A Mouthful Of Regret (by Patina)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6000


 

 

The Cartwrights were searching out strays for their annual roundup. All four Cartwrights, along with Hop Sing and six of the hands, were beating the bushes and scrub for steers. Ben had assigned everyone a partner and a location to look for Ponderosa beef. At twelve years old, Joe felt that he was old enough to work on his own rather than under the supervision of his oldest brother. When Joe protested, Ben told him to get the job done and to listen to Adam.

Adam and Joe were riding cutting horses instead of their regular mounts. Splotch, a piebald, was Adam’s horse while Socks was Joe’s. The two Cartwrights were following a beaten cowpath in the hopes of finding some of their cattle. All they had found so far were a few carcasses. The day was hot and Joe’s patience was wearing thin. Adam found himself snapping at his youngest brother several times.

After Joe got his horse tangled up in some scrub, Adam said “Why don’t you watch what you’re doing instead of daydreaming?”

“I’m not daydreaming! I can’t help it if this stuff is in the way!”

“Just pay closer attention to what you’re doing. The sooner we find our steers, the sooner we can get back to camp.”

“Bossy Boots,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“What was that?” asked Adam with a glare directed at his youngest brother. He had hooked his right leg over the saddle to look at Joe.

“Nothin’,” came the sullen reply.

“I’m not overly happy about being out here either, but Pa gave us a job to do. Let’s just get it done.” Adam then turned in his saddle to face forward, put his foot back in the stirrup, and continued the search for strays. Joe stuck his tongue out at Adam’s back.

The two continued to search and finally came across a lone steer. “We’ve wasted all of this time for one lousy steer?” asked Joe.

“Every steer counts during roundup, Joe. You should know that.”

Joe muttered under his breath rather than stay quiet. “If you’ve got something to say, just say it,” said Adam.

“I didn’t say anything,” Joe shot back defensively.

“I didn’t make the work assignments. Maybe Pa will let you work with someone else next time,” said Adam, hoping to calm Joe down.

Joe blurted out, “If you knew what you were doing, Pa wouldn’t make me work with you to make sure you do everything right.”

“What?”

“You think Pa trusts you? You were gone a long time. I guess you thought you could just come back and boss everyone around. Well, I learned a lot about horses and cattle and ranching while you were gone. I probably know more than you do. But you just can’t think of me as a grownup and knowing how to do anything.”

Adam had a look of complete surprise on his face. He didn’t know that Joe felt this way. He’d left when the boy was six and come back when he was ten. Last year during roundup, Adam had worked with Jake, one of the hands, and Joe had worked with Hoss.

“I don’t boss you around,” said Adam, “and I certainly don’t treat you as if you don’t know anything.”

“You do all of the time,” Joe shot back with a glare. Then he added “Sometimes I wish you’d just stayed back East.”

Inside, Adam felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. How could his own brother wish such a thing? In a low voice, Adam responded, “You know what, buddy? There are times I wish the same thing.” Joe was surprised to hear that. Adam then nudged Splotch and headed for a thicket to look for cattle.

Joe was left sitting on Socks, watching his brother ride away. He hadn’t expected to hear Adam say that. Instead, Joe had thought Adam would give him a lecture about responsibility and respect.

Before Joe could gather his thoughts, he heard the frightened bellow of a steer. As he turned in the direction of the bellow, he saw the steer running straight for Splotch and Adam. Splotch, picking up on the steer’s fright, began to panic. As Joe watched in terrified fascination, the steer managed to miss the horse and its rider and kept running at top speed.

Adam was struggling to control Splotch when he felt a heavy weight slam into the horse. Joe tried to yell but his throat and mouth had gone completely dry. A large grizzly bear had been chasing the terrified steer and saw a different prey in the horse. The sheer force of the bear toppled Splotch and the horse fell on Adam. Both horse and rider screamed in pain — Splotch from the bear’s claws and Adam from the impact of the horse.

Joe could hear Adam yelling something, but his brain couldn’t sort out all that was happening. The collision had happened in a split-second. Now, a bloodied Splotch was struggling to get up. When the horse regained his feet, Joe saw that Adam’s right foot was stuck in the stirrup. Splotch reared and struck at the bear with his forelegs. The bear swiped a paw at the horse and Splotch squealed in pain as he was raked by sharp claws. Survival instinct kicked in and the horse tried to make a run for it. The angry bear lashed out at the horse’s rump and sharp claws again made contact with horseflesh. Adam was screaming at Joe to shoot, but Joe was still frozen.

Splotch sprang forward and Adam felt himself being dragged. The bear noticed a new prey in Adam and lunged for the man. Joe watched in horror as the bear sprang forward and landed on Adam’s abdomen. As a result, Splotch was pulled into a rear since Adam’s boot was still in the stirrup. The terrified horse tried to leap and there was a split-second where it seemed as if Adam’s leg might come off. The stirrup finally tore free of the saddle and Splotch was able to take off.

The bear swiped a paw and sharp claws raked Adam’s left hip and thigh, tearing his chaps and jeans. Joe finally recovered his wits and pulled his rifle from the scabbard. Adam was desperately trying to curl himself into a ball. He felt sharp claws rake his back and powerful jaws clamp down on his arm. “Shoot!!!!” he screamed. He was assuming that Joe had his rifle in hand.

Feeling himself being pulled up by the bear, Adam was frantically trying to protect his head. Teeth clamped down on his shoulder, snapping the collar bone. Adam heard what sounded like gunfire and hoped that Joe was shooting at the bear. An intense pain radiated through Adam’s back as he lost consciousness.

Joe had fired four shots and the bear hadn’t dropped yet. Adam was lying unprotected on the ground, his clothing shredded and bloody. With the fifth shot, the bear was finally killed and it fell across Adam.

Shaking now, Joe nudged Socks forward. He was afraid of what he would find when he reached Adam. Was his oldest brother still alive? Joe now regretted saying he wished Adam had stayed back East. He didn’t want Adam to go away again.

Hoof beats came thundering from several directions. The hands, Ben, and Hoss were riding towards Joe. Hoss veered away and disappeared from sight. Ben and the hands made it to Adam and dismounted. Joe was still sitting on Socks, in complete shock at what had happened.

“Help me with this bear!” yelled Ben. Hank and Luke pulled at the grizzly to get it off of The Boss’ son. Everyone gasped in shock when Adam was uncovered. Ben shot a stunned look at Joe and barked “Didn’t you try to help your brother?”

Joe wasn’t used to bearing the brunt of his father’s anger. Pa got mad at him but never yelled with such accusation or glared daggers. The boy felt a tightness around his heart.

Ben fell to his knees and gently felt at Adam’s neck for a pulse. A hush came over everyone and even Nature had gone quiet. With a look of relief, Ben said, “He’s alive.”

“Come help me, Luke,” requested Ben. The two men slowly lifted Adam into a reclined position so Ben could check his son over. Ben was stunned by the gashes caused by the bear’s claws on Adam’s legs, back, abdomen, and arms. There were also some scratches to his face. “Bring me a canteen,” ordered Ben. Three of the hands returned to their horses, got their canteens, and brought them to The Boss.

As Ben began dabbing at some of Adam’s wounds, Luke said, “Hey, Boss, there’s a bullet in Adam’s back.”

“What?!?” Ben thundered in disbelief. Joe flinched and turned the color of old campfire ash. It wasn’t possible! He couldn’t have shot Adam!

Hoss came riding up and was shocked to see the bloody mess that was his older brother. He gulped to keep the bile down. “I found Splotch a ways back, Pa. He’s dead. Is…is Adam…?”

Ben looked over his shoulder at Hoss and said, “No, he isn’t. We need to get him home.”

Hop Sing, driving the chuck wagon, came rumbling up. “Why don’t we put him in the wagon, Boss?” asked Hank.

Ben tore his eyes away from Adam for a few seconds to look at the wagon. “Unload the wagon to make room for Adam.”

“What’s gonna happen to all of the food?” asked Hoss.

“If you’re so concerned about the food, you can just stay here and guard it” Ben barked at Hoss. “I’m going to get your brother home. Which one of you is going to ride for the doctor?”

Without a word, Robbie strode over to his horse, mounted up, and headed for Virginia City.

Joe was still sitting on Socks, rifle in hand, trembling from witnessing the attack and from hearing the accusatory tone of his father’s voice. Hoss, several of the hands, and Hop Sing were unloading the wagon. Pa and Luke were trying to stop the bleeding on Adam’s thigh.

“Why are you sitting there, Joseph? Get over here and help us.”

Joe was startled by the way his father had said that as an order.

Joe dismounted and approached Adam on shaking legs. Seeing his brother’s wounds up close made Joe sick. He quickly took several steps away and emptied his stomach. Instead of providing words of comfort, Ben tossed a canteen at Joe and told him to clean himself up and then come over to help clean up Adam.

Not wanting to seem like he was dawdling, Joe hurriedly cleaned out his mouth and then approached Adam. Dropping to his knees, Joe removed his bandana, dampened it, and began to clean up his brother. The cuts on Adam’s face weren’t too bad, but his back was a mess. Some of the clawmarks were deep and the bullet wound was an ugly hole. Joe couldn’t stand to look at the damage he’d caused.

Once the wagon was unloaded, Hop Sing approached with a pouch full of buzzard down. He had learned from the Paiutes that a buzzard’s down, when packed into a wound, will help stanch bleeding. Joe helped Hop Sing to put the downy feathers into the gashes on Adam’s back and thigh.

Once the bleeding was under control, Ben looked at the wagon. “Is it ready?”

“Yes, Sir,” said Hoss. “We gotta put somethin’ down to keep Adam comfortable.”

“Everyone get your bedrolls. Lay them out on the bottom of the wagon. Get your blankets, too. We can cover him with those.”

Joe was still kneeling by Adam when Ben said, “I said to get your bedroll.” Startled, Joe looked into his father’s dark eyes. All he saw was anger. When he got up, Ben told him, “Get my bedroll, too.” Joe looked back and saw his father holding Adam’s hand and gently stroking his cheek.

As Joe fumbled with the ties holding his bedroll, he was thankful that Pa wasn’t yelling at him. The boy sniffled as he got the bedroll loose. He hadn’t meant to shoot Adam. In fact, he didn’t know how he could have missed the bear and hit his brother.

Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Joe quickly spun around and found himself facing Hoss. “Thank the Lord ya killed that bear, Lil Joe.”

“B…b…but I hit Adam.”

“You stopped that bear from killin’ him.”

“What if I’ve killed him?”

“Don’t just stand there,” yelled Ben, “get those bedrolls over to the wagon. And bring me your blanket, Joseph. Get some sturdy sticks, Hoss. Adam’s leg needs a splint.”

Joe had jumped at the sound of his father’s voice. Hoss gave his little brother’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze before going to look for those sticks.

When Joe reached the wagon, he saw Ira laying the bedrolls out. He handed his and Pa’s bedrolls up to Ira, who took them without much of a glance for the boy.

Hoss returned with two stout, straight sticks. He handed these to his father along with bloody strips of Adam’s shirt. Before splinting his leg, Hoss worked gently to remove Adam’s boot from his leg so the stirrup could be discarded.

Once Adam’s leg was splinted, Ben worked to immobilize his left arm. The collarbone was protruding from Adam’s shoulder. Ben didn’t want the arm to get jostled and damaged further. “Let’s get him into the wagon. Hoss, help Luke and me to get this blanket under him.”

Hoss and Luke gently rolled Adam towards them as Ben placed the blanket flat on the ground. Then they gently rolled him back to lie on the blanket. “We’ll lift him on the count of three. One…two…three.” In unison, Hoss and Luke lifted Adam and slowly carried him over to the wagon. Reaching the wagon, Ben called out for Rezin to come help with lifting Adam into the wagon. Ben climbed into the back with Ira and told Rezin to support Adam’s middle. “We’ll lay Adam on his back, Ira.” As Hoss, Rezin, and Luke lifted Adam, Ben and Ira gently guided him into the back of the wagon. The two men gently laid him on the bedrolls and then Ben covered him with the blankets.

After Adam had been made comfortable, Ben and Ira jumped out of the wagon. “Roundup is going to have to wait, men. I’ll pay you for the work that would’ve been done.”

“We’ll bring in those steers that we’ve already found, Boss,” said Rezin.

The other hands echoed what Rezin had said. Ben was touched by his men’s loyalty. “Thank you, men. Ira, I’d like for you to ride back with us.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

“Hop Sing, I want you to ride Joe’s horse back to the house. Get everything ready for our arrival.”

“Yes, Mr. Cartlight,” answered the cook.

As the men mounted up Ben said, “I’ll drive the wagon. Hoss and Ira, you ride alongside. Joseph, you ride in the back with Adam and make sure he stays steady back there.”

Everyone did as told. Joe was kneeling in the back when the wagon lurched forward. He fell forward and put out his hands to brace himself. Unfortunately, he landed on his brother. Adam hadn’t made any noise up until this point—he let out a large moan of pain. Ben’s head whipped around and he yelled, “Don’t hurt him further!”

Joe managed to get himself upright and then seated next to Adam without doing further harm. He could feel hot tears stinging his eyes. Why was Pa blaming him for what had happened? Neither one of them had seen the bear until it was too late.

“Aren’t we gonna go faster?” asked Joe.

“We’re going slowly so Adam’s injuries won’t be made worse. Have some concern for your brother.” The way Ben snapped off that last sentence felt like a slap to the face for Joe. He was concerned. Despite what Pa thought, he did care for his oldest brother. It was just hard for him to show it when being bossed around by someone who had left and then come back so changed.

Joe decided to lie down alongside Adam. His brother’s coloring was very bad and his breathing was ragged. Joe put his fingers to Adam’s throat to feel for a pulse. Finding it, Joe was surprised by how thready it was.

Joe pulled back the blankets a little and laid his cheek against Adam’s chest. The hair there tickled against Joe’s cheek and ear. He remembered doing the same thing as a little boy of four and five. When he had bad dreams, he’d go to Adam’s room to sleep under his protection. Adam would pull his youngest brother into the bed and help him snuggle in. Joe would place his ear against Adam’s chest and fall asleep to the steady thump-thump of his brother’s heart. Now, that heartbeat wasn’t as strong and steady.

When they were halfway to the house, Ben looked into the back of the wagon. Seeing Joe asleep on Adam might have ordinarily brought a tender smile to Ben’s face. Instead, he frowned and yelled out, “Wake up, Joseph!”

Joe’s head popped up and he called out “What’s wrong?”

“You’re back there to tend to Adam, not sleep. Stay awake!”

Joe sat up but his shoulders slumped. He moistened his bandana with the canteen and wiped the sweat from Adam’s face. Putting one hand against Adam’s forehead, Joe was surprised to feel how hot his brother was. “Hey, Pa, Adam’s got a fever. Will we be home soon?”

“Try to keep him cool” was all Ben said in reply.

Joe continued to wipe Adam’s face with the moist bandana. Why did they have to pick the area that stupid bear was in? He had killed predators before, but why had he frozen when the bear attacked?

Joe thought back to what he’d said to Adam right before the bear attack. “Sometimes I wish you’d just stayed back East.” Did he really, truly wish that? Adam was so different when he came home after college. He was far more independent and aloof. Joe was disappointed that the fun-loving brother he remembered wasn’t the one who came home.

Hoss and Adam seemed to easily renew their relationship, but Joe and Adam were a different story. Adam always seemed to criticize and rarely praised. He criticized the way Joe did his chores, took care of his horse, and, especially, the pranks he played. More often than not, Adam was the target when it came to pranks. Joe had become infamous for short-sheeting Adam’s bed, tampering with the length of his stirrups, and hiding his books under the cushions of the settee. The boy sniffled at these memories.

An even bigger surprise for Joe had been Adam’s response to his wish: “There are times I wish the same thing.” Had Adam not wanted to come home when he finished college? Maybe Pa told Adam he had to come back when he really didn’t want to.

The wagon stopped rolling and Joe realized they were home. He climbed out of the back of the wagon as Pa came around. “Stay out of the way, Joseph,” was all he said.

Ira and Hoss got into the back while Robbie and Ben waited to carry Adam inside. Paul Martin was waiting by the wagon to quickly assess his patient’s injuries. “Robbie told me that Adam was attacked by a bear and shot. Is the bullet still in him?”

“I think so,” was Ben’s response.

Ira and Hoss lifted the blanket Adam was lying on and slowly handed him out to Robbie and Ben. Robbie took the foot end and Ben waited for the head end. They carried Adam into the house and up the stairs to his room.

Paul quickly looked over Adam and pulled a pair of scissors from his bag. He cut Adam’s chaps and pants off to get a better look at his unsplinted leg. “Why is his right leg splinted?”

Joe was standing outside of the door. “Splotch fell on Adam when the bear slammed into the horse.”

Ben had assumed the break was caused from fighting with the bear. “Why didn’t you shoot the bear before it attacked?”

“There wasn’t any time, Pa.”

“But you had time to shoot your brother.”

Joe flinched at the anger in his father’s voice. The boy ran for the stairs and the solitude of the barn.

“I’ll worry about his broken leg later, Ben. Pull him up so I can check for an exit would from that bullet.”

Ben gently lifted Adam by placing a hand to his back. He then placed himself on the bed behind his son.

Paul checked Adam’s sides, back, chest, and abdomen for signs that the bullet had exited. Not finding such evidence, Paul pulled forceps from his bag. “You don’t have to stay,” he said to Ben.

“Just find the bullet,” was Ben’s only response. The doctor hated to operate in the presence of a worried parent, but he had no choice. He inserted the forceps in search of the bullet. Even though he remained unconscious, Adam let out a low moan. With a sound of surprise, Paul quickly found the bullet. He pulled it out of the entry wound and was startled by its flattened shape. “It looks like it hit something before going into Adam. It’s possible that it went through the bear and then into him.”

Ben looked at Paul in surprise. He had assumed that Joe had missed the bear and shot Adam.

After stitching up the bullet wound, Paul said, “I need to clean out those gashes on his back and stitch them up. Hold him steady.”

Adam’s moans tore at Ben’s heart. His son couldn’t die. Ben wouldn’t allow it.

Finishing with his back, Paul told Ben, “I need to set his shoulder and clean out those bites. Pull him back so his back is against your chest.” Ben did as ordered and made sure that Adam’s head was against his shoulder. “Come help me, Hop Sing,” said Paul. “Pull gently on his arm as I guide the collarbone back in.” Hop Sing did as told and a scream came from Adam’s throat. Ben shed tears as he placed a hand to his son’s cheek and turned his head so Adam’s forehead was against his father’s neck. To soothe his son, Ben began humming a lullaby he remembered Inger singing.

After getting the collarbone set and the bites cleaned, Paul stitched up the wounds, bandaged the arm, and immobilized it with a sling. He then turned his attention to the claw marks on his patient’s side and abdomen. The doctor stitched up the deeper ones and then bandaged Adam’s torso. He then stitched up and bandaged Adam’s left thigh. “Did you set his leg before splinting it?”

“No, we just splinted it so it wouldn’t get worse. Did we do the wrong thing?”

“That was the right thing to do at the time, Ben. It just means that I’ll have to set the bones now. Don’t be surprised if he screams. His leg has had time to swell, but I should be able to get the bones lined up properly.” Paul removed the splints and set the sticks aside. Turning again to Hop Sing, he said, “I want you to take his foot and pull as I tell you.” Working together, the men got started.

Adam’s screams could be heard in the barn. Joe was hiding in the loft. Pa must really hate him now. This probably wouldn’t have happened if Adam had been working with Hoss. Most likely, Hoss would’ve smelled the bear and known it was there. They could’ve ridden away from the area and continued to search for steers.

An exhausted Paul Martin finally finished the binding on Adam’s leg. He didn’t want to put a cast on it with all of the gashes. Pulling a cloth from his bag, he threw it over his shoulder and went to the basin to clean up. Paul washed his hands until the water was a dark red. Wiping his hands on the cloth, he looked over his patient. Adam resembled a mummy in a way. Ben was still sitting behind his son, humming to him. Tears stained the man’s cheeks.

Looking up, Ben asked, “He’ll recover?”

“He’s young and strong. His body should be able to fight off infection. He will run a fever as his body fights. Try to keep him cool so his fever won’t get too high. I’m going to leave you a bottle of laudanum for the pain. I think it would be best if you dosed him regularly so he’ll stay asleep. Give him beef broth, Hop Sing, to keep his strength up. I’ll be back tomorrow to check on him.”

“Thank you, Paul,” was all Ben said before turning his attention back to Adam.

“I’ll walk you out,” offered Hoss.

The two went downstairs and outside. After seeing the doctor off, Hoss realized that he hadn’t seen Joe since they came in. He searched the house but didn’t find his little brother. Going out to the barn, he searched the stalls. Hoss was about to give up when he heard a sniffle. Climbing the ladder, he checked the loft. Joe was curled up and crying.

Hoss stepped onto the loft floor, went to his brother, and sat down. Pulling Joe into his lap, Hoss gently rocked the boy. “Hush now, Lil Joe. Adam’s gonna be jest fine.”

“I…I…I heard him screaming.”

“That was when the Doc set his leg. You saved Adam by shootin’ that bear.”

“B…b…but I shot Adam. Pa hates me!”

“Paul said that bullet looked like it went through the bear before hitting Adam. You didn’t shoot him, Lil Joe.”

“I…I…I didn’t?” Joe asked with relief.

“You shore didn’t.” Hoss hugged Joe tighter.

After a few minutes of sniffling, Joe asked. “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Lil Joe?”

“I…I…I told Adam I wished he’d st…st…stayed back East. Then the bear got him. I didn’t mean it, Hoss. I wanna tell him I didn’t mean it.”

Hoss rocked Joe and said. “He knows ya didn’t mean it.”

“B…b…but he said he wished he was b…b…back East.”

Hoss pushed Joe away from him so he could look his little brother in the eye. “Adam says that when he’s feeling blue. My mother’s death anniversary is in a couple of weeks. He always feels down about this time of year. Hadn’t ya noticed?”

Joe sniffled and said. “I didn’t know, Hoss. Honest. I didn’t know.” He then started crying again.

Hoss pulled Joe to him again and rocked his little brother. When Hoss had begun to have questions about his birth mother, Adam took the time to tell his younger brother about what a wonderful person she had been. Hoss could hear the love in Adam’s voice as he spoke of her kindness, generosity, compassion, patience, and love. Adam had been devastated by her death, which he’d witnessed. He had watched Pa and the men in the wagon train dig her grave and bury her. His dreams for months afterwards were of attacking Indians stealing away his baby brother. The only reason Hoss knew these things was because Adam had shared this with him. If Adam wished to go back East, it was only because of the ache in his heart for a mother he had absolutely adored. Pa had told him that Inger had been buried in a grave marked by a wooden cross that was probably gone now. There was no way that Adam could put flowers on her grave as he was able to do for his own birth mother back in Boston.

Realizing that Joe was asleep, Hoss picked up his younger brother, slung him over his shoulder, and climbed down the ladder. Reaching the barn floor, he gently moved Joe into the cradle made by his arms. Hoss then headed for the house.

He took Joe upstairs to put the boy in his own bed. But first, he stopped by Adam’s room. Pa had gotten off of the bed and was now sleeping in a chair, Adam’s hand held tightly in his own two. In a flash of inspiration, Hoss laid Joe down on Adam’s bed and placed Joe’s cheek against their older brother’s chest. Neither Joe nor Pa woke while Hoss was doing this. After getting Joe settled, Hoss went to Pa’s room and came back with a chair. He set the chair down, pulled out his pocket knife and a piece of wood, and began to whittle to pass the time.

When Ben awoke at nightfall, he was surprised to see the lamp on. Hoss was sitting in a chair surrounded by wood shavings. Joe was on the bed next to Adam. Ben felt a pang of regret for the harsh words he’d directed at his youngest. Gently, he brushed the soft curls with his hand and gazed with love at his eldest and youngest.

Joe stirred and felt the tickle of chest hair against his cheek and ear. For a second, he thought they were back in the wagon. He slowly sat up and rubbed at his eyes with a fist.

“Joseph,” his father said softly.

Joe turned his head and saw Pa looking at him. “I’m sorry, Pa.”

Ben guided Joe off of the bed and onto his lap. “I’m sorry for being so harsh with you, Joseph. I had no right.”

Softly, Joe said, “You were worried about Adam.”

“Look at me, son,” said Ben with his fingers on Joe’s chin. Joe obeyed and looked into his father’s eyes. “I’m proud of you for killing that bear. You saved Adam’s life. You were very brave.”

“I don’t feel like I was brave. Look how hurt he is.”

“You stood your ground and shot that bear until it was dead. We heard those shots and came riding as fast as we could. By the time we got there, you had killed the bear.” Joe began to sniffle again, so Ben pulled his son tightly to him.

“We…we…we argued, Pa. What if I don’t never get to say I’m sorry?”

“Of course you’ll be able to tell him you’re sorry. We just have to help him get his strength back.”

Hop Sing entered the room with a small bowl of lukewarm beef broth. Ben nudged Joe off of his lap and raised Adam enough to take the bowl. Hop Sing slowly got the broth into Adam. Once the broth was gone, Ben gently laid Adam’s head back on the pillows.

For one week, Ben nursed Adam around the clock. Adam’s fever broke after the fourth day, but Paul recommended continued use of the laudanum. On the eighth day, Paul was checking on his patient when Adam’s eyelids began to flutter. The doctor lightly tapped Adam’s cheeks until the young man’s eyes opened.

“Where am I?” was all Adam asked.

“In your room,” answered Ben.

“How did I get here?”

“We brought you.”

Paul interrupted to ask “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Joe held his breath. He was sure it would be his words.

Adam’s brows drew together as he thought. “I was looking for steers with Joe. We heard a loud noise. And then…then…” he paused for a breath, “something hit me.”

“Do you know what it was?”

Adam had to think hard again. “I think it was brown.”

Joe let out a relieved breath. “It was a bear,” said Ben.

Adam looked surprised. After another pause, he asked “Did you catch my horse?”

Hoss said, “No, Adam, we didn’t. He must have run clean off to the Paiutes.” Ben shot a look at Hoss and realized that hearing of Splotch’s death might be too much for Adam to hear right now.

Adam sighed and winced. Gingerly, he raised his head and looked at all of the bandages and the sling. Moving his fingers and wiggling his toes caused a spasm of pain. “Did the bear do this?”

“It did,” was Ben’s answer.

 “Did it get away?”

“Joseph killed it.”

After another pause, Adam shot Joe a brief smile and said, “Good job.”

“Thanks,” was Joe’s answer.

Adam was obviously tiring, so Paul poured a few drops of laudanum into a glass of water. After stirring the water, Paul gently raised Adam’s head and placed the glass to his lips. Adam drained the glass and made a face. Paul lowered Adam’s head to the pillows. With a sigh, Adam fell back asleep.

“He’s healing very well, Ben.”

“When will he be up and around again?”

“It’s going to be at least a month. Don’t try to rush things.” Paul then gathered up his things to leave. “Keep dosing him with the laudanum as long as he’s in pain.”

A few days later, Joe was sitting alone with Adam when he woke up. “How’re you feeling?” asked Joe.

“Like I’ve been in bed forever.”

Joe let out a giggle in response.

“I think we had words that day, Joe. Am I right?”

Joe was startled. Slowly, he said, “We had a few.”

Adam fixed his little brother with a look and said “Seems like you wished I was back East.”

Joe felt as if he’d been slapped. “I’m sorry I said that. You gotta believe me. I didn’t mean it.”

“It’s okay, Joe. Sometimes I wish it, too. Life is harder out here, with more dangers. But I wouldn’t trade everything here for a life there.”

“You wouldn’t?” Joe asked in surprise.

“I can’t help it if I’m bossy. It’s an old habit.” Adam yawned and added, “I love you, buddy. Don’t change.”

Joe sniffled and looked at his oldest brother. He saw nothing but love in those tired eyes. Surely it wasn’t the laudanum talking. “I love you, too, Bossy Boots.”

Adam let out a soft snort. His eyelids began to droop so Joe leaned forward and kissed his brother’s forehead. The smile on Adam’s lips touched Joe’s heart. Feeling tired himself, he laid down on the bed next to his oldest brother and placed his cheek on Adam’s chest. The tickle of chest hair was a minor annoyance as Joe fell asleep.

Ben entered the room a while later. He stopped at the sight of his oldest and youngest. Joe was sound asleep, his cheek resting on Adam’s chest, and Adam’s hand was on Joe’s hip. Ben noted the smile on Adam’s lips and felt himself smiling. He arranged the covers around his sons and sat down on the chair. When Adam was able to get around again, Joseph would be there to help him.

His sons were a source of strength for him and each other. Despite their age difference and upbringings, Ben knew that Adam and Joseph were more alike than they would admit. Hoss was always trying to make them see that. But both of them had the Cartwright stubbornness. Ben relaxed into the chair, knowing that Joseph had saved Adam’s life. All would be right at the Ponderosa again when those two started bickering and denying they were anything alike. As long as he had his sons, Ben Cartwright was the wealthiest man on Earth.

***The End***

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