removed completely. Ben threw the offending projectile into the fireplace.
“Little Joe, help Adam. Do whatever he says.” Ben moved quickly to the back door to see if Hoss was safe.
“I’m right here, Pa. I got a good angle for anyone trying to come for our horses. That’s gotta be what they want. How bad is Adam?”
“It was shallow. Wearing two leather vests helped stop it from penetrating too much. I got it out on the first pull. I’ll watch the front then. I don’t think they want to come at us over all that open ground out there. Whoever shot Adam made a mistake.”
“Well, except we can’t get outta here either. They can’t get to us, and we can’t leave.”
“Yes, a stalemate. I have to think that these are very young ones trying to prove themselves. They’ve made some mistakes already, and it took this long for them to work up the courage to attack. Shooting at Adam from a distance was lucky for him and for us. But it shows their inexperience too. I don’t think they have any guns or we would have heard them by now. I’ll cover the front. You hold here, and we’ll see what happens next. Maybe we can wait them out.”
As Ben moved back inside the lineshack to take a position at the front door, he saw Little Joe helping Adam who still clutched his rifle. He had pulled off his coat and the two vests as well as his shirt. He had folded the shirt and had Little Joe holding it over he wound in his back. Adam had looked pale before but now Little Joe looked as pale, and he was shaking a little. Ben could hear Adam talking softly to him although through gritted teeth.
“It will be all right, Little Joe. It’s not a problem if you hurt me. It has to be done. It hurt a lot when Pa pulled out that arrow, but it would have been a lot worse if it had stayed in there.”
“But when I press down hard, you moan.”
“Little Joe, it hurts, but it has to be done. You need to help me stop the bleeding.”
“Adam, I don’t want to hurt you any more.”
After Ben cracked the front door and still saw no movement, he walked over to his sons. “Little Joe, Adam is right. You’re helping him. He knows it’s going to hurt some. He won’t be upset with you. Now if you could peek around the door and let me know if you see anything moving, I’ll bandage up Adam.”
Very willing to give up the job of helping Adam with his wound, Joe carefully peeked out the front door. He watched carefully but saw nothing moving. He heard Adam grunt and moan a few times. After it was quiet for a time, he looked back and his father was wrapping a strip of cloth around Adam’s chest with another piece up and over his shoulder to hold a wad of cloth over the wound.
“We’ll probably have to have Doc Martin take a look at that, but for now, the bleeding has almost stopped. Lay back and rest a bit now.”
“Pa, I can help.”
“If they attack, I’ll be counting on that, but for now we have three sets of eyes for watching so you can rest.”
Walking to the back door of the lineshack, Ben asked Hoss if he had seen any movement.
“Nope, Pa. I’m wondering if they left. Once they lost the chance to surprise us, I think they probably felt they couldn’t get what they wanted. I’m thinking we should wait just a short while and then ride hard and fast outta here.”
“I’m not sure Adam can ride hard and fast.”
“We’ll tie him to the saddle. I can hold a lead rope to keep his horse going if he has trouble. But I don’t want to be here when it gets dark. You said we should head to the next lineshack. I think that by now we might have some hands up there in those pastures moving the herd down for the fall. If we could get that far, we probably would have some help.”
“That’s a lot of hard riding for a man who was sick and now has a wound.”
“If we stay here, they’ll get these horses for sure tonight. We don’t have enough men to watch over them in the dark. That would be worse, don’t you think?”
“I’ll talk to Adam. He has to agree to this.”
“He will, Pa, ifn you make him understand it’s the only way.”
Inside the lineshack, Ben explained Hoss’ idea and the reasons behind it. Little Joe was all for it. Getting away from this lineshack seemed the best idea to him especially because his father and big brother wanted to do it. Adam was less enthusiastic.
“It’s all right, but I want to ride on my own. I don’t want to hold up Hoss.”
Thinking for a moment, Ben was fairly certain why Adam had said that.
“No, if we’re doing this, we’re all sticking together. You would help us all out by agreeing to let Hoss put a lead rope on your horse and being tied to your saddle. Otherwise we could all be at risk if you fall behind or fall.”
“It would give you a better chance to get away if you weren’t worrying about me.”
“I knew you were thinking that you would give us a better chance of getting away if you fell behind. We’re in this together, and we’ll get out of this together. Now, are you ready to ride?”
Nodding, Adam stood and pulled on the vests and his coat. He had trouble getting his left arm in the sleeve because it hurt so much to move it. Ben helped him and when Adam was ready, he told Joe to go out the back and get behind the horses. Then he followed Adam out and got him to mount up first. Hoss already had a lead rope attached, and had cut some smaller pieces to tie Adam to the saddle. Once that was accomplished, they all mounted up and looked to Ben for the signal to ride. He looked out to see no movement and got ready to go.
“I’ll go first. Little Joe, I want you right behind me, and then Hoss and Adam. Ready?” Pausing for just a moment, Ben smiled at his sons. “Let’s go.” He rode out as fast as he could with Little Joe right behind him. Just a few lengths behind, Hoss and Adam rode in tandem. There were no arrows shot at them, and they saw no movement nor pursuit. After about an hour of hard riding, Ben slowed to rest the horses and to make sure everyone was all right but especially to check on Adam’s condition. After Hoss untied the ropes binding him to the saddle, they found he was bleeding some but not too badly.
“Let’s get a few more hours of riding in, and then we’ll take care of your wound. I’m afraid we may have to cauterize it. We can’t let it open and bleeding like that. If we were at home and you were in bed, bandages might be all that was needed, but with all this riding, it won’t stay closed.”
Grimacing at that news, Adam looked over at his younger brothers and had to smile. They had grimaces that mirrored his own as they contemplated the possibility of having to cauterize the wound. Little Joe knew what it was because they sometimes had to do that with cattle that had minor wounds. It was awful and had a terrible smell of burning flesh and hair when they did it to the cattle.
By mid-afternoon, Adam was slumped in the saddle as he rode. He had begged off on the cauterization saying it was likely to leave him unable to ride for a while. He was nearing the limits of his endurance and wondered how much further he could go and remain conscious. He looked up briefly at Hoss’ yell without comprehending what he was saying. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the next line shack. He was resting in bed and felt a large bandage around him with what seemed to be a huge wad of bandage pressing into his back against his wound. He slowly opened his eyes to see his family lounging in various spots in the lineshack.
“Pa, Adam’s awake.” Little Joe was the first to see that Adam had awakened. Ben and Hoss moved quickly to his side.
“Ya scared us again, Adam. Pa said you’d be fine, but I feel better now that you opened your eyes again.”
Adam looked toward Ben for an explanation. “We met some of the hands who were up here to move the herd to a lower pasture. You must have passed out right about then. They helped get you here, and they had recently re-supplied this lineshack so there were bandages and some alcohol. I cleaned up your back and put a nice thick bandage on it. You can stay here a day or two until the wound starts to heal. One of the men will be back tomorrow with a wagon. The rest of them are camped outside to make sure we don’t have any more trouble. Are you hungry? We’ve got beans and bacon, some flatbread, and some peaches. We all had some, but we saved some for you.”
“The peaches and a little water would be nice.”
Hoss brought the peaches, and Little Joe brought the water.
“You didn’t all have to stay.”
“Well, you knew I would stay, and then Hoss said he wanted to stay too, and Little Joe asked to do the same thing. So here we all are; together, as a family ought to be. Now Little Joe has been telling me that you’re going to let him break horses.”
“No, I told him that I’m going to have him help me train horses. It takes two to do that with a cutting pony, and he can be my helper. He loves horses and has a natural affinity with them. I thought it was a good match of interests and skills.”
“That’s all well and good, but he also said you were going to show him how to shoot.”
A little sheepish about doing that without talking to their father first, Adam did try to explain it logically. “Pa, I’m sorry I jumped the gun rather literally on that one. But I shot that little rifle when I was younger than Little Joe. I taught Hoss when he was ten. It’s time for Little Joe to learn too.”
“I suppose that’s true, but be very careful. Little Joe has a tendency to get very excited, and I don’t want any accidents.”
Little Joe jumped into the conversation before Adam could reply. “Pa, Adam’s a good teacher. He won’t let me do anything I shouldn’t.”
“Now you know you shouldn’t interrupt, but you did it anyway. I know you’re excited about these possibilities, but you need to remember the rules and follow them. These rules aren’t something to remind you if you forget. Someone could get hurt or killed if you don’t follow the rules about rifles and about horses. And you will listen to Adam and do what he says?”
“Yes, Pa. I promise.”
Little Joe stretched that promise out quite a bit over the next few years, but he did learn to be an excellent shot, and of course his skills working with horses were also excellent. As the four men leaned on the corral fence remembering how Adam’s sickness had brought him closer with Little Joe and healed the rift between them, they all smiled at how that had turned out. Adam pulled on his shirt and dropped the arrowhead into his pocket as he turned and walked to the house. Joe was right by his side.
“Hey, I was just showing it to you. I didn’t mean for you to keep it.”
“It was in my back. That Indian gave it to me.”
“It was laying in that fireplace for almost fifteen years. I hardly think that gives you ownership of it.”
“Just because someone loses a piece of property, it doesn’t mean that the one who finds it now has ownership rights.”
Walking behind the arguing brothers, Hoss chuckled and Ben smiled at his middle son. “Hoss, they’re never really going to change, are they?”
“Nope, reckon not, but I guess I don’t really want them to. I like em just the way they are.”