Always My Heart (by Wrangler)

Synopsis:   Things don’t go as hoped when Adam returns for a visit after many years away.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  25,600


 

Note from Author: This story addresses the arrival of Adam Cartwright after a ten year absence and how his return affects the remaining Cartwrights. I want to thank my friends and evil cohorts Deb, Leesa, and Carol for their encouragement and assistance. They helped me in many areas including giving me a badly needed geography lesson.

 

 

The saddle creaked as the weight lifted off of it’s weathered leather. Joe Cartwright led his horse into the barn wearily. It had been an awful day, and Joe groaned as he undid the belly band and tossed the saddle and blanket up onto the railing of his horse’s stall. After a quick peek into the grain bin to be sure Cochise would have enough to eat, Joe patted the pinto’s hindquarters and slowly walked out of the barn closing the door behind.

Joe strode across the dusty front yard, his body aching from the abuse it had gone through during the rough work day. He dreaded going inside the house, knowing what his appearance would do to his father. Joe knew he was in for some good old fashion ribbing as he turned the doorknob and pushed his way into the house.

“I’m home,” Joe scarcely muttered as he stepped onto the Oriental rug in front of the credenza.

Ben hearing both the front door opening as well as his son’s call, came around the corner of the study and headed to greet him. Stopping abruptly in his tracks, the astonished father’s mouth hung open at the sight there in front of him. Joe was covered in a thick coat of red mud. It spread from his curly hair all the way down to his clay packed boots.

“Joseph! What in the world?” Ben called out exasperated.

“Hi, Pa. How was YOUR day?” Joe asked casually and then prepared himself for what was to come. Just as he thought, Ben broke into loud laughter.

“Evidently a whole lot cleaner than yours,” Ben replied still grinning over at the mess that was his son.

“Dad blasted wagon—we were crossing Syler’s Creek and it got stuck. I checked out the back wheel to see if it was busted and before I knew it the dad gone horses lurched forward and I was swimming in mud. Pa—I’ve got mud in places where you really don’t want to have it in–if you know what I mean?” Joe tried to explain, still witnessing his father’s mirth.

Before Ben could say anything, Hop Sing appeared from out of the kitchen and stopped in his tracks when he spied Joe standing there dripping mud onto the carpet. Then he fired off a long round of Chinese chastisements, which both Cartwrights presumed to be profane in nature. It was at such times that they were very glad they had not learned to speak the cook’s native tongue.

“Little Joe! You get out of Hop Sing house! You no come in—mess carpet—you no brain! What you think?” He screamed at the young man.

Joe shrugged his shoulders helplessly. If anyone else had called him “Little Joe” he would have surely told them off. But, the man standing before him could get away with it, having helped to raise him after all. It had been quite some time since anyone else had referred to Joe as “Little Joe”. “I just want to get up to my room, then take a bath. I’ll be careful,” he argued and tried to get the cook to ease up by firing a smile his way. Under all the mud, which coated Joe’s face, came the bright smile and hazel eyes.

Hop Sing squealed off more Chinese, not buying Joe’s attempt at winning him over this time. “You go–you go now! Out back—you get washed–no come in house until mud gone!” Hop Sing insisted and pushed Joe backwards towards the door.

Joe shot his father a pleading look, in hopes that the man would intervene, but Ben was too busy laughing to help bail his son out of his situation.

“Dad burn it!” Joe called out as he was forced to make his way outside, followed by both the cook and his father.

Ben enjoyed the show that was going on between Hop Sing and his youngest son. Hop Sing had forced Joe to strip down to his long johns and then began the bucket brigade helped along by the water pump behind the house. Joe shrieked as the cold water pelted him and he fought to catch his breath.

“You’re drowning me!” Joe shouted as Hop Sing continued his process. Joe’s hair hung down in his eyes, and in all respects he looked like a drowned rat.

“You still orange–hold still!” Hop Sing replied and doused Joe again.

After a good fifteen minutes, Joe was at last set free by the cook who had returned to the kitchen. Joe sloshed his way over to his father staring down at the boots that lay on the back steps.

“Thanks a lot, Pa–you were a big help,” Joe spat out sarcastically.

“Oh no you don’t!” Ben called down from his seat on the back porch. “You aren’t going inside dripping all over the floor.”

“What do you want me to do? Strip down naked?”

“Well, I guess you could just kinda air dry–shouldn’t take more than ten or twelve hours.” Ben laughed again.

“All’s I want is a hot bath. This day has been a real—” Joe stopped, he had some words chosen which wouldn’t really go over too well with his father at that point.

“You were saying, Joseph?” Ben raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms across his chest trying to see just how far his son would go.

“Never mind,” Joe sighed and pulled off his thermal shirt.

Hop Sing came out from the back door and had in his arms two towels. “You dry, then you can come in,” he said tossing the towels down to Joe.

Joe dried his hair and chest and then looked down at his soaking wet long john bottoms. “If you both don’t MIND—if I have to take these off, I’d prefer not to have an audience,” he said indignantly.

Ben and Hop Sing laughed in unison. “Oh–of course, we wouldn’t want to see you in the all together—not that we weren’t the ones who diapered you and all—” Ben grinned and followed the cook into the house.

Joe shook his head over his father’s statement, but did have to push away his own grin. He then pulled off his bottoms and wrapped the towel around his waist and walked into the house. Passing his father in the living room, Joe tried to look as dignified as he could as he hurried to make it to the stairs. Unfortunately, he hadn’t totally dried the bottoms of his feet and ended up slipping on the wood floor landing flat on his back staring up toward the rafters. Pulling himself to sitting, Joe turned his head to see his father holding his hand over his mouth to prevent the laughter this time.

“Are you hurt?” Ben called across the living room as he stood from his chair.

Joe reached for the towel which had pulled apart during his flip. He tucked it back around him before pulling himself to his feet. “Just my pride, Pa,” Joe muttered as he reached for the banister.

“That’s funny—I thought pride always cometh before the fall not after!” Ben teased.

“Go ahead and laugh—I know you want to.”

“Laugh? Of course not!” Ben protested and when Joe looked back around he could see his father holding his sides trying to hold it in.

“What a day—“ Joe muttered and slowly made his way up to the safety of his room.

*****

By the time dinner was set out on the table by Hop Sing Joe had finally made his way back downstairs. The changes in his appearance were very apparent. Having soaked for almost an hour in hot water and changed into fresh clothes, Joe was the normal picture of the handsome youngest son of Ben Cartwright. He settled gingerly down into his usual chair at the dining table and Ben had to again stifle a laugh. He presumed that Joe’s earlier tumble onto the hard wood floor had bruised more than his son’s pride.

“Well, you certainly clean up well,” Ben smiled and passed Joe down a cup of coffee.

“It took a long while to get that dried clay out of my hair, Pa. I never saw so much mud, probably even swallowed some,” Joe continued to complain about his awful experience. “All’s I want is to eat and go to sleep and forget.”

“Did you get the fence poles delivered after your little swim?”

“Yeah, that’s why the stuff baked on me actually. I helped stack the posts and came back here.” Joe stopped speaking as Hop Sing appeared back out of the kitchen and approached him.

“Look better,” Hop Sing grumbled and reached for Joe’s left ear. “Still see mud–in ear.”

“What! No, I scrubbed it out!” Joe exclaimed and then saw the cook’s face turn into a big smile showing he was just teasing. “Very funny,” Joe nodded over at both Hop Sing and his father.

“You no come in house with mud no more,” Hop Sing patted Joe’s shoulder and padded back into the kitchen, having gotten his point across.

Joe and his father discussed upcoming jobs that needed to be done and were almost finished with their meal when the front door opened and in came their foreman, Candy.

“You want some supper?” Ben asked looking up at the man as he approached the table.

“No, thanks, Mr. Cartwright. I had supper earlier–was hoping to coerce Joe into coming into town with me tonight,” He explained and took a seat next to Joe.

“I’m beat—I’ve had two baths now I am ready to hit the hay,” Joe said, still exasperated.

“Oh—you do look a little better—that’s for sure. I got something for you Mr. Cartwright. Ran into Pete coming over here and he said to get this right to you,” Candy reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a telegraph.

Joe watched as his father began to read and noticed how first Ben’s mouth hung open surprised by the content of the telegraph. Next, Joe could detect the formation of tears in his father’s eyes and it sent worry throughout his body.

“Something wrong, Pa?”

Ben shook his head, unable to speak at the moment.

“Who’s it from?” Joe persisted.

“Your brother Adam. He’s coming home,” Ben replied and made an attempt to dab at his tears with his napkin to control his emotions.

“What!” Joe blurted out. “Why now—” Joe had to stop himself. His anger towards his oldest brother was never far from the surface. Looking at his father, Joe didn’t want to do or say anything that would ruin the happiness he was experiencing. “When’s he coming?”

“Just got into Saint Joseph Missouri—he’ll be here in four days. Oh, Joseph! Isn’t this wonderful?” Ben reached over and patted his son’s arm.

“Sure, Pa,” Joe responded with all the enthusiasm he could muster, which wasn’t a whole lot. ***now I KNOW I need a drink***Joe thought to himself as he looked toward Candy. “Hey–I think I’ll take you up on your invitation, Candy,” Joe said and stood from the table, his mind on escaping.

“I thought you said you were too tired?” Candy asked.

“Got my second wind all of a sudden,” Joe returned.

Ben watched as his son tried to beat a hasty exit. “Just a minute—Candy–how about saddling Joe’s horse? I have something I have to ask him,” Ben said standing with the two departing men.

“Sure,” Candy nodded. He could tell by the intensity on his boss’ face that Joe was in for some sort of a lecture now. Candy headed out the front door while Joe stood strapping on his holster.

“Joseph, I want to talk to you about this,” Ben said bluntly and forced his son to turn around and look at him.

“Talk about what, Pa? Adam’s coming—that’s great! I know you have been wanting him to visit for ages now–so this is good news.”

“Son, I just want you to do your best to get along with your brother,” Ben began but Joe cut him off.

“My brother? Funny, Pa–when you say that–all I can think of is Hoss—not Adam,” Joe replied with obvious hurt in his tone.

“I know it’s been a long time—but you two need to fix whatever it is that’s wrong with your relationship. Will you try?”

“I gotta go—Candy is waiting for me,” Joe turned and grabbed his hat and jacket.

“Joseph?”

Joe looked down at the floor and not back into his father’s penetrating eyes.

“For me?” Ben reiterated.

That did it! Joe could not deny his father his peace of mind, not now at least. He forced a smile and patted his father’s shoulder and replied, “anything for you, Pa.” Joe nodded and headed back to the door.

“Try to come back sober this time, huh?” Ben grinned and saw the peculiar look his son shot back.

“Sure, Pa,” Joe winked and left the house. He wanted to get into town as quickly as he could so he could start to forget what was going to happen in a few days. The last person in the world Joe wanted to see was his brother Adam.

Candy set the liquor bottle on the table and the sound of glass hitting the wood top shook Joe from his thoughts. He looked up at his friend and tried to smile. Anyone who knew Joe well could tell that his mind was elsewhere; and Candy knew him very well.

“Okay, so spill it partner. Give me the low down on your oldest brother.”

“Huh? What are you talking about?” Joe tried to act confused.

“Don’t play dumb, Joe. You and Hoss both told me some things about Adam, but I always got the opinion that the main beef was between you and the oldest. I mean, well, Hoss did tell me that he was sad that your brother left–but didn’t seem to hold any ill regards.”

“Yeah–Hoss was a very forgiving soul–unfortunately I am not Hoss,” Joe spat back and shot down his whiskey. He poured another drink and held it up to his eyes shifting the contents around in the glass pensively. “Rot gut,” Joe muttered and for a moment he was frozen to another place in time. He could see his brother Adam and hear his angry voice. In Joe’s mind he revisited the night before Adam had left the Ponderosa, some ten years prior.

*****

Joe had emptied one full bottle of whiskey and had retrieved another from out of his saddle bags before he climbed high up into the hayloft of the barn. He almost over turned the lantern, sitting on the table by the ladder as he made his way to his perch. Leaning back on the stacks of hay, Joe popped the cork from the bottle and chugged down more of the whiskey. He wanted to get plastered and was well on his way when he heard the familiar call of his oldest brother.

“Joe! Joe you up there?” Adam called as he moved towards the ladder.

“Go away—I mean it!” Joe yelled down from his position.

“I AM going away–but not till tomorrow–so get your butt down here and we’ll talk this out!” Adam yelled back.

“I ain’t got nothing to say to you,” Joe replied and drank more.

Adam sighed and reached for the rungs. He slowly made his way up to where his brother sat obviously drowning his sorrows. Pushing his way across the rafters and planking, Adam settled down right next to his brother.

“Rot gut? C’mon, Kid, haven’t I taught you any better over the years? You know what this stuff does to you! In a couple of hours you will be puking up your guts,” Adam chastised Joe and the young man shot him a most unkind look in response to his admonitions.

“Well, at least I won’t have to ever hear the word “kid” again–that’s good,” Joe slurred.

“Oh yeah you will—Joe I am not going away forever you know?”

“You are too–you can lie to the others but not to me! I ain’t that dumb anymore. You are going to leave and start a whole new life. One that doesn’t include any of us. I hope you know you are breaking Pa’s heart too! And after all he’s done for you!”

Adam grabbed Joe’s shoulders a bit more roughly than he had intended. Joe was forced to look his way now and he could see how his words had both angered and hurt the man. “Stop trying to tell me that I don’t care about our father! Cause you know that isn’t true! I love him just the same as you do, and Hoss. Pa understands what I have to do–now why the hell can’t you?”

“Is the rest of the world really more important than your family, Adam?” Joe asked, and this time there were tears in his eyes. He had tried to maintain his aloof demeanor but had failed as the whiskey took it’s course.

“It’s not that it’s more important, Joe–it’s just something I have to do. I’ll always love my family—I’ll always take you all in my hearts where ever I go. But, it’s a big world out there and I have to see it. There’s more to life than just the Ponderosa, Joe–I just wish you could see that!”

“You’re selfish, Adam, just selfish. Pa built this place for the three of us—when you go you will take part of his dream with you.”

“I guess I am selfish,” Adam nodded and tried to prevent tears from now spilling out of his own eyes. He could see his baby brother sitting there and the look on the boy’s face was tearing him up on the inside. The bright hazel eyes, though glassed over a bit due to alcohol, were looking straight through to Adam’s soul. That hurt. That hurt more than he ever thought it would. “But, in life, Joe, you have to do things for yourself as well as for others. You only get one life. This is what I need to do for me.”

“Well, how long? How long will you be gone? I mean a week a month, a year–or a life time?” Joe fired back.

Adam looked down at the flooring and shook his head. His youngest brother had asked him a question which was impossible for him to answer. “I don’t know, Kid. I’m not even sure what all I am looking for. I just know I have to go and try to find what makes me happy—what makes me feel fulfilled.”

“And we don’t?” Joe whispered, his voice breaking.

“I’m sorry, Joe–but no—I need more,” Adam confessed.

“Then go!” Joe shouted, the anger and frustration building back up again. “Don’t expect any fond farewells from me either! I ain’t going with Pa and Hoss to see you off tomorrow.” Joe pulled himself up and his wobbly legs staggered as they moved toward the ladder.

“Joe—please!” Adam shouted as he watched his brother slowly descend the ladder.

“Goodbye and good luck,” Joe stated bluntly and hurried out of the barn. He never looked back. He never saw the tears that fell from his oldest brother’s eyes. Joe ran to his room and locked himself inside. He refused to come out again until Adam and his father and Hoss left to go to town the next day. It was the last time he had seen his brother and the last words he had with the man.

*****

“Joe? Hello—where are you?” Candy called and shook his friend’s arm trying to bring him back. Joe broke out of his flashback and stared into Candy’s wondering eyes.

“Oh–sorry. Guess I was thinking back.”

“So, Adam left what–ten years ago?”

“Yeah–it seems so strange now, thinking back. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be the only Cartwright son running the ranch. It never was bad with Hoss here. He more than made up for me missing Adam.”

“I take it you and Adam were never really close then?” Candy pried.

“We never really saw eye to eye on anything. You know Hoss– heck he could get along with anyone. And, he was always the one who kept Adam and me from going after each other. Without him–” Joe trailed off again feeling such intense despair over losing his brother Hoss that he could taste the grief on his tongue.

“Your dad sure seemed happy that Adam was coming back,” Candy stated as he poured another shot and hoisted it down.

“Yeah–that’s Pa–you know? I mean let’s face it–he always accepted us for ourselves. And no matter how much we let him down, he always forgave.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever let your Pa down, Joe.”

“Maybe–maybe not. Of course I haven’t made a whole lot out of my life. No where nears as much as Adam! I mean he has written books, met the crowned heads of Europe and is now teaching at one of the largest universities in England.”

“So? You think that makes him any better in your father’s eyes? I don’t.”

“Yeah—well–I know Pa is happy with what I do with the ranch and all, but it isn’t quite the same thing, you know?” Joe asked and his deep seated insecurities reflected in his somber gaze.

“Joe, don’t sell yourself short–nor your dad for that matter. It wasn’t more than a couple of months ago that the two of you started to talk again. Since then, I can tell that you are just as close as you ever were. You should be proud of yourself for helping to pull him out of the deep grief he felt over losing Hoss.”

“Yeah,” Joe paused and signaled the bartender over with another bottle. He reached into his jacket and handed the man a silver dollar and continued, “that’s another thing. We wrote Adam about Hoss dying. Did he come back then? NO! He waits till over a year has gone by and then comes. Guess he couldn’t work it into his busy schedule.”

“You are mad with him for leaving–you are mad that he didn’t come back too–anything else?” Candy asked trying to pinpoint the reason why his friend was not at all happy about his brother’s return.

“He always treated me like a kid—and I bet he still does when he gets here. I don’t think I can take his condescending attitude any more. If he starts with me I am afraid of what I’ll do. I have to somehow keep my temper. And you know how hard that is for me!” Joe smiled and winked at Candy. They both laughed. There had been many fights over the years which had been caused largely by the known bad temper of the youngest Cartwright son. Candy himself had encountered it at times and they had even exchanged some blows in earlier years.

“Oh I know your temper–you don’t have to tell me, Old Buddy!” Candy grinned.

“Well, Pa wants me to be nice and all. So, this is gonna be the greatest acting job of my entire life! I just hope he doesn’t stay long. I’m not sure how much I can take of “older” brother to tell you the truth!”

“But you are gonna try, right?”

“Yeah, for Pa–not for Adam. I am worried about how Pa will take it when he does leave again, too. It was rough years ago, and now with Hoss—” Joe stopped as his mind drifted again to the day he and his father had addressed their feelings of loss over Hoss’ death. “With Hoss gone, it will make it that much harder for Pa to say goodbye to Adam this time. It worries me.”

Candy watched as the liquor bottle quickly lost it’s contents. He could see the anguish which would not let go of Joe. “Maybe we better get back? I remember the last time I brought you home after too much celebrating. Remember?”

Joe laughed as he thought back to another time, a time when he had gotten intoxicated in order to tell the recently returned Candy about how Hoss had died. It had taken two bottles of whiskey that time also, just to tell the man about Hoss dying while trying to save a child from the path of a runaway horse. Now before him was bottle number two again, this time had been just as potent as the last.

“Oh yeah—I remember. This time how about helping me upstairs before I break anything? Pa hasn’t let me live down that broken vase yet,” Joe laughed as he stood from the table.

“Okay—we’ll try not to cause too much damage this time. Let’s go,” Candy said as he shot his arm around Joe’s shoulder and tried to steer him safely out of the bar.

Joe jogged down the stairs late the next morning. He knew he had not quite slept off his hangover and he didn’t really want to confront his father over the reason he had gotten very drunk the night before.

“Don’t have time for breakfast, Pa!” Joe sang out as he hurried to grab his holster. He decided not to take the couple of minutes to strap it on and merely slung it over his shoulder wanting to hit the door before his father could get to him.

“Joseph! Wait!” Ben called out and stood from his seat at the dining table.

“Can’t, Pa! Gotta go–see you later!” Joe hurried outside shutting the door behind him.

Ben sighed as he pulled the door back open again and watched the departing figure rushing towards the barn. He knew what was going on with his son. Joe was very apparent in his motives. Ben knew that his son wanted to side step the issue of his brother’s return so there wouldn’t be any further discussion about it.

*****

Joe did a very good job over the next three days at avoiding his father. He found work to do far away from the ranch house and made sure he got in very late at night. All the while, both Ben and Hop Sing were working on getting Adam’s old room ready for his return and planning his coming home dinner. Hop Sing was very excited about seeing Adam again. He had, over the years, grown to love all of the Cartwrights and considered them his family. Hop Sing had also grieved the loss of the middle son greatly and was looking forward to the family being somewhat more intact once the eldest son returned.

It was almost eleven o’clock on the night before Adam’s arrival that Joe made his way quietly into the ranch house. He had dodged his father for days and hoped this would be no exception. Joe knew what the man would expect from him and thought, if he could only avoid a conversation for one more night he wouldn’t be asked to go into town to meet his brother.

As Joe strode stealthily across the living room, he realized his plan had failed. Ben was seated in his chair waiting up for his wayward son.

“Oh—Pa–thought you’d be in bed,” Joe whispered knowing he was caught.

“No, sorry. Guess you have to talk to me,” Ben replied a hint of sarcasm bleeding out in his words.

“I’ve just been busy,” Joe tried to cover his tracks.

“You’ve never been too busy to talk, Joseph. Want to throw me a better lie?” Ben asked as he moved next to his son.

“Go ask Candy–he’ll tell you how hard I’ve been working.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” Ben nodded and then put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and their eyes finally met. “In fact, I guess if I ever want to see you work so diligently again all I have to do is tell you that Adam is coming.”

Joe frowned at his father’s statement. “Okay, Pa. You got your point across. Now can I go to bed? I’m tired.”

“Your brother is coming in on the noon stage. I want you to ride into town with me to meet him.”

“Can’t, got that branding to do and then I have to help up at the mill. But, I will be home in time for his welcome home dinner.”

“Joseph?” Ben said his son’s name but in a way that let him know that he was not pleased.

“Why do I have to be there? You know he’s not really coming to see me–he’s coming to see his father. So, you go,” Joe defended his statement.

“He’s coming to see both of us. Now, don’t pull a fast one and slip out of here before I get up.”

“But, Pa–” Joe started and felt his father’s grip tighten on his shoulder. “Okay,” he finally conceded. Joe could tell that there was no winning the debate.

“Good,” Ben smiled and patted Joe on the back.

“Can I go to bed now or isn’t the lecture over?” Joe grinned up at his father.

“Yes, the lecture is over. How about coming home a little bit earlier next time? These late night lectures are getting harder on me,” Ben teased and moved with his son over to the staircase.

“Yeah, me too,” Joe laughed and walked up the stairs with his father. He would have to think on what he would do tomorrow. He knew he would go into town, but was determined not to stay around once he met Adam at the stage. Joe decided at that moment that he would ride in with his father into town but that he would tie his horse behind the carriage, that way he could make a hasty exit once the stage got there.

*****

Ben stepped out into the front yard and noticed Joe had hitched up the buggy for the trip into town. He also noticed that his son was tying Cochise’ reins to the back of the carriage. Ben shook his head a bit bewildered as to what Joe had in mind. He approached the buggy still watching Joe’s movements. It had been a very quiet breakfast and the far away gaze he witnessed on his son’s face told the tale that he wasn’t exactly looking forward to his brother’s arrival.

“Joseph? Thought you were hitching up the surrey? Why the change in plans?”

Joe turned and faced his father and tried to appear lighthearted. “Well, you and Adam can chat on the way home and I can get out to the mill. I told you that I have to help out there, they’re having trouble again and I have to check it out.” Joe stepped up into the buggy and grabbed the reins and waited for his father to enter before sending the team forward.

“I had hoped you would ride along with us, Joe. I don’t think that the trouble up at the mill should come ahead of you spending some time with your brother. But, then, the mill is as good an excuse as any, right?” Ben’s eyebrows narrowed and Joe totally avoided his glare.

“Come on, Pa. I am going with you to meet the stage. Now isn’t that enough?” Joe argued as the buggy rounded the barn and turned down the North Fork road heading to town.

Ben wouldn’t answer this time. He wasn’t going to let anything spoil his day. Just the thought of seeing his eldest son again lit his face with joy. It had been so long since he had seen Adam and with each passing year had come the worry that he would never again lay his eyes on him in life. Now he would be seeing his first born in just a few hours and it quickened Ben’s heart. Though they had both kept in touch through letters over the years, it had never taken the place of being with his son. There was so much he wanted to say to him now. Ben knew how precious time was, after having lost one son already. He hoped that Adam’s visit would be a renewal for them both, and also for Joseph. Ben worried over the fact that whenever he passed away it would leave Joe so all alone. He hoped if the two brothers could reform their bond that they would both be able to take comfort in each other when his time finally did come.

Joe stared over at his father. He seemed to be in a trance like state, Pa’s eyes focused on something in the distance, though all that was ahead of them were trees; the same trees they had seen for years on the way into Virginia City. Joe knew there was more to it then the tangible scenery. He could see the glow of love in the dark brown eyes and the thought of it seared his heart and sent a stabbing pain throughout his body. Joe surmised the love that was in his father’s gaze was in it for one reason alone; Adam. Here the eldest son had turned his back on his family and his home and left for his own selfish purposes, but still, his father loved him just as much as he would had he stayed. That hurt. Joe felt jealous, a feeling he wasn’t use to feeling when it came to his father’s love. It had always been there for him over the years; strong and as unbreakable as the mountains which surrounded the Ponderosa. Joe had never had to question his position before, never had to worry about vying for Pa’s love, it was always offered and accepted without contest. But, now, looking at his father’s face Joe realized that he only owned a part of his father’s heart. The first born held the other parts and Joe was not at all certain just how much his share of his father’s love was anymore.

Ben’s thoughts raced to all of what had taken place over the years since Adam had left to further his career. The Ponderosa had grown as had the Cartwright wealth. But, that took second place to the two sons who had stayed and worked the ranch making it the empire that it had become. Ben felt a hollow feeling in his soul, the feeling was present every time the picture of his middle son, Hoss, appeared in his mind. He loved the big man so much that it still took his breath away when he thought on his untimely death. But, Ben had known grief well over the years. That didn’t make it any easier nonetheless, and perhaps losing a child had stolen a good part of the joy in his life. Ben turned and cast a quick glance at the young man who seemed a bit far away himself. ***Joseph***Ben thought to himself and closed his eyes. How he loved that youngest son of his! Hoss’ death had caused a great divide in their bond with each other which had only recently been patched with tears and confessions. Sometimes Ben actually worried that he loved his third son too much. He worried that it was tempting fate to feel that way, for surely if anyone wanted to kill Ben Cartwright all they would have to do is to remove Joseph from his life. Yes, he loved all of his sons and did all he could over the years to prove that fact. Ben felt he had accomplished that rather tough feat. For it was hard as the father and sole parent to the three of his sons to show each of them the kind of support and comfort that they needed. They were all so different and yet, he could see certain similarities in them as well. It had been a whole lot easier when Ben had the team of Joe and Hoss to rely on. Now it was Joseph, and only Joseph. Ben worried that he had thrust his youngest into responsibility too fast but there was no other choice and Joe had not failed him nor the ranch. Now, looking over once more Ben could see the features that always gave his son’s feelings away. Joe’s jaw-line was rigid and his mouth held so taut that his top lip had almost disappeared altogether. Then there were the mirrors of his son’s soul that were not quite as bright as they usually were, though still just as penetrating.

***First he’ll throw in the fact he’s written another book–then he’ll go on to all the snobs he knows and all that nobility hob knobbing*** Joe started his silent soliloquy. ***then he will mention something about me being a kid—and then I deck him***Joe continued running things through his mind, each time the details getting more distorted from reality.***and just look at Pa will you? I mean he is glowing! You would think he is meeting the President or something! Hell, might as well say Adam is the President. And I’m—let’s see—I am not even needed here for this. Why is he making me do this anyway? He knows there’s no love loss between Adam and me! Pa won’t even notice I am there once old Professor Cartwright steps out of that stage***

“Joseph? You okay?” Ben asked noticing Joe’s facial expressions had become more intense and his frown much deeper set.

“Huh? Oh sure, Pa—I was just thinking about the mill,” Joe replied and faked another smile.

“The mill–oh yeah—I am sure it’s on your mind,” Ben chuckled knowing Joe had not even stopped to think how awful an excuse he had come up with that time.

“No–really. You just don’t know—” Joe trailed off when he looked into his father’s eyes. He knew he had been caught. “Nice day ain’t it?”

Ben laughed and patted Joe’s knee. “Oh yes, very nice day, Joseph, nice that you noticed.”

“So, what are you and Plato gonna do today, Pa? I mean I know he’ll talk your ear off on the way home–but then what?”

“I am sure he’ll be a bit tired, he’s had a long journey. We’ll go home and catch up on some things and of course Hop Sing is gonna dote on him for awhile. Now don’t you forget that we will eat at six tonight. You be sure not to be late.”

***bet we are having fatted calf***Joe thought to himself but didn’t dare say it out loud. “I’ll be on time. You just have a good afternoon; don’t over do.”

“Over do?” Ben questioned surprised at the way Joe’s words had come out. “Oh you think your pa has gotten old do you? Like I can’t handle a day of excitement?”

“I wasn’t saying that –but you aren’t getting any younger,” Joe grinned when he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder and felt the tight squeeze.

“I think I can handle all the excitement just fine. As a matter of fact perhaps I should worry about YOU today instead of the other way around.”

“Me?”

“Yeah,” Ben grinned and looked up at the sky, there were several good sized clouds up towards the northeast. “Might be raining up at the mill when you get there.”

“So?” Joe replied wondering where his father was going with his statement.

“Well, you have to cross the creek and all–” Ben smiled and then saw Joe’s eyes show recognition.

“Very funny, Pa. No, I don’t think I’ll be going swimming today–so don’t worry about me,” Joe responded to his father’s not so subtle reminder of his mud bath earlier in the week.

Ben felt a little more at ease now that he had loosened his son up a bit. At least the tightness of his facial expression had softened after he had been teased. Ben hoped that it would help Joe’s mood as they neared town and the horses eagerly turned down the trail that led to the main road into Virginia City.

*****

Though the wait was only little more than a half of an hour, it was excruciating for the anxious father. Ben’s face broke out into a broad smile as he spotted the Overland stage as it came around the far corner of town and headed his way. Joe caught the appearance of the stage and then the uncontrolled glee his father wore. He felt he would be saying hello to Adam and goodbye to Pa in a way when the stage pulled up in front of the ticket booth.

Two women disembarked from the stage and then an elderly man. Finally, Adam stepped down the steps and turned to face his father there in front of him. Joe noticed right away the changes in his brother’s appearance whereas Ben only recognized the familiarities. Though time had aged Adam Cartwright, his smile was still the same and his eyes showed how elated he was to see his father. Ben did not notice the somewhat receding hairline nor the extra couple of pounds that his son had put on during the years spent away from home. Joe noticed it all, including the expensive tweed three piece suit he wore complete with gold pocket chain hanging from his front pocket and the diamond tie pin. Adam gave the appearance of wealth and refinement, just as Joe had expected.

“Adam!” Ben exclaimed and hugged his son tightly. “So good to have you home, Son.”

“Great to see you too, Pa. I’ve missed you!” Adam replied warmly and shared his father’s embrace.

Joe stood behind his father and nervously shifted his weight back and forth from one foot and then to the other. He knew it would be his turn soon and he more than dreaded it. When Ben finally let go of his eldest he moved slightly to the side to allow the two brothers to greet each other.

“Little Joe! Great to see you!” Adam reached over to shake his brother’s hand.

“Just “Joe”, Adam,” Joe corrected and shook the outstretched hand. “Welcome home,” Joe stated and the words stung his throat as they came out.

“Great to be back,” Adam smiled and turned as the driver handed his two pieces of luggage down from the top of the stage. The three Cartwrights walked over to the buggy and Adam tossed the bags inside. Joe walked behind the carriage and unhooked his horse’s reins.

“Well, I’ll see you both later at dinner. Gotta get out to the mill,” Joe said and flung himself into the saddle.

“Six o’clock,” Ben reminded his youngest as he beat a hasty get away.

“The kid kinda left fast didn’t he?” Adam asked as he stepped up into the buggy.

“Well, he’s got some problems up at the mill,” Ben tried to alibi his way out of Joe’s rather abrupt exit. “Oh–and maybe you shouldn’t call him the kid, Adam. He’s not exactly the same boy that you left ten years ago you know?” Ben smiled as he took the reins and sent the team onward.

“It’s a bit hard, Pa. I guess I expected to have things just as I left them. Now I can see that he’s all grown up. To tell you the truth this home coming is a bit hard—what with Hoss–” Adam trailed off, feeling choked up with emotion.

Ben put his arm around his son’s shoulder instinctively trying to shield him from the reality of not being able to see his brother Hoss one last time. He knew it would be hard on him. “I know, Son. I’m just glad to have you back, I’ve missed you very much. Now let’s catch up on things shall we?”

“Okay, but first—could we go by the grave? I mean if it’s not too hard on you?” Adam asked trying to gauge his father’s emotional state.

“Sure—we’ll stop by there on the way in. I kinda figured you’d want to go there,” Ben answered.

Ben and his eldest son talked for more than an hour as they made the journey from town to the oak grove where Hoss Cartwright was buried. They had time to share some of their thoughts and feelings with each other and it was almost as if time had stopped for them both. Ben knew that in spite of distance and time they both still shared the bond which a parent holds for their first born child and they hold for their father.

“Mind if I go down there by myself, Pa?” Adam asked staring down from the top of the hill. He could see the large headstone in the distance.

“Sure–you go ahead, take your time I’ll wait here, Son,” Ben said and patted Adam’s shoulder knowingly.

Adam drew closer to his brother’s grave and in his mind came so many flashes from the past of the brother he loved so much. He remembered holding the large baby right after Inger had fallen to the Indian’s arrow which had taken her life. Adam remembered promising to always take care of his brother. Now before him was a headstone. That and the memories were all that remained now. Totally disregarding the fine suit he wore, Adam knelt down and closed his eyes fighting back tears. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Hoss. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you like I was supposed to. But, we will be together–some day. Until then—-you will be in my heart.” Adam said another silent prayer and then stood once more and headed back up the hill. He felt like he had aged years just in those few moments and the steps he made approaching his father seemed slower and more painful with each movement. By the time he was face to face with Ben, Adam gave in to the emotion.

“Oh, Pa!” Adam sobbed and reached out for the man.

“I know, Adam. I know–” Ben whispered and allowed his eldest to grieve, holding him to his chest trying to absorb some of his pain.

“I’m sorry—sorry I wasn’t here for you—for Joe,” Adam cried.

“It’s all right—-we knew you wanted to be here—there wasn’t anything anyone could have done. I don’t want you blaming yourself. Hoss knew you loved him, that’s all that matters now,” Ben consoled his son. They stood for awhile trying to regroup their feelings and then the two men returned to the buggy to head to the ranch house.

*****

Joe rode into the front yard not at all eager to dive into the welcome home party that awaited him inside the house. He handed his reins over to one of the hired hands and walked slowly inside the house. Hanging up his hat and unbuckling his gun belt Joe turned to see his father and brother sitting in the living room.

“I was starting to worry about you getting here,” Ben called over to Joe.

Joe walked over to the grandfather clock and stared up at the time. “It’s quarter till six—I don’t know why you’d worry. I told you I would be here at six,” Joe replied with a bit of defiance in his statement.

“You come now!” Hop Sing called from the dining room and shot Joe a most perturbed look.

“Gotta wash up–I’ll be down in a minute,” Joe called over to the cook and hurried toward the stairs. He made his way to his room and collapsed briefly on the bed. If he had his own way about it, Joe would have just gone to sleep that very minute and said to hell with dinner. But, he knew what was expected of him. Joe washed his hands and face and stared into his mirror and tried to force a smile. He practiced and knew his expression was so faked that anyone would know that he didn’t feel what his face was showing. Sighing to himself, Joe headed down to dinner.

“Here’s to Adam’s homecoming!” Ben raised his glass of wine to toast his son. Adam and Joe raised their glasses and touched all three of them together.

“Pa has told me how well you are handling things around here, Joe,” Adam tried to break the ice with his little brother.

“Does that surprise you, Adam?” Joe asked, feeling as defensive as he had as a kid.

“No, not at all–should it?” Adam smiled.

Ben cleared his throat wanting to change the subject, he could read from Joe’s expression that he was readying for an argument. “Your brother has written another book, Joseph. This one is about the ranch, I think you’ll like it. I’ve almost finished my copy.”

“I brought one for you too, Joe,” Adam jumped in, hoping to also lighten the conversation.

“About the ranch? Well, you must have a good memory,” Joe shot back and then saw the look on his father’s face; he was not happy.

“It’s about the early days–you know from the building of the Ponderosa onward. It has some of the funny things from our childhood. Remember the time Hoss tried to raise those wild wolf cubs? That story is in there, and lots of other ones.”

Joe tossed down his wine at the mention of Hoss’ name. He felt bitter about Adam taking more than a year to return after his brother’s death and it was getting harder not to say anything about it, especially since Adam had brought up his name now.

“So how many books is this now, Adam?” Joe asked as he reached over to pour himself more wine.

“Actually it’s my sixth book, but the one I am most proud of.”

“How do you ever find the time with your busy schedule?” Joe asked, and there was more than a hint of sarcasm in his question.

“Well, you know I don’t live at the university—and we do have a good part of the summer off.”

“Oh? Then why didn’t you come home LAST summer?” Joe shot out, ignoring his father’s warning gaze.

Adam set down his drink and looked at his brother. He knew that Joe was upset with him and felt he should address it to help to clear the air. “Joe–I couldn’t get away—I wrote both you and Pa about it. I would’ve come home if I could have. But, it couldn’t be helped.”

“Let’s drop this subject please,” Ben jumped in sensing the tenseness that had engulfed the room.

“He brought it up!” Joe defended his questions.

“Joseph, that’s enough,” Ben fired back.

“Okay–I’m sorry,” Joe apologized “well, you are home now, Adam. Guess that’s all that counts, right? So, how was your trip?” Joe fought to hide his animosity and changed the subject for his father’s sake, not his brother’s.

“Real good, thanks. Smooth sailing all the whole trip—made better time than it usually takes too. I didn’t want to write you to tell you I was heading here, figured the letter would be on the same ship.”

“I’ve made that trip myself quite a few times,” Ben smiled, happy to have the rough banter replaced by gentle conversation. “I think the last time was right before I went back to New England and married your mother, Adam.”

“Well, the ships may be a bit more grand, but it still takes about as long as it did back then, Pa. It gave me time to work on some class work and to start another book. Just a rough draft but this one may be to your liking, it’s all about a clipper ship captain.”

“Sounds very interesting, Son, tell us more.”

Joe sat at the table and listened as his brother and father led the conversation with talk of all of Adam’s accomplishments. He offered a word here and there just to show he was paying attention, but all the while Joe wished for dinner to be over. After more than an hour the three men finally adjourned to the living room and took seats around the fireplace.

“So, you’ve been listening to all of this about me, Joe–how about you? What’s new with the ranch? Pa told me you are helping to build a new mill to replace the one Pa and I put there the year you were born.”

Joe frowned at Adam’s recollection and the continuing reminder of how he had helped their father build the Ponderosa in the early days. “Yeah, that one is getting old, it would take as much time and money to patch it up as it would to build a new one. So that’s the plan.”

Adam laughed and noticed his brother shot him a harsh look in response. “I’m not laughing at you, Kid! I just thought it was funny that the mill is the same age as you and you called it old.”

Joe stood up and put his hands on his hips so he wouldn’t use them on his brother. He did not appreciate his mirth, but even more he did not appreciate being called “kid” and Joe was ready to take issue with it now.

“First of all, I am NOT a kid! Second of all–it’s been ten years in case you have forgotten! I’ve done a whole lot of ranch building myself over the years. So, if you have some notion that your “little” brother is still here you are wrong.”

Adam stood from his chair and squared off with Joe. Ben crossed his arms across his chest trying to stay out of what was going on between his two sons. He finally reasoned that both men had something that they had to work out, and as much as it pained him, Ben knew he had to let them address it.

“I know you aren’t a kid, Joe,” Adam began and then pointed over at Joe’s hair. “I can even see a bit of gray around the edges too.”

“Yeah–well at least I have hair!” Joe countered, motioning to his brother’s receding hairline.

Adam laughed again. “Touché, Joe—you are right there! Now how about us not being at each other’s throat? I will do my best not to call you kid, it’s just an old habit—-and it’s not meant as anything derogatory I can assure you.”

“Fine,” Joe muttered and saw how his father looked at him. He knew he would have to apologize yet again. “I’m sorry, Adam–maybe I am a little touchy.”

Ben smiled hearing his youngest son trying to make amends. He stood and approached both sons, placing himself in the middle of them. He threw his arms around both of their shoulders. “Are you both done sparring for awhile or should I bring out the boxing gloves?”

Joe looked down at the floor, he was starting to feel a bit ashamed of himself. He had promised his father to make Adam’s stay pleasant and he had already acted up on the first day. Joe decided to try his best to set aside his ill feelings for the time being.

“No, we’re done. Just wanted Adam to feel at home you know? I mean just like old times–the two of us fighting after dinner!” Joe alibied as best he could to ease the tension.

“Well, I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned the slight gray in your hair–sorry.” Adam nodded over at his brother.

“It’s not gray,” Ben defended his youngest and then broke into a big grin “it’s white actually.”

“Yeah—and remember you always said white hair meant wisdom?” Joe looked up into his father’s eyes and smirked. “You got wise very young, Pa—so I guess so did I.”

Ben patted Joe on the back and shook his head. “Oh, no, the white on my head was not caused by wisdom. We all know who caused it–right, Adam?”

Adam broke into laughter this time, and it was a brief calm in the storm that was still brewing. “Yes, as I recall, Pa, you didn’t have one single white hair until Joe was born.”

“Very funny,” Joe replied.

“Funny and true!” Ben laughed again and settled back into his chair.

“Well, I am gonna take my white hair to bed now—you all stay up and chat,” Joe called across the room as he headed toward the staircase.

“See you in the morning,” Adam called to his brother and Joe nodded.

“Goodnight, Son,” Ben called over to Joe and watched as he walked up to his room.

*****

The first week of Adam’s visit had at last passed. Joe stood out in the front yard and stared up at the stars thinking of all he had witnessed and heard over the last seven days. He didn’t remember his father ever seeming happier than he had since his oldest brother’s return. Ben had taken his son into town and reintroduced him to both old friends and new ones. Joe shook his head and leaned against the hitching post more mentally exhausted than physically. Though he had done an awful lot of work in an effort to evade his brother, Joe had been forced to endure many a family dinner and it was getting harder each time. It seemed like Adam was the conquering hero and all the towns folks had swooned over the still handsome older Cartwright son.

Joe felt like the last straw had been added to the weight of his burden when his father had announced an hour earlier that he was throwing a big shindig for Adam on Saturday. Joe was trying his best to come up with an excuse to be gone that night but was having little luck. The last thing he wanted to do was watch even more fawning over his brother.

“Joseph?” Ben called as he neared his son.

Joe shot a quick look down to the ground to avoid his father’s questioning eyes. He had hoped that the chess match that Adam and Ben were embroiled in would last into the night.

“Yeah, Pa?” Joe returned, still avoiding the other man’s eyes.

“Well, Adam had me in check-mate in ten moves–so the game’s over!” Ben tried to sound upbeat even though he was well aware of Joe’s growing jealousy. “How about you come in and defend my honor and take him on?”

“No, I gotta turn in—I have to help set the foundation at the mill first thing in the morning.”

“Your excuses are becoming weaker–think you need to practice a little more,” Ben suggested and dropped his hand onto Joe’s shoulder. “I was hoping that you would invite your brother to ride out there with you tomorrow. You know—spend some time together?”

“Now why would Professor Cartwright want to see a mill? I mean he might get his suit dusty,” Joe replied sarcastically.

“Joseph, I don’t appreciate your lack of trying to get along with your brother. You know he isn’t going to be around much longer.”

“Oh yeah? When’s he going?”

“In a couple of weeks. And, until then I expect you to do better with your attitude–just like you promised me,” Ben chastised.

“Fine,” Joe shot back and shook his head defeated. “But, he better do his own part too–and that means no more “kid” remarks!”

Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder and he hollered.

“Ouch! What’s that for?”

“Just to let you know that you still are MY kid and in some very vague way–I am still in charge,” Ben smiled and winked to show his son he needed to lighten up a little.

“Point taken–” Joe laughed as his father let go of him. “Okay, I’ll go in there and beat Shakespeare at checkers for you. That’s one game he never was good at.”

“This I have to see,” Ben nodded and walked with Joe back into the house.

The following morning both Cartwright brothers stood in the barn saddling their horses. Joe was finished with Cochise first and walked over to the next stall staring at Adam. He was surprised to find his brother so proficiently tightening the saddle cinch. Joe figured his brother ought to be rather rusty after so many years away from the ranch. Adam could feel his brother’s stare and turned towards it.

“Why so surprised, Joe? Evidently you think they don’t have horses in England,” Adam said with a smile turning the corners of his mouth.

“What do you do—ride them to class?” Joe asked.

“I live out more into the country. If you would come and visit I would be glad to show you the fine stables that are on the estate.”

“Estate? You have an estate?”

“I live on an estate–no it’s not mine,” Adam laughed at the way his brother was looking at him now. “It belongs to the head of the university, I live in a cottage on his property. It’s really quite lovely, I bet you’d like it.”

Joe led his horse out to the yard and swung up into his saddle. “I like it just fine here, thank you!” Joe returned a bit defensively.

Adam mounted his own horse and glanced over at Joe. “I wasn’t suggesting you move to England, Brother–just visit.”

“Can’t. Too much to do here. And I better get to it now by the way. Let’s go,” Joe replied and reined his horse and kicked at it’s sides.

The ride up to the northeastern section of the ranch and beyond Syler’s Creek took the two brothers more than an hour’s time to get to. Dismounting, Joe tied Cochise’s reins to the make-shift hitching post and Adam followed suit. They were greeted by Candy. He had already met Adam earlier in the week and had found him to be quite friendly in spite of Joe’s previous warning.

“Joe! Adam! Good to see you two!” Candy called out and threw down his hammer.

“How’s it going?” Joe asked as he looked at the other men working on laying the foundation posts for the new mill.

“We got everything delivered, now we just got to get it built. So, Adam, you gonna give us some help today?”

“I am just a spectator, Candy. But, I could make a few suggestions.”

Joe shook his head and muttered under his breath, ***I bet you could. I have a few suggestions for you too***.

“Huh?” Adam asked turning towards his brother. “What did you say?”

“Nothing—so what’s your suggestion?” Joe corrected his posture and stared eye to eye with Adam.

“Did you have a site survey done, Joe?’ Adam asked as he slowly walked around the area, staring off towards the creek.

“No—didn’t figure we would need one. Why?”

“Well, Joe, as you pointed out the other night, the old mill needed to come down so why not take advantage of the situation and better position the new one?” Adam said as he stopped at the creek bed.

“Better position? I guess you are forgetting that YOU were the one who chose this place to begin with. Are you admitting that you were wrong back then? ‘Cause if you are saying that I’d like to write it down—a definite first for you!” Joe laughed.

“No, actually I wasn’t wrong—but that was a long time ago. This creek’s course has changed quite a few times since then—so that should be considered. I think a new site survey would be a good idea before you get that foundation done. You want to draw the best amount of water don’t you?”

Joe walked off. He felt like he had years ago when he was corrected by a much younger version of the man who had corrected him now. As he stared down the creek and watched the stream flow, it occurred to Joe that unfortunately his brother was probably right, yet again. To go ahead and construct the mill just to spite Adam would be a stupid move on his part.

Candy watched as his friend made his trek down to the creek and followed it’s course for a few yards. He approached Adam.

“I think Joe’s a bit upset,” Candy started. “Maybe you should go talk to him?”

“It seems as though I can’t say anything right as far as my brother is concerned, Candy. Maybe I should have kept my suggestion to myself,” Adam frowned as he watched Joe move farther and farther down the stream.

“I don’t think he’s mad with you, probably just mad with himself. He’s been trying to follow in some pretty amazing footsteps, you know? After Hoss died Joe had a problem trying to match his footsteps—and now with you being here–looks like he feels a bit over-shadowed by your fame.”

“He’s still a kid in a lot of ways.” Adam remarked coolly.

Candy grabbed Adam’s arm and spun him around. “You know it’s THOSE types of remarks that hurt him!” Candy flared off. “He’s done the work of two men for a long time now—there’s no “kid” in him! Until you understand that you will never ever get through to him. And, if you want to fix this breech in your relationship, you will start trying to see him for the man that he is now and not the kid brother you left here years ago.”

Adam sighed and Candy released his arm. “We never got along–not even when we were younger. I don’t know why I even thought we would get along now. There’s too many years between us–not to mention our differing opinions of life in general.”

“Sounds to me like you want to take the easy way out, Adam. Why don’t you try to accept him for what he is—and maybe you will get that in return?”

Adam slowly walked after his brother, hoping he would find the words that might help. Joe had stopped and sat on one of the rocks resting on the shore. He looked pretty despondent as his brother eased over to him.

“You were right,” Joe whispered. “I never should have started this project without getting a site survey done. But, then I am not an architect —” Joe trailed off. He had alluded to one of his brother’s many talents.

“We each are gifted in different things, Joe. You don’t have to feel bad about that.”

“Guess you will be telling Pa about this?” Joe asked turning to stare into the brown eyes of his brother.

“I out grew the tattletale stage years ago!” Adam laughed. “Besides, Pa should have told you to do one to begin with.”

“Pa doesn’t tell me what to do,” Joe shot back, his anger back in the forefront. “I can admit when I am wrong. Better than most people.”

“You mean like me?”

“If the shoe fits.”

“Joe, I don’t think I was wrong–if you are hinting about me leaving ten years ago,” Adam argued back.

“No, I was not talking about THAT. I’ve given up on that, it never made sense to me–and never will. I am talking about you not coming home when Hoss died!”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Adam fired back, now his anger was matching that of his youngest brother.

“Yeah–just like I said–some folks don’t like to admit when they are wrong!”

“Stop trying to pick a fight all the time! It’s getting a bit old, don’t you think?”

“Good change of subject, and always alluding to it being ME who’s in the wrong!” Joe yelled and began to walk off. Adam grabbed Joe’s elbow and stopped his progression.

“No! You aren’t backing away again! If you want me to treat you like a man you have to act like one!”

Joe’s left hand formed into a fist, and it took every ounce of will-power that he possessed not to knock his brother to the ground. Instead, Joe hurried to his horse. Throwing himself into the saddle he called down to Candy, who had watched the whole battle.

“You let the good professor handle the mill! He’s gonna show you and the other men how to do it right!” Joe kicked at Cochise’s sides and galloped away fuming.

*****

Ben had waited long enough. He had expected one or both of his sons back hours ago and decided he needed to head up to the mill to see what was causing the delay. When he reined Buck to a stop at the construction site, Ben’s eyes surveyed the area. He could see Adam and Candy and a half a dozen other men, but no Joe. Dismounting, the worried father caught up with his eldest.

“What’s going on–and where’s Joe?”

Adam turned to the man to his right side and said, “Jim, you go on ahead–get the men to bring all the equipment down here. They have a couple hours of daylight left to start on the footings.” As the man walked away, Adam finally addressed his father’s questions, “Joe left hours ago. I’m afraid I riled him up again. I wasn’t trying to start anything, Pa.”

“What was it this time?” Ben asked shaking his head concerned over what was going on between his two headstrong sons.

“I told him he needed to do a site survey—it angered him that I would suggest it. No matter how I tried to smooth it over he just wouldn’t listen. I got Jim Hamrick and his son to come out and help me with it. We are set now to lay the foundation, only had to move the site a quarter of a mile. That’s all there was to it, Pa.”

Ben walked over towards Candy for confirmation. “That about sum it up, Candy?”

“Yeah, you sure have some stubborn sons by the way. I can see why Hoss was so helpful–he could keep them away from each other’s throats! I tried but it’s like trying to explain the color blue to a blind person,” Candy shot back and didn’t look too happy himself with the situation.

“You know where Joe went, Candy?”

“Nope—didn’t say. Probably brooding somewhere. He’ll show up, don’t worry.”

“You stay with the men, Adam and I will head back to the house in case he shows up there,” Ben said patting Candy’s shoulder in an attempt to thank the man for his earlier efforts.

“Sure thing, good luck!” Candy called as he walked over towards the rest of the crew.

Joe paused at the front door before reaching for the doorknob. He hated to walk inside and come face to face with his father and brother. But, he knew he had to or it would show that he really was a kid. Sucking in his breath to calm his nerves and diffuse his temper Joe walked into the house. Ben and Adam turned from their chairs as they heard the door open. Joe removed his hat and holster and then walked over to the staircase.

“Hop Sing kept dinner for you, it’s on the stove,” Ben began.

“I ate in town—going to bed now,” Joe muttered and made it to the second step before he heard the bellow of his name.

“Joseph! Come over here!” Ben sang out, his voice deep and commanding now.

Joe turned and slowly approached his family, never looking up from his gaze on the floor.

“Come on, Pa—it’s too late at night for a lecture–can’t we just forget this?” Joe complained.

“This is for BOTH of you! I want you two to discuss what happened today–get it all out–so we don’t have to keep going through this. I expect more out of both of my sons!”

“I’m sorry if you took my suggestion the wrong way, Joe,” Adam said looking over at his brother.

“Apology accepted—now can I leave?” Joe shot back angrily. He had taken as much of his brother as he could stand for one day.

“It wasn’t your fault, Joseph. There was no reason for you to have gotten upset because Adam mentioned the survey,” Ben jumped into the battle squaring off with his youngest now.

“Why doesn’t he just write up a list of all of the mistakes I’ve made in the last ten years– I mean we might as well hear them all, huh?”

Adam stood up, his own anger had reached it’s peak listening to his brother flaring off at their father. “I have not been picking on you—it’s been the other way around I think!”

“Me pick on you?” Joe asked disbelievingly. “How could anyone pick on you, Professor? You are perfect!”

“Enough!” Ben shouted.

“Yeah, you are right, Pa—I’ve had enough of this myself,” Adam replied staring at his brother.

“I think I’ll go up to the timber camp for a few days. That’ll give you and Pa some time alone–” Joe trailed off as he broke away from the scene in the living room and headed once again towards the stairs. “I’ll be back for the party on Saturday.”

“Oh sure, Joseph! Run away from the problem instead of fixing it!” Ben called over to him.

Joe turned and faced his father, he was filled with anger and frustration. It seemed to Joe at the time that Ben was siding with Adam and blaming the whole turn of events on him. He was even madder now that his father had accused him of running away from his problems and was not about to let that statement pass without addressing it.

“Isn’t that what Adam did? He ran away ten years ago! You never berated him about it–so don’t yell at me for leaving for a few days!” Joe screamed and hurried up the stairs and headed to his room.

Adam looked across the room at his father. Ben had sat down stiffly as soon as Joe had departed and was rigid in appearance. Adam worried about the stress that he and his brother were causing their father.

“Maybe I should go up and talk to him,” Ben stated sullenly.

“No, Pa–think we should just let him cool off. From what he has said I figure he hasn’t forgiven me for leaving the ranch ten years ago—and he’s not about to forgive me any time soon either.”

“Please try and understand, Adam, your brother does love you, he just has had a rough time–” Ben trailed off as he struggled to find the right words to explain Joe’s behavior.

“Come on, Pa! You know Joe and I were never close–not like he and Hoss, or Hoss and me for that matter. I understand that, you need to as well.”

“You are both grown men, I see no reason why you can’t put aside your past differences and try a little harder to accept each other.”

“It’s not just a matter of accepting me, Pa. Joe has always been in some kind of competition with me. I have no idea why. Maybe I never should have talked about my accomplishments around him–probably made him feel bad.”

Ben stood and walked over to his eldest son and dropped his hand down on his shoulder. “No—I am very proud of you. And deep down I know that Joseph is too. Joe fails to see his own accomplishments–that’s the problem.”

Adam shook his head disagreeing with his father’s assumption. “I have complimented him on loads of things since I’ve gotten home. But, none of that is working. I don’t know what he wants me to do–other than leave.”

“No—don’t say that! I won’t have his ill temper affecting your stay here, Son. Let’s just let him go cool down and think about all that’s happened. I know deep down that he’s feeling a bit over-shadowed by his famous brother–and maybe that’s normal. You have accomplished a lot since leaving.”

Adam stood and stared into his father’s compassionate eyes and felt his heart fill with love. The man standing before him was doing his best to both run interference and also show his sons how much they were each cherished. Adam knew that was a tough thing to accomplish. “Thanks, Pa,” Adam whispered, his eyes misting up a bit.

“For what?”

“For letting me do what I had to do–for not judging me–and for always leaving the door opened for my return.”

Ben put his arm around his son’s shoulder and smiled. “You have made me very proud–you know that! I just wish we could see each other more often. The letters have meant an awful lot to me over the years–but it hasn’t taken the place of being with you.”

“Will you come? Will you visit me, Pa? It would mean the world to me,” Adam finally asked. He had wanted to broach the subject for days but had not known how to do it.

Ben stood and thought on the question. He could read in his son’s eyes that it was important to him. Adam wanted his father to see where he lived and what he had done with his life. Suddenly Ben’s gaze trailed up the staircase with a heavy burden in his heart. To visit Adam would mean to leave his other son. That would be the hardest part. He wondered how Joe would take those turn of events.

Adam read the delay in his father’s answer and chimed back in, “Pa, you wouldn’t be gone all that long—would you please?”

Ben sighed and nodded, he decided that if he didn’t do as his son had requested he might never have the chance again. Losing Hoss at such an early age was a harsh reminder to Ben of how precious time now was becoming. “Yes, I will visit you.”

“How about when I leave you come with me? We can travel one way together at least.”

“All right, Son. I have been postponing that trip for far too long anyway. But—let me talk to Joe about it. I’ll have to cushion my words some so he will understand.”

“Thanks, Pa—it means so much to me!” Adam replied and gave his father a brief hug. “I’m gonna turn in–how about you?”

“I’ll be up in a little while. Goodnight, Son,” Ben smiled and Adam walked to the stairs.

Ben sat back down wearily in his chair by the fireplace and stared into the burning embers. He dreaded the talk he would soon have to have with his youngest son.

*****

Joe left the next morning without any fan-fare. In fact he made it a point to have his horse ready and his saddlebags packed before his brother and father sat down for breakfast. Ben watched from the window behind his desk as the pinto and rider rounded the barn and disappeared from sight. Joe being high strung and emotional was what made him Joe, Ben understood him more than anyone else did; including Joe. Resigning himself to the fact that there was no changing his son’s temperament, Ben walked into the dining room to eat breakfast with Adam. They would give Joe the time he needed to come to terms with his feelings, though his absence would be felt for the next three days. Adam was glad to have some one on one time with his father but felt guilty for being part of the problem which had forced his brother to leave.

Joe put his time to good use up at the timber camp helping out with the loggers who had been assigned the task of marking and then cutting the older trees in the northwestern section of the Ponderosa. Though Joe preferred other jobs, he welcomed the solitude afforded him up in the high country. He had the foreman’s cabin to himself what with Candy now in charge of the construction of the new mill. Joe had made his opinion known right away that he wanted nothing more to do with that project, and Candy unfortunately could do nothing to change his friend’s mind.

Saturday came much too rapidly as far as Joe was concerned. But, he had promised his father that he would return in for the party which was being thrown in Adam’s honor, so he knew he had to show up on time. Pushing into the ranch house door, Joe’s eyes surveyed the elegant decorations in the living room. Flowers filled the room, along with banners and other symbols of celebration. Hop Sing came into the room carrying a punch bowl and stopped at the entranceway and cast a glance over at Joe.

“You look mess! You get cleaned–party start soon!” Hop Sing shouted staring at the stubble of beard Joe wore and his dusty clothes.

“Nice welcome–thanks,” Joe shot back at the cook and then saw his father descending the stairs. Ben was dressed in his best suit to celebrate the joyous occasion. Ben strode across the room and over to his son.

“Guests will be here soon,” he commented and witnessed another frown coming from Joe’s mouth.

“I’m gonna get cleaned up,” Joe replied and headed across to the stairs, never looking directly at his father. He had hoped to get some kind of a welcome home, or even an “I’ve missed you” but instead everyone’s thoughts apparently were on Adam’s party.

“Welcome back, Joseph!” Ben called as Joe made his way up the stairs. Joe turned and looked back down at his father. Sometimes he was sure that Pa was a mind reader.

“Thanks,” Joe nodded, a smile creasing his mouth he continued up to his room.

The party began at eight o’clock and was in full force by the time an hour had passed by. Guests packed the living room and den and listened intently, totally enamored by all of the Adam Cartwright’s experiences and accolades. Joe stood in the background during most of the festivities. Hop Sing noticed the youngest Cartwright son dodging the guests as he helped himself to numerous glasses of punch. Strolling around the room the cook finally caught up with Joe and forced a sandwich into his hand.

“Too much drink, not enough food—you eat now!” Hop Sing protested as he examined Joe’s face. He could read the young man well and could see the hurt behind Joe’s eyes.

“Okay–okay–I’m eating,” Joe whispered to the cook and took a bite of the sandwich.

“Mister Adam vely important man,” Hop Sing stated and then put his hand on Joe’s arm and looked back up into his eyes, “but, you important too. Do not forget this.” Hop Sing smiled and hurried away to keep the refreshments stocked.

Joe appreciated the fact that his dear friend had made the statement and his feelings known. Looking across the room where his father stood next to Adam and discussed all the great details of his life Joe felt that Hop Sing was a party of one in the thoughts he had conveyed. Joe refilled his punch glass and by the time he looked back across towards the fireplace, more guests had gathered around his brother, who had decided to entertain them with a recital of some of his greatest literary works. Joe noticed too that his father never took his hand off of Adam’s shoulder the whole time and was totally enthralled by his soliloquy. Joe felt as though he wasn’t even in the room as far as the others were concerned. He walked away past the study and out the side door. At that point, Joe decided that his presence was no longer required. He set out to find something a bit stronger than punch.

It was true that Ben did not notice right away the disappearance of his youngest son. But, by the time he was ready to propose a toast to Adam it occurred to him that Joe was in fact missing. He made a brief survey of the room and then walked into the kitchen to ask Hop Sing if he had spotted Joe.

“Too much talk of Mister Adam, not enough talk of Little Joe. Think made him mad. Hop Sing looked for him but must have left house,” Hop Sing said, and his tone showed that he wasn’t pleased with his employer at the time.

Ben sighed and shook his head upset over what had been a mistake on his own part. He had meant to spend some time with Joe originally but time just caught up with him. Now he knew that his lack of attention had sent Joe away.

“The party is for Adam, Hop Sing,” Ben stated defensively. “But, I should have tried a little bit harder to pull Joseph into the conversations. I hope he returns soon.” Ben walked back to the living room.

Making sure everyone had their glasses full, a short time later, Ben proposed a toast to his eldest son. “To my son, Adam, you have made us all proud. No matter where your travels take you, you take all of us with you. Thank you for coming home.”

There was a round of applause and the guests lifted their glasses and toasted Adam’s return.

“Thank you all. To say I haven’t missed you all would be a great lie. Most of all my father–” Adam paused and looked around for his brother but did not see him in the room, “and my brother Joe.” Adam continued. ***wherever the hell he is*** Adam thought to himself.

The guests had a marvelous time that night and didn’t leave until almost midnight. The last carriage pulled away and both Ben and Adam loosened their string ties and sighed wearily.

“Great party, Pa. Thanks,” Adam smiled and draped his arm around his father’s shoulder.

“I am glad you had a good time,” Ben replied. He cast a quick glance around the yard hoping to spot his youngest son.

Adam could tell that Joe’s disappearance had their father worried. “Want me to go and look for him?”

“No–he’ll be back. I’m gonna turn in–how about you?”

“Think I’ll help Hop Sing straighten up a little bit and then read for awhile. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Son,” Ben said forcing a smile to hide his worry. He walked somberly into the ranch house.

Adam heard the sound on the front porch and gazed up at the grandfather clock. It was almost two in the morning. He had dozed off in a chair in front of the fireplace while reading a book but the loud noise had jolted him awake. It sounded like someone over turned a chair or something. Adam walked across the room and pulled the door open and headed out toward the noise. He spotted Joe sitting on the floor of the porch, a bottle of whiskey in his hands. There was a chair knocked over next to him.

“Oh–so sorry,” Joe laughed and tried to pull the chair back upright. “Must’ve tripped—didn’t mean to wake you, old man.”

Adam approached his rather intoxicated youngest brother and stared down at him shaking his head disapprovingly. “So, I guess you found a livelier party than mine huh?”

“Oh your party was just fine—just fine! I had a wonderful time! It’s just that Hop Sing doesn’t put quite enough kick into the punch anymore. Had to find something a wee bit stronger.”

“Yes, I see that,” Adam nodded. “Funny—I can still remember that night before I left ten years ago–you sat around getting drunk that night too.”

“That’s right, Big Brother, I only get plastered for special occasions!” Joe laughed loudly and swigged more liquor as he pulled himself to standing. “So did you get enough applause for one evening or you want some more?”

“I have better things to do with my time than standing here in the middle of the night listening to a drunk,” Adam stated caustically and began to walk away. Joe caught his brother’s arm and spun him back around. “Don’t push me, Joe. I am not very happy with you at the moment,” Adam fired towards his brother and broke from his grip.

“Not happy with me? Really? Why? Because I refused to be a part of your self indulgent grand welcome home?”

“I’m not happy at what you have been putting Pa through actually. It’s amusing that you think of yourself as an adult but behave no differently than you did ten years ago!”

Joe, fueled by both anger and alcohol reared back his left fist and unleashed it on his brother. Adam was caught off guard and fell off the porch and onto the dusty yard below.

“Don’t you dare talk to me about my father! You never cared about how much you hurt him by leaving! Yeah–but that was okay, right? Made YOU so adult and all, to leave and never look back!” Joe shouted and jumped off the porch readying for battle.

Adam mopped off the blood that spilled from the corner of his mouth and slowly pulled himself to his feet. “If you weren’t drunk–” Adam started but Joe interrupted him.

“Oh don’t let that stop you, Adam!” Joe fired back and sent another blow to his brother’s face. He got off his punch but Adam was quick to return a punch of his own.

Joe fell to the ground looking up at his brother. “Not bad—for someone who writes books!” Joe laughed and pulled himself to his knees.

“Don’t make me do this,” Adam warned as his brother neared him again.

Joe ignored his brother’s words and lunged toward him knocking him to the ground. They rolled in the dirt, each swinging fists at the other. Joe kicked his brother and he fell backwards, narrowly missing the water trough.

“You just left! You didn’t care about the ranch–you didn’t care about Pa! All you have ever cared about was Adam Cartwright! Yeah, I didn’t stay for your damn party! I couldn’t stomach the fact that Pa welcomed you back like some conquering hero! Hoss and I had to pick up the pieces after you left! We had to help Pa get over you leaving! The last thing Pa should have done was to celebrate your return. He should have made you crawl back on your hands and knees!” Joe yelled and dove again at his brother. Adam saw the move right before it was completed and turned in time sending Joe landing head first into the water trough.

Adam laughed as Joe sloshed out of the water totally irate now. “You just have never gotten over the fact that he’s MY father too–have you, Joe? You just can’t stand the fact that he loves me and is proud of all I have done with my life! So, you go around sulking and getting drunk like some kind of kid.”

Joe slugged his brother in the stomach and he fell backwards towards the porch. Adam came back with a punch that glanced off of his brother’s forehead, leaving a good sized gash above his eyebrow. Joe reeled from the punch and leaned against the floor boards of the porch trying to catch his breath.

“Had enough?” Adam asked as he stared over at Joe. “We both got some licks in–let’s just stop now.” Adam was full of remorse over the fact that he had opened his brother’s eyebrow. He could see the stream of blood flowing down Joe’s face and it pained him.

Joe wasn’t about to stop the fight. He wished now that he wasn’t quite as tipsy so he would have caused as much damage as his brother had. Taking a deep breath Joe reached for his brother and, catching him off guard again, grabbed his shirt and threw Adam up against the wall of the house. Neither of the two men heard the door to the house open as their father walked outside to find out what was causing the noise he had heard from upstairs.

“I’m tired of picking up the pieces!” Joe yelled knocking Adam against the wall roughly. “I had to pick up the pieces after Hoss died—I had to get Pa through that myself. I’ve had to pick up the pieces as far as this ranch is concerned too! While you’ve been sitting on your butt writing novels I have been working calluses up on my hands just so Pa’s life long dream would remain intact. Now I am gonna have to pick up the pieces again—when you leave! But, no, you never even stopped to think about how Pa’s gonna take it when you go, have you?” Joe shouted, and with each word he shoved Adam’s head against the timbers of the house.

Adam stared into his brother’s eyes, they were like a wild animal’s. Joe was so swept away by his emotions he had no idea what he was saying. Upset and hurt by all that his brother had said to him, Adam let it out. “You won’t have to pick up the pieces again, Joe, ‘cause when I get on that boat Pa is gonna be with me!” he replied vehemently.

Ben’s mouth fell open as he witnessed the scene and heard what Adam had said in his anger. Joe looked as though he had been slapped in the face upon hearing Adam’s revelation.

“You’re lying!” Joe shouted and thrust his brother back against the wall and stood back.

“No, Joe—I’m not–Pa’s going with me,” Adam sounded off, and then saw his father appear on the porch.

“Joseph—” Ben called out when he saw the look of total betrayal forming on his youngest son’s face.

Joe stepped down off the porch, appearing to be mortally wounded by what he had just heard. He looked up at his father with tears in his eyes. Ben came down off the porch and headed for Joe, hoping to explain. He reached for Joe’s arm, and noticed the blood that was seeping from the wound on his son’s face. Joe broke the hold harshly and backed away.

“Joseph—let me explain–please!” Ben begged as he began to follow Joe’s escape towards the barn. “Please, Son, come on inside and we’ll talk and I’ll see to that wound.”

“Leave me the hell alone!” Joe shouted and hurried into the barn. Ben shot a look towards Adam who shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I lost my temper—I didn’t mean for it to come out,” Adam whispered as he neared his father. Before Ben could reply Joe had mounted Cochise and headed out of the yard at a fast clip. Ben closed his eyes feeling like he had lost Joe’s trust in him. The sound of hoof beats echoed into the depth of night until they were heard no more. Ben turned and walked silently past his eldest son and back into the ranch house.

*****

The cool summer breeze ruffled Joe’s curly hair and lulled him back from his troubled sleep. Rolling over in the damp tall grass he fought to regain his senses and determine just where he had ended up the previous night. It only took one glance towards the granite headstone of his mother to give Joe his answer. Somehow he had managed, though wrought with sadness and inebriated, to ride his horse to the shore of Lake Tahoe. Joe realized he must have still had some wits about him that night to have removed Cochise’s saddle and used the horse blanket underneath it to keep his body from the chill that hung in the high mountain air.

Joe slowly made it to his feet and stared down at his rumpled dress trousers. He had forgotten that he hadn’t taken the time to change into riding clothes after the party the night before. He still wore his white formal shirt but the string tie had ended up either falling off or being caught up in the fight with his brother Adam. Joe shook his head wondering if it might be inside the horse trough he had fallen into during the lengthy battle. Joe neared his horse and patted her neck to thank the animal for bringing him to his mother’s grave in one piece. He was very fortunate that Cochise seemed part human in such times of her master’s distress.

Joe gazed out at the expanse of Lake Tahoe and filled his lungs with the heavy pine scented air. Breaking his view temporarily, Joe walked over to his mother’s headstone. An old pain lent it’s way back into his heart when he thought of the woman who had died so many years ago. Joe had often come to his mother’s grave when wrought with turmoil and found great solace in the idea that perhaps she could still feel his presence standing there. Joe closed his eyes and thought back to the night before and the betrayal which had been heavily handed out by both his brother and his father as well. He remembered that his first thought had been to leave the ranch and never return. But, now, looking at Marie Cartwright’s headstone he knew that he could never leave the Ponderosa. His mother was buried there as well as his beloved brother Hoss. Joe hoped that when it came to be his time that he would also lay buried on the ranch he loved so much. It was the land where he had been conceived and the rich soil was as much a part of Joe as the Cartwright blood which flowed through his veins.

Joe saddled his horse and, reins in hand, he walked down the slope and headed towards the shoreline. He dropped the reins when he reached the bright blue waters of the lake and Cochise gratefully bowed her head and drank. Joe kneeled down and scooped up water into his hands and rinsed off his face. He could feel the throbbing of the cut above his right eyebrow and winced as he continued trying to clean the dried blood off of his forehead and cheeks. Stopping to stare at his reflection Joe couldn’t help thinking that he had gotten the worst in his fight with Adam. He cursed himself for having been drunk when he had challenged his brother. Joe was sure that his intoxication had caused him to miss his chance to equally hurt Adam. Closing his eyes, Joe thought again about the words that wouldn’t leave his worried mind. ***Pa’s gonna be with me!***He swallowed hard trying to fight back the tears. Joe was wounded more in spirit than in body now. He could not believe that his father would make a decision like that without bothering to tell him. It made Joe feel like he was unimportant to the man and that cut him to the quick. Staring across at the spectacular view of the faraway snow capped mountains Joe resigned himself to the fact that there wasn’t anything he could do to change his father’s mind about leaving for Europe. And if Pa would rather be with Adam then so be it!

Joe remembered telling his brother that he had stayed on the Ponderosa to keep their father’s dream alive. It was only now that Joe admitted to himself that it had become his own dream over the years as well. He wished Hoss were there, then he could easier bear the thought of his father sailing half way around the world. He felt that Adam had won, won their father. And he would just have to handle it now. Handle it yes, but like it–no! Joe reached for the reins and pulled Cochise up the hill and mounted the horse. He turned the animal towards the ranch house, deciding that Adam would not run him out of his own home.

Joe breathed a sigh of relief when he dismounted and led his horse into the barn. Both Ben and Adam’s horses were not in their stalls. At least he wouldn’t have to face the two of them right away. Joe still was not at all sure of what he would say, if anything to address what had happened the night before. He wearily walked to the house trying to push aside the worry and hurt that crept up from his heart and increased the blossoming headache he was fighting.

Hop Sing heard the approach of Joe’s horse and was there waiting for him at the front door. He had heard the version of the brother’s fight which the eldest son had given that morning at breakfast and wanted to hear Joe’s side now. Always knowing when to ask questions and when to patiently listen and wait for the opportunity to arise, the cook reached for Joe’s arm as he moved away from the credenza.

“You come in kitchen!” Hop Sing insisted and pulled Joe along with him. Joe did not struggle against the clasp of the cook. He was so emotionally spent that the thought of having someone who truly cared paying attention to him was something he welcomed. The two men made it into the kitchen and Hop Sing pointed at a chair next to the food preparation table. Joe sank down onto the hard oak seat and sighed wearily. “You look mess—need warm for stomach and medicine for head,” Hop Sing sang out and busied himself with the stove for a minute, stoking the cast iron grating with fresh wood and closing the metal door. He then settled the teapot on top of it and turned back to the sink. Pouring a basin of water and grabbing a clean towel Hop Sing made his way back across to Joe and sat down opposite him. “This sting for a minute,” he muttered as he meticulously began to wash the still open gash on the young man’s forehead. Joe was too numbed in spirit to even show the pain with a flinch of his face. He sat still and allowed his old friend to try and repair some of the damage caused by his brother’s fists.

“Where’s Pa and Adam?” Joe asked when Hop Sing finally stopped cleaning his cut and reached for some ointment and a bandage to secure over it.

“Father and brother go looking for Little Joe—vely worried,” he replied and spread the medicine onto the wound. Placing the bandage carefully over Joe’s right eyebrow, Hop Sing was satisfied with his doctoring and hurried to the tea kettle which had started to whistle to let him know that it was ready. He poured water over the metal tea ball and seeped the contents a few minutes before adding some honey to the brew and handing it over to Joe.

” Glad they’re not back–don’t think I’d want to talk to either of them right now. Hey— I’d rather have some coffee,” Joe argued staring down at the pale brown liquid. He tried his best for a smile but it lost it’s effect when his mind went back to the previous night’s events.

“Tea help—you sleep out in cold—didn’t you?”

“Yeah–guess I did,” Joe nodded and sipped at the tea.

“Catch cold—tea help keep fever away,” Hop Sing smiled over at the young man and then watched for a sign that he was ready to talk.

“When did they leave?” Joe questioned to gauge how soon he would be facing both Pa and Adam.

“Leave early—father vely upset. Little Joe should not do this,” Hop Sing stated but then his eyes filled with compassion towards the man who he had helped to raise from infancy. He patted Joe’s hand and said, “you tell Hop Sing troubles–just like when you a boy. Hop Sing help like always.”

Joe thought back on the past and on all the times he had found comfort in the presence of the Oriental who was in all respects like a second father to him. Hop Sing had bailed Joe out of so many scrapes over the years and had done more than his share of running interference between Ben and him a number of times. Looking into the ebony eyes Joe wished it were as easy to fix his problems as it had been years earlier. But, not this time. Joe knew that Hop Sing could not patch the gap in his heart which had been wedged open by Adam’s return and his father’s betrayal.

“There’s nothing you can do this time, Hop Sing. Pa is dead set on going back to England with Adam. He never even told me–never even thought of me–” Joe trailed off. Hearing his own words made it that much more real to him. Pa was leaving and there was no changing it now. Talking about it, even to his old friend Hop Sing, was making Joe feel that much worse.

“Mister Ben not tell Little Joe—but Hop Sing sure he was going to—maybe not have time—you need have faith in father.”

“He had plenty of time if he had wanted me to know. He’s barely even noticed me ever since Adam arrived. I should have known this was coming!” Joe’s voice raised and he stood from the table. “I’m just gonna go to bed. I didn’t sleep too good—and I have a headache the size of Virginia City right now.”

“Headache from what Little Joe drink! No sleep yet—bath first—help relax—Hop Sing heat water for you. Then you sleep. Problems maybe not so bad when wake up,” Hop Sing touched Joe’s arm again and tried to encourage him.

Joe nodded his acceptance of the cook’s offer. “Thanks–guess I could use a bath–sleeping out on the ground and all,” Joe said and turned towards the dining room. He stopped in his tracks and turned back to face Hop Sing. He gave him a quick hug to thank him for his kindness and then hurried away. Hop Sing started to boil water for Joe’s bath all the while his worry heightened over the sadness that he had witnessed on the young man’s face. He was doubtful that making Joe a bit more comfortable would do much to ease his wounded heart, but at least he could offer him a hot bath and some loving words.

*****

Ben and Adam’s search for Joe had taken them into Virginia City to the International House. When they learned that he had not taken a room for the night they headed out to the mill and then to the timber camp. Having no luck at either place their last stop had been up to Marie’s grave. There, in the tall grass next to her tombstone Ben had found the dark blue string tie his son had been wearing the night before. It made him feel that much more guilty to know that Joe had turned to his deceased mother instead of his father to ease his mind. Tucking the tie into his vest pocket Ben signaled to Adam and they rode off towards the ranch house.

“Joseph!” Ben yelled as he entered the house, followed close behind by his eldest son.

“You no yell!” Hop Sing insisted as he made his way into the living room. “Little Joe sleeping. You no wake, he vely tired.”

“Is he okay?” Adam asked staring into Hop Sing’s eyes and reading the worry that they held.

“Not okay–vely upset. Think Cartwrights should talk more and yell less!” Hop Sing fielded his comment towards Ben and padded off to the kitchen.

Ben knew what the Cantonese man had meant. It was his fault that he had not addressed the subject of England with his youngest. He had planned to do just that after the party, but his procrastination had harmed Joe and Ben was angered at himself for allowing it to have happened. Slowly Ben climbed the staircase and headed towards his son’s room. Opening the door the worried father noticed that the shade had been pulled down and the curtains had been drawn to darken the room sufficiently for Joe to fall to sleep. He moved to the chair at the side of Joe’s bed and sat down.

Joe had fallen to sleep on his left side leaving his right profile visibly showing the damage it had taken during the fight with his brother. Ben tenderly reached over and pushed the hair off of Joe’s forehead and then let his hand drift down gently to the bandage that he wore above his right eye. His heart sank just thinking about Joe having slept up at his mother’s grave all night. “I’m so sorry, Joseph,” Ben whispered, knowing his son was beyond hearing at that point. “It’s all my fault. I should have talked to you. I never wanted to hurt you, Son.” Ben stood again and pulled up the covers that had been kicked down to Joe’s feet. He turned and left the room. If he had been paying a bit more attention Ben may have spotted the solitary tear which had slid down from Joe’s right eye. He had heard his father’s words and they did nothing to help Joe with the aching he felt in his heart.

Joe slept straight through until breakfast the next morning. He washed and dressed and headed down to the dining room but dreaded having to speak to both Ben and Adam. Hop Sing was quick to set Joe’s plate in front of him, filled with his favorites. He patted Joe on the shoulder for support and then headed back to the kitchen. Ben passed Joe a cup of coffee. Joe muttered a thank you and sipped at his cup avoiding his brother’s eyes that stared at him from across the table. There was a long uncomfortable silence between the three men which was finally broken by Adam.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Adam said and pointed to indicate the bandage Joe wore on his forehead. “Are you okay? Does it hurt?”

“Doesn’t hurt near as bad as the knife wound in my back,” Joe fired back and threw down his napkin and stood. “I got work to do.” And with that statement he headed toward the front door. Ben pulled his chair back and stood and approached his youngest son who was strapping on his holster.

“I have to talk to you, Son,” Ben said and dropped his hand down on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe pulled away from his father’s touch and reached for his hat and secured it on his head, never looking at the man before him. “I don’t have anything to say to you. I’ve got work to do–you may no longer care about this ranch but I do. Besides—you have packing to do!” Joe replied bitterly and hurriedly pulled the door open and walked out.

*****

Joe made it a point to keep busy all day to try and push all thought of his father out of his head. He helped up at the branding corral and then rode over to the mill and checked in with Candy to be sure all was well. By early evening Joe found himself in Virginia City sitting alone drinking at the Silver Dollar Saloon. He had no intention of going home until late, that way totally avoiding having to speak to his family. By the time eleven o’clock rolled around, Joe paid his bar tab and secured a bottle of whiskey for his ride home.

Joe slowly brushed Cochise, all the while speaking to the animal as if it were his best friend in the world; the only one who understood him now. In a low and sorrowful voice Joe muttered his thoughts and frustrations while the horse stood and pawed at the ground to signal her owner that she felt for his woes.

Ben peered in through the open barn door, his eyes falling upon his son. After many years of careful observation, he knew when his youngest was hurting and when he needed his shoulder. Ben could also tell that Joe had been drinking. The young man’s unruly hair and his untucked shirt lent the way for that assumption. Joe had always prided himself on his appearance, knowing he could turn heads just by walking into a room. It was only during times of great distress that his son would lower his normal well groomed standards and move towards a more ragged appearance. It showed now.

“Is this a private conversation or can anyone join in?” Ben asked amusement in his tone as he moved closer towards the stall. He hoped his son would not reject his overtures this time.

Joe cast a quick glance his father’s way and then went right back to brushing his horse. He had no intention of conversing, worried what might come out of his mouth if he did. There were so many things he wanted to say to his father, none that would be very kind and all concerning Adam.

Ben reached across Cochise, grabbing his son’s hand to stop the progress of the brush and to force his attention. “Joe? I saw the light on in here—kinda hoped you would be coming in soon.”

“Just go to bed, Pa,” Joe responded, terse in his statement as he pulled his hand away and moved to brush another area of his horse.

“Do you want to talk?”

“Trust me—you wouldn’t want to hear it,” Joe laughed, his amusement only coming from the amount of whiskey he had consumed. He was so angry, so totally beside himself at the time that he refused to even look at his father.

“Try me.” Ben countered and walked around the horse so that he could stand right in front of Joe.

“No!” Joe shouted and tossed the brush down onto the hay and tried his best to move away from his father. Ben saw the move and caught the young man’s arm and tugged him back.

“Joseph!”

“Okay! Okay you wanna hear it? You want to hear what I’m thinking?” Joe yelled again and for the first time looked into his father’s eyes. He read hurt in them, which normally would have stopped him in his tracks, but he was far too angry and upset to stop his tirade.

“That’s why I am here,” Ben replied gently, refusing to let Joe’s attitude interfere with finding out what Joe was thinking.

“Just who the hell does Adam think he is anyway? I mean—he goes off—for years! He doesn’t even come back when we needed him—when Hoss–” Joe had to stop himself, the mention of his beloved brother Hoss sent the usual response of pain throughout his body.

“Joseph—he explained all that to us already. Why are you so quick to condemn him? He is your brother.”

“Well–that’s just fine, Pa! The prodigal son returned–hell let’s just go kill the fatted calf and be done with it!” Joe screamed and tried again to leave. Ben stepped into his path to block his departure once more.

“This thing between you and your brother—you have to let it go, Son,” Ben insisted.

“This thing?” Joe laughed again. “Oh, you mean the fact that he left, went on to do such high and mighty things and I stayed here to run the ranch? Oh yeah, the great accolades–the audience with the Queen of England—yeah that was so much more important—more than YOU!”

“He made his own way, Joe, the Ponderosa didn’t mean the same to him as it did you and Hoss–or even me. We can’t fault him for that.” Ben dropped his voice lower trying his best to calm the tempest in his son’s mind.

“So, he comes back and all’s well huh? I should just forget all the rest of the years? I should forget everything! Well, I can’t—and I won’t!” Joe answered and grabbed the half empty whiskey bottle on the table near the barn door. He chugged heavily, trying himself to drown out the thoughts of Adam and the thought of his father’s misplaced love for the man.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Ben asked following Joe’s move to the door.

“Not nearly.” Joe muttered. The effects of a long day of work, combined with the alcohol was wearing on him. He could feel his head spinning a little and he fought it off as best he could. “Pa—Hoss would have spent his entire life here with us—if he hadn’t died. I could have left myself, at any time—but I didn’t. I stayed for one reason—and only one reason.”

“And that would be?” Ben questioned. He was starting to see the slight appearance of tears glistening in his son’s eyes and knew that the whiskey was indeed loosening his tongue. The real reason for Joe’s anger was going to finally come out.

“That one reason—happens to be boarding a clipper ship soon and heading half way around the world!” Joe replied bitterly staring up into Ben’s troubled eyes.

Ben sighed, now the truth had at last been revealed. “Joseph—I am only going over there for a short time. Just long enough to see where Adam lives, meet his friends, see the university where he teaches. I’m coming back you know?” Ben tried to console his son with his explanation but he could tell that it hadn’t worked.

“Yeah—Hoss was supposed to come back too you know? We never knew that day when the two of us left for town that he wouldn’t be coming back! And now you—” Joe stopped, he had to try to pull from his inner self to prevent the tears that were fighting their way out of this eyes. He did not want to cry, he wanted to be strong, he wanted to stay mad. He reasoned that if he could stay angry enough he wouldn’t be showing the terrible hurt he felt in his soul. He felt betrayed by Adam, and more so by his father.

“Joseph—” Ben started but was cut off before he could explain further.

“Yeah–all Adam had to do was come back here—snap his damn fingers–and there you go–sailing off to God knows where. No thought of me–no thought about how I felt about it. Tell me, Pa, did you even stop–just once and think about my feelings? Oh, now that IS a stupid question! When the hell were you gonna tell me–when you were boarding the stage?” Joe laughed again bitterly. “The prodigal son—he’s the one who matters. I haven’t met the queen, nor been hailed as a genius—I just clean stables!”

“It was my fault—I should have told you right away, but you were gone–I was going to tell you the night of the party. I never wanted you to hear it from your brother. I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, that’s okay, Pa. Tell me–anything else you haven’t told me lately? You selling the ranch or anything else I should know about?” Joe spat out and took another swig of whiskey.

“Oh, Joseph–” Ben shook his head, so very hurt by what his son had stated that it almost took his breath away. There before him stood his youngest. He was a man now, but he would forever be the baby in Ben’s mind. He could see the way Joe was thinking, and why he felt beneath his brother Adam, and it pained Ben so badly. Ben also felt the betrayal Joe was feeling due to the poor choice of not talking with his son about his plans to visit Europe to begin with.

Tenderly Ben reached for his son’s shoulders and locked both of his hands onto them. He forced Joe to look up at him. When the hazel eyes met his own, both sets had tears formed in them. “You don’t get it do you? Not even after all of these years.” Ben shook his head and the most loving smile filtered down onto his lips as he looked at his child. “It so amazes me—that you haven’t figured it out–”

“Figured what out?” Joe fired back, upset that he couldn’t break his father’s mood. He had tried his best to make Pa mad and it wasn’t working. Joe wanted to hurt Ben as badly as he felt he had hurt him with his plans to visit England with Adam.

“I have loved all three of you boys—more than a father could ever love any sons. I love the three of you still, just as much. Adam and Hoss were my soul, as integral to my being alive as are my eyes, my hands, my whole self. But you—” Ben stopped and tenderly lifted Joe’s face, encasing it in his own two hands. “You are my heart—always have been, always will be, even after this old heart of mine stops beating.” Ben bent down and kissed Joe on the forehead. “You never have to worry about where I want to be, it’s always with you,” he whispered.

Joe fell into his father’s arms, his words having not only gotten through to his mind, but also his own heart. He felt the words just as much as he had heard them spoken. The love that went with his father’s statement sealed the ever increasing gap in their usual tight bond. Now he was so consumed with remorse over all he had fired at Ben that he felt physically sick. The tears began to flow from his eyes as he hugged onto his father and whispered, “I’m sorry, Pa.”

“It’s all right—I understand.” Ben replied softly feeling the sobs that shook his son’s chest. “I’m sorry too—for causing your hurt to begin with.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be here with me—that you were only too happy to go off with Adam. It made me feel like all of these years had been for nothing,” Joe confessed, still feeling the burden of guilt for all that he had said to his father. “And the thought of you being half a world away scares the hell out of me.”

“I am going off to visit Adam because he asked me. I am going to see all that he wants to show me. I have to for his sake, I might not get another chance. But–” Ben stopped and pulled Joe’s chin back up so he could make his vow completely clear to him. “I am coming back—to you. And, I’ll never leave you again. That’s a promise.”

Joe pushed away his tears and tried again to control his emotions. He knew that his father would never lie to him. If Pa had promised that he was coming back, then it was etched in stone. Joe knew he would have to fight his insecurities to allow the man to give one last thing to his oldest son. To not allow Ben to do this, by acting like a spoiled child would not be right and Joe knew he would grow to resent himself for doing it. “It’s okay—I’m sorry I acted like some kind of—” Joe paused again.

“Kid?” Ben asked and broke in to a smile that lit the barn more than the lamp had.

Joe grinned, there was that word again. He figured it was okay if his father called him that, but woe be to anyone else! “I was going for brat, Pa—but that will work,” Joe laughed and nodded his head.

Ben cleared his throat to relieve some of his emotion over all that had been spoken. He released Joe from his embrace. “Well, if you are done with being a brat—how about coming into the house and I’ll sober you up with some coffee?” Ben teased.

Joe grabbed the lantern and moved towards the door in response to what his father had asked. They both stepped outside, but before the door closed Joe heard Cochise whinny.

“It’s okay—we worked it out, Cochise–you go on to sleep,” Joe called into the animal and then shut the door.

Ben laughed as he watched his son conversing with his horse again, and threw his arm around Joe’s shoulder as they walked toward the house.

*****

After a good long talk with his father, and several cups of coffee to aid in his returned sobriety, Joe felt much better. They had each conveyed their feelings as well as their plans for the future. Ben informed Joe of his travel plans and listened intently on all Joe had to say about what he would do while his father was gone. By the time they finished their lengthy conversation both men were smiling and the mutual affection was back, as intact as always. Adam was already upstairs in his room when Ben and Joe also decided it was time to call it a night and walked together up the stairs and bid each other goodnight.

Joe slept soundly for several hours but then his dream awoke him. It seemed so strange, as if it were real and not a dream at all. Joe remembered Hoss talking to him as if he were there in the room. He could feel the big man’s hand on his shoulder and hear his voice so distinctly. Joe sat up in bed and mulled over his brother’s last words from the dream.

“I’ll be in the kitchen?” Joe said to himself out loud. “Man—that was so real!” Joe stood and pulled on his robe. Though he had often dreamt about his brother, it had never seemed so completely vivid as the one he had just awoken from. Joe decided he would go down the stairs and get something to drink to help him go back to sleep.

Joe rounded the corner from the dining room and was surprised to see the light still on in the kitchen. It was then that he noticed Adam standing by the sink with a glass of water in his hand. There was a bottle of pills on the counter and Joe’s eyes fell upon it as he moved closer. Adam did not hear his brother’s approach and turned around just in time to see Joe reading the label on the medication.

“Hey—give me that!” Adam called out harshly.

Joe backed away still clasping the bottle. He had seen this kind of medicine before and tried to figure out exactly what was going on with his brother.

“I said give it to me,” Adam said again and moved in closer.

“This is heart medication—why are you taking it? And why are you so mad that I found it anyway?”

Adam pulled the bottle out of his brother’s hand and dropped it back into the pocket of his robe. “Never mind,” He muttered and headed out of the kitchen. It was Joe’s turn now to grab someone’s arm and he did it rather roughly.

“No deal! Now tell me why you are taking heart pills!” Joe demanded.

“It’s nothing. Just forget it will you?” Adam replied and broke from his brother’s grip.

“What’s wrong with your heart, Adam?” Joe asked and this time was softer in his words as worry began to form in his mind.

“Just a little murmur is all—” Adam trailed off again, not wanting to reveal his condition to his brother.

“Oh yeah? How long you had it?” Joe fired back. He was starting to get the impression that the little murmur was really something much worse.

Adam sighed, Joe was too persistent. There was no way to candy coat it, not with the way the kid looked at him now. “A little bit more than a year,” he responded.

Joe thought on his brother’s statement and counted back in his mind. Dull reality now revealed to him what was really going on. “A little more than a year ago? You mean around the time Hoss died?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Adam said, not offering more details.

Joe felt as though he had been hit by a ton of bricks. His voice trembled as he asked, “this is why you didn’t come home, isn’t it?”

“Yeah—I was in the hospital.”

First Joe felt so very guilty over all the awful things he had said about Adam not coming home at the time. His guilt was soon replaced by the usual Joe Cartwright temper. “Damn it, Adam! Why didn’t you tell us!”

“I didn’t want Pa to worry. He had troubles enough. It’s no big deal. I am much better. I just couldn’t travel at the time–that’s all. Now drop it, Joe!”

“Fine! That explains why you didn’t tell Pa–but why didn’t you confide in me? Or is it that you still think of me as the baby brother—someone who isn’t grown up enough to understand these things?”

“I saw no point in telling you.”

“Yeah, instead you led me to believe that you just didn’t give a damn! Thanks a whole lot, Adam!”

Adam stared at his brother and saw the intense hurt in his hazel eyes. For the first time he felt ashamed of himself for not telling his brother the real reason why he had not returned to the Ponderosa the previous year. “You’re right, Joe. I’m sorry. Maybe I did think that way—maybe I still do. But, I didn’t know back then how much you hated me for not coming home.”

“I never hated you, Adam,” Joe tried to explain. “I just couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t come home for Pa’s sake.”

“I wanted to come—for you both,” Adam confessed “but the doctor wouldn’t allow me to travel until now. I still have to take these confounded pills, but all in all I am in good health.”

“If only I had known—here I was punching you with a bad heart and all,” Joe replied remorse in his tone of voice.

“Hey–don’t let this heart thing stop you! You still have one hell of a left hook by the way!” Adam grinned and patted his brother’s shoulder trying to convey his own regret as well.

“Truce?” Joe asked smiling.

“Truce,” Adam nodded. “But, you’re not to tell Pa–deal?”

“Okay–but you need to level with him eventually. You know how bad it is to learn about things second hand don’t you?”

“Yeah—sorry about that too. I never should have blurted out Pa coming to England with me. It was mean, and I regret it, Joe.”

“Pa and I worked it out, don’t worry about it. Hey–how about I fix some coffee and we sit and talk for awhile? Suddenly I am all wide awake.”

“One condition–I make the coffee,” Adam teased and the two brothers walked to the stove. Joe felt a sudden chill and then he could have sworn he felt Hoss’ hand on his shoulder. Just like in his dream. Joe smiled, perhaps Hoss was in the kitchen all along. It had always taken the kind hearted middle brother to straighten out the two other brothers. Perhaps he was still doing his job though not seen with the human eye. ***thanks Hoss***Joe whispered.

Joe and Adam sat in the living room, huddled around the fireplace for hours. They talked about old times and current events as well as their future plans. Adam grew to know his youngest brother a whole lot better that night and finally saw him for the man that he had become. Joe also learned a thing or two about Adam and was amazed to find him not nearly as condescending as he had been in the past. By the time Adam stood and yawned it was as though the ten years between the two brothers hadn’t affected their relationship much at all.

“This “old man” needs some sleep. How about you, Joe? Ready to try it again?”

“Naw–couldn’t sleep if I wanted to. Maybe I will sit and read,” Joe stated and Adam looked at him surprised. “Hey–believe it or not I do read once in awhile!” Joe laughed.

“Here,” Adam said and handed Joe a copy of the book he had written about the early days on the Ponderosa. “How about reading something good for a change?”

Joe held the novel in his hands and laughed, “still modest as usual, Brother. Okay, maybe I’ll read it. Either it will keep me amused or put me to sleep.”

“Goodnight, Joe,” Adam said and patted his brother on the shoulder and turned for the stairs. He walked up to the first landing and turned around. “You may like chapter six in particular. It’s about my pesky baby brother–formerly known as the kid!” Adam winked.

Joe thumbed through the book until he got to the chapter his brother had mentioned. It was, in fact all about him. Joe leaned back against the cushions of the settee and began reading. It wasn’t long before the earlier amusement of the beginning of the chapter lent it’s way to the emotion of the final paragraph. Adam finally addressed what he thought about his youngest brother. Joe read that paragraph over and over again as tears coursed down his cheeks.

***Just as was usual, Little Joe had survived yet another crisis and was well on the way to getting over his injury. I stood in the doorway to his room unbeknownst to my father who kept a constant vigil at his youngest son’s bed. There they were, the two of them again. I watched as my father wrung out the washcloth and placed it gingerly on his son’s forehead muttering words of encouragement. The pain on Little Joe’s face turned to complete contentment as he watched the worry creased face of his father tending to his wounds. What was it that Little Joe possessed that I didn’t? Though my father had always been my strength just as he was for his other son, Hoss, it was never as prevalent as it was between those two before me now. It was as though my father had the power to bring Joe back to life, in spite of all odds. There was no doubt in my mind then, nor does it exist in me now, that had my father not been there next to the boy he most surely would have succumbed to his many injuries over the years. The healing power in my father’s words and loving touch always did more for Little Joe than all the doctoring he had endured. Though there were times, to be perfectly honest, that I found myself falling toward jealousy as far as my father and youngest brother’s relationship went, I could never deny the joy it gave to me as well. To watch the two of them together, battling the odds was like watching a Shakespearian drama. Only in the case of those two, the good won over evil in the end. Even now, years later, with that kid brother all grown up I can still see in my father’s numerous letters that Joe is still keeping him amused and still battling through life’s hardships. The two of them still together just as it should be. The wild little brother who grew into the kind of man that his father as well as his brothers could be proud of, still alive and kicking and breaking all the rules

*****

Ben stood in the living room the next morning staring down at the slumbering youngest son. He had fallen asleep with Adam’s book resting on his chest. Confusion adorned his father’s face. Why would Joe be reading the book anyway? Ben shook his head in wonderment. As far as he knew there was still a large rift in the relationship between the youngest and oldest sons. Just a few minutes later, as Ben wondered if he should awaken Joe, Adam came down the stairs and joined him staring down at his brother.

“You’d never suspect something that looked that innocent could be so ornery, huh, Pa?” Adam smiled and pulled the book from his brother’s grasp.

Ben was totally dismayed now, by Adam’s statement and by the look of amusement on his face as he tried to wake the young man from his slumber. Joe stretched and slowly opened his eyes. He smiled wryly up at his family as he pulled himself to sitting. Joe couldn’t help noticing his father’s confused appearance.

“Your book was so good it put me to sleep,” Joe laughed as his brother playfully smacked him on his shoulder in response.

“Did I miss something?” Ben asked his two sons.

“Naw–nothing,” Joe grinned and stood next to Adam. “Shakespeare here writes pretty darn good. But, then, we all provided him great material over the years.’

“How true,” Adam nodded “I could write a whole series just based on your escapades, Joe.”

“Let’s eat–I’m starving!” Joe smiled and walked with his brother over to the dining room leaving their father in stunned amazement over the strange change in attitude of his sons.

Two weeks followed Joe and Adam’s truce and they were well spent. The two men completed the construction of the new mill before it was time for Adam’s return to England. There had been days of conversations and laughs and even some partying done in Virginia City. When the morning came for both Adam and Ben to catch the stage into San Francisco, Joe was sad to see them both go.

Standing outside the Overland Stage depot, Adam slid the two tickets into his suit coat pocket and turned to his brother standing there next to him.

“Well, the stage is just about ready to go,” he began and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and pulled him aside out of the earshot of their father. “I just want to tell you again how much it means to me that Pa is finally coming to visit me. I know that if you had raised a ruckus about it he would never have agreed. Just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you telling him to go. You know you’re not the kid I remembered.” Adam winked and shook Joe’s hand.

“Yeah–and you’re not the stuffy arrogant brother I remember either. Promise me it won’t be another ten years, Adam?”

“I promise. And remember what I told you the other day–any time you want to come over I will show you a good time in England.”

“I’m not the sailing type–but I’ll keep it in mind. Be sure to send me word that you both made it in okay,” Joe replied and helped Adam hand up the luggage to the stage coach driver.

“By the time the letter gets here Pa will probably be back!” Adam laughed and saw their father approaching. He stepped aside to give Joe and Ben a moment alone.

“Come here a second, Pa,” Joe motioned back over to the buckboard. Ben neared the wagon and Joe lifted out a bag that sat secured under the seat, obviously hidden on purpose by Joe. “Got you something—but first hand me your hat,” Joe instructed.

“My hat? Why?” Ben asked confused.

“Your hat–come on!” Joe urged and his father relinquished his Stetson handing it over to his son. “Now here–open this!”

Ben pulled open the brown paper sack and pulled out the contents. He now held his captain’s cap that he had worn many years prior in his sailing days. “My cap! Where did you ever find it, Joseph?” Ben asked as he fondly remembered back to his youth spent on the great clipper ships that he sailed around the world.

“Took Hop Sing and me a long time to find the old trunk—it was out under a ton of stuff in the storage shed. Now–” Joe stopped and removed it from his father’s hand and secured it proudly on the man’s head. “there! We can’t have you looking like a land lubber can we? You wear this and I am sure you will get the ship in just fine.” Joe smiled up at his father who seemed very touched by his son’s actions and the brave front Joe was obviously putting on.

“Yes—I’ll bring that ship in–you don’t have to worry,” Ben chuckled and then pulled Joe into an embrace. “I’ll miss you, Joseph,” he whispered.

Joe fought his tears, he wanted to show his father that he was truly all right about the trip and his father’s departure. He pulled back from the embrace and stared into his father’s eyes and said, “Well—I won’t miss you at all.”

Ben read the tears glistening in his youngest son’s eyes and knew that Joe had just told the biggest whopper of his life. It was okay this time though, because it had been told out of pure love for his father.

“All aboard!” The driver called from the top of the stagecoach.

“Have a great time, Pa–don’t worry about anything—I’ve got it under control,” Joe stated firmly and walked with his father to the steps of the coach.

“I know you do, Son. See you soon,” Ben patted Joe’s shoulder and stepped up into the stagecoach.

“Have a good trip, Shakespeare–come back soon!” Joe called up to his brother.

“Goodbye—” Adam paused and winked out the window at his brother “KID!”

Joe laughed and waved as the stage pulled away and headed out of town. He felt a mixture of emotions. He was glad that he had patched up the breech between his oldest brother and himself. He was also happy that his father was getting the chance to visit Adam and to once again step onto the deck of a clipper ship at long last. But, he was also sad. He now represented the entire Cartwright family and it was never more apparent than when he had turned the buckboard out of town and crossed over the boundary of the Ponderosa. Joe’s mind remembered his youth and being the carefree boy that everyone looked out for and labeled “Little Joe”. He was now the last Cartwright son living on the ranch and those carefree days were a thing of the past. Staring up towards the mountain range the huge pines stood like mighty giants protecting the land to which they had claimed the name Ponderosa. Joe’s heart was filled with pride when he remembered how the story went of his father starting the ranch with two small sons. Ben Cartwright went on to carve an entire empire out of the wilderness. The Ponderosa would always be Ben’s legacy, but along with it was the wealth of love he had given his three sons. Joe was proud and humbled that his father’s dream had now been passed down to him. He was happy that he didn’t have to travel the world to find his destiny. It was now and would always remain the Ponderosa. In that respect he no longer felt beneath his oldest brother Adam. Though he knew his father had great pride in the accomplishments of the eldest son, he also knew that Ben saw his youngest son’s accomplishments to be equal in value. Not only was that the sign of a great man, but it was the uniqueness of Ben Cartwright. He could make both sons feel as though they were his personal favorite, and that was a rare talent for any father.

*****

Joe unhitched the buckboard and settled the horses back into the front corral and headed wearily into the ranch house. As he entered, Joe removed his hat and placed it along with his father’s hat there above the credenza. He stood for a moment and felt the twinge of sadness knowing that he would miss the presence of his father for a long while. As he turned and headed toward the living room Hop Sing appeared coming out of the kitchen. Joe was just about to sit down on the settee when he heard the cook call out to him.

“No! Strict orders–you sit here!” Hop Sing ordered Joe over to his father’s red leather chair by the fireplace.

“Huh?” Joe asked confused as he was led over to the chair. He sat down, seeing the determination in the Oriental’s eyes. “What’s going on, Hop Sing?”

“Mister Ben, he tell Hop Sing–you sit there. I bring coffee,” He replied and headed back into the kitchen.

Joe sat in his father’s chair and wondered what the cook was talking about. Why would his father insist that he sit in his chair? Joe shook his head trying to figure it out just as Hop Sing re-entered the room and handed him a cup of hot coffee and a letter.

“Here—Mister Ben say you read this!”

Joe pulled open the envelope after he sat the coffee cup on the table. He then slowly read his father’s words, ***Dear Joseph, I just wanted to thank you again for going along with my plans to visit your brother Adam. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will do a wonderful job running the ranch in my absence. After all, you have basically been doing that for years now. Though you may not have realized that. I have watched you mature over the years and cannot think of anyone else who could do a better job of keeping the Ponderosa going than you. (Myself included). You said a couple of things a few weeks back that I need to address. You mentioned that you felt some way beneath your brother due to his many accomplishments. You are wrong. You have never met the crowned heads of Europe, that’s true. You have never graduated college at the top of your class like Adam did. Not to take anything away from him, you know that I am proud of all your brother has gone on to do over the years. But, you have performed a few miracles yourself. You took on this whole ranch, not by your own choosing either. You alone kept the Ponderosa going while I mourned the loss of your brother Hoss. I have witnessed and marveled at the way you give one hundred per cent in whatever you do. You have worked harder, fought harder, and loved more than any Cartwright before you. I take deep pride in having had a thing or two to do with getting you started but you have more than forged your own way over the years.

There are no novels written by you on my bookshelves, but I have had the pleasure to watch the chapters of your life unfold right before my eyes. Thank you for all you have given me over the years. I wouldn’t have missed the laughter, the joy, and even the tears along the way for anything in the world. Thank you for sharing in my own dream and turning it into something even greater than I ever thought it could be. Your father is very proud of you! –Love Always, Pa—p.s.–keep my chair warm for me, I will be home soon.***

Joe wiped away the tears that had drifted down from his eyes. He knew at that moment that he felt more thrilled than Adam had felt when he had received his first literary award. There in his hands he held the pure truth. Pa was proud of him. That was better than any medal, any certificate, any other form of acknowledgment including an audience with the Queen of England. “Thanks, Pa–I needed that,” Joe whispered and folded the letter and placed it inside his shirt pocket over his heart.

Hop Sing watched Joe and his reaction and smiled broadly. Though he didn’t know the entire contents of the letter, he had made it a point to lean over Ben’s shoulder the night before when it had been composed. He knew that it was exactly what Little Joe needed to hear from his father.

“You come supper now!” Hop Sing sang out, trying to sound stern.

Joe stood and walked over to his friend and threw his arm over his shoulder. “What do we have? I’m starved!” he laughed as they walked into the kitchen.

EPILOGUE

The stifling heat of summer lent it’s way to the cool fall breezes and the hint of an early winter. Joe was proud that he had done so well with the summer round up and had secured top dollar for the sale of the steers. He was also satisfied that the new mill was more than paying for itself now and every time he rode up to check on it, he thought about working side by side with his brother completing it’s construction.

The fall wasn’t quite as busy as the seasons which had preceded it and Joe was able to relax a little more now. He had received word of his father and brother’s safe arrival in England but that had been months ago. Joe was beginning to believe he wouldn’t see his father back at the ranch until possibly after Christmas. He tried his best not to dwell on those thoughts and only focus on how happy his father was to be visiting his eldest son and seeing the life he had carved out for himself. Joe knew it would be his time soon to be with the head of the Cartwright clan and he waited patiently for his turn. That didn’t mean he didn’t miss his pa, that fact would have been impossible to hide. Just looking at his father’s hat hanging by the door was a reminder to Joe each day of how empty the ranch had become without the patriarch of the Ponderosa.

Joe dusted off the light snow which had fallen onto his hat and coat as he entered the ranch house. He had ridden down to the south shore border of the ranch and made sure the herd which was being fed on winter grass was in good shape. Joe’s nostrils filled with the aroma of roasted turkey. He had mixed feelings as he walked toward the kitchen where Hop Sing had been cooking a feast all day. Joe shook his head and laughed when he saw the huge turkey laid out on the counter in the kitchen.

“Hop Sing! It’s just you and me you know? That’s what–a twenty pounder?” Joe grinned as he approached the other man.

“It Thanksgivings, Little Joe–always fix large turkey dinner!” Hop Sing protested and turned to pull the sweet potatoes and pies over from the top of the stove.

“Well–I will agree you always have put on a spread–and I remember you always cooking two turkeys when Hoss was here–” Joe paused as he thought on his brother and his voracious appetite. He so missed his brother and now, with his father not being around, it only made the loneliness more heavy of a burden to carry.

Hop Sing noticed the abruptness to which Joe had cut his statement and neared him smiling. ” Hop Sing always feel Mister Hoss spirit–always in kitchen just like when he a little boy stealing Hop Sing’s cookies. Now you get out of my kitchen, we eat as soon as you wash hands!”

Joe nodded and patted the cook’s shoulder. “Well, I am kinda hungry–maybe not enough to eat a twenty pound turkey–but hungry nonetheless.”

“Then we have leftovers for weeks–now you go!” Hop Sing pushed Joe out of the kitchen and turned back to the stove.

Joe looked across the table at the empty place settings and bit back his sadness. He shot a look towards the head of the table and thought of Ben. He couldn’t remember a time when the turkey carving and Thanksgivings blessing had not been done by his pa. Hop Sing sat to Joe’s right side and patted his arm.

“Too bad Mister Candy not come,” Hop Sing said.

“Yeah–he said he had plans in town or something. Oh well, guess it’s dinner for two. You want to say the blessing?” Joe shot a look at Hop Sing and the cook shook his head.

“No, Cartlights say blessing in house always. This year you must do.”

Joe sighed, closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Thank you Dear Lord for the bountiful meal on this table prepared by the loving hands of Hop Sing. Please remember each member of this family who is absent from this table and bless them always with your loving care. May we be grateful for all of your blessings, we ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Before Joe could lift his head to focus on the turkey that needed carving, he heard a deep baritone voice say “amen”.

“Pa!” Joe shouted, totally amazed to see his father sitting there at the head of the table. Ben had timed his entrance perfectly, aided and abetted by both Candy and Hop Sing. Candy’s little mission into Virginia City had been to bring the man home in time for dinner. Only he and Hop Sing knew of Ben’s arrival that day.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Joseph,” Ben smiled and Joe jumped from his seat and almost knocked his father out of his chair with his embrace.

“I’ve missed you so much,” Joe whispered as he hugged his father.

“Really? I haven’t missed you at all,” Ben replied.

Joe knew different. He had spied his father’s tear filled eyes and knew Ben was just getting even with him for the awful lie he had told the man when he had left on his trip. Joe knew he had been missed just as much as he missed his pa. Joe knew he was his father’s heart and would always remain that, no matter the passing of the years or any amount of miles between the two of them.

Hop Sing grinned watching the reunion going on before his eyes. The family was back together, intact and strong as always. “Vely happy Thanksgivings,” Hop Sing whispered and handed Ben the fork and knife to carve the turkey.

*****End*****

Happy Birthday , Mom

Edited most thoroughly by Leesa 🙂

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