Summary: WHN for “My Brother’s Keeper”. Caught in a blizzard, Adam and Joe are forced to confront the rift that has grown between them.
Word Count: 9900
The snow gave way under his feet, with a satisfying crunch. No matter how many Nevada winters he had known, it never failed to amaze Joe how the first snowfall could so transform things. He blew out his breath and watched in satisfaction, as the cloud of it drifted away and vanished into the thin morning air. The unmarked snow lay all around him, made everything new, as if it were possible to be born again.
“Hey Joe, what’s taking so long? Hurry up with that wood!”
Joe sighed and rolled his eyes at the familiar voice that called out from the line shack, breaking into his pleasure in the morning that had just dawned so cold and bright. He stared down at the pile of kindling he had already gathered and piled at the edge of the clearing. For just a moment, he considered bringing it inside, just like his oldest brother had ordered.
He could picture Adam’s expression as he waited inside the cabin. Joe knew for sure that Adam’s forehead would be furrowed with irritation and he’d be tapping his foot impatiently because Joe hadn’t returned as quickly as he should have. What little warmth was left in the shack would fade away. The beans would stay hard and cold in the pot. The fire would be lying in ashes.
Joe knew exactly what he should do, but instead, he tipped back his hat and gazed up at the sky, which hung low and grey over the tips of the trees. Joe had done everything that was expected of him, during the entire two weeks they had been away. He had obeyed every order, had ignored every rebuff, and he had acted like Adam’s distance towards him was the most natural thing in the world. His father had asked him to try to get along, and he had agreed to it. But if the truth was told, he was sick of the whole business. He had had his fill of keeping the peace. Joe Cartwright was no saint. His impatience and hot temper were knocking at his door, and Joe was tempted to welcome them in like old friends.
If his father could see the look on his face, he’d recognize it for what it was, and Joe was certain he’d have something to say about it. But his father was not there; it was just Adam and Joe and thirty miles of freshly fallen snow separating them from any other soul around. And Joe did not think he could endure another hour alone with his oldest brother.
“Hey, Joe! Did you hear me?”
Adam made his decision easy. Joe would pretend that Adam had only sounded angry. After all, the snow exaggerated everything. White seemed whiter, loud seemed louder, and his brother’s coldness towards him hurt more than it had, back home on the Ponderosa.
“Sorry older brother,” Joe muttered to himself, as he angled off towards the woods. “You want wood, you’ll have to come get it yourself. I’m taking my time.”
As quickly as he could manage in the snow, Joe walked away from the line shack and ventured towards the slant of woods. After one night of snowfall, the trees were already adrift in mounds of it. As soon as he walked out of sight of the shack and the horses, everything seemed much brighter. Joe felt as if he had suddenly entered into a world without shadows. The snow made everything luminous and clear.
He whistled as his feet made troughs in the powder. He could feel the snow rise over the rim of his boots and spill into his socks. He’d be wet and half frozen by the time he made it back, but it didn’t matter. Joe had never minded that type of cold. He wasn’t naïve. If he acted foolishly and lost his direction, he’d be dead by the next morning. But he wasn’t one to worry over such things. He had lived by the rules of those woods his entire life and knew exactly what he was doing.
Joe gazed up at the pines, their branches almost black against the grey of the sky. They held heaping mounds of snow with surprising fortitude. He never could understand why all that powder didn’t sift through the needles. Each branch seemed so fragile, ethereal even, as if it could not possibly bear its burden. Yet like everything else in the land, beauty could be a whole lot tougher than it let on.
A gust of wind whipped through the trees. The edge of it was gritty and cold against his exposed face, and it felt like it could skin him alive. For the first time, Joe admitted to himself that his brother had made the right call in seeking shelter. When the storm had first gathered, Joe had argued that they’d be able to make it home, if they rode through the night. Adam had refused to even entertain the suggestion, had insisted that they make their way to the nearest source of shelter. They almost fought over it, right there and then. Joe could barely stand to admit his brother was right. But in his heart, he knew that a Sierra storm was nothing to underestimate; more than one experienced man had been found frozen solid, when the snow thawed in the spring. And this storm seemed to be just getting started.
While his father had wagered they might be in for a long winter, he certainly hadn’t expected it to get started this early in November. He had counted on the fact that his sons would be able to restock the line shacks and still be able to make it back home, weeks before Thanksgiving.
And of course, all their careful planning had come to nothing. Fall turned into winter, while they were busy with other things. Everything changed seemingly overnight, much like the last time the two brothers had ventured off on a quest together.
Joe could not think back on the summer’s hunting trip without a lingering sense of sadness. What would he give to take back the day that he and Adam had gone off together to hunt for that wolf? It wasn’t as if he’d never been injured before. He had more than his share of scars, more than one for each of his twenty-one years. It was a part of the life he had chosen for himself, and there was no sense in harboring useless regrets. The scars told the story of who he was, of what he had already survived during his short life. He wouldn’t have it any differently. He always assumed Adam felt the same. Yet it seemed everything had changed, from the morning he awoke in his own bedroom, aching and bone weary from days of fever and pain.
Once he regained consciousness from the accident, Joe could remember he details of the hunting trip like they were memories from another lifetime. He could remember how determined he and Adam had been to track down and kill the renegade wolf that had been preying on their herd of cattle. It was the first time in years that Joe had been hunting alone with his oldest brother, and he had looked forward to it with unbridled eagerness, like some kind of fool kid. How easy and relaxed their relationship seemed back then.
Everything had gone so well on the trip, even though they hadn’t managed to kill the wolf. Their conversations were easy and their silences were comfortable as well. Joe couldn’t remember having a better time with his oldest brother. If he hadn’t been so determined to return home victorious, he would never have taken such a foolish chance, sneaking up behind the animal. But he had been so certain he’d be able to kill the wolf. Adam hadn’t even protested all that much. He wanted the wolf dead too. For once, Joe and Adam had been thinking along the same lines. Pa always said they were more alike than they were different. Pa said between black and white you could find many shades of grey. Everything had been going so well. And Joe couldn’t resist giving it one more try.
With Adam’s unfortunate bullet and a wolf’s vicious fangs, all that brotherly companionship had exploded into a morass of bloodletting and pain. And as it turned out, his shoulder was not the only thing that had not healed right from that day.
Joe slouched into his woolen coat, as he continued to trek into the woods. It was hard to gain a foothold in the snow, the snow was too dry and powdery for easy walking, but Joe was buoyed by his own need for escape. He imagined that Adam would be beside himself when he found out that he was gone. Joe almost hoped he’d be angry. He’d always been able to stand up against Adam’s anger. It was Adam’s indifference that knotted him up inside. It made him feel small and uncertain in his gut, as if he were still a little kid acting like a pest to get his big brother’s attention. Joe was a man, and certainly not a kid. He had come too far in the last few years to let his brother have that kind of hold on him again.
He knew exactly when the trouble had begun. Adam had not smiled at him since the morning his fever broke. The infection left him weaker and more exhausted than he could ever remember feeling. “The accident” they called it that morning and after that, they never called it anything at all. His father and Hoss were almost amusing in their attempts to act like nothing had happened. Everything had turned out just fine. His fever had broken. The infection had passed away. Dowd and his accomplices were safely locked away in Roy Coffee’s prison. Adam had remained on the Ponderosa, where everyone knew he belonged. God and science had triumphed together, with miraculous timing. Providence seemed to smile down at the Cartwright family once again. But Joe and Adam knew better.
Joe was convinced that a part of Adam had pulled out with the Reardons that morning, as if he’d been ready to throw his future in with the lot of them. He could not help but believe that if it were not for his own recovery, Adam would be far away, making a life for himself back east where he had always wanted to live.
Adam had never been a demonstrative man. From the time he was a boy, he held his own emotions close to his vest, and he knew how to keep things secret. There were many times in Joe’s life when he had relied on Adam to keep his secrets, as well as to tell him the honest truth, the way it needed to be told. And Adam had usually been more than willing to tell his youngest brother his position on things. Adam was the one Joe turned to, when the time for bells and whistles had passed. When he needed to know exactly where he stood.
And Joe knew enough about irony to call it when he saw it. For the past few months, he had no idea where he stood with his older brother.
It wasn’t as if Adam went away by himself or even tried to avoid him. But Joe couldn’t help but notice how his brother only looked at him when he thought Joe wasn’t paying attention. Joe was always paying attention. That was only one of the things Adam had never learned about his little brother.
Pa told him to be patient, to give Adam time to get over the accident, in his own private way. But three months had already passed, and he was not a patient man. And his own resentment seemed to be taking on a life of its own, growing every day that Adam refused to look him in the eye.
Joe knew the distance between his oldest and youngest sons concerned his father. He could read that concern in the silences at dinner, broken only by Hoss’ pleasure over the food or a discussion about a rising threat to their cattle from a new Texan strain of disease. There wasn’t much else to talk about any more. The rift was obvious and more than a little distressing, and as Joe’s hurt grew, his anger grew right along with it. And every day, Adam acted like there was nothing wrong. No sir, not a thing. Everything was just fine.
His father should never have sent them away together.
But it was too late for all that now. It was a mistake, a miscalculation. The roads were snowed in, more snow was on the way, and this high up in the mountains, it almost seemed like the air was too thin to breathe. By the look of the sky hanging low over the trees, more snow was surely on the way, and when it fell, good kindling would be almost impossible to find. And Joe was sick and tired of fighting the cold.
So he decided he wasn’t in a hurry. It was like the morning was crooking its finger at him, beckoning him to follow along. Walking in the woods, after the first snowfall, was about the only time that he ever liked to be alone.
The solitude was especially welcome, after the trying night they had spent in the line shack. They were still wet from finding their way towards shelter in the snow, and Adam had struggled to get a fire going. Yet the drafts in the shack’s walls sent vicious plumes of smoke swirling around the room. Joe’s eyes and lungs burned with it. He had tried to prop open the door to let in some air, but Adam slammed it shut, over his shoulder.
“Look, Joe, this isn’t a game we’re playing,” Adam snapped, keeping one hand braced against the door, as if Joe might try to open it again. “We’re a good long way from home, and this storm looks to be bad, maybe the worst we’ve seen in years. I am not about to freeze to death because you’re bothered by a little smoke!”
Not for the first time, Joe wished he had inherited his stature from his father, rather than his mother. Hoss hardly ever lorded his bulk over his younger brother, except when they were playing around or when he was trying to keep him out of trouble. Usually Adam didn’t either, and Joe had little need to prove himself against his older, bigger brothers. But since the accident, Joe could see Adam squaring his shoulders almost deliberately, as if to remind Joe of how small he was in comparison. And the looks he kept throwing in Joe’s direction… It had been years, but Joe could swear that Adam was thinking of taking him on.
Joe had never shied away from a challenge, particularly when it came to Adam. Even with his hurt shoulder, he was strong and fast and could hold his own in a fight. Yet, now he felt unsure where he stood, and it made him feel funny inside, like their relationship had somehow been knocked over and put back together all wrong.
So when his older brother slipped in front of him and leaned against the door, crossing both arms tightly against his chest, Joe didn’t try to push him out of the way. He could read the challenge in his brother’s stance, but it was a challenge Joe was not ready to take on. Not just yet. Instead, he raked his fingers through his hair and heard his anger burst into his voice.
“A little smoke?” he asked. “Are you crazy, Adam? That fire is nothing but smoke! I can’t even see any flames.”
“We keep the door closed. It’s my decision, and there’s nothing to talk about, Joe,” Adam said and walked back to the fire.
His eyes still watering, Joe stared hard at his brother’s back. He longed to grab hold of Adam’s shoulder and let loose and just let him have it. But, he couldn’t do it. Joe couldn’t shake the feeling that Adam was biding his time, just waiting for Joe to give him an excuse to walk out and leave. Joe refused to be Adam’s reason to leave the Ponderosa. But his brother did not speak another word to him, until that morning, when he ordered him to go out and find more wood for the fire.
The wind was really starting to blow, gutsy and insistent, through the trees. Joe reached down towards a dead branch that had snapped off and fallen onto the snow. It was fairly dry and would still do for kindling. As he picked it up, he gasped out loud as the sudden motion sent a tendril of pain down his arm. Not for the first time since the accident, Joe wished he’d been born right-handed. It took so much effort to constantly remember his injury and to grit his teeth for what it cost him, every time he used his arm without thinking first.
He put the wood down and tried to work the throbbing out of his shoulder. Involuntary tears welled in his eyes, and he bit his lip through the pain of it. The shoulder could hurt like the devil, particularly in the cold of the morning. It was a fickle pain. Moody and morose, it couldn’t make up its mind about what might set it off next. Just like Adam, Joe thought to himself and let loose with a teary, bitter laugh.
Above his head, a hawk swooped over the tips of the trees, its wings dappled and golden against the grey sky. Joe focused on its irregular flight, as the raptor marked an unwise course on the face of the storm. Every creature who knew a thing or two about surviving had already headed for shelter. Joe bit his lip against the pain and tried to count the times the hawk circled and stalled before turning and flying toward the other side of the mountains. Joe was glad he had kept his eyes open. If he had blinked, he would have missed it. There were so many things he would miss, if he let himself give in to what he had lost since the accident. There were so many times he had kept his own counsel.
Hiding the pain from his family had proven especially difficult. There were days when the deception seemed downright impossible. Adam especially seemed to be watching every time Joe attempted to use his right arm instead of the one he had favored since birth. It seemed to Joe that Adam was determined to find anything that might validate his worst expectations.
Hoss had told him all about how Adam was in a bad way, when Joe was still sick. Joe could remember bits of it, snatches of his brother’s voice calling out to him in the midst of all the fever and pain. He remembered crying out for Adam. He remembered the cool touch of his brother’s hands. Adam’s strength seemed like a buttress of calm and resolve. Joe remembered trying to feel less alone.
Joe knew that Adam had taken the accident hard, understood how his older brother took on the mantle of responsibility as his own. Joe told himself that he would not do a thing to add to his oldest brother’s guilt. So he clenched his teeth through the pain, forced a smile on his face, and only let it show, when he was sure no one was looking.
When his shoulder hadn’t stopped hurting after a couple of months, Joe had gone to Doc Martin’s office to ask why it wasn’t healing. He considered the visit a serious matter. He had questions to ask that his family couldn’t answer. Why was he still in so much pain? Where had the healing gone wrong?
“Little Joe, it’s practically a miracle that you’ve healed so well already,” the doctor told him, after the examination. “You’re lucky to be alive at all, after an injury like the one you suffered. It’s only natural that you haven’t fully recovered after a couple of months. The path of the bullet and the amount of the infection were bound to do some damage that’s not going to go away overnight. You need to let the healing run its course and you need to do some exercises to help yourself regain function in that arm. Have you told your family that your shoulder’s giving you this much trouble?”
“No,” Joe said, more sharply than he intended. “And I’m not going to tell them. All I want is for everything to go back to normal, and if they find out that I’m still hurting…”
“Do you mean if Adam finds out you’re still hurting?” Doc Martin asked quietly, looking away as he placed his instruments back into the cavernous interior of his bag.
“What’s the difference?” Joe had asked, a little more sharply than he intended. He winced as he reached his left arm back into the sleeve of his shirt. He didn’t want to answer any more questions. He didn’t want the hunting trip to be at the center of anyone’s attention. All he wanted was to forget that the accident had ever happened.
“There’s a world of difference,” the doctor said, helping him with the sleeves of the shirt. “You almost died. Adam had to watch the whole thing and he obviously felt like it was his fault you were sick. You haven’t healed yet. It’s only logical that Adam would take some time as well. A man like Adam doesn’t get over a thing like that easily.”
“I don’t think logic or healing has much to do with this,” Joe said, reaching for his hat. “Sometimes, I think that’s part of the problem. I know perfectly well what’s bothering Adam. I made the mistake of surviving and keeping him from what he really wanted to do with his life.”
“How dare you?” Doc Martin gasped, anger coming unexpectedly from the gentle man who had doctored Joe, throughout his life. “Joseph Cartwright, that couldn’t be further from the truth! From what Dr. Hickman told me, it sounds like Adam was absolutely desperate when he thought you might die. You’re not thinking right, and no good is going to come from it. I insist you tell your family that you’re thinking this way, and get this out in the open!”
“You will respect my confidentiality,” Joe told him coolly. He set himself to ignore the look of disbelief that crossed the doctor’s face. He knew a thing or two about anger himself. “Nobody tells my family anything. Not you or me. My shoulder is fine. I am fine. I never came to see you. Nothing I’ve said leaves this room.”
Joe tipped his hat to the doctor on his way out. It felt surprisingly satisfying to have spoken the truth at last. It did not surprise him that the doctor had little to offer him in terms of relief. He had expected that much. Joe’s natural optimism had taken quite a blow in recent days. No easy answers, it seemed, were to be found anywhere.
Now as he stood in the snow, Joe remembered how the doctor had showed him to stretch his arm to help it become limber again. Rolling his shoulder back and forth, he squeezed his eyes shut as they watered with the effort of it. Joe was never one to let nature run its course. He’d do what he could to heal himself and he’d never let anyone know what it cost him.
He stood like that in the snow for a long time, working his shoulder, until the pain subsided into a dull ache. He wondered idly if the scar would someday hurt in the rain, like the ancient wounds of the old men who sat outside the mercantile at the end of the day. He smiled a bit, imagining himself with grey hair and a glass of lemonade, telling his aged cohorts about the older brother who shot him and the wolf that didn’t get away. But his smile faded as he continued working out the pain. So intent was he on stretching and massaging his arm, Joe did not notice the footsteps that were muffled by the carpet of snow. He did not notice that he was no longer alone and about jumped out of his skin when his brother’s voice broke into his concentration.
“Thought you said the shoulder wasn’t bothering you any more.”
Joe’s eyes opened, and his fingers flew for his gun. Even with a bad shoulder, his reflexes were faster than his clear thinking. Adam stood a few feet away, leaning against a nearby pine, looking nonchalant even as Joe drew on him. Who knew how long his brother had been standing there, watching and biding his time, as unobtrusive as a shadow?
“Adam, you know better than to sneak up on a man like that,” Joe snapped and returned the gun to its holster. This time, he steeled himself against the ache in his shoulder and faced his brother impassively, not revealing what it had cost him to move so quickly.
It didn’t matter. He knew Adam noticed the effort, however imperceptible it might be to anyone else. He wasn’t going to buy Joe’s story, no matter how hard he tried to sell it. Joe’s secret had been found out. Just like that.
“And you know better than to wander away from a job that needs to be done,” Adam replied. “The fire I started has been out for an hour. Do you realize that means we’re having jerky for breakfast again? Now I want you to answer me, Joe. How much is that shoulder hurting?”
“A bit,” Joe admitted. He sighed and sat down on the trunk of a lightning felled tree that looked like it had already seen a couple winters since it fell. Determined seedlings poked out of the decayed wood. Life out of death, Pa might have said if he were there. Nature was always bound to make the most of violent endings.
Joe fingered a tiny pine and idly bent it back and forth. It could either grow to become a tree in its own right or he could pinch off its life before it got started. There were so many ways his life could go as well. He could rein in his emotions and walk away. He could pinch off the possibility for a fresh start and let nature run its own course. He could walk back to his horse and take his chances at getting home on his own, even with the storm.
He could face his father at the end of the day and say to him with real regret, “I’m sorry Pa. Your plan didn’t work. Adam and I are too far apart for any good to come of it.”
Joe sighed. He couldn’t face his father that easily. Call it cowardice or contrariness, but he’d never given up on anything, without a fight. It was a Cartwright trait. His father had not raised any of his sons to give up that easily.
“Your shoulder hurts a bit?” Adam asked, with obvious irritation. “The look I just saw on your face told me it hurt a lot more than a bit! What it tells me is that you’ve been lying to me and you’ve been lying to Pa for the last three months. You know he would never have sent you on this trip, if he didn’t believe you were fully healed!”
“I think Pa knows a lot more than he lets on,” Joe mumbled, already regretting his decision not to give up on Adam and walk away. He kicked at the fresh powder with his boot and watched it sift back into place like chaff. Snow upon snow. It was still so new and dry he couldn’t even see the spot where he had kicked it away.
“I’m talking to you Joe. Look at me!”
Joe’s head jerked up, furiously. Adam had not used that tone with him, since he was a boy. He stared at Adam and for the first time in months saw a breach in the cold. He saw a look he recognized in Adam’s eyes, but could not give it a name. His own temper stirred up to meet his brother’s. The glare of the snow and the look on Adam’s face burned his eyes, but he would not look away.
“So I’m looking,” Joe said, his voice beginning to tremble. He cursed himself for his own lack of control. This was one of those moments he’d give about anything for Adam’s self-possession. Adam lived like a man who was perfectly at home in his own head. Joe was daily betrayed by his own emotions, but he wouldn’t let it happen this time. He knew exactly what he was doing. “What do you want to say to me, Adam?”
“I want to know why you’ve been keeping the truth from me,” Adam said. “Why you’ve kept one hell of a secret that’s only come out now that we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
“You’re accusing me of keeping secrets?” Joe exploded and he launched himself off the log. It was all he could do to keep his fists at his sides, so badly did he want to let loose and throw himself at his brother. “Who do you think you are, accusing me of hiding the truth? You with all your secrets and plans! Unbelievable! I can’t believe this. Nothing around here is ever good enough for you, is it Adam?”
Adam glared at him and began pacing, his arms crossed tightly against his chest. His boots kicked up a flurry of snow as he walked. Flakes clung to the legs of his trousers. If they melted, he would get uncomfortable mighty quickly. But Adam didn’t seem to care. There were so many things Adam didn’t seem to care about anymore.
As he watched Adam pace, random splices of memory played back through Joe’s mind. He couldn’t stop thinking of the day of the accident.
He remembered Adam’s horse, slowly winding down trails of scrub and chaparral. Adam’s arms around him, steady and strong, keeping Joe’s trembling body from falling out of the saddle. Water, held up against parched lips, offered and taken. A cool cloth held against a fever dangerously rising. Pain upon pain, pulling him in. A knife and Adam’s hands, awash in blood. Darkness, oblivion, spiraling down. Dreams. The wolf, fangs bared hideously, attacking again and again, endlessly pinning him down. A voice, one he’d known since he was born, reaching into the onslaught of nightmare.
It’s all right, boy. He can’t get you.
He knew Adam had saved him, had stayed with him, during the infection and pain. It was only upon surviving, that his brother had turned away from him. Joe understood little of it, and he tried to protect himself from that pain, but somehow Joe could not forgive himself the mistake of surviving and somehow losing his brother. Nothing seemed to make Adam happy anymore. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he had seen his brother laughing.
There in the snow, Adam finally stopped pacing and turned to face Joe. They regarded each other warily. Adam’s lip curled upward into a tight smile and Joe felt his own smile answer in return. So it comes down to this, Joe thought, and without thinking about what he was doing, he unbuckled his gun belt and placed it behind him, as Adam did the same.
Joe considered that their standoff would be a ridiculous thing, if it didn’t feel so desperate and sad. If Pa could see what was about to transpire, he’d be beside himself. But then, Joe had a moment of sudden clarity, and it occurred to him that perhaps this was what Pa had in mind when he sent them off together. It was time to have it out, not to get along. Neither could back off now, no matter how much they wanted to. Each needed to see this through to its rightful conclusion.
“You’re coming back with me right now,” Adam said, and Joe could tell his brother was serious.
Joe made his decision. He knew exactly what he was doing. He thrust his shoulders back and looked Adam in the eye.
In a steady voice, Joe asked, “How are you going to make me do that, Adam? You already took off your gun. You can’t shoot me this time.”
Adam’s mouth fell open in disbelief at Joe’s quiet words.
“What did you say to me?” Adam demanded.
“You heard me,” Joe said and waited for his words to take on their full meaning. He felt an odd sense of satisfaction as his brother’s eyes narrowed in response. Finally, things were getting out in the open.
“All right I heard you then. Now I suggest you take it back,” Adam said and took a step towards him. Already, his right hand was clenched into a fist.
“Well, older brother,” Joe countered and thrust out his chin. “You want me to take it back… You’ll have to take me first.”
Joe recognized the slow smile that crept over Adam’s face. He knew what it meant, and wasn’t caught off guard when Adam threw the first punch. He feigned and ducked and was ready. He knew that smile because it mirrored his own.
Adam reached back and landed one final clip to his brother’s jaw. Joe’s head jerked back with the blow, and he collapsed in a heap at the base of a tree. This time, he did not come back for more. Absolutely still, with his eyes closed to the world, the fight was knocked out of Little Joe Cartwright at last.
Adam staggered backward and held onto his ribs, his breath escaping from his mouth in a startled wheeze. A rattle in his chest told him that one of his cracked ribs had probably nicked his lung. It had been one hell of a fight. One of the most challenging he had ever fought with anyone, let alone his little brother. The evidence of their battle marred the once pristine snow. Hoss would be able to make out the story of the fight by reading the tracks they left behind. Not to mention the blood ribboned over the white snow. Whose blood it was, they never would know. It didn’t matter. They had both sustained their fair share of damage.
Adam could hardly believe it possible that Joe had fought him so hard. He remembered the days when a single solid blow was all it took to end a fight with his smaller brother. Adam honestly couldn’t say that he would have been the one left standing, if it weren’t for Joe’s weakened shoulder.
Joe shifted and let out a small moan. Adam looked over at him quickly, but moving so quickly made him collapse to his knees. The world was spinning around him, and his vision began to blur and swim. He just wanted to lie down on the snow next to his brother and close his eyes. The fight was over for him, utterly over, and by the looks of things, it was over for Joe as well. For the life of him, he could barely remember why they had been so angry. He stared at Joe, who hardly seemed to be breathing.
I did this to my brother, Adam thought with an ache that had nothing to do with his swollen jaw or his cracked ribs. I did this to myself.
If only Sheila Reardon could see him now! Would she still think of him as an island of decency in the middle of the wilderness?
What am I doing here, he asked himself and raised his face to the sky. He was answered by a hiss of wind against his face that told him the storm was not over yet. It told him that new snowfall would be soon be slanting through the trees, enough to bury them both before the morning was over. The pines around him were whistling and swaying in absurd configurations. A sugar pine on a nearby knoll bent so far in the wind that Adam wondered why it did not simply snap in half. How far could such a thing bend before it was broken?
Adam had promised himself after the accident that he would never again allow himself to endanger anyone, least of all his brother. Foolishness came at too high a price, and there was too much at stake. Everything he had prided himself on, his common sense, his rational thinking, his ability to protect his family, had slipped away from him when he pulled the trigger of the gun without thinking it through. He should have known the kid was around somewhere. His father would call it misguided pride, but Adam couldn’t forgive himself his mistake.
Adam shook his head. He couldn’t help noticing that his thoughts seemed to rattle about in his head. It wouldn’t surprise him, if he had ended up with a concussion as well as cracked ribs, when one of Joe’s uppercuts had sent him flying into that log. He hadn’t realized that Joe had learned to throw a punch with his right arm, since the last time he fought him.
Joe had certainly come into his own as a fighter, over the past few years. All those times, the kid came home from fighting in Virginia City, battered and happy, had finally paid off. Adam doubted that there were many men in the territory, other than Hoss, who could fight him and be standing when the fight was over. It was all too easy to look at Joe’s size and forget that the kid had resources his family knew nothing about. Without realizing it, he had slipped into his old habit of taking his youngest brother too lightly.
Adam had been kneeling in the snow for longer than he realized and he looked across the clearing at his brother. Adam was unnerved by the fact that Joe had not moved. His brother was never still, not in life and not in sleep. Even in illness, he trembled with energy that needed to be spent. Under the reds and blues of his bruises and abrasions, Joe’s skin had taken on the pallor of the snow. Black and white and red, all of nature’s hues distilled into their fundamental colors. The world as it appeared in winter. Once more, Joe’s blood seeped into the ground, a result of Adam’s heedless actions. Who started the fight really didn’t matter. They were brothers. They shared the same blood. Would they share the same death, as well?
Adam felt a sifting of snow across his face, and this time it did not fall from his imagination. Snow falling upon snow, the world was suddenly adrift in white.
Still on his knees, Adam looked across the clearing at his brother. Now he could see the kid shivering, the cold working its way through the layers of clothing. Joe’s coat was ripped across the shoulder after Adam’s blow sent him spinning against a dead branch. With a groan, Adam realized it was Joe’s left shoulder that was exposed to the elements. The boy had barely recovered from the bullet and the wolf. How far had his healing been set back with this fight? He needed to get his brother to shelter. Biting back a curse, he willed himself back to his feet.
Adam staggered through the drifts towards Joe, looking much like a young cowhand who had not learned to hold his liquor. He could barely remember how to walk in the snow. He lurched and he groped but continued moving forward. His legs lacked the strength to do his bidding. Finally, he made it to where Joe lay, and Adam was sorely tempted to lie down next to him.
Instead, he crouched down and said, “Joe, you need to wake up.”
His voice sounded louder in the snow than it did in his own head. He placed his hands on either side of his brother’s bruised face, holding it gently at first, and then shaking it a little when he did not open his eyes. The seriousness of the situation began to work its way into his addled thinking. There was no way he’d be able to drag Joe back to the line shack, let alone carry him. Not in the shape he was in. Deliberately, he avoided touching Joe’s left shoulder.
Watch that left shoulder! His own voice rang out in his head. Like it was yesterday, he heard himself snap out that order at Mr. Reardon as they lifted Joe into the rig. Adam had always been so good at giving orders. He wished he could go back in time and order himself to handle things differently. How would he explain this fight to his father? He couldn’t explain it to himself, let alone justify it. All the restraint he had exercised for the past few months had fallen apart when he reached back and hit his brother. But he had to shake those thoughts away. The snow was coming down fast.
“Joe, please wake up,” he shouted this time, and he felt something rise up in him that was something close to panic. Joe was the one who reacted this way, never him. All his life, he had taken pride in his calm and his reserve. He wondered if this was how Joe felt all the time, so vulnerable and exposed to the whim of every emotion. How could anyone live like this, day after day? Adam still wasn’t sure how he could live through this morning.
Joe’s eyes moved behind closed lids, and his breathing began to quicken and shallow. Adam could see words forming on his brother’s blue-tinged lips. To his dismay, he recognized those words, before he actually heard them.
“Adam, Adam…” Joe mumbled, with increasing agitation. “Get him off me. I’m shot, I’m shot…”
Adam groaned out loud and closed his eyes. It was not just Joe who struggled with that particular dream, night after night. For the past week, Adam had woken with it as well, not sure whether it was his brother’s cries or his own that were waking him.
Even now if he thought about it, he could see his brother lying prone on the dusty ground, the blood pooling underneath, the wolf lying nearby, the flies already stirring in the dust around the bodies… He could remember other things as well. The bullet lodged under the bone in Joe’s shoulder. The knife, slick with blood, shaking in his unsteady hand. Joe’s cries of pain, as he struggled with a wolf that would not stop attacking.
“You got him, Adam.”
Adam opened his eyes. He did not know if he actually heard the words out loud or if they spoke from his memory. He had worked so hard to push this all aside. It was absurd to realize how completely he had failed at it. All his life, he had tried to keep his family safe. It was a role he never asked for, one he had never volunteered to take on. But it was one that came naturally. He was well suited to it. That is, until now…
Joe moaned, and Adam could see the panic rising in the boy, could feel the storm kicking up as well. They didn’t have time to relive old nightmares. The snow was coming down harder.
“Joe you’ve got to wake up,” Adam shouted. Gasping from the pain in his side, Adam reached under his brother’s arms and struggled to pull him to a sitting position. Joe moaned and tried to push him away. Adam saw that as a good sign.
“That’s it, boy,” Adam said out loud. But he thought to himself, keep fighting me, Joe. Don’t give in. I need you to stay mad, if we’re going to get out of the mess that we’re in.
“Leave me alone,” Joe whispered.
“No, I won’t leave you alone,” Adam said, and he took hold of Joe’s chin. His brother winced at the firmness of his grip, but Adam had little choice than to hold on tight. “Joe, I want you to listen to me. We’re both hurt, but we’ve got to get inside. If we don’t get up now, we’ll freeze to death out here. Now help me get you up.”
“Then let me freeze. I don’t care,” Joe mumbled and rolled away from him into a drift of snow, as if he were simply settling into his pillow at home. Adam groaned and shook his head. How many times in his life had the two of them acted out this scenario? It would be amusing, if their situation weren’t so dire. Joe was more stubborn than anyone else he knew. Yet Adam worried that his brother didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t at home and was in fact curled up on a bed of snow. Not feeling the cold was a sure sign that Joe’s condition could be serious.
“I’m not fooling, Joe,” he said. As if to prove it, Adam reached for his brother’s shoulder and shook it. The pain did its job. Joe’s eyes flew open, and he stared at his older brother, with a groan.
“Don’t touch me,” he said, pulling away from the painful touch.
“Joe you’re not thinking straight,” Adam said. “Look around. It’s snowing, and it’s coming down hard. We need to get back to the line shack while we still can.”
Adam looked across the tableau before him. The storm was building up in intensity. Already, the telltale tracks of their brawl were vanishing, and the blood they had both spilled had been covered by new snow.
“I’m sorry Adam,” Joe’s voice was so quiet in the rising wind that Adam almost missed it entirely. He looked down at his brother to see Joe staring at him without a trace of anger. He just looked sad and awfully tired. It gave Adam a funny feeling in the back of his throat to see his brother look so serious.
“Joe, I’m sorry too,” Adam said. “I shouldn’t have gone after you like that. But we can talk about it later, after we’re inside.”
“That’s not what I’m sorry for,” Joe said, waving snow away from his face. He winced as his fingers brushed over an open gash over his eyebrow, and his teeth would not stop chattering. “I’m glad I fought you, Adam. You had it coming. No, what I mean is that I’m sorry for making you feel like you had to stay. About keeping you here on the Ponderosa.”
“Joe, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Adam said, his brow furrowed with honest confusion. “Now stand up, will you? I can’t get both of us back by myself.”
“I heard you,” Joe said quietly. He made no effort to stand up, like Adam wanted him to. “I heard you in the room, when you were talking to Sheila Reardon. When I was… sick. I heard you tell her how you weren’t sure if you belonged here. How you weren’t sure why you came back.”
Adam was truly astonished. “My God, Joe! How could you have possibly heard that? You were out of your mind with fever.”
“It’s not real clear, but I remember,” Joe said. “I remember a lot of things. Hoss told me the rest. I know that you wouldn’t have stayed, if I had died.”
“Joe, it’s not like that. You only heard part of what I said to Sheila. I don’t hate living here. It’s… complicated. We can talk about it later. When we get to the shack. Now you’ve got to help me. I’m not in such great shape myself.” Adam pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. The ache at the back of his head was clearing at last, but he still found it difficult to think clearly. He could hardly make sense of what Joe wanted to talk about.
“Do you want to leave the Ponderosa?” Joe asked quietly.
Adam sighed and gazed around at the woods around them. He had spent more of his life on the Ponderosa than off of it. It was beautiful and wild and it did a man’s heart good just to look on it. He knew this land and loved it as much as he had ever loved a woman. He helped his father carve it out of the wilderness. How much blood had already been shed on this ground? The Ponderosa was his father’s dream and Adam had allowed it to be his own dream as well. But whether it was enough for him to build a life upon still remained to be seen.
“I’m not leaving the Ponderosa,” Adam answered his brother. “I never meant for you to hear any of that. I… I was upset and I said a lot of things to Sheila that I didn’t really mean. But I mean what I’m saying now. I want to get out of this blizzard, and I’m not going anywhere until you help me. Now do we help each other get up, or do we get buried out here?”
Joe hesitated for a moment, before holding out his hand. Adam grasped it, and together they struggled to their feet. In the short time since the snow had been falling, they were already up to their knees in powder. They stood unsteadily and held on to each other.
Adam raised an eyebrow at his brother and asked, “You think you can walk?”
“I can if you can,” Joe answered. His smile was a shadow of his normal grin, but Adam was relieved to see it, all the same.
They began their trek back to the line shack, their arms interlinked against the now driving wind. Joe held on to Adam, as they trudged ahead, his feet barely stepping out of the knee-high drifts of snow. At times, Adam dragged his brother along by grabbing onto his coat, which took a measure of strength he didn’t think he had. They stumbled and staggered over rises and falls, over knolls that seemed like mountains in the snow.
“Keep going,” he shouted, over the wind. “We’re almost there. It’s not much farther.”
“I’m going as fast as I can,” Joe replied, running his hand across his red-rimmed eyes. “And you’re a terrible liar. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Adam smiled. “We’re closer than you think. Look over there.”
He pointed in front of them, and Joe looked through the trees in that direction.
“We made it,” he breathed.
Through the blur of the snow they saw it, and to Adam, it was such a welcome sight, he was almost tempted to call it home. The roof of the line shack, squat and unassuming, could be seen from their vantage point between the lines of trees.
“We made it,” Adam repeated his brother’s words.
Even with the end in sight, it took them longer to make it back to the shelter than Adam would have deemed possible. Just as they reached the final clearing, Adam’s eyes settled on an odd shape, sticking out of a drift of snow. He knew what it was right away. Joe’s kindling, stacked and piled, well within sight of the shack. It was just like his little brother to do exactly what he was supposed to do and then refuse to admit it.
They gathered up the wood together and brought it inside.
Later that afternoon, with a fire warming the room, Adam looked over at his brother and cast a fine appraising eye over him, taking stock of his various wounds and injuries. They had doctored each other as best as they could, using a discovered bottle of brandy and the shack’s stash of old horse blankets which they ripped into rags. They still looked a sight, each a swollen mess of bruises and abrasions that would only look worse the next day.
Adam found a couple of old tin cups on the back of a cobwebbed shelf, and without much ado, dusted them off with the corner of a rag, and poured in each a healthy measure of brandy. He handed a cup to his brother. When reaching for it, Joe grimaced as he moved too quickly, and his right hand flew to his left shoulder. It did not escape Adam’s attention that this time Joe made no attempt to hide the fact that he was hurting.
After massaging his shoulder for a minute, Joe sighed and picked the cup off the table, where Adam had set it.
Sheepishly taking note of his brother’s expression, Joe said, “Cheers,” lifted the cup, and shrugged as he drank it.
“How long has it been hurting?” Adam asked, quietly this time.
Joe sighed and took another sip of brandy. Adam could tell he was trying to decide how he should answer, but truth won out in the end.
“I reckon it hasn’t stopped hurting since it happened,” Joe admitted.
“You told Pa?”
“No,” Joe said and took another drink from his cup. “You know, this tastes like Pa’s brandy. What do you want to bet he left it here, the last time he spent the night?”
“Why didn’t you tell Pa?” Adam asked. He had never been easily fooled by Joe’s deflections.
Joe sighed and said, “There was no need to. I saw Doc Martin, and he told me healing takes time. Ain’t no point in rushing it along. Said it would get better when it was good and ready.”
“Did you believe that?” Adam asked.
“Not much,” Joe admitted and then he grinned. “I’ve never been accused of being a patient man.”
They drank for a while in silence, the popping of the fire broken up by the rattle of wind against the wood planked walls. There wasn’t more than an hour of daylight left to them at best. The days were so short in the winter. With the snow piling up outside, the warmth of the room made it feel like a haven. They were lucky to be alive.
After a long while, Joe asked, “Adam? Could you tell me one thing? You promise to tell me the truth, if I ask you?”
Adam turned and looked at his brother, his eyes large and sincere, in the flickering light from the fire. There was clearly something important the boy wanted to say. Adam wasn’t at all sure he’d want to answer, but he’d told Joe the truth since he was a child, and he wasn’t about to stop now.
“What do you want to know?” Adam asked.
Joe didn’t hesitate. He’d obviously been thinking about the question for a long time. “If I had died, would you have gone back east with the Reardons?”
Adam inhaled, and he suddenly found it difficult to breathe, a sensation that had nothing to do with a few cracked ribs. He found he could barely get the words out, but he had to try.
Glaring at Joe, Adam replied, “How can you even ask me something like that? How can I know what I’d have done? How do you think a man would go about making plans for the future, knowing he’d killed his brother?”
“It’s not like it would have been your fault, Adam,” Joe said and leaned forward, with his elbows on the rough, hewn table.
Joe’ voice had started to slur with the brandy, and it was obvious he was no longer in much pain. But Adam noted that his eyes were surprising clear and sober. Yet, the brandy seemed to be affecting his own thinking as well as his brother’s. He couldn’t make much sense of Joe’s words.
“Well, if the accident wasn’t my fault, then whose fault was it?” Adam asked at last. His voice came out harsher than he intended.
But Joe shrugged and took another long draw from his cup.
“I don’t expect it was anyone’s fault,” he said. “Course we should have been more careful when we were out hunting. I reckon both of us made our share of mistakes. Pa let me know all about that. But these things happen, Adam. Ain’t no use in trying to figure out why. Besides, something’s bound to kill me someday. If I have to die sometime, there could be worse ways to go than seeing that old wolf get what was coming to him.”
Adam stared at him, incredulous, and then his face broke out into a slow smile. He tried to clamp it down again and said, “I’m sorry about throwing the first punch. You still know how to get me mad, that’s for sure. I guess Sheila was right. You live out here long enough, and you get addicted to violence.”
Joe rolled his eyes with dramatic exasperation. He said emphatically, “No! She wasn’t right. You just like a good fight, same as the rest of us. Nothing wrong with that.”
Adam laughed, an unpracticed clip of a laugh, but it made Joe smile happily all the same.
“You might be right after all,” he said. “Hey, how about helping me round up some dinner?”
“Sounds good to me,” Joe said, running his fingers through his wild hair. “Who knows how long we’re going to be stuck in here?”
“Are you kidding?” Adam asked, shaking his head, in amusement. “Don’t you think Pa will have a dozen men lined up for a rescue party by the time the day is through? I expect they’ll be here before this storm is half over.”
“Like we need rescuing!” Joe exclaimed, with obvious indignation. He snorted and began absently rubbing his shoulder.
Adam stared at his brother’s face for a minute, noted the motley display of bruises and abrasions, and could feel the corresponding sting and ache of his own. Then he just couldn’t hold it in any longer. Adam’s laugh sounded out, deep and hearty in the small cabin. After a few seconds of puzzled silence, Joe’s distinctive laugh joined in. For several minutes, they didn’t do much of anything but laugh until their stomachs ached, glance over at each other, drink some more brandy, and begin laughing all over again.
If an observer passed by outside and heard the sound of laughter resounding from inside that small shack, he would have been puzzled only for a moment before going on his way. It would have been obvious enough to anyone who was paying attention. Despite the differences in pitch and style, their laughter alone made it known that the two men inside were brothers, they were out of the cold, and they were having a fine time.