The Way it Wasn’t (by Julie)

Summary:  Joe makes a life-changing decision.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  12,100


 

“Pa.”

Ben tried to ignore the sound of his oldest son’s voice and the persistent quality that rang through it. He stared into his newspaper and said nothing, hoping Adam wasn’t coming to give him another talk about Joe’s education. Ever since Adam had come home from college, he believed that sending his youngest brother to continue his education back east would be the best choice. And every chance Adam had, he would try to discuss it with his father and sway his already wavering opinion.

“Little Joe is almost out of school, Pa,” Adam began. It was always the same thing: a vague statement about Joseph and school, and then the college petition. “Do you think that’s all he needs?”

“Adam,” Ben sighed, “please. I’ve had a long day. Let’s not start this again.”

“I’m only thinking about what would be best for him.”

Ben looked up from his reading and faced Adam. “What’s best for him? You mean what was best for you. Just because you wanted to go to college, Adam, doesn’t mean Joe does. Just because you did well doesn’t mean Joe will. Can’t you see that? If Joseph wanted to go, I would send him. But he’s shown no interest in it! I can’t force him to do something so drastic if he doesn’t want to do it!”

“Pa, Little Joe is only sixteen,” replied Adam, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose but stopping himself before his hand found his face. “He doesn’t know what he wants. I’ve seen the way he acts. No discipline. No respect for hard work. He’s your youngest son and you’ve spoiled him, and now he has no direction in life.”

Ben sat up straighter and took command of his booming voice. “Adam, I have not spoiled Joe and he is growing up to be a well adjusted indivi—“

“Not spoiled Joe? Pa, I don’t mean to disrespect, but Joe is known for the way he can get away with anything when it comes to you. I’m not complaining about that. I’m asking that you give him an opportunity to make himself better.”

“And what about Hoss? Why didn’t you push so hard for him to go?”

Adam’s shoulders slumped, and Ben could almost hear his thoughts: If Hoss had been as young as Joe, I would have…

Adam quickly regained his composure. “I know that Hoss could never leave. He has deep ties to this land. Taking him away from here would be taking him out of his element, and he would not thrive. But, Pa, Joe doesn’t have those ties. He can get along with anyone, anywhere. He’d meet new people. He’d probably do better than I did.”

Ben softened. He knew this was Adam’s passion, and he knew sending Joe off would ultimately make Joe more rounded and offer him things that the ranch and Virginia City could not. But how could he face his boy, how could he tell Joe that he was sending him away for nearly half a decade for his own good? How could he stand it, how could he live without his youngest for four long years?

“Adam, I can’t make this decision. Sending you off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I knew it was what you wanted. How can I willingly lose four years with Little Joe if it’s not even what he wants?”

Adam’s dark eyes shone. “You can offer him the world, Pa. You can give him freedom. He’ll learn things he would have never known if he’d stayed here. What is there for him in these four years? You said yourself he was too young to take over the horse business. What else do you have for him?” Adam stood up. “Waking up, doing chores, eating, sleeping? A mundane life?”

Ben wondered if this was just a reflection of Adam’s feelings. “I hardly consider life here mundane…”

“He’ll get to be a part of something so much bigger… How much longer can we stop him and hinder him? You’ve seen him, Pa, he’ll find a way to vent his curiosity and he’ll just get in trouble. He’s restless. He wants more.”

“More what?”

“More life. More everything. He doesn’t know it, but college is the best option.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know it either, Adam. Say I send him, and he is miserable? He’d have wasted four years.”

Adam knew he was breaking his father’s resolution, and he became excited. “That’s just it! If he hates it, he can come back. And the trip from here to the east is interesting. Not even those months of travel would be wasted!”

Ben was teetering on the edge of a huge decision. Adam could see it. “Don’t hold Joe back because you want to keep him with you,” he said. “Don’t hamper him for your own reasons.”

Ben’s head shot up. Was that what he’d been doing? True, most of the reason he couldn’t fathom sending Joe to college was the idea of missing those years of his son’s life. He looked over at Adam, and remembered the pride he’d felt when Adam completed school. Adam was known for his intelligence, and his college degree left many people in awe. He was a powerful figure around town just because of it. He was rounded and sophisticated. Ben couldn’t image what he would have been like if he hadn’t furthered his education. Was he really stopping Joe from a better life?

“I…” Ben faltered, trying to gain composure and not wanting to admit defeat. “How about this, Adam… let’s talk to Joe about it. See what he thinks.”

“Of course he’ll be against it.”

“It will help me come to a decision to hear what Joe says.”

Adam nodded. He didn’t show it, but enthusiasm was radiating from his body. His little brother would go to college and feel the satisfaction he felt. Oh, maybe Joe’s grades wouldn’t be as good as his, but he was confident Joe would pass. Maybe he’d even go into architecture. Smiling, Adam went to his room. Pa would never regret this decision, if only he knew how much Adam appreciated his own degree. Adam wanted Joe to know this kind of freedom that came from intelligence. And, if all went well, he would.

*****

“JOSEPH!”

Adam winced at the loud sound. He was sure the windowpanes rattled this time. Twisting around and craning his neck, he watched his errant younger brother be hauled into the house by an irate Pa. The high pitched pleas were becoming audible.

“I didn’t mean to, Pa… Look, nothin’ happened; I ain’t hurt… I had to, Pa; I had to ride her…!”

Smiling to himself, knowing this would help his case, Adam rose and silently followed Joe and Ben up to Ben’s study. No one seemed to notice Adam was there until the door closed. Once everyone was sitting, Ben whirled around.

“Of all the foolish, irresponsible things to do. That horse is hardly trained! Not even Hoss will ride it! You could have been killed!”

Joe hung his head. “’M sorry,” he mumbled.

Ben’s eyes fastened onto his son with a mixture of rage, relief, and anxiety. He was so like Marie, so much like her… would he suffer the same fate that Marie did as well?

“You’re not sorry! You’ve been doing things like this ever since you got out of school. I thought you would have matured enough not to get into trouble like you did five years ago, but I’m wrong, I suppose. Now tell me, before I give you your punishment, why did you ride that horse after I told you not to?”

“Because I was done with my chores and I was bored…and… I just wanted to see how she rode, and now I know, and I’ll never come near her again, I promise!” Joe desperately searched his father’s eyes, hoping to say what he wanted to hear and therefore lessen his punishment.

But Joe’s words seemed to mean something to Ben. Flicking a glance at Adam, Ben seemed to lose his power for a moment. He slowly sat down in his large chair, and faced both his sons. Something about his face made Joe uneasy. He looked older, and grim, as if he was dealing out a death sentence. Little Joe shuddered. Would his punishment be that bad?

Ben was silent for a moment, and then he spoke, but his voice considerably weaker. “Joseph, you will be restricted to the house and the yard for the following week. And no visitors.”

Joe relaxed. But there was still a feeling of dread, hovering in the air above them. Little Joe didn’t see the sadness in his father’s eyes, nor the brightness of his older brother’s. He didn’t realize his life was about to change. Rising, he grabbed his hat and began walking to the door, but Ben’s voice halted him.

“Sit back down, Joseph. I… I’ve come to a decision concerning you.”

Warily, Joe moved back to his original seat.

“I was going to discuss things over with you, but now I can see that the decisions you make for yourself aren’t necessarily the right ones. Adam and I have talked this over,” he gestured to Adam, trying to take away some of the blame, “and we’ve come to the conclusion that you would be much better suited if you received a college education.”

The words hung in the air like poison. Joe seemed dazed, it was too much, too fast, he couldn’t comprehend that his father had just told him that he was going to send him away for the next four years. Four years! Why, four years ago he was almost thirteen!

Then, slowly, Joe came to life. “No,” he said, softly at first, and then again, louder. “I won’t do it! You can’t send me away!” He stood up, nearly knocking his chair over. “I don’t deserve this! I never asked for it! All I did was ride a horse! Why are you sending me away…?”

Ben was quick to respond. “No, Joe, we’re not sending you away, we’re giving you an opportunity…”

“Opportunity!” Little Joe was nearing a hysterical state. Adam was amazed at how fast he was reacting to everything; he thought Joe wouldn’t comprehend it all for at least a day.

“I didn’t ask for this! I don’t want it! Why are you doing this to me? I have friends here; I want to stay with my family…” Both Ben and Adam watched the tears roll down Joe’s face and wondered if they were tears of sadness or rage.

“It’ll be good for you, buddy,” Adam said gently. Joe turned and looked at him, his face blank. Adam took this as a good sign and continued. “College was the best thing I ever did. Don’t you see it, Joe? You have a chance to become something great. Don’t you want that?”

“No. I want to stay here.” Joe’s chin was set, his eyes were blazing. “I want to stay here,” he repeated.

Ben was wavering. Both sons could see it. Both began outlining why they were right. Adam’s case was presented in a calm and collected manner; Joe’s was presented haphazardly, as best as his sixteen-year-old mind could think of.

Ben’s eyes moved from one son to the other. His mind was racing, trying to come up with a solution.

“Joe,” he said, remembering, “if you hate it, you can come back.”

And Little Joe knew he’d lost. “Well then,” he said softly, “You can expect me back soon.”

Ben looked at Adam, who shook his head. “It’ll be good for him.” Ben didn’t miss the look Joe gave his brother, but no words were said.

“I’ll start making the stage arrangements. It’s best he leaves as soon as possible. I’d say he should go sometime in the next three or four days.”

Ben was startled. He thought he’d have much longer… he would have never agreed if he knew… it was too soon… but it was for the best… only Little Joe’s future was the priority… next time he became restless, would he break his neck doing something foolish?… yes, it was the best decision… It was for the best.

Yes. For the best.

*****

Over the next few days, Joe alternated spending time with Hoss, Hop Sing, and himself. Hoss did not agree with sending Joe away, and quite a few unseen tears were shed in private over the prospect of losing his brother and best friend for four long years. Adam and Ben found themselves in the contempt of everyone else, and Ben would have broken down if Adam had not constantly encouraged his choice.

Later, after Joe was gone, Adam would wonder why he did not corner his brother and tell him that he was not sending Joe away for personal reasons, or to get rid of him, or any other ridiculous notion that might have come into the youngest’s head. Adam wanted Joe to go to college because he loved him, because he’d seen the bored look in Joe’s eyes, heard the increasingly dangerous risks Joe was taking for the sake of fun and adventure, and felt the fear that one day the risk might be too great and Joe wouldn’t come home.

What Adam didn’t realize was that his enthusiasm worked in exactly the opposite way. Little Joe felt that Adam had ulterior motives for sending him off. Love was the farthest from his mind. Adam and Joe were always at odds, and no matter what rational thoughts told him differently, Joe could not shake the idea that Adam was sending him off because of some grudge. The fact that Ben had capitulated so easily rankled further. Little Joe’s resentment did not show directly. Both his father and his older brother knew it was there, surely, but they did not think it would last. Once Joe made friends, they thought, once he settled into the new college life, he’d be happy again. Surely.

*****

The day before Joe was to leave, Hop Sing found him in the kitchen. The curly head was bowed, sorrow seeping from the slim body. The small Chinese man rushed over to his Little Joe, eager to make that sadness disappear. For he loved Joe like a son, and Joe loved him as a father. Due to fate and circumstance, and the course of time, they shared that bond.

Gently, Hop Sing lifted Joe’s head to look into those green eyes. He knew it would be the last time for a long while he would have Little Joe in private, so he didn’t waste it with mutual silence. He also wanted his words to have an effect, so he did not opt for his broken and haphazard English. Instead, he spoke in clear Cantonese, which he knew Joe could fully comprehend.

“Little Joe, are you sad? Do you not want to go to college?”

Joe nodded and responded in the same language with a choked voice. “I told them I didn’t. They’re making me anyway. Hop Sing, why are they doing this to me? What have I done to deserve this?”

Hop Sing regarded the boy sagely. “Why is it that you do not want to go?”

“Because I don’t, Hop Sing, I don’t want to go to school any more and I don’t want to leave my home! I am going to miss everyone and everything and then I am going to be miserable…” The tears came.

“Yes, perhaps you will be miserable. I am sure that once, your brother was miserable too. But that will pass with time. Once you have graduated and earned the pride of your family and peers, that misery you once felt will be a distant memory. You know that.”

Joe sighed. “I don’t want to be miserable, Hop Sing. I just want to stay where I am and be happy. I was happy here!”

Hop Sing’s expression softened. “Do you think you are the only one who will be unhappy?”

Joe looked up. Hop Sing continued. “I’ll be here, and I will not see you for four long years. Surely you must know that I will be unhappy too? Surely you know that I’ll be unhappy when I think of you, and know in my heart that you are as miserable as I am?”

Joe swallowed the hard lump that had formed in his throat. He wanted to respond to the declaration of love Hop Sing was obviously giving him, but something about the man’s expression told him not to, lest they both break down.

“But I didn’t want to…”

“You did not want to what? Study? Learn? Better yourself?”

“I would never be any better than Adam…all those years would be wasted…”

“Who told you that? You, my Joseph,” his deep brown eyes twinkled, “can show everyone just what you are capable of. You can blind them with pride and become an honorable son, instead of the wayward boy they will remember.”

Joe stared at his friend. “How could I do all that? How could I outdo Adam, Hop Sing? You’ve seen the way he reads. I’d have to work so hard to even have a chance at being what he is…”

Hop Sing smiled, but his face sobered quickly. “Joseph, you are underestimating yourself. Do not do that. That will bring you down. You will go to college, and you will miss us, and we will miss you, but do not come home until your time there is done. You are being given an opportunity not only to better yourself but also to prove yourself at the same time. Adam’s time at college is over. Yours is just beginning. Make the most of your time, and perhaps, if you work hard, you can show your family who you really are.”

Hop Sing fell quiet after saying what he had to say. He did not quite agree with Ben Cartwright or his eldest son sending Joe away with no consideration for the boy’s feelings. But he was thankful that Joe was getting such a perfect opportunity to expand his mind. He knew from the day Joseph was born that the boy was intelligent. The child picked up Cantonese so easily; Hop Sing had been and was still astounded. And now, if he tried, Joe could surely, surely become the best student at college and add honor to the family’s name.

For the first time in days, Little Joe smiled and meant it. Suddenly, going to college didn’t seem quite as bad. He could show everyone. Show them just how he felt about them sending him off. He could show his father that he wasn’t just some kid who could be told where to go and who to be. And he could show Adam who was the smart brother in this family. Who couldn’t be ordered around. Who couldn’t be sent off just because. He’d show them, alright.

For the moment, Joe didn’t feel as dreadful about the future. His feelings toward Adam and his father were unchanged, but his outlook was considerably brighter. Jumping up, he threw his arms around Hop Sing, giving the smaller man a tighter embrace than he would give his father the next day, before the stage was to leave.

Hop Sing didn’t know his words would stay with Joe all those four years. He would have been glad to know that short conversation inspired Joe to work harder and be stronger when he didn’t think he could. And, when Joe forgot that Adam really did do this for his own good, when he forgot Pa loved him and Hoss missed him, when the dark nights came and the loneliness and sorrow seemed to overwhelm him, Joe remembered Hop Sing’s words, remembered that Hop Sing missed him, and remembered Hop Sing was miserable too, somewhere, and this would spur him forward, so neither of their miseries would ever be in vain.

*****

The day was hot. The stage was ready. The family was gathered all around. Little Joe was quiet; too quiet to be characteristic of him. All knew he was still furious. But he’d found some hidden vestige of pride, and he would not give in and show his roiling emotions now. Mechanically, Joe reached up and hugged Adam and Ben. The coolness of his departure hurt Ben, but, he reminded himself, it was for the best. Adam knew, or thought he knew, what Joe was going through. It was tough, but he would get through it. Time would ease the hardship. Hoss did not want to let his little brother go, and for a moment, Joe leaned into the embrace and was a young boy again. And the entire family was surprised when Joe and Hop Sing exchanged formal good-byes… in Cantonese. No one knew what was said that day except for those two.

Joe’s feet ascended the stairs of the stage. The dust slowly settled back down. The heat grew ever more stifling. Adam called one last goodbye to his brother, shouted some words of reassurance. Slowly, Little Joe turned around and looked at Adam, saying nothing in response. But his eyes told volumes.

Adam had seen hate in men’s eyes. He was sure that his own eyes had held that unnatural shine a few times. But he was not prepared to see it in his young brother’s eyes, so strong. And yet, there it was, as surely as Joe was there, so was his hatred. It only took a split second, but it was burned in Adam’s mind forever. Then Little Joe disappeared into the stage and was hidden. The whip cracked and the horses moved. And the boy they knew as Little Joe was gone forever, away into the glimmering horizon.

The retreating stage was still in view when Adam realized he’d made a mistake.

*****

Joe had plenty of time to think during the next few months. He thought about college, and his future, and most of all, his ultimate homecoming. He thought about his father and brothers, Hop Sing, and Cochise. He let himself be consumed with longing for his home. He also let himself be consumed with new emotions concerning his family; emotions he’d never felt before. Anger. Sadness. Resentfulness.

He knew Adam was the one who did this to him. Sent him off, made him leave. He also knew Adam did it in an act of love, but he put that at the back of his mind. As far as Joe was concerned, Adam was the bane of his existence. Adam was emotionless, Adam was cruel. Adam was out to get him and turn his father against him. As soon as Joe returned, Adam would find a new way to make him go. Slowly, over the next four years, Joe’s demonization of Adam would reach epic proportions. Joe would forget the good things Adam had done for him and highlight the bad. No, Joe told himself, I won’t forgive Adam.

And Pa. Pa allowed this. Pa catered to Adam’s desire to force Joe off the Ponderosa. Pa didn’t love him… but Pa did love him. Pa loved him, right? Pa was always doing nice things for him. Pa always understood. But Pa sent him away? How much did Pa love him if he sent him away? Joe’s sensitive emotions fought hard over this issue. The rift would grow wider with time.

And Hoss allowed him to leave. Even Cochise allowed it. Well, he’d show them. He’d be better than Adam ever was. He’d make Adam look like nothing. He’d make the whole family look like nothing. He’d show them, alright.

And so Joe arrived at the college, greeted his classmates, smiled his disarming smile and engaged others in his friendly, amiable personality, and became an instant hit among his peers. Professors enjoyed having him in his classes. He became exactly what Ben predicted him to be: a well-adjusted individual. Where Adam had been introverted and made very few friends on the campus, Joe was lively and talkative. He was a well-known face around the school. He participated in all sorts of things, ranging from academics to sports. He developed healthy rivalries. He rose to the top of most of his classes. His restlessness faded, and he began to spend long stretches of time studying. He found that focusing on something else all the time eased all the pain he felt, so far from home. He learned to mask it so completely, he could almost forget it was there. It settled to the bottom of his heart, and made a home there, immovable. Gradually, Joe wouldn’t remember the aching sorrow. But it was still there. It would always be there, waiting to resurface.

Day by day, Joseph grew more obsessive about his studying. He stayed up longer hours memorizing facts and figures. He astounded his teachers and classmates with constant perfect scores. And if he didn’t make the highest grade, he would only redouble his efforts. He went from the first quarter to the top ten percent of his class. Top ten to top five. Several times he would teeter on the edge of being the top student. He set his sights higher.

Briefly, Joe considered going into architecture like Adam. But he didn’t. He couldn’t stand the idea. After much deliberation, Joe chose law. If he had to make a career choice, he wanted to be a lawyer. Defend people. Give justice. Joe always had a strong sense of justice.

Privately, Adam had thought Joe would skirt by. Little Joe was ever the lazy scholar, but Adam felt sure Joe could handle college work. He’d seen the glimmer of intelligence in Joe’s green eyes.

Joe had never applied himself, and when he did, that intelligence spread. It brimmed over, expanded, and lit up the darker vestiges of his mind. Joe became more manipulative, more articulate, more calculating. He learned to think first, and rely on his mind to get him through everything. He found it easier to come up with solutions to problems that faced him by just thinking about them, mulling over them, instead of taking action as soon as possible. The education offered to him at college was nothing to the education he was giving himself. Those four years would polish him, hone him, make him sharp. Intelligence would take a long, winding path to cunning.

But for all this, Joe was never a bad person. Bitter, yes, spiteful towards certain figures in his past, yes, but he was never unkind to others. He kept all negative thoughts to himself. Joe was known for his well played out feelings, and his father and brothers were constants in his life, always bringing him back down to reality, reveling in his happiness or soothing away his sorrow. When those constants were gone Joe turned to himself for comfort and assurance. But none came. He was so easily consumed with the strong feelings he harbored towards his family, he had no idea how to face those feelings, examine them, and banish them. He’d never had to face these things alone. Instead, he tended the fire and let the misery and abandonment and hatred grow. These would forge themselves as his new constants.

Four winters, springs, falls, and summers later, Joe would return again. But he’d be a very different person from the boy who left all those years ago.

*****

Ben did not skimp on the letters. At first, he wrote them every night. And every day he’d send them off, telling Joe about daily life, about Adam and Hoss, and about how Cochise was faring.

Everyone waited for word from Joseph, but none came. Ben blamed the postal services. Adam remembered the look in Joe’s eyes, and blamed himself. That one pure moment of unadulterated hatred would make for many a restless night for the oldest Cartwright brother.

Then, replies trickled in. Over time, the steady stream of return letters slowed, and eventually stopped. Afterwards, a letter from Joe was an event that took up the entire day. But Joe never wrote anything about his life at college, or his friends, or his feelings, like Adam had. His letters were vague and short. Nevertheless, Ben kept them. Joe was never much of a writer, anyway. But deep down, Ben knew. He knew.

Once, he’d written Joe a letter about it. He’d apologized and spilled his heart out onto the paper. It was a touching composition. Adam and Hoss read it, and Hoss’s eyes misted. When it reached the youngest son, Joe’s eyes scanned it lackadaisically. He knew it was the declaration of love he wanted. He knew his Pa loved him and missed him and never wanted to send him away. He knew that with the power of that letter, he could find a way to erase the feelings that tormented him. But, as he gently put the letter out of sight, he also knew that no matter how he tried, he could not bring himself to care.

*****

Adam grew frustrated with Joe’s lack of information. Maybe the rest of his family didn’t know it; the amount of information in Joe’s letters told them absolutely nothing about his college life. Little Joe hadn’t even told them his major. Resolutely, Adam decided to write a letter to the dean, asking for more details. Pa was paying for Joe’s tuition and he had a right to know.

He sent the letter on an early spring morning. To his father and brother, he was evasive about what he was doing. Adam didn’t want them to get their hopes up, only to be dashed if they did not receive a reply.

Adam had some nervous doubts about the reply, if they did in fact get one. Something was nagging at the back of his mind, something that didn’t seem quite right. Why was Joe being so secretive? He was never that way before. Was he failing? Fighting? Was he even attending school at all? Adam had dark suspicions that Joe’s performance in college was going to be less than satisfactory.

Days later, Adam received a response letter. In seclusion and suspense, he opened it with careful fingers. Its contents shocked him.

 

Dear Cartwrights,

I understand that you are having questions about Joseph’s time at college. I cannot begin to understand why he does not update you on his progress but I suppose all men are different.

Perhaps you are concerned that his lack of information denotes that he is not doing well, but I must stress, it is quite the opposite. Joseph is quite popular among his peers, well loved by our professors, and above all, one of the top students.

He has a healthy sense of competition and manages near perfect scores. I do not bestow praise lightly, Mr. Cartwright, but I must stress that young Joseph is one of if not the best and brightest student. I hope you will be able to attend his graduation and see what he has accomplished.

Joseph has shown interest in law, and will most likely go into that field. After his graduation, I suppose he will continue his education by going on to law school. He may, however, take a year off to be with his family.

I hope that Joseph will become privy to his family’s concern over his silence. However, even so, please keep in mind that you have an extraordinary young man and he will, most definitely, be something great in his future.

Regards,

Edmund D. Howard

 

Adam folded the letter slowly, numb with shock. Joe, one of the top students? Joe, something great? Where did it all come from?

Adam remembered Joe as a very young boy, holding his hand, asking him questions, and looking up at him with adoration. Was that boy destined for something greater? Somehow, Adam couldn’t imagine Joe as anything but the head of his father’s horse business. He knew he was being unfair, but that had been Joe’s burning passion since he was young. Adam couldn’t see him doing anything else.

But top student? A lawyer? This wasn’t Joe. Adam’s emotions threatened to break though his intricately constructed mask of stoicism. Not even he, Adam, whose main priority in life was the pursuit of intelligence, had been the potential top student. How did Joe do it? What had Joe become?

Adam’s eyes moved from where he was sitting to a spot not far off. There, after a summer rain, Joe had fallen and scraped his elbow. Adam found him there, crying, blood trickling down his arm. Adam had lifted the young boy into his arms, and held him there, all the way back to the house. He remembered Little Joe’s small arms around his neck and the sniffling breaths on his ear. That boy, that was his brother. Adam fingered the letter. Not this person.

Looking down and trudging back to the house, Adam wondered if jealousy was playing a part in his emotions. Wasn’t this what he wanted for himself? He’d thought he’d gotten the kind of glory that comes from a sharp mind when he’d earned his degree, but it seemed like it was not so. Suddenly, it felt like there was so much more he could have done and taken advantage of. Like Joe had.

Adam’s mind was at war with itself. Joe had achieved at college what they all wanted him to achieve, and much more. But would that change him? Was he free now, or was he even more trapped? Would his mind show him the good inside his soul or the bad?

And how long, how long had they been holding him back?

Adam opened the door and saw his father sitting and reading the paper on his old leather chair. A sight he could count on. Ben looked up, his deep brown eyes going unerringly to the letter clutched in his oldest son’s hand.

“Pa, I got a letter from the dean.” Ben’s forehead furrowed: he expected bad news. Well, maybe it was bad. Adam cleared his throat. “Let me read it to you…”

*****

The letter’s revelation inspired hours of deep thinking on the parts of every Cartwright. After Adam finished reading, Ben’s mind seemed to become whitewashed, he could not think for the life of him. The older man stared down at the floor, trying to comprehend and make sense of what the dean had just told them. But it was like contemplating a huge number, or a vast area. It could not be done.

Ben would find it easier and easier to cope with Joe’s new lifestyle. He was proud of his youngest, most definitely, but he was not so sure he would choose pride over the prospect of losing Joe to law school, and ultimately to a newer and more glamorous life filled with money and clients. Desperately he clung to the three words that had gotten him through thus far: for the best. It was for the best. This was what Joe wanted.

Hoss was not as happy with Joe’s success as he thought he might have been. Not to say he wasn’t glad his brother had found his place in society and secured a role for the rest of his days, but the middle brother was feeling decidedly overshadowed by his other two siblings. Between Joe and Adam, Hoss felt he had no place. But Hoss was a good man. His feelings of inadequacy would be short-lived. He would not hold his brothers’ achievements against them. He did what he loved, and he knew it was what he wanted. But still, the twining sadness would tug at him sometimes, when he’d least expect it. He grew used to it with time.

Adam pored over the letter numerous times. The time was coming soon in which they would all see Joe again. Was this letter any indication of how much his younger brother had changed? Adam sighed restlessly, the question that arose the day the stage vanished from view plaguing him: Was all of this truly a mistake?

*****

Ben Cartwright scanned the road leading into Virginia City and fussed with his necktie. Joseph would be arriving today. Ben sighed, impatience getting the better of him. The stage was a few minutes late now, and even though it was customary for the stages to be up to an hour late, the patriarch’s patience was dwindling.

Would Joe have changed? Physically? Emotionally? Somehow, Ben could not envision anything but the same seventeen-year-old boy that left long ago to be the same person who would greet them today.

“Pa, look!” It was Hoss’s voice. Ben’s head snapped towards his middle son, who was pointing wildly at the horizon. He slowly turned back to look at the source of the excitement, although he knew what it was. Dust flared up in a great hazy cloud about half a mile off. Faint clatters could be heard in the distance. The stage was coming.

As the stage drew nearer, Adam looked around, wondering why Joe’s homecoming hadn’t inspired a bigger crowd. He was always popular among everyone in town. He wondered if Joe’s friends were intimidated by the degree Joe would certainly be bringing home, or, perhaps, if in the course of time Little Joe had slipped from their minds. For some reason, this thought made Adam feel a strange twinge of sadness. Adam trained his eyes on the stagecoach, almost there, to forget his previous line of thinking.

The robust sunshine gave a merry wash to the scene unfolding. The Cartwrights were mesmerized, watching the horses slow, the stage stop, and the dust settle. Time was all around them, moving at a sluggish pace, letting this moment linger. Slowly, slowly, the door opened, wide, wider, and then all the way. A figure rose, and filled the threshold.

And then, Joe, appearing gloriously, squinting against the sun, put his foot gingerly down on Virginia City for the first time in four years; and the dust spread distastefully away from it.

*****

With an objective eye, it was easy to see that Joe was taller and more filled out. His features held great traces of the boy who’d left, but his face was a man’s face now, with chiseled features, expressive green eyes, and a strong chin, topped by thick, shining curls. With his passage into manhood, his looks only became more defined; Joe was handsome, devastatingly so. All of the Cartwrights had known Little Joe was good-looking, but now they had no problem seeing Joe through the eyes of a stranger: he was striking, dapper, attractive, the kind of face that made people want to please him. It was enough to put his family at unease.

But the changes that were most noticeable to his father and brothers were too subtle for someone who didn’t know Little Joe intimately. The changes of his face and body were nothing compared to the new way Joe carried himself, the way he walked and talked and moved. Joe’s dazzling smile was more subdued now, a faint twist of the lips, bordering on condescending. His high giggle was replaced with a low, breathy laugh that one would give another who’d just made a tasteless joke.

However, some things would never change. Little Joe’s face was still a stage where emotions performed beautifully. It was the emotions there that had changed. Adam was all too perceptive of the strange, disconcerting mixtures of affection and dislike, hate and love, relief and tension that seemed to wage war in his younger brother’s expression and eyes.

Joe’s eyes roved over them in a calculating way. It seemed as if he was making a catalogue of the changes the family had certainly underwent and was filing all this away into some dark part of his mind for another time. Hoss shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny and was met with a piercing green stare. As the silence stretched on into awkwardness, Ben spoke.

“Joseph.” The word was soft and sad, choked with emotion. Little Joe turned to face his father.

“Pa,” he said, flatly. A shocked pause passed at Joe’s indifference before something moved over his face. His features softened and his eyes changed from icy to warm in a split second. “Pa…” Joe said again, with considerable more love in the tone, and he stepped forward and allowed his father to embrace him.

Adam took that opportunity to put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and say, “We’re all proud of you, Joe.” Under his hand, muscles tensed. Not so tenderly, Joe shrugged Adam off and faced his older brother. Adam saw the odd fervor in his little brother’s eyes and didn’t even realize he’d taken a step back.

“Adam, it’s so good to finally see you again,” Joe said without a trace of emotion. His voice was deeper and smoother; it sounded strange to everyone’s ears. There was a measured quality to it, as well as a conniving, manipulative undertone that faintly smacked of an experienced crook or swindler. Joe’s lips twisted up again in his mockery of a smile. “I’ve missed you more than I can say during the years I was away.” He turned to the rest of his family. “I’ve missed all of you.”

Ben and Hoss gave weak smiles, reveling in the fact that Joe had finally come home. And although Adam too was smiling, he wasn’t sure if he meant it. Little Joe was different now, and he didn’t know whether that difference was good or bad. Something about Joe still seemed bitter and angry, but Adam couldn’t think of why, since he had obviously made the most of his time at college.

The family stood together, enjoying the mere presence of the others. Words seemed useless. Only Joe fidgeted, as if he wanted to get away. Ben smiled indulgently at his youngest son, mistaking the motive of his actions. “Come on, Joseph, let’s go home. I’m sure you’re ready for a decent meal. Hop Sing has been preparing for your arrival for days now.” He gave a small chuckle, knowing how close Joe and Hop Sing were.

Joe’s lips jerked and he nodded. Together, the Cartwrights walked to the buckboard, bound for home. Adam lagged a few steps behind, not sure of what to make of Little Joe’s homecoming. He found Joe’s reaction to seeing all of them after four years a little disconcerting. He remembered his own homecoming from college as something so emotional and memorable, and yet here was his brother, reluctant to even make conversation. What did it mean?

*****

Hop Sing had obviously outdone himself. The small, short man greeted them at the door, shyly reverent to the man Joe had become. He silently took in the changes, timidly watching Little Joe’s face for any sign as to how he would react to the family cook.

The Cartwright family quietly watched Hop Sing and Joe, as if they were the main characters in some performance.

Joe didn’t waste any time. Swiftly, he stepped forward and caught Hop Sing into a tight embrace. The cook’s face, which was facing the family, registered shock at first, and then a deep happiness, relief, and, most important, love. He patted Joe’s back, unsure of what to do. Finally, Joe straightened and stood back, but did not take his hands off of Hop Sing’s shoulders.

“I missed you, Hop Sing,” he said. And meant it.

“I miss you too, Lil’ Joe. So glad you come home…” The dark eyes cut to the family, who was watching the display. “I cook dinner for you. Make special. You eat!”

Joe favored him with a true smile. “I will.”

The rest of the family wasn’t quite sure of what to make of this. Of course, they all knew Joe and Hop Sing were close, but they never knew how close. Little Joe’s exuberant greeting of the cook versus the subdued greeting of the family was something for their thoughts to gnaw on indeed.

*****

Dinner that night was not particularly lively, but it was a memorable time for the entire family. Hop Sing brought out course after course of Little Joe’s favorites, ranging from beef to chicken to pork to bread to vegetables. The cook doted on Joe, putting everything well within his reach, even if it inconvenienced one of the other members of the family. Pride made his eyes shine every time he looked upon the boy he’d long ago decided was the son that fate did not give him.

Words were exchanged, but later on, no one would remember them. It was all superficial, just relieved small talk, as everyone grew used to the fact that Little Joe was home. Often, the young man would look up and see one or more of his family members staring at him and marveling at the man he’d become.

Once, when Joe caught his father intently looking at his face, Ben had coughed and said, “You’ve become so like your mother, Little Joe.”

Silence fell and settled at the table for a few interminable moments. Joe tried ever so hard not to reflect anything he was feeling on his face, but he failed miserably. His jaw set and his eyes grew hard. He sat up a little straighter, a little prouder, and tried not to exclaim his indignation at still being referred to, after all this time, as “Little Joe.” Surely his family was over all that nonsense now? Surely they knew he was a grown man with a college education, not some rambunctious child? Did he work so hard all those years and accomplish so much only to return to a family who still thought they could toss him around like a doll?

“I kept her picture with me all the time at college. I wish she could see me now, what I’ve become. I know I’d have made her proud.” Joe felt a little satisfaction at the edge in his voice. No, his family would not forget what he’d become.

The oppressive quiet stretched on. Adam cleared his throat.

“Pass the potatoes, Hoss.”

And the dinner went on.

*****

Adam, disheveled, blundered down the stairs. Judging from the darkness, it was some time equidistant from dawn and midnight. It had been a week since Joe’s return. On this night Adam could not sleep, so plagued was he by thoughts of his brother. Joe always looked so cornered now, and Adam could feel the venom in his brother’s gaze on the rare occasions when they would speak to each other.

His feet reached the floor and he shook his head, trying to rid himself of the waves of weariness that were washing over him. What he needed to do was think. What had he done to inspire such a grudge against him? Ever the logical thinker, this was one puzzle Adam could not solve.

He stole further into the living room, headed for the kitchen. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a very faint light coming from the room and heard soft voices. Pushing all qualms about eavesdropping aside, Adam strained to hear.

It was Hop Sing and Little Joe.

Adam’s eyes widened. Hop Sing and Little Joe, all right. But they were not speaking in English.

*****

“Joseph, my boy, you’ve become everything I thought you would and more. You’ve brought such honor to your family. I cannot begin to express how proud I am of you.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing.”

“You have done so much. Why is it you are so unhappy?”

“I’m not unhappy.”

“You are. You came down here in the middle of the night looking for someone to talk to, did you not? I see the way you look at your brothers and your father, like you want to run from them. Why do you look such a way at your family? I cannot tell you how much they’ve missed you.”

“Why would they miss me? They sent me off.”

“Joseph! Did you spend four years deluding yourself? That is foolishness, boy. You were growing reckless; they did not want to see you get yourself killed. And, after all, you did so well at college. What is there to be resentful about?”

“I… I am not even sure. Why I feel this way… I don’t understand. Hop Sing, how can I stop? I want to stop… I’ve tried to see them the way I did before, but I can’t, and I don’t understand any of it…”

“There, there, Joseph. Stop that. You know how glad your family is to see you. I am sure that in a few week’s time you will feel just as glad as they.”

“No. I won’t be here in a few weeks time.”

“What?”

“I’m going to leave.”

“Leave! What for?”

“I was given a scholarship to a law school in Chicago. I’m going to go.”

“Joseph…”

“I came down here to ask you to come with me.”

“Merciful gods, boy, I cannot. Do you realize how dishonorable that would be? And you should not either. Or, at the very least, get your father’s permission.”

“I’ll tell him but I don’t need his permission. I’m a man now.”

“It takes more than years to become a man, my boy.”

“Please come with me. Please, Hop Sing. I can’t stand being here much longer. I can’t stand to see my presence tearing up my family this way. I need to go, but I don’t want to go alone.”

“Joseph… I will think hard. Do not be offended if I say no. But I will think about it. I am sure your father does not want you in some foreign city alone. There, there. Go back to sleep, my boy. Everything will be all right.”

*****

Adam heard the voices rise in pitch and intensity, then dip with sadness or regret. It was all incomprehensible to him, but he had the strong feeling that what had just transpired in that dim room was of great importance. Hearing Joe rise, Adam backed up and then crept slowly up the stairs, fearful to make a sound, lest Joe hear him and add eavesdropping to the invisible list of grievances against Adam he carried so near his heart.

Closing the door to his room tightly, Adam leaned against the door, his mind whirling. His eyes sought out the familiar shapes of his room in the darkness. There was the bed, there was the dresser. There was the mirror and the washbasin. The bookshelves. The rug. Everything was so in place, yet suddenly, Adam felt as if nothing was normal.

How long had Joe known Cantonese? Adam lowered himself slowly onto his bed. What else was Joe hiding? What else lurked in his mind?

It was all such a huge mistake. If he could just take back the last four years, everything would be fine. What was he thinking, anyway, sending Joe off to college? Look how much good that did.

But Adam could not convince himself that it was truly, truly a bad thing. Look at how Joe prospered. Look at what he became. What was so wrong with that?

And, for God’s sake, why was Joe so angry?

Adam inhaled and held his breath for a moment, then breathed out slowly and evenly. No, for once, no book or poem, no stretch of deep thought would help his situation in any way. He had to talk to Joe and find out the problem. And he would do it tomorrow.

*****

Spring was slowly giving way to summer, and the first heat wave was rolling over Nevada. The heat was not stifling, but it was uncomfortable. Adam didn’t understand why Joe absolutely needed to brush his horse in the barn in this weather, but he supposed some things would never change. He walked purposefully across the yard and opened the barn door without pausing. He strode through the hay and stopped just in front of Joe and Cochise, the former murmuring praise and affection to the latter as he curried the coat to shining perfection.

Adam waited, taking in the sights of the tack and the horses and the hay, as well at the sounds of hooves and snorts. He could smell the horse smell of the barn and felt at ease, for the smell of horses always reminded him of home, no matter where he was. Adam took two more steps forward and was rewarded when Joe looked up and put down the brush.

“Hello, Joe,” Adam greeted, trying to sound casual. “I’ve been looking around for you. Brushing Cochise again, I see? Well, some things don’t change.”

“No,” said Joe, straightening and brushing himself off. “I suppose they don’t.”

Joe stared at Adam levelly and waited for him to continue. Adam did, in his own time. He wanted this conversation to go perfectly.

“We haven’t been talking very much since you came back. Do you remember when I came home from college and we had so much trouble getting to know each other again?”

“I remember. That was a long time ago.”

“Very. But I don’t want a repeat of that, Joe. Let’s put everything aside. What do you say?”

Joe squared his shoulders and glared at his brother. “All right, Adam,” he said, trying to control his fury. “Sure.” He was close to losing his temper, but he didn’t want Adam to see. He willed himself with an effort to stay calm.

Adam sighed. This was not going where he wanted it to go. He resorted to what he thought of as the worst case scenario: asking Joe outright.

“Look, Joe,” Adam said, trying to choose his words carefully. “Ever since you’ve came home you’ve been angry about something, and you’ve been especially resentful, it seems, towards me, and I’ve been wondering why. You did so well in college, Joe. Surely you aren’t angry we sent you?”

“No, I’m not angry you sent me to college. At first I was, but that faded away after about a month there.” Asked so bluntly, Joe did not lie or offer any cutting retort.

Adam frowned. “So why did you stop sending letters? Why won’t you speak to us? And why are you still mad at me? I asked Pa to send you for your own good, Joe. You know that.”

Joe had been waiting for this moment for so long, he could hardly believe it was actually upon him. Here was his chance to tell Adam exactly what he felt about being sent off, how hard he worked just to prove himself, how much he hated the fact that Adam and Pa still couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was wrong. He’d rehearsed this moment so many times over the past few years it seemed almost unbelievable that no scorching words flew from his lips. No words appeared in his mind at all. In that second he forgot everything he meant to say, and all he could see through the blank haze of his mind was his brother Adam, standing in front of him, dressed in all black, looking apprehensive and eager to mollify.

Joe sighed and sank down onto the nearest hay bale, suddenly seeming to lack the strength to stand. He felt as if everything was over. All those years hating Adam and all that bitterness towards the family were so wasteful. He had had every chance to write them a letter and put his emotions into words but he didn’t. He had just held on to all that negativity and would not let go of it, even though he knew that eventually, one day, it would work against him. Joe was ashamed to realize it was not ambition or the will to succeed that drove him though college, but rather it was spite and malice. He didn’t want to go to classes to learn. No, he wanted to go to class to beat Adam. To shame his family. And all that time he’d spent thinking he’d done so much better than his brother, that was wasted too. Because Adam went to college to better himself. And Joe… Joe had gone to degrade others.

But Adam wanted to know why he was angry. And so, he would tell.

Adam stepped forward, concerned for his brother, who was not speaking. Joe’s voice stopped him.

“Adam, you knew I would have done anything Pa asked me to do. You knew that.” Adam didn’t speak. “I know that you convinced Pa to send me off because you were worried and you thought it would be the best thing to do to keep me out of trouble. You did give me the opportunity to better myself; I realize that. And I thank you.”

“Joe…”

Joe raised his head, and for the first time he did not look at Adam with hate or ill will or anything resembling anger. Just sadness and regret. His eyes shone with just the thinnest layer of tears, tears that would never fall but would always be there, waiting behind those green eyes.

“But you… you could have… asked, Adam,” he said haltingly. There, it was out. How funny those few words summed up so much, more than any of the hateful speeches Joe had composed in his head over the years. Slowly, Joe stood up with the added burden of maturity resting on his soul.

“You could have asked.”

And, gently, he put down the horse brush and left.

Years later, after all was said and done and Joe was gone and lost forever, Adam remembered his brother’s green eyes. And, from time to time, when their memory arose unbidden, he’d go through the mundane motions of living but always feel as if long ago he’d done something irrevocably wrong.

*****

Sitting amongst his papers, Ben faintly heard a door click shut. The man rose, glad for an interruption from the long, monotonous columns and figures, but also needing to speak with his youngest, whom he knew was the source of the noise. Ben desperately wanted Joe to choose what he wanted to take charge of around the ranch, not only because it would lessen the workload for the rest of the family, but more because when Joe began regular work around the ranch, Ben felt that would signify he had truly come home. For the past few months, Ben had not given Joe any chores at all, allowing his son to rest after the long journey home. But now he wanted to begin to reacquaint his youngest son with work and had a project in mind.

“Joseph!” he called, deliberately not using the old nickname. He waited patiently as his son slowly came into the room. Ben frowned, concerned. Maybe he shouldn’t give the boy any work after all. Joe looked so tired.

He has no reason to be, Ben thought firmly, pushing the thoughts aside. Joe was to become part of the Ponderosa again.

“Son, tomorrow I’d like you to go out and check the fences along the north pasture. I believe part of it has been trampled down. Can you do that?”

Joe frowned. Of course, he could. “Of course I can.”

Ben smiled. “Good. Do you need Hoss or Adam to come with you, or can you go alone?”

He missed the light of a sudden idea come on behind Joe’s eyes and the restlessness that seemed to infuse the young man’s limbs. “Alone. I’ll go alone.”

“Alright,” said Ben. “Don’t get lost.” He laughed a little. Joe didn’t.

“I won’t.”

“All right, then, get to bed early so you can begin in the morning. Tell Hop Sing to prepare your breakfast early.”

Joe stood up and made his way to the door. Ben settled back down to his books, and resigned himself to another few hours of endless numbers. He heard Joe pause at the door, and looked up with mild interest. His youngest was staring at him in an odd way, a way that made Ben feel slightly on edge, but he did not know why. Joe’s gaze was so penetrating, so intent, as if he wanted to memorize everything just as it was at this moment.

“Goodbye, Pa.”

Then Joe turned and left, and the spell was broken.

Ben looked back down at his books, but the numbers made no sense now. Strange boy, he thought, saying goodbye as if he would never see his father again.

*****

Hop Sing stood back and surveyed his belongings. The whole accumulation was so small and haphazard he was almost tempted to leave it. But there were several things in the pile that he could not do without, so he tenderly began putting each article into a medium sized canvas bag that he had had ever since he’d arrived on the Ponderosa. To him, everything felt strange, as if life was suddenly going in reverse. Had he been asked he would have always staunchly replied to anyone that Ben Cartwright’s ranch was his home and he’d stay there for the rest of his days. But life had a way of changing things, and just yesterday the thought of leaving began to appeal to him more than the thought of staying.

As soon as his Little Joe told him that he was leaving, Hop Sing knew there wasn’t much left to stay for. Especially since the boy had asked for Hop Sing to come along. The little Oriental knew that Ben Cartwright deserved his loyalty, but he supposed going along with Joe into a strange new city and keeping him company and away from trouble was one way to remain loyal to the man who had given him a place in his home and family. Privately Hop Sing didn’t intend to be gone forever, surely, he thought, Joseph would come to his senses by then. But why shouldn’t he go to law school? It would be very honorable.

The small cook heard footsteps on the stairs. He straightened from his packing and turned in time to see Little Joe walk into view. Joe noticed Hop Sing was almost finished packing and gave a curt nod. Both stood in silence, not sure of what to say. Their clandestine departure seemed wrong in a way, but neither the boy nor the cook could think of doing anything different.

Hop Sing spoke, in English this time, hoping someone might overhear. “Last chance you tell your father.”

Joe looked irritated and guilty as he sat down. He didn’t think, and replied in English as well. “I can’t tell him, he’ll stop me. He thinks I’m going to go down and mend fence.”

Hop Sing snorted. “You be better son if you go and tell him now. Maybe he let you go. Even if no, at least when you do leave, he no worry ‘bout you all the time.”

Joe stared at the ground in front of him. “I’m not just gonna up and leave. He’ll know where I went. I’m gonna… I’m gonna leave a note, you know.”

Hop Sing snorted again. “Brave boy.”

Joe looked for a moment like he was going to let his temper rise. Then he deflated, and even smiled a tired smile. “Yeah, I know. Real brave.” His voice started trailing off. “Real, real brave…”

The two stayed that way for a while, in companionable silence.

Adam, who had heard the whole thing, retreated back to his room.

*****

Adam reentered his room silently and stood with his back resting against the door. Dawn was approaching, he knew, and he liked to be up earlier than everyone else. It was becoming more and more of a problem, however, to keep stumbling into Joe and Hop Sing’s late night talks. The importance of what he had just heard sifted slowly into his consciousness and Adam mechanically went to his dresser. He’d have to change if he wanted to intercept Joe.

After all, it was his fault, wasn’t it? Adam couldn’t shake the idea. It was a terrible feeling, to be the one to have driven Joe away from home. Adam went through the motions of dressing, remembering everything that had taken place over the past four years. He’d been the catalyst of it all, the beginning which ultimately was ending in the unraveling of the family.

As he descended the stairs, a strange and terrible feeling settled into the bottommost part of his core. It resembled the feeling he would often get in times of high anticipation or dread; times in which many integral things depended on a certain outcome, an outcome that he wasn’t sure of. The only difference was, his feeling now was sharper and clearer. It invaded every part of him and he couldn’t come up with a single thing to finish the sentence that usually alleviated some of his fears: “Don’t worry, Adam, everything will be fine because…”

He fumbled through the dark living room and kitchen, bursting out the door in time to see Joe’s image fade out of view. Hope surged through him: he could overtake Joe and talk some sense into him. Tell him that he didn’t mean to send him away without asking, that he should have inquired Joe’s opinion on everything before he started anything with Pa, that he should have asked, it was true, if he had it to do all over again he wouldn’t have been so stubborn as to believe that just because Joe was twelve years younger than he was it meant Joe didn’t know what he wanted to do with his own life.

My God, why didn’t I think to ask Joe? Why didn’t I just find out what he had to say? Why didn’t I tell him it wasn’t my intention to send him away? Why didn’t I just… leave it alone?

Pa had always told him to let things lie. Well, Adam ruminated, I supposed I’ve taken this thing and kicked it awake. Maybe I can get it to lay back down.

*****

Joe had told Hop Sing to go on ahead. He was still saddling Cochise when a wave of nostalgia hit him, and suddenly there were a few more things he wanted to take. When he was finally ready, Hop Sing was a few miles ahead of him. Joe swung onto his horse and set off at an easy lope, covering the distance with relative ease.

After a few moments, however, Joe became aware of someone following him. He swore, stopped Cochise, and did an about-face. Once he saw who it was that was trailing him, his mood turned as black as the clothing his pursuer was wearing. Then, without warning, every angry emotion disappeared, and he felt relaxed, completely relaxed, for the first time in days.

Adam will know, he thought. Adam won’t try to stop me because Adam knows how it is, not fitting in. I’ve seen the look on his face. No matter how hard Adam will try to make me come home, he won’t hate me when I don’t. He won’t hate me because he’ll probably leave too one day.

Relief washed over Joe. He won’t hold it against me. He won’t hate me liked I hated him. His green eyes opened and Joe smiled. I can tell him. He won’t get angry like Pa, he won’t be sad like Hoss. He’ll actually, finally understand.

Now Joe remembered why he loved his oldest brother. He felt the last four years slowly melt away and everything he’d ever thought about Adam, all those horrible thoughts, became a small and distant memory, as faint as a faraway star.

He could tell Adam anything.

*****

Adam had to rein in his horse sharply when he saw Joe stop because he’d been riding at top speed without the expectation to cease. He kept his horse at a trot the rest of the dwindling distance, and finally stopped, his horse and Cochise facing opposite ways.

Joe had a dreamlike look on his face, and he looked upon Adam with true affection. Adam felt slightly unnerved. He’d been fully ready for an argument, maybe even a brawl.

However, something rooted him to the spot and made his usual eloquent parlance disappear. Haltingly, he forced out an awkward “Pa told me you were going to mend fence today.” Then he jerked his thumb in the opposite direction. “The north pasture fences are that way.”

Joe gave thin, warm smile. “I know. I’ll get there eventually.”

Adam’s calm began to shatter. It would have been a strange sight, if anyone else was watching, to see Adam quaking in his saddle while Joe remained cool and thoughtful.

“Will you be home in time for dinner?” Will you ever come back?

“Don’t leave the lights on.” No.

Then Joe roused himself out of his tranquility and his teasing demeanor vanished. “Adam, I’m leaving,” he said crisply. “Do you understand? I’m going away. Hop Sing is coming with me. I’m going to law school. And I’m going to stay in the city I choose. Maybe I’ll write from time to time. Maybe someday I’ll even visit. I have a life to live and it’s not here.”

Adam blinked. Why did his eyes feel so hot?

Joe blinked. Was Adam crying?

Adam opened his mouth to protest, even though he knew it was over. “Joe—”

“Why are you trying to stop me? Don’t you know how I feel?” Joe cried. He didn’t expect to move anyone to tears over his departure. He thought everyone would be a little glad to be free of all the tension he created.

There was a silence, and Adam was forced to it admit to himself that he did know how Joe felt. He knew the feeling all too well. He always knew that one day he’d leave, but not yet. He still had quite a few years ahead, and he intended to spend a good deal of them at home before he decided to move on. But he never expected to see Joe understand that restlessness…

Joe wore a broken expression as he watched Adam deflate. “Yes, Joe, I know how you feel. I know exactly how you feel.” Brown eyes met green. “And… it won’t be the same…”

“Stop, Adam.” Joe attempted another smile, knowing that if he was going to leave it had to be now. “It’s alright. Maybe I’ll see you around someday. But if I don’t…” The brothers stared at each other for the last time. “Let me go. Just let me go. So long, Adam.”

Joe left, and after a time, began feeling as though he’d crossed signals with his brother. There were quite a few things he had forgotten to say. But the horizon shimmered ahead of him and gradually thoughts of his past trickled away.

Joe repositioned his horse to the West, and rode on, away from everything he’d ever known. The freedom he felt was exhilarating and he didn’t look back. The grass and trees blurred past him until the things he knew melted into the things he didn’t know, and still he rode on. The sunlight illuminated everything around him and the sky was such a blue that he resolved to find a girl with eyes just that color and marry her. He remembered that ride forever.

*****

Adam rode slowly home and wondered what he would tell Pa. He supposed he’d just tell Pa exactly what had happened, that being Joe decided to leave. He couldn’t have stopped him and Pa would either know it or not know it, but now Joe was gone and there wasn’t much else that could be said. It would be pointless to organize a search for a twenty-one-year-old man who’d left out of his own free will.

Before he got to the house, Adam stopped at Marie’s grave and looked down.

“You told me to watch over him. I did. Sometimes he resented it. I hope I did everything well. I know what he’s doing will make him happy. You’d be proud.”

Adam knelt. “I’ll miss him, Mama, but I suppose that chapter in my life is over. Now it’s your turn to start watching over him again because I can’t be there to do it, just like you weren’t there up until now. We’re trading off again, but I think it’ll be alright.”

With that, Adam swung onto his horse and rode back home, wondering all the while:

How would it have been if Joe had never gone to college?

***The End***

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