A Degree of Blame (by Barbara)

Summary:    Adam accuses Joe.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5185


 

“JOOOE!”

The youngest Cartwright lazily sat in the living room of the ranch house with his feet placed comfortably on the coffee table. His ankles were casually crossed. He was engrossed in a dime-store novel. At the sound of his brother’s ominous bellow, Joe winced with dread. What had he done now, he wondered.

Hoss glanced across at his little brother from the leather chair. He sat quietly untangling a suborn harness. He too scowled at Adam’s bark. He knew he had a bee in his bonnet about something. He was just glad it wasn’t his name Adam had shouted. There was no protection from their oldest brother’s wrath. Ben was away on business and that meant that Adam was in charge. Whatever the misdeed, Joe would have to face the consequences alone.

“JOOOOOOE!!” Adam roared again as he marched to the top of the stairs and leaned both his hands astride the heads of the railing finials.

“Yeah, um… yes, Adam?”

“Where’s my new shirt?”

“New shirt? What, ah, what new shirt?”

“I saw you admiring my new shirt, Joe. Now where is it?”

Joe’s face fell. He’d been caught.  He hoped he would be able to return it before Adam realized it was gone. “Well, it’s in the laundry. Hop, Hop, Hop Sing’s washing it right now.” Joe smiled broadly as if his care of Adam’s shirt would erase the fact that he’d borrowed it without asking.

“Why… does it need washing?” Adam seethed.

“It was dirty, Adam, can’t… can’t return a dirty shirt now, can I? Joe chortled uneasily.

“Why… is it dirty?”

“Well, because…”

“Because why?”

“Well, it was like this, see,” Joe began to explain. He sat up straight. “I wanted to look good for my date with Jacqueline last night, so I kind of borrowed your new shirt. It’s a nice shirt, Adam.”

“Yes. I know. That’s why I ordered it all the way from Kansas City.”

“Kansas City, huh?” Joe gulped.

“Yeah, Kansas City.” Adam glared down at his brother.

“Well, ah… anyway,” Joe continued. “I thought I’d drop by the saloon on the way home last night for a beer. And, then I saw Jimmy and Roger and Pete playing poker so I, I, I… joined in.”

“Yes… and?” Adam said impatiently.

“Well, I wasn’t doing anything Adam. Honest. It wasn’t me. But, all of a sudden – out of nowhere this fight broke out. This guy came out of nowhere and landed right on my poker hand and sent my straight flush flying into the air like confetti. A straight flush, Adam!”

“Ah huh…”

“So, we sort of got into it a bit. I was kinda upset I lost the hand because of this guy see. An, an, and… that’s why I got your shirt just a teeny, weenie bit dirty. But, I won the fight Adam. Fair and square.”

Adam stared at his younger brother. His eyes were as black as coal but radiated steamy heat. It unsettled Joe and he swallowed hard to try and moisten his now dried throat.

“End, end, end of st..st…story, Adam.” Joe grinned as wide as he could.

“Get it,” Adam hissed.

“Well, it’s probably not dry yet.”

“GO GET IT!”

At Adam’s thunderous command, Joe shot to his feet. He stumbled toward the front door, falling over the arm of the sofa. He fell flat on his face but recovered quickly. Adam seared his gaze into his little brother’s skin like a branding iron. He breathed like an irritated bull but uttered nary a sound. Hoss watched the whole exchange without making eye contact with either of his siblings. He wanted to stay as far out of this clash as he possibly could.

“I’ll see if Hop Sing is done with it,” Joe answered up to his brother as he slithered out of the house like a terrified garter snake.

Adam slowly descended the stairs and walked past Hoss without acknowledging him. He planted himself in the middle of the entranceway and placed his hands on his hips. He awaited the return of Joe and his brand new shirt. Hoss continued to work diligently at his harness, fearful that Adam may turn on him. When he was in a mood like this, he didn’t need a reason. Several moments passed. Adam stood his ground. Finally, the front door opened and in came Joe holding a soggy rag. It no longer resembled anything close to a shirt. Joe handed it to his brother with trepidation. Adam sneered as he took his shredded garment.

“Now, now Adam,” Joe sniveled. “I’ll pay for it. I know it’s all ripped up but…”

“DON’T… touch my stuff!”

Joe jumped back like a horse spooked by a gunshot. He blinked rapidly and scrunched his face as if preparing for a right jab.

Adam gave his little brother one last growl and then removed himself from the scene before blood was shed. He purposefully walked, with his mangled shirt in hand, back up the stairs. The confrontation ended with the slamming of Adam’s bedroom door.

“You sure did it this time, Joe,” Hoss finally commented.

“It’s just a shirt,” Joe sniffed.

“Yeah. But, it’s Adam’s shirt.”

“Aaaah,” Joe scoffed. “He doesn’t scare me.”

“Oh no? Then why are you clinging onto the clock like a little girl?”

“I’m not. I’m just making sure it’s secure is all.”

“Sure you are.”

“Don’t, don’t want it fall, falling over.”

Joe wrenched his fingertips from the frame of the grandfather clock that stood next to the front door. He didn’t realize he’d used it to brace himself in case Adam decided to attack. Once freed from his lame protection, he shoved his hands in his pockets and meandered back to the couch and picked up his book. He glanced up the stairs one last time before taking his place back on the couch.

*****

“JOE!!” Adam blared as he entered the house. “JOOOOOE!!” WHERE ARE YOU?”

Now it was Joe who appeared at the top of the stairs. “What? What is it, Adam?” He sounded alarmed.

“What did I ask you to do today?” Adam said as he made his way to the bottom step.

“Ummm, I, ah… I don’t know? What?”

“Did I or did I not ask you to fix that broken board in the hen house?”

“Oh yeah.” Joe smiled. “You did Adam. You asked me to do that this morning.”

“And? Did you?”

“Not yet. I’m a little busy.”

“Busy,” Adam mumbled to himself, consciously trying to quell his temper. “Have you looked outside recently?” Adam jested between gritted teeth.

“Well, no. No, I haven’t.”

“Well, why don’t you come on down here and take a look.”

Adam stood aside to let Joe pass him. He knew if he blocked his way, Joe would remain safely in the upper hall. Adam held out his hand like an usher and bowed slightly. Joe gingerly tiptoed down the stairs and shimmied by his brother to avoid the inevitable cuff.

Again, Joe smiled charmingly. What could have possibly happened to cause Adam’s fury? He walked backwards to the front door, keeping his brother in check. He only turned towards it when he felt the knob hit him in the lower back. Joe opened the door. As he did, several chickens fluttered into the house. Feathers flew through the air like snow. The courtyard was full of hens. Hop Sing ran after them causing them to cluck and squawk. The tiny Chinaman, babbled in his native tongue as he fruitlessly tried to herd them back into their coop.

Joe stared back at his brother who leaned angrily on the staircase post. His arms were crossed and his gaze – chilly.

“I’ll gather ‘em all up, Adam,” Joe sputtered.

“Yes. You will.”

“I’ll go right now and help Hop Sing.”

“That’s a good idea,” Adam fumed.

“Okay.”

“And Joe?”

“Yes, Adam?”

“FIX THE HENHOUSE!”

“Okay, okay. I’ll fix the henhouse. Okay!”

*****

Adam had been walking for miles. Halfway between home and his girlfriend’s house the wheel of the buggy fell off without warning. It dumped him in the ditch and the horse got loose and galloped away. He had no choice but walk home.

His best suit was covered in dust and his new boots had etched painful blisters into his heels and toes. He was sure blood soaked his socks. He grumbled profanity as he went. He picked up a pebble and threw it into a field as hard as he could to try and release his frustration.

“I’m gonna kill that kid,” he murmured below his breath. “I should have checked the wheel before I left. But, oh no. I trusted him. I shouldn’t have… but I did. He said he was going to fix that wheel. But, did he? Of course not. When I get home, I’m gonna…”

He didn’t complete his thought. It was too violent.

Adam conversed with himself the rest of the way home. When he finally made it into the courtyard of the Ponderosa, it was dark. He had not idea what time it was. The horse that had escaped the accident stood at the barn door waiting to be fed and put to bed. Luckily, she was unhurt but was still suffering from fright. The harnesses were shredded beyond repair. Adam laboriously obliged the poor animal and then wearily entered the house.

“JOOOOOOE!!”

Adam’s sudden shout awoke Joe from a sound sleep. Hoss too was jolted awake. Both brother’s scrambled out of their beds and ran down the upper hall and down the stairs. They stopped short when they saw Adam standing there disheveled. The look on his face was one of absolute disgust.

“What happened to you?” Joe asked boldly.

“Seems to me…” Adam started as calmly as he could. “… I recall you mentioning something about a broken wheel on the buggy.”

Joe’s eyes widened. He didn’t want to hear the rest.

“And, I also seem to recall,” Adam continued, “that you were going to fix said wheel.”

“Did said wheel fall off?” Joe grimaced.

“As a matter of fact…” Adam struggled to control his ire. “… said wheel not only fell off, but caused the buggy to crash into a ditch sending me flying, irreversibly spooking a horse out its wits and forcing me to walk home in a brand new pair of dress boots!”

“Well, I… I’m sorry, Adam.” Joe’s voice trembled. “I was going to fix it tomorrow. I didn’t know you were going to use it.”

“You knew I was going to take Cynthia down to the lake for a moonlight dinner didn’t you?”

“I think I heard you mention that.” Joe began to take cover behind Hoss who stood in his nightshirt, speechless.

“Well, how did you suppose I was going to take Cynthia to the lake huh? Did you think I was going to give her a piggyback ride?”

“No, no, Adam. That would be silly.”

“Yes. It would be, wouldn’t it.” Adam sizzled as he began to move toward his brother.

“Now, now, Adam. I’ll fix it. I’ll get it in the morning and fix it.”

“There’s nothing left to FIX!!”

Joe was fully cowered behind Hoss afraid that Adam would, in fact, kill him.

“Take it easy now, Adam,” Hoss warned. He could see the look of madness in his brother’s eyes. “Joe didn’t mean no harm. He didn’t do nothing on purpose.”

“ON PURPOSE! ON PURPOSE!”

But, Adam had to halt his foreboding approach. He couldn’t take another step. His feet were so swollen and cramped he had to take a seat in the chair at the bottom of the stairs. He sank into it with a painful moan. Joe peeked around the massive body of his brother to view Adam’s struggle to remove his boots.

“Joe?” Hoss said quietly. “Why don’t you go on up to bed? I’ll see if I c’ain’t help Adam.”

Joe barely processed the suggestion and was up the stairs and out of sight before Hoss had finished his sentence. Hoss cautiously took a seat on the coffee table to face Adam. Without a word he bent over and grabbed the heel of Adam’s boot with one hand and the toe with the other. Adam allowed Hoss’ aide and gripped the arm of he chair. He braced himself for the inevitable torture.

“Easy,” Adam whimpered. “I think you might take off my whole foot if you’re not careful.”

Gently, Hoss tugged and pulled off one boot and then the other. It took great effort but once they were removed, Adam sat in grateful relief. He watched Hoss go into the kitchen and get a bowl of warm water and salts for Adam to soak is feet in. He returned a few moments later. He placed the bowl on the floor and Adam tentatively put his gnarled feet into the soothing water.

“You know, Adam?” Hoss finally said.

“What?” he exhaled woefully.

“I know Joe is forgetful sometimes. But, he’s just young. He’s just a kid. C’ain’t expect him to listen all the time.”

“Forgetful?” Adam replied with indignation. “One of these days, his irresponsibility is going to get someone seriously injured. This little mishap only caused some nasty blisters but I really could have been badly hurt and that horse could have been killed.”

“I know, I know,” Hoss agreed sheepishly.

“Tomorrow morning, I’m going to have a talk with that younger brother of ours and put a stop to all his foolishness.”

“C’ain’t you wait ‘til Pa gets home?”

“Pa won’t be back until next month. Besides, what does he have to do with it?”

“Nothin’, I guess.”

“Go to bed, Hoss,” Adam said. “Thanks for the foot bath. It’s helping.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine.”

Hoss began to scale the stairs but stopped on the landing and turned back to his brother. “Adam?”

“Yeah.”

“Joe ain’t a bad person; he’s just well… he’s just greener than a day-old colt is all.”

“I know, Hoss. I know.”

Hoss went the rest of the way up to bed. Adam sat and stewed for a few more hours.

*****

Hoss was long gone when Joe finally reared his head for breakfast the next morning. He took as much time as possible to wash up and dress. He hoped Adam would be long gone too. But, when Joe peered around the wall from the upper hall, he saw Adam seated in his usual spot at the dining room table. His back was to him.

After rolling his eyes and making a soured face, Joe quietly descended the stairs and crept across the living room floor. He had no choice but to face the music. He unassumingly took his seat to the left of Adam. Hop Sing silently emerged from the kitchen with a plate of ham and eggs and placed it in front of him. Joe just smiled and nodded his thanks. He reached for a piece of bread but couldn’t quite grab it. He took a deep breath to get up the nerve to speak. “Could you pass the bread please, Adam?” he said sweetly.

Adam obliged without so much as a sound. His stillness made Joe squirm.

“How are you feeling today?” Joe asked apprehensively. “Are your feet still sore?”

“Yes. They are.”

“Oh,” came Joe’s guilty reply.

Several moments of uneasiness followed until Adam broke the ice. “Joe.”

“Yes, Adam?”

“We need to talk.”

“I know. I know we do.” Joe took a bite of toast and chewed it nervously.

“Now, I know that you’re not really interested in some of the chores around here,” Adam began.

“Yeah, but I…”

“Let me finish,” he replied deciding to take the gentle approach.

“Okay.”

“And, I know that you’re young and would prefer to be playing poker, or courting Jacqueline or even reading detective stories. Frankly, I would rather be doing those things too. But, this is a working ranch and when I ask you to do something, I expect it to be done. I’m not trying to make your life miserable. Things just need to be done that’s all.”

“I know, Adam.”

“I just don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

“Well, I don’t see how not fixing a hen house or borrowing a shirt is going to get anyone hurt,” Joe defended.

“No, but leaving a wheel unattended is an accident waiting to happen. And, by the way, when I finally got home last night, I noticed you left he lantern burning in the barn.”

“I did?”

“Yes. You did.” Adam looked at his brother sternly. “You know better than that, Joe.”

“I’m sorry, Adam. It won’t happen again.  I’ll pay more attention.”

“Good.” Adam smiled warmly. “Now finish up your breakfast and come on into town with me.”

“What for, Adam?”

“Boy, you really are forgetful lately.”

“What do you mean?” Joe sounded vexed.

“My new stallion?” Adam hinted. “The one I’ve been waiting for since June? The black from Kentucky? You know. The new sire to my string.”

“Oh yeah,” Joe said brightly.

“He’s supposed to be delivered to the livery today, so come on hurry up.”

“Okay, Adam.”

With the friction between them now settled, the boys went to the front door to rig themselves with their hats, coats and holsters. Adam limped slightly and Joe couldn’t help but chuckle. “You look like an old man,” he commented comically.

“Thanks to you, I’ve aged the last few weeks,” Adam shot back with a smirk.

The pair rode off to Virginia City in good spirits.

*****

Adam named him Abel. He was to be the beginning of new horizons on the Ponderosa. Adam had dreamed his whole life of breeding his own special strain of horse. He wanted to build a new kind of cattle horse. One with the stamina and heartiness of a stock quarter horse but with the speed and size of a thoroughbred.

For the last several years, he’d hand picked four mares and spent every nickel he had on the stud. He’d taken a trip to Louisville several months before to choose the sire. Finally, after weeks of negotiations and shipping details, Abel finally arrived.

Adam and Joe picked him up at the livery just as planned. He was a magnificent specimen; a true black with not a speck of white or brindle. His head was stoic – his eyes bright with intelligence and drive. A muscled chest and shoulders were the base for Abel’s graceful neck. He had perfect legs and feet of iron. He was feisty but also had a certain placidness. He was Adam’s pride and joy.

When the boys got him home, they placed him in an especially large stall. He deserved only the best. And, when Hoss first saw him later that evening, he couldn’t have been more impressed. Adam was chuffed at his brother’s approval as he truly respected Hoss’ opinion when it came to judging any kind of livestock.

“He sure is a beauty, Adam.”

“Thanks, Hoss. I’m pretty proud of him.”

“Those mares’ll be goin’ into season soon too.”

“Yep. The timing couldn’t be better.” Adam scratched Abel’s masculine jowls. He stepped back to admire him like a painter sizing up his own work. “Let’s go and crack open a bottle of wine to celebrate. What do you say?”

“You’re on, brother,” Joe brimmed with enthusiasm.

Full of hope and promise the three men exited the barn and went into the house. They had a wonderful evening of wine and a roasted chicken dinner. They couldn’t remember the last time they enjoyed each other’s company as much. They reminisced about their childhoods. Adam told hilarious tales of Joe’s youth. And, a story about Hoss getting stuck in rain barrel when he was ten. It sent all three of them into fits of laughter so loud, they thought they might spook the cattle. It was a refreshing change from the stress between Joe and Adam of recent weeks.

They discussed Adam’s future foals at length and how they’d train them. Hopefully the offspring of Abel would sell for enormous profits. After dinner, they had a checker tournament. And, on this occasion Hoss won even though Joe had done a fair bit of cheating. The night ended with a toast.

“Here’s to Abel” Adam offered. “May he sire a healthy herd!”

“Here, here!”

“Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I shall retire,” Adam announced with mock formality. “Got a big day tomorrow.” He patted his abdomen with satisfaction.

“Me too,” Hoss complied.

“I’m right behind you,” Joe announced, “but I just have to go out to the barn and check on Cochise.”

“Oh?” Adam said with puzzlement. “What for?”

“Just a small cut on his fetlock. I want to put a fresh bandage on it.”

“Oh. Okay then. Don’t be long. I want you to ride fence with me bright and early.” Adam winked.

“I won’t be, Adam.”

“Good night, Joe.”

“Good night.”

*****

Adam was startled awake by the smell of smoke. An orange glow lit his bedroom. He sat up in bed abruptly and rushed to the window that overlooked the barn. It was ablaze. “JOOOOE!!! HOSSSSS!!!” he shouted.

In his nightshirt and bare, feet he scrambled out of his bedroom, down the stairs and out into the courtyard. His brothers sprung from bed as well. They threw on their pants and boots. They had become accustomed to their older siblings battle calls and were lulled into thinking it was just another minor infraction.

Adam ran over to the water trough, immersing himself. He then ran into the barn. By that time, Hoss and Joe had emerged from the house. They were shocked to see the inferno they faced. And even more horrified to see Adam pushing his way into the flames. He could hear his brothers warning him not to, but he had to save Abel and the others.

The horses were panicked – the whites of their eyes displayed their terror. They screeched in fear. They tugged on their lead shanks to try and free themselves from the firestorm. Adam hurried to unlatch all of their stalls and chased them out into the night. He hit each one on the rump, yelling and screaming to get them to move. They dispersed in every direction. He was almost caught in the stampede to escape, but managed to dodge Abel as he thundered passed.

When he knew everyone was out, he battled his way back through the raging flames and managed to find his way out through the shroud of smoke. Without hesitation, he joined Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing and several hands in trying to douse the blaze. But, the loft had just been loaded with hay and only fueled the fire to uncontrollable. All the men could do was prevent any of the other buildings on the property from being burnt to the ground.

After hours of fighting the fire, they finally had it beaten at the break of dawn. Only then could they assess the damage. The barn was now a smoldering mound of blackened and charred lumber. It hissed and crackled. Cinders rained down on the small gathering of men that stood in numbing silence. All of them were covered in soot. They coughed and spit the ashes from their heaving chests. Adam’s hands were red from burns and he tried desperately to expel the smoke from his lungs. He looked over at Joe with festering wrath.

“Did you do this?” Adam hissed.

“No.” Joe replied – stunned by Adam’s charge. “I didn’t do it.”

“You did do it, didn’t you? After what we talked about?”

Adam had now turned to face Joe – his charred finger pointed in blame. Luckily Hoss was between them. He held Adam back.

“YOU LEFT THE LANTERN LIT LAST NIGHT! DIDN’T YOU!”

“No, no. I didn’t, Adam. I…I checked everything before I went to bed last night,” Joe said with a hint of self-doubt. “Honest. It wasn’t my fault.”

“YOU COULD HAVE KILLED ALL OF US!” Adam was too hot to listen.

“Calm down, Adam,” Hoss intervened. “Joe says he didn’t do nothin’. Now cool down and let me tend to them hands of yours.”

“CALM DOWN! CALM DOWN?”

“You heard me,” Hoss replied evenly but with a tinge of intimidation. “Now you get on inside and let me and Joe track down them horses. We need to check and see if any of ‘em are hurt.”

Joe had never seen Adam so angry. It truly did frighten him. But, it was more for Adam’s sake then his own. He simply went mad before his eyes. It was hard to witness. Hoss was still preventing Adam from reaching Joe. He too was fearful of what he might do.

“Now, I’m askin’ you,” Hoss warned again. “Go on inside now, Adam.”

Knowing he couldn’t get by Hoss, Adam gave Joe one last wicked leer and pulled himself out of Hoss’ grasp. The adrenaline of fighting the fire had provided him protection from the pain. But, now his hands were beginning to throb. He looked down at them, only then realizing the extent of his injuries. His eyes began to water. He growled in agony.

“Richard?” Hoss said to one of his men. “Ride into town and get Dr. Martin, wouldja? Hop Sing?”

 “Yes, Mista Hoss?”

“Help Adam inside. See if you c’aint cool down them burns.”

“I take care of Mista Adam,” the cook replied quietly.

“Come on, Joe.” Hoss took his brother’s forearm. “Let’s go round up them horses.”

With Hoss tugging on him to come with him, Joe looked back at Adam who was being aided to the house by Hop Sing.

*****

When Hoss finally entered the house around noon that day, he found Adam sitting, stewing in the red leather chair. His hands were bandaged and a bottle of whiskey sat on the coffee table in front of him. He leaned over to take another swig.

Hoss approached him with caution. “How’re them hands?”

“They hurt like hell. But, that’s not going to stop me from wringing that kid’s neck when he gets back. Where is he?” Adam finally looked up at his brother. He looked possessed.

“Now you listen here, Adam,” Hoss said still hovering over him. “Joe didn’t have nothin’ to do with settin’ that fire. We don’t know how it started and probably never will. But, Joe said he checked all them lanterns last night and I believe him.”

“Why should you? He’s been irresponsible all his life. Why should now be any different.”

“Because I know Joe and so do you. You know he don’t lie. He ain’t a liar, Adam.” Hoss sounded desperate. “Now just get it out of your head. Joe ain’t responsible for that fire!”

Adam knew Hoss was right. Yes, Joe was impetuous and forgetful and sometimes lazy, but a liar he wasn’t. If Joe had started that fire, Adam knew he wouldn’t have denied it. If Joe was one thing, he was honest and willing to take his lumps when they were due. Adam sighed with resolution. He paused momentarily to regain some semblance of control.

“Did you find the horses?”

“They’re a little spooked but they’re okay.”

“What about Abel?”

“Abel’s fine.”

“Help me up.”

Hoss gingerly grabbed his brother’s upper arm and pulled him out of the chair.

“Where ‘s Joe?” asked Adam

“He’s in the bunkhouse. He’s afraid to come in here, Adam.”

“I’ll go talk to him.”

Adam limped across the courtyard to the bunkhouse. He glanced over at the rubble. All the hands had already begun to clear the area for rebuilding. They all stopped to gape at him as he passed by. He couldn’t look back at them. He was embarrassed about that morning’s outburst. He labored up the few steps to the bunkhouse door and opened it.

He didn’t see Joe but he could hear him crying. Adam found him sitting on the floor in the corner. A double-decker bed hid him from view. Adam walked over to his brother.

“What are you doing down there?” he asked pleasantly.

Joe did not respond.

“I’m sorry, Joe.” Adam crouched in front of him to try and make contact with him. “I just, well… I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions like that.”

“I don’t blame you,” Joe snuffled.

“Oh?”

“I’ve been pretty absent-minded lately.”

“Yes. I suppose you have.”

“I’m sorry, Adam.”

“Well, now that we’re all sorry, maybe you and I can come to some kind of agreement, um?”

Joe wiped his nose along the entire forearm of his sleeve and sniffed loudly. Then he rubbed both his eyes with his shirttails. He finally looked at Adam.

“What, what kind of agreement,” he pouted.

“Well, how about you being a little more courteous and attentive and me being a little less judgmental and bossy.”

“That could work,” Joe stated sheepishly.

“It’s a deal then?”

Joe reached out to shake hands but Adam held up his bandages to prevent any touching. His hands were too tender. Instead he looked at his brother squarely. “I know you’re not to blame for the fire,” he said flatly.

“How do you know that, Adam?”

“It’s true. You do try my patience at times, but deep down I know you respect me. You don’t mean be disobedient or defiant.” Adam’s voice was as smooth as mink. “I know you would have checked all the lamps after our little talk the other day. And, if you had forgotten to put the lanterns out, you would have admitted your mistake and paid the consequences. It’s like Hoss says. You’re not a liar. You’re a good man, Joe. I know that.”

Joe took a deep breath. He seemed calm now. He smiled at Adam’s outline of his character. Then he winked and nodded. “Thanks, Adam. I appreciate that.”

“You’re welcome, Joe.”

“How are you hands?”

“They’re, ah, they’re better.”

The brother’s stood in unison.

“How about helping clean up that mess out there?” Adam grinned.

“Sure thing, Adam. Whatever you say,” Joe sounded brightly.

“Well, that’s a first.”

“It’s the way it’ll be from now on. I sure have learned my lesson.”

“Oh. And what lesson is that?” Adam flung his battered arm around his little brother’s shoulder affectionately. He peered at Joe suspiciously.

“If you’re going to steal your older brother’s shirt, make sure you don’t get caught,” he joshed.

Adam kicked Joe’s backside playfully, leaving a boot mark on his tush. “Get out of here you little scamp!”

Adam and Joe had a good chuckle before they emerged from their powwow in the bunkhouse. It would be a new beginning for both of them. From that day forward, Joe tried to be less selfish and was far more willing to help around the ranch. He seemed to come of age. Adam on the other hand worked on being more tolerant.

Abel would go on to sire the herd Adam had always dreamed of with the help of his two younger brothers.

***The End***

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