Summary: Adam feels the weight of responsibility, but he’s not the only one.
Word Count: 5739
‘I shouldn’t have left him there. What was I thinking? I shouldn’t have left him there.’
Adam awoke to a blinding pain in his head and the feel of the cold, wet earth beneath him. The litany that ran through his mind seemed to pull him from the invitingly warm darkness, as if there was somewhere he needed to go, or something he must be doing. But as his eyes opened to the wet and soggy world around him, the litany was forgotten, leaving him with only a strong sense of needing to remember something.
Pushing himself up on one arm, Adam looked at his surroundings, surprised to see Sport grazing nearby. Thin shafts of light filtered through the tall pines towering over him, their branches protecting him from the worst of the storm’s fury. Still, the wind managed to push the cold rain into his face. Adam shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts, but instantly regretted the motion. The movement only increased the pain until the intense pounding seemed to be the only thing he could focus on.
Yet, somewhere deep inside was the inescapable feeling that he had somewhere to go, something important to do. Struggling to rise, each movement bringing a flood of new agony, Adam pulled himself erect. Then with slow even steps, he made his way to Sport’s side. The sorrel waited patiently, turning his head to issue a soft welcoming nicker.
“Hey there, old boy. What did we get ourselves into?”
Adam stroked the horse’s neck as he struggled to remember what might have happened. Assured that his animal was uninjured, he focused on himself, taking stock of his own injuries. It was obvious that he’d taken a blow to the head. The pain was excruciating, and upon further examination, the trail of blood disturbing. But otherwise, the only injuries he could discern were some painful ribs and a sore shoulder.
So what was he doing here? Where had he been going, or where was he coming from?
More importantly, had there been someone with him?
With a sense of foreboding, Adam wondered if his youngest brother might have been riding beside him. But a frantic visual search of his surroundings held no clue to that brother’s current whereabouts.
Immediately slumping forward, Adam leaned against his saddle, cradling his head in both hands. The lightning bolt of pain that shot through his skull was appropriate, considering the clap of thunder that echoed overhead. But even that deadening cacophony didn’t affect him like his shouting had.
When he was finally able to straighten up again, Adam looked around slowly. Was Joe here? Had he been here? Or was Joe even with him on this trip?
And what trip… where was he going? Or where had he been? His mind was a jumble of disjointed memories and mixed signals. Adam knew where he was. South of the ranch less than an hour’s ride, it was a fairly easy trail home. But what he was doing here, Adam had no idea. There were no cattle in this area, no herds to check on. Timber? Maybe he’d been out marking trees. Or perhaps he’d been riding home from somewhere.
Fumbling with the straps on his saddlebag, Adam was immediately aware that he must’ve been away from home. The clothes inside, plus the trail gear tied to the back of his saddle testified to that. But a quick inspection of the contents showed nothing else of importance. There was nothing to establish where he’d been or what he was doing. Then again, maybe he’d just left home. Maybe he was on his way to somewhere . . .
Too many questions filled his mind, and the added stress did nothing to help his already aching head. After shoving everything back into his saddlebag, Adam uncapped his canteen, taking several small drinks before replacing the stopper. Even with the slow methodical movements he forced himself to take, the world still seemed to tilt and twist around him.
Once again he found cool leather against his forehead. Several minutes passed before Adam was able to bring his breathing under control. More than anything, he wanted to slide to the ground and let the darkness enfold him. It was too much work to fight the pain, not to mention the increasing queasiness. Yet there was something that kept him upright. Something had been left undone. There was a job to be finished, one that fell to him alone. He just wished he knew what that job was.
Forcing his eyes open, Adam reached slowly for the dangling reins. Gathering them up, he reached for the pommel with this left hand, and the back of the saddle with his right. It was more by pure willpower than strength that Adam Cartwright managed to pull himself into the saddle, but nonetheless, he managed.
“Okay, fella, let’s get moving.”
With one last look around, Adam turned his horse towards home. He had no idea what had happened to land him in this predicament, so the only rational choice was to get back to his family. Maybe they could help him make sense of all this. Maybe something at home would spark his memory. Maybe then he could understand why he felt like Joe was waiting for him.
Patting Sport’s neck, Adam urged him forward, only to stop when Sport tossed his head then neighed loudly. There was an answering nicker that took Adam by surprise, and he had a hard time turning towards the sound fast enough. What he saw when he finally managed to focus almost sent him spiraling out of the saddle. Coming toward them, reins dragging in the dirt, was his brother’s horse.
Adam wasn’t sure if he dismounted or fell out of the saddle, but he found himself on his knees. Struggling onto his feet, Adam staggered forward, Cochise taking the final steps to meet him. Grasping the muddy reins, Adam didn’t even notice the water running down his pant legs. Instead, his eyes roamed over the bedraggled paint horse, clearly confused by this new development. Reaching out to scratch the horse’s forelock, Adam turned his gaze outward.
“Joe . . . Joe!”
Reins slipped to the ground as Adam dropped them to clasp his head. The pounding was excruciating, yet he merely lifted his head to try again. “Joe! Where are you?”
Waiting several seconds, Adam pulled his revolver and fired three consecutive shots into the air.
The only answer was the rumble of thunder as the storm continued to move away. The wind still blew in the trees high above him while rain pelted the earth below. But otherwise the world was silent. No shouts in reply. No answering gunfire. If Joe was close by, he either wouldn’t or couldn’t make himself known.
Everything was different now, yet the same. Adam didn’t know where to look. Or how. He was in no shape to go searching the rugged terrain. Sure, there was a good path, but if Joe had veered off it in any direction, it would mean climbing either up or down to find him. And Adam couldn’t remember anything. He didn’t even know for sure that Joe was out here. Yet he did. He knew. His brother was in trouble.
Slipping back to the muddy earth, Adam dropped his head to his chest as he fought to keep his feelings under control. Fear. That was it, strong and sharp. Fear for his brother. Fear for his father and other brother when he faced them. Fear for himself . . . for his own state of mind if he were to find that Joe was . . . .
“Joe! Damn it, answer me!”
The fear flared and burned. It trumped everything else. Adam tried to get up, slipped and fell to his knees. He crawled on all fours until he could reach the stirrup hanging from Joe’s saddle. “Whoa, boy. Steady now.”
Pulling himself up again, Adam gained his feet and calmed the fear. He had work to do. One step, then two. He had Cochise’s bridle in hand, then the reins. Sport was still close, as if waiting. Another step, then another. Adam kept moving until he had his own reins in hand. Finally, his foot in the stirrup, he managed to crawl back in the saddle for the second time since he’d come to.
Blackness narrowed his line of vision, and the world swirled around him, but Cartwright stubbornness won out again. Heels into his horse’s side, and they were moving down the trail. Too hard to sit upright in the saddle, Adam found himself slumped forward through most of the ride. He couldn’t think. Couldn’t focus on the ride. He just kept moving. Sport knew the way, and Cochise followed willingly, though Adam never let loose of the reins. He couldn’t bear to let go of the only connection he had to his kid brother.
An hour, two… he wasn’t sure, but he never stopped until Sport stood in front of the porch. Then…only then, did Adam let go. Wordlessly, soundlessly, he slid from the saddle and into the darkness.
“Pa! Pa, come quick! It’s Adam!”
Hoss’s voice filled the yard, but minutes later the yard was filled with men. Ben was bent over his oldest son, his hands gently cradling the injured head. “Let’s get him in the house.”
Picking his brother up as if he were a rag doll, Hoss headed for the door, vaguely aware that Hank was already sending one of the hands for the doctor. Several of the others were leading Sport and Cochise to the barn. But Joe, where was Joe? Ben was standing in the middle of the yard, his questions raining down almost as quickly as the real thing.
“Any sign of Joe? Did anyone see Adam ride in? Hank, check those horses again, see if you can get idea where they might’ve been…”
There may have been more, but Hoss was already inside the door and heading for the stairs. “Hop Sing!” He didn’t need to holler. The cook was already there, gathering bandages and medicine. HopSing’s quick-fire comments in Chinese followed Hoss up the stairs, assuring him that the little man would be up soon, bustling about with directions of his own. Looking down at his older brother, Hoss wanted to shake the man into answering questions, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t hurt his brother, especially not when he was already hurting. Even if it meant that he couldn’t get the answer he needed most. Where was Little Joe?
“I meant what I said, Ben. You mustn’t ask him anything.”
“But Paul, we have to. Adam’s the only one who knows where Little Joe is.”
Doc Martin grabbed his friend’s arm, effectively stopping him, for the moment at least. “Ben, listen to me, please. Adam is suffering from a severe head injury. It’s obvious from the way he answers our questions, the few times he’s been awake, that he has no clear memory of what happened. And you saw how upset he was the last time you mentioned Joe’s name.”
“Yes, I did. But…”
“But you need to find Joe. I know. And I understand that Adam is the only one who knows where to look. But if you push him too hard, too fast…”
Ben’s look of surprise brought a halt to Paul’s argument. The two men stood silently in the upper hall, both considering the implications, neither one knowing exactly how to deal with them. “How long?”
“I don’t know. He’s been in and out most of the day. When he is awake, he’s not very coherent. Still, he could wake up in an hour and remember everything.”
“Or he might never remember…” Ben added sadly.
“Or he might never remember,” Paul echoed. “I’ve seen it happen both ways. There’s no way of knowing for sure.”
The two parted quietly, the doctor back into Adam’s room while Ben moved toward the stairway. It had been hours since Hoss had left with every hired man they could round up. Now that it was almost dark, Ben half-expected his middle son to walk through the door if they hadn’t found something.
Something…that something was his son. His youngest. Ben descended the stairs slowly, his mind lost in a sea of confusion. What had happened to his boys out there? What could’ve happened to make Adam come home alone? Was Joe still alive? And where? Where was his boy?
Sinking onto the cold hearth, Ben dropped his head into his hands and let the worry roll over him. There was little else that he could do, except wait. And pray.
He awoke to a darkened room. A warm glow came from a lamp turned low, and there was a faint light from a fire burning in the fireplace. Still, Adam had a hard time discerning where he was. Turning carefully, he looked around the room, and then he knew. It was comforting to see his own things, the familiarity of his room. With a sigh, he closed his eyes, never catching sight of his father asleep in a chair beside his bed.
“Adam. Adam, wake up.”
His father’s voice was adamant. The way it was when Joe was supposed to be doing something but was skylarking instead. Ben’s tone was firm, yet filled with a father’s love. Still, it brooked no opposition. He was evidently out of patience and expected a response.
“I know you hear me, Adam. Now open your eyes, son.”
There was that warmth again, surrounded by insistence. And Adam complied. Slowly, very slowly, he pushed back against the comforting cocoon of sleep. Eyes opening carefully, he looked up to meet the worried gaze of his father. “Pa?”
“Paul. He’s awake.”
Ben reached down to grasp Adam’s hand in his own, that one act conveying all the concern that he’d been feeling. Adam blinked with the intensity of his father’s silence. “Pa?”
“You’re going to be fine, son,” Ben finally managed. “The doctor’s been here all night.”
Adam tried to focus, though his thoughts held nothing but confusion; his father’s words only making matters worse. It wasn’t night when he’d arrived. Or was it? And where had he been? What happened? He worked hard to latch onto the memory that seemed just out of reach. There was something he needed to tell his family. Or was it something he needed to ask them? He stared at his father, willing his thoughts to make sense. Instead, the only question he could to ask was the obvious.
“No. It’s almost morning, now. You’ve been asleep since yesterday afternoon. But you’re looking much better now.”
Although Ben’s voice was filled with relief, there was something else. Adam wondered what his father was thinking, but putting thoughts into words seemed too difficult to attempt. The world was still tilted slightly, as if he were leaning sidewise out of a chair.
“Here. Let’s try a little water.”
Ben slipped an arm behind Adam’s shoulders, lifting slowly until he was sitting up enough to take a sip from the glass. “Enough?”
Adam tried to control the sudden queasy feeling in his stomach, relieved when it seemed to settle as he lay back against the pillows. He looked up at his father, waiting for some indication of what was going on, but was surprised to find his pa looking at him with the same questioning gaze. Before either had a chance to question the other, footsteps sounded in the hall then entered the room.
“Horses are saddled and ready, Pa.” Hoss looked startled, but he quickly covered his surprise. “Welcome back, Adam. You feelin’ better now?”
Adam watched as Hoss seemed to fiddle with the canteen in his hands. “You going somewhere?”
“What? Uh….” Hoss looked down at the container then tried to slip it casually behind his back. “Nah. I mean…”
Adam’s unexpected question hung in the air. Hoss looked almost shocked, while Ben was more flustered than his oldest son could ever remember.
“He isn’t here, is he?”
“No . . . Adam, he isn’t.”
“Where is he?”
Again there was a pause, as if the two men were unsure of how to answer. Their silence was enough to send chills up and down Adam’s spine. He didn’t know why, and he wasn’t sure how, but he suddenly knew his youngest brother was in trouble. And it had something to do with him.
The fact that Doc Martin chose that moment to interrupt was not lost on Adam. Ben looked relieved, while Hoss simply looked impatient.
“Let’s get a better look at you, Adam. How are you feeling?”
Adam’s admission was more than a mere response to a doctor’s inquiry. But the doctor either didn’t notice, or wasn’t willing to follow up on the comment. Instead, he bent down to clasp Adam’s wrist between his fingers, carefully counting the steady beat. “Good. Now, let’s take a look at that head of yours.”
The next few minutes were spent enduring the doctor’s basic exam. Ben and Hoss remained quiet… waiting.
“All right, son, you’re looking much better. Now, why don’t you tell me what you remember…?”
And Adam suddenly understood why everything seemed uncomfortable with his family. They knew that he couldn’t remember. He didn’t know how they knew, but they were all pussyfooting around him afraid to ask questions he might not have the answers to. What answers were they looking for?
Instinctively, he knew it was about Joe. The kid’s name was constantly on his mind, but he didn’t understand why. Maybe if he talked to him, then maybe all this would make sense. The waking up in his bed without knowing how he got there. The strange feeling that he’d been in the middle of something. Something important.
But they said he wasn’t here. Then where was he?
Adam looked up, surprised to see that they were all looking at him. Waiting. But he had nothing to tell them. “I was…I was on the trail. There was a storm. I remember riding. There were boulders. Cochise… I think Cochise was there.”
Three sets of eyes stared at him, hanging on every word. But he had no more. Adam felt like he was relaying the worst possible news, but he didn’t understand what the news was. “That’s all. I can’t remember anything else…”
“That’s all right, son.”
It was with a sense of disappointment that Adam realized it was Paul Martin’s voice reassuring him, not his father’s. Ben was simply staring at him. Waiting. Unlike Hoss, who had moved away from the bed to stand by the window, to stare out at the first rays of dawn.
“Joe was with me, wasn’t he?” Adam almost whispered the question, dreading the answer, but instinctively knowing without words. He didn’t receive a response, either.
Instead, Hoss turned away from the window and bustled towards the door. “We’re leaving in about ten minutes, Pa. Are you riding with us?”
Ben hesitated, looking first at Hoss, then Adam and finally at Paul. His indecision was plain to see. What Adam couldn’t understand was why. With a small grunt of effort, he pushed himself up against the headboard, relieved to feel the support of the solid wood behind him. He wanted to say something. Offer a suggestion or reassurance, but no one had told him anything. All the holes in his memory were just that, and no one was offering to fill them in.
Before Adam had a chance to ask again, Hoss moved closer to their father. “Pa, I know you feel a responsibility to Adam. But you have one to Joe, too.”
“I know that!” Ben shot back in exasperation. “You don’t have to tell me about my responsibilities.”
“I’m sorry.” Hoss mumbled apologetically. “I just meant…”
Hoss’s voice faded off, as he seemed to catch sight of his brother. “Adam?”
The rustling of bodies moving closer didn’t rouse Adam from his daze. And it took several calls from his father before he finally turned to face them. When he did, Adams continued to stare, almost through them.
Ben and Paul exchanged worried glances, afraid that the doctor’s concerns were justified.
“Adam? Son? What is it?”
When he finally spoke, Adam’s voice was filled with a combination of relief and fear. “Pa, I know where he is.”
Once more his eyes opened to a world that seemed distant and out of focus. Every muscle ached, every nerve screamed for release. But all of that paled in comparison to his mental anguish. He was still alone. Still trapped in this hellish web of worry and frustration. Would he ever escape? Would anyone ever find him? Was Adam even alive?
Joe turned his head to one side; reluctant to move anything else for fear that even the slightest motion might awaken the pain. From this angle he couldn’t see anything more than he’d been seeing for the past day. There were tall pines towering over him, boulders rising up behind him, and hard earth below.
He didn’t mean to moan. Didn’t want to release the plaintive cry. But his body was betraying him now, and he had no more strength to fight it. “Please, Adam. Come back . . . please.”
This time tears filled his eyes. Joe wasn’t sure if they were for Adam or himself. Maybe both. Maybe it didn’t really matter.
A hawk screamed high above him, and the sound brought Joe’s thoughts back in focus. He needed water. Where was that canteen, anyway? There wasn’t much left, maybe a sip or two, but it was something. He knew it wasn’t enough. He’d been making that one canteen last, but neither he or Adam had expected it would take so long to find help.
“Adam…where are you?”
Joe hadn’t wanted his brother to leave him, had even begged Adam to help him to his feet so he could scramble up the hill to Cochise. They’d both known that was impossible. His injuries were too severe.
The storm that had come up so suddenly had startled both horses, yet they would’ve been fine had it not been for the slide. Rocks and dirt cascading off the slope above them had sent both men off their horses, but Joe was the one who took a twenty-foot plunge over an embankment. Adam had ended up alongside an old snag next to the trail, unconscious for more than an hour.
Although Joe had tried repeatedly to get to his older brother, his own injuries wouldn’t allow it. That was something the younger man was still feeling guilty over. He’d known that Adam was hurt bad. The fact that there was no answer to his many calls was testament enough. But when Adam finally managed to get down the hill, it was obvious just how bad his injury was. Blood seemed to be everywhere; his head, coat, and hands. More frightening was the glazed look in Adam’s eyes, as if he weren’t quite sure where he was or what was happening. Even though he answered questions clearly enough, managing a little of that Cartwright stubbornness, Joe felt that something wasn’t right.
It didn’t take long for Adam to reach the same conclusion Joe had. They needed help. More help than he could give. They both agreed that there was no sense waiting for someone to come looking for them. Neither Pa nor Hoss knew exactly where they were. Out branding trees for over a week, the two brothers had gone farther than expected, and were now taking a shortcut home. It could be weeks before anyone would come along this route. And the weather wasn’t helping. Lightning, wind, and rain leant nothing positive to the situation, so after assuring Joe that he’d be back, Adam had crawled back up to the horses, and headed for home.
That had been yesterday morning.
Since then, Joe had done his best to keep his spirits up, and his outlook positive. He’d talked to himself, sung a little, and even mumbled a few prayers. But his own injuries, and loss of blood, had swiftly taken away his strength. The storm had passed late that first afternoon, but on the slope beneath the trees, Joe was never truly dried or warmed by the sun’s rays. Even the blanket from his bedroll had been wet, and with the cold autumn night to boot, Joe wondered now if he’d ever be warm again.
“Adam? Please, Adam. Hurry.”
His pleading was lost on the wind. There was no one there to hear him, or to answer. Slowly, carefully, Joe rolled back to his first position. His leg screamed with the pain of his movement, his shoulder joining in the fray as he leaned back against the rocky earth. He did his best to slow his breathing, trying to ride out the wave of pain.
When he finally felt like the worst was over, Joe opened his eyes to stare at the clouds marching across the blue sky. They were the kind you’d see on any typical autumn day. White with an edging of gray, they weren’t threatening, just a series of patterns to watch as they scurried in front of the sun. Their presence was calming, and Joe relaxed a little while lazily watching their movements. It didn’t take long before his thoughts returned to his brother.
“Responsibility. I told you I wasn’t your responsibility, Adam. Why’d you have to go acting all big-brother on me? We could’ve managed together. I know we could. It was that damn Yankee granite-head thinking again.”
Joe paused, staring up at the hawk that was now circling high above. He was strangely relieved that it was merely a hawk, and not one of those vultures he’d dreamed about. “Sure wish Pa wouldn’t have taught you quite so well. You’re going to have to accept that I’m not a kid anymore. I can be responsible for myself.”
Closing his eyes, Joe thought about what he said, then tried to bite back the laugh before it started. “Yeah, just look at me now. Real responsible. Can’t even get myself up a little hill.”
The laughter died on his lips, even as Joe clenched his fists against the pain. “Please Adam. You’re not responsible for me. But please…please come back. I need you. Please…”
Ben rode behind his oldest, watching closely for any sign that Adam might be about to topple from the saddle. He wasn’t happy about this. Not one bit. But given the circumstances, he’d reluctantly agreed that they really had no other choice.
Adam had started to remember bits and pieces of being with Joe. He talked about the storm, and mentioned something about falling. But that’s where his memory seemed to end. Except for the picture he said was imbedded in his memory, the image of his brother lying motionless upon the ground. Hurt, bleeding, but alive.
What Adam couldn’t give them was a location. He continued to insist that he’d know the place when he saw it. So with more than a little trepidation, Ben had finally agreed that Adam would have to come along.
Paul Martin was not happy about the turn of events. He still insisted that this could be dangerous for Adam, and watching his son now, Ben acknowledged a sharp stab of fear regarding that very possibility. But in the end, Adam had won out. Actually, there wasn’t really much of an argument. Adam had finally, and simply, stated that he was going. If they wanted to come along, then they’d better get mounted up. It was false bravado, they all knew that, but you had to admire the man’s tenacity.
Before they left, Paul had asked for a mount for himself. With the concern over Adam, and the uncertainty about Joe, he figured that his services were surely going to be needed. Ben hadn’t been able to find the words to thank his good friend, but Paul understood. His hand on Ben’s shoulder as they prepared to leave the house had established that.
So now, here they were, hours later. They’d ridden familiar routes, slowly winding up a mountain path. Occasionally, they’d stop as Adam either remembered, or tried to remember. When they’d left the main road, Ben had sent two men back for a wagon, with the instructions that they would bring it back to the end of the trail and wait there. Adam had seemed so sure that Joe had a broken leg, and something wrong with his shoulder. Ben couldn’t bear to imagine anything worse.
“Pa. Over here.” Ben pulled up, grateful that Hoss was already dismounting in order to help Adam from the saddle.
With an unsteady gait that confirmed his weakness, Adam moved towards a large pine. “Here. I remember being here.”
Adam stared up the trail, his brows pulled together as if he were straining to remember. Hoss was looking around the area, but shook his head when Ben met his gaze.
“I’m sure of it, Pa. But I don’t remember which direction we were coming from. We might’ve been up the north slope, but I’m not sure,” Adam stated.
“The trail cuts off in a few miles,” Hoss added. “We can split up there and check both trails.”
“All right. Let’s keep moving, men, but keep your eyes open,” Ben hollered to the group.
Remounting, Adam rode out next to Hoss, slow and careful as the men moved southeast. The weather was cooperating, for the moment. Though there were clouds floating through the blue sky, and the temperature was on the cool side, there was no rain. The trail was still somewhat muddy, but drying in the late morning sunshine. For all this, Ben was grateful. Now, if they could just find his youngest.
Another half hour passed, and their gait remained slow but steady. So it was with some surprise that they heard Adam holler out. He didn’t wait for Hoss to help him this time, sliding out of the saddle and slipping when his feet hit the muddy ground. He made his way to the edge of the trail and disappeared over the side before Ben had even dismounted.
“He’s here, Pa. Down here!”
Hoss didn’t waste any time getting down the slope, almost beating Adam to Joe’s side. Their younger brother was awake, but just barely. His skin was cold to the touch, the blanket covering him still wet.
“Pa! We need blankets!” Hoss called.
Ben was halfway down the hill himself, but he hollered up to the hands behind him, quickly getting the requested items on their way. He was kneeling next to his son when Hank appeared with several blankets and a canteen of water. “Joe.”
Green eyes opened, revealing relief mixed with pain. “Pa.”
“Hold on, boy. We’re going to get you out of here.”
Hoss watched as Adam grabbed hold of his brother’s hand.
“Right here, Joe.”
“You came back.”
“Told you I would.”
It didn’t take long for the men to rig up a contrivance to get the young man up the slope. It would take some doing to get him down the trail to the wagon, but Hoss knew that the worst was behind them. Maybe not for Joe, of course. It was going to hurt like the devil getting that leg set. But they’d found him in time. Adam was looking better, relieved. He’d remembered enough to find his kid brother, so who cared if nothing more returned. The most important pieces had.
“Okay, we’re ready, Hoss!”
That was his signal, and the big man was ready. “All right, Joe. We’re going to take this slow and easy, but you let me do most of the work.”
Joe nodded slightly, looking first at Pa and Adam, then back to Hoss. “I’m ready.”
“Okay. Let’s get you home.”
The sun was setting when Joe finally woke up in his own room. It was comforting to see the last rays of sunshine through the thick pane of glass. He snuggled deeper into his covers, grateful for their warmth.
Joe turned to find his brother watching him closely. “Adam. Are you okay?”
“Better than you, I think.”
“Nah. I’m fine. Feels good to be warm again.”
Adam’s soft laugh was soothing. There was a low scraping sound as he moved a chair closer to the bed, then sat down. The two shared several quiet moments, before either spoke again.
“You were wrong, you know,” declared Joe.
The look of surprise on Adam’s face would normally make Joe laugh, but this particular conversation was too important, one he’d been waiting several days for. “Yeah, wrong. You’re not responsible for me, Adam. Not anymore.”
Adam shifted uncomfortably in his seat, unconscious of the fact that he was absently rubbing his bandaged head. “Joe, I…”
“No, let me finish, Adam. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you went through for me. I do. It’s just…well, I just don’t want you to think you have to be responsible for me anymore.”
Staring intently at his brother, Adam finally cleared his voice, as if getting control of his own emotions. “You’ve got it wrong, Joe. It’s not that I feel responsible for you in particular.”
“But you said…”
“I said it was my responsibility. And it was. Just like it would’ve been your responsibility if the situation had been reversed.”
Joe stared at Adam, not fully comprehending what his oldest brother was trying to explain.
Adam sighed, then leaned forward as if that would help Joe understand. “We have a responsibility to each other, as family. Maybe sometimes I feel that more acutely, since I’m the oldest. But I know you feel it too. This time it was my responsibility to get help to you.”
“And next time, it might be mine.”
Adam chuckled softly, while reaching out to pat Joe’s uninjured leg. “Let’s just hope it’s not anytime soon, okay? I think Pa’s due for a little peace and quiet.”
Joe smiled, content in his warm cocoon, eyes already drifting shut. “’k…guess you’re right.”
Pushing himself out of the chair, Adam headed for the door, stopping short when he heard the soft voice behind him.
“Thanks for being so responsible, big brother.”