Summary: Adam and his fifteen-year-old youngest brother haven’t been getting along too well, but when Joe’s life is left hanging in the balance, the two of them are forced to re-evaluate their relationship.
Word Count: 8100
“Let me go, Adam! You’re choking me!”
As violently as he struggled against his oldest brother’s iron grip, Adam had him so tightly by the back of his collar and his right upper arm, there was no way he was going to break free. But he wasn’t going to give up trying either. Adam was dragging him unceremoniously across the street; he was yelling, calling out names Pa would have tanned him even for knowing.
It made him mad always being the youngest!
Adam’s voice came back at him through gritted teeth. “You’re not going anywhere, Joseph. And if you don’t stop kicking me, I’m going to tie you up in the back of that wagon.”
Joseph! Since when did Adam call him Joseph? Sheesh, he could be an idiot sometimes! Right then, it made Joe madder than ever.
“You’re not Pa, so just get off me, will ya?”
“Yeah, well, you just wait ’til he hears about this!”
“About what? I wasn’t doing anything!”
Dammit! Why couldn’t he break free? He had been growing fast these last months but he still had a way to go to catch up with his oldest brother. For all his determined efforts to break loose, Adam had him pinned.
“Stop making a scene, will you, Joe?” They were back at the buckboard now. Adam slammed his protesting brother against the hard wooden side and glared at him from a face as stony as Pa’s when he was angry. “What were you doing in that saloon anyway? I told you to wait here!” He wrinkled his nose. “Have you been drinking whiskey?”
“So, where the hell d’you go?” Little Joe scowled back at him as he shrugged his shirt collar back into place now Adam’s hand had finally relinquished it. “You said you were going to be a few minutes. An hour more like! Maybe I got thirsty waiting so long.”
It was an insolent answer. He wouldn’t have spoken to Pa that way. But Adam wasn’t Pa. Even if he seemed to think he was lately. Whenever Pa went off and left Adam in charge, he got like this. All high and mighty. Well, thought Joe, he’d show Adam he wasn’t the big man he seemed to think he was.
“Joe, you’re fifteen! What were you thinking, taking on a feller three times your age?”
“I didn’t take him on! He hit me!”
“Yes, but you hit him back!”
“What was I supposed to do?”
Adam opened his mouth to say something but apparently thought better of it and gave an exasperated sigh instead. “Get in the wagon,” he said, with a jerk of his head. “You shouldn’t even be looking at saloon girls at your age.”
Joe gave him what he hoped was a look of complete disdain. What a stupid thing to say! Especially for Adam who never missed the chance to eye up any pretty girl, particularly one going out of her way to flaunt her assets.
But he bit his tongue. The red hot fire that exploded inside him when he got angry was cooling fast, and he was conscious now how much of an audience they had attracted with their display of brotherly temper. He contented himself with a contemptuous shrug to remove Adam’s remaining hand from his arm and clambered onto the back of the buckboard with the sacks of flour and other supplies. There was no way he was going to sit on that seat beside his disapproving brother all the way back to the Ponderosa.
Adam climbed into the driving seat and tossed his handkerchief at Joe. “Clean up your face.” It was more of a reprimand than an order.
Clean up his face? Joe put a hand to his mouth. He’d tasted blood when that miner hit him, but swept along on a boiling wave of blind fury, he hadn’t registered any pain. Until now. Now, with the cold light of early winter chasing away the last tendrils of smoking anger, he became uncomfortably aware of his smarting nose and the thumping pain in his head behind it. That was where all the blood was coming from. Smeared over his face, trickling down the back of his throat, spattering the front of his shirt beneath his unbuttoned winter coat. He pressed the handkerchief carefully to his dribbling nostrils, and allowed himself a small groan. Not loud enough for Adam to hear. He didn’t want to give his brother the satisfaction of knowing he was in any discomfort.
Almost as if the realization of the pain in his face had sent out a signal to the rest of his body, other bits of him began to let him know they’d been hurt too. Examining the back of his left hand, his knuckles were bleeding, swelling visibly and turning a deep shade of blue. His ribs and belly ached. That miner hadn’t been a big feller but he’d certainly known how to hit hard. Joe didn’t even remember exactly what had happened after that first blow to his face. All the anger and humiliation just burst inside him. But he remembered the look of surprise on the miner’s face when he’d lunged back at him, fists flying. He hadn’t expected a kid to hit back! Although Joe had been in plenty of fights with boys his own age, this had been his first real fight with a grown man. Heck! That feller had even pulled a knife.
Joe shivered involuntarily, no longer feeling so brave. In fact, the recollection of that dark-jowled miner, with his face all twisted in scorn, and that mean, narrow knife glinting in his hand, suddenly made him feel cold and a little sick. If Adam hadn’t come in…. Joe shuddered again and pulled his coat tighter around him. He would never have admitted it to his brother, but he was pretty darn sure that, if Adam hadn’t walked into that saloon when he did, he would more than likely have ended up dead.
There was something strange going on under his coat. His belly hurt and his shirt felt wet. He put down the blood-smeared handkerchief and dragged his coat open, twisting his body to get a good look at his right side, where the pain ached worst.
He drew a sharp breath as he saw all the blood. Then he remembered Adam. But his big brother was hunched over the reins, no doubt scowling darkly at the road ahead and thinking up suitable punishments for his youngest brother’s misdemeanors.
Yanking his shirt out of his waistband, Joe pushed down his belt and felt gingerly with his fingers where the blood was oozing thickest. He winced. There it was. A slit, less than an inch wide, where the flesh gave beneath his touch. That miner must’ve stuck him with his knife! Strange. He didn’t remember it happening. Swiftly he tucked the already bloodied handkerchief between the puncture wound and his belt. Then he pulled his coat back around him and fastened it securely. Shifting himself to find the most comfortable position for all his aches and bruises, he rested his pounding head against a sack of flour.
If that girl hadn’t come out of the saloon doors the way she did, he might never have been tempted inside.
But that was her job. He knew that. The girls were there to draw men into the saloon. Joe had watched her while she smiled and flirted with a couple of fellers passing by, but the street wasn’t very busy, and she’d leaned up against the railing, looking bored.
That was when she saw him.
He was standing across the street, minding the wagon. He’d finished loading it ages before. No thanks to Adam. Adam had left him to it, saying there was something important he needed to see to. Yeah, thought Joe. Charlotte Redmire; that’s who you’re seeing to! But he hadn’t dared say it out loud. Adam didn’t think anyone knew, but they’d passed her earlier on their way to the bank, and Joe had seen the look on his brother’s face. Adam still thought he was a kid, but he wasn’t stupid!
It was fair to say he had been ogling that saloon girl. Hard not to when there was that much to stare at and most of it out on display. But when she smiled in his direction and then beckoned with her finger, he found himself looking around to see who she was gesturing at. Hard to believe it could be him. He’d grown in the last few months. Everyone said so. Pa especially, rolling his eyes every time Joe outgrew another set of clothes. Hoss had even let him borrow his razor a couple of times. But now this saloon girl was looking his way, and beckoning him, which had to mean she thought he was a man
He strolled across the street, forcing himself to look casual, trying to count the coins in his pocket without bringing them out to look at them. He knew about saloon girls. He’d heard the stories. If you had money, you could pay the girl and she would take you upstairs, and…
He realized his heart was thumping horribly hard at the thought. He had no idea how to go about asking a saloon girl to do that, and no idea how much money she would expect to be paid to do it. He’d only ever joked about those things with the other boys.
She called him ‘sweetie’. He was uncertain what to make of that. But then, truth be told, he wasn’t sure what to make of any of it, his head was in such a spin. The scarlet satin across her bodice was laced so tight, her soft, rounded flesh looked fit to bust the straining fabric. It was hard to keep from gaping.
“D’ya wanna buy me a drink?” She had rouged cheeks and dimples beside her mouth and a look in her eyes he’d seen before only in dreams. He made some incoherent reply that she obviously took as a yes, because she wrapped her long, gloved fingers around his unresisting arm and drew him into the bar.
That’s when it all started to go wrong. The saloon was full of whiskey-soaked miners. He hardly noticed, mesmerized as he was by the possibilities of that tightly laced bodice and the longed-for promises in the girl’s smile. She ordered a whiskey, and the bar tender poured one for Joe too while he fumbled clumsily with the money in his pocket, hoping fervently that he’d have enough to cover the drinks.
He hadn’t even taken in straight away that the other men at the bar were laughing at him, making fun of his youth and his small size. One of them called the girl Lindy, and asked how old the baby was. In his distraction Joe might have ignored them even then, but as their sneers grew rapidly more offensive, he gulped at his whiskey to cover his embarrassment and instead managed to half choke himself. That made them laugh even harder. One of them, a short stocky man with thick lips, made some remarks so coarse, Joe felt his face flushing scarlet.
“Mind your mouth!” His heart thumping uncomfortably, Joe rounded on the miner, cursing his own voice for sounding so squeaky. He muttered an apology at the girl beside him, but she just looked amused. “Ignore them, sweetie,” she said, and leaned over to stroke his face.
He didn’t have time to think much about that, let alone enjoy it, because that’s when the miner grabbed the front of his shirt and hit him full in the face.
Slumped against the sacks on the buckboard, Joe groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. He hadn’t handled the situation well. Maybe he was just a boy after all. Right now he didn’t feel much like a man. He felt humiliated and stupid and sore.
It was a relief to pull into the yard at the Ponderosa, although the house looked depressingly quiet and empty. Not even Hop Sing was about. He’d gone with Pa and Hoss to San Francisco. Why couldn’t Pa have taken him, Joe thought frowning? Why was he the one to have to stay home with his arrogant, jumped-up brother?
“You go inside, Short Shanks,” said Adam as he climbed down off the driving seat. “I’ll unload.”
Joe knew he was trying to be kind. Trying to make peace after their earlier battle, but he wasn’t going to get off so lightly. “I’m fine. I can help,” he told him, stubbornly.
Adam’s eyes hardened again. He pursed his mouth. Joe glared back. “I’m not going to have you tell Pa I didn’t pull my weight.”
Adam shrugged with impatience. “Suit yourself, Joe. Do what you like!”
So Joe unhitched the horse while Adam unloaded the supplies. In the relative seclusion of the barn, he fumbled with his coat and tried to get a clear glimpse of the hole in his side, but it wasn’t easy with all his clothing in the way. It didn’t appear to be bleeding any more. And it didn’t hurt as much as his face. The pain in his head was the worst. Still, he made the horse comfortable, and fetched fresh hay, and put all the harness away exactly how it was supposed to be before he went back to the house. Adam wasn’t going to have any excuse to say he hadn’t done things properly.
Adam had finished unloading all the sacks and boxes and was in the kitchen fixing some coffee when Joe came in and helped himself to a cup of water.
“Better let me take a look at your face, little brother.” Joe could tell by his tone that this was another attempt to make amends. He fixed him with a scowl. “I don’t need your help, thanks. I’m not a kid, you know.”
Adam’s brown eyes flashed. His patience was still very thin. “Yeah? Well, you certainly acted like one today!”
Another short, hot burst of temper flared through Joe. Hurling the rudest insult he could think of at his brother, he stormed out of the kitchen and up the stairs. Behind him, he heard the resounding crash of a cabinet door slamming with venomous force and couldn’t suppress a smile of sly triumph. It took a lot to make his oh-so-perfect brother lose his temper, but Joe had certainly managed it that day.
*** *** ***
He didn’t sleep well that night. His face throbbed, his ribs ached, his belly hurt, and it was hard to find any position in his bed that was even vaguely comfortable. When morning came, he was bad-tempered and tired, a mood that didn’t improve when he looked in the mirror and saw the state of his face; nose all red and swollen, bruises darkening both eye sockets. He looked hideous and felt worse. His left hand was purple and puffy. It hurt even to open and close his fingers. The hole in his side throbbed but didn’t look too bad. He’d ripped up one of his outgrown shirts to make a dressing for it before he’d gone to bed. Now he folded a small wad from some more of the leftover fabric and tucked it into his belt to cushion the wound. Adam planned for them to spend the day riding fence, and he didn’t want it to chafe. He finished dressing, trying to ignore the persistent ache that had been growing in his belly all night.
Adam was already eating his breakfast when Joe got downstairs, reading his book as he ate. Joe thought how Pa would have had something to say about that. He looked up as Joe approached the table and his eyebrows twitched upwards just a fraction when he saw his brother’s face. Then he looked down again at his book, as if he hadn’t noticed anything. Joe gave him a black look.
“Some eggs there,” Adam said, gesturing casually with his book at the dish in the centre of the table.
“I’m not hungry,” Joe told him, with a scowl. It was the truth. The ache in his gut was making him feel vaguely nauseous.
Adam sighed wearily. “Just eat something, Joe, and don’t argue. You didn’t have any supper. If we’re going to be out riding all day, you need something inside you. I don’t intend to carry you back.”
Joe sat down and scooped eggs onto his plate. Adam was the last person he’d talk to about feeling sick. He was bound to say it was all Joe’s own doing. Even if he didn’t say it out loud, he’d think it. Neither of them mentioned the condition of Joe’s face or why he was eating with his right hand. But then, thought Joe resentfully, Adam was so absorbed in his book, he probably didn’t even notice.
Out in the barn, Adam made to lift Joe’s saddle onto the back of his horse for him. Joe snatched it away. Adam really did seem to think he was a feeble little kid still. Adam didn’t say anything; just turned his back and got on with saddling his own horse, and Joe gritted his teeth as his injured hand throbbed.
But it was the ache in his side that was the worst. Being jolted about in the saddle made it hurt so bad that the pain began to wash through his middle in great big waves, right through, from his belly to his back. Still he kept quiet about it. Once he got down from his horse, he told himself, it would ease up. Adam was riding about twenty yards ahead. They’d reached some sort of unspoken agreement that they were best off not speaking to each other. That suited Joe. He didn’t feel well enough for more shouting matches.
They stopped for a break mid morning, much to Joe’s silent relief, though it hurt real bad as he slid down off the back of Cochise. He had to lean his head into the animal’s flank and take a few hard breaths. Then he saw Adam looking at him with a slightly puzzled expression, so he straightened quickly and stuck out his jaw. Adam turned away then and began fishing in his saddlebag.
“Here,” he said, tossing Joe a hunk of cold beef. He gave his brother a little frown. “You don’t look so good, Joe. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine.” Joe chewed determinedly on the beef to demonstrate how well he felt. Adam’s mouth did that little impatient twitch he reserved for when he was annoyed. He was sure wound up, thought Joe, with fleeting satisfaction. Then another great whoosh of pain swept right through him and he knew without doubt that the meat he’d just eaten was about to make a rapid reappearance.
“I gotta go,” he gasped. But there was nowhere to go, so it came straight back up, right there and then.
He saw Adam frowning deeper. “How much did you drink yesterday, Joe?”
Joe tried to glare at him. What did he think? As if one puny glass of whiskey would make a feller sick! Heaving himself back into his saddle, he had to make a big effort not to grunt or wince. “I don’t have a hangover.”
“No?” said Adam, with a smirk. “I can see that.”
Joe turned his horse back the way they’d come. He heard Adam’s voice behind him. “Where are you going?”
“Home.” Joe didn’t stop to elaborate. Right then, he didn’t care what Adam thought. He just had to get back home. The pain was getting worse, not better.
“What about the fence?”
“You do it!”
Heading back across the Ponderosa, Joe kept Cochise at a slow walk so he wouldn’t bounce around too much, squirming and shifting in his saddle in an attempt to ease the growing discomfort in his middle. Even at that pace, he couldn’t keep from doubling over, groaning aloud at the pain. Why couldn’t Pa have taken Adam with him and left Hoss in charge, he thought to himself? He could’ve talked to Hoss, told him how bad he was feeling. Hoss would have been sympathetic, not smug and superior like Adam. Hoss would’ve listened and not made Joe feel small and silly!
After what felt like forever, the house finally appeared ahead. Behind Joe, hooves thudded on the packed dirt. He didn’t even attempt to turn around to see who it was; he was hurting too bad.
Adam pulled alongside. “Thought you’d be home by now.”
Joe forced his voice to sound normal. “Why’d you come back?”
“Thought I’d see how you were.”
Joe gritted his teeth and kept his face turned away. Despite the chill in the air, he was sweating hard. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “I’m going to lie down for a while, that’s all.” He tried to make it sound as if lying down in the middle of the day was a perfectly normal thing to do.
Adam nodded. “Good idea. You look kinda pale.”
They were only a couple of hundred yards from the house by then. Why did Adam have to follow him everywhere? Joe wanted to escape before he gave himself away. Bracing himself, he dug in his heels and spurred Cochise to a canter.
How he hung on then, he didn’t know. It was like someone had emptied a shotgun into his middle. Pain exploded right through him. His head swam and he bent over and howled into Cochise’s mane. He was still hanging over the horse’s neck, half gagging, half sobbing as they came to a standstill into the yard.
He slid down out of his saddle, catching his breath against the agony in his belly. But strangely, his legs didn’t want to hold him and he folded in the dust, shivering and hugging his middle, humiliated and temporarily helpless.
“Just take it easy, Joe.” Adam’s voice was close to his ear. He felt his brother’s arm around his shoulder and tried to shrug him off. Adam’s hand touched his cheek. “You’re burning up.”
Joe’s insides went into another seizure and he vomited over Adam’s arm. Then he knew he must really look ill because Adam didn’t even get mad with him. Joe could see his brother’s face in front of his own, and Adam’s eyes were worried. “How long have you been feeling this bad, Joe?”
Joe knew that if he tried to open his mouth to answer, he’d throw up again. Heck, he was going to throw up again anyway!
Adam got him back on his feet somehow. Wrapping his arm underneath Joe’s, he led him groaning into the house, almost dragging him up the stairs. Joe lurched at his bed, but even sitting down on the edge of the soft mattress made him wince and yelp out loud.
Adam was tugging at his coat. Joe let it fall from his shoulders, but when Adam started on his shirt buttons, he pushed him away. “I can manage. You can go now. I just need some sleep.”
Adam took no notice. Joe felt himself getting mad again. “Adam, get off me!” There was too much pain to be arguing. Why wouldn’t Adam just go away and leave him alone? “I can undress myself just fine. Leave me alone!”
“Joe, you’re drenched through, little brother.”
Joe shook his head in denial, even as he felt the sweat trickle down his face and sting his eyes. “I can do it!” he insisted, and fumbled a button undone himself. Adam seemed to relent then, and crouched down to pull off his boots. Joe fingered the next button but didn’t undo it. He didn’t want his brother to see where that knife had pierced his side. If Adam would just leave him to sleep, he’d wake up in a few hours and everything would be fine again, he was sure of it.
“Here, let me.” Adam was back at his shirt front. Joe pushed him away again, but Adam was losing patience. “Joe! For crying out loud! Will you stop fighting me!”
He had the buttons unfastened. Joe tried to pull the shirt back around himself. Adam shoved his hand aside and tugged at the buckle of his belt. Then he froze. “Joe, what happened to you?”
Joe looked down at his side. The wound was bigger than he’d remembered, and angrier, all swollen around the edges. He wasn’t sure if it was just that he was feeling so bad, but it looked kind of greenish too. “He had a knife,” he said.
“You were stabbed!” Adam stared at him in disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Joe wanted to say, 2Because you’ve been such a first rate thorn in the butt ever since Pa went away,” but he held back and shook his head instead. “It was just a small knife.”
Joe didn’t hear whatever else his brother had to say because right then he was gripped by another excruciating convulsion. Clutching his middle he rolled away, hearing his own ragged gasps loud in his ears. The pain was so sharp, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t blacked out for a few seconds. As the wave subsided, he saw Adam, crouched beside him. Adam had a towel in his hand and was dabbing at his brother’s mouth. “Listen, buddy, you stay right where you are. I’m going to find someone to go for the doctor.”
Even if Joe had felt well enough to protest, there would have been no point. Much as he hated to admit it, this time Adam was right.
He didn’t recall the doctor arriving. He didn’t recall much at all after that, at least not in any sensible order. His last clear memory of that day was of Adam sitting beside him on the bed, holding his uninjured hand, and the realisation that things had to be seriously wrong because Adam hadn’t held his hand since he was about five years old. Somehow it scared Joe that his brother was being so gentle. After all, thought Joe, he had brought this on himself. Usually Adam was the first to remind him of that.
Pain obliterated everything. Each time he thought it couldn’t get any worse, it seemed to reach deeper inside him, erupting with such intensity, he could barely breathe. He could do nothing to escape it, for all his writhing and crying out. Whatever damage that long thin blade had done to his insides, he began to wonder if he might die from pain alone.
Fever scrambled his brain. Time, place, people, all merged into one confused nightmare. Brief lucid moments stood out starkly in his mind, but he had no idea which came first or last. He remembered Adam holding him, forcing evil-tasting liquid into his mouth. He remembered the doctor’s face, close to his own, asking questions about where he hurt worst. But Joe was way beyond sensible conversation by that point. He remembered, more than once, calling out desperately for Pa, and wondering why he didn’t come. He remembered disjointed snatches of conversation; the doctor’s voice and Adam’s. And once, he opened his eyes and saw Adam, with his back to the bed, and the doctor standing next to him. Adam had his hand up to his face and the doctor’s arm was across his back. It seemed to Joe, in his muddled state, that his brother’s shoulders were trembling.
Eventually, after an eternity of pain and confusion, he opened his eyes on soft lamplight, and knew where he was again. It still felt like someone had run a loaded wagon back and forth across his middle, but the pain had subsided to an unpleasant ache that throbbed between his belly and his back. Even though he’d just woken up, he felt as exhausted as if he’d been chased up a mountain and back.
He was lying on his side. In front of him, next to his bed, was an armchair. And in it, head slumped against the winged back, was Adam, eyes fast shut, lips parted slightly, snoring gently. He looked terrible. Thick, dark stubble covered his jaw. His shirt was soiled and rumpled and his hair looked as if he hadn’t brushed it in a week. His suave, sophisticated brother looked… well, like Robinson Crusoe, Joe thought, remembering Adam reading that tale to him years before. He had a blanket draped over him and underneath the half-grown beard, his face was very pale. Joe lay watching him, puzzling dully. How long had he been there? Not that long, surely! Yet, by the look of him, Adam hadn’t shaved in days.
His big brother looked different when he was sleeping. Awake, he had a way of arranging his face just so, to stop anyone seeing what was going on inside. Hoss joked that Adam needed to be in control of everything so he practised on himself, but really it was true. Sometimes Joe wished he could be more like that. Not that he would have admitted that to Adam though. Maybe, thought Joe, he wouldn’t make a fool of himself so often if he was more like his oldest brother.
Yet, asleep in that chair, rumpled and unwashed, Adam looked oddly vulnerable, not like the self-possessed man Joe knew at all. It made him think back to his earliest memories of his big brother. He remembered how Adam used to lift him onto his shoulders and race with him across the yard. They’d go swimming in the lake and Adam would flip Joe, shrieking with delight, into the sparkling water. And they’d wrestle together on the furniture downstairs, all three of them, and Adam and Hoss would pin their small brother down and tickle him until he was exhausted with laughing. Adam hadn’t been much older then than Joe was now. When had it all changed? When had adoration turned to irritation? When did Adam stop being fun and become so disapproving?
Maisie Doherty hadn’t helped.
Joe knew all about Maisie Doherty. Adam didn’t think he did, of course, because he’d never have confided in Joe. But Joe reckoned he’d have had to be real dumb to live in the same house for so long and not know something was going on. Heck! He’d even found that poem Adam had written to her, although he’d never confessed that to anyone. The poem that said she had hair like a Botticelli angel. Joe had no idea what that was, but it sure sounded good the way Adam wrote it. Joe always wondered what Maisie thought when Adam gave her that poem. Boy, he sure hoped if he ever fell in love with a girl she wouldn’t expect him to write poems like that. He’d never come up with anything half so clever.
Adam had asked Maisie to marry him. Joe didn’t find that out for himself. Hoss told him afterwards when Adam kept shutting himself away in his room in the evenings, and riding out on his own every day. Joe had seen all the looks that passed between Pa and Hoss, and he’d seen Pa talking to Adam, by himself, when they thought nobody else was about. So in the end he’d asked Hoss straight out because he knew Hoss wouldn’t lie to him, and Hoss said that Maisie had broken Adam’s heart. That was over a year ago now. Joe had no idea how long a broken heart took to mend, but Adam’s broken heart sure hadn’t done their relationship any good. He just seemed to find his youngest brother more irritating than ever.
Yet Adam had looked after him all the time Joe had been too sick even to remember. As he lay in his bed and rested his eyes on Adam’s sleeping face, Joe realised in a sudden rush how much he’d misjudged his brother. How much he owed him. How easy he really was to hurt. If he’d had the strength, he would have climbed out of bed and put his arms around his brother, the way he used to do when he was a little kid. He actually found himself smiling to imagine how much that would have startled Adam, how embarrassed he would have felt if he had woken to find Joe hugging him. Just as well he felt so feeble, Joe thought, as he closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
The next time he woke, it was to Adam’s cool palm resting against his head.
“You don’t need to do that. I’m feeling much better,” Joe told him.
“Joe?” No mistaking the surprise and relief in Adam’s voice.
Joe rolled over. Adam still looked a mess; untidy and unshaven, but he was awake now, and back in control.
“How are you feeling?”
Joe gave the question due consideration. He felt as if someone had removed his insides, beaten them soundly with a heavy stick and shoved them roughly back. “Better,” he said.
Adam sat down on the edge of the bed, and looked at his brother for a long moment as though he was weighing up his answer. “You look better,” he said at last. He gave a little frown. “You’ve been pretty sick, Joe.”
“I didn’t feel so good,” Joe acknowledged.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Joe shrugged. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“You’re an idiot!”
Joe nodded. “I know.”
At last Adam smiled, a sort of half smile. “You had me worried, little brother. Pa’ll be back any day now. I didn’t know what I was going to tell him if I’d lost you.”
Lost him? Adam made him sound like a book he’d put down somewhere and forgotten about. But something in Adam’s expression told Joe he meant something a whole lot worse than that.
Joe frowned, confused. “Pa?”
“I wired him. Told him you were sick. It’s been five days, Joe.”
“Five days!” Joe stared at him aghast.
Adam’s face finally relaxed. “Possibly the longest five days of my life.”
Joe saw then how exhausted Adam really was, but he didn’t want to dwell on it because it frightened him to think how sick he must have been.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I should have seen how bad you were. I thought you were just being… difficult.”
“It wasn’t your fault. I guess I was. Being difficult, I mean.” Joe looked away, trying to imagine his brother nursing him diligently for five days and nights. Into his head came the image of the doctor’s arm across Adam’s shaking back. His brother had wept for him. Adam must really have been scared. Unbidden, the tears welled in Joe’s eyes.
“Hey, come on, Joe!” Adam rubbed his shoulder. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s all in the past. The important thing is you’re on the mend.”
Joe blinked hard. Adam adjusted the sheets around him with a solicitous hand. “Listen, you need to try and eat something. If you get much thinner, we’ll be able to use you for a fence post. You’ll feel a whole lot better with some food inside you. How about I fix you some oatmeal?”
“Yuck!” said Joe.
Later, when he woke again, it was the doctor calling his name. Joe opened his eyes, confused. “Where’s Adam?”
“Hopefully fixing himself a decent meal. I said I’d stay with you for a bit. He’s not ready to leave you alone just yet.”
“He worries too much,” Joe murmured.
The doctor fixed him with a hard look. “I don’t think you realize quite how serious things have been for you, Little Joe. You have no business to be here at all except Adam plain refused to let you go. He’d have fought the devil himself to keep you hanging in there.” Doctor Martin wrinkled his brow. “In fact, I’d say that was just what he did. The next time someone sticks a knife in your belly, young man, make a detour via my office before you head home, will you?”
Joe gave him a weak smile. “I didn’t think it was that serious.”
“For future reference, Little Joe, a knife in the gut is always serious!”
“I’ll remember.” Joe’s smile broadened. “And thanks, doc.”
“It’s not me you should be thanking. It’s that mule-headed brother of yours.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, I know.”
Doctor Martin grunted and shook his head. “You don’t know the half of it! Now, let’s take a look at you, boy, see how you’re doing.”
Adam was back in the chair the next time he opened his eyes, an open book in his hand. Whatever break the doctor’s visit had given him, it obviously hadn’t been long enough to allow him a bath and a shave. He still looked half wild, his eyes sunk deep in their shadowed sockets.
“Adam,” Joe said, as his brother got out of the chair to help hoist him up against his pillows, “you won’t tell Pa about the saloon, will you?”
Adam’s brows knit together. “I’m not going to lie to him, Joe.”
Joe’s face fell. He must have looked very pathetic, because Adam smiled. “Well, I guess there are some things he doesn’t need to know. We could maybe miss out the part about luscious Lindy.”
Joe looked at him in surprise. “You know her?”
Adam lifted a shoulder. “I’ve seen her in the saloon a few times. Bit old for you, little brother.” He leaned forward thoughtfully. “I’ll tell you what, I won’t tell Pa about the girl if you promise me something too.”
“That you won’t go wandering into any more saloons on your own until you’re a little older. No matter how tempting the prospects.”
Joe managed a smile. “It’s a deal.”
“Good. Anyway, it was partly my fault. I shouldn’t have left you standing there so long.”
Joe gave a vague smile. “How d’you get on with Charlotte Redmire, anyway?”
“Charlotte…?” Adam flashed his brother a look of disbelief. Joe was amused to see he’d coloured up. “How did you know about Charlotte?”
“Pretty obvious. That’s where you went, wasn’t it?”
For a moment Joe thought Adam was going to deny it, but then he said, “Actually, I did see Charlotte, yes.”
“I thought so. You were gone long enough. I guess things are working out then?”
Adam was still looking at him with incredulity all over his face. “Not that it’s any business of yours, but yes, things are working out, I think.”
“Good. I like Charlotte.”
Adam raised an eyebrow.
Joe studied his face for a moment while he considered whether or not to say the other thing on his mind. It seemed his oldest brother was in a forgiving mood, so he risked it. “I’m sorry about what happened with Maisie, Adam.”
Adam’s expression froze. “How do you know about that?”
“Hoss told me.”
“Did he?” The way Adam said that, Joe knew he would have sharp words to say to Hoss when he returned.
“Only because I asked him straight out. I was worried about you.”
Adam gave him a strange look. “And what did Hoss say, exactly?”
“That you’d asked her to marry you, but that she was seeing another feller behind your back.”
A little spasm flickered across Adam’s face. He said, “I made a mistake, that’s all.”
“I didn’t really know her,” Joe confessed, “but she seemed real nice. I never thought she’d do something like that to you.”
Adam pulled a resigned face. “Live and learn, little brother.”
Joe nodded. “Girls are tricky.”
Now Adam looked amused. “And you’d know that?”
Joe shrugged. “I know a few girls.”
Adam looked at him more closely. After a pause, he nodded. “Yes, I guess you probably do. Even Charlotte thinks you’re cute.”
Adam grinned. “Cute’s good, Little Joe. I’d settle for cute if I were you. Actually, if you want to know the truth, I was quite jealous when she said that.”
“You? Jealous of me?” Joe shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”
One moment Adam was grinning, the next a strange look came over his face, as though he’d suddenly remembered something bad. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned Maisie’s name, Joe thought, regretting his own carelessness. Adam’s eyes went kind of empty and his mouth tensed up. For a horrible moment, Joe thought he might be about to cry. He didn’t know what he would have done if that had happened. Adam crying was unthinkable. No, that wasn’t right. After all, Joe had watched him weeping while he was sick. But Adam didn’t know he’d seen that. That was the difference. Adam crying openly, that would have been unthinkable. It didn’t make any sense really though, thought Joe, since he himself was the biggest cry baby of all. As much as he wished it wasn’t true, he couldn’t deny it. He tried real hard not to be, but it was like losing his temper. He just couldn’t stop it happening. It was as if, when self control was dished up, Adam got it all and Joe got none.
Thankfully, Adam didn’t burst into tears, but he still had that funny expression on his face. He got up and went to the window, and raised the sash halfway. Joe had to drag the quilt up to his chin because a blast of winter headed straight across the room and slapped cruelly against his bare shoulders. Adam didn’t even seem to notice. Whatever he had said, Joe thought, Adam sure was distracted. He just stood, staring out of the window, not moving, not speaking.
“Adam?” said Joe, carefully, after several minutes had passed, and his brother still hadn’t moved. The room was fast filling up with cold. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything about Maisie.”
The name seemed to penetrate Adam’s thoughts and draw him back from wherever he’d been. He looked round and saw Joe huddling beneath his covers. “Oh, I’m sorry, Joe,” he said, and pushed the window closed again.
Joe shook his head. “No, it’s fine. I like fresh air!”
Adam went to the dresser and dug around in the drawers, pulling out a nightshirt. Sitting down again on the edge of Joe’s bed, he pulled it over his brother’s head, guiding his arms into the sleeves like he was a child again. Only this time, Joe found he didn’t mind.
“It wasn’t Maisie,” Adam said then, and shook his head at Joe. “It’s you.”
Adam’s eyes were red-rimmed with tiredness. He rubbed at them absently with the heel of his palm. “We haven’t been getting along so well lately, have we, Joe?”
Joe didn’t need to answer, the acknowledgement was written on his face.
“You don’t think much of me, do you?”
Joe gaped at him. The question was so unexpected, so far from the truth, he was struck momentarily dumb. When he managed to find his voice again, his reply emerged as a surprised stammer. “Wh…what do you mean?”
He had never seen Adam look as forlorn as he did at that moment. “While you were sick, Joe, you were calling out, saying things.”
Joe’s stomach did an unpleasant flip. He had no idea what he might have said in his fevered state, but he was only too aware of the uncomplimentary thoughts he’d harboured about his oldest brother. “Oh,” he managed flatly.
“You didn’t want me here; you wanted Pa.”
Adam wasn’t telling him the worst of it, Joe could see that from his expression. His cheeks burned. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I don’t remember, but I’m sure I didn’t mean any of it.”
Adam held up his hand. Joe’s obvious embarrassment had shifted some of the sadness out of his face, at least. “It’s all right. You don’t have to make excuses. I think I probably deserved most of what you had to say, anyway. You were pretty angry with me.”
Joe was beginning to squirm. How much could he have let slip while he was out of his right mind? He took a deep breath. “Listen, whatever I said while I was sick doesn’t count. You remember that! Sure I get angry with you, but only ’cause you treat me like a little kid all the time. I’ve always looked up to you, Adam. I’ve always wanted to be like you. You and Hoss…heck, you’re not just my brothers, you’re my best friends! But it’s not like that for you. As far as you’re concerned, I’m just your annoying little brother.”
Dammit! It was happening again. The speech burst out of him with such passion, he could feel his chest swelling dangerously, pushing up into his throat and triggering a treacherous hotness behind his eyes. He swallowed vigorously to control the rising wave and squared his chin with an effort. He couldn’t have said any more without his voice giving him away, but he didn’t have any more to say anyway. He’d already told Adam more than he’d ever meant to.
Adam sat down in the chair and carried on looking at his brother for a long time, while Joe stared hard at the pattern on his quilt. In the end, unable to stand the silence any longer, Joe turned his face away. “Quit staring at me, will you?”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about what you said. You’re right.” Adam gave a slow nod of his head. “I do think of you as my kid brother. And, yeah, you can be real annoying when you want to be. But, on the other hand, look at you. You’re all grown up. If luscious Lindy had her sights set on you, I guess you must be!”
Joe felt his face heat up again, then he heard his brother’s unmistakable chuckle. “Ironic, isn’t it? There’s you saying you want to be more like me, and here I am, jealous of you!”
He’d said it again. He was jealous. Of his little brother? Joe looked at him, puzzled. “How are you jealous of me?”
Adam shrugged. “I guess the way you’re Pa’s favorite, for one.”
“Me?” Joe laughed aloud at the absurdity of the statement. “I’m not Pa’s favourite! You are! You’re the one he always turns to, not me. He listens to you. He confides in you. He trusts you. Me, I just get scolded and hustled away, like I’m not old enough to understand anything.”
They looked at each other for a long moment then. Strange, but sometimes that’s all it takes to change things. Five seconds, no more
“Anyway,” Joe said finally to break the silence, “It always works out that I’m the idiot and you’re the hero. Every time.”
Adam laughed then and punched him lightly on the arm. Joe liked the way he did that. He grinned, but weariness was catching up on him and the grin turned into a yawn. A flicker of consternation passed over Adam’s face. “You should get some more sleep, Little Joe. You look all in.”
“You don’t look so good yourself,” Joe told him, slumping back into his pillows. “Good thing Charlotte Redmire can’t see you now.”
Adam raised his eyebrow. “Although luscious Lindy might not be so particular, I suspect.”
Joe was sleepy, but he managed to smile. “Yeah, all right. I get the point. But you said you wouldn’t mention her again.”
He saw the glint in his brother’s eye. “I said I wouldn’t mention her to Pa. You don’t think I’m going to let you forget her in a hurry.”
“Maybe I’m not in any hurry to forget her,” Joe told him. “Maybe I’m happy to remember her. Certain bits of her especially.”
He could feel sleep overtaking him, but he still heard Adam’s exasperated sigh, and his words. “Joe, you’re incorrigible!”
Incorrigible? Joe had no idea what that meant and he was too tired to ask. A week ago he would have been annoyed to have Adam call him anything he didn’t understand, but somehow, this time, it left a warm feeling inside him.
Sometimes, being the youngest didn’t matter at all.