The Final Bequest (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  In this retrospective on two episodes of Bonanza, Adam and Joe reflect on the loss of their best friends.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6300


 

It’s hard to watch your best friend die.  Harder still when you’re the one that puts the noose around his neck.  Pa says I did the right thing, and Adam, too, of course.  Never any shades of gray with him, all black and white with never a doubt that he’s done the right thing.  Me, I always doubt myself, even when I know I’m right.  I was right this time, wasn’t I . . . finally?  Took me long enough to decide, but I think I knew from the very start that what Seth was asking me to do was wrong.  Must be why I woke up screaming, “Seth, no!” like Adam told me later, ‘cause I knew, deep down, Seth was wrong.  He was my friend, though, my very best friend in all this world, next to Hoss, and as I watch him mount those stairs to the gallows, I can’t help but feel like I’ve betrayed him.

It was either that or betray Sara, though.  She had a right to know, didn’t she, what kind of man she was marrying?  Yes, that much I’m sure of, ‘cause once she knew that Seth had killed her father, she wanted no part of marrying him.  What if she’d found out years later, after they’d had a nest of kids together?  What if Seth yelled it out in a nightmare some dark night?  No, I’m the one with nightmares, not him, although he did say he had trouble sleeping nights.  Did he, really, or was that just a lie to keep me quiet?  Guess I’ll never know for sure, same as I’ll never know for sure just why he killed Mr. Edwards, out of some twisted sense of mercy or just plain greed.

It’s hard to watch your best friend die.  Harder still when you’re the one that takes his life.  Joe thinks that I don’t understand.  He’s forgotten that I’m the one, above all others, who can, because I’m the one who’s been there.  That never crossed Joe’s mind, I’m sure.  Can’t blame him, though, with all the turmoil he’s been through the last few weeks: first carrying the secret, then turning in his friend and after that having to testify against him at the trial.  Untouched meals, screams in the night, last night the worst of all, knowing what would happen today.  It’s eating him alive, even now.  I can see the hurt in those expressive eyes, the glimmer of unshed tears, and I want to help the kid.  But I can’t without dredging up all those dark memories, all that terrible grief, and I’m not sure I can bear it, even now.  Let the memories surface and I’ll be the one waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, just as I did those first few sleepless nights after  . . .  oh, Ross! I didn’t want to put that bullet in you, anymore than Joe wanted to turn Seth over to the law.   We both just did what we had to do, but how does a man convince himself of that when his own heart cries traitor?

Why didn’t I see it sooner, that dark side of his heart?  I thought I knew him inside out.  Should have; I’d known him long enough.  I mean, we were kids together, from the time I started school.  No, not quite that soon.  Seth came a year later, and I’ll never forget the day we met.  I was in the middle of a fight, like usual.  Don’t remember what it was about, but it wasn’t hard to trigger my temper back then.   Pa says it still ain’t as hard as it should be, even now that I’m grown, but as a kid, all it took was someone making some snide remark about Hoss at recess.  That was probably it, ‘cause I remember how those bigger boys used to say things about him, more to rile me than to hurt him.  Guess they thought it was funny to see a little mite like me flare up to defend big ole Hoss, and I stepped right into the trap, every time.  Usually, Hoss would wade in and settle things before I got hurt, but he wasn’t around that day.  Can’t remember why, but I was on my own . . . and losing, ‘til Seth came along.  He just pitched in and started punching those bullies alongside me, and somehow we managed to hold our own ‘til the teacher came running and stopped the scuffle.

Seth and I talked a few minutes before we had to go back in the classroom.  We introduced ourselves, and I thanked him for helping me out.  Seth said he just hadn’t liked the odds, but I saw it different—saw him different, I mean.  Guess I sort of looked up to him like some kind of hero, never dreaming we’d become friends.  He was older than me by a year, his size making him look older than that, at least to me.  But, then, practically everybody was older and bigger back then.  Okay, ‘most everybody still is—bigger, I mean.  Runt of the litter, Hoss calls me when he’s riled and Shortshanks, even when he’s not.  Now I take the teasing about my size in stride—well, most of the time—but back then it meant something to me to have someone older and bigger side with me, when he could have thrown in with those bullies, instead.  It made me feel special.  I had other friends, lots of ‘em, and I didn’t like them less than I had before, but I took to hanging around Seth more and more.  And he let me, runt that I was, but I didn’t feel like a runt when I was with him; I stood tall when I stood next to Seth, and I liked the feeling.

Why didn’t I see it sooner, that darkness descending over my friend?  I thought I knew him like the inside of my hat.  It took us awhile to get acquainted, partly because of the way Ross was: quiet and shy, hanging back from any group, instead of putting himself forward like some of the other loud-mouthed kids in the territory.  I first noticed him at a shooting competition one sunny Fourth of July.  Boy, that skinny kid could handle a rifle!  He didn’t fare as well as I did in that contest, but I lay the blame for that at his pa’s doorstep.  There’s a lot of blame to be laid at that doorstep, maybe more than I ever thought.  Anyway, I think Ross would have stood a chance of beating me that day if his pa hadn’t put so much pressure on him to win.  It’s always harder to shoot straight and steady when you have to, when too much rides on a single shot.  That’s how Ross felt that day, like he had to win, to earn his pa’s respect.  I knew Pa would be proud of me, regardless of how the contest turned out, and that assurance gave me the calm confidence I needed to come out on top.  Ross did almost as well, but instead of being proud, his pa landed a swat on his backside, harder than Little Joe usually got for bonafide mischief.

Joe . . . that’s who I ought to be thinking about, not Ross, not myself.  He looks so—I don’t know—distant, maybe . . . like his mind’s far away . . . or maybe fixed on long ago, like mine has been, like it has to be when I think about Ross, because what came later is just too hard to think about.  So I ignore the pain and think about the good times, instead.

Good times.  That’s what me and Seth had together—so many good times, a lot of them with Sara in tow.  How we ever became a threesome is beyond me.  Last thing in the world I wanted was some girl hanging around, and in the beginning, at least, Seth felt the same.  But Sara kept tagging along, whether we wanted her or not, and I guess we just sort of got used to her bein’ there.  Wasn’t so bad, really, ‘cause Sara was different from other girls; she was what folks call a tomboy, I guess.  She liked to roam the woods and fish and swim, and she was ‘most as good as any boy at all of ‘em.  Me, I still liked it better when she stayed home and it was just me and Seth, and we could skin down to our birthday suits and swim free as fish.  Sometimes other fellas went along, too, but that was okay.  Mitch and Tuck were good friends, too, probably better friends to me than Seth, at least in Pa’s book, and maybe even in mine when I was honest with myself.  Those two tended to hug the straight and narrow tighter than Seth, and Pa always seemed happier when I was with them, instead of my older friend.  ‘Course, Pa didn’t know everything the four of us got into, and I’m not about to tell him, even now.

Seth never did anything bad, though—not real bad, I mean.  We pulled some crazy stunts, I gotta admit, but I was as likely to be behind them as Seth.  I could always count on him to go along with anything I suggested, even when Mitch and Tuck balked for fear of getting in trouble.  That never seemed to bother Seth, even though he had more cause to fear than any of the rest of us.

Never did understand what made his uncle so hard on him, his brother’s own boy.  Took Seth in when his folks died, like family should, but never seemed to treat him like a son, the way Pa wanted to do for Cousin Will when Uncle John died and the way I think Pa’s kin would have if I’d lost my whole family like Seth did.  Elijah Pruitt was hard on Seth, way too hard by my reckoning.  I’d even known him to take a razor strop to Seth for mischief that earned me no more than a long, slow raking over the coals.  And once or twice he got worse than that.

I never saw Pete Marquette raise a hand to Ross, other than an occasional swat on the backside, but he could do more harm with words than most men do with a whip.  Like that day we all worked together to clear a landslide that had buried the old emigrant road.  I got such an earful of Marquette’s belittling and badgering that I just had to take up with Ross.  That skinny kid needed a friend, if anyone ever had, so I volunteered to work alongside him and we managed to talk a little bit before Marquette hollered at Ross  to quit slacking off.

Later, we worked in the woods together, felling logs for the new schoolhouse, and since his pa wasn’t around, Ross began to open up, like a flower slowing unfolding its petals to the sun.  A bit poetic, I suppose, but I think that’s what I was to Ross, the sunshine he needed to blossom.  Our relationship wasn’t one-sided, though, except in the beginning.  I soon came to realize I was getting as much as I was giving.  Ross was different from my other friends—more sensitive, more thoughtful—and I found I could share my inner thoughts, hopes and dreams with him, as I didn’t feel free to do with anyone else, even those I’d known longer.

He didn’t have a lot of book learning, didn’t even finish grammar school, but we could talk about almost anything, even poetry or Shakespeare, and he’d be interested.  If he’d had the chance, I think he might have enjoyed more schooling, but Pete Marquette was always bent on seeing Ross work with his back, instead of his brain.  He’s the one that pulled Ross out of school, claiming to need him around the place.  That happened before I met Ross, but I doubt that I could have said anything to change his pa’s mind, anyway.  That was one stubborn man, stubborn and well nigh impossible to please.   Pushing, prodding, never satisfied, no matter how hard Ross tried, and the constant criticism ate holes in my friend’s soul.  Kid that I was, I could see that much.  I tried to patch them up with well-earned praise whenever we were together, but I must have missed a few—enough, maybe, to give the darkness a way in.  Oh, I don’t know!  How can you ever really know what holes inhabit another man’s soul?

Maybe it wasn’t so much that Seth didn’t worry about getting in trouble as that he knew how to squirm out of it.  I probably picked up some of my talent for that from my friend, but Seth had ways I could never master.  Wouldn’t have wanted to, for that matter—the lying, I mean.  Seth could look his uncle right in the eye and tell a whopper with a straight face, while my face was an open book anytime I tried it with Pa.  I learned the fine art of hedging, eventually, but just never could get comfortable with outright lying, knowing what store Pa set by honesty.  I didn’t think less of Seth for lying to his uncle, though; I knew what was likely to happen if he got caught, so I went along with it.  Somehow, it was easier for me to cover for Seth with Mr. Pruitt than to lie to Pa about my own doings.  Is that where it started, Seth lying and me covering up for him?  Is that why he felt free to ask me to cover up the truth behind Mr. Edwards’ death, because I’d covered for him so many times before?  Maybe the signs were there, even when we were kids, but I sure never saw them, never thought it could lead to what it did.

Were there signs I should have seen that the Ross I knew was slipping away, his place being taken by that stranger he became?  I think back to those days right after I returned from college.  We’d kept in touch by letter throughout my time away, and everything seemed the same between us as before I’d left.  We shared similar challenges, too.  I was trying to find my place as second in command at the Ponderosa, and after Pete Marquette passed away, Ross was thrown into running the ranch on his own.  It wasn’t easy for either of us, convincing men older and more experienced to take orders from someone they viewed as a kid.  I’d had a taste of it, briefly, before I went to school, but I was dealing with a mostly new crew when I came back.  They didn’t know me, and I had to prove myself before they’d accept me as their boss.

It was tougher for Ross, whose father hadn’t given him much responsibility before and hadn’t shown him any respect in front of the men.  Sometimes at the end of a hard day we’d meet for a drink, usually at his place since that was more private, and we’d commiserate together over the struggles of the day.  I remember how determined Ross was to make a go of the Bar M, as if he were still trying to prove himself to the ghost of his father.  He used to say I had it easy, with the Ponderosa already an established operation and Pa’s authority to back me up if anyone balked at my orders.  I resented the implications, but grudgingly conceded that he had a point.

I did get tired of hearing how easy we had it at the Ponderosa, though, how much easier money made everything.  Was that a sign I should have seen,  that love of money the Good Book says is the root of all evil?  Yeah, I knew Ross envied our prosperity; I knew he was keen to rake in the profits and make his spread a little Ponderosa of his own, but I just saw that as healthy ambition and laughed when he renamed his ranch the Silver Dollar.  Never dreamed it was so he could make the Ponderosa his own—one steer at a time.

Took me awhile to understand that we Cartwrights had more than most folks in the territory and that some folks resented us for that.  Wasn’t hard to see, of course, that my clothes tended to be newer than the ones my friends wore.  Lots of them wore hand-me-downs from older brothers or sisters, but I kind of shrugged that off as just a case of them havin’ family closer in size and age.  I mean, can you see me wearing Hoss’s hand-me-downs?  Maybe I could’ve worn Adam’s if they’d still been around, but there’s an awful lot of space between him and me.  I reckon some other needy little boy got those duds before I ever had a chance to grow into ‘em.

Seth’s clothes were shabbier than most ‘cause anything he wore had passed through both of Mr. Pruitt’s sons before it got to Seth, most generally with patches on elbows and knees.  Seth’s uncle never gave him any pocket money, either, so I’d share mine, when I had it.  We’d hustle over to the general store after school (and sometimes during) to fill up on sour balls or gingerbread.  I did the same with other friends from time to time, and after I figured out that the Cartwrights were considered rich, I sometimes wondered whether it was me or what I could buy them that earned me so many friends.  Not Seth, though; I never doubted him.  With us, it was always share and share alike; whichever of us had cash would treat the other.  I honestly never thought he envied me until that day in the mine, when he said something about me havin’ so much and havin’ it so long that I just couldn’t understand how he felt.  Up ‘til then I just plain missed how important money had become to my friend.

Seth did like to hear the jingle of coins in his pocket.  Hard to blame him or any other man for that; I always smile a little brighter on payday, too.  Besides, Seth worked hard for anything he got, startin’ out pretty young.  His uncle didn’t pay him a cent for chores around the ranch, but so long as they were done, he didn’t mind Seth hirin’ himself out.  Young kids don’t earn much for the kind of work they can do, but even that little bit seemed to make a difference in the way Seth carried himself—like the money made him stand taller, the way havin’ him for friend did for me.

I was happy for him when he went to work for Mr. Edwards.  I knew Sara’s father to be a fair man, and I knew he’d do right by Seth, better than his uncle, who left everything to his own boys when he died and left Seth to fend for himself.  Got to say this much for Seth; he never took the easy way out and just stole for a living.  Well, a little petty pilfering when he was a kid, but he wasn’t scared of hard work, couldn’t be and do the kind of jobs he did.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to work underground, but Seth seemed to take to mining  . . . or, maybe, just to the chance of bein’ close to Sara.  That’s what I thought then, but now, when I can’t sleep nights, I wonder if he didn’t just like bein’ around the stuff money was made of.

It wasn’t just money, though.  That’s not enough to explain what changed Ross.  Sure, he wanted to succeed.  What man doesn’t?  But few men turn to robbery and murder.  I’d never have believed that could happen to Ross, couldn’t believe it when Pa and Roy Coffee first told me their suspicions—still can’t believe it, for that matter, though I saw the evidence with my own eyes.

Was there other evidence, before, that I refused to notice?  I can remember Ross being fascinated with the toughs of Virginia City, from that first time when we trailed after Sam Brown for pure sport, just kids too dumb to realize we were about to witness a killing.  Sometimes we’d be in a saloon in Virginia City, and some notorious chief would waltz in, spoiling for trouble.  I was all for finishing our drinks as quickly as possible and getting out of there, but Ross would sip his beer all the more slowly, as if waiting for a show to start.  I turned a blind eye, not willing to see any weakness in my friend, but now, as I look back on those days, I think maybe Ross admired those louts—not because they were lawbreakers, but because they stood up for themselves and took nothing off anyone, the way he wished he could be with his pa.

Ross was tough, too, though, in the right kind of way.  I couldn’t ask for a better man to stand with me when trouble threatened, as it often did in those rough early days of this territory.  Courage, quick reflexes, steady gun hand—all qualities you need in a man who stands by your side when danger is near—and Ross had them all.  But they were all there, too, the day he turned against me.

Don’t exactly remember when I figured out that Seth and Sara had eyes for each other.  Sometime after I figured out that she was good for something besides fishing and swimming and exploring caves, I guess, but I still never looked at her as anything but a friend or, maybe, the sister I never had.  Like my pa said after hers died, she was always over at our place, and I was over at hers just as much.  We liked bein’ together, and when I started looking at girls differently, she’d be the one I’d talk to about whichever one I was buzzing around at the time.  She’d give me advice, sometimes, on which girls were right for me and which were plain trouble.  I didn’t always listen, but when I didn’t, I generally wished I had.  I did date Sara a time or two, but I just didn’t feel about her the way a fella should about a girl he’s romancing, even though she’s everything a man could ask for in a woman.  I guess I’d just been around her too much as kids, and datin’ her kind of felt like bein’ out with Hoss.

Seth grew up with her, too, though, and he sure didn’t have any trouble falling head over heels.  I think he was in love with her before I even started looking at girls.  Seth was a year older than me, of course, and I can remember bein’ disgusted with him for gettin’ all moony-eyed over anything in a skirt.  Kind of put a wedge between us for a little while, but then I started noticing how nice skirts could swish around a gal’s ankles, and Seth seemed like the natural one to turn to for advice.  I talked with Mitch and Tuck, too, of course, but they didn’t know any more than me.  Never occurred to me to talk to my brothers.  Hoss was slow to ask any girl out and awkward as a cow caught in the mud when he finally did get started, and Adam—well, askin’ Adam for advice about anything personal just never crossed my mind back then, though I did pick up some of the finer points of flirting from peeking through the bushes, so to speak.

Sara shared the same feeling for Seth that he had for her, and I couldn’t have been happier the day they told me that they were going to get married.  I know a marriage is something just between a man and a woman, but I felt like part of it from the first, maybe because both of them were like family to me.  I was looking forward to seeing Sara walk down the aisle of the church on her pa’s arm, while I stood beside Seth at the front, watching her beautiful brown eyes shine with love and eagerness to start their lives together.  Oh, Seth, why’d you have to spoil that picture?  Why’d you have to kill her pa?  I know what you told me, that it was just to spare him and her a lifetime of pain, but I can’t forget what you said later, either, that you and him hadn’t been gettin’ along so good, that he didn’t want you to marry Sara.  That good and wise old man, he saw something, didn’t he?  Something I should have seen, but didn’t.

I’ll never forget the shock that surged through me when Ross accused me of carrying on with his wife.  How could he possibly have thought that?  Wasn’t I the one who introduced him to Delphine, the one who pushed him to ask her out that first time?  And I had to push hard, too!  Ross was a gawky kid, awkward and shy as Hoss around girls, and just couldn’t believe one would pick him over me.  My time back east had smoothed any rough edges I’d had before, and women did respond to my more sophisticated approach.  I knew Ross envied my “way with women,” as he called it, and I suppose that’s when those first seeds of jealousy must have been planted.

But Delphine?  He had to be insane to think that she and I—she never had eyes for anyone but Ross, from the moment they met, and even after he’d beaten her, all she thought about was him—how he was doing, if he needed her—up to the very end.  Some women like to mother a man and are just naturally attracted to the kind that seem to need it.  It seems to me that it was that way with Ross and Del.  They were a perfect match, him with a need for love and her with a need to give it.   I was thrilled to stand up with Ross at their wedding, not just because I was proud to be his best man, but because I knew he’d found a woman he could live happily ever after with, as the fairy tales proclaim.

But life’s no fairy tale, is it?  You’d think, after all I’ve seen Pa go through, I’d have given up on “happily ever after” long ago, but maybe I thought it was only Cartwrights who were doomed to limited love and short-term happiness.  Five years—that’s all Ross and Del had together before something inside him snapped.  I’ll probably never know what triggered it: the loss of his herd that winter, some chance remark or exchange of concerned glances between me and Del or something no one could guess.  Whatever it was, none of us saw it coming, and Del paid for our blindness with her life . . . and then Ross with his.

So I finally saw the truth, with a little help from Pa and Adam and words from Seth’s own mouth.  Didn’t make it any easier, though, to haul my friend, my best friend, in to Sheriff Coffee and tell what I knew.  And then to tell Sara.  Thought I’d never live through that.  Seth was right about one thing; the truth did hurt her, sliced a knife right through her, and I felt like I was the one holding it.  In the end, though, when the telling was done, it was Sara I was holding, and she was clinging to me, crying her heart out and begging me to take her to Seth.  Guess she couldn’t believe it, either, ‘til she heard it from his own mouth.  That was something I could understand, so I took her.  It was hard going back to that jail, listening to Seth call me traitor and refuse to see me, but when Sara came out of the cell block and I drove her home, she thanked me for digging out the truth and having the courage to bring Seth in.  Her heart was broken, but I think she saw, even in those first awful hours, that I’d spared her worse pain later on.

And all it cost me was my lifelong friend.

Hardest thing I ever did, drawing down on my friend.  I had no choice; I know that, but those last moments still haunt me.  Ross was so far gone by then that he didn’t even recognize me and just kept firing no matter how much I called to him.  It was instinct, that God-given determination to stay alive, that made me fire back after he wounded me.  If I hadn’t, I’d be the one lying dead in the sand, and even that sacrifice wouldn’t have saved Ross.  Someone else would have gunned him down, like the mad dog he’d become, and while the guilt might be less that way, the grief would still be as strong.

I think it was harder for Joe, all that time stewing over the secret he was hiding.  Partly because he’s still so young and partly because he’s just the kind of kid who takes things hard.  We all knew something was wrong, of course.  Unlike Ross, the signs are easy to read when Joe’s upset.   The kid’s always been a tough nut to crack, though, never owning up to a problem until he’s exhausted all his own resources for coping with it.  In a way, I was waiting for that moment, and when we were alone, out with the herd, I sort of sensed that he might be ready to talk.  Nearly keeled over myself when he blurted out the truth so bluntly:  “He killed him.”

Just three words, and the world rocked beneath us.   They came out so fast that I knew Joe had been wanting to say them for a long time, but I still could barely believe what I was hearing.  Though I’d suspected Joe’s inner turmoil had something to do with Sara and her loss, none of us guessed the horror that was chewing away inside that sensitive kid brother of mine.  I stayed calm, for his sake, and gave what I still believe to have been good counsel.  Joe seemed to accept it, to be ready to act on it, but the next time I saw him, he was packing up to leave, working hard to convince himself that two wrongs actually could make a right, and wouldn’t listen to anything I said.  Well, that’s my little brother; just when I think I’ve got him figured out, he twists off in a new direction.  Ultimately, he did the right thing, but no matter how much Pa, Hoss and I—and even Sara—assured him of that, the pain never left those veiled eyes.  I think he wanted to hear it from the one person who would never say it.

I tried, time after time, to see Seth, while he waited in jail for the trial to begin.  I wanted him to know that I was still his friend and that I’d stand by him, whatever came.  Every time, though, he yelled out that he didn’t want to see me, that he had no use for a turncoat traitor or the worse things he called me.  Roy finally asked me to quit coming, said it wasn’t doin’ me or his prisoner any good, and I guess he was right about that, but it tore me to pieces.

The trial was worse.  Last thing in the world I wanted was to testify against my friend, but I was the only witness there was.  Doc Martin testified, too, about the cause of death, but he couldn’t say if the blow that killed Mr. Edwards was intentional or accidental.  No, the jury had nothin’ but my word that it had been murder, but they believed me.  I almost wished they hadn’t, especially after the judge sentenced Seth to hang.  Though I had doubts myself, I’d been hoping that the judge might believe he’d killed Sara’s father out of mercy and show my friend some mercy, too.  I was hoping for jail time, but Seth got the rope.

And now it’s time.  I try one last time to lock eyes with my friend, but he won’t look at me, even now.  He’s gonna die hating me, and I think I may hate myself forever, for doing this to him, but then I think of Sara and know I had to.  As the trap door springs open, I turn away; I can’t bear to look.  I feel Pa’s hand on my shoulder, and I know Hoss and Adam are close by, too, but I feel alone . . .  so very alone.

Long, quiet ride home.  Joe doesn’t say a word, and none of us knows how to break through that wall he has built around himself.  Dinner’s on the table by the time we get home, but no one is surprised when Joe says he isn’t hungry.  I make an effort to eat myself, but everything tastes like sawdust in my mouth, thinking about that kid suffering outside.  I finally leave the table and go out, but I can’t quite bring myself to intrude on his privacy.  So I just stand here outside the front door, watching him slumped on the porch step, wishing I had the words to bring peace to the kid’s soul, like Hoss did to mine.

“He was a friend, then; he didn’t die a stranger.”  What a world of comfort in those simple words from that big-hearted brother of mine!  I don’t know how the big lug does it, cuts right to the heart of a problem and puts it in perspective with words simple enough for a child to understand, simple enough even for the book-befuddled brain of a college graduate to fathom.  It’s a gift, pure and simple, as much as my ability to play the guitar or Joe’s to charm the birds from the trees.  Ross did come back to himself after I put that bullet in him; in the final moments he was the friend I’d always known, but it took Hoss’s words to bring that home to me.

I long to say those words to Joe, but for him, they wouldn’t ring true.  Seth didn’t die a friend . . . or even a stranger; he died an enemy, and that’s what’s ripping my little brother apart.  What can I possibly say that would help?  I don’t have Hoss’s gift, but somehow I sense that this time the comfort has to come from me, that I hold the key to unlock Joe’s pain and set his heart free, but I just don’t know how to start.  Perhaps with a touch . . .

I feel a hand on my shoulder and know whose it is, just by the feel of it.  What’s he doin’ here?  Can’t he tell I want to be by myself?  “Leave me alone, Adam.”

“Let me help.”

“You can’t; you don’t understand.”  The grip on my shoulder tightens, forcing me to look up, and I see my brother’s eyes flooded with concern for me.  My lip starts to tremble, from the strain of holding everything in.  “How could you understand?” I whisper, wishing with all my heart that he could, that this was one of those little-boy hurts that big brothers can heal, but knowing that black-is-black-and-white-is-white Adam would never find himself in a spot like this.

A tear trickles from the corner of my eye and words choke in my throat, ‘til I’m able to croak out only one: “Ross.”  The light dawns in those brimming eyes, and suddenly my little brother is on his feet, sobbing out my name, falling into my outstretched arms, and as I comfort Joe, comfort is renewed inside me, too.  What happened between me and Ross suddenly takes on new meaning, for that time, hard as it was, has imparted to me something I could not otherwise share, something my little brother now desperately needs.  I hold him close, knowing that I am giving him what no one else can, the knowledge that someone else has walked before the path he now must tread.  I may never be as adept at this kind of thing as Hoss, but I, too, have been given a gift, and of all the gifts Ross gave me through the years, this final bequest, the gift of an understanding heart, is the most precious of all.  Be at peace, little brother.  I can’t say the words yet, but somehow I’ll help you understand that what happened between you and Seth was not without purpose, either, but is meant to birth something invaluable inside you that you may one day pass on to another, as I do now to you.  Be at peace, little buddy, and until you find your own, take hold and rest in mine.

***The End***

A/N:  The characters of Seth Pruitt  and Sara Edwards were first presented in “The Quality of Mercy” by Peter Packer and those of Ross and Delphine Marquette in “The Dark Gate” by Al C. Ward.  The family background and early lives of both young men, as presented here, are the invention of the author.  Sam Brown is a historical figure; for a detailed account of Adam and Ross’s encounter with him, referred to here, please read “A Dream’s Darkest Hour” by the author.

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