Summary: A Story in five voices.
Word Count: 8600
I was tired, cold and hungry, but I had one more task to finish before I could go to sleep. I had to get through dinner with Pa without letting him know how bad I felt. I don’t know why I couldn’t tell him I was sick; it was just something I never could do. He was pretty good at spotting a fever in Joe, or one of Hoss’ colds – well, a Hoss-sized sneeze was pretty hard to miss – but somehow it took him a while to notice whenever I was feeling bad. Or maybe I was just better at hiding it. I’d had enough practice at keeping my discomforts from him; it was something I’d started when just a kid.
Hoss and Joe helped me out for a while that night, even though they didn’t realize it. Hoss wanted to go to Carson City day after tomorrow to see Fred Martin’s new bull, and Joe was after Pa to let him go to Reno after that, over the weekend, to some big celebration they were having. I’d already talked to Pa about leaving day after tomorrow for San Francisco – one reason I didn’t want him knowing I wasn’t feeling well – so I could go to the opening at the new Opera House. They were doing a production of Don Giovanni. We’d all been working hard since before the first snowmelt, hardly taking a break in the last two months, and I know Pa wanted to give all of us a chance for a good time so I had hopes my trip would work out.
I could feel every minute of those last two months in my aching body as I settled into my chair across from Hoss and Joe. I filled my plate sparingly, though I spread it around enough so Pa’d think it was full – roast beef, a few spoons of potatoes, and some greens – then ate a bit of each. The roast beef was good, but for once the greens and potatoes didn’t appeal to me. Hop Sing kept me supplied with fresh, cool water that felt good going down my throat. As usual, he knew what was going on, even if no one else noticed.
Then a few words from Joe caught my attention. “…thanks, Pa. I sure appreciate the time off.”
“…Hoss will be back from Carson City by then and your brothers can handle anything that comes up over the weekend.”
A slow burning built in my gut and I spoke for the first time that evening. “Hoss is going to Carson City, and Joe’s going to Reno?” I asked as quietly as I could.
I could feel three sets of eyes turn to me, but it was my father’s I watched. I could see by the shift in his expression the moment he realized what I was saying.
“Adam, I can’t spare you right now,” he said. “We need to start planning for the bids we’ll have to make next month on the timber contracts.”
“Either Joe or Hoss could help you at this stage,” I answered.
“They don’t have the knowledge and experience you have,” he said, and I could tell he was trying to calm the coming explosion.
I took a moment to settle myself down by wiping my mouth with my napkin and placing it carefully on the table. It didn’t help. “They don’t have the knowledge and experience I have because I’m the one who always does it. Joe’s a sharp enough horse trader; he could pick this up in no time.”
Joe shifted in his chair. Here it comes. My head started to pound, and my neck hurt when I turned to face him square on.
“Oh, come on, Adam, lighten up. It’s the Reno Celebration Days. Sam and Mitch are going and they asked me along. We’re going to check out the stock, listen around to see how the beef market is–”
I cut him off. “Flirt with all the girls and lose your money on poker and horse races. Yeah, I know exactly how it’s going to be. I had plans, too, but I can see they don’t mean much around here.”
“We’ve all been workin’ hard–” started my other brother Hoss, once more playing the peacemaker.
“That’s right, we have,” I said to him, bitter feelings I’d tried to keep to myself rising into bitter words. “Some of us more than others.”
As I could have predicted, I’d unleashed a storm. The chorus of ‘Adams’ that came from my family would have done credit to a revival meeting. It was my little brother’s words, though, that set me off.
“Hey,” he shouted, “I work every bit as hard as you, and I always have. I’ve paid my dues, here, same as you!”
For some reason the world started to gray, and I had a vision of a long lonely trek across distant mountains. A slow pressure had been building inside me for years, and though I tried to hold it down, at Joe’s words something snapped and the rage cut loose. I turned slightly in my chair to face him, his fiery green eyes the only thing I could see. “No, you haven’t,” I shot back at him, almost shaking with fury. I held up a hand to hold off Pa’s interruption that I knew was coming.
“You haven’t,” I repeated, “unless you’ve walked two thousand miles across prairie and mountain and desert to get here. You haven’t, unless you built by hand the first home you ever lived in, or learned to hunt, not because it would be nice to have fresh meat on the table, but to survive.” The memories crowded in on me, forced themselves into sentences that tore into my father, scoring him with every word, and I tried to stop but the hurt had to be spoken, no matter the cost to my family or to me.
“You were born here, in this house, Joe. You’ve always had a roof over your head and enough food to eat. For the first nine years of my life, my home was a wagon. Sometimes we had enough food, but sometimes we’d pull into a town and there would be no dinner until Pa could find a job and beg an advance to buy some bread and milk and maybe a bit of cheese. When you were a kid and it rained, you could go out and play in it because you could always come inside to the fire and dry off. When I was a kid and it rained we huddled under the wagon because if we got wet there was no way to get warm again and if I got sick, that was just too bad. If we were lucky we’d be near a town and I could sleep in a boardinghouse room by myself all day while Pa worked to make money to buy medicine. If we were on the road I just put up with it.”
I stood slowly, painfully, and made my way to the foot of the table. I held tight to the back of a chair as the room swooped around me and scenes from my childhood tried to take over my mind. Joe was shocked at my words, but there was still a hint of defiance in his eyes that drove me on.
“You’ve worked hard to build this ranch, Joe, but you haven’t paid like I have, like Pa has.” Scenes from my childhood, my youth, mixed in a bewildering confusion in my mind.
I saw Hoss, then; Hoss, who understood what I was saying, who understood me like even Pa didn’t sometimes. I said to him what I couldn’t tell my father or youngest brother. “You were just born, Hoss; my new baby brother, and I held you in my arms while the Indians attacked us and I watched our mother – the mother I’d had for only one year, the first woman I’d ever really known, the first I’d loved – I watched her fall with an arrow in her back. I watched her die in Pa’s arms, I watched them bury her in the Nebraska hills. I watched Pa grieve and I tried to make things better by helping with you, feeding you, taking care of you.”
I remembered all those lonely years at college. “I never knew my own mother, except as a grave to visit when I was in college and needed someone to talk to.” I turned back to Joe, saw Pa briefly with his hand over his eyes. “I watched Marie fall from her horse and I watched her die. I stood with Pa while they buried my third mother, and then I worked this ranch by myself until he could bring himself to live again.”
I was suddenly worn beyond exhaustion. I shook my head. “You don’t get it, Joe, you never have. You make a game out of everything you do. Life is just one big playground to you. How can you look at it that way? It’s too precious . . .”
I stopped. Something was roaring in my ears and the world was disappearing down a black tunnel. My thoughts were all mixed up and I heard my words echoing, over and over: Life was too precious . . . too precious . . . And Joe never wasted a moment of it. He somehow found joy and satisfaction in everything he did.
My thoughts spun, and the world seemed to tilt. Did my little brother know something I didn’t? Was his way right? I was tired . . . so tired. “Joe?” I whispered and reached my hand out. I felt a strong grip and there was a sudden commotion but I couldn’t understand what was happening. Words . . . hands . . . something caught me around the shoulders, eased me down to rest, blessed rest.
“He’s burning up, Pa–”
“Get him over to the couch. Hoss, get some rags and water.”
Coolness on my face, soothing the burn of the sun. Soft voices, calling my name. My brother, my young, wise brother – where was he? “I’m sorry . . .”
“It’s all right, boy,” I heard Pa say, just like in the wagon.
I reached out, hit something. “Don’t mean to be sick, don’t wanna be trouble…”
“Hoss, get another bowl, he’s tipped this one over. Joe, go get Doc Martin.”
“No,” I cried out. “Joe!” I had to make him understand.
I felt his hand on mine before I heard his voice, soft in my ear. “Adam,” he said. “It’s all right. I’m not going anywhere. You’re gonna go to San Francisco and I’m gonna stay right here.” I could hear the tears in his voice; why couldn’t I see him?
“No, Joe,” I whispered. “You go to Reno, you go have fun. That’s the way to live . . . you’re right . . . I need to learn . . .” And I felt his hand tighten on mine just before the world disappeared . . .
. . . and it was the first thing I felt when I woke.
I wouldn’t have believed anything could hurt as much as what happened that night.
Hoss and I came in from the barn after putting up our horses and joined Pa at the dinner table. Adam was late – he’d been hunting strays for the last couple days and we’d hardly seen him. He finally came in after we’d all served ourselves and sat so gingerly in his chair that I could almost feel the hours he’d spent in the saddle.
I didn’t pay much attention to him since he didn’t have much to say, and I was bent on getting Pa to let me go to Reno for the weekend. Hoss wanted to go to Carson City, and I figured if Pa had to make a choice between letting one son take a break in San Francisco or having two sons go out locally, he’d choose Hoss and me. And wouldn’t that just spike ol’ Adam’s guns, I thought with a grin.
We just about had Pa convinced when Adam finally spoke up, and he was mad. Now you may think you’ve seen angry people before, but my brother Adam could punch more mad into a glare than a bull faced by a laundry line of red bandanas.
Pa was staying calm – the only way to deal with my oldest brother in this mood – but Adam wasn’t having any of it. He was right, I had to admit, he always got stuck doing the timber bids. I felt a swell of pride when he said I could learn to handle it as well as him, but I still wasn’t going to give up on my plan for a weekend of fun.
“Oh, come on, Adam, lighten up,” I said. “It’s the Reno Celebration Days. Sam and Mitch are going and they asked me along. We’re gonna check out the stock, listen around to see how the beef market is–”
He talked right over me, and, of course, he was right about what I really wanted to do. “Flirt with all the girls and lose your money on poker and horse races. Yeah, I know exactly how it’s going to be. I had plans, too, but I can see they don’t mean much around here.”
There he went again. I rolled my eyes. As long as I could remember, Adam got what he wanted. His plans were always more important than mine, even if they were for something stuffy and boring.
Hoss tried to calm things down, but Adam cut him off, too, and his sarcastic comment that he worked harder than any of us drove me right over the edge.
“Hey,” I shouted, “I work every bit as hard as you, and I always have. I’ve paid my dues, here, same as you!”
And then it really started. None of us knew what was coming. We sat there, stunned, as Adam laid into us. His face was flushed and his eyes glittered as he drilled us to our chairs with words I’d never heard from him before. Two thousand miles? He and Pa walked two thousand miles to get here? It didn’t seem possible. He had to be exaggerating.
He talked about his childhood home being a wagon – how could anyone live for nine years out of a wagon? And no food when they were hungry, no medicine when they were sick? I couldn’t take it in. Not my Pa; not my family. My family lives here, on the Ponderosa, in this big wonderful house. We always have . . .
He stood slowly, like an old man, and he must have seen the disbelief in my eyes because he drove on with bitterness. “. . . you haven’t paid like I have, like Pa has.”
He looked at Hoss then, and he softened somehow. But the story he now told wrenched at my heart. I could see it was about killing him to tell it, to remember the death of Hoss’ mother. He’d never spoken to me about it before – God, I didn’t know he’d seen it happen. I’d never seen my oldest brother like this and as he spoke of his pain over my own mother’s death, I began to realize something was horribly wrong. Why was he doing this? Why was he ripping us all apart? He’d kept it inside himself all these years, why now, why tonight? Why deliberately set out to hurt me like this? For I had no illusions he was aiming this at anyone but me.
He suddenly stopped talking, stopped ripping into us and himself and I heard his last words echo in my mind: “Life is too precious . . .”
He closed his eyes over his pain, I thought, until for some reason he held his hand out to me, almost pleading. Wait a minute, I thought he was mad at me. I started up out of my seat, but he didn’t seem to see me. I barely heard him call my name. I grabbed his hand, then his arm as he started to fall. My chair went over backwards and Hoss and Pa were yelling as I barely caught him in time to keep him from cracking his head on the floor.
The heat coming off his body stunned me, and I suddenly realized – my brother was sick. He was terribly, desperately sick.
I called to Pa and, limp as Adam was, in a tangle of arms and legs, we managed to get him to the settee.
Hoss ran to the kitchen for a bowl of cool water and some of Hop Sing’s rags while Pa tried to keep Adam quiet. He was raving, repeating over and over that he was sorry. He threw out an arm, almost catching Pa in the ribs, but knocked over the bowl of water instead.
His words tore into me.
“Don’t mean to be sick, don’t want to be trouble…”
His dogged determination to never give in to illness took on new meaning. I could almost see a little boy fighting not to make life any more difficult for his father than it already was. I could feel the sting of tears as I began to fully realize why Adam had always been so hardworking, so damn responsible. That was no life for a kid and it had marked him.
Pa yelled at me to go for the Doc, but Adam called for me so I slid to my knees on the floor beside him, wedged between the coffee table and the settee, my father’s legs warm and comforting against my side.
I grabbed Adam’s hand, held it in the grip of both of mine. I tried to make him hear me, tried to let him know I understood now. “Adam,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m not going anywhere. You’re gonna go to San Francisco, and I’m gonna stay right here.” I knew he was far too sick to go anywhere, but how could I say anything else? How could I keep him from one of the few things he truly enjoyed? I could stay home from one celebration, I could be more serious, I could work harder . . .
“No, Joe,” he whispered, eyes closed, chest heaving for air. “You go to Reno, you go have fun.”
I could barely stand it. And then he said something that rocked me to the core. He said I was right. As his voice faded into the fever, he said I was right and he wanted to learn from me. My throat closed, choked with tears. I held his hand tight as I knelt next to him, as he slid into unconsciousness.
“Adam!” I cried. “Adam!” but he didn’t respond.
I felt hands lifting me at the elbows and I resisted letting go of my brother until Pa’s words finally penetrated.
“Joseph!” he rumbled in my ear. “I need you to go for the doctor!”
“Yeah,” I mumbled and almost let Adam’s arm fall but I caught it at the last moment and carefully placed his hand onto his chest.
I pulled myself together and ran for the door. I grabbed my hat and paused only for a brief moment, long enough to see Hoss pick Adam up in his arms, Pa and Hop Sing hovering, temporarily useless. Then I ran outside, vaulted up onto Adam’s horse that I now knew he’d been too ill to put away, and headed for town.
Never could tell them two brothers of mine nothin’. There’s Joe, rippin’ up at Adam, when anyone but a darn fool could see our older brother was in one of his moods an’ was like to take the head off’n anybody what crossed him.
Not that I much blamed him. If there’s much of anything Adam hates more than chasin’ stray cows, it’s chasin’ stray cows when it’s cold and windy and wet out. And it’s been tryin’ to decide for goin’ on three days now when it was gonna stop rainin’ and start snowing. Joe shoulda had sense enough to wait ‘til Adam had some hot food and coffee in him afore takin’ on about Reno. Least I talked to Pa about seein’ that bull in Carson City before dinner, before Adam got home.
So they went at it again, an’ I didn’t pay much more mind to it than usual until Adam started talkin’ about his and Pa’s trip West. I knew a lot of it, o’ course, bein’ born on the prairie myself an’ raised up while it was still pretty wild around here, but I soon figgered out that this was all a new angle for Joe.
I knew Adam an’ Pa had lived out of a wagon, and though I hadn’t had to, I remembered good enough what it was like in the first cabin we had. Somehow Pa just about always had enough food on the table, but I remembered a couple o’ times when he’d go out huntin’ for days and not come home with anything, and we’d live off whatever rabbits and such Adam caught in his snares. I’d thought it was a game at the time, and was mighty pleased my big brother let me come along and even set a few myself. Same with fishing. I’d loved goin’ out to the stream with Adam, an’ I was so proud when Pa fried up the little trout I’d caught. I didn’t figger out ‘til years later that it wasn’t just pride in my new skill that made Pa and Adam eat ‘em up so quick.
Adam started in talkin’ about my Ma dyin’ and then I sure sat up and took notice. It was somethin’ that I knew was hard for him to speak of. He’d talked to me about her before, but there’d always been a time he wouldn’t go on past. I didn’t know why he’d been driven to it this time – leastaways, not then I didn’t – but I was glad he did. It was somethin’ that needed saying, somethin’ he needed to get out, like lancing a wound. Hurts like all get-out at the time, but you can’t heal without it.
So when he started talkin’ about Ma dyin’, I just tried to listen so’s he’d know I cared, and that I knew this was hard on him.
Pa was gettin’ upset, though, ‘specially when Adam said he used to visit his Ma’s grave when he was in Boston, and I began to wonder why Adam chose tonight of all nights to bring up all those old hurts. Oh, I knew he was mad ‘cause it looked like Joe and me were gonna get to make our trips, an’ he was gonna have to miss his; an’ I knew he was mad because he always gets mad when he gets cold and wet and hungry – but this was somethin’ more. It just wasn’t like Adam to hurt Pa deliberate like this. Yeah, he’d hurt him before – heck, you cain’t hardly love folks without hurtin’ them now and again – but he was tellin’ the family how much Pa had hurt him when he was just a little feller, and for Adam, that was hittin’ below the belt.
I know he was soundin’ off at Joe, an’ to tell the truth, I cain’t say Joe didn’t have it coming. That boy, though he’s got a heart of gold, he just don’t understand our older brother, but what’s worse, most times he don’t even seem to try. Everything Adam was sayin’ was true, an’ Joe was poleaxed – he’d never thought it through that way before.
Now that was our fault. Seems to me, lookin’ back on that night, that Joe shoulda been told all this long before. But you gotta understand how it was with us. Joe was the youngun of the family, an’ he came along when things weren’t so tough. Adam an’ Pa, well, they just naturally wanted to protect him from all the hardship they’d been through. I never thought nothing ‘bout it one way or the other. Adam and Pa protected Joe, so I did, too.
Well, it all came crashing down ‘round our ears that night, I can tell you. Poor Joe didn’t know what hit him. One minute he’s in the middle of one of his regular brangles with Adam, the next, Adam drops a load of family history on him just like them stamp mills down in Virginia City – hammerin’ and beatin’ down what it lands on.
I guess that’s about the time I got to wonderin’ what the heck was goin’ on. I was just thinkin’ I was gonna have to fill Joe in on a few things since no one else in the family seemed inclined, when Adam got this funny faraway look in his eyes – he was standin’ at the end of the table by then – he got this faraway look, and the next I know, he’s keeled right over. Joe caught him, which was a good thing because Pa an’ me got all tangled up in the chairs and in yellin’ to Joe to do what he was doin’ already anyway.
Then Joe said, “He’s burnin’ up,” and suddenly it all started makin’ sense. My older brother don’t get sick much, but when he does, it’s usually fast an’ it’s usually bad.
We got him on the couch – though it’s a wonder I was able to get Adam over to it, what with Joe and Pa gettin’ in my way – an’ Joe was right, Adam had such a fever goin’ that I was surprised he’d made it through supper. I went to the kitchen to get a bowl of cold water like Pa said, an’ Hop Sing just handed it over to me all ready with towels and such, like he knew this was gonna happen. He’s like that, though – like he’s one o’ them mind-reader fellers or somethin’.
I could hear Adam callin’ out for Pa, sayin’ he was sorry he was sick. It about broke my heart.
Anyway, I got the bowl to Pa, but, dadburnit, if Adam didn’t throw his arm out and flop it right over onto the floor. I guess we shoulda been thankful – he didn’t miss Pa by much. I’ve been hit by my older brother’s punch a time or two an’ I tell you, it rocks even me. So I went back into the kitchen for more water, an’ this time all I could hear from the front room was Adam calling for Joe. When I came back in, Joe was right between Pa and Adam in a little bitty space only that boy could fit into, an he was talkin’ low and quiet to him, but Adam just wouldn’t settle.
I could see tears gathering in my little brother’s eyes, an’ anyone who ever thought those two didn’t care ‘bout each other woulda had quite a lesson right then, just seein’ their faces. An’ for just about the first time I saw both of them think o’ things from the other one’s side. It was a strange and beautiful and terrible sight. Pa saw it the same time I did, an’ I saw him swipe at his eyes, and I have to say I was doin’ the same.
Joe looked older somehow all of a sudden. Not tired older, not worn out or worried older, but like he’d suddenly grown up a few years, all in just the last couple minutes. He’d finally began to put it all together, an’ I could see maybe the beginnings of him tryin’ to understand our older brother. He offered to give up his trip so Adam could go to San Francisco, though he had to of known Adam wasn’t goin’ anywhere, but I was bettin’ that Joe wouldn’t be goin’ anywhere either. The boy was short on sense sometimes, but he was long on loyalty an’ family feeling, and there was no way he’d take off to Reno with his brother so sick. Didn’t matter if there weren’t a thing he could do to help Adam, he just wouldn’t be able to go.
And then there was Adam. I’d seen somethin’ in his face, heard somethin’ in his voice right before he passed out, and I cogitated on it as I carried him upstairs to his bedroom. Joe’d run off to get the doc, an’ once I got Adam into his bed, Pa and Hop Sing practically shoved me out the door, so, knowin’ they’d yell if they needed me for anything, I went back into the kitchen to see about makin’ coffee. It was gonna be a long night, and I knew we’d need it.
As I put the grounds in the pot and poured water into it, Adam’s words kept goin’ through my mind. “No, Joe,” he’d whispered. “You go to Reno, you go have fun. That’s the way to live . . . you’re right . . . I need to learn . . .”
Maybe in teaching Joe, he’d taught himself something, too.
Once again I sat at my son’s bedside. Hop Sing and I had done everything we could, the doctor had come and gone, and now it all came down to waiting. Waiting to see if Adam was strong enough to fight whatever it was that had struck him down.
I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Adam had been sick. Oh, he’d had broken bones, bad cuts, gotten caught out in the cold – you could hardly live on a ranch and not have something of the sort happen. He’d been shot, too. Those had been bad times. But when it came to illness, my first born was the one who always took care of the rest of us when inevitably someone came down with the winter ague and then passed it to everyone . . .everyone but him.
Hale and hearty, he would gently mop fevered brows, haul water, chop wood, take care of the ranch business and generally wear himself to a frazzle by the time one of us got well enough again to help, but still, he’d never catch it. One good night’s sleep was all it would take to rest up from a siege of two weeks.
No, Adam’s rare illnesses came on him just like this one. A general irritability for a day or two, then in the space of just a few hours, he’d be deathly ill. Lord knows, I’d tried to discern any pattern to his beginning symptoms, but Adam would often get moody for no apparent reason and then would suddenly cheer up just as obscurely. I’d often thought that he fought being sick, forced himself to do the same work regardless of how he felt. It was an old habit, left over from his childhood.
I studied his flushed face, remembering his words downstairs. Don’t mean to be sick, don’t want to be trouble … That was Adam, all right. He’d learned young that illness meant extra work for everyone else with the possibility that something vitally important to the safety of the family might not get done, so he’d become the one who never shirked his duties for any reason. I’d known, as soon as he sat down at the dinner table, that he was sickening for something, but wouldn’t even mention it. Just the thought of him going off to San Francisco where he might get seriously ill … well, that was the weight that had tipped the balance in favor of Joe and Hoss.
He was shivering now, though his skin was burning hot.
“Pa?” I heard from the doorway. It was Joseph, hesitant, worried, with Hoss looming behind him, hands no doubt stuck in his pockets to keep from feeling they were completely useless. If it was hard for me to see Adam helpless like this, it was harder on the boys. He was a rock for them. In many ways he was their leader, the one who teased them and bullied them and helped make them strong enough to survive out here, who could teach them things they wouldn’t accept from me. It shook them badly when they were reminded he wasn’t invulnerable.
“Joe,” I said, realizing they needed to help somehow, “I could use some fresh, cool water. Would you get some from the well, please?”
His relieved, “Sure, Pa,” was barely out before he was gone down the hall.
“What can I do, Pa?” my middle boy asked, coming forward.
“Lift him up a bit so I can try to get some of this medicine into him.”
Adam is a big, solid, strong man, but Hoss slid an arm under his brother’s shoulders and raised him with no trouble at all, supporting his head against his shoulder as easily as if he was a child.
As I poured out the medicine into a small glass, Hoss said, “He didn’t mean to hurt you tonight, Pa.”
“I know.” I held the glass to my son’s mouth and tipped it so the liquid touched his lips. They opened just a little. “That’s it, Adam, drink it down.” I knew he had to be thirsty and would want to drink, if I could just get through to his fevered mind that I could help him. I poured a little into his mouth and he swallowed. “Once more,” I encouraged, and got the rest of it into him.
Hoss laid him gently back on the pillows and picked up on what he’d been saying. “It weren’t a good way to do it, but he’s had that burnin’ in him for too long.”
I pulled the covers up to Adam’s shoulders. “I won’t say it didn’t hurt, but you and I both know how that trip marked him. Joseph, though,” and I paused, remembering my youngest son’s almost open-mouthed astonishment at the table tonight. I rubbed at my forehead. “I didn’t realize that he didn’t understand.”
“We don’t hardly ever talk about that part of it, Pa. How would he?”
“Talk about what?” Joe asked from the doorway, pitcher held between both hands. Hoss got up and took it from him, then steered him into the chair on the other side of the bed.
“’Bout Adam, and what it was really like when he was growin’ up.”
“He’s told me stories,” Joe objected. “So’ve you, Pa. All about hunting buffalo, and seeing Indians, and meeting famous mountain men – Adam told me about carving your names on Register Rock and seeing the Sierras for the first time – he’s just full of stories.”
Was that what we’d filled his head with? Adventure stories? I sighed. Yes, that was exactly what we’d done. And in so doing, Joe had been missing a key to his brother, a key that might have helped him understand Adam a little better.
Joe looked at his brother. “Was he telling the truth tonight? Was that what it was really like?”
He wasn’t really asking if he’d been lied to, he just didn’t want to believe it was true. “Yes, Joseph, that is exactly what it was like. Mile after mile of lonely travel, never stopping anywhere long enough to make friends, all too often not enough money to buy food or—” I glanced down at my oldest boy, so thankful those days were past, and I could give him a fighting chance, “—medicine.”
“I didn’t know, Pa. I swear I just never thought of those things.” Joe’s eyes were bright with emotion.
I reached across Adam’s body for my youngest’s hand, and he gripped it, hard. “I’m sorry, son. It just seemed easier to leave the rough times in the past and only remember the good. Adam knows, in his heart, that he’s harsh with you. He does it to make you strong, so that you can survive.”
“But I’m fine,” Joe said, bewildered. “I can ride broncs better than about anyone around here, I can herd cattle, and I can camp out for a week, and hunt and shoot—”
I broke in on him gently. “And how many of those things has Adam taught you?”
“A lot,” he said a bit grudgingly, but as always with Joe, honestly. “But Hoss taught me a bunch, too.”
Hoss spoke for the first time. “An’ who’d you think taught me? Joe, we do fine in this settled land we got now, but Adam’s bound and determined that if we ever had to go through what he did, that we’d be all right. He just ain’t figgered out yet that times have changed out here for good. Sure it’s still rough, but we got civilization comin’ up all around us.” He gestured at the bed. “Not what he’d call real civilization, that’s all that fancy stuff back East. But him an’ Pa, they put a lot of work into makin’ it possible for us to go to town for a beer an’ not have to take a troop of men with us, just for safety.”
Joe sat back in his chair, the pain of these new thoughts saddening his eyes.
“It’s not all one-sided,” I said gently. “I think Adam realized something tonight, too.”
Joe just looked confused.
Hoss looked over at me and nodded – he knew what I was thinking. He turned to his little brother. “You’re always tellin’ Adam he’s gotta ease up, learn to have some fun, and he’s always tellin’ you to take things more serious. The truth is, you’re both givin’ good advice. I think he figgered that out tonight.”
Joe looked to me, still unsure. I smiled. “Joseph, when Adam gets well, don’t be surprised to find him watching you.”
He looked at me sharply. “Watching me? Just what I need, more criticism.”
I found myself chuckling, even as serious as Adam’s condition was. “Not criticism, son. Trying to learn.”
“Learn what?” He was still confused, but there was something hopeful in his expression.
“What you do better than anyone else in the family,” I answered. “Enjoy life.”
He looked at his oldest brother, then, and took his hand. I turned to Hoss and jerked my head at the door. As we eased out of the room, I heard Joe say, “We’re gonna learn together, okay, Adam? You and me, we’ll figure it out.”
And in that moment, I knew, somehow, that everything would be fine.
I returned to the Oldest Son’s room to find Little Joe seated by the bed, gripping Mr. Adam’s hand. Though his voice was quiet, his words were fierce. This young man was not going to let his brother die. When I set the tray on the small table by the door he looked up at me, startled, I think, to realize he was no longer alone.
I waved at him, small shooing motions. “You talk,” I encouraged. “Is good for Mr. Adam to hear you.”
He swallowed, hard. “You think he really hears?” he asked.
I nodded. “Wise Chinese doctor tell Hop Sing. Even when sick, man knows what happens. Talk about good things. Have good smells—” and I took the lid off the teapot and swirled the contents so that the aroma would travel to the air around the bed “—and good feelings.” I set the teapot down, lifted the Oldest Son’s head and turned the pillow so his cheek rested against the fresh, cool, clean linen.
Little Joe frowned and waved in his brother’s direction in frustration. “But he doesn’t wake up. Why does it matter?”
“Must make him want to come back. Remind him of what is here that is good.”
A grim smile twisted on his face. “I better leave, then. I’m just likely to rile him.”
“No! You stay. You talk. He need to hear you.” I struggled to express my thoughts, wishing I had been able to learn this language better, but unlike Chinese, where you could say exactly what you meant, their words all had so many meanings as to often be useless. I was determined to try, though. “Maybe he know what you say, maybe not, but he hear you. He know you stay. This mean much to him.”
I could see the hope in his eyes, the love in his heart. He needed his brother, as his brother needed him. They just didn’t understand it, didn’t see it. “You stay,” I told him. “You talk.”
He nodded and looked back at his brother. Mr. Adam was sick, and his family was once again shocked at how quickly it had happened. I snorted under my breath. I’d seen it coming for days. You only had to watch him, and it was obvious. I’d tried to tell Mr. Cartwright, but again, the language had defeated me. That and the look in the Oldest Son’s eyes when he saw what I was trying to do.
He hated being sick. When Little Joe didn’t feel well, he had no trouble letting you know. He and Mr. Hoss both wanted special meals, and they liked the extra attention. When Mr. Cartwright was sick, he would just go to bed until he was well. This one fought illness as he’d fought trespassers, Indians, and drought, with all the resources of his mind and body. Usually he succeeded. When he didn’t, it was like tonight.
His skin was hot and dry to touch. I pulled another quilt from the wardrobe and tucked it around him as the doctor had instructed. I had seen this work before – the doctor called it ‘burning the fever out of him.’ Little Joe kept talking to him, even as he raised his brother’s head so I could give him my special hot herb tea.
Mr. Adam was breathing faster now, and heat came from him in waves like the desert. Little Joe was afraid, but he kept talking, shifting his grip and squeezing his brother’s hand again and again. His voice grew hoarse as his brother’s breathing rasped in the quiet of the night, and soon Little Joe was breathing almost as quickly as his brother. I poured more tea, and we helped Mr. Adam drink it. I lit the incense I’d brought, placing it where it would blow gently across him. Little Joe didn’t even notice.
The room grew close, hot, and dark, even with the single lamp burning steadily and surely through the long night. Soon I would have to get Mr. Cartwright. Little Joe was too tired to keep working so hard, but I knew I would not be able to make him leave.
Then I realized I heard only one harsh breath. Little Joe was leaning with both elbows on the bed, his brother’s hand clasped between his own and pressed to his bowed head as he talked in short jerky sentences to his God. I took a cloth, dipped it in the bowl of cool water, and gently wiped the sweat from the Oldest Son’s forehead. I sighed in relief, not aware I’d made a sound until Joe jerked his head up to look at me. He must have read the answer in my face, for he turned immediately to his brother, and a slow, pleased grin turned him back into the happy, cheerful boy I knew.
“He’s gonna be all right, Hop Sing. He’s gonna be all right!”
For at that moment, the Oldest Son had opened his eyes.
“Am I wrong, Hop Sing?” he asked me later, after everyone had left the room so he could rest. “Is Joe’s way right?”
I sighed. The eldest son of Ben Cartwright was a very smart man, but he did not yet have the wisdom he needed. I tried to find the words to explain. His language just was not exact enough. “Is not right … is not wrong. Just is.”
His eyebrows drew together in thought. I knew this wasn’t the answer he’d hoped for – this one always wanted things to be precise, exact. Perhaps I could explain with examples. “When Hop Sing very young man, uncle bring family across wide ocean, to find new life. We sail for many weeks, in storm and in sun. One day we come to San Francisco. But no work there. So we walk to rivers, to find gold. No gold for Chinese. We find another way. We cook, we wash, we clean. Not good life. Miners not like Chinese. Then Hop Sing meet you and Mr. Cartwright in Sacramento. Hop Sing leave family to come here.”
I stopped to make sure he understood what I was saying.
“I remember,” he said, and smiled a little. “It didn’t take much convincing either, not once you saw how much Hoss liked your cooking.”
I smiled back at him. True, I’d been impressed by the boy’s appetite, but that wasn’t the only reason I’d wanted the job. I’d felt an instant kinship with this one, young though he’d been.
He’d grown thoughtful again. “You must miss your family, but do you miss the life? I mean, what you would have had if you’d stayed in China?”
I shrugged. “No matter. Hop Sing here, Hop Sing happy. This my life now.”
He sighed again. “I wish . . .”
It seemed even this smart man sometimes could not find the right words.
“I wish I could change, the way you did. Accept the differences, and just . . . be different.”
I shook my head. “No. That not right. You who you are. Little Joe who he is.” How to make this clear to him? I would try again. “Little Joe not be Little Joe if Mr. Adam not Mr. Adam.”
I’d confused him. Good. Confusion was the first step toward awareness. “When you little boy, you have father who love you very much.”
He nodded slowly.
“Father bring little boy on long trip to find new life. My uncle bring young man on long trip. You have father, and for little time, you have mother. Hop Sing have uncle, cousins, many friends from home in China. You have friends on trip, but many die. My trip not safe, but safer than you. When you arrive in new home, you and father fight to keep land. Many dangers for young boy. Dangers for Hop Sing, too, but Hop Sing was young man and Chinese are together. Father and little boy alone. Always watch for danger. Always work hard – to build house before snow, to plant garden and raise cattle to have food, to be safe. Hop Sing have much family to share work. Hop Sing and Mr. Adam different.”
“Yes, of course we are. Aside of the fact that you were raised in China, even our experiences here were different. I never really thought about it before, but I can see how it might have been easier if I’d had more family as I grew up.”
I nodded. The mists of confusion were clearing, though he didn’t yet realize it. “Little Joe have family. Little Joe have home and food. Little Joe have father, he have young Mr. Hoss to play with.”
I paused to make sure he was listening, understanding. “Little Joe have Mr. Adam to keep him safe. Little Joe never worry about food or house or clothes. Little Joe grow happy because Mr. Adam make sure he safe and happy.”
I could see he was tiring. He needed to heal his soul, though, before his body could really get well. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
“Come,” I said, and brought the pot of tea from the little stove in his room that had been keeping it hot. “Come, you drink tea and rest. Soon you feel better.” I poured into the small cup I’d brought upstairs; one of my own. I knew he would appreciate the beauty of the painted design, the elegant shape. When one was ill, it was important to have things of beauty to help heal the soul.
He pulled himself up on the pillows, and as I knew he would, when he took the cup, he held it carefully, reverently. The tea would help that much more.
He continued our conversation between slow sips. “So you’re saying that I’m responsible for Joe being the way he is.”
I nodded, and took the cup from him when he was finished, replacing it on the tray. “You, and Father, and Mr. Hoss. Little Joe have fun with work because he can.”
His brow was clearing, relaxing. “Which I couldn’t. We didn’t dare – we would have all died. But we did the best we could, first for Hoss, then for Joe.” He looked up at me then, and in his eyes was a new peace. “So it’s not that one way is right and the other wrong. Joe has his way, and I have mine; and we could both try to understand more, without condemning each other.”
I smiled. “Just is.”
He nodded and repeated, “Just is.”
He’d had enough talking. It was time for him to rest his body. “You sleep now,” I scolded him as I rose from the chair and started gathering my tray. “Too much thinking not good. Plenty time later.”
I don’t know what I said that was so funny, but he laughed and that was good. He rolled over onto his side and pulled the covers up over his shoulders. He heaved a great sigh and closed his eyes, and I knew from the smile on his face that he would have good dreams.
EPILOGUE ~~ ADAM
I won’t say that everything was fine from then on, but Joe and I had come to a sort of meeting of the minds. We still argued about anything and everything, but it was somehow lighter, not so burdened by guilt and anger and misunderstanding.
It took a long while to get my strength back – one reason I sincerely disliked being sick – but this time I spent my recovery watching Joe.
I watched him as he worked his way cheerfully through his day. I saw his fierce concentration when he was busting broncs, the pleasure he took in his oneness with the animals, reading them, knowing what they would do even before they did. I saw the joy he had in his strong young body, when he was doing things as mundane as chopping wood and tossing hay, or the more exciting saloon brawl. I watched him when, with deep satisfaction, he eased his tired, sore body down onto the settee at the end of a long day, and I watched as he and Hoss fought their interminable battles over the checkerboard, my little brother’s hoots of laughter making us all smile. I saw the love he had for the Ponderosa, and I finally realized that he knew how each job, no matter how hard or boring, was important to maintaining the ranch, helping it grow.
He caught me at it every now and again, knew I was studying him but, surprisingly, he didn’t get irritated or blow up at me. I could swear he even smiled. I didn’t know what to make of that.
But the next time we went to San Francisco, he went willingly with me to a Shakespearean comedy, and I went with him to the circus. We both had more fun than we expected.
We would never be alike, but I think, I hope, we had learned to value each other, and that we just … were.