Synopsis: This is my version of what happened after Adam accidentally shoots Joe, and Joe is mauled by the wolf but prior to what happens when they met up with the Reardons in ‘My Brother’s Keeper.’ It’s one of those episodes that I definitely wanted MORE!
Word Count: 7100
He could barely sit in the saddle as I climbed on behind him and held him tightly in my arms. One of my arms kept him close and secure; the other held the reins and cradled his injured shoulder. He was barely conscious, but I knew he was fighting to stay awake, that was just his nature, he’d never give up. He’d been like that since he was a boy. That ‘nature’ of his was nearly killing me though. Every moan or sob or cry of agony he let out only served to drive that invisible dagger of guilt and fear into my own heart. We started down from Montpelier just like this, him and I, both of probably wondering the same thing: What was going to happen?
It wasn’t the first time either one of us had wondered that.
Joe had lived his whole life out here, on the Ponderosa. Everything about it, the wildness, the adventure, the vision and the passion, it was all wrapped around him. It made him who he was. He was a child of everything it stood for and everything that defined it. Me, I came to it and sort of adopted it as my home. Sure, part of me acclimated to those qualities, but they didn’t define who I was, like it defined Joe. I always felt I belonged somewhere else, somewhere I hadn’t been or seen. Maybe it was just a dream, I didn’t know. I’d witnessed some despair out here, in the west and there was just something inside me that sort of gnawed at me that said, ‘things would be better back east, go back there, go find your roots and let them take hold.’ And as that gnawed at me, there was the equal pressure pushing back, echoing, ‘this is where your family is, stay here.’ I’d heard both those ‘voices’ many times. It was a constant struggle that no one seemed to fully understand but me. It had been that way for as long as I had memories.
I reluctantly took on the role of big brother, and often times wondering what that exactly meant. Most of the time it plain old scared me, especially in this kind of a situation.
I felt his body slump against mine and thought that he had given into the pain, and slipped into a deep sleep of sorts, but I saw his head bob up and heard him take in a deep, yet agonizing breath.
“Adam? He asked in almost a whisper. “It was just an accident; don’t fret over it. Don’t let it drive you away.” It was uncanny how he sensed what I was feeling. Here he was in such pain and he was trying to make me feel better. Some big brother I was. “Adam?” he asked again.
“Yeah?” I answered back.
Adam, what happened again?” He wanted to know. His mind was starting to loose its grasp on reality. I’d seen that happen many times before in injured men. It scared me. It was a step closer to death. I held my own breath and thought about what I should say to him. Ever since he was old enough to understand things, he always wanted the truth. No sugarcoating. But would he understand through his pain?
I shot you. I couldn’t bear to tell him what I had done and I didn’t think it would do much good at this point anyway. “You got hurt; I’m taking you home,” was all I said.
“You got the wolf though?” he asked, still recalling some of it. I took that as a good sign.
“Yeah, I got the wolf,” I answered. I wanted to say, ‘I got you too,’ God forgive me for that; God forgive me for shooting my own brother. It was an accident that was for sure, but I had wounded my own brother and then seen him get mauled by that wolf. What kind of a man was I? What was I thinking? I knew it was an accident, but the guilt that was piling up inside of me was becoming unbearable. Why did I shoot and why did it seem to take me so long to get to him and stop that wolf from furthering injuring him? I didn’t belong out here, I never did. It probably wasn’t as long as it had seemed to me, but I couldn’t get those thoughts out of my head.
“It’s okay, Adam; it was just an accident. You’ll get me home,” he was saying. “I’ll be ok, gotta be strong and brave.”
“You bet you will,” I concurred. “You can count on that.” I had to be positive, for both our sakes. No matter what I was thinking regarding my future, right now I had to concentrate on getting him home safe and sound and making him better.
He tried to fidget in the saddle a little and it only caused him pain. He let out a cry and I again felt his body slump against mine once again, I only wished I could take the pain away from him. I wish it was me instead of him.
“It’s bad, Adam; it hurts bad,” he said, his voice was cracking.
“I know you do Joe, but we’ll be home soon and we’ll fix you right up, I promise,” I said, trying to reassure him. “Just try to rest.”
“Cold too,” he said.
I tucked my coat around him tighter and tried to keep him warm with my own body heat, but I knew he was going into shock. He’d lost a lot of blood and the fight with the wolf, no matter how brief it had been, had taken the strength right out of him, the strength he would have needed to fight off the infection and blood lost from the gunshot wound.
“Joe, you gotta listen to me — just hang on boy, alright? I promise I’ll get you through this, just hang on.”
“You always do Adam,” he slurred.
That simple statement of his weighed heavily on my shoulders. There are some times in your life when you try to block out certain events or even whole periods of time. This was going to be one of them and so was the one that Joe was referring to.
We rode like that through the late afternoon and into the evening and late night. I couldn’t stop, not with him getting sicker by the moment. The slow pace we had to take because of both of us riding the same mount and the fact that he was seriously ill, meant it would take as twice as long as usual to get back to the Ponderosa.
I myself was both mentally and physically exhausted too. It was approaching dawn when I decided that if I was going to make it back with both of us that I had to stop and let us both rest for awhile.
That was a chore in itself. I slid off the horse and Joe practically tumbled into my arms. I guided him to the ground as gently as I could. He could barely muster up enough strength to stand, but I felt him trying with all his might. I brought him safely and carefully to rest on the ground.
“Are we home?” Joe asked.
“No, not yet, but we both need a break. We’ve been riding a long time,” I said.
“Can’t be that much farther,” Joe commented.
“It’s still a way, but we’ll get there, I promise, remember?”
He showed a hint of a smile. “I remember.”
I checked out the bullet wound, it was still bleeding, so I put another make-shift bandage on it. He groaned as I pressed down gently on it to try to stop the bleeding. “I’m sorry Joe, but we gotta try to stop the bleeding.”
“Got shot, too,” he said, motioning his head toward his left shoulder.
“Yeah, it was an accident,”
“I know it was,” Joe said, this time looking clearly into my eyes. It gave me a strange sensation, but it was good to know he believed what I wanted and needed him to believe. “Pa’s gonna be mad at me,” he added.
“No, he’s not; he’ll just be glad that you’re alright. If he is mad, it’ll be at me, for not taking better care of you.”
“No, he’ll be mad at me for going after that wolf without you,” Joe said. “I should have listened to you. I never listen to you.”
I actually managed a smile. “That would be a first,” I added a little chuckle too. “I know you never listen to anything I told you?”
“I do,” Joe said sincerely and then he smiled too. Then he got suddenly serious. “At least I try to,” he added with a new sense of honesty. “I’m not always defiant and disrespectful.”
“Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah,” he said in a whisper.
Getting him back onto the horse, proved to be as much work as getting him off had been. I knew he was hurting something awful and I tried to be as careful with him as I could, but beneath the brave façade we both wore, I knew the pain was excruciating for both of us. The pain I bore was in my heart.
As we continued on, my thoughts drifted back to this younger brother of mine, years before, when we’d created the special bond, that of brotherhood. I always felt that Hoss and I, well, we become brothers in the truest and clearest sense, almost at once. I’ll never forget holding him, so small, in my own boyish arms, protecting him from the gunfire that hailed all around us. From that moment on, it was a lifelong pact between the two of us. For Joe and I, well, it wasn’t always that way, and we’d even drift apart through the years, but at these times of crisis, our bond was strong and impregnable. And there are times when we are so much alike, it’s uncanny. I think the difference in our ages played a huge part in how we acted toward each other. Some days, he’d mimic me to death, when he was little that is; it drove me crazy. Then I went off to college and when I returned, he was distant, at first, and I saw him as this individual I didn’t know anymore. I still remembered the child, often a mistake, and not the young man he was. We gradually found a common ground, though it was often a rocky road to discovery. It was that child I knew, that I could not forget. It was still there, though he’d never admit it.
When Marie entered our life, I was in my teens, hardly a time when a young man, felt he needed a mother. Maybe I took that emotion out on Joe; I really don’t know. I never liked to dwell on such things. Maybe it was because in my rather young life, I had already witnessed so much sorrow and so many changes; I’ll never really know or understand. Marie never accepted any of that; she loved me unconditionally. Having a real, honest-to-goodness mother was exactly the thing I needed. It took me a few years to realize that and her death struck me as much as it struck all of us.
That particular fall had been a hard time for the whole family. Loosing Marie like we had, the way she died, well it had had left us all ‘damaged’ in some way. At first, I begged my father to let me go east to be with my grandfather. I wanted to get away. He refused, saying we all needed to be together. During several occasions, we had some heated arguments over it. I’m sure both Joe and Hoss heard us hollering about it, but Pa wouldn’t budge. He wouldn’t let me leave.
We all carried the shock and the hurt, each one of us in a different way, with different feelings. None of our sorrow was greater or worse than the other; it was just different, that’s how I saw it. And maybe that’s what was helping me get past it. Running off wouldn’t change the sorrow I felt, but when you’re seventeen, it can seem like a perfect solution. I realized that, with time, that deep sorrow and emptiness I was feeling would pass and I’d be able to remember her with good, loving thoughts. It wasn’t so easy for my father or my youngest brother.
Marie was Pa’s third wife, the third woman to give him another son, and maybe because she’d live beyond the birth of her son, unlike my own mother or Hoss’s mother, it made her different and it made her death especially hard for my father.
Joe was five when she died, Hoss was eleven and I had just turned 17. It was the longest time the three of us would have a mother and Marie was a natural at it. She showered us all with love, not allowing any special favoritism for her own; she left that to my father, who in my eyes, even to this day, has reserved some special place in his heart for Joe. Perhaps it is merely because he’s the youngest; I don’t know and I suppose I won’t until I have children of my own. And that’s not to say my father didn’t love Hoss and me, but there was just something about Joe that made Pa love him in a certain way that Hoss and I would never know. And thinking about it, maybe that’s what it was, just different, not more.
But again, not Marie; in fact, she’d sometimes favor either Hoss or I over Joe just to even things up and I’ll never forget her for that. I was so little myself when Pa married Hoss’ ma that I can’t recall too much, but with Marie, well, I have always considered her to be my own Ma and Hoss pretty much feels the same way.
And then she died, after stumbling from her horse after a ride on what was a beautiful fall afternoon. She died in Pa’s arms; the three of us boys knew nothing about it at all til later that afternoon, when Doc Martin and Mr. and Mrs. Thompson came out to the house and Pa sat the three of down and told us what had happened. He told us we needed to be brave and strong, and he looked right at me when he spoke those words. I nodded my understanding back at him and I glanced over at Joe who sat staring at me the whole time. I didn’t realize then what I had done. Joe soaked up everything he heard or saw. We went with the Thompson’s and stayed with them for what seemed like forever when it was really only about a week.
That day we left, we quietly got our things together and soon we were ready to leave with them. As we walked to the door, Joe turned and ran back to our father and reached up and gathered his big hand into his own small hand, pulling him along.
“Come on Pa,” he said, looking up at him.
Joe must have thought we were all going as he began to tug at Pa’s arm.
Pa stopped him and picked him up into his arms and held him close. I could tell that Pa was close to tears. He motioned for Hoss and me to go outside and so we obeyed.
I stood close enough in the doorway to hear what he was saying to Joe.
“Joseph, I want you to go with the Thompson’s and with your brothers,” he was saying, his voice just breaking up a little bit. “Adam will take care of you; you mind him and Hoss too, and do as the Thompson’s ask.”
Joe, as always, began to interrupt, “And you’re coming too, Pa,” he said.
“No Joseph, I’m not coming with right now.”
“But why not, Pa?” his small voice pressed him.
My father took a deep breath. I knew that he would have a tough time trying to explain this ‘why’ to a five-year-old. I didn’t understand it myself. When Hoss’s ma died, Pa made sure the three of us stayed together practically day and night. I listened to his explanation to my youngest brother as closely as I could. I wanted to know too. I didn’t realize yet that grief could be different in every situation. Why could he ‘run away’ and I could not? He carried Little Joe in his arms and walked over to the sati and sat down with the boy in his lap.
“Joseph, your Pa just needs some time alone right now,” he began.
“Like Ma?” Joe said.
“Son, your Ma isn’t off alone; she’s up in heaven with God,” he said, “remember?”
“Is that where you’re going too then?”
There was a longer than usual moment of silence. “No son, I’m not going to heaven just yet,” my Pa said to him. I think he might have even smiled at the question.
“Then you should come with us; you’re our Pa,” Joe was saying.
“I’ll come and see you tomorrow, I promise,” Pa said.
Joe was not about to give up that easy. “Then I’ll stay here with you.”
“Joseph,” he suddenly stopped, thinking of what he was going to tell his five-year-old son. “How can I make you understand?” he said aloud to the boy in his arms.
I peered in from the doorway and I saw Joe rest his head against Pa’s chest. “Mama’s dead,” Joe said very quietly and he started to cry. “Just like Adam’s Ma and Hoss’ Ma. That’s what Hoss told me. And now everyone is going away, all our ma’s, and maybe Adam and now you too.”
Pa hugged him even closer. He just held him close. I could tell that Joe was crying. He was too little to understand the difference between death and just going away.
“Son, when people die, well, we’re sad and we all have to handle things how it’s best for each of us,” he said.
“I don’t want her to go away and I don’t want you to go away,” Joe added, looking directly into my father’s eyes. “And I don’t want to go away. I want to stay. You said we had to be brave and strong.”
“I’m not going away Joe,” he tried to reassure him again.
“But you’re not coming with us?”
“Joe, your Pa is just as sad as you are, I just need to be by myself just for tonight. Can you try to understand?”
I saw Joe nod. He wasn’t entirely sold on the idea; he had opted for the brave and strong option.
“So, I want you to go with Hoss and Adam, alright? And I promise I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Without another word said, Joe suddenly slid off his lap and came bounding outside, nearly running into me on his way outside. I leaned down and stopped him from falling. “Slow down there, sport,” I said, attempting to pick him up. He took his left arm and hurriedly used the sleeve to wipe away his tears. His green eyes seemed to turn to fire as he looked right at me. It nearly unnerved me.
He wriggled away from my grasp without saying a word or even looking back at me and ran off toward the Thompson’s wagon and climbed up into the back by himself, even though Hoss was already back there and sat ready to give him a hand. It was a defiant show of independent sorrow. For a moment, I stood dumbfounded, and then my father was standing beside me. He’d witnessed the whole display as well.
“I’ll take care of him, Pa,” I said, looking him in the eyes. “Both of them,” I added.
He put his arm around my shoulder, and I heard him sniffle, “I know you will, son.”
The Thompson’s made up three makeshift beds for us in one of their rooms. They had two children of their own and were used to having their own bedrooms. Their oldest, a girl named Laura, wasn’t shy about how she felt about having to share a room with her younger brother, even if it would only be temporary. Her attitude didn’t help the three of us at all. We all felt like intruders who didn’t belong. We tried to be as respectful as we could.
Shortly after dinner, the three of us went to our bedroom. Joe went right to his bed, and again, he didn’t say a word. He’d been polite to the Thompson’s, remembering to say please and thank you when need be, but he was unusually quiet.
“Adam, there’s a checkerboard here. Wanna play a game?” Hoss was asking.
I turned toward him and gave him the hint of a smile. “Sure thing, Hoss; set up the board alright?” I walked over to Joe and sat down at his bedside. “Joe, you want to help me beat Hoss in a game of checkers?” I asked him. I wanted to try to keep our topsy-turvy lives as normal as I possibly could.
He was lying face down on the bed and he turned his head ever so slowly. “Go away, Adam; leave me alone.”
I put my hand on his back and gave it a rub. “It’s ok to be sad, Joe, and it’s ok to cry,” I said, trying to be understanding, remembering what my father had said to me in these kinds of sad times.
His head popped up and his eyes looked right at my own. “I’m not sad, I’m not crying just like you, and I’m not a baby. Just leave me alone. I’m ok; I’m being brave like Pa said,” he explained. His head fell back onto the pillow and I heard him murmur the same words again, “Just go away, Adam.”
Later that night, his nightmares began. He’d never had them before. I jumped up immediately at the sound of his first scream, orientating myself with where I was and what had happened. He cried out again and I went to his bedside and tried to rouse him. He sat up straight when I called his name, sweaty from head to toe and immediately he clung to me. His heart was racing faster than my own. His nightmare had scared me half to death. Tiny tremors of fear ripped through his body and I tried to calm us both down, by holding him tight and close and whispering “shhhhhh” into his ear.
Hoss naturally woke up too and had gone over to the lamp and turned it up. He slowly walked over to the two of us, carrying the light in his hand. “Adam, what happened?”
I turned my head to talk to him. “He just had a bad dream, that’s all. He’s fine, aren’t ya, little Joe?”
Joe began to fully wake up. He suddenly became defiant again and pulled away. In the light, he saw that I had come to console him and not his Pa or Ma, and in his mind, that wouldn’t suffice.
“Holy cow, Joe, you sure had a powerful dream, didn’t ya?” Hoss said, trying to make light of it all.
Joe glared at me all the while. “I’m ok, I’ll be ok, I’m strong, leave me be, I just want to go back to sleep,” he said, sliding away and crawling back underneath the covers.
Hoss noticed it all too, but as usual, he tried to play the peacemaker. “He’s just tuckered out, Adam. He don’t know what he’s saying; he’s probably still half asleep.”
I nodded my agreement, though my heart was telling me something else.
It went on like that for weeks, even after we’d gone back home, He watched me more than ever. Neither of us cried at the funeral. I was numb to the loss; I’d cry later on, by myself, where no one would see or hear. When I peered over to him, his eyes were set to defiance, for me, for Pa and even for Hoss. He didn’t understand we all had to grieve in our own way.
And the nightmares were relentless. Every night he’d have at least one and I’d be the one who had to go try to comfort him, though more often than not, it was merely to rouse him because he didn’t want my offer of comfort. He wanted his ma or pa, and his ma was gone and his pa was suffering through his own grief. It weighed heavily on me and it led to me to continue to have feelings to leave for the east. I wasn’t doing anyone any good. When Pa realized that I would get up to be with Joe, he stopped getting up himself. That’s when I realized we were heading down into some well of darkness. And I didn’t know how we’d get out of it.
It was a long and rather mild fall, and things were not getting better; it was just a continual downturn. The happiness had left our home and none of us could figure out a way to get it back. Maybe none of us wanted to.
My youngest brother didn’t know what to make of any of it. He was still so little, and much of what occurred he simply didn’t understand, but his life had been tossed upside down just like all of ours had. There was such a difference in our ages, that I didn’t think I could help him, or that I knew how to even begin to help him. He never listened to a word I said. And I was constantly on him, for everything. I hated being in that position, but Pa just wasn’t up to the task. Pa spent a lot of time reading or going off by himself. That meant I had to take Hoss and Joe with me everywhere I went. Hoss was terribly mindful and did a man’s days work. I’m sure it caused him to miss out on some precious childhood fun that he was more than entitled too, but he took it all in stride and never complained.
Joe’s defiance grew; he was testing his limits of being brave and strong in every way he could, whether it was getting too close to horses or cattle or climbing a tree he wasn’t supposed to, to running off and not knowing where he was. It began to anger me to new levels. I didn’t know what he wanted or needed. He didn’t accept my comfort and he challenged my discipline. I was not his father. I was his brother.
Now it was becoming my turn to be the teacher, the parent, and I wasn’t sure I wanted the role or that I could do the job. My frustration billowed out of control.
This time the grief was entirely different on my father. I didn’t fully understand it myself. I was far too little to remember anything from when my own mother died, and I was just about Joe’s age now when my second mother died. I remembered being scared and frightened, but the three of us stuck together right off and got through everything just fine. Pa was strong as anyone in mind, body and spirit. He made sure Hoss and I became survivors and he was one too. And when Marie came along, our lives and our house became completely filled, overflowing at times, happiness abounded.
We had over five wonderful years together and our family was blessed with another member, another brother for Hoss and I.
Looking back on it now, I don’t know how I would have ever survived at all, like my father managed to do. As an adult now, I can’t imagine the pain that he has had to endure, loosing three wives and mothers and having to raise three sons and deal with all the emotions that go along with all of that. He is the strongest person I know. He could have given up time and time again, but he didn’t. But back then, I didn’t know how to help him at all; I couldn’t even help a 5 year old. Now I think he may have been doing what he saw and believed he needed to do for Joe and me, as well as him.
After an especially trying day, the three of us came home to see our father sitting on the porch reading the bible. I had spent most of the day chasing after Joe and making sure he didn’t find more trouble to invent, leaving Hoss to do some fence repair alone. Both of them were mad at me and I couldn’t hardly blame them; all I did was bark at them or snap at them about one thing or another. I shouted at the two of them that once I got home and gathered my belongings that I was leaving once and for all, no matter what Pa said. When I saw my father sitting there, reading, only pausing a moment to wave at us, I think I finally lost it.
Joe and Hoss rode together and Joe shimmied down and scampered off to the porch to say hi. Hoss took his horse into the barn and I dismounted and watched from the distance, as Pa showered Joe with an abundant amount of affection.
That was the last straw. I tethered my horse and stomped up to the porch.
“Little Joe, go in the house,” I said, rather rudely.
The defiant 5-year-old stood his ground; Pa didn’t say a word. I grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him away from my father and sent him toward the direction of the house. “You heard me, go inside and clean up.”
Joe looked at my father, who must have sensed my mood finally and he motioned for Joe to go inside. Joe slowly made his way toward the door.
“Something on your mind, Adam?” Pa asked me.
I nodded the affirmative. “You could say that.” My temperament kept me from exploding right away. I was more like a volcano ready to erupt.
“Out with it, boy,” he said.
“I’m tired of being the father around here,” I blurted out. “I’m leaving.”
He had a puzzled look on his face. “You’re not the father around here, I am,” he answered.
Just then Hoss came towards us from the barn and I could see Joe still standing in the doorway. They both were listening to the conversation. Neither Pa nor I tried to stop them from hearing.
“You’re not acting like it anymore. You haven’t since Ma died.”
Joe took a step towards us, obviously ready to defend his mother’s name and honor in any way, shape or form, to the bitter end.
“You watch your tongue, boy,” Pa continued.
“No, I’m not going to anymore; this has gone on long enough. I’m their brother, not their father. That’s your job, that’s your part in this family.”
“I know that,” my father said.
“Maybe you know it, but you’re not doing it. Can’t you see how much they need you? How much I need you? We all need a father.” I started toward the house and I lightly pushed Joe out of my way.
“Adam?” Pa called to me, “Adam, come back here.”
I closed the door behind me, leaving the three of them outside. I could hear them talk. Hoss had come closer and he started to talk. “Pa, Adam’s real upset; he told us he was gonna leave, go back east and live with Grandpa Stoddard.”
“That’s nonsense; he’s not going anywhere,” Pa answered them, heading inside.
I took off for the stairs and the safety of my own bedroom.
As he opened the front door, I heard Joe call out to him, but Pa didn’t stop, he just turned toward Joe and said, “Not now, son.” And he continued on up the stairs after me.
I heard the front door slam and then a knock upon my own door.
“Go away,” I said, sounding much like the 5-year-old I’d been trying to raise.
“Adam, I’m coming in,” he said. I saw the doorknob open and then he stood in the doorway.
“I said all I want to say to you,” I shouted at him.
“Maybe you did, but now it’s my turn,” he shouted right back. I was more than a bit taken aback. He continued on. “I never asked you to be their father. I needed time, yes and maybe I took too much time and I relied on you too much. For that I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry to see that you’ve learned from this.”
“Learned?” I seethed, “What have I learned? To be a failure?”
“To be a brother, to care for both of them and most importantly create a bond with Joseph, like the one you and Hoss have,” he explained.
I felt myself making a scowl. “I haven’t created a bond, I’ve alienated him; he does whatever he wants to do, he never listens and I’ve driven Hoss to act like a man when he’s just a boy.”
“No, Adam, that’s not true. Joe’s just trying to be like you, can’t you see that? Trying to be brave and strong through this, And Hoss too, trying to do a man’s work. Why, they look up to you, boy,” he said.
Just then Hoss came busting through entering my bedroom. “Little Joe just took off running. He was heading toward the lake; he said he was gonna be the one to run away.”
“See what I mean?” I shouted at Pa as I jumped up from my bed and raced down the stairs. Pa wasn’t far behind me.
As I went outside and ran to my horse. “Adam, wait for me,” he called as I mounted up.
I didn’t even acknowledge him; I simply raced off after my brother.
A five-year-old on foot couldn’t have gotten too far was what I was thinking as I galloped down the path that led to the lake. My eyes scanned back and forth, straining to see if I could spot him.
Lo and behold, in the brush just up ahead, I saw some movement and the blue shirt he had been wearing shimmered among the green and brown of the shrubs.
I pulled up and dismounted and decided to go after him on foot. It couldn’t be hard to track a five-year-old.
“Joe!” I called out, “Joe, come on back, let’s talk, listen to me!”
“No,” he hollered back. I could tell he was still running. I picked up my own pace and followed him.
“Come on Joe, everything’ll be alright.” I stopped running and listened for a minute. I could hear him running and then I could tell he fell. “Joe?” I called out. We were running adjacent to some steep rocks that edged along the lake. “Joe, are you ok? Just stay where you are; I’ll find you.” I listened again and he must have gotten up and was running again. I heard the rustling sound of footsteps. I took a few steps forward and I spotted him. He was looking back over his shoulder to where I was, but he continued to run and before I could call out to him again to watch where he was going, I saw him stumble and fall down the rocks and tumble down into the lake. As he fell, I heard him let out a scream.
I sprinted as fast as I could and got to the spot he fell. He had landed in the lake. It wasn’t very deep, but after falling, he was probably shook up and I didn’t know if he’d be able to swim to shore. As I got closer, I mumbled to myself, ‘You never give up on anything do you, once you set your mind to something.’ But as I approached the rocks, I saw his arms over his head and he was going underwater quickly. I knew he was in trouble. “Ada…” he started to say as the water swallowed him up.
“Hang on, Joe, just hang on,” I shouted back toward the lake. I jumped straight off the rocks and into the water after him. I didn’t know it then, but Pa and Hoss had arrived and were watching the whole ordeal from the shore.
I found him quickly and grabbed him by the collar and pulled him above water. I heard him intake a huge breath. I kept a tight hold of him and started to swim toward the shore. “You’re gonna be alright, Joe; just hang on, buddy.”
“You got me, Adam?” he exhaled.
“Yeah, I’ve got ya; you’ll be alright,” I replied.
As I swam nearer, there was Pa and Hoss waiting to help. Pa reached for Joe right away and Hoss held out his already powerful hand to help me out of the water. I collapsed on shore from the fear and from sheer exhaustion.
Pa held on tightly to Joe, checking him over closely to make sure he was ok. Joe coughed a little and spit up some water and shivered from the cold temperature of the water. “I’m ok, Pa; I’m strong,” he said as his teeth chattered. He pushed away from Pa and took a few steps towards me. I sat, shivering too, taking deep breaths. “Adam, are you gonna leave like you said?” he asked. “Because you don’t have to; I’m going to. That’s why I was running away. I have to be brave and strong, and that’s what I’ve decided. You need to stay here and Pa too, with Hoss.”
“What?” I was unsure of what he was asking. I was still trying to catch my breath.
“Hoss says you want to go live with your grandpa. Are you gonna?”
“I don’t know; I’m thinking about it,” I honestly answered.
He stood there staring at me and then suddenly he fell forward into my arms, hugging me for all he was worth. “I don’t want you to go,” he started to sob, his tiny body pressed close to mine. It was the first time I’d seen him cry since he wiped the tears from his sleeve the day Ma died.
Pa took a step toward me, as if he would help, but I held up my hand and motioned to him that I’d try to get out of this one myself. I could feel the tears welling up in my own eyes.
“It’s ok Joe, let it out,” I said, I was crying too. “Everything’s gonna be alright now.”
“But…….crying……isn’t……brave…..or…….strong,” he choked out between breaths.
“Sure it is; when you’re sad, it’s ok to cry,” I said.
“I don’t want to go, and I don’t want you to go or Pa and I want Ma back,” his heart continued to pour out. “If you go, you’ll never come back either.”
I pulled away to look in his eyes. “Joe, Ma’s not coming back; that’s why it’s ok to be sad. She’s in heaven, remember?” He looked at the ground and nodded his understanding. I took my hand and lifted his chin. “Me and Pa aren’t going away like that, not just yet anyway, and we’re both staying right here now, and you too, with Hoss too. We might all travel some day, but we’ll always be a family and this is our home.” I hugged him close again, then pulled away to talk to him. “I don’t want to hear anymore talk of you running away and or going swimming without one of us with you, and when I tell you something, like stop running, I want you to listen to me,” I teased. “I’m your older brother and I’ve been through a lot more than you have. I know more, and I’ll always take care of you.”
“It was an accident, Adam, and I was being brave and strong,” he said sincerely.
I picked him up and carried him over to my horse and set him atop, saying, “It was more like defiant and disrespectful.”
“I don’t know what those words mean yet,” he said, causing me to laugh.
“Well defiant, that’s like doing what you want, anytime you want, without listening to someone else.”
“You mean like you saying you’re leaving?” he asked. “No matter what we all thought?”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “Yeah, I guess so,” I sort of mumbled. He was a smart kid.
“And what’s disrespect?” he continued.
“That’s when you don’t take heed of someone telling you something,”
“Like when Pa told you to watch your tongue before?” he asked.
He had me again; I nodded and smiled at him.
“Seems like we’re both those words,” he surmised.
I climbed on behind him. “Maybe brave and strong fit us better,” I added. I looked over at Pa and he smiled at me and I back at him. I think I finally understood what he was telling me.
Joe shivered and I began to pull the ties off that were holding my coat down so that I could put it around him. “Let’s go home.”
“I’m cold, Adam,” he said.
I wrapped it around him as tightly as I could; we were more alike than either of us would ever admit to. And our brotherly bond had been formed long ago.
“Just rest easy, Joe; I’ve got ya,” I said, holding him close.
“I’m ok, brave and strong, remember?” he was saying.
“More like defiant and disrespectful,” I answered him. I could tell he remembered; he tried to laugh but it only caused him more pain. “See what I mean, you don’t listen; just rest easy,” I had proved my point. But it was a hollow victory for the time being.
I pulled the horse up and glanced down to the road below.
“It’s the Virginia City Road, Joe, and there’s a rig coming.” He nodded his understanding. We’d be home soon and it had been a long road from Montpelier. I wondered what lay ahead.