Summary: Adam tells a story of redemption and loss, while Little Joe lingers between life and death. A WHN story for the episode “The Tin Badge”
Word Count: 7,600
I have always underestimated my brother.
Of course, I’d never admit that to anyone, least of all to him. I have always done everything humanly possible to keep him from getting away with anything. When he was a little kid, I felt as if I could never let him out of my sight. Never knew what he might do next, if given half a chance. Even the ranch hands would whistle under their breath, when they saw him running towards the corral, as soon as he had a moment’s freedom. Look out boys, trouble’s coming! He was a restless kid, happy and angry, sometimes at the same time. I tried, but I often failed, to rein him in. Knowing what I know now, I only wish I had failed more often.
We indulged Joe, each of us, in our own way. Hoss adored him, surrendered to his schemes and his misdemeanors when he should have held steady. Pa chose to believe that in spite of his youthful indiscretions, Joe would come around, would eventually grow into a responsible man. A cup half full is just as legitimate as a cup half empty, Pa would remind me, with only a smile of reproach for his oldest, most cynical son. I took a different tact with Joe and looking back, I don’t know if it was a wise one. I could see a trail of recklessness ahead of my little brother, and I didn’t know if we’d ever be able to catch up before it was too late.
Now, I know Joe thought that I did not take him seriously, that I considered him nothing more than a kid. Ironically enough, nothing could have been further than the truth. I always took my little brother seriously, far more seriously than he will ever know. There are some things that are better left unsaid at the end of the day, and this was certainly one of them. Often, it’s easier to laugh away a fear than it is to face a hard truth. Well, I am looking hard at that truth now, and I hope it’s not too late.
I have always feared my youngest brother would die at the wrong end of a gun. It is a bitter consolation to find that I may be proved right. Yet, how could I ever have been more wrong? All that kid’s life, I tried to rein him in, worrying that he would never become a responsible man. Now I would give anything, for Joe to have made the wrong choice, for him to have done the wrong thing, for him to not be lying unconscious in the back of the wagon.
My father sits beside me in the front bench of the buckboard. His back is bowed and trembling, almost as if he were cold. But I know better. It has been an exhausting ride, and we still have so far to go. It took Hoss and I together to convince Pa to take a turn, up front. Nothing you can do back there, we told him. Joe won’t even notice you’re gone.
Pa, I wish I could say to my father now, we raised him right, after all. But we did our job too well.
I look over my shoulder, away from the road for just a moment, and can see my youngest brother’s face, ghostly in the moonlight and drugged into a dreamless sleep. His poor, ruined body is hidden with the layers and layers of blankets we so carefully tucked around him. My vision is surreal. He looks so peaceful back there, that I can almost believe he is just asleep. The kid could sleep anywhere, that’s what we always said. He could fall asleep riding his horse at a full gallop, if he had a mind to. I shake my head at my own whimsy. It has been a long time since I had more than an hour of sleep, and it is beginning to show.
Hoss rides beside us like a knight errant, on a thankless task, and he looks towards the back of the wagon, as well. I can tell that he is fretting that I have seen something he hasn’t. He looks at me, with something akin to panic lighting on his face. I shake my head and know that Hoss and I understand each other. Nothing at all has changed. We are still together, a family, taking on a fool’s mission once more. None of us have a right to be traveling through the night, in the bitter cold, save for a single, solitary reason.
Little Joe told us he wanted to die at home.
The telegram arrived from Rubicon, only five days after Pa, Hoss, and I returned home from the town. Roy Coffee had brought it himself from the telegraph office, riding so hard and fast, he looked like an apparition, by the time he finally reached the Ponderosa. The only thing not caked with dust were his eyes, and they were wild with what he already knew.
“Boys,” Roy panted at us, and shook the crumpled piece of paper in his fist. “Go get your father. I need to talk to your father now!”
“Is it Little Joe?” Hoss asked immediately.
Hoss and I really didn’t need an answer. Roy wouldn’t look either of us in the eye. Of course it had to be Little Joe. We knew immediately that any telegram had to be from Rubicon, and if it came from that damn town, it had to be bad news. Rubicon. A town run by cowards, drunks, and swindlers, none of which had given a second thought to pinning a tin badge on a boy to save their own skin.
None of us wanted to leave him in that town, alone. After Joe killed the two undertakers and took care of the funeral arrangements for Brock, word came that Rubicon’s real sheriff had been delayed again in Reno. Predictably, the town’s mayor convinced Joe that he was the only man for the job. My little brother, tired and older than I had ever seen him before, agreed and told us that he considered it a responsibility to stay until the job was done.
I remember clearly how Pa protested, “Surely Joseph, in a town of this size, there’s at least one man who can fill in, until the sheriff gets back.”
Joe had looked at Pa so forthrightly, it made the breath stick in my throat, and he said with a rueful smile, “Guess you don’t know much about this town, Pa. Besides, what can happen in a little town like Rubicon?”
My father began to erupt in protest, before he caught himself on Joe’s impish grin. All of us laughed then, together, and Pa rumpled Joe’s hair, completely disregarding the dignity of a certain young sheriff.
Of course, we all wanted to stay with him, keep an eye on things, under the guise of lending a helpful hand. We argued about it that night, in the hotel, while Joe patrolled the streets of Rubicon, before he went to bed in the little room that adjoined the jail. But Pa could not be persuaded. Joe had proved himself already, and we had neglected our duties at the Ponderosa long enough. A ranch that size would not run itself. And besides, Joe was a grown man. Not a boy after all.
“Roy, I asked you if it was Little Joe,” Hoss asked again. His voice broke into my thoughts. I could hear the old hint of danger in my brother’s voice. It was the same voice I had heard over the years, every time someone even took a notion to harming our little brother.
“Please boys, just get your father,” Roy repeated. He wiped the sweat and grime off his face with his bandana and looked at us at last. There was no mistaking the pity in his eyes. I think that pity startled me more than Roy’s wild ride. With that, I broke out of my reverie and ran into the house.
The next hour brought images that that would remain marked in my mind: The amused expression on my father’s face, when I literally ran into him, as he headed out of the house to see what Roy wanted. Pa’s whisper of “Joseph!” as he clenched the missive in his hand, leaning onto the chair on the front porch, as if suddenly an old man. The grim and thankless tedium of preparing for a hard ride. The things we carried. Bedrolls, coats, canteens. Hop Sing’s medicine kit, loaded with labeled jars of herbs. Saddles adjusted and tightened, horses watered and fed. The heartbreaking optimism of Hop Sing, as he handed me Joe’s favorite gingerbread, carefully wrapped and hastily prepared. All the mundane tasks that need to be taken care of, before we could breach the many miles that separated us from Joe.
I don’t think we spoke a word to each other, until we were several hours down the trail. This, in itself, was not unusual. The three of us tended to be quiet, when left to ourselves. It never took more than a look or a shrug to communicate much of what needed to be said. Joe was the one who liked to hear the sound of his own voice.
I could remember his first word, spoken a month before he could walk, and as far as I was concerned, he had barely stopped talking since. Hell, he even talked to his horse, when he thought no one else was around. I could hear my younger brother sometimes in the barn, his cheerful voice narrating his day for Cochise. It was as if his thoughts did not have any substance, unless he said them out loud. At night, I always begged him to be quiet, but oddly enough, I found I could concentrate on my book better, when he ignored me and kept talking. As I spurred on my horse, it occurred to me that I’d never hear the end of it, if Joe knew I’d give about anything to hear him tell me one of his sorry jokes again.
This time, the ride seemed even longer than our last desperate push into Rubicon. As we skidded into the final bend that led into town, Pa stopped his horse short and gestured for us to do the same. We drank deeply from our canteens and paused a moment to catch our breath. As I tied my canteen to my saddle, I knew Hoss was staring at me. I knew my middle brother too well, and his fear had already settled over me like a second skin. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. Hoss wanted to know what I was thinking, what I thought would happen next, how we were going to make it through the rest of this day.
Joe would have demanded an answer from me immediately, might well have exploded in anger, if I told him I just didn’t know. It always drove Joe crazy, when I pulled away from the family. He bolted through his own agonies like a spirited colt, with passion and more than a little fury. I sometimes wished I shared the same emotional bravado as my youngest brother.
“Pa,” I spoke at last. My voice, unused for so long, stuck like grit in the back of my throat. I had to say what was on my mind. Joe would have expected it of me. “We have to face the truth. We might already be too late.”
“Adam!” Hoss swore, and I saw the anger flaring in his wide eyes. “You have no call talking like that. Little Joe’s going to be fine. He ain’t never given up at anything in his whole life, and there ain’t no way he’s going to start now. Don’t you worry none, Pa.”
“It’s all right Hoss,” Pa said gently and turned to face me. “Adam, I know what you’re trying to say, and I appreciate it. But you know how that boy hates to be alone. I expect he’ll wait for us to come along.”
Pa clicked then and turned his horse sharply down the road. I followed down the narrow gorge that would lead us into the town. As we rode down, the trees grew sparse and the ground, sandier and less fertile. Like ashes scattered upon the ground. Who would build a town on such a God-forsaken piece of land?
Off against a nearby ridge, I could see several buzzards and a single coyote finishing off a carcass, unrecognizable already in its state of decay. More buzzards circled overhead, obviously waiting for their fair share of the prize. Death was all around us, on the road to Rubicon.
“Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Carwright!” The mayor’s soft, doughy face was the first sight I saw, as we rode into town. Despite myself, I could not bring myself to hate the man. According to the telegram, he had done everything he could do, under the circumstances. But I had no intention of shaking his hand.
“Where is my son?” From the tenor of my father’s voice, I could tell that he did not forgive so easily.
“Mr. Cartwright, this is terrible,” the mayor said, sweat seeping out between the folds of his chin. I could smell the whiskey on him, even from a distance. “A tragedy. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry – “
“Where is my son?” my father shouted, cutting off the little man’s preamble of apology, and at once the mayor quieted and pointed down the street towards the sheriff’s office and jail. With a sickening twist of despair, I realized the last time I had been in that small room, my little brother had offered me a cup of coffee.
We tied our horses to the posts that rimmed the gnarled tree in the center of the main road. As I stroked my horse’s neck with gratitude for bringing me back to the town so quickly, I took a closer look at that old tree. Sure enough, from the signs of corruption at its core, it looked like the advancement of rot had already begun. The tree was dying from the inside out.
Pa and Hoss walked away as quickly as their saddle sore legs could carry them, unable to wait another minute to get to Joe. We still did not know what had happened to Joe, and I intended to find out. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, but certainly an older brother was entitled to a share.
I grabbed the front of the mayor’s shirt. His wheezy exhale of libations and fear sickened me, but I held tight. I had no intention of actually hurting the man, but a coward’s fear held far more power over him than force.
“Now you listen to me,” I said. “Your life isn’t going to be worth much unless you start talking. I want you to tell me exactly what happened to my brother.”
“You see, Mr. Cartwright,” the mayor said, in his shaky voice. “When your brother killed those men, word spread quickly that he was the fastest gun in town. People started talking that it was only a matter of time before someone took him on.”
“What happened to my brother?” I asked and chided myself for the tremor that found its way into my voice. “Your time is running out fast unless you keep talking.”
“Eddie Moore. Eddie Moore happened to your brother,” the mayor said, and for a moment, I heard something in the man’s voice. I heard a bitterness that threatened to meet my own and a hint of sadness that I did not like one bit. I let go of the man’s shirt and crossed my arms tightly against my chest.
“Eddie Moore was fifteen years old,” the mayor continued. “A mean kid, trouble from the day he was born. Couldn’t have been more different from your brother. It turns out he decided to be a gunfighter and he wanted to start out young. He decided to start with your brother. Told his friends that the way to make a name for himself was to take on the fastest gun in town. Eddie challenged him, in the middle of the street. I saw the whole thing. I was standing right where we are now. Your brother said ‘No,’ and was about to walk away. Eddie was small for his age. To your brother, I’d imagine he looked like he was twelve or thirteen. Eddie got mad. He always had a terrible temper. He drew and shot Little Joe anyways. The bullet hit him right underneath the collarbone. The doctor said it was the angle that made it so bad. If Joe had not turned when he did, the bullet might have made a straight pass.”
“Where can I find this Eddie Moore?” I heard myself asking in a distant voice. My anger had congealed and seeped out of me, like runoff from a storm, but I could not let go of it yet. There was still business to be done.
“You can’t find him,” the mayor replied. “He’s dead.”
“But I thought you said my brother wouldn’t shoot him,” I said with some confusion. The idea of my brother being shot down by a kid just couldn’t find a place in my mind. Wasn’t it just a couple weeks ago that I protested to Pa that Joe was just a kid himself?
“Your brother wouldn’t shoot him,” the mayor said. “But my daughter would. Your brother was lying in the street. He was bleeding badly and was unconscious. Eddie walked over to him and had pointed his gun at your brother’s head. He was about to pull the trigger, but there was a shot from in front of the hotel. It was Sylvie Anne. She hadn’t come out of her room for days. She certainly had not wanted to see your brother. But she had been watching out the window. She kept a small pistol tucked away, in case of emergency. Sylvie Ann killed Eddie Moore, Mr. Cartwright.”
I could not speak to the man. I could barely get my mind around the facts of the shooting, let alone the implications. All the times I had badgered Joe into thinking things through, into doing the right thing, into making the honorable decision. There would be no scaffold, no gallows, no hangman’s tree for the boy who shot my brother. Justice had been demanded and exacted without me. There was nothing left for me to do.
I turned away from the mayor and walked slowly down the street, to join my father and my brothers.
The door creaked open, and I took my time entering the sheriff’s office. I looked over my shoulder and noticed for the first time that the street seemed to be deserted.
I wondered where the good people of Rubicon were hiding. I wonder if they thought they were merely protecting their own interests, by allowing a twenty-year-old kid to be gunned down in the middle of their fine street. I shook the dust off my feet in disgust, before entering the small jail. With any luck, Rubicon would be a ghost town, before it saw another decade.
The pestilence and misery were visceral, as I walked into the room. For a moment, I remembered the carrion we passed on the road, but I shook that memory off with disgust at my own premonition. I refused to look for omens in life. It was the sort of superstitious nonsense that Hoss and Little Joe were always getting themselves into. How many times had I reprimanded them for letting their emotions make their decisions, by not taking a look at the cold, hard facts?
As my eyes became accustomed to the dimness of the light in the room – makeshift, oilcloth curtains seemed to obscure every window – I tried to take in the facts, as the doctor rattled off his well-rehearsed litany: A broken collarbone where the bullet made initial contact. A splintery wound with jagged edges, almost impossible to clean. A massive case of infection kicking in fast. Everything had gone downhill, as soon as it had begun. No hope, really. No hope at all.
“It’s a miracle he lasted until you got here,” the doctor told us.
I leaned into the threshold, and I felt the rickety unfinished frame give just a little against my weight. For a moment, I considered that if I had stayed with Joe in Rubicon, I could have helped him brace the frame. I could have kept it standing when the real sheriff of Rubicon returned to it and to his tin badge. So many things I could have done differently, if only I had known.
“Joseph? Joseph?” my father said, leaning forward over the bed, and I immediately recognized the voice my father reserved for small children and very sick sons. I could not see Joe, through Pa and Hoss’ massive shoulders. They formed a wall between my brother and me, and I did not try to push past them. It was our way as a family. Pa and Hoss got first crack at taking care of Joe, and the necessary details, I handled on my own. They had not asked what had taken me so long. Pa and Hoss knew that I had already found out what happened and would fill them in when there was time.
“Little brother, can you hear me?” Hoss asked. “Pa, I think he’s waking up!”
“Pa?” Joe’s voice was so faint, I could barely hear it from where I stood.
“Joseph? Little Joe?” Pa repeated. “We’re here, son. We came as fast as we could. You have nothing to worry about, boy. We’re here. Everything is going to be all right.”
“I’ll tell you one thing little brother,” Hoss said, and I heard the smile he forced into his voice. “You sure did go to a whole heap of trouble to get us to come back for a cup of coffee.”
If Joe had the strength for it, I figured he would smile at Hoss. That’s the way it was with those two. Their relationship confounded those who should have known better. It was hard to find two men who were more different than my two brothers. Hoss might have dwarfed Little Joe, in mass and in appetite, but the kid was a force to be reckoned with, in his own right. From childhood on, Joe taught Hoss how to wrestle with gentleness, how to laugh until his sides ached with pain, and how to throw himself into a good time. No one took greater joy than Joe in breaking things apart. I doubted that Hoss would have ever gotten into trouble, if it were not for Little Joe.
“Pa. Hoss.” Joe said again. I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to get a look at him. I squeezed between Pa and Hoss to find my own space near the bed.
My first thought upon seeing my brother’s face was that Joe was already ruined. I knew one thing for sure. I had never seen him so sick. I sat beside him on the bed. Pa kept stroking back the damp curls, as if he could push all the damage away, with the touch of his hand. I did not need to feel Joe’s forehead to know it was ablaze with fever. A fine sheen of sweat covered him like a shroud, and his eyes were glossy and bright with the giddiness that a high temperature can bring. His entire body trembled. He just could not get warm. Hoss must have thought the same thing, because he stood and pulled a mess of blankets from an overhead shelf. As I watched him tenderly tuck the blankets around Joe’s shivering frame, I wished I had thought of it first. At least it would have given me a way to help.
Joe noticed me, with Hoss out of the way, and somehow managed a small smile for me. I always joked that the kid would still be laughing in his grave, but now I choked on the thought, like it was gall, and willed it away.
“Hey kid,” I said. I patted his hand and then drew back behind my father. “How you feeling?”
“Never better,” Joe whispered, and this time, we both grinned. Pa looked at the two of us with obvious exasperation and shook his head. I knew what he was thinking. Even though Joe and I could be at each other’s throats over the most frivolous of differences, during the worst of times, we managed to share the same sense of humor.
I drew the sheet back from my brother’s shoulder. I couldn’t accept the doctor’s word alone. I needed to see what we were dealing with for myself. As I pulled back the bandage, I heard Hoss moan rise from deep down inside his throat, and I could see Pa’s hand begin to shake, as he continued to stroke Joe’s hair. We all knew what we were looking at. Every one of us, Joe included, had seen the life drain from a man, from a case of infection, far milder than the one in front of us.
“It’s bad, ain’t it?” Joe’s voice was stronger this time, and I noticed that he didn’t really ask us. He already knew.
“Yes, son.” Pa’s voice held steady, as well. “It’s bad.”
“Thanks for getting here. I didn’t think there was still time,” Joe said, and he patted the bed for Hoss to sit down next to him.
I worried that the four of us might be too much for the rickety cot, but it was obvious Joe wanted us close by. I held my breath, as the frame groaned and held. My youngest brother had always demanded company. Even routine illnesses required an audience for Joe; he could not stand to be alone. Pa said I, on the other hand, was just like a cat. When injured or upset, I preferred to find a dark, quiet place where I could curl into myself and tend to my wounds, in my own way, in my own good time. I wondered if I would be able to find a place dark enough or quiet enough to wait out the sorrow that looked to be in store for us all.
“Little brother,” Hoss said, cupping his hand against Joe’s cheek. “You’re going to be just fine, you hear? We’re here and we’ve got all the time in the world. You got no need to fret.”
Joe stared at me over Hoss’ shoulder, and he shook his head, ever so slightly. If I had not been looking for it, I would have missed it entirely. His look clearly told me, look after him. I could hear it echo in my mind again and again, just like Joe had actually said the words out loud. No, I won’t agree to it, I wanted to tell him, if it means you will stay. But that wasn’t my way. I nodded at him and made sure that he could see it. Joe smiled softly, and I ached at the man he had so suddenly become. What happened to the boy who wanted nothing more than to follow the prettiest girl into town and blow his month’s earnings at a game of cards?
Joe’s eyes were beginning to close, and I could tell that it cost him dearly to stay awake. I exchanged a knowing look with Pa. We needed to give him time to sleep, and he wasn’t going to get a lot of rest with all of us sitting on his bed like that. Pa had been stroking circles onto Joe’s forehead, and the rhythmic motion seemed to do more for Joe than all the powders and brews the doctor could force into him.
“Joseph, you need to rest,” Pa crooned and leaned in close to Joe’s ear. “We’ll be right here. We’re not going anywhere.”
Joe grabbed at Pa’s arm, with an urgency that caught all of us off guard.
“Pa,” he said. “You have to get me home.”
My father looked confused, but as always, he covered it well. “Of course we’ll take you home, son. When you’re well enough to make the trip.”
“No Pa,” Joe said. ” I need to go home today.”
“Impossible,” the doctor behind us exclaimed. The man had been observing us so quietly, we had all forgotten he was still in the room. “This boy’s condition is so fragile, I highly doubt he’d make it out of town!”
We turned to stare at the doctor, and the glare we leveled at him was palpable. I wondered that the man could remain standing under it. Joe’s eyes had closed, and his fever shakes had abated so suddenly that I reached my hand to his neck, just to be certain. Life still pulsed, ever so reluctantly, and Joe opened his eyes and looked at me.
“Adam,” he whispered. “I can’t die here. Need to get home. The Ponderosa. If I don’t make it the whole way, at least that’s where I’ll be heading.”
I nodded, and he closed his eyes. Pa and I stood up together and signaled for the doctor to follow us out of the room. Hoss stayed right where he was. He had made a promise to his little brother to stay at his side, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
“It will kill him,” the doctor said abruptly, as soon as we left the airless room and walked into the sheriff’s office. I never thought a jail could seem inviting, in comparison to the room we just left. “The infection is getting worse by the hour. You put him in the back of a wagon, expose him to all the dirt and the elements, and he won’t live until morning.”
“Is he going to live if he stays here?” I heard myself ask, and I tried not to look at my father.
“No,” the doctor said, and he rubbed at his eyes. I wondered how many hours the man had gone without sleep, as he had tended to my brother for the past couple days.
“How can you make that judgment?” my father growled. “How can you say what is possible and what is impossible? How can you know if a man lives or dies? The Bible says that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. Do you presume to know what God is thinking?”
“No I don’t Mr. Cartwright,” the doctor admitted, and when he looked at Pa, I realized that he must be a father too. The sympathy apparent in his eyes was acute, and I found this more devastating than his prognosis. “I am not God. But I will tell you sir that you have raised a brave, young man. The entire town of Rubicon is beholden to him, myself included. His best chance at survival is to stay here, where I can look after him. If nothing else, I can keep him comfortable until – “
“My brother’s not one for making comfortable choices, Doctor,” I interrupted. “And he’s certainly not one for doing what’s expected. Best way to get him to live a long life is to start reckoning he’s ready to die.”
Pa and I caught each other’s eye, and we smiled. Each of us knew already what needed to be done. We were men who were far more comfortable with action than with waiting. And we had so much to do before we were ready.
“Adam, you go to the livery and rent a buckboard,” Pa said, already stronger than I had seen him since we left the Ponderosa. “I’ll get started packing Joe’s things. Hoss can stay with Joe. From the look I saw on his face, I don’t think Hoss would leave, even if we gave it to him as an option.”
The authority had reentered my father’s voice and I deferred to it, as I had done throughout my life.
“Yes sir,” I said and started towards the livery.
The doctor rushed to catch up with me, and he grabbed my arm. “You mean to do it, then? You’re planning to leave with him?” he gasped.
“As soon as we can,” I replied. “I don’t want to waste another minute of my brother’s life, in this town.”
I walked away then and did not look back.
It took longer than we thought to get ready. I believe that Pa bought every blanket, every bandage, and every conceivable provision that the general store stocked, by the time we were ready to go. The wagon looked like a mercantile unto itself, and I worried that there would not be room for Joe to lie down, amid all the supplies. I watched as the livery boy tethered our horses to the back of the wagon. We agreed that Hoss would ride his own horse, while Pa and I would take turns caring for Joe, in the back of the wagon. Hoss had barely left our younger brother’s side, since we arrived in Rubicon, but he agreed reluctantly when we insisted there was simply no room for him in the wagon.
As Hoss cradled Joe in his arms, carefully resting him on the makeshift bed that we had prepared, I looked across the street at the hotel and thought I saw a movement in one of the upstairs windows. Sylvie Ann was still looking after Joe, I thought to myself, but she could not bring herself to come down to say goodbye. It did not matter. She was one of the only people of the town who had actually managed to pay the debt she owed my brother.
“You all right, little brother?” Hoss asked, looking down at Joe’s strained expression, and I could tell he was feeling anxious about what we were doing. Hoss had always set great stock in the opinions of doctors, and the doctor of Rubicon was not happy with us at all. Pa and I had ignored his protests all afternoon, but Hoss had fretted over them, worried them until they festered like open sores in his imagination.
“I’m fine, Hoss,” Joe told him, patting his arm. “I’ll be even better once I get out of this town.”
Hoss nodded miserably and mounted his horse. I climbed onto the front of the buckboard and waited for Pa to get in the back with Joe. Suddenly the mayor appeared again, at the side of the wagon.
“Mr. Cartwright,” he said, and I noted that he spoke to me and not my father. I believe he was afraid of the hard look that had settled in my father’s eye after I had told him how Joe had been shot. “On behalf of the town of Rubicon, I would like to offer my condolences for what happened to your brother. He was a very brave boy.”
“Present tense,” I snapped and felt irritated by the confusion in his eyes. “You referred to my brother in past tense. My brother is still alive.”
I snapped the reins furiously and felt the horses jolt forward, with surprising spirit.
I waited until we passed the last vestige of Rubicon, before I added, “And my brother is not a boy.”
It has been a long, hard ride. Our decision to leave seemed so clear at the time, but I know we all have reconsidered our choice, many times along the way.
Joe was in so much pain, during the first stretch of the trip, that we insisted he take some of the draught the doctor had prepared for him. He resisted of course, telling us he wanted to be awake as long he could. But we won. Joe simply did not have the strength to put up much of a struggle.
My hands are numb from gripping the reins for so long, and I can barely straighten my fingers, in the cold of this night. With an exhausted sigh, I allow myself to look up, and I can see the stars, through the lacy mantle of branches and trees that line the road. It is a lovely night, the sort of night that can make a man pause. The moon is full, orange, and bittersweet, marking the end of the fall. Leaves, like omens, flutter down in the wind, and I allow myself to feel regret for the passing of another season. Where does the time go? If there is a time and a place for everything, then I demand a second count. Who could provide a reckoning for the shortness of this season?
I look over my shoulder again and grimly note that Joe has not moved for hours. It bothers me that every time we hit a rut in the road, Joe does not cry out in pain. It cannot be a good sign. We gave him enough medicine to comfort him, not to take him out of the world.
He would have wanted to study the sky on such a fine night. As a boy, Joe liked nothing more than to lie under the stars and connect the dots of light with his finger. If he minded me, as I pointed out the names and locations of each star and galaxy, I will never know. But we had one thing in common. The night sky always made us feel small.
With a gasp, a memory comes upon me that I have not thought of for many years. I hear my brother’s voice, boyish with sincerity, return from the years that have passed, since he spoke the words. At the time, it seemed like such a ridiculous thing for him to say, coming from such a young boy. But I remember it now, and the memory makes me pull hard on the reins. The horses snort to a reluctant stop and Hoss draws up, as well. I need to remember exactly what Joe said.
I remember the funeral of old Mr. McCallister, standing at the side of the grave with my family, as they lowered the coffin slowly into the ground. Joe could not have been more than thirteen years old. The man had died of old age and bad decisions, and we watched the coffin disappear into the earth, under clods of dirt and grass.
Then Joe turned to me and quietly said, “I never want to die in my sleep.”
In my mind’s memory, he looks at me with such intensity and his words echo with such resonance that I gasp out loud. I cannot get enough air into my lungs. Joe does not want to die in his sleep. I can breathe the words, in and out, as if they are air. I feel Pa’s hand rest on my shoulder, with concern that something is wrong. He is right to be concerned. Everything is wrong, and I need to wake my brother up right now.
“Pa, we need to stop!” I shout, not caring if I frighten my father and brother. I suddenly feel that we have no time at all. “Joe needs to wake up!”
“Adam, don’t you think it’s better that he gets his sleep?” My father asks the question gently. He has no anger left either, just the sorrow of a future cut short.
“No, he needs to wake up,” I say again, and this time, my father moves his legs so I can get by. I climb into the back of the wagon.
I reach out to touch the side of my brother’s face. To my enormous relief, I realize he is still breathing. He inhales and exhales in perfect cadence with the wind through the trees. I remember reading that God breathed into the first man to make him in His own image. It was that first breath that gave man a soul, marking him as distinct from the rest of creation. With insane clarity, I can almost believe that God is breathing for my brother.
Even the air feels warmer somehow, as if autumn is choosing to stick around, just a little while longer. Paradoxically, Joe’s face feels cooler, less clammy with fever and pain. Perhaps, the night air has been a tonic after all. I take his wrist and feel his pulse, steady and persistent. Joe’s face is lit by the luminous glow of the moonlight. I see him clearly, then. No one can take this away from my brother, no matter how the night may end. He has grown into a good man.
“Joe, wake up,” I say, as gently as I can. “Little Joe. Wake up! You don’t want to miss this.”
He turns his head away from me, and I can see his lips move. He is lost in his sleep. I shake him again. Pa always says that nothing can get in my way, once I have made up my mind, and I suppose that he is right. I keep shaking my brother.
“Adam,” Hoss says, his voice strained with grief. “He’s sleeping. Can’t it wait until we get him home?”
“No!” I shout with irritation and grab hold of both sides of Joe’s face. This time he stirs, and reluctantly opens his eyes.
“Are we home?” Joe asks, with some confusion. My face is blocking the stream of moonlight, and I imagine that it is difficult for him to see. I smile at him, knowing he cannot yet make out my face.
“Not yet,” I reply. “We’ve got a while to go still. Thought you might want to have a look at the stars. They’re beautiful tonight.”
He tries to look past me, and I lean to the side so he can stare through the branches towards the night sky. As the leaves stir in the wind, I can feel something stir inside me as well. Joe keeps looking, and the light of the moon is so bright, I can see the shadows of the trees slashed like arrows across the road in front of us. Joe’s eyes are bright, not feverish at all, and are filled with wonder at the expanse of possibilities above him. Suddenly, the road ahead of us does not seem quite so narrow after all.
“Pa, come feel his forehead,” I hear myself say and make room for my father to climb in the back of the wagon. “I can’t say for sure, but he feels cooler to me.”
Pa leans over, places his hand on Joe’s head for a long moment’s rest, and smiles at me in marvelous affirmation. Like me, he can hardly make any sense of it.
“Hoss!” Pa exclaims, and I can hear the excitement in his voice, edged with disbelief. “Come here and feel your brother. Tell us what you think.”
Hoss stares at Pa and me, as if we have simply lost our minds. In the ghostly iridescence of this strange night, I think that he is probably right. With a puzzled shrug, Hoss clambers aboard the wagon and settles in beside Joe.
“How you doing little brother?” he asks kindly, and he reaches for our little brother’s hand. After a moment’s pause, his eyes widen with shock. He places his hand on Joe’s forehead. Then his face crumples and right there in the wagon, Hoss begins to cry.
Joe stares at Hoss, looks at Pa and I, and he shakes his head in disbelief. “Have you all gone crazy?” Joe asks, and I realize we all have our hands still resting on his face, as if we are bestowing some kind of ancient midnight blessing.
“Look at his shoulder,” Pa commands, his voice shaking so badly, he can hardly get out the words.
I fumble with the bandages, and Joe cries out in pain when my fingers brush against the wound.
“Sorry Joe,” I whisper, and loosen the bandage at last. Even in the moonlight, we can see that the red and black flames that radiated from the wound seem to be receding. It makes no sense at all, but Little Joe seems to be getting better.
Hoss sees it too and lets loose with a holler that I imagine would startle the birds right out of the trees. Pa thumps us both on the back, and we laugh until we ache, and shake each other’s hands until we can’t stand it anymore. Despite the fact that there is no room for us in the back of the wagon, we lean back against the bags of supplies, in wondrous exhaustion.
Joe smiles at us and whispers, “I was right. You all are crazy.” Then he closes his eyes, already asleep. This time, I do not wake him up. His sleep is peaceful and necessary. He will wake up in the morning.
Despite myself, I cannot help but look up to see if some benevolent god is hanging from the trees, like a deity from an ancient Greek play. I don’t see anything above us, but I whisper, “Thanks,” anyways. The ancients may have had their miracle for a song, but for us, it’s not something to take for granted.
We are no longer in a hurry to get home. The four of us lie in the wagon, under the ancient cathedral of the moon and the stars. We are a family. And we sleep until dawn.