Summary: This story takes place approximately twenty years after the events in the episode “Bushwhacked.”
Word Count: 1,520
The old man flipped through the pages of another journal – this one, unlike the later leather-and-gilt volumes that were piled on the floor next to him, was bound with ragged and stained cloth-covered boards. The pages turned unevenly as he flipped through them, his gnarled hands shaking from age and stress. It has to be here somewhere! He’d finally found the right dates – surely, surely his son had written it down. Adam’s memory was phenomenal, but he’d only been twelve at the time, so Ben Cartwright believed he wouldn’t have taken the chance of forgetting it. Ben had only heard him recite the poem once, many years ago, but he knew it was the one thing that might ease the suffering of his youngest, might help him understand his oldest brother’s actions. Joe might be approaching forty, Adam just passing fifty, but some things never changed.
An unusual word caught his eye. “There it is!” he whispered. Tears blurred his vision, and he sank down into the wooden captain’s chair.
. . . And with her golden shears in hand,
Atropos cut the thread that was my brother’s life.
Memories almost overwhelmed him: Joe, cool and flint-eyed in the hot sun, even with a rustler’s pistol jammed into his back. Heat from the branding fire between them twisting the expression of the man’s partner as he lifted a glow-tipped running iron toward his son’s face. His own struggles against the ropes that bound him to a nearby tree. Adam twisting from the grasp of a third man to grab his brother’s arm and jerk him to the ground, away from the running iron, away from the pistol. And a single frozen moment when Adam turned slightly toward his brother and Joe’s eyes widened, when he saw the hammer drawn back on the gun, the muzzle aimed squarely at his brother’s chest, and Adam . . . Adam made no move, remained solidly between the rustler and his brother, protecting him . . . as always.
Ben marked the page with a slip of paper and set the book on the small table by Adam’s bed. He laid a shaking hand on his son’s forehead, then smoothed the black hair that was now streaked with gray at the temples. His fever was no higher, but the bandages around his chest were bloodied again. When will it end? How long will it be before the land is settled enough to ride safely? Adam had finally come back from his travels only three months ago, compelled for no logical reason, he’d said with an ironic smile, to return to his home. And from the expression in his eyes as he’d said the word home, Ben had known his eldest would never leave again. He sank back into the chair. He hadn’t even considered that Adam might have returned only to find his peace in a grave.
“Take from my length!” I begged her,
“Tie it to that which you have cut.
Shorten mine, not his!”
“Pa?” A hand pressed against his shoulder.
He looked up to see the lined, strained face of his youngest, a man well into his prime, now his partner in every way that Adam had been when they were all younger. He suddenly realized that Joe’s wild curls were dusted with gray as well. Tears clouded his son’s green eyes.
“How is he?”
“The same. If he’d just wake up . . .” He couldn’t bear to finish the thought. If he’d wake for only a moment, just long enough to say good-bye . . .
Joe stood at the foot of Adam’s bed, gazing at the man who lay still and silent, barely seeming to breathe. “He was gone for years, Pa . . . years. We’ve lived separate lives – different lives – and I thought he accepted me as a man. But he pushed me aside out there, just like a little kid.”
Ben regarded his son thoughtfully. Joe and Adam had been down that route before, and he knew it had long been resolved. “That’s not what’s really bothering you, is it?”
Joe scrubbed at his face, ran a hand over the back of his neck. He sighed and sat carefully on the end of the bed, one hand resting on his brother’s blanket-covered leg. “No, I guess you’re right. It’s part of it, though.” He rubbed Adam’s leg gently, lovingly. “He took that bullet for me, Pa. He stood there and let that rustler shoot him. He didn’t even try to get away.”
Her sister Clotho, daughter of Night, stayed her hand.
“You would do this for another?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, for he is precious to me.
More precious than my own life.”
Ben rubbed his hands along the arms of the captain’s chair, and when he could finally speak, his voice was harsh, strangled. “I know.”
Joe’s head came up. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to bring it all back.”
“No,” Ben choked out. “It’s all right.” He took a deep breath, calmed himself. Even if he had to face losing Adam to the bullet that had been meant for his brother, he refused to lose Joseph to guilt. “Go on, son.”
“You raised us to take care of each other, and I know Adam got kind of stuck on that, bein’ the oldest and all. But this . . . I understand the instinct to protect, the urge to jump in and save your family, but he just stood there, knowing it was the end for him. And, Pa . . . .”
Joe broke down then, his hand grasping convulsively at the blankets. Ben opened his arms, and Joe came to him, knelt in front of him with his face buried in his father’s lap, huge wracking sobs shaking his slim frame. His words were muffled, but Ben heard them clearly.
“He smiled, Pa. Not one of his sarcastic smiles, not one of his winning-business-deals smiles, but something that was happy, content, like he’d finally finished a job and was really happy about how it all turned out.” He raised his head, searched his father’s eyes. “I don’t understand!”
Ben stroked the tear-damp curls from his son’s face and thanked God he’d found the journal. He gently pushed his son up. “I want you to read something, Joseph.” He gestured at the slim volume where it lay among half-full glasses, bits of lint and bandage and brown glass bottles.
Curious, Joe swiped at his eyes and picked it up. He ran his fingers around the edges, caressing the worn boards with the same softness as when he’d touched his brother’s leg. He glanced at his father. “One of Adam’s journals?” When Ben nodded, he carefully opened the book to the marked page and began to read.
Ben waited patiently, his thoughts ranging back over the times these two so very different sons had clashed, had misunderstood, and had, finally, come to a loving acceptance of each other.
“More precious than my own life . . .” Joe whispered.
“Go on,” Ben encouraged, and Joe spoke aloud the words that Adam had written in his journal almost forty years ago.
And because she was a sibling too,
Clotho took the shorn ends to her staff
and spun them back together again.
Joe looked up from the page, now thoroughly confused. “Pa?”
“Adam wrote this down when you were only a few hours old. You almost didn’t make it, son, and he prayed as hard as any of us for your life.” He looked down at the words, ran his fingers over the youthfully ragged writing. “Harder, perhaps. I think, in his child’s mind, he made a bargain with God. He didn’t realize that God would never have held him to it, but I believe it’s stayed there in the back of his thoughts ever since. When you saw him smile, perhaps he was remembering this phrase:
“Because you love, I have done as you ask
But do not ask again, for this is Time
Only borrowed and must be repaid . . .”
“Time only borrowed . . .” Joe shook his head. “That’s not fair. He shouldn’t have to pay for my life with his. It’s not right, Pa. Whoever wrote this didn’t know about what we have, didn’t know what could happen.”
“Yes, he did. He knew exactly what he was talking about.” Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “You see, your brother wrote this himself. I know for a fact that twenty years later he believed it. I think he still does.”
“. . . tha’s right . . .” A soft voice floated through the room.
Their heads whipped around to stare at the man in the bed, whose dark eyes had finally opened.
“Has to be repaid,” Adam repeated. His gaze travelled from his brother to the book, then to rest on his father. A faint dimple appeared, along with a glint of humor. “But it’s not due just yet.”