Summary: This is my version of what transpired between Ben and Adam in MY BROTHER’S KEEPER after Ben arrived home.
Word Count: 2700
Ben Cartwright sat in his favorite chair in front of the mammoth fireplace in his living room basking in the comfort that the roaring fire brought to his weary bones. Around him, the big house was silent. Although it was mid morning, each of his three sons was in bed, asleep. His two older sons were exhausted from caring for their ill brother the past two days. Now that Joe’s fever had broken and he was out of danger, and the Reardons on their way, Ben had sent Adam and Hoss to bed for a well earned rest. Joe, worn out from the effects of his ordeal was sleeping soundly. Ben, while ordering his sons to rest, could not bring himself to lay down at this time of day. He was content to rest in his chair while his mind drifted drowsily to the events of last evening.
While on a trip to Placerville, Ben had been alerted by a telegram from his middle son Hoss, that Joe, his youngest, had been injured by a wolf. Ben had pushed himself and his horse hard to get home as quickly as possible. Even though the hour was late when he finally arrived home, lights shown throughout the big log house. Walking onto the porch, Ben was stunned to discover bullet holes in the front door and that the glass in the window over his desk in the office alcove was shattered. Gun in hand, Ben shoved the front door open and rushed into the house, half afraid of what he might find. Whatever he had expected, it was certainly not the two people he encountered.
A small man, about Ben’s age stood in the entranceway to Ben’s home, his arm protectively around a young woman as they engaged in a murmured conversation. Alarmed, at first, by Ben’s entrance and the pistol pointed at him, the man said he was Emmet Reardon and the young lady was his daughter Sheila.
Ben, not seeing any of his three sons and worried about Joe, had ignored the Reardons and turned to the steps calling, “Joseph?” Upon hearing Adam answering, “He’s up here, Pa”, Ben flew up the steps and into Joe’s bedroom. Ben’s heart leapt into his throat at the sight that greeted him.
His youngest son lay in his bed, covered with cuts and bruises, his chest heavily bandaged. It was apparent he had a high fever as sweat glistened on his face and shoulders and plastered his curly chestnut hair to his head.
Adam was at Joe’s bedside, bathing his face and neck with cool water. He looked up at the sound of Ben’s exclamation of “Joseph!” and Ben could see the relief in his eldest son’s dark eyes at the sight of his father.
Ben sunk down into the chair beside Joe’s bed, his head reeling with a million questions. Turning to Adam, he was struck by the haggard look on his eldest son’s face.
Before Ben or Adam could speak, they heard the heavy tread of booted feet on the stairs, and Hoss entered the room as quietly as was possible for a man of almost 300 pounds.
Hoss immediately went to his father and laid a massive hand on his shoulder. His eyes however, were on the young man in the bed. Hoss turned to Adam, “Dowd and the other fella are tied up in the bunkhouse. How’s Little Joe?”
“The same as he’s been. It’s too soon for the medicine to start working yet. We’re supposed to give him a dose every two hours till his fever breaks.” The flat tone in which Adam answered his brother would have led a stranger to believe that Adam was cold and unfeeling. The men in the room knew Adam as well as they knew themselves and knew that the deeper Adam felt about something, the more emotionless and in control he seemed on the outside. Adam had inherited that trait from his Grandfather Stoddard, and had fine honed it during a lifetime of hard work at his father’s side. He twice had to shoulder responsibilities beyond his age and hold the shattered pieces of his family together. Hoss knew that if his family was broken once again, Adam would, this time, hold himself responsible, and there would be pieces that could not be put back together.
Ben, meanwhile, had been checking the many bruises and cuts on his youngest. Ben’s words came out quietly, but clipped and angry, as he gently examined the bullet wound in Joe’s shoulder. “Well, one of you start explaining, and right now. You send me a telegram saying that Little Joe has been injured by a wolf; and then I arrive home to find him burning up with fever with a bullet wound, our house shot up, and strangers in our living room. Why are two men tied up in the bunkhouse? Are they the one’s who shot up the house and shot your brother?”
Hoss had started to answer their father, but Adam interrupted him. “No, Hoss. I’ll tell Pa what happened.”
“Pa, before I start, I have to tell you that when Doc Hickman examined Little Joe yesterday, he said that he was counting on the medicine he was sending Hoss to get and on Little Joe’s constitution to save him, plus some help from God. The doc couldn’t stay. Mrs. Fleming was having a breech birth and without him there, her and her baby would probably die.” Seeing the look of alarm on his father’s face, Adam faltered for a beat, but took a deep breath and went on.
“Little Joe and I tracked that wolf that’s been bothering the herd up to Montpelier Gorge. It was starting to get towards dusk, so I told Joe that we should call it a day and set up camp. He didn’t want to quit yet, but I finally convinced him to. We were both tired and it would be getting hard to see what we were shooting at. There was still some daylight left after we ate so Joe said he was going to take one more look around, and took off before I could stop him. To be honest, I didn’t really want to stop him. I wanted to get that wolf as bad as he did. Besides, I didn’t want to listen to him complaining half the night that he might have gotten that wolf if I would have let him have the chance. I heard a rifle shot, and I hadn’t unsaddled Sport yet, so I went to see if Joe had gotten lucky. I rode around a pile of boulders, and there was the wolf right in front of me. Next thing I knew I had my rifle out of its scabbard and was pulling the trigger.”
The next words were the hardest words that Adam had ever had to speak. “Pa, I shot Little Joe. I didn’t see him there in the rocks. I just saw the wolf and pulled the trigger. The bullet ricocheted and hit him. Instead of running off, the wolf turned on him. Thank God that Joe wasn’t unconscious. He was able to keep the wolf from his neck till I was able to club it off with my rifle butt and shot it. Pa, I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry. I know that won’t help if Little Joe …” Adam, unable to finish that thought, turned his back and stood staring out the window.
Ben knew, by some parental instinct, when Adam started his tale how it was going to end. His heart went out to his eldest, but he knew that Adam wanted him to just sit and listen.
Adam then continued on with the story of the all-night ride from Montpelier Gorge meeting the Reardons, and removing the bullet from his brother’s shoulder. The only time he allowed emotion to show in his voice was when he recounted the shoot-out over Joe’s medicine, and what had led up to it. “We owe Mr. Reardon a lot, Pa. Dowd and the other fellow had the drop on us and wouldn’t believe that we didn’t have that kind of money in the house. Mr. Reardon risked his life to take the bottle of medicine from him.”
Hoss, shaking his head and frowning, added, “You know, Pa, I’ve seen all kinds of no-accounts, but to hold a man’s medicine for ransom because his horse stampeded a few head of cattle is downright crazy. I felt like bashing their skulls in. That wouldn’t have helped Little Joe, but it would have made me feel better.”
The Cartwrights were interrupted by a knock on the bedroom door, and the Reardons stepped hesitantly into the room. “We don’t mean to interrupt,” Mr. Reardon began, “but Sheila’s made some coffee and sandwiches. Mr. Cartwright, you must be ready to drop from your long ride, and Adam and Hoss are probably feeling the effects of our shoot-out. If you want to eat and rest, we’ll be glad to sit with Joe. We’ll wake you if there’s any change.”
“Ah, Miss Reardon, Mr. Reardon, Adam and Hoss have told me what you’ve done for Little Joe.” Ben had risen at their entrance and clasped Mr. Reardon’s shoulder. “I appreciate your offer, but I’ll stay with Little Joe.”
“Pa, at least have some supper. Miss Reardon will take care of Little Joe. You look all in,” Hoss agreed with the Reardons.
Between the four of them, they finally persuaded Ben to eat, but he insisted on returning to Joe’s room, to tend his youngest through the long night. Hoss went to the bunkhouse to guard their prisoners. Adam, despite his intentions to the contrary, collapsed asleep onto the sofa in front of the fire.
All night, Ben sponged Joe’s fevered body with cooling water, and every two hours, with Sheila’s aid, managed to get the medicine into him. Finally, at dawn, Joe showed signs of improving. Ben felt he could leave him with Sheila long enough to go to the bunkhouse and tell Hoss to take the two prisoners to town to Sheriff Coffee.
Upon returning to the house, Ben saw that Adam was awake. Ben started to the kitchen to get Adam and himself some coffee when Sheila appeared at the top of the steps to tell Adam that Joe was awake and calling for him.
Adam took the stairs two at a time, with Ben trailing behind. Joe greeted them with a smile and a delighted “Hey, brother”, and “Hey, Pa”. As Ben checked Joe’s forehead for fever, Joe couldn’t wait to tell their father how Adam clobbered the wolf and that it wouldn’t be bothering their herd anymore.
The sound of someone coming down the stairs roused Ben. He watched silently as Adam came slowly down the stairs and without looking at his father took his customary seat in the chair on the opposite side of the fireplace.
After a few minutes of silence, Adam finally looked at his father and started speaking, uncharacteristically rambling, “I don’t know what got into me up there. I wanted to get that wolf as much as Little Joe did, and I didn’t use anymore sense then he did. You know, if someone said one of the Cartwright brothers accidentally shot one of the others, everyone would take it for granted that it was Little Joe who did the shooting. He’s supposed to be the reckless one. Not good old dependable Adam. Little Joe was so brave up there, Pa. All the way home, he kept reassuring me that he was all right. And the way he trusted me to take that bullet out. Then, what was the first thing he did when he woke up this morning? Bragged on me to you about how I clobbered the wolf. After I almost killed him, he’s bragging on me. Your youngest son is turning into quite a man.”
During Adam’s monologue, Ben had moved to where he was standing behind Adam’s chair. As he spoke, he laid his hands on Adam’s shoulders. “Yes he is. He’s following the example of his two older brothers. They’re both fine men. And why wouldn’t he trust you? You’ve taken care of him all his life”.
Adam looked away from his father before answering sarcastically, “Oh, yeah, I really took good care of him up there.”
“Hoss told me how you’ve been blaming yourself. Adam, you’re human. You make mistakes. Lord knows I’ve made my share. I’ll probably make many more. So, please, son, don’t blame yourself. And don’t think anyone else blames you, or should blame you. You still are, and always will be ‘good old dependable Adam’ in your brothers’ eyes and in mine. You’ve spent a big part of your life looking after your younger brothers, the ranch, and at times, me. I appreciate that more than I can say. And don’t forget, part of this was Little Joe’s own fault. He’s not a child. He’s a grown man. He knows being anxious to get an animal that you’ve tracked all day can affect your judgment. He also certainly knows better than to follow the animal into a rocky area like that, alone.”
“He’s paid a high price for that lapse of judgment on both of your parts. But he’s going to be all right. You both need to remember the lesson, but get past the rest of it. I have every confidence that you both will.”
“Hoss also told me what you said about leaving. Now, don’t be angry with him for telling me. He’s concerned about you. But leaving should be for the right reasons. If you’ve fallen in love with Miss Reardon and want to be with her in Philadelphia, we won’t stand in your way. But if it’s a knee-jerk reaction to what’s happened, we’ll try everything we can to dissuade you.”
“All right. Lecture over. I’m sure you’ll make the right choice. I guess I’m just afraid of what that choice will turn out to be. Well, how about a cup of coffee? I’ll certainly be glad to see Hop Sing when he gets back. One thing that all my sons have in common with me; none of us can make a decent pot of coffee.”
Adam’s mood had brightened considerably. He was almost laughing when he told his father he would pass on the coffee. “There’s a lot of chores that haven’t gotten done. I’m going to get at them and get a start on Joe’s, since Hoss and I will be doing them for awhile. I’m not angry that Hoss told you. I’m glad he did. I need to apologize to him about saying that to him. He didn’t need to be more upset than he was by me blurting out something like that. And Pa, you’re right about the right and wrong reasons. When I kissed Sheila good-by this morning I realized that what I thought I was feeling for her wasn’t love. I don’t know what it was. Maybe I was just looking for some sort of comfort. I’ve been honest with you ever since I came home from college and admitted that I might want to see New England again, maybe even Europe. But if I do decide to travel, it will be towards something, not running away from something. And I’ll be back; I could never leave the Ponderosa permanently. I also realized that, this morning.”
“Well, chores await.” Adam stood and started towards the front door.
Ben, a hand still on Adam’s shoulder, accompanied him. “How about some help from your old father?”
Adam turned and smiled at Ben. “I’ve just had a lot of help from my ‘old father’. Thanks, Pa.”