Summary: Adam and Joe find their own way through grief, on a summer day at the lake. A WHN story for the episode, “The Julia Bulette Story.”
Word Count: 6000
He really couldn’t ride much further. The sand was eroding and slipping under his horse’s feet. With a sigh, Adam Cartwright swung down and tied the reins of his horse to a stunted pine that had managed to grow in the drift of sand. Digging in with his heels, Adam slid down the slope that led to the cove.
He smiled and shook his head with amusement, when he came upon Cochise, tied to a similar tree, close to the bottom of the hill. So he had been right after all! Joe had not changed so much over the past few months that he had lost all his predictability. His youngest brother was exactly where Adam expected him to be. As usual, he had just managed to get a little further ahead. Joe had always been too impatient to stop and cover his tracks. The trail the kid left, on his ride to the cove, had been so obvious, it was almost as if he wanted to be caught.
Adam took a moment for himself before he looked for his brother. The cove was a jewel of a sight, spangled with glints of indigo and topaz, glistening in the afternoon sun. The white sand was so stark and pristine, the blue water seemed almost gaudy in comparison. It made Adam’s heart ache to take it all in. He resisted the temptation to tip his hat to nature’s imagination.
Instead, Adam tossed his hat onto the sand and used his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. It had been at least a couple years since he had last been to the cove. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why he had stayed away for so long. There was a time when he and his brothers came almost every day during the summer. It used to be their sanctuary, after a hard day of working at the ranch. He could remember spending evenings swimming at the cove after dinner, soaking up those lazy, extra hours, when time seemed to stretch out forever before the dusk.
From the shore, Adam could see the miles of forested ridges that edged the mountains, still covered with the winter’s snow. It was hard to believe that summer had arrived already. What with the trouble with Joe, it had been a rather grim spring. Adam closed his eyes and felt the warmth of the afternoon brush against his face. What a pleasure it was to be alive on a day like this!
Predictably, his indolence was short lived. He startled involuntarily and opened his eyes when he heard the shout of his name. Even though it was hard to hear, the voice could not have been more familiar. Adam sighed. Reverie be hanged, it was back to the business at hand. Pa had told him to bring Little Joe home, not to enjoy the scenery.
His name, hollered again in his youngest brother’s unmistakable voice, was louder this time, and Adam could track it across the blue water.
He scanned the cove a second time. Quartz-dappled boulders jutted up and around the small bay. When Joe was younger, he and Adam had often swum out to the rocky islands, climbing and diving, until the sun slid beyond the western range. Hoss had no love of the water and had refused to wade out very far. But Adam and Joe shared a disdain for such inhibitions. They had always loved to swim.
He reasoned that the kid should not be hard to find. After all, Adam knew every hidden nook and cavern of the cove like the back of his hand, and he had never known Joe to play hard to get. At first, he could not see his younger brother anywhere. Then, looking across the bay, Adam spotted him at last. Standing on the peak of the last boulder, before the deep water of the lake, Joe waved at him from the granite shelf. Adam smiled to himself, remembering. The diving rock, they used to call it.
Adam knelt onto the sand and dipped his finger into the water. Just as he thought, it was cold enough to stop a man’s heart before he got it in past his knees. Only Little Joe would have been foolhardy enough to have even thought about swimming, so early in the season.
“Come on in, Adam,” Joe shouted again. “The water’s fine!”
“You’re crazy!” Adam shouted back, smiling despite himself. Of course, the boy was crazy, had been all his life. All the same, his fingers began to unhook the buckle of his gun belt.
As he looked for a protected spot to set down his gun, Adam finally noticed the careless pile of clothes heaped against the rock shelf that abutted the beach. He noticed something else as well. A bottle of whiskey, half empty and dangerously tilted to one side, nestled in the curve of Joe’s holster. Adam’s grin immediately faded, and he stared angrily at the distant visage of the boy on the rock.
Never intemperate, Joe’s drinking had increased dramatically after Julia died. It worried Pa something fierce. Adam hated to watch as new lines of tension emerged on his father’s face, as Ben waited until the early morning for Joe to return from town.
While his father had made his peace with Miss Bulette before she died, he had not yet come to terms with his youngest son. And it wasn’t going to be easy. The first time Joe staggered home, Ben had tried ordering his youngest son to stay out of Virginia City. Before Julia, that sort of admonition had always been immediately obeyed. But Joe just stared at his father in the eyes, reached for his hat, and quietly walked out the door. He didn’t return home for three days.
No longer a boy, Little Joe wasn’t really a man either. And yet, his first taste of a man’s love had already been spiked with the bitter draught of a man’s grief. It had been one hell of a way to set off on a course towards adulthood. It was obvious that Joe had experienced many things, since that day he had first walked into Julia’s Palace. But the kind of man he would end up becoming still remained to be seen.
It might have been easier if Joe had been heading into town, looking for a fight. That they could all understand. It was, after all, the way things were done. Throw yourself into your grief, with your fists held high, and then get on with your life, the best that you can.
But justice had already been satisfied before the lights in Julia’s room went out. With the best of intentions, Adam and Hoss had efficiently tracked down and apprehended Julia’s killer that very night. It was said that all of Virginia City showed up for the trial three days later, carrying baskets of fried chicken and funeral pie, as if attending a Sunday picnic.
The killer had been tried, convicted, and hung, almost before Joe managed to get out of bed. During the months that followed, Adam almost wondered if it would have been better if Joe had gone after the man himself. An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth provided a well of satisfaction, and for his younger brother, the opportunity for vengeance had run dry. Nothing remained to be done but despair, and Joe gave himself up to it with abandon.
They had all tiptoed around the inevitable until it was all but certain that something was bound to give. Giving Joe time to find his own way only seemed to make it worse.
That the situation was serious became clear, on a bright May morning, when Ben sent Hoss upstairs to wake Joe up for breakfast. As Adam and his father waited in front of a platter of cooling eggs, they heard a cacophony of noise, coming from upstairs. Both men winced at the sound of a crash that rattled the ceiling, Hoss’ voice rising in uncharacteristic outrage, and Joe’s angry retort ringing out loud and clear.
“What’s that boy done now?” Ben had muttered, throwing his napkin down onto the table. “It’s too early in the morning for trouble. This has got to end.”
His father stormed up the stairs, and Adam glanced apologetically at Hop Sing, who was glaring from the kitchen before he followed.
“Dadburnit Little Joe,” Hoss was hollering, as they entered the tiny bedroom. “It’s first thing in the morning! You ain’t even had your breakfast! What are you trying to do to yourself, boy?”
Hoss had his massive hands positioned on the boy’s shoulders and was shaking him a little, as they walked in. Hoss let go, as soon as he saw his father. Adam stepped around an overturned chair that lay broken on the floor, and he glanced over his father’s shoulder at Little Joe. The boy sat on the bed, still in his nightshirt, staring down at the floor. The light of the morning was muted through the linen drapes, and Adam thought suddenly that they were all were bathed in bleakness, the color of diluted brandy.
“What in tarnation’s going on?” Ben asked, and Adam started to say something as well, but Hoss silenced them with the open bottle he picked up from the nightstand.
“Little Joe had this under his bed, Pa,” Hoss said, the anger on his face turning quickly into something closer to panic. “He was drinking it when I came in and tried to hide it. Dadburnit Pa, he got me so all-fired upset, I threw the chair.”
Ben Cartwright rested his hand on his Hoss’ shoulder for a moment, before he sat on the bed next to his youngest son. He reached over and gently took hold of Little Joe’s chin, lifting it, until he had no choice but look into his father’s eyes.
“What are you doing, boy?” Ben asked gently. “Don’t turn away. We can’t help you, if you won’t let us know what you need.”
“I need to get dressed,” Joe said. “I need you out of my room, so I can get ready.”
And out of my life, Adam heard clearly, even though Joe did not say the words out loud. Yet his father heard it as well, and his face reflected this new pain. The three of them left the room, and Joe closed the door firmly behind them. Adam never thought he would miss all the times when the kid had slammed it in a fury.
After all, they were well acquainted with Joe’s temper. His despair was something new altogether, and it frightened them. But they were not men who gave up without a fight. They were not that kind of family.
Finally, Ben Cartwright made a decision. The night before Adam tracked his brother to the cove, Joe had returned home at the edge of dawn. Adam’s first weary thought was that Cochise must have carried him home. Surely, the horse must have some mystical Indian powers that remained a secret between the animal and the boy. Joe couldn’t possibly sit a horse, yet however unlikely, he always made it home.
“Just a moment, Joseph,” his father had said. It always amazed Adam that his father sounded the calmest during the most trying of times. Someone who didn’t know better might even think that Ben Cartwright was bored, if they just went by the tenor of his voice. But his youngest son knew better. He had known that voice his entire life. Little Joe instantly froze on his way up the stairs.
“Yes sir,” Joe said. Adam had exchanged a knowing glance with Hoss, who sat on the edge of the hearth, poking at the last of the embers. The night’s festivities were still audible in the slur of the boy’s voice. There was no doubt about it. Once again, Joe had gone and had himself a fine time in Virginia City.
“It’s late, Joseph,” Ben said, mildly.
It was an understatement, of course, as Adam knew it would be. The three of them had been juggling such statements for weeks, as if saying the wrong thing would drive the kid further away.
“I’m sorry sir,” Joe said and stared his father right in the face, looking not very sorry at all. Adam marveled at his brother’s audacity, whether it was born of foolishness or courage. He had changed so much since he had known Julia.
“You shouldn’t have waited up,” Joe continued, still not flinching. “Don’t worry. I’ll be down to take care of my chores, first thing in the morning.”
Joe did not wait for a reply but started up the stairs. Adam realized that over the past months, his brother had had his first taste of rebellion, and it suited him just fine. Again and again, Joe had defied his father. For the first time in the kid’s life, he had deliberately positioned himself outside his father’s authority and had stood his ground. It was just like Hoss said. The kid had guts. Many a grown man had backed down in the face of Ben Cartwright’s disapproval. And Joe was still standing.
“Do you really believe that’s what I care about?” Ben snapped. “Whether or not you get your chores done? Whether you’ll be up in time? You are going to ruin your life, boy! Not to mention your reputation!”
“Finally the truth,” Joe said, and his retort was surprisingly calm. “My reputation. That’s what this is about, isn’t it, Pa? That’s what it’s always been about. My reputation and yours? The Cartwright name? Well, if Julia wasn’t good enough for the Cartwright name, then I’m not sure I am either. I’m not even sure if I want to be!”
When Ben seemed to choke on his reply, Adam wondered if his father had ever told Joe about his offer to Julia, on the night she had died. That he would welcome her to the Ponderosa, would find a place for her, if that was what Little Joe had wanted. Seeing the look of grief on Joe’s face, Adam understood then, for the first time, how much his brother had wanted that woman. He wondered if she had wanted him as well.
Hoss spoke up at last. “Little Joe, you ain’t got no call talking to Pa like that. I don’t care how upset you are right now. It ain’t right, and I won’t listen to it.”
Joe turned and Adam could see him hesitate, in the face of Hoss’ disapproval. Little Joe put so much stock in his brother’s good opinion. He was still angry, yet he couldn’t stand for Hoss to think poorly of him.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe mumbled in his boy’s voice, and his bravado seemed to slip away. “Can I please go to bed now? I’m awfully tired.”
He turned and made his way up the stairs before anyone could answer.
“I don’t know what to do,” Ben said in the ensuing silence and slammed his fist down hard against his desk. “I can’t get through to the boy. It’s like he’s bound and determined to throw his life away.”
“Pa,” Adam said, determined to speak his peace, even if it upset his father. “Think about what Little Joe’s been doing. He goes back to Julia’s palace. Charlie says he just sits there and drinks and listens to the piano. Don’t you think we just need to give him some time to get over this, in his own way?”
“Time to ruin his life?” Ben snapped and stood up from his desk, shoving back the chair so hard it almost fell over. “Time to lose himself in a bottle? Time to make mistakes that the three of us won’t be able to fix? No, Adam. I think Joseph has already had his share of time. I’ve given him more than enough time, and he’s drifting away from us. No, I’ve changed my mind about how we’re going to handle this. One of us is going to stick with him, no matter where he decides to go. I don’t care if the ranch falls apart. We’re going to see him through this, even if it means we never let him out of our sight! We just need to get through to him!”
“He’s sad, Pa,” Adam said, and he saw his father’s face soften.
“I know he is, Adam,” Ben replied. “But I know a thing or two about sadness, myself. And he needs to know that he’s not alone in it.”
Ben set his shoulders and started up the stairs after his youngest son. Hoss watched him leave and turned to Adam. His normally placid eyes were tired and bleak.
“What do you think, Adam?” Hoss asked. “What do you think is going on with Little Joe? When do you reckon he’ll start acting like himself again?”
“Maybe, he is acting like himself,” Adam replied and ignored the protest rising on his brother’s face. “Maybe, this is who he really is. Could be we just never noticed, until now.”
Hoss shook his head, not accepting a word of it, and Adam headed upstairs to bed. He could hear his father’s muffled words from behind Joe’s closed bedroom door, yet did not hear Joe say anything in return. Pa was certainly right about one thing. Something had to give, and soon, if they were going to hold together as a family.
As Adam stood on the beach, staring at the half-finished bottle of whiskey, his own words came back to taunt him. Maybe this is who he is! How diffident he had sounded as he tossed those words out! How confident, how sure of himself! Adam Cartwright, always a man with an easy answer. He had been so certain the kid needed to find his own way. But could a boy come of age, if he was unwilling to survive the journey?
“Joe,” Adam shouted to the small figure on the rock, impressing as much authority into his voice as he could muster. He knew Joe heard him and could see the kid’s stance of defiance, even from that distance. “You need to come back home! Pa wants you!”
“No thanks, older brother!” Joe shouted back, and he scrambled up the diagonal face to the very tip of the rock. From Adam’s perspective, it seemed that his brother stood poised on the tip of a diamond, so sharp was the angle of the incline. “If you want me, you’ll have to come get me yourself!”
Then Adam heard the distinctive laugh that had always belonged to his little brother. He swore under his breath, as Joe turned toward the lake and dove into the crystalline water. The dive was so elegant that his arc left only the smallest disturbance rippling across the smooth water. Adam whistled in admiration, despite himself. He had never taught the kid to dive like that. He himself had never even come close. His own dives were serviceable but never graceful. Somehow, over the last couple years, Joe must have found the time to practice. Adam suddenly wondered what else Joe had learned when no one was looking.
Leaning against the cliff, Adam removed his boots; he arranged them neatly next to his brother’s. Joe’s boots were tipped on their side and were already partially filled with sand. Shaking his head, Adam shook out the sand and stood them upright, next to his own.
As he pulled off his jacket and shirt, he tried to brace himself for what had to be ridiculously cold water. The sun had already peaked for the day, and Adam was getting too old for this. But Joe had no business swimming alone, after drinking so much. Pa had sent him to bring the kid home, and that was exactly what Adam intended to do. And besides, the sun was still warm on his shoulders. Despite the circumstances, it was a fine day for a swim.
Even so, he grimaced as he stepped into the water. Adam clenched his jaw and told himself to just keep moving. He had not seen Little Joe come up from his dive, and he did not have time to get used to the water. The flat sandy bottom was warmer than he expected, but as the water got deeper, the cold settled in as well. The water was so clear, the pebbled bottom seemed exaggerated and a little absurd; it was like staring into another world through glass. A clawed crayfish scuttled over his foot, and Adam winced at the pinching sensation.
“Let’s get on with it then,” he muttered. He plunged into the lake and gasped as the water coursed over his face and his back. The cold was astonishing and felt a great deal like pain, and he fought it at first, cursing at his little brother with every breath he took and with each rusty kick. But he kept swimming, and with each stroke, the cold bloomed and flowered, until it didn’t seem quite important as it did before.
The water was achingly clear, and he remembered the pleasure this place had provided, for so many years of his life. Trout lingered and swirled at the pebbled bottom, maybe twenty feet down, and Adam couldn’t remember the last time he had been fishing with his brothers. For a moment, he stopped swimming to watch them school by, but he could hear the hollow echo of Joe’s laughter, and he increased the ferocity of his strokes.
So intent was he at catching up with his brother, Adam almost hit his head against the rock. Although he hadn’t been swimming for a least a year, he was still fast, and he allowed himself to feel just a touch of pride at that. With one last pull of his exhausted arms, he beached himself on the edge of the boulder and willed its warmth to work its way into his body.
Adam had almost forgotten why he had made the swim in the first place when Joe’s voice rang out mockingly in his ear.
“Getting too old for this, Adam?” Joe asked, perched just above him, and he laughed when Adam made a half-hearted grab for him.
“Get over here, now,” Adam warned, seriously astonished that his voice had not frozen in his throat. “I swear, Joe, when I get a hold of you, I’m going to…”
“Going to do what, older brother?” Joe taunted and easily clambered higher onto the rock, even farther out of Adam’s reach. “I’d like to hear what you’re planning to do to me, because from here, it looks like you can barely breathe. I’m telling you, Adam. I hope that’s not all you’ve got because I’m going to have a heck of a time hauling you back to shore.”
Adam was long past the age, when that sort of response should have gotten under his skin. He was a grown man after all. Yet, the temptation was just too much to resist. The promise of a chase, with all its bells and whistles, still provided the same old thrill. Adam slowly pushed himself to his feet and crossed his arms against his chest. He felt the familiar, sardonic smile creep across his face, as he turned to face his brother.
“You’re coming home,” he said. Both knew that Adam was not making a request.
“You’ll have to make me,” Joe replied, and his grin was a gauntlet that obviously found its mark.
Adam lunged for him, and Joe climbed up the rock with agility that always took his older brother by surprise. For someone so slight of build, the kid was astonishingly fast. Adam hoisted himself after him, managing to gash his foot on a jagged edge. But he was nothing, if not determined. He was going to catch his brother.
With a yelp, Joe cast a wild look over his shoulder as he scrambled to the top. For the first time in months, Adam could see the flashing of joy in the kid, the exuberance that had always been his own. Joe was laughing as he climbed, and Adam heard himself laughing as well. As he pulled himself to the top, he grinned when he realized that he had Joe cornered. Joe knew perfectly well that the water on that side of the rock was too shallow for diving. He startled, however, when the kid just smirked at him and moved closer towards the edge.
“Joe, don’t!” Adam heard his own voice, laced with the caution that had kept him alive for almost thirty years. “The water’s not deep enough. It could kill you.”
“Sometimes you just have to take a chance, older brother,” Joe replied, his voice deceptively mild. “You need to enjoy the world the way it is. Don’t try to change it. Julia told me that, you know. She said I’d understand when I was older. But I just don’t have that sort of time.”
Joe’s smirk turned into a grin, and he turned away and launched himself into the air. Adam heard himself shouting his brother’s name. There was no doubt about it. The jump was a free fall of youth and recklessness bound together, and there was no telling how it would end. Adam rushed to the edge and peered over, not daring to breathe until Joe’s head emerged from the blue water. He exhaled with tremendous relief, as he watched his brother toss his wet curls about in the sun, like a young mutt, shaking himself dry.
“Come on, Adam! You can do it!” Joe shouted, treading water below. For once, Joe did not sound angry, and despite his best intentions, Adam found himself sorely tempted.
Adam had long since passed the age when he pretended to know what surprises a day might bring. Yet, he was very much surprised, when his body decided for itself what would happen next. Before he realized what he was doing, Adam moved back from the edge of the rock. With a yell that rivaled his brother’s, Adam ran as fast as he could and propelled himself off the edge.
In midair, he felt the years that separated his manhood from his boyhood dissolve into nothing, and the laws of physics seemed unimportant, dazzlingly so. He felt a sudden rush of liberation and perhaps even joy. And he remembered something he had somehow forgotten. He remembered what it felt like to fly.
The collusion of air and water was shocking and somewhat violent, and the cold took over again, even sooner than he could have planned. Adam was lucid enough to feel grateful when his feet and not his head hit the bottom. He pushed against the floor of the lake with enough force to propel himself up. Sputtering through the surface of the water, he gulped desperate mouthfuls of air into his lungs. As if from a great distance, he could hear Joe cheering and when he opened his eyes, his brother was treading water, less than a few feet away. Adam could have caught him easily, and Joe knew it. But there was a certain expression on his younger brother’s face that he had not seen in a long time, and Adam smiled when he realized what it was. Joe looked happy that Adam had decided to come along.
Joe splashed his older brother in the face and gestured towards the rocks.
“Come on, Adam,” he said softly. “Let’s swim.”
Without looking back to see if his brother would follow, Joe plunged beneath the surface of the water and kicked vigorously towards the rough borders of rock. Adam shrugged. What did he have to lose? He dove down. He could see Little Joe swimming just ahead, towards the rock formations they had loved to explore when they were younger.
For the next half hour, the two brothers came up for air, only when absolutely necessary. They swam along the channels of rocks, explored bridges and tunnels of quartz and feldspar, and disturbed the slumber of crayfish and sand crabs. The shoal below them was brilliant, florid in its intensity. It was all so beautiful that their world of horses and sweat, of guns and bloodshed, and of fallen women and broken hearts almost seemed unreal. That other world seemed like a shared delusion, an unfortunate dream that was already half-forgotten.
They swam until they were numb. They swam until they could not go on, and they collapsed on the flat bank of a rock, a quarter mile from the shore.
It was a long time before either of them did any talking.
Finally, Joe said, “I don’t know if I can live here, Adam.”
Making sure each word counted, Adam asked, “Because of Julia?”
“Yeah, because of Julia,” Joe replied. “Because I can’t stand walking through that town and listening to people tell me how sorry they are when I know exactly what they thought of her. When I know what all of you thought of her. Especially Pa.”
Adam eyed Joe coolly, before he warned, “Don’t you go judging us, Joe. It seems to me you have no business telling us what we think. Pa already admitted that he should never have interfered. And he said the same thing to Miss Bulette. None of us are perfect. You know that. Pa would never do anything to hurt you, Joe.”
Joe was quiet for a while, and he stared at the lake.
Finally, he said, “I guess I know you’re right. I reckon it’s easier to be mad about things than to keep feeling like this. Adam I promise you, when we get home, I’ll tell Pa I’m sorry.”
Adam could tell that he meant it. He had always considered it Joe’s most endearing quality, his willingness to admit when he was wrong. He had never been the sort of boy to hold a grudge for long.
Joe leaned forward, and picked up a flat, gray pebble that had washed up on the ledge, and he considered its symmetry. With a flick of his wrist, he skipped it upon the glassy face of the water.
“Not bad,” Adam allowed. “But you need to keep your arm at an angle. Watch this.”
Adam bent his arm and sent his stone spinning. It skimmed the water impressively, bouncing several times, before disappearing underneath the blue surface.
“I have to admit it,” Joe said, with a slow smile. “You haven’t entirely lost your touch. But things are changing fast, older brother. I’m afraid you’ll have to work harder than that to keep up.”
For longer than they would later admit to their father, they sat on the rock, skipping stones and watching them disappear with a satisfying plop into the lake. But the air already had an edge to it, and it wouldn’t be long before the sun would slip behind the mountains. And it would be hard enough to swim back to shore.
“We need to get back,” Adam said finally. “It’s getting too cold.”
He pushed up to his feet, reluctant to get back in the water, but Joe reached out and held onto his brother’s arm.
“She loved me,” Joe said, and his voice was marked by its intensity. “I know no one believes it, but I know she loved me.”
“Is it enough to know it?” Adam asked quietly.
“No,” Joe said. “Not even close. We were just getting started. I don’t know, Adam. I don’t know much about anything, anymore.”
“You loved her,” Adam said.
“Yeah, I loved her.” Joe looked away and Adam could see him gazing at the eastern ridge of the Sierras, toward the high desert. “Julia said I’d never leave the Ponderosa. She said people listened to me, that I belonged here. She said I was strong. How can I believe her, when I’ve barely got the guts to make it through to the next day?”
In his mind, Adam could picture the road that traversed the mountains, leading down towards the high desert, heading towards some other place, any place but here. He knew that Joe could be on that stage and on his way towards a new life, by the following day. Adam, himself, was well acquainted with that particular temptation.
“Do you think it would help to leave?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “Maybe. It seems to me that anything would be better than this.”
“You know, a mountain always looks different from the other side,” Adam said, staring out at the vistas, beyond the lake. “Could be, you just give it some time, and things will make more sense.”
“She said the same thing,” Joe said, wiping at tears that had just begun to flow. He glanced self-consciously at his older brother, but Adam did not seem to notice. “But what do I do now? How do I get through the rest of the day?”
Adam stared straight ahead, at the same mountains and at the same road.
“You go home,” Adam said, with a sigh. “You eat dinner. You go to sleep, and you wake up in the morning. It’s like learning to swim. You keep doing it again and again, until you don’t have to think about anymore. It just gets easier with practice.”
“How can you be sure?” Joe whispered.
“I just am,” Adam said, and he turned to smile at his little brother. “It’s what I’m good at. Being sure of things. Now we better get going, or we might not survive the swim back. And one thing I am sure of is that Hop Sing would never forgive us if we died and missed dinner.”
Joe smiled as well and looked back at the shore. Adam could see their belongings, still waiting against the cliff. Then he remembered what still needed to be said, and he grabbed onto Joe’s arm.
“Joe,” Adam said. “I found the whiskey you were drinking. You’ve got to stop. It’s going to kill you or it’s going to kill Pa, and I can’t let either one of those things happen.”
Unexpectedly, Joe started to laugh.
He said, “Come on Adam! I spilled most of it going down that hill. I wouldn’t drink that much before I went swimming. Do you really think I’m that crazy?”
“I won’t answer that question,” Adam said, and he let go of the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “But you drank some?”
“Some,” Joe admitted, with a small shrug of apology, and he pushed himself up to his feet, stretching languorously in the last rays of sunlight. “It’s all right Adam. I’ll try to stop. It’s just going to take some practice. But I reckon I can manage without it.”
“I’m sure you can,” Adam replied, and he smiled.
Joe smiled back, and then he brightened. “Hey, I’ll race you back.”
“You’ll never win,” Adam said, rolling his eyes, but he leaned forward anyways and prepared to dive in.
With a sly grin, Joe shoved Adam backward against the rock, before he plunged into the lake, in a perfect dive that barely dabbled water onto Adam’s feet. As he watched his brother’s body skim powerfully across the surface of the water, Adam had to admit that the kid was coming into his own. The days when he could kick back and take his own sweet time were rapidly coming to an end. It wouldn’t be long before Joe could beat him, handily, at a race, if he had a mind to.
“But it won’t be today, kid,” Adam vowed.
With a smile, Adam dove off the rock into the cold, familiar water, bound and determined to catch up with his brother.